My feelings about our meditation practice and teachings has fluctuated dramatically over the past two weeks. We are currently practicing Theravada Buddhism with U Hla Myint from Burma. We started with samatha practice, which is a focused awareness practice in which the attention is placed on a meditative object, most often the breath. When a thought arises, the idea is to let that go and immediately bring the attention back to the breath in order to cultivate sustained attention. This is seen as a prerequisite to Vipassana meditation, which is ‘open awareness’. In our practice, we still have a ‘home’ object, but in this practice when a thought or sensation arises the attention is placed fully on the thought, then it can be labeled ‘thought’ or ‘sensation’ or ‘anger’ or ‘hearing’ or ‘feeling’ or ‘itching’ or ‘sweating’, then when it falls away, the attention goes back to the ‘home’ object.
U Hla Myint, as part of our samatha practice, introduced us to a meditation on the ‘repulsiveness of the body.’ He told us a story of a queen who was too attached to her beauty. The Buddha invited her to visit him – when the queen arrived, there was an even more beautiful woman fanning the Buddha. As the queen watched, this woman aged until she was disintegrated and old and weary. U Hla Myint emphasized that this practice is meant for us to confront our death, and our attachment to our bodies. He told us to chant: “Skin is foul and filthy, and not me or mine. Heart is foul and filthy, and not me or mine. Brain is foul and filthy, and not me or mine.” And so on. Liver, mesentery, body hairs, head hairs, fat, tears, spittle (? lol what), bile, etc. Some of my classmates refused to chant. A faculty member left the room. I’ve been negotiating immersion and staying true to my values, and in this case I chose to chant. (However, I couldn’t say ‘brain’.)
I talked to the faculty member later that week – after feeling so disenchanted about the teachings and guilty for feeling disenchanted by the teachings. He said to me that he felt strongly that there are other ways to address attachment to body and that viewing the body as filthy isn’t necessary. I looked later into the original text in the suttas and found that the text doesn’t reference foul and filthiness. He asserted that trying to view these practices in a strictly academic framework is impoosible – meditation is inherently personal and asking us to practice something like this can cause psychological distress and is ultimately irresponsible.
More questions: am I too attached to my body to see how this is more helpful than harmful? Have I been conditioned to see my body in a positive light because my community spends a lot of energy helping me feel good about myself? Is being grateful for my body synonymous with being attached? Can you teach detachment and gratitude? And these questions are alright, too.
Later that week, U Hla Myint introduced metta practice to us. He said you can send metta or love to someone of the same sex, but not of the opposite sex because that produces ‘lustful feelings.’ Romantic love is not real, unwholesome and always lead to lustful feelings. So, we must not send metta to those that we have romantic love for, only those that we have family love for or pure love for. And we must not send it to those of the opposite sex, because only heterosexual people exist in the world and nobody gets ‘lustful feelings’ for those of the same sex.
My friend Mariah went to talk to U Hla Myint directly about this. She told him that he ignored an entire population of people who don’t have ‘lustful feelings’ for the opposite sex. He laughed, then said “I forgot.”
Yes, time and time again, I remind myself that I am American. I live in California. I went to a boarding high school in Southern California. I attend a quite liberal university. And U Hla Myint just forgot. I guess people forget sometimes.
Disenchanted by the teachings, I’m still trying to have an open mind. This week, we have been working on mindfulness of the body and walking meditation. These are two practices that I feel quite connected to; I know they work for me. But lately, I’m finding myself resistant to putting my fully attention to my body. I know that only I can affect my practice – however, I do feel like this is at least in part influenced by being told that bones are foul and filthy and skin is foul and filthy and hair is foul and filthy.
Last night, after our sit, I came to realize that Buddhist philosophy is still really wonderful. I have the agency to interpret it however I would like to interpret it and have an entire lifetime to do so. During the next two months, I have the opportunity to learn how institutions interpret it and what is means to them.
In case you forgot, I’m quite happy here. I overanalyze and overcriticize these things only because I care about them so much. And I’ve been so grateful to be in a place where my mind doesn’t feel dull and distracted by cellphones and computers, and instead focused on a narrower-than-usual subject field. It feels great not to have so many choices.