Saturday, October 31, 2015

Epic Dhamma Battle: Myanmar vs. the USA

     I would like to caution the reader, before getting any farther with this than the absolute beginning, that this post might possibly offend most of the people who read it. That is not my intention, and it may not happen at all, or not much anyway, but still, some people will probably be offended. The reason for this is that I intend to compare the strengths and weaknesses of Eastern vs. Western Theravada, with the two examples I know best—Burmese and American—serving as representatives; and since there is quite a lot of weakness in both camps, if you belong to either of them this article will to some extent be a matter of badmouthing your religion. But again, my purpose is not to be gratuitously insulting. I consider it to be at least as important to understand the limitations of a system as to know its strengths, so the following information may actually be useful, and beneficial, to those who want to know the truth. Anyway, you have received fair warning.
     There is an old tradition in Zen Buddhism called mondō, which might literally be translated “question and answer,” but which in English is often rendered as “Dharma battle.” It is essentially a kind of verbal duel or sparring match between two Zen masters as a way of testing each other’s attainment, and to help ensure that both parties will be wide awake, alert, and ready for anything. In a way it is like the mythic duels between wizards for the purpose of testing each other’s worthiness. They are primarily carried out verbally, as the literal “question and answer” would suggest, but sometimes the questions and answers are non-verbal, for example by silently stacking one stone on top of another or simply raising a finger, and sometimes physical blows are exchanged. One of my favorite examples of a simple, straightforward mondō is case 75 of the Blue Cliff Record, called “Ukyū’s Unfair Blows”:
A monk came from Jōshū Oshō’s assembly to Ukyū, who said to him, “What do you find in Jōshū’s teaching? Is there anything different from what you find here?” The monk said, “Nothing different.” Ukyū said, “If there is nothing different, why don’t you go back there?” and he hit him with his stick. The monk said, “If your stick had eyes to see, you would not strike me like that.” Ukyū said, “Today I have come across a real monk,” and he gave him three more blows. The monk went out. Ukyū called after him and said, “One may receive unfair blows.” The monk turned back and said, “To my regret, the stick is in your hand.” Ukyū said, “If you need it, I will let you have it.” The monk went up to Ukyū, seized his stick, and gave him three blows with it. Ukyū said, “Unfair blows! Unfair blows!” The monk said, “One may receive them.” Ukyū said, “I hit this one too casually.” The monk made bows. Ukyū said, “Oshō! Is that how you take leave?” The monk laughed aloud and went out. Ukyū said, “You could do it like this! You could do it like this!” 
While I’m at it I may as well include the commentarial verse of Setchō, compiler of the Blue Cliff Record: 

     Easy to call the snakes, hard to scatter them.
     How splendidly they crossed swords! Although the sea is deep, it can be drained;
     The kalpa stone is hard, but wears away.
     Old Ukyū! Old Ukyū!
     Who is there like you?
     To give the stick to another—
     That was truly thoughtless!  
          (—text and verse from Two Zen Classics, by Katsuki Sekida, with the translation of the case very slightly modified)

I consider it bad form to try to explain a koan, but I will observe that when Ukyū calls the monk Oshō, or “master,” he is treating him as an equal, if not as a superior. And when a Zen poet calls a master “thoughtless,” he is giving genuine praise.
     Anyway, the kind of “Dharma battle” which follows is not of this kind. It is derived less from medieval Chinese Zen than from modern American television. Back around 2001 I came back to America from Burma for a brief visit with my family; and at first I would occasionally stay up late at night with jet lag and watch some TV. At my father’s house they had some kind of deluxe cable setup with access to around 300 channels, yet much of the time I could surf through all the channels and fail to find anything I considered to be worth watching. So I wound up watching a lot of documentaries on the Military Channel, for lack of anything more interesting or challenging. There was one show in particular that was intriguing: Two pieces of military hardware used on opposite sides of a war would be analyzed by experts to determine which was the better weapon. One episode compared a British biplane (I don’t remember which one) and the German Fokker triwing of WWI (they were approximately evenly matched until more powerful engines were developed which caused the air resistance of the Fokker’s extra set of wings to become a liability). One compared the American Sherman tank and the German tiger tank of WWII (the tiger tank won hands down, with everyone unanimously agreeing that if they were on a battlefield they’d much rather be in a tiger tank). Another one compared the American M16 rifle with the Russian AK47 (the M16 was more accurate and lighter, but the AK47 was considered slightly superior because it was less likely to jam, packed more of a wallop, and, because of the heavy wooden stock, was more effective in hand-to-hand combat). I recently discovered that this kind of show is still in fashion: There’s some kind of pseudoscientific hype program in which scientists, or maybe just guys playing at being scientists, compare great generals of the past to determine who would win if they got into a fight with each other. I watched a few minutes of Hannibal vs. Genghis Khan on YouTube, but turned it off when the goofy fellows were using a live elephant and a technologically advanced crash dummy to determine the squish factor of Hannibal’s elephants when they would step on people. Also, I derived the title of this here post mainly from Epic Rap Battles, like this one, between Eastern and Western philosophers. And so, basically, the purpose here is to determine which version of Theravada—Burmese or American—is the more viable system, and comes closer to “true Dhamma.” Which is the more effective system? That is the question.  
     Before proceeding with the “battle,” I will point out something that runs the risk of being a spoiler from the very get-go, rendering the conclusion fairly obvious. Much as the decisive factor for judging a piece of military hardware is its conduciveness to victory in war, even so, the decisive factor for judging a form of Buddhism, especially Theravada Buddhism, is not worldly practicality or objective Right View, but conduciveness to enlightenment. The word saddhamma, or “true Dhamma,” could theoretically be defined as any system correctly representing established Theravada Buddhist orthodoxy; but I’m much more interested in universal, generic Dharma with an “r,” so that saddharma or “true Dharma” is not necessarily represented by a book like the Visuddhimagga, or even a canonical Pali text, but may be defined as any system conducive to enlightenment, ideally in this very life. Considering that we are discussing two forms of Theravada, however, conformity with Pali texts is a viable consideration, and will not be totally ignored. But it really should be remembered, constantly borne in mind even, that the primary purpose of the teachings of Gotama Buddha was freedom from all dukkha and suffering, and from all delusion, and liberation from Samsara. A form of Buddhism which dismisses enlightenment as its primary purpose is analogous to a form of Christianity which dismisses God and redemption. It may be very useful in certain worldly respects, but if it is not conducive to enlightenment (or “salvation”), then it could hardly be called “true Dharma” or saddhamma, with or without the “r.” So the battle boils down to this question: Which form of Theravada—Burmese or American—is more conducive to enlightenment? 
     Also before proceeding I will mention an event that occurred not long ago, within the past few years, as it has a moral which may be useful to bear in mind. One of the most famous and influential Vipassana teachers in America went to Burma and was introduced to a Burmese lady, the likes of whom are very rare in America but not so uncommon in Burma—she keeps eight precepts, always wears the brown clothing of a yogi, studies the Pali texts in depth, and takes Theravada Buddhism very, very seriously. Anyway, the famous Western teacher gifted her with a number of copies of the famous books he had written and then proceeded to explain to her what was wrong with Burmese Buddhism and how it ought to be changed. The Burmese lady was so indignant at his superior American attitude that as soon as he left she had all of his books thrown out of her house. I’ve never met the famous Vipassana teacher but I have met the Burmese lady, and I know that a granite-like faith such as hers is a force to be reckoned with. Anyway, the moral of this little tale is this: A firm conviction that you are right counts for nothing, since everyone is the same way, including those who believe the exact opposite as you. Everyone considers their own way to be right, or at least more right than other people’s way; and these two “rights” don’t make a wrong, but simply cancel each other out. They add up to zero and can be left out of account. The Burmese can see the faults of Western Buddhism no less clearly than Americans can see the faults of the Burmese version, and both sides are largely blind to the most important shortcomings of their own systems. So again, if you are a Westerner and can see plainly enough that Western Buddhism is an improvement on the Asian traditions, it counts for pretty much zero, because those Asians can see that Western Buddhism is not an improvement, and they can see it just as clearly. So it’s good to have an objective perspective of the Big Picture, as I will try to have in what follows.
     When comparing Burmese Buddhism and American Buddhism it will be useful to distinguish between two very different (yet related) bodies existing within each system—the monastics and the laity. So, I will begin with the Burmese, and with Burmese monks.
     It has occurred to me that, rather like the precision of an M16 being an asset, but also a liability in that it causes the rifle to be more easily jammed by sand and dirt, the strengths of the various types of Theravada tend to have a “dark side” which turns a strength into a weakness. Consequently I won’t discuss strengths first and then weaknesses, as was originally the plan, since many of the strengths are bound to their own weaknesses, like the two sides of a coin. One such plus/minus of the Burmese monastic Sangha is its emphasis on scholarship. Many monks and nuns in Burma are phenomenal scholars, with few in the West, or even in Thailand, who could compare with their knowledge of the Pali texts and the commentarial tradition. This emphasis on book-learning, combined with a profound faith in Theravada Buddhism which will be discussed a little later, produces a kind of rigid, narrow dogmatism which can be an insurmountable hindrance, a box that cannot be escaped. Critical thinking and attempts to think “outside the box” are relatively very rare in Burmese monasteries, with the exception of some “progressive” places which for the most part are extraordinarily lax in practice, partly as a result of loss of the fundamentalist spirit. Which leads to one of the most conspicuous weaknesses of Burmese monastic Theravada, namely lax practice. 
     Based on what I have seen during almost 25 years of associating with the Burmese monastic Sangha, I would estimate that the proportion of Burmese monks who make a conscientious, serious effort to follow the rules of monastic discipline is less than 5%, maybe as little as 2%. For example, only around 2% of Burmese monks do not handle money—even though it is strictly prohibited by the Vinaya, and the fundamentalist Burmese cannot deny that the Buddha himself forbade it. (With regard to monastic discipline things are a bit better in Thailand, but possibly even worse in Sri Lanka.) 
     There are numerous reasons for this laxness of practice. First is that, like most people in general, most Burmese monks simply are not “ripe” for living an intensely spiritual life, and many of them are ordained as monks more for the sake of taking life easy, or getting a free education, or whatever, than for striving for enlightenment. Also they tend to be very gregarious, and follow along with the majority in order to fit in. An abnormally strict monk in Burma may actually be in danger at some monasteries, since such a monk may be bitterly resented by those who very much do not want to be reminded of their own astronomical distance from the ideal. As is the case in many Asian cultures, and to a lesser degree in pretty much all cultures, not to follow the majority is a source of awkwardness, discomfort, and embarrassment, and it is easier just to follow along and fit in. And to follow the majority is practically by definition to follow mediocrity. 
     Another shortcoming, for similar reasons, is the weakness and lack of asceticism in most Burmese Buddhism. The monks of ancient India were homeless wanderers with no money, wearing only three robes (plus maybe a felt blanket) even in the coldest weather, sleeping outdoors under trees, and often not knowing where they would sleep or what they would eat until they found themselves in the situation in question. In other words, they had to be tough. This kind of ascetic spirit is almost dead in Myanmar, with monks taking things as easy as possible, often wearing (illegal) stocking caps and socks even in tropical environments much warmer than northern India.
     As I have already mentioned, the Burmese are gregarious, and most of them genuinely like people. They have metta, and a relatively deep appreciation for their fellows. So although most of them are poor excuses for Buddhist mendicants, the overwhelming majority, though certainly not all of them, are good people regardless of their lack of skillfulness at Dhamma practice. A good monk and a good person are not necessarily the same person. An incompetent doctor or musician may still be a very good and likable person, and monks go the same way. Besides, Burmese monks know their chanting and ceremonies even if they don’t practice much actual Dhamma. They serve the laypeople as a kind of secular clergy.
     So a summary of the Burmese Sangha would be something like: Strong scholarship, rigid fundamentalism with regard to theory, and very little actual practice beyond chanting, worshiping statues, and occasionally thumbing a rosary. Many monks do actually meditate seriously, though, although they are almost certainly in the minority.
     Burmese laypeople, being Burmese, have some of the same qualities, plus and minus, as Burmese monks. The rigid fundamentalism with regard to view is similar. Oddly, I assume in part due to national pride, many of them look at non-Burmese monks with a skeptical eye, as though only a Burmese monk could have Right View—with Right View naturally being considered more important than right practice. Many Burmese villagers believe that even the Thais follow Mahayana Buddhism instead of “real” Dhamma. (Consequently I was amused recently when I heard a Sri Lankan lady saying she thought the Burmese were Mahayanists.) The plus side of this fundamentalist rigidity is the profound faith which supports it: Burmese laypeople, especially those from traditional village culture, have no doubt whatsoever that Theravada is gospel truth. Dhamma comes first, with other theoretical systems, including scientific materialism, coming second at best.
     And it is largely this same deep faith which inspires the Burmese lay communities to support the Sangha of monks with such extravagant generosity and reverence. Many of them are literally afraid of having a low opinion of a monk, considering that to be a possible road to hell, with the most outrageously sloppy monks being overlooked with a kind of hysterical religious blindness. (Just a few days ago I happened to be in the same room with a very sloppy Burmese monk who was talking on his cell phone with some credit card representative who was warning him about overcharging his credit card. Two or three Burmese laypeople who were present looked glassy-eyed and uncomfortable as they tried hard to ignore what was going on.) And I suppose the knowledge that Burmese laypeople will support and revere them no matter how they behave is another reason why so many Burmese monks are so extraordinarily lax. 
     Scholarship is relatively common and well developed among the laypeople also. One negative aspect of this, in my opinion, is a kind of mania for Abhidhamma philosophy. Many Burmese, ordained and lay, consider Abhidhamma to be by far the deepest and most important part of the teachings of Gotama Buddha, despite the fact that most non-Burmese scholars are skeptical as to whether the Buddha ever taught it. 
     One Asian thing rather than a specifically Burmese or Buddhist one is that the Burmese are, by Western standards, extraordinarily non-alienated, and can be extremely hospitable even to total strangers. Some of their generosity, it is true, is a result of “spiritual materialism” in which they consider righteous behavior to be karmic money in the bank. This aspect can stray over to the minus side when devout Burmese Buddhists would much rather feed an obese monk who already has too much food in front of him than to feed a hungry child—they think they will receive more merit for feeding the monk. The Burmese invest virtue as though it were money. But much of it is genuine open-heartedness to a degree very rare in Western culture.
     With regard to Americans now, I start with American monastics. I have to be careful with this since I am one of them.
     One obvious difference from the Burmese monks, not just with Americans or even Westerners but with anyone not born into a Buddhist society, is that the practice of monastic discipline tends to be, on average, much stricter, with usually more emphasis on meditation and the goal of enlightenment in this very life. It may be that more than half of Western monks are really trying to follow the rules of monastic discipline; certainly more than 20% are, which is an order of magnitude beyond the Burmese Sangha in that regard. This is largely because we have renounced our society much more radically than have the Burmese monks: They remain within their own Buddhist culture and are highly respected and generously supported, with even their own parents calling them Venerable Lord, whereas Westerners have to have sufficient determination, inspiration, and samvega to go against the wishes of their own family and friends, and to make an almost total break with their former way of life. Also, they tend not to renounce the world for the sake of taking it easy or of upward social mobility, and thus are less likely to follow along with lax modern Asian traditions. Enlightenment tends to be a much bigger part of the picture for Western monks than for Eastern ones. This is not always the case, though, as the apex of the Sangha, the wisest and saintliest of the saints, tend to be Asian.
     With regard to faith/fundamentalism/narrow-mindedness on the one hand and skepticism/lukewarmness/open-mindedness on the other, Western monks (or rather monks not born into a Buddhist culture) are all over the map, ranging from Asian style narrow-minded Tipitaka-thumping fundamentalist types to lukewarm eclectics who are more inclined to read the Upanishads or a cognitive science text or Time magazine than a Pali sutta. Some of this eclecticism, combined with a less narrow view in general and generally weaker faith in theory, results in what to a Burmese Buddhist could appear as ignorance of Dhamma and Wrong View. But with regard to this, greater variety in outlook may be seen as either a plus or a minus, depending upon how one looks at it.
     (And before moving on, I would observe that my own position in the strict/lax Western divide is irrelevant. Whether I am seen as a strict monk or a lax one, or maybe a loose cannon that can go either way, the figures come out essentially the same. On the other hand, regardless of my practice, my theory is clearly not orthodox Theravada. By traditional Burmese standards I am a heretic with pernicious Wrong View. I don’t even like Abhidhamma.)
     Finally we come to American laypeople. I like to start out with something positive, although with this group it is not as easy as with the other three, especially if relative broad-mindedness in one’s approach to Dhamma is seen as not necessarily positive or negative. The Western point of view is pretty obviously less rigid and narrow, but by contrast it tends to be much more shallow. I hypothesize that the volume of the mental box one is trapped in is not so much a matter of cultural conditioning as it is a matter of the size of one’s own psyche; so the shape of the box may be culturally conditioned, but of course it cannot be smaller than the mind of the individual person. So the narrowness of the Burmese view has the upside of depth to compensate, and the Western view is broad, yet so shallow as to be deeply unsatisfying for many spiritually-oriented individuals. Nevertheless, the very ideas of critical thinking, of accepting the wisdom to be found in other systems, and of getting outside the box may be seen as positive aspects of the Western approach to Dhamma/Dharma.
     Western broadness of thought and consequent eclecticism go hand in hand with weaker faith in the system. But worse than this is the fact that the overwhelming majority of Western lay Buddhists, from what I have seen, have deeper faith in worldly materialism than they have in Dhamma, with the latter simply being adopted as a secondary factor in their life, being essentially no more than a hobby. This, plus a deep faith in materialism to the extent of rejecting fundamental aspects of Dhamma like karma or even Nirvana, and a Western lack of reverence in general, greatly weakens the strength of the Western approach, if not actually shooting it in the head.
     The average American Buddhist probably meditates more than the average Burmese Buddhist, largely because meditation is the central feature of the American version while it is just one feature of many for the Burmese. Many Burmese lay Buddhists do meditate quite a lot though, which is facilitated by the great multitude of meditation centers to be found in Myanmar. Enlightenment is not necessarily a more central issue for Westerners, however, since, as was just mentioned, many of them do not even believe in its existence, with meditation being practiced more as a stress-reduction technique than a spiritual one. Spirituality is greatly downplayed, in accordance with the old dilemma of “God vs. Mammon.” One cannot serve two masters.
     The materialistic, more or less scientific approach to Theravada Buddhism is not necessarily a minus, however. So long as one can still muster the motivation for serious practice one is still doing relatively well. But in general, from a deeper point of view than Western culture can easily accommodate, the Western approach is too watered down and lukewarm to compete well with the attitude of devout Burmese villagers.
     Thus far the laypeople of the West may not be too far behind those of the East; yet there is one fatal flaw which should not be ignored. As was mentioned above, the test of true Dhamma is its conduciveness to enlightenment; and also already mentioned is the fact that the majority of Buddhists, Western and Eastern, are simply not “ripe” enough seriously to strive for it. But members of a system may promote enlightenment in two different ways: They may be some of the few who really go for it, or they may be supporters of those few. Most American laypeople are not ready or willing to go for it, and they just do not support the few who are. They appear not to see the point of it, and this for many reasons, including lukewarm Protestant Christian cultural conditioning (regardless of whether they were ever Protestant Christians), Western egalitarianism, Western belief that people should work for a living, disrespect for “beggars,” lack of respect in general, lack of belief in the Goal at all, being “too busy” and too distracted running in worldly circles to bother with it, general apathy, etc. etc. So with laypeople unwilling to try for enlightenment in anything more than a half-assed way and unwilling to support those who are trying, the system collapses. Thus true Dhamma is almost nonexistent in the American version of Theravada Buddhism; thus far it appears to be stillborn, dead on delivery, with the most serious practitioners (i.e., the renunciants) supported almost entirely by Asian communities. If Asian immigrants suddenly stopped supporting monastics in America, possibly every Theravada Buddhist monastery in the country would quickly collapse. Most American Buddhists would like to believe that renunciation of worldliness is not necessary, but by the same token they are unwilling, as a rule, to practice any more than superficially, as a hobby. The Buddha himself was a monk, and Dhamma obviously was originally a radical system of enlightenment which practically begins with renunciation and dedication of one’s life to the cessation of delusion and suffering. Laypeople were originally intended to practice as much as they were able in their worldly circumstances and to support those really dedicated to practicing the system. So I repeat, the American lack of support for the more advanced levels of the system, which arguably are the most important levels, is a fatal flaw which undermines the whole thing. It’s like a flaw in a military airplane which prevents it even from getting off the ground. An airplane that won’t fly is not much of an airplane.
     Before the official declaration of the winner of this epic Dharma battle I will try to make a brief synopsis of each side. 
     With regard to Burmese Buddhism, I think the best way of describing it in few words is to say that it is like Christianity was in Western Europe around 500 years ago—around the time of the Renaissance. In the cities modern secularism is gaining ground fast, but in the countryside people are still living in a traditional, essentially medieval world. And like 16th-century Catholicism, there are in Burma a few genuinely saintly monks and nuns walking around, usually minding their own business in some quiet retreat, with most of the “clergy” being extraordinarily corrupt. There are probably more crooks and clowns in the Burmese Sangha than saints or sages. Meanwhile, the laypeople live in a religious world and have profound, iron faith in Dhamma. They generously, reverentially, and naively support a corrupt Sangha, mostly being unwilling to face the prevailing state of corruption. But too much in this case is better than not enough: At least they keep the door open to those few who genuinely aspire to following Dhamma to its end.
     On the other hand, I think American Theravada does not yet exist as a viable system. Americans do have some advantages Dhamma-wise over their Burmese brothers and sisters, but mostly we have liabilities. For example, we were not raised into a centuries-old set of Buddhist beliefs and habits which although limited can be an invaluable foundation and starting point. Instead we were raised into a non-dharmic set of beliefs and habits which do not include respecting and supporting religious mendicants. Recently an American man suggested to me that what we have in America now is just a preliminary stage of the process, and that eventually true Dhamma will exist and be supported by American Theravada Buddhists. Maybe, but thus far that does not appear to be the direction in which American Theravada is headed. In fact at present it seems to be moving more in the direction of shallow commercialism and “McMindfulness,” Dhamma as a stress-reduction technique, a means of feeling better about oneself—not a way of waking up, but a way of sleeping more comfortably. A few elementary meditation techniques and some jargon are extracted for use in a predominantly worldly system, and the rest is thrown away, or just ignored. 
     According to legend, the great Indian emperor Asoka sent his own son, a monk named Mahinda, as a missionary to convert Sri Lanka to Buddhism. He was doing a good job of it, too, and one day the king of Sri Lanka asked him if the Buddha Sāsana had been established on the island. Mahinda replied that the seed had been planted, but the roots had not yet descended deeply into the soil of Sri Lanka. When the king asked what that would require, Mahinda’s answer was, “When a son born in Sri Lanka of Sri Lankan parents becomes a bhikkhu in Sri Lanka, studies the Vinaya in Sri Lanka, and recites it in Sri Lanka, then the roots of the Sāsana are deep set.” I don’t have the original Pali on hand, and this may not be the best translation: I seem to remember the meaning of it being that a Sri Lankan monk ordained in Sri Lanka would recite the rules of monastic discipline in Sri Lanka before a Sri Lankan Sangha, that is, he would carry out an Uposatha observance there. But at any rate, for the Buddha Sāsana to take root in America one more criterion must be met: An American Sangha of monastics, ordained in America, learning and carrying out formal acts of the Sangha in America, would have to be supported mainly by American laypeople, not Asian immigrants. Until then, true Dhamma in America is a potted tropical plant living in an artificial quasi-Asian environment, not naturally—with, I presume, a few anomalous laypeople who are really striving for enlightenment as their top priority in life.
     So the Burmese have a relatively strong laity supporting a predominantly weak Sangha, while Americans have a stronger Sangha (stronger in practice anyway) hardly supported at all by a weak American laity. So the Asian laity generously supports both Sanghas, and keeps the door open for when a genuine saint or sage comes along. American “true Dhamma” is not yet a self-sufficient system, except maybe for a few stray individuals. And so in this epic Dhamma Battle, regardless of lax monks and everything else, Burma cleans America’s clocks. They kick butt.
     I’ve expressed the opinion before that Dhamma in the West may assume a non-monastic form, or maybe just a semi-monastic one. But regardless of what form it takes, there simply must be people who make Dhamma their top priority in life, with Western secularism, materialism, alienation, lukewarmness, and being "too busy" just not cutting the mustard. And if the really dedicated ones, regardless of whether or not they are wearing brown robes, are striving full time for the transcendence of Samsara, then they will need support. I suggest that any Theravada Buddhist organization in America that does not support at least one spiritual renunciant is somewhat of a sham, especially if its members are calling themselves “sangha.” Theravada is a system first and foremost for renunciants, regardless of whether worldly Americans like that idea at all. And if you don’t like me, that’s fine. Support someone else then. Please. Ciraṁ tiṭṭhatu saddhammo. 

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Story of the Elder Protector of Vision (Commentary, Subcommentary, and Anticommentary)

     For the sake of completeness, and also for the sake of giving English-speaking people some idea of what the commentaries are like, and thus some idea of the brickwork comprising the finished edifice of Theravadin orthodoxy, I include the vibhaṅga, or word-by-word analysis, to the Dhammapada verse itself, as found in the Dhammapada commentary, immediately following the story of Cakkhupāla. Some brief comments of my own are inserted in blue text

     manopubbaṅgamā dhammā / manoseṭṭhā manomayā //
     manasā ce paduṭṭhena / bhāsati vā karoti vā //
     tato naṁ dukkhamanveti / cakkaṁva vahato padanti //

     Therein, mano refers to the type of skillfulness (kusala), and so on, of the Sphere of Sensuality, and the consciousness of all of the four levels (of the Sensual Sphere, Sphere of Form, Formless Sphere, and of the Transcendental, with the Sensual Sphere including this world and everything below the level of Brahmas, and with the Transcendental referring to the consciousness of Ariyas in their transcendence of Samsara); and here in this verse it is to be taken as the healer’s being led, being bound, being compelled, by the power of his arisen mind, possessed of unhappiness—a mind bound to irritation.
     By pubbaṅgamā  is meant being endowed with the state of going first.
     With regard to dhammā—virtue, teaching, mastery, and that which is beingless or soulless are called the four dhammas. Of these: 

     “Truly, what is Dhamma and what is not Dhamma do not both have the same result;
     What is not Dhamma leads to hell, and Dhamma leads to the attainment of paradise.”

This is called the Dhamma of virtue. (That is, “dhamma” interpreted as righteousness.
     In “Bhikkhus, I will teach you the Dhamma that is beautiful in the beginning…,” this is called the Dhamma of teaching. 
     In “And here, bhikkhus, there are some gentlemen who thoroughly learn the Dhamma in a discourse or verses for chanting…,” this is called the Dhamma of mastery.
     With regard to “In this state there are dhammas and there are aggregates…,” this is called a “beingless” dhamma, and a “soulless” dhamma is just this also. (In other words, “dhamma” in this sense refers to elemental qualities that are without self. The passage is a quote from the Abhidhamma Pitaka.) And with regard to these, in this place, the beingless, soulless dhamma is intended. The meaning of it is the three formless aggregates: the aggregate of feeling, the aggregate of perception, and the aggregate of constructs. So these, having mind coming before them, are called manopubbaṅgamā.
     So how, having the same ground with these, having the same supporting stimulus, not arising earlier or later but at the very same moment, can mind be said to go first? By the condition of its arising. Just as, for example, among many bandits working together, if one were to ask, “Who goes first among them?” one would answer that it is he who is the instigator, in dependence upon whom they do their business—“That Datta, or Mitta, (these being common names in ancient India) is the one who goes first among them.” Thus this account should be understood. So, by the condition of its arising, mind goes before them, and so they are preceded by mind. For with consciousness not arisen they also are unable to arise. But mind arises with some mental states not arising. (The point of this is apparently that although no mental state can arise without consciousness, consciousness itself can arise without this or that mental state—although, according to Abhidhamma and the commentaries, it cannot arise without any accompanying mental states.
     And by means of its dominance it is the chief of them; thus manoseṭṭhā. For just as among thieves, for example, the leader of the thieves, for example, is their chief through dominance, even so, mind is a dominator over them (that is, over the mental states), and mind is chief. 
     And just as these or those objects produced of wood, for example, are called “made of wood,” for example, in the same way, those also which are produced of mind are called manomayā, “mind-made.”
     By paduṭṭhena is meant defiled by extraneous defects such as greed. For the natural mind is the existence-factor consciousness (i.e., the bhavaṅgacittaṁ, a phenomenon peculiar to the Abhidhamma literature and not named at all in the Suttas), and that is undefiled. It is like clear water defiled by extraneous blue dye, for example, and becomes, for example, a kind of blue water; it is no longer fresh water, nor is it the original clear water. In this way also the mind becomes defiled by extraneous defilements such as greed; it is not a fresh consciousness, nor is it the original existence-factor consciousness. Thus the Blessed One said, “This mind, bhikkhus, is shining forth, but it is defiled by extraneous defilements.” (This passage is taken from the Aṅguttara Nikāya, and almost certainly has nothing to do with the hypothetical Abhidhammic bhavaṅgacittaṁ, which is a kind of unchanging subconscious background pattern to the mind and could hardly be said to be “shining forth”; but I’ve discussed this point elsewhere and needn’t belabor it here.) Thus when he says “manasā ce paduṭṭhena / bhāsati vā karoti vā,” he refers to one who speaks in accordance with the fourfold misconduct of speech (i.e., lying, malicious speech, harsh speech, and idle chatter), and one who acts in accordance with the threefold misconduct of action (i.e., killing, stealing, and sensual misconduct); and even if not speaking and not acting, in one’s mind being defiled by greed, etc., the threefold misconduct of mind (that is, greed, ill-will, and diṭṭhi or wrong view, not to be confused with the similar lobha, dosa, and moha) is fulfilled. Thus one’s course runs in the fulfillment of the ten unskillful actions.
     By tato naṁ dukkhamanveti is meant that due to this threefold misconduct (presumably of speech, body, and mind) unease follows that individual; by the unfolding actuality of that misconduct he goes into a dark existence in the four lower realms or in the realm of human beings, with the fruition of that physical/mental unease, based in his body or otherwise, following behind. 
     How is this? cakkaṁva vahato padanti—like the wheel follows the foot of the beast of burden; like the wheel at one end of the cart shaft follows the foot of the yoked ox at the other end pulling the load. So however he pulls the load, for one day, or two, or five, or ten, or half a month, or a month, he is not able to avoid the wheel or leave it behind; now by moving forwards the yoke chafes his neck from the front, and by backing up the wheel strikes the flesh of his thigh from behind. In these two ways the chafing wheel dogs his footsteps; and in this very same manner an individual, established in a defiled mind, having fulfilled the three (kinds of) misconduct, has bodily and mental unease pursuing him, in places like hell, here and there, in this and that existence, with his misconduct at the root of it.

     At the conclusion of the verse, thirty thousand bhikkhus attained Arahantship with mastery of the discriminative knowledges. And for the assembled congregation the discourse was of much benefit, and bearing much fruit. 

The story of the Elder Protector of Vision, the first. 
     Thus ends the official commentary to the first verse of the Dhammapada. Now I suppose I should add some of my own comments to the story itself, and, like the commentary itself, end up with the verse.
     The conception of Cakkhupāla is attributed to the protection of a tree spirit, or tree-dwelling deva. The reality of tree-dwelling devas is taken for granted in the Pali texts; for example, the rule of monastic discipline forbidding monks from damaging green plants reportedly came to being because a monk had inadvertently maimed a young tree spirit while chopping a tree. Their reality is still taken for granted in places like Myanmar, where large trees are often seen with an accompanying shrine to the resident spirit, and with people occasionally making offerings and prayers. They supposedly are members of the Realm of the Four Great Kings, which is the plane of existence immediately above the human level in the scheme of the 31 planes of existence, being approximate equals to the ancient Greek nymphs and satyrs.
     Throughout most of the course of the story, Gotama Buddha is staying at the monastery of Jetavana, or “the Jeta Grove,” apparently one of his favorite places. The story of how the rich businessman Anāthapiṇḍika bought it is well known: Wanting to provide the Buddha with a good place near Sāvatthi, and liking the looks of a park owned by a Prince Jeta, he approached the prince and offered to buy it. The prince, being greedy and/or not really wanting to part with the property, told Anāthapiṇḍika that he would sell it for the amount of money required to cover the entire area. The magnate, with price being no object in his generosity to the Buddha, called for cartloads of the standard unit of monetary currency in those days, the silver kahāpaṇa, and covered the entire Jetavana with 540 million of them. (The fact that kahāpaṇas were square rather than round facilitated his completely obscuring the ground with them. If we assume that one kahāpaṇa is one square inch in size, then the area covered would amount to 86 acres.) Thus the prince reluctantly parted with the park, but gladly accepted the money. 
     The city of Sāvatthi was the capital of the Kingdom of Kosala, in the Buddha’s time one of the great powers of northern India, along with Magadha (the latter of which eventually expanded to include almost all of the Indian subcontinent under the Mauryan Empire). But although it was the capital of a great nation, the claim by the commentary that it had a population of seven koṭis, or 70 million people, is exaggerated to the point of sheer impossibility. It may be that, at the time, all of India did not have a population that large. And of course, in ancient times, without modern urban planning, sanitation, transportation of food, advanced agricultural techniques, etc. etc., it is hardly likely, to say the least, that a single city could have a population exceeding that of modern New York, Los Angeles, and Tokyo combined. Add to this the claim that 50,000,000 of the population were Ariyas, or Buddhist saints who had had at least a glimpse of Nirvana, and we’re smack in the midst of Fantasy Land. I have read that, historically, Sāvatthi was known as a stronghold for the Ājīvakas, an ascetic philosophical school rivaling Buddhism and, in those days, more popular than same. But this claim of 50 million Ariyas in one city may represent not only an exaggeration of heroic proportions but a sign that, early on, the term Ariya (and especially the term sotāpanna) had a different meaning than it came to have in the developed system of Theravadin orthodoxy. Sotāpanna in particular could have meant simply that a person had entered the stream of a spiritual life and become a Buddhist, not that the person was already almost enlightened and a superhuman being, as it came to mean later. But, again, heroic tales are laden with exaggerations to add to the grandeur of the scale, to make things extraordinary and “larger than life,” and to help them be heroic. (Incidentally, I walked over the site of Sāvatthi, “City of Wonders,” when I was in India more than twenty years ago, and all that remained of it was a scrubby hill populated by goatherds, goats, and three old temples, two of them Buddhist if I remember correctly, and the other one Jain. Aside from the old temples, and a faint outline of what used to be the city walls, the only other indication that there had ever been a great metropolis there was the fact that the ground, if one looked at it closely, appeared to be composed largely of brick fragments. Sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā.)

Sāvatthi, “City of Wonders,” as it looks today (photo from Wikipedia)

     The account of the “obligation of texts” (“Having learned, in accordance with the capacity of one’s own wisdom, one or two collections (nikāye), or even the whole of the Three Baskets, and the memorization, recitation, and expounding of it…”) is also probably an anachronism, since it is unlikely that, in the Buddha’s own lifetime, his teachings were already formulated into a Tipitaka, with scholar monks memorizing it by heart. This is more probably an invention of later scholar monks, who preferred being scholars to being actual serious practitioners of the system. And the finalized, standardized system itself, it should be borne in mind, is more a product of these scholars than of the actual practitioners. The situation in Buddhist Asia remains pretty much the same to this day. The scholars speak with a much louder voice than the people seriously following the system, who often prefer to remain silent. Also, it strikes me as odd that venerable Cakkhupāla would have waited until he had been ordained for five years before asking what the obligations of monkhood are. But stories, and sometimes even scriptures, require a certain suspension of disbelief.
     The claim that the Elder and his sixty companions walked 2000 yojanas is yet another howling exaggeration, considering that a yojana is somewhere between 7 and 13 miles (depending upon which authority makes the calculations—the Burmese measurement, based upon the commentaries, is 13). The measure is supposedly the distance that a team of bullocks can pull a plow in one day. So if we are to take this seriously, the venerable Elder and his companions walked approximately as far as the circumference of the entire Earth. Burlingame, in his translation of the text, renders it “twenty leagues” instead of 2000, which would be much more likely, and may have been the original figure before some author “heroicized” the details of the story.  
     The four bodily postures discussed by the monks before the rains residence begins are reclining, sitting, standing, and walking. Elder Cakkhupāla has chosen to avoid lying down as an optional ascetic practice, or dhūtaṅga. There are still monks to this day who never lie down. My own teacher, ven. Taungpulu Kyauk Hsin Tawya Sayadaw, for instance, never lay down until he had no choice, during his final illness. 
     So the reason why ven. Cakkhupāla does not recover from his ailment by using the medicine is that, after putting the nose drops up his nose, because he remains in an upright position the medicine simply drips back out his nose, and has no effect. It would be easy to point out that he could have just tilted his head back, so that the medicine would stay up his nose…but Cakkhupāla was a hero, and heroes don’t play by our rules. If they did, they wouldn’t be heroes.
     Why does the Elder so obstinately keep his mouth shut when the healer questions him about how he took the medicine? This is another aspect of dhūtaṅga practice. The Visuddhimagga, for example, exhorts bhikkhus to keep their dhūtaṅga secret, like a thief conceals his hidden treasure. In fact according to that text he should inform only his own teacher of it, or some other respected Elder before whom he declares his intention. There is a story of two monks sharing a cabin. One of them is a practitioner of “the sitter’s practice,” and the other is not. One night there is a thunderstorm and, during a flash of lightning, the non-sitter sees the other sitting upright in the middle of the night. He asks him, “Do you do the sitter’s practice, friend?” Whereupon the other, who had not been horizontal in years, immediately lies down and says “No.” Then the very next night he starts the sitter’s practice again. So Cakkhupāla, although stubbornly silent with the healer, was a bit lax in his practice by informing all of his companions about his resolution for the rains retreat. 
     The healer’s struggles to talk some sense to the Elder represent one of the more interesting and poignant themes in the story, in my opinion. The theme in question is that of worldly common sense butting heads with saintliness. First it was the Elder’s brother trying to talk him out of his rash decision to throw his wealth and worldly life away, then it is the healer trying to get him to lie down for the sake of his health, and later on in the story it is the nephew trying to persuade the Elder that by not continuing on his way with him he is practically committing suicide. But to a saintly being like Cakkhupāla, such common sense is seen more as an obstacle and hindrance to the Goal than as anything else. It is a kind of paradox that in order to have what it takes to be a genuine saint, essentially a superhuman being, one must have at least a touch of irrational, wild-eyed fanaticism; being purely sensible is just too lukewarm to make the grade. While reading the story it struck me that the younger brother, the healer, and the nephew speak with the most modern voices in the story; modern people probably can relate to them better than to someone like Buddha, Cakkhupāla, or the faithful villagers. Cakkhupāla in this sense is reminiscent of Dostoyevsky’s Idiot, who exasperates modern readers by being so damn christlike—simply forgiving people who try to swindle or even kill him, and continuing to love them like brothers. Favoring worldly common sense has become very much the fashion in modern times, which helps to account for why genuine saints have become such an endangered species. Worldly common sense has evolved into an overwhelming juggernaut.
     When it is said that the Elder became a “dry-visioned” arahant, what it means, primarily, is that he became an enlightened being not endowed with psychic powers such as the ability to remember his own past lives. Traditionally it is Vipassana meditators who make this attainment, with cultivators of jhāna getting the psychic powers. But also, of course, it’s a kind of play on words, since a blind man is “dry-visioned.” I’m not sure about Pali, but in Burmese the word for the eyes going blind is the same as the word used to describe a well or stream going dry in the hot season. So we have some poetic imagery here. Also, I may as well point out that it would appear that the Elder became enlightened while practicing walking meditation. Walking meditation should not be neglected.
     Another significant and somewhat poignant theme of the story, for me anyway, is the faithful support, often extreme faithful support, of the lay community. Although the tale is rife with exaggerations, the laypeople begging monks to stay, doing all they can to support them, and rolling on the ground in tears when they go, is not necessarily an exaggeration. To this day there are still devout Buddhist laypeople like this living in Asian villages. On the other, more cynical hand, it does appear that the praise of very supportive laypeople like Anāthapiṇḍika, the occasional assertions that they attain great prosperity and happiness, even sainthood, as a result of their merit, and the contrary assertions for those who are lax in their support, could be seen as a kind of monkish propaganda. A predominant theme of the text Petavatthu, or “Ghost Stories,” for example, is the rather propagandist idea that you will be reborn as an afflicted spirit if you do not conscientiously and unfailingly support the Bhikkhu Sangha with all that it needs, and that you may become a deva if you do. Such teachings are also staple fair for Burmese laypeople listening to the sermons of Burmese sayadaws. But still, it’s not entirely a bad thing. Rather than excessive, zealous, unquestioning support for monks in the West, practically the opposite situation prevails there, so that if Asian immigrants suddenly stopped supporting the Bhikkhu Sangha in the West, it would probably collapse, and very quickly. From what I have seen, the generosity of American lay communities is insufficient to provide a single monk with a daily bowl of food. This, combined with the aforementioned worldly common sense that is in fashion, has contributed to make Western bhikkhus another endangered species, with the total population amounting to only a few hundred throughout the world—fewer than mountain gorillas. So, better too much generous support than not enough. If you support monks you may be reborn as a deva.
     The “concluding invitation ceremony” mentioned twice in the story is a formal act of the Sangha called pavāraṇā, held on the last day of the three-month rains residence, in which all the monks who have spent the residence together invite each other to admonish them with regard to their lapses in monastic discipline. This ceremony has degenerated into a meaningless formality in Burmese monasticism, with, as an unspoken rule, nobody answering each other’s invitation, since the proportion of Burmese monks who actually try to follow the rules of monastic discipline is somewhere around 2%, with the corresponding proportion of Burmese monks in the West, from what I have seen, being approximately 0%. Many of them do take the “obligation of texts” very seriously, though; and many Burmese monks are phenomenal scholars, with very few Western Buddhists capable of rivaling even a mediocre Burmese monastic scholar. They are very dogmatic by Western standards, and don’t exercise much critical thought, but they know the texts forwards and backwards, including even the rules of discipline that they don’t follow.
     When it is said that monks are fully enlightened with “mastery of the discriminative knowledges” (paṭisambhidā), the meaning is essentially that not only are they enlightened, but they also understand Dhamma systematically and in fine detail, so that they are able to expound it fully. This detail is a hint of the predominant intellect- and system-orientation of the commentarial literature.
     One interesting problem which the story brings up is the case of Arahants, fully enlightened beings, who are desirous of seeing the Buddha. Wouldn’t an Arahant be without desire? There are various ways of looking at the issue. It is my understanding that, according to orthodox tradition, an Arahant may still have good desires, such as a desire to pay respect to the Buddha, but no longer has unskillful or bad desires, such as a desire to hit somebody, have sex, or put sugar on one’s cereal to make it taste better. But as I see it, desire is desire, and wanting to see the Buddha is still desire, which an Arahant should have risen above. So I consider one plausible explanation to be that, an Arahant still experiences all sorts of feelings, in accordance, perhaps, with brain physiology or the momentum of past karma, but that, being perfectly mindful, the karmic power of those feelings is neutralized. They feel the desire, but they do not identify with it or allow themselves to be attached to it. Another explanation of the enlightened beings being desirous of seeing the Buddha is that this story is just a legend. The desirous Arahants might fit into the same category as the 50 million saints living in Sāvatthi.
     With regard to Him of the Ten Powers and to the eighty Great Elders, the One of Ten Powers is of course the Buddha. I’m really not into lists, so if you want to know what those ten powers are you’ll have to find it elsewhere, like here. I will say, though, that the first power, allegedly, is omniscience. The eighty Great Elders are the eighty monks who were the most eminent of the Buddha’s disciples, not including the two Chief Disciples, vens. Sāriputta and Mahā Moggallāna. Each of them was foremost in some regard or another; for example, ven. Mahā Kassapa was foremost in dhūtaṅga, or ascetic practice, following all of them at the highest level, ven. Upāli was foremost in mastery of monastic discipline, and ven. Sivalī was foremost in fortuitously receiving requisites. (Consequently, images of the fortunate Sivalī are common in Burma, and I think in Thailand also, as talismans of good luck. He is always portrayed as standing and holding a fan, alms bowl, and walking stick.) Most of the good monks mentioned in the Pali texts are members of this group, with the group itself presumably being an anachronism, developed with the growth of legend.

a "good luck charm" representing ven. Sivalī

     Speaking of Elders, I may as well point out that, technically, the venerable Elder Protector of Vision was not really an Elder, since an Elder, or Thera, is a monk who has been ordained for at least ten rains, and, by the time of the end of the story, ven. Cakkhupāla had completed only his sixth. But he was a saint, and a great hero besides, so the title is probably honorary.
     Sakka, King of Gods, owner of the levitating Paṇḍukambala Throne, is none other than Indra, star of the Rig Veda and patron deity of the early Indo-Aryan proto-Hindus. His profound change of heart and conversion to Buddhism is pretty obviously a supreme example of machiavellian religious propaganda indulged in by the early Buddhist systematizers—but we needn’t dwell on that. The point of the throne heating up is that, evidently, when someone performs an act of tapas or spiritual austerity so intense that no ordinary being could accomplish it, the throne, by some invisible connection, becomes so hot that Sakka/Indra cannot sit on it in comfort. So in such a case he is bound to help that person, if only so he can sit down again. Although in this case he is given the further incentive of not wanting his head to split apart. 
     One little point in the story which is of interest to the biologist in me is the little indagopaka bugs that the venerable Elder steps on while doing his walking meditation. The bugs are red, and come out of the ground after a heavy rain. Now, the climate, flora, and fauna of upper Burma is very similar to that of the ancient Ganges Valley, and in Burma the only creatures that fit this description are not insects but a kind of large, velvety, vermillion-colored ground mite which the Burmese call nat thami po (“goddess bug”) or nat thami khun thwei po (“goddess betel spit bug”). At the beginning of the rainy season they come out in great numbers and can be seen slowly bumbling all over the place. If this is the right creature, however, then the story is guilty of one more, minor, anachronism, since the Elder steps on them at the end of the rainy season, whereas, as a rule, they come up out of the ground only at the beginning of the monsoon. But I’m pretty sure that’s what Indra’s cowherds are supposed to be. Despite being arachnids, like spiders, they’re totally harmless and kind of cute, in a creepy sort of way. I like them, and bless them when I see them. May they be well and happy.
     On the one hand this story is a kind of fairy tale replete with gross exaggerations, blatant anachronisms, and flat-out impossibilities, from a modern, Western point of view; but then again, that is the style of ancient heroic legends, and besides, the story also is an interesting one with some subtlety as well as genuine wisdom. With regard to characterization, for example, there are some well-known personality types met with even today: the proud, pedantic doctor who considers his word to be law for his patients, the cocky, borderline-rude youth (the Elder’s nephew), the stern old fellow of few words that the nephew meets at the city gate, and at the end of the story the group of busybody monks wanting to play the tourist and stirring up trouble, this time by “tattling” on another monk to the Buddha. All in all, though, I would observe that the bulk of the story really doesn’t fit the context of the verse very well, at least not the commentarial interpretation of it, and I would guess that the story was fitted to the verse some time after the fact. The first verse of a Pali text is an important one, and the commentators needed a suitably good story to accompany it, so it may be that they chose this one regardless of whether or not it was really the inspiration for the verse. Technically, the Dhammapada is not considered by critically-minded scholars to be particularly ancient anyway, and is certainly not included in the oldest “core texts,” so most of the Dhammapada itself may not represent what the Buddha actually taught—not in his own words anyway. But it doesn’t matter. Authenticity, and even objective truth, let alone worldly common sense, are really not the point. The point is this: Does it help you to Wake Up? 
     And now back to the word-by-word exegesis of “Dh.1” that started this post. This part is the “anticommentary” I warned you about. Most of the explanatory stuff has already been inserted, in blue print, but there is one longer observation I will make here, and that is with regard to the commentarial interpretation of the word dhammā, as in “dhammā are preceded by mind.”
     The reader may have noticed that, after defining the word dhammā, or “dharmas,” in the verse as the three aggregates of mental states (in Abhidhammic jargon, cetasikā)—perceptions, feelings, and every other kind of mental state—the commentator then has to explain why the Buddha would say such a thing as “mind precedes mental states” when technically it isn’t true, considering that mind and mental states do not occur one after the other but simultaneously. The verse is interpreted to have the meaning that consciousness is more important than mental states, which seems rather odd, and which appears to have nothing to do with the story of Cakkhupāla. I accept that it is possible that this is the originally intended meaning of the verse, but being a critically-minded Westerner I have little choice but to be skeptical.
     It is true that the commentary provides other possible meanings for dhamma, i.e. virtue, practical philosophy, and mastery of Buddhist literature, but there are still more possible meanings for the term. In fact dhamma is one of the vaguest terms in the Pali language, and can mean just about anything. Literally it is related to the verb dharati, meaning to bear, to support; so dhamma literally means something along the lines of that which bears or holds up. One of its earliest, pre-Buddhistic meanings was “law,” possibly in the sense of that which holds up society, or that which must be upheld by the individual living in society. As a Buddhist philosophical term it came to mean, like Spinoza’s substance or “sub-stance,” that which stands under and holds up the apparent qualities of experiential phenomena. So dhamma can mean something as general as “phenomenon” or “thing.” Add to this that, as I have read somewhere or other, dhamma interpreted as “mental state” as opposed to consciousness itself appears to be a Buddhist innovation, and may not have originated with the Buddha himself, and it becomes more plausible that the first verse of the Dhammapada was originally saying something quite different from what the commentator would have us believe.
     If dhammā is interpreted generally as “phenomena,” or, as I have it, “ways of being,” then what we’ve got is a more radically idealist interpretation, which is also more in harmony with the origin story. Even the most traditional, orthodox Theravada Buddhism admits that karma is a mental state which conditions everything pleasant or unpleasant that we experience in life; so in this sense our own mind creates our destiny. But Abhidhamma, which according to non-Burmese authorities did not come  directly from the Buddha himself but gradually arose over the course of a few hundred years, adopted materialist ideas that were commonly accepted in ancient Indian philosophical circles; and since Abhidhammist interpretations and jargon permeate the commentarial literature, the idea that the world is an outward projection of our own inner “issues” was largely downplayed in favor of a more materialistic, more mechanistic, more classically “scientific” explanation of Samsara. Mind is still a major player of course, but it must stay in line with all of the other “ultimate realities” posited by Abhidhamma. But if dhammā in this famous verse really means worldly phenomena and not just cetasikā, then the message of the first two lines is not merely a technical quibble over the relationship between mind and mental states, but an overt assertion that we are creating our own reality; that we make our own bed, and then we lie in it.
     One moral of this story—not the story of venerable Elder Protector of Vision, but the story of commentary—is that there is some benefit to be had from reading the commentarial literature. Many of the stories are fascinating, and provide a kind of cultural atmosphere for the philosophy found in the suttas. In order to understand something, it is good to learn as much about it as possible; and stories like the ones in the Dhammapada commentary contribute to a comprehension of Buddhist culture much in the same way as the stories of Samson and Delilah or Lazarus rising from the dead themselves constitute significant bricks in the edifice of Western culture. Also, if one is reading a Pali text and comes across a strange word or incomprehensibly convoluted sentence, the commentaries may help. Sometimes their guess may be no better than yours, but sometimes they get it right. On the other hand, confusing Buddhism with Buddhaghosism can be a serious stumbling block for someone wanting to understand what the Buddha really taught. A real understanding of Dhamma doesn't come from books, not even from the Tipitaka itself.

Indra’s cowherd

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Story of the Elder Protector of Vision (part 2)

     At the end of the first part of this tale our hero, the venerable Elder Protector of Vision (Cakkhupālatthera), by the extremity of his spiritual efforts, and particularly by his refusal to sleep more than just a few hours per night, and that in a sitting position, had just become fully enlightened and completely blind simultaneously. On with the story…

     The bhikkhus, coming at the time for going for alms, said “Time to walk for alms, Venerable Sir.” 
     “It is morning, friends?”
     “Yes, Venerable Sir.” 
     “Well then, you go.”
     “And what about you, Venerable Sir?”
     “My eyes are lost, friends.” 
     Taking a look at his eyes, their own eyes became filled with tears. “Venerable Sir, don’t worry, we’ll take care of you.” Having made the Elder comfortable, and having performed the various duties required of them, they entered the village for alms food. 
     When people didn’t see the Elder they asked, “Venerable Sirs, where is our gentleman?” and having heard the news they had rice broth sent, and took alms food and went to the Elder themselves; and paying respect to him, and rolling at his feet and crying, they said “Venerable Sir, we will take care of you. Don’t worry,” and after helping him to feel comfortable they went away. From then on they regularly sent rice broth and cooked rice to the monastery. 
     And the Elder constantly exhorted the other sixty bhikkhus. And they, standing firm in his exhortations, at the approach of the concluding invitation ceremony every one of them attained Arahantship with mastery of the discriminative knowledges. And having completed the rains residence, and having become desirous of seeing the Teacher, they said to the Elder, “Venerable Sir, we desire to see the Teacher.”
     The Elder, hearing their words, thought, “I am not strong, and along the way there is a wilderness inhabited by inhuman beings. They will all be exhausted with me going with them, and they won’t be able to get alms food. I’ll send them along before me.” Then he said to them, “My friends, you go ahead.” 
     “And what about you, Venerable Sir?”
     “I am not strong, and along the way there is a wilderness inhabited by inhuman beings. You will all be exhausted by me going with you. You go ahead.” 
     “Don’t do like this Venerable Sir; we will go only with you.” 
     “My friends, please don’t favor such a course. Your being like this will make me troubled. When my younger brother meets you he will ask about me; then tell him about the loss of my eyesight. He will send someone to me with whom I can come back. With my words, please pay respect to Him of the Ten Powers and to the eighty Great Elders.” With that he sent them off. 
     After asking the Elder’s pardon, they entered the village. The people, upon seeing them, had them sit down, and after offering them alms food asked, “What, Venerable Sirs, is there some reason for the gentlemen to go away?” 
     “Yes, lay disciples. We are desirous of seeing the Teacher.” 
     After pleading with them again and again, and realizing that they still intended to go, they followed after them and, finally, lamenting, turned back. 
     Eventually they arrived at Jetavana and paid respect, with the Elder’s words, to the Teacher and to the eighty Great Elders, and on the next day they entered the lane where the Elder’s younger brother was living, for alms food. Recognizing them, the landowner had them sit down, and after attending to them hospitably asked, “Venerable Sirs, where is my dear brother the Elder?” Then they told him the news. 
     Upon hearing this, he rolled at their feet and cried, asking, “Now, Venerable Sirs, what is to be done?” 
     “The Elder is waiting for someone to come from here. When he has arrived there, he will come here with him.”
     “This, Venerable Sirs, is my sister’s son, called Protected (pālita). Send him.” 
     “To send him like this is not possible; there are dangers lurking on the road. It is better to send him after he has made formal renunciation.” 
     “Then do it thus and send him, Venerable Sirs.” Then, having ordained him as a novice, after training him for half a month with regard to handling his bowl and robes and so on, and after explaining the road to him, they sent him off. 
     Eventually arriving at that village, and seeing an old man at the village gate, he asked, “Is there some forest monastery dependent upon this village?”
     “There is, Venerable Sir.” 
     “Who lives there?”
     “He is the Elder Protected, Venerable Sir.” 
     “Show me the way.”
     “Who are you, Venerable Sir?”
     “I am the Elder’s nephew.” 
     Then, taking him in hand, he led him to the monastery. After paying respect to the Elder and performing various duties and properly tending to the Elder for the span of half a month, he said, “Venerable Sir, the landowner, my mother’s brother, is waiting for you to come back with me. Come on, let’s go.” 
     “Well then, take hold of the end of my staff.” 
     Taking hold of the end of his staff, he went into the village with the Elder. The people had the Elder sit down, and asked, “What, Venerable Sir, is there some reason for you to go away?” 
     “Yes, lay disciples, I am going to the Teacher and will pay respect to him.” Pleading with him in various ways but not getting their way, they saw the Elder off, going the first part of the way with him, and then turned back, crying. 
     The novice, going along holding the end of the Elder’s walking stick, along the way arrived at a village in the wilderness called Kaṭṭhanagara, near which the Elder had stayed before; and as they came out of the village, in the forest, a woodcutter girl was lustily singing a song. Hearing the sound of a woman singing, he was captivated by her voice. There is no other sound able to suffuse a man’s entire body and abide there like the sound of a woman. Thus the Blessed One said: 
Bhikkhus, I am not aware of any other sound that takes hold of a man’s mind and abides there as does, bhikkhus, the sound of a woman. (—from the second Sutta of the Aṅguttara Nikāya)
     The novice, captivated at that point, let go of the end of the staff and said, “Please wait, Venerable Sir. I have something to do.” Then he went near her. Upon seeing him, she became silent. Then he accomplished the downfall of his morality with her. 
     The Elder thought, “Just now I heard the sound of singing, and then the sound of that woman suddenly stopped. And the novice is taking a long time. It must be that he has fallen to breaking his precepts with her.”
     And that one, having finished his own business, returned and said, “Let’s go, Venerable Sir.”
     Now the Elder asked him, “Have you gone bad, novice?” He became silent; and questioned by the Elder again and again, he didn’t say anything. Then the Elder said to him, “Holding the end of my stick is no business for a bad one like you.” 
     Struck with dread, he took off the yellow-brown robes and, dressing himself in the manner of a householder, said “Venerable Sir, before I was a novice; now I have become a householder again. It was not from faith that I renounced worldly life—I renounced it on account of fear of the dangers of the journey. Come, let’s go.” 
     “Friend, a bad householder and a bad novice are both bad. Even when living as a novice you were unable to keep your morality intact; having become a householder what good will you do? Holding the end of my stick is no business for a bad one like you.”
     “Venerable Sir, the road is a menace of inhuman beings! And you are blind and without anyone to guide you! How will you live here?” 
     Now the Elder said to him, “Friend, don’t be worried like this. Even with this befalling me right now, whether I die or wander lost from place to place, there is no going with you.” And having said that, he spoke these verses: 

     “Oh, my eyesight is gone, and I have come to a desolate path;
     Let me lie down and go no farther; there is no companionship with a fool.

     “Oh, my eyesight is gone, and I have come to a desolate path; 
     I will die; I will not go; there is no companionship with a fool.”

     Having heard him, the other, with dread arisen within him, exclaimed, “Oh, a grievous, horrible, monstrous deed have I done!” flung out his arms and, wailing, dived into a jungle thicket and thus disappeared. 
     And by the blazing intensity of the Elder’s virtue, the Paṇḍukambala Stone Seat of Sakka, King of the Devas—sixty yojanas long, fifty yojanas wide, fifteen yojanas high, the color of a red China-rose blossom, which at the times of sitting down on it or standing up, automatically descends or rises up—manifested signs of heat. Sakka wondered, “Who is it that wants to drive me from my place?” and looking around with the Divine Eye he saw the Elder. Thus it was said by the ancients:

     The Thousand-Eyed One, the Lord of Devas, purified the Divine Eye;
     While this Protector, censuring the bad, completely purified his way of life.

     The Thousand-Eyed One, the Lord of Devas, purified the Divine Eye;
     While this Protector, taking Dhamma to heart, sat delighting in the Doctrine.

Then it occurred to him: “If I do not go to such a gentleman as this, who censures the bad and takes Dhamma to heart, my head would split into seven pieces. I will go to him.” Thus: 

     The Thousand-Eyed One, the Lord of Devas, bearing glorious sovereignty over the gods,
     Coming at that moment, approached Protector of Vision.

And approaching the Elder, from not far away he made a sound with his foot. Now the Elder asked “Who is that?” 
     “I am a traveller, Venerable Sir.” 
     “Where are you going, lay disciple?” 
     “To Sāvatthi, Venerable Sir.” 
     “Carry on, friend.” 
     “And where is the gentleman going, Venerable Sir?”
     “I also am going there.” 
     “Well then, Venerable Sir, let’s go together.” 
     “I am not strong, friend. You will be hindered (papañco) by traveling with me.” 
     “I have no urgent business. And of the ten opportunities for earning merit, I will gain one of them by traveling with the gentleman. Let’s go together, Venerable Sir.”
     The Elder, considering, “He must be a good man,” said “Well then, I will go with you. Take hold of the end of my staff, lay disciple.” 
     Sakka did as requested, and by contracting the ground he arrived at Jetavana by evening time. The Elder, hearing the sound of conch horns, drums, and so on, asked, “Where is that sound coming from?”
     “We are in Sāvatthi, Venerable Sir.” 
     “Previously when we traveled here, the going took a long time.” 
     “I know a shortcut, Venerable Sir.” 
     At that moment the Elder realized: “This is no human being. It must be a god.” 

     The Thousand-Eyed One, the Lord of Devas, bearing glorious sovereignty over the gods,
     Shortened the road, and came quickly to Sāvatthi. 

     Leading the Elder, he conducted him to a shelter made of leaves that his younger brother the landowner had constructed just for the Elder’s residence; and having seated him on a bench, assuming the appearance of a dear companion, he went to the other and called out, “My dear friend Little Protector!”
     “What is it, dear friend?” 
     “Do you know of the Elder’s arrival?” 
     “No, I don’t know. What, has the Elder come?”
     “Yes, dear friend—Just now I went to the monastery, and seeing the Elder sitting in the leaf shelter you had built for him, I’ve come here.” Having said this, he went away.
     So the landowner went to the monastery, and seeing the Elder he rolled on the ground at his feet and cried, saying, among other things, “Foreseeing this, Venerable Sir, I did not give my consent for you to renounce the world!” Then he made arrangements by having two slave boys set free, sending them to the Elder, and having them ordained as novices, telling them, “Bring rice broth, cooked rice, and so on from the village and attend to the Elder.” The novices performed their various duties and took care of the Elder. 
     Then one day some bhikkhus living in the outer districts, resolving “We will see the Teacher,” came to Jetavana and, after paying respects to the Tathāgata and paying respects to the eighty Great Elders, while walking the rounds they arrived at the dwelling place of the Elder Protector of Vision; and they thought, “We’ll see this one too.” At that moment a great storm cloud arose. Thinking, “Now it’s very late, and a storm cloud has arisen; let’s go see him tomorrow morning,” they turned back. 
     The rain god sent down rain through the first watch of the night, and during the middle watch he went away. The Elder, being one of steadfast energy, was in the habit of doing walking meditation; therefore during the last watch of the night he went down to his walking meditation path. At that time, with the earth freshly rained upon, many ground mites (called “Indra’s cowherds”) came out; and with the Elder doing walking meditation, quite a lot of them were crushed. The Elder’s attendants did not sweep the place for walking meditation early in the morning. The other bhikkhus came, thinking, “Let’s see the Elder’s dwelling place,” and seeing the killed creatures, asked “Who does walking meditation here?”
     “Our preceptor, Venerable Sirs.”
     They vented their indignation, saying, “Look, friends, at the work of a philosopher! Lying down and sleeping at the time of day when things can be seen, not accomplishing anything, now when no one can see he says, ‘I’ll do walking meditation’ and kills so many living beings! Thinking ‘I’ll do what is right,’ he does what is not right!”
     Then they went to the Tathāgatha and informed him of it: “Venerable Sir, the Elder Protector of Vision, thinking ‘I will do walking meditation,’ has killed many living beings.”
     “What, and was he seen by you while he was killing them?” 
     “He wasn’t seen, Venerable Sir.” 
     “And just as you did not see him, even so, he did not see the living beings. For those whose encumbering influences are destroyed (khīṇāsavānaṁ), bhikkhus, there is no volition to kill.”
     “Venerable Sir, being so capable of full enlightenment, how did he become blind? 
     “By the power of his own deed that he had done, bhikkhus.” 
     “And what, Venerable Sir, was done by him?” 
     “Well then, bhikkhus, listen:

     “Long ago, when the King of Kāsi was reigning in Varanasi, a healer was traveling among the villages and towns, practicing his healing art; and he saw a woman with an eye affliction. ‘What is your ailment?’ he asked her. 
     “‘I cannot see with my eyes.’
     “‘I will make some medicine for you.’ 
     “‘Make it, Master.’ 
     “‘What will you give me?’
     “‘If you are able to make my eyes healthy, I will become your slave, along with my sons and daughters.’ 
     “‘Very good,’ he said; and he prepared the medicine. With one dose of the medicine her eyes became healthy. 
     “She considered, ‘I promised I will become his slave along with my sons and daughters, but he won’t treat me gently and justly. I will deceive him.’ When she was visited by the healer and was asked, ‘How are you, good lady?’ she said, ‘Before my eyes troubled me a little, but now they trouble me much more.’
     “The healer thought, ‘She’s lying to me because she doesn’t want to give anything. I have no need of her payment. I will make her blind.’ Then he went home and told his wife about the matter. She remained silent. Concocting a different medicine, he went to the woman, saying, ‘Dear lady, apply this medicine,’ and had her apply it. At this, both her eyes went out like the flame of a lamp. That healer was Protector of Vision.

     “Bhikkhus, that deed done by my son then followed close behind him. Truly, this evil deed came after him like a cartwheel following the foot of a draught ox pulling a load.” And after telling this story and reaching its conclusion, as though stamping with the royal seal a document after the soft clay has been affixed, The King of Dhamma spoke this verse: 

     Ways of being are preceded by mind; they have mind as chief; they are mind-made;
     If with a defiled mind one speaks or acts, 
     Then unease follows that person like the wheel follows the foot of the beast of burden.  

(The word by word commentarial exegesis to the verse, plus an anticommentary by myself, as well as some of my subcommentarial comments on the story, will be the substance of the next installment.)

(Ha, I couldn't resist this one)

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Story of the Elder Protector of Vision (part 1)

     The following narrative is the official origin story for the very first verse of the Dhammapada, alias Dh.1, as found in the Dhammapada Commentary. It is one of the best-known commentarial stories in Theravada Buddhism, and I’d guess that most serious, “literate” Burmese Buddhists are familiar with it; although possibly most Western Buddhists, having much less use for the commentarial tradition than their Asian counterparts, have never heard of it. So I include an English translation of it here, because I consider it to be well worth reading. 
     One reason why it is worth reading is simply that it is an interesting and entertaining story. It is the legend of a hero. However, unlike ancient Western heroes who were fighters and men of action, like Theseus, Hercules, and Beowulf, Cakkhupāla was a spiritual hero, more akin to Christian heroes like the desert fathers and the medieval saints. But, like heroes in general, our hero lived by his own rules, and behaved in ways that common worldlings considered to be unreasonable, or even foolish. Beowulf’s comrades considered him to be out of his mind, too, for fighting Grendel naked and weaponless; but Grendel himself fought that way, and Beowulf, being a hero, insisted upon a fair fight. Cakkhupāla is like this, in his own way.
     Another reason why it is worth reading is that it shows a kind of Buddhism, and of spirituality in general, that is almost totally alien to what is found in the modern and postmodern West, and so it may serve as a source of perspective, a glimpse of a world more similar to the Buddha’s than our own. The Dhammapada commentary is a wealth of information for this kind of perspective, in addition to being much more engaging and more pleasant reading than most of what is in the Suttas. 
     This is not to say that the story faithfully describes what life was really like in the Buddha’s time; the tale is full of exaggerations, anachronisms, and just plain impossibilities (as are some of the Suttas). But that is how stories were told in the Buddha’s time, and for centuries afterwards. The ancient world was more surreal, and less objectively precise, than the world we live in nowadays. So despite the mythological flourishes and other presumed inaccuracies, the reader may still see what the attitude of Buddhists could be like in those days. But this is not the place for a subcommentary to the story. That will come after the tale is told.  
     The translation is my own, based on the Burmese Sixth Council edition of the text. One thing I realized while translating it is just how rusty my Pali is, so I hope I haven’t rendered any really gross inaccuracies. But I don’t consider translating dhammā as “ways of being” to be one of them.


     manopubbaṅgamā dhammā / manoseṭṭhā manomayā //
     manasā ce paduṭṭhena / bhāsati vā karoti vā //
     tato naṁ dukkhamanveti / cakkaṁva vahato padanti //——

     Ways of being are preceded by mind; they have mind as chief; they are mind-made;
     If with a defiled mind one speaks or acts, 
     Then unease follows that person like the wheel follows the foot of the beast of burden.

     Where was this Dhamma teaching spoken? In Sāvatthi. In what regard? With regard to the Elder Protector of Vision (Cakkhupālatthera). 
     It is said that in Sāvatthi there was a landowner named Great Gold, prosperous, of great wealth and many possessions, but childless. One day, having gone to a bathing ghat and having bathed, he was returning home, when along the way he saw a lord of the forest (i.e., a huge tree), laden with leafy branches, and he thought, “That must be inhabited by a very powerful spirit”; so having cleared the base of it he had a fence built around it, had the (enclosed) area strewn with sand, and had streamers and pennants put up; and having bedecked this lord of the forest he placed his palms together in respect and made the prayer, “If I were to obtain a son or a daughter, I would pay great honor to you”; and then he went on his way.
     Then, not long afterwards, a child was conceived in his wife’s womb. Becoming aware of the conception of the child, she informed him of it; and he performed the rites for preserving her unborn child. After the passage of ten months she gave birth to a son. On the day of his taking a name, the rich man, since his own gain was on account of the protection of the Lord of the Forest, came up with the name Protector for him. At a later time she got another son; this one was given the name Little Protector, with the other being called Great Protector. Upon their coming of age they were bound by the bonds of their own households. Afterwards, their mother and father passed away, and the entire estate was inherited and managed by them.
     At that time the Teacher, having set rolling the supreme Wheel of Dhamma, traveling from place to place, was residing at the great monastery of Jetavana—made by the great magnate Anāthapiṇḍika at the expenditure of 540,000,000 (silver kahāpaṇas)—and was establishing a great multitude on the path of heaven and on the path of liberation. Indeed, the Tathāgatha, with 80,000 families of relatives on his mother’s side and 80,000 families of relatives on his father’s side, spent only one rains residence at the great Banyan Monastery established by twice 80,000 families of relatives; but at the great Jetavana Monastery made by Anāthapiṇḍika he spent nineteen rains, and six rains at the Pubbārāma, made by Visākhā at the cost of 270,000,000 in wealth; so because of the greatness of virtue of these two families he spent 25 rains residences in the vicinity of Sāvatthi. Anāthapiṇḍika and the great female lay disciple Visākhā went faithfully twice a day to attend to the Tathāgatha; and going there, thinking, “The young novices will look to see what’s in our hands,” had never gone empty-handed. Going before the meal time, they would get staple foods and side dishes, among other things, and go; and after the meal time, the five medicines and the eight drinks. Furthermore, in each of their homes they had always 2000 seats prepared for bhikkhus. With regard to food, drink, and medicines, whoever wanted some was supplied with as much as he wanted.
     Yet despite all this, never before, on any day, had the Teacher been asked a question by Anāthapiṇḍika. Thinking, “The Tathāgata is a highly refined Buddha, a highly refined nobleman, who, considering ‘This householder is of much service to me’ might become worn out with teaching me Dhamma,” out of extreme devotion to the teacher, he asked no question. But now at the moment he took his seat it occurred to the Teacher, “This rich man defends me when I have no need of being defended. For a hundred thousand world cycles beyond four incalculable eons I have perfected myself, having cut off my own head, torn out my eyes, torn out the flesh of my heart, renounced my son and wife equal to my life’s breath, in fulfilling the Perfections (pāramiyo) for the sake of teaching Dhamma.” Thinking “He defends me when I have no need to be defended,” he spoke to him a discourse on Dhamma.
     At that time 70 million people lived in Sāvatthi. Of all of these, 50 million people, having heard the Dhamma teaching of the Teacher, had become Ariyan disciples, with 20 million people still common worldlings. There were two duties for those who had become Ariyan disciples: Before meal time they gave alms; and after meal time they went with scents, garlands, and so on in their hands, and also sending cloths, medicines, drinks, and so forth, with the purpose of hearing Dhamma. So one day Great Protector, seeing the Ariyan disciples going to the monastery with scents, garlands, and so on in their hands, asked, “Where is this great crowd going?” and hearing “To hear Dhamma,” he said, “I also will go,” and so he went to the Teacher, and after paying his respects he sat down on the outskirts of the congregation.
     Now, when Buddhas are teaching Dhamma, they teach Dhamma with regard to the refuges, morality, renunciation, and so forth while being watchful with regard to the dispositions of the hearers; therefore on that day the Teacher, being watchful with regard to this, was teaching Dhamma by giving a gradual, systematic talk. About what? Talk about giving, talk about morality, talk about heaven, and clear explanation of the disadvantage, futility, and defilement of sensuality and the advantage of renunciation. Having heard this, the landowner Great Protector considered: “Going to the next world, sons and daughters, brothers, and possessions do not follow. Even one’s own body doesn’t accompany one. Why don’t I renounce the household life?” At the end of the discourse he approached the Teacher and requested ordination as a renunciant. Now the Teacher said to him, “Is there a relative close to you that you should consult?” 
     “There is my younger brother, Venerable Sir.” 
     “Then you should consult with him.”
     Answering, “Very good,” he paid respect to the Teacher and, going home, he sent for his younger brother and said, “My dear, whatever is mine in this house, whatever wealth there is, either animate or inanimate, all of it is now your responsibility. You handle it.” 
     “And what are you going to do?” he replied. 
     “I am going to be ordained as a renunciant in the presence of my Teacher.” 
     “What are you saying, Brother? When Mother died you became like a mother to me, and when Father died, you became like a father. In your house you have a great estate. Even living as a householder it is possible to make merit. Don’t act like this.” 
     “Since hearing the Dhamma taught by the Teacher I am not able to live the household life. For, holding up to view the exceedingly fine and subtle Three Marks (of Impermanence, Unease, and No Self), the Dhamma taught by the Teacher is beautiful at the beginning, the middle, and the end. It is not possible to fulfill it by living in the midst of a household. I will renounce the world, my dear one.”
     “Dear Brother, you are still young. Renounce the world when you are older.”
     “Really my dear, to one who is old, even his own hands and feet become unreliable; they do not follow his own authority, to say nothing of his family members! So I will not do as you say. I will live to fulfillment the discipline of a philosopher.

     Hands and feet grown feeble with age are unreliable; 
     How will he practice Dhamma when his strength is lost?

I will renounce the world, my dear.” Despite his (brother’s) outcry he went to the Teacher and begged for renunciation, received formal renunciation (as a novice) and full ordination (as a bhikkhu), spent five rains in the presence of a guide and a preceptor, and having performed the invitation ceremony at the end of his (fifth) rains retreat, he approached the Teacher, paid respect to him, and asked, “Venerable, Sir, what are the obligations in this Doctrine?”
     “The obligation of texts, and the obligation of insight: these are the two obligations, bhikkhu.” 
     “And what, Venerable Sir, is the obligation of texts, and what is the obligation of insight?” 
     “Having learned, in accordance with the capacity of one’s own wisdom, one or two collections (of texts), or even the whole of the Three Baskets, and the memorization, recitation, and expounding of it—this is called the obligation of texts. And for one living simply, delighting in a secluded dwelling place, having taken to heart the (inevitable) decay and destruction of one’s own existence, maturing insight and attaining Arahantship through the power of steadfast endeavor—this is called the obligation of insight.” 
     “Venerable Sir, I have renounced the world late in life and am not able to fulfill the obligation of texts, so I will fulfill the obligation of insight. Please teach me an object of meditation.” So then the Teacher taught him an object of meditation capable of leading to Arahantship.
     After paying respect to the Teacher and seeking out some bhikkhus to accompany him, he gathered sixty bhikkhus and set out with them, walking on a journey of 2000 yojanas; and upon reaching a large frontier village, he with his companions entered it for alms. The people, seeing bhikkhus endowed with discipline, were uplifted in mind and, preparing seats, invited them to sit, served them with drinks and food, and asked, “Venerable Sirs, where are you gentlemen going?” Upon being told “To a convenient place, lay disciples,” some intelligent people, realizing “The venerable ones are searching for a place to spend the rains retreat,” said to them, “Venerable Sirs, if the gentlemen were to spend these three months here, we would be established in the Refuges and take the precepts.” And so they accepted the invitation, considering, “In dependence upon these families we will make an escape from existence.” 
     The people, receiving their consent, set up a monastery, preparing places for spending the night and places for spending the day, and offered it. They entered that same village regularly for alms food. At that time a healer approached them and made an invitation to them, saying, “Venerable Sirs, in a dwelling place of many people indispositions are bound to occur. In such an event please tell me, and I will prepare a remedy.” 
     The Elder, on the day of entering the rains residence, called the other bhikkhus and asked them, “My friends, in how many bodily postures will you spend these three months?”
     “In (all) four, Venerable Sir.” 
     “What now, friends, is that proper? Should we not develop ourselves with uncloudedness of mind (appamatta)? Really, we came here having taken an object of meditation in the presence of a real, live Buddha; and it is not possible that Buddhas could approve of cloudedness of mind. They would approve of you only by the beauty of your nature. For the clouded of mind, the four lower realms become like their own home. Be unclouded in mind, my friends.”
     “And what about you, Venerable Sir?” 
     “I will spend my time in three of the bodily postures. I will not stretch out on my back.”
     “Very good, Venerable Sir. May you be unclouded in mind.”
     Now, for the unsleeping Elder, at the passing of the first month and the arrival of the middle month, a disease of the eyes became manifest. Like a stream of water from a cracked water pot, a stream of tears trickled from his eyes. Having done the work of a philosopher all night, at the advent of dawn he entered his room and sat. The bhikkhus, at the time of walking for alms food, went to the Elder and told him, “Time to go for alms, Venerable Sir.” 
     “Well then, friends, take your bowl and robe.” Having taken his own bowl and robe, he went out. 
     When the bhikkhus saw the tears trickling from his eyes they asked him, “What is this, Venerable Sir?” 
     “The wind hurts my eyes, friends.”
     “Weren’t we invited by a healer, Venerable Sir? We will speak to him.” 
     “Very good, friends.” 
     They spoke to the healer, and he cooked up some (medicated) oil and had it sent.
     The Elder, when he was applying the oil into his nose, did it just in a sitting position; and having applied it he entered into the village. The healer, upon seeing him, said, “Venerable Sir, I have heard that the wind hurts the gentleman’s eyes.” 
     “Yes, lay disciple.”
     “Venerable Sir, some oil was prepared by me and was sent. Did you apply the oil into your nose?”
     “Yes, lay disciple.” 
     “How is it now?”
     “It’s still painful, lay disciple.”
     The healer, thinking “The oil sent by me was sufficient to cure him with just one application. Why is the disease not cured?” asked him, “Venerable Sir, did you apply the oil sitting, or lying down?” The Elder remained silent; and being questioned again and again, he would not speak. Thinking “I’ll go to the monastery and have a look at the Elder’s dwelling place,” the healer said, “Well then, Venerable Sir, carry on.” After sending him off he went to the monastery, and looking at the Elder’s dwelling place, and seeing only places for walking meditation and for sitting, and seeing no place for lying down, he asked, “Venerable Sir, did you make the application while sitting, or while lying down?” The Elder remained silent. “Venerable Sir, don’t act like this. It is only by maintaining the body that one is able to do the work of a philosopher. Make the application after lying down”; he pleaded with him again and again.
     Saying, “Please go, friend. Having taken counsel, I will know (what to do),” he dismissed the healer.
     But the Elder had no family members at all there, no blood relations; so with whom would he take counsel? Taking counsel with his kamma-born body he said, “Please tell me, friend Protector: Will you look to your eyes, or to the Message of the Buddha? In the beginningless round of Samsara there is no counting of the times your eyes have been blind; and many hundreds of Buddhas, many thousands of Buddhas are past. And of those Buddhas, not one of them did you honor by practicing his teachings. Now, during this rains residence, I will not lie down for three months; for three months I will exercise steadfast energy. So let your eyes fail, or let them be destroyed, and uphold the message of the Buddha, not eyes.” And thus admonishing his physical body, he spoke these verses:

     “Let my own eyes waste away,
     Let my ears waste away, and the body as well; 
     Let all of it waste away that is dependent on a physical form;
     What use are you, Protector, if you are clouded in mind?

     “Let my own eyes wear out,
     Let my ears wear out, and the body as well; 
     Let all of it wear out that is dependent on a physical form;
     What use are you, Protector, if you are clouded in mind?

     “Let my own eyes be destroyed,
     Let my ears be destroyed, and the body as well; 
     Let all of it be destroyed that is dependent on a physical form;
     What use are you, Protector, if you are clouded in mind?”

     Having thus admonished himself with three verses, and having applied the nasal treatment to himself in a sitting position, he entered the village for alms. The healer, seeing him, asked, “Venerable Sir, have you applied the nasal treatment?”
     “Yes, lay disciple.” 
     “How is it, Venerable Sir?”
     “It is still painful, lay disciple.” 
     “Did you apply the nasal treatment while sitting, Venerable Sir, or after lying down?” The Elder remained silent; and being questioned again and again, he didn’t say anything. Then the healer said to him: “Venerable Sir, you do not do what is proper. From today onwards, do not say ‘That fellow prepared medicated oil for me,’ and I will not say that I prepared the oil for you.” Abandoned by the healer, he went to the monastery, thinking “Now you’ve even been abandoned by the healer. Do not give up the bodily posture, philosopher.

     “Rejected by the medical art, renounced even by the healer,
     Subject to the King of Death, why, Protector, should you be clouded in mind?”

Admonishing himself with this verse, he did the work of a philosopher. And then, at the passing of the middle watch of the night, not earlier, not later (that is, at the very same moment), his eyes and his defilements were destroyed. Having become a dry-visioned Arahant, he entered his room and sat down.
     (to be continued...)

"Blind Monk," by Ming Hwan Yeoh