Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Zen Master Teachings; Economic Turnaround

As long as I'm still getting some extra traffic from the Adi Da hub-bub... it behooves me to offer visitors something in addition to my own random thoughts.

Here's an .mp3 of Zen Master Bon Soeng's Dharma speech from Buddha's Enlightenment Day a couple years back. ZM Bon Soeng is the Abbot and Guiding Teacher of Empty Gate Zen Center, where I've been practicing for over 2 decades. More of his talks are transcribed here.

(ZM Bon Soeng gives talks and Q&A at Empty Gate each Wednesday night. We've been intending to start video of these sessions to post on YouTube, but are moving slowly with the technical details. I wonder if the teaching of reincarnation makes Buddhists tend towards procrastination.)

The founder of our school, who brought this Korean-style tradition to America back in the 70s, was Zen Master Seung Sahn, aka Dae Soen Sa Nim. ZM Seung Sahn died 4 years ago; as a tribute, the Su Bong Zen Monastery in Hong Kong created this .pdf illustrating his teaching.

In unrelated news... I go back to work tomorrow. I'd been steadily getting contracts from Gap Inc till earlier this year, when management outsourced computer work to India. Now, for the moment anyway, they've decided that I've got something to contribute, notwithstanding the guys in Bangalore.

I got the word on this new contract the same day that the Feds announced the worst unemployment figures in decades. The fact that I'm re-employed is a powerful leading economic indicator. On top of that, I hear that the Mayan Calendar -- the one that points to the End of Time in 2012 -- predicts that we're entering a year-long period of better times. Surely, these Signs indicate that we're turning the corner on global chaos.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Abortion Philosophy

I was over at the Political Junkies discussion of (free registration required), where someone asked, "What is it about the right to an abortion that is such a dividing issue?"

In considering such moral issues, the only principle I look to is the Golden Rule. Since we cherish our own existence, we therefore respect the lives of others. But when we speak of doing unto others... the underlying issue is how we define these "others." Even though we consider an insect to be "life," very few of us hesitate to swat them.

The implicit meaning is that we follow the Golden Rule when relating to others whom we perceive as "like me." We don't know what this "me" is, so we (usually unconsciously) define it with our thinking. Depending on how we define our "self," that determines which "others" fall within our sphere of compassion. If I think of myself as American, my full compassion doesn't extend outside my country. If I think of myself as a human, my full compassion doesn't extend beyond my species. In Buddhism, we cultivate the widest possible compassion, extended to "all beings" (i.e., whomever is subject to suffering).

Though the Buddhist goal provides a direction, in practice, few of us hesitate to squash the mosquito that's landed on our arm. We each draw the line somewhere; at some point, we consider the other being to be enough like us to merit protection of life.

At the extreme, some would say that the moment that a human egg and sperm unite, it's a life sufficiently like us to be protected by law. Polling and voting patterns show that this is a minority view, so for the US to extend the right to life to a fertilized egg isn't within the realm of political possibility. On the other extreme, we could say that a human receives the right to life some hours or months after birth. This end of the spectrum has even less support.

So we're left to the debate of where to draw the line. Sometime between conception and a newborn, we need to decide as a society the point to view the developing human as like us, as worthy of a right to life. It's like the necessity of determining the age to allow drinking alcohol or driving a car. Philosophically, we know that not everyone is qualified to handle an automobile (or to consume beer, or vote), magically upon the day of their 16th, 18th, or 21st birthday. But as a practical matter, we need to set a date to grant the right.

From this perspective, abortion isn't a moral issue, any more than driving age is. This isn't an issue of whether or not we honor life, but in how we define a life worthy of protection. The consensus majority becomes less and less comfortable with aborting the fetus/baby as it develops more and more into something/someone that we recognize as "like us."

Like driving age etc, the point at which we grant a right to life will necessarily be somewhat arbitrary. As a practical matter, it helps to choose a clearly recognizable event at which to draw the line. The moment of birth is a convenient marker at which to give the developing human this much membership in society. Even then, we must be meticulous, since birth itself doesn't take place in a "moment." This explains why in recent years, the hot-button issue in the debate is "partial-birth abortion." If we draw the line at birth, clearly agreeing that a newborn baby is a life like us, while the fetus in the womb is somewhat less so... then what to do when new being has only somewhat emerged?

The most interesting point to me is how intimately philosophy and politics are intertwined. How we relate to others is linked to our thoughts about self; considering the abortion debate leads directly back to the great question "What am I?"

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Googling Adi Da

I couldn't help but notice that traffic to this blog has increased about 5-fold since I began posting about Adi Da's death. Perhaps I should take my cue from the producers of "Deal or No Deal" and continue to beat this horse as long as it brings in high ratings. To research, I went to Google Trends to see if the number of people interested in Da has spiked.

Da's popularity, as measured by the number of Google searches for "Adi Da," has skyrocketed since his death. Volume has more than doubled in recent days. The magnitude of the upswing, leaving competitor gurus in the dust, is illustrated by the line graph below, found at:

Da's post-mortem performance is particularly impressive, since the count includes searches for just one of his many names. To be fair, though, we must consider the possibility that numbers for "Adi Da" are inflated by people who really wanted information about the "Adidas" sneaker company.

The #1 city for "Adi Da" googling, by a huge margin, is Clearlake Oaks, CA, USA. I believe this is the location of Da's "Mountain of Attention" sanctuary. The #1 country is Turkey, and #1 language is Turkish. Turkey is followed by Slovenia, Brazil, and Romania, with USA coming in a disappointing 9th.

I can't say for sure what the deal is with Turkey. If in fact there's been recent news regarding the manufacture of Adidas sneakers in Istanbul, that'd explain a few things.

Monday, December 01, 2008

More on the Death of Adi Da

Discussion about the death of Adi Da continues at the Nonduality Blog. (Adi Da is the controversial guru who has also been known as Franklin Jones, Bubba Free John, Avatar Adi Da Samraj, etc etc.) About 60 comments have been made to that blog so far; below is the comment I added there this morning.

Part of my comment is a reaction to the debate over Adi Da as a "Realizer." It's often seemed to me that Da and his followers put lots of time and energy into his claims as a "Realizer" (this includes the gushing praise that Ken Wilber gave Da in the past). Is "Realizer" just a piece of jargon with no clear plain English meaning... a fuzzy word for devotees to project all sorts of fuzzy ideas onto?

Hell, it's happened to me more than once that I've left my apartment and realized that my fly was undone. That makes me a realizer. I don't see the point in making grandiose claims and comparisons about that realization (even though it was quite useful when it occurred). Isn't it enough that I simply zipped up and kept walking?

Anyway, here's what I wrote:

Former Follower and Critic Says:
> Criticizing Da is claimed to be the same as criticizing all
> great Realizers–but it is ok for Da to claim only he attained
> the so-called highest stage not other Realizers who were not
> fully enlightened according to him. The truth is it is only Da
> that is being criticized as not being Realized, not these great
> Realizers. Da is not widely recognized as a great Realizer

I've done lots of work with computers (as an MS Excel expert). When people come to me with their computer problems, I don't waste time telling them that I'm a great Expert, or comparing myself to other Excel Experts, living or dead. I just fix their problems, and once they see that it works, then they're happy.

Some spiritual teachers operate like this also. People come to them wanting to understand themselves, and explore how to live their lives and relate to others. The teachers point them to practices and inquiries, and encourage them use these pointers to find truth for themselves. None of this requires the teacher to make any claims about their own greatness, what a wonderful "Realizer" they are, or to judge any other teachers living or dead.

So the important issue to me is... what, if anything, about Da's life, words, actions, and death... is helpful to any of us as we live our actual lives just now? I see that as a useful line of inquiry, and everyone can try and see for themselves whether they find any of Da's words etc to be useful. The whole issue of what a "Realizer" is, of whether or not Da was one, of what other living or dead teachers were superior or inferior... all of this is a different issue entirely (and for me personally, not the issue I find interesting).

Also... we can exercise care re how much weight we put on whether or not a teacher is "widely recognized." Following a crowd, believing in things because they're widely recognized by others, can sometimes be a useful strategy. But we can also look into things independently, seeking whatever's most helpful to our particular life situation. In that case, we examine what best works for ourselves, and it becomes irrelevant whether or not masses of other people recognize it.

NC Says:
> I think it’s natural to grieve our loved ones for a time

I don't see any problem with grieving. Some people have the idea that life ought to be non-stop bliss. They try to ignore or deny grief and sadness in themselves, and criticize it in others.

All of this is rooted in the initial idea: "I want to be happy all the time." That want can be questioned also. Maybe it's possible to keep a clear mind, in which it's no problem to be happy sometimes and grieving sometimes, healthy sometimes and sick sometimes, alive for a while and then dead. A clear mirror reflects each moment as it is, beautiful or ugly, without making it into a problem.

In addition to the conversation at, there's also in-depth open discussion of Da's death at the New Lightmind Forums. Another great resource is the Adi Da Archives, a critical site with extensive info, stories, and reflections by ex-devotees. Further posts on the topic, including the "succession" issue, appear on the Forest Wanderer blog.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Adi Da dies

Controversial 70s guru Adi Da (aka Bubba Free John etc etc) died on Thanksgiving. My main connection to him is his strong early influence from my erstwhile guru Swami Muktananda. I have a little familiarity with Da from attending programs run by his devotees here in Berkeley; these included some readings from his books, and watching him on video.

I've always been intrigued by how Da was accepted as a super high-class teacher by major writers and philosophers like Ken Wilber and Alan Watts... since his teachings on the whole had so little resonance for me. I've previously posted about Wilber here and here. It was this curiosity about Da's popularity that inspired me to start this blog with a post about Adi Da over a year ago.

I've joined some discussion about Adi Da at the Nonduality Blog and elsewhere. may be the most lively forum on the topic; Guruphiliac has also added a Da post.

Zen Master Seung Sahn used to say "A bad situation is a good situation." If someone is attached to money, and it's working out well for him, it's very difficult to see and examine and question the underlying attachment. But when a financial crisis hits, the bad situation is an inspiration for inquiry, for looking to the roots of the suffering in our own thinking. Likewise, when a guru dies, the bad situation may be the best time to wonder about our tendency to seek external authority above believing our own experience. That's generally what I've been saying in those discussions.

I happen to have been present in the Ganeshpuri India ashram when Swami Muktananda died. As I saw the devotees scrambling for a new way to project their belief and devotion during those days, it made me wonder about how the needs and wants and expectations of the followers may be the most fundamental part of the equation. (If authoritarian gurus didn't exist, we'd have to invent them.) I've always thought that being in the midst of Muktananda's death-drama was a key experience in pointing me toward a more independent path, which is likely why Da's passing is interesting to me today.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Regarding Obama

I often return to the perspective I got from reading Tim Leary... that the gene pool in her wisdom produces a variety of individuals to meet the needs of the species as a whole. Perhaps the species requires a large percentage of individuals who seek to cultivate stability, and a smaller percentage who explore and experiment at the edge. Or a large percentage of individuals who seek peace, and a smaller percentage itching to do battle when necessary. This would mean that different individuals can be driven by widely different perspectives... without anyone being "incorrect."

For instance, when I look at the life of Zen masters in the tradition I follow, they seem to be people of great drive, ambition, and energy. They were "empire builders." These aren't necessarily qualities that I personally aspire to, yet I realize that without these people with these qualities, the tradition would never have remained alive to reach me. Likewise with political animals. They may require outward-directed qualities that are necessary for the species to flourish... and allow the survival of more inner-directed individuals like myself.

I've heard it said that Obama is sincere about his desire to go beyond the us-vs-them dynamic that's split the country since the hippie-vs-establishment conflict of the 60s. Baby boomers (exemplified by Bush and the Clintons) may be forever caught in this mindset, but Obama speaks to a younger generation. (Obama's greatest margin was among under-30 voters; without his 2:1 advantage in this demographic, he would have lost Indiana and North Carolina.)

It's easy to cast Obama in the role of someone who straddles divisions. He's black, and he's white. He's an American, who spent years of his childhood abroad. He's a Christian, brought up by atheist/agnostic parents, he's lived in a Muslim culture, and appeals to secular humanists. He's a liberal, who surrounds himself with capitalist economic advisers. He's a macho basketball player, who can have the aura of an arugula-eating metrosexual.

No doubt that many on the Left want Obama to be the savior that leads their side to crush their enemies. As someone who hopes for less conflict in the world, I'd like to see him emerge instead as someone who can integrate the opposing sides.

Friday, November 07, 2008

World Series of Poker

The election may be over, but there's still a major contest of 2008 left to be decided.

Each year around June, the run of dozens of tournaments known as the World Series of Poker (WSOP) plays out in Vegas. It's kinda like Ramadan for poker players. It culminates in the "Main Event," a $10K buy-in no-limit hold'em event that in recent years (since the poker boom on TV and the net) has attracted as many as 6000 hopefuls. The explosion of interest has resulted in insane payoffs for the tourney; this year, first place is worth over $9 million. The winner of the Main Event also receives the informal title of world poker champion.

This year, as a publicity stunt, the Main Event was paused with 9 players remaining (the "final table"). The idea was to have 4 months for excitement to build in the poker world, maximizing the audience for when ESPN televises the finale this coming week.

Final table play begins on Sunday. They'll play down to 2 players, who will battle heads-up on Monday eve. ESPN will air the results on Tuesday. I'm looking forward to the excitement, and reading up on the profiles of the 9 combatants on sites like

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Hoarding, Desire, and Money

My previous blog entry touched on the issue of how financial systems relate to our current crisis and its associated suffering. In the Comments section, Steven Sashen pointed to the work of Bernard Lietaer. Like the article I'd quoted (Money and the Crisis of Civilization), Lietaer says that the very way that we've designed and defined "money" is at the root of the problem.

As I said in my own Comment under Steven's... Lietaer isn't some ayahuasca-soaked fringe visionary. He has experience that makes his authority far far greater than my own. But still, since following authorities isn't always a great idea, I'd like to explore and question Lietaer's assertions.

As quoted by Steven, Laietaer writes, "most current money ... engenders hoarding and short-term thinking since you can collect interest by having more money now (with the hope that it will hold you over in the future)."

I can agree with this quote, in that money engenders the "hoarding" of value, just as a refrigerator engenders hoarding of food. But is using a refrigerator a negative thing? Is the negative word "hoarding" really necessary here, rather than say "saving"?

We human beings seem to be wired to desire satisfaction in the moment, moreso than saving for the future. When someone wants money to spend now, our current system allows him to borrow from someone who's been saving it, inducing the deal by agreeing to pay a fee for its temporary use. The effect of this "interest payment" is to counter-balance our desire to spend in the present, increasing the attractiveness of saving (vs immediate spending).

This type of marketplace (borrowing money at interest) is condemned by Islam. Maybe Jesus was criticizing this system also, in saying things like, "... do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you." Again, Mohammed and Jesus are just authorities, and it's up to us the living to think it through for ourselves.

This very fact that "money" allows us to store value for the future may be a benefit of the current system. For instance, say I meet a stranger who could use my help with a computer problem. Since I don't know him, I'm hesitant to "gift" my time and effort to him. And maybe he's got no skills or goods that I want or need at the moment, so bartering isn't possible. But because of "money," he can pay me for my help, and I can "hoard" the payback till some later, more favorable situation. Thus, the money system has made it more likely for me to help this stranger.

I don't think that hoarding vs non-hoarding is the issue. Rather, it's why I'm hoarding. Maybe someone saves money so that when his parents are too old and weak to support themselves with their own labor, he'll be able to take care of them using the money he'd "hoarded" earlier. Can we really label that a bad thing?

If my saving is only for me, then yes, it brings suffering. The same could be said about anything I do only for me. Whatever conclusions we reach regarding the best money system, we can always pursue the Big Question: looking into I/my/me-thinking.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Responding to Crisis

I just read this article called Money and the Crisis of Civilization. It argues that the cause of our current global financial turmoil isn't merely “unregulated casino-style financial manipulation.” Rather, our problems arise “from the very nature of money and property in the world today, and it will persist and continue to intensify until money itself is transformed.” It calls for an entirely new world system, in which we “do not drive the conversion of all that is good, true, and beautiful into money.” (Whose opinion of goodness and beauty is he talking about? The author leaves that up in the air. The virtue of a free market is that we can make such decisions for ourselves.)

Lots of my neighbors in Berkeley react similarly, in claiming that the lesson of the crisis is that we need a fundamental overhaul of our economic/political system: profoundly more government control, and less freedom in the marketplace. Supporters of any alternative system can always use bad times this way: (1) things suck now, (2) I have an idea for changing things, (3) therefore, we should follow my idea.

There’s some merit to this “logic.” When we’re born into this world, blank of experience, our brains need to follow very simple algorithms in order to survive. I can see why DNA, in Her wisdom, would program us with, “Whenever you’re in pain, change what you’re doing. Try an alternative – any alternative – and see if it makes the pain go away.”

That’s not bad for a simplistic strategy. But like many of our inborn simplistic strategies, it’s sub-optimal for intelligent adults.

Some say that since a free-market system results in periods of suffering, and is ultimately unsustainable, we should therefore adopt a more Socialist path. This conclusion might be correct. Maybe more Socialist laws would reduce suffering and lengthen humanity’s survival. No one can predict future effects for certain, and such speculation is beyond my pay grade.

My point is that in deciding whether to make changes, we’ve got to put aside preconceptions, and examine both the benefits and dangers of each option. It’s not sufficient to say, “We need to ditch capitalism because it’s painful and unsustainable.” Buddha said that everything is transitory, and wanting anything results in suffering. If this is indeed the nature of reality and human life, then it’s a mistake to reject a system merely because it’s painful and impermanent.

If Buddha is correct, then utopia isn’t an option. Those advocating an alternate system need to go further than pointing to the pain in the current system. They must demonstrate that their particular alternative is likely to produce less suffering.

(“Man’s desires are infinite, but the means necessary for satisfying these desires are limited.” This is the opening sentence of a graduate-level Economics text… but it could just as easily be Buddha explaining the universality of suffering.)

If you put a rat in a cage and shock him randomly, he’ll do all sorts of “superstitious” behavior – running in circles, jumping up and down, doing somersaults. It’s his attempt to improve the situation by doing anything different. And if by pure chance the shocks stop when he does a somersault, he’ll do more and more of them, whether or not there’s a real cause and effect. Human beings can act the same superstitious way.

If I follow you around every day, eventually I may see you make a major mistake. At that point, I can say, “You’re such an idiot! You tried to live your own life, and look at the trouble that caused. If you’d just put me in control of your life, I’d do it much better, and you’d be saved from screw-ups like this.”

But the fact that you made a mistake, and I claim in retrospect that I would have avoided it… doesn’t mean that my way will really work better in practice. It may sometimes be true that you really would have done better with me controlling your life… but is that sufficient justification? Maybe freedom – even the freedom to make stupid choices – has an intrinsic value, and shouldn’t be so quickly abandoned in times of trouble.

We could, after all, reject Democracy because of all the flaws we find in democratic countries. “Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” Isn’t it possible that the same is true of free markets? I could complain about how terrible it is that my job was outsourced, but it’d be even worse to deny the job to the guy in Indian who now does it… and needs the money more desperately than I.

As usual, this is best understood by a gambling analogy. In blackjack, you sometimes find yourself holding a 16 when the dealer shows a 7. You’ll notice over time that when you hit in this situation, you most often lose (since 8 out of 13 card ranks – 6 through King – bust you). Based on our inborn, simplistic logic, we may implicitly conclude, “Hitting here keeps failing, so I need to switch strategies and stand.”

But standing here is a huge error. The key point is that holding 16 is a bad situation, in which you’ll most often lose whatever you do. The correct move is to hit, since any different choice would make matters even worse. The only way to reach the right decision is through careful analysis. (Tangentially… if the dealer were showing a 10 instead of a 7, then standing is only a tiny error. That’s because for those 5/13ths of the time that you don’t bust, you’ll most often win the hand when the dealer shows a 7. When he holds a 10, you’ll often lose in all cases, so your decision doesn’t matter.)

People (including me) don’t like that fact that we get led astray when we follow the feelings and intuition we automatically gain through experience. It’s so much easier and more satisfying to believe that our intuition is Truth, and we can dispense with reasoned analysis. In some life situations (e.g., deciding which friends you can trust), intuition may indeed be our best guide. But not always.

When I dealt blackjack in Vegas, I’d advise players to follow the computer-generated basic strategy available in many books. “There are so many things in life that you can’t understand rationally,” I’d tell them. “But with blackjack, you can. Forget about what feels right, and follow the book.” Sometimes they’d listen, but more often not.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Atheism, Science, and Zen

In the recent Atheism post, Doug commented, "I don't pay much attention to Dawkins since he took up the provocateur robe... Personally I find arguments against the existence God as frail and unconvincing as those for him." So perhaps it's possible to get muddled on either side of the razor's edge, in belief in God or in no-God. How do we navigate?

In the Zen traditon I practice, the fundamental point, the one pure and clear thing, is what I perceive and what I do in this moment. In a formal kong-an (Jp: "koan") interview, the Master might place a bell in front of you and ask, "Does this bell exist, or is it emptiness?" The "correct" answer is to pick up the bell and ring it.

The key point isn't whether you call it a "bell" or anything else; that's just a name. It isn't whether you think of it as existing or illusory; those are just ideas. As human beings, our job is to connect with the just-now situation right in front of us. What can you do?

Making names for the bell, or holding ideas about the bell, is something extra and unnecessary, like painting legs on a picture of a snake. Likewise, names for God (e.g. Energy, Mind, Buddha, Truth, etc), and holding ideas about God... may be a distraction from our job.

How does this whole issue of God vs Atheism connect with how we actually live our moment-to-moment lives? In many situations, we have a choice between following something external (i.e., believing what we're told by an authority, a scripture, or a group), or looking to our own experience. I believe that when Dawkins speaks of "religion" or "God," he's fundamentally criticizing this tendency to believe in an authority. When he speaks of "science" or "rationality," he's fundamentally encouraging us to instead to look to our own perceptions (and understandings based on these experiences/experiments).

From this perspective, I can appreciate Dawkins and the other "New Atheists." That is, I spent much of my life following the assertions of others (authorities religious or otherwise). At those moments when I can put aside all those words and ideas that come from outside, and return to just-now experience... there's a wonderful sense of clarity.

I do see a connection between scientific method and Zen practice. In both cases, we must completely put down what authorities tell us will happen, what we want to happen, what we expect to happen. All that matters is what does happen, what we directly perceive and experience. In Zen, we speak of a clear mirror, which reflects the moment without adding or subtracting anything with our thinking. Doesn't scientific method take a similar stance?

It seems like a natural maturing process, to move away from following authorities and towards seeing for ourselves. As individuals, we begin life by blindly following our parents, then slowly we grow towards believing in ourselves. As the human race, we've moved from superstition and dogmas, and are slowly moving towards testing things for ourselves ("science"). To whatever extent we've made this leap as individuals, we can be available to help others who are ready to do so. To the extent that Dawkins et al are doing this: wonderful.

I'm not sure, though, that there's the need or possibility of completely putting aside following authorities. On my recent trip to Europe, I often found myself in situations where I had no understanding of the language or rules of the surrounding culture. My default strategy at these times was to follow what everyone else was doing. This seemed like the best option, and indeed, it seems like DNA in her wisdom has hard-wired this default strategy into us when we're born.

Perhaps for many people at many times, believing and following is the best option. Perhaps individuals and societies survive best this way... as long as there's a balance: there must also be some people who are experimenting, exploring, pushing the envelope by questioning the conventional wisdom and thinking independently. This balance between belief and doubt may be the natural order of things. That's why I don't always feel the need to consider religion like a disease that would best be eliminated. I may part company with the New Atheists here (though some of them might share this "live and let live" attitude).

Scientific method has been a huge help to me in putting down superstitious/religious beliefs. In ashrams, you'll often find hundreds of people who share a belief, e.g., that if the guru hands you an object, you can feel his spiritual energy radiating from it. It's very easy to fall into accepting such beliefs as truth. Through rational testing though (and perhaps no other method), we can demonstrate that such felt energy is mind-created. It's something like a casino, in which it really feels like you can predict where the roulette ball will land, and almost all gamblers have strong belief in such feelings. Yet rational testing proves such feelings to be imaginary.

On the other hand, Dawkins and his followers often seem to hold out hope that everything can eventually be explained by science, and I can't believe that. Who am I? Why am I alive? Why is there something rather than nothing? Along with Socrates, I'd say that we must ultimately make peace with Don't Know. My original Zen teacher always said that this Don't Know Mind is better than anything.

To add legs to this snake just a little... in Zen teaching, looking for God is like seeking water in the ocean. "God" is a name for the substance of everything; there's nothing that's not God. This means that whatever situation is in front of me in each moment is, by definition, already "God." It follows that I can forget about "God," and put all my energy and attention towards responding to just-now.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

√únintended Consequences

I'm in Eastern Europe for a few more days, trying to bang out this posting at a Prague hotel. Please excuse any weirdness that results from the foreignness of the keyboard; I'll clean things up when I get back to where I belong.

I came here for a Zen conference in Warsaw, and in my previous posting, I wondered why Zenning is so popular in Poland. I've found out part of the answer, which was kinda interesting. When the Communists controlled Eastern Europe, they tried to impose their atheism everywhere. It worked to a certain extent. A Czech guy in our group says that his country is the most atheistic in the world. But Poland was different.

Centuries ago, when barbarians attacked, denizens of Polish villagers would retreat to the local Church, as it was the best fortified building around. They'd rely on the protection of the Church building for days at a time. Maybe that's part of the reason why Catholicism became deeply connected to the Polish mindset. For example, every public schoolroom in Poland still displays a cross; though such Church-State mixing is forbidden, no police force would dare enforce the law.

So the Russians had little success in dislodging Christianity. When the Communists pushed atheism, the Poles responded like teenagers, doing the exact opposite of what the authorities told them to do.

The Russians in turn responded by supporting anything they saw as possibly weakening the Church. Back in the 70s, Zen Master Seung Sahn (founder of our school) had a student in the US who was a visiting professor from Poland. The professor encouraged the Zen Master to visit his homeland. When the Zen Master applied for visas etc, the Communists saw this strange brand of Buddhism as something that could maybe make people question Catholicism, so they smoothed his way at every turn.

In due time, Communism got swept into the dustbin of history. The Catholics maintained their hold on the Polish soul (with the Pope receiving much credit for the fall of Communism). But the stranglehold of Christianity got weakened ever so slightly by the foothold gained by this weird Zen stuff.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Dawkins and Atheism

I'll soon travel to Eastern Europe for a Zen confab in Warsaw. Zen is big in Poland. Go figure; maybe it has something to do with suffering, "the mother of all Buddhas." Afterwards, I'll tour Krakow, Prague, and Budapest, before hitting Amsterdam (of course) on the way home.

(My apocalyptic friends have warned me of predictions of world-wide collapse by the end of this month. Disturbingly, their emails arrived weeks before the current Wall Street chaos. If they're right, at least I'll be in Amsterdam on Sept 30, which will expand my options for cushioning the end-of-civilization blues.)

While away, I likely won't be blogging till October (if we live). Before the vacation, I wanted to share some online sites that I've been enjoying lately.

Richard Dawkins gained notoriety as the author The Selfish Gene, which has been called the best book of popularizing scientific ideas to the general public. I haven't read it yet, but I've developed a fondness for Dawkins after seeing him on TV and the net. He frequently lectures, riding the success of his more recent book, The God Delusion. I've been prowling Dawkins' site, which is billed as a "Clear-Thinking Oasis." Indeed, his discussion boards seem unusually civil and reasonable.

I don't share Dawkins' passion for atheism. I'd say: if we make an idea of God, we then can choose either to be Theists (aka Believers) or Atheists. But why make an idea of God one way or the other? If we don't make God, then the sky is blue, the grass is green, sugar is sweet, and a quarter is 25 cents.

I'm not sure I agree with Dawkins that Atheists must "come out" to resist the great threat posed by Believers. We all know about the horrors that religion has brought the planet over the centuries... but balancing that out is the fact that Believers in general are so much more charitable that non-believers. The power of religious extremism in America may well be exaggerated (and used by the Left as a straw man). Of course there are some extremists, but far more often, the people who tell pollsters that they're religious are likely to follow religion when it's convenient, but will ultimately follow reason in living their lives. (How many Catholics really eschew birth control?)

Nonetheless, I find Dawkins a wonderful speaker with great humor. His arguments against "God" can be stunning in their elegance. See for example this page, with clips from his appearance earlier this year in Berkeley. In the "Part 1" video, around 3 minutes in, Dawkins cleverly mocks the tendency to "suck up" to God. "You cannot have it both ways. Either God is simple, in which case he's not worth worshipping, or he's complex, in which case he doesn't exist." (The entire Q&A and the lecture itself are available online, and I look forward to watching the rest of it.)

The quote above reflects one of my favorite arguments from Dawkins. He says that you can only explain the complex in terms of the simple. The "God" that religions speak of is necessarily more complex than creation itself. "It is an utterly preposterous idea that the God that not only creates the universe -- which you'd think would be something you'd need to have a fairly good knowledge of physics and mathematics in order to do -- not only does that, but listens to the prayers of every one of 6 billion people simultaneously (such bandwidth!), forgives their sins, knows when they're thinking evil thoughts, worries about their sexual proclivities... how could anyone suggest that such a being, who's capable of doing all the things attributed to him, could possibly be simple?"

OK, that quote's a bit over the top, but the basic point is beautiful. Religious people say that existence requires an explanation, but the pseudo-explanation they offer relies on a complex God. This accomplishes nothing. Darwin, on the other hand, has the great virtue of explaining the complexities of the world as emerging from the simpler process of natural selection.

From the Dawkins site, I somehow surfed to "Unreasonable Faith," a blog written by Daniel Florien, a passionate evangelical Christian for over a decade, who has now become an unbeliever and skeptic. Daniel's thoughts on Dawkins are covered in the blog he posted today, "The futility of invoking a designer."

Daniel writes that we put God in the gaps of our knowledge of the natural processes that make sense of our world. As our knowledge grows, God is squished into tighter gaps. He seems to think that ultimately there'll be no gaps left. I don't share that view. What am I? Why am I alive? Why is there something rather than nothing? I can't imagine scientific knowledge answering those questions any moreso than religion. We'll always be left with some choices that come down to either holding a belief, or facing the big Don't Know.

I'm looking forward to reading more of "Unreasonable Faith," as it's unusual to have someone who was so deeply into the world of Believers, and can now discuss that world coherently. It's like, I dunno, falling into quicksand and living to tell the tale.

Finally, the Dawkins site also introduced me to Derren Brown, an incredible hypnotist, magician, showman, and believer-turned-skeptic. I've been watching Brown's online videos with fascination. I'll write a little about him in my next blog posting, which maybe I can squeeze in before departing for Warsaw.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Poker Tactics for Spiritual Life

I'm just back from a successful trip to Reno. Meanwhile, I've been following the latest posting at the Guruphiliac blog, which explores possible misconduct by followers of Ammachi, the world-famous "hugging guru." Like Reese's, I'll now try to bring these two great experiences together.

The Ammachi organization is built on hugs and sweet words about love, love, love... yet Guruphiliac reports accusations of the org using harassment and violence against critics. I have no personal knowledge of the accusations; clearly they're not all proven. But such scandals are well-documented in similar groups.

Decades ago, Hare Krishna gurus preached purity and love of God, while simultaneously engaging in everything from financial scamming to child molestation to murder. In Swami Muktananda's SYDA group, successor Gurumayi would smile sweetly in public, while secretly sending goon squads to harass followers of a guru deemed to be her competition in her quest to amass devotees.

I visited Ammachi once. (I got my hug. It was OK; hugs are generally nice things.) I noticed the followers often acted ultra-spiritual: wearing white pajamas, speaking softly and reverently, rolling their eyes towards the ceiling each time they mentioned "God."

Afterwards, I mentioned to a friend that even though everyone at the event was so very very sweet and nice, I felt nervous and suspicious. "Of course," my friend replied. "You knew there had to be a shadow."

As a poker player, I try to "read" opponents' inner states, based on their outward behavior. Much of what I've learned comes from Mike Caro (aka "The Mad Genius of Poker"), an expert at this skill. I've enjoyed Caro's writing, and found him fun and gentlemanly the time I played with him live.

Caro teaches that weak means strong, and strong means weak. That is: when we have a strong poker hand, very likely to win, we try to fool opponents by acting weak. But since most of us lack confidence, we're afraid that the act won't succeed, so we overact. The way to see the truth behind the appearances is to keep our eyes and ears open to sense this overacting.

It's not foolproof; sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But it's cool when I'm able to "read" through the act, sometimes intuiting the exact cards my opponent holds. It applies to non-gambling situations also. When I heard Bill Clinton say, "I did not have sex with that woman...," his tone of voice, and unnatural pause before the word "sex," revealed precisely that he was trying to hide a blow job.

Whenever a person or group acts a bit too loving and spiritual, it's a red flag. Hell, you don't even have to go to Eastern groups like Ammachi, Gurumayi, or Krishnas. Just consider how ultra-pure Catholic priests used to appear... and the shadow that too often lurked behind.

I can't totally condemn Ammachi etc. If you got to a hospital, you'll find sick people. If you got to a guru preaching love, you'll find people trying to deal with intense anger. It's problematic to deny one's inner anger by covering it with an excessively sweet exterior. But for some people at some times -- perhaps when people aren't ready to confront their inner anger head-on -- such play-acting could be a necessary step in the process. Who knows.

I can't condemn the tendency of devotees to display more love on the outside than they've attained on the inside. But still... it can be useful to understand the dynamic of "Weak means strong; strong means weak." It might just help us make more informed choices, next time we need to decide whether to metaphorically hold'em or fold'em.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Thinking Appears, All Things Appear

I was surfing by CNN cable news and caught an interview with a guy who'd been kidnapped in Colombia 6 years ago by FARC (the group that held Ingrid Betancourt), and was recently rescued in the daring operation by government security forces. He was talking about how he made it through his time in captivity.

Along with another hostage, he'd painstakingly carved a chess set, and would spend hours playing chess with each other. What hit me was when he said something like, "As long as we were playing chess, I was no longer a hostage."

I think I know what he means, a little. I was a decent chess player in my youth. In trying to understand my attraction to the game, I concluded that part of the magic was that when my mind was occupied with the chess game, the world disappeared. All my thinking was directed toward the situation on the chess board; it wasn't just the most important thing in the world, it was the only thing in the world. When the game was over, I'd have to shake myself a little and remember that the rest of the world still existed.

It's similar now with my interest in playing poker, and in other games and puzzles. It's not so different from formal meditation practice. When the mind is merged with one thing, there's nothing else.

The first time I met Zen Master Seung Sahn, it was at a New Year's ceremony, for which he'd written a poem. The lines that have stuck in my mind for decades are
Thinking appears, all things appear
Thinking disappears, everything disappears:
Complete, empty stillness.
I've got no reason to believe that the hostage interviewed on CNN had any interest in Buddhism. That's what makes his story so cool: the people with the best understanding of Buddhism are those with no idea about "Buddhism." The hostage may never have formally practiced Zen, but he naturally found a great secret: regardless of the external situation, the key thing is how you're keeping your mind in this very moment.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Is Meditation Good? Part 2

(This is a continuation from the previous blog, jumping off from the comments on that Part 1 post.)

GreenSkink said... Is it possible for "good" intentions to lead to undesirable results? Does anyone hold intentions they recognize to be "bad"?

Since we all have different and changing ideas of what's "good" and "bad," maybe it's clearer to talk about whether or not the intention is "only for me." Zen-style teaching suggests that a motivation that's just for myself will bring suffering.

When I first started a sitting meditation practice, it was entirely about getting something for me. I wanted to get inner feelings of peace, quiet, even euphoria. I wanted to become wise, holy, and enlightened.

With mathematical precision... to whatever extent my head is filled with "I want," I'm more likely to be ignorant of the needs of others. It's not that I ever intend to be "bad." But if I'm occupied with getting something for myself, there may be people right in front of me who are suffering (perhaps as a result of my own actions), and I won't even notice it.

Sincere questioning of this "I" can reveal it to be just a thought that comes and goes. Less clinging to "I want" can make for clearer perception, and a greater likelihood that I won't overlook or ignore the suffering of others.

"Meditation" may be a tool for questioning the self. It can also simply be an effort to get good feelings etc. If a meditation practice doesn't include strong and sincere "What am I?", I see no reason why someone can't be a great meditator or teacher, while being blind to the suffering of others.

When I'm chasing after what I want, it's like being on a merry-go-round. The constant motion makes a clear view of the situation impossible. The first thing is to step off the merry-go-round for a moment. That means following some sort of meditative discipline, keeping the mind still for a while, using any style or technique. In that pause, that not-moving, there's the chance of questioning the "I."

I guess my current view is that any practice that interrupts the merry-go-round of our usual desires, is better than nothing. But it doesn't automatically cultivate compassion; that only comes when we use the stillness to question everything, our deepest wants and identifications.

Doug wrote... Who can really say that they've never done something less than saintly, "consequences be damned."

Any time I'm caught up in a belief or desire, it's easy to follow it blindly, missing the consequences, including suffering to others. Any type of belief creates this fog. Even my desire to be more saintly is such a want. It may be a good want, but it's still a want, still a hindrance to clarity.

That leaves the practice of trying to keep a questioning mind, in this very moment. If I can sincerely ask "What am I?" and "How can I help all beings?", these big questions can cut through all thinking. That can leave an empty stillness, in which perhaps I can perceive the suffering around me, and respond as best I can.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Is Meditation Good? Part 1

On Wednesday nights, I go to a program at the Zen Center, in which we do some chanting and sitting, followed by talks and Q&A with Zen Master Bon Soeng (ZMBS). One of these days, I ought to film one of these talks, and post it here and on YouTube. (Even though I'm middle-aged, maybe I can learn how to use new technology like the kids.) At the moment, I'll just have to use old-fashioned "language" to talk about it.

In the most recent such talk, ZMBS spoke about the capture of Radovan Karadzic. For those who don't follow the news... Karadzic was a fugitive, charged with war crimes for supervising the murder of thousands of Muslims during the 1990s Bosnian conflict. When he was finally captured, it turned out that he'd been living under the alias Dr Dragan Dabic, and acting as a meditation teacher and New Age health guru.

There are lots of articles about Karadzic's double-life (follow this link e.g.):
In the past week, the two lives he managed to keep separate for 12 years have been brought together – the Beast of Bosnia, one of Europe's most wanted men, and the mystic healer and zealous Christian, Dr Dragan Dabic.

For those who knew Dr Dabic, one question has dominated the past five days: was Karadzic's career as a New Age health guru just an act, or had he become a true believer in the meditation and healing techniques that he wrote and lectured about so passionately?
I don't think that Karadzic underwent a conversion experience, changing himself from Butcher to Guru. Rather, I think that both somehow coexisted in this man: the fascination with meditation etc, and the brutal killer. The article linked-to above muses, "Crucially, his new profession gave Karadzic a taste of the God-like power over people's lives which he had been able to wield during his years as a warmonger."

ZMBS brought up the matter to warn of the dangers of charisma, how we need to be very careful about "following" any teacher, based on his/her skill in talking about meditation. Even a great teacher is like someone with a flashlight. We can make use of what the light reveals, but it's best to avoid faith in the guy who happens to be holding the flashlight.

If Zaradzic could be a successful meditation teacher, and simultaneously be seriously lacking in compassion... it leads me to wonder whether we can consider the simple practice of meditating, per se, as a necessarily beneficial thing. Perhaps the practice itself is not good and not bad; it's a tool, with the effects dependent on the intention we bring to it.

Today while visiting the Guruphiac blog, I followed one of those Google ads on the page to the "Bliss Music" storefront, where they sell CDs touted to bring quick enlightenment:
...after a great spiritual awakening and many years of research into spiritual enlightenment, I found something that can make it easy for you to experience incredible states of peace and bliss, helping you move very quickly into enlightened states of awareness.
In my youth, I pursued meditation to get special states and blissful feelings, and may have been part of the target audience for Bliss Music. Now, any sort of meditation practice like this (which feeds "I want to get something" while ignoring doubt and inquiry) feels like an incorrect path.

But I dunno. Maybe even the most dull-witted stab at meditation can be better than nothing. Maybe any attempt to still the mind for any reason is a necessary first step, and stuff like contemplating "What am I? Why am I alive?" can be left to arise in due time. That's how it seemed to work in my own life, anyway.

In short, how important is the technique one uses in meditation, and how much is it all about intention? I'll ramble some more about this next time.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Early Video of "Magic Mushroom" Trip

Today I learned of an on-line video from the 1961 TV show One Step Beyond:
... director and presenter John Newland ingests psilocybin under laboratory conditions, to investigate whether or not the hallucinogenic mushroom can enhance his abilities of extra-sensory perception.

View the video at this link.

Personally, I don't find the ESP question very interesting. Our ordinary everyday experience of life brings up fundamental questions: What am I? Why am I alive? Magic mushrooms etc may be one tool to examine the Big Questions. This requires no reference to special powers of any sort.

Still, this old video could be an interesting peek at early attitudes towards mind-altering substances, from a time before the modern "drug culture" had emerged. In '61, the spiritual, medical, psychological, and philosophical possibilities of 'shrooms etc hadn't yet gotten entangled with social/political issues.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Big Room with the Blue Ceiling, Part 2

A few more thoughts about the camping trip I blogged about earlier...

What was it that gave me such a different mind-state while I was camping? In the comments, Doug brought up the difference in noise, that it's "noisy in a different way, city noises vs. forest noises." (OK, where I live in Berkeley, it's not exactly a city, but compared to the State Park, it's close enough.) In addition to the sound, maybe there's something about how in Berkeley, the bulk of everything I experience is man-made, whereas on the camping trip, it's reversed.

In my "city" life, I'm surrounded by buildings, roads, cars, electronic devices, etc. I couldn't personally create any of these things... but they all originate with the ideas and plans and efforts of human beings. Their source lies in human intelligence like my own. I have at least a little understanding of how the buildings etc came into being.

On the camping trip, we had our tents and portable stove and all, but most of the environment was non-man-made. Life was bursting out all over. Trees were everywhere, and between the tress were bushes and grasses and insects and critters of all sorts. Who made all that? Where does it come from? The fundamentalists may feel differently... but for me, the source of the sky and trees etc is pure mystery. I've got no sense that the root source of these things is anything like the human intelligence I'm familiar with.

In fact, I get the sense that everything is appearing out of an unknowable source, and disappearing back to the unknown... and this "everything" includes my thinking, and the very sense of "I." It's all appearing and disappearing, like the flies that hatch in the morning and get swallowed by frogs before noon.

The human cities are no different from ant-hills, in that it all ultimately is rooted in the same mystery.

All that swirling life in the woods gives a sense of the vastness of the universe, as well as its dream-like quality. At night, we'd look up at the stars with an attention I never give them in the city. Moreso than anything in city-life, watching the stars makes all my thinking, all my personal issues... feel like a flash of lightning or a drop of dew.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Big Room with the Blue Ceiling, Part 1

I first tried camping in my 20s, spending a week hiking the Appalachian Trail through Pennsylvania. Years later, I slept under the stars at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The hike to the bottom of the Canyon was at the top of my "bucket list," as was the hike to the top of Half Dome in Yosemite.

Also during the 90s, there were some majestic hikes in the Colorado mountains with my high school friend Raul. Raul owned a couple of llamas, which would carry our tent and stuff. Leaving the animals at our base camp, we climbed as high as 13K feet.

But then one of llamas died, and it's been a few years since I've had a major outdoor adventure. This summer I hiked at Joshua Tree a couple days, but we slept in a motel outside the Park.

I haven't thought about camping for a while. I'm not one of those hippies who feel that I need to escape evil human civilization. After all, my definition of "nature" includes everything. As I grow older, inner explorations have occupied more of my interest than trekking through the wilderness. The bears and deer don't wander into my dwelling to hang out; why do I need to hang out in theirs?

So I might have given up on camping, except that my buddy Bill (pictured here) is a huge fan of it, and during this week he invited me to join him for a few days of car camping in a State Park north of Truckee. I thought it'd be fun to hang out with him there, and a good use of my free time during my (assumed temporary) period of unemployment. I didn't expect much from the camping experience itself, but it turned out to be more profound than I'd thought.

One of the great benefits of living outdoors is that it's so uncomfortable. It made me realize how much of my day-to-day attention is taken up with concerns of bodily comfort. It's not that I've ever craved luxury, but I do have my temperature-controlled apartment, soft mattress, refrigerator, and broadband net access to keep me constantly amused.

It's a different matter to wake up in the middle of the cold dark night, on the hard ground of my claustrophobic tent, with no distractions from exhaustion, scrapes, and mosquito bites. It's one of those wonderful "no escape" situations that forces me to just pay attention to the moment, due to the lack of alternatives.

I realized that the situation wasn't so different from the painful meditation retreats I put myself through every month, with the "no escape" a bit more literal. If there's anything I've learned from decades of mediation and inquiry, it's the extraordinary power of thinking. "If you want to understand all the Buddhas of the past, present, and future," say the Buddhist scriptures, "then you should view the nature of the universe as being created by Mind alone."

Lying there in the tent, it became clearer that it's my thinking that creates suffering. A few mosquito bites are no big deal (especially considering the vast array of pain that human life has to offer). It was my thinking that it should be different that's the root issue. Buddha's teaching in a nutshell: If you want something, you have a problem.

In any moment that I just experienced the situation as it was, letting mental desires and imaginings come and go like clouds... it was just like this, no problem. I always understand this conceptually, but it's an entirely different matter to be forced to practice like this directly.

(It's similar to what happens to me on airplane flights. Sometimes I get claustrophobic attacks while flying, and my only option is to focus on a simple mind-stopping technique like mantra. Amazingly, once thinking quiets down, the situation is transformed. These nitty-gritty life situations bring meditation practice to life, moreso than a mountain of philosophizing.)

I was also surprised by the effect of being constantly surrounded by an environment that isn't man-made. I'll ramble on about that in the 2nd part of this posting, coming shortly.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Tribes, Part 3

At the end of last year, I wrote two posts on our deep human tendency towards tribal identification. As is my habit, I've procrastinated several months on completing that series, until now.

I started thinking about this a couple of years ago, when I went back East for Passover. Customarily, Jews gather on that holiday for a ceremonial meal ("seder"), making it a traditional time to spend with family. I hadn't done so consistently since I left home at 18, but I was there this time for the sake of seeing my mother, and numerous old, home-town friends from my youth.

As I chatted with a few of these friends, I searched for topics of conversation that I'd find interesting to connect with them about, since our lives had led us to such different experiences and situations and ideas over the decades. I recalled that one of them had practiced Transcendental Meditation (TM) back in the 70s, so I asked, and we talked about that for a few minutes.

That led to her asking me about my history with meditation, since everyone knew about my years with a guru, in an Indian ashram, and practicing at a Zen center. They listened with apparent interest and some questions. Then, one of them asked, "Can you do these things and maintain your Jewish identity?"

The question confused and annoyed me. What's with this "identity" crap? I'd been inquiring into this "self" my whole life, and the one honest and satisfying answer that's appeared is "Don't Know." All ideas about "identity" seem to arise from ignoring the clear and direct experience of not knowing, replacing it with some idea of "self" we're told of by our tribal peers and authorities.

I've always wanted to avoid following the crowd, or believing what authorities tell me. Maybe my particular karma just makes my mind more suitable for doubting than for believing. I never like to follow the beliefs of the group. Even at a rock concert, when the star tries to get everyone to cheer or applaud together, my mind mutters, "I'll not be manipulated!" At sporting events, when everyone is rooting for one team, I root for the other. Hell, when I visited Gettysburg as a kid, I'd secretly root for the South.

It's possible that all of this is an unconscious way to balance a tendency to be a blind follower, if I don't make an effort to avoid it. I say this not just because of the time I spent with an guru. It also comes from watching my mind in group situations. I note, for example, that when I meditate or chant or do some practice in a group situation, it's practically automatic for me to follow along with what everyone else is doing. It's much much easier than following a discipline alone.

I don't have the slightest interest in maintaining a Jewish identity (or Buddhist identity, or any other sort). In fact, I make positive efforts to avoid holding ideas of who I am. Maybe that's why I got so annoyed by the question at the seder. It was like someone talking about beer when I'm in AA.

I've got to remind myself that even if it's my karma to practice "What am I? Don't Know," most people seem to more naturally adopt a tribal identity. And I can understand how nature in it's wisdom makes most people like that; the species not only needs followers (in order to survive), but may well need more of them than envelope-pushers.

I guess the way forward is to continue mixing with all sorts of people, and I'll naturally encounter countless ones who annoy me by advocating a tribal identity. And I'll try to pay attention to how my mind moves when confronted by the issue.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Hawaiian Trip

I'm back from my trip to Hawaii. I hit some of the great tourist spots: marvelled at the view from the top of Mauna Loa (world's largest volcano), gingerly hiked across solidified lava flows, and communed with the fishes while snorkeling at Captain Cook's Cove. I met various old hippies who had "dropped out" to simple farming lives on the island, awaiting the collapse of modern society.

I'm always just as interested in inner travels as outer ones. So I was intrigued to find that the visionary plant Salvia Divinorum grows well in Hawaii. Over the last decade, I've had a number of mind-exploding experiences smoking the herb, which I try to describe on the Salvia Stories page of my personal site. (My little claim to net fame is that if you Google "Salvia Stories," my trip reports come up #1.)

Aside from smoking, an alternate way to trip on Salvia is to chew fresh leaves. Growing the plant isn't so easy where I live, and besides, I've never had the green thumb. So I'd never had a chance to have a good trip with the chewing method, not till Hawaii.

My 3 friends and I gathered in a dim room with a tray of big leaves picked from the plants minutes before. We shared an intention to be open and awake to whatever the plant showed us, and began chewing. I found the taste awful, and holding the Salvia-filled saliva in my mouth (so the magical molecule could get absorbed below the tongue) to be disgusting.

After a little more than 5 minutes, I was ready to give up and spit it out with regrets. Then suddenly the effects took hold. Initially, it was something like a psychedelic, with swirling body feelings, and translucent mandala visuals. That lasted just a few seconds, till it grew into something unique.

I was trying to stay quiet, so as not to disturb my friends' experiences. I'd usually find it easy to be silent and introverted when I choose to be, but in this case, I somehow couldn't stop uttering moans of amazement, even verbalizing a monstrous "WOW!"

As best I can remember and describe... I saw/felt a tangle of sensations and thoughts that make up the sense of being an individual in a body. It's like strands wound together so tightly that they seem like a solid thing. More than that, this sense of bodily existence is so constant and obvious that I ordinarily don't even notice it.

I have a dim recollection of that tangle unwinding, deconstructing. The thoughts and sensations resolved back to some unknowable source, dissolving all trace of a self. After a minute, I could open my eyes and perceive the world with near normalcy... except that identity and separation were noticeably and marvelously absent. The 4 of us spent 15-20 minutes laughing and babbling about the unspeakable space we were sharing.

I vaguely remembered the physical body, but without the feeling it was "me." When my friend lit a cigarette and passed it to me (no, kids, this isn't a good idea), I couldn't imagine how to relate to my body. But somehow, my arm moved and my hand took the cig; it would have been no more amazing if I'd been able to move mountains with my will.

One of the nicest parts of the trip was the interval in which I was aware of my surroundings, but before the sense of self returned. For at least those minutes, I was able to look at my friends and only have concern for them, unfiltered and unhindered by the slightest thought of "me."

Monday, June 02, 2008

Novella for Former Ashramites

I always enjoy how this blog gives me the chance to virtually meet folks with similar interests. Most recently, I got an email from Annie Gauger, introducing her own site. She writes, "I was wondering if you would be interested in sharing my blog with your readers. It's actually not a blog but a venue for fiction. I am publishing a novella in seven page increments every Wednesday. Intended audience: former ashramites and other yogis. Please remember that the story starts at the bottom, not the top."

I'm happy to pass on this link to Annie's site: The Sad Guru & Other Stories.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Universal Religion?

One of my favorite forums for online philosophical discussion is the NonDualPhil (NDP) Yahoo Group. This morning I found an intriguing post about the commonality of all religion. The original source material is a booklet written by Dr. Frank Morales in 2005, entitled Does Hinduism Teach That All Religions Are The Same? A Philosophical Critique of Radical Universalism. "Radical Universalism" here is the belief -- common in Hindu/Indian spiritual groups -- that all religions are equivalent, like different paths to the same mountaintop.

The NDP post quotes Manju Gupta's approving review of Morales' essay, published online a few days ago as Hinduism: The universal religion. Here's the response that I posted to NDP today:

> Manju Gupta wrote...
> It is this radical universalism that promotes acceptance of all
> religions as same in order to lead us to unity behind our
> religious strivings—it is immaterial what religion one follows
> or whether one goes to a church, mosque or a temple.

This type of thinking is better than nothing... but why only a church, mosque, or temple? Why not a supermarket, casino, or whorehouse? It's hardly "radical universalism" if praying in a mosque is considered more True and Holy than, say, a round of miniature golf.

It's why I personally don't relate to much of this Indian-style teaching: the failure to note the Truth of ordinary, everyday life.

> One needs to have full faith in the religion that one has
> adopted to reach the highest truth.

The implication is that our just-now experience is somehow inferior (since it's not the "highest" truth, which must be "reached" through so-called religion). Why hold that idea?

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Hawaii (and the end of the world)

In a couple days, I make my first trip to Hawaii, to visit a friend I've known since my year at Yale 3 decades ago. He's recently moved to Hilo on the Big Island. So firstly: I've got no particular plans on what to do, and welcome any recommendations that readers may have, either by commenting or sending me an email.

My friend is among those who believe that our planet is rapidly advancing towards disaster, what with oil and resources running out, financial crises, Mayan predictions of apocalypse in 2012, etc. My visit is motivated by our long-lasting friendship, my current freedom from employment... and also by his encouragement that it may be now or never (i.e., that very soon there won't be enough oil for such casual globe-hopping).

One of the reasons my friend chose to move to Hilo is his belief that it's a good area to soon buy some land and set up a self-sustaining, off-the-grid retreat. He's got great skills in agriculture and construction and such, so if anyone is capable of creating a survival haven, it's him. Like myself, he's devoted to meditation practice, and all other means of examining the great questions of life. He's looking to connect with others who might have interest in buying/building such a retreat, so again, if readers have suggestions about "spiritual" groups on the island that we might visit, I'll appreciate any feedback.

As for myself, I question whether I have what it takes to live through planetary disasters. I love stories about stuff like Everest climbs... yet when I read a book or watch a movie about the heroic efforts that some people have made to survive in such conditions, I can't imagine myself doing so. I can see myself as more likely to relax into death by freezing, rather than struggling for hours and days to a miraculous rescue. Likewise, if civilization is truly collapsing, I may just go down with the ship, and leave it to hardier souls to play Adam and Eve.

Who knows: when faced with my demise, maybe some biological imperative will take over, and I'll become Survivorman. Still, I can't help but noticing that among friends and acquaintances, there are some who are passionate about living as long as possible through all challenges, and others who are more indifferent, ready to welcome life or death each day as it comes. And the ones who are prepared to die at any moment appear paradoxically happier.

It's interesting to watch my own mind as I hear from my friends who believe that the world will soon end. It certainly rattles my mind to think that I may be unlucky (?) enough to live during the endtimes. I mean, jeez, of all the millennia that human beings have crawled on this planet, is it too much to ask that my own little lifespan won't be the point where it all collapses?

I repeatedly remind myself of Buddha's teaching that everything is impermanent. Don't I realize that this body will most certainly turn to dust within a few short decades? And doesn't that mean that my world, anyway, is headed for dissolution without a doubt? Maybe my interest in apocalyptic predictions is a way to cautiously approach a consideration of my body's mortality. Maybe the end of the world is somehow easier to look at than my own death. (I do have a tendency to, e.g., not want to leave a party too early, since I want to be there in case something particularly fun and interesting happens. In that sense, the end of the universe may be psychologically easier to approach, since at least I'll know I won't be missing anything.)

Ultimately, everything leads back to this very moment as the fundamental truth. Maybe all of this appears out of emptiness, and returns to emptiness, over and over. Trying to hold onto the existence of a self or a world is a hopeless dream, and indeed the source of all suffering. Nothing to gain, nothing to lose, nothing to do... except do the best I can to connect clearly and compassionately with "just now."

Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Guru Papers (Part 2)

The Guru Papers, written by Yoga teachers by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad in 1993, analyzes authoritarian systems, particularly in the "spiritual" subculture. For background on the book and my thoughts on it, please see my blog on The Guru Papers (Part 1). I've procrastinated almost a year before writing this "Part 2" to that post. Now that I'm unemployed, I've got time to tie up such loose ends.

People who follow gurus (as I did for many years) may become focused on them as the source of positive new experiences and understandings. When we reject that view, as Kramer and Alstad did in this book, we can fall to the other side, over-emphasizing the guru as the source of unhealthy dependence. In either case, we may gloss over the fundamental importance of how we keep our own minds.

In "The Assault on Reason" chapter (pg 73 of Guru Papers), K&A write:

It is commonly assumed that the nature of spirituality is not only fundamentally different from ordinary experience, but that this difference is vastly superior. ... This age-old separation of the spiritual from the worldly is deeply embedded in all of civilization. We view this split as tragic, and at the core of the fragmentation prevalent in the contemporary human psyche.

The authors' use of passive voice ("It is commonly assumed") is a red flag. Who is assuming this? Each individual who holds ideas about "spirituality" as superior to ordinary life can examine and question those beliefs. Yet over and over, K&A write as if the fundamental source of the problem is a "system" or "civilization." As if we as individuals are victims, helpless to avoid the assumptions imposed on us from outside.

In fact, each of us can look into the matter for ourselves. Examining our own minds, we can discover that the disconnect of spiritual/worldly is made by our thinking. Maybe this strategy is profoundly more efficient than trying to change "society" or "the system" or "common assumptions."

When I heard the authors speak last year, Alstad in particular sounded like a doctrinaire socialist. She spoke of us living in a "class system," meaning that the external circumstances of our birth determine our life situation. This perspective leads to political views that minimize the importance of individual freedom and choice. In the spiritual realm, it's a mindset that focuses on the evils of authoritarian religious organizations, while missing the great power of our personal choices.

The book is permeated with this perspective. From the chapter "Healing Crippled Self-Trust," p. 154:

The most extreme form of mental control occurs when the authority is trusted completely and becomes the center of one's identity. Sadly, society and parents insidiously put out messages from childhood on that others know what's best. Many people are deeply conditioned to expect and hope some outside agency power, or person will solve their problems. Letting go of expecting or even wanting this is difficult, partially because of what one is left with is oneself, and all of one's limitations.

In our earliest years, of course parents encourage our trust and tell us they know what's best. The adults generally do know what's needed for survival, far moreso than the toddler. It's not hard to see why natural selection favors the tendency of children to blindly follow the authority of parents (I've discussed this evolutionary perspective elsewhere). And of course it's difficult to move beyond this child-like view; if mentally maturing were easy, then everyone would do it.

In the fullness of time, some of us do choose to stop being followers, and gradually practice seeing things for ourselves. In this process, is it really helpful to blame our dependency on "insidious" society and parents? Do we really need to depend on our parents or gurus or society to allow us to be free-thinkers? Or do we claim this freedom for ourselves?

This issue arose in February on Rituals of DisEnchantment, a blog that has at times examined abuses in the "Siddha Yoga" organization founded by Swami Muktananda and later led by Gurumayi Chidvilasananda. An anonymous commenter on Feb 28 1:17 PM wrote:

It seems that over the years many people only put up with or accepted the steady stream of Siddha Yoga BS because of the intensity of their mystical experiences, and or no other reason.

There's a critical point that's missing in this comment. It's not simply that the followers' intense experiences inevitably led to their acceptance of BS from the guru and ashram leaders. There are several distinct steps in the process. Many of us indeed got amazing experiences. Then the guru and ashram authorities told us that these special meditation experiences were "mystical," and encouraged us to view them as vastly superior to ordinary life. We failed to question what we were told, and consequently believed in this categorization. Our own belief that our experiences were "mystical" and dependent on the guru resulted in our acceptance of all sorts of abuses, deceptions, and BS.

Our own beliefs are the key link in the chain, the link that's most powerful, and most under our control. If we want to escape the BS, we don't need to change the gurus' authoritarian system. We just need to question our own belief in it.

Just as children sometimes need blind faith in their parents, maybe there are millions of people who sometimes want and need an authority to follow. It's not my job to change the system that serves these people. If I encounter someone who's ready to question their dependence on authority, I can try to encourage free-thinking. But ultimately, each individual makes the choice for himself.

I can make my best effort to believe in my own experience, to avoid being a blind follower of others, and communicate these personal efforts as honestly as I can. Beyond that, I can let the "system" take care of itself.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Comic Guru To Make Cosmic Splash

This morning I explored the site of Guru Pitka, alter ego of Mike Meyers in the comedy The Love Guru, due for release in mid-June. Love Guru is pushing the envelope of web-based marketing, with Pitka promoting his fictional self through networks from facebook to beliefnet.

Just as Matt Damon's Rounders in 1998 heralded the poker boom, Love Guru may foretell a surge of mainstream interest in the Eastern spirituality subculture. We'll see in a couple months. Meanwhile, I'd say it's worth a moment to visit the site for its laugh-out-loud satire, technical virtuosity, and psychedelic visuals that gave me flashbacks to old Salvia trips. Let us know what you think.

Publicity for Meyers/Pitka will be goosed by controversy. As reported in today's Guruphiliac blog, defenders of Guruism are urging theater owners to "stop distributing or screening the movie till Paramount has made necessary changes to the movie, so that it will not hurt the feelings of the worldwide spiritual and Hindu community."

Therein lies the more profound side of the story. I see meditation as a process of curiosity and exploration, of unconditionally questioning all my ideas and opinions. If I'm sincerely questioning my ideas, only then can I laugh at them. Only then can I see what a great joke it is to assume that Truth can be contained by ideas.

Everyone engages in inquiry, right up to the point where it bumps into deeply-held personal beliefs. Inquiring and believing are mutually exclusive. An ancient sage (or maybe it was Woody Allen) said, "If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans." I'd add to that, "... or tell him your beliefs."

In a live-and-let-live society, we must defend individuals from assault, threats, and deliberate deception. But there's no fundamental right to be free from hurt feelings; questioning dogmas will always ruffle feathers. Laughing at beliefs reveals them for what they are: no more than beliefs. It loosens our grip on what we think we understand; it leads to recognition of how profoundly we simply don't know. From that perspective, all pretensions of knowing what it's all about... are pretty damn funny.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


I've got a special connection to yesterday's Pennsylvania primary, having grown up in the western suburbs of Philadelphia. My family still lives there, and some of them are close to Governor Rendell. As I wrote in a previous posting, I'm a Libertarian voter myself, but as I follow the Democratic contest, I'm rooting for Obama.

Why am I so viscerally on Obama's side? One thing I've noticed as I watch my mind: I'm revolted each time Clinton or her supporters argue that she should be nominated on the basis of "electability." As best as I can figure, here's why:

Imagine that you're going to a party, hoping to connect with someone for friendship or romance. There are two strategies you could follow. (1) You could speculate about, e.g., what most women are looking for in a man. Then you try to conform yourself to what you think they like. Or (2) You could express your authentic, natural personality, and let the rest take care of itself. If someone is attracted, it'll be to who you really are, rather than to a mask you're wearing.

Same thing when applying for a job. You can imagine what an employer is looking for and then try to fit yourself into that mold. Or you can simply communicate what your real talents are. If you're really qualified for the job, simple honesty is enough to get you hired.

Is it too much to ask of our candidates, that they take the more honest path? That they truthfully tell us about their skills, values, and insights... then let the chips fall where they may? Campaigns should be based on honest communication, at least as a default position! If you're a candidate with ideas that you believe in, and insights you think are good for the country, shouldn't you be concentrated on articulating them? Sharing sincere ideas with the population is beneficial regardless of whether you win this particular election. Indeed, championing ideas may be more important than your personal success.

Every time Clinton opens her mouth about "electability," it comes at the expense of communicating ideas and information about what's best for the country and the world. I don't give a damn if you're "electable"; I care what you stand for!

Buddhism teaches that all things are constantly changing. This means that no one knows who is or isn't electable. The best anyone can do is examine public opinion and voting patterns of the past, and then make assumptions about how they'll apply in the future. It's a guessing game. (God knows that if Clinton were really so skilled at judging electability, she wouldn't have lost so many primary contests so badly.) There's just one matter that candidates can speak to with absolute authority: their own beliefs and values.

In the midst of this world of relative morality and situational ethics, one value that I still find worth supporting is honesty. Also, I've got some person history with politics-as-psychodrama. I voted in 1984; I was 24, and it was my first US election after years in India. I had no enthusiasm for either major party candidate, but in an effort to support the lesser of evils, I voted for Mondale. When he lost 49 states, I felt sick. I had voted for someone I didn't believe in, and didn't even get the satisfaction of a close race. I decided to base my politics purely on conscience (which usually means voting Libertarian), rather than speculating about who'll win.

There's a whole branch of Yoga based simply on acting each moment without attachment to the results. My life goes better when I focus only on which action is correct, rather than what I imagine will be immediately popular. I'll trust a politician who articulates what he/she feels is true and beneficial, and leaves it to God and the pundits to worry about who gets elected.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Crisis of Disappearing American Jobs

I’ve been a computer consultant for decades. During the “tech bubble” of the late 90s, when programmers like me were in great demand, I started working at the San Francisco corporate offices of Gap Inc. Ever since, they've paid me well to design MS Excel spreadsheets, automated with vba code. Aside from a couple of short intervals between contracts, these assignments have been my consistent meal ticket.

A new management team has decided to cut costs by outsourcing all programming work to India. My last day is a week from Friday. Aside from being a possible milestone in my own life… the movement of jobs off-shore is a big issue in the current political debate. I’ll be blogging about the political, economic, and spiritual significance of the phenomenon. It may take a few postings to do so, but I’ll at least get started today. Anyone who disagrees with my views is always invited to comment, letting me know where you think my thought-process has gone wrong.

By sending the work off-shore, Gap is losing my proven skills, and my years of experience with their specific needs. They’re losing my availability to present my work face-to-face, with no language barrier. Due to these factors, it may take 3 or more workers in India to replace me. But since the Indians work for a fraction of what I get paid, Gap can hire several of them to replace me, and still save significant money.

The city of San Francisco requires local businesses to provide certain benefits to all employees, such as sick leave and health benefits. This translates into a few extra dollars per hour in costs that get passed on to the Gap. So even if multiple Indians working long hours run up combined salaries that rival my own, the cost of these mandates could tip the balance, making outsourcing the rational choice for my employer.

Why are the Indians willing to work for so much less compensation than I am? If I demand $50/hour to write computer code, why are they doing it for the rupee equivalent of $10? Mustn’t we conclude that their lives are far less comfortable than my own? That the $10 is more vital to them than the $50 is to me?

A little examination reveals that the correlation between money and happiness is non-linear. (Even the Bible says something like that, though in less precise terms.) For someone struggling to provide a family with the most basic necessities of life, each dollar earned is a meaningful boost to his happiness (or decrease to his suffering, if you prefer). But once we get a beyond having to worry about paying the rent, greater earnings, perhaps surprisingly, have little to no effect on happiness.

To be honest, I don’t expect this job loss to downgrade my lifestyle at all. But who knows. Maybe I’ll never find another job at this level. Maybe I’ll have to spend time and effort learning new skills, making myself more productive and useful, in order to get a new job. While I’m retraining, maybe I’ll have to give up a few trips to Vegas, or downgrade my Netflix subscription. It’s highly improbable that the effect will be much more serious than that.

I may lose some luxuries, while a few Indians get help climbing out of poverty. Who could possibly be such a narcissist, such a jingoist, as to consider this a bad thing??

(Yes, of course, many Americans getting laid off are worse off financially than I, and they must give up more than luxuries. That’s irrelevant to my point, which is that the typical working-class American losing his job is wealthy compared to the Indians who are gaining them.)

So what’s with the furor in the US, particularly among Democratic primary voters, against globalization and outsourcing? Why are the candidates demogoging about free trade causing jobs to “disappear”… as if those jobs cease to exist when they leave our borders? (Tangentially: at an Obama rally, a supporter actually ranted that NAFTA is responsible for his job getting outsourced to India… and Barack had to gently remind him that India isn’t in North America.)

Kindly contemplate this issue, and I’ll share more of my own thoughts in an upcoming post.

[In an unrelated matter: I have a sneaking suspicion that some readers of this blog may be interested in a new documentary, “Peyote to LSD: Psychedelic History,” airing on the History Channel, Saturday April 19 at 10 PM.]