Saturday, December 26, 2015

Buddhism Meets William Blake's Devil

The Argument.

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

     Once meek, and in a perilous path,
     The just man kept his course along
     The vale of death.
     Roses are planted where thorns grow.
     And on the barren heath
     Sing the honey bees.
     Then the perilous path was planted:
     And a river, and a spring
     On every cliff and tomb;
     And on the bleached bones
     Red clay brought forth.

     Till the villain left the paths of ease,
     To walk in perilous paths, and drive
     The just man into barren climes.

     Now the sneaking serpent walks
     In mild humility.
     And the just man rages in the wilds
     Where lions roam.

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

     Since this blog was born well over three years ago, I have been intending to write this post. I’m not sure why I put it off for so long (possibly because I’m not sure why I intended to write it), but now is opportune, so here it is.
     I do not pretend to be an authority on William Blake, or on what he wrote. Pretty much all I know about the man is the most famous stuff, like that he was a visionary, a kind of radical, an anarchist, prophet, and heretic, and that he is considered by at least a few modern art critics to be the greatest artist England ever produced. 
     He saw visions. There is one famous story about Blake as a boy of about ten years old. On his way home he happened to see a tree full of angels. When he told his parents about it, excitedly describing that he saw in detail, he almost received a beating from his father for lying. He continued to see spirits, and to communicate with them, throughout his life; and his contemporary William Wordsworth once said of him in this regard, “There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott.” But madness and genius are often closely related, as is well known. 
     In addition to being a great and inspired poet (we can know that he was a great poet if only because only a great one could get away with rhyming the word “eye” with the word “symmetry”), he prophesied, often in very dense writings that are practically incomprehensible to the uninitiated. He was much influenced by the visionary Emanuel Swedenborg, a man approximately as psychic and eccentric as Blake was. It appears that Blake was Christian for no better reason than that he was born in England in the 18th century; his parents were “Dissenters,” and his own religious views would have had him burned at the stake a few hundred years earlier. Some prime examples of his heresy and blasphemy will be shown in what follows. 
     I must admit, Blake is not my favorite poet; and most of his prophetic prose is way out of my league. But there is one spiritual philosophic opus of his, a manifesto of sorts, that has made a significant impression on my outlook on life, and that is The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. When I was in my late teens this brief work, and also Khalil Gibran’s The Madman, came about as close to a personal Bible as I had. They advocated freedom, and, to some degree, wisdom-inspired rebellion against “the establishment.” One of my mottos as a college student was a Proverb of Hell: You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough. There are probably more quotes on this blog from this one literary work than from any other.
     Although The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is not long—the whole thing could be read in maybe half an hour, an hour at most—it is too long to publish here in its entirety. Besides, my purpose is more to compare the philosophical/religious approach of the work with that of Buddhist Dharma. So I will just include here some of the meatier passages from it, as well as the juiciest bit of all, the Proverbs of Hell, amounting to about one-third of the whole. The whole thing is worth reading though. Please bear in mind that the work was written almost as a dark satire, being a kind of biblical tract written from the point of view of devils, not angels. 

     …Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.
     From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy.
     Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.

     The voice of the Devil.
All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following Errors:
     1. That Man has two real existing principles: Viz: a Body & a Soul.
     2. That Energy, call'd Evil, is alone from the Body; & that Reason, call'd Good, is alone from the Soul.
     3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.
But the following Contraries to these are True:
     1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul; for that call'd Body is a portion of Soul discern'd by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.
     2. Energy is the only life, and is from the Body; and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.
     3 Energy is Eternal Delight.

     …Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place & governs the unwilling.
     And being restrain’d, it by degrees becomes passive, till it is only the shadow of desire.
     The history of this is written in Paradise Lost, & the Governor or Reason is call'd Messiah.
     And the original Archangel or possessor of the command of the heavenly host, is call'd the Devil or Satan, and his children are call'd Sin & Death.
     But in the Book of Job Miltons Messiah is call'd Satan.
     For this history has been adopted by both parties.
     It indeed appear'd to Reason as if Desire was cast out, but the Devil's account is, that the Messiah fell, & formed a heaven of what he stole from the Abyss.
     This is shewn in the Gospel, where he prays to the Father to send the comforter or Desire that Reason may have Ideas to build on, the Jehovah of the Bible being no other than he who dwells in flaming fire.
     Know that after Christs death, he became Jehovah.
     But in Milton, the Father is Destiny, the Son, a Ratio of the five senses, & the Holy-ghost, Vacuum!
     Note: The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it.

Proverbs of Hell.
     In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.
     Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.
     The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
     Prudence is a rich, ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.
     He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.
     The cut worm forgives the plow.
     Dip him in the river who loves water.
     A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.
     He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star.
     Eternity is in love with the productions of time.
     The busy bee has no time for sorrow.
     The hours of folly are measur'd by the clock; but of wisdom, no clock can measure.
     All wholesome food is caught without a net or a trap.
     Bring out number, weight, & measure in a year of dearth.
     No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings.
     A dead body revenges not injuries.
     The most sublime act is to set another before you.
     If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.
     Folly is the cloke of knavery.
     Shame is Prides cloke.
     Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion.
     The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.
     The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.
     The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.
     The nakedness of woman is the work of God.
     Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps.
     The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword, are portions of eternity, too great for the eye of man.
     The fox condemns the trap, not himself.
     Joys impregnate. Sorrows bring forth.
     Let man wear the fell of the lion, woman the fleece of the sheep.
     The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.
     The selfish, smiling fool, & the sullen, frowning fool shall be both thought wise, that they may be a rod.
     What is now proved was once only imagin'd.
     The rat, the mouse, the fox, the rabbet watch the roots; the lion, the tyger, the horse, the elephant watch the fruits.
     The cistern contains: the fountain overflows.
     One thought fills immensity.
     Always be ready to speak your mind, and a base man will avoid you.
     Every thing possible to be believ'd is an image of truth.
     The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn of the crow.
     The fox provides for himself, but God provides for the lion.
     Think in the morning. Act in the noon. Eat in the evening. Sleep in the night.
     He who has suffer'd you to impose on him, knows you.
     As the plow follows words, so God rewards prayers.
     The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.
     Expect poison from the standing water.
     You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.
     Listen to the fools reproach! it is a kingly title!
     The eyes of fire, the nostrils of air, the mouth of water, the beard of earth.
     The weak in courage is strong in cunning.
     The apple tree never asks the beech how he shall grow; nor the lion, the horse, how he shall take his prey.
     The thankful receiver bears a plentiful harvest.
     If others had not been foolish, we should be so.
     The soul of sweet delight can never be defil'd.
     When thou seest an Eagle, thou seest a portion of Genius; lift up thy head!
     As the catterpiller chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys.
     To create a little flower is the labour of ages.
     Damn braces. Bless relaxes.
     The best wine is the oldest, the best water the newest.
     Prayers plow not! Praises reap not!
     Joys laugh not! Sorrows weep not!
     The head Sublime, the heart Pathos, the genitals Beauty, the hands & feet Proportion.
     As the air to a bird or the sea to a fish, so is contempt to the contemptible.
     The crow wish'd every thing was black, the owl that every thing was white.
     Exuberance is Beauty.
     If the lion was advised by the fox, he would be cunning.
     Improvement makes strait roads; but the crooked roads without Improvement are roads of Genius.
     Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.
     Where man is not, nature is barren.
     Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not be believ'd.
     Enough! or Too much.

     …If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. 
     For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.

     …Thus one portion of being is the Prolific, the other the Devouring: to the devourer it seems as if the producer was in his chains, but it is not so; he only takes portions of existence and fancies that the whole.
     But the Prolific would cease to be Prolific unless the Devourer, as a sea, received the excess of his delights.
     Some will say: 'Is not God alone the Prolific?' I answer: 'God only Acts & Is, in existing beings or Men.'
     These two classes of men are always upon earth, & they should be enemies; whoever tries to reconcile them seeks to destroy existence.
     Religion is an endeavour to reconcile the two.

     …'The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, & breeds reptiles of the mind.'

     …Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules.

     Unquote. Obviously, a devout, traditional Christian, or for that matter a traditional Buddhist, would consider much of this stuff to be outrageous blasphemy and heresy. What is a good Buddhist to think of, say, “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires”?
     But there is a method to Blake’s madness, and some real profundity also. Blake realized that a polarized, one-sided attempt at spirituality, emphasizing Good over Evil, doesn’t work. A duality requires both extremes for its existence. Every strength has its weakness; every light has its corresponding darkness; one end of a polarity cannot exist alone, and thus a one-sided religion of Virtue simply reinforces and perpetuates what it is attempting to defeat.
     Blake’s vision of a complete spirituality reminds me of the traditional Hindu conception of the God-man Krishna: He was not just the embodiment of goodness and virtue, but was the divine embodiment of everything—which includes war, death, romantic love, sex, deception, trouble, and everything that might be called “impurity” or “sin.” Krishna is all-encompassing, universal. Absolutely everything lies within the scope of the God of Everything; and thus, ultimately, everything is Divine. Absolutely everything is sacred and holy. Even evil itself is seen as evil only due to a very polarized, incomplete vision of how things really are.  
     The predominant theme of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, though, is not so much the idea of embracing evil as well as good, since, as just pointed out, Blake apparently considered evil to be a kind of illusion (as have many others, like Mary Baker Eddy, Walt Whitman, and millions of Mahayana Buddhists). The dual polarity he embraced was Reason and Energy, stability and chaos, or, as he states the case later on, the Devouring and the Prolific. Using the language of Greek Paganism, the philosophy of Nietzsche, and modern cultural anthropology, we could call it the duality of Apollo and Dionysus. 
     According to Blake, it is Energy or “Evil” which creates, and Reason or “Good” which organizes and stabilizes what has been created, which establishes order out of chaos. Thus both are necessary for the world to exist. And thus it makes sense to accept and allow both principles—if, that is, we want the world to exist.
     Blake was a poetic visionary and a prophet, although he seems not to have been deep enough of a mystic to fully appreciate the idea that this phenomenal world is an illusion. He acknowledges that we see the world very imperfectly, but stops short of the realization that what it really is, is formless, unthinkable Void, or what a Christian mystic might call “God.” So when he asserts that trying to reconcile the Prolific with the Devourer is an attempt of “religion” (apparently used in a devilish, derogatory sense) to destroy the world, he seems to consider this attempt to be ill-advised, as he saw this world to be a genuine manifestation of Divinity. This is why, as a Buddhist of sorts, I cannot really endorse Blake’s vision of spirituality. If the phenomenal world is an illusory system generated from a dependently co-arising duality of positive and negative, yang and yin, then although Divinity underlies it, the system itself obscures that Divinity by distracting people and causing them to believe that the illusion is all there is, and that it is the only truth. Although embracing the whole is better than embracing half and rejecting half, still, the Buddhist option of not wallowing in it at all, neither in Energy nor in Reason, seems wiser. Accepting the whole world with love is of course much better than rejecting it, or even half of it, with aversion; but Buddhist philosophy teaches that a serious practitioner of Dharma would detach from all of it, neither doing good works nor bad. This destroys the world in a sense, but it is destroying an illusion.
     So better a Blake-like acceptance of passion and chaos than a Puritan rejection of same; but better still a profound detachment from (not rejection of) the whole phantasmagoria. But if you are unable or unwilling to detach from the system, then better Blake than Milton.

     Before ending this I would like to add one little commentarial discussion of one of the juiciest-sounding of the Proverbs of Hell: Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion. It has a really visceral appeal, doesn’t it? But nowadays I suspect that most people who read it don’t realize what it’s supposed to mean. One should bear in mind that when the Proverbs were published, in the early 1790’s, there were only two kinds of women in Christian England: respectable women, and whores. And if a young Christian woman lost her virginity before marriage, and the cad who “deflowered” her then refused to marry her, then she was “ruined,” no longer respectable, and considered unworthy of becoming a “respectable” man’s wife. She might even be disowned by her family, and banished into the streets. Thus if a young woman followed her energy and passions more than her passivity and reason, she might easily find herself in a situation in which becoming a prostitute was one of her only, desperate options for survival. So breaking the laws of the land could land a person in a stone prison, and breaking the laws of religion could land her in a brick whorehouse. But of course nowadays the dividing line between respectable women and whores has been pretty much erased.  

     Let the Priests of the Raven of dawn, no longer in deadly black, with hoarse note curse the sons of joy. Nor his accepted brethren, whom, tyrant, he calls free: lay the bound or build the roof. Nor pale religious letchery call that virginity, that wishes but acts not!
     For every thing that lives is Holy.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

How I Became a Bhikkhu (the outward process)

The adoption of the ascetic idea requires a firm faith in spiritual happiness and as firm a despair of material life. Its wide prevalence in a society bespeaks not only the acuteness of its religious consciousness but also considerable social distress. In practice, the ranks of the mendicants are filled not merely by ardent religious souls but in the main by those whom despair of material life has driven into vagrant beggary. —G. C. Pande
I want God, I want poetry, I want danger, I want freedom, I want goodness, I want sin. —Aldous Huxley

     OK, this is the part in which I give a play-by-play account of the events which culminated in me shaving my head and putting on a brown toga (among other, more important things). It is not necessary to read the previous installment in order to understand this one, but it would probably help.
     When I was a kid, like most kids I assumed that adults had life pretty much figured out. They understood What’s What. I supposed that the reason why I didn’t understand What’s What was because I hadn’t grown up yet. Furthermore, I had the idea, which most people in the West, I suppose, also have, that if adults in general know What’s What pretty well, scientists know it better than anybody. So, as a kid, I wanted to be a scientist—more specifically a zoologist, as I have always liked animals. After my father, two of my earliest role models were the Professor on Gilligan’s Island, whose knowledge of science gave him practically superhuman powers, and Mr. Spock on Star Trek, whose superhuman powers made him the ideal scientist. For as long as I can remember, a desire to know What’s What has been one of my primary driving forces in life.
     But at around the age of thirteen it started dawning on me that, not only did I not know What’s What, none of the adults who were trying to teach it to me knew it either. Adults started appearing approximately as foolish and ignorant as I was. This added fuel to the fire of cynicism, smart-assery, and rebellion that many thirteen-year-olds experience naturally. And by the age of sixteen it had become painfully obvious that adults in general, not all, but most, were probably even more clueless than I was. Consequently, by the age of sixteen I was ripe for all-out rebellion, or for some other analogous form of radical upheaval.
     It has been said that the average modern Western youth no longer has any formal rite of transition into manhood, or womanhood, or membership as an active member of the “tribe”; but I can pinpoint my transition from boy into man to a single day, and a single “ceremony”: my sixteenth birthday party. My father was working, my parents were divorced, and I was allowed to have some friends out to our house for my birthday with nobody else in attendance, and as it turned out, one of my best friends had recently begun smoking cannabis. Also, my father had recently stopped drinking alcohol, leaving a well-stocked liquor cabinet to my teenage schemes. So, my sixteenth birthday was the first time I ever got drunk as the proverbial skunk or higher than the proverbial Georgia pine, and I got both. I was a skunk in a pine tree. I vaguely remember at one point laughing so hard that I fell on my face to the ground, not even bothering to put my hands out to catch myself, and then lay there on my face, still roaring with laughter. It was brilliant. Mind-altering chemicals (including ethanol), “partying,” and generally having a wild time seemed so utterly superior to playing the game imposed upon me by the established system that the choice was obvious. I cut loose, rebelled against the System, and became an irresponsible party animal.     
     (I may as well add, parenthetically, that I also lost my virginity during my sixteenth year of life, although it wasn’t as pivotal to my surge into young adulthood and independence of thought. I lost my virginity about an hour after my first romantic kiss—which may have something to do with the intensity I have always experienced with regard to “romance.” She was a notorious “party girl,” and not particularly attractive; but she made it crystal clear that she was willing to have sex with me, so I embraced the situation, and her, with open arms. With the exception of one girl, who I met in college, my love life tended to be rather desultory and inconsequential, though relatively very intense at times. Mostly I was without a girlfriend, and never even wanted to master the art of picking up women, since it seemed largely based on insincerity, if not downright lying.)
     A central tenet of my philosophy at that time was that, in order to be happy, one shouldn’t do anything that one doesn’t want to do. So, I stopped doing schoolwork, stopped attending classes regularly, stopped cleaning up after myself, spent almost all of my savings account, supposedly destined for college, on drugs, and basically just got into a lot of trouble. One reason why I was able to get away with this as long as I did was that before my sixteenth birthday I was a very good student, sometimes even teacher’s pet; so when my grades nosedived from A’s to F’s, my teachers apparently weren’t sure about what to do, or anyhow didn’t want to push. My father assumed that, despite my long hair and absence from home on weekends, I was still doing well in school; he encouraged freedom of thought, so he didn’t try to talk me out of my new attitude. About as far as he would go in that direction would be to say, “David, one of these days you’re going to look around and realize that you’re the only hippie left.” I suspect that the tide began to turn in earnest when he attempted to get me an honor student discount on my car insurance and realized that I was no longer anywhere near to being an honor student. My grade point average for tenth grade was 3.92—22 A’s and 2 B’s; I don’t remember my cumulative GPA for eleventh grade, but my final report card for that year reported a grade point average of 0.80—3 F’s and 2 C’s. One C was in Honors Math, with a C being the lowest grade awardable in an honors class; and to this day I have no idea how I managed to get a C in Chemistry. The only experiment I did all year was Experiment 1: Observation of a Candle Flame, and I took the final exam coming down from an acid trip, having had no sleep the night before, with my ears still ringing from a rock concert I attended in lieu of studying. (Incidentally, my very next report card, for first quarter of my senior year, had a 4.00—straight A’s. Go figure.)
     Deep down I had an intuition that high school was my last big chance to really mess up in life, so I went for it. And although I kissed off academics for awhile, I probably learned more during that time than I would have if I had studied. I took a crash course in Worldly Experience, and spent much of my time associating with riffraff and getting into various sorts of trouble, with more of the trouble coming from my associates than from any kind of authorities. I have no real regrets for that time, and sometimes feel a certain nostalgia for my time as a wild haired eccentric teenage troublemaker. But enough nostalgia for now.
     My father’s frustration reached a breaking point one night when he returned from work and found a girl passed out on the kitchen floor, with me in bed with another one, and music blasting so loud he claimed he could hear it from the road, before reaching the driveway. In a towering passion he informed me that I had two choices: start seeing a youth counsellor, or simply hit the road. By this time my mother had already evicted me from her home after discovering that I was growing marijuana in my bedroom closet. It seemed that seeing the youth counsellor was the easier of the two options, so that’s what I did. 
     It turned out that the counsellor, a social worker who specialized in troubled teenagers, was a spiritual guy. His name was Ron Sherman. He considered my case to be very interesting, and apparently saw some potential in me; so, among other things, he began giving me books to read, including Grist for the Mill, by Ram Dass. At the time such literature was so alien to anything I had ever been exposed to that very little of it sank in and was assimilated: I couldn’t easily integrate it with the previously stored information in my head, especially at first. But intuitively I felt that This Is It—even though I didn’t understand it very well, I sensed very strongly that this was something I could respect, and that living the sort of life that Ram Dass was talking about was infinitely superior to playing the shallow, materialistic game of “swim upstream, spawn, and die,” and to riding the ecstasy/misery roller coaster of partying and getting into trouble. Running in circles, puking, and passing out every weekend, followed by nursing a killer hangover, was maybe a good introductory ascetic practice, but not something worth dedicating one’s life toward. I learned from experience that pleasures and pains balance out in the long run. 
     Eastern philosophy, metaphysics, and spirituality became my new passion. I enthusiastically believed statements like “It’s all an illusion” long before I ever really understood them. So when I was still seventeen years old I acquired the aspiration, or ambition, to become a monk someday, or some other kind of spiritual renunciant. I still liked pizza and ice cream and getting high and rock ’n’ roll and of course girls, so I was in no great hurry to find an ashram, but it was always somewhere in my mind after that. In fact I postponed my renunciation for ten years, although I did give myself a deadline: I would be living a radically spiritual life by the age of thirty. I had the further agenda of being “well under way” (whatever that meant) by thirty-three, and, rather naively, of attaining whatever there was to attain by thirty-seven. 
     I started studying various spiritual systems and, as a college student, began working my way through Max Muller’s old Sacred Books of the East series. Buddhism appeared to have the least amount of faith in a story required, and was philosophical and very deep, so I began favoring Buddhist texts and considering myself to be almost a Buddhist. Up until shortly before my ordination if someone would ask if I were a Buddhist, I would say No—mainly because I wasn’t keeping five precepts, and considered that to be a requisite for being a real Buddhist layperson. I did admit, though, to aspiring to be a real Buddhist someday.
     At first I liked Soto Zen, and figured I’d probably become a Zen monk. I liked all the stories of eccentric, bright-eyed old men in black robes standing around talking in riddles and indulging in outrageously strange behavior, and occasionally hitting each other with sticks. Also, I seriously considered just making a wool robe for myself and acquiring a wooden begging bowl and just setting out wandering across America as a nondenominational mendicant philosopher, although I knew myself well enough to realize, eventually, that I lacked sufficient self-discipline to pull it off without some formal system keeping me in line. 
     Anyway, I continued getting an academic education, intending to major in Philosophy at first, but quickly losing interest in the academic version of Western Philosophy. Too much confusion with everyone disagreeing with everyone else, and with nobody alive taking any of it very seriously. I wound up getting a degree in Biology, marine emphasis. Also while in college I fell madly in love with a beautiful girl, who actually loved me in return, and I probably would have forgone renunciation and married her if the invisible guiding hand and my miraculously bad girl karma, etc., hadn’t eventually derailed the relationship. Then after we got back together to derail it again. (We needn’t get into the details.) By the time I was in a university I had learned how to party and get good grades, mainly by actually doing my homework, and doing it before getting loaded. Although smoking dope almost every day and occasionally dropping acid (not to mention still having long hair), I also managed to be graduated with a 3.94 GPA and the honor of being chosen Outstanding Graduating Senior in the department of Biology. My friends weren’t sure what the hell to make of it. I considered going to graduate school, but decided that it would be better just to become a monk instead. 
     After graduation I made a living as a fisheries biologist, pretty much being sucked into the job, since there was a demand for them, and there wasn’t much else one could do with a Batchelor’s degree in Marine Biology. I worked mainly on foreign fishing vessels in the Bering Sea, which was some further training in solitude and austerity. I didn’t like the job much, although I worked only six or seven months per year, and had the rest of the time off to lie around, smoke dope, read a lot, and go on many hiking trips into the many wilderness areas of the Pacific Northwest of the USA, which is where I lived at the time. Hiking alone into a remote forest and taking LSD was one of my primary spiritual practices in those days. I meditated sometimes, but my meditation was of such poor quality that it was more of an exercise in patience, and in just sitting still, than in the cultivation of insight.
     I am capable of loving a woman very deeply, even of making our relationship a kind of religion, with her serving as a manifestation of Divinity; but my ambition of becoming a celibate monk served as one more hindrance to finding “true love,” as I considered it wrong to become emotionally involved with a girl without keeping the door open to the possibility of a lifelong commitment. I’ve never really needed a mate; and anyhow need is not really a healthy thing on which to base a relationship—attachment is the cause of all suffering. Also, I found most American women to be a psychological challenge for me. Despite my love of women, there are certain aspects of female psychology (definitely not all, but some) which have caused celibacy to seem worthwhile in the long run. In short, I love freedom of spirit even more than I love women. I’m sure there must have been at least one woman out there with whom I could have had a fulfilling spiritual romance, with radical sex and radical Dharma, but I never found her. 

(a religious idol)

     Anyway, to make a long story even longer, around the age of 25 I began looking for a monastery in which to be ordained. I had no interest in traveling to Asia, as I had no desire to learn any more foreign languages than were absolutely necessary, I had no desire for visa hassles either, and I figured America had more need of monks than Asia did. The trouble was, though, that I had no idea where to look. I had heard a vague rumor that there was some sort of Buddhist monastery near Seattle, but it never got beyond the level of a vague rumor. 
     I drove to the big city of Seattle and looked for Buddhist monasteries in the phone book. I found one Zen place that looked like a possibility, but when I called all I got was an inauspicious answering machine. I checked out another place, which turned out to be Nichiren. So I moved on to Portland, Oregon.
     In Portland I found a kind of Zen temple, not a monastery, but with a Zen priest who was willing to offer help and advice. When I told him I wanted to become a monk his reply was a rather Zenlike, “I’m happy for you, and also sorry for you.” In his library was a directory to Buddhist organizations in America; so I sat down with it and wrote down the name and address of every place that looked like it might be a Buddhist monastery. If it wan’t obviously not a monastery, I included it on the list. I then continued on my way to take drugs and party with some old friends in California, and then went back home to Bellingham, Washington. I wrote essentially identical letters of intent and sent them to the ten or twelve addresses I had written down.
     Some of the places never wrote back, and most of the remainder were not monasteries, but non-monastic meditation centers or Dharma centers or some such. One monastic center which sent a reply was a Zen place in northern California, and the other was a place which in the directory went by the name of “Taungpulu Sayapdaw.” I had no idea what a Taungpulu Sayapdaw was, thinking maybe it was Bhutanese, but it was not obviously not a monastery, so I had written to them. It turned out to be Taungpulu Kaba-Aye Monastery in Boulder Creek, California. “Sayapdaw” was a misspelling of “Sayadaw,” but the actual Taungpulu Sayadaw had been dead for several years by the time I ever saw his name misspelled. An American attendant named Bob had written back to me, telling me that the place was established in a forest tradition of Burmese Theravada, and saying that if I were ordained there I would be pretty much on my own, relying upon my own initiative, but that I was welcome. He also said I should practice “vipassana,” which at the time I had never heard of, and did not know how to pronounce it.
     I took a look at both places, starting with the Zen place. It was there that I realized that Zen in books may be very different from Zen in real life. For one thing, I found that a lot of Pure Land Buddhism had been mixed with the Zen, which for me is not a good mix. Also, I found that much of the routine there involved lots and lots of bowing and chanting, with the chanting, for the most part, being stuff I had little or no interest in. Also, the monks and nuns, who interacted freely, lived relatively worldly lives, running a store, putting on lay clothing to drive into town and do some shopping, etc. No enigmatic masters dressed in black, speaking in riddles and hitting people with sticks. I was not extremely impressed by the scene. It didn’t really call to me.
     After that I went to Taungpulu, in Boulder Creek. There were a total of three monks there, all Burmese, which already was very different from the large Western Sangha at the Zen place. The ancient Burmese abbot, venerable Hlaing Tet Sayadaw, spoke no English. There were almost no ceremonies, and the monks mostly just quietly minded their own business. They didn’t run a store or drive cars, and seemed to be living a more ancient Indian lifestyle than at the other place, which I liked. It seemed closer to what the Buddha originally set up. During my ten-day “self retreat” there I was working on a standard meditation object of the Taungpulu tradition: sitting, hearing, touching. For most of the ten days I was attempting to experience and note all three simultaneously; until finally, when telling the sayadaw of my difficulty, he explained, with some impatience, that I should only note one at a time. (In fact, according to the Abhidhamma philosophy, which the Burmese accept as gospel, it is impossible to note more than one object at a time anyway.) One of my few memories of the ten days in a tent in the monastery’s back yard involved a cricket I caught in the tent: I put it into a ziploc plastic bag for the time being, and then forgot about it, so that it suffocated. It remained in the position typical of a peacefully resting cricket, and presumably it hadn’t even noticed that it was dying. Such events may seem utterly trivial to some people, but for some reason it had enough impact to inspire one of my few memories of that trip.  
     I was more impressed with the atmosphere and lifestyle of the Burmese Theravada monastery than the busier, more westernized Zen place, so several months later I came back for a kind of dress rehearsal for ordination: I was ordained for five weeks as a samanera, or novice. My Pali name as a novice was Paññāsāmi—Master of Wisdom—which may not have fit me very well. I didn’t like the name much, and hoped I wouldn’t be named that if I was fully ordained there. Incidentally, the fact that my Pali name started with P indicates that I was born on Thursday. Thursday’s child has far to go. That’s how it works in Burma; everyone knows what day of the week they were born on, and consider it to be of cosmic importance. (Those who have been to a place like the Shwedagon in Yangon may have noticed that people born on different days of the week have different places around the circumference of the pagoda to make offerings. For the sake of producing eight, which mathematically is much easier to work with than seven, Wednesday is divided into two: Wednesday and Yahu. But I digress.)
     I remember waking up on the floor of the monastery’s library room the morning after my ordination as a novice: I was in such an alien situation, the likes of which I had never been in before, that it took me several seconds to wake up enough, and think furiously enough, to remember where I was, and what the hell was going on. I also remember being aroused in the erotic sense the first few times my head was shaved; it was as though a whole new part of my body was getting naked for the first time. I was counting the days until my determined five weeks were up, but the place seemed satisfactory. Even after wearing robes like this, before I left ven. Hlaing Tet Sayadaw asked if I could keep five precepts from then on, and I said no. The main issue at the time was the inconvenience of not drinking alcohol. In the Pacific Northwest, especially in those days, a guy pretty much had to drink beer. 
     I went home and prepared to become a monk in earnest. I sent a letter to the monastery’s administration, informing them of my intention to be ordained at Taungpulu Monastery; and although I received no response I prepared to go anyway. (I knew enough about the haphazard functioning of the monastery’s board by this time not to wait for a response.) I wasn’t absolutely sure that I would remain a monk, at least not this time, but I took measures that it would be practicable. Shortly before the big day I went to Vancouver B.C. with some friends of mine and proceeded to get stinking drunk at a strip club, and then one of my companions and myself shared a prostitute, while the other companion sat passed out in the driver’s seat of his car. I wanted to have sex one last time—actually, the first time was so much fun that I went back to Vancouver alone a little later and found another female for hire; but this second one was so cold and unfriendly that it left me extremely frustrated and unsatisfied. Which, of course, is best for someone intending to be celibate for the rest of his life. 
     I had pretty much burned out on being a fisheries biologist also, so renouncing the world was actually pretty easy. I figured the most difficult parts about it would be 1) no orgasms, 2) getting rid of almost all my books, and 3) no football. Number 1 continued to vacillate between a chronic inconvenience and an acute tribulation, but 2 and 3 were difficult only before the break was made. Afterwards I hardly missed them. And so, several months after the trial run I settled all financial obligations, got rid of most of my stuff and stored most of the remainder at my father’s house, and took off.
     I must admit that when I entered the monastery for full ordination I was very idealistic and naïve—I had stars in my eyes—and I naturally assumed that I was entering a brotherhood of men diligently striving for Nirvana, and that all of them would be wiser than me since they had been striving longer. It didn’t take very long for me to realize that this was not really the way it was, except for relatively rare exceptions. In fact, although I still believed in the ideal (and still do, to the extent that belief is of any value), I rapidly lost faith in the sanctity of a very human Sangha. I was rather disillusioned with it in fact; and at one point when I was thinking up a single word to describe each person at the monastery, the word for myself was “sullen.” With encouragement from some of the Burmese monks I pounded away in solitude, trying to live up to the highest dream. The Holy Life is somewhat like the D-Day invasion: No matter how you figure it, it’s always different from that, so the best you can do is just keep moving forwards and not give up. It’s worth it. If you want to know the highest truth, Ultimate Reality, you won’t do it with Science, but with Dharma—by looking inwards, not outwards. But I have gone beyond explaining how I became a monk. What came after ordination belongs to a different narrative, which may or may not be written. It won’t be written anytime soon anyhow.
     So there you are. I don’t know if this account could be called uplifting or edifying, but at least you can see how a long-haired, dope-smoking, college-educated American becoming a Theravada Buddhist ascetic is possible.

(Paññobhāsa's sermon to the coots: "Ye are all my children...")

Saturday, December 12, 2015

How I Became a Bhikkhu (constitutional factors)

     A man’s character is his fate. —Heraclitus

     One of the most common questions I am asked, possibly the most common question, coming both from Asian people and from Westerners, is “How (or Why) did you become a monk?” Other most common questions from Burmese people are “Are your parents still alive?,” “How many brothers and sisters do you have?,” “What meditation tradition do you follow?,” and “Will you teach me English?” Frequently asked questions from Americans include “What is the best way of meditating?,” “How can I develop mettā?,” and some variation on “How can I practice renunciation properly while living a worldly life and not actually renouncing very much?” I was told that once H. H. the Dalai Lama was asked that last question by a Western person and promptly burst into tears, presumably out of sheer frustration. It’s good to ask questions though. Oh, and I might as well add that by far the most common question I receive from children, Eastern or Western, is “Why aren’t you wearing shoes?”
     I have found that when I am asked “How (or Why) did you become a monk?” there tends to be a subtle difference in attitude or inflection between how a Burmese Buddhist asks it and how a Westerner asks it. When a Burmese person asks the question there is usually an undertone of admiring wonder: they are surprised and impressed by the fact that a person from so far away, living in a (supposedly) Christian culture, where everyone (supposedly) is rich and happy, could become a Buddhist, move into a remote Burmese forest, and practice the Burmese religion at a level that the questioner himself or herself, as a Burmese person, is unable, unwilling, or unready to take on. With Westerners sometimes there is enthusiastic admiration and approval; although often the question seems to be asked more out of mild amazement or confusion over how such a thing could possibly happen. It seems so unnatural, and maybe it is unnatural.
     Anyway, I’ve been asked the question many times; and a few times readers of this blog have suggested that I write a book about my life. It’s been an interesting life, I guess—at least I’ve been interested. But I consider it presumptuous to write at length about myself unless there is some obvious potential benefit to the reader from my writing it. I don’t want to write such a thing for the purpose of trying to pass myself off as “special,” unless maybe in the sense that everyone is equally special. At the very least you should be entertained by any account of my life that I record, and if you are informed, instructed, encouraged, and/or inspired by it, then so much the better. So I’m finally endeavoring to answer the big question at length and in detail here, even for people who haven’t asked. At the very least you may see how it is possible for something so unnatural as an American citizen renouncing the world, more or less, to occur, and/or you might even be mildly entertained. Consider it an anthropological case history.
     The answer comes in two parts: first, a preliminary account of foundational circumstances that made me “susceptible” to monkhood in the first place, and then the narrative of how the thing actually happened. So, on with the preliminaries.
     The first source of momentum heading me toward monkhood is hypothetical, being based more or less upon an Indian interpretation of reality: that is, using some Buddhist jargon, pāramī from previous existences. Assuming that there is such a phenomenon as rebirth, if only for the sake of argument or to humor me, then it is pretty likely that I have moved in the direction of philosophy, renunciation, and a spiritual life in some, but possibly not all, of my previous lives. I may have alternated between lives of spiritual radicalism and lives of wallowing in sensuality; I’ve read that it works out that way for some beings. I have mentioned elsewhere, more than once even, that I was told long ago that in the human existence immediately preceding this one “I” was a well educated Baptist minister, fluent in Latin and Greek, who was ostracized from the clergy for holding unorthodox views, and eventually became the headmaster at a Christian school in early 20th century Georgia, USA. So, apparently, being a doctrinally unfettered American with Wrong View also goes back before this lifetime for me. I don’t remember that life at all though. It’s just what I’ve been told.
     Buddhist doctrine discourages monks from speculating about the past, which includes speculation about past lives. Really, it is only the present moment that really matters, since it’s the only moment that we can fully experience. But still, there have been many times when I have idly speculated, employing intuition, imagination, and “plausible” reasoning to account for personality traits of mine not easily explained by genetics and the past experiences of this particular life. I have a peculiar fascination or affinity for certain cultures in certain periods of history, but not for others seemingly just as interesting, for example. Going with this intuitive, imaginative way of thinking, I have a feeling (again, assuming that there is such a thing as rebirth, which can’t be proven empirically one way or the other) that one of my most important previous lives, one that was instrumental in making me what I am now, was that of a Catholic monk, maybe a Franciscan friar, who lived in England during the 14th century. I/he copied books for a living (the printing press not having been invented yet), despised the French (as this was the time of the Hundred Years’ War), was pretty much addicted to breaking my/his vow of chastity, was in other ways also a very sloppy monk, and died rather gruesomely from the Black Death, the bubonic plague, considering it, while lying on my/his deathbed, to be a just retribution from God for such a wayward life. Other possible past lives have been a snake-worshiping shaman type who induced mystical states through the use of drugs in prehistoric India, possibly somewhere on the outskirts of the Indus Valley Civilization; a Greek fellow who lived in the general area of Naples, Italy during the late Roman Republic and supported Cynic philosophers, although I/he wasn’t a wandering philosopher my/himself, but preferred dallying with slave girls instead; and, in the life immediately preceding the unorthodox Baptist minister, a late 18th-century Japanese man of the Samurai class, but not a fighter, just a teacher of philosophy. I feel that I may have been female a few times, but not many. At any rate, I have long had a deep feeling that it has been my purpose or “destiny” in this life, since before I was ever born, to be a monk, or at least a person who has dedicated his life to the cultivation of understanding. That is the direction in which I have been heading for a long time; I feel as though I have passed the point of no return; and before I became a monk it was as though an invisible hand was guiding, like chess pieces, me and circumstances around me, to ensure that I became a Buddhist monk. But I’ll get back to that eventually, maybe.   
     Usually when answering the question of how I became a monk, my answer begins with something like, “Well, for starters, I had a weird father.” In addition to inheriting 50% of his DNA, he was my first spiritual teacher…and an eccentric, or at least unusual, person by just about anyone’s standards. He had a deep love and yearning for unexplored frontiers, both physical and mental, and felt most at home while fighting for his life in a wilderness somewhere. In his younger days he was a brawler, a heavyweight boxer in the army, and had actually killed people, also in the army, as a soldier during the Second World War. He was a combination rowdy, poet, and shaman; and he used to say that he would have been happier if he had been born in the stone age. He lived in a surreal world, and considered this life to be a kind of dream state. He claimed to be able to see auras, and sometimes spirits, and our house was pretty obviously affected by the presence of a poltergeist when I was a boy (although parapsychologists theorize that poltergeist phenomena are not caused by actual “ghosts,” but by subconscious telekinetic activity in a living human). He experimented with ESP, hypnosis, spirit communications, and witchcraft, for a time being the warlock leader of a small coven of witch housewives. He also claimed the ability, under hypnosis, to astral travel, as well as the ability to remember a number of his past lives. (Whether he really accomplished these last states I can’t say—they may have been pure, hypnotically induced imagination—but I do know him well enough to know that he believed it himself, and was not just making it up.) As a kid, instead of watching TV or hearing the standard sort of bedtime stories, I would sit on his lap and listen in a state of fascination to his tales of fighting, big game hunting, wilderness survival, astral travel, sorcery, and past lives. Growing up with this sort of intellectual nonconformism of course prepared me to be openminded enough eventually to reject my own Western culture in favor of something very different.
     I have considered writing an article giving an account of my father’s hypnotic researches into rebirth and past lives, which I think could be interesting reading for those who are openminded enough to appreciate that sort of thing; but here I will give a brief account of a lifetime that my father identified with more than with most, by way of an example. He believed that, two lifetimes before the present one, he had been a Scottish man named Jason Haskell, who lived, evidently, sometime during the 18th century. Dad remembered only the most emotionally intense moments of that life, which, from what I have read, seems to be a common phenomenon in past life regressions. Assuming that such memories are valid, it may be that the most emotionally intense experiences make the biggest karma, and leave the biggest impression in one’s subconscious mind, or on the “Akashic Records,” or whatever. Anyway, one of his earliest memories of Jason Haskell is of him as a young man of about eighteen lying on a cot in a cottage, very ill with smallpox, and alone. He lay there raging against the people who had abandoned him (for fear of catching the disease themselves), and swearing revenge on all of them. He survived, but his face was pockmarked for the rest of his life. His next memory is of Jason lying on a grave and crying his heart out. He had the feeling, although he couldn’t be sure, that the grave was of Jason’s former sweetheart, and that he had killed her himself, presumably because of her rejection of him. A yearning for frontiers is allegedly a predominant theme in all my father’s lives, and Jason eventually became a sailor. One vivid memory or image is of a storm at sea: The ship, a wooden sailing ship of course, was carrying large blocks of marble in its hold, and during the heavy seas one of them had broken loose from its mooring ropes and was sliding back and forth in the hold. The sailors were frantically trying to secure it again before it beat a hole through the hull of the ship, and one of the sailors, struggling in the dark, was crushed against the ship’s side by the sliding block of stone. My father recalled very vividly Jason standing in the dark, below the decks of a storm-tossed ship, with a heart full of fear and dread, shouting out at the top of his lungs, “Bring aft a light!” The alleged Mr. Haskell eventually wound up in the foothills of the Himalaya mountains, possibly Nepal, as part of an exploring party. He remembered the clothing he wore in detail. At one point Haskell saw a small brass bowl sitting by the side of the trail. He wanted to take it as a souvenir, but a native guide warned him that some priest or magician had left it there to collect rainwater for some arcane purpose, and that he shouldn’t touch it. Jason ignored the warning and took the bowl. Later that afternoon, when they had stopped for the day, as he was bending over to put down his horse’s saddle, an arrow shot out of the bushes and caught him in the back, just below the shoulder blade, with the tip coming out his throat, and he died, coughing and choking.
     I can be skeptical of such past lives now—not rejecting them as false, but suspending judgement one way or the other for lack of sufficient data—but as a kid I was a true believer. I was very proud of my father, and considered him to be a combination of Socrates and Hercules. I considered my father to be far superior to other fathers, which is a common belief in young sons. 
     In addition to introducing me to the “occult,” as he called it, he also instilled in me a love of nature, and a liking for physical austerity. He began taking me on camping trips by the time I was about four (he claimed to have taken me moose hunting with him in Alaska when I was just a few weeks old, but I don’t remember it—I was pretty young then—and anyway I just lay on the backseat of the car while he got out and shot the moose), and by the time I was twelve or so he had stopped going easy on my younger brother and me and stopped bringing a tent on our trips into the wilderness. We slept on the ground under the stars. His own backpack was an old “Trapper Nelson” packboard made of wood and canvas and covered with old moose blood stains, with all the gear put into chicken feed sacks and lashed onto it. It was from him that I acquired a tendency to see comfort as an unnecessary luxury, and a desire for it as weakness. Some of his mottos were “A little pain never hurt anyone,” “A little clean dirt never hurt anyone,” and “You can do a heap of living if you’re not afraid to die.” I didn’t emulate him in all things; for example I didn’t emulate his past bar brawling or his apparently indiscriminate desire for women during the times he wasn’t married; but he was my first role model and my first spiritual teacher, and also the guy who taught me to value toughness and “manfulness,” which also helped me eventually to become an ascetic forest monk. 
     My mother, bless her heart, could not really compete with my father as an influence on my impressionable young mind. She was not stupid, but of average intelligence, and spiritually she was a child—she didn’t have a spiritual bone in her body. She seems to have accepted totally the mainstream point of view, and to have derived many if not all of her values from television, which she watched avidly. My main inheritance from her, aside from physical resemblance and a high-strung, nervous disposition, was shallowness of emotional feeling. She was definitely not a passionate woman, and may have never really loved any of her five husbands. My father also was married a total of five times, which brings up the issue of a somewhat dysfunctional family in general as an influence toward making me a monk. 
     I have been told that great spiritual figures tend to come from broken or dysfunctional homes; and, although I don’t consider myself a great spiritual figure, I do think that my family situation is another factor that facilitated my becoming a Buddhist monk. Neither my father nor my mother was particularly close with their respective families, both having left home at around the age of sixteen, being the respective black sheep of their families; and to this day I am still not exactly sure how many aunts and uncles I have—or used to have, since most or all of them are dead now. I have no idea how many cousins are out there, and wouldn’t hazard a guess. So I have had no strong sense of family connection serving to anchor me in Samsara, so to speak. My parents divorced when I was nine years old, and after that I moved from one home to another, shuttling between parents (both of whom remarried, and then re-remarried, and both of whom wanted custody of me), so that, combined with the shallow emotions and other factors, it all seemed like changes of scene in a dramatic production, and nothing to be deeply attached to. Sometimes I considered it all to be a dream, and felt like I should wake up from it eventually. It wasn’t necessarily a bad dream—I was a fairly happy kid actually—but still a dream.
     Thus even as a boy I already was equipped with some of the characteristics which facilitated my becoming, later on, a reclusive, forest-dwelling bhikkhu. I acquired a love of wilderness areas, feeling much freer, more natural, and cleaner in a forest than in a city, where invisible rules, expectations of others, and artificiality pervade the environment. For most of my life I have had more love for animals and trees than for my fellow human beings (with some notable exceptions, most of them being female).  And I’ve long had a love of being free and independent, and of working out my own understanding of the world instead of following along, sheeplike, with what I was told—which my father enthusiastically encouraged, so long as I wasn’t dissing him—with my mother not interfering with my father’s influence largely because she didn’t understand what was happening, or what I was heading toward. If she had known, she certainly wouldn’t have approved. 
     And speaking of my father’s enthusiastic encouragement, I have come to feel that this in itself was one of the most important formative influences in my life: He loved, respected, and deeply believed in me, in his surreal eccentricity believing that I could achieve practically anything in life. He was very proud of me, and I was told by a mutual friend that, just a few months before he died, he had told her that I was his “crowning glory.” That is a strange glory. There were times when he was thoroughly disgusted with me of course, especially when I was going through my rebellious feral teenager phase, and he considered my becoming a monk to be overdoing it, being rather too extremist even for his tastes; but overall his faith in me was unwavering, and a profound blessing, which much strengthened me in life. To have someone deeply believe in you is a very powerful thing. So there is that. Remember that if you want to strengthen and uplift others in life.
     Although by nature I do tend to be rather self-contained and to need little human companionship, I have had a life-long fascination for beautiful females. (Maybe I should say “girls,” but I’ve always liked women also, and had a crush on one of my teachers, and on Barbara Eden, and on Ginger on Gilligan’s Island, when I was little, and I shouldn’t say “women” because I also liked girls, especially when I was a boy; so “females,” although sounding impersonally biological, is about the best I can do here.) The idea of sharing my life with a sweet, loving woman fascinates me; and even the word “wife,” when I consider the meaning of it, has a kind of mysterious, mystical glow to it…yet I have always had an intuitive, almost instinctive wariness of anything which makes “big karma,” and that includes not only acts like killing, but also settling into a professional career, having children, and also choosing a mate. Partly because of this, and partly because of other reasons, including a youthful shyness, bordering on panic, when I was around girls I was attracted to, I’ve gotten into an almost lifelong habit of liking females, and one in particular, without doing much about it. Sometimes even if a girl I had a crush on in school made it plain that she liked me also, I usually still wouldn’t “go for it,” which has caused me to kick myself more than once in later years, as I recalled some beauty who practically threw herself at me at some stupid time or another. So a habit of admiring females from afar without pursuing them also served to help me become a monk. Maybe not being attracted to them at all would have been better, but still. More about girls a little later.
     One personality trait which no doubt was, at least in part, inherited from my father is a love of strangeness—I am tempted to say strangeness for its own sake, but more likely it is a love of strangeness because it is a kind of freedom from the narrow and shallow restraints of “normality.” Much more than most people, I seem to thrive on disorientation. This is obviously an asset for one questioning the fundamental axioms concerning reality that most people take for granted, exploring relatively deep meditative states, and realizing that ultimately there is no self. Since I was a kid I have cultivated a disdain for mainstream normality, which, in addition to manifesting a love for freedom, also appears to manifest some sort of radical egotism—not wanting to be just an average sheep in the flock. Better a lone wolf than a social sheep. I like weird, disorienting experimental music (My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by David Byrne and Brian Eno is one of my favorite albums, with this being the first track on side one); I love the surreal absurdity of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (with Monty Python and the Holy Grail being my favorite movie of all time); and I have had a decades-long fascination for certain types of mind-altering drugs.
     I usually did very well in school, and was usually a relatively good student, or even a relatively outstanding one, despite my laziness and aversion for homework; but I remember in grade school when we were taught all the “Just Say No” anti-drugs propaganda, all it did was fill me with a great curiosity and ambition to try it out, and a desire to become a hippie. It is odd that despite the fact that I knew nobody who used illegal drugs regularly at the time, being just a kid, I looked forward to being old enough to start taking mind-altering drugs the way many guys looked forward to losing their virginity. Hence my hypothetical assumption that I used drugs, or “sacred plant medicines,” regularly in at least one past life. Assuming that there are past lives.
     It would fit in with the flow of this narrative to discuss my early drug use in the next phase, the “play by play” account of the actual events leading up to my ordination; but here I will mention that the use of certain mind-altering substances, especially cannabis and LSD, was a key contributing factor in my journey to monkhood. For me, as well as for others before and after me, being exposed to an alternative perspective on reality, which in its own way is just as valid as the normal way, inspired me to begin looking for methods of expanding consciousness and “de-mundanifying” that did not require chemicals. Thus I found meditation. But to this day I have to admit that in some ways drugs like LSD are superior to meditation: for example, they are much more reliable, provided that you can get them. You take the substance, and a result is pretty much guaranteed. With meditation practice one may strive for years and rarely attain, or never attain, a state of expansion and clarity comparable to that of taking 500 micrograms of LSD, or maybe even of smoking some really good dope. So for more than ten years, starting when I was sixteen, drug use became my primary form of yogic practice. With LSD in particular I almost always wound up having religious experiences.
     Before I became a monk I was of the opinion that the only experience that could compare with the ecstasy of a good acid trip was the ecstasy of good sex; and although I was shy around women, wary of worldly attachment, and usually without a mate, it did happen sometimes. Which leads, pretty much, to another major factor in my eventual renunciation of the world: I was unlucky in love. 
     As a general rule, if I liked a girl she didn’t like me (or already had a boyfriend); and if she liked me I either didn’t like her or else didn’t “go for it” out of neurotic silliness or whatever; and if we liked each other and got together, then some calamity or damn inconvenience would inevitably crop up and muck up the whole situation. Part of the problem was that, since I usually didn’t chase girls, I usually wound up with the ones who chased me; and those who chased me tended to be naughty, “party girl” types who chased guys in general. Largely because of this, I never had a girlfriend who was faithful to me; and I contracted a venereal disease on three separate occasions, always from a girl I naively trusted and dearly loved. Another factor was that, since I am pretty far from the mainstream in various ways, it was always hard to find a girl who was “my type,” that is, who had an outlook on life and love similar enough to mine to allow for compatibility. Another serious factor, which may be even more true now than it was then, is that, if I were to have a mate, in a romantic relationship, I could not be satisfied by anything less than deep, sustained intimacy—wide open, with no secrets, with the two of us, in addition to retaining our former identities, merging into a third, new being, an us, and seeing, and honoring, Divinity in each other. And it appears, unfortunately, that most human beings, including most women, are unwilling or incapable of sustaining such intimacy. It requires being wide open, which is a kind of mystical or religious experience, and most people are afraid of the vulnerability of that, or just don’t comprehend that it is even possible. In my twenties I used to say, half-jokingly, that karma or “God” was keeping me pure by keeping me unattached.   
     The first sexual experience that I can remember occurred when I was approximately four years old. My mother and one of her best friends went shopping, or bowling, or something, and left me and the friend’s little daughter Laurie, also four, with a babysitter at our house. While Laurie and I were playing in the back yard she suggested that we play Doctor. I had never heard of it before, so she explained it to me: “First I pull my pants down and you examine me, then you pull your pants down and I examine you.” At that age I really didn’t see the point of it; but I’ve always been relatively openminded, so I was willing to give it a shot. So, little Laurie pulled her pants down and lay down on a pile of lumber at the edge of the yard…and I must admit I was disappointed. I felt like I had been cheated somehow. After all, a four-year-old girl, little temptress that she might be, has almost nothing to look at: all there is is a little vertical line. (I didn’t start appreciating the beauty of female genitalia until after I had reached puberty.) So anyway, when it was her turn to examine me, and I was lying on the woodpile with my pants down, the babysitter suddenly appeared on the back porch and yelled out, “What are you two doing out there!?” Whereupon little Laurie immediately burst into tears and began repeating over and over again, like a mantra, “He made me do it! He made me do it!” Even after we were both in the house with our pants up, minutes later, she continued crying and vehemently repeating the mantra to the babysitter, with me sitting there in a state of total bemusement. Thus I was seduced and betrayed by a four-year-old femme fatale. Don’t believe all that stuff about the innocence of children. Another thing I used to say half-jokingly was that my love life was all downhill after that date with little Laurie.
     But of course, being unlucky in love was part of the bigger picture in which I was fortunate in Dharma. Considering my fascination for girls/women, only miraculously bad luck could prevent me from marriage, then probably parenthood, and thus the construction of a huge obstacle toward living the so-called Holy Life. It is possible to live a life devoted primarily to Dharma in the world, with a family, but the Buddha would not have endorsed renunciation without a good reason. Almost needless to say, it is much easier for most to follow Dharma while unattached to a family. So I can’t really regret my past misadventures with females. It all goes into the hopper, and it has all led me to this moment. And this moment is perfect. (Incidentally, the last I heard of Laurie, maybe eighteen years after our interrupted game of Doctor, was that she was romantically involved with a Christian minister, or maybe just a fellow who was studying to be a Christian minister. I don’t remember now.)
     There are a whole slew of other contributing factors which I haven’t discussed in detail, such as above average intelligence (which, combined with the aforementioned disdain for mainstream orthodoxy and a familiarity with Eastern philosophy and the “occult,” helped me to see the limitations and undesirability of what almost everyone takes for granted as the only realistic or viable way); laziness (which allows me to sit practically motionless for hours without much, if any, boredom or restlessness); introversion; and even a weak sense of smell (which causes me to have less attachment for food) and lack of visual depth perception (which causes everything I see to appear as though it’s on a movie screen). And on top of all this, I just intuitively felt, and continue to feel at present, that living the life of a Buddhist monk is the best thing I could possibly do, the most profoundly “meaningful” (for lack of a better word) and beneficial way I could spend my life. I want to know Reality. That is even more important to me than romance and sex. A desire to transcend delusion is probably the number one reason why I became a monk, and remain one. And this despite certain un-monklike personality traits including a deep appreciation for intensity of experience, for example in the form of love for spicy food, strong drugs, strong beer, head-banging rock ’n’ roll, and naked, voluptuous, smiling women, which are some of the reasons why I put off becoming a monk as long as I did before finally taking the plunge.
     One of the best reasons for becoming a monastic, maybe even better than a desire for enlightenment—which is usually based on unrealistic assumptions anyway—is simply that the lifestyle and attitude of a monastic are in harmony with one’s nature; this is why, after becoming a monk, I have remained one for so long (approaching 25 years now), despite the fact that almost all of my monk friends, especially the Western ones, eventually dropped out and found themselves a woman and a job. It is also despite the fact that some people, including some presumably wise monks, have believed that I am at the very verge of flinging myself into the pit of destruction, so to speak. They tend to believe like this because I am defiantly unstereotypical, following my own nature, and don’t give much of a damn what they or others think, especially with regard to their thoughts on how I should be. And here I am, paradoxically lasting longer than the stereotypical ones. I suspect this is in part owing to the unnatural strain of conforming to a stereotype. It’s too fake, and most can’t keep it up for very long. 
     It is true, though, that I have no great emotional attachment to being an ordained monk. It’s the best I have found so far, but there’s no telling what I may find tomorrow or the next day. I try to be openminded and live each moment as it comes, and am not about to make any lifelong vows anytime in the foreseeable future. At present I’m not planning on dropping out of the Sangha; then again, Theravada Buddhist monasticism obviously doesn’t work very well in America, and I would like to interact with Western people who speak my own lingo more, and especially with a wise female or two, if possible. Yet what seems most likely in the near future is that I will give up on an America that doesn’t want me and go back to Myanmar, where people do want me. I don’t know. We’ll see how it goes.      


Saturday, December 5, 2015

Vipassana: Insight, Reflection, or Mindfulness Practice?

     I am writing this as a response to numerous communications made to me regarding Vipassana, and what it is, as there seems to be a modicum of confusion on the subject. Some people ask me about Vipassana practice, or “doing Vipassana.” A few practitioners of the Goenka method have mentioned Vipassana to me and have been surprised to be informed that Goenka-style body sweeping is not standard Vipassana straight out of the Pali texts, that that’s not simply what Vipassana is. The fact is that, as with other Buddhist terms like "karma" or "jhāna," many more people use the term than know quite what it means—or at any rate what it used to mean. Usage by the masses determines the meaning of words, so I’m not trying to be a linguistic hard-ass here. Everything, including a definition, is impermanent. But still, in the ancient Theravada Buddhist texts, vipassanā generally does not refer to the kind of meditation techniques that are called by that name in the West, and sometimes also in the East. 
     Frankly, I don’t even like to use the word “vipassana.” “Insight” is a perfectly adequate English rendering, and there are other adequate English words for other possible meanings of the Pali one. “Vipassana” may be, in common usage, so vague as to be almost meaningless. Consequently, in order to clarify the situation a little (just a little), to untangle the tangle somewhat, I’m writing about it, even though I don’t much like using the “v” word.
     The Pali word vipassanā is a compound of the prefix vi- and the verbal noun passanā, the latter meaning, quite literally, “seeing.” Vi- literally means something like “apart,” so that vipassanā could theoretically mean something like “seeing apart” or discriminating; but vi-  is also frequently used simply as an intensifier. For example, mokkha can mean “liberation”; but the final liberation of enlightenment is more frequently stressed as vimokkha. Similarly, suddhi means purity, but visuddhi is used in a sense to stress complete purity in a spiritual sense. So the Pali word vipassanā can be said to mean something like “deep seeing”; and thus “insight” really is not a bad English equivalent.
     The thing is that, technically speaking, you really don’t DO Vipassana. It is not a bodily action, nor is it intellectual, or even particularly volitional. (The act of looking is volitional, but simply seeing may be assumed to be otherwise.) Vipassana, or at least vipassanā, is, strictly speaking, an intuitive insight which arises spontaneously, often, but not always, as a result of meditation. Insight may also be triggered by such events as hearing a discourse or by experiencing some profound shock, even by the experience of dying. It is a prerequisite for enlightenment (whatever that is), so anyone who attains enlightenment experiences liberating insight; and it appears pretty obvious, judging from the literature, that not everyone who becomes enlightened is practicing meditation at the time.
     Furthermore, even when insight does arise from meditation, the meditation is not necessarily what is commonly referred to as “Vipassana meditation”—so I suppose I should discuss, very briefly, the two main types of meditation in Buddhism. We may ignore for the moment the fact that they are usually distinguished as samatha and vipassanā. 
     The two main types of meditation in Buddhism, or at least in Theravada Buddhism, are based upon samādhi or “concentration,” and sati or “mindfulness.” Concentration here involves the quieting and simplifying of the contents of the mind, the unification of mind. Mindfulness, on the other hand, involves being wide awake in the present moment, in the seen only the seen, and so forth; it implies living up to Ram Dass’s old motto of Be Here Now. These two modes of meditation are not mutually exclusive, and can be practiced beautifully together—in fact they can supplement each other. Fourth jhāna, which is often considered to be the highest level of concentration, is identified in the texts with “purity of mindfulness.” A clear, still, quiet mind makes intent awareness much easier, and vice versa. This clarity, stillness, and quietness can rightfully be called samatha, or “tranquillity.” But neither of these two forms of meditation, strictly speaking, is the same as vipassanā. 
     One of my favorite examples of how liberating insight can arise is a description found in the Small Discourse on Emptiness in the Majjhima Nikāya (M121). In this case it arises from extreme samatha practice. A meditating monk progressively empties his mind through solitude and highly refined concentration until he goes beyond fourth jhāna and attains “the formless concentration of mind,” or animitta cetosamādhi. This presumably represents the absolute limit that a meditating mind can reach, the highest possible meditative state. After inevitably coming out of that state, and seeing that even this highest state is not enlightenment, he realizes thus: 
“This signless concentration of mind too is conditioned and volitionally determined; and whatever is conditioned and volitionally determined is impermanent and subject to cessation.” And knowing thus, seeing thus, his mind is liberated from the encumbering influence of sensual desire, liberated from the encumbering influence of the momentum of existence, liberated from the encumbering influence of ignorance. In the liberation there is the knowledge “I am liberated.” He realizes, “Finished is birth, lived to fulfillment is the Holy Life, done is what needs to be done. There is no more of this or that state of existence.”   
This realization is a poetic description of liberating insight, vipassanā.
     Partly because of textual accounts like this, I suspect, hyperintellectual Buddhist systematologists of ancient India interpreted vipassanā as a kind of exercise of reflection, and elaborated upon it mightily. Thus orthodox tradition tells us that Vipassana is a training to be developed along with the other trainings of morality and concentration. The cultivation of this Vipassana is declared to occur in a five-stepped sequence beginning with insight into corporeal form and ending with the application of the Three Marks (of anicca, dukkha, and anattā) to the interacting duality of mind and matter as conditioned by Dependent Co-arising. There are claimed to be nine stages, and eighteen chief kinds, or Great Insights. All this shows that, far from remaining a spontaneous, non-intellectual realization, vipassanā evolved into a very non-intuitive technical term. Insight turned into an intellectual discipline—but even this is not the same as what is usually called “Vipassana meditation” nowadays. Actually, I’m not quite sure how Vipassana came to be identified with satipaṭṭhāna or mindfulness practice, unless maybe it was incorporated into dhammānupassanā, the fourth factor of satipaṭṭhāna. With regard to technical matters, I suggest that the one technicality that may be genuinely useful to know is that insight, in order for it to be liberating insight, must involve, according to tradition, the application of the Three Marks to one’s experience.
     (Also I will add, in parentheses, that the aforementioned nine stages of vipassanā, the so-called insight knowledges, starting with udayabbayānupassanā-ñāṇa, or “the knowledge of the reflection on arising and passing away,” form a kind of theoretical backbone to certain Burmese mindfulness techniques such as the Mahasi method. One may be required to experience these insights, in the proper sequence, in order to be recognized as an Ariya. But enough of technical lists.) 
     Consequently, bearing all this in mind, it is clear that a person may practice samatha meditation and experience liberating insight; or, on the other hand, one may practice mindfulness till one is blue in the face and still be very far away from it. So again, you don’t really DO genuine insight. Nyanatiloka’s Buddhist Dictionary, before diving into a swamp of technical gobbledygook, defines vipassanā as “the intuitive light flashing forth and exposing the truth of the impermanency, the suffering and the impersonal and unsubstantial nature of all corporeal and mental phenomena of existence.” Or, to be even less technical than that, it can be defined as simply a kind of “click” which allows one, suddenly, to see Reality more clearly. That click can be evoked by clear mindfulness, and it can also be evoked by jhāna, or the prodding of a teacher, or even a blow to the head. Mindfulness definitely helps, though.
     But seriously, call it whatever you like, and continue being a member of an Insight Meditation group which endorses the practice of Vipassana meditation in the form of mindfulness—it’s quite all right by me. But do please bear in mind the discussion above if you wish to discuss Buddhist meditation with me, as I’m fussy about the “V word” and its usage. I’d appreciate that. Be mindful, good luck in your practice, and may you experience genuine insight.  

(this is what you get when I write about abstractions)


     Just for the niraya of it I used Google’s automatic translation gadget, similar to the one on the sidebar of this blog, to translate this post into Bosnian, then Japanese, then Swahili, and finally back into English again. Following are the first two paragraphs, followed by the last two paragraphs, processed, of the preceding essay. Artificial intelligence apparently has a ways to go before surpassing human beings in certain language skills.

Vipassana Insight, meditation, or mindfulness practice?

     Why am I me of Vipassana, of this writing, depending on the number of contacts. There seems to be little respect to the subject of confusion. Some people, "do Vipassana." Did you ask me about Vipassana practice, the body sprinkled with some of my on Vipassana mentioned pentachloride practice of law and was surprised but style pentachloride, Vipassana rate, that is not just what is Vipassana, provide information that is not directly from the text of the Pali. In fact, like other words Buddhist as karma and Jhana, the more people use it with a long, but it is, what they are is being used for it, at least mean - Do you know the exact amount of the expenditure, since determining the meaning words, I'm here. I'll try not to be the butt of a hard language throughout. All of them, including definitions, are temporary. But still, in the ancient texts of Theravada Buddhism, Vipassana, in general, Western countries, sometimes to the east It does not apply to the type of meditation that is called by that name.
     In fact, I do not know if that also use the words "Vipassana." "Insight" is very correct English words, there are other suitable English word for other possible fire 1. It may be "Vipassana", in normal use, it is controversial because many meanings. I but finally there is a lot, such as using the word "V", obviously a little (just a little) the situation, in order to elucidate more tangled, and I will write upon him….

     Consequently, to hold all this in mind, a person makes Samatha meditation, it is clear that you can experience release awareness. One is blue in the face, until still has far too much, or, on the other hand, will be able to perform calm. So, once again, truly original insights. Nyanatiloka The Buddhist dictionary, before jumping in a pool of shit technical, Vipassana is flashing "bright light and are defined as follows, etc. and impermanency, both physical and mental existence and suffering and to expose the truth about the nature of the grounds of faceless phenomenon . "Otherwise, it is true that the technical compliance, it only can be defined as a form of" click "which may be one, suddenly, please you to see clearly the truth. Click on this, you can clear the memory is caused by, and Jhana or interesting teacher or even to the head, can be induced to blow,. Mindfulness But definitely helps.    
     But seriously, you can take what you want, still a member of the group to consider supporting the awareness of the practice of Vipassana meditation in the form mindfulness fine is only for me. However, to use it as a "search", if I was nervous, please bear discussion and I say Buddhist meditation. I appreciate it. Please note Fortunately fact, you really are generating awareness.