|... there is a gradual training, a gradual doing, a
gradual progress in this Dhamma and Vinaya. Just as a skilled horse-trainer, having taken
on a fine thoroughbred, first trains it to wear the bit, then trains it further, thus the
Auspicious One, having taken a person to be trained, first trains him thus:
"Come, monk, be virtuous, live controlled by the conduct of the monk's obligations, be endowed with right conduct and pasture, seeing danger in the slightest fault. Undertake the rules of training. Train yourself."
When a monk has done all that the Auspicious One trains him further, saying, "Come, monk, guard the doors of the senses. Having seen something, don't be entranced by the form or detail. For if one lives with sight uncontrolled there might arise desire and aversion, which are unskillful unprofitable things. Progress in restraint. Guard sight, achieve control over sight. And live thus, guarding and controlling the ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind."
When a monk is guarded of the senses the Auspicious One trains him further, saying, "Come, monk, be moderate in eating. Having considered, eat food properly, neither for fun nor indulgence nor charm nor beauty, but take just enough to maintain the body and keep it going, protected from harm, for furthering the divine life. Think: 'Thus I will settle old feeling and not arouse new feeling, and there will be for me subsistence and blamelessness and abiding in comfort.'"
When a monk is moderate in eating the Auspicious One trains him further, saying, "Come, monk, dwell intent on heed. During the day while walking or sitting cleanse the mind of obstructive things. During the first part of the night while walking or sitting cleanse the mind of obstructive things. During the middle part of the night lie down on the right side like the lion, foot resting on foot, mindful, aware, having determined what time to rise. During the last part of the night, having risen, while walking or sitting, cleanse the mind of obstructive things."
As soon as a monk is intent on heed the Auspicious One trains him further, saying, "Come monk, be possessed of mindfulness and awareness. When approaching or departing establish awareness. When looking ahead or behind establish awareness. When bending the arm in or stretching it out establish awareness. When carrying the outer cloak, the bowl or robe, when eating, drinking, chewing, tasting, when defecating or urinating, when walking, standing, sitting, sleeping, waking, talking, or being silent, establish awareness."
As soon as a monk is possessed of mindfulness and awareness the Auspicious One trains him further, saying, "Come, monk, find a solitary place ..."
From the Ganaka-Moggallaana Sutta, Majjhima 107
The Island Hermitage was gifted with the spirit of solitude, and I partook of it as fully as possible. No one spoke to me and I spoke to no one unless there was some specific information to convey. When seeing each other at breakfast we never said "Good morning." When departing after pirith, our evensong, to our solitude we never said "Good night." When passing each other on a footpath we never said "Hello," but at most would smile gently and move the head in a barely perceptible nod.
True, there was one talkative samanera who would approach me (if I gave him the chance) with some bit of gossip when the monks gathered on the porch outside the danasala before pirith, but I would listen to him noncommittally, tolerating the conversation with studied politeness. It displeased me that I wasn't as uninterested as I tried to be.
"Have you heard the latest news, reverend? I mean about Israel? The whole Middle-East situation is very tense just now. There may be a war."
I stopped my careful pacing. Expressionless, I looked him full in the face for several seconds before saying, merely, "Oh?" But he was undeterred.
"Yes, both sides are mobilizing. Egypt has been closing off some of Israel's shipping routes. They've signed military pacts with some of the other Arab countries, and also they've ordered the U.N. to withdraw its peace-keeping forces."
"That's a long way from here," I pointed out and, turning away, continued my pacing, but he joined me.
"Yes, a very great distance," he agreed. "But you used to live there, didn't you? So you must be interested to know what's happening. There must be friends in Israel you're concerned for."
"I wasn't concerned before you told me this," I said, unable to get away from him. "And I'm going to try not to be concerned about it now. I have no interest in such things," although in truth part of me did have an interest. I'd lived in Israel; I'd known people there. But another part of me saw my mind seizing upon the information as a beggar might seize a stale crust, and scorned the concern.
"I just thought you'd like to know. The airport at Cairo has been closed down. The situation is very tense."
"The Hermitage is my home now," I said. "This is my world. For me there's nothing outside of it." And I smiled enigmatically and continued my pacing, keeping my attention on the in- and out-breaths.
None of the other monks spoke. They knew, as did I, the Buddha's advice: Monks, there are two things to do when meeting together. Either discuss Dhamma or keep the noble silence. They paced their own length of ground or stood in one place swirling their robes to chase off the mosquitoes.
I scratched my arm, but mosquito bites weren't the only itches I had to contend with. What was happening in Israel? Would there be war? What about the kibbutz? Were my friends safe? No, I wouldn't think about those things. Instead I looked across the lagoon, but the rowboat wasn't back yet. It was our transportation to the outside. Perhaps tonight there'd be a letter for me. No, better not think about that either. Just be mindful, I advised myself, and continued my pacing until the Mahathera arrived. As the senior monk of the Hermitage he saw to it that it ran smoothly. He left his sandals outside the door and took his place on the bench that ran along two sides of the danasala. The rest of us followed. We sat cross-legged and waited silently. He turned down the kerosene lamp on his table, then raised his hands in namaste. We followed him and began by chanting the salutation to the Buddha. Evening pirith had begun.
Iti pi so Bhagava ...Thus, indeed, is the Auspicious One: worthy, fully self-awakened, endowed with (right) knowledge and conduct ... Thus the attributes of the Buddha, the Auspicious One, were enumerated, and then those of the Dhamma: Well-expounded by the Auspicious One is the Dhamma, a non-temporal viewpoint, a "come-and-see" thing, leading, to be realized individually by the wise.
And when the Sangha, too, had been honored we lowered our hands and chanted Pali verses in plainsong. I didn't know the verses by heart and sat silently, flinching each time I heard near my ear the familiar whine of a mosquito searching me out for an after-hours meal.
Smoke poured from the coconut-husk fire that was made each evening to repel those voracious hordes with whom we shared the island. I had doubts as to its efficacy, but in my aversion to the torment of both their bites and the anticipation of their bites I was willing to try any nostrum available.
I shared the island with many beings beside mosquitoes. There were five dogs of uncertain breed, four Sinhalese monks, three German monks, two mongooses, and an elderly ex-philosophy professor who frequently fretted over the lack of sanitation and worried that his food wasn't clean enough. There was a lagoon full of fish, a sky full of birds, a tree full of bats, a jungle full of jungle, and a well full of tadpoles, the water of which gave me a two-day fever after I brushed my teeth with it in order to prove to myself that I wasn't fussy about sanitation.
I took delight not so much in solitude as in the idea of solitude, and chose to regard the Hermitage as overpopulated. Hardly a day went by in which somebody didn't speak to me. Just the other day Kierkegaard (in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript) had told me:
"It is madness ... that a being ... uses all his strength to lay hold of the perishable, clinging to what is precarious; it is madness for such a being to believe that he has gained everything when he has gained this nothing -- and is deceived; or to believe that he has lost everything when he has lost this nothing -- and is no longer deceived. For the perishable is nothing when it is past, and it is of the essence to pass away, quickly as the moment of sensuous enjoyment, and farthest possible remove from the eternal: a moment in time filled with emptiness."
When I was alone, though, I still cast about for things to do.
In the kitchen I could hear the two servants, just back from town, opening doors and moving things about. The old man, Piyadassi, doddered over to the Mahathera, laid the mailpouch on the table, and shuffled back to the kitchen to start the fire and make the evening tea. I tried to ignore the mailpouch, but my mind drifted to it hungrily: if there were a letter for me it would offer greater possibility of stimulation than any amount of chanting, than any amount of tea.
One of the mongooses scuttled in, worried at something in a corner, making certain perhaps that it wasn't a cobra in disguise, then scurried across the floor to where I sat cross-legged on the bench. He jumped onto my lap and began vigorously clawing at my arm until I placated him by scratching his back, then his belly. I didn't chant.
"What have I to do with rites and rituals?" I'd asked myself. "And what have rites and rituals to do with me?" And I asked no one for a list of the Suttas that were chanted each evening. And I told no one (for no one ever asked) that though I'd been studying the Suttas for several months now I hadn't yet found any passage where the Buddha had advised chanting.
And, "I hate memorizing," I told myself. "I don't want to memorize any more." And by the time the sounds were half-familiar to me I'd already added to my repertoire so many justifications and rationales for my neglect of the dull task of memorizing that I now possessed the position as surely as I'd once possessed the task of raking leaves. And the possession of the pose made it impossible for me to the see -- sabbe dhamma anatta: all things are not-self -- that it was only a pose, and not an identity.
When the chanting was finished we rose and, in order of seniority, bowed down before the Mahathera and recited our line, asking forgiveness for any possible offenses during the past day. On full- and new-moon days we four samaneras renewed our dasa sila vows by formally repeating them.
The Mahathera turned up his lamp, studiously affixed his wire-frame glasses, and sorted out the letters. Those concerning the running of the Hermitage he kept. The three remaining he placed on the edge of his table: two together -- they would probably be for Ņanarasa, he got a lot of mail -- and one for somebody else. Me? Something was due by now. Don't think about it, I told myself.
Piyadassi shuffled in and mumbled something in Sinhalese to the Mahathera. The Mahathera replied in a loud voice but the old man, nearly deaf, had to shuffle over closer, hold his hand up to his ear, crouch down and watch carefully with his alert eyes while the Mahathera repeated himself even louder. We sat silently, each of us involved in our own reflections, while Piyadassi brought out the tea cups, two at a time, in five separate trips, then the kettle. Nothing was done in a hurry. Caution and custom were valued higher than ease and efficiency. We sat silently while Piyadassi shuffled down the line of monks, filling cups. A lemon was passed down the line. I sat waiting for the sweet tea to cool off, smelling the appetizing fragrance of the lemon.
I was hungry. Not eating after midday wasn't difficult at all; not missing food was the problem. I told myself that since I wasn't going to get any more food until breakfast there was no point tormenting myself by thinking about it now. But sometimes a stray thought would take root and bloom into a full-blown food fantasy. I was prone to these fancies at tea time, when the aroma of tea and lemon could evoke hot dogs, fries, and a strawberry shake. To dispel these images I experimented with a reflection on the loathsomeness of food, one of the meditation subjects the Buddha advised.
The Mahathera poured some tea into his saucer and set it down on the floor. The mongoose jumped off my lap and, making gentle honking sounds, like a duck with laryngitis, scurried over. He lapped up the tea and sniffed about, hoping for more.
The only sounds were the occasional chirps and croaks of unseen creatures. Far away I heard the splash of a fisherman, settled into his outrigged dugout log for the night, then nothing more. Outside, the world was pitch dark, offering nothing to attract the eye or ear, a world without promises. Out there solitude awaited me.
I scratched restlessly at various vague itches. The smoke-fire was dying down to smokeless embers and mosquitoes were attacking more frequently, more vigorously. I was tired of sitting; the dregs of tea had grown cold. The mail still sat there. One of the other monks got up and straightened his robe. He looked at the letters on the table, then walked out: no mail for him. I could hear him on the verandah, putting on his sandals, and then watched the beam of his flashlight bob out of sight. 'Rasa left, collecting his two letters.
Unwilling to wait any longer (for what? for whom?) I got up and gathered my robes about me against the emptiness that filled the night. I looked at the Mahathera's table as I passed it and -- no mail this time, no diversion from the evening's solitude -- went out into the night.
* * * * *
"I need cigarettes, bhante."
"What do you need cigarettes for?" the Mahathera asked. All supplies and special requests were routed through him.
"I smoke them, bhante." I explained.
"Hmph, better if you learned to do without them."
"I don't know if I can, bhante." But I really didn't know if I wanted to.
"You'll never know if you don't try."
"I'll try it then, bhante."
I returned to my kuti, my hut, and lit up my after-dana smoke. I'd brought two cartons from Colombo, but even with the most careful rationing I didn't see how they'd last more than a couple of months. And there was no money left except for a few coins. So I waited a few weeks and then approached the Mahathera again.
"I need cigarettes, bhante."
"Didn't you give them up?"
"Did you try to give them up?"
"Yes, I tried, but I wasn't able to give them up."
"It's by means of desire that desire is to be given up."
"I need more time. I can't do it now."
"Every time a monk comes here who smokes we get trouble."
"I won't make trouble, bhante."
"If you can't control yourself with cigarettes how can you control yourself in more difficult matters?"
I knew that he himself smoked, very privately, so I said nothing.
"The dayakas, they don't like to see monks smoking. If they see a monk smoking they think he has no control."
"And the Samitiya," -- the lay organization that provided much of the support for the Hermitage -- "what if they ask what we spend their money on? They don't like their money being spent on cigarettes for monks with no control."
"And the other monks here, if they see you smoking they'll think you're wasting your time here."
He looked at me shrewdly. "How much do you smoke?"
I'd planned on asking for a pack a day, but that look of his intimidated me. "Half a pack a day, bhante."
"No, that's too much."
"That's only one pack every other day." I was a whiz at math.
"No, I'll let you have two packs a week. No more."
"That's not enough, bhante. Maybe I can work my way down to that, but to start with I need more."
"One pack every three days, then. No more than that."
I did a quick calculation. "Very well, bhante."
"No smoking outside your kuti," he warned me.
"Very well." I still had my reserve to fall back on.
"And no smoking when there are upasakas on the island."
Sometimes dayakas brought dana; sometimes laypeople came to visit. Sometimes men stayed overnight or longer, but women were always gone before the sun.
"Very well." With a pack every three days I'd only need about two cigarettes a day from my reserve.
"And start learning how to give them up. That smoking, that's no good."
"Very well." My reserves might last close to half a year yet: the specter of want was allayed.
"When you need cigarettes you tell me."
"I need cigarettes, bhante."
"I'll tell Piyadassi to get them from the village when he goes there." The rowboat went every afternoon.
"Can I have two packs every six days? That would be easier."
"No, one pack every three days."
That afternoon, with a new-found security, I threw into the lagoon the coins that were still left me, and was glad to be rid of them.
Every third afternoon I went down to the boatdock.
"I need cigarettes, bhante," I told the Mahathera privately.
"Get a pack of cigarettes today," he told Piyadassi in Sinhalese.
"Eh?" Piyadassi, nearly deaf, cupped his hand to his ear.
"Ek paket sigarros," the Mahathera repeated louder.
"Eh? Eh?" Piyadassi strained to hear, while his eyes danced and the Mahathera was forced to repeat himself loud enough for everyone to hear.
And every third evening I sought out the Mahathera and he slipped me the pack discreetly, even when we were alone, with a discerning look. He was very tall, upright, and imposing -- a descendant of the Kandyan kings -- and although he would be a friend to anyone who would let him I found his piercing glances altogether too intimidating.
One afternoon I went down to the boatdock to make my request. Piyadassi was just getting ready to leave. The Mahathera wasn't there. There had been quite a few days recently when the Mahathera hadn't been around to relay the cigarette communications to Piyadassi. Sometimes I hadn't been able to find him anywhere, and on those occasions I'd had to wait an extra day to get my rations, a day that ate into my reserves. They were being used up faster than I'd expected. Now again the Mahathera was nowhere to be seen. Piyadassi was preparing to leave. I didn't want to wait another day for my rations.
"Sigarros." I held up one finger to Piyadassi. "Sigarros."
"Ek Sigarro?" His eyes shone; he had no trouble hearing me.
"Ba ek sigarro. Ek paket sigarros."
Piyadassi put an imaginary cigarette to his lips and inhaled inquisitively. I nodded and he broke out grinning. That evening he handed the packet to me directly.
Three days later I went down to the dock. Again the Mahathera wasn't there.
"Ek paket sigarros," I told Piyadassi. "Ek paket sigarros."
"Me sigarro you no no. You espeak Mahathera. Mahathera espeak me sigarro you no no. You, he espeak." And he shook his head sadly, picked up the oars, and rowed off to the village.
I stood on the dock and watched the boat round a corner of the island and disappear, then returned to my kuti. I counted out my remaining cigarettes, lit one, and exhaled angry smoke through my nostrils. The paranoia here about tobacco was worse than anything I'd encountered in India about hashish and opium. I could see that if I were to go to the Mahathera now any request for cigarettes would become subordinate to a discussion on the hierarchy of authority. And, almost certainly, he'd impose even stricter rules than before if he allowed me cigarettes again at all. On the other hand I could bide my time and wait for him to speak up. Then I'd be in a much stronger position, and the cigarettes would start again on the same terms as before.
I took a drag on the cigarette and decided: that's what I'd do. I wouldn't go to him about this matter. I'd wait for him to speak to me. And while I waited I'd ration myself carefully: no more than half a cigarette at a time, and then only to allay the severest need. I took another drag on the cigarette, then put out the flame and saved the butt.
During the next week the Mahathera and I said nothing to each other. Each day I fought to ignore the tickling at the back of the throat which called for my attention. My resolve wavered, and I cast about for means of shoring it up. Sometimes the means closest to hand was another half a cigarette. One of Ven. Ņanavira's letters concerned smoking, and I tried to draw strength from it.
"Let me recall my own experience when I gave up cigarettes. I had been smoking forty or more a day for several years when I decided to give them up. I remember walking in the park not long after I had finished my last cigarette, and feeling pleased with myself that I had actually taken the decision. But the principal thought that assailed me was this: though I had no doubt that I could stick to my resolution, there was one thing that I really needed to confirm it and to fortify me in my determination not to have a cigarette, and that one thing was ... a cigarette. Far from its being obvious to me that in order to give up cigarettes I should give up cigarettes, I had the greatest of trouble to resist the pressing suggestion that in order to give up cigarettes I should take a cigarette."
Another week passed. Reserves sank lower and lower. It occurred to me more and more frequently that maybe the Mahathera wasn't going to ask my pardon and restore my supplies. And after the last cigarette had been smoked I sat back and gave myself a pep talk. As I'd argued about food, so I now argued about tobacco, that I wasn't going to get any more so there was no point tormenting myself by thinking about it. And in the face of that good logic there still arose the continuing suggestion that what I needed to confirm my decision was a cigarette. Tobacco fortified my identity, and going without it was like giving up a piece of myself. I could never admit -- especially to the Mahathera -- that I was that needy.
"It's by means of desire that desire is to be given up," Ven. Ņanavira had written. But it was pride and conceit that kept me from the disgrace of recanting and asking for more cigarettes.
* * * * *
"Enough of this sensuality," I told myself as erotic impulses assailed me. It would be so easy to give in, as I'd done, more than once, in Colombo. But if I wasn't going to give it up now -- or try to -- when would I? Tumescent, the body would throb with frantic magnificence. And, restraint lost, I would get off. To avoid that required sufficient resolve to put sensual thoughts out of mind.
Even the food I ate could affect me. Nonstarchy foods could leave me thoroughly starched. Curds, Nestomalt tea, any sort of animal protein would so stir my juices that life became pressingly difficult. I'd been shocked, though, to learn at dana that merely looking at a bowlful of steaming rice and curries could trigger an erection. Did this sensuality have no limits at all, then, to the objects upon which it could seize for its stimulation? And as I ate I could feel the warm hard almsbowl nested in my lap pressing against another warmth, another hardness.
Occasionally Western tourists, having heard of the Hermitage, would hire a boat to the island for a tour. Once I looked up from my almsbowl and saw a young couple coming up from the dock. The woman's face was angelic, but her red hair was teased into a myriad of flame-like darts that set me afire. I lowered my gaze to the bowl and firmly kept it there. I knew I was blushing. I ate no more, but waited uncomfortably for the dana to end. Then I returned to my room, closed the shutters, and sat unmoving in a corner, in the dark.
A while later, hearing voices outside, I peered through a crack in the shutters and saw the Mahathera showing the young couple around. I watched until she was out of sight, then returned to my corner and sat some more.
I sought advice from another monk.
"Have you tried taking cold baths?" he asked.
"Sure, but I can't take cold baths all day long."
"Sweeping the leaves off the paths is a good outlet for physical energy."
But I didn't like that idea either: I'd had enough of leaf-sweeping in Colombo. Besides, I told him, nights were the most difficult times. How could I sweep leaves then? But my counselor didn't know.
"Find something else to do," was the only other advice he had. And I returned to my kuti and sighed.
I sought advice from myself.
I took out a notebook and titled a page "Disadvantages of Masturbation." Then, after some thought, I wrote:
"1. It's an energy drain.
"2. It's a distraction from meditation.
"3. It puts me out of accord with the Vinaya.
"4. There's a mess to clean up.
"5. I'll regret it afterwards.
I put the pen down, dissatisfied. Reviewing the hazards of sensual indulgence, I saw, was no more useful than seeking a cure for cancer by listing all its unpleasant symptoms.
I even sought advice from the Suttas.
I found no shortage of warnings that sensuality was of little gratification, of much danger. It was an obstacle, a pitfall, a disease. The enticing nymphs of my fantasies were described: In this body there are head-hairs, body-hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone-marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, midriff, spleen, lungs, bowels, entrails, gorge, dung, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, spittle, snot, oil-of-the-joints and urine.
And poems were sung in honor of those maidens:
Of bones this body's made,
by flesh and blood encased,
Wherein decay and doom are laid,
conceit and envy placed. (Dh. 150)
And how should those arousing images be combated? Attention to the foul should be developed to put away lust; amity should be developed to put away anger; mindfulness of breathing should be developed for the cutting off of thoughts; perception of impermanence should be developed to remove the conceit "I am."
One Sutta compared sensuality with the itching of a skin disease: the torment of itching was greater than the satisfaction of scratching. Ven. Ņanavira, suffering from satyriasis, had had something to say about that. I leafed through my copy of his letters until I found what I was looking for:
"... to cure an itching skin disease the first thing to do is to prevent the patient from scratching and making it worse. Unless this can be done there is no hope of successfully treating the condition. But the patient will not forgo the satisfaction of scratching unless he is made to understand that scratching aggravates the condition, and that there can be no cure unless he voluntarily restrains his desire to scratch and puts up with the temporarily increased discomfort of unrelieved itching. And similarly, a person who desires a permanent cure from the torment of sensual desire must first be made to realize and understand that he must put up with the temporarily increased discomfort of celibacy (as a bhikkhu) if the Buddha's treatment is to be successful ..."
Was the Sangha, then, some sort of hospital, and the robes the attire of the in-patients? The disease was torment enough; would I be able to survive the cure? I put the letters down and considered the blank unresponding walls.
"Attention to the foul" wasn't the only treatment prescribed. The Suttas also recommended meditation on death. Then there were the charnel-ground contemplations. Visualization of a decaying corpse. Perception of the loathsomeness of food ... Christ, you'd almost think there was something gruesome about the Teaching. And then to have to give up sex, too ... I picked up the letters again and browsed through them, searching perhaps for greater motivation.
"... whereas, since Freud, the most extravagant fancies in the realm of love are considered to be perfectly normal (a person without them is regarded as a case for treatment) in the realm of death (the other great pole of human life) any strange fancies are still classified as "morbid." The Suttas reverse the situation: sensual thoughts are the thoughts of a sick man (sick with ignorance and craving) and the way to health is through thoughts of foulness and the diseases of the body, and of its death and decomposition. And not in any abstract scientific fashion either ..."
I copied the passage into the notebook, beneath the list of disadvantages. Then, below that, I copied from memory:
There was a young lady from Natchez
Whose clothing was always in patches.
When kin would inquire
About her attire
She'd reply, "When Ah itches Ah scratches."
But the image of a young lady in revealingly torn clothing did nothing to ease my own itching. How could I find relief, short of breaking faith with the Vinaya? "Attention to the foul": would ardor be allayed by the contemplation of a little fecundity? And as intoxicating images of sexuality festered in my mind I dabbed at them with the calamine lotion of reality by focussing attention on the unappetizing aspects of sex: the sweat, the smell, hair caught in the mouth. Then, when a more realistic picture had cooled me down, I began to perceive the complex relationship problems posited by the fantasy or, lacking them, its barrenness. And finally I called to mind the arguments I'd had with myself when thoughts of food and, later, tobacco, had assailed me.
"V," I told myself, "you're just not going to get any sex today, nor tomorrow either. So there's no point in afflicting yourself with yearnings for what's not available, unless you're just interested in tormenting yourself to pass the time. I mean, don't you have anything better to do than that?"
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