Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Next Moment/Life

     This post may be so disorientingly philosophical and “out there” as to be unreadable to most readers. Just saying.

     Recently I was attending an Asian festival celebration in California (I attend lots more of them in California than I ever did in Asia); and amidst the ceremonies and commotion and food I suddenly had this idea for a philosophical essay. In fact after that I was eager to leave the celebration quickly so I could write it down. It may be of little interest to dedicated followers of Scientism, and may not be of actual use to anybody else, including me; but it challenges established ideas, so I like it. My calling in life is to challenge ideas, and thereby to introduce chaos into order…until chaos starts gaining the upper hand, whereupon I will switch sides. 
     In previous posts, especially in “What Is Belief” (12 Sep 2015 ), I have mentioned that the great Scottish philosopher David Hume pounded away at the interesting idea, possibly even the empirical fact, that causality cannot be experienced directly, but must be inferred, and that therefore its very existence is merely an educated guess, and consequently ultimately uncertain. According to Hume, we do not even experience the inward causal force of volitional mental states directly, but simply experience an intention and then experience the apparent fruit of that intention, without actually experiencing as such any causative force in addition to these two, which links them. We consistently observe a temporal sequence, A followed by B, so we assume the existence of a causative force, and assume that A causes B. Thus causality is a very convenient axiom that we adopt for the purpose of interpreting phenomena in this world, and it generally remains unquestioned and unexamined, even by scientists; but it may be no more than a psychological gimmick, based upon a deeper psychological quirk, for interpreting Reality, with events (assuming that those exist) really being connected together by something else. 
     Mainly what I am trying to point out here, for the sake of “softening up” the reader for what comes after, is that causality may be an established fact for almost all of the human race, but that it is ultimately uncertain nevertheless. There is in all likelihood no way of absolutely proving its existence. For instance, all the phenomena we see around us could be a kind of projection, with no more motive force in anything than there is in events projected on a screen: it sure looks like the car is crashing through a plate glass window, but on a movie screen the “car” has no actual momentum at all. This world could all be a kind of vivid dream, or projected illusion. Some philosophers of the past have realized this possibility, and have provided God as the one who supplies all the actual power, although there are other theoretical possibilities. 
     In a different previous post (“Abhidhamma Studies II: Arising and Passing Away,” posted 8 Feb 2014) I pointed out that, although orthodox Theravada Buddhism accepts causality as a primary explanation for phenomenal processes, the orthodox Theravadin Abhidhamma philosophy appears to leave no possibility of causation over time. Abhidhamma scholars assert that all phenomena are arising and passing away, blinking in and out of existence a trillion or so times every second, with a cause A appearing, then totally disappearing, somehow followed by effect B—despite the fact that B is arising after A had entirely ceased to exist. Consequently, since Abhidhamma also asserts that the past is nonexistent, the result arises from a nonexistent cause, which is the same as to say that it arises from no cause whatever. Everything ceasing to exist at the end of each moment, before the next version of everything appears to assume the form of the next moment, produces a clean break with any conceivable causal force over time. To this day I am unsure how a devout Abhidhammist would meet this challenge. 
     This orthodox derailing of causation in Buddhist philosophy doesn’t bother me much, partly because I have a perverse love of paradox, and partly because my own best guess as to why our universe seems to exist also leaves no room for genuine causation. The two main articles on this blog which deal with my own favorite metaphysical Theory of Everything are “The Simile of the Block of Marble” and “Jumping the Shark: A Return to the Uncarved Block” (5 Jan 2013 and 15 March 2014); so anyone interested can look them up and read them, as I won’t explain the uncarved block of marble again here. Here I will just observe that, according to the theory, everything that possibly can exist, does exist, essentially simultaneously, and everything is superimposed upon everything else in a dimensionless, timeless point. Consequently, it is what the Buddhists call individual ignorance (avijjā) that filters out everything except what it is ready to see, with one moment and the next being connected by perceived similarity. There is no real connection between one moment and the next, as is implied by Abhidhamma also; rather, the peculiar form of our perceiving mind chooses a series of similar yet differing events which we call “life” or “the real world.” The lottery of possible quirks provides a direction and an underlying “theme.” So similarity and a kind of default quirk we have received produce the appearance of causality. According to the theory.
     Mere similarity may seem totally inadequate as a link between one mental state, say, and the next. But the following scenario may help to show that there is possibly something to it.
     It is a fairly common occurrence in science fiction stories, and it may become plausible in the “real world” within a few decades, for a human personality to be downloaded into a computer. This may be accomplished by programming a virtual, digital human brain, or by other methods. A recent example of this in science fiction is in the movie Transcendence, and in the novel Eon the author Greg Bear describes a human society in which most of the inhabitants are downloaded into computers, with no organic body or brain at all. So the philosophical question here is (and this is what occurred to me at the festival): What is the relationship between the original mind and the mind after it is downloaded? Is it the same mind, the same personality, the same person?
     I think we can rule out pretty easily the possibility that the downloaded personality is the same as the one before it, by considering the possibility that the downloading process does not necessitate the death of the original organic human. As far as the person is concerned, her or his mental patterns may be in the computer now, but she or he continues to identify, with no perceived lapse of any sort, with the original analog version. The downloaded personality may “remember” events which occurred to the original, and may feel the same at first—although of course the radical difference in living situation would almost immediately facilitate a drift away from the biological version: the new mind may have many, very powerful sense organs which radically alter the entity’s quality of experiencing the world, or on the other hand the person may lose all interest in the “real world” in favor of a much more interesting virtual reality.
     One aspect of this scenario which interests me is that fact that people will be downloading themselves into computers (assuming that this ever becomes possible) largely for the sake of some semblance of immortality; yet the original person still dies, and is replaced by a different mind which only resembles it, or at least resembles it at first. Is this really immortality then, or even some realistic consolation for dying? Is it accurate to say that someone doesn’t die because there is still someone very much like them? I suppose many people feel this way about their children, but even an identical twin surviving the other twin’s death seems obviously very different from the other surviving.
     Many people would go for it though, considering the digitization process to be really a prolongation of themselves. The new virtual person may feel like the original, and of course have the same long term memories, regardless of the fact that it is not identical with its forerunner, but only similar. It would be considered good enough to count as a virtual continuation of the individual’s personality. The new virtual identity could be “born” long after the original person died, after stored files are activated, and far away from any place where the original person ever lived.
     The point that all of this is meandering to is that, setting aside the strange idea that every moment is related to its predecessor and successor only by similarity (plus psychological quirks), the process of rebirth, alleged to function by such groups as Buddhists and Hindus, may also be no more than the similarity of two or more personalities. Much as with a downloaded psychological simulacrum, similarity and overlap of characteristics may be sufficient to warrant a feeling of identity between two entities. If there is to be found in another enough similarity with “me,” there may be some empirical validity to saying that the other really is “me,” or sort of me or a virtual me. There may be a subjective feeling of identity. Thus rebirth could be said to exist, and have a certain validity, without any empirically determined connecting principle other than similarity. A certain feeling of “me” may be sufficient to assert a quasi continuation of a being’s mentality. 
     This same principle of similarity could also help to explain feelings of deep empathy or compassion: To the extent that we are subjectively similar, to that same extent we are the same being. We feel the other’s unhappiness because, in a deeply fundamental sense, we are the other.
     The similarity interpretation of rebirth (Buddhists don’t like the term “reincarnation” for some reason) would not rule out the possibilities of two “me’s” at the same time, however. Also it would not be the only means of explaining the possibility, at least, of rebirth. For example, there may be connections between one thing and another that are simply beyond the understanding of mere human apes, or beyond the limited flexibility of their imagination, regardless of how well educated and scientific they and their computers are. If a three-dimensional being were to insert the tines of a fork into a two-dimensional Flatland, the 2D inhabitants would sense four entirely unconnected, yet similar, metallic shapes. The shapes would be obviously separate from such a limited point of view, although clearly part of the same object from a less limited one. And we humans may be oblivious to other dimensions.
     Anyway, this still would not explain how karma fits into the equation, how it could function as a connecting principle between lives. We may as well just leave it that way for now.   

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Karma Monster

     “No psychic value can disappear without being replaced by another of equivalent intensity.” —Carl Jung

     This post, or document (“document” sounds more dignified), is somewhat of a hybrid of two previous articles: “Hysteria and the Holy Life” (on how religious restraint of natural urges can result in pathological symptoms), posted 15 June 2013, and “The Autopilot” (on how karma as force of habit semiconsciously drives us through life), posted 11 April 2015. It echoes other articles also, and is another attempt at examining a point that I have danced/lurched around several times over the course of this blog. I intend to write on how the force of karma considers itself to be “me,” in a sense, and rebels against attempted deep improvements of the system, seeing them as a threat to its own identity and existence.
     The principle in question applies not only to effects of the so-called Holy Life, but to life in general. Here is a fairly common example: Two people fall in love. They are very happy, exultant even, feeling like they have never felt before in their lives. Then, one of them starts to panic, thinking that the situation is just too good to be true, and abruptly bails out or else begins picking fights and pushing the other person away, leaving the other person totally bewildered, and possibly heartbroken besides. There may be many reasons for explaining this, although the karma monster hypothesis is this: Being so expanded and so happy is too different from one’s habitual mode of existence, putting it in violent conflict with one’s own karma—which, as I have tried to explain before, can be explained in terms of the habitual momentum of one’s mental energy. One’s habitual mode of being sees such radical change as a threat, and fights against it, even though it may be a state of rapture that it is rejecting. 
     (Before moving on I should point out that, going with a more or less Buddhist interpretation of karma, both people are creating the situation; so although the decision of the one rebelling against the romance may seem unilateral, actually deep volitional actions of the other’s karma, though perhaps invisible, are also causing the relationship to end. Which brings up the paradox, or miracle, of everyone’s karma dovetailing and resonating, regardless of how one-sided events may seem on the surface.)
     This kind of karmic reaction can happen when two people at different levels of spiritual development interact closely. Ram Dass, in one of his early books, mentioned something along these lines. He said that when he was doing intensive spiritual practice in India he developed certain siddhis, or “powers,” which could affect the attitudes of other people; so that when he returned to America he found that people with whom he interacted would make remarkable spiritual progress…but that it wouldn’t last, since it was something imposed upon them artificially, so to speak. They would revert back to the original, less happy state. It just wasn’t their karma to be that advanced just yet.
     Similar things can happen with intensive meditation practice, or intensive religion in general. In extreme cases the individual in question may dramatically catapult himself or herself right out of the situation, often inventing incredible excuses for their behavior, or just being too irrational even to bother with excuses. In less extreme cases the resistance of one’s karma may manifest in the form of subtle sabotage. In even less extreme cases it may not be noticed at all, although it is still there.
     A big reason why I’ve been thinking on this subject lately is because during the month-long intensive meditation retreat I participated in recently I was noting my own mind rebelling against the practice in various ways. Following are some odd symptoms I experienced:

     Irritability, etc. While doing intensive practice I found myself at times being unusually irritable. The irritation was usually not directed toward my fellow yogis, or toward anyone actually present (with a few exceptions, like the gardener using a very loud leaf blower for hours outside the meditation hall—one or twice I even momentarily fantasized about punching him); instead I would remember people I had interacted with years previously and feel resentment and indignation, finding fault aplenty…then note it, being surprised at such violent feelings over people I hadn’t seen in years. Frustration and sadness over a long-defunct relationship also arose. Also criticism of the meditation method, and of just about anything else criticizable. 
     Compulsive thinking. There were a few times in particular during the retreat when my thinking mind vehemently insisted upon wandering, running amuck even, with efforts to bring it back to the “primary object” being almost completely futile. At such times the only strategy that proved effective was a kind of cittānupassanā or contemplation of the mind itself, watching the intellect carefully in order to catch thoughts as soon as they would arise.
     Drifting, unresponsive mind. This one was most likely late at night, when I was sleepy, but could occur at any time. The mind seemed shallow, contracted, crude, inflexible, intractable. Attempts to note an object would seem almost futile, since even when the mind wasn’t wandering, the noting would simply “bounce off” the object without penetration, as though I were trying to drive a nail into a rock. There wasn’t much that could be done about it, as the ability to do anything of the sort was itself compromised. 
     “The breathing problem” (dyspnea). This is a peculiar phenomenon that traditionally arises when I do intensive Dharma practice. Technically it is called a “hysterical conversion reaction,” a psychosomatic symptom in which my breathing becomes irregular, and I experience an intense urge to inhale very deeply, like heaving a sigh, in order to make a strange feeling near my sternum (temporarily) disappear. It is somewhat similar to the reflex to yawn. It was distracting and unpleasant, but I managed to resist it much of the time by applying mindfulness: I would simply observe the strange urge to sigh, without acting upon it. It was very similar to not scratching an itch, but just watching it mindfully. (For that matter, some or most of the facial itches I experienced may have been psychosomatic.)
     Compulsive saliva swallowing. Especially during the latter half of the retreat I continually experienced a compulsive urge to swallow while meditating, much more than was normal. Excessive psychosomatic salivation may have been part of the problem; and I usually just swallowed, as it felt as though my mouth was filling with slobber. I applied mindfulness but still obeyed the urge to swallow.
     Tightness in chest, with difficulty in breathing deeply. There were a few times, especially at night, when I was usually most “vulnerable” to my own mind fighting against the practice, when my chest would become very tight, making it somewhat difficult to breathe. Deliberately relaxing the muscles in my chest had little effect, and it seemed that the tightness in question was deeper than the pectoral muscles anyway. It felt as though my upper torso was locking up with tension. It was pretty obviously a kind of passive aggression carried out by the subconscious mind or ego, and at times I just wanted to slap myself for sabotaging the practice.
     “Leaning.” A few times I felt as though I were leaning to the side, or too far forward, or too far backward, and would then apply some mindfulness of bodily posture in order to gauge the situation and correct it. But in such cases I found that I wasn’t leaning at all. It was just another strange distraction.
     Twitches and painful muscle spasms. I experienced an unusual amount of twitching and painful spasms during the retreat, so I suppose that at least some of it was also a psychosomatic symptom of the character fighting against significant change. 
     Discouragement and an inclination to give up. As with everything else that arises, the best strategy for dealing with discouragement is simply to note it and let it go, every time it arises. It’s just a mental state, and is not “me.” 
     “The great forgetting.” A common experience of many people after a retreat is that they feel “blissed out” after leaving it and returning to the so-called “real world”; they can feel the momentum of calmness and mental subtlety continuing from the retreat for days afterwards, especially when dealing with unblissful, hectic non-meditators. I have experienced this in the past also. But after the recent retreat it was virtually nonexistent; there was an immediate dissipation of momentum. It was as though some aspect of my mind wanted to blot out the effects of the retreat as quickly and totally as possible, or maybe it just backlashed automatically as a way of restoring the previous equilibrium. 

     Based on my studies of history and the biographies of saints, it appears that such phenomena as those listed above, and even more severe ones like hallucinations and life-threatening physical debilities, occur even in very highly advanced spiritual beings. The karma-induced flow of unspiritual and even anti-spiritual mental states continues to arise, based upon momentum from the past. According to Buddhist texts, even a fully enlightened being experiences such past-conditioned mental states. The main difference between them and the rest of us is that they are not carried away by them. They are mindful and detached, presumably, and allow them to arise and pass away, without being caught. 
     This explanation of anti-Dharmic sabotage—i.e., that it is caused by the unstoppable flow of karmic volitions from the past—is just one way of accounting for the phenomenon. Another is that a person’s ego or force of character is like an animal, and, like an animal, will fight for its life against perceived threats to its existence. 
     Another way of explaining the phenomenon (and these explanations are not necessarily mutually exclusive, as there is always more than one way of looking at things) is in terms of addiction. It is not only drugs that one can become addicted to. We are addicted to thinking, addicted to anger, addicted to lust, addicted to the unhappiness that we think we are trying to eliminate, addicted to everything we do habitually, addicted to existence itself. (This last, comprehensive addiction is called bhavo in Pali.) Thus when we go “cold turkey” on our addictions we go through a kind of withdrawal, and the subconscious mind starts becoming desperate, and behaving desperately. 
     The next interpretation occurred to me while I was at the retreat: Radical self-restraint like that practiced at a Mahasi meditation retreat has an obstructing effect on the normal flow of our energies. We sleep little, move in slow motion, avoid interpersonal interaction, avoid “having fun,” and essentially avoid everything except self-observation and the necessities of bodily maintenance. Furthermore, when our meditation gets deeper our breath rate and presumably also our metabolic rate decrease to well below the norm. The effect is similar to damming a river, with the usual, habitual energy, or at least some of it, gradually building up more and more pressure behind the dam; and if the dam is not perfect the reservoir behind it may burst through in a dramatic eruption, or more likely find obscure ways of flowing around it. One certainly feels as though one’s natural inclinations are being dammed up. It is a deep, chronic frustrated feeling.
     The obvious question which arises here is: What can we do about it? How do we practice Dhamma without our subconscious ego sabotaging the whole thing and turning it into a mess? One venerated, traditional approach is the application of the principle in the quote by Jung at the top of this post: One cannot simply evaporate unskillful momentum, so one transmutes it into a more skillful form, in accordance with the Law of Conservation of Energy. To give a very basic example of this, it has been well known for hundreds of years that the surest cure for dipsomania (an old word for alcohol addiction) is theomania, that is, addiction to God—or in other words, to “find religion.” Very messed-up troublemakers can really clean up their lives by becoming religious fanatics…with the same intense emotional investment in their new religion as they had for their former troublemaking. Most if not all of them consider this energetic phase change to be an excellent tradeoff, even though some of their friends and family might prefer the old party animal to the new evangelist. But although keeping oneself out of trouble by giving oneself an addiction less destructive, yet of equal intensity, is only a makeshift. One still has an equivalent magnitude of karmic momentum keeping one stuck in Samsara. Ideally the new addiction will be designed in such a way that the person is able to gradually, gently outgrow it, and leave it behind. But it doesn’t always work that way.
     A more advanced alternative, and one more likely to be successful in the long run, if one can manage it, is to practice mindfulness with a vengeance. Watch the addiction, watch the symptoms, note them, and let them go. And keep doing that for as long as it takes. It may be damned unpleasant at times, but we watch the damned unpleasantness too, since that also is a symptom, and note it, and let it go. And if we keep doing it, and don’t give up, then the strength of the old habits/addictions/karma expends itself without being reinforced, and without being simply translated into an equivalent problem. An old habit is like a stray dog: If you keep feeding it, it may never go away; but if you stop feeding it, it may hang around for quite awhile, but eventually it will give up and clear out. The same goes for the ego monster itself. 


Saturday, February 13, 2016


     It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything. —Tyler Durden, in the movie Fight Club

     When I first moved into Taungpulu Kaba-Aye Monastery with the intention of becoming a monk, one of the lay attendants already residing there was a tallish, thinnish, middle-aged German woman with long, light brown hair, who went by the name of Vaṇṇamālā. She had previously been a disciple of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, with the Hindu name Sarjana; and after the illustrious Bhagwan was evicted from the United States, she apparently went in search of a new guru, and somehow settled upon the old Burmese abbot of TKAM, venerable Hlaing Tet Sayadaw. I was told that she had lived at the monastery before, and had been kicked out for unspecified reasons; but to the surprise of some of the others associated with the place, she had been invited back by the monastery’s administration in San Francisco, presumably with the intention of utilizing her as a “mole” for supplying the administration with information on the goings-on at the monastery.
     Both of us stayed in the laypeople’s area on the lower floor of the main building, and we naturally interacted sometimes. She was friendly and liked to talk—although her slow, rambling, roundabout way of talking caused me to feel frustrated and uneasy, as I would know the end of her sentences long before she ever reached them. The feeling was somewhat similar to how I would feel as a young man driving behind a hat-wearing old fellow going ten miles below the speed limit. It was like, “OK, come on, you can move onto the next sentence, because I already know this one!” I tended to steer clear of her, as did others. But there were no real problems, at first.
     The situation escalated into a full-blown predicament about two months after my arrival, at approximately the same time as my ordination as a bhikkhu. Venerable Mahasi U Paṇḍita of Burma was leading a two-week intensive meditation retreat at our monastery, and we lay attendants were encouraged to join the retreat. It turned out that I was so preoccupied with preparing to renounce the world that I dropped out after a few days, but Vaṇṇamālā was keen on meditation and was going for it. Maybe she was going for it a little too intensively, however, as at one point she apparently had what could be called a psychotic episode: She began hearing voices and became convinced that she had attained “samādhi concentration” and had become fully enlightened. Due to this and a few other contributing factors, the retreat organizers changed their minds and told the monastery attendants, including Vaṇṇamālā, that they shouldn’t participate in the retreat any longer. But Vaṇṇamālā’s “enlightenment” continued unabated. 
     For several days afterwards she appeared very disheveled, as though she were drunk, and would stagger and/or dance around, occasionally giggling to herself. One day she walked many miles to Santa Cruz to consult a certain book at a New Age metaphysical bookstore, to verify her belief that she was enlightened. Once I overheard her saying to someone that “the voice” had told her that now was the time for her to begin her “energy teachings.” On another occasion when she was serving Hlaing Tet Sayadaw his breakfast, she informed him, “Now a Buddha is serving you.” Her behavior became so erratic that another one of the attendants downstairs, a young Chinese woman, was expressing some serious alarm. But instead of expelling Vaṇṇamālā, the administration in San Francisco expelled the Chinese woman.
     Vaṇṇamālā stopped going to the kitchen to receive her meals, insisting that someone bring her food to her, as was done for Sayadaw. She also began insisting that people bow to her, as they did to the monks. Most importantly from a practical point of view, she stopped helping in the kitchen, and stopped serving as an attendant altogether. At one point there was a shortage of monastery attendants, or “kappiyas”; and we monks (I was ordained by this time) would be in the kitchen washing dishes while Vaṇṇamālā would be sitting in the yard playing with the cats.
     Sometimes people would confront her and ask why she wasn’t helping out anymore. She might give some reply to the effect that some people like cats and some people don’t like cats; but as for herself, she liked them. If the inquisitor persisted, brushing aside the non sequiturs with, “That’s fine Vaṇṇamālā, but why don’t you help in the kitchen anymore?” she would eventually close her eyes, tilt her head back a little, assume a blissful smile, and become immobile like a statue until the troublemaker eventually went away. 
     She had two main allies at the monastery: the venerable abbot himself, who did not speak English and did not understand what she said, and who was rather a simple village person anyway; and Michael, another one of the lay attendants who, like Vaṇṇamālā herself, was living on the outer fringe of acceptability and remained there largely due to the favor of Sayadaw. He was one of those interesting, hot-blooded, abrasive Hebrew guys who inevitably rub some people the wrong way, although I personally liked him. Michael had a very high opinion of Hlaing Tet Sayadaw, and one day, to my amazement, he informed me that, according to Sayadaw, Vaṇṇamālā had attained second jhāna. That was good enough for Michael. As for myself, however, I had begun to suspect that Vaṇṇamālā was mentally unhinged. 
     I looked up her symptoms in a home medical guide at the monastery—tangential thought, hearing voices, freezing like a statue, seeing no point in cooperation with others, etc.—and it appeared that she had a classic, textbook case of schizophrenia. However, to my further amazement, when I would mention this to others at the monastery, nobody would believe me. Aside from Sayadaw, who seemed to believe that she had second jhāna, the other Burmese monks figured she was just pretending because she didn’t want to work in the kitchen. (At least one Burmese monk openly despised her, referring to her as “the snake.”) The only other Western monk there, besides me, was an avid student of Abhidhamma; and since Abhidhamma does not account for mental illness, except to the extent that it asserts that everyone who is not fully enlightened is insane, he denied that schizophrenia even exists. When I broached the subject with the secretary of the board of directors she immediately exclaimed, “Michael’s the crazy one!” I was eventually vindicated, however: There was a research psychiatrist interested in Buddhism who would visit sometimes; and once when we were at a nearby park I was giving a few details about the strange goings-on at the monastery, not even for the purpose of presenting Vaṇṇamālā as a case for his professional consideration, and he interrupted me to say, “It sounds like you’ve got a psychotic living there.” He was not a psychiatrist who minced words.
     At this point I digress with the purpose of discussing certain words which might be applied to people like Vaṇṇamālā. “Crazy” and “insane,” and to some degree even “psychotic,” are viewed as politically incorrect, derogatory, and offensive now, with a term like “mentally ill” being considered more polite and acceptable. But I consider such political correctness to consist largely of silliness and bovine herd instinct. “Crazy” has acquired connotations that are not entirely negative, for example one can be “crazy” about something that one really likes, or call something or someone “crazy” out of intense admiration; whereas “ill” is always, or almost always, used as a negative term. “Mentally ill” may thus be seen as more condescending, with more negative connotations, and possibly even more derogatory. Furthermore, I do not consider all so-called psychoses to be states of mental illness: some of them may simply be very unorthodox interpretations of reality. And as the Buddhist texts avow, aside from a few fully enlightened beings, we are all psychotic. 
     Anyway, some traditional cultures consider “crazy” people to be beloved of the gods, and under their special protection. (I am reminded of an old Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comic in which the three hippies go to Mexico, and Fat Freddie, one of the three, ingests some shamanic substance which causes him to identify with his totem animal, the pig. He gets naked in public, wallows in mud, and so on, with no Mexican person daring to try to stop him. When a Mexican official is scolded by an American for this, he bashfully replies, “Is against Mexican custom to touch a naked crazy man…”) From a more Buddhist perspective it may be that such a person has such unusual mental states that they are producing unusual karma. Whatever the explanation, Vaṇṇamālā seemed to enjoy some special protection. She seemed blessed in a way.

     Every attempt to be rid of her, even by the legal owners of the property, ended in failure. Vaṇṇamālā was a particularly sore trial for a fellow named Ravi, who became the monastery’s resident chief attendant. Regardless of how irrational or demanding she could be, Hlaing Tet Sayadaw always took her side, and would scold Ravi for not doing her bidding. On one famous occasion this caused Ravi literally to burst into tears of unbearable frustration. Finally he decided to take matters into his own hands by reporting Vaṇṇamālā to the US immigration authorities, as she was a foreigner who had been living in America without a valid visa for years. But the American immigration service was (and still is) so overwhelmed with illegal immigrant Mexicans that they wanted nothing to do with a German quasi-nun living at a monastery. One time the administration called the police to have her evicted. Vaṇṇamālā simply led the officer to Sayadaw; the policeman asked him if he wanted her to go, he answered No, and that was the end of that. The officer got into his car and drove away. On another occasion the owners of the property started a formal eviction procedure of some sort. Vaṇṇamālā’s only hope was to go to Sacramento and sign some kind of form, which would somehow defuse the attempt; although she seemed indifferent to the threat. Just then a young Burmese man who had developed a virulent hatred for the monastery’s administration, going with the idea “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” volunteered to drive her to Sacramento so she could sign the papers, which is what came to pass. On still another occasion a large group of supporters of the monastery, along with most of the monks, met with Sayadaw, trying to explain to him that Vaṇṇamālā was calling herself a Buddha, was not in her right mind, and was a serious disturbance at the monastery; and Sayadaw, although he did not understand English, denied everything. He simply replied, in Burmese, “No, she didn’t say that.” (He had a similar attitude toward the current military regime in Burma also: When Burmese people would explain to him that they saw with their own eyes soldiers shooting people in the streets, he would tell them, “No, you didn’t see that. That didn’t happen.”) 
     Finally, one day when Vaṇṇamālā was elsewhere, some of the people from San Francisco came to the monastery, put all the personal stuff that was in her room into plastic bags, moved the bags into the garage, and locked her out of the laypeople’s quarters. While this was happening one of the gentler members of the board stood next to me and said, “It’s hard to know what is the right thing to do, you know?” And, cynical young monk that I was at the time, I replied, “Sometimes there is no right thing. Sometimes you have to choose between two wrong ones.” When Vaṇṇamālā returned, she quietly took her stuff out of the garage and moved into a tent in the back woods which had been set up for meditators. She lived there for months, and before winter set in she found a meditation cabin that had been carelessly left unlocked and moved into that. None of these many efforts seemed to bother her very much, if at all. She almost always seemed serene; and, despite her aggravating refusal to cooperate with anyone, she did meditate a lot. She would sit on a cushion in the back of the meditation room, leaning back against the wall, with a peaceful smile on her face. I may as well mention that by this time she had acquired a small following of New Age people from town who would occasionally come to see her. 
     I made occasional, feeble attempts not to dislike her. She could be very exasperating, for example by her aforementioned inability to see any point in cooperating with anyone. Also, she seemed to be rather smug after her “enlightenment.” She was of the opinion that there were three people at the monastery with “attainment”: herself, Hlaing Tet Sayadaw, and another German laywoman, who was continually having crises and was quite amused to be listed among the arahants. The rest of us were dismissed as inferiors, or so it seemed at times. One time, when the police had been called to have Vaṇṇamālā removed from the premises, I took the trouble to write her a note pointing out that in all probability she would be thrown out, and that, even if she wasn’t, the majority were antagonistic to her and wanted her gone. I urged her, for her own sake (as well as everyone else’s), to leave peacefully and voluntarily. She read the note, serenely rolled it up, and stuck it under the arm of the big Buddha statue on the main altar. On another occasion her sister in Germany called to wish Vaṇṇamālā a happy birthday. I happened to answer the phone, so I went to her to convey the message. I tried to be friendly; but Vaṇṇamālā responded with such effusiveness and such a bright, deep, intense look into my eyes that I quickly started backing away. Mostly I just avoided her, which was pretty easy to do after I became a monk. Once or twice the other Western monk and I discussed possible strategies for feeling mettā towards her, or at least maintaining equanimity towards her.
     But the possibility of successful friendliness pretty much evaporated about a year after her enlightenment, at which time she began declaring herself a fully ordained bhikkhuni. It was just too much. She would say “It’s official,” and produce a certificate declaring her to be an eight-precept yogi—that is, a layperson. She began shaving her head, and every day too, so that her scalp was always shiny. One day as I was approaching the back of the main monastery building I saw Vaṇṇamālā’s shining head slowly, serenely coming up the steps from the lower yard…and I almost snapped. I’ve heard of seeing red when one is very angry, but on this occasion I experienced a flash of fury that was white-hot; I spun on my heels seeing white and stood with my back turned to her, fists clenched, until I got a grip on myself. Monasteries and ashrams, being places of unnatural self-restraint, can be like a dangerous pressure cooker sometimes. One former lay attendant called our monastery a “shit accelerator.”
     As it turned out, shortly after Vaṇṇamālā transitioned to bhikkhuni status I moved out, or fled, to Asia. Only occasionally would I hear some bit of news from California. One tidbit I received was that Vaṇṇamālā had acquired some monk robes and was wearing them. Also, everyone apparently gave up on trying to get rid of her, since absolutely nothing was working.
     A year or so after my arrival in Burma old Hlaing Tet Sayadaw, wishing to spend his final years in the country of his birth, returned to Burma for good. With Vaṇṇamālā’s focus of bhakti gone, as well as her great protector, she quickly left TKAM of her own accord. The next I heard she was staying at Bhavana Society, Bhante Gunaratana’s place in West Virginia. I suspect Bhante was not overly enthusiastic about his new nun, as shortly thereafter he came to Burma with Vaṇṇamālā in tow, and she was deposited at, or just found her own way to, Hlaing Tet Sayadaw’s monastery in the village of Hlaing Tet, in central Burma. Whether Sayadaw was glad to see her or not I don’t know, but I would guess that nobody else was overjoyed by her presence. Within a relatively short time she was unable to get her visa renewed, possibly due to supporters dragging their feet, and so she left Burma; and that’s the last I ever heard of her. 
     I have no idea where she is now. She could be here in California as the leader of some small New Age spiritual movement for all I know. Or she could be in a mental hospital. Maybe she went back to Germany. I don’t know. One thing I do know now though, much better than I did in those days, is the value of difficult or unpleasant challenges like the ones Vaṇṇamālā provided. People like Vaṇṇamālā—and people very different from her, but just as difficult to deal with—“trigger” us; they help to bring up latent attachments, facilitating them being shoved into our face, so that we can see our own rigidity and immaturity, our own limitations, and thereby give us a golden opportunity to understand and outgrow them. It is difficult to understand and let go of what you cannot see. The Russian philosopher/guru George Gurdjieff was famous for deliberately keeping obnoxious, really troublesome people at his ashram for this very reason. Such people can really help us to wake up, if we let them. But at the time I just couldn’t appreciate Vaṇṇamālā for the treasure that she was. (Even so, if I ever do start a place in the West, and she were to show up asking for admittance, I probably would not let her stay! Deliberately making life difficult for oneself is not necessarily the Middle Path. But I don’t know.) I do wish her well, wherever she is. I would much prefer that she be a New Age icon than a patient at a mental institution.     


Saturday, February 6, 2016

Last Call

“We hope for more non-conformists among you, for your sake, for the sake of the nation, and for the sake of humanity.”  —Paul Tillich, at a university graduation ceremony in 1957

     This is going to be a tricky one to write. I intend to write what may be called my final offer to the Western World. I have been advised, though, that calling it a “final offer” sounds overly dramatic, and that nothing is really “final” anyhow. But some things really are final, or so it seems to me. Funerals, cremations, and lost virginity are pretty much irrevocable, for example. The main trickiness comes in making the offer in such a way that some people seriously consider it, and are motivated by it, while I remain honest while writing it! I’ve made numerous attempts in the past, adopting various approaches, including cheerful optimism, cynical criticism, joking, teasing, taunting, and even some virtual double-dog daring; and thus far nothing has really worked. So this is challenging. One thing I do know is that even though a positive, friendly attitude has not been really effective in this particular case, it is still much better than a negative one, if only for me personally. But the felt necessity of being strictly factual may result in the general tone being no better than affectively neutral. All we can do is the best we can. And the offer itself is a positive one.
     A big reason why I make this offer is that, simply stated, Western civilization as it is, is not conducive to genuine happiness, or to wisdom. Two reasons for this are that the Western perspective deals mainly with the superficial appearances of things, with society rarely encouraging anyone to penetrate past the surface; and that Western culture is heavily based upon desire, which according to Buddhism is the cause of all suffering. It’s practically the same as suffering. So it could be invaluable to Western people to question the authority of the West and to gain a working understanding of some fundamental Eastern wisdom, which can allow a better understanding of mental clarity and happiness; and it could be helpful and very interesting to have a nonconformist philosopher around to point at what is really beneath the surface. I consider myself to be extraordinarily qualified for this, at least in some respects. I encourage, and can teach, enough detachment from the system that people are less entangled in it, more “empowered,” and more able to make wise choices with regard to the strange tangle Western life has become. It is very difficult to improve a situation when you are entangled in it. It’s like trying to fold your clothes while the clothes, and you also, are going around and around inside the dryer. From a more holistic or “touchy-feely” point of view, I feel that teaching Dhamma/Dharma in the West would be most conducive to a “positive flow of energy,” for the benefit of everyone.
     Anyway, the offer is this: I would be happy, possibly even overjoyed, to stay in the West and teach Dhamma/Dharma under the following conditions. First, that a person or group of persons (ideally more than one individual) provide an empty house, an empty building, or an empty apartment, preferably with no furniture at all except maybe for a table, with a bathroom that works, for at least one month. There should be one room large enough to accommodate everyone who wants to meditate with me, or listen to talks, or discuss Dhamma/Dharma. Also I would require someone to offer one bowlful of food at least six mornings a week. During this time I would be happy to meet with people and teach or discuss what is of interest, presumably with an emphasis on Buddhist meditation and philosophy. We could have group meditation sits, with instruction beforehand for beginners if necessary, and days or weekends of more intensive practice. And once per month we could have an intensive meditation retreat, the discussion of which deserves its own paragraphs.
     Here’s my idea—The retreat would be 15 to 21 days long, with everyone participating full time, from the first day. For the most part it would be intensive Vipassana, or mindfulness meditation, similar to, say, the Mahasi tradition of Burma, but without much traditional Burmese Theravada Buddhist ideology being emphasized as interpretation. We would be there to discipline ourselves, meditate, and experience whatever happens in the moment, not to attain some goal described in a book, with less theory and perhaps more “meta-theory” (i.e., detached examination of whatever theory comes up). There would be interviews, preferably group interviews, with the instructor (me) at least twice per week, and every day if the meditator likes, with “emergency interviews” available if called for. I consider myself to be qualified for facilitating this sort of process. What would make it more interesting and more useful, though, would be the first day and the last few days of the retreat, which would be largely for the purpose of helping everyone to integrate Dhamma practice into worldly life, helping us to take what we gain home with us.
     Most intensive retreats in an orthodox Theravadin context require the meditators to keep silent and mind their own business, not even looking at each other any more than is necessary. Intensive introspection pretty much requires it; and that is what we would be doing most of the time. But on the first day everyone would introduce themselves, explaining concisely who they are and why they are there, and we would have a rather personal group discussion for clarifying what we as a group are doing, and where we are at. So although for most of the retreat we’ll be indulging in minimal interaction, the first day will help to establish a feeling of “us,” a lingering reminder that we are all together in the same boat, so to speak. Although we’ll be turned inward, there should be a context of mutual support, or community, or “tribe.” 
     Also, the last few days will be dedicated in part to mindful interaction. I have some ideas for this, and hopefully others can give input to help shape the practices involved. For example, before the end everyone at the retreat would practice eye contact meditation with everyone else there, meditating while looking directly into the other’s eyes, for at least one session of, say, twenty minutes. There would be no artificial mettā meditation, but more opportunities for spontaneous, genuine mettā. There would be more sharing of personal experiences during these last few days. There would not necessarily be any actual physical touching, except maybe for optional mindful hugs at the closing ceremony. I feel it could help to bring mindfulness and deep compassion out of the empty building and into society, where it is much needed.
     One possible complication is that such intensive interaction might be too much for some Westerners to handle. One time a married couple came to me and were telling me of their troubles together, and I advised them to try my brand of eye gazing meditation, which can be really beautiful; and although the wife was quite willing, the husband couldn’t manage it. It was too intensely personal for him, even with his own wife! For that matter, the intensive retreat itself, including the more traditional mindfulness practice (walk, sit, walk, sit, for many hours a day) may not be for beginners. Buddhist practice can be challenging, with the more radical stuff being not for everyone, but it’s well worth it, even invaluable.
     Another practical consideration is that I do not like the idea of charging money for a retreat, or for Dhamma/Dharma. I consider what I have to offer to be priceless, and for anyone who wants it, completely setting aside the fact that it is against the rules of monastic discipline for me to charge money, or to consent to that. But if the space is already available, then the only issue would be food, plus maybe utilities. I suppose the issue of supplying the space, etc., would be taken care of by others before I arrive. 
     A more subtle one is that although I love and revere Dharma and am glad to share it, I am no evangelist. If people come to me, or invite me to their place, that’s great, but I have no desire to go door to door or to market or hype myself, in order to find people who can appreciate what I’m offering. And I tend to avoid being a chronically smiling, politically correct Dharma politician. Simply being as conscious as possible, and following one’s conscience, is good enough. I have been a reclusive contemplative philosopher type for many years, which is appropriate for a Theravada Buddhist bhikkhu. But I still think the empty house idea, with the monthly retreat, is a good one, and a bargain offer. I think it could even be fun.
     Anyway, if nobody accepts this offer by the end of February, approximately, then I will officially throw up my hands, give up on living in the West, and begin making arrangements to acquire a plane ticket back to Burma, in order to stay in my cave (yes, I live in a cave there) indefinitely. Even if I go back to Burma I wouldn’t be totally deaf to invitations, if, that is, they were substantial ones that were too good to turn down; but I will have stopped trying. It’s been years already.
     In 2011, after years of feeling that I should return to the West, I flung myself back into America, ready or not. It turned out that I was ready, more or less, but that America was not! I have been told, several times by several different enthusiastic people, that America, or the West in general, “needs” me. I can agree with that at a philosophical level; but if it is true, then America and the West have not yet realized the necessity. Even the good people who tell me this, most of them anyway, tend not to do much about it. 
     But the people of the West, as they become more and more committed to extraversion, materialism, and superficiality, become more and more stressed and unhappy. It seems that the best science can do to promote happiness (as opposed to superficial pleasure, comfort, and convenience) is to invent antidepressant medications. But the very purpose of Dhamma is happiness. The modern West invents extraverted sciences for figuring out and manipulating the world, while the ancient East invented profound introspective techniques for understanding what is inside, and keeping one’s mind clear and free. But the West is so invested in a non-dharmic world view that Dhamma/Dharma, and to some degree happiness itself, are dismissed or ignored, or else accepted in only very limited ways. But I’ve written plenty about this elsewhere.
     What I can appreciate now, which I hadn’t fully realized before my return in 2011, is that starting a career as an itinerant philosopher and empty house sitter in the urban West entails essentially diving into the proverbial shit storm. But, as Confucius is said to have said, contemplative philosopher types are most needed in shit storms. And although I’m introverted by nature and could appreciate going back to my Burmese forest and living in relative peace and quiet, with fresh air and more physical exercise, still I feel that the challenge of the West would be a better use of my abilities, and would be good for me as well. There are things I could learn from interaction with other Westerners that are hard to come by alone in a cave. Also I’d be participating in the retreats, which would be good practice for me. So I think everyone involved could benefit greatly, including me. So long as I am skillful enough not to be overwhelmed by a shit typhoon. But I like challenges. Trouble I can handle; but living without food or shelter is something else.
     I suppose all this talk of diving into shit storms deserves some clarification. I have lived my life in such a way that I just don’t suffer very much. That’s what Buddhism is all about: living your life so that you don’t suffer very much, ideally living your life so that you don’t suffer at all. It is only since coming back to America, ironically, that I have seen just how much unhappiness there is in the world. Most poor Burmese villagers are actually pretty happy people. So I know how to disintegrate unhappiness with Dharma, yet I have relatively little experience in dealing with really vehement cases of it. There have been times when I’ve been so miserable that I felt like I was dying, especially from seemingly endless, sweltering hot weather; yet there is always a detachment, a level of mindfulness, so that I don’t fully identify with it. Troubles are worldly phenomena, arising and passing away, as all phenomena do. Most of the suffering comes with vehemently identifying with suffering, really believing “I am unhappy,” even insisting upon it. And in the West there is quite a lot of this. Hence the storm. 
     The following may be bad salesmanship, but so what: Can you guess how many regular American supporters I have after all these years? By “regular American supporters” I mean U.S. citizens of European ancestry who offer some physical support, or at least offer to offer some, at least once every three months. Can you guess? No, c’mon, guess. The answer, my friends, is two. And an excuse for one of them is that he married an Asian woman, so he was introduced to a relatively unwesternized form of Buddhism. (I’m not starving, however—Asian Buddhist people supply my needs very generously.) Considering the obvious value of Buddhist philosophy and meditation, and the aforementioned alleged need of the West for people like me, I have often wondered about this. It’s interesting. One theory I came up with in the shower a few days ago is that I have deviated so far from the Western mainstream that I have become like a ghost or sasquatch, living at the verge of materialist reality, with only a few people even able to see me, or like the legendary Spanish Conquistador ships that were invisible to Mayans standing on the shore, because they were so different from anything they had previously perceived. Whatever the reasons, maybe including my own obnoxiousness, I feel that Westerners are blowing a golden opportunity to be guided away from the mainstream, and into a deeper, more reflective, more satisfying life. Anyway, if you are sick and tired of my repeated offers, this is probably the very last one. Which I will now repeat.
     So here it is. If you, or someone else out there, provide me with an empty space with minimal furniture, a bowl of food approximately every day, and access to a bathroom, I’ll provide you with access to something invaluable, and a magnificent opportunity for deep Dharma practice with an experienced, intelligent, and somewhat radical teacher, and, ideally, a supportive group environment. And if it doesn’t happen relatively soon, I give up. Either way, be happy, because that’s what we’re here for.


(Thanks to Eline for helping me to soften this up a little.)