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.

Surprised by the Antichrist

If you’re ever on I-84 near where it meets the Mass Pike, stop in at the Traveler Restaurant, be served a good diner-style meal by friendly waitresses and choose three free books.  I’ve been going there every chance I get since 1985.

What I found there most recently is Kevin Phillips’ 2006 American Theocracy.  In his 1967 book The Emerging Republican Majority Phillips showed how gaining Southern voters could propel the Republican Party’s revival.  He is now horrified by the result.

American Theocracy has three sections.  Phillips starts by reviewing how our dependence on oil led to our foreign policy and wars in the Middle East and ends by showing how our financial and business leaders got the Republican Party’s traditional principles of sound finance abandoned.  What surprised me is the middle section.  There he examines the rise of fundamentalist Christianity and apocalyptic expectations and shows how they shape our policies.

Phillips cites the statistics on Americans with a religious preference.  From 17% in 1776 it rose to 34% in 1850, 45% in 1890, 56% in 1926, 62% in 1980 and 63% in 2000.  We were established as a secular republic when fewer than one in five Americans had any religious preference.  More than three in five of us now has a religious belief.

Almost half (46%) of Americans now identify themselves as “born again” Christians.  And more than half (55%) in a 2004 Newsweek poll believe the Bible is literally accurate.

In the 2000 elections 87% of the “frequent-attending white religious right” voted for George W. Bush (GWB).  Only 27% of secular voters favored him.  I had no idea religious belief had such an impact.  I did recognize that when GWB characterized his invasion of Iraq as a “crusade”, that really was his view.  I should have realized, too, that a significant percentage of those who supported him also imagine we are now engaged in a holy war in the Abrahamic end time.

But I was entirely unprepared for this on page 260 “Some 40 percent of Americans believe that the antichrist is alive and already on the earth” even though I knew that under GWB, Saddam Hussein was identified as the antichrist.   Who, I wondered, is the antichrist now Saddam Hussein is no more?

In this 2013 Public Policy Poll Report I discovered that 13% of voters in the 2012 election believed President Obama is the antichrist and a further 13% was “not sure.”  Among voters for Romney 22% believed Obama is the antichrist while fewer than 3 in 5 believed he is not.  It may be yet more alarming that 5% of voters for Obama believed him to be the antichrist.

In that report we also see 58% of Republican voters believed “global warming is a hoax”, 33% believed “Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11”  and 73% did not believe “Bush misled on Iraq WMDs.”

What to make of all this?  My assumption about the widespread lack of respect for facts and skeptical inquiry in America was mistaken.  The great problem is not the mechanics of our educational system but the purpose many want it to serve – certainty in the literal truth of the Bible.

I’ve written before about fundamentalism.  Our media tells us it’s a problem among Muslims, especially in the Middle East, where terrorists hope to kill us all.  But some American fundamentalists are also eager for war, perhaps because they fear our nation is in decline.

Fundamentalism results from fear when social, economic or political trends look like a threat to existence.  The desire for certainty in a way out grows overwhelming.  Everyone else must then embrace the same faith because belief in something that cannot be proved is a lot easier to maintain if nobody is expressing doubts.

But we will inevitably do harm if we imagine we are fundamentally different and have mortal enemies.  Only misery can result.

What to do?  We must calm and clear away the fears.

Everything we do, say and think boosts or shrinks fear in the world.  A butterfly could alter the path of a hurricane or prevent its occurrence — the flapping of wings is one of so many tiny forces on the atmosphere.  It’s the same with human moments of love or hate.

The Minority with No Name

Since posting about the Father of the US Constitution’s intent to “protect the opulent minority against the majority,” I’ve been seeking a name for the minority to which I belong.

Like the opulent minority, we do not identify ourselves first as Democrats or Republicans, old or young, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or anything else like that. Like the opulent minority, we are not an organized body: we just have common interests.

Unlike those who are opulent, however, there seems to be no word for us.  Suddenly I realized that is the heart of the matter – we are the minority with no name.

The insight was sparked, as they so often are, by something unrelated, a faux-news article where the writer of “A Horse with No Name”  explains “I tried singing, ‘I’ve been through the desert on a horse called Keith’ but I ran out of rhymes.”  A good joke revealed something profound.

What the minority with no name has in common includes the desire for self-reliance along with the knowledge that self-reliance is not possible for everyone or in fact, when you look more closely, for anyone.  We depend on each other: we have no choice about that, only whether we act accordingly.

The minority with no name knows we are the world’s stewards, acknowledging that while the future does not harm or benefit us, what will be possible then does depend on us just as what is possible for us is set by the world we inherited.

The minority with no name knows everything we see is distorted by what we think we saw before, that we fit this moment’s visual and other signals into what is mostly an imaginary pattern.  We need patterns to guide us: the minority with no name tries to recognize discordant facts and promptly abandon misleading ideas.

The opulent minority is small by definition but there is no metric for the minority with no name, no membership criteria.  In theory, everyone could join.

But it would be counter-productive to self-identify as one of the minority with no name.  What is productive is to act on its interests, the common interest of all present and future life.

If I Say I’m a Physicist

If I say I’m a physicist, you won’t think I want you to be one, too.  It just means that’s how I explore the way things work, physically.  You’ll probably have some idea how I go about it, that experiments are involved.  You might ask what kind of physics and I might say quantum mechanics.  At that point your mind might fog over.  You might smile politely and ask if I have children.  But maybe you would be curious and ask about quantum physics.

In fact, I’m not a physicist but it does interest me and I do think it would be good if everyone had some understanding of what physicists have discovered.  But that’s a topic for another time.

What I’m asking now is, when I say I’m a Buddhist, please don’t think I want you to be one, too.  It is a way of discovery for me, but just as there are many other sciences in addition to physics, there are many other disciplines in addition to Buddhism.  It’s just that I’ve found Buddhism an effective discipline for me.

I say it is a discipline not a religion because Buddhism has no equivalent of the Abrahamic god or anything that must be taken on faith, no dogma.  It is practical, an enormous set of time-tested training programs that help people become more kind.  One of those methods seems to help me.

If you ask what kind of Buddhism, I will say Tantric Buddhism.  Yes I do have children, but for those of you who want to know what is Tantric Buddhism, I will say it is the form that developed in Tibet.  And if you want to know more, I will begin posting a few notes from my learning experiences.

These notes will not be an introduction to Buddhist philosophy.  That’s partly because I still misunderstand far more than I understand.  More importantly, it’s because my aim is not to understand the philosophy, although that is necessary, but to attain what I can of the results of the practice.

It is said there are two paths toward better behavior, one for the scholar, the other for the simple meditator.  The scholar’s path is one I have always followed.  In this case I am drawn to the other.

Identity, Independence and Kindness

Although everything is in every instant changing, which means everything flawed can be perfected, that’s not what Mr. Ego sees.  He’s afraid if he relaxes even for an instant, bad things will come to pass.  He is a deluded Jeeves devoted to caring for a Bertie Wooster whose nature exists only in his imagination.  That he exists only in mine does not make his activities less real.

Mr. Ego and I have been together so long and he is so very diligent; he usually has me believing I am what he imagines.  On rare occasions I do wake up and tell him I’ll be OK, he can go on vacation, but he doesn’t because if he does, I will no longer have an identity.  He thinks that would be very scary.

Psychotherapists say Mr. Ego manifests soon after we are born and develops well into adulthood.  “Saying ‘NO’ is one of the earliest signs of individuation”, according to GoodTherapy“It is a statement that I am separate from you and want something different … individuation is … learning what we want to say NO or YES to [and] acting according to what we want and do not want.  It is a statement of who we are (ME) and who we are not (NOT ME).”

Mr. Ego starts by teaching us to say NO and unless we’re very lucky, it’s all downhill from there.  He teaches us to want and not want, to see everything as ME or NOT ME and to reject everything that is NOT ME.  He teaches us, in other words, to be selfish.  Therapists consider individuation normative, meaning something that should happen.

In fact, our belief that we have an identity, are part of a group and should have a home makes us unhappy and unkind.   Our imagined identity, “I am the kind of person who…”, says we are solid and we should make our situation more so, more dependable.  We should instead rejoice that nothing is solid because that means everything really can become more perfect.

A way to dispel the illusion is to recast our identifier from noun to verb.  That makes Martin Sidwell not an explorer destined always to be an explorer and implicitly never doing anything else, but an exploration taking place at this moment.  Thinking of ourselves as verbs eliminates a big part of the harm we cause by believing we have an identity.

Believing we are part of a group is also a problem.  If I think of myself as Buddhist it seems I am different from Christian but if I am practicing techniques that helped others grow more kind even to those who are abusive, I am practicing how to love and turn the other cheek.  The program that helps me is different but the goal is the same as Jesus taught.  I am not different from Christians, Muslims or others.

Keeping the goal clear is especially hard if our group’s identify is that of a people defined by its religion.  A dear friend who recently gave up her long standing role as spiritual leader at her synagogue said:  “What I realized is important is my values.  People I’m close to have the same values.  My rabbi’s are different and we’re not close.  Trying to lead those with his values to a different way can never be helpful.”  But being Jewish informs so much of what a Jewish person does, thinks and feels.  Recognizing what my friend did must have been very, very hard and acting on the recognition must take so much discipline and courage.

The recognition my friend came to may be even tougher for Tibetans whose identity is so deeply associated with not only religion but also their homeland.  Home is our idea of the ultimate refuge.  As Robert Frost wrote: “Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in”.   My Tibetan friend who only ever wanted to be a nun was expelled from the nunnery by the Chinese government after the Beijing Olympics.   A third of all Tibetan monks and nuns were forced out then after Western journalists reporting the Tibetan protests went home.

Jews whose ancestors were driven from their homeland milennia ago now have Israel.  The homeland Tibetans always had began to be destroyed just as Israel was established.  No wonder Tibetans yearn for that lost world  even though there can be no such place of safety.  It is so hard for any of us to recognize that and the idea of nation makes it so much harder.

China’s rulers always try to control the lands to their north and west because invaders from there have always swept in.  The dynasty that ruled from 1644-1911 was established by invaders from Manchuria.  As soon as the Communists won China’s civil war in 1949 they set out to control all China’s peripheral territories.  Tibetans lost not just their independence as a nation but increasingly also their culture.  The monasteries were destroyed, monks imprisoned, Chinese-language schools set up and masses of Han Chinese settlers imported.  The Tibetans were to become Chinese to make China safe.

We think nations help us to be safe because nations have armed forces for defense.  By identifying with a nation, however, we feel separate from people in other nations.  We think they are different and we become afraid or jealous of our fantasy of what they are.   Our struggle for independence in fact makes us fearful.  The Chinese rulers’ treatment of Tibetans is motivated by fear, as is exiled Tibetans’ yearning for a Tibet they may never have known and that no longer exists.

There are two Tibetan words for independence.  “Rang btsan” means not dependent on anything else and signifies the freedom we associate with independence.  “Rang mtshan” means an independent self and signifies what we associate with being an individual.  Both are pronounced rang tzen, are usually spelled rangzen in the West, and both suggest more than they mean.   Nations are not truly independent and neither are people truly individual.  Geography does not define a people nor is any man an island.  Borders are just ideas that create suffering and limit our compassion.

Opening our hearts to feel the terrible suffering of Tibetans and others can lead us to feel compassion both for them and their abusers whose delusions lead them to their terrible actions.  Then we can try to help both, for only in that way can suffering be ended.  We really can do this if, as in this beautifully rendered Imagine There’s No Rangzen, we think independently.

So many ideas.  We have this relentless urge to get things identified, situated and dependable.  We’re determined to define who we are and take action against what we are not.   But it can’t work.  How could such a program succeed when nothing can be fixed, when everything is arising in every instant from an ever-changing assembly of causes?

One of the first great Tibetan teachers in the West said it this way:  “The bad news is our airplane is crashing and we have no parachute.  The good news is there is nowhere to land.”  Mr. Ego got us into a vehicle he said would take us somewhere safe, if it didn’t crash.  His fear of crashing distracted us.

That’s why it’s so hard to recognize that in fact we are crashing right now precisely because we imagine we have a fixed identity, we belong to a group whose rules are sacrosanct and we will be protected from those who are not like us by the nation where we live.  We are creating our own fear.

We could instead accept the good news, train ourselves to dispel habitual reactions that grew from our misunderstanding, and grow more happy and, more importantly, more kind.

Nepali Festivals

The Dashain festival starts today (October 2011) so Hindus are planting barley.  Others will begin the ritual practices later.  What everyone looks forward to is the feasting.  Huge numbers of animals will be sacrificed.  It’s projected that only 15-20% of the goats will be of Nepali origin this year.  The remaining 80%+ will come from India.  Ideally, one should sacrifice a buffalo but most people cannot afford that.  A goat is next best but a chicken is OK.  Chicken trucks have been coming to Kathmandu for many days and chicken men walk the streets with birds casually suspended from where their wings are attached to their backs.  Most chickens look alert and oddly calm.

The latest version I’ve read of why buffaloes should be sacrificed is:  Once upon a time all the Gods and Goddesses were bothered by demons.  None had enough power to defeat them.  At last the deities began to dance.  They danced with such vigor that great clouds of dust arose.  Goddess Kali manifested from a lock of Lord Shiva’s hair (Shiva is the member of the Hindu trinity responsible for destruction and creation, Kali handles just destruction).  Kali was immediately covered with dust energized by the deities’ dancing that gave her enough power to kill the demons’ vehicles, which were buffaloes.  The unseated demons fell to the ground where they were easier to kill.  We kill buffaloes on this day to commemorate Kali’s triumph.

I learned more during the next big festival, Tihar (later in October 2011).  This is when girls offer tikka to their brothers.  Tikka means prayers, gifts and a colored powder emblem applied to their forehead.  I was puzzled because the girls of the family I was with offered it to more males than those I think of as their brothers.  I’m still not entirely clear about it but I am clearer about who can marry who.

The first-born adult sister in this family is A. Next are B, C and D.  A, C and D are married, B is not.  C could (after divorce or death) marry A’s husband but not D’s.  She must treat him as her brother and would offer him tikka.  A’s husband could marry B, C or D.  C’s husband could marry D but not A or B.

As well as rules about brother marriage there are rules about cousin marriage that are not the same for all Nepali tribes.   Many members of this family’s tribe have the family name Y or Z.  The adult sisters’ father’s family name was Y so they could not marry a man with that family name.  They also could not marry a man whose family name is Z because Y and Z are “the same”.  They could marry anyone with the same last name as their mother unless it was barred by the first set of rules.  The existence or not of a blood relationship makes no difference for marriage but they would not offer tikka to an unrelated Y or Z “brother”.

There are only five family names in the village of about 800 people where these sisters were born, two of which are “the same”.  So, if the population was equally distributed across family names, 40% of the males would be their “brothers” and off-limit for marriage.  Is this because most marriages were between people in the same village so all Ys and Zs would have been blood relatives of these Y sisters?  But why not also prohibit those with the mother’s family name?  The Y sisters’ mother was an X so 60% of the males (X, Y and Z) would have been off-limits for them.   Maybe too restrictive?  But if you only prohibit “too-close” marriage to one parent’s family, it should be the mother’s because you cannot be certain about the father in a pre-DNA-typing society.  I need to ask more questions…

The old rules are breaking down but you still must not sit close to and certainly not touch anyone of the opposite sex who the rules would allow you to marry.  You can’t be very free either with those you could not marry but it would be OK, for example, for B to sleep in one room of a house and husband-of-C to sleep in another room even if they were the only ones in the house.  It would not be OK, however, for husband-of-A to sleep in another room of the same house as B unless his wife, several children or B’s mom was also there.  “Everyone” would assume that if B and husband-of-A were alone at night in the same house they would have sex but if B and husband-of-C were in that situation “nobody” would suspect them of incestuous relations.

This is a very repressed society by our standards.  A small girl can put her arms round her father’s waist on a motorbike but not when she is older.  Only a wife can put her arms round her husband’s waist in that situation, or another man.  Society pretended homosexual love could not exist but assumed that sex between any man and woman except if it would be incestuous is inevitable any time there is an opportunity.  The norms are changing, though.  When I first started coming here in 2003 you never saw a boy and girl holding hands. but now it’s commonplace.

One more thing about marriage in Nepal:  Fathers pay for sons’ weddings.  That’s because son’s marriage brings a woman who will care for you when you are old.  It’s best to marry off daughters so you don’t have to support them (unless you have no son).  That’s why very young girls get arranged marriages.  If a son finds a prospective bride, he brings her for his parents’  approval.   Depending on her age, they will evaluate if she has a “good heart”, but mainly they want to know if her family is raising her to be a “good girl”, a good housekeeper and a dependable source of home care in the future.  It’s worth paying whatever you can for that security.  The expensive wedding honors the girl’s family for raising a girl who is worthy of such extravagance.

Village and Urban Culture in Nepal

I recently (September 2011) learned what happens if there’s a fatal accident on your property in Kathmandu.  It’s what would happen in a rural village.

A boy hired to apply concrete facing on a house fell from the second floor and was killed.  The boy’s father knew the homeowner did nothing that contributed to the accident, but in Nepali culture he must provide compensation because the boy would have supported his parents in their old age.  Because the father has a good heart and knows the homeowner does not have much money, he requested only about two years’ wages compensation, which the homeowner had to borrow and is now working to repay.

After I wrote about Truck Drivers’ Insurance in Nepal I was asked how big is the fine for killing someone and how much for injuring them.  The fatality fine is too large relative to what a driver can earn.  That’s why they join the insurance club.  There isn’t a fixed fine for causing injury.  The problem for the driver is he becomes responsible for paying the victim’s medical costs and compensation for loss of earnings, etc., which gets complicated and unpredictable.   If nobody observes the injury he simply drives off.  If he may be caught it’s better for him to get the definite outcome, the fine for a fatality.  Vehicular homicide is always considered an accident.

Another comment was: “The drivers must feel somehow insulated from reality up in the cab or how could they back up and run over someone on purpose.  Perhaps to the Ranas other people are just animals.”   The Ranas ran Nepal for more than a century before the king regained control in 1951.  They set the example for how to drive because they were the only ones who could have motorized vehicles. They established that killing someone in this way deserves only a fine.

The Ranas used tax-gatherers to collect half or more of the peasant farmers’ annual production.  They rarely saw anyone other than their entourage and they did act as if the rest of the population were animals.  You do not treat an animal standing on the road with any courtesy, not in a hierarchical society, anyway.  The Ranas’ vehicles were driven by their resentful and/or prideful servants who would have treated the “animals” not with indifference but contempt.

Nepal still has a highly status-conscious culture.  The Ranas established a caste system that encompassed not just them and other Hindus, not even just tribal folks who were not Hindu, but also foreigners.  There was a hierarchy of tribes as well as the traditional Hindu caste hierarchy.  This aspect of Nepali culture has changed less than I imagined.  I did not at first realize there is a hierarchy because we relatively very wealthy Westerners are treated as high caste.

I also misunderstood Kathmandu Valley culture because the village culture I saw first on mountain treks is more egalitarian.  The Ranas had little influence there because there was little for them in that harsh environment.   The majority of people in the Valley now are fairly recent arrivals.  If they can get a motorbike, they are suddenly more powerful.  They’ve acquired what the Ranas had, the ability to intimidate.   Add these dark cultural legacies to the very low level of common sense among Nepalis, G says, and you have the explanation of Kathmandu traffic.

G went to a driving school when he got a motorbike.  The owner said he need not take lessons, for Nrs 3,000 (a little over $40, an average monthly wage) he would get G a license.  G said he wanted to take lessons and pass the test.  The owner said he might fail and would have to wait six months before he could take it again.  G persisted and passed.

Another question prompted by “Truck Driver’s Insurance” was about the overall legal system, which used to be controlled by the king, then by parliament.  I’ve seen no discussion of an independent judiciary under the new Constitution.  The politicians want to remain safe from prosecution for corruption unlike in India, which is also famously corrupt, where a very strong independent judiciary was inherited from the Brits.  India’s Telecom Minister is in jail for corruption right now, his boss the Minister of the Interior is under indictment, and the Prime Minister may also be indicted.

A villager we talked with yesterday said:  “We don’t need democracy, what we need is for criminals to be punished.”  That’s a common theme.  We keep hearing complaints about the breakdown of law and order.  Westerners are safe so long as they remain in the tourist areas during daylight because there will be severe retribution for messing with them.  Nepalis, however, are not safe from each other anywhere after dark and business people are not safe period.  Three men were arrested yesterday for demanding protection money from more than 50 business owners in Kathmandu.

Village style social pressure for good behavior has not yet been replaced in Kathmandu by an urban rule of law.  The distressing results illustrate why urban societies need an effective central government.

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.

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?