Letter from Eric Arnow
Arnow Letter Index
Eric Arnow has his own web site now. For years I've been putting his letters from Asia here. From now on they'll go on his site, the Bumble Buddhist which also now has all the previous ones from cuke and photos more. - dc
November 29, 2005
Subject: More on Pa-auk Monastery--and Judging Amy
One of the interesting things about being in a monastery where most of the people meditate a lot is that you get the sense of shop talk. Not that people go around broadcasting their experience, but you do get hints, and doing that much meditation is certainly an occasion to get a better understanding of oneself, which in my opinion is the real key to freedom.
You might say, you get to have a hard look at yourself. But that is the trap.
In the meditation on 4 elements, Earth , Water, Fire and Air, and their 12 characteristics, you get a different perspective on yourself.
The earth element has 6 characteristics: Hardness, roughness, heaviness, and softness, smoothness, lightness.
Most people when they start, feel the sensations of hardness, roughness and heaviness. Even Myanmar monks told me they would feel like a rock after sitting for an hour or so. What to me was an insight was that such physical feelings have their emotional and mental counterparts.
Do you ever have hard feelings, take a hard look at things, ever have a rough time, or have a heavy heart? The BBC has an interview show called Hard Talk, and I think there are other programs like Hard Ball, as well, where TV interviewers display extreme skepticism to their interviewees. That may be OK or not, and I think they substitute hard talk for clear analysis.
Yet one of the examples of wrong speech in Buddhist practice is Harsh speech, which I have certainly engaged in, and one of the biggest obstacles to development is skeptical doubt.
There is a program these days on one of the cable stations called, "Judging Amy".
The theme of the show is that of the often strained relationship between a mother and her grown, lawyer daughter, who has become a judge, responsible for making wise decisions about other human beings.
And yet, as responsible as Amy, the Judge is, it seems her mother thinks she can't even do her laundry properly. This hardness of attitude is quite poignant for me, given my upbringing in a house where "hard talk" seemed embedded in most of the interactions.
When I look at how Asian people deal with each other, I am amazed at the effort they make to create a good feeling. They lie readily rather than make another person feel bad. This is the Metta, or loving-kindness, I experience here and what, probably keeps me here.
So, sitting at the monastery, I was taking a hard look at myself, when I recalled that the central principle of the community was that we get along "like milk and water! ", "looking at one another with kindly eyes". And it was extraordinary how-at least on the surface, people really do treat each other that way.
Why is it that at least in my family it has been a tradition to judge harshly, and to always look for what is wrong? It started at least with my grandmother, who was very hard (that word again) on her kids. And the idea of raising us was based on faultfinding--what we did wrong, rather than "Hey how about trying it this way", or, "let's do this together till you get the hang of it." Or heaven forbid, let mistakes happen as the best form of teaching and being there to support if things go wrong. Without judging or criticizing, and certainly without the threat of rejection.
I think the reason Amy's mother acts that way is out of fear--fear of failure, or rather the HABIT of fear of failure. For Pete's sake, her daughter isn't a drug addict or a bum. She's grown up and has! a law degree. What is the problem? She doesn't see that she is a success as a mother, so why not toast the success, instead of writing her daughter off as constantly hopelessly failing.
In Western Culture, this underlying emotional habit translates into a philosophical concept --a rationalization-- of implicit guilt, or Original Sin. The Buddhist understanding is that our true nature is not evil, but intrinsically pure and good. Quite a different starting point.
In any case, once those "hard feelings" become internalized, mindsets created and unuseful habits started. When I saw the teacher, I told him all I felt was the "Hardness, roughness, heaviness" but no "softness, smoothness lightness".
But I said, then, "But since the instructions say they're all there, the "softness smoothness, lightness" must be in there (my body, that is)somewhere. He smiled kindly, laughed and sent me off to continue my practice.
And sure enough, when I started to pay closer attention, those qualities were there, and the idea of looking at myself and others with kindly eyes, rather than "hard looks" became meaningful and possible.
We are not blocks of metal, and we are not like the tin woodsman of the Wizard of Oz. Even on the physical level, we are mostly water, with a few minerals added.
Highly organized communities of bubbles (cells).
In fact, deep examination shows that the whole idea of our self is as ephemeral as a dream. So as things unfold, it is easier for me to say, " Oh, how interesting, what a turn of plot in the play of a being known as "Eric".
Oh, I get it, "lighten up".
While Zen practice and Vipassana are widely known in America, Metta practice, or the conscious practice of cultivating loving-kindness, is a very important practice in Asia. I think America's biggest problem is that with its utilitarian, bottom line individualistic culture, what's missing is Metta, boundless unlimited kindness. I learned in Myanmar, that there are even Monasteries where there is a very specific practice of "Broadcasting" Metta with thoughts.
Metta is a good complement to the cultivation of wisdom in Vipassana. And certainly there is a recognition in American Zen circles, given the old Samurai influence of "shouts and blows", that a softer approach usually works better.
As I said to one fellow, now an architect, who was raised as a child by monks, "Oh I wonder how I would be now had I been raised as you had been." In Asia, monks are kind men.
At Pa-auk it is part of the meditative curriculum.
As the old Dusty Springfield ! song goes,
"What the world needs now, is love, sweet love
That's the only thing, that there's just too little of
No not just for some, but for everyone."
Well, it is clear that I am rambling here, so I'll draw this to a close, and then write again about my further adventures with the wonderful people of Myanmar.
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