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Michael Barber

THE BATHTUB BUDDHIST AWAKENING

 

(An excerpt from the novel: The RE-Collected Works of Ricky Booey)

 

 

 

Ricky Booey hoped to hang in there until he thought up his next big idea, but the dull life of pizza delivery on the Upper-East side gave his mind time to ruminate about global warming. Wandering through the narrow corridors of high-rise buildings became a re-treading of the grooves of doom still fresh in his mind.  

Pizza used to be something that made Ricky happy. But how could he be happy with his mind fixed on the dire condition of the planet? The largest mass extinction of species in sixty-five million years was now occurring and it pained Ricky to know that he could do nothing but deliver pizza. 

Thoughts about death infused and then colored his world. Booey writes of a fall day in the streets of New York:  

 

One day the whole crowd changed on me. Hundreds of them, thousands, they all looked as if they were the same person repeated in different sizes, shapes, and colors. Their death was apparent to me, their sameness was their vulnerability. Looking closer, I realized they were all without skin, smiling at me with wet striations of muscle and sinew glistening in the summer sun. In my mind I scattered their body parts into random piles: bleached bones, organs, muscle, bile. They burst into their component parts, parting like a disgusting red sea of flesh as I continued my walk among them. 

 

The more he thought and wrote about death, the more the positive feedback loop of his obsessive mind took over. If the planet was headed for extinction, didn’t that include him as well? As with anything of interest to him, Booey soon became impassioned. 

In his journals and in his letters to colleagues, Booey postulated many of the ways he might die, none of which he found comforting. These included: starvation, drowning, soul loss, electrocution, cancer, hanging, firing squad in a foreign country, lightening, a yet unknown disease, choking on food, heart failure, earthquake, car crash, base jumping, snowboarding, volcano, assault, Sudden Unexpected Death Syndrome [cardiac failure that occurs during or after a bad dream], large carnivore, and loneliness. 

In contrast to such striking thoughts, he considered his prior quest for fame and prestige “an empty aspiration.” Booey’s past efforts to hand out his work, popularize his plays, and arrange courtroom spectacles never regained their meaning. He saw his past efforts as “misguided stabs at immortality” and never again circulated his writing. 

Even biometeorology lost its allure and he thought of it only as an “irrational attempt to protect and maintain a body that was created only to deteriorate and decay.” He imagined his assured future as a deceased and forgotten artist, writing,

 

What’s left but to wander around an angry frustrated ghost looking for someone to scare or entertain or educate or even just to talk to. It’s sad, so sad … if I ever achieved [notoriety] so what? Fame and prestige are passed from person to person, they can give it to you for a while but look at me, they will take it away just the same.

 

As the fall continued, Booey found himself, more than ever, distressed with his lot. No longer interested in educating others, or enlarging his own underground legend, his life delivering pizza was purposeless and meandering. He was a seeker without an object—a writer who mistrusted words. Booey longed to offer himself as the “mystic voice the masses desperately need[ed]” but he knew that in order to retrieve his secret purpose he “must first conquer death.” [1] 

Booey’s greatest fear was always that he might become irrelevant, a great irony considering that this was how he lived out the majority of his life. He claimed not to care that he “was heading toward anonymity” but his fear of it became palpable. Confronting death brought him face to face with his own mortality and tore down every delusional vision of himself that mania had offered. The possibility of being nothing at all was petrifying and immobilizing. 

Confronted with such an immense task as comprehending death, a new depression settled in around him. Ricky began to skip work in favor of spending entire days in the bathtub soaking in his own cigarette ashes, visualizing his own cremation, and soon fell behind on rent. It was here that he developed the unique ability to “keep his mind blank until [he] could not retrieve even [his] own name from memory.” Booey considered this “a form of freedom for the judging mind” and decided that he was on the right path to gain release from his physical form. Booey postulated that if he continued the practice of wholly giving up his “attachment to identity” he would “permanently cut the ties to another round of becoming” and gain the ultimate freedom. 

On the precipice of this breakthrough, his mind turned with gratitude toward Ajahn Carl and his trials under the meditation master. Booey writes of an early experience meditating at Up-State Upekkha:

 

There was a bug on me and then something pinching my back and I was itchy. I couldn’t stop shifting, it didn’t help anyway, so I hopped a little to help my back and breathed out in a way that was strong and audible to relieve tension but it didn’t help. I decided pain is temporary, but this pain stayed. I focused on the temporary nature of the body, and the pain stayed. I couldn’t think of what to do and started to get hot and then my legs hurt and my rib cage became tight. Thoughts about my psychologist—about his attempt to incarcerate me—swirled around me until I couldn’t breathe at all. A shooting pain came up from a nerve in my leg and I was done. I jumped up and threw my cushion at the back wall. I was sorry as soon as I did it. A few meditators looked startled but most kept sitting. They were so peaceful, I didn’t come back for a week.  

 

But now, fixed on death, his mind grew still and moved relentlessly inward. With his bathtub Buddhism Booey experienced a great change and finally put his concentration before his ambition as an artist. All the past work with concentration methods were paying dividends; Booey directed his mind like a laser beam, contemplating “the impermanence of all conditioned phenomena.”

Booey’s work with Ajahn Carl gave him the grounding in technique, but when it came time to transcend even the concentration itself he knew it was time to rely on his own wisdom. Simply concentrating on his breath was not enough. Booey wrote, “Breath too is impermanent. Such a fixation is in my way. When I die there will be no breath. Breath saves nobody.” Something “less dualistic” seemed more appropriate to him, something that “did not rely on preferences of the mind.” Booey admitted, “Just letting go is more pleasurable … it gets so quiet. The reality of death brings me closer, closer to the experience of the deathless. [2] There is no need to consider things, the deathless is imponderable.” Booey considered himself advanced in the practice and continued to practice only in “the formless states … beyond attachment to personality, where preferences don’t exist.” 

One might ask, why stay in the bathtub? Why not go back and practice at the monastery? Booey writes he “could not rightly go to the monastery” since,

 

that would depend on volition, acting on a desire.

It would imply that there is something to be done, something to accomplish upstate and someone to do it. The people who think they need Upekkha are swimming in lead trunks. They think that there is someone in there who is gaining a little day-by-day. They think they are meeting all the necessary conditions. As if something unfabricated [enlightenment] can be caused. They think that you literally walk on this path—that you can walk on this road that goes right through the five boroughs all the way up to Nirvana. Only if you want to get hit by a car! I’m not falling for that old trap. The only way to freedom is to let go of all that and stay off the road—to stay out of your mind. Really, if you think about it, Who is going upstate? Who are we affirming if we follow a motivation for freedom? Is that affirming me? Or is that affirming the delusion? Who is the one who needs a destination? 

 

Booey had learned enough about meditation to know that “building a new spiritual personality [was] something to avoid.” As an alternative, he joined a group set up for those like him, Upstate Upekkha’s Virtual Monastery where they enjoyed meditation, “without attachment to a central practice locale, did not cling to rituals, and transcended the oppressive teacher-student duality.” The virtual monastery was built especially for these virtual practitioners, connected only in cyber-space through web cams. Here there was no daily schedule, although most did choose to engage with their chat groups daily and for added inspiration peered into the televised home-life of hundreds of virtual practitioners world-wide. [3] 

One member of Booey’s chat group, screen name: Rosalie, was both an admirer and a critic of his style. She wrote about Booey explaining,

 

Death was his thing. He did it better than anyone. I heard he did it like they do in Asia and tried to collect cadavers in various stages of decomposition and then set them up. You can’t do that [in the U.S.], of course. I don’t know if it was the morgue that gave him the problems or the city code, but it’s not a bad thing if you can pull it off. Sit with the smell, examine the stages of decomposition, it really helps get the mind in position to let go. He was right, contemplating death can jumpstart your practice, but it gets a little depressing. Sure, have it on the back of your mind, but as your lone focus, I don’t know. I’m not sure that [Booey] had other stuff going on. The bathtub guy, right? With the pigeons? I don’t think just understanding that you are going to die, I mean even really, really, feeling it, is going to get you there by itself. You build a practice with a full toolbox until it’s done. “The tools are empty” he told me, what does that even mean? What’s next, virtual meditation?

 

“Rosalie” soon quit the virtual monastery and went to practice at the brick and mortar Upstate Upekkha. In fact, many practitioners found the online version of the monastery “too groundless” for their taste. The formless experience was not something everyone was ready for, but it was where Booey thrived. The virtual monastery offered him support “without putting [his] mind on crutches.” It was a place that matched his state of mind, offering him only places he “would never get attached to … [instead] existing everywhere and yet nowhere at the same time.” The virtual monastery was the perfect foundation for Booey to “make history by jumping right out of it.” 

 

 *  *  *

 

As Booey posted more of his creative work on line, his depression lifted and he became reinvigorated and inspired. His clear mind brought him out of the bathtub and deep into his prose. In this later stage of Ricky’s life the fruits of his formless type of meditation were revealed. His chat group was blown away by his postings. One member, screename: Licidediah Schworelli, called it,

 

the perfect expression for virtual practitioners. Not as scripture to follow, and not as actions to emulate, not as stories to pass along and certainly nothing to keep for ourselves, but as a demonstration of the way one might use language to tie knots around itself until the text grows heavy and falls shattering about on the floor. Suddenly, the ground is apparent, revealed by the words that now disappear having rightfully completed their task. The dream is over.

 

The piece Licidediah most likely refers to, “The Science of Mind and Pigeon,” started with a trip to the zoo when Booey rescued five pigeons from their fate as feed for the zoo’s predatory birds. He put the blue-bar colored birds in a cage in his apartment and occasionally allowed them to fly freely about. Booey immediately found a place for them in his practice. He explained, “The cooing was a mantra. Like the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, I imagined them asking, Whooo are you? Whooo are you? Without trying to answer, I let the words linger always in the background.”  

Whether it was a product of a mantra or of the stress-reduction inherent to pets in general, the pigeons had a steadying effect on the erratic Booey. He lived out the autumn in silent study of his own mind. Through his practice he continued to put his self-identification firmly into the background, fully making the journey back from mania, self-obsession, and depression. Booey understood his past behavior as “not belonging to ‘me,’ but rather, predicated on old habit patterns of the mind” that he was now, for the first time, living in freedom from. 

Booey learned at last that he could not escape the results of karma and spoke from experience writing, “attempts to fully map out cause and effect only lead to insanity.” Thus, he observed his reactions as they arose. He carefully guided himself away from acting on any and all impulses and moved toward “non-action,” and “non-identification.” He hoped to align with a non-dual experience of reality, one that was beyond right and wrong, good and bad, birth and death. [4] 

 It was easy enough to forget your name when isolated in a bathtub, but it must have become more challenging for Booey when constantly confronted by his five birds and their mantra requesting identification. “The Science of Mind and Pigeon” was nothing short of a breakthrough.

Ricky did indeed encourage his pigeons to peck his inner ear by placing seed inside his canal. Since his mind remained lucid after the described event involving the pigeon he more than likely did not lose any brain matter in the practice as the story suggests.

The surface wordplay and disturbing images in the piece are not important in and of themselves but can be understood as gateways to Booey’s deep questioning. As he writes, “Unless one stops giving words and thoughts more reality than they deserve, one can never know the profound nature that exists underneath them.” 

 

 

The Science of Mind and Pigeon

 

 Reconstructed from postings at Upstate Upekkha’s Virtual Monastery with the help of “Dharma sister Helen” with whom Booey meditated regularly for two weeks.

 

I gave up striving, for it did not suit the pigeon whom I awoke to one autumn day plucking out bits of brain through my ear (It was the fruition of my “Bird Seed in the Ear” experiment). 

I heard a bit of brain think up while dangling from its beak: “Just observe the sensation.” 

I began to consider this when the pigeon jerked his head to the side and severed those particular neurons for good. I lost contact with my thoughts as they slid down to his stomach. 

“What do I do?” I thought, but that bit of neural activity was soon swallowed too. 

I wondered, “Do I even like this pigeon?” as he ate and ate. I began to think that nono I was not remotely sure at allabout the pigeon, about anything for that matter. Luckily for me, I wrote my thoughts down so that I could follow, although I often found myself having to reread.   

 

Note No. 14:

Meditation masters, when achieving deeper states of concentration, actually use less of their brain. Although brain function is minimal they are actually acutely aware or their surroundings. One, one must wonder … 

 

Temporary hypothesis: If I stop thinking, I will get smarter. If I achieve such a state, I may also discover hidden powers latent in me. [5]  

 

When I got over the shock of losing part of my brain, I realized that I didn’t actually mind that my thoughts were being pulled out of my ear like a worm stuck in solid earth.

The process could also be likened to the unraveling of a spool of yarn. I never again had a thought repeat itself thanks to the pigeon. 

It was a nice change. A nice stream, a bit like urination (as long as one does not intercede, the pleasantry just continues on its own). 

Besides, if I were to intervene I would not know the emptying of the mind. [6] Thus in this experiment, there can only be non-action. 

 

Of course one might rightly assume that eventually I could have no more brains. While this is probably true, I have thought of alternatives:

 

Alternative #1: 

 Someone else is disturbed by the sight of a pigeon eating my brains and scares it off. REBUT:  I do not like to leave my apartment and if I were to leave now I would likely have people run away from me but probably no one to run towards me. Who would intuit that I would need another to frighten this pigeon away? Of course, I could very well do this shooing away myself but as I have said, I have chosen a path of non-action. This would prevent me from going outside with the intent of finding someone to scare off the bird. Can I really understand the pigeons motives if I am attached to an outcome? Can I understand my own mind if I cannot know its absence? Certainly, there can be no answer for these questions since answers require thought and so that is where the birdseed comes in. If I were to act I would have done so before this whole business started. 

 

Alternative #2:

The pigeon gets full. REBUT: He does take breaks and has been on my shoulder for days now. Thus, getting him full is probably unlikely, yet it is still a possibility and thus a solid reason alone not to take action.

 

Alternative #3:

 The pigeon dies. REBUT: Again nothing to bank on, but everything dies eventually and I’m willing to take my chances. Who knows when this brain-plucker’s number will be called.

 

I cannot think of other possibilities right now but the feeling at the moment is … dare I say, pleasurable? My ear canal is so full of brain that I hear only muffled exits of matter as it departs through the funnel of what some might call my ear, but I must attest, I must even question this idea of ownership at this point. To the pigeon, for example, my ear is but a bowl of feed. 

Does the brain matter cease to be mine only after the pigeon swallows? 

That would seem ridiculous. 

Perhaps this mass of ganglia was always destined to be pigeon feed and therefore was never mine at all. And if my brain is not me who am I? 

And what was I just thinking?   

The pigeon is consuming rapidly now. The experience is like a sensory deprivation tank with a bonus tickle. The sensation never ceases, never climaxes, it is beyond annoying, yet orgasmic in its own way.   

This feeding I must remember is still just another experience, beginning yesterday and passing … passing eventually as things do and here I am observing the glorious subtleties of experience to the point that this pigeon and I feel not as two and not as one but as a pigeon and a man engaged in the harmony of brain plucking and whether this is good or bad I dare not say. 

Perhaps the bird will get smarter and do good in this world—in which case I am happy to assist. Perhaps he will regurgitate the brains to his young and they will all get smarter. Perhaps if we continue to bond, this pigeon and I, eventually he may regurgitate me to me Ah ha! [7]

 

“The Science of Mind and Pigeon” was a philosophy Booey later expanded upon, but never completely explained. True to the piece, he never objectified his brain-emptying experience to those in his chat room other than attributing it to “the pigeon.” Similarly, he explained his psychological renaissance in terms of the pigeon. “Things used to bother me” he might say, “but now, thanks to the pigeon …”

Booey refused to further define his concepts, opting instead to practice the reverse. The pigeon is a device, it moves the reader steadily backwards through a process of questioning any appearance of thought, thought constructs, and finally points us toward the deathless state, which underlies them. 

The pigeon represents an opportunity to question the legitimacy of the thought processes. Fritjof Capra, author of the classic, The Tao of Physics explains: “As we penetrate deeper and deeper into nature, we have to abandon more and more of the images and concepts of ordinary language” (51). The pigeon devouring his thoughts is the penetrating agent of Booey’s meditation.  

Booey was determined not to fall into past error and attach himself to merely one level of truth. As a Zen phrase says, “The instant you speak you miss the mark.” Booey correspondingly uses words to get past words, his language is like a finger pointing at the moon. Booey points the reader toward an experience of the deathless, not toward a mere objectification.

As Ricky lost his brain to the pigeon, he attained the life of a realized artist. [8] All his prior work may be seen as a mere maturation process. While many enjoyed his earlier work, the pigeon piece alone (along with the rumors about the legitimacy of the event described) solidified Ricky’s status as a cult legend, and hero to online monastic Buddhists throughout the country.    

 


[1] Psychologist Ed Podvoll writes in his book, Recovering Sanity that “‘transformative experiences,’ or ‘transformations of consciousness’ … are of the utmost importance to people who have been in psychosis. In fact, they are the treasured possessions of the psychotic experience, jewels within the psychotic debris” (17). People confident enough to take on their own death may have a history of insight or one of mental illness. It can be argued that Booey, coming a little out of each camp, was just as likely to find enlightenment as to regress back into psychosis. 

[2] According to Buddhist Reliogion: A Historical Introduction the term deathless, like the word nirvana, is one of more than thirty names used by the Buddha “to indicate the goal … implying a subtle experience of utter transcendence and freedom from change, disturbance, danger, insecurity, or unhappiness of any sort” (19-20). 

[3] The only rules were the normal five precepts (abstaining from lying, killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, and intoxicants) plus the additional “no forwards” rule, which after a years debate, practitioners finally decided that forwards fell into the “idle chatter” part of “right speech.” They decided it was preferable to keep their inboxes, like their minds, as empty and free from clutter as possible.      

[4] It also got him fired from his job delivering pizzas and set up his winter eviction. 

[5] Podvoll writes “the metaphysical speculations by people about their experiences of psychosis point to entities or “powers” that exert their influences only when one is in a particular state of mind” (70). For Booey, such a belief about powers was long held but probably not linked to any recent manic episode. The reader need not take Booey literally here. The meaning, more likely, was that of a jest, for example, when he was young, Booey would make preposterous claims such as that he could fly, but only when he was invisible.       

[6] Booey repeats this understanding philosophically when he writes, “Realize that you are blind until you see nothing. When you see nothing only then is it clear. You must funnel yourself down to what is. Once you reach this point you get an inverse perspective.” The pigeon piece is the abstract manifestation of this idea by Ricky, funneling himself out of his ear and into what is beyond brain-matter—the deathless.     

[7] Here Booey succeeds in moving into a realm of transcendence, arriving at an understanding of inter-connection—all phenomena eating one another. 

[8] Philip Whalen, in an interview published in the book Off The Wall, states, “you have to get out of yourself, some way or another, to get in, to operate, as a poet, as a painter, or a musician” (45). Booey, at this stage, took a liking to Whalen and this quote in particular and likewise sought to get out of himself, to shed his own conventions, and re-immerse himself in “the poetry of the unborn.”  



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