Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Jason Siff's "Seeking Nibbana in Sri Lanka": Book Review

This California meditation teacher draws upon his experiences as a monk abroad as inspiration for this 2008 novel of ideas and insights pursued by Buddhist seekers. These recollected concepts, developed further if in factual format as Unlearning Meditation, circle around the difficulty of pinning down the elusive "nibbana" (nirvana in Pali spelling via Theravadin tradition of Southeast Asia). Its practitioners puzzle out if the ineffable but presumably unconditioned realm of transcendence may be if not grasped then, by a meditator, glimpsed.

Jason Siff draws you in as monks, or "bhikkhus," convene at a forest hermitage in Sri Lanka. Its long civil war recedes into the distance, as Aggachitta's renown as a meditation instructor attracts Sumana, a San Diegan come to find himself as a monk near a far different, less balmy coast. There, he finds Rahula, a "temple boy" appointed to feed the monks and care for the simple hermitage; myriad rules prohibit its monks, for instance, from even dishing out food to their confreres. This rule-bound monasticism, as we see it through newcomer Sumana, gains neither romanticized nor cynical depiction in Siff's narrative. He gives an indirect first person, largely unadorned editorial perspective, allowing each main character time to reflect and filter what transpires (much of it over only a few frenetic days, it seems) as the group grows despite itself.

Sumana rushes into his next stage: "He is certain that he wants to make an end to this round of rebirths right now, before he turns thirty, and then he can face anything in life with calm equanimity," with an unshakeable peace of mind. (4)  The monk's way of life certainly has benefits. The layfolk wait until the monks have finished praying, as the merits then accumulated for these donors of food will increase. Such calculation, with enumeration of attainments doled out by masters to students, and steps up towards heightened ranks of enlightenment, demonstrates what Theravada has become.

Aggachitta wonders, sparked by Sumana's request to learn meditation and the teacher's simple if bold response to "just sit" and then report on whatever happens, threatens to upend the system. Rather than adding up what a meditator appears to have reached on a five faculties, five-point scale, Aggachitta counters that this venerable accounting may be "nothing more than an intellectual model made up by some brilliant bhikkhu ages ago as a way to measure and assess meditative experiences without resorting to theories of divine intervention, psychic powers, or mystical revelations." (70) Although the characters here report sometimes their own lively visions and vivid sensations, they don't appear to receive them as if from above, and Siff subtly integrates his own recollective awareness process which he has developed to demonstrate the relevance of realizing the impetus for such "revelations."

This long-solo adept starts to feel crowded. The arrival of mercurial, unstable fellow "white-skinned" bhikkhu Palaparuchi, Sumana and then Rahula and his erstwhile suitor Devi fills the hermitage, along with Aggachitta's colleague Maggaphala, who tends not to be the intellectual Aggachitta, a Ph.D. before he donned his robes, strives to be, after decades in the forest pursuing a less worldly vocation. Siff introduces each of these antagonists or protagonists and we see, for instance, in the careful details afforded to the act of bathing (a repeated motif), Maggaphala's incorporation of A Midsummer Night's Dream and Romeo and Juliet, and Rahula and Devi's attempts to sort out their relationship relevant scenes from a surprisingly varied array of contexts which play off deeper concerns of the characters.

While these could provide another review's worth of content, for a short entry, I will stick to Aggachitta's quest. He leaves for a town monastery to work out, in some snatches of quiet, what troubles him about what he has taught Sumana and discussed with Maggaphala. This novel will be challenging for a reader lacking familiarity with Buddhist philosophy, but I suspect those opening these 360 pages will know the basic material already. Aggachitta grapples with detaching from a view that conventionally sees the twelve-link chain of causation leading from delusions to ignorance to liberation from constraints as a forward momentum; he proposes that delusions (in the plural) and ignorance interplay. This takes close attention, but he develops a theory that dependent arising can be observed in one's life "without taking up either the belief in rebirth or in an imperceptible rapidly changing reality" that leads to consciousness envisioned as a white thin flat panel of infinity, lacking  any support from above, no strings attached, suspended in space, "emanating from itself." (180)

Quite a challenge to convey in an accessible work of fiction. Nibbana then might be hinted at as not constructed but wordless, for how if the mind's truly empty can nibbana be built up in one's own suppositions as if present? (184) Aggachitta tries to meditate on this conundrum, to see if his idea of emptiness might match that attributed to the Buddha. "He does not know what to call it. Words can't survive here, and meanings seem to be as empty as their evanescent shells." (196) Ultimately, before he falls asleep, Aggachitta feels that he again lives and knows nibbana without any desire or derivation of it. (Maybe as elusive as trying, for Shakespeare's lovers, to truly speak of love.)

The "gap" concept of "nirodha" may help, what is glimpsed between links in the chain as they emerge and then fade, but Aggachitta figures this better conceived as a "clear space of knowing the act of knowing." (252) This is not sophistry. It's a fleeting hold on what may be permanent. "Nibbana is the path to its attainment." (263) Although unelaborated by Siff's characters (who must reflect their own cultural backgrounds and denominational affinities, after all), I've come across this phrasing before, but probably from Zen rather than in the Vipassana tradition by which they were trained and taught.

Meanwhile, it's not all speculation. We see how, in a couple of apposite chapters, various meditators undergoing their own reporting of what they ponder, and this helps show the process Siff favors in action, within the student and the master in the aftermath of recollection and recital of what's happened. This dramatizes and humanizes the material in his follow-up book which offers a non-fictional analysis of the same procedure. For, Siff keeps the story moving well, and he packs a lot of character development in a short span. Sumana finds his own interest in fellow former San Diegan Gotami, a blonde (or is it reddish-brown as a few pages apart in his own imagined or unreliably fevered recollection?) if now shaven young nun looking for her own teacher, and finding the same in Aggachitta. Palaparuchi and Maggaphala square off as age-old archetypes appear to return. Rahula and Devi must battle with their own families and their own fulfillment, and we also see how men and women in this traditional society encounter different opportunities, given long-held proprieties.

Aggachitta has the last word. A penultimate chapter wraps it up in a sylvan ending that Shakespeare himself might have liked, but the restless drive of the meditation teacher keeps the plot pushing on, even as the other characters relax and enjoy their hard-won peace. Still, I understand the riposte of Suriya, Aggachitta's brother and Rahula's father, who wonders as we may in the East or the West if his son is there only to learn another lesson: "How to get everything you need given to you?" (272)

I also append the warning of Maggaphala to Sumana and Gotami, all perhaps familiar with such gurus: "Ask those who write the books on meditation and teach to crowds, who have big centers and wealthy organizations, who do missionary work under the guise of giving people the true teaching of the Buddha, and who make a mockery of the noble path by granting attainments to practically every student who comes their way." (219) I waited for more self-criticism, or awareness such as this. A hermitage, relying on the goodness of donors, a place where men seem not to be able to treat women with full equality, and a place that prevents monks from even feeding each other directly, represents in a war-torn society a rather complex haven; like Shakespeare's retreats, one reflects on its ideals.

What perhaps Siff's own method conveys as a remedy might be how insight may be open to all of us. I was lent this by a teacher (a student of Siff's) after I responded with interest to his suggestion that liberation itself may be a construct. This always made intuitive sense to me. Lately, as an instructor in Comparative Religions, I've found that, without hints, some students have asked the same question.

The teacher Aggachitta may not go this far in his quest for meaning, for he concludes: "It is faith in something that is possible for one to attain because someone once, long ago, attained it." (311) This trust that if one man did it, so may his followers, persists. "Sati," we are told, is not the platitude or buzzword of  'mindfulness," but what's created in meditation and recollection as an imperative to break out of "samsara," the ordered world of mindfulness where all is in place, the "dana" of food and goods is delivered by laity on time, and all know their place. This subversion never overthrows the hermitage, but I wonder if a follow-up novel might do that. Although I was pleased that his characters after a hectic week wound up relieved, I ended this novel with this curiously subversive expectation.

To order or sample chapters: Seeking Nibbana. This review 10-18-23 as a bit altered to Amazon US.

Unlearning Meditation (author's website); I reviewed this 2010 study on Amazon US (7-18-10) and in different form at the New York Journal of Books (8-12-10). For more: Skillful Meditation Project

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