Saturday, August 29, 2015

Non-gravity Bent Geodesics of n-Spatial Reference Frames: An Approach to Superspace Visualization and Probability Clustering

     (I hereby give fair warning that this current events post will degenerate into a commercial advertisement. You have been warned. Commercialism is infiltrating this blog. At least I haven’t allowed advertisements on my YouTube videos yet.)

     Well, here I am spending another rains retreat at Kusalakari, a small Burmese house-temple located in the suburbs of Fremont, California.
     Since before re-arriving in America, Plan A has been to spend the rains retreat here, unless I found someplace more convenient. After challenging America with my Third Anniversary Issue, I did receive a few casual semi-invitations (plus one very strenuous one which I’ll discuss later), including an open door to a monastery in Germany, but thus far Kusalakari seems to be most convenient. Considering that I interact mostly with Asians here, and meet few Westerners, it’s as though I’m still not entirely in America; it’s not so different from living in Southeast Asia, except with cooler weather, better Internet, lots more meat offered to me (most of which I don’t eat), and much less requirement for physical exercise. I do a little walking meditation, and go for a walk sometimes, and volunteer to put new 5-gallon water bottles on top of the water cooler, but mostly I just sit in my room all day.
     One other difference from what I am used to in Asia is that this “monastery” is much louder. As I’ve mentioned in at least one previous post, this place is really more of an ethnic social center than a stereotypical Buddhist monastery. The Burmese regularly use it as a venue for birthday parties, wedding receptions, and of course for more understandably monk-oriented festivals like temporary ordinations and food-offering ceremonies commemorating the death of a close relative. On the day of writing this, for example, about thirty people came, including a slightly famous Burmese Sayadaw, for the purpose of a family making offerings of food, money, and other things on the 33rd anniversary of the death of a family patriarch. Such occasions/commotions occur on average about twice per week, with weekends and holidays being particular commotion-oriented. At my own place in northwestern Burma, and at the place in the Burmese hills where I often evade the hottest weather, most festival-like social functions are prohibited, including temporary ordination of laymen during their vacations from work. But this isn’t my monastery, of course, so I accept it all as patiently, benevolently, and gracefully as I can manage. Today my greatest challenge was remaining patient with a Burmese toddler (who comes here with his mother maybe once a week) who was, apparently for lack of anything better to do, screaming at the top of his lungs. He also has a tendency to gravitate toward anything fragile, so that one quickly becomes mindful of his presence, mainly to minimize the chances that he will pull something off a table or altar or otherwise destroy something. I suppose people with small children get used to this kind of vigilance.
     One ironic quality of life here is that, although I’m one of the few American-born people around, I am seen by many as a “foreigner,” and an outsider to the predominantly Burmese scene here in this corner of Fremont, CA. The Burmese are very friendly and polite, of course, and some are happy to see a Westerner dressed in monk robes and acting more or less like a Burmese holy man; but still, I don’t really fit in. For example, if the monks are invited to a house for food and chanting, etc., as often as not I am not included. This is fine, and in the old days as a junior monk I tended to avoid house invitations anyway, but still it is noticeable. Part of it is that I don’t particularly try to fit in. I’m Western, and emphatically non-Burmese in my approach to Dhamma and to life in general, and there are certain aspects of Burmese Buddhism that I’ve never had much use for (like an emphasis on chanting or Abhidhamma, for example), which may cause some traditional Burmese Buddhists to see me as having Wrong View—or, more politely, as being a foreign ignoramus. Some Burmese people (certainly not all, or even most, but some), especially those among the educated upper classes, proudly assume that only a Burmese person could really understand Dhamma; and they may see a Western monk much in the same way they’d see a dog walking on its hind legs: They don’t presume that it could ever do a very good job of it, but they’re very impressed that it’s managing it at all. So anyway, for various reasons, I am essentially the resident barbarian here. 
     Although there is a fair amount of Burmese social excitement going on at this place, I am not excited by it, and most of it is not particularly worthy of note on this blog. But there was one occasion which even had me invited to houses a few times as part of a large an entourage, and that was the presence of venerable Ashin Kumarabhivamsa, the Burmese Sangha Maha Nayaka Sayadaw himself—the highest ranking monk in the Burmese ecclesiastical hierarchy, approximately analogous to the Sangharaja of Thailand. He’s only approximately analogous to the Sangharaja because he is not nearly so high-profile as his Thai counterpart, and probably has less actual authority. Most Burmese Buddhists probably don’t even know who he is. But he’s Number One, practically the Buddhist archbishop of Myanmar, and a very great scholar with a long list of ecclesiastical honorific titles besides (including the rare and extremely difficult-to-get Vaṭaṁsakā title, which the phenomenal scholar Sayadaw U Silananda notoriously tried to get, but failed). He came to the US for some kind of medical treatment. So I was part of his retinue, and actually sat next to him at lunch once. I resisted the urge to have my picture taken sitting next to him or bowing down to him, though; I remember long ago in Burma an Australian friend of mine actually had a photo of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi kneeling and bowing down before him, and although this wouldn’t have been that good, still it would have been something. But I refrained. He was very friendly and “nice,” as is to be expected from an archbishop or other high-ranking ecclesiastical politician. I had an audience with him in which he advised me that I could attain superhuman attainments more easily if I lived at Po Win Daung, a medieval cave temple complex not far from my place in Burma where I sometimes go to feed monkeys. I was a little disappointed to see that not only does he handle money, but he encourages people to donate it to monks, telling them that they are thereby greatly helping the Sangha. I rather hope that the Thai Sangharaja follows the rules of discipline more strictly than that. (Not that I’m being a whistleblower here—the venerable Sayadaw makes no secret of his money handling activities.)
     Before the rains retreat started I received a number of enthusiastic invitations to spend it at a nearby Sri Lankan temple. I know the abbot fairly well, and he likes to stop by and discuss Dhamma with me; so partly because of that he tried hard to get me to move in with him. I told him that I was planning to stay at the Burmese place, but that after the official rains retreat I’d be willing; but he didn’t seem interested at all in this proposal, and continued making plans for my rains residence. A few days before the rains officially began he invited me to his temple for the ceremony in which the Sinhalese laypeople formally invite monks to spend the rains there. Again I told him the plan was to spend it at Kusalakari, causing him to become dumbfounded, finally managing to say that the plans had already been made. (He never explained why he was so keen on this, although I was told by two Burmese monks that he intends to travel during the rains retreat and wanted me there as resident senior monk.) It was a bit uncomfortable being pressured like this, but I generally have little difficulty in saying No if I don’t want to do something (for example, recently I’ve successfully dodged two attempts to get me to teach English—once to the slightly famous Sayadaw and once to the dangerous toddler’s elder brother). So anyhow, we have agreed to a compromise: Every Sunday during the rains I am to go to the Sinhalese temple to eat, and then lead a weekly meditation group, which includes an occasional Dhamma talk. It may also include teaching elementary Buddhism to children, which is something about which I have ambivalent feelings. I prefer teaching relatively advanced Dhamma, or at least strange Dhamma, yet teaching kids may be a good thing, especially since the venerable Sinhalese monk’s attempts struck me as unlikely to teach the kids very much, and had me so bored that I almost fell asleep sitting next to him. It was pretty awful actually. But Asian monks born and raised in Asia tend to have difficulty communicating well with Asian kids born and raised in America, who think and act like American kids. It seems to be a dilemma especially for Burmese immigrants, since they don’t much trust the Dhamma teaching of non-Burmese monks, as I’ve already mentioned.
     My first Sunday at the Sri Lankan temple gave me an interesting opportunity to compare and contrast Sri Lankan lay Buddhism with the Burmese version. The Sinhalese appear, thus far, to be more serious and restrained when at a monastery, having more of a sense that they are on sacred ground. They wear white, and don’t indulge in nearly so much loud socializing. The children appear more subdued also, which is a relief for me. In fact, at the Sinhalese place the children sit at the front of the audience during ceremonies, and the beginning offertories to the Buddha on the altar are often carried through the group by children so everyone can touch them (the offertories, not the children), then are brought by them to the monk nearest the altar so he can make the offering. One odd thing is that it appears to be a Sri Lankan custom for a monk to bless people, including girls, by patting them on the head—a custom which the stricter sort of Burmese monks would see as a serious violation of monastic discipline. But if the monk can pat a girl’s head without a mind perverted with desire, then I suppose there’s no problem. Two other differences are that the Sinhalese eat very much less meat, and their tea is infinitely better than the stuff the Burmese drink. 
     The two Sri Lankan monks very hospitably tried to put me at my ease by letting me call the shots about how lunch would be served. They deferred to me on the issues of whether we would eat from our begging bowls or from plates, whether we would sit on the floor or at a kitchen table, and whether we would let the laypeople put food in our bowl or just serve ourselves. If left to my own devices I do prefer to eat from my alms bowl while sitting on the floor, so that’s what we did. Also we started with a miniature alms round, with children putting spoonfuls of rice into our bowls. The abbot, venerable Santa, told me that he had no experience with begging, admitting that he had never walked for alms before (in Sri Lanka, as in many Burmese villages, it is the custom for the laypeople simply to deliver food to the monastery). He and the other Sinhalese monk had new-looking Burmese bowls; and I consider it possible that they had never used them before that day. Ven. Santa seemed surprised when he observed that it’s easier to eat from the bowl than from a plate. Anyway, the Sri Lankan temple deal is a pretty good one; the laypeople tend to be intellectual professional types who speak English mostly. They come rather closer to a Western point of view than do the Burmese. But the Burmese definitely have their good points, and I do not mean to complain, except maybe about the chronic noise. The Burmese love noise, and see no point in being peaceful to the point of keeping noble silence at a monastery.
     Possibly the most interesting Dhamma-oriented event of this rains retreat thus far is that I was offered a personal EEG neurofeedback device, which is one of the coolest toys I’ve played with in a long time. For years I have thought that it could be very useful to have some biofeedback equipment that would show what my brain was doing; the idea was that I would get into a relatively good meditative state and see what the reading on the machine was, and then I could turn meditation into a kind of video game, watching the biofeedback reading as an obvious visual indicator of how the meditation was going. So I mentioned this to my friend and supporter Aaron without even hinting that I wanted him to get me such a thing (although I had suggested a donation of one to someone else), and partly I suppose because he’s an engineer who is intrigued by gadgets and brains, he bought one and played with it for awhile before passing it on to me. 
     The one I’ve got is called a Neurosky Mindwave Mobile, and it costs only about a hundred dollars US. It consists of a small headset which sends a message via bluetooth to a computer or smartphone, and it works much better than the archaic contraption I originally had in mind. The one I’ve got has a single electrode which contacts over the left eyebrow, and thus monitors the left frontal lobe of the brain. The brainwaves are then translated into various graphic images, which indicate the relative levels of different brainwave frequencies, as well as having separate meters for showing focused attention (“samadhi”) and relaxed awareness (“sati”). There are also two video game-like gadgets on the brainwave visualizer, as it’s called, which are gimmicky ways of exercising and developing the aforementioned attention and relaxed awareness (the latter of which the monitor simply calls “meditation”). 

     a graphic representation of the brainwaves of a person listening to Indian classical music
     while wearing a Neurosky Mindwave headset
     (This isn’t my mind. My mind is shaped differently, and has less green than this.)

     So now I have a new kind of modern “light kasina” meditation, in which, when I’m not playing with levitating a ball with calmness, I watch a pulsating blob representing my own brain energy. It is totally cool. It does bother me just a little, though, when my brainwave graph continually adopts a shape similar to the map of Jordan. I suppose that represents some latent Islam in my personality.
     The thing is, this could be an excellent way of teaching meditation to children and other beginners, and it provides a clear, objective measure of meditation quality (for example, how high or how long one can levitate the ball). I think it could be very useful for lots of people. And at a hundred bucks it’s pretty cheap. I’ve seen that a different company called Muse has a more advanced EEG device with seven electrodes instead of only one, arranged on a headband-like thing, which costs around three hundred; but my cheap one seems good enough for getting the job done. If any of you like meditation, and would like an objective, empirical way of measuring how you’re doing, and have a hundred bucks you don’t need for anything more important, then you may consider it as cool as I do. I plan on suggesting to ven. Santa that he get one for the Sinhalese kids who come to his temple for guidance. If they’re going to play video games it may as well be levitating a ball or igniting a barrel with their mind as blowing up zombies or tentacled alien invaders.
     As an aside, Aaron has informed me that the US military is very interested in using monitored brain activity as a way of controlling machinery, for example to be used by pilots flying complicated fighter planes. In fact there are already on the market similar devices for, say, controlling one’s TV set through eye blinks or even thoughts. So I figure soon there will be commercially available robots that one can command with one’s mind, so that they can bring a person his beer while he sits on the couch changing TV channels with his mind. Then the next stage, to make things even easier, would be for a computer to generate an algorithm representing the person’s personality (rather like Pandora and many other algorithms already out there figuring out the desires of consumers), so that not only is the person spared the inconvenience of having to stop watching TV to get his own beer: he wouldn’t even have to think at the robot to do it, since the algorithm would have it figured out exactly when he would want one, and exactly which TV show he would want to watch. All he has to do is just passively lie there and let the algorithm make the decisions. (Then of course the next stage after that is that the computer becomes intelligent, sees the human as a threat, or just an insult to its intelligence, and then goes about exterminating or enslaving the human species, like in all those science fiction movies, with the humans of course being too weak and lazy at this point to do much about it. But so far I still think the brainwave visualizer is very cool.)
     I attempted giving a demonstration of my new toy to ven. Garudhamma, the de facto abbot here, and to a Burmese man who comes with his wife in the morning to offer food when nobody else is scheduled to offer it. Apparently it was insufficiently Burmese to be considered important or even very interesting, as the Burmese guy watched for several seconds before going into an animated account of new Western medical technology which attracted ven. Garudhamma’s attention; and since neither of them was paying attending to the demonstration any more I ended it and returned to my room in the congregation hall.
     Meanwhile, recent torrential floods in upper Burma have had the Chindwin River at four feet above flood level, so that my place at Wun Bo is probably a disaster area. I have no idea what things are like there, except wet and muddy, or how the monks or the local villagers are getting by. I’ve been told that entire villages have been destroyed. Of course it is tragic, but such things happen again and again in this world, and maybe always will. And out there in space entire galaxies are exploding. So it goes.
     So I sit here in the congregation hall in Fremont, and twice per month I deliver a Dharma talk via Skype to a Vipassana group in Bali (although the leader, or tribal elder, of the group is unwell nowadays—may he get well soon); and now there’s the weekly lunch and meditation group at the Sinhalese temple in Milpitas. I meet with an American person on average of about once per week, and engage in some correspondence. And this blog is still moving along in weekly convulsive spasms. At this rate I’ll probably go back to Asia. At least I get more exercise there.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Finding Alaung Daw Kathapa (part 2)

     It is difficult to remember the details of my first residence at Alaung Daw Kathapa after the eventful first few days, since I stayed there five times in all, and the events of the various years blend together, so it is hard to remember with certainty in which year an event occurred. It is very likely, though, that my issues with poachers and woodcutters in the “national park” began almost immediately.
     As in many so-called “third world” countries, so in Burma, villages located near national parks and wildlife preserves tend to have an economy partly based upon poaching and woodcutting. The villages around Alaung Daw Kathapa are no exception, which was always a challenge for me, being a person who for most of his life has loved trees and furry and scaly animals more than humans. One time during my early years there a group of park rangers and soldiers came to pay their respects on their way into the park to catch poachers, or at least to discourage them a little. I took heart at this and began enthusiastically telling their leader how they could easily catch at least a dozen poachers in one day: all they had to do was wait by the main trail one or two days before a festival; the poachers come in at that time to sell their meat. As I was saying this I noticed the group leader was grinning and fidgeting in embarrassment, and it became pretty obvious that he had no intention of catching poachers. This became even more obvious when, at the end of my harangue, he replied, “But they’re hunting for food.” This was true, but it was food to sell, as a business, not food to keep their kids from going hungry. So of course, when the law enforcement officers are on the side of the poachers the case is approximately hopeless. I think at least they make some effort to protect the few tigers remaining in the park, and to prevent fishermen from dumping poison into the creek to kill the fish. At least that’s something.
     Some of the hunters and fishermen were no happier to see me than I was to see them. One morning when I was walking along the creek toward the village I saw a guy carrying a large fish trap. As soon as he saw me he stared around in sudden panic and literally leapt into chest-deep water to avoid meeting me. On another occasion a fisherman coming up the trail with his fishing pole took one look at me and turned on his heel and ran. As I continued past the spot where I had seen him I could hear him, hiding behind a bush and whisperingly calling to his dog, which was looking around for its master. Another time I heard some kind of explosion coming from that same spot; as I approached I saw men scattering in all directions to avoid me, either diving into the bushes or swimming to the other side of the creek, with stunned and dying fish floating all over the surface of the water. They were using military explosives as a fishing device. I was told that hunters and fishermen believe that if they see a monk the karma imposed upon them by the meeting may prevent them from catching anything that day, but I figure it’s more a case of them seeing me as a kind of Dharma police, and having some childish idea that so long as they don’t get caught, they won’t have to face any religious consequences. But I suppose it doesn’t matter. We challenged each other, and, from a dharmic point of view at least, it is good to be challenged. 
     Sometimes during alms round I would receive some kind of stringy red meat in my bowl. At first I thought maybe it was water buffalo, but eventually I was told that it was barking deer from the “wildlife refuge.” So after learning what it was I refused to accept it into my bowl, telling the villagers that it is not right to kill animals in a wildlife refuge. This was too abstract or unfamiliar of a concept for them, however, so they chose to interpret it to mean that I was a vegetarian. (Of course, a Buddhist shouldn’t kill animals anywhere, but that point of ethics was so radical as to be totally unrealistic.) So in addition to no longer receiving poached venison, I also stopped receiving such grotesque delicacies as monitor lizard and frog eggs. So that was no great loss. I could go on and on about the killing ways of the villagers, and their disregard of basic ethics until they were too old to have the energy to get into trouble, but I may as well drop the issue and move on to something else. 
     There is one case of mild delusion I experienced during my first hot season there which involves a hunter, and which I might as well mention before dropping the subject of hunters entirely. Sometimes I would hear a man talking up on the hill above the south side of the box canyon. Also sometimes I would hear explosions like gunshots—not big gunshots, but something like a .22 caliber pistol, almost more of a pop that a bang. Anyway, I told one of my village supporters about it, and he told me that a hunter sometimes stayed up there. He considered this situation to be inappropriate, so he informed me that he would persuade the hunter to go elsewhere. After that I didn’t hear the man’s voice anymore, but I continued to hear the bangs, and sometimes would hear small projectiles pattering through the forest foliage immediately afterward. I tried to figure out what he was doing up there: The explosions weren’t loud enough to be ordinary rifle shots, so I thought maybe he had an old muzzle-loader flintlock (like some villagers owned), and due to economy was loading it with just enough powder to launch a bullet at a bird or whatever small game he was after. Sometimes after the bang I would hear the projectile flying in my direction; and I was tempted a few times to shout at the guy to be careful where he was aiming. Maybe I did shout once or twice. When the village supporter asked me if the hunter was still around I said yes, which had my friend surprised and confused. 
     Finally I somehow realized what the “gunshots” really were. There is a kind of strangler vine in the forest, which I assume is the very same as the proverbial māluvā creeper mentioned in the Pali texts: it starts out as a soft, downy little shoot, apparently totally harmless, and then grows up the trunk of a tree; eventually it grows so large that it overwhelms the tree, covering it, and it becomes so heavy that it can break the branches off or even pull the whole tree down, destroying it. There were a few trees near the cave that had been wrecked by these things. In the suttas the māluvā is compared to sensual pleasures, or more specifically to the soft, downy arm of a young woman, which eventually can overwhelm and destroy an ascetic. Anyway, the creeper has big seed pods made of a hard, woody material; and during the hot, dry weather they dry out and twist slightly, causing the whole pod to come under greater and greater strain until the whole thing finally bursts open explosively, shooting disc-shaped seeds for fifty meters or more. Those are what I was hearing shooting through the leaves of the trees. One advantage of living in rural Burma, with a semi-ancient, traditional culture and a natural environment very similar to that of the ancient Ganges Valley, is that one can learn more through experience what the suttas are talking about. I don’t remember the suttas mentioning the māluvā pods exploding, though.    
     I love and am fascinated by nature, and have been this way since I was a small child, and living at Alaung Daw Kathapa gave me many opportunities for observing mysteries of nature. For example, I shared my cave with many kinds of wasp, including several species of potter wasp. There is a kind of metallic green wasp that parasitizes potter wasp pots, so the potter wasps all have some gimmick for concealing their pots. Some of them simply cover the pots with mud, causing them to look like amorphous blobs rather than wasp pots; but the metallic green ones usually spot these and break into them. Others add strange stalagmites of mud to their finished pots which make them look like coral. There’s at least one kind which builds a group of connected pots and then covers them all with a clay dome, either to reduce the smell of the contents penetrating the walls and encouraging the parasitic ones, or to discourage them by causing them to find nothing on the other side of the first mud wall they chew through. But my favorite was a small, delicate-looking potter wasp that didn’t bother to build extra fortifications onto its pots. It left them plainly pot-shaped. What it did, though, was to go out and find black and white pigments and paint an abstract black-and-white camo pattern onto its pots to break up the visible outline. Not only does it fascinate me that they have evolved this behavior (they’re born with it, as potter wasps are quite solitary and have no friends or teachers), but also that they have no idea whatsoever why they are doing it. Even assuming that a wasp has some dim consciousness of what it is doing, it almost certainly doesn’t have the slightest idea of why it is going through the trouble of building domes or coral antlers or painting abstract designs. It probably has no concept at all of the dangers of metallic green parasitic wasps in the area. But the thing is, though, of course, naturally, that we humans tend to be the same way, if to a less absolute degree. Most women never bother to understand why they consider babies to be so adorable, and most men never bother to understand why a young woman’s shapely bosom is so tantalizingly attractive. Or why they care what other people think. Or why they stick their tongue out when they do something difficult. Or why they close their eyes before they sneeze. Or why they like the smell of baking bread. Et cetera. 
     It was also during my first or second year that I saw something of the pagan cult of Amei Gyi, the Great Mother. Once when I was in Her sacred grove I noticed a woman from Kuzeit village who came to the main shrine platform (the same place where I would stop to take my bowl out of its bag and cover both shoulders with my upper robe before entering the village for alms). She took an empty clay pot there, went down to the creek and filled it with water, picked a few leafy twigs and stuck them in the pot, offered the pot at the shrine, and then proceeded to ask the Great Mother for a long list of favors or blessings, including the health of her family, her husband’s economic success, and her son’s success in his school exams. It seemed to me that the nice lady was essentially trying to swindle the goddess: what kind of equitable trade was that? Some picked leaves from her own grove in exchange for that list? Some people have strange ideas about religion, and about life in general. Some Christians have similar ideas, believing that just making a brief confession before one dies is enough to ensure the reward of an eternity in Heaven.
     On another occasion I saw a different lady with the old village guy who was part-time priest to the goddess (he mainly made his living in some other way, and just moonlighted as a divine intermediary). The little ceremony was interesting: This lady offered a whole, plucked, boiled rooster to the goddess, which the “priest” offered on her behalf, chanting/muttering something I didn’t understand. At one point he pulled the tongue out of the rooster, chanted some more, and then reinserted it and chanted some more. I would guess that most Europeans two thousand years ago did similar things. Even Socrates, on his deathbed, asked a friend to sacrifice a rooster for him. 
     So…to make a long story even longer, I lived in Belly Fall Cave, practicing in a predominantly head-oriented manner (as was my custom in those days rather more than it is now), until the monsoon began. I planned to go back to the blazing hot wastelands of Taungpulu Kyauk Hsin Tawya, in central Burma, after the rain started and cooled things down to a simmer. So, around the second half of May, the first big rain came down signaling that it was time for me to leave. 
     The next morning I found the creek, which was usually less than knee deep where I crossed to reach Pwingah village, chest deep, opaque brown, and flowing fast. I slowly, carefully waded through the flood to reach the villagers waiting to offer food, with my bowl and upper robe held up out of the water, but evidently was not careful enough, and took a bad step onto a bad rock and tore a piece of skin more than a centimeter across off the bottom of a big toe. I was still able to walk, but it was obviously a bit of a handicap when it was time to leave the area, especially since it was a 32-mile hike to the nearest functional car road. I moved into Hsine Teh village, home of the friendly, curious sayadaw that I had met my first day there. Also, the unscholarly U Nanissara had already been there for some time, and had made himself at home. One image of that monastery which remains with me is a heap of antique palm leaf manuscripts in a little shrine building with no front wall, rotting and scattered all over the floor. Burma is like that.
     When the villagers of Hsine Teh discovered that I was lamed, they got together and tried to rent an elephant from a nearby logging camp, so I could ride it. The arrangements were apparently not going according to plan, however, and no elephant was forthcoming, so I was getting ready to make the trip on foot, lame or not. But the day before U Nanissara and I were to set out, I saw, coming up the dirt track to the monastery, an elephant. He looked huge at the time, although I was told later that he was only thirteen years old and not yet full grown. His name was Chit San Win, which means “Special Bright Love.” We, including the elephant and his driver, spent one last day at the village monastery, where the sayadaw was driven to distraction by the fact that the elephant was capable of eating entire banana trees and succeeded in eating one or two of them at the monastery. 
     In those days, before the new highway to India cut through the area, elephants were used to bring groceries and other cargo into the valley from the outside; so Chit San Win had a kind of luggage rack fitted to his back, a wooden contraption that was fixed up with cushions as a howdah or saddle for U Nanissara and me. When we took leave of the good villagers the elephant’s driver commanded him to kneel, so we could climb into the saddle easily. We were required to use the back of the elephant’s neck as a step, which bothered me. I remember saying “gadaw gadaw” to him as I stepped up—it means “I pay respect to you,” and is what Burmese people say before touching another person’s head. Even barbers say it before they start cutting someone’s hair. The Burmese, if they heard it, probably thought I was joking. 
     At the beginning of the monsoon season the wild mangos are ripe, and as we passed through the forest Chit San Win, being an elephant with a one-track mind oriented toward food, would stop at every wild mango tree we passed to eat the fallen mangos. The driver would scream at him and beat him and shoot him in the rump with a slingshot to get him going again. I figured the elephant was doing most of the work, and didn’t begrudge him an occasional mango break, but the driver saw things differently. So I requested that the two Burmese guys accompanying us on foot collect mangos whenever we passed a wild mango tree, and I would feed them to Chit San Win whenever we would stop. In the early evening we arrived at a wooden shelter where we were to spend the night, and the elephant came up alongside the elevated platform so we could dismount without him having to kneel. After we got off Chit San Win curled the end of his trunk into a kind of fist and started thumping the wooden floor of the platform with it. U Nanissara turned to me and said, “He’s asking for his mangos,” which I realized was exactly what he was doing. We had stopped, so it was mango time for him. Elephants like mangos. 
     Actually, elephants are remarkably intelligent, much smarter than dogs. They understand many different commands, and know their left from their right. If they didn’t think about food all the time they might make something of themselves in this world. 
     One other thing that flourishes in the forest at the beginning of the monsoon is horseflies. They are attracted to moisture, which means that I, the profusely sweating Westerner among Burmese people adapted to hot, humid weather, became a horsefly magnet. My sweat-wiping rag was in constant motion throughout much of that trip, as I tried to keep the little bastards off of me and away from my limited supply of blood. One time I noticed a horsefly on top of Chit San Win’s head; he noticed it too, and the tip of his trunk came up like a big thumb and squished it. An elephant’s skin is very sensitive, so he could feel that the squished horsefly was still up there, and so the trunk came up one more time and flicked it off. 
     The next day we arrive at a big village called Ya-Gyi, a corruption of Ywa-Gyi, which means “big village.” That is where the Nayaka Sayadaw, sort of the Buddhist bishop of the area, had his monastery. That is also where Chit San Win and his driver took their leave of us. I wanted to say goodbye to the elephant, the first one I had ever ridden, and maybe get him a bunch of bananas or something as a parting gift, but the driver was eager to leave, and took off quickly, and so I missed the chance to convey my gratitude to either of them. But, regret is always an unskilful mental state. 
     Being an exotic, white-skinned foreign monk in a remote area I was a big sensation in the village, so a crowd of people came to pay their respects. We all met in the main Dhamma hall with the venerable Nayaka Sayadaw acting as host. Before long he ordered a novice to fetch a plate and set it in front of me. Then he advised the laypeople to donate money on my behalf. I started scowling and shaking my head, not liking the idea at all; U Nanissara knew the score, so he advised the Sayadaw that I didn’t like his method. The Sayadaw came up to me and in an undertone urged me to be patient, as the money was for my boat fare. Then, more loudly, he advised the simple devotees to pray for Nibbana as they offered the money, which was sufficient for me to stand up abruptly and stalk out of the Dhamma hall. I suggested to my companions that we leave as soon as possible. At least I didn’t accuse the venerable Sayadaw/bishop of shamelessness in front of his congregation, though I came close to it. I was a semi-fanatical hardass in those days.
     The second leg of the journey was sixteen miles of dirt road, unmanageable by cars, since a bridge had washed out, but doable by bullock carts. I had never ridden a bullock cart before either; and upon riding one I realized why riding one is against the rules of monastic discipline for a healthy monk: unlike horses, bullocks start slowing down as soon as they stop being beaten. A sixteen-mile trip involves a seven-hour-long beating for two bullocks. I don’t remember their names.
     Our next stop was the town of Kani, on the Chindwin River. We were told of a good monastery with very respectable monks situated on the outskirts of the town, so that was our destination. But just before arriving we passed through a large cemetery with a huge wooden pavilion, which looked too good to pass up, so I decided to spend the night there. Before long a guy from town showed up, reportedly a local political officer, who strenuously, repeatedly invited me to spend the night at his house, somehow feeling that it would be better than staying at the cemetery (and I assume easier there to keep an eye on me). But my heart was set on the cemetery, and that’s where I stayed. It was kind of jungly, with a cremation ground and lots of human bones lying around—in other words, really nice for a semi-fanatical hardass monk. I stayed at that cemetery every time I went to Kani after that, too. Once I found the front half of a human skull lying face up on the road about a hundred yards from the cemetery. As cemeteries go, it’s hard to beat.
     The next day we boarded a sampan headed downriver to Monywa, which city we had left three months previously. And thus we reentered “civilization,” such as it is. I returned to the cave at Alaung Daw Kathapa four more times, over the next four years, spending a total of almost two years of my life there, including one very challenging rains retreat. I also contracted falciparum malaria every time I went there, coming down with malarial fever at least once each time (seven times total). But that’s a totally different story, which I may or may not ever tell. 


Saturday, August 15, 2015

Finding Alaung Daw Kathapa (part 1)

     The year 1997 was a relatively eventful one for me. I began it in the midst of a two-month intensive meditation retreat at Panditarama in Yangon, under the severely critical eye of ven. Mahasi U Pandita (an experience described elsewhere on this blog); about a month after leaving that place I was embarking upon my first super-intensive residence at Alaung Daw Kathapa National Park in northwestern Myanmar; within a month of leaving there I was in Japan, spending most of a rains retreat there at a tiny Theravadin monastery—most of us, including two very senior Burmese sayadaws with the high ecclesiastical title of aggamahāpaṇḍita, were essentially kicked out a few days before the rains retreat ended by the Japanese director of the place; immediately after that I returned briefly to America to see my family for the first time since leaving the country in 1992; and I finished the year in a vermin-infested Burmese hospital, approximately half-dead with my first bout of falciparum malaria, contracted at Alaung Daw Kathapa months previously. In this installment of the saga I’ll describe my finding of the place, and my first journey to and from wun-kya oat-hmin, or “Belly Fall Cave.”
     As I have mentioned elsewhere in these prolonged ramblings, one of my primary inspirations for becoming a monk was the Sutta-Nipāta, a collection of ancient Pali texts composed in an ancient time when Buddhist monks were homeless wanderers. The monks described therein were iron ascetics, or at least made of hardwood; and when I was a younger monk than I am now I had this idealistic, romantic, macho ideal of being an iron ascetic myself—storming the gates of heaven, and all that. The monastery at which I stayed at that time, Taungpulu Kyauk Hsin Tawya, was a relatively rough place, and most monks, especially foreign ones, didn’t last very long there. But even so, I knew where my next meal would be coming from; I knew where I would be sleeping the following night; and although it was not a comfortable place, I felt that it was not uncomfortable enough for my satisfaction during the milder months of the year when the place wasn’t blazing like a furnace. Also, in those days I just wanted to be alone. So I had ideas of taking off and being more like the monks of the Sutta-Nipāta. 
     In Burma there is no phra tudong tradition as there is in Thailand—that is, monks who wander from place to place, sleeping under trees in forests, and staying in monasteries only briefly. There are some monks in Burma who live like this, but very few. But I tried it anyway: one cold season I attempted a walking trip from Yangon to the town of Wun Dwin, in Mandalay Division, a trip of more than 300 miles (or 500km). I covered about 12% of that distance before being essentially arrested by immigration officials and military intelligence guys. They took my passport and ID card, asked every silly question they could think of, including my parents’ address in America and my mother’s maiden name, took me back to the nearest immigration office, called one of my supporters in Yangon and commanded him to come fetch me, and even photographed his car when he arrived, to put it in the dossier with all the other information that nobody would read. But even if I hadn’t been stopped by the authorities (and now that the military government is camouflaged if not defunct, the government is probably much less paranoid about foreigners wandering around loose), I probably wouldn’t have made it the whole way to Wun Dwin anyway, since a large, conspicuous “English monk” draws crowds whenever he stops to rest. I stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb. So I came to the conclusion that if I were to do any wandering trips it would have to be somewhere very remote, beyond the reach of immigration offices, military secret police, and crowds. 
     But a monk can’t live in just any remote wilderness. There are certain specifications that must be met, one of the most important being that he must live within relatively easy walking distance to a village inhabited by Buddhist laypeople, since they are his source of food. There has to be an alms resort. So I began investigating possible Burmese wildernesses.
     In February of 1997, after my escape from Panditarama, I was residing briefly at Mahagandhayone, a huge school monastery near Mandalay where I had lived a few years previously. There I stayed in a meditation cabin staring at maps of Myanmar. I would sit there just contemplating a big map of Myanmar, waiting for something to gel and a decision to make itself with regard to which wilderness I should go to. I had a friend there, a Mon monk named venerable Khemissara (“Lord of Sanctuary”), who wanted to come with me, mainly in order to live up to the Pali ideal, and to get away from a crowded school in town for awhile. Sometimes he would come to my cabin, walk in, and start grinning to see me, as usual, sitting there on the floor staring at the map. I had my choices narrowed down to Kathah, a wildlife refuge near the Irrawaddy River north of Mandalay, and Alaung Daw Kathapa, a large national park in the northwest, in Sagaing Division.
     Intuitively I favored Kathah, despite totally conflicting accounts of the place (some people saying it was dense forest teeming with animals, and other people asserting that it was mostly cut down and ruined by woodcutters), although there was the technical complication that the river boat company insisted upon receiving my fare in US dollars, since technically I was, and still am, a foreigner. U Khemissara, who did the wrangling over such matters, insisted that I had lived in Burma for years, and did not handle money, and that there were no US dollars to be had. (In those days it was actually illegal for a Burmese citizen even to own US currency, since the government wanted all of it.) The ticket officer didn’t care about this, and insisted that foreigners must pay in US dollars or else find some other way of traveling. It was mainly this hassle that started me leaning toward Alaung Daw Kathapa. Shortly after deciding upon ADK, the river boat official relented and said it was allowable for my ticket to be bought with Burmese kyats, but by then it was too late. The decision had been made, and I stared at the map much less than previously. I still stared at it a lot, though.
     Along with U Khemissara there was a young Burmese monk I knew from Kyauk Hsin, U Ñāṇissara (“Lord of Knowledge,” which name henceforth I will spell without the diacritical marks, because I’m lazy). Ven. Kyauk Hsin Sayadaw had sent him to Mahagandhayone in order for him to get some education, but he was a simple village boy who had no great love for book-learning, and he quickly invited himself along on our trip to the wilderness. U Khemissara tended to worry a lot about his health, and was concerned that Alaung Daw Kathapa would be too cold during the cold season, so he wanted to wait until March before we set out. I wanted to get there as soon as possible, though, so we settled on a compromise. Around the middle of February we left for the city of Monywa, where U Khemissara knew some people who might be helpful in our search for a suitable place in the woods.
     We stayed at the local Mahasi center there, where a Shan monk named ven. Paṇḍicca (“Intelligence”) was residing. He had a brother who was a park ranger at ADK, so we had our foot in the door, sort of. The thing was, though, that what I wanted to do was something nobody had any experience with; and the Burmese are not very good at, or enthusiastic about, doing what usually isn’t done. So the people helping me in my quest were a little confused and hesitant, and not very deeply committed to the glorious quest. Except maybe for ven. Nanissara, who was just happy to be away from school, regardless of any other circumstances.
     We began driving around to monasteries in the direction of the national park and asking old monks about where a good place would be. We got plenty of answers like, “Well, there’s big forest there, so it will be difficult. It’s cold this time of year. You’d have to be near a village, but I suppose it’s possible. You might try around Gangaw.” But after about two days of such interrogations we knew hardly any more than we did when we started, and the others in our party were starting to hint that maybe we should just give up. I was becoming frustrated. 
     Finally, almost as an afterthought, we went to the national park headquarters, which I hadn’t known existed. By this time the haphazard and ineffectual investigations of my colleagues were inspiring me to be in a bad mood, and I didn’t even bother to get out of the car while the others were inside talking to whomever was in the office. But then, through the open front door, I noticed a huge contour map on the wall; it wasn’t some crummy undetailed map like the ones I’d been staring at for so long, but was a large-scale map made by the British during colonial times that showed everything. I jumped out of the car, climbed onto a chair in front of the map, and within fifteen seconds I knew exactly where to go.
     The national park is shaped like a camel’s hoof, or a hand making the Vulcan “live long and prosper” sign: the main part of the park is roundish, and maybe 40 miles across, with two extensions coming out of the north end in a V shape, following two ranges of hills. The plainly obvious place for a monk was at the base of the V at the north edge of roundish part of the park; national park land lay to the east, south, and west, with a creek flowing through the middle, and two villages full of Buddhists directly to the north. We got back into the car, went back to the Mahasi center, and began making plans to get there. By this point U Pandicca was planning to come along too.
     Between the two northern spurs of the park was a valley called Hseh Ywah Chaung, which means something like “Peaceful Place of Ten Villages.” There were no motor roads leading there in those days, so we rode a sampan up the Chindwin River to a little town called Kheh Daung and started a long hike over the eastern spur into Hseh Ywah Chaung. The first several miles were along very soft, sandy roads, until we neared the boundary of the park. I remember the four of us arrived at a small village to ask directions to the trailhead, which was pointed out to us, and so we immediately cut across an empty field to get there, as that was the most direct route. Someone began frantically calling to us not to go that way, which didn’t make much sense to me, it being just an empty field and the most direct route and all, until I noticed that this particular field was apparently the public latrine for the neighborhood. It was a minefield strewn with human turds. U Pandicca in particular was making guttural animal noises as we carefully picked our way through the field. After that the hike over the hills was beautiful. I love wildernesses, and I had never seen deep, thick tropical forest before. I had made one serious mistake, however: just the day before we left I shaved my head, so that I got a second-degree tropical scalp burn, mainly while riding on top of the sampan. It was one of the worst sunburns I’ve ever had. I still have a little scar from that.
     Anyway, we arrived late in the same day at Hseh Ywah Chaung, where the people were simple, rustic hillbilly types even by rural Burmese standards. The villagers in that area tended to be Buddhists in a superficial or superstitious sense, that is, believing it without understanding or practicing it much. Most of the villages had one monastery each, with each monastery having a total of one resident monk. His job was mainly to be master of ceremonies for rituals that nobody really understood. He was also the resident living idol who provided the simple-hearted devotees an opportunity for earning merit by supporting his more or less idle existence. 
     Although few people in that area followed five precepts, let alone meditated or studied Buddhist texts, they revered their monks. There was one sayadaw in one of the villages who had been a taxi driver in Yangon before becoming a monk and somehow winding up in such a remote place as this. He began chafing in the Holy Life, so to speak, and let it be known that he was seriously considering dropping out of the monkhood. But the villagers revered him still and, knowing that he was not a native and not wanting him to leave them, they made him a deal: If he would stay in their village after he dropped out of the Sangha, they would provide him with a house, a field, and a girl. He accepted the offer, and at the time I passed through he was living in his house with his young wife.
     We spent our first night in Hseh Ywah Chaung at a village monastery maybe twelve miles north of the base of the V on the map. We were told more than once that the one person who knew the area best was an old novice called Shin Dhammasiha (“Master Lion of Dharma”), who lived in a small monastery about eight miles north of the bottom of the V, the latter being my intended destination. It turned out that Shin Dhammasiha had formerly been a fully ordained monk, even a sayadaw; but the duties of being a senior monk didn’t appeal to him, so he disrobed himself down to novice rank in order to live his life in peace and quiet. He lived in a little cabin in a little clump of trees at the edge of some farmers’ fields. He had a large bunch of bananas hanging from his ceiling, and spent much of his time hanging out with old village men in white shirts who would come to talk, drink tea, and smoke cigars with him. Almost his only excitement was when monkeys would climb down the cliff face behind his cabin and raid his garden. (As it turned out, this same Shin Dhammasiha had lived briefly at Wun Bo Wildlife Refuge Monastery, years before I ever heard of the place, and had directed the digging of the cave that I subsequently lived in for many years.) The old ex-sayadaw told us that there was a large cave in the area where I was headed, and that he had lived there himself for a short time, but that big rocks sometimes fell from the ceiling of the cave, so that it wasn’t safe. He assured us that his little cabin-monastery was the best place around for Dhamma practice. 
     By this time my three companions were plunged far too deeply into the unfamiliar for their liking, and two of them, U Khemissara and U Pandicca, decided to turn back. U Nanissara, determined to stay away from scholarship as long as possible, opted to stay with Shin Dhammasiha, since after all the place was declared by a respectable authority to be the best. So the following morning I continued alone, walking toward the perfect bottom of the V that I had seen on the excellent British map.
     I walked for alms in a village on the way, and found that walking for alms was not a tradition in this area, as the monks preferred to stay in their monasteries and have their food delivered. I received enough food from the surprised, confused villagers for a very rice-oriented meal, however. Another thing I learned was that the people in this area spoke Burmese with such a thick rustic accent that with some of them I could understand only about a third of what they said. By mid-afternoon I arrived at the village of Pwingah—“Open Spread”—the southernmost village in Hseh Ywah Chaung, closest to the sweet spot on the map, located where the narrow gorge of Patolone Creek widens out into a broadish, flat-bottomed valley of arable land.
     I was directed to the village monastery, where I met two monks sitting in the large Dhamma hall drinking tea. One of them was the resident sayadaw, and the other the sayadaw of the nearby village of Hsine Teh. This second one was friendly and curious, but the Pwingah sayadaw was evidently not glad to see such a strange, radical, ascetic foreign monk moving onto his territory. He was a bit gloomy at my arrival, but not exactly rude. I was offered some tea; but mainly because strict Burmese monks don’t drink tea in the afternoon I declined it, being as strict as I could manage in those days. While I was there an old lady excitedly came up and tried to offer me a large comb of bananas, presumably with the idea that I could hang it from a ceiling somewhere, and the gloomy one barked at her, “He won’t even drink the tea! How is going to accept those bananas!” Neither of them knew of any good forest hermitages in the vicinity, and I continued on my way, into the north-central frontier of Alaung Daw Kathapa National Park.
     South of Pwingah the little valley of Patolone Creek was rather steep-sided, and just finding a flat place of ground to sleep on was a challenge. I eventually spent the night lying on the uphill side of a large tree, using the tree to keep me from rolling down the hill in the dark. The next morning I walked back downstream to Pwingah to walk for alms and collect my daily meal.
     Again the villagers were surprised to see a monk walking for alms, especially a foreign one (foreigners are relatively very rare in that area, although I was later told that there was a landing strip in a nearby field for the Flying Tigers during World War II), but I received enough food to sustain me, and left the village, looking for a convenient place to eat. 
     On the previous day I had noticed a large stand of trees on the opposite side of the creek from Pwingah, and on the other side of some fields from another village, called Kuzeit. I had wondered at the time why they hadn’t cut it down like the rest of the forest near the villages. Anyway, I decided to eat there and waded the creek, whereupon I realized that the little patch of forest was actually a kind of pagan sacred grove. Later I was told that it was dedicated to a nature goddess called Amei Gyi, or “Great Mother.” Her image, usually kept in the grove in a kind of hutch with the door closed, shows her as a well-dressed female with her hair up and a sword in her hand, and with a tiger crouching beside her. While I was sitting on a shrine platform with my bowl of food two old gents from Pwingah, who had followed me, told me that they knew I had been sleeping on the hillside in the forest the night before (I was a little surprised at this, since I hadn’t noticed anyone noticing me while I was out there), and that if I was looking for a place to stay, they knew of a good one. After lunch they led me to “Belly Fall Cave,” the same place Shin Dhammasiha had mentioned as a place that wasn’t safe because of falling rocks.
     It wasn’t as far into the forest as I had gone the day before, being only about a 30-minute walk from the village. It was at the end of a kind of little box canyon, or box gulley, branching off from the west side of the creek. A waterfall fell over the cave entrance during rainy weather, although at this time it was dry, with a small pond in front of the cave. I call it a “cave” for lack of a better word: Actually it was more of a huge overhanging rock ledge, the interior of the “cave” being about 100 feet wide, 30 feet high, and extending about 30 feet back from the outer edge of the overhang, being largest at the entrance. It was enough to keep the sun off me during most of the day, and the rain off when it rained. It offered shade without being dark; I could do walking meditation at night by moonlight inside it. It was relatively quiet, too, partly because the villagers believed the place was protected by an asaunt, a kind of powerful guardian spirit, a potentially dangerous and scary one. Most of the “cave” was composed of packed sand, not quite sandstone, which was hollowed out by the action of large, roaring waterfalls during the monsoon season; consequently it caved in rather easily, with great sand clods, some of them boulder-sized, occasionally falling to the ground with a thud. The places where cave-ins were most likely were pretty obvious, though, so I wasn’t too worried about being smashed by a collapsing ceiling. The place looked pretty much ideal, so I decided to stay there for some more or less intensive meditation practice.
     I arrived there during the last week of February, and the weather was still relatively cold, as the place, like most national parks in this world, is in the hills (on land unsuitable for farming). Sometimes steam would be rising off the creek in the mornings. I learned to do walking meditation in the “sarcophagus position,” with both hands crossed over my chest to conserve body heat; and taking a bath in the creek took about twenty minutes: despite the morning steam, about seventeen minutes of bath time consisted of me standing there beside the creek looking at the cold water and thinking things like, “I really have to take a bath. Yes. I’ve got to do this. I’m gonna have to get down into that water and do it. Yes. That’s right. Let’s do it then.” Then finally I would work up the nerve to jump into the water, wait several seconds for my skin to go into shock and become numb, and then hastily wash myself off and clamber back out again.
     After the first day the villagers overcame their surprise and confusion and became extraordinarily eager to offer alms food to the strange ascetic forest monk. On my second morning in Pwingah I found a crowd of people waiting for me beside the creek, at the south entrance to the village. Burmese villagers, bless their hearts, are not strong on organization or planning, so I had to take charge and instruct them to line up. Then I began working my way down the line, bowl in hand. But Burmese villagers are also not good at engineering problems, like how much each they can put into a bowl without it overflowing; so long before I reached the end of the line the bowl was full. People toward the end of the line noticed this, and the line rapidly degenerated into a mob scene, with hands thrusting food at my bowl from all directions. Within seconds I was holding the bowl away from my body to minimize the amount of splatter getting onto my robes. Finally I had little choice but to whip out my bowl lid, clap it onto the bowl, and make a quick getaway. Before I could extricate myself, though, a village lady managed to throw an entire comb of bananas onto the bowl lid. It took several days before I was able to instill enough order that I could usually make it all the way down the line, giving everybody an opportunity to offer something. In Kuzeit village sometimes I would count off the nice ladies, one, two, one, two… with the ones being allowed to offer only rice, and the twos offering only curry. Generally it was one spoonful of rice, one spoonful of curry each—although some old ladies would try to cheat by bringing a huge serving spoon or ladle, or balancing something big, like a ball of sticky rice or a whole banana, onto the spoon. This was my first practical experience with crowds at alms rounds, although I experienced it subsequently in other places. Over the years I’ve developed the ability to look at a line of people and intuitively discern how much each they can put into my bowl without the bowl hopelessly overflowing.
     After a few days of settling into a routine, I figured March first would be a good day to start at least one month of intensive meditation practice. The night before, I performed a little ceremony, requesting anyone out there willing and able to help to please do so, and the following morning I endeavored to maintain mindfulness as unbroken as possible. I awoke early, sat in meditation, walked for alms as mindfully as I could manage, returned, ate, meditated some more, and then went down the trail to the creek to wash my bowl, bathe, brush my teeth, fill my water bottles—in short, to “do water things.” (The creek water, incidentally, was greenish and tasted sweet, almost like milk.) While I was at the creek I saw three people coming up the trail toward me: two local villagers and the unscholastic U Nanissara. Instead of meeting me at the creek they continued on up to the cave. I didn’t know what their mission was.
     I returned to find the two villagers clearing some ground for U Nanissara’s sleeping place. U Ñ himself informed me that he intended to stay with me. I nipped that plan in the bud by informing him, with some firmness, that I preferred to stay alone. He accepted this gracefully, understanding my intention to practice Dhamma, and the two village guys then offered to dig me a latrine, which idea I welcomed, as until then I had been crapping on the ground among the trees like an animal. So, they started making a latrine.
     While this work project was going on, two teenage girls showed up with offerings of candles and palm sugar. They were a little shy, and didn’t stay long. But around the time they left an old guy in a white shirt appeared with a pot of tea and some cigars, intending to hang out with me. When I said that I didn’t drink tea or smoke cigars he got a look on his face as though I were a fireman who had just told him that I didn’t put out fires—drinking tea and smoking cigars with elderly village gents wearing white shirts is what monks do. Then another guy showed up with a mattock, and was enthusiastically invited to join the latrine party. The latrine offerers, after constructing an unnecessarily elaborate latrine that I could not dissuade them from building, took a break and settled down to a little tea and cigar party with the white-shirted one.
     By this point it seemed that my freshly started intensive meditation retreat was being promptly derailed by visitors and commotion, and I squatted on the ground in the cave holding my head in my hands. U Nanissara approached me, and I told him in confidence that if everyone didn’t clear out soon I’d take matters into my own hands and get rid of them somehow. U Ñ then kindly offered to move them out for me. The Burmese are much, much better at these things than I am. They know how to do it politely, yet effectively. Within a few minutes all of them, including venerable Nanissara, left with smiles on their faces, and I settled down to resume my first day of the meditation retreat. 
     At this point, before recounting the most bizarre event of that day, I suppose I should mention an issue I had been having since the day after my arrival. The local villagers, although materially very poor, were extremely generous, and were very eager to offer what they could. I had few needs from them other than a daily bowl of food, however, so their generosity often took the form of fixing the trail to the cave. The two men who had showed me the place in the first place had already cleared the path sufficiently for me to navigate it without trouble; but on average two or three work parties per day were hacking and digging away at the path, chopping down nearby sapling trees and large branches, etc. I didn’t want a broad, flat avenue leading from the village to my cave, so I discouraged continued trail-clearing. It became a minor obsession for me, and sometimes I would go around doing my business while muttering to myself, “Don’t fix the trail…Don’t fix the trail…” Eventually I even went to the extreme of wrecking improvements, or covering them over with plentiful wreckage lying around (dirt clods, severed tree branches, etc.) and re-routing the trail around them.
     So, after the visitors had gone away I sat down to meditate. My eyes had not been closed for more than about ten minutes before I starting hearing the familiar boom, boom, crash, crash, crash of someone fixing my trail. It sounded nearby, too, in fact it sounded like it was right in front of me. So I swore in English (I’ve never really learned how to cuss well in Burmese), opened my eyes, and saw a villager with a towel turban and a mattock smashing away at the trail about fifty yards away.
     I called out to him, in Burmese, “Stop! Stop! The trail has already been fixed!” But he ignored me, and the crash, crash, boom, boom, boom of digging and avalanching debris continued unabated. So I tried to dissuade him again, and then again. Before long I wasn’t yelling so much because of the distance between us as because I was getting, to put it plainly, pissed off. I yelled at him “Stop!!! Stop!!! Go away!!!” until I was hoarse, with absolutely no apparent effect whatsoever. I shouted until my shouting voice had ground down to hardly louder than normal conversational volume, with no effect, so finally I really lost my temper, ran down out of the cave, fell down, got back up again, ran up the trail to where he was so diligently working, and starting exclaiming in his face to stop fixing the goddam trail and go away, because said goddam trail had already been fixed, several times in fact. The man looked at me with a serene, childlike expression and said, “I’m fixing your trail!” He didn’t say it sarcastically or defensively. He said it as though I hadn’t been yelling at him to stop for the past five minutes, as though I might actually welcome the information.
     So I kept exclaiming at him to stop, sometimes adding, to avoid any confusion, “NOW!!!” At one point while gesticulating in the direction I wanted him to go (i.e. away), my finger brushed against his turban, inspiring a moment of intrusive mindfulness as the anger was transcended and I felt something like, “oh, I didn’t mean to hit his head.” In retrospect I think the thing to do might have been simply to take his mattock away from him, march up the hill with it, and fling it off the steep hillside into the creek below; but at the time I was no longer thinking clearly—in fact I was as at wit’s end as I had ever been in my life. I wanted to gibber like an ape and jump in circles and throw dead leaves in the air. There seemed to be no way of getting this guy to stop fixing my trail, or even to consider stopping fixing it. It was alien, bizarre, a situation that would be unthinkable in a place like the USA. 
     Eventually though, with a strange foreign monk almost in tears and hollering in his face, with maybe a little bit of spittle actually landing on him, a tiny light went on in his head, and he started to realize that maybe I didn’t want him to fix the trail. (To some degree there was a culture barrier in the way of this, where it is polite to say the Burmese equivalent of “oh, you shouldn’t bother,” without really meaning it—but this barrier had been passed long since.) He said something, still looking rather serene, like, “Oh, well, I’ll go back now,” but as he slowly walked away he continued hacking at the trail with his mattock, one hack with every step. I followed right behind him, urging him on with continued exclamations of “Stop! Now! Go away! Now! Now! Now!” And then, miraculously, he cleared out.
     I returned to the cave an agitated nervous mess with a shredded throat; and since sitting in meditation was nowhere near to being a realistic option until the adrenaline cleared, I decided to go fill my water bottles at the creek. As I arrived at the top of the trail, where the steep path down to the water things place branched from the main trail, I could hear, maybe a quarter of a mile away, way off in the distance, boom, boom, crash, crash, crash… He had simply moved farther down the trail with his fixing operation. I felt a brief urge to run after him and assault him, but the urge passed, and I went to the creek and filled the damn water bottles. Fortunately, the work parties greatly decreased after that day.

I’m pretty sure that the little keyhole-shaped box canyon, and the cave,
are in that central darkness somewhere (courtesy of Google Earth)  

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Physics, Metaphysics, Science, Pseudoscience

     or: Gawd It Seems Like I Just Can’t Stop Bashing Scientism

     One of the reasons why religion seems irrelevant today is that many of us no longer have the sense that we are surrounded by the unseen.  —Karen Armstrong, in A History of God
     A few years ago, before the inception of this here blog and before I was even sure what a blog was, not long after I put on the Internet the articles that I had written in Burma, someone offered the feedback that I indulge in too much lamentation over the evils of scriptural dogmatism. He further pointed out that such lamentation is practically pointless, since Western Buddhists are almost totally immune to scriptural dogmatism. This turns out to be true, mostly; but at the time when the articles were written I was in Burma surrounded by devout scriptural dogmatists—most of them Asians, although included in the multitude were a few Western monks associated with the Pah Auk tradition. As the saying goes, the squeaky wheel gets the grease; and consequently I laid siege to the fortified ramparts of Theravadin scriptural dogmatism, occasionally beating my head against those stony walls in absurd frustration.
     After returning to the West and attempting to teach some Dharma here, I found that trying to get a dharmic point across to most American students of Buddhism can be at least as frustrating! Sometimes even more so. The pitfalls are different, but just as real, and there appear to be more of them, largely because the underlying culture is more complicated and much less Buddhist. “Spiritually bankrupt materialism”; lukewarmness, jadedness, and apathy; virtually mandatory insincerity and hypocrisy, accompanied by an aversion for excess of truth or reality; alienation; a chronic state of being “too busy”—all of this runs rampant in the West, or at least in America it does. And I found that, evidently, most American Buddhists, rather than embracing Dharma because they have outgrown the foregoing list and are turning toward something better, follow along with it, more or less, and try to modify Buddhism to make it compatible with this relatively non-dharmic orientation.
     This has little if anything to do with scriptural dogmatism of course—the thing is, though, that it’s still a matter of dogmatism. In fact, not only is it a case of dogmatism, or even of non-dharmic dogmatism, but in many respects is a case of anti-dharmic dogmatism, dogmatism which flatly denies some of the most fundamental aspects of Dharma, of a deeply spiritual approach to life. So I occasionally find myself beating my head against an armored wall that most people in the West cannot even see.
     You can’t build a temple on a plot of land already crowded with an insurance office, an espresso shop, and a Walmart. Converting an extra room at the back of the insurance office into a meditation room is better than nothing, but it is a poor substitute for sacred ground. It’s just so much attempted dual service of God and Mammon, with Mammon taking precedence. So to speak.
     But fortunately it’s not really necessary to build temples. In Dharma, tearing down (walls, fences, locked doors and gates) is much more important than building anything up, even if the unenlightened mind does not feel comfortable with the resultant vacuum-induced disorientation. And we Westerners are actually better at tearing down than devout Asian Buddhists are. Consequently, we have a good chance with Dharma after all.
     So anyhow, once again the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and I toss a few more rocks at the titanium alloy-hardened walls of the modern World Religion of Scientism.

     The literal meaning of the word “metaphysics” is “beyond physics.” That is, metaphysics deals with what lies beyond the reach of physics, or of science in general. Metaphysics is an attempt to understand, intellectually at least, the nature of ultimate reality, the fundamental essence, or essences, from which all forms arise. Physics, on the other hand, is a study of the arisen forms; it deals with what can be observed, distinguished, counted, and measured. Thus an essence, which virtually by definition is formless, and which cannot be counted, measured, or even really perceived, as opposed to apparent form, is largely if not wholly beyond the scope of the discipline of physics. 
     In modern Western culture, which has a strong tendency toward extraversion and superficiality, this results in some philosophical confusion. Many Western intellectuals, let alone non-intellectuals, are incapable of distinguishing essence from form (water from waves, glass from bottle, consciousness from mental states), and assume, or even categorically assert, that what can be objectively observed and distinguished intellectually is necessarily all there is. Thus such folks naturally assume that physics, and science in general, describes reality as it is, and not just some perceptible manifestation of it.
     This points to one of the primary, fundamental differences between pure science and impure Scientism—the former makes no metaphysical claims, except perhaps in the form of explicit hypotheses, whereas the latter considers metaphysics to be obsolete nowadays, since nothing, supposedly, is beyond modern physics; or else it attributes unwarranted metaphysical assumptions to science itself, considering them to be necessarily self-evident and axiomatic. A typical example of this is that everything in nature exists as science describes it, even when no perceiving mind is present. (Another axiom/example which, however, is not quite so metaphysical, is that everything in the Universe necessarily obeys perceptible laws, at least at a macroscopic level.)
     What almost all scientists do, along with their hundreds of millions of unquestioning devotees, is to interpret scientific observations in accordance with metaphysical assumptions that are not grounded or warranted scientifically, without even realizing that they are doing this, so that their assumptions are not merely hypothetical—and thus, to that extent, are not really science. In their dogmatic, unreflective, human, culturally conditioned philosophical naïveté they consider these axiomatic assumptions regarding the nature of science and reality (like the intrinsic self-existence of physical phenomena independent of a perceiving mind) to be obvious, self-evident facts to be taken for granted, to be reality, which really they are not.
     Science is science—that hits the bedrock of logical certainty; A=A; but most of what passes for science in this world is vulgar Scientism. That is, mainly what we’ve got is science confounded with scientifically unverified and unverifiable metaphysical assumptions considered to be facts, or else accepted, without fully realizing it, at a subliminal level. And to the extent that modern science is Scientism, to that very extent it is pseudoscience. The calculations may work out the same either way, but the implicit assumptions combined with the results of those calculations, and the resultant world view based on that combination, may be utter hogwash. Furthermore, the human need for something to believe, and for the emotional security of certainty, combined with the great limitations of the human primate psychology which generates scientific theories, practically guarantees that science will always tend toward the pseudoscience of Scientism, now and forevermore. In most branches of science, such as biology, the overall approach is emphatically Scientistic from the very get-go. And most scientists simply can’t tell the difference.
     Just a few moments’ reflection should be sufficient for one to see that all this is really very likely, at least within the confines of what Buddhists call “conventional truth”: 200 years from now, assuming that we humans still exist and that civilization has not collapsed, it is very probable that educated people will look at today’s scientific “wisdom” as pathetically superstitious, containing some real sense, and even genius, but nevertheless heavily based upon primitive assumptions—much as we look back upon medieval Christianity or ancient paganism. And it may be that the cultural world view 200 years from now won’t simply be a refined, improved form of Scientism, or even purified science (which after all seems to require some unscientific metaphysics backing it up for purposes of interpretation); it may be that our mechanistic interpretations of reality will be replaced by something radically different, possibly even unimaginable to us primitives. Our modern Scientistic “reality” may be no more real than that of a medieval Catholic or ancient votary of Apollo. 

     It appears that the situation of science today, or at least of Scientism, is somewhat similar to the situation of geometry back in the days when it was universally Euclidean. Everyone assumed, considered it plainly obvious in fact, that geometry had to be the way it was—that parallel lines never meet, for example, or that there is one and only one straight line passing through any two points. It was totally obvious, plain as day. Then along came non-Euclidean geometry and turned it all inside out. (To help demonstrate how stubbornly in the box we all are, or most of us are, it may be pointed out that non-Euclidean geometry was discovered, or invented, pretty much by accident. Some geometers were attempting to prove that parallel lines never meet by assuming that they do meet and then searching for some kind of reductio ad absurdum in the modified system, which, however, they never found. The new system turned out just as logically consistent as the Euclidean one. One early pioneer of non-Euclidean geometry kept his work a secret for years because he wished to avoid, in his own words, “the hue and cry of blockheads.”) And now, if Einsteinian physics can be taken seriously, in this world of ours Riemannian geometry is more “true” than Euclidean, and there are two distinct lines passing through any two points (or so I have read).
     And so the next stage in Scientism may be more radically “non-Euclidean,” involving essentially the same scientific method, but with radical modifications to the scientifically unwarranted metaphysical axioms which are almost invisible, yet crucial to the interpretation of scientific observations. Some wiseguy physicists are no doubt already doing this kind of stuff, although it hasn’t come anywhere near the materialist mainstream of general Scientism yet. For instance, what happens to a scientific interpretation of reality if we assume that physical phenomena cease to exist when nobody is looking? Or here's one that is very reminiscent of non-Euclidean geometry: What if two different explanations for the same phenomenon, which logically are incompatible, may nevertheless both be true?   

Saturday, August 1, 2015

So Hard to Find a Good Saint These Days: Amma Revisited

     Though all his life a fool associates with a wise person, 
     He does not realize Dharma any more than a spoon the flavor of the soup.  —Dhammapada, verse 64

     …whatever we feel toward the other is a reflection of ourselves.  —Paul Lowe

     A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.  —William Blake’s Devil

     By a fortunate coincidence, I have recently incorporated the word “egregious” into my working vocabulary. That is opportune, because this post is on a particularly egregious subject. Damned egregious, in fact. So egregious it’s not even funny.
     Over the years of the writing of this blog I have occasionally mentioned Ammachi, better known as Amma “the Hugging Saint,” as often as not as a good example of a high-profile person alive today who is a saint, as contrasted to a sage. I’ve never been a real devotee, as I’ve never felt a strong affinity or resonance with her, and Bhakti Yoga, the path of devotion to a guru, is apparently not my path this time around. But I do know a few of her devotees, and at the urging of one of them I’ve had darshan with her, and have been hugged by her, twice (the second time even being kissed on the forehead by her, which was appreciated, as I was going through a difficult time then).
     Largely because of my occasional respectful mentions of her, a person I am familiar with and with whom I correspond, but have never met “on the physical plane,” sent me a book entitled Holy Hell: A Memoir of Faith, Devotion, and Pure Madness by Gail Tredwell (Wattle Tree Press, 2013). Another reason he sent it is because he has relatively recently developed a rather cynical attitude toward spirituality. In the book Ms. Tredwell, formerly known as Gayatri and Swamini Amritaprana, one of Amma’s closest disciples, her first Western female devotee, and her personal attendant for many years, acts as a whistleblower, accusing Amma and her senior swamis of a broad range of egregious activities. Damned egregious.
     At the time of writing this I have just finished reading the book. At first I felt that it would be good to read a book with a negative bias, as it would help to counterbalance the literature I had read by devoted followers in the past, which was so fawningly worshipful as to be downright syrupy. But as I progressed through (waded through, struggled through) the book, it became more and more unpleasant. I repeatedly grew disgusted, and sometimes angry—not at Amma or her allegedly criminal swamis, but at the author, and to some degree at the fellow who sent me the book, and even endorsed it. I think I can honestly say that it’s the trashiest piece of work I’ve read in many years. It’s worse than the strange New Age manuscript I discussed in “The Relativity of Madness” a few months ago. I think reading Hitler’s Mein Kampf would be a more positive experience. 
     But before discussing the attempted character assassination of Amma, justified or unjustified, I suppose I should mention a superficial technicality. The writing style of the author (and possibly of an alleged peculiar collaborating ghost writer who will be discussed later on) is barbarous. Hackneyed clichés and other failed attempts at rhetorical flourishes occur on an average of about one per page. In addition to stuff like “the wee hours of the morning” and “to close my weary eyes,” there are plenty of little English missteps like “I collapsed like a hunk of driftwood” and “all the facets of the rainbow” (a rainbow doesn’t have any damn facets!), and literary attempts like this: “The moon was shining brightly, and its reflection was gleefully dancing beside us like a ballerina in a luminous tutu.” While reading the book I was continually reminded of the affected writing style of readers who sent in personal stories to the British version of Reader’s Digest magazine back in the 1950’s. (I have stayed at a monastery in Burma with a little pile of ancient Reader’s Digests, so I know what I’m talking about here.) But I have been spoiled by good literature, and some of the positive reviews on the website praised the writing. It takes all kinds. I’ll move on to what is much more important.
     It is true that good subject matter can compensate for bad writing. And this book Holy Hell, if it had been written differently, not just with regard to style but with regard to its manner and purpose, could have been a major book. Before bashing the content of the book, though, and pretty much necessarily dealing with the messy issue of how the author’s account discredits her own character and reliability as a source of information, I suppose I should give some details on what the book is about.
     In short, Ammachi the Hugging Saint is described as a violent, hostile, dishonest, selfish charlatan who regularly indulges in secret sex sessions with her senior swamis. Rather than just tell you what the author says, it may be better to let her tell you herself. Here, as a typical example, is an account of Amma’s reaction upon being told that Gayatri somehow allowed some cooked rice in the kitchen to start fermenting: 

     Amma entered the room, grabbed hold of the door, and slammed it shut with such thunderous might that the entire brick wall shook. Immediately she rushed over to Vidya and rammed her up against the panel of switches by the door. Then she turned and came charging at me like a raging bull. Grabbing a fist full of my hair, she flung me to the ground and spun me around over the smoothly polished linoleum floor as she kicked me a few times.
     “How many times have I told you to check on the kitchen? You lazy, good for nothing bitch, just sitting around in my room like a queen.”
     Releasing me from her grip, she turned and charged toward Vidya again. After I stood up and regained my senses, I had to laugh. Instead of standing like a helpless rag doll and meekly accepting another pounding, Vidya had a better idea. She ran for her life up the stairs with Amma hot on her heels….
     Running out of steam, Amma turned to me and said, “Piss off. Piss off, the both of you.” Then she stormed back into her room.

This was not an isolated occurrence. According to Ms. Tredwell, this sort of attack/abuse happened again and again. I will point out at this point, though, that, even if the physical details are essentially correct, and Amma really did deliver the beatings, she hardly said what the author says she said, since Amma speaks Malayalam and not English. So at the very least, Ms. Tredwell had the option of translating Amma’s language with whatever bias she saw fit to employ. For example, “Piss off” could simply be a very negative rendering of “Go away.” This may seem like picking nits, but the effects of bias are pervasive in this book. They saturate it. The author is able to put a negative spin on almost anything. It contributes significantly to the overwhelmingly negative tone of the book.
     Before moving on to the sex scandal, outrageously egregious as it is, I would like to make a few observations on the traditional Hindu relationship between guru and disciple. In India, one’s guru is considered to be infallible and divine, a manifestation of God—regardless of the guru’s personal character. He may be domineering and obnoxious, and chain smoke cigars and kick puppies besides, but all difficulties met with by the disciple at the hands of the guru are to be seen as divine grace, as tests for the refining of the disciple’s spiritual character. I’m pretty sure that Hindu women are supposed to see their husbands, and even their mothers-in-law, similarly, as manifestations of God. This may be seen as abomination by individualistic Westerners, and some spiritual teachers, notably J. Krishnamurti, have wholeheartedly denounced it as a ridiculous forfeiture of personal rights, and I myself probably wouldn’t go for it unless maybe, just maybe, I considered the guru to be infinitely wiser than me…but still, it is ancient Indian yogic tradition, and it’s not really wrong, it’s just different. It’s easy for Westerners to see it as wrong, however, since as a rule we do not differentiate our culturally derived values from gospel truth. 
     So a guru may strike or otherwise “abuse” his or her disciples, and the disciple is certainly not supposed to resent it and bitterly bitch and moan about it afterwards. Some of Indian culture seems conducive to a certain amount of abrasiveness anyhow; and one of my favorite spiritual beings of all time, Neem Karoli Baba or Maharajji, is known to have beaten people occasionally, and he roared at them and drove them away pretty frequently. A guru may simply have a rough personality, but sometimes he or she may deliberately provoke a devotee for the sake of bringing up their “stuff,” thereby allowing them to be aware of it and to work it off. Following is one of my favorite stories of a provocative guru, extracted from Miracle of Love: Stories about Neem Karoli Baba, by Ram Dass:

     A large number of Westerners were being housed in an empty house belonging to one of the Indian devotees. We filled it with our bodies from wall to wall. Each day we would make our way to Dada’s house where Maharajji was staying; there we visited with him and were lavishly fed with meals, many sweets, and much tea. But then Maharajji stopped seeing us. Each day we would go to Dada’s house and be fed; but without Maharajji’s darshan, it lost the source of the appeal. Although I loved being with him, I didn’t mind so much for myself but there were many Westerners who had just recently arrived, and a number of them had not yet even met Maharajji. Day after day they waited, following us from house to house, but I could see that soon they would tire of this game and leave. However, there was nothing I could do.
     Then one day I was called to Maharajji’s room and told, “Ram Dass, commander-in-chief, don’t bring anyone here tomorrow until six at night.” I had my orders, and when we returned to our quarters I announced that we would not go to Maharajji the next day until six. The next evening all the new people and most of the old devotees arrived, as ordered, at six. We found that some of the old devotees had ignored my instructions and arrived at four. These people had been fed; but more important, they had had a long visit with Maharajji. And when we arrived at six, though we were fed, we were not allowed to visit him.
     Late that evening I was again called in to see Maharajji. This time he seemed angry with me and said, “Ram Dass, today people came at four. Tomorrow I don’t want anyone to come until six.” Again when we returned to our quarters I made his wishes known, specifically making them clear to those who had ignored me. 
     The next day it was worse. Not only did the original miscreants go at four, but now the mutiny was spreading, and other old devotees joined them. At six I arrived with the new devotees, who still assumed that my orders were to be honored, and a few of the old devotees who were sticking with me. And again we were faced with the same situation. The group that went at four got a long darshan with Maharajji and we got none. I was beginning to get angry.
     The next day no such instruction was forthcoming, and we all came early but we were kept singing in the living room while Maharajji stayed with the Indian devotees in the kitchen. After some time a message came that Maharajji would see the women, and they all rushed out of the room to have his darshan. After some time, during which we were to continue singing, a message came that half of the men were to come for darshan. Of course, all wanted to go, but the meek and the righteous and some of the newer people remained behind with me, weakly carrying on the singing while we jealously listened to the laughter and talking in the other room. 
     Then the message came that Maharajji would not see anyone else that evening. And I became furious at this arbitrariness. That some of the new devotees who were kind enough to wait should not have darshan seemed grossly unfair, and I sought out Dada and expressed my perturbation. My anger was not masked, and Dada said, “I think you’d better tell Maharajji yourself.” 
     “I will,” I said.
     Dada went into Maharajji’s room and soon I was called in. There were only the three of us. Maharajji looked at me and asked, “Kya?” [“What?”]
     I knew of course that he knew what was in my mind, and I was in no mood for games, so I said, “Maharajji, you know my heart.” But he wouldn’t be deterred from having me explain, and he just reiterated, “Kya?”
     I said, “Maharajji, you’re not being fair.” And I proceeded to tell him of these new devotees who couldn’t see him. When I finished my explanation I sat back on my haunches, waiting. I guess I felt I deserved an explanation and was waiting for one. After all, Maharajji wasn’t living up to the rules in my guru guidebook.
     He looked at me quizzically, looked at Dada as if he didn’t understand, then he reached forward and gave a yank at my beard and said, “Ah, Ram Dass is angry.” That was all. And then he looked directly into my eyes and we held the gaze. 
     During those moments I saw clearly my predicament. Maharajji had not acted “rationally”  or at any rate “fairly,” and he wasn’t apologizing for it, either. I had a choice. I could get up and walk out of the room and leave him, in which case I would be left with my righteousness—but no guru. Or I could surrender to his irrationality and unfairness, knowing that he knew and I didn’t. I bowed down, touched my head to his feet, and surrendered again.
Such tests may be extraordinarily difficult for an unenlightened egoist to accept. To surrender to the divinity in another being does not come easily for most. I seriously doubt that Ms. Tredwell would have passed Maharajji’s test, or at any rate would not have passed it as gracefully as Ram Dass did. I suppose most people wouldn’t.
     So in order to be the disciple of an Indian guru, especially an occasionally fierce one, it is necessary to leave behind one’s personal preferences and prejudices, for example for personal self-esteem; and rather early on while reading Holy Hell it became obvious to me that the author could not or would not let go of her Western opinions about how things ought to be. She was, judging from her own account, a poor excuse for a disciple. She continually disobeyed Amma’s instructions, considering her own judgement to be better, and then would seethe with resentment and rage if she were called to account for it, putting all the blame squarely on the teacher, and none upon herself. Which brings up another Western prejudice that she would not or could not relinquish, what may be called “the Western disease”: the refusal to accept responsibility for one’s own unhappiness, and the blaming of others for it. This acceptance of responsibility is a fundamental teaching of just about any deep spiritual tradition, yet Swamini Amritaprana never “got it.” But more about that later. It’s time to talk about sex.
     Ms. Tredwell claims that Ammachi regularly had sexual intercourse with a number of her male swamis, especially one Tredwell calls Balu, better known as Swamiji, Amma’s senior swami. Most of her evidence to that effect, assuming that she is not flat-out lying, is circumstantial: some swami or other coming to her room at night, with the lights turned out while he was in there, a towel in her room smeared with what was apparently semen immediately after one of Balu’s visits, similar towels washed and hung to dry in Amma’s bathroom, etc. Also she claims that during international tours she was required to stay in a closet while Amma entertained Balu, causing people outside the room to believe that Tredwell/Gayatri was acting as chaperone, when she wasn’t. Only once does she claim that she actually saw Amma having sex. But once is enough, I guess.
     She also claims that Balu/Swamiji had sex with her, or rather raped her, Gayatri, on numerous occasions. She actually blames Amma for the first of these occasions: 

     My resolve weakened, and I agreed to meet him early the following morning in his room. I could have run to Amma and shared the recent events, which may have shielded me from him—but I chose not to. I was already so wounded and worn out from her harsh ways that I felt touched and weakened by someone showing he cared for me.

With regard to subsequent occasions she admits to going to Balu’s room on her own volition in order to be “raped,” and of being quietly “raped” on the floor near Amma’s bed while Amma slept. She also admits that she never feared being physically harmed by Swami Balu if she didn’t comply with his base, uncontrolled animal lusts. I am reminded of the ancient Jewish law that if a woman is raped in a populated area and does not cry out for help, she is just as guilty as the rapist. But Gayatri continued to allow herself to be “raped” for the sake of convenience, in order to avoid getting into trouble. That is, assuming that she’s not lying.  
     As I’ve already mentioned, I have never been a devotee of Amma, and I really have no axe to grind with regard to her personally, either one way or the other. Also, I am a relatively openminded person, I suppose. So at present I am willing to accept the possibility that Ms. Tredwell is telling the truth about Amma’s berserk violence and secret sexcapades, though luridly coloring the truth with hostile bias, and am also willing to accept the possibility that she, Tredwell, is lying, and that Amma really is a saint. I honestly don’t know what Amma is like behind closed doors; and simply taking another person’s or group of persons’ word for it is uncertain. But although I’m relatively unbiased on that account, I am still biased to some degree. Everyone is biased to some degree. And one way in which I am biased is to the extent that I would prefer that there be genuine saints in this world. (I suppose it's a good thing that the most moral people I've ever known have been Theravada Buddhist monks.) I’m biased in favor of the existence of saints, of geniuses of virtue. I tried to be one for many years, and it didn’t work out so well in my case, but I’d still like to believe that someone succeeds. So I am sorry that these accusations have been leveled against Amma, one of the few really famous saints alive today in this world—or, rather, one of the few famous people considered to be a saint. I also have somewhat of a bias against, or antipathy for, foul-tempered women, one of whom the author of the book in question appears to be. (There is one obscure, ironical facet of my mental rainbow that is tickled by reading Tredwell’s book, however: “The Priestess,” formerly my clandestine sweetheart for more than a year, was and still is a devotee of Amma, and she has accused me of harshness many times (although freely admitting recently that she was much harsher than I was in our erstwhile relationship), used to accuse me of dishonesty and lack of “integrity” because of my robes and our romance, and on at least one occasion accused me of exploiting a “power differential” between us—and now her guru Amma is publicly accused of being a hundred times worse than me on all counts! For example, I never once grabbed the Priestess by the hair and flung her to the ground. I’ve chuckled over this more than once. I laughed just now in fact. I just laughed again.)
     If I try to stay within the realm of likelihood and plausibility, as far as I see it, then a worst case scenario with regard to Amma would be something like this: She led a very unhappy and dissatisfied life as a poor Indian village girl which, presumably facilitated by some genuine spirituality in her temperament, caused her to be deeply religious in her youth. This same unhappiness then, according to the hypothesis, also facilitated some psychological hysteria; and the two combined, hysteria and religion, produced dissociated states in which she took on the “moods” of Krishna and Kāli. When in a dissociated state one may have qualities, including wisdom, that one lacks in a more normal state, and the simple villagers, and later more sophisticated Hindus of a devotional temperament, were very impressed by her presence, especially when in her “moods.” Her generosity and cheerful openheartedness could be explained by the fact that many third world village women are generous and openhearted, unnaturally so by Western standards, and enough of it came naturally to her for her to appear saintly, at least in public. So a myth was gradually generated that she was a saint, did not menstruate, etc., and for various reasons she went along with it. She does the best she can in her persona, with the help of close disciples (like Gayatri was), and with lots of grooming, much like some Tibetan child tulku who is discovered and committed into the hands of spiritual guides. As far as I can imagine, that would be a worst case scenario that is still within the scope of plausibility.
     On the other hand, a best case scenario for Amma would be that she really is what is claimed, a saint and enlightened manifestation of Divinity on earth, and that Gail Tredwell, out of infantile, vindictive, and/or sinister motives is lying her backside off—in which case Ms. Tredwell, almost needless to say, has very seriously messed up, seemingly joining the same club as Devadatta and Judas Iscariot.
     But even if most of the egregious accusations are true, and Amma really does slap, kick, and pull hair (mercifully, she wasn’t accused of stabbing or poisoning anyone, or of biting or eye-gauging), as well as screw her male disciples, still, this does not necessarily entail a total loss of credibility. I’ve already mentioned that Maharajji, who is a spiritual Superman as far as I’m concerned, occasionally pounded somebody, and he was very playful with his female devotees, allegedly sometimes fondling them in a quasi-sexual way, and he has been accused of even having a secret wife and children. Also, Paul Lowe, another one of my heroes, could hardly ever be embroiled in a sex scandal, as he has worn his sexuality on his sleeve, and makes no secret of it—while at the same time, it seems to me, enjoying a much higher level of consciousness than the average worldling, to say the least. For that matter, the mythic Lord Krishna, of whom Amma may somehow be an embodiment, was himself quite the divine rascal, on one famous occasion allegedly multiplying himself into 500 Krishnas so he could fornicate with 500 young women simultaneously—and furthermore, he used his divine wisdom to know exactly how each girl liked it best, and really rang the bells of all 500. So even if Amma really does go on berserk rampages at the drop of a hat (etc.), she wouldn’t be a saint exactly, but could still have a kind of transcendent wisdom to which Gail Tredwell, in her limitations, was and is clueless. 
     But I find it very difficult, pretty much impossible actually, to believe that Ammachi is as overwhelmingly bad as her former attendant would have us believe. In her book she hardly mentions at all the goodness of Amma which attracts thousands of people to her. She scarcely mentions the many humanitarian programs conducted under her direction, such as orphanages, schools, hospitals, and housing for the extremely poor of India’s urban slums. I was informed just recently that one of Amma’s organizations has already built 45,000 houses for people who were previously living in squalor. Nor does Ms. Tredwell spend more than a few words describing Amma’s trademark of hugging thousands of people, regardless of how afflicted or repulsive they may be, often hugging nonstop for 16 hours or more without breaks for rest or even a drink of water. What we see in Holy Hell is essentially a bad, foolish person, with very little praise for her at all, other than some admiration for Amma’s spontaneous girlishness on occasion. Even if Amma behaves in an obviously compassionate, gentle, kind manner Tredwell can twist it around into something vile.  
     For example, she mentions a time when she was near to an emotional meltdown (evidently not an uncommon occurrence), not long before she finally left the ashram, and…

     …as I was standing by my kitchen window, a few women huddled outside on the spiral staircase began waving at me. That was it—I snapped and fell to the floor. I began wailing and lamenting that not only did I have no freedom to move around in the ashram, but I didn’t even have privacy in my so-called room. There was nowhere to escape. In my state of overwhelm, I made a beeline for Amma’s room. Without restraint I told her everything that was on my mind. 
     “I hate this place. I feel like a caged animal. I can’t even look out my window. I can’t move freely anywhere without getting mobbed. There is nowhere peaceful in this damn place anymore, and I hate the crowds.”

She then continued to tell Amma how she hated the hypocrisy, unfairness, and inequality that she perceived there, as well as Amma’s continual persecutions of her. To this Amma responded, with some apparent (and at this point surprising) compassion, “Oh, my darling daughter Gayatri, I may not always show it but I have so much love in my heart for you.” To this Gayatri’s retaliatory outburst began with the command “Stick it.” Amma then asked, “What do you want? What can I do to make your life easier?” To this Gayatri requested, for starters, a private bedroom, not one that was shared or used for a dual purpose like storage or kitchen work. Whereupon Amma gently informed her that she would order a new room to be provided for her. Then she embraced and kissed her. Here is how the author interprets this seeming kindness:

     …it completely slipped my radar that she had dodged my very legitimate concerns about ethics and fairness in the ashram. Instead she cleverly maneuvered the conversation off topic by professing her deep love and by bribing me with a room to make me more personally comfortable—and quiet perhaps?  

Amma can do no right. She is bad, bad, bad. I cannot avoid getting a strong impression that Holy Hell is a ruthless and somewhat clumsy attempt at character assassination motivated by resentment, hatred, rage, spite, vindictiveness, paranoia, immaturity, self-pity, a desire to milk as much sympathy as possible out of her readers, and just plain foolishness, regardless of how true or untrue the physical details of the story may be. Using a little Pali Buddhist jargon, the book is quite obviously, to me anyway, a rather extreme case of pisuṇāvāca, the form of wrong speech which includes spiteful character assassinations, truthful or otherwise. I try to be an openminded person, but I have to admit that this book really disgusted me. By midway through the book it had stopped being mainly an issue of Amma’s character, and became for me more an issue of Gayatri’s.
     On the website the reviews of Holy Hell are relatively polarized, tending toward five stars (by the anti-Amma cynics and detractors) and the minimum of one star (by the pro-Amma devotees and supporters); and one of the negative one-star reviews which was voted most useful, and which I felt contained some sensitivity and good sense, said, among other things, this: “…missing from the book seemed to be any compelling reason why any spiritual person would spend one day in the company of this irrational, demanding, violent, mean-spirited, hypocritical guru.” Before ever reading the review essentially the same thought had occurred to me. If Amma is no better than Ms. Tredwell says she is, then why would anyone, including Tredwell herself, want to live with her and be her disciple? It would seem that the only plausible reason would be something along the lines of foolish, ignorant stupidity. So it is not to the credit of Gayatri, or the soundness of her judgement, that she would have stayed on as Amma’s “punching bag” for twenty days, let alone twenty years. After reading the book I feel that one of the most serious condemnations of Amma that really sticks, that isn’t just an unsubstantiated accusation, is that Ma Gayatri, a.k.a. Swamini Amritaprana, was one of her closest disciples for twenty years and still has no more mental development than this.
     I had been intending to make this much longer, probably a two-parter, but I’ve been having second thoughts. The second part would have started with a consideration of the ethics of the argumentum ad hominem, the procedure of undermining the credibility of a person’s claims by pointing out defects in that person’s character. It is usually considered to be logically invalid, but not always: obviously, a person’s statements will carry less weight if you can demonstrate that they are dishonest and/or mentally unstable. And Gail Tredwell’s book clearly demonstrates, by her own testimony, that she is both. (For example, she freely admits to telling lies on many occasions, generally for the sake of convenience and staying out of trouble.) But even a habitual liar or psychological mess can tell the truth sometimes. So I suppose there would be little point in indulging in more of a character assassination of Ms. Tredwell than I have already written, despite the fact that it would feel good to get it off my chest, sort of. For those interested in this issue of whether it is worthwhile to bash Gail Tredwell as a person, for the sake of determining the truth about Amma, one of the more interesting articles I have come across concerning the “Amma scandal” (or “Ammagate”) can be found here, on that very subject. It is written by an attorney, and seems to be relatively objective and rational, and not blatantly faith-oriented.  
     Another topic I would have discussed is the seeming lip-smacking relish that some cynical types feel at the public disgrace of saints or other “holy people.” The guy who sent me the book, for example, said that the five-star reviews on “validated” Tredwell, especially since he dismissed the one-star reviewers as being “high on devotion,” and thereby too biased to be reliable. All I will say to that is that the cynics are just as biased, and in a less healthy direction. They don’t like spirituality, for whatever reasons, so they’re biased in favor of the whole thing, or most of it anyway, being bullshit. Or so it seems to me, especially lately.
     For a little speech delivered by Ma Gayatri approximately one year before her final break with the ashram, which tells pretty much the opposite side of the story as the book, click this.
     The spirit has come upon me, and I am inspired to utter a prophesy: I do hereby prophesy that eventually Ms. Tredwell will publicly retract her accusations with tears of remorse—definitely in tears—claiming that the accusations were not true. This may have no bearing on their actual truth or falsehood, however. But I betcha it’ll happen sooner or later.
     Before stopping and looking around for a better book to read (I’m inclining toward Karen Armstrong’s A History of God), there is one last morsel of information that is so gob-smackingly delectable that I can’t bear to leave it out. I found this on the website:

     It turns out that Gail Tredwell’s book Holy Hell was edited in part by Jessi Hoffman, a professional ghostwriter and editor, aka Bronte Baxter. As Bronte Baxter, Hoffman has been one of the leading promoters of Gail’s book and Gail’s agenda. But let’s take a look at Hoffman’s agenda.  According to her own Splinter in the Mind blog, Hoffman believes that all the gods and goddesses of Hinduism and other religions are actually alien beings, and that Amma is a very powerful demonic entity working with these alien beings and with the United Nations to devour human souls and to take over the world. These bizarre beliefs appear to be what motivates Hoffman’s obsession with trying to destroy Amma’s reputation (she’s also obsessed with fighting the United Nations and avoiding getting a microchip implant.)      
I’ve read in other sources the further allegations that Hoffman, being a professional ghostwriter, did not just co-edit Tredwell’s book but helped to write the thing. She allegedly believes not only Amma, but all great spiritual leaders, including Ramana Maharshi, Jesus, and the Buddha to be literal demons. Also, the alien beings with whom the demonic Amma is in league are reptilian in form. (I smack my gob and laugh.) The whole thing seems so Monty Pythonesque that it would seem to be a very clumsy propaganda attempt to make Tredwell look like an absolute loon, but who knows. I suppose it could be checked and substantiated by someone more motivated than me.
     In conclusion, I recommend Holy Hell, a 326-page-long raging bitchfest, as worth reading only by serious devotees of Amma who are not easily traumatized emotionally and can take a bit of a beating to their sense of all that is holy, as a kind of spiritual ascetic practice. It is good to expose ourselves to unpleasant stimuli that trigger us, thereby bringing up our “stuff”; and being triggered by reading a book is a relatively safe way of going about it. Feel free to fling the book across the room sometimes to vent steam, or draw a beard and mustache on Gail Tredwell’s picture on the back cover.  
     Also I would like to suggest that, in a case like this, or in any controversy (like: was Osho enlightened? Was controlled demolition employed in the 9/11 WTC disaster? Is Pah Auk jhāna the same as hypnosis?), that it is good to patiently examine all sides of the controversy, and to be openminded. It is only then that we may be plunged into the morass of confused uncertainty, which is probably the wisest position to adopt—“Only Don’t Know.”
     It may not even matter if Gail Tredwell’s Amma is a crook. It may be that each of us creates our own Amma anyway.