Culture is an Operating System

Here is a short film that brings up some interesting points about culture and our points of view of the world. One thing it got me thinking of was the importance of a practice like home leaving, getting beyond one’s comfort zone…even if it is for a short time.

The film maker wrote this about the origin of the film, on the YouTube page:

Whenever I’m in the city I always look around with a critical eye, trying to understand the reality we live in. I was in Oxford Street yesterday & it was honestly surreal, everyone was super image conscious, absorbed in themselves & this false idea of "individuality" by still conforming to some sort of cultural norm.
It made me think of a lecture that I watched by the great "Terence Mckenna" which is called "Culture is your operating system" which is also an observation that I had made before hand.

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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

The Official Himalayan Masters

I always get a little queasy when I read the biography of someone who cites their training, in Buddhism, Yoga, Chakra training, Advanced Third Eye Cleansing Technique or what have you, as being conducted by The Himalayan Masters. Now I know there is a book with Himalayan Masters in the title by Swami Rama but that’s not what I’m talking about. His is a collection of stories of meetings with remarkable people. I am talking about some “official” Himalayan Masters who seem to pop up now and then on somewhat New-Agey sites.  They seem to grant some kind of empowerments or degrees or something to rather “differently-consciousnessed” individuals and they will, for a price, demonstrate their mystical powers and for an even greater price teach you how to invoke said powers.

It sounds very official, as if there is some kind of Official Himalayan Mastery Institute somewhere on a mountain top and devout pilgrims trek for days to reach this little piece of Shangri-La. There one would expect to find an array of mellow wisened old fellows ready to dispense the wisdom of the ages to all who wish to collect it.

Well, I’ve been wandering around the Himalayas for almost 9 years now and have yet to hear of the location of The Official Himalayan Masters or their Institute. No one I know between Sikkim and Siachen has any information about such individuals either.

It seems like the notion of Himalayan Masters has been taken from the title of Swami Rama’s book and spun into some imaginary group to give credence to whatever is being sold by unaffiliated people.

There are certainly “godmen” aplenty in India. Swamis, babas, priests, spiritualists, tantriks, saints, fakirs, masters, emanations of Bhagwan, adepts, yogis, saddhus, monks, gurus, teachers come in thousands of different varieties. Some are the real deal, some might be the real deal, some aspire to be the real deal, but general consensus amongst those surveyed (by me, unscientifically) is that the majority are either consciously fraudulent or rather deluded.

Here’s a great video about some of them in the Indian state of Kerela. If you love Amma maybe you’ll want to skip this, as she’s mentioned prominently. It is very interesting to draw parallels between this and numerous situations festering in the United States and Canada.

From the video:

“You can really understand why victims are so reluctant to come forward and say how godmen have exploited them, when you see the baying mob that surrounds the godmen.”

People in India though have been experienced in this for centuries. Many don’t speak about it. But much more often than in the West many do. Look up “fake guru” on YouTube and you’ll find plenty of submissions from the sub-continent including from media. People are willing to go to the media and the police about their experiences.  At least the police are willing to take the complaint and sometimes follow up. Perhaps that is what is required more often in “Western” countries.

But we don’t have much of a religious press or a media particularly interested in this kind of thing. There are a few outstanding reporters on the religion beat such as Douglas Todd of the Vancouver Sun but they are rare. And news reporters generally don’t seem to think this is much by way of news, even when Christians are involved, as compared to Kim Kardashian’s latest fashion statement for example.  So what are we going to do? (hint-blogs, websites, disclosure, transparency)

[Addition Aug. 10-the New York Post had this article today Eat Pray Zilch on these very topics. Let’s see a lot more in the media! ]

And maybe if the police were consulted a little more frequently, for there are quite likely legal issues such as fraud, theft, tax evasion, extortion, intimidation, and perhaps even racketeering involved in some instances, awareness could be raised. (Provided the above mentioned Kardashian doesn’t pick up a new boyfriend)

Whether in India or the United States many aspects of humanity are pretty similar. As to why people are willing to follow the “godmen”:

“They have everything, in plenty. Except peace of mind.”

I don’t know who the Official Himalayan Masters are.  Perhaps they are a cricket team. Maybe they live in Sedona. Quite likely we’ll never really know.

Here’s a couple of chaps I do know who might be unofficial Himalayan masters. I’ve never asked them though.  And I’m quite sure they’ve never attended an Official Himalayan Masters Institute or anything similar. They don’t give degrees or empowerments or trophies so most people aren’t too interested in what they are about. You can click on the photos to go to more information about them.

Here is definitely NOT a Himalayan Master of any sort, at Lacha-Lang-La Ladakh (the closest to Shang-Ri-La I could find-16 617 ft.)  “La” means a pass in the mountains in Tibetan and in the local Ladkhi language. On the right is Bara-Lacha-La also over 16,000 ft.

It’s damn cold and windy on the way to the mountaintop. That’s about as much wisdom as I’ve got about attempting to visit Shangrila.

Art, Buddhism and Passion

A couple of posts back in  The Paradox of Freedom I  mentioned that wacky artist Soutine and his statement about art being more important than sanitation or olfactory agreeableness when he kept a rotting beef carcass in his studio in order to use it as a model for painting. Many other artists have done equally strange things in expression of their passion. People without such a degree of passion have some difficulty understanding that.

When we consider Buddhist ancestors it seems that quite a few had some kind of passion going on for the activity they were engaged in as well. And equally people without such a degree of passion have some difficulty understanding that.

I clipped a comment a long time back about passion and Buddhism. Apparently I didn’t catch the commenter’s name and I don’t recall the forum it was in. But it contained some interesting commentary on the role of passion in Buddhist practice. And from much I’ve encountered since then this commentary seems to express a common belief. The commenter said:

“The bottom line is that passion is not a valued quality in Buddhism.”

If what is meant by passion is any of the following definitions: boundless enthusiasm, fervor, fire, zeal, ardor, a strong liking or desire for or devotion to some activity, object, or concept then certainly Buddhism is full of passion. Especially once Bodhicitta has developed there is very little else that matches the ardor with which one practices Buddhism. (think Bodhidharma!) It may appear to be a subdued and long-lasting passion, compared to the immediacy of lust or desire-passion for sense objects, but without some kind of strong impetus like enthusiasm or  devotion most people would abandon Buddhist practices in the first few months.

“If you’re one of those folks who enjoys experiencing passion, and who is driven by it, you might find Buddhism unappealing. ”

Or you might find it gives your experiences a whole new level to contemplate.

Similarly, if you’re the type to be drawn to Buddhism, you might also be less likely to be the type to “suffer for your art,” so to speak. Because to a Buddhist, that would just be ignorant.”

Suffering for art is usually in the minds of the beholders. Most artists just do the thing they do in preference to doing the things most non-artists do like making a lot of money or having a lot of comforts. Artists have a certain devotional passion that is similar to a religious devotional passion. We may sit in our easy chairs and talk of their “suffering for art” or impose our definition of suffering upon these others but the question really is do they themselves define their lives as one of suffering (such as being without material pleasures) or one of joy and creation. People don’t do a thing, particularly something outside the “mainstream” unless there is some psychological/emotional/spiritual/etc. payoff. It wouldn’t happen again and again if there weren’t some kind of impulse and satisfaction of that impulse for the person driven by creative or devotional urges.

The renunciation of monastic life and the discipline of serious practice is certainly labeled as suffering by some. Yet people do it willingly for a lifetime. Just as artists do.

We’ve all read accounts of Buddhist, and particularly Zen practice that discuss burning off of karmic residue, that monastic and intensive training can be likened to a furnace and that it is advisable to, as Dogen Zenji said, “Sit as though your hair were on fire.”

Sounds pretty passionate to me.