28 November 2008

Letter 4.34

(A tape cassette arrived from Wye Estate, and after General Delivery vetted it, I spirited it away to my stump in the woods. I was appalled at the poor sound-quality of the tape -- practically inaudible -- and, after reeling the tape between my fingers very attentively for some time, I finally gave up and took it to a friend in the village who had a tape-recorder, with results which were much more satisfactory.

The tape begins with a rendition of the Negro spiritual, Zem Bones, beamed to me by the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation and performed by -- if their sound had names -- Kingfisher and the Breawthless Sisters, to the clanking accompaniment of cymbals, cowbells, and, perhaps, rattling bones, and as the song fades out in ecstatic moans and wails, a familiar voice, at first black-faced then assuming the complexion of a tranquilized Woody Allen, fades in. -- Hūm)

Yeeesss, boss...how you doin', man?...remember those talking records when you were a kid?...well this here's...this tape machine's here...so I thought I'd send you a talking letter so instead of reading me you can hear me, huh?...and I want you to know right off that I hear you when I get your letters 'cause I read them over and over again and I love what you say and I love how you say it...I want you to know that I thought your last letter was really moving about when you were with your dad in his last days...it was special for you to share that with me...but, hey, but you started off that letter by saying something about my loving hard rock, huh? ...wow, I don't remember that!...what I remember was when I was in the States, when I got back to the States, was right away I loved Mozart, man!...I used to play his horn concertos over and over again...now I haven't heard any of them for donkey's years, but I can still hear it in my head, you know...some of that stuff...mostly I think maybe because of that Flanders & Swann parody...you know the one that starts off, how does it start off...? (sings) 'I once had a whim and I had to obey it to buy a French horn in a second hand shop, I polished it up and I started to play it in spite of the neighbors who begged me to stop!'...well, I'll stop before you start begging me -- and from now on I promise this is just a talking letter not a singing one...unless I maybe just get carried away...because you can never tell about that...but Mozart or hard rock or wherever it is...a lot of that stuff you know it never vanishes does it?...You know I remember another thing I always loved was, flying...even in those big commercial planes which really is like sitting in your living room...but one time I was...the one time I was really ever in a small plane that's when my cousin married a guy who could fly...he had a...he had a small plane...that was really a trip...in fact it was a trip all the way from Albuquerque to Los Angeles...and I remember how I used to...in fact I still do...I...I dream about flying...I mean it's not in a plane, man...like I mean I don't need a plane when I dream about flying...I just sort of stretch out like...like superman and off I go, huh?!...a friend of mine he told me that when he dreams of flying he does it cross-legged which...which right away struck me as a weird position to fly in, huh?...and oh I got to pay careful attention...! have to be very mindful all the time when I'm flying because if I don't constantly keep willing myself to stay up in the sky then I start going into a sort of dive...and once I...one time I can...I can remember I got a little careless and I came really close to some power lines...and that scared me...almost woke me up...I woke up later and I could remember that part of the dream really vividly...so when I dream about flying now I have to really be mindful...and...a...another thing about flying I read about once...was...was that there's this kind of glider that comes in a kit...but you don't need to be towed up into the air by a powered plane 'cause it's got a little engine...and what it...what this engine actually is is...get this...it's a lawn-mower engine with a propeller attached...and the whole thing...what it is is it's an enormous set of light-weight wings with that lawn-mower engine behind it and a way to fasten yourself in and a strap to sit on and what you do is you get into this thing and you start up the engine and then you RUN LIKE HELL DUWN THE RUNWAY!...and if you're fast enough and if you're going into a headwind you can really get up enough speed to take off...(softly) and then you just circle around and climb and climb and when you pick up a thermal and when you're high enough...you turn off the engine and just...(breathless) sooooooaaaaaar...and glide for as long as you like...of course, I never got that one together but...but I remember some fantasies I had of gliding through the Himalayas...and I know that idea has to blow your mind because you‘ve been there and you know how incredible those mountains are and I remember you once said something about flying always being a fantasy of yours...so when this...this flight simulator program came into my hands, man, I just had to give it a spin on the old disk-drive...'cause..'cause I could fly without even needing a plane, without even needing a lawn-mower, man, I didn't even have to sleep I could be wide-awake and now I've...I've flown all around Chicago, I've circled lake Michigan, I've circled the Statue of Liberty, and I've flown under the Brooklyn Bridge...and then there's this WW1 Ace option -- and then this whole story sort of spun out from there like how to tell it dramatically...and I figured you'd really dig that 'cause also I thought it was pretty good writing and then I know you get off on good writing...so I was surprised you didn't get off on that fantasy flight letter I sent you...but anyway don't worry about my getting addicted, because you know it's, it's not really a question of getting like addicted or not getting addicted, it's really a question of like getting unaddicted or not getting unaddicted, because we already are addicted and it's just a question of what the object is of our addiction...I mean like how many years now have you been writing your...your sort of jungly prose novels?...and...what are you going to tell me, that...that you can quit any time, that you just don't want to??...well, better if you tell me it's a way...you're hoping it's a way, of putting the addiction to an end...and I'm sure you're doing it with clarity and love...or as much clarity and love as...as you got, which is a lot...and that's fine and there's no criticism of it...but...a...well, I'm not going to pretend that that flight simulator has anything to do with Dhamma...but the real purpose for the word-processor, for the computer, is to get Ñāṇavīra's writings into print and about that Dhamma...now that I don't need to make any claims for because you know how I feel...and it's been like what?...it's been like nearly 20 years since that manuscript first came into my hands...and that's long enough time for something to finally happen...(beep, beep)...that's the beeper...it's 10 o'clock at night now...I've borrowed this tape-machine from the people where I'm staying...and it's...it's my little electronic clock that beeps on the hour you can probably hear that in the background...so anyway it's been like 20 years and I want something to finally happen and so when this possibility arose I took it and I have no regrets about that...and so most of my time I spend in front of the monitor I don't spend flying over Europe shooting down...you know, the Red Baro...I spend most of that time putting the book together and I hope it's for the last time because I've done it a few times before, you know...and I won't pretend I don't get a lot of pleasure out of that...in a lot of ways it's more fun than shooting down the Red Baron...it's not like it's something I have to endure. I do it because I want to do it, and because I want to see it done, and because I think it's probably good for me, and maybe it'll be good for other people too, and it's good work to do...you know I had to modify the soft-ware program to get it to do Pali and to get it to do the italics and diacritical marks and columns and all that kind of stuff and for somebody who's never even touched a computer before this year...I have to say I think that's doing pretty good...'cause some of it is pretty technical...and the so-called soft-ware experts I talked to in Colombo they all told me they could do it but they wouldn't want to because it would be too arduous for them...which really means they couldn't do it, at all, and I figured out how to do it, and there's a lot of satisfaction in working out all those technical problems -- and achieving soma really high-quality print-outs...pretty close to a professional level, or I should say a high professional level, because it's already at a professional level...you know the monks at the BPS (Buddhist Publication Society)...the Ven. Ñāṇaponika and Bhikkhu Bodhi they've seen what I'm doing and they think it's so much better than the quality of print that they're getting they're going to copy the system and they've been out here and...well not Ven. Ñāṇaponika...he's 86 and he doesn't go anywhere, but Bhikkhu Bodhi came out with one person from the board of BPS and they looked at the system and watched me do it and talked about it for a long time and they've decided they're going to get it themselves...'cause it's...like astonishingly low priced...and...they've got...they've now got these...desktop printing...but that's pretty expensive stuff...that's 10-12 thousand dollars for a system and...a...there was this fund made available to publish Ven. Ñāṇavīra's stuff...and it's a few thousand dollars to put this system together and then all you need after that is just to pay the printer to print what's already been type-set and that's like photo-offset and in Thailand they do that pretty cheap and they do good quality too...so I think...a...you might remember those Achan Cha booklets I sent you once and that was done in Thailand and you might remember that that was reasonably good quality stuff, so that's what I'm expecting to get when it finally happens which will be sometime next year, maybe the middle of the year, maybe a little bit after that...so anyway I've agreed to teach the BPS how to get the special effects that I've developed...so it turns out that what I've developed is going to be of use to others as well...but, you know, addiction?...that's something I dabble in a bit but I don't think it'll ever come to more than that...even with that morphine you know all those years ago, 20 years ago, 21 years ago, even with that that's all it came to really was dabbling, and I was never really that heavily into it...so anyway enough for that trip...so I'll tell you the way this whole tape trip came together is that last month I had to go down to Colombo to get a new passport -- oh, hey, you know those new passports are for ten years now and that means that the next passport I'm gonna need I'll be 57 years old!...that's astonishing!...an old man me?...never!...so anyway they told me I had to wait for a few days while they called Washington to find out if they maybe wanted me for something like if I was a fugitive or they wanted to ask me questions about like gun-running to Nicaragua or maybe selling arms to fanatics like the Ayatollah Khomeini...or maybe about fiddling with secret Swiss bank accounts...so in the end it turned out they didn't have anything to ask me about that...but I had to stick around Colombo for a few days and it happened that at the temple I was staying at I had to share a room with a monk who had a radio...and he very kindly kept tuning in the English language programs on my behalf...like even without me even asking for it...and it happened like one evening he tuned into a program where they were rebroadcasting these old half hour BBC dramas...and the one they happened to be doing that night...was a play called A Question of Retreat and it was by this guy named Robin Maugham...talk about incredible serendipitous coincidences!...though maybe after you hear the play you might think that serendipitous is really the wrong word...'cause the play is really an act of hate...still it's good for a few laughs 'cause we know who the model for...for his monk is and we know how...we can see ourselves how totally off-base he is but anyway it's...you know it's like something I had to do I went down to the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation -- like the SLBC -- and I asked them if I could get a copy of the tape and so right away they grabbed me and they said that the party they were supposed to be interviewing for one of their Buddhist programs hadn't shown up and I was just in time and would I come this way to the studio please and here we were and we just have a few questions for you and it won't hurt much and it will all be over in a few minutes...and so we did this interview and...and then after that they agreed to give me a copy of the play and they stuck a copy of this interview on the tape too...I guess they copied it when they broadcast it...I didn't hear the broadcast myself...I went back a few days later to pick up the tape and I guess it was all done...so all that stuff anyway is on the other side of the tape...and if you ever want to listen to it then it's there. and so I still had this one whole side of the tape left and I was wondering what to do with it when I was back at the temple and this monk's radio was on...I think that this time he didn't turn it on I think my hand must have accidentally hit you know the on button or something...and so anyway there was this...there was this music show...so the radio announcer said that he was going to play 'Bones', man, and I just hit that record button and away we went!...and then the whole tape just turned out to be just like sort of like ordained for you...I mean like...like dedicated from the start, you know...I mean like I realized when they played 'Bones', man, everything was coming together so much that if was just meant for you...and so here it is man and I just want you to know that I love you and I really respect what you're doing with your life and this tape is just my way of telling you just that...OK?...sukhi hotu[1], man...(whisper) yeah...(voice fades out humming, 'Zem bones, zem bones, zem dry bones...now here's the word of the lawd...')

(I flipped the cassette over and listened to A Question of Retreat, Robin Maugham was the grandson of Somerset Maugham. His grandfather told him a story he had heard of an Englishman living alone in the jungles of Sri Lanka. The young Maugham, a journalist, searched out Ven. Ñāṇāvīra who, perhaps with the odd qualm, granted the young man an interview. For his courtesy, the monk was slapped with an unflattering portrait in a London rag as well as the disparaging play.

Following the play on the tape was the radio interview with, according to the announcer, Ven. Bodhesako Thera. The mistaken title of thera was, in fact, ironically fitting. A monk who has taken his higher ordination is a bhikkhu. A bhikkhu with atleast ten years as as bhikkhu is a thera. Although Bob had once been a bhikkhu -- Ñāṇasuci -- in his last stint as a monk he chose to not take his higher ordination, preferring to remain a novice or samanera. However, all his years as a monk toted up to atleast twelve; the thera ten plus. The interviewer called him 'Ven. Bodhesako Samanera', but the announcer, at the conclusion of the interview, called him 'Ven. Bodhesako Thera' again. Also the interviewer introduced him as 'from Thailand', where he was ordained, but over the radio one wouldn't assume that someone 'from Thailand' had been born in Detroit and had a Jewish grandfather from Russia named Morris Medvedovsky; perhaps, they all looked the same to the interviewer. -- Hūm.)

Announcer: The time is 10:45 AM and you are tuned to the national service of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation. Ven. Bodhesako Thera is heard in conversation with Alec Robertson in our weekly program 'Buddhism and You'.

(Though to one with an ear to hear Ven. Bodhesako says some enlightening things, such an ear, apparently, does not belong to Alec Robertson, as he keeps answering his own questions, quite content to be in dialogue with himself. The comic affect is compounded by Mr. Robertson's singsong tenor, as if he were parodying himself. An excerpt from the interview may give something of its unique flavor. - Hūm)

AR: It is indeed a pleasure and an honor to have with us today Ven. Bodhesako Samanera from Thailand to take part in this short discussion. Venerable sir, you have been a monk for the last six years and you take a very keen and enthusiastic interest in the study, practice, and publication of the teaching of the Buddha. In fact you have written a book on...a Buddhism which has been published by the Buddhist Publication Society...kindly...entitled...a...the...

B: The Buddha and Catch-22.

AR: Yes...a...now, reverend sir, with regard to the doctrine of anatta or no self, one of the most abstruce teachings of the Buddha. Westerners find it most difficult to understand and.comprehend this teaching. What is the reason for it?

B: Well, I think that any person looking for an explanation is going to take this doctrine and use it to fit his own needs, desires, whether it's in accordance with the teaching or not. And since people have always been looking for answers to questions, they've always been looking for resolutions to situations, and this is not only today, not only Westerners, this is true of all times and all peoples. People have always been looking for answers to questions -- now somebody comes to this teaching and they are told that the Buddha said that wherever you look you will see nothing that is self or pertains to self and they look for an explanation they can understand within their own frame of reference and so because this teaching is so different than what Westerners are accustomed to they will try to adapt the teaching to their own framework. what they need to do is not adapt the teaching to their own point of view, but their point of view to the teaching -- this is called saddha -- or trust -- to give oneself to the teaching even if it is contrary to one's preconceived notions of the way things are. That means instead of looking for answers, what they need to do is examine this need they have to ask questions -- and this is what the Buddha teaches -- that we must examine ourselves; that when we need to ask questions we must discover the root of this need and to find out what it is that gives rise to it. If we put our attention on the question instead of the answer then we will be practicing the Buddha's Teaching.

AR: Yes...now with regard to the doctrine of anatta or no self...

(After AR gives a little spiel telling us all about meditation, he asks, by the way, B what it is. -- Hūm) [2]

B: Meditation is simply facing our existence, living in the present, seeing things as they are, instead of seeing them with a lot of glitter. You may see some of these display windows where they're trying to sell merchandise; all these glittery things are strung out in the window to catch your attention. But when somebody is really attached to something you don't need to string out the glitter -- the glitter is in his eyes and he will see things with glitter -- mindfulness and meditation is freeing oneself from the glitter, becoming disenchanted.

AR: Yes...as you said meditation helps one to...

Announcer: That was Alec Robertson in conversation with Ven. Bodhesako Thera. The time is exactly 11:00 AM. You are tuned to the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation.


[1] sukhi hotu: (Pali) 'my you be happy.'

[2] Transcribed interview can be found at http://pathpress.wordpress.com/bodhesako/interview-with-samanera-bodhesako-on-sri-lankan-radio-1986/

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