Cave Journal: "Journalist's Introduction"
I spent most of the year 2000 living under a large rock ledge at the northern edge of Alaung Daw Kathapa National Park, in northwestern Burma. During that time I also kept an experimental journal. The main purposes of the journal were to give me practice in writing, and more importantly to record an account of my psychological and spiritual state, so that in later years I could reread the journal and see how, or whether, I had progressed in the meantime, or failed to progress. Upon reading the journal after more than ten years, I am happy to say that I have apparently made some progress.
For example, I think less in terms of problems now. Also I am much less inclined to struggle against my own nature in an adversarial manner. Also, my heart seems to be significantly more open than it was in those days of hard-headed struggling. On the other hand, my meditation still flounders often, and my spiritual practice is not nearly so idealistic and "gung-ho" as it was in those days. Everything balances out in the long run.
I am not sure what benefit would be derived, by a person who has never met me, in reading this journal. I suppose different people would find different benefits. Some might find interesting what it is like to practice intensive Dhamma alone in a tropical forest, without so much as a cabin for shelter. Others might learn something about what happens to a modern Western man who tries to live like an ancient Indian ascetic—about how we bring our modern Western baggage with us even when trying to leave it all behind. Some may be inspired, and others saddened, by my performance in that forest fourteen years ago. Again, pluses and minuses all tend to balance out; so anyone with a bias is likely to find what he or she is looking for. The journal goes both ways. I hope that readers will find something to assist them in their own spiritual journeys.
I have no good picture of the rock ledge, or "cave," where I spent five hot seasons and one rainy season, so for the benefit of the reader I will try to describe the area. Alaung Daw Kathapa National Park is shaped somewhat like a camel's hoof, with a large, roughly circular area at the southern end, approximately 50km across, with two projections, following two ranges of hills, extending another 50km or so towards the north. Through sheer karmic luck I happened to come across an old British topographical map showing the outline of the park, and showing that the ideal spot for a resident monk would be right at the base of the V, at the northern edge of the roughly circular area of the park. The place was surrounded by National Park on three sides, east, south, and west, with two villages within easy walking distance directly to the north, and a creek (Pahtolone Chaung) flowing right through the middle of it. Right around the official boundary of the park, about a thirty-minute walk to either of the two villages (Pwingah and Kuzeit), is a keyhole-shaped box canyon extending to the western side of Pahtolone Creek. At the very end of this box canyon, accessible by a rough trail, was Wunn Kya Ot-hmin, or "Belly Fall Cavern," named such because it is composed mainly of compacted sand which occasionally collapses in huge chunks. This tendency of the roof to collapse occasionally caused be some concern, although the most dangerous places were generally identifiable and easily avoidable.
The cave itself was hollowed out of the end of the canyon by the spray of a waterfall that led rainwater to the creek. Throughout most of the year it was dry. It was spectacular when flowing, though, the water dropping in free fall about 15 meters. It fell over the north end of the ledge, while I lived on a natural sand platform closer to the south end. The shape of the cavern, if viewed from the top with x-ray vision, was a rough crescent about 35 meters wide at the entrance, about 12 or 15 meters high, and extending inwards about 12 or 15 meters. Large wasp nests were plastered all over the back wall. While living there I came to know wasps well.
Throughout most of every year a pond exists near the entrance of the cave, fed by the waterfall during the rains. When the pond overflows it pours down another waterfall into a lower pond, and from that into the creek. During cold seasons and hot seasons I would go down the hill to the creek and bathe there. I also drank the creek water, which was slightly greenish and had a sweetish flavor like milk. During rainy weather, when the creek was flooded, muddy, and undrinkable, I bathed at the waterfall or at the pond, and dug holes in the sand near the pond (after being taught how by a helpful villager) to obtain clean water for drinking. I crapped on the ground like an animal until some friends came and dug me a latrine. It was tucked away behind some boulders, and had no roof, or real walls.
I had a challenging relationship with the villagers. The area was remote, with the nearest real motor road at that time coming no closer than 25 km from the two villages. Merchandise for the little shops was carried into the valley by elephant. Now the main highway to India goes through there. Anyway, the villagers were very simple folk, and in American English would accurately be called "hillbillies." They were Buddhist in a predominantly superstitious sense, and also animists who worshipped a goddess called Amei Gyi, or "Great Mother." Amei Gyi's sacred grove was at the edge of some fields on the Kuzeit side of the creek. They participated in Buddhist ceremonies, and believed Dhamma at some level, but the economy of both villages was largely based on fishing in the creek and poaching in the National Park. I used occasionally to try to explain to these simple people that trapping, even poaching in a wildlife refuge, was bad karma, and just plain wrong. The reasoning was apparently too abstract for them though, and when I stopped accepting wildlife refuge venison in my alms bowl the villagers came to the conclusion that I was vegetarian. This was not entirely a bad thing, as it also caused them to stop giving me food like sparrows, lizards, and frog eggs. Once after pontificating on the evils of trapping in the park, an old friend and supporter explained to me that it's only called a wildlife refuge. He also explained that the local villagers do not keep five precepts until they're too old to do otherwise.
The monks in this region of Burma tend to be quite lax in their practice; so when a strange foreign monk showed up who meditated alone in a forest, in a canyon known to be protected by a powerful asaunt (a guardian spirit or minor god), and who didn't smoke, drink tea, or handle money, many of them jumped to the naïve conclusion that I was fully enlightened, or at least a great saint. It would sadden and embarrass them whenever I would confess to being (as yet) unenlightened. Poachers and fishermen often avoided me like the plague, sometimes even jumping into the creek to protect themselves from my approach on the trail. I was seen as a kind of spiritual policeman, and possessed of spiritual powers that could bring punishment upon them, for example by preventing them from catching anything that day. They were in the process of cutting down the forest also; but the remoteness of the area and the largeness of the forest had kept most of the damage to within a relatively small radius. I stopped staying there when the radius of destruction reached the area of the cave. That was in 2001.
Alaung Daw Kathapa National Park probably still has a few tigers, and certainly leopards, bears, monkeys, and anopheles mosquitoes. I got malaria there every year I stayed there, at least once. I was told that wild elephants came into the park during the rainy season, but I never saw any wild ones. They say there used to be rhinos there too. It is believed that the Buddha's senior disciple Mahā-Kassapa died in the center of the park, and that his remains, along with a fabulous treasure, lie magically sealed in a cave. (Some of the villagers believed that he spent one night in my cave also, on his way into the forest to die.) However, it always seemed unlikely that Mahā-Kassapa would walk all the way to a remote forest area of Burma to die; and then very recently a Western monk ordained in a weikza (alchemist/wizard) tradition informed me that it is probable that a medieval tantric alchemist named Kassapa lived in that area and gave his name to it, and that afterwards, after the Burmese had mainly converted to Theravada Buddhism, the old tantric monk was forgotten, and his name was confused with that of the Buddha's friend and disciple. But this is all by the way.
Those who patiently read this journal may learn a few things about meditation techniques, general philosophy, wasps, malaria, the hopeless plight of Asian forests, and the strange ways in which a modern Westerner wrestles with the devil in the wilderness. One may find that the devil usually won; but I gave it a shot. May others who read this use it as a cautionary tale, and do better than I did.
May all beings be well and happy-minded, and may all in search of wisdom and freedom find them.
--Paññobhāsa Bhikkhu, Migadawun Monastery, near Yay Chan O village, upper Myanmar, 1 July 2014.
an old photo of me eating alms near the center of the park, before arriving at the cave