Friday, December 31, 2004

Inspiration, Wisdom for the New Year: Friendship

The best spiritual friend is one who attacks your hidden faults.
The best instructions are the ones that hit those faults.
The best friends are mindfulness and vigilance.
The best incentives are enemies, obstacles and the sufferings of illness.
The best method is not to fabricate anything.

- Lord Atisha
via 'Words of my Perfect Teacher' by Patrul Rinpoche

Brief commentary:

A spiritual friend is a Geshe, a title given only to those who have overcome their own delusions, greed, and aversions. This person is pure-hearted, his[/her] words come always from that pure heart, and he never speaks from a narrow, self-serving perspective. This is a person at home in the world, for whom insults cause no grief, and desires are no distraction. The best geshe is one who shows you your good and your bad. He is a mirror of your true nature. Acting as a mirror, showing you your greed, aversion, and delusions attacks them as they occur. Because you are lost in them and cannot see them for yourself, they are your hidden faults.

Instructions are not limited to formal teachings, but can be so simple as a hand gesture or sigh. Watch your friend carefully for such instructions, the ones that can come here or there with great subtlety. The best of these instructions act as demolishing balls, but you must allow them to hit their targets, which are those faults in you that are hidden from you otherwise.

Friends are all things in life that draw us away from greed, aversion, and delusion (the Three Poisons), toward generosity, loving kindness, and understanding. While many traits and activities help us in this, the best of these nail our focus to the task, mindfulness, and keep us moving forward even when tired, vigilance.

An incentive is anything, either good or bad, that reminds us why we are avoiding the Three Poisons and cultivating their opposites. Minor incentives include joy, calm, bliss, and equanimity. However, the best incentives are those that provide concrete opportunities to practice generosity, loving kindness, and understanding. The benefit from practicing these in an ideal environment is minimal, but to practice these with enemies brings the greatest reward in the future. One mustn't forget one's self though, as practicing generosity, loving kindness, and understanding toward ourselves, toward our own obstacles is of equal benefit. Finally, all of our generosity, loving kindness, and understanding will be of little good if we do not realize true motivation: that of helping all beings. Thus, experiencing for one's self the suffering of illness is of highest importance. Not only can we more clearly help others through what we ourselves have suffered, but we are reminded of the importance and immediacy of our practices.

A method is a way of doing something; just as a skilled carpenter has a certain method, so too does the wise person. The lowest carpenter follows the rules and guidelines set out for him by great carpenters. The lowest wise person likewise follows the rules and guidelines set out for him by the wise. The middlemost carpenter builds always to best suit the future inhabitants. The middlemost wise person likewise works to fulfill the needs of all those around him. The highest carpenter has cultivated the skills and materials to allow the home to build itself. The highest wise person likewise has cultivated generosity, loving kindness, and understanding fully and as such, allows them to manifest in the world. This, it is said, is the best way of living. Just as the baseball player does not 'hit at' the fastball, but allows the bat to connect with it, just as an artist does not 'make' a painting, but allows it to flow through him, the wise person does not [any longer] fabricate the three good qualities, but allows them to flow forth. Once this is accomplished, there is no other goal to be attained, thus the wise person does not fabricate anything.

May all beings be happy; may all beings be free from suffering.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

A glimpse at rDzogs chen (Dzogchen)

Just a note about the Tibetan Language: I don't know it at all, but I'm studying Tibetan Buddhism and the likes and think I know a thing or two about it. Like the three consonants that seem to start any word when it's written out sometimes, ie rDz in rDzogs chen. If you see all of the 'extra' letters then you're probably dealing with the Wylie system of transliteration, where every letter found in the written Tibetan is expressed in our roman script. If you see letters then chopped off, ie Dzogchen, then you're seeing a phonetic writing of the word, which is great for pronunciation, but not so good for those of us who might some day be digging around old Tibetan texts looking for words.

So anyhow - I've been reading for my rDzogs chen paper and haven't actually gotten to the actual rDzogs chen texts, but have been caught up in a scholarly debate overy two of my professor's books from 1998 (The Reflexive Nature of Awareness, and Altruism and Reality) in which he digs into some of the heavy philosophy of Tibetan Buddhism - with some massive controversy (see the review to Altruism and Reality!) I might add. Part of that controversy is likewise addressed in the online pages of the Journal of Buddhist Ethics:

Altruism and Reality: Studies in the Philosophy of the BodhicaryĀvatĀra. By Paul Williams. Reviewed by John W. Pettit.
[View the article] [Print]

A Response to John Pettit. By Paul Williams.
[View the article] [Print]

Anyhow -- if those are too philosophically abstract for ya - here's a (hopefully) more down to earth look into rDzogs chen as a revision of the universal view of enlightenment:

...goes back to very basic notions of enlightenment. Enlightenment is caused/has causes, yet unlike conventional caused things (everything within dependent origination) it does not cease as its causes fall out of existence. This is because its causes are truly themselves negations of the causes of its opposite: samsara. The final cause of enlightenment is merely the removal of the last cause (the final mental obscuration) of samsara. It is from this analysis that enlightenment can then be said to be without cause, uncaused, and the essential nature of all things. The enlightenment (phenomenological) that is caused by the removal of mental obscurations is gnosis, the experience of the enlightenment (ontological) which is already always there. This gnosis must be distinguished from knowing which by definition has an object. Gnosis is nondual, without an object, an experience without a subject. It is unambiguously incomprehensible to the discursive mind, which seeks to comprehend in terms of distinctions. Gnosis is an experience beyond existence and nonexistence, beyond the categorizing faculties of the rational/discursive mind. The rational mind, nevertheless, can be led to the edge of gnosis through conceptual meditation on emptiness (cf. Tsong ka pa), the lack of self existence in all things. This process is necessarily pre or sub-ultimate, but moves the meditator from the lower conventional reality of reifying objects of the senses to seeing that such ‘objects’ are themselves only false perceptions. Rather than falling on the innate misconception of things existing in-themselves, meditation on emptiness shifts one’s unconscious ontology from one of things to one of processes. Rather than seeing reality as of atoms in various configurations interacting with one another, one sees ever-changing flows which are only reified by action of the mind (karma). This experiential shift in seeing reality indicates (clearly and directly) to the meditator that all solid things of experience are actually a mistaken reification of what is in reality a flow. The task is then clear: eliminate karmas which cause misperception of reality to experience it 100% clearly, eliminate reification (the sine qua non of subject-object duality) and live in the flow.

This flow is no different from the flow of a baseball player at the plate as a pitcher winds up and releases the 98 mile-per-hour fast ball or the flow of the artist in the act of spontaneous creation. The sameness lies in the phenomenology; the person in each is just being, without object, without reification, without the duality of discursive thought. The baseball player cannot think to himself, “the pitcher is winding up, he’s throwing the ball, it has an over-top spin, it’s coming straight, it’s a fast-ball, it’s in the strike-zone, etc.” He just has to know all of this in the split second he has before the ball is in the catcher’s glove. This knowing is gnosis and does not take objects in the way that the above hypothetical stream of thought does. This gnosis is free of action of the mind (karma).

The flow of the meditative master is different only in that it is based on a cultivated knowledge of reality with the goal of maintaining this state indefinitely. While the baseball player must learn to eliminate action of the mind in the moment of the pitch (as any mental action will necessarily obstruct the flow), the meditator must learn to eliminate action of the mind in every moment, regardless of situation. Does this mean that a meditative master should be able to establish a perfect batting average in Major League Baseball? In theory, yes. The mental part of a perfect baseball player is intact - the remaining physical conditioning would just need to be fulfilled. However, there are yet to be any examples of meditative masters translating their skills into successful sporting careers (except perhaps famous Zen archers, the best of whom become the bow, become the arrow, become the target, and then release). On the other hand, countless meditative masters have gone the route of the artist, ranging from prose and poetry writing to painting, sculpting, and engineering (while a 600 year old bridge that is still in use may not appear as art to some, there are several examples of such in Tibet, designed by early Gelug monks).

sometimes its good to be 'wrong'

Finally in Montana (and online)! Glad to be back in the states, seeing where my sticking points on patience and concentration are to be found. Living in my little cocoon in England I sometimes don't get pressed on issues that I need to be pressed on to grow; and however pleasant it may be, it grows stagnant before long.

It's easy to have joy,
When everything good is going on.
But the man who's worthwhile,
Is the man with a smile,
When everything goes dead wrong.

(adapted from S.N. Goenka - Vipassana teacher)

Being wrong about something isn't as bad as our crazy society would make it seem to be. In fact, according to Buddhism, we're all wrong about 99.99% of everything we experience in everyday life. If we're ever right about something, we can feel it, and it feels weird. Being right about something means seeing that things DONT come from their own side - not just on faith (obviously), but also not just on an intellectual level - but directly.

Also, there is a tradition in Buddhism - the same as existed in ancient Greece and Palestine and in other parts of the world - where you train yourself to be extremely careful of ever judging another person's understanding or who they might 'really' be. In Greece there were the stories of the gods taking human form and wandering around. People who took them in and treated them kindly were greatly rewarded; but anyone who looked down on them as poor homeless beggars ended up in a heap of trouble.

Similarly, in Buddhism you're taught that anyone in your life could be a high bodhisattva (or being en route to enlightenment for the sake of all beings). Even annoying, seemingly stupid, ignorant, and so forth people in your life might just be teaching you in some way or another. While this doesn't mean you should sit down with a note-book and reverently interview the people who annoy you in life, it also means you shouldn't jump to judge their every action as coming from an intrinsically annoying place.

It also doesn't mean that if a person is about to do something harmful, either to himself or to someone else, you shouldn't intervene because they might be a super-wise bodhisattva. Basically the main idea is just to treat everyone you meet with great respect and treat them like a teacher, whether they are teaching you how to meditate, how to be patient, or how to help someone in need.

Point is - rather than labeling someone as 'wrong' or as 'right' or anything else, you learn that it was just an action of that person which was 'wrong' or 'right' and that even that is only the case on the level we're living at now. That annoying person who does everything wrong in your life might actually be a bodhisattva, or a Greek god, to be respected and treated well (even as you help them and fix anything they set wrong in your world).

Saturday, December 11, 2004

In Honor of Dorian: More on Perspective/Reality

At 12:07 AM, Dorian said...

With that old/young lady thing I can see both but not at the same time but I dunno about the law of the excluded middle cause with the faces/goblet I can definitely see both at the same time.


The title "In Honor of..." simply means this is inspired by the above comment. Somehow it gave me a flash of insight into the whole notion of perspective and 'seeing' - but of course that was two days ago on the toilet - so what comes out now will likely be less than crystal clear:

The problem with the faces/goblet, in seeing both at the same time, is that you do not actually see them both at the same time. This is impossible. It is impossible because there is no goblet or faces ACTUALLY there. What is there is a simple pattern of black and white. The faces 'appear' to the viewer when the center of the image falls to the background, giving a false impression of three dimensionality in which the faces come forth to the viewer. Similarly, the goblet may come forth while that which surrounds it falls back. But it is ONLY through this process that either the faces or goblet appear at all.

So, when you believe that you see them both at the same time, what has occurred is a mental synthesis of each 'image' which has only come to you via an interactive process in the first place. In part, what this means is that if you look at the old lady/young lady enough, you will experience the same sense of "definitely [seeing] both at the same time."

This fact has been proven by 20th century Gestalt psychology, but it has been known by Buddhists for a very very long time:) The beauty of this is that you can understand it intellectually (as the psychological description provides) or you can, through mental training, see the whole process directly for yourself!

According to Buddhist psychology, we normal people are so caught up in the events of our lives, we have a great deal of difficulty ever seeing our own mental contribution to it (the process in which our mind actively imputes meaning/labels on things). One metaphor used to describe this is of a movie theatre. The movie in reality is composed of like 32 still images per second being flashed up on the screen - just as our mind experiences 65 frames/mental images per 'finger-snap' according to the Abhidharma. We would never guess this if we weren't told it were so. Further, we cannot confirm this (from our seat in the theatre) without being able to fine-tune the mind to see each of the 32 still frames for what they are - very difficult.

But the Buddhist texts say it is possible to tune the mind to actually see the frames as they occur - even though they are still occurring at 65/finger-snap. I believe this is possible from my own limited experience of watching the mind. While I still get caught up in the movement of the mind ALL THE TIME! - there are breaks where things seem to enter slow motion and I can observe a situation both as it occurs and as I cognize it - frame by frame.

Part of the practical implications that the Buddhists are going for developing ethical purity. Imagine an unmindful individual on a bus with some kids playing loudly while their father does nothing to restrain them. This unmindful person can very easily get angry, feeling his precious solace is unjustly violated, perhaps one of the children even bumps into him, so he is physically violated as well! Following this anger unmindfully, he may do any number of unskillful things. But if he catches his anger (a practice we all must develop over time) - sees that he is getting angry - see can seek to solve the situation skillfully. This situation is taken from Steven Covey's "The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People" and in it he suggests that the irritated person kindly ask the father to restrain his children. Thereupon the father apologizes and tells him that they are returning home fromthe hospital where the children's mother has just died. In this case, Covey suggests that the angry person's whole 'paradigm' is changed and anger is not even a possibility. This is a very useful thing to do, granted you can catch your anger - see it for what it is: an activity of your own mind.

Some people's philosophical disposition toward materialism forces them to say, 'no - there is something real out there that is making me angry,' refusing to see the activity of their own minds. If the materialistic view were correct than lashing out against whatever is out there is seen as one possibility while 'passively allowing others to violate me' is seen as the other possibility. Contrast this to the black/white views of the image above and you'll see how a person can 'get inside' one image (his own paradigm) so strongly that not only will the other image be seen as wrong, but the Truth of the Whole Image will be impossible to see.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Good food - dining at Hodgkin House

Tonight I ate again with friends and housemates from India. Sorjyo, Raja, Raja's parents, and the married couple (who's names I'll put in when I remember...). What can I say? Except that I know I will end up in India before too long, and I very much look forward to it.

I've recently decided to cut fish from my diet, thus eliminating all meats finally. I had allowed myself that luxury on the pretense that fish do not have the capacity to suffer, but it was a weak argument from an ethical point of view. Scientists have also decided in recent years that fish do in fact suffer, and as (the husband) pointed out before dinner, in relation to a chicken, their suffering is much greater from their freedom in the sea until they are left to suffocate in a pile with their brothers and sisters on a fishing vessel. Of course, he probably isn't familiar with the commercial chicken 'factories' in America, where from birth to death a chicken's life is enveloped in suffering.

In any case, I suppose it's a matter of sensitivities: first you must see the suffering of yourself, then in fellow humans, and so on. If you choose not to see or to care at this level, it's impossible for you to think of the pain of animals. It's also a matter of empowerment: discerning the causes of your own suffering and learning to free yourself from them. I'm by no means anything but ordinary, but I've managed these two in just the last couple of years; and now I can actively seek to help others, with less and less of my own ego getting in the way. Experiencing the improvement in my own mental states and those of others, I try ever more so to free myself and others.

So what with all this babbling about suffering! I thought this would be a post about good food with my friends at Hodgkin house!

Anyhow - dinner was fantastic. Just simple Indian fried rice, a green pea and potato curry, and a spicy cauliflower and tomato dish. They kidded me about my American weakness for such hot dishes, but I held out well enough that they said I would survive if I make it to India.

Raja will be moving to Atlanta in three weeks I discovered; taking up Masters studies in computers. The married couple spent several years in Los Angeles, the wife working in the UCLA drug lab where they busted all of the Olympic athletes for illegal steroids. So we all shared experiences about the US, probably scaring Raja more than preparing him for his journey. The husband remarked that the fat people in America are fat on an unimaginable scale, like nothing anywhere in the world. I agreed, but told him that I had seen one such obese man just today walking in Bristol. But in truth the people here, and I believe in much of the (first) world, are far more healthy than (the Super-Sized) Americans.

Anyhow, I seem to be unable to say much about the evening without getting side-tracked, but it was a great one in any case.

It is just further reinforcement that I am extremely fortunate to be here in Bristol and at Hodgkin house. I'm surrounded with extraordinarily wonderful people from around the world. It seems only a matter of pure luck that I didn't end up with a bunch of bar-hopping Americans or Brits.

Well, I feel my eyelids drooping and my thoughts wandering, so that will have to be all for now.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Philosophy and Understanding: Reality and Society

A bit on how my understanding of philosophy and life has developed, especially since emerging from philosophical studies. This is an adaptation of what I posted a couple months ago at

It has amazed me a bit that now that I'm done with my Philosophy degree, things seem to be making more sense on a global, wholistic (rather than particular) level. I also have a feeling that I will need to come back to Philosophy (after my 10 month hiatus for an MA in Buddhist Studies and maybe on to a Ph.D. to follow that) if this new sense is to be made into anything concrete in the world of Philosophy.

It reminds me of the scene in the movie Pi where Max visits his older friend, telling him that he's on the brink of something. Max's friend sees his manic gestures and tells him to relax - He told Max the story of Archimedes, the great Greek mathematician. In the story Archimedes is asked by King Hiero II to determine whether a crown he has is real gold. Archimedes trys everything he can think of, for hours, days he examines the crown and assorted metals - he simply cannot find a definitive difference.

Finally, his wife sees him and orders him to relax and draws him a bath. As Archimedes sank into the water he noticed that his body caused displacement, sending the water over the edges. This was the insight Archimedes needed to see that the crown should not only weigh its worth in gold but also displace the same volume as equal weight of gold would. He was so exited he ran through the streets naked the King's palace naked screaming "Eureka" which means "I've found it." He needed perspective!

So, too, we philosophers need perspective. After being face to face with this theory and that, this great philosopher and that one - stepping back we see the [global] connections. Too often we choose one theory, one philosopher and say, "ahh.. this is correct, the others are all wrong." Then we can stare, cheek to cheek with other admirers, and revel in the greatness of some thought. But to those with perspective we are nit-wits, as idiotic as the next group of narrow-visioned zealots. I am certain that if I lose touch with non-Buddhist philosophy I too will lose perspective.

Of course it doesn't help to simply say, "I have perspective" as a way to avoid looking closely, either! A murky understanding of it all is no better than a great understanding of but a little.

Like the Gestalt image of two faces/a vase (or goblet). We must see each image (within/close up), and see the Truth of the whole image. Regarding metaphysics, those who say that the image is of a goblet would be the materialists, those who insist it is two faces would be idealists. In a certain way each is right, until they fail to see the limit of their interpretation.

In philosophy, East and West, there is a law called "The Law of Excluded Middle" which states that if the image is of a goblet, it cannot at the same time not be an image of a goblet ("those 'two faces' people are just wrong!"). Those who see a goblet, utilizing this law, deny any other interpretation of the image. To those who see both the faces and the goblet this is obviously a mistake, but how do you convince this logician of his error? Logic alone will not work, he has a simple, air-tight argument. You must in fact raise him up so that he, by his own experience, sees the Truth of the whole image. How do you do this? Well first you must see the whole image for yourself!

Friday, December 03, 2004

Can Buddhism Save America?

This is an edited bit from an email I just sent to my friend Ali in Montana. We're discussing the American 'system' and how to bring about real change for the better. To set the stage, he quoted a bit from Jean Baudrillard's book America (p38-39ish) which states:

"It is like the obese person who keeps on getting fatter, the record rotating endlessly in the same groove, the cells of a tumour proliferating, like everything that has lost the formula for stopping itself. This entire society, including its active, productive part -- everyone -- is running straight ahead, because they have lost the formula for stopping."

Here I present a Buddhist attempt to resolve our 'postmodern dilemma':

I think the idea here is to use the broken system itself to fix it. Suppose you enter a patriarchal society and want to improve the rights of women and the poor - you could go at it from many angles, but one method may be to focus your efforts on the men in power by offering them what they really want - assurance of continued power - through extolling the benefits of a more egalitarian society. In essence this can undercut their overall power by assuring them continued position. Of course it is not that simple, but that is in part how Buddhism took root in Tibet.

Our society isn't ruled by authoritarian men as much as it is by the dollar. People think that by the dollar they can find happiness. If Buddhism can show how people can get happiness at a reasonable rate, they'll flock to it. The upshot will be that all the while, the Buddhists will be converting people from 'eating alone, jogging, awaiting the apocalypse' [see Baudrillard] types into socially and self-aware, critical types of people.

A Buddhist story to illustrate the point is that of a wealthy man and his three kids. One day, each of the three kids was in their big house, completely engrossed in their play with their favorite toys. The man came home to see that the house had caught fire and ran in yelling at the kids to flee, but they just ignored him, so engrossed in their play. Smoke and heat was filling the room, but still they played, happy as can be. He could have dragged one of them out, but not all three before the whole house came down in flames, so he had to find a way to get them away from their toys and to leave at once. So he said, "kids, come and see. I have a toy for each of you far more splendid than anything you have in this house. They're waiting for you out in my cart - come see, come see!" The idea of a toy more splendid than anything they had in the house actually perked their attention and they ran with the father out to his cart outside the house. There they found nothing but straw in the cart, and were at first disappointed. But when they turned around and saw their house engulfed in flames, they realized that their father had saved their lives by cleverly breaking them free of their enraptured play. And in truth, as the house fell to ash and embers, the what they'd discovered in the cart really was more splendid than their toys in the house. (adapted from a story told in Intro to Buddhism, by Dr. Alan Sponberg, aka Saramati at the University of Montana)

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Living in Bristol - People in the House

One of the people I encounter nearly every day at Hodgkin house is one of the cleaners: Sammie. She is a middle-aged, short, stocky Thai woman with a passion for cell phone deals and gossip about the lives of my housemates. Sometimes the gossip is in fun, talking about 'mr romeo' or the anonymous notes put up in anger: "would whoever ate my yogurt please replace or else there will be trouble!" But sometimes she rants about this unclean spot and that unclean pan and how bad 'they are'. The negative rants, as well as the relationship gossip, have all been a bit unpleasant to me, though I have always just smiled and listened.

But this week she asked me what I study and when I told her it is Buddhism, her face lit up. "You study Buddhism!? I'm a Buddhist, you know. Wow. Jackpot." And on she went about her knowledge of Buddhism.

Now, the last few times I've seen her it's been all about Buddhism; no gossip, no complaining, just talking about Buddhism.

very nice.

If only we could turn all of those unpleasant people/situations in our life into pleasant ones like this! -jw

Smacking Kids: my religious right?

As you can see from the story below, a Christian school has petitioned for the 'right' to spank children. Part of me laughs, part of me is frightened by the fact that people do this kind of thing. The most ironic thing about this is that they're arguing that it is a matter of 'human rights' to get to smack around little kids. I suppose it's right up there with the 'right to burn a cross in your black neighbors lawn' which has so callously been taken away from us.

I can imagine kids' parents coming up with a "Who Would Jesus Smack" bumper sticker or some such thing. Oh well, like I said, part of me laughs. You can laugh too. And maybe, just maybe, you can go out and smack the next rowdy kid you see as an expression of your God-given right to religious freedom.

School asks for spanking approval

A PRIVATE Christian school that says corporal punishment is part of its religious beliefs asked Britain's House of Lords today to uphold its right to spank misbehaving pupils.

The Christian Fellowship School in Liverpool, northwest England, says a 1996 government ban on corporal punishment in schools is out of step with the wishes of the public and infringes the rights of Christians to practice their beliefs.

The High Court and the Court of Appeal have both rejected that argument.

James Dingemans, representing the school and headmaster Philip Williamson, said it was an established principle of law that parents had the right to inflict corporal punishment on their children, and could delegate that right.

"The Court of Appeal was led into error by creating and applying a doctrine of non-interference," he told the lords, who are led by Lord Bingham.

That, said Dingemans, had meant that "one of the most important human rights is near worthless."

In its ruling, the Court of Appeal said physical punishment for an offence committed at school could be achieved by contacting the pupil's parents and leaving any punishment to them.

That way, there was no question of parents' religious freedoms being in conflict with the ban on smacking in the 1996 Education Act, the appeal judges said. The case is continuing.

Adapted from:,5478,11563985%255E1702,00.html