Words and Reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Birthday in Every Moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enlightenment and Tumbleweed

I’m thinking about a question on this post, whether or not “adaptations performed by the unfixed self indicate something other than emptiness.”   I was trying in that post to convey my experience of life, not a theory.  I’ll say more about the experience, but first a bit about theory.

Philosophy and religion are how we try to explain our world.  Philosophy is “the study of reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language systematically and based on rational argument.”  Religion is “an organized collection of beliefs that relate humanity to existence.”  Belief is “when one feels certain that something unprovable is true.”

Somewhere in my teens I began to wonder about reality.  I was quite discouraged to realize early on that a definite answer cannot be seen from inside a human body.  We can only see what’s visible from a specific perspective with limited tools.  But the feeling returned that even so, it is worthwhile  to study and reflect.

Religion never appealed to me because it requires feeling certain about things that are unprovable.  Also, I was horrified that both British and German church leaders in WW1 had exhorted their followers to go forth and kill in the name of the same God.  Religion can be dangerous because religious establishments, like all large organizations, amplify power.

After more reflection, I realized the problem is abuse of power: organized religion can be very helpful.  But it still did not seem an effective approach to understand the world.

At last I realized what I was seeking was a training practice to help me interact in the world more helpfully and a system of studying reality based on rational argument.

Returning now to my experience of life, my Tibetan Buddhist practice is helpful in the way I hoped.  Perhaps if I continue searching I could find a still more effective practice but it’s best to use what time I have to do what works.

My practice does include study and reflection on reality, and what Buddhists term “enlightenment” does seem attainable, but it is not yet clear enough to me to articulate.  All I can say is what I tried to express before, that I have less experience of “self” and what’s masked by my apparent self does not feel like an individual.

Tumbleweed and fenceThe analogy that struck me this morning is tumbleweed, “the above-ground part of any number of plants that disengage from the root and tumble away in the wind.”  Looking at all I do, I see only echoes of my past experiences  and those I’ve been close to, habits triggered by circumstances outside my body that all arise in the same way.

It’s like watching tumbleweed, which is empty of intrinsic nature just as I seem to be.  This tumbleweed blown against a fence is also a collection of smaller pieces, each made up of still smaller pieces.  And so on.

But there’s a big difference.  The tumbleweed has no capacity to act — it can only be blown by the wind.  I can act and because my body is alive, I will keep taking action, so I must do all I can so those actions are increasingly helpful.  Study is part of the process, but the goal is better action.

So Long Half Empty Self

My self has been half empty for so long.  It’s such a relief to say, “So long, half-empty self.”

Answering “Who am I?” was my teenage mission, a puzzle since I was fascinated by so many things.  The British school system sorted more and less academic kids into different schools at age 11, then a couple of years later, the more academic ones chose a science or arts curriculum.  How to choose?

Novels made people, cultures and adventures that were beyond my experience real.  Poetry tantalized me with mysterious qualities of experience.  Particle physics and space exploration gripped me.  I loved logic and skeptical inquiry.

So I didn’t choose Chemistry/Physics/Math or English/History/French but insisted on what no other student did, Physics/English/French.  None of that helped, however, with “Who am I?”

Existentialist philosophy was in fashion, a seductive brew for anyone intellectual enough to feel alienated, and my friend whose father was a psychologist saw everyone’s experience as schizophrenia, “a challenging disorder that makes it difficult to distinguish between what is real and unreal.”

Then came revelation.  I read The Three Faces of Eve about a woman with three entirely separate personalities.  Were they all “real?”  Were none of them “real?”  When I answered “Who am I” by identifying my own nature, how could I know if that personality was real?

I wasn’t entirely convinced by the psychiatrist’s claim that he cured Eve (he didn’t) but I was now certain about one thing.  I could never know if the self I was experiencing was the “real me.”

In effect, there was no real me.  That was a big relief because it meant I need answer only an easier question, and I could change the answer.  I just had to decide what role to play.

I had discovered theater at that time, a way to adopt a series of selfs.  I wasn’t a very good actor because I couldn’t quite let go and immerse myself in a role, but I did become a good director.

What I learned from all this was what Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”  So, for the next forty years and more, operating on the assumption that I had no fixed self, only an empty self so to say, I pretended to be a good person.

But what I realize now is that while I did make some progress in behavior, it never occurred to me that just as I was pretending, so was everyone else.  None of us has a fixed self and that’s such good news — by behaving better, we can all grow better behaved.

Maybe there is something behind the illusory self we experience, maybe not.  It doesn’t matter.  Only behavior matters, and that matters supremely.

Living in the recognition that there are no fixed selves takes some getting used to.  That’s why I do Buddhist practice — it helps me feel the implications of every apparent “self” having no fixed properties

In our culture, we want the half-empty glass to be filled.  Maybe that makes it harder to for us to say, “So long, half-empty self.”

The Practice of Transformation

First, some background to the epiphany (an experience of sudden and striking realization).  Twenty-odd years ago I joined Dun and Bradstreet’s advanced services division as Director of Program Management.  I was not the only one unfamiliar with what that job might be.  When my business cards came, they identified me as Director of Program Manglement.

There is no better way in such a situation than Steve Jobs’ approach: “When you don’t know where to start, start somewhere.”  I did what needed doing for a complex new service that was being developed in New York and tested and rolled out in country-specific variants all across Europe, then used that experience to establish a methodical software development process.

The first step in the process is a Vision Statement.  Its purpose is to imagine and articulate “how great it will be when.”  Because our mission was to develop and deploy “advanced services”, we had to imagine new ways our customers could do their work to get better results.

Vision Statements imagined people using radically new software to do business in new ways with far more effective results.  We illustrated how pieces of the software might look and got feedback from innovative customers to identify the best ideas.

Then came the Scope Statement.  That’s where, based on our image of “how great it will be when,” we defined what the first software version would and would not do.  Scope transformed an ultimate vision into something we could actually do.  That became the basis for the Project Plan.

So, the Vision Statement harnesses intuition: the Scope Statement employs the intellect.  The Vision Statement is expansive: the Scope Statement is restrictive — that’s where you discipline yourself to say, “No, we don’t have to do that piece yet.”

By the time I took over as General Manager of that division then went on to establish D&B’s global “Technology Strategy, Architecture and Frameworks” I’d realized the same method of harnessing intuition disciplined by intellect was applicable to transformational business strategy.

No transformation is possible if you have no vision of “how great it will be.”  At best you will find only quicker, cheaper ways of doing the same things you always did.

Now the epiphany:  a couple of days ago, I realized Tibetan Buddhism is built on the same foundation.

In a long traditional set of rituals I practice every morning, supplemented by study and reflection later in the day, I imagine becoming deities that flawlessly manifest behavior I want to perfect.  The only difference from business Visions is instead of imagining freedom from business limitations, I imagine freedom from emotional and conceptual habits.

In the same way as Vision Statements include illustrative stories, Tibetan Buddhist texts include tales about exemplary beings.

But unlike the process for product and business transformation, Tibetan Buddhism requires no Scope Statement.  New products and services or business strategies take substantial time and investment which makes rigorous scope management of a stepwise transition essential.

Tibetan Buddhist practice is more like bug-fixing.  All features exist, they’re just buggy.  Because they’re so buggy, it’s hard to imagine all the defects gone, so we visualize deities that reveal in purified form what we cannot see even though it is already there.

How to proceed when there are so many bugs?  The proven method in the business world is “continuous improvement.”  One of its early leaders, W. Edwards Deming, was instrumental in Japan’s mastery of manufacturing.  They summarize his teaching that errors are opportunities for learning to generate improvements as “every defect a treasure”.

Continuous improvement is an unremitting process of noticing defects, rigorously identifying their root causes, and incrementally eliminating those factors.

Tibetan Buddhism is a continuous improvement practice.  My teacher says two to four hours of formal practice every day is necessary for transformation.  Some change seems to be taking place since I upped my own practice to two hours.  But it’s the same as in business, my aim must be to stay alert throughout the day, notice every defect, identify why it happened, and steadfastly uproot its cause.

I was lucky in my business life to get transformative teachings at Harvard Business School and elsewhere.  I am lucky now to get transformative Tibetan Buddhist teachings.  And I’m blessed above all by my parents’ teaching, “I don’t know, let’s work to find out.”

Epiphanies result, if at all, from long hard work whose aim may not even seem to be discovery.  They are surprising because arriving at the realization is unexpected.  The realization itself, however, is immediately recognized to be obvious truth.

It’s not surprising that both transformational Tibetan Buddhism and transformational business strategy use envisioning integrated with continuous improvement.  My surprised feeling was because I hadn’t noticed that before.  It’s lucky that what I learned in business was such good preparation for what I’m doing now.

Buddhist Teachings – Series One

For anyone wishing to follow the advice in Alice in Wonderland – “Begin at the beginning”, the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop” – here are links that start at the beginning for the series of posts about my 2011 Tibetan Buddhist class.

Please, if you know of one, point me to an automated way to index posts in this order, not the usual sequence, most recent first.

If I Say I’m a Physicist

Tibetan Buddhist Class, First Two Days

First Week

Week Two

Week Three

Question Time

Week Four

I’ll do the same for the series about taxes.

Tibetan Buddhist Class, Week Four

Our focus this week is on Tara whose 21 manifestations offer every aspect of compassion.   As Green Tārā she protects against suffering, as White Tārā she heals wounds, as Red Tārā she teaches compassion, and as Blue Tārā she destroys all obstacles to awakening.  She laughs at practitioners who become too serious and works to open our heart.  Like Padmasambhava, the central figure of the previous sadhana, she appears as a beautiful 16 year-old but where his semi-wrathful appearance motivates our determination to dispel delusions, she offers playfully loving encouragement.

We offer praises to invoke Tara’s presence and take refuge in her nature.  We chant aspirations for her help and recite her mantra while trying to visualize her as fully real as any other phenomena.   By reciting her mantra and visualizing her, we aim to become imbued with her being and all it represents.  Then we dissolve the visualization and dedicate our practice for the benefit of all beings.

Just as Padmasambhava did, Tara manifests from emptiness and is translucent like a rainbow.  We aim to become inseparable from them and realize the emptiness both of our ordinary self and the visualization of our self as them, to realize that both our ordinary self and our self as deity are our creation.  Neither one has inherent existence.  We are working to recognize ultimate reality as it is, a display of emptiness and luminosity.

This practice is much simpler than the first one.  There is only one text, fewer chants, and much less to visualize.  It takes quite a long time to practice because there’s a lot of recitation of Tara’s mantra but it takes only two days for lama to explain the whole practice.  He starts over again from the beginning on the third day so we will get the structure firmly fixed.

Lama also offers new details.  One of Tara’s manifestations, he says, subdues zombies and all manner of other beings, too, including ones with horse heads and human bodies.  All such beings are ways to visualize negative emotions that lead to negative actions.  Lama has many tales about zombies.

Zombies are bodies inhabited by a demon who replaced the original occupant.  There are none now, Lama says, because high lamas killed them all, which is unfortunate in a way because wherever there were zombies, you could be sure a high lama would soon appear, too.  Those high lamas could make zombies work.  One took a long pilgrimage all across Tibet and needed to bring a lot of stuff with him.  He made a zombie carry it all.  At the end of each day he told the zombie to stop.  The zombie would crash to the ground and remain immobile ’til morning.  Toward the end of the pilgrimage it started making a funny noise as it walked because its feet were almost worn through.

Another time, when the abbot of a monastery was nearing death, he told his lamas they must at all costs cut up and burn his body within three days of his death.  But when the time came, they decided not to do that because even the lowest person is allowed to rest for a week.  They laid him to rest and respectfully slept where his body lay.  On the third night one young lama was too scared to sleep.  At last he turned and placed his head where his feet should be so he could keep a close watch on the abbot’s body.  Suddenly, its eyes opened, it sat up, rose to its feet and began touching each sleeping monk’s head.  They instantly became zombies.  The young monk escaped because only his feet were touched.  He ran out, locked all the zombies in, and probably burned the monastery to the ground.  Lama says he can’t attest to that last point.  It’s his assumption based on other such incidents.

Lama says the reason for sky burial, the Tibetan tradition of cutting bodies into small pieces and leaving them for vultures, was to avert zombies.  Since there are none now, sky burial is no longer necessary.  The workers who cut up the bodies had to hide the heads because vultures, who are in fact special-purpose deities, like brains best.  If they got brains first, they wouldn’t finish the flesh and other organs.

Some questions (italicized) about all this:

“Why is it OK to use the body even to the point of destruction just because it’s occupied by a demon?”   Buddhists regard the body as a vehicle, just like a car, boat or bicycle.  You want to be able to use it for a long time but at some point it will stop working and it then has no more value.

“Why are many of the stories jokes about hardship?”  Cultures where life is hard tend to use humor as an anesthetic.  Buddha wanted to find a better way, how to end suffering altogether.  He said its causes are attachment, ignorance and hatred.  Imagining how things are is ignorance.  Imagining we have a self and our body is that self makes us fear damage to it, most of all death, because then our self would die.  That we have no self to protect is hard to see.  There is no aspect of what we imagine to be our self that is unchanging, many of its elements existed before our body was even conceived and many will continue to have effects after our body’s life ends.  I get that intellectually but not yet experientially.

“The demons don’t exist now because high lamas killed them.   What supposedly exists now that will be killed off in future?”  Buddhist deities and demons represent qualities that do exist, so in that sense they are real.  Their images and stories can engage us in a new conceptual understanding of reality.  When our habitual concept and the new one seem equally plausible, we may see through both concepts and recognize what is truly present.

“Do any stories incorporate current events?”  Mao Zedong, who drove the Dalai Lama and so many others out of Tibet is said to have been the manifestation of a deity who saw that Tibetans had stopped progressing spiritually and drove them out of their comfort zone.  There was a report in yesterday’s newspaper about a mysterious sickness that caused the death of several hundred villagers.  Zombies are suspected to be the culprits.  They were killed in lama’s story but remained a force elsewhere.

Two more days of teaching and practice and the class is over.  Now I have to figure out what to do next.  I don’t feel ready, somehow, to benefit from making either of these sadhanas my daily practice.  I sense that I should do something else first.    [Note:  That instinct was correct.  The traditional path is to start with the Preliminary Practices.  Some practitioners repeat them over and over again throughout their life.  Others move on to more complex sadhanas like the ones we studied in these classes.  Let me know if you’re interested and maybe I’ll write about Preliminary Practices sometime.]

Tibetan Buddhist Class, Question Time

Before week four of the class, I want to respond to some great questions about Buddhism and kindness, Buddhist practice, and Buddhist thought.

About Buddhism and kindness:  Harold commented on If I Say I’m a Physicist“for me Buddhism is epitomized by how I treat a grandchild, with a great deal of caring and kindness.  Now for some reason as people grow older we stop treating them like we would treat our young grandchildren.  Understanding why that happens might bring greater understanding why we have so much conflict in the world.”

Fear distracts us from kindness.  Old people are close to what we fear most, death.  They remind us that we, too, will die.  In societies with a low rate of infant mortality, we think small children are far from death.

Also, small children are vulnerable in an attractive way, not the sad-making way of old people.  They develop rapidly in so many ways.  It’s easy to help them and forgive their mistakes.  But old people change in the opposite way.  They grow weaker and make more mistakes.  Sara commented beautifully about this, describing an experience with her frail, elderly mother.

And, we tend to be cautious with everyone else, people who are not very young or old, because they might be a threat and they are not so obviously vulnerable.

We can be more kind if we learn to be less fearful and more open to being kind to all, not just ones whose situation makes it easy.  Training methods Buddhism offers can help and there are many other programs.  It doesn’t matter what method(s) we use to approach the understanding Harold speaks of, only that we do train ourselves to be more kind.

About Buddhist practice:  Bill wrote in response to Tibetan Buddhist Class, Week Two:  “I didn’t realize there was so much complex ritual.  Is this only done during meditation?  Is it in this process that one may experience truth or insight?  Is this how one learns the teachings of Buddha or how they’re put into practice?”

I wrote a little about ritual practice (sadhana) in Tibetan Buddhist Class, Week Three.  There are much more complex and also much simpler ones than we’re learning in this class.   This article points out how simple a sadhana can be:  “There are three important aspects of sadhana: choice, commitment and aspiration.  Even the most simple one will be challenging to the newcomer.  Consider lighting a candle every night, then immediately blowing it out.  Nothing more or nothing less.  Do this for ninety days.  You will observe the mind coming up with every reason why you shouldn’t do it and every excuse why you missed a few (or many) nights.  Yet by accepting it as a sadhana, you make a choice to do it and it becomes a spiritual practice … Initially, it will challenge the mind and the ego.  The spiritual “you” may even win the battle, but to keep it from becoming mechanical, an aspiration is required.  Try this.  Light the candle and say: ‘This is all I have to do for the benefit of self, other, and the world.’  Then blow out the candle.  Doing only that will begin a transformation process that will alter your life.”

One Tibetan teacher I find helpful, Anam Thubten Rinpoche (ATR), teaches only silent meditation, like Zen practice.  Sometimes, we just try to watch our thoughts arise – like watching waves roll in and disappear.  Other times we try to understand what caused a thought to arise.  When I asked ATR:  “Could you have attained your realization if you only sat as we do, if you had not practiced the traditional rituals for many years?”  He told me:  “I had to do that.  It was my karma.  Different people need to train in different ways.”  He believes complex rituals are an obstacle for most Westerners.

Most Tibetan teachers offer more complex practices.  All the guides say the same thing, we must each find a practice and a teacher whose methods suit our unique set of thinking and emotional habits (karma).  You may recognize your teacher instantly, it could take three years with one before you are sure, it will probably take ten years to absorb what a teacher can point out to you, then you probably need another one.

In a future post I’ll describe a simple tantric Buddhist practice.  I understand this one only enough to see why so many tantric practices are held secret.  They are paradoxical, intended to disrupt our habitual patterns of thought and emotion.  Without guidance from a teacher, we would only form new obscuration.  All these methods aim to break down habitual responses to enable more authentic perception and action.

The overall structure of Buddhist practice is:  (1) study, (2) reflect and (3) meditate.   We learn the teachings via study, understand how they apply to us via reflection, and effect change via meditation.  If study is all we do, our behavior will not change.  If we try to meditate without study or reflection, maybe our understanding will grow and our behavior will change, but it’s not likely.

About Buddhist thought:  John wrote in response to Tibetan Buddhist Class, Week Two“what would remain if I gradually eliminated all elements of that which forms my awareness of the “world” and of “me” … the “me” that used all my bodily functions to perceive “the world” still seems to “be”.

No “me” exists when I try that thought experiment, perhaps because I interpret “me” to mean a living, sentient being, but more fundamentally because I’m losing the sense that there are any beings or things with a persistent identity.

I am in much the same place as John, however, when he continues:  “If this is true of “me” it must be true for all of “us”.  What then differentiates “us”?  perhaps each physical being has its own perceptions and memories that gives each the perception of individuality, but in reality we may only be ONE.”  

Perhaps an analogy is useful.  Nepal’s borders have no reality yet they do have real effects.  The people and culture on either side of the Indian border are the same, the people and culture on either side of the Tibetan border are also the same, but the cultures of Nepalis close to India or Tibet are different.  Plus, it’s all changing.  In that way, borders have no reality.  But the laws on either side of borders are different and their impact is real.

John’s conclusion is:  “The difference from Buddhist thought being that I only tried to imagine what that final state of being would be like, I didn’t actually experience it as some Buddhist gurus claim to do.”

“Buddhist thought” means something different to me now.  Phakchok Rinpoche says:  “Buddhism is a method, not a belief system.”  It is actually a method for discovering and destroying one’s beliefs, a tool not an end product.  In other words, if “thought” means “belief”, there is no Buddhist thought.  That makes it attractive to someone like me whose habit is to question all beliefs.

I do not hope to attain perfect understanding of Buddhist thought.   What I am increasingly confident about is that analytical and intuitive thinking together with chanting, visualizing and other “skillful means” is helpful training for “me” to become more kind to more people.  Unlike objectives I set in business, metrics in this sphere have no value.  Whatever I achieve will be worthwhile.

Tibetan Buddhist Class, Week Three

Every day in class is much the same in week three.  We’re going back over the practice (sadhana) getting more detail about all the visualizations.

Sadhana means “a way of accomplishing something”.  A sadhana is a discipline one follows to attain a goal. Related words include abhyāsa, which means repeated practice performed with observation and reflection and kriyā, which means action and also implies perfect execution with study and investigation.  There are sadhanas for worldly aims, e.g., money, not just spiritual ones, and for Hindu, Muslim and Sikh practitioners not just Buddhists.  There are fifteen major tantric Buddhist sadhanas and innumerable variants practiced by individual orders.

I’m starting to suspect that although this sadhana is an effective discipline for me, it will be more so if I first complete this order’s much simpler “Preliminary Practice”.   We’re now practicing more variations of this sadhana but even the shortest one has a lot of detail.

Our cheat sheet shows what to include in short, middling and long versions.   The long version includes a feast offering to the deities who are ultimately no different from ourselves.  They are what we would be if we did not have all these habits of thinking and feeling, ways of responding to what we imagine we see, which is a distorted version of reality.

I don’t understand the differences between the short and middling versions.  It’s more complicated than I thought.  There’s a central part that can be done alone as the simplest possible form of the practice but there’s not just one set of additional chants for the middling version.  There are many optional extras.  I wonder if I’ll be able to understand the difference between what’s essential and what’s an elaboration.  That’s why I’m thinking I should maybe start with something simpler.

Today there are no newspapers, bread or anything else I might want to buy because yesterday was the last day of Tihar, the festival of lights that’s preceded by the day of the dog, the day of the crow, the day of the cow and etc.

Yesterday was “brother tikka” day when sisters must honor their brothers and wish them a long life.  Brothers get the colored powder Tikka applied to their forehead and are given gifts and a feast.  If I wasn’t studying here I’d have been honored in this way by my Nepali “sisters”.

This evening I checked email.  My last Sidwell aunt got confused and swallowed all her medications a few days ago.  She isn’t expected to be able to continue living in her own room.  My second-to-last Sidwell uncle is declining fast with Parkinson’s.  I’m not ready to become the oldest living descendant of my cotton mill-hand great-grandfather, John Henry Sidwell.

Now it’s the end of week three, another free day.  I’m overwhelmed by so much effort to absorb so much that’s new.  Tibetan lamas start by learning the chants, how to make the sequence of sounds correctly, when they’re very young.  They only begin to learn the meaning later.

I thought this class was so hard because I’m used to learning in the opposite sequence, first the theory then the practice.  Then I realized that was just an idea.  I’ve always gone about things this way.  I almost drowned two times, leaping into the deep end and then trying to figure out how people swim.

Young lamas first learn to make the sounds, do the hand gestures and so forth to establish an armature, like a framework around which a sculpture is built.  It provides stability.  The chants’ sound provides a structure for one’s recognition of ever deeper levels of meaning.  If you start with words, you get confused when you learn a second set.  They get jumbled when you try to retrieve them.  Enacting the sounds works very differently.  It’s experiential and holistic.

In any case, I’m happy today is a rest day.  I walk up to Kopan Monastery to meet Choedar, the lama who came on the trek to Tsum Valley last year.  It’s so good to see him.  We talk about many things, especially Buddhist education.  Choedar manages education of the young monks here, about 60 new ones each year.  Other monasteries go to the villages to find children.  Kopan gets more applicants than it can take.  That’s because students at Kopan get both Buddhist and Western education.

Boudha 2011 019

Cheodar says it’s good for the monks to understand science because it will help them relate to lay practitioners.  Monks in Tibet used to know the same things and ways as lay people.  That was better.  Also, if they change their mind about being a monk, they can reenter lay life because they will not be alienated from the larger society.

Back in my room, I do my laundry then go out and circumambulate Boudha stupa .  It starts to rain heavily.  My laundry will have to finish drying tomorrow while we start learning a new sadhana.

Tibetan Buddhist Class, Week Two

The class is growing more intense, or maybe my brain is filling up.  I am getting a glimmer of understanding, though.  It’s less necessary to suspend disbelief about the practice.  I just bring my teachers to mind.  It’s not even necessary to be in their presence.  Their experience of the world is different.  They’re kinder and happier.  I’m a little closer to understanding how they achieved that.  It’s hard work!

This afternoon, we go to Phakchok Rinpoche’s room.  He wants to see how we’re getting on and give us encouragement.  He asks each of us about something we should have learned.  First, the monk from New Zealand.  “What are the four nails?”  That’s one I could answer.  He says the first three but can’t remember the fourth.  Maybe I’m doing better than I imagined.  Next the monk from Colorado.  I can’t even understand his question.  I can at least partially answer the next few questions.

Now it’s my turn.  “What are the three samadhis?”  I’m utterly baffled.  I’ve asked about them and failed altogether to understand.  I don’t even understand what samadhi means.  First I do bad prostrations, now I can barely begin to answer Phakchok Rinpoche’s question.  “I have not yet been able to understand about samadhis, Rinpoche.  Maybe they are related to the three kayas?”  

Rinpoche is not fierce this time.  I think he realizes that while my sincerity is not as great as my ignorance, it is genuine.  He talks about something else while I pacify my agitation then patiently explains.  I still don’t understand.

Later, I remember binary arithmetic being explained in High School.  I couldn’t understand it at all.  Then I got a job as a computer programmer and it was immediately obvious.  Presumably, my mental block that makes samadhis invisible will also disappear.

We’re now starting a little before 9.  I have just enough time after the monastery gong wakes me at 4:30 to write up the previous day’s notes, meditate and have noodles and coffee.  We get a long lunch break then continue until around 7, ending the day by practicing the long version of the ritual.  By that time I have just enough energy to cook a few more noodles before conking out.

More detail is revealed each day.  Knowing when to do the hand gestures (mudras), remembering which one goes with what chant, even just remembering the sequence of movements for each one is hard.  I’ll do a simpler practice at home, a subset of what we’re learning, but I don’t yet understand enough to know which parts I will do.  I’m trying to learn them all, at least to some extent.

A most auspicious thing happens today.  We have a second session with Phakchok Rinpoche.  He blesses our prayer beads (malla) and mine break while he rolls them between his palms.  That in itself is auspicious.  Then he directs one of his lamas to restring my malla and add a “root bead” of the special kind.  Now I must use it only in private, so I will buy another one to use in class.

Rinpoche (it means Precious One) does not ask questions today.  He explains many things.  I listen with windows open, mind transparent, as clear as I can, anyway.   The Zen master said about his paradoxical teachings: “Just let it all in.  Don’t evaluate, don’t worry if you will forget, don’t think.  If you do, you will not hear. “

Pointing to his cup, Rinpoche says something about equality.  For just a nanosecond I glimpse what he is pointing out.  I’m so happy!

Tomorrow is the end of week two, our free day.  I’ll review my notes and try to clarify my questions.  Our translator will tell me the names of the mudras so I can annotate my texts with which one goes where.  She will also get us video of them all.  I may now have the visualizations that go with each chant clear enough so I can practice on my own but it’s very hard to remember what they mean while also remembering what to do.