Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Thoughts About Thinking

Thinking is the nemesis of meditation. Nothing gets in the way of an empty mind more than the gaggle of thoughts which invariably attack the meditator with the persistence of angry mosquitoes. Last weekend, 15 members of the Little Bang Sangha in Bangkok went on retreat to the environmentally-friendly Comsaed River Kwai Resort to ponder the problem of thinking under the guidance of the Venerable Pandit Bhikku, accompanied by Phra Nick from Australia.

We gathered Friday morning in the parking lot at Wat Yannawa next to the Taksin bridge near the end of the Skytrain. This 19th century temple on the banks of the Chao Phraya River has a very interesting cement ship, modeled after a Chinese junk. It was constructed on the orders of Rama III who saw steam ships replacing the old junks, and wanted his people to remember the old ships that had originally bought so much prosperity to the kingdom. The "ship" is now a small temple with Buddhist icons, including a rare fat smiling Buddha more common to Vietnam. We piled into two vans and headed southwest of Bangkok for 50 kilometers to visit Songdhammakalayani (The Temple of Women who Uphold Dhamma) Monastery, the home of Bhikkuni Dhammananda, one of only several ordained nuns in Thailand.

Formerly known as Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, a respected scholar and teacher of Buddhist philosophy, Dhammananda, who is in her late 50s and the mother of two sons, was ordained in 2001 in Sri Lanka, the first Thai woman to receive full ordination as a Theravadin nun. The country's laws and Buddhist clergy forbid women to ordain as samaneris (novices) or bhikkhunis. Women can become mae chees, who shave their heads, wear white and take only eight vows (monks take 227), but they are not allowed the full 311-vow ordination of a bhikkhuni in other Buddhist countries. In Thailand, the problem with reviving the order of nuns today stems from a rule requiring that women must be ordained first by five bhikkhunis, then by five bhikkhus. Since no bhikkhunis no longer exist in Thailand to perform the ceremony, no bhikkhunis can be ordained. Catch 22.

Dhammananda is abbess of the temple which was built 40 years ago by her mother, Voramai Kabilsingh, who received bhikkhuni ordination in the Mahayana tradition in 1971 in Taiwan. She was the first Thai bhikkhuni, and her daughter has now become the first in the Theravadin Buddhist tradition. Her mother bought a field of rice paddies near the city of Nakorn Pathom from the consort of King Rama VI in 1960, and had the land converted into temple grounds, with a meditation hall and library. Our group brought a variety of practical gifts (tambon, for making merit) which we presented to the Bhikkuni (and some even more useful cash which we donated upon leaving). After greeting us, Dhammananda took us on a tour of the monastery property, showing us the newly opened vihara with its blue Medicine Buddha, and the spacious high-ceiling library which is almost finished. The previous library suffered a flood and many books were damaged. Both of the new structures are beautifully designed in what seems to me to be non-traditional styles (the blue Buddha is Tibetan). After the tour, she and the monastery's one other nun treated us to a wonderful lunch prepared by their community of supporters in the monastery's open-air dining hall. I was sorry to hear that after being ordained, the nun was no longer allowed to hug her sons; Thai Buddhism's restrictions on contact between the sexes continue to puzzle me. But we left with confidence that if anyone can move the official Thai Sangha towards reinstating the tradition of bhikkunis, it would be Dhammananda, a strong and articulate spokesperson for the Buddha's inclusive attitude towards women.

The Comsaed River Kwai Resort spreads along the banks of the Khwae Yai River which merges downstream with the Khwae Noi river to form the Mae Klong River at the town of Kanchanaburi. Both streams come out of the limestone hills to the west that define the border of Myanmar. Originally intended to be a plantation of comsaed trees (a species I have yet to find in my research), when the original backers pulled out, a new buyer landscaped the property and constructed two-story vacation homes. The next buyer turned the property over to a Thai ecologist to manage as a resort. Everything possible is recycled. Garbage is turned into methane gas and cooking oil filtered into bio-diesel fuel for tourist vans. Cows nibble the grass. Gray water is cleansed through a series of fields, ending up in a rice paddy. A paddle wheel pumps water from the river. Ovens produce charcoal for cooking and wood vinegar used in non-toxic pesticides. The resort has developed a line of organic perfume, shampoo and body lotion. The extensive grounds, which include several swimming pools, are beautifully landscaped. During the weekend, a number of giant tour buses deposited large groups of day visitors and the many new cars parked on the lawn indicated that the resort is a popular destination for wealthy Thais from Bangkok.

Our host was Buddhist layman David Holmes, a Canadian who has spent much of his life in Europe, where he taught philosophy and literature in Germany for the University of Maryland, and in Thailand where he lectured for over ten years at Chulalongkorn University. He was an editor for the Buddhist Publication Society in Sri Lanka for many years, and now is in semi-retirement beside the swiftly moving River Kwai, coming to Bangkok occasionally to speak with interested westerners about Buddhism. The owners of the resort are devout Buddhists and have constructed shrines, parks and meeting halls for groups of students and meditators. Our group was offered three houses and several rooms at a significant discount. Excellent vegetarian meals were included at no charge.

The purpose of the retreat was to look at thinking and thoughts. Pandit Bhikku had posed these questions: "Who is the thinker? How do thoughts arise? Why does thinking not stop in meditation?" He gave four talks and we sat in meditation until past ten in the evening, awakening very early to sit in the hall at dawn (5 a.m.). In the afternoon we did walking meditation in the garden outside the hall. Pandit suggested that we count our breaths and focus on thoughts that arise as the object of our meditation. The goal was to stop a thought halfway through before it was fully verbalized in the mind. This, as anyone who has tried it knows, is extremely difficult. He offered five ways to control thoughts from a sutta by the Buddha: 1. reflection on a different thought; 2. pondering the disadvantages of a thought; 3. pay the thought no mind; 4. the stilling (or slowing down) of thought formation, and, 5. the sledge hammar method ("crush mind with mind"). There was a lively discussion about thinking. Do animals think? Do we think during sleep? (not if we want to avoid watering down the definition of thought, I argued.) I questioned the notion of pre-verbalized thought. What is a mental notion without words attached to it? Does an infant think? A chimpanzee?

Can changing your thoughts change your life? This is the thesis of Louise Hay, an 81-year-old mega-successful author of self-help books the New York Times has called "The Queen of the New Age." On Saturday afternoon we watched "You Can Heal Your Life," a video based on a book by Hay which has sold over 35 million copies. She is joined on the video by a host of New Age authors (like Doreen Virtue, described as a "Spiritual Doctor of Psychology" and an "Angel Therapist") who are published by Hay House, her media conglomerate. While I found some of the self-absorbed claims reminiscent of the babbling of flying saucer believers I read in my youth, Hay herself proved to be a admirable subject. She was abused physically and sexually as a child, gave up a child for adoption, became a New York model without graduating from high school, and turned to the Church of Religious Science when her husband left her. There she absorbed metaphysical and self-help literature and published a small pamphlet listing the spiritual causes of different diseases ("One of the mental causes of cancer is resentment"). This grew into You Can Heal Your Life, a book that combined spiritually intuitive (and I would add "questionable") diagnoses with healing affirmations (stand in front of the mirror and say "I am perfect just as I am").

Mark Oppenheimer, in the New York Sunday Times Magazine, describe the lineage of New Age teachers and positioned Hay firmly within it.
What they all have in common — Christian Science; its cousin Religious Science; [Norman Vincent] Peale’s 1952 megaseller; and contemporary best sellers like Rhonda Byrne’s “The Secret” — is a conviction that proper thinking, rather than religious faith or fervor, is the key to metaphysical power.

Where it seems Hay transcends the jargon is in her emphasis on the healing power of forgiveness. When the AIDs epidemic broke out in the 1980s, she was living in Hollywood and gathered together gay men in large groups for "Hay Rides" during which she encouraged them to forgive themselves and the parents who had rejected them. "I forgive myself and set myself free," she taught them, having been through the process herself. "Enlightenment," she says in the video, "is letting go of what we believe are barriers to life." For her disciples, however, this seems to become a gross empowerment of the self, while for Hay it leads to an abandonment of self out of compassion for others. Oppenheimer compared her to the "suffering, tragic divas of old, Maria Callas or Judy Garland, say, but with a much happier ending: La Scala with an MGM finale."

In the discussion that followed the film, Pandit suggested that change is possible and that we can turn the mind around very quickly. He borrowed a page from the "teleological psychologists" to argue against the binding power of karma. "You are the creator of your future and not the victim of your past," he said. The Buddha was forward-looking and did not say that karma kept us tied to the past. The mind, for the Buddha, was the sixth sense, and Pandit wondered what it would be like to think with the body rather than confine thinking to the mind alone, an interesting thought.

The mind is complicated. Pandit recalled that in the new "Rambo" movie, when John Rambo, played once more by Sylvester Stallone, is asked why he stayed in Vietnam after the war there ended, he replies: "It's complicated." The mind is a commentator, a little homunculus in the head that never stops supplying us with "shoulds." "Buy it!" he tells us, and then when we take it home he whispers into our ear: "What a waste of money!" Using a Biblical image, Pandit called the mind "a broken cistern that cannot hold water." We must let go of good thoughts as well as bad ones, he concluded, for "we cannot get enlightened through knowledge."

Sitting for long periods in meditation is not easy for me. My right leg does not bend easily because of a broken femur when I was 18 years old. Arthritis is slowly working its way through my joints; getting up is increasingly difficult. But I can count my breaths easily from 1 to 10 without getting distracted by my thoughts which keep up a gentle murmur until I stop counting. Then they hound me with memories and projections, clamoring for attention. Despite Pandit's advice, I cannot isolate single thoughts in order to cut them off at the pass. My thoughts come in constellations, idea connected to image, image connected to idea. When I recognize them for what they are, I am usually deep within, too late to nip them in the bud. I despair of achieving any progress, and wonder even if progress is available in the realm of the spirit.

But it was a splendid weekend, even if the sun rarely came out of its cloud cover, and I never got to use my bathing suit. The food was delicious and the company of spiritual seekers a delight. On the way back home (11 of us rented a van for about $110 to drive the two-and-a-half-hour trip) we stopped at a large store selling kanoms, Thai snack food. It's apparently a traditional on road trips to stock up on snacks. And the Thais have discovered innumerable ways to process sugary and salty treats from fruit and fish. Dozens of people strolled the aisles with baskets full of goodies. I brought an armful back home to Pim.

No comments: