Saturday, June 27, 2015

Guns, Germs, Steel, Gawd, and Mammon

     Twice lately I have come across discussions of a book entitled Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond of UCLA (W. W. Norton, 1997). It's apparently considered to be a big deal, an Important Book, and it won a Pulitzer Prize for its author. It discusses, among other things, why the European race, or, more accurately, European culture, has conquered the Earth. 
     I suspect that the main reason why it won the Pulitzer Prize is because it conveys an extremely politically correct message: The Europeans and their culture took over the world not because they are inherently superior to anyone else in any way, but because they were just lucky—that is, because they won a kind of geographical lottery.
     One argument in support of this idea is that the Eurasian supercontinent, at the western end of which sits Europe, is elongated from east to west, whereas the great land masses that theoretically could have competed for the honor of being the homeland of a world culture—Africa and the Americas—are elongated from north to south. This means that many human populations in Eurasia were living at similar latitudes, under similar climatic conditions, in relatively similar environments, which facilitated cultural exchange, including exchange of technologies. This in turn facilitated what is vulgarly known as "progress." 
     Another argument is that, apparently through random chance, Eurasia had plant and animal species that were more easily and usefully domesticated than those in Africa, Australia, or the Americas, which thus helped to support agricultural and urban civilizations. 
     There can be little doubt that such arguments have much truth to them. Obviously, having wheat, barley, and rice to cultivate would be a great advantage, and the Eurasian horse was extremely useful for transportation, plowing fields, and warfare. But I'm not sure just how decisive those advantages were with regard to the rise and eventual dominance of Western culture. Were American bison really that much more difficult to domesticate than European aurochs or Indian humped cattle? Why did northern Europeans domesticate reindeer, while the American Indians failed to domesticate caribou, which are essentially the same animal? And why did the British and European end of Eurasia conquer the world, not the Chinese and Japanese end (or for that matter the Indians or other civilizations in the middle)? The Chinese developed urban culture long before the Europeans did, and came up with many innovations, including silk cloth, printing, and gunpowder, yet, despite the head start, the Europeans quickly caught up with them technologically and passed them by. It is true that in recent decades the Japanese and Chinese have become great powers and have done some world conquering of their own; but their recent status as great powers has come from their rejection of many of their own traditions, and the adoption and modification of European ones. 
     It may be that Dr. Diamond addresses all these questions in his book. I admit that I haven't read it, or ever even seen an actual copy of it; but it doesn't matter, because all of this is just leading up to a theory of my own, which also seems, to me at least, to be a very probable contributing factor to Western dominance in the modern world, possibly the main factor. The theory is not politically correct, however, so it probably won't win any prizes. The theory is that people of the European race have a certain tendency, which may be genetic or just an arbitrary cultural quirk which proved useful in the struggle for survival, and which could be called a mark of superiority and of inferiority. And it is this combined superiority and inferiority which has resulted in Western culture—science, technology, politics, economics, social fashions, and much more—increasingly pervading and dominating world civilization.
     The genetically-conditioned tendency or arbitrary cultural quirk in question is extraversion—that is, an orientation in which one seeks to understand reality, and seeks fulfillment and happiness, by looking outside of oneself, and toward the surfaces of an external world. The opposite of this would be introversion, or seeking an understanding of reality, etc., within oneself. 
     This is not to say that European caucasians are totally extraverted, and that non-Europeans are totally introverted, any more than one would say that men are totally objective, or tall, and women are totally subjective, or short. It is a relative tendency, a matter of degree. To be totally extraverted would be to be a kind of robot, oblivious to one's internal states, such as pleasure, pain, happiness, unhappiness, hunger, lust, and so on. To be totally introverted would require one to be oblivious to one's surroundings, so that one might be in some vivid mental world, but nevertheless outwardly asleep, or otherwise completely incapacitated. 
     Or, maybe a perfectly extraverted person could somehow externalize (or "objectify") his internal states, seeing them as outside him somehow; and a perfect introvert could internalize (or "subjectify") her surroundings, turning the empirical world into a kind of solipsistic dream. These latter alternatives seem to come closer to the contrast of Western and non-Western approaches to existence, especially in their most developed attempts to understand reality: Western science and Eastern mysticism. 
     One little bit of evidence suggesting a genetic component to the European outward orientation is the fact that the European race shows the most variability with regard to outward appearance, especially with regard to hair color and eye color. People of what other race may have blue eyes, or grey ones, or green ones? People of what other race may have blond or copper-colored or sandy brown hair? (This is setting aside modern non-Westerners employing Western technologies to look more like Westerners.) It's not necessarily proof of anything, but there may be a connection there, perhaps involving a greater appreciation for outward variety helping to inspire some Darwinian sexual selection, for example. 
     The most obvious strength of Western civilization is its production of innovative technology; this applies not only to physical objects, tools and gadgets, but also to other phenomena—the ancient Greeks' experiments in democracy and their development of warfare into a science would also be examples of this. This technological talent may be seen as something positive, a form of superiority. But the driving force behind that power, that "superiority," is something negative, an inferiority—namely, more than any other race, the members of Western civilization, through that very same extraversion and superiority, do not know how to be happy.
     The fundamental theme of human existence is the search for satisfaction, fulfillment, happiness. Mother Nature has the cards stacked against us from the very outset, designing us in such a way that we are convinced we will be happier if we eat delicious food (which in prehistoric times was the most nutritious food), spend most of our time clean, warm, and dry, acquire a beautiful mate, have sex, raise children, and attain the highest possible social status. She reinforces such belief by rewarding us with temporary pleasure if we succeed in such matters, and punishing us with pain if we do things contrary to the veiled biological goal of perpetuating our DNA sequences. These pleasures and pains are practically indistinguishable from true happiness and unhappiness by animals and unreflective extraverts. 
     So the relatively unreflective extraverts of the very outward-oriented culture which arose in Europe take this "approach to happiness" very seriously; and with their outward-oriented technological innovations they pursue, at maximum speed, a course of changing this, improving that, and eradicating the other, being incapable of leaving well enough alone, and continually, obsessively, fixing what is not broken.
     The result of this, outwardly, is that modern Western and westernized people experience more physical comfort, convenience, and superficial pleasure—which, however, is not the same as actual happiness. They may be no happier, or even less happy, than their stone age ancestors. They are fussier, harder to please, and addicted to unnecessary luxuries. Furthermore, at a much larger scale, this relentless urge to fix with technology what is not broken (or to fix what in some cases may be better off left alone anyhow, like natural checks to population growth) has resulted in a world which, according to the generality of ecologists, is at the verge of all hell breaking loose. In the same book on environmental systems that discussed the aforementioned Guns, Germs, and Steel, was an essay by James Lovelock, father of the Gaia Hypothesis, who assures us all that by the end of this century the Earth will have gone into a state of "morbid fever" which may last for 100,000 years, and that a massive human population crash will have occurred, so that in the year 2100, less than 85 years from now, the world's population will be approximately 10% of what it is now, and consisting mainly of "a broken rabble led by brutal warlords." 
     Even if Lovelock is mistaken, he's probably not completely mistaken, and panicking environmentalists around the world are crying louder and louder. So the clever Europeans who started the ball rolling, though as extraverted and philosophically materialist as ever, have decided to stop wrecking the planet. Meanwhile, the Americans are too entrenched in their consumerism to tolerate such an inconvenience; and the rest of the world, including India and China, are scrambling to catch up with the Americans' standards of extraverted luxury, extravagance, and waste.
     What are the Indians and Chinese thinking? The people of both countries have, or at least had, cultural traditions which could appreciate the second and third Noble Truths of Buddhism. These are really fairly clear and simple, and should not be difficult to see by anyone with intelligence and some capacity for introversion. Unhappiness is not directly caused by "economic backwardness" or a "low standard of living," but by craving, which is a psychological attitude, and generated within a person's mind (often with the encouragement of Western advertising). Also, both countries had traditions (mostly Hinduism in India, mostly Mahayana Buddhism in China) pointing to a profound idea: that "external" worldly problems are actually externalized manifestations of our own problematic attitudes and mental states. But most people in the world who are aware of overpopulation, deforestation, global warming, etc., including most Americans, are so dazzled by the obvious worldly power of extraverted scientific technology, and so seduced by the advertising that sells it, that they have faith that science, the same extraverted intellectual system that got us enmeshed in this situation in the first place, will eventually come up with something to bail us out—thereby allowing us to continue contributing to what is lately called the Holocene Extinction Event. Personally, though, I suspect that a search for extraverted, intellectual, materialistic solutions is on the wrong track altogether. It may be more realistic to expect benevolent, compassionate devas to step in and bail us out. 
     The aforementioned state of being dazzled by obvious outward worldly power and success (even if it doesn't lead to happiness) also certainly has its effects on those who already have it, not just on those who crave it. It tends to lead its possessors to a kind of pseudo-wisdom, even pseudo-spiritual arrogance. For example, anyone who has read much English fiction from the 19th century may have noticed that the British, bless their hearts, naturally assumed themselves to be not only the most successful servants of Mammon in the world (which they evidently were), but also the most successful servants of God. Never mind that their own scriptures asserted that you cannot serve both God and Mammon. Never mind that the effective founder of the Church of England was Henry VIII, an antichrist if there ever was one, whose primary ostensive reason for breaking with the Church of Rome was his determination to defy the teachings of Jesus (by divorcing Catharine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn, the latter of whom he later had beheaded). Never mind that by the 19th century the Church of England, as far as I have seen in the literature, had degenerated into little more than some ideological lip service, phlegmatic Victorian prudery, and the smugness of being "right." They were the greatest nation in the world, so how could they be wrong? God was on their side. Consequently they saw fit to send Anglican missionaries to places like India and Burma, to teach the misbegotten children of darkness and sin there the "True Religion"—which, however, had much less actual spirituality to it than what the misbegotten children already had. 
     Regardless of whether or not one is a Christian, Jesus of Nazareth was a wise man, and what he said about God and Mammon has some truth to it. Inward and outward are opposites. You cannot focus your attention, and set your heart, in both directions simultaneously (unless maybe you have advanced to the stage of transcending the limitations of "focus" and "direction"). A person or society highly developed in one direction is very likely to be clueless in the other. Either worldly form or spiritual essence is bound to take precedence. We have the ability to choose between outward, flashy comfort, convenience, and temporary pleasures on the one hand, and the inward subtlety of genuine happiness on the other. We aren't required to choose just one or the other, but still some choice is ours to make. But our cultural conditioning, plus maybe some human or caucasian genetic tendency, may strongly bias the choice.
     Needless to say, 21st century America is in a somewhat similar situation to 19th century Britain (although our position as Number One is growing rather shaky, and our economy is not nearly so bullish as was that of Victorian England). The people of America are not absolutely outward-oriented, and wise, gifted people may be found anywhere; yet the mainstream of the society naturally assumes that they know what's what, not only with regard to outward things, but also with regard to how to be happy. "We're at the top, so how could we be wrong? Right? Of course we know how to be happy." Thus the westernized walk around with an alienated glaze over their eyes, and assume that people living in material poverty, or even simplicity, couldn't really be happy, since they themselves are so conditioned that they would be utterly miserable living in such a way. They view other cultures through a filter of superficiality. They don't realize that genuine happiness is ultimately a matter of inward wisdom, not outward comfort, convenience, or outward anything else. 
     This applies to the mainstream of American Buddhists also. The general trend is for Mammon to take supreme precedence, with Dharma or "God" modified into a kind of "app" that is compatible with extraverted worldliness. (Rather like Ambrose Bierce's definition of a Christian as "One who follows the teachings of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.") Dharma becomes, rather than a means to awakening, a way of sleeping more comfortably, of enhancing the quality of Samsara, a stress-reduction technique, a kind of natural substitute for Prozac. Thus even most meditating Buddhists don't know how to be happy—or else they do know, but are unwilling to endure the inconvenience of changing their outlook and lifestyle accordingly. Mammon the unenlightened extravert is still in charge. 
     (There are some people in the West, though, most of them not Buddhists, who seem to be very extraverted and outgoing, and also very happy. There really are some people like this, who aren't just faking it either, and I would guess that many of them, possibly most of them, are people who connect deeply with other people, which talent is actually a kind of introversion. A drunken sailor and a prostitute banging away in a back room of a brothel somewhere are obviously very connected outwardly, yet there may be two stone walls separating them inwardly, one his and one hers. He doesn't give a damn about her, and she doesn't give a damn about him; he's just getting his rocks off, and she's just getting some money, and neither of them is really happy. This kind of alienated "pseudo-connection" runs rampant in the West, and not just between drunken sailors and prostitutes—even married couples can be like this, and many are. Two intervening invisible walls close them off from each other. A real, deep connection or contact with another being happens inwardly; using touchy-feely lingo, it is a "heart connection." I still feel a deep connection with my father, even though he left his body (died) several years ago, which from a purely extraverted point of view would be impossible, since one of us, technically speaking, doesn't exist. A perfect introvert can love everybody.)
     Yet how does one explain that the "external world" is an externalized manifestation of our own mental states, and that fixing things on the outside is treating symptoms, not curing causes, when such an explanation is nonsense from an extraverted point of view? How does one demonstrate the fundamental limitations of Western mentality, when such a demonstration requires one to stand outside those limitations in order to see them? For that matter, how does one explain to members of a society whose politically correct ideals include curing all diseases, reducing infant mortality, eliminating food shortages, and increasing the mean lifespan, that these ideals, good and worthy in themselves, contribute to the basic trouble our Earth faces, which is the mainspring for almost all the rest, namely, grotesque overpopulation? How does one explain that dying is no worse than being born, and that death is just as necessary as life? How does one explain that only what is unreal dies? 
     Human hard-headedness being as it is, it may be, strangely, that the best we realistically can expect would be something like Lovelock's nightmare coming true, and all hell breaking loose sufficiently to slam some of us, against our will and our dislike of inconvenience, into a higher, wiser state of consciousness, so that we ourselves might become the benevolent, compassionate devas who save the human race. As the saying goes, "Man's extremity is gawd's opportunity." It may sound awful, and it would be "nice" if we could avoid it, but if it does happen that way, it will be worth it.


Saturday, June 20, 2015

Three Enlightened Beings (???), part 3 (?)

     The post(s) on "Three Enlightened Beings" was originally intended to be a one-part account discussing current events, with a major theme of those events being my chronic exposure to information concerning three people in recent times who have claimed to be, or at least have implied with clearly understandable hints that they are, enlightened beings. But the repeated exposure to information on the same three people—the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (latterly known as Osho), Jed McKenna, and Paul Lowe—continued during my stay in Bali. Also, current events just keep on happening. It's weird. You'd think that current events would eventually be exhausted, considering how many of them have already happened, but they just keep on happening.  So the purpose of this post is to continue the mystery tale of enlightened beings walking among us, and to mention how I came to be typing this in an outbuilding of a Burmese temple in California. At the present moment, as I type this, there is a loud Burmese wedding reception going on right outside my door. The table with the wedding cake on it is actually blocking the entrance. Anyway, on with the story.

     …So I jump ship in Hong Kong and make my way over to Tibet, and I get on as a looper at a course over in the Himalayas. A looper, you know, a caddie, a looper, a jock. So, I tell them I'm a pro jock, and who do you think they give me? The Dalai Lama himself. Twelfth son of the Lama. The flowing robes, the grace, bald…striking.
     So I'm on the first tee with him. I give him the driver. He hauls off and whacks one—big hitter, the Lama—long, into a 10,000 foot crevasse, right at the base of this glacier….
     So we finish the 18th and he's gonna stiff me. And I say, "Hey, Lama, hey, how about a little something, you know, for the effort, you know." And he says, "Oh, uh, there won't be any money, but when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness."
     So I got that going for me, which is nice.

     Ha, actually that didn't really happen to me. I was just kidding. That's from the movie Caddyshack. I found it in a book called Spiritual Enlightenment: The Damnedest Thing, by Jed McKenna—or a person merely calling himself Jed McKenna. For the controversial nature of his earthly existence, please refer to part 2, posted last month.
     At the time that I wrote the first two parts of this saga I was in southern Bali, recovering from a bout of some kind of flu, or some such. During that time I was asked if I would give a Dharma talk to the Buddhist villagers of Baturiti, the place where the Chinese cemetery and my vacation hut are located. I said sure, but was unsure of what I should talk about. I was advised to keep it relatively simple, as the villagers do not know much more about Buddhism than basic morality and generosity. Before returning to the cemetery I was also asked to deliver a Dharma talk to some of the Western Buddhists of Ubud, and said sure to that too. Then I returned to the bamboo hut at the edge of the Chinese cemetery.
     By the time the day came for the talk for the villagers, I had decided to explain how Buddhism is different from all other major spiritual systems. It seemed reasonable to speak on such a fundamental theme, right? They would learn more about Buddhism, right? I went to the Dharma hall, sat down up front, on the stage, and began by mentioning how pretty much all religions teach the same basic ethical fundamentals: do good, don't do bad, tell the truth, don't steal, don't kick puppies, be generous to the poor, etc.; so, if people don't go beyond these basics, then it doesn't even matter all that much which religion they follow. The good villagers immediately started becoming confused, since of course the big thing with religious people is to belong to the right religion among all the wrong ones. Then I mentioned how Buddhism appears to be the only major religion that teaches anattā, or No Self—thus I informed the nice people that they don't really exist. They became more confused. Then I briefly mentioned Dependent Co-arising, which the Buddha himself couldn't teach effectively, and which, according to legend, almost caused him to keep his mouth shut about Dharma, since he felt that nobody would understand it. It's important though, and it is fundamental to Buddhism in particular, and although I glossed over it fairly quickly, by this time the villagers had blank looks on their faces and were getting rather fidgety. Even my interpreter was getting confused. Then I moved on to how karma is a mental state, so that "right" and "wrong" are dependent upon our own mind; and although this was firmer ground than was covered before, the audience was by this time already so used to being confused that they just stayed that way. It was a tough crowd. At the end of the talk I was reminded of an old Daffy Duck cartoon in which he's trying as hard as he can to impress the audience, and dances his heart out, and at the end he throws his arms out and looks expectantly at the crowd…and all one hears from them is the ticking of a clock at the back of the auditorium. The villagers remained friendly, though, and I explained that it's good to hear confusing stuff sometimes, because if you easily understand everything you hear, then it generally isn't very deep, and one doesn’t learn very much.
     The next day I went to Ubud to deliver the talk to the Ubud-dhists. I had a feeling it would be an easier talk, though deeper, which turned out to be the case. Considering that this was my first Dharma talk to this group, I spoke of my own spiritual history, more or less along the lines of the old post "The Middle Way of Mediocrity"—about how I tried as hard as I could, failed, threw up my arms in despair and gave up…and then made some real progress. Then I discussed how giving up is often instrumental to spiritual breakthroughs and awakenings, including, sometimes, allegedly, full enlightenment. 
     It has occurred to me that a major reason why strenuously striving to become enlightened, or to realize Ultimate Truth, or to become one with the Universe, or with God, generally doesn't work, and why giving up in despair sometimes does, is that "we" cannot possibly realize Reality, because "we" are not real! Like I told those villagers in Baturiti, "we" don't really exist. The whole concept or feeling of "I" is what is keeping us unenlightened in the first place. So giving up and letting it all go actually lets it happen on its own, without any idea of "I am striving for enlightenment" getting in the way. I mentioned Paul Lowe a few times in the talk, including his statement that if you want to become enlightened, want it with all your heart, without doing anything about it. Also I mentioned during the Q&A session afterwards that good old Jed McKenna claims to have become enlightened by trying obsessively, as hard as he could, to find the truth, and failing utterly; this failure caused a crash of his belief systems, including his belief in his own identity. When I mentioned his book Spiritual Enlightenment, a person in the group exclaimed, "Oh! That's the most horrible thing I've ever read in my life!" I still cannot rule out entirely the possibility that the book is some clever and cynical attack on spirituality in general. The person who had never read anything more horrible had essentially the same idea.
     There was one woman in the corner who was very quiet; I think she may have been the only person in the room who didn't ask any questions. When I was talking she sometimes would just lie on the floor in the corner of the room, listening. After the talk she approached me and told me that Paul Lowe, a person I have much respect for, is a personal friend of hers. She said she loves him dearly as a friend, but that he has let power go to his head and is not above manipulating people. Her implication seemed to be that Paul isn't enlightened, but acts and talks that way through ulterior motives. At the very least he lets people think that he is. I have mentioned before that Paul would be at or near a list of the people alive today who I consider to be possibly enlightened; and although his position on that list easily survived my discovery that he had been the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh's top therapy group leader and spiritual right-hand man, the information given by the quiet woman nudged me into a feeling of barren, existential futility—a feeling that there simply is no enlightenment, and of course no enlightened beings, either. A person's saintliness may stand up to scrutiny, but not their perfected sagehood. Like it or not, everyone is stuck with an unenlightened ego. 
     Before moving on with the story, I'd like to discuss this strange situation of enlightened beings. First of all, as I've already suggested, "enlightened being" is already a paradoxical contradiction in terms, since an individual "being" is unenlightenment itself, the very thing, or illusion, obstructing enlightenment. So from a point of view which acknowledges the real existence of beings, there simply is no enlightenment; and not only is the person in Bali right about Paul Lowe, but nobody is enlightened at all. It's a matter of "when a pickpocket meets a saint, all he notices is his pockets"; an unenlightened person can see others only in an unenlightened way. We are living in a world of pickpockets. Even if a fool considers another person to be enlightened, the fool's idea of enlightenment is itself unenlightened, so the "enlightened being" is just a fool's version of a great sage, and no great sage at all. Even Paul, who has occasionally hinted that he has done what needs to be done, also sometimes states that there is no state of enlightenment. "This is it." 
     Here’s another way of looking at the paradox: If enlightenment entails, as ancient traditions claim, the complete eradication of ego and the total cessation of attraction, aversion, and semiconscious stupidity (lobha, dosa, and moha), then full enlightenment would appear to be an impossibility in this world, since human consciousness and the human brain evidently have inevitable worldly limitations. Yet if enlightenment entails simply transcending these phenomena, with the laws of limited human nature still taking their course, then damn near anyone could be an arahant. Enlightenment wouldn’t necessarily be apparent at all. One could have a foolish ego that one simply wasn’t identified with. There may be a middle way between these two extremes—it is to be expected in Dharma anyhow—but I don’t know what it is, or how to explain it, unless it is the panacea of mindfulness. In which case, anger could still arise, but the mindful arahant would be mindful of it, would not identify with it, and would thus not be caught up in the karma of it, thereby not going with it and creating more karma. But Jed McKenna claims in his first book that he is fully enlightened but not particularly mindful. Which either kicks McKenna’s enlightenment in the head or else the mindfulness theory of enlightenment—and it may be impossible to know which. Then again, maybe Mr. McKenna is mindful, but of “non-dual awareness,” not the body, the thoughts and feelings, or whatever. Then again, logically, it would seem that non-duality could not be an object, since objects require the dualistic equilibrium of subjects. The whole thing is a paradoxical mess.
     On the other hand, if the paradox can be transcended somehow, and enlightenment is possible, then with perfected vision an "enlightened being" looks around and sees that everyone is enlightened, sort of, maybe. As Paul of Tarsus wrote, "To the pure man all things are pure." It seems to me that the notion of some people being enlightened and others (the overwhelming majority) not being enlightened is itself an unenlightened, dualistic notion. So the whole thing is a mind-warping paradox, and I leave it for now. The head doesn't wrap around it, or the heart either. Best not to think about it too much…unless it results in despair and a breakdown of belief systems which results in…oh, let's just forget it.

one of my teachers (I can’t say if he’s enlightened)

     So immediately after the talk in Ubud, while people (including the cautionary friend of Paul Lowe) were talking with me, Nirgrantha the host gave me two more books by Jed McKenna(!). He also amassed from his library a little pile of books which he loaned to me. I'm not sure if I'll ever read the McKenna books, unless it's in an Asian forest where I have nothing better to do (although I am curious about his theory on Moby-Dick, since I've been sorely tempted for years to write an article describing my own theory); but one book in particular I was instantly interested in: The God That Failed (St. Martin's Press, 1986) by Hugh Milne, formerly known as Swami Shivamurti, Rajneesh's personal bodyguard. It's a "whistleblower" kind of book about the Bhagwan, and the organization he founded.
     So now I know a lot more about Osho. For example, my impression that he probably got first pick of all the pretty sannyasins is apparently totally true, as Mr. Milne claims that the Bhagwan had "special darshans" with young females frequently (like twice or more per day), in addition to a more or less permanent British mistress. As for how the Bhagwan could be so mesmerizing to his disciples, the author says this:
Many people have asked me how a sensible, independent person could be mesmerised by someone like Bhagwan. The answer, as many sannyasins would agree, is that once you had been affected by his energy and experienced the sensation of being touched by it, you knew that there was nothing like it, no bliss to compare with it.
What was it about Bhagwan that attracted people so? He was undoubtedly very confident in himself and of what he was saying. He was intensely, almost overpoweringly, charismatic, a most persuasive orator and no mean magician….He himself did seem to be enlightened, but then, as I reminded myself, I had nothing whatsoever to compare him with….In the darshan sessions I had no doubt that he was a healer, a mind reader, a clairvoyant, a soothsayer, and the wisest man I had ever met.
It may be, though, that in addition to the charisma, mystique, apparent psychic powers, and large, dark, penetrating eyes, one thing which drew people to him, and to many other spiritual teachers like Amma and Neem Karoli Baba, was the feeling, mentioned by Milne elsewhere in the book, that this person accepted his disciples with absolutely unconditional love, knowing everything about them yet wholeheartedly accepting them anyway. In this world, that is rare to the point of being priceless.   
     Although I found Milne's book very informative, I cannot consider him to be a very objective observer of what he wrote about. From the beginning he seemed to have a very subjective, rather "New Age" way of experiencing the world, and as his experience with the Bhagwan soured, he became, as the book progressed, more and more bitter and derogatory, seemingly biased against the Rajneesh organization to justify his break with it. But then again, it is practically impossible to find information about Rajneesh that isn't biased one way or the other.
     One idea I've had about the Bhagwan for years is that, although he may have really been operating at a higher level of consciousness, and may really have had psychic powers such as seeing into the minds of others, a higher level of consciousness is not necessarily a sign of goodness. A monkey, for instance, is at a higher level of consciousness than a sheep; yet a monkey is much naughtier than a sheep. In the Buddhist cosmos Māra, the Buddhist "devil," is a very advanced being, living in the highest deva realm. The Christian Lucifer also is an angel, albeit a fallen one. So I suppose Osho may have been like this: a naughty monkey among sheep.
     What especially interested me in Milne's book was his comments on Swami Anand Teertha, better known nowadays as Paul Lowe. I can't help but like Paul’s style, even though (or partly because) he was such a lustful swami in the old days. Maybe he still is, although he is well into his 80’s, age-wise. Once the Bhagwan ordered Teertha to become celibate; and according to Milne, "Teertha's interpretation of this edict was to restrict himself to prolific digital manipulation of his female group participants." Also, the author says that "Teertha's group was not for the fainthearted," and that "Teertha's natural propensity to push people beyond their limits of self-control led to many broken bones and other injuries." Swami Teertha reportedly experienced at least two broken bones himself, one from a jealous girlfriend trying to break his head, but only managing to break an arm, and one apparently from a guy totally losing it when required, as an advanced exercise in detachment, to watch another man having sex with his own mate. (I laugh.) Although Shivamurti and Teertha had their ups and downs, Shiva/Milne admits to having deep respect for Teertha/Lowe and calls him "one of the most insightful of human beings."
     I may as well add, before moving on, that the friend of Paul Lowe who warned me about his shortcomings also mentioned that Paul's "method" of pushing the limits of “normality” and encouraging a kind of moral anarchy tends to work only for those who have strong and independent minds, but that weaker people, and those who become emotionally dependent upon the method or the teacher, often become more messed up than they were before, seemingly addicted to the chaos of the method. I would like to think that I would be strong and independent enough to prosper with the artificial stabilizers kicked away. But who knows.
     Another book about Osho which Nirgrantha lent me was Don't Kill Him!: the story of my life with Bhagwan Rajneesh, by the notorious Ma Anand Sheela, who spent a few years in prison for attempted murder, etc. Considering that practically everything I know about her supports the notion that she is untrustworthy and rather egomaniacal, I wasn't much interested in the book, especially after seeing how she attempted to whitewash her character completely, claiming total innocence of any wrongdoing, or else claiming that what little wrongdoing she did engage in was as a dutiful puppet of the Bhagwan. I don't like being lied to, so I had an intuitive dislike for the book. Again, mainly I was interested in comments about my hero Teertha. According to Sheela, he was a selfish, greedy, obnoxious ass who would have sex with any woman. But her attitude, and her book, are far from unbiased. Furthermore, Teertha may have progressed since then.
     To top all the confusion off, Nirgrantha himself, who had told me previously that the Bhagwan, in his opinion, wasn't enlightened, subsequently retracted that judgement, in favor of the ambiguity which reigns supreme over such matters anyhow. The subject of enlightened beings is somewhat like a big conspiracy theory—we'll never really know the all details of the JFK assassination, or the 9/11 disaster, and we'll likewise never really know whether this or that person really was or is enlightened, whatever "enlightened" even means.
     The talk in Ubud went so well that I was invited to lead a meditation retreat, and to become a teacher of the group (possibly even "the" teacher, according to Nirgrantha); and Nirgrantha even mentioned the possibility of putting my picture on his "spiritual hall of fame" wall, along with photos of Rajneesh, H. H. the Dalai Lama, Joseph Goldstein, his friend Ram Dass cooking eggs, and I don't remember who else. That was flattering.
     After the talk, before going back to the cemetery, I spent a few days at my friend Tony's little art gallery paradise (described in earlier installments of this narrative). At one point he mentioned that what really sells in art nowadays is "death and pornography." So I suppose any artist who specializes in naked dead people could really make it big. One highlight of that visit, which highlights the difference of the Western mentality from the Asian, is my repeated requests, finally realized, for a "frog ladder" to be installed in the fish pond in his little garden of Eden. Frogs would jump in and be unable to get back out again. I notice these things. So Bhima and Uma, the two young adult family members, built a little ramp to satisfy me. It was nice, but I informed them that it would be illegal in America, because it had no hand rail for safety. I'm hoping the hand rail will be installed by my next visit.
     To make a long story a little longer, I spent another week in Bali, and gave several more Dharma talks to sophisticated Indonesian city dwellers. I was beginning to scratch my head in the effort to come up with something to talk about that I hadn't already talked about, until I realized that it's probably better to talk about the same themes repeatedly. If it's important, people should hear it more than once, and we don't have very good memories anyway. I can repeat myself and people don't even realize it. Then I came to the USA for the big challenge. 
     On my first Sunday in America I went to my friend Aaron's home for swun, or monk food, which he and his Burmese wife generously offered. After the meal Aaron wanted us to watch a documentary on YouTube about Buddhism in ancient Gandhara, and how ancient Greek culture has affected modern Buddhism. The thing is that the documentary was originally in French, and when people are interviewed who do not speak English, and there are many of them, there is no translation. So I came up with the brilliant idea of turning on the YouTube CC subtitles. It so happens that the subtitles are generated automatically by a computer—so if someone doesn't speak English very clearly, like the British narrator for instance, the subtitles became very strange. The Buddha was continually called "the border," the Sakya tribe the "suck your tribe," the Kushan Empire alternated between the "koosh on Empire" and the "Tucson Empire," etc. But when people not speaking English began talking, all hell broke loose in Aaron's peaceful home: The subtitle generator did not realize that these good folks were not speaking English, and came up with subtitles that had Aaron and me laughing like fiends. (I realize that a monk should not laugh in public—there's actually a rule against it—but this was hilarious.) It was like watching a documentary and a comedy simultaneously. To give a typical example, at one point a central Asian townsman is interviewed, and says, in all seriousness, 
Money and the yo shit got Hyjal it was P going all out I was looking for locations earned a young man must suck it up men who nah no kids even allowed a movie ended with all the love go to work younger we do you all when the gunman on a router I don't know I know that.
At times like that, or when I'm trying to have a video chat with the screen continually freezing or the sound breaking off, I feel like we are still living in a technologically primitive age. Anyway, I highly recommend the documentary, which is right here. And don't forget to turn on the CC. Even the serious stuff is interesting. For example, did you know that there are ancient images of the Buddha carved with Hercules standing next to him?  I've read elsewhere that the deified Hercules and the bodhisattva Vajrapani eventually merged into the same being.
     While I was still in Bali a member of the Western Vipassana group sent me a link to a long interview with Adyashanti, yet another Western person who claims to be, or at least implies that he is, enlightened. I finally watched it here in California, and was unsettled a little by the eerie similarity of some of what he says to what Jed McKenna says…although venerable Adya appears not to be an egomaniac. It may be no coincidence that several of his pictures came up on a Google Images search for Jed McKenna—with none coming up of Jed himself. What he (Adya) says makes near-perfect sense, like so many of the others; although I consider it rather incongruous, or counterintuitive, that an enlightened being would say "sort of" so many times, sometimes two or three times in one sentence. And in one podcast of his that I watched he appeared to be nervous at the beginning of the talk. Would an enlightened being get nervous before a public appearance? Who the hell knows! Anyway, the interview is well worth watching, and can be viewed by clicking on this. Then another person sent me a video of Rupert Spira, who is yet another Western person who appears to be enlightened. So now they're coming thick and fast, and we're wading through a greater confusion of possibly enlightened beings than before, so I'd better just stop. The situation is getting out of hand.
     In conclusion though, I would like to give some advice: Don't think about whether or not you are enlightened. First of all, it might not mean anything at all here in Samsara. But even if it does, thinking "I am not enlightened" simply reinforces it; and thinking "I am enlightened" is something that any respectable arahant would never do, except in scriptures. Don't even think about being enlightened in the future, because it just creates more separation. We can't understand it by thinking about it anyway. 

APPENDIX: Some Computer-Generated Poetry

Following is a monologue supposedly delivered by a French scholar, on the captioned version of Eurasia: Gandhara, The Renaissance of Buddhism. I think it could really be publishable in some modern or postmodern poetry journal. Completely unpretentious, completely unselfconscious, completely unaffected.

The and also dust 
Doofus ocean hull of the ku ku ku 
This too but he so often a the match 
Scheck buy nor yet do 
Plywood cut discern so so did the net to 
Who shot an example wayyy her
The path to do to them booed up or via computer 
Miss you the mattress giant 
Chandana muddy pit and for that the the flow
Laugh am less so
The same issue key airlift Tia 
I'm ap booked love Joe so they occur the firm 
Don't ever present this your who shone dogged on the Administaff  
Above bruised up is open to the miss you EC 
You note for me to live as the move for me have a cam 
And Jean MacPhee the empty pass crucial 
He says he and one is not an otaku sir. 

Saturday, June 13, 2015

On Mantra

     Mantra is a sound or sequence of sounds, repeated over and over, vocalized, whispered, or repeated inwardly, as a meditative device. It is an important ingredient in some religious/yogic systems, and is emphasized much more in some systems than in others.
     In Hinduism, for example, mantra is very conspicuous; within the sphere of Hinduism there may be thousands of mantras that are recited, from single syllables like Om or Rām, to longer sequences like Om nama Shivaya, Shri Rām jai Rām jai jai Rām, or the famous Hare Krishna chant, to very long, elaborate incantations, some of which are passages of Hindu scripture, and with some requiring elaborate purifications and initiations before receiving them, and which are given to a disciple for recitation under conditions of strict secrecy.
     Even Christianity has some mantric traditions (and some people may be surprised to hear that Christianity has any yogic or meditative traditions), a few of the more well-known being repetition of the Lord's Prayer or "Hail Mary" by Roman Catholics manipulating rosaries, and the "Jesus Prayer" ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner"), which some Orthodox Christians learn to repeat throughout the day, every day, as a kind of constant "carrier wave." I imagine that, before long, people of such volition manage to keep the prayer going at night also, in their dreams. 
     In the realm of Buddhism, mantra is particularly favored in Mahayana. There was an early period in the composition of Mahayana texts wherein a mantra would be included at or near the end of a sutra, presumably as a way of epitomizing the message of the sutra vibrationally—with one of the most famous examples of this being the gate, gate, paragate, parasagate, bodhi, svāha  ("gone, gone, gone to the other shore, completely gone to the other shore, enlightenment, well said") of the Heart Sutra. Possibly the most famous of all Mahayana mantras is Om mani padme hum (approximately, "Om is the jewel in the heart of the lotus"). I have read that there is a school of Tibetan Buddhism called Mantrayāna, or the Mantra Vehicle, which no doubt rivals Hinduism in its masterful formulation of complicated esoteric sequences of sounds, for the purpose of producing spiritual effects. And in some schools of Pure Land Buddhism, simply repeating the name of Amitabha Buddha or Namu myōhō renge kyō x number of times every day is all that is really necessary for a good Buddhist, with all other practices being, at best, just frosting on the cake. 
     There are some who claim that a mantra, or rather a true mantra, possesses metaphysical power in and of itself. A fairly clear example of this is found in the Hare Krishna sect of Hinduism, which insists that only the frequent repetition of the divine names of God has any real power to liberate anyone from Samsara. I once read a Hare Krishna text (given to me free of charge) warning Hare Krishnas that they should not even associate with common meditators (they/we were called something like "moksha-vādins") who heretically expound the possibility of liberation through meditative insight. Also, there are many Hindus, and many followers of other religions too, who believe their scriptures to be inherently divine; and thus the words of these scriptures are viewed as bound to have infinitely greater spiritual power than the words of mere mortals.
     Approaching the opposite extreme, there are some, and I think J. Krishnamurti was one of them, who claim that the specific content of a mantra is irrelevant; it may as well be Hey diddle diddle or Coca-Cola as Om mani padme hum, since its function is simply to occupy one's attention and keep the mind temporarily out of trouble. It still may be beneficial, however, since keeping the mind out of trouble may be a good thing, and since it may serve as a kind of psychological callisthenic exercise which improves self-discipline, allowing for us to be more the masters of our mind than for the mind to be master of us.    
     There are some teachers of Hinduism who adopt a peculiar intermediate position: They assert that Sanskrit, of all languages, was specially designed by ancient sages in such a way that certain Sanskrit syllables or words are "seed mantras" which stimulate specific spiritual vibrations in those who recite them repeatedly. Thus the syllable Om, or Aum, through some metaphysical quality not understood by Western science, really does instill a kind of primordial, universal "vibe" in people who use it as a mantra. I don't consider this Special Design of Sanskrit theory to be totally impossible, and it is endorsed by some very wise people, yet I can't help but be a bit skeptical. For one thing, if Sanskrit was specially designed as a spiritual language, it probably would have taken the form of fine adjustments performed in the development of Classical Sanskrit, post-dating Vedic Sanskrit, the latter mentioned being the form in which the most sacred scriptures of orthodox Hinduism were composed. Judging from what I have read, it is my understanding that the early speakers of Vedic Sanskrit who composed the Rig Veda were tribes of Indo-European barbarians who were not so different from other Bronze Age Indo-European barbarians, such as the Persians and Greeks, with regard to their attitudes toward the world, including their attitudes toward religion. (Theirs was a world of warlike kings and an aristocratic, polytheistic priesthood flattering and bribing the gods to grant them wealth, sons, and victory over their enemies—with some occasional philosophical reflection thrown in.) But all of this is guessing.
     But regardless of the notion that Sanskrit is a specially designed mantric language, it is nevertheless pretty obvious that different sounds, and consequently different mantras, may cause different effects on an individual human's system; and thus the repetition of Om mani padme hum and of Coca-Cola may really generate significantly different effects. Anyone familiar with music or poetry, or even rhetoric, knows that different sounds elicit different feelings. A smooth, flowing sound is more likely to be calming and tranquility-facilitating than a rapid-fire staccato. The sound of a wooden flute is more likely to be calming than the sound of a brass trumpet. And if the sounds being repeated are meaningful words in a language one understands, then obviously the meaning of the words is very likely to have an affect/effect upon the person repeating them as a mantra. A word that a person sincerely believes to be a holy name of God is hardly probable to bear the same affective tone as Coca-Cola or some meaningless nonsense syllable like Bleen. (Then again, the effect of Bleen could be greatly enhanced if, after a disciple's intensive purifications and initiations a revered Guru were to say, "O my child, I now confer upon you as your sacred mantra the cosmic syllable of Bleen….") There was a time when I seriously considered cultivating as a mantra some lines of Shakespeare:

          Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
          That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
          And then is heard no more: it is a tale
          Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
          Signifying nothing. 

There is some Dharma in that, although whether the vibrational tone of it is spiritually pure or not, I can't say.
     One peculiar example of words being formulated into a mantra is one that I read about many years ago: Some Tibetan lama (possibly of the Mantrayāna school) developed a mantra, the purpose of which was to help Tibetans to understand the Western mind. The mantra went something like, please please sorry thank you, please please sorry thank you… repeated over and over until the vibe or the feeling of it caused the meditator to feel more like a Westerner. Obviously, the purpose of all mantras is not necessarily Awakening. 
     Anyway, in the Pali Canon and the commentarial literature of Theravada Buddhism, mantra is not emphasized, and appears hardly to be mentioned at all. Of the forty standardized meditation techniques listed in texts like the Visuddhimagga, not one of them is specifically or necessarily a mantra technique. Some of them, over the course of time, have been converted into mantra techniques, however.
     Probably the most well-known example, in Asia at least, of Theravadin mantra is the formulaic version of the meditations on the virtues of Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha (which are three of the forty mentioned above). The formulas are extracted from the Suttas themselves, with the one on Buddha recited in Pali as follows:

     itipi so bhagavā     (And thus is that Blessed One,)
     araha sammāsambuddho     (the worthy one, the truly, fully enlightened one,)
     vijjācaraa sampanno     (attained to knowledge and conduct,)
     sugato lokavidū     (the fortunate one, knower of the world (or worlds),)
     anuttaro purisadammasārathi     (unsurpassed trainer of men to be tamed,)
     satthā devamanussānaṁ     (teacher of gods and human beings,)
     buddho bhagavā     (enlightened, the Blessed One.)  

The formula for Dhamma begins svākkhāto bhagavatā dhammo ("Well expounded is the Way of the Blessed One…"), and the one for Sangha begins suppaipanno bhagavato sāvakasagho ("Well-practiced is the Blessed One's congregation of disciples…"); if you're interested to learn them you can look them up for yourself. (Incidentally, according to the formulas the Buddha has nine qualities, Dhamma has six, and Sangha has nine, which is the source of 969, the trademark of the new militant Buddhist movement in Myanmar.) This meditation is commonly practiced with a rosary (seit badee in Burmese), with one complete recitation of the virtues of Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha being counted by the thumbing of one bead.
     One method which appears to be common in Thailand, but which I don't remember ever encountering in Burma, was explained to me once in a peculiar manner by an American man I know who had been briefly ordained as a monk in Thailand: He said that the object of meditation given to him was the repetition of "boot-toe." He evidently progressed with it at least to the level of upacāra-samādhi ("access concentration") without it occurring to anyone to explain to him that this is the Thai way of pronouncing buddho. I have read that buddho as a mantra is used in the Western Ajahn Chah tradition also. 
     An unusual form of Theravadin mantra found in my own ordination tradition, that is the Burmese Taungpulu forest tradition, is a variation of the reflection on the 32 parts of the body (another one of the forty standards). Instead of visualizing the shape, size, color, and location of each part, as the meditation is usually done, one simply repeats the names of the body parts as a mantra, following a very systematic method—the first five parts (head hair, body hair, nails, teeth, skin) for the first week, the same in reverse order the second week, the same forwards and backwards the third week, the second group of five for the fourth week, and so on. The idea, and I don't know where this idea came from, is that when sufficiently deep samādhi is attained with this mantra, insight into the true nature of the body parts will arise of itself, without the yogi bothering to think of the parts themselves. I've never practiced the meditation in this way myself, and I can't vouch for its effectiveness.
     Mettā meditation also (another one of the forty) can be practiced as, or rather degenerate into, a kind of mantric formula, with little actual mettā going on. If one is trying to cultivate a loving heart one should be careful about this sort of thing. 
     In Burma, and very likely in Thailand too, on the outskirts of "genuine" Theravada, there is a kind of mantra in which astrologers, fortune tellers, wizards, or even labels on packages of incense, will offer a mantra in Pali, usually non-canonical and cooked up by some expert on such matters, for the purpose of inducing prosperity or otherwise granting wishes. This kind of mantra also is usually done with the aid of a rosary. This reminds me that some alchemists in Burma (called weiza or, if particularly adept, zawji) use mantras rather than metal-based compounds or runic diagrams called inn, to accomplish their occult feats. But this is moving out of the realm of Dhamma and into the realm of abracadabra—using the power of special words, or the belief in the power of special words, to manipulate mundane reality. I imagine that abracadabra mantras are even more common on the outskirts of Hinduism. Maybe even not so far from the middle.
     I have learned from my own experience, practically accidentally, that mantra meditation has obvious benefits, especially at the mundane level. I discovered it "accidentally" because, around twelve years ago, I began noticing that I was spontaneously auming—that is, repeating the syllable "aum" under my breath with every exhalation—usually when I was walking, especially when walking to the village in the morning for alms. I still aum spontaneously, never deliberately deciding to do it, on average maybe two hours per day, especially when my eyes are open and I'm walking, riding in a car, waiting in line for something, or just sitting in a non-meditative context with nothing in particular to say. On the day of writing this, for example, I spent about an hour in an art gallery, auming almost continuously. I was there mainly to contemplate an elaborate, mind-blowing, beautiful surrealist work with a title like "Penetrating to the Spiritual"; I stared at it for maybe half an hour, pondering it, trying to understand it, while enthusiastically auming at it the whole time. It felt like it deserved to be aumed at, almost like it was calling out for it. 
     I intuitively prefer aum with three distinct sounds to om with a hard ō, like in the Upanishad (I don't remember which one) that compares the three sounds of AUM, plus the silence which follows it, to the four levels of consciousness: dreamless sleep, dreaming, ordinary waking, and Enlightenment, not necessarily in that order. I'm not sure why I prefer aum to om—for that matter, I'm not sure why I started automatically auming in the first place. When I first starting experimenting with meditation as a teenager I tried om as a mantra, but didn't keep it up for very long and didn't get far with it at all. (Its primordial simplicity, plus the fact that whatever meaning it has is beyond the intellectual level, are two reasons why I like it, though.) Maybe it's a previous life thing. I dunno.
     One fairly obvious benefit of mantra that I learned quickly is that, completely setting aside any supernatural powers or naturally inspired higher vibrations, it is easier to keep one's mind focused on a mantra than when practicing the more commonly Theravadin method of mindfulness of breathing. A person who is sound asleep, or even more unconscious, as in a coma, continues breathing automatically; whereas, as far as I know, nobody in a coma repeats mantras. Mantra requires some conscious effort, even if it arises spontaneously, to keep it going. Because of this, one's mind is less likely to drift away to other things when practicing mantra than when practicing anapana; and even if it does drift away, it cannot drift away totally without the mantra stopping.
     Also, a simple mantra like aum or buddho may be considered as a variation on anapana. After all, it's essentially a modified outbreath through the mouth. And one may combine it with a more ordinary form of anapana by cultivating mindfulness of the inbreath, and of the stillness in between in and aum. Breath is essential to mantra, unless maybe one does it entirely mentally, and even then one can't hold one's breath for very long. 
     It is often forgotten that there are two ways of going about Dharma: One is the development of good habits and goodness, which is the path of serenity and heaven; and the other is the abandonment of all habits, the relinquishment of both goodness and badness, the transcendence of all identity, and simply Waking Up from the whole dualistic dream. And really, only that which leads to full enlightenment can rightfully be called "True Dharma." You may be overflowing with benevolence, and you may have a "vibe" as rarified and subtle as you please, but it's not the same as Enlightenment. It's still just Samsara. It may eventually make it easier for you to become enlightened, and then again it may not. Sainthood and Enlightenment may appear to overlap in the same person, but they are not the same. In fact it may be seen that they are incommensurable; they are at two different levels of "reality," and one does not translate into the other. Bearing this in mind, even if some syllable is a mystically tuned "seed mantra" that can turn your spirit to solid gold, it is still hardly likely to enlighten you. And words, mere words, imbued with Divinity and the metaphysical power to induce Enlightenment, regardless of whether Gotama Buddha himself spoke them in the Pali language, do not, as far as I can tell, exist—at least not in an orthodox Theravada Buddhist universe. (But those of us who are not orthodox may believe as we please, at least theoretically.)
     So we are left with the idea that merely repeating a mantra is hardly any more likely to enlighten us than merely breathing. To give an obvious and extreme example, outwardly mouthing a sacred formula while inwardly figuring out what you want to have for lunch is clearly not going to do the trick. But even if one's attention is focused on the mantra with undeviating crystal clarity, if it is repeated mechanically, with the momentum of one's mind pushing the mantra along a groove, so to speak, it may result in some amazing trance states and internal light shows, but it very probably still won't get a meditator enlightened. To the extent that it is momentum working in a groove, to that extent it is karmic and merely samsaric, a function of the dream.
     It seems to me—and one can't afford to make categorical assertions on such issues, because anything may be possible—that one's best bet with mantra, as well as with breathing, is to do it as mindfully, or rather as consciously, as possible. So, one is presently aware of the entire mantra, from start to finish, as well as the silences in between. One is aware of the movements of one's mouth, the vibration in the throat (and even a whispered outbreath with aum has a distinct vibration). The mantra serves as a convenient center; although, if one can manage it, one is also presently aware of the process of seeing, of hearing, of the movements of one's body, of wind moving across the skin, and of anything else that arises. Consciousness expands outwards until there is no longer a clear boundary between "self" and "other," and one may experience at least a glimpse of what it's like not to have a habitual identity, and of the knowledge that losing one's identity is nothing to be feared. (In order to Wake Up, one has to let go of "me," and even of "one.")
     Anyway, mindfulness of mantra may be a convenient and useful gimmick for cultivating mindfulness, even non-dual, non-discriminating mindfulness; and anything that you do mindfully is true yoga.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Third Anniversary Issue: The Challenge

     Well, by golly, this is the first post of June, which I figure makes it the third anniversary of this blog. Also, by convenient coincidence, or karmic coincidence, or whatever, this is the first post to be posted since my return to the USA (alias Babylon, Technotopia, the Brave New World). That is convenient because this post is about The Challenge, or maybe two challenges: America's challenge for me, and my challenge to America. Maybe more than two challenges.
     So anyway, I'm writing this with several hours' worth of jet lag.
     As was the case in 2011, so today, I am in search of a suitable place for a person like me (well, me actually) to exist in the West, presumably America, and to live a primarily spiritually-oriented life. And as was the case in 2011, the absolute bottom line, materially speaking, would be a roof over my head, a bowl of food every day, or almost every day, access to a bathroom, and, preferably, Internet access at least once a week. But, strangely, even this much has been difficult to come by in America, except when I live among Asian immigrants. 
     It used to be common knowledge among Western monks, and maybe still is, that in order to exist in the USA (but not necessarily in the UK, or Canada, or Australia, or New Zealand, or Europe) it is a practical necessity to be supported mainly by Asians. Most Americans of European, non-Buddhist ancestry tend not to support monks very much, if at all, even if they consider themselves to be Theravada Buddhists. This is mainly for cultural reasons that I have discussed elsewhere on this blog, so I suppose there's no need to grind through it again here. Besides, I'd prefer that this "Challenge" be as upbeat and open as possible.
     I'm really not against being supported by Asian people. I like Asian people. In fact I owe my life to them many times over. But if I'm going to be supported by them, I might as well live in Asia, where there are lots more of them. Also, I have my own forest monastery in the blazing hot wastelands of upper Myanmar, where I am the "sayadaw." If I stay in the West it would be, ideally, in some kind of symbiosis with Westerners. So this is a challenge for me. I'm not against challenges, though; I like challenges, too. They seem to be pretty much necessary.
     Back in January of 2011, a few months before coming back to the US and plunging into the Unknown, I met an American man, who is now my friend, and who, at the time, warned me of what American Buddhism is like, what I should expect when I got here. He made many observations, and only one prediction of his was inaccurate, although I'll get back to that one. One of his observations which hit the bullseye was that Buddhism in America is generally very fluffy, with people living stressed-out lives looking for peace and comfort, and thereby avoiding such unpleasantnesses as "home truths" and other harsh realities. Some of them go to retreats for the healing of psychic wounds in their life stories, and dwell on this as a theme of their Dharma practice. Consequently, Dharma teachers in the West tend to be very soft, politically correct Dharma politicians, often chronically smiling in some semblance of benevolent bliss. They have to give people what they want, in order to be popular, in order to make a living. Plus maybe they agree with that orientation anyway. So, it has become expected, even insisted upon, that Dharma teachers in the West do not ruffle anybody's feathers. Everything is soft, comfortable (maybe even luxurious), and "nice." 
     But, as anyone who knows my style can appreciate, I do not consider this to be the best way of going about Dharma, either practicing it or teaching it. In order to Wake Up it is good to be shaken a bit. And even if most Western Buddhists aren't really aspiring to enlightenment, at least they shouldn't be against it. Sometimes facts are unpleasant—sometimes life in general is unpleasant, in accordance with the First Noble Truth—and aversion for such unpleasantness is essentially an aversion for truth and reality. I really don't have much use for this; unpleasantness is grist for the mill. Not that I want to be cruel, or cudgel people like an old-fashioned Zen master, or seek out discomfort and wallow in it, but pampering spoiled Westerners and pandering to their chosen weaknesses seems to me like selling out. It may be necessary for beginners, so they can settle down enough to go into deeper practice; but sooner or later we have to stop being beginners. (No worries, though—I'm pretty good at determining where a person is at, and mainly challenge only those who are ready for it, or else just think that they're ready for it, to show that they're really not ready.)
     To some degree I noticed how easy being a Dharma politician could be, theoretically, while in Bali recently. I met with a Western-style Vipassana group there, composed of Western expatriates, and I could feel a palpable, invisible temptation or urge to be a chronically smiling, politically correct diplomat. The good people there weren't forcing it upon me of course, or even suggesting it, but when facing other people there is an instinctual urge to be "nice." If I cause others to be uncomfortable, I feel uncomfortable. I can easily see how someone could easily be sucked into a role of being a popular teacher like Jack Kornfield, and I just don't want to be like Jack Kornfield. Some of the members of the aforementioned group seem to hold Jack Kornfield in high respect. Now, I have no doubt that Jack is one heck of a great guy—that is not at issue at all—and I assume he has some wisdom to him, but at the same time, there have been a number of occasions during the composition of blog posts when I have had to overcome the inclination to write, and I quote, "Fuck Spirit Rock." Once or twice I've even felt a twinge of temptation to exaggerate and dramatize a little and call Spirit Rock a festering boil on the buttocks of Western spirituality. I've been told that sometimes even Jack himself laments over how liberal political correctness and a kind of bureaucratic democracy has derailed the place. (For a mild caricature of Spirit Rockism, filmed right there even, see this brief video, as a sort of introduction.)
     Of the observations and prophesies made to me in January of 2011 only one, as far as I can remember, turned out to miss the mark; and that had something to do with "credentials." He pointed out, apparently in accordance with fact, that in America it is very difficult to succeed without some kind of credentials—a PhD. from a prestigious university, the authorship of a widely-read book, an endorsement from Oprah or Jack Kornfield, etc. His false prophesy was that the "mystique" of my monk's robes and the fact that I've lived in caves in Burma for many years would serve as my credentials. For some people in America it did, but for others it had the opposite effect, so that the effects cancelled each other out, as far as I can tell at present. My experience is that many American Buddhists just don't like monks all that much, or approve of what they represent, largely, I suppose, due to Protestant Christian and of course non-Buddhist cultural conditioning. But again, my purpose here is not to bash American Buddhism, despite the possible entertainment value of that.
     One very obvious morsel of advice that I have received in the past is that I should seriously consider living at a monastery in the West specializing in Western monks, like one of those in the Ajahn Chah tradition. On the other hand, a few relatively serious monks (well, two) have warned me in the past that I shouldn't even bother trying to live at an Ajahn Chah monastery. Thai tradition lays relatively heavy emphasis on mandatory group conformity, with much of the conformity not being with ancient Pali tradition but rather with modern Thai tradition; and, as is the case in Burma, the later tradition often trumps the ancient one. But I'm not into conformity for conformity's sake; it's just not my bag of tea. I reserve the right to follow what conscience I have, which has its advantages and disadvantages, but if I don't do that I feel like I'm living a dishonest life. There may be some monastery out there in America that I haven't heard of with a relatively tolerant, undogmatic Sangha that would let me behave like myself, in which case it might work out. I am capable of following Vinaya as strictly as necessary. At present I'm staying at a Burmese house-monastery in the suburbs of a California town, in a congregation hall (sima) that is used mainly as a storage room, since the monks rarely congregate for formal acts here, not even for uposatha observance; the monks around here are non-congregational, you might say. I can live in that sort of situation too, so long as I'm not compelled to conform to it. Once the monks start buying, storing, and cooking their own food, though, then the place becomes too unkosher for me, so long as I'm required to eat the food. Better to live in some layperson's garage (with their permission, of course).

     I have read that if one is seeking some ideal situation in life one should visualize it, that is, have a clear conception of what one actually is seeking. So, I'll publicize here what I visualize, and "put it out there" to help it manifest, so to speak. 
     When I was talking with the prophetic guy in 2011, I mentioned the fact that I was quite willing to turn away 90% of my potential supporters for the sake of finding some real "Dharma samurai," that is, at least a few people who are really sincere, or at least mostly sincere, about doing whatever it takes to Wake Up. That doesn't mean they'll succeed, but at least they're giving it a fairly sincere shot. I would like to interact with people like that, if possible—people who are making Dharma their top priority in life, regardless of whatever else they do. If I become a member of a group, it's hardly likely that most of them will be peaceful warriors, but at least a few should be. I know they're (you're) out there. I've been contacted by a few, and have personally met a few. They tend to be thinly scattered, and tend not to be loyal members of groups, since most Dharma groups in the West have a similar function to village temples in the East: They are the containers for what is essentially a social club with an ostensibly spiritual theme. This is not "bad" or "wrong," and is as much as most folks are ready for, which is OK, and I can happily teach basics to beginners, but it is not what I'm especially looking for. I don't care if I'm a teacher or just a member so long as someone is really giving it a shot. If one or more members is/are more advanced than me, then I'd gratefully become a student; although most teachers in the West seem to be still beginners (regardless of how many decades they've been practicing). So interacting with at least a few relatively like-minded people, like people who don't differentiate Dharma from "everyday life," and don't mind having their beliefs challenged, would be high on the list of ideal circumstances. They could be monastics or laypeople; that part is irrelevant.
     Also, I would prefer that some wise women be involved in this, partly because I appreciate the company of women, and partly because women in general have a more "heart centered" orientation that intrigues the heck out of me, and that I would like to cultivate more. This preference for female associates is somewhat ironic, though, since my luck— er, karma with women is rather tumultuous! Women tend to like me, and shortly after this happens I start bothering them half to death, because they bring up some variation on the theme "You're too much this way and not enough that way, and if you don't stop being too much this way and not enough that way I'll withdraw my friendship/respect/affection for you." So then my usual response is to say something like, "Well, do what you feel is right, but I reserve the right to continue being this way," which, instead of inspiring them with respect for my resolute firmness, infuriates them, because they would prefer not to carry out the threat. Anyway, that's how it looks at my end. But enough about my complications about women. I'd still like to interact with some though, as a kind of advanced Dharma practice.
     Also, because the group, organized as such or not, would have at least a few "samurai," we could try to cut through some of the attachments that we Americans tend to take for granted, as just part of the substrate of life, but which really is there because of cultural conditioning. We would look at difficult subjects, like fundamental beliefs and preferences for comfort and pleasure. We would experiment—as Paul Lowe says, the only thing you can know for sure doesn't work is what you're already doing, because you're already doing it and you're still not enlightened! We would speak frankly with each other, with the intention of helping each other of course, and would not indulge in the sort of politically correct superficial politeness, avoiding anything too sensitive, that appears to prevail in American Vipassana Buddhism. For an example of dealing with attachment issues that I've considered good for retreat situations, I read in a Western Ajahn Chah book that some monks in England experimented with mixing the monastery food all together in a plastic bucket every morning, and at meal time the bucket would be passed around with everyone scooping out as much as they wanted, but without being able to pick and choose what they especially liked. The practice was discontinued in England, but it sounds like an excellent way of reducing fussiness with food. Fussiness is a big one in the West. I've got unorthodox ideas about chairs, too.
     I've even considered being involved in the setting up of some kind of pseudosangha, not actually ordained, but living a more or less renunciant, Dharma-oriented lifestyle more in accordance with the modern West, in which men and women would be equal, or in some ways judged by individual merit, regardless of gender. Grey sweats instead of brown robes, plus maybe enough money to live in poverty, for example. But that isn't totally necessary. Just an idea to play with. If it does happen I wouldn't mind being involved in it, though. 
     With regard to a lot of things I'm very flexible, which is totally necessary, since the future is unknown, and it pays to be able to adapt to whatever turns up. I like the west coast, for example, but I'd be willing to go to Hoboken, New Jersey (for example) if the right people were there. Even a New Age commune might be preferable to a Buddhist social club. We'll see how it goes.
     It appears that I've gotten about as far as I'm able, at present, living alone in a cave in an Asian wilderness. During my first year in America, in Bellingham, WA to be more precise, I made more spiritual progress, methinks, than I did during the previous three to five years combined—and that despite, in fact partly because of, the fact that I fell in love with a woman there, and met with a wide variety of troubles. So human interaction, especially with people who speak my lingo, would be a good thing for me, and possibly for those interacting with me also—a mutualistic symbiosis. In the West, even receiving the cold shoulder has been to my advantage, spiritually at least.
     Part of the thing is, though, that I turned to Dharma and became a monk largely because I cannot take American culture very seriously. I left America-ism behind to look for something more suited to me, something with more depth; although some aspects of the American point of view are invaluable, other aspects are serious handicaps to anyone wanting to know Reality. So I was rather surprised when I returned to America and found that most other American Dharma practitioners are not like this—instead, most appear to keep to the American mainstream point of view, or something not far from it, and to transmogrify Dharma to make it compatible with a spiritually destitute system. Dharma has become a kind of "app" for tepid materialism, a kind of part-time hobby. And so, since I can't take American culture very seriously, I can't take most forms of American Buddhism or Dharma very seriously either. So it would be wonderful to meet some more people in the West who also can't take it seriously. You guys are the ones I'm searching for…especially if you haven't just replaced superficial America-ism with dogmatic Asia-ism.
     But all this may be little more than a pipe dream, considering that thus far, in America among born Americans, even the bottom line of shelter, food, and a bathroom has been problematic. My experience in Bellingham, from start to finish, was that the only Theravada Buddhist society in the city, consisting of at least a hundred members, had insufficient generosity to provide the only Theravadin monastic in the city with a daily bowl of food. American Buddhists, apparently, see little point in supporting Buddhist renunciants. It's mainly a cultural thing. In fact, I don't know of a single bhikkhu living in America who is not supported primarily by Asians. There may be a few out there that I don't know of, and there may be a few jokers who work for a living and provide for themselves somehow or other, but it may really be that not a single monk in America is supported mainly by Americans. And if that is the case, then that fact is a more scathing indictment of American Theravada than anything I have ever written on this blog. If you don't approve of me personally, then support a different monastic! But without renunciants, true Theravada is dead, or at best a pale shadow of a dismembered fragment.
     So, the plan is to look around for someplace suitable. I may check out a few places before the rains retreat begins this summer. If you know of any prospects, feel free to tell me about them; for example if you know of some Dharma group that is languishing for lack of an eccentric, openminded, heretical teacher or resident Buddhist philosopher….And if I don't find anything worthwhile over the next several months I'll go back to Asia, where many people love me and want me to stay. I won't be able to communicate with them very deeply, but I'm used to solitude. Next time I may not come back until I eventually receive some kind of substantial invitation from a group of people willing to support me with the four requisites (food, shelter, clothing, and medicine)—plus, ideally, some Internet access. Shuttling between multiple "support groups" could theoretically work, too, as I'm not afraid of couch surfing.
     So, in review, here are the challenges: 1) the challenge for me to find a suitable way of existing in the West; 2) the challenge to American Theravada Buddhists to get off their arses and support a monk or two, for crying out loud; and 3) the challenge, for me in particular, of ruffling feathers, and occasionally outraging a woman, while maintaining an open heart. We'll see how it goes.
     My blessings are upon all of you.