“You Make Such Very Weird Karma”
Cetanāhaṁ bhikkhave kammaṁ vadāmi… (“Volition, monks, is what I call karma”)
—attributed to the Buddha
Once upon a time, back around 1998 or so, I was living at a “forest monastery” (actually a desert wasteland monastery) called Taungpulu Kyauk Hsin Tawya, in central Myanmar. Very few “foreign” (i.e., non-Burmese) monks lived there, or could live there, as it was very remote, very rough, and very, very hot most of the time, with bad food, often nobody there who spoke English, and very little support system for foreigners. Way back when venerable Taungpulu Sayadaw was still alive, and when the Taungpulu tradition was attracting western spiritual seekers, there were a few western monks who lived there…but the living conditions there were so severe, with not even a water reservoir or bath house at that time, that they eventually got a monastery established for them in the hills where it was cooler and more easily survivable. Once, back around the 2000s I think, there was a Korean monk who lived there, who spoke no Burmese and almost no English, and who lived in extreme seclusion in a cave on the outskirts of the monastery until he finally got sick and essentially cracked up, and had to be sent back to Korea. Once when I was there a different Korean monk spent a “rains retreat” there (in a desert wasteland with very little rain); but he had been a professional dancer before his ordination, was very fussy, was afraid even of the little wall geckos, let alone the bats and larger reptiles and spiders, and he fled the place as soon as the rains retreat was over—like within hours. I remember him totally freaking out when he first discovered intestinal worms in his bowel movements. Anyway, a Japanese monk also lived there for one rainy season, around 1998 when I was there. Once he asked me how long I had been living there, and when I said around three years already, he gave me a wry look and said, “If you can live here, you can live anywhere.”
This Japanese monk was a really good fellow, and we became friends. We shared an interest in some of the deeper Mahayana philosophies, and I shared with him my hypothesis that, assuming that rebirth is real, I was probably Japanese in a relatively recent past life, like maybe around the late 1700s. His name was Mahāvīra, or “Great Hero,” which is ironic because that is also the title of the reputed founder of Jainism, a religion considered heretical by good Buddhists. (Which reminds me of a similar ironic name for the main monastery in the Ajahn Chah tradition in America, Abhayagiri, which was the name of a heretical monastery adopting Mahayanist views, and the main rival to Theravada in Sri Lanka in ancient and medieval times.) Ven. Mahāvīra was very friendly and not very reclusive, and he liked staying at Pah Auk Tawya in southern Myanmar mainly because he liked good food and liked the noodles there. As he used to say, “I raik nudu.” Once when I was hospitalized with malaria he stayed in the hospital room with me, and was up during the hot nights picking bedbugs off of himself, because he had a real aversion for them. (Yes, the hospital was infested with bedbugs, and cockroaches too.) A woman gave birth in the room next to ours when we were there, and Mahāvīra told me, “I want to touch it, but it is still very baby.” He shaved his head every day. A few years after he left Kyauk Hsin I lost contact with him, and he apparently left Myanmar. I have no idea what happened to him and suspect that he dropped out of the monkhood. Anyway, the following story involves him somewhat, so I mention him here. I hope he is well and at peace nowadays.
By the time I lived at Kyauk Hsin there were a few water reservoirs, consisting of dammed gullies where water would flow during the few torrential downpours that occurred every year. The main one of these was the A Thaw Ka Yay Kan Taw, or “Asoka Noble Water Reservoir,” and that became the main place to fetch water for the monastery. I would walk there every day to fill buckets of water for drinking and bathing at my cave (the same one where the first Korean monk had his breakdown).
The problem is that the Burmese, though a very good people overall, have a tendency to overlook engineering problems. Many of the things they construct have a nasty tendency to collapse, for example. In the case of the water reservoir, there was no danger of anything collapsing anytime soon, but there was a problem with frogs. There was a concrete curb about a foot high surrounding the top of the reservoir, apparently just for looks and to serve as an anchor for a big spiked iron fence, which adult frogs could get over to get into the reservoir to mate, and then out again, but the newly metamorphosed baby frogs couldn’t get over it and away from the water. They would accumulate by the hundreds all around the bottom of that curb at the top of the reservoir and bake to death in the sun. Sometimes I would suggest to a senior monk there that little ramps could be set up in the corners of the reservoir, at least, so the baby frogs could escape; but such ideas are seen as barbarian strangeness to the Burmese, who really don’t care much about creatures like frogs. To many Asian people, more so than in the west, animals are viewed pretty much just as “things,” as “it,” and do not receive much compassion or consideration. Asians tend not to have a deep feeling for non-human nature. But that is a gross generalization and oversimplification.
The thing is, though, that I am not Burmese, and have always harbored a deep love for nature and for most animals. I would go to the reservoir and watch for the big turtles and fish that swam around in it, and the blackish monitor lizard that lived in a crack in the masonry and would watch over the pond with just his head sticking out. And so I felt sorry for these hundreds of baby frogs that were doomed to bake to death in the sun after they climbed out of the water to seek their fortune in life. I like frogs.
Consequently, before long I got into the habit of conducting a little ritual every time I went to fetch water, when the frogs were in season. Before filling the bucket at the well I would carefully climb over the iron spikes of the fence and walk around the periphery of the reservoir collecting baby frogs trapped inside the concrete barrier. After I would collect all of them in my bucket, so that the bucket would contain about a gallon or so of them at the bottom, I would climb back over the spikes and take the bucket down to a smaller pond near the inlet of the reservoir, and let them go there. I felt really happy about this.
So one day as I was making the rounds around the top of the reservoir rescuing frogs, the Japanese monk Mahāvīra came to the well to fetch water. After I climbed back over the spikes I showed him my bucket, and the hopping, wriggling mass of baby frogs at the bottom. He looked in and, maybe because he was Asian too, he gave me a very strange look and said, “You make such very weird karma!”
That is true, I suppose. I have been making very weird karma all my life. Even just living in a place like that, in a cave in a desert, is weird karma. Even now, living in an apartment in South Carolina and wearing pants and a shirt instead of a brown toga, I am making weird karma, and am reaping the fruits of a lifetime of relative weirdness. My mind and my beliefs are rather odd, and, as I keep explaining to people in my videos especially, karma is a mental state. (Perhaps to make my karma even weirder, I will very probably start working with sheet metal soon, as a means of paying the rent.)
Not only do our volitional actions create karma, our volitional beliefs create it likewise; in fact just about any volition or cetanā is karmic. Even just to think a thought creates subtle karma, which is something we should all be wary of. One little hateful or grateful thought plants a seed deep in our mind. Even so, acting out a thought in outward actions reinforces and strengthens that karma.
One strangeness of my karma is that I actually believe in the notion of karma…which even most Buddhists tend to ignore most of the time, considering the outward world to be governed by mechanistic cause and effect rather than by our own mental states. So my acceptance of the idea of karma, along with other reasons, causes me not to be a materialist: that is, I really do not believe in the ultimately real existence of physical matter going about its business independent of conscious minds. I suspect that atoms didn’t exist until some scientist hypothesized and/or isolated one. Same goes for viruses, vitamins, the Big Bang, archaic microbes and the primordial ooze, and so on. Consequently I have been accused of “magical thinking.” And that, I assume makes for me some very weird karma, even though the superficial manifestations of my world are similar enough to those of normies that we appear to share the same planet.
I suppose I should write about this in detail some other time, but now I would just like to toss out a hypothesis of mine that any blue-pilled materialist would consider to be idiotic nonsense: Deeply held beliefs make our reality. Profound belief in something, deep faith, makes it real enough to be a stable foundation for our worldly, samsaric existence. A few centuries ago the people of the west, most of them anyway, believed deeply in Christianity and the idea that everything is at it is simply because God made it that way. This may seem rather primitive now, but it was an elegant and comprehensive theory that could explain pretty much everything, even better in some ways than does science, which can’t even explain how a soft grey lump of meat generates conscious experience.
Nevertheless, science has replaced Christianity for the time being, largely because it produces such evidence for a different kind of belief system that people believe it deeply, and thus it has become the reality. There are occasional snafus in scientific theory, like in the realm of nutrition, but still it is stable and convincing enough that it has become the reality of modern humans. What postmoderns humans will place their faith in, and what their reality will be, is anyone’s guess.
|"A Thaw Ka Yay Kan Taw" at Kyauk Hsin Tawya|