Wednesday, October 24, 2007

"It's OK to be a mental patient"

I am sure that Anagarika Tevijjo, AKA David Holmes, did not intend for me to focus on that comment in his talk on insight meditation last night before the Little Bang Sangha at Baan Aree Library in Bangkok. But it captured my feeling of schizophrenia on hearing his oft repeated description of "mind watching mind" as a way of cultivating insight knowledge. The realization that our cherished realities are in fact only illusions is enough to drive one bonkers. But the suggested technique of one illusion watching another, mind watching mind, sent me a little farther around the bend.

The comment came while explaining that "one good way to understand mindfulness is to understand the lack of mindfulness. The wild elephant or stallion that resists being controlled. It's OK to be a mental patient." The "mind watching the mind" will help to develop the capacity for discernment. Elephants and stallions have the potential for being trained," he explained, just as mental patients have the potential for being cured. But the binary opposition of mind bothered me.

"Think of it as the worldly mind being watched by the meditative mind, the one who knows," he advised me during the Q&A period. "This was the advice of one of my teachers, Alan Watts, in his book In My Own Way." Well, that's all right for renegade Episcopal priests like Watts and Buddhist anagarikas (someone without home or family ties who nevertheless lives in the world, as opposed to the isolation of a monastery) to say, but for ordinary crazy people like me it is confusing.

In his talk, "Insight Generates Mind Power" (available online at his website, Noble Path), Holmes said that mind watching mind
eventually begins to recognize the illusion that what we, falsely, consider to be 'our mind,' or 'our thoughts' or 'our self' is actually nothing more than an impermanently, fluctuantly-accumulating bunching and bundling of illusive sensations, impressions and desires, We eventually come to realize that what we have always considered to be 'our mind'─ is just another perceptual phenomena which lacks any actual and abiding reality.
OK, I can go along with the idea that the mind, or the self, is a construct generated by conditions, the product of experiences an organism (this one, me) has in the world. But if mind has no abiding reality, how can it bifurcate into two equally unreal illusions that watch each other? Realizing that "the point may be succinct, but it is not so easy to see," Holmes attempted to clarify:
When the mind watching the mind sees that there is actually no ‘our self’ or ‘our mind’ or ‘our thoughts’ existing in any way as an independent entity, and, then, with time and discernment, it gradually comes to realize that there is only ‘the mind watching itself,’ it becomes clear, through insight, that the mind is actually only a ‘tool’ to be used in a process of observation and analysis -- to be laid-down and left aside -- once its task of locating and sorting-out and dissolving the delusions of phenomenal existence has been accomplished.
He cautioned that gaining insight wisdom through meditation is a long and arduous process of development. "It goes against our will and our nature." Holmes quoted his teacher, Luang Por Viriyang, who compared learning insight to someone learning to read and write:
At the beginning, he did not know or understand anything. Later, he began to understand little-by-little. Afterwards, he was able to read and write basic words. At this point, his ability equates with samatha (tranquility meditation). From that point on, he develops through experience and wisdom and knowledge, just as one would in medicine or architecture or engineering or agriculture, until he finally becomes fully skilled in his craft.
Luang Por, now 87, is abbot of Wat Thammamongkhon (also spelled Dhammamongkhol) in the southeastern suburbs of Bangkok. He is also founder of the Willpower Institute with a project of meditation for world peace, he established several temples in Thailand and Canada, and is the author of Instructions for Meditation Teachers which Holmes drew on extensively in his talk.

While acknowledging that total insight wisdom might be out of reach for most meditators, the process of developing mindfulness, of Vipassana, "generates healing power" and leads to the relief of stress in the performance of everyday tasks, according to Holmes. Luang Por said that "meditative mind is an effective rest which promotes positive thinking and management capability." This sounds a bit like an advertisement to me for a do-it-yourself CEO course. It unfortunately will encourage people to meditate in order to achieve certain pre-determined results. I hold with the Bhagavad Gita that seeking results from the spiritual life is a prescription for error. We must practice for the sake of wisdom and relief from suffering and not for any reward or merit in heaven or the next re-birth. But of course that is a bit idealistic, and I am, in fact, a mental patient in this asylum of samsara.

Holmes is an engaging speaker, although his talk last night was complex and academic and is more understandable (at least for me) when read from the printed page. A dialogue with him would be a more interesting format, I think. He is a Canadian, educated at McMaster University in Ontario, and he taught English in Munich for the University of Maryland for many years. Coming to Asia in 1992, he worked at the Buddhist Publication Society in Kandy, Sri Lanka, with the Venerable Nyanaponka Thera, a German monk who founded the publications organization, and Bhikku Bodhi, an American now living at Bodhi Monastery in the states. He edits the BPS Wheel series of publications for the internet. Before retiring, he worked at Chulalongkorn University where he published several books, including Buddhist Perception and Paradox. Currently Holmes lives at a remote retreat in Kanchanaburi province.

1 comment:

littlebang said...

Photos of the event can be found at Toffee's blog:

I too find David engaging when venturing of fthe script, and he is excellent in answering questions. (Though I still wonder how meditation fares compared to mozart, or spiderman etc.., in terms of stress relief)