5 December 2008

The End

(What I wonder, were his thoughts and impressions training up the subcontinent to his Himalayan destiny? Once again making his Indian rounds? Or had he somehow broken the circle in his own mind? Were the sights -- and insights -- somehow fresh, touched with some wonder and grace? When came the first pain, the first premonition of something very wrong, the realization of dying? Were some last thoughts cast to California? wafted to the Sooke hills? At least that was not the end of his journey, even with the last period in this book. I doubt if that would have been news to him.

Finally, what is a father, a friend, a brother in Dhamma, to say? Perhaps, no more than the Pali word evaṃ: it is as it is. The Buddha said, 'Be lamps unto yourselves, and work out your salvation with diligence.' The Buddha was called Tathāgata: He who has come and gone. None but a Buddha wholly comes and goes. Robert Smith devoted his life to homing on that wholeness. May ours be as well. Perhaps, this is ending in the middle as well. -- Hūm)

The End

Sooke, B.C. -- December, 1989

4 December 2008

Letter 4.40

(Shortly after Bob's death in Nepal, a Sri Lankan journalist, Maureen Seneviratne, published an article about him: COMPUTER MONK REMEMBERED. -- Hūm)

'...Ven. Bodhesako will no more walk the roads and paths of Ambegoda, a village near Bandarawela on the Welimada Road. Every morning the monk descended from the hillock where he lived on his round to collect his alms-food for the day. He walked the gravel roads barefoot, his begging bowl in a sling... Still, American remained the Samanera till his last days. You could see it from his gait. His feet carried his stocky body at a speed higher than an Asian monk on his begging tour ever would develop. So he returned with his bowl carefully but efficiently carried. For who has an eye for it, even the way he wore the monk's garb was not fully Eastern. A misfit in a Sinhalese village? Had the villagers known that the only piece of furniture in the monk's room, apart from bed, bookshelf, table and chair, was a word-processor, they might have been stingy with their alms!...

I had a long interview with him on the spacious verandah of the hundred years old bungalow of Hubert and Connie Congreave at Wye Estate...

Once, he said, he had possessed everything (in a material sense) he had wanted and had never been satisfied. It was for 'layman's reasons' he had 'gone forth' and thus he had found out the 'monk's reasons' for being a monk. He had had like many others to shed 'all romantic and flowery ideas' of being a monk and face and understand the 'true reasons'. He had used the Teachings as 'the raft for crossing a river' as the Buddha had said. Now he was still learning to use the 'raft'...

'Peace can only start with and within the individual,' I remember he told me, adding that Buddhism was not out to change the world, but the individual -- give him right knowledge and understanding -- and every individual transformed goes to make a better world, he said. Self-understanding alone would lead him to the inner peace that can exist for an individual even in the midst of strife and conflict...

...Ven. Bodhesako died in Nepal, close to his favorite temple, on a meditation pilgrimage, shortly before he would have attended the 80th anniversary celebration of his father in California. I imagine that Robert Smith -- for that was his name from birth in Detroit, Michigan US.A. -- had grown his hair and donned civilian clothes fitting the California climate for the occasion. But perhaps also he would not have done so. What does it matter? Would he have gone a-begging in California?... One can take for granted that such musings were thought unnecessary and even irrelevant by Sadhu, as the monk was called at Wye Estate...

..This computer-word processor was Sadhu's pride and worry. If anything in his life has been illustrative of the basic truth -- not only of Buddhism -- that all is transient and therefore needs to be handled properly, it was this electronic machine.

It took Sadhu almost the time he needed to learn how to meditate to find out the refinements he could utilize to print his book. Or was this his way to meditate? Surely he should not be considered to be a Western Buddhist for the sole fact that he worked a word-processor. For him it was nothing more than the stylus monks at Aluvihara near Dambulla cave temple even today use to print the ancient texts onto ola leaves. They also need ink. Who thinks of a word-processor as a higher being should never buy a newspaper either. For Sadhu probably handling this machine was of the same quality as being aware of one's breath in meditation.

And how it tested his patience! Not only because finding out its skills and moods was almost as volatile an exercise as scrutinising one's subconscience. It also liked breaking down...

...No, Robert Smith was not a Western Buddhist because he handled this intricate machine nor was he a Sinhala Buddhist because he walked Ambegoda's gravel roads barefoot. He remained American to the hilt. American stamped by the revolutionary 60's and the meditative 70's. His way of Buddhism was as contemporary as that of the Buddha himself in his days. For everybody has to go it on his own or her own, here and now.

Then why stayed Sadhu in Sri Lanka and why on Wye Estate? Because he found his Sangha there. Hospitality received from Hubert and Connie Congreave in an annex of their own house was their permanent dāna to him and his computer. Connie provided him with tea, gently placed outside his normally closed door. Sadhu had his perfect solitude woven into a relaxed but intimate relationship with the elderly couple. Would Robert Smith have found such a setting in his home country? The sensitivity for each other's privacy and need for communication developed in the 'Wye Hermitage' can be called unmatched and reason for Sadhu to settle down there. For though he died in Nepal on his way to America, Hubert Congreave meanwhile was doing up Sadhu's simple abode to have it ready for his return. For days they could hardly believe that he would never return. They would have believed any villager saying that he had been seen on his swift morning round. However, that is what Robert Smith would never do... He was a man of consequence. Someone who can handle a computer in a contemplative way also knows how to switch off.

A Western Buddhist by historic conditioning, lives among Christians. Different from what Eastern Buddhists might think, that can be an inspiration. Both ways, of course. That is what made Wye Estate Sadhu's Sangha. All inhabitants are Christians. To their company the Buddhist monk Robert Smith wanted to return. Not for high-flown discussions, since there were none. Simply for the living, leaving each other alone but not lonely. Is not that a perfect definition of a monastery?...a mirror of what humanity as a whole is or should be.

Clearing the Path, the writings of his teacher, the Ven. Ñāṇavīra Thera, was really Samanera Bodhesako's magnum opus... There is no name of the editor -- in the great tradition he chose to follow. It is notable that in his foreword he claimed the book 'is meant to be lived rather than read and set aside'. It is what he himself endeavoured and achieved in the way of life he adopted as his own...

3 December 2008

Letter 4.39

"...And if any character tries, however ineffectually, to understand the real nature of his situation, it is not Yossarian but the chaplain. The chaplain (he was named Shipman in the hard-cover edition, but for some reason the name was changed in the paperback edition to Tappman -- not his only identity crisis), who has an open mind, is continually

'...wondering what everything was all about.

...There was no way of really knowing anything, he knew, not even that there was no way of really knowing anything. Was there a single true faith, or a life after death?

..These were the great, complex questions of ontology that tormented him. Yet they never seemed nearly as crucial to him as the question of kindness and good manners. He was pinched perspiringly in the epistenological dilemma of the skeptic, unable to accept solutions to problems he was unwilling to dismiss as unsolvable. He was never without misery and never without hope...' -- pp. 262-3

In the chaplain's tale the human dilemma is presented from a different point of view; it is not a question of sanity or insanity but, in Kafkaesque terms, one of guilt or innocence. Because it is the nature of beings that they are continually trying to establish an existence that continually eludes them[1]; their existence is perpetually in doubt, and they exist, if at all, in a state of guilt. This, it would seem, is the basic perception of Kafka's Trial: Joseph K. arrests himself by recognizing that his existence, being unjustifiable, is essentially guilty. And the chaplain (for whom the question 'Who am I?' becomes acute when he is formally charged with 'being Washington Irving' -- p. 378) is also in this situation.

And later the chap1ain's identity crisis and dilemma of existential guilt is expressed in the same terms that were used earlier to describe Catch-22:

'I offered it to Sergeant Whitcomb because I didn't want it.'

'Why'd you steal it from Colonel Cathcart if you didn't want it?'

'I didn't steal it from Colonel Cathcart!'

'Then why are you so guilty, if you didn't steal it?'

'I'm not guilty!'

'Then why would we be questioning you if you weren't guilty?' -- p. 377

Thus each of us faces the question of our basic unjustifiability in a purposeless world. Some, of course, flee from these questions and deny them (by indulging in sensuality, hatred, lethargy, agitation, and doubt); but the questions return for so long as their root, the conceit 'I am', exists, and the verdict is inevitable: Guilty.

'Chaplain,' he continued, looking up, 'we accuse you also of the commission of crimes and infractions we don't even know about yet. Guilty or innocent?'

'I don't know, sir. How can I say if you don't tell me what they are?'

'How can we tell you if we don't know?'

'Guilty,' decided the colonel.

'Sure he's guilty,' agreed the major. 'If they're his crimes and infractions he must have committed them.'

'Guilty it is, then,' chanted the officer without insignia... -- p. 379

And guilty it is for all of us, if the charge is the fundamental one of being possessors, or even of simply 'being': being what?

And thus Heller repeatedly and ingeniously offers us brilliant literary expressions of the dilemma of existence. The formulations are lucid and compelling and they fully take account of the circular and self-sustaining nature of the dilemma. For this we can praise Catch-22, and perhaps find it of use as a tool in keeping to the forefront of our awareness the nature of our problem. But it would be asking too much to expect the novel to offer the means of resolving that dilemma: for that we must turn to the Buddha's Teaching.

Sāmanera Bodhesako,
from The Buddha and Catch-22


[1] Thus the question 'Who am I?', whether or not it is answerable, is recognized at once to be vital and fundamental to the epistemological dilemma we each face; indeed, it is thus that there is the concept of such a dilemma at all.

2 December 2008

Letter 4.38

I went to the professor of my Colombo dentist, at the Peradeniva campus a few miles from Kandy -- my first time on that campus; rolling hills, attractive buildings, surrounding greenery, very upmarket for Sri Lanka.

The professor looked at the molar X-rays and showed me how the bottom half of one of the roots was dark, whereas the other root-and-a-half were white (Was? When does plurality begin? At two, to be logical? Or at the tiniest fraction above one, to be mathematical? Or at some foggy and indeterminate place near the middle, to be psychological? Sinhalese verbs make no distinction as to person or number, so presumably this sort of question would not occur to a Sinhala.) This, the professor assures me, meant that my dentist had not filled the bottom half of one root with whatever sort of stuff they fill it -- cotton wool, or sawdust, or some exotic polymer. Ann it was why, he said, I've been having recurrent infections in the gum around the tooth, requiring courses of antibiotics every three or four months for the last several years, ever since the root was canalled (a Venice of the mouth).

Furthermore, he added, he could not understand why my dentist should have attempted the work without the proper tools, since the equipment is available on the campus, and he would be glad to redo the work properly and put an end to these infections, but at present it was between semesters and as I must have seen when I came in he was not actually seeing patients during this time, since he had to supervise the between-terms maintenance of the school equipment, which was therefore inoperative, and in addition he had so many committee meetings and important conferences in Colombo, and he began rattling off a lot of names that meant nothing to me. I was more concerned, actually, about his hands probing at my teeth since, you see, when I came in he had had a drill's innards on the table and the oil had not been as thoroughly washed off his hands as I would have liked. But he was as sensible as he was garrulous, and kept his greasy thumbs off my shiny molars, only probing and tapping with tools, handed to him by his dumpty nurse like in an operating theatre. He would name a pick or mirror or whatever, and she would slap it into his hands. Once she handed him something which he then realized wasn't what he wanted. He threw it to the ground and told her, 'Don't give me what I ask for. Give me what I need.' She did.

As for the dust jacket of Clearing the Path, it was done by one of the best-known artists in the country. Personally, I find it too romantic. However, as usual my opinion seems to be a minority view. And among those who disagree with me is the Sri Lanka Printers' Assn., for they have just awarded it first prize in their annual contest. It's an ink drawing. All those color plates don't come cheap, and then there was a lot of work examining the printing work to make sure the colors and other details were right. Amazing the number of things people will get wrong if given the chance. In any case, the book seems to be doing well, though I can't say how long this will continue, already more than a quarter of the first printing has been distributed, mostly outside the country.

Our street people project has made only slow progress, having net with both anticipated and unanticipated obstacles. Now the government has announced that it will launch a project which more or less duplicates (and undermines) ours. If they actually do it, that's fine; but chances are it will accomplish little other than to provide sinecures for a few relatives of politicos. Aside from reviving their sporadic 'get the beggars out of sight of the tourists' campaign (though they don't call it that) it seems aimed primarily at sideswiping our project. Why? I can only guess it's because we are not part of any establishment and nobody is getting anything out of it (apart, that is, from the street people, who don‘t count).

Weather has been erratic -- evening or afternoon rainstorms very welcome to the electricity board, a bit less so to farmers since it's well out of season. But days are hot and sunny. There's an experimental solar dryer here, for drying the spices which are packed in the spice factory, and the temperature in the dryer has gone to over 150°F. The thing was built late last year, so this is its first real test in optimum conditions. (In cloudy weather, of course, it doesn't do so well.) The spices are sold mainly in Europe and the U.K. but there are plans for expansion, both geographically and into related projects. The Dutch and Canadian governments are providing some assistance for the project (which is non-profit, its purpose being to provide a fair market outlet for small spice growers and employment for the village people), but basically it is expected to pay its own way.

I'm afraid to use the computer when it's raining. A few weeks ago during a thunderstorm, when the computer happened to be off, lightning struck somewhere close by, and the light bulbs snapped and fried. Then, a few days later, it happened again, with the computer off. I don't know what might have happened had the computer been on, and I don't want to find out, so this means I only work when it's clear, assuming there are no power cuts, or power failures.

The political situation in the North is mostly unreported, but the information reaching me is that the Indian troops, who are trained for a conventional war, are ill-prepared to engage the Tigers, whose leader apparently prefers war to peace (those who have met him describe Prabhakaran as a militaristic fascist with no interest in, ability for, or understanding of peaceful processes). The Indians, it seems, are given (or taken) to looting and pillage (the ships that bring in relief supplies of food and medicine return to India, I'm told, laden with booty), the civilian death toll is certainly in the thousands (the official Indian figures are in the scores but the press is permitted to report estimates in the hundreds, since the official figures are Indian, not Sri Lankan), and the people in the North, though now disillusioned with the Tigers, hate the Indians even more.

Meanwhile the JVP spreads its tentacles over more of the South. There are now areas of the southwestern low country that are no-go areas, semi-officially, and considerable territory where travel at night is no longer safe. But the government seems bent on making the situation worse, partly through corruption and ineptitude, and partly through the JVP having a certain amount of sympathy in some government circles and a strong page within the army (which is supposed to be putting them down). A Catholic priest who worked with the poor of that area and preached non-violence -- both very dangerous things to do -- was murdered last week, the victim either of the army (the common supposition) or a cabal of narrow-minded landowners. There will certainly be no meaningful investigation of the murder.

Concern is increasing Upcountry, but, for the time being, there's little trouble here.

I've been a bit under the weather -- perhaps the weather has something to do with it. Not bed-ridden or anything, just a spell of tiredness, headache, and general malaise. I think I've made some connection to tea, and then to sugar. (Is there any diabetes in the family?) I stopped all tea, coffee, and sugar and in a couple days the headaches eased, and I was less tired. Experimenting, I've found I can take a small cup of slightly sweet tea daily with no problem, but must limit myself to this. I've also gained considerable weight in the past few months, though I haven't changed my diet.

Perhaps, I've just become an old man. About two weeks ago (so I'm still new to the business of being an old man), when I got a pair of bifocals for reading. They certainly make print a lot clearer, but they are a nuisance to wear, and I still find myself trying to look at distant things through the reading portion or trying to read through the plain-glass portion, and they give me a headache (on top of the headache I've been having; a sort of duplex?) I prefer large print, but unfortunately many of the things I must or wish to read are in small type (not to mention my own handwriting). Until I got the specs I used a magnifying glass, but it was always reflecting the lampbulb and other things and was no solution. Guess I'll have to learn to live with glasses.

While reading Herman Wouk's War and Remembrance, which I thought very well done, its scenes of Russia and of East European Jews pricked my dormant interest in the family tree. So you've been collecting anecdotes yourself? Thinking of making a book of them? I, for one, would be an interested reader. Today's a particularly good day for memories, I suppose: it's been five years since mother died. Do you also often think back on grandma and grandpa and the stories they must have told you about the Old Country? I know I never asked you much about your growing up in Chicago, and I'm not even sure what part of Russia grandma and grandpa came from; I'd be glad to hear any stories that you remember.

Well, I've got a new passport and visas onward, and soon I'll be departing for India. I may spend some time in South India, then possibly Nepal, possibly Burma, and on to either Thailand or Singapore to catch the flight to the States. I won't know until I hook into the travelers' grapevine in India. But you can expect me to show up in LA some time in late August, I expect -- only for a few weeks before returning to Sri Lanka, but after ringing in your 80th birthday! Well -- and well -- into your next three score and ten! I hope my presence will be a little icing on the cake. (Ahead of me, I also hope, will arrive a box containing the broken carriage of my printer, which I'm sending airmail. The step motor seems to be defective. Repairs are impossible here, but may not be in the U.S.)

I leave you with a Buddhist joke:

For twenty years Suntil, a village Buddhist, had been cook to Father Carolis, the priest who ran the church attended by the upper-class folk. One day, while they were in the river for their daily bath, the priest said to Suntil, 'You've been my cook for twenty years, and you're still a Buddhist. That doesn't look right. People wonder what kind of priest I am when I can't even convert my own cook. Now the Bishop is honoring me by coming to lunch this Friday, and I've decided to baptize you as a Catholic so that I can present you to him as my latest convert.'

Suntil protested that he was content to be a Buddhist, and didn't want to be a Catholic, but Father Carolis would have none of it, and without further ado he pushed Suntil beneath the water, declaring, as he did so, 'Thou art Samuel!' When Suntil surfaced he declared, 'I am Suntil!' But the priest pushed him down again, with the words 'Thou art Samuel!' A second time Suntil declared himself to be Suntil, whereupon Father Carolis pushed him under the waves a third time, and held him so long that when Suntil surfaced he could only sputter and gasp for air.

On Friday the Bishop showed up, and the priest seated him at the place of honor for lunch. Suntil brought in lunch, the main course in a covered salver. When the priest lifted the lid his face grew red with anger. 'Samuel! what is the meaning of this? For twenty years you have been my cook. You know perfectly well that we don't eat meat on Fridays. And now, with the Bishop himself before us, how dare you to serve chicken? What does this mean?'

'Oh, but that isn't chicken,' replied Suntil. 'That's fish.'

'Fish? How can you say such a thing? I can see perfectly well, and I say it's chicken.'

'Oh no, Father, That's fish. You see, before I cooked it I took it down to the river, and three times I pushed it under the water, and each time I said, 'Thou art fish, thou art fish, thou art fish! So that isn't chicken, it's fish!'





(Our Dharma-bum banter about 'black holes' during his last sit on my stump apparently went on in his head until, a decade later, it got somewhere: The Big Bang: A Modification. -- Hūm)

'The universe,' the ethnologist was told by his native informant, rests on the back of a giant turtle.' And what, the ethnologist wanted to know, does the giant turtle stand on? 'Another giant turtle,' his informant asserted. And that turtle? 'Ah, I know what you're getting at, and it's very important,' said the informant, 'but it's no use: it's turtles all the way down.'


Obviously a great deal more could be said on the subject of the birth, evolution, and death of the universe; but what has been presented here should be sufficient for a preliminary draft.

Since the universe is now expanding there must exist a repulsive force which operates on a scale sufficient to have started that expansion. There is no evidence that such a repulsive force is presently operative, at least on a sufficiently powerful scale, to counteract gravitational attraction, so it must have been operative under conditions which do not presently prevail. Those conditions existed during the first minutes of the universe which is described in the Big Bang view, when there was a mass of sufficient density to create a pressure-opaque era. However, this era could only have emerged given proper antecedent conditions. Those conditions could have been the collision of two black holes such that their combined mass was sufficient to initiate a region of the universe wherein a pressure-opaque era could arise. And the condition which allowed black holes of such mass to form are those which are operative even today. Despite the absence of the absolute proof that our presently-expanding universe will eventually begin to contract, there is a great deal of indirect evidence to support the notion; and if this single assumption is allowed we find that it is possible to describe a cyclical universe, wherein the questions of beginnings becomes meaningless.

Furthermore, such a view allows us to address a number of other unresolved questions and either to propose solutions to them or at least to suggest that this cyclical view of the universe allows of approaches to solutions where previously no approach was apparent.

A number of ways -- by experiment, by survey, by mathematical calculation -- have been suggested whereby the views presented in this paper could be tested.

'The universe,' the ethnologist was told by his native informant, was born out of the collision of two gigantic black holes.' And what, the ethnologist wanted to know, were those black holes born from? 'From the previous universe,' his informant asserted. And what was that universe born from? 'Ah,' said the informant, 'that too is very important; but it's no use: it's black holes all the way down.'

Late note:

Unexpectedly high amounts of deuterium have been detected recently by satellite and radio telescopes. This indicates that the Big Bang must have been less massive than formerly supposed, for otherwise the deuterium (which is hydrogen with a neutron in its nucleus) would have been fused, in the additional heat of a great Bang, into helium. This, it has been argued, means that the universe is less massive than earlier evidence indicated and therefore also very much younger. This, of course, contradicts the existing evidence for the age of the universe. But the contradiction is resolved if we reject the assumption that the Big Bang involved all the matter that exists. If, instead, we allow, as this paper suggests, that the universe contains considerable matter which did not directly participate in the most recent Big Bang then we can acknowledge the validity of these recent measurements without being obliged to conclude that it is in contradiction with earlier findings. Indeed, in the model suggested in this paper such a finding would be expected, and can be taken as supportive evidence for the views put forward here in support of an oscillating universe.