Karmic Ruminations on the Recent Internet Hiatus


It is because every one under Heaven recognizes beauty as beauty, that the idea of ugliness exists. And equally if every one recognized virtue as virtue, this would merely create fresh conceptions of wickedness. For truly Being and Not-Being grow out of one another; Difficult and easy complete one another. Long and short test one another; High and low determine one another. Pitch and mode give harmony to one another. Front and back give sequence to one another.  —from the Tao Te Ching, chapter two, Waley’s translation

Monks, these eight ways of the world follow the world, and the world follows these eight ways of the world. What are these eight? Gain and loss, repute and disrepute, blame and praise, and pleasure and pain. —from the Anguttara Nikāya


     I suppose some of you have noticed that my posting on this blog has been somewhat irregular lately. That’s because the Internet connection here has been belly up for weeks. The only Internet access I have had for two weeks has been the occasional loan of a cell phone wifi hotspot from a visitor to this place. By the time this is posted, I hope 29 July, the cable company will have finally shown up and fixed the damn cable. They say they’ll be here to lay a new cable on the afternoon of that day. (At the time of posting this they haven’t shown up yet. I’m still posting this with a borrowed cell phone hotspot.)

     Note that the trouble with the Internet connection occurred in the most inconvenient way, with a short in the underground cable between the utility post and the monastery building, requiring excavation equipment and a long delay. Before the Internet provider sent guys to inspect the situation, who completely disconnected the cable, the Internet connection was continually failing, especially in hot weather, thereby serving as a kind of chronic irritant. Frankly, I’ve gotten used to this sort of happening, as it is fundamental to the story of my life.

     Some of you who have been reading this blog for more than a year and have good memories may recall that a similar situation arose last summer, just about a year ago exactly, when my computer mysteriously died in Burma. Not only could nobody, including trained Apple repairpersons, figure out how to fix the thing, nobody could even figure out what exactly was wrong with it. The best they could do was to identify “something with the motherboard.” It took a month and a half to replace my computer, as I was living in a Burmese forest at the time and of course, as a monk, it is against the rules for me to handle money. From a materialistic point of view these recent Internet issues are mere coincidence; but as a Buddhist I see more than mere coincidence in all this. This is just the tip of the proverbial (karmic) iceberg.

     Most of my life I’ve had a philosophical intuition, or gut feeling, that positive and negative must tend towards balance in the long run, and that although outwardly, objectively, some people are happier than others, nobody can be more happy than unhappy in life, subjectively—or more unhappy than happy—regardless of outward appearances. Or maybe it would be more precise to say that nobody experiences much more pleasure than pain in life, or more pain than pleasure, again, regardless of outward appearances.

     The chronic malcontent, for instance, takes satisfaction in his constant complaining, and in his feeling that he is superior to all the seemingly contented idiots who surround him. He feels vindicated and satisfied when things turn out as miserably as he expected (“There, you see? I told you it would suck”). It’s a perverse kind of satisfaction, but still it’s a positive that counterbalances the negative. On the other hand, the always-smiling person has his own hidden suffering; for some the smile is a defense mechanism or appeasement display, for some a habitual mask learned in childhood.

     Then again, there is the phenomenon of the starving man being overjoyed to receive some stale bread; or the soldier on a grueling march who is in a state of bliss when allowed to drop his pack and rest for five minutes; or the victim under interrogation in a torture chamber who experiences rapture when the agony temporarily ceases—whereas a rich man may be irritated, his happiness derailed, because his bread isn’t fresh or his filet mignon is slightly overdone. Another case: The person whose greatest blessing and worldly happiness is his family may be constantly worrying about them. An old friend of mine told me once that just seeing his toddler son walking (toddling) in the direction of a street could trigger a rush of visceral fear and dread, because of the off chance that the kid would stupidly fling himself into traffic.

     In the Buddhist texts Māra, the Buddhist “devil,” exhorts the Buddha by saying that a man with sons rejoices over his sons; whereupon the Buddha replies that a man with sons sorrows over his sons. Sorrows and worries and frets, and rejoices. It all balances out.

     Furthermore, we become used to just about anything we face repeatedly, including our own temperament, so that the chronic frowner and the chronic smiler simply consider their chronic state to be neutral, just ordinary existence, the status quo, just the way things are. By the same token, or a very similar one, if everyone were beautiful the very concept of beauty would fade away; and if all that is considered bad were suddenly eradicated, all that would result would be that the lower half of what was formerly considered “good” would come to be perceived less favorably, and would become the new “bad,” or else a whole new slew of badness would have to manifest itself, like new diseases cropping up to replace the cured ones.

     I call this theory of mine the Principle of Subjective Equilibrium: Within any closed system, like a human mind, positive and negative must tend toward a balance of opposites. All pluses and minuses ultimately balance out to zero. (Sometimes I semi-joke that that’s how God Almighty created the universe out of nothing—by making a balance of positive and negative that all adds up to zero, sort of like those quantum particles and antiparticles that appear out of nothing and then crash together into nothing again.)

     This theory, if true, and I’m pretty sure that it is to some degree anyhow, would belie the whole “philosophy” of consumerism and the necessary rightness of technological progress. I know from personal experience that Burmese villagers living with no electricity (other than flashlight and radio batteries) and no running water, living in a bamboo shack, can have less unhappiness in their lives than the average American city-dweller with all the modern conveniences, and democracy and guaranteed human rights to boot. Rich people may have more fun, but they still experience the same balance of happiness and unhappiness. It was probably the same with ancient Greeks and Romans, and with prehistoric cavemen—they were as happy, or as unhappy, overall, as we are.

     Anyway, this subjective neutrality is not absolute, because that would be death. Our world is in flux, with the flow tending towards equilibrium, like water seeking its own level. This is also more or less how the fruition of karma is supposed to work: a disequilibrium naturally working itself out. As the spiritual teacher Paul Lowe used to say, the system is self-healing; and it is our constant volitional lurches out of equilibrium that keep us messed up.

     I suppose all this might make me a crypto Taoist; in Theravada the closest idea to my theoretical Principle is the idea of lokadhammā, “the ways of the world,” in which opposites do not exist in isolation but occur alternately—sometimes good, sometimes bad. Also, as the ancient Pali texts tell us, whatever it is you are attached to, that is what Māra uses as bait to ensnare you in Samsara. Anyway, the events of my own life have borne out the theory repeatedly.

     Too much pleasure and attachment with regard to something requires the universe, let alone Māra, to fuck it up and create some counterbalancing dissatisfaction and frustration. The pluses and minuses of the great Universe must remain in balance.

     It may be that this is more noticeable in people who have dedicated their lives, more or less, to untangling the tangles in their inner life and try to get things straight, in a spiritual sense. Or, it may be my own beliefs and intuitions which are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. I can’t say for certain. Nevertheless, I have long been of the opinion, backed up by personal experience, that whatever I like the most is in greatest danger of destruction or loss, or of just going “pear-shaped,” as they say in Australia.

     Throughout my life, whatever I cherished as my favorite possession has existed under a shadow of doom. One of my favorite examples was a marijuana pipe I made when I was a college student. I found some clay by a creek, collected some of it, took it home, and fashioned a little pipe out of it exactly to my liking. It fit my hand perfectly, drew perfectly, and was shaped just the way I liked it. I worked at a laboratory at the time and had access to a little tabletop kiln, so I baked it there. In accordance with the advice of Castaneda’s Don Juan, I carried the pipe around pretty much everywhere, getting my body oils and “vibrations” soaked into it, and absorbing it into my personal entity, so to speak. I considered it to be my favorite possession; I valued it even more highly than my car. Then one day my roommate and I were smoking out, his girlfriend decided that he had had enough, she tried to wrestle the pipe out of his hand, and it broke. I glued it back together with heat-resistant adhesive, but it was dead. The spirit had fled somehow, and it just wasn’t the same.

     As a young monk I owned a little Pali-English dictionary, which I used frequently in my studies. It was very concise and incomplete, so I spent hundreds of hours augmenting it, carefully adding more entries and definitions in the margins. I was proud of that book, and considered it to be my most valuable possession. Then one fine day while it was stored in the Burmese town of Wun Dwin, a dam in the middle of town burst, inundating the town in a flash flood and destroying the dictionary. All of my books stored there were damaged, but the Pali-English dictionary was on top of the stack inside the can because I used it the most, and so it was the only book that floated out and sank into the mud, and was totally ruined. Several hundred people died too.

     It finally got to the point that, out of motives of cautious prudence, I declared the plastic cap to a disposable razor my favorite possession. (I used it as the cap to my non-disposable razor when I traveled, and it really was a handy thing to have.) Then one day while I was in a relatively rich neighborhood in Rangoon, a servant girl tidying up the place thought it was garbage and threw it away.

     The computer that died a year ago was another object of attachment which died a cursed death, which has begun inspiring some mild worry and dread over the one I have now. Worry and dread are “unskillful karma” and should not be entertained, but they arise nevertheless, in accordance with primordial human nature and past karma. This is one reason why monks are supposed to own a bare minimum of possessions. Desire and attachment are the cause of all suffering.

     Nevertheless, my “bad karma” tends to be buffered, so to speak, coming mixed with some of its own opposite. For example, both times that I was so sick with malaria in Burma that I required hospitalization, I was living in a forest monastery so remote that in order to get there one had to traverse thirteen and a half miles of road so bad that it sometimes took a jeep two hours to manage it. Also, the monastery had no car. But both times, right around the time that I was realizing that I really should see a doctor in order not to die, a rare visitor showed up in a jeep and promptly loaded me into it and took me to town. Also both times there was a (rare) non-Burmese monk present to accompany me to town and tend the sick.

     Another case of this involved rough living in Burma. While residing in very remote areas I was continually biting into rocks in my food—little white ones in the rice, and little brown ones in the beans, apparently there from the stuff being threshed on the ground. Sometimes there would be a loud (to me) “crack!” and it would hurt, and I’d be anxiously feeling around in my mouth to see if any teeth were broken. Sometimes I would worry about this (=bad karma caused by worry), especially because in remote areas in Burma there tend to be few dentists, competent or otherwise. Then, when I was staying at the same place in Rangoon where the servant girl threw away my prized razor cap, I walked for alms and a different servant girl on my route offered some bean curry containing a little brown rock…and I broke three teeth biting into that one goddamn rock. As it turned out, though, the girl was a servant of the dean and rector of the Rangoon Dental College, and furthermore the house was right across the street. So the good doctor not only fixed my teeth for free in a timely manner, but he became my dentist for years afterward and never charged a cent, or rather a kyat. So for several years I had the same dentist as the military dictator of Burma.

     Even the recent Internet hiatus hasn't been a total negative. I've practiced some equanimity (a little anyhow), and acquired some insight born of reflection into my attachment to being online. Really, Internet access is like a seventh sense faculty, and suddenly being deprived of it is more of an inconvenience than, say, suddenly being deprived of my sense of smell. It’s almost comparable to the Divine Eye, with which one can look in any direction and find whatever information one seeks. Also, this interruption in communications has inspired a friend and supporter to supply a backup Internet source in case this kind of snafu recurs; although that may simply indicate that next time the computer itself will have to break down again, or the whole building burn down, or something. (I am reminded of an old story by Woody Allen in which a man “scores” with an absolutely beautiful woman, and as he’s lying there in bed beside her he’s wondering if he’ll go blind or meet some similar disaster as the universe’s way of maintaining cosmic order.)

     So, fair warning: If I start to like you very much either you’ll eventually turn against me, or be hit by a train, or maybe you’ll be counterbalanced by the appearance in my life of an equal and opposite enemy. I just can’t beat the system. Then again, maybe my buffered bad karma will kick in and you’ll be hit by a train shortly after turning against me. But be happy until then, with my blessings upon you.

     

a person with children rejoices in their children


Comments

  1. It's quite strange to me that I just happened to read the following today, from Coomaraswamy's essay, "Primitive Mentality".

    The content of folklore is metaphysical. Our failure to recognize
    this is primarily due to our own abysmal ignorance of metaphysics
    and of its technical terms. We observe, for example, that the primitive
    craftsman leaves in his work something unfinished, and that the primi-
    tive mother dislikes to hear the beauty of her child unduly praised; it
    is “tempting Providence,” and may lead to disaster. That seems like
    nonsense to us. And yet there survives in our vernacular the explanation
    of the principle involved: the craftsman leaves something undone in his
    work for the same reason that the words “to be finished” may mean
    either to be perfected or to die. 5 Perfection is death: when a thing has
    been altogether fulfilled, when all has been done that was to be done,
    potentiality altogether reduced to act (kṛtakṛtyaḥ), that is the end: those
    whom the gods love die young. This is not what the workman desired
    for his work, nor the mother for her child. It can very well be that the
    workman or the peasant mother is no longer conscious of the meaning of a precaution that may have become a mere superstition; but assur-
    edly we, who call ourselves anthropologists, should have been able to
    understand what was the idea which alone could have given rise to
    such a superstition, and ought to have asked ourselves whether or not
    the peasant by his actual observance of the precaution is not defending
    himself from a dangerous suggestion to which we, who have made of
    our existence a more tightly closed system, may be immune.

    ReplyDelete

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