A New Dystopia

I have just finished reading And Still the Earth by Brazilian writer Ignácio de Loyola Brandão.

Wow.

If you thought 1984 and Brave New World was scary, here’s a dystopia that updates all of that. Interesting since it was written in 1981. The book summary:

Welcome to Sao Paulo, Brazil, in the not too distant future. Water is scarce, garbage clogs the city, movement is restricted, and the System–sinister, omnipotent, secret–rules its subjects’ every moment and thought. Here, middle-aged Souza lives a meaningless life in a world where the future is doomed and all memory of the past is forbidden. A classic novel of "dystopia," looking back to Orwell’s 1984 and forward to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, And Still the Earth stands with Loyola Brandao’s Zero as one of the author’s greatest, and darkest, achievements.

Brandao’s work Zero was banned in Brazil and his subsequent works have caused a great deal of stir.

Here are some of the summaries and comments provided by Goodreads reviewers:

…this dystopia seems all too credible in many countries. the bleakness, the environmental hell, the meaningless routine life gradually becoming more and more restricted by ‘the system’, the loss of anything like a civic society, the corruption, the endless propaganda, the removal of any sense of history- it is not an error the protagonist is a former history prof- and the way this oppressive and unquestioned, nameless, authoritarian ‘system’, comes to take over even the least freedom of what parts of the city you can visit, what days you must consume (even if you do not want to), what time what bus you take, what side of the sidewalk you walk…this is a portrait from sidewalk level of an ordinary man who has the misfortune of knowing of a better past… [thegift]

The world, as usual in a dystopia, has gone to shit. What is surprising is that this book, which was written in the early ’80s, imagines a total environmental collapse. Brazil has cut down it’s rain forest and now has "one of the wonders of the world," The Great Amazon Desert. Heat pockets are so intense that people burn to ashes if caught in one. Pharmaceuticals and multinationals have poisoned generations, and The System (and governments that proceeded it) have created blunder upon blunder. The Rich hide in massively walled cities, while everyone literally dies of lack of water and food. [Troy]

Plagued by water shortages and rationing, constant heat waves and unnatural heat pockets (where if you get pushed into, you’re incinerated) that develop wherever they please, overflowing debris and garbage, and synthetic food, this São Paulo is definitely not the place to be. Stuck in the overpopulated state of hyper-surveillance is a disgruntled and apathetic former history teacher named Souza, who gave up the resistance a long time to slum it like everyone else, trudging back and forth between his stuffy apartment and his mindless job, waiting for certain death. One day however, he finds a hole in his hand that makes him more like the people stuck in the danger zones outside of the city than his partially sedated neighbours, and all hell breaks loose….And Still The Earth is definitely an extreme example of what blatant apathy towards what the government is doing can be come, but it is still an example….The planet is warming up and the forests in Brasil are being cut down. Now we have synthetic meat, a project that is supposedly geared towards alleviating the meat shortage. [leslie nikole]

I devoured this book, even reading some parts twice because they were eerily familiar. Prescient, as overused as that word is, describes it so well.

One doesn’t need a qualification in sociology or anything else to appreciate the novel or to identify with the characters in it nor to recognize the strands of oppression that were beginning in the 1980s under Thatcher-Reagan and are starting to reach fruition now.

It’s also a psychological study of a man who, because of the circumstances of his society, finds himself, formerly comfortable and bourgeois, pushed to the margins before he begins to realize what has been happening. The undoing of society is also his undoing. This juxtaposition of the individual and the collective and their mutual influence is superbly demonstrated in the novel.

Perhaps why I find this book so compelling is because of the non-fiction and academic stuff that has my attention now. I’ve put some of that at the end of this piece.

Material that discusses the topics in the novel.

Here are some resources (videos, texts) that discuss some of the sociological things going on in the novel from a real world perspective.

The Logics of Expulsion: Permanent Crisis, Land Grabbing and Surveillance Saskia Sassen, professor of sociology at Columbia University, New York, visiting professor at the London School of Economics, author of "The Global City" is interviewed in the video. She discusses the global trends of people not only being dispossessed but actively expelled from the economic system and ownership such as the mortgage crisis, the financialization of the global economy which allows the finance paradigm to invade every area of life, the appearance of tent cities in developed nations as a social sign of the development of predatory formations and assemblages, the superstructure of surveillance mechanisms to oversee these advanced capitalist processes, the monoculture of globalization, loss of local community and financialization as a form of economic violence. Well worth the 35 minutes it takes to view the video.

That same professor, Saskia Sassen, has another longer video, Expulsions: The Fifth Circle of Hell, on the same topics. Here is an overview [via Synthetic Zero blog]:

“In the last two decades there has been a sharp growth in the numbers of people that have been ‘expelled’, numbers far larger than the newly ‘incorporated’ middle classes of countries such as India and China. She uses the term ‘expulsion’ to describe a diversity of conditions: the growing numbers of the abjectly poor, of the displaced in poor countries who are warehoused in formal and informal refugee camps, of the minoritized and persecuted in rich countries who are warehoused in prisons, of workers whose bodies are destroyed on the job and rendered useless at far too young an age, able-bodied surplus populations warehoused in ghettoes and slums. One major trend is the repositioning of what had been framed as sovereign territory, a complex conditions, into land for sale on the global market — land in Sub-Saharan Africa, in Central Asia and in Latin America to be bought by rich investors and rich governments to grow food, to access underground water tables, and to access minerals and metals. Prof Sassen’s argument is that these diverse and many other kindred developments amount to a logic of expulsion, signalling a deeper systemic transformation in advanced capitalism, one documented in bits and pieces but not quite narrated as an overarching dynamic that is taking us into a new phase of global capitalism.”

Here is the video:

 

There is too much in professor Sassen’s work, the effects of which are presented and presaged in the novel, to ennumerate here.

Whistle While You Work (For Nothing): Positive Affect as Coercive Strategy – The Case of Workfarethe role of  psychological coercion, notably through the imposition of positive affect, in UK Government workfare programmes. There has been little or no debate about the recruitment of psychology/psychologists into monitoring,  modifying and/or punishing  people who claim social security benefits. This silence raises important ethical questions, including about the relationship of psychology to the medical humanities.” This is a scary development. Not only are people supposed to work for no wages while they’re on earned benefits they are supposed to enjoy it. It reminds me of the parts in the novel where people go to “Alleviation Centers” for psychological and emotional relief from the stress The System is putting on them. [I want to do a blog post about this aspect of advanced capitalism because it ties into much Zizek has written about current practices of Buddhism and of McMindfulness as collaboration with capitalism that merely seeks to make people comfortable in their oppression and doesn’t challenge the context in which they are being practiced. That’s one upcoming thesis I’m developing.

Communique from the Committee for the Liberation of Autonomous Amusement: on the question of labor The Deterritorial Investigations Unit blog contains interesting commentary on a lot of current topics. In this particular “Communique”, which is one of a series of “Communiques”, discusses the necessity of labor as we know it.

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2010: The Best Buddhist Book I Read This Year

 

imageUnlimiting Mind: The Radically Experiential Psychology of Buddhism by Andrew Olendzki

I bought this one myself-no review copy because I’m interested in what the interface of Buddhism and psychology looks like.  Too often it is a great deal of ego wanking reassurances about fitting in or attaining happiness in that self-help kind of way with a dusting of dharma language. Not the case here.

The book does require some background in Buddhist study or at least more than a passing familiarity with central concepts.  Some people have not found much to appreciate about this book including whoever wrote the review on the Amazon site. But writing reviews about stuff you have no interest in will do that.

The Publisher’s Weekly blurb on the Amazon site:

This is not for the nightstand Buddhist; readers will require some knowledge of the Buddhist understanding of how the mind works, and they will also need some patience with highly abstract prose.

I think that’s a little overstated but by the sounds of it the reviewer didn’t have much of a Buddhist background and seems fairly critical of anything written with some amount of intelligence. Another reviewer for hire who skims a dozen books a week. But I’m not here to review the reviewers.

The prose is not all that abstract if you are familiar with the subject matter in general.

The book is comprised of a bunch of informal essays loosely grouped into categories such as “Constructing Reality” , “Karma” and “Self and Non-self”. Each of the sections revolves around a central concept of Buddhist teaching and the essays within explore different aspects of that concept.

I really enjoyed the writing style here is it’s neither academically stuffy nor is it lacking in thoughtful rigor. For example in the “Constructing Reality” section there is an essay called “Making the Best of It”. The author describes the continuum between delusion and wisdom there. It’s only 3 pages long but packs quite a punch. Here’s his description of the delusion side of things and how we make up what we consider to be reality.

The brain freezes the world into discrete mind moments, each capturing a barely adequate morsel of information, then processes these one by one in a rapid linear sequence. The result is a compiled virtual world of experience, more or less patterned on what’s “out there”, but mostly organized around the needs and limitations of the apparatus constructing it. It is like the brain and the senses are hastily taking a series of snapshots, then stringing them together into a movie we call “the stream of consciousness”.

The Buddhists have a pretty good word to describe this system: delusion. It doesn’t mean we are stupid, only that the mind and body are designed (so to speak) to distort reality into some very fundamental ways… (p.69)

Now that is pretty succinct yet provides a fairly complete description of the Buddhist approach to perceptual psychology. His way of explaining is so straightforward that one has to take some time to realize that upon first read.

What is often cloaked in huge volumes of convoluted and specialized language elsewhere, is written here with a remarkable clarity and a real deep understanding of the Buddhadharma. This is not some “scholar’s” take on the subject but the product of someone who, while being a scholar, is also a long time practitioner.

He doesn’t give a bunch of platitudes and then a set of meditation instructions (like half the books out there) nor does he suggest how knowing this information will improve your marriage or your golf game. It’s not that kind of book.

The book progresses from basics and gets into a bit of Abhidhamma theory at the end. It is a build up of how the concepts all relate to one another. A bit like climbing a mountain-the approach is relatively relaxed and then things get continually more intense. That’s one of the things I liked about it. The pacing requires one to, as they move on, slow down and consider things more deeply, to re-examine the text and what it represents in light of the distance gone thus far. The whole thing in this way reminds me of the progression of practice.

Briefly it is about the theory and construction and workings of “you” and your experience of being “you”. Which is what all psychology is about.

Some have complained that there is no “psychology” in the book. If one defines psychology using only the theories and terms of western psychology then there isn’t a lot of that. This is similar to those who define religion only according to a specific religion with which they are familiar. Buddhist psychology is a psychology, if we define psychology in terms similar to what I have just above. An apple isn’t a fruit if we only define fruit as oranges. You get my drift I’m sure.

Those who are in counseling type professions might find this work either enjoyable or challenging depending on your level of attachment to your own school of thought. And for the general reader who would like to know the “Buddhist theory of you” if I can put it that way there is also something here worthwhile.

At this point I’ve read it twice and will probably read it again as I am getting a lot out of it. Certainly my money’s worth.

[I have to say it was real close this year between this book and Rodney Smith’s “Stepping Out of Self Deception”. Similar subject matter. I reviewed that one here. So I have to give honorable mention to that one also. This one edged out due to it’s somewhat increased breadth and writing style which I preferred.]

Past Year’s Bests

2009

Best Of Inquiring Mind: 25 Years Of Dharma, Drama, and Uncommon Insight  — My Review

2008

An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the WorldMy Review

Sex, Sin and Zen [a review]

image Brad Warner’s new book Sex Sin and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between is now available in bookstores and online.

I got a review copy a while back and read it over the course of a few days. If you read Brad’s blog or columns he wrote on the Suicide Girls website some of the material will be familiar though considerably expanded and polished up.

But there’s lots of new stuff in here too.

So let’s begin.

I like the style of the cover art work. It has an appendix at the back that describes how to do zazen as well.

The tone of the book is all over the map like his other books. Now and then the Bart Simpsonesque footnotes appear (“Hey, hey, I said *whatever*!”) which may be sorta cute to some people the first couple of times, but after 4 books and dozens of these it’s getting a little stale. And some of the other predictable stuff continues also:

-explanatory sections with weak references, but at least there are some references so he studied up a bit.

-Genpo bashing

-“my dick” has been here, there etc.

-Brad is not gay, in any way. This cannot be emphasized enough.

-playing music is sometimes like zazen (I find this with writing sometimes-just let it flow)

The criticisms of other schools and techniques, which he admits he doesn’t know that much about,  is in keeping with the usual viewpoint. On page 60 he writes in a footnote:

By the way I’m not a fan of guided meditation. Meditation should never be guided.

Certain kinds of meditation in certain schools have certain kinds of guides for certain purposes. Lack of structure may not be suitable for some people especially when they are just starting out. And for clearing certain obstacles this approach can be incredibly valuable even for someone with lots of experience. So I’m disagreeing.

Criticisms of sources appear as well, including those he himself uses. One such instance is on page 61.

According to the all-knowing Wikipedia, which is the very best place to go when searching for answers about Buddhism**

**This is sarcasm. But so many people use the darned thing as their main source of info that I’m using quotes from it to illustrate general understanding about certain things. Plus I’m too damned lazy to look this up in a more reliable source.

Actually Brad maybe you should check this article on cnet entitled Study: Wikipedia as accurate as Britannica. If you check the discussions and history of articles you can discover which aspects are under controversy and research those in other sources. That’s more than Britannica or many scholarly references offer. And information in articles is referenced. Where that is not so it is indicated. This kind of public oversight is helpful as are the many credible reference links that are often provided so original sources can be checked as well. OK so that’s my personal little quibble with that.

He does take on a lot of issues but other people have done them before and sometimes better. These include abortion (do it, don’t do it, your choice-though the story he included of one woman’s experience was rather compelling and in her own words) , prostitution (never tried it from either side), masturbation (nobody cares what you do with yourself), celibacy (not for him and innuendo that it’s kinda unnatural, difficult etc.), AIDS, STDs, monogamy (A-OK, anything else is too messy), BDSM (dangerous and ill-advised seemed to be the message but again it’s each individual’s choice).

Glad he included a lot more of the Nina Hartley interview. Her viewpoint regarding polyamory, BDSM, homosexuality, stripping, pornography is quite refreshing compared to his tepidness towards anything non-vanilla. Her parents were Buddhist priests. She knows that territory quite well too. I’m inclined to think that perhaps she is the one who ought to write a book on these “advanced” topics. They do require a certain amount of sexual maturity to see them clearly.

The whole thing is a little odd. He discusses things which he admits he has no experience with and until recently little contact with in many cases, including homosexuality, BDSM, abortion, monastic celibacy, prostitution, polyamory in such a roundabout way that he doesn’t really engage the topics. It smacks of opportunism a little bit sometimes.

In the chapter Sex with All the Lights On: Sex and Enlightenment there is a discussion of both enlightenment and sex. He does make a good point about some who pursue either to the exclusion of having a life or interacting and understanding what else is going on. They seem rather empty to paraphrase. I’m inclined to agree with that viewpoint. We don’t live in a vacuum.

I do like his writing style. It’s a pretty quick read. And it is entertaining for the most part. His personal anecdotes are somewhat engaging and he does have a certain warmth and way of expressing acceptance of even those things he is uncomfortable with or even tacitly disapproves of. So there’s not a lot of real pretentiousness or distancing from the reader. I like that he’s honest and seems to just write like himself and not try to be somebody else or particularly care who is impressed with him (except maybe the babes sometimes). So that’s kind of comfortable to read. It feels like a conversation one would have with their little brother sometimes.

When he gets into the Dharma and it’s relationship to social aspects these are quite good. That would be my favorite parts of the book. His psychological and sociological explanations are not abstract and come across as pretty well grounded. I would like to see him explore those kinds of themes a little more in the future.

And I’m glad he made the effort to try to address some very complex issues. The Dharma parts are quite engaging and for the most part fairly accurate. And a little more mature than the sex parts.

Verdict

Read it for the Dharma but not so much for specific sex advice.

Travels of Unreal and Real Monks

Travels of Unreal Monks

Recently a blog and a twitter account @themonkblog sprung up that purported to belong to a monk who was traveling in North India and Nepal. Within two weeks there were over 1200 followers.  The About page of the blog reads as follows:

Hello Friend!

My name is Tenzin. I am a 23-year old theravada buddhist monk. I currently travel Nepal by foot, figuring out what to do in the future. When my old monastery was turned into a tourist location, my grandmaster Xi returned to his home monastery and said that I could not go with him. He said I needed to find my own way in life.

My interests are people, and their stories. I am also interested in english language and the computer. Of course I study much buddhism and how to live in harmony with my surroundings.

I am happy you want to read about me. Comment, so I can get to know you also!

In the past couple of days this person has revealed via further blog posts (here and here) that they are actually a young psychology student named Mikael who lives in a suburban city and “Tenzin” is a character he has created.

There was discussion on Twitter about it (check my timeline @NellaLou for Aug.12 for some of it) and some folks were surprised and disappointed. That is the reason I am posting about it here. So that others aren’t taken up by the ruse.

Upon reading that little bio the contradictions are rather stunning. A Tibetan name for a Theravada monk, who travels in Nepal after training with a Chinese named teacher. It is basically a set up for a Kung Fu, Kwai Chang Caine retelling. Which basically it is, as the author admits.

Grasshopper there are more than enough fake monks, teachers, priests, sociopaths and con artists with alleged dharma on their lips running around already.  So please give it a rest.

Travels of Real Monks

Bhante Kovida has studied in Asia for much of his life. Here is a little from his biography:

Bhante Kovida grew up on the tropical island of Jamaica, West Indies, of Chinese descent. He immigrated to Canada… then traveled overland from Europe to India and Nepal (via Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan) during 1974-1975, where he began the study of Indian history and culture, Hatha Yoga and meditation, classical Indian music, and Buddhism…

…in Sri Lanka, Bhante Kovida took ordination with Venerable Balangoda Anandamaitreya, a noted scholar, teacher and meditation practitioner, in January, 1991.

Bhante Kovida left Sri Lanka towards the end of 1993 and began traveling and sharing the Dharma in the Toronto area with occasional visits to Hamilton, Ottawa, Halifax and Vancouver. He has also visited inmates at Warkworth Correctional Center near Campbelford, Ontario, AIDS patients at the Casey House hospice in Toronto for a period.

He continues to give teachings in Canada as well as in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

His approach is unique in that he discusses the dharma with a solid eye on the reality of today and contemporary viewpoints, both East and West.

He has produced a couple of e-books that are available for download and free non-commercial distribution on his website.

The first is titled An Inquiring Mind’s Journey:a book about a life with Buddhism. In the first chapter he discusses his early life in Jamaica, his burgeoning interest in science and discovery of his questioning nature.  Taking university studies in North America led to more questioning particularly with regard to the materialistic nature of the culture there. He then discusses his early journey to India and embarking on learning from gurus and others there. Like so many other seekers he moved from place to place and met people from all over the world.

And during this time his sense of himself in the world and the universe changed. Perspective broadened and viewpoints were altered.

When I returned to Canada, I experienced horrendous reverse culture shock. I was so
open and childlike, and profoundly affected and transformed by my experiences in India and Nepal that I felt very vulnerable to the realities and superficialities of modern, materialistic society. After being in a culture where communication in public was easy and effortless, I found people quite self-centered, isolated and lonely, and shopping in supermarkets terribly cold and impersonal. It seemed really amazing that one could buy a lot of groceries, go through the checkout counter, pay your money, and not have to utter a single word. In Asia, it is the human contact that is important, the product that you are purchasing is secondary; in modern society it is the product and its cost that are important, human contact is secondary, seemingly unimportant. I found the environment very sterile, uninteresting, superficial and isolating. (p.13)

Having shared a similar feeling upon occasion I understand where this kind of statement comes from. At times though I do find some of Bhante’s descriptions somewhat idealized and even slightly romanticized. Now that may just be the writing style or a function of memory or my own distrust and questioning attitude towards idealism in general.  However this point, about social relations and human contact is one of the main reasons I stay in India as much as I do-and that has changed my perspective and practice of Buddhism tremendously.  So in some ways there is an impulse to credit the environment but I feel not at the expense of the reality of the place, which can be as harsh, even brutal, as it can be enveloping. He does touch upon that harshness occasionally though.

He goes on to discuss the first thoughts he had about becoming a monk while he was in Sri Lanka and the process of making such a decision and the meetings with the man who became his teacher.

Succeeding chapters include a question and answer portion about Buddhism that is very comprehensive and suitable for beginners. Further chapters include the texts of two talks given at the University of Toronto entitled Self-knowledge and Freedom and The Nature and Ending of Fear. This is followed by a section on travels and commentary on South-east Asia particularly Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore and Hong Kong. He spent considerable time in these places within both English speaking and Chinese speaking sanghas and groups so the contrasts are quite interesting.

The second book is called The World is Myself:a monk’s travel journal part 1 It covers his travels from Thailand, Malaysia and India.

I’ve really enjoyed reading this journal. It’s written in a conversational style that gives the reader the sense that they are sitting sharing tea and stories with the author.

If you want to know what the day to day life of a monk is like, this book gives a detailed view. He describes how it feels to go on an alms round, the camaraderie of the monastic sangha, what life is like in these parts of Asia both the joys and frustrations, as well as his critical viewpoint on certain of the practices such as merit accumulation. The latter is not too favorable. In that regard his viewpoint is somewhat similar to Bhante Dhammika‘s, whose book, The Broken Buddha,  I reviewed previously.

He gives more of his history prior to becoming a monk, in which he was a development worker for the Canadian government in Sri Lanka as well as other details of his life before that time.

He is very well read and discusses the philosophies of Krishnamurti, as well as the series of lectures by Krishnamurti himself that he attended, and Ramana Maharshi with ease equal to his discussions of Buddhist Suttas. He tells of his meetings with interesting people including during the time he volunteered at the hospital set up by Mother Theresa in Calcutta, throughout his journeys and it gives an almost documentary feel to the writing.

The descriptions of locations, people and events are scintillating. I felt like I was right there as I read. Bhante Kovida has an exceptional memory for details as well as a very sharp observational ability. And this is complemented by his honesty and humor in documenting his reactions, both positive and negative to every situation. He doesn’t make himself out to be either a hero or a victim of any situation, only a participant and experiencer. Here is an example when he helped guide a group of Americans in northern Thailand.

The rising sun is warming up the awakening landscape and slowly burning away the night mist and fog. The roosters and hens are stretching and flapping their wings and for the first time I recognize some guinea fowls with their unique grey and black
colouring and tiny white spots. It’s a peaceful village setting. After breakfast, tea and chitchat about the night spent in mud-walled huts, we gather up our gear, bid farewell to the villagers with thanks, and start walking down a lane towards the main road. We walk about one kilometer along this road admiring the surrounding bamboo-covered hills, corn and vegetable fields, already harvested paddy fields, and then we begin to ascend on the other side of the road along a footpath. Up and up through bamboo forests, up and around the hill side, using bamboo poles for support, as we head to the next village which they say will take around 4-5 hours to reach. It is hard going at times and we stop occasionally to rest, drink water, catch
our breath and admire the view of the surrounding hills and river valleys below. It is an amazing and vigorous hike in Thailand’s northern hill region even though wearing Theravada robes for this adventure isn’t quite suitable; I long for a more practical dress with two sleeves, but at least I can wear running shoes in these remote parts. The green hills turn to shades of blue the further away they are. The high mountains in the distance are so awesome and majestic that they seem as if they’re holding some ancient, mysterious secret which present- day man cannot possibly comprehend; one can only gaze at them in wonder at their beauty, aloofness and unreachable distance.

(p.25)

His cross-cultural observations are anthropological in description sometimes, in that he doesn’t judge but observes, analyzes and compares. Here’s a portion from his visit to a Karen (hill tribe people in Northern Thailand) village.

The Karens, who also live across the border in Burma, are very friendly, hospitable
people, rice and vegetable cultivators, part Buddhist, part animist, and very much in harmony with the jungle environment, using the abundant and fast-growing bamboo for everything imaginable including food, building material and disposable cooking pots. Formerly, they grew opium poppy but they’re now growing soya beans, sweet and Irish potatoes, and other foreign crops thanks to an anti-drug campaign funded by the U.S. Government. At times we can smell opium being smoked by some village elders who are addicted to the habit; they get
it from villagers elsewhere. It’s an old crop in these parts of SE Asia and smoking opium is an old relaxing pastime which also helps to alleviate the aches and pains of old age, physical labour and mental worry. Ingested, opium is medicine for stomach troubles including diarrhea, and for pain, in general. These people cannot understand and relate to the drug abuse and money-making, crime-related culture in America and Europe, although they’ve become more aware of the demand for raw opium to be used in heroin production and that, because of this, opium poppy cultivation has become increasingly profitable which is very tempting
indeed. Now the American-backed Government in far away Kreung Thep [Bangkok] is telling them to stop this old [and now lucrative] crop and its traditional uses and they cannot really comprehend what the fuss is all about. If the Americans and Europeans want to kill themselves with heroin injections that’s their stupid business, they muse. Why don’t they just leave us alone in peace? In these parts, habitual opium smoking is seen as no more harmful than smoking and chewing tobacco, chewing betel nuts, and drinking tea.

(p. 22)

This is very similar to the attitude of people in the high Himalaya as well. These things are not demonized but dealt with according to their usefulness. And as there is not much by way of excess, in terms of crops, money or goods, chronic overuse of such things is not generally an issue. And the view that many Western countries should be more concerned with the health and control of their own populations rather than what people in remote villages are doing is also common in India.

Throughout the book there are discussions and musings on the Dhamma as part of every day life and situations.

I’m in Kwan’s village, somewhere outside of Chiang Rai, and we have some Americans to deal with. I’ve slept quite well considering. I recognize the smoky,
musty smell of the mud-walled hut and the noise of pigs and chickens come to mind. It got chilly during the night and I had to put on a sweater. I use our host’s toilet and it’s not as bad as I’d expected; and I reflect on how our mental projections are often worse than reality itself. Once I was an intrepid world traveller, now I’m behaving like a spoilt, pampered westerner from suburbia. I smile at the change in myself; no permanent, concrete self or personality to be found in this mind-body process, only a constantly changing and rapid sequence of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, thinking and imagining. (p.24)

The quoted sections above are all from the first section of the book on Thailand.

In the section on Malaysia we have such delicious descriptions as this:

A waiter brings us two pieces of banana leaf recently cut from the tree which we wipe with a little water then shake off onto the floor. It’s a cheap, organic and plentiful material that is easily disposable; there’s no need to wash plates and sometimes utensils, you only have to wash your hands before and after eating. I can still recall my first banana leaf rice meal during my earlier travels in. S. India towards the end of 1978 – it was such a novel and unique experience! The waiter puts a heap of rice on each of our leaves, then places three small portions of different vegetable curry next to the rice with some hot lime and mango pickle plus papadam chips made from legume flour. Then he pours dahl, a spiced split pea soup, on top of the rice together with another kind of spiced soup-like mixture, and he brings us small stainless steel cups of liquid yoghurt and a spiced liquid concoction called rasam to be consumed at the end of the meal to aid digestion. I dig in with the fingers of my right hand and start mixing wet rice with small amounts of vegetable curry, adding a bit of hot pickle and broken pieces of papadam chips, forming small balls of the mixture and popping them expertly into my mouth.

I got hungry reading that.

There are often a number of parallel narratives going on throughout this book. Situations bring up recollections of other situations, people or experiences. Isn’t this just the way our being in the world operates? The connections, memories, apparent continuations and social settings combine to create this appearance of personhood and solidity of existence. Yet it is interesting how unique each of these combinations are, rather like recipes.

Additionally Bhante Kovida has some critical thoughts on many schools of Theravada practice, as well as Vipassana and other techniques. The very devout might be a little uncomfortable with that. However sometimes well considered critical reflections, particularly of those intimately involved, contain valid points that need addressing.

He is equally concerned with some of the trends that occur in the North American context.

If you care to examine more closely this sectarian attitude in people and Dharma practitioners in general, you’ll see that in essence they’re all clinging to their egos, their self-centered “spiritual trip,” their personal preferences, desires, ambitions and attachments. And behind it all is fear and insecurity, isn’t it? (p.52)

As well he examines, equally openly, his own motivations and reasoning regarding the Buddhist path and practices.

I also remember that when I first began to give talks in Malaysia I had this immature desire to give the “perfect” Dharma talk; I would jot down all the important pointers that I wanted to include on a piece of paper but I would keep forgetting to look and check my list as I tend to be more of a spontaneous rambler than an organized speaker. And after each talk I would go over it in my mind recalling in vivid detail what I’d said and only to realize that I’d once again left out a few things because I’d forgotten to look at the piece of paper and check my list. And I could see the suffering and disappointment in my mind: that I was again unable to deliver the “perfect” talk; I took these talks so seriously. Talk about craving and clinging!…

…I would discover to my surprise during discussions that not only did people not understand what I’d said during the previous talk but that they had totally misunderstood what I had been trying to convey. This was indeed a good lesson for me! So much for trying to give the “perfect” talk! (p.54)

His travel tales are wide ranging and interesting. The focus is generally on the interrelationships and dynamics between people, groups, Buddhist and other viewpoints, practices, nationalities, languages, cultures, geography and so many other aspects. The fluidity with which these intermingle, influence, exchange and flow is very well captured by Bhante Kovida’s writing.

Conclusion

If you want to know what a monk’s life is really like Bhante Kovida has provided a thorough and honest assessment. His frankness is one of many compelling features of the book.

He is knowledgeable, sincere, well-traveled, open minded as well as discerning and occasionally critical  in this account of the events of his life. It’s kind of a refreshing change from some of the sugary frosting that coats many bookstore shelves. And these fascinating books are available for free without a trip to the store. That in itself makes a statement.

Musical Accompaniment

If you are suffering from the vertigo of what’s real and what’s not…

U2-Vertigo

Stepping Out of Self-Deception [a book review]

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Stepping Out of Self-Deception: The Buddha’s Liberating Teaching of No-Self by Rodney Smith  Shambhala Pubs.  224 pages  July 2010

About the Author

Rodney Smith, former monk and student of Ajahn Buddhadassa, whose teachings I personally find incredibly powerful, is a senior teacher with the Insight Meditation Society and founder of Seattle Insight Meditation. Here is his brief biography from Seattle Insight Meditation:

Rodney Smith spent eight years in Buddhist monastic settings, both at the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Massachusetts and several years as a Buddhist monk in Asia. He ordained with Mahasi Sayadaw in Burma then practiced for three years with Ajahn Buddhadassa in Thailand. He disrobed as a monk in 1983 and, after returning to the West, started working in hospice care and teaching vipassana meditation throughout the U.S.

Rodney has devoted much of his energy to serving the dying, both in direct service positions and within hospice management, for the last 16 years. Currently Rodney is a full time dharma teacher conducting meditation classes, retreats, and offers spiritual consultations. He serves as a Senior Teacher for IMS and is the founding and guiding teacher for Seattle Insight Meditation. He is author of the book, Lessons From the Dying.

About the Book

I’m very excited about this book and hope that it is the start of a trend. It is comprehensive, well thought out and expounds the Buddhadharma without being stuffy and esoteric. Additionally it does not seek to water down Buddhist concepts to twitter sized bites nor does it insult the intelligence of readers by assuming we are children and addressing us in that condescending way.  I hope this author is already at work on another book.

Selected statements from the Introduction:

The term anatta, which means no permanently abiding self or soul, is at the heart of the Buddha’s teaching, but with our Western emphasis on psychological health it is perhaps inevitable that this essential aspect of the teaching is downplayed or even avoided. Emptiness, after all, stands in opposition to many of our most important values such as self-reliance, individual initiative, and the pursuit of pleasure…

This selective approach to Buddhism would seem to allow the best of both the Eastern and Western worlds…

…except that there is a rub when we pare back the Dharma…

We hurt and we do not understand why…

When we look at our experience we appear to be the center of the universe…

Many of us incorporate a gentler and kinder spiritual “me” into our practice, which is in opposition to the worldly “me,” the trouble-making twin that needs a resolution…Eventually we see that calling the ego different names serves to strengthen its overall grip and control..

We begin to further understand that the cause of our suffering is not what we do but the way we perceive…

Much of this book is about understanding our perceptions and misperceptions of ourselves and the world. Seems fitting for a Buddhist book. It is given in a strong Dharmic framework that I recognize from my Abhidharma studies or  from Visudhimagga or Shurangama Sutra, which all kind of cover the same general territory.

…the Tathagata has explained to you that the fundamental cause of all five skandhas is false thinking.

8.291 Shurangama Sutra – Buddhist Text Translation Society pub. 2003

However it is not nearly as esoteric as those texts. Certainly not as lengthy. And it is not overly scholarly.

Using contemporary language and examples the author challenges much activity and thought that claims the label Buddhism or Dharma with reasoned explanations and clear thought.

It is also an exposition of real Buddhist psychology and not Freud, Jung or other psychologists dressed up in saffron robes.

The book tackles subjects such as self-deception, intentions, encountering paradox, freeing awareness from self-control and the last chapter is on mature awakening.

Discussions of mature practice are not often available in the marketplace. There are a lot of books for beginners and then some very specialized texts for academics or ambitiously studious people such as myself. I am relieved to find these more explanatory and in-depth kinds of books for a general audience now being produced and becoming available.

In some ways it reminds me of the works of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, such as The Sanity We Are Born With or Glimpses of Abhidharma. They too are not easily accessible for the beginner but after some time the insights prove quite valuable in deepening the understanding of both the purposes of practice and practice itself.

What gives this book a broader appeal is that it is focused on lay practice, that is practice out in the world. Some of the examples given relate to workplace and family situations. The author himself is trained as a social worker and has worked in hospice care for many years in addition to teaching Buddhism. So even having been a monk he is familiar with lay life.

Part of the center section of the book deals with Right or Wise Livelihood. It is all about our attitudes about work and how we can deal with such things as boredom, lack of fulfillment and stress at work.  He goes into how to apply and misapply mindfulness to work. Here is a sample:

The only way a spiritual path can unfold is through a direct connection to the primary intention, that deep longing within the heart for the total resolution of conflict. If we are uninterested in what blocks our primary intention at work and in our life, our spiritual practice will not bear fruit. Mindfulness will center on “me” and what “I want”, and will be awash in our reactivity and assumptions, without any way of moving beyond that limited perspective. This is the reason mindfulness cannot succeed when willfully forced onto a situation; the “I” that forces mindfulness is simultaneously a limitation on it…

As the primary intention rises to the surface of our work, nothing is discounted. If our job is boring, we become interested in the boredom itself and explore its hold on us. p. 145

Of course you recognize he is talking about Right Intention as well as Bodhicitta. And perhaps you notice, or it seems so to me, the language and viewpoint is somewhat reminiscent of Trungpa Rinpoche’s regarding interest in what is happening in one’s life and experience whether we like the situation or not. Equanimity.

I really want to quote every second paragraph here just because it contains so much and is so very well stated. The author discusses pretty well all of Buddhist doctrine while rarely using technical terms but does so in a way that makes the concepts and their meanings clear. If people have been put off or confused by some of that in the past then reading this will make it quite obvious. For example on his explanation of the self in the very first chapter:

The mind has created the sense of you and me from the way it perceives reality. The truth is the mind holds “us” within it. “We” are not the possessor of a mind, and the mind is not something happening to us as if we were outside looking in. “We” are part of the mental processing of the mind. The thoughts of the mind and the sense-of-I are not two separate events. “We” exist only because the mind thinks us into creation… p.4

I haven’t run across a statement that explains “I”, ego or the separation of self from experience that is more clearly stated than that. And he continues to explain:

If we think we are either separate from the experience or separate from the mind having the experience, our efforts will exacerbate the division between “the world” and “myself”. p.5

He explains in the first chapter, the Eightfold Path and its applicability to lay life. As well he addresses some of the misrepresentations that occur with Buddhist practice. The whole purpose of the book is laid out.

This book is an attempt to show that certain aspects of the Eightfold Path take on new relevance in lay life…

…will explore what is centrally important within the Buddha’s teaching when we are addressing a fully engaged life, and when we want that life to lead to the full liberation proclaimed by the Buddha…

The central point is not to determine the precise meaning of the Buddha’s words, but to expose the numerous ways we misrepresent his teaching by unconsciously deceiving ourselves. Because of the psychological emphasis in the West, modern spirituality is often distorted according to that bias, and ends up reinforcing self-deception. p.11-12

One of the essential discussions in this book is about Wise View or the first of the eight-fold path. How we align with that view makes all the difference in how Buddhist practice manifests in our lives. If it is in accordance with the doctrine of anatta then practice can proceed but if it is not then problems continue to show up.

It strikes me that the problems many people have with practice come down to mis-aligned Right or Wise View.  And I think this particular book is the answer for many of those situations. 

Another really important discussion is related to what the author labels vertical and horizontal universe. That is time and timelessness. All time being encompassed in the present moment. I am glad someone has elucidated this concept so clearly. It is referred to numerous time throughout the book in conjunction with other concepts. This is helpful because it helps to tie together the whole Buddhist viewpoint.

Throughout the book the author illustrates the problems with mis-aligned viewpoints. Such as:

Caution is needed if we cherry-pick the Buddha’s teaching because we can be practicing one link out of context from the whole. The Buddha’s teaching builds upon itself, and Wise View precedes and frames all the other components. Without Wise View, the unwise view of self claims a privileged place, and the teaching can quickly become an exercise in moralism and self-improvement. The Buddha says, “Without Wise View one can aspire toward spiritual  growth, but it is like trying to churn water into butter.” p. 34

This book is a definite counterpoint to the current trend of stripping down the Dharma, I’m not talking culture here, to a few talking points and marketing that.

Conclusion

We do not need a new reality;we need a reframing of the reality we are in. How we perceive reality is the problem, not reality itself.  p. 35

This book is like a tonic for what is ailing much of Western convert Buddhism.

Verdict

Highly recommended for those with some practice experience and especially for people who have read a lot of the pop culture Buddhist or psychology books and are looking for something with real substance.

Anyone who is a counselor, psychologist or working in a similar field and wishes to incorporate Buddhist principles into their practice would be well advised to read this book as well.

And there are perhaps a few teachers who might like to brush up on some of this as well.

Thanks Rodney Smith for writing it.

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Note: The publisher sent me this book to review. However  anyone who reads this blog knows there is no stated or implied promise on my part to like it, pretend to like it or to say I like it if I don’t,  even if they sent me a truckload of books, which they didn’t. And I’m glad they didn’t because I don’t have room and would have had to rent a storage facility.