And that is embedded here: http://personal.bgsu.edu/~mbelzer/practicefiles.html
and from there one can see the larger context. The "letter" to Joseph Goldstein is a rather humorous device for a long and interesting discussion of Dhamma practice. And one can also make an interesting side trip to a "dialogue" between Christopher Titmus and J. Krishnamurti.
- February 2, 1999
Dear Joseph Goldstein:
I was shocked and saddened to learn that the Board of Directors of the Insight Meditation Society asked for your resignation because of my "channelling allegations."
Though we've never met I wanted to write to apologize for my part in all this. And I do apologize. When I joked on the chat line about your channelling through me I had no idea it'd blow up like it has. It was only a joke!
I actually got the idea from where Mark Epstein writes about your experienc3e with the Roshi who helped you re-connect with "childhood emptiness" and then I remembered something Erin heard from somebody on tv who had talked with somebody who attended a retreat you led at Cloud Mountain. Since this is fourth hand it might not be accurate. A nosy retreatant had asked you whether you were involved in an intimate relationship with anybody. And (so the story goes) you replied jokingly that your house already was too crowded with just you there! --That’s funny!-- And when I realized you are a friend of Epstein's I thought -- "Maybe HE'S Joe!" (and he used the name Joe precisely so people wouldn’t assume it was you!) -- Anyway that got me going on the chat line, and I assume you pretty much know the rest.
Under different circumstances I would like to write to you about my recent retreat with U Pandita and about something you said when Amy Gross interviewed you for Tricycle magazine.
On the one hand you say quite rightly that U Pandita is a warrior, a demanding teacher, not there to make us feel good or happy or comfortable. True; you nailed that exactly. In particular, he doesn't seem to be concerned about getting us to like or admire him-- he seems to have a great deal of freedom about those aspects of teaching and learning.
But you also said that from the Burmese point of view "one of the great virtues is obedience," a virtue not highly valued in America. I feel this might be a little bit misleading as a summary of the type of practice he encourages. I understand your point --he's not interested in working with yogis who want just to hang out and drink coffee -- but I wouldn’t exactly want to put the emphasis on obedience. Let me explain briefly.
When I first went to Burma several years ago to practice with UP, I thought it'd be a good idea to put my cards on the table. I told him I wasn't necessarily a buddhist, I often disagreed with what he said in his talks, especially the jargon about reincarnation and its absurd (in my opinion) centrality in his conceptual scheme; and I told him that I thought Burmese culture was pretty boring compared with electronic music, X-games, etc; of course I didn’t exactly put it that way. But I told him I wanted to practice the type of vipassana meditation he was teaching and it wasn’t so much a religious or cultural interest.
--He laughed, "Well, first of all the teacher doesn't really care what the student thinks!" --I laughed too. That was refreshing!
"Secondly, I'm happy to teach you whatever I can. The important thing is simply to practice."
Ok. I was willing to practice. He knew that; he knew from earlier retreats I would practice seriously, using the methods he teaches. So that was the context for what he said.
"Thirdly, if you do practice seriously, then perhaps you'll come to agree with me. Don't worry about the ideas or the culture."
Fair enough. His answer gave me a lot of freedom, not to worry then about complying intellectually or whatever, even while experimenting wholeheartedly with the meditation techniques. --More than wholeheartedly, Joseph. I was suffering so deeply that once I realized meditation could help I dove in with my whole heart, body, everything. I really experimented deeply with it. -- Actually having just written that, now it occurs to me that I have only scratched the surface, but anyway I just wanted to make a smaller point.
I realize you were saying he expects one really to work with the methods he teaches (to "obey" in that respect) but I think many readers might understand your comment to mean that he expects obedience relative to traditional buddhist monastic values, and so on.
For me (at least) -- no, not at all.
On the contrary, he gave me incredible freedom. I felt no pressure even to become a nun for the months I was there although that would be the normal traditional thing to do -- temporary ordination-- when one's doing a longish retreat. It would have been a nuisance for me to do it, not to mention the problem with the bright pink robes the nuns in Burma wear; and generally it would have involved too many distractions to play the role of nun in addition to doing the retreat, although I realize that for some people it can be useful to do it. Moreover, never once have I indicated I would acknowledge his having a special authority for me due to the fact that he is a buddhist monk etc. And while I show respect in the accepted ways, such as bowing, the more deeply I refuse to buy into his system, even while practicing sincerely and simply, the more deeply he seems to respect my practice. It is weird since he himself plays the role of monk so seriously.
For several years, then, we both have respected this beginning. It's almost like "you leave me alone, and I'll leave you alone" when it comes to ideas, interpretations. He gives minimal guidance, and when he does guide its usually in periods when I really think I’m really getting somewhere special and he'll bring me back to earth. So as a teacher, a guide, he plays a role like where Pema Chodron says "Life has this miraculous ability to smack you in the face with a real humdinger just when you're going over the edge in terms of thinking you've accomplished something." He plays that humdinger role quite well!
For instance, I completed a retreat two years ago where I had worked hard and things had seemed real smooth and interesting for much of the time, and the last thing he said to me was = "You are stagnating in a dangerous place."!! That was funny --but he wasn’t joking!--Even so, I don’t think he took offense when I laughed.
So what I love about UP and his monks/nuns and the yogis with whom I have practiced in that tradition is their appreciation for the vastness of the path, and UP’s willingness to challenge us to go further. I appreciate it that the meditation methods are uncompromisingly grounded in one's own experience, with minimal hype, together with an absolute refusal to hand out awards and certificates of any kind--all in a context, of course, in which the methods can be powerful and amazing.
It is true that UP expects courage and effort --heroic struggle--which is an unavoidable aspect of initially getting into any of this, for anyone who tries it, where all of us have to battle, like runners in a marathon; like warriors when life is at stake. And of course it so happens that many westerners seem ready and willing and prepared to go into this battle with courage. I believe that it is our insecurity, even terror, in the midst of pleasure and comfort --it is so obvious to us, and so we are willing to strive when we see that something good might result-- something to help us deal with fear, greed, denial: = the horror of modern life without an open continuous connection to innate simple kindness = the purity of awareness.
So the whole thing about effort has been central for me. I have been willing to work hard Yet I recall feeling dismayed when I first realized in Burma that UP was using a "map" of "stages" of insight, in giving me feedback, for the last thing on my mind when I began meditating was to participate in yet another goal-oriented activity. It was only with reluctance, after seeing patterns emerge again and again, that I accepted the validity of the stages (incl. the jhanas). Of course the patterns might simply be artifacts of extreme living conditions and repetitive practice -- nonetheless the whole thing is fascinating!
--So anyway, about effort. I went through periods on retreats when there'd be a transition from (a) where observation of the breath (rising/falling of my abdomen) involved a lot of effort and a sense of strain, struggle, stress to (b) no effort: observation of breath plus sensations throughout the body, where experience is clear and abundant, with no sense of effort or stress at all! Attention continually re-encompassing the body moment by moment, they call it "effortless effort," long days and nights flowing through all sorts of things, including difficulties, with an unshakeable sense of ease. This fact--that the mind can train itself for this transition from stress to ease but without becoming dull and stupid--I think this fact is what mainly makes the east-west bridge.
So anyway I went through periods when I'd hit this stage, and then my response was to refuse to exert any conscious, intentional effort AT ALL! --for instance, with respect to things like sitting with knee or back pain: when there appeared the least sense of struggle: ok, that's enough! --Sitting over.
At one retreat in Australia, U Buddharakkita was there (when he was still a monk) and he had been assisting UP with the daily individual conferences --so he’d sort of tracked what had been happening for me -- and afterwards he said: "well, you got stuck, huh?" --I wasn't even sure what he meant, or whether to agree. (And too goddam independent to enter into a conversation about it!!)
But on this last retreat I think I may have seen what he meant: for this time, even when in "effortless effort" mode I continued just to push a bit -- e.g. staying in the sitting posture even when it wasn't entirely pleasant. And what I began to see is that the "effortless effort" is compatible with that. I mean, with pain! Even serious pain plus the struggle that goes with staying there. Such an odd combination of struggle and ease. So that was interesting. The peace of not-striving during this retreat became so vivid! And it was good to experiment with that even in the midst of serious physical stress (rather than simply stopping to avoid the stress). By avoiding struggle I had been depriving myself of the taste of the peace of not-striving even in struggle. I hope this is making sense.
What is important, I would say, is the peace of not-striving, quite independent of any particular situations of practice or not. There were times when I'd have some thoughts and wishes for extraordinary experiences, and then at that moment I could feel my heart tighten, close, harden in a rhythm with those very wishes. Noticing this, feeling my heart again, feeling it lighten once again as the yearning dissolved. And what would be the point, exactly, of more extraordinary experiences? isn't this condition, now, not striving/not doing --isn't this the real point? What could be better? "The greatest happiness is peace."
I should wrap this up. The point is that the commitment to freedom within our minds --freedom from selfcentered greed-- is such an obvious and proper commitment, and taking it seriously as we do --and seeing it might bear fruit -- means not calling it quits too soon. So it isn't an overnight camping trip. But not a forced march either! Its more like heroic effort and renunciation emerging from happiness. --Daily. --Now.
so -- whew! -- this is why I wanted to say OBEDIENCE is rather MINOR in U Pandita’s overall scheme.
I just realized something else. The ascetic retreat structure itself also is useful in the same indirect way, e.g. the extreme-sport type challenge, like about 24-hour sittings which I must admit seem about as possible for me as bicycling up Mt. Everest backwards (which of course somebody probably is going to do someday, just to do it) is useful in two ways. First, the methods are powerful in a good way and useful for human beings, generally, and we desparately need help in clearing some space and it is good to have a connection with a tradition willing to experiment in an extreme way; and it is important to preserve and protect that tradition, the way you do; or rather, I guess I should say, the way you did before all this mess which I am very sorry about. Secondly --& here is how its useful in an indirect way-- I keep throwing myself into those situations, and really trying hard, and invariably the absurdity of the intense effort of mind becomes crystal clear, because after a certain point the effort could make sense only if there were a solid substantial self to benefit from it--to possess the results, so to speak, which does not happen. One can’t stockpile it. One can even tie oneself in knots over some ideal of freedom -- All the same, I’m quite sure that (for me) this would not become so indelibly clear if I weren’t willing to put so much effort into it as I am willing to do. What becomes crystal clear are Krishnamurti’s points about the inherent limitations (I suppose he would say futility) of meditation as structured activity, including striving, "measuring," evaluating. Yet really-really trying=striving is (for me) helpful in letting go of it (the striving). After all, K isn’t talking about just sitting around drinking coffee either! He too takes seriously the problems of selfishness, greed.
Btw, I realize my points here are not entirely consistent with what I said earlier about pushing the effort side of effortless effort.
Did you hear about the incredible, beautiful BBC interview between Krishnamurti and Christopher Titmuss? CT is making my first point in the preceding paragraphs about the value of a methodical meditation practice--it’s wash the dishes one by one; whereas, on the other hand, K adamantly refuses to countenance anything but the second. Just let the dishes soak!--"there is no mirror to polish! Where could the dust alight?" --and, if I did not hear incorrectly, K basically suggests one should just get married (?????) and be less selfish. --Erin told me the interview itself was published in Time magazine and in an introductory blurb CT says something like "to say this was a difficult interview would be to put it mildly." I am amazed by CT’s courage in allowing it to be published at all. If my ears weren’t deceving me, CT even accuses K of insulting him at one point. And then it sounded like they almost came to blows/ Or perhaps they did! Two of the greatest dharma teachers of the century --perhaps the whole millenium? Of course, how could one measure, & who would care? --Actually it was like 2 of the Stooges poking each other in the eyes!--How refreshing! Talk about dharma combat! Hey! Where’s the 3d guy? --Where’s Curly? --Hey, Joseph, that wouldn’t be you, would it? --
I’m not sure you appreciate how deeply you and Sharon and the other westerners who went into unfamiliar territory & settled in & practiced carefully, & kept track, & came back to teach-- I’m not sure you all realize how deeply you have influenced many of us & how much you have helped. --Thank you!!
God I can't believe I wrote all this. I'm just going to send it. please don't feel like you need to reply.. I guess I just wanted to say something more than to write and apologize like some doofus. Now probably made it even worse.
Don’t feel so bad about getting kicked out of IMS. Actually you deserved some free time anyway, --for other things --...
And good luck with your head massage business! When you get your parlors set up, I want to give you some paintings to hang on the walls.