Alice in EnlightenedLand
Suppose that Alice had been reading a book on American Buddhism before drifting off to sleep on that fateful afternoon.
Alice came to a fork in the forest path and was standing for a moment, puzzled as to which way to go, when she spied the Cheshire-Cat sitting in full lotus position on a bough of a tree a few yards off, meditating. It looked so peaceful that she dared not disturb it, but at the same it had such a compassionate air that she felt that it might help solve her dilemma. So when it opened its eyes, she cleared her voice and said in her sweetest tone, “If you please, Cheshire-Puss, could you tell me the way to the Queen’s croquet game?”
For a moment the Cat only grinned at her, with its eyes bulging out quite alarmingly, but then it simply said, “Which would you rather do? Go to the Queen’s croquet game or get enlightened?”
Alice did want very much to go to the croquet game, but this was a grown-up-sounding question, so she felt it required a grown-up-sounding answer. “Oh. To get enlightened, of course,” she said with a knowing air.
The Cat’s eyes bulged out for a moment again, and then it said, “Well, in that case you won’t get enlightened.” This surprised Alice, who responded, “You mean if I want to get enlightened, that will keep me from getting enlightened?”
“Precisely,” said the Cat. “The desire to get enlightened is the one thing that will keep you from being enlightened.”
“Well, then, in that case,” said Alice, “I’d rather to go to the Queen’s croquet game.”
“No, no,” said the Cat, “that wo’n’t do either. If you want to play croquet so that you can get enlightened, that will keep you from getting enlightened, too.”
“But whatever on earth should I do, then?” said Alice, beginning to feel a little giddy from all the strange ideas she had heard since this morning.
“There’s nothing to do at all, replied the Cat. “Enlightenment isn’t something you do, it’s something you simply are. All you need to do is remind yourself that you’re enlightened and then act naturally in an enlightened way.”
“But how can I know what’s an enlightened way when I’m not yet enlightened?”
The Cat rolled its eyes and replied, “Mercy, how can you be so ignorant, child? You’re already enlightened. You’re enlightened, I’m enlightened, the Mad Hatter, the March Hare : we’re all enlightened.”
“But if I’m already enlightened, why don’t I know? Doesn’t being enlightened mean that you know you’re enlightened?” she asked, honestly perplexed.
“Well, of course you know. I just told you so,” replied the Cat, its grin growing steadily broader.
“But if I’m enlightened, what am I doing here? And why am I lost?”
“You forgot,” said the Cat, taking a sip out of what looked like a small glass of water.
“But if I forgot it once, what’s to keep me from forgetting it again? And what good is enlightenment if you can forget it?” asked Alice, who was beginning to feel quite exasperated at the Cat’s nonsense. “Now I do wish that you would tell me the way to the Queen’s croquet game!”
“Very well, then. The path in that direction,” said the Cat, waving its right paw round, “goes to the Queen’s croquet game. While the path in that direction,” it said, pointing its tail the other way, “is the goal.”
“You mean it goes to the goal,” said Alice, correcting him, but before she could ask which goal, the Cat replied, “I meant what I said. The path is the goal.”
“But how can a path be a goal?” she asked him.
“Oh, very simply,” said the Cat. “You just walk along it without thinking of going anyplace, and so wherever you go, there you are.”
“That does’n’t sound like much of a goal to me,” said Alice. “In fact, it sounds rather pointless. I want to get out of this horrid place.”
“Whatever for?” asked the Cat.
“It’s so unsettling, all these sudden changes. First I was so small that I almost drowned in my own tears, then so tall that I could’n’t get out the door. And, it all happened so incredibly fast that now I do’n’t rightly even know who I am....”
“Well, then there must be something wrong with you,” replied the Cat. “Everyone else here likes the sudden changes. They’re quite amusing.” And with that he suddenly vanished.
Alice was not much surprised at this, as she was getting so accustomed to queer things happening, but while she was still looking at the place where it had been, it suddenly appeared again.
“There. Wasn't that amuections of herself and the Cat, but also of all the other mirrors, which were reflecting all the other mirrors, and so on to infinity, repeating more images of the Cat and herself than she could possibly count. “See how everything interpenetrates everything else?” asked the Cat. “I find that very amusing. I interpenetrate you, and you interpenetrate me, and....”
Alice did not at all like the sound of this last remark. “No!” she called out and turned to flee, but no matter which direction she fled, sing?” it asked. “I suppose so,” said Alice, “But I must confess that I’m getting quite tired....” “Then how about this?” asked the Cat. Alice waited expectantly to see what the Cat would do next, but it simply sat there, grinning as before. Then gradually she became aware of a whole swarm of faint after-images of herself and the Cat whizzing past her at a dizzying speed from all sides. She looked around and noticed that a circle of mirrors hanging in the air had formed around her and the Cat. She stepped over to one of the mirrors and realized that it contained, not only reflshe ran into a mirror filled with the Cat’s grinning reflections. Realizing that she was trapped, she fell to her knees and started to cry. Each tear, as it rolled ever so slowly off her cheek, picked up the Cat’s reflections, which were then picked up by the next tear and then the next—until the first tear splattered on the ground and broke the spell. The Cat and the mirrors disappeared in a flash.
“Thank goodness,” said Alice. “I’m free.” She sped off on the path to the Queen’s croquet game. “At least with croquet you know where you are,” she thought, “with rules you can understand, and a decent beginning and end.” With this thought barely out of her head, she looked up—and there was the Cat again, sitting on the branch of a tree.
“Did you say that you wanted to get out of this place?” it asked.
“Yes,” replied Alice. “Very much.”
“I must say, that’s very selfish of you,” replied the Cat. “You should make a vow that you won’t leave here until you’ve gotten all the rest of us out of here first.”
“Well, I feel that that’s very selfish of you, Mr. Smarty-Puss,” retorted Alice, who was now so beside herself that she had quite forgotten her manners. “If you and all your enlightened friends want to stay here amusing yourselves, that’s your business. I’m leaving!”
To that the Cat had no answer. It simply sat there grinning, and its eyes began to bulge again. This was rather more than Alice could take.
“And I do wish that you would wipe that silly grin off your face,” she said sharply, turning to leave.
“That, I’m afraid I can’t do,” the Cat called after her, “but I can wipe this silly face off my grin.” As Alice stopped and turned to watch, it began to vanish gradually, beginning with its tail and ending with its toothy grin, which hung gleaming in the air for a few moments. Then it, too, was gone.
Alice, now only three inches tall, was looking for some way to return to her normal size when she came to a small clearing in the grass. There in the middle of the clearing was a large spotted mushroom, about the same height as herself. Searching around under the mushroom, on both sides of it, and behind it, she found nothing at all that looked helpful, so she thought she might as well look to see what was on top of it. As she stretched herself up on tiptoe to peer over the edge of the mushroom, her eyes immediately met those of a large, vibrantly blue caterpillar sitting on top, quietly smoking a long hookah, each pair of his legs in half-lotus position. His face had a blank, far-away look, suggesting that he was taking no notice of her or of anything else, but presently he took the hookah out of his mouth and cleared his throat. “Who,” he said in a languid and not very friendly tone, “are you?”
“I do’n’t rightly know, Sir,” Alice responded. “At the moment, I mean. This morning I thought I knew, but now I’ve been through so many changes that I’ve lost all sense of who I might be.”
“Then you must be a Buddhist,” said the Caterpillar, looking at her coolly as he took another puff on his hookah. “Tell me. Are you a Buddhist?”
“I’m not sure, Sir. What does it mean to be a Buddhist?”
“Oh, anything you like,” replied the Caterpillar. “That’s the beauty of being a Buddhist. It’s very democratic.”
“But what kind of word is ‘Buddhist’ if it can mean anything you like?” asked Alice, perplexed.
“As far as I’m concerned,” the Caterpillar said, “the world would be a much better place if all words meant whatever you liked. Then you could say whatever you wanted to, and no one could say you were wrong.”
“But how would people get along if all their words meant whatever they liked? If I said ‘cup’ when I meant ‘saucer,’ and you said ‘saucer’ when you meant ‘cup,’ how could we hope to understand each other?”
“Why would you want to understand other people?” asked the Caterpillar, taking another puff on his hookah.
Alice thought for a moment, and then said, “To learn from them.” “But what is there to learn from other people?” “Well, to begin with, they could teach you what’s right and wrong.” “Precisely what I do’n’t need to know!” said the Caterpillar with a snort, as he blew an angry stream of bubbles in the hookah.
“Why not?” asked Alice. “Suppose there were some wrong weeds that you might put in your hookah that would make you all dizzy if you smoked them. Would’n’t you want to know that beforehand so you would’n’t smoke them by mistake?”
The Caterpillar angrily drew himself up to his full height. “Are you presuming to be judgmental about what I put in my hookah?”
“Oh, dear,” thought Alice to herself. “Why is this such a temperamental Caterpillar, and so easily offended?” “No,” she said aloud. “I was only trying to ....”
“It’s all very dualistic and judgmental, this talk about ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ There is no such thing as ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’”
“But is it wrong to be dualistic?” asked Alice, confused.
“Yes, very.” replied the Caterpillar.
“Then when you say ‘dualistic,’ that’s just your word for ‘wrong.’ Is that right?”
“No, it’s not,” the Caterpillar retorted in such a huff that he blew a very loud string of bubbles into his hookah. “It’s totally different.”
Alice did’n’t see quite what the difference was, but she did’n’t want to provoke the Caterpillar any further, so she tried changing the subject. “But we were talking about Buddhists.”
“Yes, quite.” There was a short silence as the Caterpillar took another puff. “That’s what I like about Buddhists. They’re not judgmental in the least. They all agree that there is no such thing as ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’”
“All of them?” asked Alice.
“Well, the most advanced ones. The only ones who really count. The less advanced ones are too small-minded to understand the idea.”
This sounded fairly judgmental to Alice, but she dared not contradict the Caterpillar. Still, she was puzzled. “But what kind of people would the advanced ones be if they do’n’t believe in right and wrong? Could you trust them to do the right thing?”
“Yes, of course you can,” replied the Caterpillar. “The right thing is not to be dualistic or judgmental and to do what comes naturally. When you act naturally you can do no wrong.”
A giddy thought suddenly went through Alice’s head, and before she realized what she was doing, she had lifted the mushroom cap, tilting it so that the Caterpillar and his hookah slid off and fell splat on the ground.
“I say!” exclaimed the Caterpillar in a surprised tone. “Whatever on earth possessed you to do that?”
Alice had to stifle a very un-ladylike giggle, seeing the Caterpillar sprawled on the ground so, his hookah all cockeyed beside him. “Oh, I’m terribly sorry,” she said quickly. “But it did seem quite the natural thing to do just then.”
“Well, I dare say it would be only civil of you to give a person fair warning when you get it into your head to do something like that.”
“But you said ....”
“What I meant was that no one should pass judgment on me when I act naturally.”
“But is’n’t it dualistic to have one standard for yourself and another for other people?”
“No, it’s not dualistic in the least. It’s interdependent. Do’n’t you understand?” He rolled himself rightside up. “If I’m going to have the freedom to act naturally, other people have to reserve judgment. The two standards depend on each other, so they’re one and the same thing.”
“Then what does dualism mean?” asked Alice.
“I must say,” replied the Caterpillar in an exasperated tone as it struggled to get back on its feet, “it’s rather unnatural of you to expect me to give you a decent answer while my hookah and I are in such disarray.”
“Oh, I do apologize,” replied Alice, suddenly remembering her manners, and she set about to straightening out the mess she had made. As the mushroom was now tilted on its side, somewhat like a beach umbrella, the Caterpillar had her set up the hookah in its shade. When everything was arranged to his liking, he sat down under the mushroom cap and lit the hookah. After a few puffs his mood had mellowed considerably.
“Now, then. Dualism.” He cleared his throat. “Dualism means not seeing the essential oneness of all things. A dualistic person sees the world in terms of opposites—right and wrong, good and bad, big and small—without realizing that opposites depend on each other, and so are ultimately one and the same. For instance: above and below. Do you see them as opposites?”
“Yes, of course,” replied Alice. “If I look under my bed for something that’s actually on top of my bed, I sha’n’t find it.”
“But could you have an ‘above’ without a ‘below’? They depend on each other. If you do’n’t get caught up on their superficial differences, you see that they’re actually one and the same thing. Just now, for example, I was smoking my hookah on top of the mushroom and was quite happy. Now I’m smoking my hookah underneath the mushroom, and I’m just as happy here, which shows that ‘above’ and ‘below’ are the same thing.”
“But would they be the same thing if you did’n’t have your hookah?” asked Alice innocently. The Caterpillar eyed her suspiciously and slowly, pair by pair, began folding his many legs tightly around the neck of his hookah.
“Oh, no, Sir. I did’n’t mean it that way,” replied Alice, suddenly understanding what he suspected. “I was’n’t going to do anything natural to your hookah. I was just asking in the abstract.”
“Well then,” said the Caterpillar, relaxing its grip only slightly. “As long as we’re talking in the abstract: No, there would’n’t be any difference between hookahness and non-hookahness. Just as I’m embracing hookahness now, I’m sure that when the time comes to let go of my hookah I’ll be able to embrace non-hookahness as well. It does’n’t matter what one is embracing, you know, as long as one’s embrace is large enough to include everything.”
“But if you hold on to things, do’n’t you suffer? And if you hold on to everything, do’n’t you suffer even more?”
“If you hold on, then of course you suffer,” replied the Caterpillar, letting go of his hookah and leaning back against the mushroom stem. “The trick is to know how to embrace things without holding on.”
“How on earth does one do that?”
“Oh, it’s really quite simple. Just open your arms wide, but leave your fingers perfectly limp.” He demonstrated by holding his many little legs as far apart as he could while at the same time relaxing his feet. “See? Now all you have to do is tell yourself that you’re embracing the emptiness of the entire universe and then ...”
But before he could finish his sentence, his body began to swell quite uncontrollably at an alarming rate—swelling and swelling, while his skin was stretched tighter and tighter until one could see right through him, like a balloon or a vacuum tube.
Alice, who had heard stories of physics professors experimenting with vacuums at the university, began to get quite worried. “Oh dear,” she thought to herself, “if he gets all vacuous like that, is’n’t he going to implode?” She ran behind a clump of grass for protection, and none too soon, for presently the Caterpillar burst with a loud Pop! Alice closed her eyes and covered her ears with her hands, and when she finally managed the courage to look, all that was left of the Caterpillar were pieces of its vibrantly blue skin, like tattered bits of an exploded balloon, drifting down through the air, hanging limply from the grass, and festooning the edge the mushroom.
“My word!” Alice exclaimed to herself after a moment of eerie silence. “Do you suppose that’s how I’m meant to grow back to my normal size?” She listened to the ringing air, but there was no answer from the Caterpillar, aside from the barely audible plop of a tattered skin piece landing on the ground. Sensible as always, Alice counseled herself, “Well, if that’s what I’m meant to do, I’d best do it in moderation.” So she stretched out her arms—timidly at first—as if to embrace the universe, at the same time letting her fingers fall quite limp so as not to clutch at anything. At first, nothing happened. But after keeping this pose for a full minute she was struck by how absurd it was. So she lowered her arms and began to laugh in a good-natured way at her own foolishness.
And that’s how she returned to normal.
As we Americanize Buddhism, what sort of legacy are we leaving for our descendents? One way of getting a perspective on this question is to think about the legacy we would be facing if American Buddhism had gone mainstream in the 19th, instead of the 20th century. Imagine, for instance, Huckleberry Finn’s report.
Like I said last time, I knowed I was in for a heap of sivilizing soon as I got back to St. Petersburg. Still, I reckoned I could take it for a spell, at least till me and Tom could grow into our money and have ourselves some real fine adventures up and down the Mississippi. But this time around it warn’t like no sivilizing I’d ever heard tell of before.
First off, they had me go back and stay with the widow Douglas, as she was all so lonesome ever since her sister, Miss Watson, passed away. Soon as I set foot in the house, though, I knowed something was up. She had that look in her eye that meant one of two things: either she was trying to pass a gallstone something fierce or she had got religion of a sudden. Knowing her, I figured it was religion, for ain’t nothing like a sudden case of religion to spile a person’s good temper. So I laid low and minded my table manners good, so she wouldn’t take her religion out on me. But one day I slipped up and said something mean about one of the neighbors down the street, and she give me that look that showed she was exasperated but trying to be patient at the same time, and finally said, “You know, Huckleberry, the Good Book tells us that you should love thy neighbor as thy self, and my gooroo told me that that’s because thy neighbor is thyself, so everytime you say something hurtful about your neighbor, you’re hurting yourself, too.”
This was the first time I had heard any such stuff, even in a Sunday school class, so I asked her what her gooroo was. Was it a spirit like the one in the hairball Ole Jim got out of the fourth stomach of an ox? And what did it mean, thy neighbor is thyself? As far as I knew, we was different people.
Well, I shouldn’t a opened my mouth, ’cause she set full steam to a bodacious sermon about what a fine Christian man her gooroo was, and how he had gone to all that trouble to bring the true religion back from Asia, and how we was all inner connected like, so that if we feed someone else, we get full, too, and if we steal our neighbor’s money we’re stealing from ourself. I let her go on, ’cause like I said, sudden religion is like a gallstone. You just gotta let it pass and there ain’t too much you can do about it meantimes.
Still, it began to weigh on me when she commenced in on me everyday, saying that—since we was all inner connected—I had to be responsible for the whole human race. That was too many for me, for I’d seen enough on my travels with Jim to know what a cussed lot most human beings were, and I warn’t going to take no responsibility for what they did. No, sir. That’s their lookout. I have hard enough a time trying to be responsible for what I do. But she kept after me like this till I couldn’t take no more, so finally I up and said, “If I gotta be responsible for them, who’s they gonna be responsible for? And if we’s all inner connected, how come when I put food in my stomach it doesn’t all spread out and connect to theirs? How come it has to go into their stomachs first ’fore it comes back to mine? It don’t seem fair. And if we’s all the same self, how come you let your slaves wait on you all the time? Why don’t you wait on them some, too?”
The minute I said that, I knowed I’d gone too far, for the old widow she just busted out crying and sobbing about what a mean boy I was, and how could I say anything so ungrateful to her after all she had done for me? I knew she was right, it was an awful low-down mean thing to say, and only the most ornery ingrate would a said it, so I tried to make up. “I’m sorry, ma’am. I didn’t mean no harm. Sometimes I don’t know what gets into me. I’ll do anything to make it up to you.” But it was a long time before I could smooth her down, and even then it was kind a heavy in the house for a couple a days.
Then the widow got word that her gooroo was coming back to town to give a three-day teaching, so she lightened up considerable and got to humming to herself like an angel half-full of cream pie. By-and-by she said to me that if I really did want to make up for the mean thing I’d said, I’d go and listen to the teaching along with her.
Lawsy, warn’t I in a fix? I sure didn’t want to listen to no more Sunday school truck, but I reckoned the only way to last it out with the widow was to tag along, so I finally said I’d go.
I started seeing bills for the gooroo posted around town a few days before his arrival. His name was Lama Roshi, and the bill went like this:
At the Courthouse
for three afternoons only!!!
Direct from their 20 year spiritual quest
in the mystic East!!!
His high sanctimoniousness
and the right venerable
will give precious teachings on:
“The Bouddhist Path
Now Leads into the World!”
Suggested donation 50 cents
Slaves & children free.
I asked Tom Sawyer to go along with me, ’cause I didn’t think nobody in town but me and the widow Douglas was going to show up at the teachings. Tom decided this would be a good time to practice our detective skills, so he went to the town library and got out the only book they had on Bouddhism and read up some so’s he’d be able to tell if the Lama was a fraud.
But was I ever wrong about nobody showing up! The courthouse was packed. And I’m lucky it was, ’cause otherwise Lama Roshi would a spotted me in the back row. I say I was lucky ’cause Lama Roshi warn’t nobody else but that old rapscallion, the king, only this time, he had his head shaved and sat himself up in a high seat all wrapped up in this big black robe looking holy and fearsome as if he had just stepped right out of the burning bush with nary a singe.
Well, when the crowd settled in, he started out chanting low and mournful and would a raised the spirits out of the cemetery ten miles outside of town if it’d been midnight. It gave me the fantods just to hear it, even in broad daylight. Then he made an announcement that Bhante Sunim had some pressing ’gagements back East and so warn’t able to attend this special teaching but sent his personal blessings to everybody there. It didn’t take too much hard thinking to figure out that Bhante Sunim was the duke, and that he’d got himself into some trouble down river and so couldn’t show his face till it had all blowed over.
At any rate, the king started talking about all the many years he’d wandered around Asia seeking true religion, sitting days on end in Zen monasteries where all the monks sat in a row with their legs all tied up in knots, except for the chief monk who walked up and down with a big stick he’d use to whack you upside the head without no warnin’; then getting sealed into a cave for months and months in the frozen Himalayas without no food or water, so’s you had to depend on angels to feed you and keep you warm and so on. I knew it was all a passel of lies, ’cause I had seen the duke and the king tarred and feathered down south just a few months before, but, my souls, it sure did make a fine tale! I could tell that Tom Sawyer was ruminating about what bully adventures we’d have if we could ever get passage over there to Asia ourselves.
Then the king started giving the teachings he had learnt on his quest, and, my, did he ever spread himself out! And with such style! It was such a rattling good talk that even a perfessor with degrees as long as your arm couldn’t a understood a half of it! The only part I could catch was that there was two kinds of people in this world, Hyenayanists and Mohayanists. The Hyenayanists was a bunch of low-down, good-for-nothing dead-beats only looking out for their own skin, while the Mohayanists was the finest, most up-standingest Christian folk you might ever hope to meet. The king he said that after all his years of suffering on the spiritual path, he realized that the Asians made it so hard ’cause they warn’t nothing but a bunch a heathens, and so had to have ’lightenment wholloped into their heads. But we here in America—especially the good folks here in this fair town of St. Petersburg—had a headstart on them ’cause of our fine, sivilized Christian upbringing, so all we needed was to hear his teachings for a few more sessions and we’d get ’lightened, too.
Well, you can imagine what a rousing reception everybody gave to a talk like that! Widow Douglas she had tears in her eyes, saying she ain’t heard such fine preachering in all her sixty-one years a going to church. Somebody said the Lama’s fine missionary work deserved more than just 50 cents a head, so they started passing the hat—only they called it the Donna basket—and took in upwards of another fifty dollars. At first the king refused to accept it, saying that it was his honored privilege to be teaching such good-hearted folks, and didn’t want one red cent of their hard-earned money, but finally they pressed him enough so he couldn’t say no. Then somebody else up and asked where he was going to spend the night, and the king said he’d found himself an abandoned old shanty just outside of town that was perfect for a simple monk like him to meddle-tate in. Well, the widow Douglas she pipes up at that, saying she wouldn’t stand for it. She wouldn’t see her gooroo sleeping out in a place like that when she had a guest bedroom just a-begging for his holy presence. So everybody volunteered to go right then and there to get the king’s bags from the shanty and fetch them up to the widow’s place.
The king he looked like he was in a spot when he heard that, but then he recovered enough to thank them kindly, saying he’d have to pack the bags himself first before they took them, ’cause he had all kinds of sacred texts that had to be wrapped up just right. Well, when I heard that, I would a bet a di’mond palace full of chewing gum that his “sacred texts” was his jug, and he didn’t want nobody to catch sight of it. I said as much to Tom Sawyer when we left the courthouse, and so we hatched ourselves a plan.
That evening, while the king was setting in the parlor with the widow, talking high and pious about inner connectedness, Tom come shimmying up the lightning rod to my window and we snuck into the guest bedroom. It warn’t too long before we found the jug, ’cause the king had just stashed it under a pile of robes in the closet. I was all for taking it down right away to show the widow, but Tom told me not to touch it, ’cause if our fingerprints was on it, the king could say we planted it. So we had to figure out some way to pick it up without getting our own fingerprints on it or smudging the king’s. While we was setting there a-figuring, we heard a noise coming up the stairway, so we jumped up and shut ourselves into the closet with the jug and held our breath tight till we knew what was up.
Well, it was the king himself coming into the room. He lit a lamp, sat down on the bed, and started counting the money he’d got that day, all the while chuckling, quiet-like. It warn’t long, though, before there was a tap-tap-tap at the window. We could hear the king walking over to the window and opening it up, and then there was the sound of somebody dragging himself into the room, and then the voice of the duke. “How’d we make out today, your sanctimoniousness?”
“Fine. Jest fine, ven’rable sir,” the king said. “I slipped some grub off the table up the sleeve of my robe when nobody was a-lookin’, so’s you’d have somethin’ to eat, and just look at thish-yer haul we got this afternoon! And this bein’ jest the first day! What a bunch of rubes!” The duke he sounded mighty happy himself, so the king said, “I say this calls for a little celebration, don’t you, venerable? I’ll go get the jug.”
Tom and I knew that there warn’t no way the king wouldn’t see us if he was to open the closet door, so we did the only thing we could do. Even before the king got to the door, we opened it up from the inside and jumped out, staring him straight in the eye.
The king went stark white, seeing as we had found him out, but the duke he was quicker’n a cat cornered in a pantry. “Well, I see you boys passed the test,” he said, with a sudden big smile on his face.
There was dead silence in the room for a full minute, and then Tom asked, “What test?”
“Why, the test we set to see who were the smartest and bravest people in this town. We acted suspicious on purpose to see if there was anybody around here smart enough to have suspicions and want to check up on us. And only the bravest and quick-wittedest boys in the state of Missouri would have jumped out of the closet the way you did just now, ’stead of just cowering there. So it looks like you two are the only ones with head and heart enough to deserve a direct transmission of our secret teachings. But we can give them to you only on the condition that you swear the direst oath to secrecy. Are you boys man enough for that?”
Well, I don’t need to tell you that there warn’t nobody like Tom Sawyer who was such a corn-meal muffin for buttering up, especially when they was oaths and secrets involved. “What kind of oath?” he asked.
So the king started reciting the oath, saying that we’d have to vow not to bad-mouth womenfolks and not snitch on our gooroos and not go consnortin’ with Hyenayanists or else we’d be willin’ to die the most horriblest death and have jackals tear our bodies into a million bits while we plunked down to the lowest hell to eat nothin’ but molten iron and fire and brimstone for aeons and aeons if we ever so much as thought of retractin’ our oath, to say nothin’ of what would happen if we actually disobeyed it, cross our hearts and hope to die three million different blood-curdlin’ deaths.
Tom and I agreed that it was a powerful fine oath and made a body tingle just to think about it. He was all for taking it right away and I couldn’t think of no way to stall him, so even though I didn’t trust the king and duke no further than I could a tossed a dead cow, we both went ahead and took the oath right then and there. I kept my fingers crossed on the sly, though, just in case, and I’m glad I did or I wouldn’t a lived to write this stuff down.
At any rate, once we had swored our oath, the king sat us down and said,
“All right, boys. The first secret Bouddhist teaching is that there ain’t no such thing as good ’n’ evil.”
“Wait a minute,” Tom said. “I got a book on Bouddhism out of the library this morning, and it said that the Bouddhist teaching was to do no evil, to develop skillfulness, and to clean out the mind.”
“That’s right, boy. That’s right. But that’s Asian Bouddhism. We’s talking about American Bouddhism. The principles is diffrent.”
“But the book said that that was the Dharma, and the Dharma is truth. Ain’t the truth the same everywheres?”
The king he didn’t say nothing right off but just put his left hand up in the air. “It all depends on your pint of view. Looky here. Which side of the room is my hand in?”
“The north side,” I answered.
“Now you hush up, Huckleberry. You don’t have ’nuff schoolin’ to know how to answer these-yer questions. You’s supposed to say it’s in the right side of the room.”
“All right,” said Tom. “It’s in the right side of the room.”
“But from my pint of view it’s in the left side, see? See how much diffrence there is ’tween us when we look at things from diffrent sides of the room? Now them ther’ Asians, they’s on the diffrent side of the world. Why, when the sun’s going down here, it’s going up ther’. And when it’s going up here, it’s going down ther’. So the truth over ther’ and the truth over here is bound to be two diffrent things.”
Tom allowed as the king might be right, but I kept my thoughts to myself. The duke started in then, saying that in Asia the truth was what some old monk told you, but over here the truth is what sells. “If people don’t buy it,” he said, “it ain’t true. That’s why we have democracy and a jury system. Over there in Asia, the students have to say what the teacher wants to hear, but here in America, the teacher has to say what the students want to hear. I should know,” he said, putting his hand over his heart, kind a soulful like, “’cause I’ve been trained at the knee of thespianism and journalism, those two most noble professions that form the sacred basis for American Dharma.”
“Yep, the truth is whatever sells,” said the king. “And ain’t nothing sells like tellin’ people that what they’s already doin’ is jest fine. Why d’you think we keep tellin’ ’em that the Bouddha’s path, now that it’s come here to America, heads back into the world?”
“I—I don’t know,” Tom answered. “Does it mean they’re already just right like they are?”
“My, you do catch on fast—don’t you, boy?” said the king. “That’s jest percisely what it means. Fer do-gooder types, like old widow Douglas, bless ’er soul, it means they kin keep runnin’ ’round tryin’ to be helpful and sens’tive to the feelin’s of others, and feel mighty righteous about it meantimes. As fer the rest of us, it means we kin jest go ahead and have ourselves a good time, ’cause the do-gooders will look after us, and ther’ ain’t no world better’n this.”
“That’s the secret meaning of the teaching on skillfulness and cleaning out the mind,” the duke chimed in. “Evil ain’t evil if you do it up skillful enough. Just keep your mind in the present and don’t let it think about the past or future. Good and evil come from thinking too much, you know. You’ve got to clean out your mind like this until it’s no-mind. Then you don’t have to remember what you’ve done in the past or worry about the future, so there’s no remorse or contrition or sin.”
“’Course you gotta be k’yerful about who you do it with, though, to make sure they’re skillful, too,” interrupted the king, cramping the duke’s style a mite. “Like Bilgewater, er, Bhante Sunim, here,” he continued. “He was havin’ hisself a high ol’ time with a pretty young thing down Arkansaw way when she started gettin’ unskillful ’nuff to remember that she had a husband and children back home. That’s why he’s on the lam at the moment, and couldn’t show up at the teachin’ today. So you can’t be too k’yerful.”
He took a long breath. “Well, I reckon that’s ’nuff secret teachin’s fer you two younguns tonight. I bet your brains is jest spinnin’. Why don’t you jest head on down to bed, now? ’Xcuse us, but the duke and me we need to get in some serious time on our skillful drinkin’ practice ’fore we hit the hay.”
So Tom and I said good night and went back to my room. When we got there, I asked him, “Well, what do you think, Tom Sawyer?”
“What do you think, Huck Finn?”
I thought a spell and said, “What I think is that some things may be right and left, like the king says, but there’s a plenty a things that’re north and south. I don’t wanta have nothing to do with that king and his truck.”
But Tom he got a funny look in his eyes and said, “I don’t know, Huck. I think you’re missing something here. What the king says has got lots of possibilities.”
He started getting lost in his thoughts, and I didn’t feel too comfortable about what he had said, so we didn’t talk too much after that. By-and-by he said good night and slid down the lightning rod. I set to thinking a while. Here was Tom Sawyer with all his book learning, and you had to give a body credit for that, but at the same time it couldn’t help him tell a real genuwine lama apart from a two-bit scoundrel like the king. In fact, it even got in the way of him seeing that the king was up to no good. If that was the case, I reckoned, I didn’t want to have no more to do with book learning or these town people and their sivilizing. So don’t be surprised if you don’t see me round here no more. It means I’ve lit out for Injun territory. Maybe the folks out there will make more sense.
Yours truly, Huck Finn
The new edition of the college textbook The Buddhist Religion cites J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye as an example of Buddhist influences on modern American literature. We can imagine Holden Caulfield’s reaction:
If you really want to know the truth, I wasn’t going to write anything more about all that crazy stuff that happened the week after I got kicked out of Pencey. It was bad enough after D. B.—he’s my brother, in case you don’t remember—talked me into letting them publish the book and all. First off, these crazy literary critics got hold of it and kept talking about what a dumb book it was and what an unoriginal moron I was to say the things I was trying to say. As if, like, you were lying in the street run over by a car and you’d have to be terribly original about how you were bleeding on the pavement if you wanted these guys to even look at you. That was bad enough.
Then these hot-shot academic types got their hands on it. That was even worse. They kept finding all this deep meaning every time I swore to God or felt under my coat for my secret wound. That was enough to make me swear off writing forever.
But now I’ve found out that some madman has put my name in this stupid textbook on Buddhism, saying that I was some kind of secret Zen master leaving all these suave little clues about koans and satori all over the book, and I dunno, I just couldn’t let it pass. I mean, it’s one thing when literary types write about you, and you let on that you didn’t read it, because nobody expects anybody to read that garbage anyhow. But if somebody says you’re a Zen master and you just keep quiet, it’s like you’re doing some kind of Zen thing and playing along with them. I’ve read a little about those Zen guys and they seem pretty sharp. How would they feel if they heard that some jerk like me was being called a Zen master like them? Old Lin-chi probably wouldn’t say anything. He was pretty cool, but God, Dogen, I don’t think he’d go for it at all. And, like, even though they wouldn’t say anything, that would make it worse, if you know what I mean. So I felt I had to stop playing deaf and dumb and set the record straight.
Like that business about the ducks in Central Park. You, know, the part where I say,
They made it out like I’m giving some super subtle little hint here that the duck thing is my own personal koan, that secretly I’m meditating on it all the time and, like, I’m leaving Pencey because I haven’t yet found anyone worthy to be my true master and all. For Chrissake, you’d think everybody would know that you can have a million things running through your head when you’re shooting the bull with someone like old Spence. But, no, they have to go make me out like some super-modest secret meditator. Holden Z. Caulfield, Secret Zenbo. Give me a break.
Then they go on and say I was so obsessed with my koan that I even put it to taxicab drivers, on account of they’re the ones that always seem to know everything about everything. I admit that I sort of brought up the topic with a coupla cab drivers, but jeez, when you’re sitting in a cab you gotta talk about something. You can’t just sit there like some sort of stuck-up snob pretending the driver isn’t even a person. That’s the heighth of rudeness.
And yeah, I was pretty depressed when I got around to checking out the scene at the old lagoon at 3 a.m. in the morning. That’s supposed to stand for the dark night of my Great Death when I’ve hit a dead end with my koan, but who wouldn't be depressed when you think that you’re going to die of pneumonia and start imagining all the dopey relatives that are going to show up at your funeral?
The problem, though, is that it doesn't stop with the ducks. They bring up this part, too:
You wouldn't believe what they say about this one. I’m supposed to be some sort of bodhisattva, for Chrissake. Just because you want to help people without a whole lot of ego getting in the way doesn't mean you have to be some sort of bodhisattva, you know. And then they talk about what they call my Japanese Zen values, and like how I admire how sincere the drummer in the Radio City Music Hall Orchestra is when he plays his old drum, or how I liked that scrawny kid James Castle, who committed suicide rather than take back what he said. Jeez. Can’t a guy just like the few good people around without having to have some reason every time?
The worst part, though, is what they say about the business at the end. You know, where I get so happy watching Phoebe, my sister, riding around on the carousel in Central Park. That was my favorite part—the only part that made any sense, in a way—so of course they have to go screw it all up. They say that’s my satori, would you believe it? That just happened, for Chrissake. I swear, can’t things just sort of happen without having any meaning, for crying out loud?
There’s more, but it’s so depressing I don’t even want to talk about it. All I can say is, don’t believe a word of what those crazy bastards say. If you’re looking for a Secret Zenbo, try old Buddy Glass. He really knows how to chuck that Zen bull around with the best of them. Like in Seymour, An Introduction. The only good part of the whole book—the only part you really care about, I mean—is what Seymour said when his parents were all mad at his kid brother for giving away his new bike to some total stranger. That’s the only thing you really want to know, because it’s so perfect and all, but that’s the one thing old Buddy won’t tell. At first I didn't understand, because I thought he was just trying to be coy about it, but now I do. Now I understand. If you put something down on paper, even if it’s all perfect just as it is, everybody who reads it thinks that it belongs to them and they can twist it all up any old way they like.
So I’ve learned my lesson. If you have anything that really means a lot to you, don’t go writing it down. Maybe you can write around it, like, but don’t go writing it down. Nobody I know ever knows enough to leave anything alone.
In Which P. B. Law Imagines What Would Happen If Christopher Robin Taught the Forest Animals about Buddhism
When the animals awoke in the Forest that morning, they all knew that something had changed, but not until the sleep had fully left their heads and seeped back into their pillows did they begin to remember what it was. Yesterday afternoon Christopher Robin had returned from school, where he had learned about Buddhism. After explaining it to them, he told them that he was now a Buddhist and wanted to know if anyone wanted to join him.
Of course, because they all loved him, the animals had said Yes without really stopping to think. But now they found themselves thinking very hard about what being a Buddhist might mean. Winnie the Pooh lay in bed, asking himself, “Does this mean I have to do something differently? What do Buddhists do with their mornings and afternoons? I hope I don’t have to give up my little-something-at-eleven-o’clock.” This thought made him feel so all-over hungry that he had to get up and go to his cupboard to find something to sustain himself.
When he had finished his breakfast, Pooh wandered over to Piglet’s house to see if Piglet could remember anything Christopher Robin had said yesterday. Halfway there, he found Piglet sitting in their Thoughtful Spot trying to think as thoughtfully as he could.
“Hallo, Piglet,” said Pooh. “What are you thinking about?”
“Oh, hallo, Pooh,” said Piglet. “I was trying to remember what Christopher Robin said yesterday, but I can’t get all the words in my head at the same time. Some of the things sounded very grand and friendly, like Noble Truths and even some of the bigger things, like loving kindness. But some of the other things didn't seem very much like things at all—suffering and emptiness and what-not. At least they didn't seem to be so very to me.”
“I was about to say the same thing myself,” said Pooh. “Maybe we should go ask Owl. He has a good brain that can remember long things without their getting all wobbly.”
So they set out together for Owl’s Tree. When they arrived there they found a new sign posted by the door. Owl had meant for the sign to say, “Buddhist Scholar,” but this is what he had actually written:
“What does that say?” asked Pooh.
“Something about dust, I think, but I can’t say for sure,” said Piglet. “Owl’s brain is so roomy that he can store more letters in his words than I can.”
So Pooh pulled on Owl’s bell ringer and knocked on his door. After a moment Owl called out, “Go away. I’m thinking…. Oh, it’s you. What do you want?” For that was his way with everybody.
“Now that we’re Buddhists,” Pooh said to him, “we’re trying to find out what Buddhists do. So we can do it.”
“They look for Awakening,” said Owl. “That’s what they do.”
“But what’s a Wakening?” asked Piglet in a casual sort of way to show that he wasn't afraid of Animals with Unfamiliar Names. “Is it a Friendly Animal, or one of the Fiercer Sorts?”
“There are three kinds,” Owl replied. “Sudden, gradual, and rude.”
“Oh,” said Piglet, suddenly remembering that Christopher Robin had talked about this yesterday. “I only remembered the first two.”
“The third is the most commonly spotted,” said Owl.
Piglet did not like the sound of Sudden and Spotted Rude Wakening's, for they sounded too bouncy, like Tigger. He preferred a Wakening that would be fond of Very Small Animals and wouldn't jump on them without warning. So he said in a casual voice to Pooh, “I think it would be a Finer Thing to look for one of the shy ones, don’t you, Pooh? Like the gradual ones. They might be grateful that we took the trouble.”
“Yes,” said Pooh. “They’d be the most likely to greet you in a friendly way and offer you a little honey as a hallo-getting-to-know-you kind of present. They do have honey, don’t they, Owl?”
“That I can’t say for sure. You can never tell with Awakening.”
“But how do you find Gradual Wakening's?” asked Piglet. “Do you call for them? Or do you set a trap? And how do you make sure that you wouldn't catch Sudden or Rude Wakening's? Because we wouldn't want to cause them any inconvenience. It would be a shame to catch them and then tell them to go home because we caught them by mistake. Especially if they’re Sudden or Rude.”
“The only way to find Awakening is with long words, although there’s some disagreement as to which ones work best,” said Owl, “You might try ‘Momentariness’ or ‘Non-duality’ or ‘Interconnectedness.’”
“Inner neck—Bother,” said Pooh quietly to himself. “That sounds like too much for a Bear of Very Little Brain.” So he turned to Piglet and said, “I think we should go give it a try. What do you say to that, Piglet?”
Piglet didn't feel quite prepared to catch a Wakening, especially if long words were required, but he didn't like saying No to Pooh, so he agreed in as agreeable a way as he could muster. Then they said Good-bye to Owl, who added helpfully as they were walking away that they might also want to try “Mental Concomitants.” But when they had gone off far enough that he couldn't hear them, Pooh whispered to Piglet, “I don’t want to be disrespectful to anyone who knows how to spell TUESDAY, and certainly Owl’s brain is very fine for Keeping Things, but it’s not so good at Putting Them Together in a Useful Way. I don’t feel he really knows as much about Wakening's as he lets on. Why don’t we go over to Eeyore’s place? Perhaps he will have some more Helpful ideas about how a Wakening might be found.”
Piglet agreed that this was a splendid idea, as Eeyore was the most gradual and un-Tigger-like animal in the Forest. As they walked along, a little Wondering Hum started coming to Pooh. After humming it to himself first, to make sure all the words had found their proper places, he hummed it aloud to Piglet in a wondering sort of way:
Pooh was about to hum the first verse again, to make a Round sort of Hum, when he realized that perhaps this was not the best Hum to be humming to Piglet at this hour of the morning. After all, sometimes a Hum might seem very hummish when it’s inside you, but when it’s outside for other people to listen to, you realize it wasn't so very hummish after all.
Piglet seemed to be thinking the same sort of thoughts, for he said to Pooh, “You know, Pooh, I don’t think a Wondering Hum is the Hum we need just now. I would rather you thought of a Comforting Hum or an Encouraging Hum or a How-Brave-You-Are-Piglet-hup-hup kind of Hum. And besides, now that I think of it, even though Gradual Wakening's might be fond of Piglets, there are two kinds of Fond, you know. There’s the how-nice-to-see-you-won’t-you-have-some-of-my-haycorns kind of Fond. And then there’s the my-my-how-tasty-you-look kind of Fond. And how will we know which kind of Fond it is until it’s already too late and I’ve just remembered I have something very urgent to do at my house just about now….”
“Don’t worry,” said Pooh. “We’re both in a wondering sort of way because Owl has got us all confused. But I’m sure that when we see Eeyore he will end our confusion, and then a Very Encouraging Hum will come to me.” So Piglet decided that the urgent thing wasn't so very urgent after all, and they continued on their way.
When they came upon Eeyore, they found him sitting next to his thistles, talking to himself. “Ideals,” he said. “Sweet nothings. Pathetic.”
“Hallo, Eeyore!” called Piglet. “We’re looking for a Wakening!”
“Well, you’re not going to find it if you look for it. You’re already as awakened as you’re ever going to be. Which isn’t much. Ha-ha. That’s a joke.”
“But we don’t want to be a weekend,” said Pooh. “Maybe you didn't hear us properly. We’re looking for a Wakening, and we don’t know where to look. Or what to do with it if we find it.”
“You look inside your self. Which doesn’t exist,” Eeyore replied. “That’s another little joke. This Buddhism business is very humorous, if you ask me.”
“But we thought—,” said Pooh.
“We wanted—,” said Piglet.
“That’s the problem,” said Eeyore. “All this thinking and wanting. You want things to Make Sense so you can make them better than they are, but that only makes them worse. All you can do is Accept that things are Just The Way They Are and can’t get any better than they are, and stop all this silly thinking.”
But all three of them were now thinking very busily to themselves. Piglet was thinking that thinking and wanting were sometimes very Helpful, if you put them together in the Right Way, and Pooh was thinking that maybe Eeyore wasn’t turning out to be so Encouraging after all, while Eeyore was thinking, “No grey matter in their heads, these two. Just grey fluff.”
But before any of them could say anything, Rabbit came rushing into Eeyore’s clearing with a Very Important Air about him, a Captainish sort of Air, an If It Weren’t for Me, Nothing Would Ever Get Done Around Here sort of Air. “Hallo, Eeyore!” he called. “Oh, and you’re here too, Pooh. And Piglet. Excellent.”
“Hallo, Rabbit!” they all replied.
“Well, I haven’t much time to chat, but here’s a notice I wrote out for you.” And he gave them each a slip of paper with writing on it. “Now that we’re all Buddhists, we need to organize a Buddhist Group that Does Things and Engages and Elects Officials. So I’ve called a meeting for this afternoon in the Meeting Place, and that’s what it says here on the notice, in case you can’t read.
“Will we find a Wakening at the meeting?” asked Piglet.
“Who has time for Awakening,” replied Rabbit, “when our Reputation is at stake? Well, I have to run off to Owl’s Place now, to give him his notice, but I’ll see you this afternoon.” And in a flash he was gone.
“Hah!” said Eeyore scornfully. “And I thought Rabbit had Brain.” Then he picked up his notice with his teeth and placed it next to a patch of thistles. “That,” he explained to Pooh and Piglet, “is so I can eat it by mistake, if you know what I mean, when I have my lunch, and then when Rabbit asks why I didn't show up at the meeting I can tell him that something ate my notice.”
“Here, Eeyore, you can eat ours, too,” said Pooh helpfully, as he and Piglet placed their notices on the ground in front of him.
“Why, thank you,” said Eeyore. “How thoughtful of you. Not like some.” And he picked up their notices with his teeth and placed them next to his.
Now that they had done Something Nice for Eeyore, Pooh and Piglet decided it would be a good time to take their leave. So they said their good-byes and continued on their way.
But as they walked along, they realized that they were not feeling any more comforted or encouraged than before. In fact, they were feeling very less. Pooh tried to think of an Encouraging Hum for Piglet, but all that came to his mind was a Hum he had caught from Eeyore, which went like this:
This Eeyore Hum was much more Discouraging than the Owlish Hum he had hummed before, so he decided that it would be a Very Bad Hum to hum out loud to Piglet. But even though he hummed it just to himself, it was bringing him to the Sad Conclusion that they might never be good Buddhists and find themselves a Wakening at all.
But Piglet wasn't paying any attention to Pooh for there were noises around the corner on the path before them. Unexpected noises. Unfamiliar noises. Noises that made him apprehensive at first, but then made him say, “Oh.”
And then, “I do believe—.”
And then, excitedly, “Pooh, Pooh, do you hear what I hear? I think it’s Christopher Robin.”
And suddenly Pooh felt that this was turning out to be a much better Buddhist day than it had been, and that maybe they would find their Wakening after all. For there, indeed, when they had turned the corner of the path, was Christopher Robin coming in their direction.
“Christopher Robin! Christopher Robin!” they called out excitedly as they went rushing up to hug him. “We’ve been Buddhist all morning and looking for a Wakening.” — “Because Owl said—” “But then Eeyore—“ “And we weren’t—"
So Christopher Robin waited until they had calmed down and could tell him everything that had happened in its Proper Order. When they had finished, he wanted to laugh and laugh out loud, but they looked so dejected that he only laughed to himself and said, “Oh, Pooh. And Piglet. I do love you so.”
As that made them feel much better, he took them back to their Thoughtful Spot and sat them down and explained everything he could remember about Buddhism and Awakening in very short words that even a Very Small Animal and a Bear with Very Little Brain could understand. Pooh and Piglet said, “Oh,” and “I see,” and “But I thought—” so many times that they began to feel like Very Foolish Animals Indeed. But then Christopher Robin cheered them up by saying, “Still, what you did was the Wisest Thing any animal could do. Given the circumstances.”
“Really?” said Piglet, brightening.
“Do you mean that?” said Pooh, feeling a little more like That Sort of Bear again. “Given the sorghumstishes—whatever they were?”
“Yes, of course,” said Christopher Robin. “When you don’t understand something, the Wisest Thing is to ask questions. Just be more careful about who you ask them to.”
“But who do we ask,” asked Piglet, “when you’re not here to ask them to?”
“Ask questions of yourself.”
“But which questions should we ask?”
“Oh, questions like: ‘What am I doing right now?’ and ‘Is it making me happy and the other animals happy?’ and ‘Is that a Long Happy or just a Short Happy?’ And then you do only the things that make a Long Happy. Can you try that?”
“Yes, of course,” said Piglet bravely. “I’ll try.”
But Pooh was stopped for a moment by the thought that even just a Longish Happy might mean having to share some of his pots of honey before he had fully examined their contents. Then he thought of how much he trusted Christopher Robin, so he finally said, “So will I.”
I won’t weary you with the details of how it came to pass, but recently I—Jorge Luis Borges—found myself sitting a three-month vipassana retreat in rural New England. For the first few days I dutifully tried to follow the instructions, which directed me to note the repeated rise and fall of my abdomen. If any random thought or noise distracted me from my assigned task, I was to note it briefly and then return to my original focus. Even more dangerous than distraction was deep concentration. If I found myself settling into a profound state of rapture or bliss, I was to drop it and return to the noting.
As you might imagine, the tedium induced by this practice, instead of helping me to withstand the pull of my thoughts, drove me to take refuge in their ramified worlds. It was on the third afternoon, I think, that I indulged in a pleasant reverie of events that had transpired many years earlier on a similar autumn day in my native Argentina. The pleasure of the reverie, which lasted for at least two sessions of sitting and walking meditation, was rendered more piquant by the surreptitious thrill of playing truant and knowing that my truancy would never be detected. That, at least, was my assumption. How wrong I was.
The next morning, as I left the dining hall, I noticed a small folded note bearing my cushion number affixed to the message board in the hallway. I was surprised that the note had not already attracted the attention of others, as its edges seemed to be glimmering with an erratic light. My first impression was that the paper was on fire with silvery flames but somehow was not being consumed. As I tentatively reached towards it, I noticed that the flames were not warm—in fact they seemed to possess no temperature at all, hot or cold—and so I bravely took hold of the note and unfolded it. As best as I can remember, the message it contained was this:
The message was so disorienting that I immediately started to reread it to confirm its contents, only to find that the letters had unscrambled themselves, first into what appeared to be hieroglyphs from the Twelfth Kingdom, and then into the scrawled handwriting of the woman sitting on the cushion next to mine, raving madly that she still detected the smell of yerba mate on my breath and demanding that I stop drinking it at lunch. I call her remarks “mad ravings” because neither I nor my ancestors have ever touched yerba mate, and in a previous note I had already coldly informed her of the fact. I threw the note away.
Nevertheless, the uncanniness of the note’s original message made me wonder if I myself had gone slightly insane. So that afternoon I conducted an experiment. I composed in my head a brief vipassana romance in which a mercurial Anicca lured me into a whirlwind affair through the many bewitching transformations of her mood and appearance. I, however, was too timid and dull to anticipate the incessant changes in her identity, and so without adumbration she transformed into a dark and dolorous Dukkha who moped and carried on that I didn’t truly love or understand her. As I struggled vainly to placate her, she transformed still further into a chilly blonde Anatta Ekberg—an uncharacteristic play of words on my part—who haughtily refused to continue personal relations with me ever again.
The following morning I received an enthusiastic note of appreciation from my Reader, thus confirming the reality of the original message. My initial disorientation at the eerie irreality of the situation soon gave way to a steely and defiant joy: My retreat now had a purpose, and one of my own choosing. By engaging my imagination—a faculty which, I do not believe it an act of hubris to say, is of a fairly developed and original nature—I would also be bringing genuine happiness, however brief, to a person of sensitivity trapped in a dreary afterlife. Thus the daily guided meditations in lovingkindness were no longer, for me at least, an empty exercise in wishful thinking. The fact that I did not know the person I was helping and would expect no reward for my efforts added an aura of selfless nobility to my daily rebellion against the tyrannical mindlessness of the so-called “mindfulness” technique.
I allowed my imagination to rove further afield, away from romances and into genres more to my taste: vipassana crime stories and murder mysteries, vipassana fables, vipassana travelogues, vipassana film criticism, a vipassana bestiary, a serialized Icelandic vipassana saga, and the scripts for several vipassana films noirs. I even composed a fragment of a vipassana mock epic in alexandrines and bristling with spurious footnotes. In my internal conversations I began referring to my project as The Thousand and One Vipassana Afternoons.
The comments from my Reader grew ever more effusive in their astute appreciation of my efforts, and through them I occasionally gained added glimpses of the vipassana afterlife. For example, when the Readers passed one another in the halls of the library, they were forbidden from making eye contact or nose contact or from breaking into speech. However, they were allowed to leave notes in a mirrored labyrinth secretly adjoining their rooms, and the challenge of passing messages through the secret maze was, for many of them, the sole pleasure of their existence. My Reader had begun circulating my writings through the labyrinth in an informal samizdat, but the ephemeral status of writings in that infernal dimension meant that the select circle of additional Readers to whom my writings brought literary relief was always very small.
In addition to the Readers were the Listeners, whom my Reader could never mention without a tone of great pity. The Listeners, it seems, were former vipassana teachers now consigned to listening to the evening talks given by teachers whom they themselves had trained. Because these talks were recorded, the Listeners had to hear them repeatedly, leaving them not a moment’s respite. I felt a touch of vertigo every time I tried to imagine what the long-term effects of such an unrelenting regimen of genial pointlessness might be.
Occasionally, my Reader would request vipassana genres in a specific style—such as a vipassana satire in the style of Mark Twain—and the challenge of adopting another author’s voice in a language not my own added extra spice to my musings. And, I must admit, I was falling prey to the subtle seduction of talent: the temptation to attempt difficult feats, not because they needed doing, but simply to show that they were not beyond the range of what I could do well.
However, one day my Reader made a request so unnerving that it brought my project to a swift and irrevocable halt:
I didn’t know whether I, the Borges who had written the published works my Reader regarded so highly, should feel flattered, or I, the Borges who had been composing these vipassana fictions, should feel insulted at the underestimation of my talent. So in response, I have composed this fiction for you, my Reader, but I must inform you that I am cutting short my retreat tomorrow morning and am resolved never to return.
NEW YORK—A 20-year public relations campaign by major Buddhist leaders appears to have paid off, according to a business-climate poll released today by Business Week magazine. For the first time in the 50-year history of the poll, business leaders across the country have ranked Buddhism among the nation’s top ten business-friendly religions.
“This is a dramatic turn-around,” reported Gregory Hobbes, Business Week’s religion watchdog. “Only 25 years ago Buddhism was deep in the ‘actively unfriendly’ category, due to the chilly climate created by its emphasis on contentment, renunciation, and karmic responsibility. When Small is Beautiful was published in the early seventies, Buddhism’s rating hit an all-time low from which we thought it would never recover. But thanks to the concerted efforts of a new breed of enlightened Buddhist teacher-entrepreneurs, that image has been totally erased. Buddhism has shown convincingly that it is willing and able to do business on our terms.”
Among the factors cited by Hobbes to explain the turn-around:
When asked why the liberal tilt of the Buddhist demographic hadn’t kept it out of the top ten, Hobbes replied, “That factor didn't help, of course, but then the general Buddhist reluctance to hold firmly to views served to neutralize its negative impact.”
Still, business leaders have indicated that Buddhism’s new-found status doesn’t rule out room for improvement. When informed of Business Week’s findings, a spokesperson for CitiBank commented, “We congratulate Buddhism on finally developing the maturity needed to become a responsible force in the global community, but we hope it won’t rest on its laurels. In today’s fast-changing economy, it will need to continue accommodating itself to the demands of the business sector if it wants to keep its competitive edge. After all, isn’t embracing change for the sake of survival what Buddhism is all about?”
Despite repeated efforts to locate it, Buddhism was unavailable for comment.
WASHINGTON (Dec. 19, 2004)—In the interests of Presidential security, the White House today announced that it will request Congress to legislate an end to the law of karma and to require all Buddhist organizations to remove any reference to karma from their beliefs.
A statement issued by the White House press secretary maintained that while the President has never recognized the authority of the law of karma in his deliberations, he has been informed by legal advisers that the existence of this law in the beliefs of some Americans places an unconstitutional restriction on the exercise of his powers as Commander-in-Chief, which now include not only his right to wage preemptive war and authorize torture, but also to protect governmental social programs and unspoiled wilderness from falling into the hands of posterity. “We don’t want anyone to have grounds for criticizing the President,” the press secretary noted, “and the proposed legislation is a first step in that direction.”
According to an informed source, the new law will also require Buddhist organizations to delete any passages from their texts that the Attorney General deems objectionable. “Such outmoded ideas as ‘Hatred is never subdued by hatred,’ or ‘Those who have plundered get plundered in turn’ for instance, will obviously have to go. As the past two years have shown, hatred backed up by superior firepower shocks hatred into awed submission, and those who plunder win the popular vote. So Buddhists will have to get with the program and learn to accept these American truths if they want their religion to survive in our country.”
Although the President’s initiative would seem to strike at the heart of Buddhist beliefs, religion-industry experts expect only token reaction from even the most vocal American Buddhists. According to Peggy Anderson, religion editor for Entertainment Weekly, “Most Buddhist teachers in America long ago found the law of karma and rebirth to be an obstacle in attracting students, and so quietly dropped it from their teachings. Some have even argued that belief in this law is un-Buddhist, and was first introduced into Buddhism as a sop to rulers who wanted to use it as a means to keep their subjects under control. So now that the President wants to rescind the law for similar reasons, there should be no grounds for protest.”
The Administration, however, is taking no chances and, in a move designed to win support for the new legislation, has titled it, Showing Concern for Religious and Ethical Wisdom to Yield Oneness in the Universe. This, according to White House officials, shows the President’s heartfelt feelings toward religious diversity in our country.
NEW YORK (June 30, 2010)—Goldman Sachs today petitioned the Federal District Court in Manhattan to be exempted from the financial regulations recently passed by Congress, on the grounds that they are an infringement of the firm’s religious freedom to practice accounting using Mahayana Buddhist principles. According to a statement issued by the firm, “Rather than being forced to use Western mathematical principles of commutativity, distributivity, and associativity, we assert our constitutional right to calculate financial instruments using Mahayana mathematical principles of non-duality (1+1=1), interconnectivity (1=2=3=4=5=6=7=8=9), and heart-sutrivity (1=0, 0=1).”
In an allusion to the bodhisattva Ho-tai, the statement continued, “Only when we are free to employ these principles as skillful means in calculating financial transactions will we be able to pursue our religious aim of staying fat and happy.”
When questioned at a press conference as to how long Goldman Sachs had been followers of the Mahayana, Albert Capone, a spokesman for the firm, replied, “Actually, our board of directors took the bodhisattva vow many years ago to grow fat by teaching Dharma to all sentient beings. For proof, consider our long history of teaching the paradoxical nature of emptiness by selling nothing for something, and buying something with nothing. And as evidence of our ongoing efforts, consider the recent series of financial meltdowns we helped engineer to teach the entire world the Dharma of impermanence, emptiness, and interconnectedness. Until now, our directors thought it best to fulfill their vows under the radar, following the model of the great bodhisattva, Vimalakirti, but given the current climate of mathematical oppression, they see no choice but to go public with their mission.”
The US Treasury Department has yet to indicate how it will respond to this latest challenge from Goldman, but Jessye Jaims, spokesperson for British Petroleum (BP), has indicated that BP has plans to file an amicus brief for the right to use Mahayana mathematical principles in calculating the amount of money it will commit to cleaning up the on-going oil spill in the Gulf.
As evidence of BP’s Mahayana affiliation, Jaims cited the oil giant’s compassionate efforts to deliver free oil to the shores of every country on earth.
COLUMBUS, OH (Jan. 1, 2011) — Self-described bodhisattva, Aaron Stewart, woke on the couch this morning with a throbbing headache that he at first attributed to “like, just a few drops too much” alcoholic consumption at a neighborhood party last night, only to realize that during the party he had also set back his plans for his own enlightenment and that of his next-door neighbors, Tim and Courtney Lubbock, “for, like, maybe a thousand years.”
“It all happened after Courtney had a couple of drinks and started complaining about how empty her life was. That word ‘empty’ reminded me I had taken a bodhisattva vow at a vipassana retreat over Thanksgiving, and that maybe I should do something compassionate to make her feel better. But when I did, she took it wrong and slapped me across the face. Then she ran off to tell Tim and all hell broke loose. Now Tim won’t even let me near their property, so how am I supposed to save them, you know? And if I can’t save them, how am I going to save all sentient beings any time soon?”
When asked why he had taken the vow, Stewart sighed and cited “peer pressure,” adding, “The teacher was really talking it up, and everybody else on the retreat was taking it. I felt like some kind of selfish jerk if I couldn’t dedicate myself to saving all beings, too. Besides,” he added, “my life has been a mess since the divorce, and I thought maybe it’d help give me some direction.”
Sources close to the Lubbocks claim that Tim, when informed of Stewart’s vow to save all beings, laughed derisively and said, “He’s lucky to have saved his own ass last night. If he thinks getting buzzed and hitting on his neighbor’s wife is skillful means, we’re going to be stuck here in samsara till hell freezes over.”
When informed that Stewart’s vow required that he and his wife get their enlightenment from Stewart, Lubbock laughed again. “Then I guess we’d better forget about it. I’d rather get my enlightenment from his dog if it came to that. You tell him he’d better not be bringing any more of his ‘compassion’ around here anytime soon, or else I’ll enlighten him about a few things.” Then he returned to his house and shut the door.
At a follow-up interview after breakfast, Stewart insisted that he still planned to stick with his vow, even though he now realized that it was going to be “a lot harder” than he had first imagined. “I guess I’ll have to take some more retreats before I get the hang of it all,” he admitted. “Like all those teachers who get drunk and have sex with their students and advance everyone’s enlightenment all at the same time: What do they know that I don’t? Maybe it’s all in the timing.”
MT. SHASTA, CA (May 7, 2011) — Professors Sue Doe and Cy Yance of the Psychology Department at UC Weed today announced plans for an ambitious 20-year research project to test the effectiveness of tonglen meditation in actually reducing the amount of suffering in the universe. At a public news conference, Prof. Doe outlined a multi-disciplinary study that she said will advance scientific knowledge “on all fronts” regarding the effectiveness of this centuries-old Tibetan practice. “Tonglen meditators are told, as they breathe in, to visualize that they are breathing in the dark, sticky mass of the sufferings of the world,” Doe explained, “and then to transform that suffering into the light of happiness, which they then breathe out as a compassionate gift to all. Our hope is to ascertain the neural physiology of how this transformation actually happens, and to provide hard data on the extent to which the exchange of happiness for suffering actually has an impact on the world.”
According to Prof. Yance, this latter aspect of the project is what sets it apart from all preceding research into the effectiveness of Tibetan meditation. “I don’t want to name names, but all previous researchers in the field have taken a narrow Hinayana approach, focused exclusively on the impact of meditation on the mind of the practitioner. But Mahayana meditation, from the very beginning, has aimed at the benefits it is supposed to give to others. Only by incorporating this aspect into our research can we do justice to the many dimensions of these ancient meditational techniques.”
Using fMRI imaging of tonglen practice, researchers hope to pinpoint where the dark mass of suffering moves from the nasal passages to the brain on the in-breath, and the exact spot both in time and space where the transformation from dark mass to bright light occurs. Researchers also hope to ascertain which neural enzymes perform the transformation, and to measure the conversion of matter to energy to see whether the energy released in the transformation all remains in the four-dimensional universe in accordance with the equation e = mc2, or if part of it goes into vibrating strings in other dimensions.
In one of the more original parts of the study, the course of the dark mass of suffering as it is drawn from the hearts of other beings into the nasal passages of the practitioners, and of the bright light of happiness as it wafts from the brain back into the world, will be tracked by satellite and by a squadron of roaming trucks on loan from Google equipped with specially designed sensors. The number of tonglen practitioners engaged in the project will be doubled each year, and the results of their practice will be measured by gathering the daily headlines from all web-based news sources and measuring their combined happiness quotient using algorithms already tested on the derivatives market. “We hope that by taking this multi-pronged and rigorously scientific approach, all doubts about the effectiveness of tonglen will be settled once and for all,” Doe concluded.
When asked why the worldwide upswing in tonglen practice over the past three decades has apparently had no positive effect on the level of world happiness, Doe replied, "This remains an untested hypothesis, of course, but some of our preliminary surveys have suggested that there has also been a corresponding upswing in the anti-tonglen practice of breathing in other people’s happiness and breathing out suffering in return. Our roaming happiness detectors have pinpointed a few possible centers of this activity, such as Wall Street, K Street, and a billionaire compound outside of Wichita, but further research will be required to verify these findings."
When asked what controls will be used to ensure the scientific accuracy of the experiment, Yance stated, “Given the universal impact claimed for tonglen practice, we will also have to study a parallel universe identical to our own in every detail except for our planned research project, but our colleagues in the Astrophysics Department have stated that, for a small but reasonable share of our research funds, they will do their best to locate one for us.”
DALLAS (May 14, 2011)—Researchers in the Mind and Plant Science Department at Christian Soldier Extreme Southern Baptist Seminary today announced the results of a yearlong research project that pitted the power of Christian prayer against Buddhist compassion. Two groups of students, one composed of Extreme Southern Baptists, the other of Buddhist meditators, were each assigned a one-acre plot of corn, with the Baptists instructed to pray for the growth of their corn, and the Buddhists to spread thoughts of lovingkindness to theirs. By the end of the growing season, the Baptist corn had exceeded normal growth rates by an average of four inches, while the Buddhist corn averaged only three inches taller than normal. The average plant of Baptist corn also yielded three ears of corn more than a normal plant, while the average plant of Buddhist corn exceeded normal production by only two ears. Speaking to a campus-wide assembly of students and professors, director of research Beau Guss stated, “We believe that these data conclusively demonstrate that Christian prayer outperforms Buddhist meditation by a factor of 33 to 50 percent. If mainstream scientific journals don’t accept the results of our research, that only proves the godless bias of their review boards.”
However, Ann Atmann, spokesperson for the Buddhist group, issued a statement in which she challenged the conclusions of the project directors. “Because Buddhist lovingkindness is unlimited, we Buddhists couldn’t bring ourselves to spread lovingkindness only to our own corn, and so we all ended up including the Christian corn in our thoughts as well. Because we were able to add three inches to the height of our corn, we feel that three of the four inches of added growth in the Christian corn should be attributed to our efforts. That leaves only one inch for the Christians to claim.” Atmann also accused the Christian group of foul play. “I used to think that ‘Christian’ meant ‘kind,’ but we left an MP3 recorder in our plot every night and always found these sound-files the next morning.” She then produced an iPod and played a recording of voices chanting, “Die, Buddhist corn! Die!”
Campus police were called in to quell the ensuing riot.
MOUNTAIN DEW, CA, June 10, 2011 — “Mindful” has now replaced “Zen” as the top Buddhist buzzword, researchers at Boggle announced today. “After conducting an exhaustive survey of all Buddhist-related books and magazines published in North America during the past decade, we have the hard data to show that ‘mindful’ has taken a commanding lead over ‘Zen’ as the most frequently used word in the Buddhist lexicon,” said head researcher Belle Kerve of the internet behemoth’s Statistical Graphics department. “And its lead continues to widen.”
“As you know, we at Boggle are encouraged to follow our hunches, and this project is no exception. A few years ago, a book by a vipassana practitioner came out entitled, ‘The Zen of Eating.’ Nothing new there. But just this year a Zen teacher published a book with the title, ‘Mindful Eating.’ That alerted me that something was up. If ‘Zen’ were still the top buzzword, why would a Zen teacher use ‘mindful’ to help sell her book? So we unleashed our massive computer-power on the problem and discovered that, in fact, the trend toward ‘mindful’ and away from ‘Zen’ has been developing for more than a decade, with ‘mindful’ taking the lead in just the last two years.”
Kerve produced colorful diagrams to prove her points. “Here’s a word-frequency cloud to show the number of times a word has been used in Buddhist-related literature this past year. You’ll notice that ‘mindful’ dominates the cloud, at 120pt boldface type, while ‘Zen’ rates only 72pt plain type. And here are a couple of meaning-clouds, showing the range of meanings a word has developed over time. Notice that both ‘mindful’ and ‘Zen’ have large, diffuse meaning-clouds, indicating that they a broad and shifting range of vaguely defined meanings, an essential feature for any buzzword. But there the similarity ends. The Zen meaning-cloud here is stratospherically high, like the clouds of ice-crystals that cover the polar regions. We even added a few solar arcs and halos to the graphic to convey that point. See? They’re right here. The mindful meaning-cloud, however, is close to the earth, lapping through valleys like clouds of mist composed of tiny, clear orbs of water reflecting a sharp image of whatever they’re near, but giving a soft, diffuse glow to everything viewed at a distance.
“Don’t you just love what computers have done for statistical graphics?” Kerve concluded.
When asked about the meaning of this latest development in Buddhist buzz, Polly Cannon, senior editor of Scooter: The Buddhist Review, called it a sign that American Buddhism has “come down to earth.” “As Buddhism becomes more and more mainstream, this was bound to happen. ‘Zen,’ whatever it means, carries connotations of the exotic and paradoxical, while ‘mindful,’ whatever it means, brings to mind the idea of attention to the everyday and commonsensical. If Buddhism is going to speak to people’s day-to-day needs, it has to abandon a little of its drop-dead chic and mysterious distance, and deal with the nitty-gritty of dirty laundry and tax forms. And ‘mindful’ is just the buzzword to give it staying power. You can change diapers Zenfully only for so long before you realize you have to do it mindfully.”
Noah Pologies, zeitgeist editor of Fortune, also agreed that the new buzz development indicates that American Buddhism is in step with the times. “Think of the phrase, ‘The Zen of Finance.’ It conjures up images of the kind of paradoxical and mysterious financial instruments that dazzled the American public over the last two decades, making money out of nothing and then suddenly making it disappear all over again. Form is emptiness—that sort of thing. ‘Mindful Finance,’ however, makes you think of kindly, careful, responsible brokers and bankers, the sort of image that Wall Street wants to project right now.”
However, Beau Dacious of PR Weekly noted that, from a public-relations point of view, the new development has both pros and cons. “On the one hand, ‘mindful’ is more ecumenical than ‘Zen.’ Even though Zen has long proclaimed itself the essence of all religions, it’s hard for people in, say, the Tibetan Buddhist corporate world to lay claim to it as their own. But ‘mindful’ doesn’t really belong to anybody, which is why we’ve already seen Tibetan Buddhist corporations corner the market with books, magazines, and seminars on the topic.
“On the other hand,” Dacious continued, “‘mindful’ lacks the PR panache punch of ‘Zen.’ Think ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ and ‘Mindful Motorcycle Maintenance,’ and you’ll see what I mean.”
One segment of corporate America that adamantly refuses to buy into the new “mindful” buzz is the world of upscale fashion. When asked if her magazine planned any articles on mindful fashion, a spokesperson for Vogue sneered and said, “What do you mean? Sensible shoes? Go speak to the people in Ladies Home Journal.” And when asked if Martha Stewart’s Still Living planned to feature any mindful household hints, the magazine’s automated answering system curled its lip and directed all inquiries to Good Housekeeping.
SEATTLE, June 24, 2011 — Another sports milestone was reached today when Mara pitched a no-hitter and scored his 1,000th straight victory in Stan Singleton’s ongoing battle to wake up early and meditate before going to work. The rivalry started almost three years ago, when Stan attended a Labor Day meditation retreat and resolved to get up early and meditate every day. His last victory was on the morning of September 27, 2008.
In a post-game locker room interview, Mara modestly downplayed the significance of his victory, saying, “Actually, I’ve got a few other ongoing battles where my winning streak is even longer than this, but I don’t want to call attention to them because my opponents don’t even remember that the battle is still going on. All I have to do is show up, and I win.”
When asked which plays had proved most effective against Stan, Mara replied, “Sometimes I’ve had to resort to a few small lower-back pains, by mostly he falls for the basic whispering campaign: ‘Need more sleep,’ ‘Meditate lying down,’ ‘Tomorrow’—that sort of thing. Actually, for the past couple of months he’s been a no-show. But now that you’re calling his attention to his sport stats, I guess I’ll have to pull out some of my big guns.” When asked what those guns might be, Mara laughed and said, “You don’t expect me to reveal all my secrets, do you?” He then winked headed out for his next game.
When notified during his morning coffee of Mara’s achievement, Stan said sheepishly, “Ah, Jeez. Has it been that long? Boy it really makes me look like a loser, doesn’t it? It’s not like I don’t try, you know, but something always seems to come up, and before I know it, I’ve got to get up for work.” He took a sip of his coffee. “A record like that kind of makes you feel like giving up.”
When reminded that he only had to get up early once in order to break Mara’s winning streak, Stan replied, “I know. But how will I ever pull even in the sports stats? I’d have to win 1,000 straight games.”
Stan took another sip of his coffee without realizing that he had involuntarily winked.
LOS ANGELES (Dec. 22)— The International Mindfulness Foundation (IMF) today announced the discovery of a fifth noble truth, overturning millennia of ancient Buddhist beliefs that there are only four. Speaking at a press conference at UCLA, IMF president Hugh Briss reported that researchers in the U.S. and U.K. using the latest quantum MRI technology had scanned the brains of more than 100 select meditators and located the fifth center of noble-truth activity in a part of the striatum normally associated with lust and desire, an area that previous researchers had overlooked.
“Not only did our researchers at UCLA and Oxford discover this new center of activity,” he added, “they were also, after consultation with certified mindfulness experts, able to correctly identify the true meaning of all five centers of noble-truth activity in the brain. We can now say with absolute scientific certainty that suffering, the first noble truth, is an inability to accept life as it is, while the second noble truth, the cause of suffering, is bad social conditioning. The third noble truth is that suffering can’t be ended but it can be managed, while the fourth noble truth, the path for the management of suffering, is learning an attitude of mindful acceptance. Our newly discovered fifth noble truth is that all other noble truths are subject to change without notice. Obviously, this last truth is the noblest of the five.”
Briss went on to say that the researchers had also ascertained that the fourth noble truth contained only three factors—wisdom, compassion, and mindfulness—rather than the eight previously reported. Prof. Reed Uctionist, chairman of the department of neurophysics at UCLA, then explained the researchers’ methodology in more detail. After his presentation, Uctionist was asked why the researchers considered their data so reliable as to overturn two millennia of previous findings.
“First off,” he replied, “we studied only meditators with the most unimpeachable academic certification: graduates from mindfulness centers at UCLA and Oxford. Second, we used quantum sensors to probe the inner workings of the brain. Earlier ‘research,’ to use the term loosely, was based on introspection of consciousness while sitting under trees. Research protocols were ad hoc and haphazard, with no experimental controls and no consideration of environmental impacts at all. Actually, it’s amazing that earlier meditators came as close to the actual noble truths as they did. The human mind is totally unreliable as an observer and interpreter of what it regards as its inner states, whereas we now have quantum sensors that can collect much more accurate data in these areas by measuring actual brain activity on the sub-atomic level.”
When asked who it was who interpreted this data if not human minds, Uctionist started for a moment and then froze. After 30 seconds of whirring and clicking audible only to listeners sitting in the front row of the auditorium, he neatly folded in on himself, shrunk to an infinitesimal point, and disappeared.
Briss then announced that, due to technical difficulties, the press conference was adjourned.
NEW YORK (Feb 24, 2014) – Ickyleaks, the international consortium of transparency hackers, yesterday released hundreds of emails revealing a secret partnership in which a major liberal Buddhist meditation center sought the advice of a right-wing Republican think-tank on how to privatize the Dharma in line with capitalist business principles.
Journalists given access to the emails prior to their release report that the partnership apparently began in the late 1990’s when a mid-level operative at the Nero Institute, attending a retreat at Comfort Zone Mindfulness Center (popularly known as CoZMiC), on the Big Sur coast, noticed that the mindfulness industry’s status as a tax-free, self-regulating business selling a resource that previously was offered for free was completely in line with the Republican vision for American industry as a whole. Soon after the retreat, he emailed the CoZMiC management, offering to share Nero’s expertise in helping the center to continue avoiding government oversight.
At first the center’s officials adopted a typically Buddhist friendly-but-vague-and-non-committal tone in their response to the offer. But then in 1999 they were informed by their lawyers that the mindfulness field might be open to legal charges of spiritual malpractice, so they began seeking Nero’s help in earnest to help avoid the expense of having to provide spiritual malpractice insurance policies for their teachers. Acting on Nero’s advice, CoZMiC mounted a successful campaign to prevent the establishment of an industry-wide standard of spiritual care, thus aborting any effort to define what spiritual malpractice might be.
This success led to an increasingly frequent exchange of proposals on how to transform the mindfulness industry into a state-of-the-art model of successful privatization. A long exchange in 2000, for instance, hammered out the details of a plan whereby mindfulness teachers would promote mindfulness training as a tool for increasing worker satisfaction and productivity. This would then allow business executives to attend mindfulness retreats at luxury resorts, defraying the expenses through tax write-offs. One CoZMiC email described the plan as “a complete practice: we mindfully eat lobster, you lovingly imbibe champagne, and Uncle Sam kindly picks up the tab.”
Perhaps the most extensive exchange came in 2004 when a Nero operative, observing that a successfully privatized industry not only evaded taxation and government regulation but also benefited from government-sponsored research, outlined a proposal for the center to tout the health benefits of mindfulness practice. This, in turn, would open the door for researchers to receive grants from the NIH to substantiate these claims. The center’s enthusiastic response laid the foundation for what has since become a multi-million dollar business, nestled in what a Nero email called “the invisible hand of government corporate handouts.”
According to Fred Engels, religion-and-opiates editor at Forbes, Ickyleaks’ release of these emails threatens to damage the public image and financial backing of both institutions. “Nine out of ten retreatants at Comfort Zone fall off the left end of any political spectrum that should be allowed on American soil. When they learn that the center has been following a business model dreamt up by a right-wing think-tank, it should challenge even their most non-reactive sense of radical acceptance. As for Nero, it has long courted the support of fundamentalist Christian millionaires who trust it to protect their intersecting religious and financial interests. When these supporters learn that their funds have been underwriting a non-Christian meditation practice, they’re likely to take their money elsewhere in the free conservative think-tank market.”
Although authors on both sides of the email exchange repeatedly stressed the need to keep the exchange secret, they seemed unable to resist making comments about their partnership and their respective support communities that would prove explosive if ever made public. One exchange in particular, in which a Nero operative described the mindfulness business model as a “Republican wet dream: screwing Uncle Sam,” and a CoZMiC official responded with a “ROTFL,” has already gone viral because it has offended the sensibilities of supporters of both organizations. To deflect criticism that the official’s response violates the mindfulness taboo against approving the use of male sexual imagery, a CoZMiC spokesperson issued a statement, saying that, in CoZMiC’s in-house code, ROTFL means, not “Rolling on the floor laughing,” but “Republicans ought to foster loving-kindness.” This face-saving interpretation, however, has already provoked a record number of derisive “dislikes” on the CoZMiC Facebook page. As for the Nero Institute, it has no Facebook presence, in line with its efforts to remain faceless, so there is nothing to dislike.
NEW YORK (Feb 25, 2014) – Ickyleaks today released a second wave of Buddhist emails, this time exposing an ongoing exchange between two secret Mahayana organizations—AZALEA (the American Zen Alliance for Lowering Ethical Attitudes) and VIOLET (the Vajra International Organization for Laughing at Ethical Taboos)—in which AZALEA has been requesting and receiving VIOLET’s advice on how to build acceptance for the idea that sex between teachers and students is an integral part of the Zen tradition, and so should be immune to criticism. Unlike Monday’s release of the mindfulness emails, the release of the AZALEA emails has so far been greeted with no surprise.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (Oct 31, 2014) — An informal team of student hackers at Brown University yesterday announced that they had uncovered a secret cache of suppressed documents related to mindfulness research conducted by the university’s Mindful Society Group (MSG). Emails and other documents released to the press indicate that for the past six years, MSG researchers have consistently failed to report results of experiments that show, in the words of one intra-agency email, “how mindfulness interferes with patterns of behavior adhering to our corporate sponsors’ vision for the American norm.” As another email stated, “If these data ever get out, we can mindfully kiss our funding goodbye.”
Among the experimental results kept secret were those of a 2010 test on how mindfulness helps workers cope with the stress of multi-tasking in today’s competitive business environment. Instead of becoming more efficient as multi-tasking demands increased, test subjects given a thorough training in mindfulness were actually twice as likely to perceive their assigned jobs as meaningless and to quit as a result. This corraborated an earlier study in which mice trained in mindfulness refused to run treadmills and often succeeded in mindfully escaping from their cages.
In another study, designed to show the effects of mindfulness on sexual enjoyment, 75% of the mindfulness cohort found that increased mindful attention to every detail of sexual seduction caused them to lose all interest in continuing with the sexual act. Similarly, a 2011 study showed that a majority of soldiers trained in mindfulness were less able to psyche themselves into killing the enemy; and in a 2012 study, 63% of respondents in an experiment in which they were told to mindfully chew a raisin for 15 minutes said that they would never eat another raisin ever again.
Perhaps most damaging was a 2013 study showing that shoppers trained in mindfulness spent 83% less money on online purchases and, when entering a big box store, were 95% more likely to buy only what they had planned to buy before entering.
When asked about the suppressed results, MSG spokesperson M. T. Ness explained, “You have to understand. Currently all the money in mindfulness research is on showing how mindfulness leads to desirable results. As is typical with fads in the business world, in two years’ time all the money will be on showing how mindfulness is counterproductive, so that corporations can move on to the next fad. We here at MSG were not planning to suppress these results forever. We were simply waiting for a more favorable climate for their release.”
Asked to identify the next corporate fad after mindfulness fades, Ness at first declined to speculate, but when pressed he finally commented, “Mindfulness is pretty bland, you know. Your typical worker can take non-reactivity for only so long, and it’s a real strain on upper-echelon management to set a mindful example for more than a few minutes at a time. I’m expecting that the next fad will be something with a little more spontaneity, color, and splash. Think crayons and finger paints. The researchers here at MSG are looking to wrap up our operations in the next few months, and to regroup as EAT—Enterprise and Art Therapy—to stay ahead of the curve.”
When a reporter noted that it takes years to train qualified art therapists, Ness responded that that would be no problem. “We were able to dumb down mindfulness so that trainer certification took only two weeks. We should be able to do the same with art therapy. In fact, we’re already negotiating with Crayola and Reddi-Whip to start a fast-track pilot program right now.”
Experts in the mindfulness industry declined to comment on Ness’s remarks aside from noting that many mindfulness trainers have begun offering corporate workshops in mindful doodling.
If your partner is a meditator while you aren’t, you can take advantage of this fact to gain the upper hand in the relationship. Just as business leaders across the country have paid millions of dollars to give their employees on-the-job mindfulness training to make them more placid, productive, and uncomplaining, you can get the same results in the comfort of your own home but at no cost at all. Just follow these three easy steps:
1) Master the jargon of meditation. Meditators are taught “mindfulness,” which can mean whatever the teacher says it is, but in most cases it means “staying in the present” with an attitude of “aware acceptance.” A mindful meditator is instructed to avoid “dwelling on the past and future,” and to be “non-reactive” to present events both “on the cushion” and “off.” “Judging mind” and “goals” are to be avoided, as is “dualistic thinking,” the idea that one thing is better than another, although “non-dualistic thinking” is better than dualistic. The ideal attitude is one of “pure receptivity,” “going with the flow,” and “choiceless awareness.” To maintain this attitude in all areas of life is to “have a practice,” which is not to be confused with a doctor’s having a practice. A doctor with a practice accomplishes something and has something to show for it, whereas a meditator with a practice ideally does neither. The most sophisticated meditators, usually “Zen,” are often quite proud that their meditation is totally useless.
Obviously, these ideas can be used to seriously mess with the minds of anyone who falls for them. In the wrong hands, they can serve as a dangerous method of thought control, which is why corporate executives have hired so many certified mindfulness consultants to train their workers. But in your hands, they can bring peace to your marriage or relationship by putting you firmly in charge.
2) Use this jargon when telling your partner what to do. Here are a few handy examples to get you started in overcoming your partner’s doubts about the wisdom of letting you have the upper hand.
Partner: “Why do I always have to do the dishes?”
P: “Why are you always the one who chooses where we go out to eat?”
P: “Why do we spend so much more on your stuff than on mine?”
P: “Why do we keep doing this? It’s so pointless.”
P: “Honey, why do you keep doing that? You know it bothers me.”
3) Adopt a tone of sincere lovingkindness. This is the most crucial point of all. Any of the above comments, if delivered with the slightest hint of irony or sarcasm, could easily explode in your face. So you want to practice saying them as if you really believed that they’re in your partner’s best interest. Listen to a few minutes of a recorded mindfulness talk and practice imitating the speaker’s warm, soft, caring tone. Once you get it down, you’ll be able to use it to coat even the dubious mindfulness jargon with an aura of motherly wisdom and concern.
Just don’t start believing that jargon, or your partner will start using it against you.
One of America’s most under-appreciated talents is the sheer genius of its married and unmarried couples in using the language and insights of therapy to destroy their relationships. Decades ago, when psychoanalysis was all the rage, husbands and wives found that throwing a few Freudian insights into their arguments gave both an air of authority to their dismissive judgments of each other and a death-dealing blow to the survival of a healthy relationship. If your parents knew any Freudian jargon, you may remember exchanges like this:
A: (emptying another ashtray) “I’m sick and tired of cleaning up after your filthy oral fixation all the time. Why don’t you just suck your thumb instead?”
Those times are past. Freud is out, but mindfulness is in, and a new generation of couples have found that the vocabulary of radical acceptance is a powerful new weapon in the on-going fight to have the final word—“final” in the sense of bringing the relationship to an end.
Consider these examples:
A: “I just feel that it would only be fair if sometimes I got to….”
A: “Honey, it’s midnight. Why are we even talking about this?”
A: “I can’t believe you did this to me!”
A: (drops dish while cleaning up the kitchen)
A: “I can’t stop thinking about the mean thing you said last night.”
A: “But you promised me!!”
A: “If you really loved me, you wouldn’t say that.”
In all these cases, the common denominator is that the person using mindfulness vocabulary is assuming the role of teacher dealing with a failing student. This assumption of superiority, together with the use of spiritual wisdom delivered with a sarcastic tone, is enough to doom any attempts at reconciliation. The added beauty of mainstream mindfulness is that it’s so mindless. Unlike psychoanalysis, the insights of mindfulness can be reduced to short sound bites just right for a culture that wants everything, and especially the end of conversations and the demise of relationships, quick and easy. Given that mindfulness takes almost no time to master, we can expect its vocabulary to become an even more popular tool for bringing future relationships to an end.
HARTFORD—Fresh back from her first sesshin, legal secretary Sheila Radford has confided with her fellow workers that she may have attained kensho during the ten-day intensive Zen retreat. “I feel kind of funny talking about it,” she stated to her office mate, Margaret Stanaslovski during a recent coffee break, “but on the eighth day, just as things seemed pretty bleak, everything kind of opened up and I felt this stream of energy flow all through my body. I mean, I don’t want to make any claims or anything, but it felt like some force bigger than me. Kind of cosmic, you know?” When asked if she had had the experienced confirmed by the roshi, Radford shook her head and replied, “I didn't want to make a big deal out of it. And besides, the roshi didn't seem to want to believe anything anybody said. So I just kind of kept it to myself.”
Sources close to Radford have indicated that she plans to try a vipassana retreat in the near future. “With Zen you’re never allowed to say anything straightforward,” she is reported as saying. “If the vipassana people confirm that I experienced stream-entry or something, I may switch over to their brand instead.”
BONNEVILLE FLATS, UT (July 4, 2010)—A new world record for attaining emptiness in meditation was set today at Cloud-of-Dust Zen Center in Bonneville. George Mazarati Murphy, a native of Salt Lake City, went from 60 to 0 in 3:53:15 minutes, besting by seven seconds the record set by Eva Johnston of Daytona Beach Karma Ling in August of last year. Murphy thus becomes the first to crack the four-minute barrier that has challenged meditators for many years. Murphy credited his performance to 15 years of practicing no-gaining mind, although he also noted that his meditation speeds have vastly improved since he traded in his old Eihei-ji 500 for a new Blazing Saddles zafu from KarmaCrap last January. On the heels of this announcement, the price of KarmaCrap stock jumped nearly 8 points.
MILWAUKEE—Members of Zen Dandruff, a local zendo, have concluded that the zendo’s black cat, Inka, has the best concentration of any member of the group. “She can sit there next to the Buddha image for hours without moving,” said Catherine Spaulding, spokesperson for the group. “You can just feel the Zen rays she gives off when you sit next to her. Nobody else here is anywhere near her level.” Other members of the group agreed. “Maybe dogs don’t have innate enlightenment, but that cat sure does,” said Doug Ratford, adding, “You watch her lick her paws and you realize she’s really got Ordinary Mind down. Maybe the reason she’s so realized is that nobody ever taught her to want enlightenment. She makes me want to be reborn as a cat in my next lifetime so that I can better realize my innate enlightenment, too.”
Inka manifested her attainment by making no comment.
TOKYO, April 1, 2012 — A spokesman for Greater Vehicle Corporation (GVC) today announced that a rash of transmission problems have forced the company to announce a recall of all Zen models sold on the American market since 1965. In keeping with GVC’s classic award-winning publicity campaign for the Zen, the recall was explained with a single sentence—“The winter sun shivers on the ice-coated trees”—which industry experts interpret as meaning, “To compete in the American market, we at GVC had to devise a manual transmission, an automatic transmission, and an automatic manual transmission, and we’ve learned of widespread problems with all three.”
According to vehicular industry observer Phil Erupp, this announcement has long been expected. “Actually, all of the Big Three—GVC, DVC (the Diamond Vehicle Corporation), and LVC (the Lesser Vehicle Corporation)—have been experiencing transmission problems in their models designed for the American market. Many LVC models can’t get out of neutral, and some DVC transmissions have reportedly transmitted disease. Don’t be surprised if both companies also announce recalls soon.”
Stock in all three vehicles fell in light trading.
BOSTON, May 1, 2013—The International Mindfulness Foundation (IMF) today announced that mindfulness has officially succeeded in conquering the world. “Now that global leaders in business, government, the military, health care, academia, and the media have fully embraced the practice of mindfulness at home and in the workplace,” stated IMF chairman Hugh Briss at a major press conference, “we at IMF have declared full and final victory in the war on mindlessness.”
Standing before a banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished,” Briss read from a list of activities of global importance that used to be done mindlessly but now have been brought into the full light of mindfulness. “Before, the President ordered drone strikes, but now he orders drone strikes mindfully. Before, corporate executives fired thousands of workers and raised their own salaries, but now they fire thousands of workers mindfully and raise their own salaries mindfully. The list goes on and on.”
When asked whether industry skeptics might use the same data to argue that, contrary to the IMF’s claim, the world had actually conquered mindfulness, Briss replied curtly, “This industry has no skeptics.”
In a related news item, officials in the Department of Health and Human Services have announced that, in response to high-level plans to reduce Social Security benefits, HHS has contracted with the IMF to produce a video teaching the practice of mindful eating to senior citizens throughout the country. According to HHS spokesperson Ann Onimous-Cogg, “Studies have shown that people enjoy their food more when engaged in the practice of mindfully chewing and savoring. Given that senior citizens chained to the new chained consumer index will be forced to decrease the amount they eat, we hope that learning to savor every remaining morsel mindfully will allow them actually to increase their eating enjoyment.”
Due to budgetary constraints, HHS hopes to fund the video by offering prominent product placement to the makers of Sun Maid Raisins and Lipton Tea.
PHILADELPHIA (Feb 23, 2014) – The long-anticipated revolution was peacefully averted today when mindfulness consultants attached to Philadelphia’s SWAT team succeeded in getting members of the American Spring movement to get in touch with their bodies, breathe deeply, and view their grievances as nothing more than clouds passing through their minds, leaving an empty sky. After five minutes of quiet breathing, the crowd of demonstrators who had been storming the streets of downtown Philadelphia for the past month returned quietly to their hovels.
Although insider reports estimated the crowd at more than 500,000, the event had somehow managed to receive no media coverage until now, perhaps because it was playing against both the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics. However, when videos of the mindfulness experts’ successful deployment of mindfulness leadership strategies went viral, media outlets were besieged with requests from business and military leaders as to where they could obtain similar consultants for their own organizations. Now that all such requests have been forwarded to Goggle Mindfulness Org (GMO), the American Spring movement can be forgotten.