Words and Reality

Language is the decisive difference between us and other chimpanzees with whom we share 98% of our genes.  We can articulate and review our thoughts.  We can listen to and reflect on what others say.  This enormously amplifies our ability to learn.

But we ought to be much more wary of words.  They only point to things.  Too often we confuse the name we give a thing with what it points toward.  I’ll get to that in a moment.

First, something an empathetic friend helped me see.  She responded to my post about recognizing that I don’t exist“What you have written about your life is intriguing […] and a little heartbreaking”.  What I saw is a new level of how blessed I’ve been.

My life has never, since I started work, anyway, felt “a little heartbreaking” to me.  I’ve encountered a mix of circumstances, some quite difficult, but I was blessed to accept them and take action, not suffer.

My aim in my no-self post was to show a series of paths I took that were misguided.  My experience along that route to nowhere was a sense of adventure, though.  It was like being on a long trek through different lands.

So I’ve been reflecting on why I was blessed to feel that way.  Two powerful forces were at work.  I’ve mentioned the one known as Florence, my mother who felt there was no challenge she could not surmount.  I’ll say a little more about her, then some about the force in my father, Leonard, that I had to oppose.

Florence grew up in a Catholic orphanage.  She loved children, trained as a nanny and worked first for a wealthy English couple then in Italy for a marquess.  She loved Italy and would have stayed longer but the marquess had to replace her when he was sent on a diplomatic posting to Hitler’s Berlin.

She never said much about that time but it was evidently happy.  She explored with enthusiasm and one of her very few possessions, a picture of a chalet in the mountains on my bedroom wall, likely sparked my own Himalayan treks.

Leonard’s mother died before he was a year old and his father, Whalley, was jailed for refusing to fight in WW1, so he was raised by his beloved grandmother until he was eight.  When Whalley remarried, the three of them joined one of his younger brothers in Akron, Ohio.  Whalley, who hated the cold, was happy when he was offered the chance to operate a citrus farm in extreme SW Texas.  He knew nothing about farming and not a single citrus tree was there but he loved it.  So did Leonard but his step-mother Edith hated the heat even more than Whalley hated the cold, so after a few years they returned to Ohio.

When Whalley was unable to get a job in the Great Depression, he and Edith returned to England.  Leonard stayed to graduate from High School and the friend with the farm offered to fund his college education but Whalley sent him a ticket back to England where, not knowing British history, he did not qualify for the Civil Service as Whalley hoped.  That was when he began giving film shows for the Peace Pledge Union.

The lesson Leonard drew from all these upheavals was, the best he could do was endure.  His happy memories of the farm in Texas and of High School predisposed me to be happy in America but they compounded his yearning for stability.  He was apprehensive about new upheavals anyone with power over him might create.

What my friend’s comment about “heartrending” showed me is, I always understood more than I recognized about acceptance and suffering.

Now a more dramatic example of the power of words.  The Zen master who was my first Buddhist teacher told us one morning:  “If you really want to end suffering, stop creating it”.

Hearing that in a receptive moment, I got a glimpse of what acceptance means and that I had been blessed to practice it much of the time even though I hadn’t understood the word before.  I’ve mostly done as my mother did and my father did not, recognized negative circumstances, not felt sorry for myself and taken action for change.

Here’s a second set of thoughts provoked by a response to my post.  Richard wrote:  “The intersection of physics and psychology gets pretty strange doesn’t it? I’ve done a lot of thinking about the implications of quantum physics, and our worldview. Mostly, it’s been a bunch of circular waffling. The only thing I’m fairly certain of is that our model of reality is flawed, probably because of some version of the “you can’t see the true reality from within the system” problem.”

I circled, too, until I saw that although I have no self, I do exist.  We can discern the structure of reality from within the system even though we can’t quite see how it operates.

We manifest from an ever changing force field, as does everything we perceive, so from that perspective, we don’t “really” exist.  But  our actions change the force field, so in fact we do exist.  How to think about that?

Nothing that is perceptible to us sentient beings can be found in the force field, yet every sentient being is a point of consciousness with the capacity to act.  That means we exist in more than one way, only one of which, the form that takes action, is a form in the way we imagine.

Consciousness is the great puzzle to brain scientists.  Is it a product of the brain, or somehow separate?  I sense it’s separate but what has made all the difference for me is recognizing that we exist in a form that, because it has no intrinsic nature and is utterly imperceptible to our senses, to our way of thinking does not exist.

The reality of sentient beings takes threefold or twofold form in Buddhist metaphysics.  The form that acts is the nirmanakaya, the conscious form is the sambhogakaya, and the imperceptible one is the dharmakaya.  The first two are also thought of as one, the rupakaya, to highlight that the form with no properties is the ultimate level of reality.

There’s a vast mass of logic about why and how reality is multi-fold but it remains in the end a mystery to our intellect.

What we can be certain about is that matter manifests from energy.  We can start by thinking of matter as congealed energy and energy as liberated matter, but when we use quantum physics to examine what’s going on we see that you and I, for example, exist in both forms simultaneously.

Or perhaps we exist in three forms, the three kayas, which we could rename Tom, Dick and Harry if that feels less foreign, or Romeo and Juliet if we’re thinking about the two forms.  It’s only what the words point toward that matters.

I’ve noticed some changes since I began getting glimpses of what all these words are pointing toward, that what seem to be separate beings are not separate, that we are all manifestations from one ocean whose currents flow without boundaries, that we are all eddies in a maelstrom of pure energy.

The less separate I feel, the less indifferent I become.  My impulses are more kind, I’m more prone to compassion than anger, and I’m less grasping.

The energy flows that manifest as Martin are changing because I’m watching them, and the longer I watch, the more sensitive I become to the eddies that manifest as other beings.

Yes, the way this multi-fold reality works is a mystery but now I know how to proceed, acting that way is deeply happy-making.

Happy Birthday in Every Moment

My body was already sixty years old when I began to see with some clarity that I don’t exist as I’d always imagined.  I’ll try to explain what I experienced.

What I noticed first is there had been at different times a different person in my body.  I’ve given them Nordic patronymics.  Leon Leonardsson came first.

Leon came to life in England during WW2 in an isolated farm-worker’s cottage with no utilities.  He was the only child of Leonard and Florence Sidwell, a happy kid fascinated by farm machinery.  Because his parents had no friends, Leon’s social skills were weak but he was highly intelligent.  Florence made him study every day and he got the best results of all students in the exam that determined which school he would go to when he was eleven.

Leonard’s work since WW2 driving an excavator to maintain waterways paid very little but Florence found him a better paying job at this time selling insurance door to door.  They were now able to buy a house with a tiny garden in the neighboring town.  But Leonard hated his new job and that he now had so little room to grow vegetables.  And Leon had nowhere to play and nobody to play with.  As Leonard’s passivity evolved into depression, Leon fell prey to the same disease.

Leon’s new school, a bus-ride away in the county town, was an undistinguished private establishment founded in 1608 that had been recast as a State school ten years before Leon arrived.  Life continued there almost as if the British Empire remained triumphant.  Leon studied and remained top of his class but he was disoriented in this new world.  Told after a couple of years to take the exam for a scholarship to Eton College, he passed but then read about life there and, horrified by the prospect of the even more foreign culture of the aristocracy, he failed the oral interview.

During that first year or two as Leon floundered in his new environment, a less passive new person, Sid Leonsson, began taking over.  He told himself he was justifiably alienated from an antiquated culture, started building the personality of an intellectual and began reading philosophy.  He labeled himself an existentialist.

The secondary school curriculum in England in those days channeled students into either the sciences or the arts but Sid insisted on continuing to study both Physics and English literature.  Then, impatient with a curriculum that still felt too narrow, he drifted ever further from both subjects, roaming far afield into theories about the human condition.

He was delivered a great shock by “Three Faces of Eve”, a psychologist’s account of a patient whose body hosted three entirely different people vying for control.  What if he was not the only one in his body?  His current identity felt inauthentic.  Maybe other personalities would spring forth, and none would be authentic?  A friend whose psychologist father specialized in schizophrenia introduced him to much unsettling literature on this topic.

Sid was also deeply moved by Wilfred Owen and other WW1 poets who expressed the horror and insanity of war.  His grandfather, Whalley Sidwell, had faced execution for treason by refusing to join that war and was jailed for two and a half years.  Whalley’s five younger brothers also refused .  One explained: “What if I kill a German boy then I meet his mother and she asks me why I did that?”

Whalley was a powerful presence.  His son, Leonard, drove a van with a film projector all over England during the 1930s for the Peace Pledge Movement.  Their idea was to make war impossible because everyone would have pledged not to participate.  When WW2 broke out, Leonard did refuse to participate and he was jailed.  On his release he was assigned to agricultural work.  Sid did not yet notice that Whalley was occupying his body, too.

Further study felt useless to Sid by the time college was due to start and he decided he must get a job. Having no other idea how to get one, he went to the government office where jobs are posted and was given one picking apples.  When all the apples were picked, someone told him jobs are also listed in newspapers and showed him one as an inventory clerk.  A couple of years later someone told him the computer department would be better so he went there as a computer operator.

A year later, married and living in London, Sid for the first time searched for a job.  He found one as a programmer at a Dickensian insurance company.  A year or two later someone encouraged him to apply to IBM where for three years he for the first time worked alongside thinking people.  He liked that but disliked the culture.  Asked “What is the purpose of business?” he realized he didn’t know.  The answer was: “To make a profit”.  That can’t be right, he thought.  It’s like saying the purpose of life is to breathe.

So, when Sid saw a small American company’s advertisement about opening for business in England, he joined them.  A couple of weeks later they decided not to enter England but gave him a job in America.  It was 1970, and that was when Martin Sidsson, the third person to do so, took the reins of what was by now a 26 year old body.

Sidsson made a determined effort to fit into the entrepreneurial technology startup and the local culture.  It was not hard because everyone he worked with was smart and interesting.  He also made a determined effort to take the initiative and he was soon assigned to manage development of a precursor to the Internet.  Over the next few years he eagerly took on additional responsibilities and made a determined effort to manage according to his belief that the chief purposes of business are to delight customers and provide opportunity for employees.

He eventually remedied his utter ignorance of business operations, established a management consultancy and learned how to market and sell.  That led him to study why businesses fail and how to set effective strategies.  His last decade of work was in leadership positions in a long established global business followed by an Internet-based startup.

Sidsson’s career was not entirely a smooth progression, however.  In the same way that Whalley and Leonard Sidwell had played an important role in Leonardsson’s life, Leonardsson resurfaced a few years into Sidsson’s.  Sidsson always started out ignorant about new responsibilities he took on and he enjoyed the necessarily fast learning, but because his responsibilities grew rapidly, it was stressful.  Also, everything took extra effort because of the depression he had inherited from Leon, Sid, Leonard and Whalley.

As Sidsson’s stress built up, Leonardsson saw an opportunity to regain control.  Believing farming to be the only truly satisfying occupation and unhampered by understanding the unending work required or why small scale farming was no longer viable where Sidsson lived, he got Sidsson to establish a sheep farm.

Some years later, Sidsson recognized another presence in “himself”.  His mother, Florence Sidwell,  had believed there was no problem she could not fix and no challenge she could not overcome.  Without her presence Sidsson could never even have attempted what he had achieved.

By the time he retired, Sidsson was aware not only of his immediate predecessors, Leon and Sid, who were still vying for control of his body, he also saw his parents, Leonard and Florence, taking action with his body.  He no longer had a strong sense of self and was not surprised when a new person, Martin Martinsson, emerged and took control.

Martinsson went trekking in the Himalayas and experienced there a culture that attracted him greatly.  People were cheerful, as if that was their policy, and they were respectful of each other.  What was the cause?  It seemed to be their Buddhist practice.  A few years later, after many more long treks, much reading, and closer study of the reality, he realized the truth is much more complicated.  The people he thought were Buddhist were mostly animist, Nepal’s traditions come to a great extent from its Hindu aristocracy, and it is a caste society with much domestic violence.

But by the time Martinsson saw that more complex picture, he was acting on what he had first sensed.  He was practicing Tibetan Buddhism.  He had received teachings from Anam Thubten whose book, “No Self, No Problem”, makes clear that we do not have an intrinsic self and whose magnetizing presence shows that one really can he happy in all circumstances and can always be spontaneously kind.

He then met a second teacher, Phakchok Rinpoche, who insists his students follow a disciplined program to reach the state Anam Thubten and others exemplify.  We can’t think our way to that state, he insists, we must slowly, slowly retrain our mind by observing how it works, studying teachings, and reflecting.  Now Martinsson had something to work at, which felt good because it exercised the discipline his first incarnation, Leonardsson, had inherited from his parents, Leonard and Florence.

“What is Buddhism?” Rinpoche asked.  The answer: “Selflessness!”  When you experience not having a self that is intrinsically separate from others, your behavior naturally is selfless.  But gaining and sustaining that experience takes practice.  Having “no self” is not how we ordinarily feel.  Instead, we feel we are in a body that actually is separate from others.

Struggling to understand this, Martinsson returned to physics.  The butterfly effect and more in James Gleick’s “Chaos” got him reflecting on the weather, which manifests in different ways in different places, calm, windy, hot, cold, clear, foggy, sunny, raining, snowing, and always changing.  He came to see that what we call weather is the product of a giant energy field of swirling currents which constantly interact with and change each other, that have no fixed boundaries, and that are always different from moment to moment but which recur in broad form from season to season.

Martinsson recognized that just as weather manifests in the Earth’s environment, what we think of as selves manifest in the environment of bodies.

He continued deeper into quantum physics.  Einstein recognized decades before even Leonardsson was born that matter and energy are different manifestations of the same thing.  Sid had not felt that truth in High School physics classes but Martinsson now began to feel the reality that atoms are not solid things, and nor are solar systems.  Studying Lee Smolin’s explanations of theoretical physics in “The Trouble with Physics”, he began to see that what we experience as things like the Earth, our own body, atoms and everything else do not in fact have fixed boundaries or any intrinsic nature.

Matter is congealed energy; energy is liberated matter.  It only appears to us sentient beings that matter and space are different.  The boundary between them is simply a product of our mind.

The configuration of energy that manifests as a human body is sentient, but with limitations.  Every human body is uniquely configured — the high intelligence of Leon, Sid, and the Martins results from the configuration of the body they share, for example – and every body is constantly changing.

Martinsson began to see not just that everything is in flux, but everything is a manifestation of an energy field whose flows constantly interact producing results that propagate endlessly.

There is no real beginning or end of anything, only of appearances in our minds that manifest from flowing energy.

Catching up on quantum physics made the Tibetan Buddhist teachings real.  Martinsson could now to a growing extent feel the two levels of reality, an underlying energy field and what manifests from that energy to our senses and concept generators as, for example, things and personalities.  Leon Leonardsson, Sid Leonsson, Martin Sidsson and Martin Martinsson all exist on both levels, manifestations of an ever-changing energy field that has also manifested Leonard Sidwell, Florence Sidwell, Anam Thubten, Phakchok Rinpoche and so many more who we think of as “others”.

Well now, am I saying that Leonardsson, Leonsson and Sidsson were real people?  Yes and no.  The more I told you about them, the more real they would seem, but that’s also true of Martinsson.  All of them manifested as real in a situation which made that possible.  They were real in the same way as a rainbow when sunlight is separated by raindrops into colors that we usually perceive as one.   We think of a person as having an intrinsic nature in the same way we think of a rainbow as a thing.

Is a rainbow made of matter?  Is it energy in the form of light?  We don’t ordinarily ask such questions.  We do speculate about people and their nature, but with the wrong perspective.  We think of behaviors that manifest as a person as something with an intrinsic nature although those behaviors are in fact manifestations of an ever changing interaction of energy flows with no fixed boundaries and which, although ever changing, never end.

What does all this imply?  The body labelled Martin Sidwell was conceived at a specific time, was born at a specific later one, and will die at a specific future moment, but the sentient being who manifests in that body had no fixed beginning, it has no fixed nature, and it will have no definite end.

Our every act takes place within and is part of an unimaginably complex energy field.  Our every act changes that flowing energy, just as the tiny force of the butterfly’s flapping wing interacts with the results of other acts and eventually manifests a tornado.

Buddhists refer to how the system operates as karma.  To a great extent our actions are shaped by our concepts and emotional habits.  We rarely respond directly to what we see because what appears in our mind is something that fits an existing pattern there.  We see what we expect to see.  We don’t experience each new moment as unique.  We don’t experience it as it really is.   Karma means we keep reacting as we always do until we shed our fixed ideas and emotional habits.

So everything we do matters, and everything we do out of habit instead of what is actually present is flawed.

Pattern recognition and autopilot enable us to navigate what appears — we must, after all, stop automatically for red lights.  Feeling the energy behind what appears — that results in compassion and brings happiness.

Maslow Misapplied to Nations

I was excited 35 years ago to see the rewards for structuring data into quadrant charts.  That was for me!  And management consulting with those charts was fun, but I saw how misleading they can be and at last returned to product and business development.

The chart tool began as a guide for business and product strategy, the idea being that you’re in trouble in the bottom left where your competitive advantages are few and small.  You must develop more and stronger advantages to soar to the profitable heavens on the top right.

BCG Advantage Matrix

Learning how to use and not abuse that tool has continued to be useful.  What provoked this post is research from 1981 to 2014 that is well illustrated by this animation but misleadingly presented in chart in the Findings & Insights summary linked to on this page.

The religion-based labeling is accurate but, in the two-dimensional chart context where the goal is to move from bottom left to top right, it is misleading.

And in this article by a different researcher the data is naively misinterpreted to suggest that capitalism transforms national values toward the political left.

So this is an example of tool abuse.  The data points are real, the research is valuable and the animation of changes over time is meaningful.  But the complex underlying reality is distorted by a static chart labeled in this way.

Nations' Survival vs Self-espression

The World Values Survey (WVS) researchers describe the two dimensions as follows:

  • Traditional values emphasize religion, parent-child ties, deference to authority, traditional family values and national pride
  • Secular-rational values place less emphasis on religion, traditional family values and authority
  • Survival values emphasize economic and physical security, are relatively ethnocentric and feature low levels of trust and tolerance
  • Self-expression values emphasize environmental protection, tolerance, and participation in economic and political decisions

The researchers say the data show that as a country moves from poor to rich, it also tends to move from traditional to secular-rational.  The move is a tendency not inevitable because values are also highly correlated with long-established cultures.

And there is movement in both directions over time.  The USA, for example, is in 1989 a little toward the traditional end and quite far toward self-expression, then it grows more traditional over the next decade, less so in the next, then steadily less traditional and less concerned with self-expression.

The writer claiming that capitalism transforms national values so nations labeled Islamic will, if they embrace capitalism, naturally move toward Protestant heaven, confuses correlation with causation.

His explicit blunder is conceptualizing nations as people to which Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” apply.

Maslow's_hierarchy_of_needs

Maslow illustrates how, if we have no food, all we care about is getting our next meal, but once we have that, we start caring about how to get the next meal and the one after that, and if we secure a reasonably dependable supply of basic needs we put effort into friendships, then start working for the respect of others, and finally devote effort to self-actualization.

Here’s a simpler way to see what Maslow was driving at (hat tip to Lexy):

Lexys-Version-of-Maslow

What Maslow’s hierarchy does not show is how circumstances impact the motivation of nations.  It can’t because nations are not people.  They are made up of people whose situations can be very diverse.

This comment on the naive article (click on the link and wait for it to scroll down) summarizes what the research actually illuminates:  “Economic and political systems, and culture/psychology interact with each other in both directions … autonomous individuals create capitalism, safety creates capitalism, peace creates capitalism.”

The top left is not unalloyed heaven because “increasing empathy and mutual respect [and] the breakdown in social capital go hand in hand with secularization and the domination of the market.”

And good governance is a prerequisite: “the state monopoly of coercion helped create the safety required for the large social networks of trust, and individual autonomy.”

According to the US Census Bureau, 15%, i.e., 47 million Americans are living in poverty meaning “a lack of those goods and services commonly taken for granted by members of mainstream society.”  That includes more than one in five of all chil­dren under age 18.

The WVS research, excellent as it is, can tell us nothing about the value those 47 million Americans place on traditional vs secular-rational values.

And we would be utterly mistaken to imagine they over-value self-expression relative to survival.

Poetry, Physics, Practice & the Ineffable

This story about Everyman exploring where he does not know the language has a deceptively deep point.

We enter the story as Everyman asks his guide “What’s that?” pointing to something intriguing.  It’s the same every time and so frustrating!  He understands none of the few words reply.

They walk on.  Suddenly, through a gap in the trees, Everyman notices an odd looking building.

“What’s that?” he asks, pointing to the building, and again understands none of the few words reply.

Now the path leads up.  From the crest he sees a beautiful stone structure that seems to overlook the next valley.

“What’s that?” he asks, pointing to the beautiful structure, and yet again understands none of the familiar reply.

So it goes every day.

Then one day they happen upon a man who speaks not only Everyman’s but also the local language.

“I don’t understand,” Everyman says.  “Every time I want to know what something is I ask my guide, but I never understand his answers and the really odd thing is, it feels like he always says the same thing!”

“Show me what you mean.”

“OK.”  Everyman beckons the guide over, nods to him and points to a colorful bird on a nearby branch.  “What’s that?” he asks, and the guide replies.

“There!” Everyman exclaims.  “What did he say?”

“He said, ‘It’s your finger, you fool.'”

The point of the story is we think words are the names of things when in fact, they just point toward “things.”  If we don’t see what is being pointed toward, we imagine words to mean what we already think they mean.

My experience working to understand, experience and embrace Buddhist metaphysics has been much like that of Everyman and his guide.

The ethics are the same but the Buddhist understanding of existence is fundamentally different from what I learned growing up.  The difficulty is, all the words available to express that understanding already have meanings in my mind.

I soon realized I must work to see what is different that familiar words are pointing towards.  That takes persistent effort and what is very unfamiliar to me, persistent relaxing.

There’s meditation that calms the mind, like waiting for the wind to slacken, because it’s hard to see clearly in our usual mind-storm.

There’s close observation and rigorous analysis that make it possible to recognize what is real.

And there’s chanting poetry, a disorienting ritual practice that facilitates the experience of what is real.

I’m so blessed to have been introduced to three approaches to the ineffable —  poetry, physics and practice!

TCN, Episode 9 – Retreat and Empowerment

Nov 6 – I ask Nagendra what he thinks about retreats.  The longest ones I’ve done have been a week long.  My mind calmed, it became easier to observe what thoughts arose and see their origin, and that helped the meaning of teachings get through the usual distracting clutter.

I hope to do a one month retreat sometime because that’s the traditional next step, but I shall not take the following step, a three year retreat.

The two week-long classes I just took were a form of retreat.  We were instructed to consider them so.  At one point our teacher said: “People think what it means to be a lama is we give up sex, but it’s so much more than that.  We make more than two hundred commitments about what we will and will not do, and after the third empowerment we must have a consort for the next practices.”

Empowerments authorize you to perform certain practices.  They are given by teachers when you have attained the results of your current practice.  Each of the four empowerments authorizes one to perform a certain class of practices. One is then granted approval for specific practices within that class.

I am at the first level and feel unlikely to get to the second.

The original set of Buddhist practices is known as Nyingma, the Old School.  My teachers are in this tradition.  Three New Schools came later, one of which split into two, and the latest of which is headed by the Dalai Lama.

An important way the Nyingma tradition is different is its practitioners can live an “ordinary” life with an approach that is different from ordinary.

Both my teachers are married with children.  The younger one, who is mid-30s, was told by his chief teacher: “It is time for you to have a wife.”  He was quite surprised but did as he was told and is happy that he did.  His wife alerts him to negative behaviors that he had not noticed.   There was no question of disobeying, anyway.  He is unusual in teaching from his own experience, which makes his teachings more accessible.

I’d been thinking the Nyingma ordinary life approach seems the most effective.  Our experiences in ordinary life trigger our habitual negative concepts and emotions.  That causes us to suffer, which can motivate us to change those habits.  If we hadn’t triggered our suffering, we would not have noticed the existence of our negative concept or emotion.

But doesn’t that mean a three year retreat is counter-productive?  If I sit by myself in a cave for three years I won’t interact with anyone and trigger any new suffering.  “What do you think, Nagendra?”

A long pause, then: “When there is no temptation there is no examination.”

“Is that original?  It must be a quote!”  

“Oh, it’s original…”  He was just articulating his opinion.  Pretty amazing.

In any case, it’s what I always thought.  But then Nagendra went on to say his more considered opinion.  What would happen in long solitude is thoughts would come from one’s past experiences. You might recall a particularly fine meal in a restaurant.  You would think about going for such a meal again but it would be impossible.

Or you might think only about your Buddhist practice.  In that case you might imagine the results you hope your retreat will bring, or fear that it will not.

The lama who taught the classes I just took mentioned the most powerful teaching he ever received .  He asked his teacher what he gained from twelve years of solitary retreat.  He replied: “Oh I wasted all that time in hope and fear about the results I might get.”

So I see how I might benefit from a three year retreat — but I still won’t be doing one 😊

After that our conversation degenerated into more examples of what is wrong in Nepal now and the deep rooted origins.  Every so often, to vary my response, I would say “Bullshit!”

At last Nagendra said: “I like this concept, bullshit.  It gives us the power to ignore what we label that way.”

I was very happy.  I had originated the Bullshit Empowerment.

TCN, Episode 7 – Confusion Dawns as Wisdom

Oct 28 – A famous saying in the tradition I’m practicing is: “Confusion dawns as wisdom.”  That is truly skillful phrasing!

The practices I’m learning aim to disrupt misunderstandings that we crystallize in words whose meaning we no longer question.  Words that point in more than one direction can shake us up, help us to see multiple truths simultaneously.

“Dawns” directs us to recognize that just as night’s darkness is replaced at dawn by the light of day, the confusion in which we live will be replaced by lucid awareness when the result of our training dawns.

Dawn

The same word also directs us to recognize that while at first light we can see wisdom, confusion reigns in the full light of day because we bring our perspective and assumptions to everything.

My experience is very much of both meanings.  Sometimes there’s a sudden clearing in the fog.  Other times I suddenly recognize the fogginess of what I thought was clear.

I’m committed to this training because I’ve seen its inspiring results in others.  But it is indeed confusing!  The practices are either so simple that they don’t look like they could have any effect, or so complicated as to seem incomprehensible. And they’re hard to do.

Try creating a highly detailed and colorful movie in your mind while chanting Tibetan sentences over and over again, remembering when to ring your hand bell, what melody to use when, and what gestures to make with your hands at what points while narrating a story.

And try understanding the changes you’re working to make in your mind and its resulting behaviors while you’re doing all that.

This is why the teachers are always telling us: “Slowly, slowly…”  It’s a long and arduous process breaking up the mess our minds have gotten into over the whole of our life to this moment.

I’m thrilled to find it working a little bit.  So thrilled that I must show you this picture I took a few years ago in upper Mustang near the Tibetan border even though it has nothing to do with what I just said!

Horses winnowing barley

One of my teachers says we are all baby Buddhas. That’s very reassuring.

Recognizing a few days ago that we are simply a locus of cognizance within an energy field has now enabled me to understand, in a foggy way so far, how the ever-changing energy field that manifests as us while we’re alive can survive our body’s death.

The ever changing waves and particles that manifest as “me” will be disrupted when my body dies but they will not cease to exist, just keep changing.

It was the same when my body was born.  The sentient being that I think of as “me” did not come from nothing.  The waves and particles of energy that manifested as “me” already existed.  They just manifested in a new way when my body emerged.

But in the everyday world here in Nepal I see no signs of confusion dawning as wisdom.  Now the big festival is over, violent protests have resumed on the border. Vehicles torched, people beaten up…

Newspaper editorials call for politicians and protesters to talk to each other.  It’s not talking but listening that’s missing.  Nepal will not become a functioning democracy just because its Constitution calls for that.  It could take three or more generations for dawn to manifest in Nepal’s  governance sphere.

Now, back to the monastery for the afternoon class.

TCN, Episode 6 – How Ritual Practice Works

Buddhist metaphysics as elucidated by Nagarjuna 1,800 years ago explains the world in a way that is, as Alan comments, amazingly consistent with modern physics.

One of the characters in our cranium, Mr. Intellect, loves to explore such ideas, but he does not drive how we act, and Buddhism’s purpose is not intellectual entertainment but better behavior.

Ritual practice helps Mr. Intellect recognize that while his concepts can be useful, they filter reality, and it also helps his roommate, Mr. Ego, who has so many ideas about things we can do, to abandon his lazy emotional habits.  It works like theater except the experience is of existence as it really is.

Acting on a stage, speaking, gesturing and using props, we can experience life with different pre-programmed responses.  Sitting in the audience, we can feel how preconceptions and emotional habits lead to farce or tragedy.  Maybe we recognize some of those same habits in ourselves.

Theatrical performances require carefully designed sets.  It’s the same for ritual practice.  This is the set for the practice I’m learning:

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The bowls in the foreground are offerings of sense pleasures.  They originated in India as a replacement for earlier sacrificial offerings.

Pairs of offerings called torma in metal bowls behind them are specific to Tibetan practice.  The noun form of torma means “offering”, its verb form “discarding”.

Torma are offered to deities that embody the perfect form of qualities we want to develop and to demonic forces in us that impair our progress.  They are made from barley flour and butter, are usually conical and are painted and adorned according to their specific purpose.

Here is the torma we’re learning to make.  Lama says it takes only a few months to get good at it 🙂

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Our generosity and other beneficial behaviors are imperfect because we are misled by preconceptions and negative emotions.  In these rituals we practice how it feels to manifest these behaviors perfectly.  We imagine being deities that perfectly embody the behaviors.

We practice how it feels when nothing masks our natural goodness.  We imagine requesting our obstructive demons to leave and giving them offerings.

We might want to keep the statues we work so hard to perfect, but such clinging amplifies our selfishness.  We practice discarding them without regret.

Here is one of my classmates getting feedback:
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In the world outside, politicians continue to jockey for positions with good payoffs.  Ours make big money after they leave office, Nepal’s via corruption in office.  There’s almost no cooking gas, many restaurants have closed, those left have limited menus, and people cook outside with scrap wood.

But it’s such a blessing to be alive!

TCN, Episode 5 – Gas and China

Oct 27 – Violent protests in southern Nepal continue along with the blockade.  The border can only be policed at major road crossings so men are still bringing food in by bicycle the same way they always do, but fuel tankers and trucks with raw materials can and are being blocked.

Only about 10% of the usual gasoline is coming in.  Black market gasoline bought for 100 rupees per liter and brought in small containers from India sells for anywhere up to 1,000 in Kathmandu.

Occasional trucks come in with cooking gas.  People queue for days on rumors of a delivery. [photo: Nepal Mountain News]

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But a neighbor of my friend Nagendra showed him how, if you are well connected,  you can drive to the back of the depot and get as many tanks as you want.

A few black market tanks brought in from India by bicycle are selling for 8,000 rupees or more versus the usual 1,450.  Everyone assumes the illustration below shows the source of all the others.

Nepal Cooking Gas

Industrial activity ceased almost three months ago.  Factory workers aren’t getting paid, customs revenue is down 27% this quarter, VAT is down 16% and bank lending has stopped.

Life is growing a lot harder for all but the wealthy or well-connected few.  Doma’s grandmother has no cooking gas left and must pay heavily for wood from the jungle.  Yubhan Tamang in the picture below in the kitchen at Bir Hospital, one of the busiest in Nepal, has been cooking with firewood for around 300 patients daily for a month and a half. [Photo: Gopen Rai]

Cooking with Wood

This is the time of Nepal’s great annual festival.  Visiting friends and family is a big part of the celebration but people are not doing it this year because they would have to be offered food and hot drinks.

The economy will be devastated if the blockade and strike continue.  Some private sector leaders are calling for the government to issue a White Paper at least saying what they propose to do.

China has made Nepal a gift of several tanker loads of gasoline, seeking to increase their already growing influence here.  They will stop at the border where Nepal’s political leaders insist the gasoline must be transferred into Nepalese tankers.  Only small tankers can be used because the roads on this side of the border are so poor.

Many Nepalis have fallen for the government’s claim that embracing China’s friendship will propel Nepal rapidly into great prosperity, the end of all problems.  Geography in the form of the Himalayas makes that unlikely.  70% of Nepal’s international trade is with India.  The US is its second biggest trade partner at 7% and China is 6th at 2%.  The explanation?  Transportation costs.

China will not make the investment to supply Nepal with large amounts of gasoline on a regular basis unless the cost of gasoline from India is raised to equal its cost from China.  If India’s gasoline is cheaper, China’s will have no market.

Nepal could equalize the costs by increasing  customs duties on gasoline from India.  That would have the side-effect of benefiting the politicians.  It would also seriously hurt the people.  I’m not betting against it because it’s impossible to overestimate the systemic corruption here.

TCN, Episode 4 – Momos and Missionaries

Oct 26 – I’m downstairs as usual this evening in the restaurant at Ti-Se Guest House, my Tibetan Buddhist home during my classes.   Tibetan butter tea is already purifying (hah!) my bloodstream and my veg momos have just arrived.

Momos alone at Ti-Se

The momos are perfect!  As I savor them, five young Nepalis come in with an elderly Korean man and two middle-aged Korean women.  The young Nepalis start talking enthusiastically about a Christian seminar they’ve been attending.  After listening to them with a smile for five or ten minutes, the kind-looking Korean man ceremoniously places a $100 bill in front of each of them.

The conversation continues.  I’m not really listening but I hear mention of David from South Carolina.   Maybe he is one of the three groups of Americans who were here for breakfast on different days last week. They were from the South.

The first group was obsessed with football results back home.  Very loudly obsessed.  I was distressed by their sense of entitlement about dominating the room.

It was only when one responded truculently to being asked what he would do after breakfast by saying he would go to his room and read his bible that their purpose became apparent.  Perhaps they were being careful?  Nepal’s new Constitution makes it illegal to attempt to convert anyone to another religion.

I was pleased they were not around the next day.  Breakfast was peaceful again.  But later that week there was a new group.  Their breakfast conversation was all about the logistics of their plan to spread the gospel here.  They spoke quite loudly making no effort to hide why they are here.

And at the end of the week a third group appeared.  I didn’t pay much attention to them because the presence of Christian missionaries no longer seemed surprising.  It did seem odd that they would all have chosen to stay in a Tibetan Buddhist guesthouse, though.

I asked my Nepali classmate about Christian missionaries.  A few used to come alone or in pairs but more come now, often in groups.  They give money, especially to the poorest who are happy to call themselves Christians to get money.  Nepali culture strongly encourages behaving respectfully to anyone who might give you something .

Then as I walked to my class yesterday morning I realized that Nepalis roaring down the narrow passageways on motorbikes honking at pedestrians also have that sense of entitlement.  My embarrassment about the behavior of my fellow Americans was misjudged.  Furthermore, I recognized the mote in my own eye — prejudice about missionaries.

Where does that prejudice come from?  There’s a story I tell myself.  It’s about people who tell others what to believe.  “This man seized on a concept about his own existence” I say to myself, “and now he’s trying to get others to believe it, too, to make himself feel more safe.”

It is wrong to use power over others.  It’s a form of violence.  But my story about “the kind of people who” means I see a concept of missionaries not real ones.  I make a judgment about them for which I have no evidence and which will in any case, simply because it is a judgment, cause me to act badly.

And last night I encountered my own sense of entitlement.  A mosquito was buzzing round my head as I lay in bed.  From lifelong habit, I felt entitled to kill it.  But I’m a Buddhist now.  I’ve vowed never to do violence even to insects.

I tried to think it through.  The mosquito had to bite me to get its food and that would cause me discomfort.  It would be impossible for me to drive it away and even if I could, it would go on to bite someone else.  My choice, then, was either to end the mosquito’s life or suffer short-lived discomfort.

What I should do was obvious, and I had anyway committed myself to that choice.  But even after I saw the decision clearly, I still kept having to arrest my lunging hand as it tried to end the annoyance.  At last I went to sleep.  Surprisingly, there was no sign of biting when I woke this morning.

Sad to say, I just ate the last momo and the Tibetan tea is finished.  The Korean man went to his room a while ago.  All the others just left with elaborate good byes.  I go to the front desk and ask the young woman if the missionary groups are associated with each other.  They’re not.  The Korean man was giving a week long training class to Christian Nepalis who will spread the gospel.  The loud Americans have gone on a trek.  She doesn’t know what the others are doing now but they all booked separately.

Why can’t we just all agree, I think to myself, to give up violence, stealing and lying?  Why do we have to have all this divisive extra stuff?  Then I remember what I’m struggling to learn in these classes, such complicated visualizations, chanting and whatnot.

It’s easy enough to know that killing and so forth is negative but it’s very hard to stop doing such things.  That’s why we need training programs.

TCN, Episode 3 – Metaphysics and Quantum Physics

Oct 20 – The cook is missing. “He come five or ten minutes.”  But in Nepal that’s an aspiration, not something to depend on.  I do need breakfast — I just had to make a new hole in my belt.  Less food, no meat or beer while I’m receiving teachings, it always surprises me how fast the result comes.

But results from classes come much more slowly.  Tibetan Buddhism is an enormous range of training programs among which we search for one that resonates.  Then we must do it, over and over and over again.  They all have the same purpose, to help us grow more kind.

We have so many ideas and habitual responses, and because we misunderstand the basic reality of existence, our ideas are misguided.  That’s why we keep creating suffering.  The only way to stop that is to recognize then discard our delusions and habits.

I can’t say what I’m learning in these classes because I don’t understand it well enough yet, but I will in another post say how ritual practices work, including the role of the dough statues (torma).

For now, I’ll just introduce our teachers, Lama Sherab, whose teaching is so clear, Ani Laura, whose translation makes them that way, and our so skillful and patient torma teacher.

My Teachers

The mental clouds parted for an instant just now.  Such a blessing!  I glimpsed reality not obscured by concepts but as it really is.  So hard to communicate such glimpses though, because no matter how skillfully words try to point toward reality, what they bring to mind is concepts.

I’ll try to show what I recognized.  Nothing we can observe has a fixed intrinsic nature.  Everything is composed of smaller parts that came together and everything we can observe is changing.  Each of us is changing in every instant but because we have what we think of as a personality, a unique face and so on, we imagine we have an unchangeable core that is not made up of parts.

I remember the scary suspicion in my late teens that my personality was fake, that I was fabricating it from no real base.  When suspicion turned to certainty, I told myself it was a good thing because I could choose what to become — a businessman, a good man, maybe both and more!

But, self-centered as I was, it never occurred to me that nobody else had an intrinsic nature either.  I wasn’t ready for Buddhism fifty years ago.  I was for Physics but it was not taught well at my school.  I knew e=mc2 but had no sense of the implications.

Energy and matter are different manifestations of the same thing.  That’s the step I didn’t take to see the true nature of the world.

Our sensory apparatus and brain provide us with the experience of matter.  It’s only if we change focus that we can recognize the other view, that there is nothing other than the flow of energy that manifests to us primarily as matter, things we can see and touch.  What is this galaxy; matter or energy?

Galaxy

Our body, the vehicle for our life journey, is the manifestation of a highly complex and ever changing flow of energy.  It is nothing but energy flowing within a gargantuan ever changing energy field.

What I think of as “me” is a locus of awareness in an energy field like the weather system.  The air is still where I am now but there was a breeze at the monastery.  Further north it’s snowing but it never snows here because the conditions are different.  The weather is changing in every instant everywhere, but within limits created by conditions that change more slowly.  Changes in the world in which the weather changes trigger more changes.  The interplay of flowing forces shapes their flow.

That’s how it is with you, me, with everything that appears to be a thing.  The appearances are real, but they appear as they do only because our mind works that way.  They have no intrinsic nature.  It’s just our concept that they do, and that they are separate from each other.

When we reach that understanding, we feel compassion for all the suffering that results from misunderstanding.  We want to bring it to an end.  That’s not a response from logic, it’s just what happens.   Interacting with people who do a lot of this training, I’ve seen it to be inevitable.  People who train diligently just do grow more happy and kind.  That’s why I know it’s worth persisting.

Brain Scan

Look at the energy flowing in that brain!  It is part of the universal energy field and somehow cognizing the flow.  Like the butterfly whose flapping wings spark a tornado, its every action is shaping the future.

Ah, breakfast has arrived. The cook never did, so others took over.  He’s probably celebrating Dashain, the big annual festival.