12 April 2008

Letter 1.8

…The clouds cast a dim and diffuse light here; the lagoon fills from the torrential rains (the channel to the sea's kept closed until the flood waters are impossibly high), and I rest briefly from the long hours of strenuous effort involved in developing samathabhávana - calm concentration. After six months of hard - very hard - work, a few words of the language of wisdom have been learned - though perhaps the grammar necessary for this mental development may still be a long way off. I have found my solitude: it is totally internal.

Yes, I was aware that Lama Govinda (I assume you were referring to him) was at the Hermitage for a while - and I'm not surprised that he found the horizon for a poet-painter limited. The Buddha left no instructions for success in any of the arts, and if one wishes to practice the arts one may well find the Buddha's Teaching limiting. The Buddha's Teaching is limited: 'Two things only do I teach, Monks. What is dukkha, and the path leading to the cessation of dukkha.'

No, I hope I did not suggest that Tibet, Zen, Ch'an, etc. have nothing to offer. They may have quite a bit to offer; but what they do not offer is the Buddha’s Teaching. That teaching is, of course, not just Vinaya and Sutta. (It's not at all Abhidhamma, which is a scholastic invention having nothing to do with the Buddha's Teaching - or with anything else.) Meditation is an integral and necessary part of the Teaching - and the part which is generally neglected in Theravada - without which attainment is not possible. But (1) There are many types of meditation, only a few of which are suitable for practice of the Buddha‘s Teaching. (2) Meditation, while necessary, is not sufficient, and a grasp of the subject on an intellectual level, to some degree, is also necessary. The teachings of Mahayana and Tantric, whatever be their value, do not lead to an understanding of the Buddha’s Teaching. There are a number of very basic points in which they are totally at variance with the Teaching. The meditations taught by them are, generally, not the meditations which lead to that reflexive view of reality, constant mindfulness, which is needed to realize the Teaching. But, after all, most people, in their heart of hearts, do not want to believe that the Teaching can actually succeed. If they knew that today, in Ceylon, there might be someone still living who had actually attained some part of the Path, they would surely be shocked and outraged. They want their Dhamma on easier terms, and so turn to mysticism to get it. But - 'nuff said.

Except for a rather fruitless month in Colombo when I arrived - a month filled with the despair that can only be known by one who walks the hollow corridors of officialdom - I've been here at the Island Hermitage since arrival, It's far from being the best place for me, but I can say this about it - it's the only place for me, at least, in Ceylon. The only real trouble is it’s so terribly overpopulated. When I first arrived here there were 5 dogs, 4 Sinhalese, 3 Germans, 2 mongooses and an elderly Yugoslavian ex-philosophy professor who has been a samanera for a year and will not take his higher ordination because he doesn't want to have to eat dirty food. There is an ocean filled with fish, a sky filled with birds, a jungle filled with snakes and a well filled with tadpoles. Hardly a day goes by when someone doesn't speak to me. Kierkegaard, for instance, has been saying a lot, all of which I've found well worth listening to, though, it's necessary to dodge the occasional theological snowballs he throws out. But they melt rapidly in this climate.

Climate? The monsoon lasts, apparently, 10 months of the year. The mosquitos last 12. The fireflies are holding out strong also.

The solution is a permanent retreat - my novel, by the way, has the impermanent title of A Foreign Retreat - into samathabhávana (calm concentration), which, in spite of all the nonsense I picked up in Calcutta, really works. That is, it's useful.

Yes, I've found my Guru: the Buddha. But I've also found a present-day Guru. Unfortunately, he's been dead for two years now. He was an English Bhikkhu (Oxford, Intelligence W.W.2, etc.), who lived in the jungles south of here, and attained sotapatti (stream-winner: one who has entered the stream leading to liberation; i.e. limited rebirths before attaining it). He left a manuscript, letters, notes in the margins of books he’d read, scraps of paper, etc. - all of which I've been collecting and compiling and which is proving to be a fantastic document. Without his papers I would still be quite lost, but with them as a guide I’m getting somewhere?

The novel? It's in the States now, being read by various people. I don’t give a damn about it really - publishing that is - and am not making any effort at all. If others want to, that's their account. Since then I've written some pages on the theme of identity-searching, which I gave up as being poorly conceived. Also I've been doing some drawings, which are fun because I don't have any inclination to take them seriously. A few poems revolve in my head. Whatever I do is just for the doing of it now. If something were published it would be as pseudonymous as hell. Whatever solitude I've got (and it's gotten by meditation, not by running away), I'm not about to give up.

Give up? Rather, after having given up everything else, I've found that the vacuum created is peace. It cannot be given up, but only dispersed by not giving up other things – hell - you know all this anyway.


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