Friday, September 09, 2005

no more justin in England...

Now, alas, I am back in Montana... Strangely enveloped in a busy, hectic, hazy, noisy existence. How odd: peace, quiet, reflection - in a city of half a million. Now anxiety, flightiness, superficiality, in a mountain town of nigh 80,000.

Oh well... I’ll find my inner-peace, or whatever it is that Buddhists typically do when thrown into a chaos of their own making. What I will do, eventually, is create another blog or go back to an old one… leaving this to posterity and the jackals.

Try me now at

Good luck - meditate - help someone out a bit.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

The *Less* you know: great political commentary

John Stewart this week took on several current issues in US politics: (video here)

New photographs of Abu Ghraib abuse - ACLU wants the other photos made public. The US government doesn't think the public really needs to see them.

Bill O'Reilly, (alternate site / another) the Fox News spinster who seems to know little about everything and much about nothing, makes the case quite clear: a knowing US public, compliance with the Geneva Conventions, and civilian lawyers all "help the terrorists." Hence anybody who wants
  1. transparency in government,
  2. the rule of international law, or
  3. the upholding of the Bill of Rights of the US Constitution
are "terror allies."

John Stewart jokes that this is a direct quote from Bill's new book "The O'Reilly Factor for Kids: with no more than a passing acquaintance with logic" book (yes, Bill really does have a new book out for kids).

John goes on to note that the Whitehouse is battling a bill by John McCain which seeks to prevent the US military from hiding prisoners from the Red Cross (a violation in international law). Mr. McCain (who spent 5 years as a POW himself) went on O'Reilly's show where he was promptly instructed by O'Reilly that his understanding of torture (er... 'coerced interrogation') was incorrect.


Ah... sigh... As they said on Crooks and Liars: "Why-oh-why must a fake news program do the real reporting?"

There is always work to be done - getting people to look at the issues themselves rather than relying on the likes of Bill O'Reilly. It's nice that we can laugh at his absurdity now, but we have to weep a bit when we think of all the people who swallow his 'analysis' without any thought of their own. Sigh again... 'Baby steps', I think, 'baby steps'. That's how we can make real change in the world - keeping aware of every opportunity: to tell a friend, to learn for ourselves, to intelligently discuss an issue, to donate a few dollars to a good cause. Baby steps...

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Soon to return to the US...

Frantic organization,
Bored procrastination,
Dhyanic meditation,
Academic inspiration;

Such is my life lately. It is a bit surreal; time is moving slowly, hence the boredom. I know I will be exhausted from the time I get back to the US (midnight on the 11th) until I'm at least half-way moved over to Missoula (week of the 15th). I am planning a last-minute trip to London
as well, with Soorjya (left). Hm... London... Yes, I had pretty well decided that I would not go to London (see recent post on the terror attacks), but we managed to create a trip which would be dirt cheap - my money will still go to organizing a 'terrorism' dialogue in Montana.

I have said my goodbye's to two of my course-mates and my advisor. Paul Williams, my advisor, was great - he gave one last go at advice for my dissertation, which he thinks is coming together fairly well (he even made me believe so), while giving me very positive feedback on my essays from spring term classes. Heather, a classmate, will be moving to the states herself in a few months, so hopefully we will keep in touch. Alison, another classmate, will travel to India (sweet India) to teach and do community work with her boyfriend for six months. Mary, classmate number three, will stick around Bristol with her boyfriend and will start an MA in Creative Writing and Personal Development (sounds fun) in October. Considering Alison will have an MA from Oxford soon enough and I'm going on to my second MA, it looks like we're almost all double-MAers.

I will do two last sessions of meditation with Sumita, a housemate: tonight and on Tuesday. We have been doing metta bhavana and mindfulness of breathing for a couple months now, and will try some vipasyana - just a taste for her before I go. It has been good for me to have a 'student' of sorts; forcing me to reflect on my own states and how they affect another person in that type of relationship. In the Geluk tradition there is great warning upon those who aspire to be a teacher (lama), as such a position carries huge responsibility, and can easily lead to an extremely unhealthy codependence. So I have had to make clear (to myself included) my own faults and deficiencies. It is easy for teaching to become an act of conceit, an ego-booster, ruining what little attainments a person has. I am not sure though if it should be heavily restricted, only to those who have proven their knowledge or other abilities. It is still all quite a mystery to me; and I can only hope, as I feel, that I am doing some good.

Academically... Well - you can look at my last post, or (likely) some future posts to see how that is going. I'm working on it a bit every day, and the ideas are gelling, so to speak, but not much is coming out on paper just yet. I am still aiming to have a full first draft before I leave... And, yea, I will. I'll try to crank out a section tonight, in fact! (that's the spirit :)))

Feelings... Well, I'd like to say 'equanimity' but that is a bit tough to judge. My time here has been wonderful beyond expectation. The course has been great, fantastic, and inspiring. The people I've met in the course and in the house (oh, and in the Diamond Cutter study group also!) have all been probably the best overall group of people I've ever been around. Everyone has had a great grip on life, no (or extremely little) of those dramas that seem to consume so many people's lives. It has become home for me.

Missoula: mmmm, sweet Missoula. Well I have no doubt that I will pick up there as if I never left (in some regards), and yet bring back part of England, with bits of East Asia, Ireland, and Spain as well! It is easy there to get in the routine of life (it is a rich, almost intoxicatingly pleasant routine) and fail to look outside into the world with wonder... I am hoping to keep the wonderment I have picked up here - to enrich Missoula in some small way; to not assimilate into the community or fall back into my old habits. But some of the best friends I have ever had are there (though sadly (or happily, depending on how you look at it) my sister has moved on to LA) so I know I won't feel the anxiety and isolation of entering a world anew. Missoula, too, is my home.

Well, those are my thoughts as I prepare, or not, to return to the US; leaving home to go home.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Kantian and Buddhist ethics: Thinking outloud

Plan of attack:

Intro - why Kant? Deontology flows from reason, as opposed to feelings/authorities (reason as internal and all else as external - reason: autonomous; all else: heteronomous) Buddhist ethics pursues similar ends for the individual, an overcoming of circumstances as bases for action: they (bodhisattvas) should do good out of good intentions without desire for reward, etc.

Cautionary note: pitfalls and difficulties in comparative philosophy. It is easy to create your own version of Kantian or (more easily) Buddhist ethics and knock down 'straw-men' critics. One must treat each fairly and note aspects that will not be covered and why.

Keown: criticizes comparisons with Utilitarianism (ends justify any means) in favour of Aristotelian ethics. Detailed discussion of karma, nirvana, kusala (good/right), puñña (merit/meritorious), pañña (wisdom), karuna (compassion), cetana (intention), etc. Cover here arguments on Buddhism as Utilitarian, Keown's rebuttal, and his arguments toward an Aristotelian understanding of Buddhism.

Kant against Aristotle: Kant's arguments against the ethics of Aristotle. Aristotle builds his ethics on the goal of eudaimonia (happiness/flourishing). Kant says that any goal which is basically a 'feeling' fails to give ethical guidance. Our feelings will influence our understanding of eudaimonia, and as such, our goal will oscillate this way and that, making our ethics - if they are pinned to that kind of goal - in flux.

Kant's Ethics: argues that a solid foundation for ethics can be found in reason - not mechanical reasoning - but in working to 1) think for yourself (question authorities); 2) Listen to others, put yourself in their situation to improve understanding, and; 3) think consistently: develop intentions that can guide you in more and more situations rather than shifting rationale from one situation to another. When a community does this together, out of their conversation come elements of the 'moral law' - a complete and universally binding law which is free from particular wants/needs/desires. This actually establishes a beginning point upon which to build a future order: we must begin with something everyone can do; thus act on maxim that you would will to be a universal law. This is the famed Categorical Imperative.

Feelings/Respect: Kant does have room for feelings in ethics; but not just any feelings. The only feelings that can have moral significance must flow from a reasonable basis, and Kant argues that in reasoning we do actually feel something: Respect. Respect is what we feel when we employ our own reasoning and it is what we feel when we encounter reasoning in others. In so far as a person can reason, he/she is worthy of respect; such worth of respect is dignity. Anything which cannot reason has no dignity.

Freedom/Autonomy: Given that science (think now of life in the 1700s) has shown that everything we see, smell, hear, etc is part of a mechanistic / purely deterministic world, there must be something beyond this world in us. An animal doesn't reason when it is in a difficult situation, it only reacts, but humans think about the situation. It is this capacity that sets us apart from the purely natural world where this is no freedom and everything is determined by outside forces. We have the unique ability to reason, to overcome outside forces. Kant holds that the very concept of morality requires agents with freedom who make choices. Weather patterns make no moral choices, nor does a wild animal.

Duty: Humans, and any other rational beings, because we can (it is not the case that we always do) make moral choices, have a responsibility to do so (not sure if this is Kant's reasoning exactly). He says that nature (or God) provides no .... (will return) While following rules at work to get promoted, participating in community service to bulk up your CV, studying hard at school to get a good job, or buying flowers for your significant other to make him/her happy may be praiseworthy acts, none of them has moral worth. Only action which is in accord with duty and is done out of duty is of moral worth. So you constantly have to question your own motives when doing something 'good' - is it because you know you will get something out of it? or are you acting simply and solely because it is a good thing to do, the good thing to do, and you need no other reason to do it?

Politics / Self-development: And as such, our duty to act in accordance with the Categorical Imperative drives us to question authorities (church and state) and to fight our own personal inclinations (wherever they disagree with the dictates of reason). Virtue, according to Kant is 'the strength and ability to overcome such powerful forces' (paraphrase - will get source/quote). So Kant at once has a powerful political (and anti-Catholic) statement and an command for self-development.

Result / Kingdom of ends: The Kingdom of ends represents the actual nature of all rational beings, in that they/we are all worthy of being treated as ends and not mere means. This sounds vague, but has strong implications. Whenever you deal with anyone in the world around you, you must see them (honestly) as a moral agent, not merely a shop clerk, merely a waitress, etc. This is imperative, again, for both political and self-developmental reasons. The Kingdom of ends also (possibly/likely) represents heaven, wherein all beings actually do treat one another as full moral agents, equal before the moral law (the Categorical Imperative). In each case, people act at one time as legislator (acting from the law) and as subject to (in contact with other people) the moral law.

Buddhism as Kantian: This will be a task in essentially 'constructing a Buddhism' which fits my arguments and then seeing if that is an agreeable form of Buddhism, or if most Buddhists would disagree with my statements.

Buddhism and Reason
: The first of these is that reasoning plays a vital role in the development of the Buddhist. A Buddhist cannot merely recite passages, do calming meditation, follow the precepts (or vinaya/ethical rules if ordained), and expect to gain enlightenment. Such actions, while praiseworthy and good will only produce mundane happiness - ie. a good rebirth, happiness in this life, etc. Cf the Kalama Sutta, Nagarjuna's Precious Garland, wherein injunctions are made to carefully analyze your actions and decide only with first hand knowledge, whether the guidelines you follow are good or not.

Buddhism and Freedom/Autonomy: As many Buddhists are agreeing recently, autonomy and free will are only a problem if you presuppose a mechanistic material world 'out there' which is experienced by you and me 'in here'. Such a bifurcation is difficult to make in Buddhist philosophy, and so arguments about freedom are never strongly made. The Buddha did, however, argue very strongly against a school of thought which preached predeterminism and hence the uselessness of morality (all will happen as it is already determined to happen). The very fact that the Buddha instructed his followers in a path that they must choose, according to Kant's standards, implies an implicit notion of freedom. Of course Kant's notion may be overly slanted toward freedom due to his Protestant background. In Buddhism, we are not determined, but we are conditioned by past actions, and this conditioning will determine our future circumstances.

Self-Development... I'll take a break here.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Brilliant Anti-IRAQ statement from John Quincy Adams

[America] goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force....She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit....

John Quincy Adams, 6th president of the USA.
Borrowed from an Indian Theoretical Physicist here:

Friday, July 29, 2005

poem: Turning from Virtue

The turn of mind
To sensual pleasures
Seems innocent
In ignorance
Blinded by passion

The sticky pleasure
Of desire fulfilled
Does not permit
Easy return.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

homage to reason, that which we are so in need of...

Car enfin, soit que nous veillions, soit que nous dormions nous ne nous devons jamais laisser persuader qu'à l'évidence de notre raison.

- "Fourth Medidation," by René Descartes

For in the end, whether we are awake, or we are asleep, we must never let ourselves be convinced except on the evidence of our reason.

Find the whole text in French with annotation here:

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Regaining integrity in purpose

This last month or so has seen my direction in life tossed a bit this way and that, perturbed by a wonderful Spanish girl and a spiritual journey to Ireland. But now, slowly, four days after saying goodbye to that girl, I am beginning to regain my integrity of purpose: namely dedication to writing my thesis.

Some may think this is an easy thing: just sitting and reading and writing... Either they've never undertaken such a large task, or they've done so many that the steps fall into place before them without effort. I'm still young, and I have only attempted small tasks in comparison with this, so often I am paralyzed by its sheer enormity, and at other times I spin off into work which ends up being too tangential to be relevant. The balance of effort and overview is delicate, and takes practice.

This little diagram represents my mental operations when still a bit disoriented. Basically, my mind goes in five different directions, at random, without a great deal of focus.

This is where I was last Thursday, the day Ana left. Also for at least part of each day since, but I can sense the flutteryness of my mind settling a bit. I'm focusing more, in part thanks to meditation, in part due to applied effort in my thesis.

This represents my mental states now: less deviation, more focus; only a bit of flittering this way and that. Now, when I try to focus on something, I can more easily and for greater spans of time.

Ahh... This is me in meditation or in total concentration on my thesis. Very nice - no distraction, no deviation of energy or direction. This is me now, in fact, having just spent the last half hour in a meditation with a couple house mates. The key is now to channel the focus into life a bit - into mindfully living each moment. There is a desire lurking in the background to fall into habitual patterns: staring blankly at the computer monitor, surfing news sites, etc - but these mustn't be allowed to drag my focus away, to spring to life the deviations which dominated prior life.

But in the end they will, so long as my focus is not well disciplined, so long as I am not well practiced. Some day, though, the focus will be attained and will not be lost. When I pay my salutations to the Buddha, in a way, I am paying salutations to that day. That day integrity in purpose will not faulter. Om, ah, hum.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Responding to the Terrorist attacks in London

The message from the powers that be is 'business as usual' or else 'the terrorists win'. In a positive development, Tony Blair is calling for dialogue with moderate Muslims. On the other end of the spectrum, US Representative Tom Tancredo called for retaliatory attacks on Muslim holy sites if further terrorist attacks occur, effectively calling for the deliberate murder of innocent people and destruction of militarily insignificant targets in an utterly barbaric manner.

The truth seems to be that we are in a perilous age; that while the evil of dictatorial communism is no longer the rallying cry of the right wing of Western politics (extending beyond the republican party into neo-fascist circles), the new cry of an 'evil' enemy to be defeated quickly surfaced. Read Orwell. Read Machiavelli. The fact is that while the 'left' is not perfect, the right can easily become extremely nasty and manipulative of the common man.

The message of 'business as usual' combined with the prospect of 'perpetual war' is the perfect recipe for creating a subservient populous: people who willingly dedicate themselves to this ideology, abandoning their own dreams. Dreams take time, they take independence in a safe environment and a respect for diversity. All of these are at stake now; threatened not by 'communism' not by 'drugs', but by a new amorphous threat: 'terrorism'.

The war on communism failed because people came to realize that the threat was not as real as it had been imagined. The real threat was between imbeciles in power who refused to communicate. With communication, initiated by and large by Michael Gorbechaev, the threat evaporated. But the story is never so simple: closed, dictatorial societies still exist, some espousing Communist ideals, others of a religious nature, and thus the threat continues (but again not from the ideologies themselves, but from the imbeciles in power).

The war on drugs likewise is a failure; as more people discover that drugs (especially marijuana) are not the cause of insanity and violence in our culture. But 'terrorism' might be the label that neo-fascists were dreaming of: how can anyone claim a benign or positive character to 'terrorism'? It is imperative that we as citizens seek to understand 'terrorism' for what it truly is. We must look to the social context from which it arises, the ideologies it can manipulate, and the desired results. We must not confine ourselves to recent attacks, but to take a long view, questioning whether the Boston Tea Party was not an act of 'terrorism' or the killing of the Archduke Ferdinand. How does his killing differ from US government-sanctioned assassinations?

Of course the wrong thing to do is accept terrorism, in any form, as a legitimate way of getting one's message across. It seems clear that moderate Muslims, as well as anyone else, see murder as an anathema to their religion. But it is clear also that some Muslims, as well as some Christians, Communists, and others, will find justification for murder in their beliefs.

The key to all of this is, I hope, in Mr. Blair’s move: dialogue, as opposed to the retaliatory comments of the US Republican. Freedom requires that we can think for ourselves, that we can listen to others, and that we can use reason to act consistently, fairly with everyone. We must force ourselves to hear all parties, to see murder/suicide as an act either of utter desperation or insanity. If we give voice to the desperate, a breakthrough may occur if it is done before a move to violence is taken. If we bring the insane into the light of conversation, they will be seen for what they are, and they can be dealt with before they can act to harm others.

For those for whom dialogue is no longer an option, those whose wounds of perversion have festered under our collective neglect, force may be our only option. But the mistake our leaders consistently make is to focus all of our energy on these groups, while ignoring the festering wounds of future terror: right-wing extremists, poverty-stricken children of war-torn nations, imbecile leaders in isolated countries, etc.

For my own part, the message is not 'business as usual', but rather to seek out and cultivate dialogue. I will not travel to London to see the sights of the great city as I had planned, but will instead spend that money to help organize a dialogue in Montana when I get back. I think the 'business as usual' of conspicuous spending/consumption of so many of us in the West while so many others suffer under dictatorships or dire economic conditions is a travesty that we must eliminate as quickly as possible. If you really think about the human lives that are lost when you buy a $25 or more meal, or an expensive bottle of wine, or any of the other dozens of wasteful ways we spend our money rather than using it to help end poverty - if you really spend a moment to think about that - then your stomach should really turn. I know mine does.

We are both perpetrators and victims of an ugly system, one that encourages waste while discouraging understanding of the world around us. Think about it. The more you do, the more your own stomach turns, the more nausea you feel for your own waste, the more likely you are to change - to turn off 'prime-time TV' - to put down the expensive toy in the store - to eat a modest dinner, simply grateful that you get to eat at all when over a billion people must live on less than one dollar per day.

It is up to each of us to make a difference, however small. We are culpable in so far as we refuse this responsibility. I am no saint, I too waste. I cannot point fingers, nor do I wish to. I just wish to reduce my own destructive impact and somehow to help others.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Mixing Christianity with indigenous African beliefs: too horrible to imagine

Certainly this isn't the story for all of Africa, nor even for all of Angola, but even if it is exremely isolated (which I doubt), it still merits our urgent attention.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Integrity: cleaning the mirror; unleashing pure light onto the world

I started a post on integrity on July 1st, but it seemed to trail away from my main point to the point where I could neither stop writing nor make sense of what I had written already. The thought which sparked the post was on religious leaders and their use of dishonesty or secrecy to further their own projects. My mind wandered into politics, where I think it became lost in the sheer size, complexity, and darkness of the great 'political machine'. But my point, well the point I was hoping to reach eventually, was that honesty and integrity are essential components of the good life; for our understanding of ourselves, for our relationships with others, for our knowledge of the world, and most importantly, for our efforts to help those we find in need.

In Buddhism two images are often used to represent our fundamental 'nature': a mirror and light. Imagine a mirror, look at one. What do you see? If it is a good mirror, and clean, then you see the world reflected in it without error. If it is dirty, then the world in it is obscured. For most of us, our mirror-nature is very dirty: covered by the dirt of greed and anger, dusty with misunderstanding and laziness, streaked with worries and dislikes. When we find a clean part, a moment of personal clarity, we feel it; we know that there is a bit of truth. But these moments are rare, so most of us accept our condition and try to make the best of it: fulfilling our desires, avoiding our dislikes, etc.

But in Buddhism we are taught, and with meditation quickly experience, that the mirror can be systematically cleaned: greed can be understood and overcome, as with anger, misunderstanding, and the rest. The process is not easy, because it usually means getting really close to those negative things in our life - the muck of existence - so that we can remove them. But there is a process, there is a path. It cannot be given to you, you have to tread it yourself, and you have to do it with your critical faculties fully intact, examining the teachings with as much care (or more) as you would put into buying something like a new house. Buying a terrible house can ruin you financially for up to maybe 30 years, but buying a foolish philosophy or way of life will ruin you much more extensively and for far longer.

So you have to, everyone has to, examine very carefuly the life you are leading, the world-view you have, the things about the world that you take for granted. Don't spend too much time examining others, either. Maybe 10% of your time can be devoted to this, but it becomes all too easy to pick on the mistakes and faults of others so much that this negativity becomes a fault of its own. Note the faults of the world, they are out there, but then get down the nitty gritty of your own dirty mirror. This, after all, is the material right before you. Perhaps paradoxically, cleaning the mirror and seeing the world more clearly make you see more beauty in the world, not more ugliness.

The second analogy is that of radiant light as our true nature. Imagine a brilliant, radiant light emanating from your heart. Imagine it as very very tiny at first, just shooting out glimmers and rays of light. But then imagine it growing, and with it imagine feeling warmth, lightness, joy, and equanimity. Imagine yourself actively building this up inside you until you have a body of pure light, then imagine friends and family coming to join you and your light empowering them, bringing out the pure light within each of their hearts, one by one. This is the power and action of enlightenment: creating and spreading pure joy, warmth, and understanding.

This returns me to the beginning: integrity. What does integrity have to do with all of this? Enlightenment, happiness, warmth, joy: these are nothing other than integrity. Integrity is what you have when you speak and you know your words are meant with love, compassion, and understanding. It is what you have when you can say that if today were the last day of your life, you would have spent it exactly as you just have. It is what you have when you can look in the eye of someone who is causing suffering and tell them to stop: out of compassion for them and for their victim. It is a truthfulness which is not only within you, but is also in the world before you. It is the clarity of the mirror, the illuminating quality of the light. It is the sine qua non of the good life; of love, compassion, and understanding.

Integrity allows us to question others, whether it is our friends who may be making a mistake, or the government which is supposed to represent us, without fear that we ourselves are distorting things, that we are the ones making the mistake or seeing things wrongly. Lacking integrity we follow others, fearing that our faults will become the centerpiece for someone else's ridicule. Lacking integrity we are not taken seriously, like 'the boy who cried wolf'. Lacking integrity our words are confused, our needs cannot be expressed, our wisdom becomes muddled.

This is no mere speculation, either. I may be young, but I have for most of my life now been exceptionally self-aware (even most often to a fault). I long ago turned my critical eye to the world and found its many faults. Anger at them, and to the world in general, blinded me to my own true nature, giving me false notions of superiority (for seeing all the faults when others did not), false nothings of holding the truth (which in fact was nothing more than the affirmation of my anger and skepticism), and false notions about the hearts of many fellow human beings (seeing only faults, blind to the warmth and joy at the heart of each of them).

Now, looking inward, I see that my own lack of integrity has caused so much of my own dissatisfaction in the world, and so much suffering for others around me. I see this in others too, but like I said, only 10% of one's time should be spent worrying about the faults of others: I need the other 90% (perhaps more!) to examine, come to terms with, and overcome my own faults here, so that I can see, and help others to see, the world as it truly is: beautiful.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

When all signs say.... 'cult'

Cults have long been a topic of fascination for me: what do they do? what do they believe? how/when does a cult become a 'mainstream' religion? how do I start my own?

Ok, so the last question was never quite so seriously asked, but probably very often on the periphery as the other questions were explored. A good friend of mine, Katie, a sociology graduate from UM often shared cult-starting strategies with me. She, however is an expert. Me, I'm a mere novice. Her focus was cult groups, even going so far as to live with a certain quasi-acceptable and mostly defunct cult group for an entire summer.

I first met her on a class trip to Vancouver, British Columbia (Canada) to spend a weekend with ISKCON, aka the 'Hare Krishnas'. I had a great time on the trip, sensing a genuine spiritual devotion amongst the ISKCON members, if not some hint of need in the younger ones. Their temple was beautiful and their prayers deep. Though they hailed a 'God' toward which I felt no calling, I felt comfortable in the presence of their own prayers, mantras, and devotional calls.

I had only just taken up a strong interest in Buddhism the fall before, and while I had no intention of joining them, my poor mother had not a few fears that I might not return! Leave it to mom to worry too much! I was still extremely skeptical, especially of 'organized' religion. And despite my affinity for the ISKCON members, they seemed to be just slightly better than what I imagined any average Christian church group to look like. I was in no way about to join any religious group.

Now.... Fast-forward four years to this year. I've been calling myself a Buddhist (see blog name) for about four years to most people, even nearly resigning my membership in Idaho Athiests (nearest organized group to me in Missoula!). But I didn't resign, and so that group is the nearest I have to any kind of religious organization to date. I did found a 'campus sangha' Buddhist group along with a UM freethinkers group, but both fizzled quickly so I don't count them. I did also inquire about becoming a 'mitra' (official 'friend') in the FWBO - Friends of the Western Buddhist Order in Missoula, but due to my continued interest in various forms of Buddhism (still 'shopping around') I was dissuaded from further commitment.

Recently, however, I have been contemplating joining some sort of Buddhist group with more solid commitment. The problem is, I haven't found the group yet! My reason for wanting to join something more is that I have done a ton of 'skimming the surface' here and there, and even tasted some of the depths of disciplined practice on a couple retreats, but I think it is time to further that discipline.

I have joined a 'Diamond Cutter' study group here in Bristol which has largely been made up of just myself, Achintya (an FWBO monk) and Suzanne (an active member of the New Kadampa Tradition). Now, in 5 days, I will see Geshe Michael Roach give talks in Ireland with these two people. Geshe Michael is an interesting character himself, not uncontroversial; but it strikes me that both of my travel mates are involved in groups that have had at least a brush with 'cult' accusations, the FWBO for odd/secretive activities of its founder, and NKT for the seemingly less ominous activities of worshiping a somewhat divisive deity and arguing with the Dalai Lama (see the links for more on each).

The status of these groups aside, cults are a real and destructive element in society, now as much as ever. But the lines between evangelical, fundamentalist, 'new' religion, new age, and cult are very blurry, and become even more difficult once you are a part of a group, as you become less able to make objective judgments.

So how does one know if the 'prayer group' or 'meditation class' they are going to is really nothing more than a front for a cult group? Well, I have been perusing the online anti-cult world and found at least one interesting article combining the experiences of an ex-Moonie and Lama Surya Das, as well as the useful site

After some reading and reflection I agree that the groups of my travel companions are questionable, but certainly one needs to know more before calling either a cult. The fate of each rests on the shoulders of its members as well as the educated public. We all share a bit of the responsibility for questioning things that don't seem right and pointing out inconsistencies when we find them. The same goes for students of Geshe Michael Roach, including myself. His organizations are still outside of the public eye, but it will only be a matter of time before questions are raised, problems are pointed out, and it will be up to us all to treat such things openly and honestly. Thus far it seems that he has been very open about his life, teachings, and practices which, though it may initially put some people off to him, is certainly the best course for the long run.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Wisdom of Monty Python

Always look on the bright side of life.  From "The Life of Brian" or

Bright Side of Life
by Eric Idle
Cheer up, Brian.
You know what they say;
Some things in life are bad,
They can really make you mad.
Other things just make you swear and curse,
When you're chewing on life's gristle,
Don't grumble, give a whistle,
And this'll help things turn out for the best, hey,
Always look on the bright side of life,
Always look on the light side of life,
If life seems jolly rotten,
There's something you've forgotten,
And that's to laugh and smile and dance and sing.
When you're feeling in the dumps,
Don't be silly chumps,
Just purse you're lips and whistle,
That's the thing.
And, always look on the bright side of life,
Always look on the right side of life,
For life is quite absurd,
An. death's the final word,
You must always face the curtain with a bow,
Forget about your sin,
give the audience a grin,
Enjoy it, it's you last chance of the hour.
So, always look on the bright side of death,
Just before you draw your terminal breath,
Life's a piece o' shit,
When you look at it,
Life's a laugh and death's a joke it's true,
You'll see it's all a show,
Keep 'em laughing as you go,
Just remember that the last laugh is on you.
And, always look on the bright side of life,
Always look on the right side of life,
Come on, Brian cheer up,
Always look on the bright side of life,
Always look on the right side of life,
Worse things happen at sea, you know,
Always look on the bright side of life,
I mean, what do you have to lose?
You come from nothing,
You go back to nothing.
What have you lost? Nothing!
Always look on the bright side of life.

Wisdom can be found in the strangest of places, ya know?

Monday, June 20, 2005

Me, the world, lately...

My life lately has been fairly consumed with dissertation work - see posts below. And with a beautiful Spanish girl... so... what can I say? Things are well.

I am almost positive now that I will go back to Montana for a Masters in Philosophy, to add to my Masters in Buddhist Studies, en route to a Ph.D. in something (maybe zoology?) . So, only one more month in England (for now at least). Maybe I can come back for that Ph.D.

Some interesting things in the news that more of the world should know about:

This, a sad and very powerful article with two letters from loved one's of US soldiers who have died in Iraq. After the Downing Street Memo, which has hopefully been read by everyone out there, more and more Americans are waking up to the fact that we were given lies to justify this war. But where do we go from here? What can people do? Here are some suggestions.

More less-than-happy news: Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy party in Burma, has been under house arrest by the military government there for most of the last 15 years. This week she turned 60, celebrating her birthday in an empty house, cut off from the world. Michael Stipe, of REM, this week sent his well-wishes, along with President Bush, and many more.

In good news (!), humanists have been granted the ability to legally perform weddings in the UK. One of my good friends back in Montana , Lori Gilliland, is a certified Humanist Celebrant, which means she can officiate weddings and the likes. It may be a double-edged sword in the sense that many people think atheism or humanism is a religion of its own (which it isn't!), and this may add fuel to that thought. For me, and I think most who would call themselves humanist or atheist, these are simply labels which are useful to express a coherent body of ideas/beliefs about the world. They are not religious because they believe in no supernatural, they hold nothing on 'faith alone', and they do not prescribe rituals or practices to be performed. Some people want to twist the definition of religion to include atheism and/or humanism, but this is more a matter of self deception than real argument. The fact is that religion is difficult to define, but amongst the majority of experts, Humanism/Atheism simply do not fit the criteria (namely those above). hmm... maybe a topic for another post. :)

In other happy news, again dealing with a wedding, is the first gay military wedding performed in Canada. Not much to comment; it's just nice that homosexuality, which could have gotten you killed (and still can in certain places) in the past, is now openly part of the celebrations of life.

So while things aren't so rosy in the US and Burma, England and Canada are taking steps forward toward openness, inclusiveness, and freedom. God bless 'em. And DOOOOO contact your senator about the Downing Street Memo - it will only take 2 seconds and they do take such personal contact an eentzy-teenzy-weenzy bit seriously, which is infinitely more than you get otherwise.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Artists. Art. Life.

Having dated an artist, (and interested in all things philosophical) I found this passage from Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain, amusing:

[of his parents, both artists], "They were in the world and not of it, not because they were saints, but in a different way: because they were artists. The integrity of an artist lifts a man above the level of the world without delivering him from it."

The philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, which resembles and borrows from Eastern wisdom, culminates in the aesthetic as the overcoming of the will. The will, for Schopenhauer, is none other than the Buddhist 'thirst' (trṣnā), driven by ignorance [of the ideal]. But Schopenhauer lacks the practice, so central to Eastern wisdom, of meditation/yoga. It is through meditation that a transcendence is experienced. Transcendence is at first merely glimpsed, soon firmly grasped, and ultimately made one with the being.

The Beautiful turns us toward the transcendent without providing us the tools to experience it directly. Thus, for the Buddhist, the aesthetic is sublime but not ultimate. This is the same recognition as Thomas Merton makes - art may lift you up, but it alone cannot quench your thirst eternally.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Cyclists get naked for the environment

Good news. Worth sharing. It may be one of those events that 'preaches to the converted' and sparks ridicule from everyone else, but I (being of the converted) appreciate it.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Why Kant and Buddhism are comparable and why you should care

I'm starting my MA thesis comparing Kantian and Buddhist ethics and have already been told by a couple people that Buddhist ethics is really more like Aristotle (the mean between extremes, cultivating virtues, and all that). And for most people, the response when they hear what I'm writing is a kind of blank stare. So... I think I should formulate, briefly, why Kant and Buddhism are comparable and why you should care.

They are comparable because of the enormous stress laid by each on REASON. Reason, for Kant, is a move away from the ever-changing and uncertain realm of the senses and desires, toward something deeper, more true. It is this ability to overcome urges/desires that gives rise to autonomy (true self-governance) and dignity. Reason in Buddhism is a method of discerning true perceptions from those clouded by greed/aversion/ignorance. Most of the time, though we gaze upon reality, what we cognize is a mistaken image - like the experiences of a dream, we are so caught up even in waking experiences that we cannot discern the real from the unreal. Therefore reason plays a central role for both. For Kant it is through the 'rational will' alone that we act morally and in Buddhism it is only by reasoned analysis that reality, and with it true morality, can be ascertained.

Now.. why you should care: imagine any difficult subject in your life: a foreign language, math, philosophy, other people... Now think about it: when you reason out an answer and it works - as in it pulls together a great amount of disparate parts into a unified whole - you feel good. Of course you may screw up (a lot perhaps), and it will take time for any real accomplishment, solving a large calculus equation or understanding Kantian ethics, but when it does happen there is a very real shift in perception and overall understanding of what had hitherto been mere parts. All of those words you had hitherto just looked at and/or memorized suddenly fit together and make sense. Now imagine doing that with the nature of reality itself! Imagine shifting your perception of everything you experience in the world for the rest of your life. THAT IS PHILOSOPHY - That is the power of reason fully utilized. That is why you should care.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Leibniz and Buddhism?

(concerning the comment made on my June 2 post) Thank you for your suggestion. I don’t think I will be able to follow it, as I have already started work on my thesis, but I am intrigued by it and would like to hear more. I hadn’t even considered Leibniz as a source of comparison to Buddhist thought, and, reading about his thought now, I do not see much that would suggest comparison. In what follows I will simply pull out points from my reading (in “The Oxford Companion to Philosophy” Honderich ed., pp.477-480) on Leibniz and comment on their difference from Buddhism. Obviously then, I will just be pointing out prima facie problems, and hope that you will correct me in any misinterpretations.

  1. His ontology (monads) at first glance resembles an Abhidharma ontology of dharmas (basic building blocks of existence), but Leibniz allows (even necessitates) God as the creator of each monad whereas Buddhism argues that each dharma is necessarily the result of a beginningless chain of prior dharmas.
  2. Leibniz also denies the possibility of intersubstantial causal relations (ie. a monad of one type could not interact with monads of another type) whereas in Buddhist thought dharmas of one type must interact (ie. a moment of eye-consciousness [a mental dharma] is the result of an object [a physical dharma] and awareness [a mental dharma]).
  3. Leibniz also posited a thesis that individual substances “differ with respect to their intrinsic, non-relational properties”, whereas Buddhist thought universally denies intrinsic properties (the three marks of existence in Buddhism are: non-self, change, and unsatisfactoriness), all things which exist in Buddhism do so only by virtue of their causes and conditions.
  4. Leibniz denied that space was an entity existing beyond material entities within it, whereas Buddhism asserts that space is itself a dharma, hence separate from other (material) dharmas which may interact within it.
  5. Leibniz, arguing against Locke, argues that “concepts of self, substance and causation, are innate” in the human mind, whereas Buddhism, would side with the empiricist here that all of our ideas (especially the idea of ‘self’ which is fundamentally misconstrued according to Buddhism) are derived from experience.
There is no section on the ethics of Leibniz... I should have mentioned that my thesis focuses on Kantian ethical theory and that of Buddhism (probably specifically Tibetan Buddhism). I am intrigued though, as always with such novel ideas, with your suggestions. So if you (or anyone for that manner) have more comments, I would very much welcome them.

Thanks and best wishes. jw

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Wisdom from my all-knowing tutor

Well he's not quite all-knowing... but we'll forgive him that today. Because today he gave me a lovely little gem of advice concerning writing papers (I'm about to embark on a 15000 word journey into comparing Kantian and Buddhist ethics).

He said, "words on paper are the essayists equivalent to a potter's clay. If you haven't actually started to write, you don't even have the material to start moulding into your final product."

khalu bhagavaan tatsatyam | Indeed, oh wise one, this is true.

Another gem came from a former ethics professor:

"The Buddhism-Kant thesis sounds challenging. It seems to me avoiding Kant is a good way to be free from suffering."

khalu bhagavaan tatsatyam | Indeed, oh wise one, this is true.

I'm in for an interesting 3 months... wish me luck. jw

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Why I love England

Well, there are probably many reasons, but this article in the New York Times and on CNN reminded me of how wonderful England truly is. The gist of the story is that some doctors are moving to ban long, pointy kitchen knives because they are the most common murder weapon in England.

It's a dicey topic in the states, but it could only remind me of the murder problem that plagues America (which seems to be a GUN problem, see stats below). But I'm not sure. One thing that came up in the CNN article was that the doctors said that "many assaults are impulsive, often triggered by alcohol or misuse of other drugs...[and the knife is easily available]" So something about impulsiveness and then the availability of a weapon should be considered. Bowling for Columbine, in which Michael Moore went to Canada, an equally gun-toting nation in which people seem to stay on the right end of the barrel, reminds us that it isn't just 'having guns' that causes the violent deaths we see in the US. (here is an interesting site refuting Moore's statistics)

Total homocide rate in England in 2003 was 853. The total murder rate in the US that year, according to the FBI was 14408. Given that the population of the US is about 5 times that of England, we appear to only have about 2-3 times the murder rate per capita.

So... maybe the US isn't so bad after all.. ? :) And maybe the Brits will fight the pointy knife ban with the catchy slogan, 'if long, pointy knives are outlawed, only outlaws will have long, pointy knives.' ...

Comparison of U.S. gun homicides to other industrialized countries:
In 1998 (the most recent year for which this data has been compiled), handguns murdered:

  • 373 people in Germany
  • 151 people in Canada
  • 57 people in Australia
  • 19 people in Japan
  • 54 people in England and Wales, and
  • 11,789 people in the United States

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Romantic love, a spark of Reality

Not that I've actually felt that spark recently, but I have thought about it a great deal over the last few years and thought I'd post my conclusions. First is that romantic love, when it is in a healthy relationship, is fantastic material for philosophical/spiritual progress. This is because the moment of eros (romantic love as it is felt) pulls us out of ourselves in a very real and concrete way. This feeling, if we are able to allow it, will grow into agape (love that is spiritual, not sexual, in its nature). And it is experiencing and understanding agape that opens us, both intellectually and emotionally to the whole of the world.

Think about that first kiss. It almost physically brings you out of what I would call your'self', that thinking/analyzing part of your existence. Thought just stops in that moment of romance. Experience is DIRECT. And think about it. It is one of the most Vivid memories we usually have, exactly because it isn't mediated/muddled by all kinds of conceptual thought. It is direct. The problem is that our analyzing mind creeps in and makes us worry about this or that and we lose touch with the moment; the romance is lost.

It is not that the thinking/analyzing mind is bad. In fact it is essential to our life, our existence, and our happiness. The problem is our controlling it, using it when it is useful, and just living in the perfect, eternal moment when that is appropriate.

That kiss brings us into the moment; understanding the way our mind has come to this moment and how the mind can lose the moment gives us the power to remain 'in-the-moment' throughout our life. This, I think, is enlightenment. It is knowing the experiences of life directly, USING analysis when needed, but not being overrun by it; and likewise being fully aware in every moment, not lost or 'just day dreaming' ever.

Until we've reached that, we will inevitably react to the world, sparks of romance included, with the unskillful emotions of greed and/or aversion; but just knowing that we have a choice in the grand scheme of things is a start.

On a lighter note, I think the first thing I do when I get back to Montana is 'find myself a woman' as we say in Montana - (knowing full well romance doesn't exactly work that way). Until then I'll just try to live in the moment by way of philosophy and meditation... and Beethoven.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

A simple post; things for which to strive

In the everyday realm of potentials and imprints, it is important:

- to maintain a positive attitude,
- to be generous,
- to never begrudge others the results of their own efforts,
- to refuse to take pleasure in other peoples' problems,
- to refrain from anger,
- to cultivate gratitude, and
- to avoid wasted talk.

Basic Buddhist principles. I post them in part just to remind myself. Soon I'll post some stuff on meditation, where you get the true feel of how well you embody these... 'till then... jw

Buddhism, ethics, and stem-cells

Stem Cells and Buddhism, an ethics dilemma?

I just came across this article:

This makes for a nice article on how non-dogmatic Buddhism can be: encouraging a person to reason about the motivations of actions, rather than relying on hand-me-down rules. I'm not sure, though, about his claim that Buddhist embryology leaves out the earliest stages of the embryo (immediately following conception).

James J. Hughes and Damien Keown in a paper here, state, "most Buddhist commentators have adopted classical Hindu teachings that the transmigration of consciousness occurs at conception, and therefore that all abortion incurs the karmic burden of killing. Before modern embryology, however, in both Buddhist countries and the West, ideas about conception were scientifically inaccurate, and often associated the beginning of life with events in the third or fourth month of pregnancy (for a discussion of traditional Tibetan embryology, see Dhonden, 1980 and Lecso,1987)."

It would seem that now that we know conception takes place as the instigator of pregnancy, it would seem that 'conception' would begin with simply the egg and the sperm. So it would seem that Mr. Hwang may be off a bit.

BUT... He is right to think that Buddhism emphasizes compassion, wherein compassionate motives are of chief importance. Another consideration, raised in the Hughes/Keown paper, is that there may be 'degrees' of consciousness/personhood. Even though the 'being' has entered the physical basis at conception, it may be a matter of time before 'personhood' is fully developed. Remember that animals have some degree of 'personhood' in that an animal may have been your great-grandmother in its last life, and may be reborn as your child, and so any cruelty toward it is wrong. However, cruelty toward an animal is less wrong than cruelty toward a person. The degrees seem to hinge mainly on the capacity of the animal to suffer, a horse has more sentience (ability to feel pain/pleasure) than a fish; hence cruelty to a horse is worse; and cruelty toward a gnat would be of the least consequence (but still some).

So... letting go of the pro-life argument that every embryo is (if not a person already which has major conceptual problems) a potential-person (every living being in Buddhism is a potential-person, if not one already), we can see that doing experiments on/extracting stem-cells from an embryo is going to be of very little negative moral consequence. Further, the altruistic, compassionate intention (if that is truly his intention) creates great positive moral consequence, more than offsetting the negative.

Meanwhile, that cheese-burger or chicken salad you're eating... :) jw

Tuesday, May 24, 2005


I hate sitting still. I hate being unsure about where I will be in 4 months. I hate major life decisions.

I have this uneasy feeling of being cut off from the world. It is completely irrational; I know. (so in some sense I employ here the 'talking cure': talk about what is driving me crazy, realized directly the irrationality of my 'problems' which I already know intellectually, and poof, they disappear.)

[laughs.... not sure where to begin...] Well, I suppose 'now' is as good a time as any to begin.

Why am I 'sitting still'? Well, it isn't that my current life is devoid of projects, things to complete, things to start. It's not that my past has become irreconcilable with my present or future hopes. It is the future that is bothering me. The future, which is, as it should be, not normally something I fret about. But now I am at a crossroad, and oddly enough (perhaps not) this uncertainty about the future has me a bit dazed and confused in the present.

I could go on for another Masters Degree (in Philosophy)... back in Montana... More debt, I don't like debt. But I LOOOOVE philosophy. I could stay here (England) and look for work (teaching Religious Ed. in high-schools seems possible). I could go back to Montana and look for work while looking into Ph.D. stuff or other work (Peace Corps, Japan English Teaching).

All options LOOK good... But none is PULLING me, or so it seems; and hence the stagnation in the present. So this is my stagnation, my uncertainty, my life-decision.

And perhaps the problem isn't there at all, but rather it is my desire for something to pull me. Can I accept this world of possibility just as it is? [cringes] mmm.... rggg... I don't know.

I'm not sure this 'talking-cure' thing is working :) [laughing...]

I suppose I'm not really sitting still, after all. Whether I like it or not, I'm going forward. So I might as well enjoy the ride. And no matter how sure I think I am at any time, I never really know where I'll be in four months. And it would seem that no MAJOR life decisions need to be made now... I'll go back to UM. I'll look at alternatives though, and see what comes along. I have motion again.

I love philosophy, and in truth I shouldn't even have to contemplate passing up an opportunity to study it for two more years. It opens up new universes in thought for me... I constantly walk away from lectures, books, papers, and conversations with peers feeling as though I am nearer to some understanding that beckons me, almost religiously... So... Damn it all... Debt is a burden, yes, but I can carry it... I must. [sigh]


Ok... so maybe it has worked... back to Sanskrit studies... jw

Thursday, May 19, 2005

politics, bloody politics

I avoid political things in general, but found this very interesting. The liberal (Respect Party) MP George Galloway testified Tuesday in Washington concerning his alleged role in the 'oil-for-food' scandals in Iraq. In addition to claiming that the allegations are false and unfounded, he lashed out against US (and at times British) policy concerning Iraqi sanctions and the war.

It looks as if he was correct about the weakness of the senate evidence against him (coming from Ahmed Chalabi, the same guy who gave 'evidence' that Iraq had WMDs and from tortured prisoners). It doesn't appear that the Republican Senator Coleman had much to say in response. (here is some video)

Well, it's politics, and not my strength by any means, but it is nice to see someone in the spotlight raising the questions and issues that Mr. Galloway raises (the death of one MILLION Iraqi's, mostly children, under sanctions, the death of 100,000 Iraqis since the US invasion, mostly civilians, the death of 1,600 US soldiers and the injuries of 15,000 US soldiers - all, as he said, 'based on a pack of lies', including US arms sales to Iraq, US kickbacks to Iraq for oil, the loss of 8 billion dollars in Iraq under US control, the indiscriminant and untracked handing out of cash by US military personnel in Iraq, the US companies making mega-profits, etc...).

Of course we mustn't forget the atrocities of Saddam Husein, nor the terrible situation in Iraq under his control.

Well, it's politics! Not always pretty. I'll slink now back into my Buddhist Studies world where major disputes produce books, not wars....

peace. jw

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Jet Li - A Buddhist fighting for a better message

I read something similar to this a few months ago - but here it is again: (by the way, Jet Li is an action movie star, with the lead role in the Chinese film 'Hero')

"Many fans thought Li had reached the summit of his career with last year's hit, Hero. But he's still troubled that North American filmgoers, especially the younger ones, have an almost knee-jerk reaction to his name. "They think: 'Jet Li -- oh cool! Kick ass!' " He used to be happy with that reaction but lately it's been bothering him. "That's the only message I give to young kids? I hope that I can give more than just that.

"That's why I wanted to make this film so that younger people see that violence is not the only solution. Look at Danny. He's physically very strong -- he can knock out 20 people in a few seconds -- but he's an animal. He doesn't care about others. Humans care about others, that's the difference. Something cooler than action, cooler than martial arts, is love."

Good stuff. jw

See also:

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Beyond polemics... moving toward peace with Ratzinger, Benedict XVI

The Buddhist Peace Fellowship has written a letter to the new Pope, and as the Commondreams story points out, 'Signatories are well aware of conflictual past statements by Cardinal Josef Ratzinger about Buddhism and other matters, but they are also keenly aware of the words of the Buddha, quoted in the letter: "Hatred does not cease by hatred, but by love alone does it cease."'

More on the BPF

Simple truths... sometimes the most difficult to understand.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The "Real" Tibetan Buddhism

I am working on a paper describing the institution of the Dalai Lama and happen to be rereading Donald Lopez's great book, "Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West." It is a brilliant mix of scholarship and readability; a must for anyone interested in Tibetan Buddhism, particularly our very strange Western ideas of what it 'really' is. A fascinating exercise might be to write yourself a brief essay on what you think Tibetan Buddhism "really" is (all about), cover topics including the Dalai Lama, the relationship to Indian, Chinese, and other geographic types of Buddhism, the saying 'Om Mane Padme Hum", and the likenesses (if any) between Tibetan Buddhism and forms of Christianity.

Likely, your views on each of these will be interestingly and surprisingly covered in Lopez's book. The book doesn't add much in the way of new scholarship on Tibet, but instead breaks down many of the misconceptions of Tibetan Buddhism, ranging from "demonic plagiarism" of Christianity (p.27) to (Tibet itself being) a "...peaceful, colorful, cheerful realm of pleasant and meaningful living" (p.7).

As with most things, the truth lies in neither the extremes nor some fabricated middle; but instead in the particularities realized under close examination. A few facts (without citation):

Buddhism was first (officially) introduced into Tibet in the 7th Century under King Songtsen Gampo.

Officially supported Buddhism collapsed with the reign of King gLang Darma, around 841CE.

Buddhism is reintroduced by Atisha (A Bengali who had traveled to Sumatra, Indonesia for teachings and had ascended to the higher ranks of an Indian Buddhist Monastery) in 1041. Schools focussing on his work and those of the teachers listed next would be called the 'new schools' in opposition to the 'old school' Nyingmapa (ancient ones).

Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa, Milarespa, Gampopa all are active in the 11th-12th centuries, transmitting Indian Buddhist ideas into Tibet. Each is the disciple of the prior in this order. Gampopa would go on to form the Kagyudpa school.

Tsongkhapa develops strict new school of Buddhism in the early 15th Century, the Kadampas, later to be called the Geluks (Virtuous Ones).

The First Dalai Lama was the Third Dalai Lama. Doesn't really make sense (like many things), but it goes like this: the 'first' Dalai Lama was Sonam Gyatso, a Geluk monk who visited the Mongol leader Altan Khan in 1578. Altan Khan bestowed him the title 'Dalai', which means 'Oceanic', referring to the wisdom of the person it is bestowed upon. 'Lama' basically just means teacher, or great teacher.

Sonam Gyatso, however had been recognized as the reincarnation of a prior lama, and he in turn the reincarnation of another lama (this one a disciple of Tsongkhapa). So the first (temporally) of these (the student of Tsongkhapa) was posthumously given the title, the First Dalai Lama. And the rest is history, so to speak.

Tibet has never been in much of a state of political peace, as one might assume. They've almost always been threatened, under attack, or occupied by either Mongolia or China (Britain also once in 1903-4). Tibet also had a heroic/warlike period in the early 8th century when it actually conquered China all the way to Beijing.

Tibet has also never been unified in any clear way. Under the Dalai Lamas, especially the 5th and 13th, there were efforts with some success to reign in the distant and opposing tribes/polities of Tibet, but for the most part, 'direct' political power has been restricted to a valley around Lhasa, with extension to Shigatse in the East. It has only been with the 1959 uprising and suppression by the Chinese that a greater (if not more urgent) cry for Tibetan Unity has been raised, and even this is not a priority for many Tibetans. None of this should go to deny the fact that the Chinese occupation has been tantamount to genocide and every effort should be made for its end.

Well... Get Lopez's book if you're interested in more, and I always recommend Geoffrey Samuel's "Civilized Shamans" if you want an extremely thorough, though readable, coverage of the entirety of Tibetan Buddhism/Civilization from a mostly anthropological point of view (analyzing most periods in terms of 'cultural patterns' which I found very helpful). For a less scholarly, though thorough and extremely useful, coverage, see John Powers' "Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism." Lopez's book has the virtue of being great for all readers; Samuel's I would only recommend to those sincerely interested in the intricacies of Tibet and its various forms of religion/culture, and Powers' is great for all but the more advanced students. Oh... and I just read a short paperback by the Dalai Lama, edited by Jose Ignacio Cabezon (one of the current giants in the field) called "Answers: Discussions with Western Buddhists" which is extremely useful in getting a feel for a broad variety of issues in contemporary Buddhism from the Dalai Lama's perspective.

Good luck... Remember to smile. I remember an interview with comedian/actor Steve Martin in which he was asked how he managed to remain funny for so long and he said he usually dedicates 5-10 minutes each day to just smiling at a mirror. Geshe Michael Roach has also remarked, in his teachings on yoga, that smiling loosens knots in the two channels around the face, allowing pranna, ethereal energy (inner wind or subtle energy), to flow more smoothly throughout the body. Whether either of these are actually going to work in anyone else's life, who's to say? But if they work for you, good! There's reason to smile. If they don't and you think these guys are just crack-pots, then hey, at least you're not a crack-pot too (right?). And there is a good reason to smile!

Speaking of crack-pots, I'd better get some sleep before I somehow become one myself. Best, jw

Monday, April 25, 2005

Zen Prayer?

My friend Chris emailed me this: "... I've often wondered about the logic behind a Zen prayer. Zen and other branches of Buddhism are atheistic. Buddhism is an atheistic philosophy. Why do Zennists pray? Who do they pray to? That doesn't make sense..."

I agree, in a way. It doesn't make sense if we consider 'prayer' to be 'to' another being, ie. a Deity. Zen is basically Atheistic (nothing in Eastern religion is perfectly clear-cut). They certainly don't believe in a 'creator' God like that of Western monotheism. But they're probably going to believe in a 'Pure Land' resided over by a 'radiant, pure, enlightened being' like Amitabha/Amida, the future Buddha of the West. And they'll certainly believe in 'Buddha-Nature', the idea that our true nature is innately pure and radiant, and that it is our mistaken understanding of things that obscures this true, luminous, already enlightened nature.

So, back to prayer. The 'prayer' that a Zen practitioner does is perhaps an attempt to come closer to realizing his/her own already-enlightened nature. A prayer will generally be used to offset some imbalance the practitioner sees in his/her own life, such as a strong, unhealthy attraction to something (thus praying for contentment and to see the impermanence in all things) or an aversion (thus praying for good toward or appreciation of that which he/she is adverse to).

So, perhaps in Zen style, we can say a prayer of good-will to GW Bush, Osama Bin Laden, or whoever else out there we feel excessively repulsed by. And we can say a Zen prayer for equanimity in the face of alcoholic, gluttonous, or improper sexual opportunities.

For me... well, may I be earnest in my studies these next few weeks and hopeful for the health and good fortune of the new Pope, Benedict XVI.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Ratzinger, a distressful moment for Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Marxists, Homosexuals, Pro-choicers, and the world

It has been interesting to watch the recent events in the Vatican, having myself left Catholicism and having only ever known one Pope, John Paul II.

03 May,
(note, I've removed a paragraph here that disparages the election of Ratzinger)

As with many things I'm quite skeptical; though I am trying to be less cynical about Catholicism and Christianity in general (the cynic denies claims and refuses to investigate, the skeptic holds judgement until after investigating).

From the Pakistan Daily Times:

In 1997, Ratzinger called Buddhism an “autoerotic spirituality” that offers “transcendence without imposing concrete religious obligations.” Hinduism, he said, offers “false hope,” in that it guarantees “purification” based on a “morally cruel” concept of reincarnation resembling “a continuous circle of hell.” At the time, Cardinal Ratzinger predicted that Buddhism would replace Marxism as the Catholic church’s main enemy. Lerner says, “Ratzinger is being falsely described as a conservative, when in fact he, despite his publicly genteel manner, is a raging reactionary. Unlike many American conservatives who oppose gay sexual practices but not their legal rights, Ratzinger in 1992 argued against human rights for gays, stressing that their civil liberties could be ‘legitimately limited.’”

See also:

Yet, my own polemics aside, it may suffice to say that his own words are simply mistaken, and it should be hoped for by all people of good character that he move to understand the good of Buddhism, Hinduism, Marxism, and other 'ism's' which he may otherwise see no value in. Of course, if his concern is more for numbers (of adherents) than for the overall spiritual/moral character of the world, than perhaps seeing the good in other ways of life is problematic. However, it is my own belief, one held by the Dalai Lama and my own closest thing to a religious guide, Geshe Michael Roach, that there is good in religious pluralism. In fact, trying to make everyone into a Buddhist, a Catholic, or a Marxist would be disastrous on both mundane and spiritual levels.

It should be understood by any and all 'reactionary' Catholics that an oppressive, or even merely 'unilateralist', Catholic church will be its own 'main enemy.'

Where are the Thomas Mertons of the Catholic faith when you need them?

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Visiting Oxford and a tangent 'on Latin'

As if Spain and Ireland are not enough, I just journeyed on a day-trip to Oxford for my first visit to this lovely city. It is called "The City of Dreaming Spires," easily misunderstood as "The City of Dream-Inspirers".

I was more in search of inspiration than spires, so I was hoping my misunderstanding would prove somehow accurate. And it did. In a sense, the whole city of Oxford is the University. It is a University of around 40 quasi-independent "Colleges" spread through the city, each of the colleges being founded by a wealthy king, nobleman or otherwise wealthy individual throughout the University's seven hundred year history. I was lucky enough to get a small guided tour by an alumnus of Gloucester College, with its intact 13th century houses opposite massive Georgian manners and a library funded by newspaper (and Fox news) tycoon Rupert Murdoch. We also toured Christ Church, at which some of the Harry Potter movies have been filmed.

On the one hand, the sheer size of everything is just awe-inspiring. Then, once you become accustomed to the hugeness of everything, you begin to see the immaculate detail put into every painting, carving, and stained-glass window. Much of what is written on the walls, the plaques and so on, is in Latin, reminding you of the very European roots of the University. There is certainly something to be said for learning Latin - the way it turns you toward the past, gives you a concrete tie, unbroken by translation or artifice, to the ancients of Rome. You see through Latin the birth and development of your own language, if it is English (Spanish, Italian, or French). Seeing this is like seeing pictures and hearing the stories of your own life, you realize that you are more than your own memories of the world and yourself. You existed before you even remember. And what you were then impacts you now, whether you realize it or not. So it is wise to hear those stories of your own life, and to reach beyond it if you can.

So this is where the inspiration for me comes in I suppose, in seeing more vividly the connection between these old stone walls, the portraits hung on them, the Latin, and me. Without this connection I am just me, in however limited a manner I wish to define myself. With the connection, I see the causes of the world around me, and the causes of my own place in the world. Of course, these will have been there whether I saw them or not. That is somewhat cryptic perhaps, but important I think. So think about it. Think about who you are, and how that relates to the world around you, in the present moment, in the past, and in the future.

Best wishes with your ponderings.... justin

Friday, April 15, 2005

Back from Spain / Ireland!

Well, two weeks have flown by. And rightly so, as I have been in near constant motion with my family (mother, father, and sister; no brother on this trip) first walking the crowded streets and squares of Barcelona and then driving the narrow roads of south-west Ireland.

Here is my mother (Ronnie), sister (Eve), and father (Patrick), in the Plaza de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain. Here the pigeons would literally land on people's hands, arms, heads, etc for food. Behind my mother is the entrance to La Ramblas, a long walking-mall which is central to a lot of the life of Barcelona. We rented an apartment a half-block from the center of La Ramblas.

family in Barcelona's Plaza de Catalunya

Here's a link to a nice map of the city (en Español) You'll see that we were quite close to pretty much everything of interest in the city, including the waterfront. Must see in Barcelona is" La Sagrada Familia," an enormous cathedral designed by the late Antoni Gaudi (en Español).

We arrived Monday afternoon and only had until Saturday, so we stuck around the city and did almost all of our travel on foot. Friday we did a bus-tour of the city, but it was cool and drizzly so that was not terribly exciting.

Saturday we arrived in Ireland, rented a car, and began our drive around the south coast of the country. Here we are on the north coast of the Dingle Peninsula.

family in on the Dingle Peninsula

Eventually I'll scan in our route/map. Here is someone else's for now though. The purple line to 'surfing beaches' is where we are in the photo above. We followed much of the same route as this map indicates, only in reverse direction, coming from Adare, north of here, through Castlegregory, and on to Dingle. We then headed south to the "Ring of Kerry" which here begins around Miltown and goes out on the Iveragh Peninsula, ending roughly at Killarney.

someone else's map of Dingle

Here's another map of the area:

another map of the area of south-west Ireland

And another photo, this one of the family passing over the middle of the Dingle Peninsula, at the top of the narrow pass, looking back over the surfing beaches that we had just visited:
family in on the Dingle Peninsula

All in all it was a wonderful trip. As you see it was a bit chilly in Ireland (to be expected in April), but it was sunnier than I had figured it would be. Driving in a foreign country is not for everyone - it can be a bit stressful - but with some practice our two drivers, Eve and Pat, managed to do very well (I did most of the navigating). We stayed the nights in Ireland in Bed and Breakfasts, of which there are thousands (probably a dozen in each of the even the smaller villages). A couple were pretty unremarkable, but others, like the convent house, were quite rich with character.

We visited three castles, including Blarney Castle where Eve and I climbed to the top and kissed the famous Blarney Stone.

The days were spent driving and sight-seeing, while the nights were spent playing Euchre, a team-based card game, in which Eve and I consistently beat the folks for successive Spanish, Irish, and finally English 'championships'.

Well, that should do it for the wrap-up of the vacation for now. I did have some minor philosophical and/or personal thoughts throughout the trip, however. One concerns the habit-pattern I have with my family as opposed to that around my friends, especially my international friends here in Bristol. Around them I am quite calm, listening, attentive, and so on, which is a way of being that I would like to extend throughout my life. Yet around my family I can too quickly become impatient, sharp, and difficult (a bit like a spoiled fifteen year old). It was interesting to try to step back and watch myself at various moments to see if/when I was 'reverting' to older habit patterns and when I was calmer and more attentive.

Philosophically... I was exposed to more crazy city-people - those people who are in perfect fashion, perfect make-up, talking on the cell phone in a hurried, anxious, irritated voice... And just wondered more about life, as it moves so quickly while we are often too preoccupied to notice it going. And how much of our pre-occupation is dictated by other people, bosses, professors, advertisers, politicians, and so on?

I wrote an essay last year arguing for a progressive approach to ethics, starting at utilitarian (pleasure vs pain), moving through virtue-ethics (chosen attributes to acquire and master) and ending in deontological/duty-based universal ethics (no more mastering/striving, just 'being fully'). It would seem that to the extend that our lives are dictated by others, we are pre-utilitarian; like a child. It is only with some moments of autonomy (making choices for ourselves) that we discover the pleasure and pain of which may follow. Hopefully we discover that the 'nearest pleasure' isn't always what we really want in life; ie. we could just lie around, eat, and have sex, but eventually this would become boring and we would want to take up more creative, expressive projects. Realizing this, slowly but surely we discover which virtues (humility, leadership, loyalty, friendship, intelligence/wisdom, caring, etc) seem to fit us and we strive to develop them in our personal and professional lives.

The most difficult move in the scheme, I would think, is from the development of one's own virtues, to the 'purely being' level. Here one has literally perfected his or her virtue, and now simply acts it out, lives it. Think of Einstein's mathematical wisdom or Mother Teresa's charity. There is no longer anxiety about whether one is 'doing it right' - one simply 'does' and this brings happiness, fulfillment, flourishing in the deepest sense. One is 'in the zone' or 'in the flow' of life on a full-time basis.

How many people will ever experience this? How many will even come close? Looking out over the busy city of Barcelona, with its hustle and bustle, I was pessimistic about these questions. How many people simply resign themselves to a life where choosing a bit of pleasure is all they can look forward to?

Developing a virtue is not easy. I have chosen wisdom/academia and often second-guess myself, most often when quick pleasure draws me away from these. But it is those moments of being in the flow that keep me going; those tastes of the ambrosia of flourishing; the sweetness that history's great men and women have talked about in poetry and prose, art and song.

Well, I should be off for now. Tomorrow I visit Oxford, which should be a very inspiring trip!

Best wishes, be happy, find a virtue (one that helps people)!


Wednesday, March 30, 2005

A good night around "The Diamond Cutter"

Tonight I attended a 'study group' focused on Geshe Michael Roach's book, "The Diamond Cutter". The book is based on an ancient Buddhist text called the Diamond Cutter Sutra and commented upon by Geshe Michael Roach's (Geshe mean's Doctor of Tibetan Philosophy) life in the business world.

The question one quickly asks is, "can ethical principles, let alone Buddhist ethical principles, be applied in business?" At least that was the center of tonight's discussion. For a couple of us, the answer was a simple, "yes, of course you can have ethics, even Buddhist ethics, in business." But the doubt and ensuing questions were telling of a real problem that exists in the modern world and in our attempts to live and operate in it.

That problem is the seeming inescapable nature of negative causes or effects in our actions. What does this mean? Simply that it seems like we cannot, no matter what we do, avoid contributing to harm in the world. An easy example would be shopping at the local Wal-Mart - you are obviously contributing to the ultra-wealthy 2% of the world getting richer and the continued exploitation of not only Western/American workers, but also Chinese workers and those in other developing nations. A more subtle example would be shopping at the local co-operative market. Do they use scanning computers? Where were those made? Do they use environmentally friendly transportation for all of their products? No way.

On the one hand you may think that I'm setting to high a standard for the local co-op. But on the other hand you should see that there really is no escaping some harm in our actions. The big mistake we make in life is thinking that some acts are totally harmless (shopping at the co-op) while other acts are unbelievably inhumane and wrong (shopping at Wal-Mart) . The fact of the matter is that it's a gradient, a spectrum, not a binary 'this or that'.

That definitely doesn't solve our problem. But it puts on the right track. Nothing we do in life is necessarily good or bad in terms of an objective observer. What matters then? Our motivation. We have to act with good motivation for our actions to be good. How do we get good motivation? We have to understand the fundamental nature of the world.

The source of our black and white, 'do this, don't do that' ethics is our notion of ourselves as separate and finite beings in the world. If we are separate, then we know that what hurts you doesn't hurt me, and vice versa. If we are finite, then the repercussions of our actions will only go so far. But these are fundamentally mistaken notions of ourselves. You will have to read the book for a full explication of this, but I will give a quick explanation here.

For anything to exist, it has to have a cause, right? Things and people don't just randomly appear and then disappear, without any causes. You exist, I think. So you too must have a cause. To discern your cause, it might help to ask what exactly you are to begin with. Well, you are definitely a physical body. You are also mental states or activity. Your mental activity can itself be divided into basic sensations (good, bad, neutral), perceptions (labeling things), volitions (deciding to move or a habit of laziness), and consciousness itself (that which Sartre explained as a light beam which only reveals itself by what it illuminates).

So where are you in all of this? You cannot be identical to any particular perception (you are the computer screen) or any particular volition (you are your habit of laziness) because these are changing throughout your life. Even your physical body changes throughout your life (finger nails come and go, hair and teeth too, the carbon dioxide in your bloodstream now will be gone in a breath or two), so you cannot be your body. You cannot be your consciousness because its existence is dependent upon an object to be illuminated, no object, no consciousness (in philosophical terms, 'consciousness is always conscious of something').

A less daunting 'deconstruction' than yourself would be a piece of paper. Thich Nhat Hahn uses this example in his book "The Heart of Understanding". Think of what the paper is made up of: wood fibers mostly. Think of the processes that had to take place to bring that paper to you now: lumberjacks cutting down trees, workers in a mill, rainfall for the trees to grow, air and soil of course, machinery, and so on. Soon you see that a whole world of causal forces came together to bring that paper to you now. Now think of the future of the paper: it will eventually break down, decompose.

Now return to yourself. Your physical body is a bit like the piece of paper. The main cause, you could say, is your mother's egg and father's sperm, like the acorn or the tree from which the paper came. After that though comes a countless list of causes which added to and sustained your growth. You are nothing without those causes. You could not exist without them. In reality you are inseparable from them. It would be a mistake to think that the paper just randomly appeared out of nowhere to arrive before you, and it is a mistake to think that you are a somehow separate entity from everything that brought you into being!

The obvious danger here is falling into some kind of determinism or nihilism, thinking everything you do has been caused already and must be done, or that you don't really exist since you are just your parts. Both of these are mistakes as well. But don't worry, they are mistakes made by the best of minds.

The way out of determinism is in coming to understand the uniqueness and potential of the present moment. Think about it, you have been forced to this moment by all of these causal factors, so shouldn't that be the whole story - just causal factors pushing you around? But this is presupposing just the mistake I just mentioned, seeing yourself as a separate and finite entity. In truth there is no you (in this mistaken sense) being pushed around, just these factors: physical, sensations, perceptions, volitions, and consciousness.

This mistaken you is the same as if you were to see a rope upon waking in a very dark room and mistaking it for a coiled snake. Without a closer look you may never realize that there is no snake there. You, like the coiled snake, are just a mistaken perception of something else, something real. If you can get over this, you can see that the causal forces mentioned here are not separate from you and pushing you, but are instead the you of the past which has created the present. What's more, the causes are dynamic, not static, they intermingle and interact. Your new habit of exercise causes your body to become firmer, which makes your sensations in response to it better. This dynamic set of relations therefore cannot be determined by anything, only conditioned. If forces could truly determine, then two acorns planted side by side would produce identical oak trees, twins could never develop distinctive characters.

In Buddhist theory the conditioning is described as the cycle of dependent co-origination. The crucial moment in the cycle comes between 'feeling' (having a sensation) and 'craving' (either for it or to get away from it/aversion). In between these two is the present, the time of creative potential. For some of us, the present is NEVER experienced. We just live life from one feeling-craving to the next, every time we encounter something nice we are immediately attracted to it and with unpleasant things we are immediately repelled. Actually, nobody really goes through life like that, but we can imagine people who seem to, and times when we seem to ourselves. A simple example is when people get a bit too drunk: pleasant things like more alcohol and members of the opposite sex create immediate craving; unpleasant things like arguments or barriers to pleasant things can lead to serious aversion and even violence from otherwise very nice people.

The opposite of drunkenness is called 'contentment'. But this word doesn't have the weight it needs to really get the point across. Contentment is basically what is needed in order to realize a moment of 'presence' between a 'feeling' and either craving or aversion. When you have contentment, you can see the uniqueness and potential of the moment. You are not craving 'something to do' or having aversion toward anything. 'Contentment' is also misleading as it seems like something you have when you aren't doing anything. But this is also wrong, as contentment, or awareness of the present, can accompany any way of life, any actions in life. And generally, it is the times when you are most creative, most alive, that contentment exists. In that moment, determinism is impossible, because you can draw not only upon your past (say the horizontal axis), but also upon the creativity (our connection with the infinite) of the present moment (the vertical axis). If you've ever experienced creativity, you have already done this. The trick is getting in it and staying in it!

Nihilism is a mistake I'll tackle later. Simply put: in denying a separate and finite self, I am not denying the 'self' in full - just saying that the 'self' is a fiction, like the snake we saw. It doesn't help for someone to tell us there is no snake there, we have to analyze/look carefully to see for ourselves.

A bit long-winded, but hey, that's me and Buddhist philosophy, what can I say? It's not simple to deconstruct one's whole reality and try to build back up from the start. Many pitfalls and wrong turns ensue. But, if living the rest of my life in that creative/infinite moment is the outcome, I think it will be worth the effort!

You can find "The Diamond Cutter" HERE and a wealth of Geshe Michael Roach's and others' teachings at or

But for now, just think about how the past has brought you here and how here is where the creativity always resides. -- - - Best wishes to you and everyone else - justin w.