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.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Music for the uninitiated

Download, loop, enjoy :) (PLAY IT LOUD!) - Symphony No. 9 in D minor, op125 Presto-Allegro assai (movements 2 and 3).mp3

Perhaps more to come. Happy Easter as well. A time of 'rebirth' for us all; especially as it coincides with the first day of Spring. We have all survived the gloom and gray; onward, onward! But never without reflection, pause, and perspective.

Six virtues: Generosity, An Ethical way of Life, Patience, Joyful Effort, Concentration, Wisdom.

Today we can observe the generosity of the world, both in us and toward us. The generosity of God (John 3:16) and Christ according to the Bible. The generosity of Mother Nature for bringing back the sun and flowers (for us in the Northern Hemisphere). Of course the generosity of our own Fathers and Mothers (for whom God and Nature may only be faultless symbols) for bringing us into the world in the first place.

Thank you!

Hoping everyone has a wonderful day and beyond.

Friday, March 25, 2005

A Buddhist turns to a Catholic who has turned to a Buddhist who points to a butterfly

"Sonam Kazi spoke of acting with no desire to gain, even spiritual - whether merit or attainment. A white butterfly appears in the sun, then vanishes again. Another passes in the distance. No gain for them -- or for me." Thomas Merton, from his "Asian Journal", p.85

I spent a lot of time and energy on what divides us: Catholics from Atheists from Buddhists from Jews and the likes. Now I find delight in what brings us together again.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Ahhh, vacation! The 'grass is greener' side of Academia

(in reply/continuation from my last post and its comment from Dorian) In a certain Buddhist sense, and Sartrean I think as well, Hell is what you make of it. In my own view, Hell is whatever is extremely unpleasant, like academic life at times (woe beit to those who attempt graduate school). But what kind of life isn't extremely unpleasant at times? And what good would it be if life was pleasant all of the time?

My thought turns first to those in war-torn Iraq, to Sudan, to other places ravaged by violence, hunger, and the rest; places for which Hell takes on a very real meaning in the daily lives of all of the people. For me, Hell is deadlines, further applications and my dept. How petty compared to the Hell of watching loved ones die before you! It is in this sense that Hell, my Hell, is not so bad after all. And for those brave few who can overcome the Hell of disease, poverty, and violence, their Hell, too, becomes not so bad. There is a sort of transcendence, a 'getting over' the immediate conditions which can take place for any of us. And it is when we overcome our own extremely unpleasant situation, however petty in the greater scheme of things, that we can be creative world-changing individuals.

The mistake is seeing life 'as Hell' - thinking that our unpleasant situation is all that there is - a very narrow view. Here we sink into self-absorbed depression. But if we can see that our own 'Hell' is merely a situation, a particular instance in the totality of existence, then we can rise out of it, not by abandoning it, but by seeing it from a new perspective. We are no longer determined by a narrow view, we are unbound, still working in our little corner of the world, but seeing it as it is, just one little corner. I imagine someone staring at a great painting, just two inches from it, completely confused as to what they are looking at. It isn't until they step back that they encounter the beauty of the wholeness before them.

And so on to the original topic of my post: vacation. A time to step back. And luckily in academia, in England especially, vacation seems to be a major component of life. Of course, we are sternly urged, and correctly, to work throughout the vacation, but our work takes on a new character, a freer, more dynamic and creative character. So vacation is not the type imagined by the overworked masses (a week or two to do 'nothing' or 'see things/travel' before going back to an overworked existence. Vacation in academia is work-time, insofar as one has taken on the virtue, in the Aristotelian sense, of an academic (one may live in academia but still not live as an academic in this sense). It is sort of like a 'working retreat' for the mind.

I am on vacation now; stepping back a bit. I read Donald Lopez's "Prisoners of Shangri-La" yesterday - a MUST for anyone interested in (or in my case infatuated by) Tibetan Buddhism. He takes a sledgehammer to our most common misconceptions, and I found myself learning a lot even after two-thirds of a Masters Degree in Buddhist Studies here in Bristol. I'm working on a paper called "Who or what is a Dalai Lama" which should provide another wrecking-ball for my misconceptions.

My presentation at the conference went ok. I'm not terribly satisfied with the paper I delivered, but the experience of giving a paper to 20-30 academic-types was important and useful. The idea of 'presenting' my work to people, some of whom know the material far better than me (and as in the case of my tutor, Paul Williams, might disagree with me) really forced me to think hard and question my own ideas. Painful, but good.

So - back to work! And my own personal motto for the time-being: Let truth be your beloved.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Update, huh?

Oh... what to say? Academic life is Hell with elevator music. And Hell with elevator music is not so terribly bad, especially if it is Spanish elevator music, as seems to be the case right now.

I'll be giving my horribly titled paper, "Buddhist Philosophy of Mind: Not-Self and Emptiness in Historical and Contemporary Context" on Saturday. I think I must have been possessed by some demon when conjuring the title up. The demon further impelled me to write the abstract (which turned out to be of a paper that at the time did not exist) which can be found somewhere on this blog. I have 20 pages or so complete, all of which has been pieced together from existing works that somehow related to my demon-originated abstract or feverishly composed out of thin air over the last two weeks. The whole thing, I believe, has flashes of something intelligent, but is weighed down and likely will sink due to the weight of its unsupported grandiosity.

We'll see though. I am somewhat encouraged by a talk I attended tonight (with an almost equally terrible title, "Protrepsis, Hermeneutics and buddhavacana Or: Why Did the Buddha Fib?") in which the presenter seemed to present a thesis similar to my own: that the Buddha's doctrines must be interpreted in context as purposive vocal acts, i.e. as intended to bring about change in the minds of his listeners, rather than as the expounding of a rational systematic philosophy. [for those outside of the tiny world of Buddhist philosophy, Protrepsis is hortatory, instructive speech, 'fitted to urge on'; Hermeneutics is the study of interpretation, and buddhavacana is the speech (vacana) of the Buddha.]

[so as you see my life is now quite boring, hence no updates!]

I have taught a couple meditation lessons for housemates where I live and have received decent response.

Ohhh... yes - my family is coming to England in 3 weeks! That is very exciting - We'll go to Barcelona for 6 days, to Ireland for 4, and putt around England for a few more. It should be very, very good; a well-deserved journey for my family, and hopefully a restful break (on Spanish beaches!) for me.

My favorite Buddhist teacher, Geshe Michael Roach, will be traveling to Europe in June. I'll try to catch up with him (actually see him in person for the first time!) at some point on his tour.

I've applied to return to Montana as a Philosophy Masters student and hope to hear back from them soon (importantly regarding whether I will receive a fellowship or not).

So that is my life at the moment. I look down a narrow, dimly lit hallway toward Spain, toward June and seeing Geshe Michael, toward September in Montana. But the view is obscure, and my arms and legs are bound by a poorly titled upcoming presentation, Sanskrit homework, and my own acceptance of immobility. And thus the obscurations fade a bit.