two things tagged “buddhism”

Adventures of the Magic Monkey Along the Silk Roads by Evelyn Nagai-Berthrong and Anker Odum A+

'Adventures of the Magic Monkey Along the Silk Roads' by Evelyn Nagai-Berthrong and Anker Odum

A friend used to loan me this lovely book when I was 12 or 13. I loved reading and re-reading it to the point where I remember asking him if he could just gift it to me for my birthday (he declined). And then Life happened and I grew up and I forgot all about it until around 3 years ago, when I suddenly went “wait a second” as I was casually reading some translation of Journey to the West. This book is a childrens’ adaptation of that classic Chinese tale! I then started looking for it, off-and-on, with very little luck.

Last year, LD told me about this absolutely lovely website called “Stump the Bookseller” run by LoganBerry Books in Cleveland. For a nominal fee, I submitted everything I could remember about the book hoping that someone would know it… only to find it myself that evening. My Google-fu had somehow improved after submitting that request. I bought it from AbeBooks posthaste.

It’s just a fantastic adventure to get lost in. To understand the Myth of the Monkey a little deeper, I turned to this paper by Professor Whalen Lai1. There’s just too much to quote but here’s a highly condensed TL;DR of both the book and the story:

Our search for the original face of Monkey should not distract us from his final destiny. Genealogy is only half the story. In his second westward trip Monkey rises above his animal past, above even humanity, to become a Buddha. In his first trip he acquired only Taoist immortality, and discovered only his premoral, childlike, monkey nature. Still capable of grudges against Heaven, Monkey loses his good temper and is damned for his Titanic pride. Only on his second trip West does Monkey, guided by the compassionate Guanyin, find his true self, his Buddha-nature. Guanyin teaches Monkey an invaluable lesson: that it is more important to tame the demon – the “monkey mind” – within than subdue the demons without.

In that second journey to the West, Monkey learns the art of Buddhist self-discipline. Guanyin initially puts a headband, a “crown of thorns” as it were, on Monkey’s forehead. The headband gives Monkey insufferable headaches every time he harbors evil thoughts. Mindfulness of good and evil eventually allows Monkey to “Do good, avoid evil, and cleanse the mind.” By journey’s end, Monkey is his own master, a victor over the demons within. When he finally asks Guanyin to kindly remove the headband, Monkey is told that it is not necessary. The crown of thorns had long since magically disappeared. At last this protean Ape had grown, in his progress as a pilgrim, into a Buddhist saint.

Whalen Lai, "From Protean Ape to Handsome Saint: The Monkey King, Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 53, No. 1 (1994), pp. 29-65
  1. An Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at UC Davis. ↩︎

Levels of Jhana

When I was a kid, I’d close my eyes and allow the strange shapes caused by the night lamp and blood flow in my eyelids to put on a small dance and lull me to sleep. Many a time, as I’d relax and drift away, I would suddenly feel this ‘inflation’ and loss of personal boundary and sense of geometry. In one instance, I’d be the infinitely small nucleus of a sphere whose inner surface would race away very quickly from me. In another, I’d be viewing an animal (mostly elephants because I love them) or an object that would grow and warp very quickly in size and texture. I don’t know how to even express the rest. They should’ve sent a poet, etc. While most were very pleasant, a few would be horripilating enough where I’d have to open my eyes and situate myself to snap out of whatever was happening.

Finding out that you’re not the only weirdo who experiences (and likes) certain things is probably one of the greatest joys of the Internet. Just off this one thread on /r/meditation:

I sometimes get strong changes in my sense of physical size and location. These either pass as my concentration increases or they stick for a while. My head might feel very high up or large. My feet feel as if they’re below the floor or further behind me than they could possibly be. My whole sense of physical space can get warped and skewed so that even thoughts that arise about physical space seem to be confused, e.g. flattening 3D space into 2D or flattening everything into a line. It’s enough to be a distraction sometimes. (source)

Cool, this is the first time I’ve heard someone express a situation similar to mine. During a sit one time I kept inflating to the size of a massively obese man. The effect was so real I had to stop and open my eyes to make sure nothing bizarre was actually happening. (source)

Mhm, I’ve had that too. It felt like I was turing into the marshmellow man from ghostbusters. (source)

What I felt as a child is common and normal in children, and in adults who are red-belts at meditation. It’s a level of jhana (that’s a Pali word, dhyana is its Sanskrit twin), one of the two forms of meditation in Theravada Buddhism (vipassana being the other.)

Jhana has eight levels of practice “first codified by Buddhists over 2,000 years ago.” I’m going to smush this article (“A”) and this Britannica entry (“B”) into a quick description of each.

Level One

A - When internal concentration is strong enough, J1 is entered, accompanied by strong physical pleasure—“better than sexual orgasm” ([9] p.151)—and greatly reduced vigilance with smaller startle responses[…]

B - Initially, the Theravadin meditator seeks to achieve detachment from sensual desires and impure states of mind through reflection and to enter a state of satisfaction and joy.

Level Two

A - In J2 joy “permeates every part of the body,” but with less physical pleasure. | In the second stage […], intellectual activity gives way to a complete inner serenity; the mind is in a state of “one-pointedness” (concentration), joy, and pleasantness.

B - In the second stage of this form of meditation, intellectual activity gives way to a complete inner serenity; the mind is in a state of “one-pointedness” (concentration), joy, and pleasantness.

Level Three

A - In J3, the character of joy changes to “deep contentment and serenity.”

B - In the third stage, every emotion, including joy, has disappeared, and the meditator is left indifferent to everything.

Level Four

A - J4 is described by “equanimity—a profound peace and stillness.”

B - In the fourth stage, satisfaction, any inclination to a good or bad state of mind, pain, and serenity are left behind, and the meditator enters a state of supreme purity, indifference, and pure consciousness.

Levels Five to Eight

A - The higher-numbered jhanas J5–J8 are characterized by more subtle and profound perceptions […] Each jhana is reported to be deeper and more remote from external stimuli than the last

  • J5 is called “infinite space,”
  • J6 is “infinite consciousness,”
  • J7 is “nothingness,” and
  • J8 is named “neither perception nor non-perception.”

B - The dhyanas are followed by four further spiritual exercises, the samapatti-s (“attainments”):

  1. Consciousness of infinity of space,
  2. Consciousness of the infinity of cognition,
  3. Concern with the unreality of things (nihility), and
  4. Consciousness of unreality as the object of thought.

So there 🙏🧘‍♀️📿