Today’s Chaos in Nepal (TCN), Episode 1

I was going to call these posts “Chaos in Nepal” but that implies chaos is unusual here.

Oct 2 – Doma’s mom meets me at the airport in a taxi and we speed off to where I’ll stay until classes start.  There’s so little traffic!  That’s because almost no gasoline is coming from India.

What damage was done by the earthquakes?  I see no damaged buildings on the way from the airport.  Most buildings in Kathmandu are relatively new reinforced concrete post and beam construction with three floors or less and most of them survived with at worst a few cracks in the single layer brick walls or the ground floor.  This undamaged one is getting an additional story.

Post and Beam

But it’s very different in the villages higher up.  Most houses there have traditional wood frames and mud walls.  Almost every building in Doma’s grandmother’s village was destroyed.

I check in to the Tibetan-operated Ti-Se Guest House then walk over to the great stupa.  The top must be rebuilt but the buildings around all seem OK.  People are walking reverently round the stupa as usual, and the pigeons are being fed.

Boudha 1

Boudha 3

A blind Sherpa with his Tibetan style guitar in one of the side roads is singing that all of us are in the light while he is in darkness.  He seems accepting.

Sherpa Singer

Oct 7 –  The kitchen is dark when I come downstairs for my dinner of steamed veg. momos (similar to Chinese dumplings) and Tibetan butter tea — it’s not a conscious decision: I just don’t eat meat while I’m here for Buddhist teachings.

I assume it’s dark because hydro plants that accounted for 12% of Nepal’s theoretical capacity were knocked out by the earthquakes and will not be repaired soon.  The rainy season only just ended and there’s already no electricity 8 hours a day. There’ll be none for 16 hours a day when the rivers run low a few months from now.

The young woman at the front desk says the generator will be started soon and takes my order, then we chat.  She recently got a psychology degree in India and very much wants to help women and children here.  Mental illness is very stigmatized in Nepal, though, so how to start?  She will try offering counseling to schoolchildren without pay for a few months to demonstrate the value.

She says Nepal is a mess that’s growing rapidly worse, which makes it all the more urgent to help.   She is especially troubled that people now identify themselves by their religion and regard followers of other religions as enemies.

There has been no progress on the blockade. Private citizens can’t buy gas at all now, taxis get 10 liters per week, microbuses 15 liters every other day.  The politicians are doing nothing but jostle for position in the next government.  They say they can’t do anything because there isn’t yet a government, they were only elected to develop the Constitution.  Meanwhile, the shortage of daily essentials is fast growing worse.  I’d be worried about rioting but Nepalis are all too used to suffering.

 

Happy Birthday Every Day

I was both born and met my death on April 20, 1970.  It also happened on March 25, 1944 when I separated from my mother’s body.  It is happening again in this very moment.

Our universe is energy, in no way fixed, an endless, glorious play of energy.

None of the universe’s energy is created or destroyed.  It simply changes.   That is the first law of thermodynamics.  All energy is conserved.

Physicists have measured the conservation of energy.  It is absolutely consistent across all space and time.

So, along with everything else, what I think of as “me” disappears and is reborn in every instant.  The waves of energy that appeared as “me” when I typed “in every instant” have already changed shape and direction.

Mostly, we notice only the dramatic changes.  Perhaps for a moment we feel the beauty of a flower.  But we do not recognize that our mind-body is always changing.

All the energy that manifested as “me” when I landed in New York forty five years ago remains in this world even though much of it is no longer part of “me”.  Every wave of energy that encountered “me” changed “me”.  The path of every wave that met “me” was changed by the encounter.

How to sense this fundamental truth?  I think of the weather.

The entire weather system is interconnected.  It has no fixed borders yet it is different everywhere and always changing.  The sun is rising in a clear sky above Brunswick Maine this morning.   Yesterday at this time it was gray, windy and raining.  Rain is falling in other places right now.

Tiny actions like the flap of a butterfly’s wing engage with powerful winds that arise seasonally as the positions of the Earth and Sun change.  So many factors change the flow of energy that we experience as weather.

We humans manifest in the same way as weather, all different, all part of the same system, not remaining exactly the same even for a moment.  And, like the butterfly drying its wings, our every action changes the entire energy flow.

Perhaps some of the energy that now creates the appearance of “me” will later join other waves of energy in a summer monsoon to nourish rice in India.  Perhaps a grandchild of a child waking up now in Brunswick, Maine will enjoy some of that rice.  The play of energy makes anything and everything possible.

Our intellect can’t quite understand how our “self” can be imaginary yet cognizant, imaginary but able to choose how it nudges the energy in which it appears.  I’ve learned not to worry about that.

Intellect is what gives us the opportunity to deploy our kindness intelligently.  Becoming better able to do that is my birthday wish.

The Practice of Generosity

Could I do a good enough job asking for donations for Doma’s college education?  I’d never done anything like it before.  I knew she would get some of what she needs because I have such good-hearted friends, but how much?

Doma is amazed that fully four fifths of the total has already been given!  She needs only $5,000 more for her first year at Hampshire College.

But what’s left now is the hard part.

We get so many appeals and we can’t give to them all.  Worse, we’re usually too busy when an appeal arrives to figure out if it’s worthy of support.  Will this appeal really make a difference?

Yes!  Doma, an amazing young low-caste Nepali woman, is transforming her own future.   All she needs from us is 50 more supporters to donate $100.

Most of us could do that very easily.  Five $20 bills don’t buy much any more.  Many of us buy $100 items online without hesitation.

So the fact that Doma still needs those donations means I must do a better job.

Maybe it’s time for crowd-funding, aiming to reach people I don’t know?  Certainly, when Doma is here, she can give traditional Nepali dance performances at fund-raisers.

But how much more powerful for Doma if her education sponsor’s friends support her completely even before they’ve met her.  Let’s raise the rest of what she needs for her first year right now.

I never asked you for anything like this before so you know it’s important even if you don’t have time to read what makes it so.   Is there a $100 meal or some other luxury you could forgo?

If you are blessed in this way, help Doma transform her future by clicking here to donate that $100 now.  It takes only a moment.  Ask your friends to do it, too.

Thank you and bless you!

 

 

 

Chaos Theory and What we Do

We’re raised to believe chaos is a bad thing, a state of disorder.  “Your room is a mess, it’s in chaos, clothes everywhere, everything filthy!”   But recent scientific discoveries shed new light on chaos.  We now know how deterministic systems like the weather can produce unpredictable behavior, a situation we think of as chaotic.

This discovery re-frames causality, the old debate about free will or determinism.  A deterministic system is one where the result of every cause is inevitable.  That seems to imply the system can only develop in one way so we could forecast its state perfectly at any future time.  Why, then, can we not predict the weather two weeks, two months or two years out?  Because very small changes can have very big results.

Chaos theory is known as the butterfly effect after a 1972 paper by Edward Lorenz: Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil set off a Tornado in Texas?”  What Lorenz showed is that a flapping wing, a tiny change in a big system, can trigger a chain of events that lead to large-scale phenomena.  If the butterfly had not flapped its wings in Brazil, the system could have developed in a vastly different way.

Chaos theory does not say if we can or can not choose what we do, it does show that a tiny good act could nudge the system of behaviors and results in which we live toward an immensely happier state.  Or the reverse.  Our tiniest actions, a little bit bad, uncaring, or a little bit good could lead to results of unimaginable scope and power.  We don’t have to know whether humankind has free will, we do now know it matters very much what we do.

What should we do then?  I’m beginning to realize I completely misunderstood Eastern thinking about what to do.  They teach acceptance.  What do they mean by that?  Raised in the West, I  understood acceptance to imply an uncaring, uninvolved, inactive stance.  After quite a bit of study and reflection I realize Buddhists understand acceptance very differently; seeing things as they really are and taking action that really is helpful.

What does it mean to “see things as they really are”?  What we “see” is our interpretation of phenomena via concepts we trust.  That’s essential in many situations.  When we’re driving and we see a red traffic light, that small red signal triggers the appropriate response.  The triggered response can also be useful even when a signal is falsely interpreted.   If the tree stump that quick-matched my concept really had been a robber, my response would have been appropriate.

But there can be great harm when we “see” people behave in ways that we interpret via concepts.  Nothing like the tree stump will appear to reveal our mistake.  The wealthy-looking man will continue to look industrious and trustworthy, the raggedy one unambitious and maybe a free-loader or dangerous.  We will act toward them based on our concept and the harm will increase because we will keep “seeing” what we expect to see and reinforcing it by acting as we always do when that’s what we “see”.

I’m also realizing the definition I grew up with is fundamentally different from the Buddhist understanding of “perfect” and how Buddhist “perfect” relates to “acceptance”.   To a Buddhist, “perfect” is not a value judgment just acknowledgment that the situation at any instant is complete.  “Acceptance” means we don’t waste time and energy wishing it was some other way.  It can at this instant be no other way, it has been “perfected”.

“Seeing” is also related to “Acceptance”.  It requires training (or sudden insight) so, with undistorted awareness and acceptance of the situation, we know what really is most beneficial to do.    As chaos theory explains, we might at any moment take some small action that would nudge our fellow beings toward enormously greater happiness.

“Identity” is also related to “chaos”, “causality” and “seeing”.  What we “see” as a tornado is phenomena solidified into a concept.  It has no fixed identity.  It’s more a force than what we see and hear of dust, broken fragments of houses, and maybe Dorothy and her dog.  They’re just bits and pieces, not the essence of a thing.  What we seem to hear and feel are not an object but the manifestation of a collection of forces.  The collection would be better named by a verb, not a noun.  It’s an ever-changing aggregate of forces picking up an ever-changing collection of objects composed, if we look closely, of tinier and tinier particles.

A tornado is a different thing in the next moment, and a tiny change in what led it to appear here and now could have led to something utterly different.  It’s the same with beings.  If any one of so many small things had gone a different way, I would not exist, and any tiny change later could have led me to do entirely things with very different effects.

It is more accurate to consider tornadoes and people as processes than things, ever-changing aggregates that manifest in ways only chaos theory illuminates.

“If You Really Want to End Suffering,

it’s very simple,” Shugen Sensei told us at the start of our week of Zen Buddhist meditation: “Stop creating it.”  I’ll come back to that in a moment.  Just notice he did not say it’s easy.

Thinking why I blog reminded me of what Steve Jobs said is the secret to product development “Start somewhere”.  Just starting has always been my path.  Only later, sometimes much later, if what I started still feels worth doing, do I try to understand why.  The urge to figure out the why of Himalayan exploration, Buddhist practice, economic and governance research and blogging has now arrived.   To my surprise, it centers on ending suffering.

It all started ten years ago in the Himalayan mountains.  It wasn’t my idea to go there and I had no specific objective.  What happened was I found myself among people who appeared to be living with dignity, not aggressively, not hurriedly, and happily without the nice things we take for granted.  Could it be true?  Did they have a recipe my society might learn from?  So I kept going back.

I began to wonder if Buddhism was part of the recipe.   When we visited Buddhist temples our crew always lit lamps and prostrated.  But later, when we visited Hindu temples and the dwelling places of animist spirits, they showed reverence there, too.  I’d done some Buddhist reading by that time and was trying to meditate.  That’s why I went to the Zen monastery.

By the end of the first day I was pretty sure I’d made a mistake.  It was so hard to do nothing, sit completely still, just notice my thoughts, make no judgments, not reject or follow them.   By the end of the day I was exhausted although I’d “done” nothing.  I fell instantly asleep.  In the morning I thought, “I’ll see how it goes until breakfast”.   After breakfast I thought, “I’ll see if I can hang on ’til lunch”.  At day’s end I thought, “Maybe day three will be better“.   It was worse.  Day four was a little better, though, and so it went.  I’d suffered a lot by the end of the week but I’d also had glimpses of the truth of what Shugen Sensei told us at the start.  I was bringing my suffering onto myself.  That felt worth knowing.

Before I could go to the Himalayas I’d forced myself to retire.  It was hard because from then on, investments would have to support us.  With more time to worry, I realized my ignorance of how the economy works meant I had little confidence we’d made good investments.  So, when I wasn’t in the Himalayas I studied investment and economic theory.  The Great Recession arrived just as I was starting to feel I had the theories sufficiently clear.

Now I had to understand why our economy collapsed.  I studied governance and saw some parallels with the paralysis of government in Nepal.  That’s when I started blogging.  The US economy is embedded in the global economy.  There are so many moving parts in the system.  I had to start recording facts and analyses to get a holistic picture.  Charts and writing are my best tools for thinking and I hoped for critical feedback.

It’s only recently that I began to sense all these activities are related and they all start where Shugen Sensei was pointing.  They’re all aimed at happiness and stopping the creation of suffering.

The historical Buddha taught that we will only become truly happy when we work to end the suffering of others.  It must be so because we are not separate from others.  If they are unhappy we will also be made unhappy.  Communities were small two and a half thousand years ago.  People made each other happier or not with face to face interactions.   Today we also interact via nation-state and global systems that impact both us and future generations.  That’s why I care about governance.

A Semi-Wrathful Frog

Frogs are not cuddly but each could be a prince.  Today, the transformation is triggered by a princess’s kiss.  In Grimm’s version it’s when the princess disgustedly throws the frog against a wall.  In other cases the frog had only to spend a night on the princess’s pillow.

Setting fable aside, a sad fact about frogs is that one sitting in a pan of water will not notice the gradual change if the water is heated.  It will remain unaware until it dies.

A frog that touches hot water, however, will immediately jump away from the danger.  I say this because although no form of attention from a princess will transform me into a prince, I do try to notice and point out water that’s getting hotter.

A couple of days ago, someone I greatly respect asked: “Your posts seem a bit angry; do you feel that way?”  I was surprised.   “I don’t think so…  I hope not…  Hmmm, I do see what you mean.  Maybe they do sound that way.  It’s true that I very much want some things to change.”

My posts are on disparate topics but most are sparked when I notice something and feel like a frog sensing hot water.  Wanting to alert my neighbors to the danger, I probably would be semi-wrathful.

What does semi-wrathful mean?  Tibetan Buddhists use images of deities with peaceful, wrathful and semi-wrathful appearance.  Meditating on them helps practitioners see the origin of their emotional habits and misguided concepts as they work to slowly gain control of their mind.

These deities do not experience emotion as we do.  They do not feel attracted, repelled or indifferent.  They simply recognize what is good and not good behavior, speech and thoughts.

Peaceful deities help calm the crazy spinning of the mind.  Wrathful deities help destroy its passions, anger, desire and indifference.  Semi-wrathful deities help those of us who sometimes need gentle calming and sometimes more urgency to do better.

Aspiring to be a semi-wrathful frog is better than the goal many of us are given, to be lion king of the jungle.  That has three defects — lions do not live in the jungle, it is not possible to control the jungle, and above all, it’s selfish.

Selfishness makes everyone unhappy.

Mr. Ego and I Went Into a Bar

Actually not.  What happened is I woke up as always in a 5-star hotel with my eyes able to see such beautiful things, my nose sensing such wonderful fragrances and my fingers able to do oh, so many things.  But I’d forgotten where I was, and who I was.  Also, I had a roommate, Mr. Ego, who was anxious about that and in response had so many ideas for things we could do.

Harold, John and Kristin wrote fascinating comments on “We Are Not Alone”, my post about the sense of self.   Harold’s begins: “When I meditate I realize that the thoughts that flow through my head are simply thoughts. Who notices those thoughts? The part of me (I call it my core) that notices those thoughts I feel is the real me.”  That reminded me of Anam Thubten’s metaphor above where Mr. Ego keeps distracting “me” from reality.  Harold goes on to explain how reflecting on the difference between his core and his thoughts enabled him to: “make perhaps the most profound and fundamental change in my life”.  It’s an inspiring example of the benefit of this kind of practice.

What Harold experiences as his core seems to be what Buddhists term cognizant awareness.  Its existence can be pointed out with words but it can’t be adequately described or explained.  We can recognize the experience, however, because it is our fundamental nature.  I’ve met enough extraordinarily happy and kind people who trained themselves to recognize that awareness so I’m sure it’s true.  I need to do as they did because my cognizant awareness is still obscured by the relentless activity of my thought-making heap, Mr. Ego.

What I imagine to be “me” feels like an ever-changing heap of habitual responses that in varying combinations keep being re-enacted in response to new experiences.  I have a sense of continuity, that there is a “me” at the center, because repetition causes the individual habitual thoughts to gain or lose strength slowly and new habits get added at a relatively low rate. What happens from time to time, though, is like what happens to sand piles.  Some habits get aligned, so to say, along fault lines.  When an experience that would usually have little effect hits the fault line and triggers an avalanche, “me” does seem to change.

John describes: “a thought experiment where I gradually eliminate all elements of what forms my awareness of “me” […] sight doesn’t exist. No hearing or concept of hearing. […] no memory […] What is left? […] the me that used all my bodily functions to perceive “the world”, still seems to “be”, but in a timeless awareness.”

Maybe, John says: “there is really only one “us”, but many entities animated by the one “us”” and: “if there were a being who created us […] for a purpose, […] these perceived multiple individualities might be to help us to develop a personal awareness of the effects of Evil since we would be experiencing both the performance of evil actions and the effects we perpetrate on our “selves”.  Perhaps it’s part of a long term education in how to be a truly rational and compassionate being.”

I do not sense the existence of a causal being but I have come to see our situation as a long term training program in compassion.  The existence or not of a Creator feels unimportant for two big reasons.  One is that it doesn’t help with the fundamental mystery.  If the universe was created by a Supreme Being, what created that Being?  Much more importantly, followers of all traditions, including Tibetan Buddhism in which there is no Creator, agree that by training to see things as they really are, we inevitably become more happy and more kind.  If all paths lead toward that goal it isn’t important which one we take, only that we take one.

The more I examine it the more it looks like my heap of habitual responses is not separate but part of the heaps of everyone I’ve ever interacted with and those with whom they interacted.    We are in separate bodies but we operate as a unity.  Like John, I’m concerned that may sound: “strange and mystical and off-putting” because my supreme trust is in logic.  The thing is, it’s logical that our suffering results from our awareness being obscured by our habitual thoughts and emotional responses and how they interact among us.

My academic training was in physics and English literature.  I was at the time also fascinated by philosophy and theater but pretty much abandoned them soon after because it seemed they could have no practical result.  I always retained my interest in how things work physically and how we communicate.  What John terms “the oneness or not of us”  and Harold is aware of as his “core” will likely remain a mystery to me because they seem beyond the reach of intellect.  But not beyond the reach of experience.  I’ll keep working on experiencing cognizant awareness.

I don’t know enough to respond to John’s comments about Hinduism or the Abrahamic or other religions.  I will at some point write about size, structure and longevity of religious, secular and government organizations.  In every case, they have enormous impact on the results organizations achieve.

Kristin recasts my dad’s words, writing:  “What if “Be like THAT, then” were a call to be with (or like) whatever we are experiencing in the moment?  Be like that bowl slipping down and spilling over, be like that bird in the tree chirping, be like that rock sitting on the beach.  A call to “be here now” as opposed to a humorously paranoid “the world’s out to get me.”

That’s a great example of how we can reprogram ourselves.  Noticing our habitual thoughts is the first step but what next?  Bringing them into the light cuts their power but not instantly.  Often-repeated ones build up a lot of power.  Mental judo, rethinking them with a positive message, is a good way to wear them down.  They will in the end fade away now you notice them but in the meantime their power will be less harmful.

I highly recommend reading Harold, John and Kristin’s comments and ask you to add your own.

We Are Not Alone

And we do not exist.  It’s good news but it takes some getting used to.

I’m in our kitchen in Maine washing wooden spoons in hot soapy water in a mixing bowl.  I pull one out.  The bowl shifts, its narrow bottom slides into the drain hole, it begins to tip, soapy water runs out.  “Be like that, then,” enters my consciousness as I grab for the bowl.  Where did that come from?

It was the voice of my ten-years-dead father saying what he always said when that kind of thing happened.   He always spoke as if it was mischief-making when he had difficulty with an inanimate object.  He wasn’t an animist, he didn’t really believe unseen beings were making life difficult for him, he just expected things to go wrong and used humor to protect himself from disappointment.  My mother believed there was no problem she could not fix.  That’s why my dad married her.  I like to think I inherited her attitude.  I don’t like to think I inherited his although I’m OK with knowing that his genes led to my defective serotonin uptake and I’m perfectly happy to lay claim to his virtues.

It’s a mistake to have things I like to think and don’t like to think.  “Be like that, then” was a powerful reminder that I’m only sometimes in control of what I think.  Most of the time I’m not really paying attention, just cruising along on autopilot.  Too much of what I do is programmed by stories based on a grab-bag of experiences, only partially recognized in the first place and reshaped by replaying them over and over again.

The “be like that, then” moment seems to be an example of what Buddhists mean by karma.  It’s one of my father’s mental habits that still lives even though he’s no longer alive in the way we normally think.  That habit now lives in what I think of as “me”.   It doesn’t have much power left, partly because my overall genetic material isn’t a good host for it and partly because I’ve trained myself to discard its message.  It’s still there, though, along with how my genetic material interpreted everything else I’ve ever experienced, much of which was actually the interpreted experience of others.

The self I seem to have has no fixed nature.  I don’t mean it’s not real.  Its appearance and its sense of others are perfectly real.  The problem is I misinterpret the appearance.  There is no aspect of me that is permanent, nothing without which I would cease altogether to exist.  I began to suspect this when I read “Three Faces of Eve”, a psychologist’s book about his patient with three entirely different personalities.  I was 16 and struggling to figure out who I was.   Maybe what seems to be revealing itself as me isn’t real, I thought.  Maybe I’m just pretending to be like this.  Maybe a whole different personality is quietly getting strong enough to take over?   Theater was what I enjoyed most in those days.  Maybe I was living everything as improvisational theater?

It was a frightening thought so I pushed it away.  It never crossed my mind that if I have no self in the way we imagine, neither does anyone else.  Only now I begin to recognize that I’m both a role player – a parent, husband, ex-businessman, and on and on – and at a more fundamental level, a gathering of parts from other people and things.  I approach an intellectual understanding, also, that some of what were once parts of “me” are now part of the shape of others.  It looks like there are two simultaneous realities, the roles that we play and that there’s nobody playing the roles.

The more I sit with this view the less scary it feels, the more I recognize it’s good news.  If what I experience as a self and others is on another level an inseparably intertwined unity, the first implication is to be equally kind to all.  The next is to be happy because whatever the situation is at this moment, it won’t stay the same no matter what anyone does, and while I have this healthy body I can work to make the next moments better.  It does take getting used to, though, and acting upon.

The Power of Place

I keep meeting people whose life was transformed in Nepal.  What is it about this place?   What triggers change here?

I’m now in the Boudha region of Kathmandu at the stupa, a beautiful mound-like structure containing Buddhist relics.  I’m trying to understand the benefit as I circumambulate this greatly revered stupa with a throng of Tibetans of all ages, many in traditional dress.  We walk clockwise, emulating the movement of the sun across the sky.  It’s a very distracting environment.  Maybe that’s part of the point.  It’s training in being vividly present in the moment, not remembering the past or anticipating the future?  Embracing the moment, not being irritated by folks around?

This morning at breakfast an American at the next table who spends a big part of every day doing prostrations was complaining to an English monk that someone removed the stones from under the plank where he does his prostrations.  There’s a wall round the stupa with many wooden planks between it and the stupa.  People use them for prostrations.  “Why would anyone remove the stones from under my plank?   I’d got it angled perfectly.  And why do all those Tibetans just sit on the planks and chat?  It’s so distracting, so disrespectful.”  I’m pretty sure he’s missing the point.  Maybe it will come to him, though.

Hey, there’s Jampa, one of my classmates last year!  He came here years ago from his home in New Zealand to go mountain biking.  Now he’s a Tibetan Buddhist monk who no longer has a home.   Last year he’d just come from a long stay at a monastery in Colorado.  I wonder where he’s been this year?  I speed up and join him.  “Hi Jampa.  Great to see you.  Are you coming to this year’s class?”  “No, I don’t know yet what I’m going to be doing.”  I almost ask why he’s here but that’s probably a bigger question than he can answer.  I ask instead what is the benefit of circumambulating the stupa?  “It has great power,” he says. “We get benefit just by being here.”  “Even if we’re just chatting while we walk?”  “Yes.  But there’s more benefit depending on our intention.  Also, it helps to chant mantras.”  “Most people doing that are doing it silently.”  “That’s OK.”

We walk on with everyone else circling the stupa.  It’s still quite early so there are not many tourists.  Some of the Tibetans are chatting animatedly, many are walking silently.  In both cases they’re counting their chants on a string of beads in their left hand.  A few are twirling a prayer wheel, an ornate cylinder that turns on a stick.  Inside the cylinder is a scroll filled with the mantra Om Mani Madme Hum, the aspiration for compassion.  It’s said that each revolution has the same effect as saying the words aloud as many times as they’re written on the scroll, so the more mantras are inside a prayer wheel, the greater the benefit.  The effect is enhanced by simultaneously chanting the mantra with the profound aspiration to attain perfect wisdom in order to free every sentient being permanently from suffering.  It’s a means of training the mind.

Rene, my Mexican classmate  this year who dresses entirely in black and has long black hair and a bushy black beard was instructed by his Tibetan guru to memorize a mantra created especially for his benefit and circumambulate the stupa chanting it as loudly as he could.  He was puzzled by the reaction.  At last a young Tibetan asked if he knew what he was saying.  “No, I don’t know Tibetan.  My guru taught it to me.”  “I think I should tell you what you are saying.”  “Thank you.”  “You are shouting, ‘I am a black man with a very big dick’.”  I’ve met Rene’s guru.  I don’t understand his trick on Rene soon after he arrived but his deep insight and caring are unmistakable.  Rene came to Kathmandu for a month before college and stayed two years.  What he met here led him to other places then he came back.  Now it looks like he’s here for good.

I don’t know what to make of the power of place.  It’s very significant to animists.  Dhiren, our Nepali trek crew boss, is always respectful of places where devis live, the spirits that protect villages but are wrathful if disturbed.  He knows the kinds of places they tend to be and always makes sure we also behave respectfully.  Temples are considered by all religions to have powerful effects.  Feng Shui has spread to the West.  The power of place is recognized in all cultures.  I’d never really thought about it though.  I dismissed it as an obvious delusion.  What would be the origin and nature of such power?

I’m still skeptical about the power of place but I do know we can train our mind.  If we expect training to work better in a particular place, presumably it will.    But change happens to many people who come to Nepal with no expectation.  It just seems to happen.  Maybe geography and cumulative past behaviors form a feedback loop here?

I Met a Man Who Wasn’t There

Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away…    (Hughes Mearns)

I also met a bear and a second man, neither of whom was there.

Here’s how it happened.  I’m climbing a rough path high above the Kathmandu Valley.  The canopy of rhododendron trees shades me from the bright sun.  Monkeys frolicked in the bamboo at the nunnery below and crows contested for feast offerings.  There are no animal or bird cries up here.  Even my sandal-clad  footfalls are quiet.  The trees hide any view but maybe I’ll see snow mountains from the ridge.  I focus on every next step and think I should have worn boots.

Suddenly, I catch a glimpse of a man in black standing completely still just off the track fifty paces ahead where it turns. A robber!  My step doesn’t falter and I make no sound so he will not see my fear.  I hope not, anyway.  Oh, it’s a tree stump.  Even if it had been a man, why would I imagine him to be a robber?  No need to think about it, it’s only a tree.  I walk on.  The first part of the path was very rugged.  I’d definitely need boots there in the rainy season but here the path is more gradual so no need to watch my steps so closely.  There’s still nothing to see but trees.  It will be beautiful as well as slippery in Spring.  The rhododendrons are not in flower now.

Whoa!  There’s a bear just up ahead a few feet off the track.  I stop for bears!  I stare through the gloomy undergrowth.  The bear doesn’t move it’s head even a fraction in my direction.  More of its shape registers.  I recognize it isn’t moving because it’s a rock formation.  Again I walk on.  I don’t feel nervous.  I’m thinking how odd it is that I’ve now imagined both a robber and a bear less than a quarter hour apart when I’m not nervous but enjoying a peaceful walk.  It was plain enough to see what those things really were.

Oh, no.  There’s a man ahead dressed in brown and white standing menacingly still.  But as soon as I actually look, I realize it’s not a man but another tree stump.

With instruments developed in the last decade we can now observe how such misunderstandings occur.  We can follow the sequence of activity within the brain in response to specific stimuli, we can see how much activity is triggered in which areas, we have a relatively detailed map of what functions are performed where and how they inter-operate.   We understand, for example, how visual signals sampled at relatively low rates are matched with stored images of potential threats.  The first match for the partial outline of a shape can be “man” or “bear”.  The matching process continues until all criteria are met by “tree” or “rock”.  We can also see that we start to take action based on the first match.

It’s the same for other animals.  When a shadow falls suddenly on a chicken it squawks and runs.  It doesn’t look up and wait for enough data to be processed so it knows if the object casting the shadow is a hawk before it takes action.  It could be dead before the pattern matching completes.  Homo sapiens sapiens operates on the same principal but our circuitry is far more complex than that of Gallus gallus domesticus, which has a limited ability to conceptualize.  We have an extraordinarily strong ability.  Unfortunately, every great strength is also a great weakness.

Our great weakness is acting as if concepts are reality, not an image.  My High School biology teacher, a refugee from when Soviet forces crushed the 1956 Hungarian revolution, had an explanation for brutality:  “The huge human cerebellum is a cancerous growth”.  He said it is too easy for us not to feel, not to see, not to hear, just to think.  “We can have the idea to do terrible things, then we can do them, but if we looked at who we destroy, if we really looked, we could never do such things.”

We would be doomed if “Cancerous growth” was a diagnosis of our nature not a metaphor sparked by our behavior.  Fortunately, we have training programs so we can escape the causes of brutality and all other harm we do.  More on that another time.