Thursday, January 31, 2008

Quote of the Day:

From my friend Kristy back in MT:
It's too bad that London isn't more fun for you. I envisioned you wearing your long black coat walking up the steps of a museum but I've changed that mental picture to you living in a ghetto and cooking noodles in a small dirty kitchen with a bunch of dirty people all waiting to take a shower.
That pretty much sums it up!

N.B. Tips for overcoming adrenal fatigue: Laugh as often as possible since this increases the parasympathetic supply to the adrenals.

Back on and in search of Buddhist Ethics

I am happy to say that I feel like I am recovering from my recent stress overload and I'm getting back to work. I may have been (and still am to some point) suffering from adrenal fatigue syndrome, which I take to be a fancy name for stressed out (with no break). According to some, this is the most under-diagnosed illness of the 21st century. From the link above:
You may have Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome if you are experiencing any of these symptoms:
  • Fatigue, lethargy
    • Lack of energy in the mornings, and also in the afternoon between 3 and 5 pm
    • Often feel tired between 9 and 10 pm, but resist going to bed
  • Lightheadedness (including dizziness and fainting) when rising from a sitting or laying-down position
  • Lowered blood pressure and blood sugar
  • Difficulty concentrating or remembering (brain fog)
  • Consistently feeling unwell or difficulty recovering from infections
  • Craving either salty or sugary foods to keep going
  • Unexplained hair loss
  • Nausea
  • Alternating constipation and diarrhea
  • Mild depression
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Unexplained pain in the upper back or neck
  • Increased symptoms of PMS for women – periods are heavy and then stop (or almost stop) on the 4th day, only to start flow again on the 5th or 6th day
  • Tendency to gain weight and inability to lose it – especially around the waist
  • High frequency of getting the flu and other respiratory diseases – plus a tendency for them to last longer than usual
The bold ones are symptoms I've definitely had. If you find yourself nodding as you go through the list, check out the above link for tips on lifestyle and diet changes that can help out.
Current Studies:

Right now I am clarifying my reasons for choosing Kantian ethics to help shed light on Buddhist ethics. Part of that involves working with Howard Caygill here, a Kant specialist, to formulate a very rich and subtle understanding of Buddhist ethics. This means getting beyond "Kant the formalist" where the Categorical Imperative is seen as the basis of his ethical system.

Kant is usually presented as giving only these abstract formulations: act so as to treat all rational beings as ends and not merely as means, act upon maxims such that you could will that these maxims be universal, etc. These sound nice, but also seem hopelessly detached from our daily lives, and thus pretty useless as ethical guidance. However, statements like this make up only one tiny corner of Kant's ethical world. It has been the error of countless thinkers after Kant to single these out as the essence of Kant's ethical thought and to ignore the rest.

At the same time, Buddhist ethics seem to have some similarly hopelessly detached notions such as non-self (anattā) and dhamma, a term that can be variously translated as: law, eternal law, the liberating law, the underlying law of reality, duty, morality, thing, the teaching, the Buddha's teaching, and so on. And just like Kant's Categorical Imperative, these are not terms that are helpful to everyone on the Buddhist path (a householder, for instance, is often simply taught to follow the five precepts and cultivate generosity).

However, for the philosophically minded, which in the Buddha's day included himself, many learned Brahmins, and his own monks and nuns, a fuller understanding of the nature of reality is needed. This philosophy was not for its own sake, but because the Buddhist goal of nibbāna is equated with seeing things as they truly are (yathā-bhūtaṃ). This seeing certainly needs to be accompanied by active moral cultivation of the precepts and pāramitās or virtues. Yet it may be said that one who is swift along the path without seeing quickly goes astray.

So my thesis will posit that such notions as no-self and dhamma form a sort of conceptual light at the end of the tunnel for those traversing the Buddhist path. This is how Kant saw the moral law and his Categorical Imperatives, as ideals to be sought after rather than formulas to be calculated. And so with dhamma. While at first it may seem like a hopelessly vague or abstract term, perhaps a relic of Brahmanism that modern Buddhists can be rid of, it turns out to have deep soteriological value as a goal toward which to strive.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Tuesday's Lessons

Well I'm happy to report that most of the angst underlying Sunday's post seems to have gone away. It's hard to say exactly how or why it left, or what brought it on in the first place. But some things I've learned that might help for the future:
  1. Kelly and I have lots of wonderful, amazing people in our lives that both want us to be happy and have great advice and helpful solutions.
  2. I need a regular meditation practice; I've had one here twice a week for a few weeks, but more would be good.
  3. When I'm stressed my inclination is to withdraw. This can be okay, even good, at times. But at this time, me withdrawing is the exact opposite of what Kelly needs. I need to keep her informed with what's going on here (even when it's not pretty).
  4. I'll be much, much better when I'm out of London!
Right now I'm on the fence regarding moving out. I was leaning toward it but then my housemates all told me how sad they'd be if I left (some making reference to things I have fixed, others not). (to them - Thanks) One even offered to call Kelly and tell her they'd be sad, and how it's pretty horrible here, but that it's only two more months. To those who have offered me places to stay for a visit outside of London, YES and YES. So no move, but some travels. And some more meditation. Now back to our previously scheduled programing of Buddhist ethics and Kantian drivelings.... :)

Oh, but one last note. One of my great professors back in Montana, Albert Borgmann, offered his students a sort of 'key' to or formula for happiness:
  1. Think about the things that you do that make you most happy
  2. Think about the people that you are with when you are most happy
  3. Think about the place where you are most happy, &
  4. Remember these three.
I've got great people here (and many more that aren't here), and I am blessed to be able to study the subject that I love, but the place here.... well.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Sunday Night Ramblings

It's noisy in (my part of) London. I hear sirens day and night, going right by my flat about every 10-15 minutes. I am told that the next neighborhood (Peckham) has the highest gun crime rate in England. We (four blocks away) are close behind.

It's noisy too in my flat. The walls are thin. I can hear/take part in conversations in the next room over or the hallway, or with the people a floor below me. What's worse is that my room is next to the kitchen. I'm growing to associate food with noise. I know exactly when half of my flatmates eat. I'm growing to dislike people who eat late.

Our sink clogged this week. My flatmates wait for it to fix itself (like it did before). And it will, again, after I scoop out the water, plunge it a bit with my hands, and eventually buy drain cleaner to pour down two or three times. (this time even that isn't working)

A couple times this week I've made precious progress on my ph.d. thesis and upcoming (March) panel presentation. But at this rate neither will be ready in time.
And, worst of all, Kelly and I are quarreling. Some of it is small stuff like dessert selections for our wedding. Sometimes it's bigger though, like how we handle and what we need under stress. We have only known each other for seven months, so these changes can be frightening. When we first met she was, to use a label commonly placed on her, a superwoman. She had grace and confidence and inquisitiveness that I found… intoxicating. I couldn’t wait each day just to see her again (thinking about it reminds me of how much I love her and how grateful I am to call her my fiancée). I was apparently not so bad off myself: meditating, living close to nature, grounded.

Today, however, we are far apart from one another. Both of us are in spiritually toxic environments, her in DC and me in S.E. London. The other night I was disturbed around 2am by some young students returning to a neighboring flat when one of them screamed at our security guard, “Wake up! I’ll git you sacked! I’ll git you sacked!" and to his friends, "Eeeez sleeeepin’!” All of that (and things not appropriate to post here) was repeated several times as his friends apparently corralled the young man into this flat.

Deep down I know this is all a lesson. And that life is flux, and that we mustn’t cling.

But I still get frustrated. I didn’t come here for lessons. I didn’t come to learn about contemporary issues in British immigration and gun crime. I didn’t come to learn about navigating relationships in difficult times. I came to get a (bloody!) university education. I came, and paid – oh so much money – to be free to be immersed in the ambrosia-like waters of Buddhist Ethics; to eat, sleep, and breath Buddhism and philosophy.


Gosh oh golly, I guess life had its own plans for me.

The important thing, according to my Kantian-Buddhism, is not how well I do here or the particulars of my relationship with Kelly at any given time. The important thing is staying connected with my core - grounded, acting instead of reacting, observing and smiling. It is when we are connected that we succeed. It was being grounded that (I believe) helped me get here in the first place, and made me so handsome and irresistible to Kelly not so long ago.

Breathing, listening... at about 2:30 each night the sounds of the city are replaced by song-birds outside my window. They make me laugh. They remind me of home. At the same time they bring me here, they teach me to let go of how I want it to be and to love how it is.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

A compass in stormy seas

Taken from Charles Muller’s Resources for East Asian Language and Thought
Translated during the summer of 1991 by Charles Muller
Revised, July 1997
1.The Tao that can be followed is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the origin of heaven and earth
While naming is the origin of the myriad things.
Therefore, always desireless, you see the mystery
Ever desiring, you see the manifestations.
These two are the same–
When they appear they are named differently.

Their sameness is the mystery,
Mystery within mystery;

The door to all marvels.

(The above is borrowed from Zen Frog
Read more)
Sigh. I take solace in eternal wisdom like this when the seas around me grow stormy. I just watched the movie, V for Vendetta, in which one of the quotes is:
"...artists use lies to tell the truth, while politicians use them to cover the truth up."
I might add to that something like:
"philosophers hold to truth for dear life, while Buddhists accept all truth - and move on."
In those terms, when life gets a bit hairy, I become much more of a philosopher and less of a Buddhist. But, my love of wisdom, my philo sophia, comes when, through philosophizing I come to the realization that I must move on.

I read today in Howard Caygill's book, The Art of Judgement, on Kant's 3rd Critique, that Kant envisioned philosophical critique as the activity of self-orientation.

I think about what that means: the activity of self-orientation. I think its essence demands that I say nothing more here; perhaps it's like a koan - not meant to be answered, but used to smash through old truths and allow the new ones. Ah, but I've said too much. Shhhh...

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Life: Global Warming, Polution, and Interconnectedness

Last summer I helped organize the 2nd annual Environmental Ethics Institute in Missoula, MT. Above is Don Brown, former counsel to President Bill Clinton, speaking about the moral implications of consumption in wealthy nations. Brown, who I found out also considers himself to be a "Buddhist-Kantian" (that's two of us so far), spoke passionately about the duty and responsibility of the rich and powerful. I was saddened that, even there, many in the audience responded with phrases like, "not my fault," and "not my problem."

It seems that evidence of human-caused global warming and environmental destruction are everywhere these days. We again saw record breaking heat this summer in Montana and now I guess we have a record-hot January in London, causing premature blooming of trees and flowers. It's difficult, with all the news and statistics and conflicting diagnoses and prescriptions, to know just what to do. For me it was helpful to take the ecological footprint test again. I took it last June and, living in beautiful Montana, discovered that I consumed enough to require 3.8 planets. This time around I guess I'm doing a bit better, down to 2.7 planets. What I make up for in compacted living and not driving anywhere, I seem to lose in having my food imported from all over the world: bananas from Costa Rica (I think I'll give up on these again), apples from Italy (not so far I suppose), fish from Indonesia and Siberia! Speaking of fish, I've been trying to eat more of it to boost my energy levels - mentally and physically - with good success. The downside is that, along with the global warming problem, humans are dumping tons of toxins into the environment, toxins that eventually make their way back - to us.

The other night, some of my flatmates went to a dance performance nearby, in which the choreographer was commissioned by the government to make a statement on the environment. The result, Glacier, brings to the audience the painful struggle and death of animals caught in oil and the gradual melting of glaciers, signifying the steady death of society.
Glacier will paint a glistening and sometimes disturbing picture of society reflected on an icy surface which is gradually thawing away, beautifully distorting the mirrored image. (from their website)
It ends, I am told, with one of the performers frozen in ice with lines of oil being injected into her with intravenous needles.

But, on a more optimistic note, recently my friend Margaret invited me to take part in Earth Hour 2008, which I definitely would love to participate in (sound good, Kelly?).

Speaking of the 2007 Earth Hour in Sidney, Australian actress Cate Blanchett stated, "it's very rare in the pace of modern life that we stop and think about how much we consume and the way we live our lives... so, I think it's a beginning."

A beginning indeed, and a momentous one. The video is, to me, amazingly moving and inspiring. March 29, 8pm. It puts a smile on my face to think about.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Kant and Buddha on Happiness

In my (slow but sure) continued reading of Harvey's article on Free Will [view] [print] I have found another in-road into Kantian analysis and thought.

~ Kant ~

For Kant, happiness is something we make ourselves worthy of by following the moral law. That moral law, importantly (and oft misunderstood) is not something 'out there' - as in religious or political laws or rules. The moral law comes from us. But it is also not subjective, it is objective (and universal) because it is based in what we all share as humans: reason. Reason for Kant is a term of art. It isn't used as we use it today, in the instrumental sense: 'he reasoned his way through the situation,' or 'accountants are very reason-based people.' There, reason can be replaced by 'calculate'.

In Kant, reason is the faculty which takes us beyond ourselves as subjective, limited beings. It is what compels us to do the right thing even when we cannot explain this to others. It is the faculty by which people saw that slavery was wrong even when religion and politics sanctioned it. It is the faculty through which we see the dignity and irreducible value of every other human being (and, some would say that it eventually reaches to non-human animals as well).

You can see why Kant is so easily and often misunderstood. It is easy to read him without understanding his use of terms.

In any case, that is Kant on Reason (in a nutshell). By employing our reason we learn to see things from others' perspectives, we learn to see the good and dignity in others, in short, we quit being so selfish. For Kant it is our selfishness, and our selfish use of reason (here as mere calculation) that is the main cause of suffering in the world. The second cause of suffering is merely following the dictates of others.

The 'good Christian' for Kant was the one who, using his reason, determined that there must be a God and that one really ought to act for the benefit of all people as much as possible, utterly regardless of whether this will bring you benefit or not. A good Christian was not for Kant one who worked to please or impress the priests or parishioners or to master the dogma. Similarly, the good citizen realizes, through reason, the importance of a flourishing and stable society and the danger of revolution. The good citizen is not the one who carefully or mindlessly follows rules. Sure, impressing people and following rules have their place, but for Kant, doing the right thing (morality) would always trump either of these - and morality is the proper aim of all of us.

~ Buddha ~
It is in this fathom-long carcass, (which is) cognitive (sanynyimhi) and endowed with mind (-mana-), that, I declare (lies) the world, and the origin of the world, and the stopping of the world [nirvana], and the way that goes to the stopping of the world (S.I.62). {in Harvey, p.75}
Harvey comments on this thus:
Within the confining parameters set by a certain meaning-world, one has some freedom of action in accordance with one's degree of awareness and reflection. A more full and accurate meaning-world, closer to seeing things as-they-really-are and thus less affected by ignorance, opens up new possibilities, which are closer to the experience of nirvaana-the unconditioned (asankhata).

My Kantian-Buddhist angle on this would say that our degree of awareness and reflection is roughly the same as Kant's use of Reason (in the non-calculative sense). The more irrational we are, the more we are slaves to a very narrow meaning-world - generally determined by our religion or political persuasion and the people we have regular contact with. Our use of reason (generating awareness) allows us to rise above this, giving us a 'more full and accurate meaning-world.'

Our suffering is so much a result of our concepts - our attempts to box in the world and make it predictable (my friend and fellow blogger, Nacho, often remarks on the fact that Buddhism seems to be the only religion to stress the moral importance of accepting uncertainty). And where do we get these concepts? From other people and social, political, and religious institutions.

But this is not to deny the importance of institutions and other people. We need both of these. The problem only arises when institutions and people claim to give us some sort of certainty, or we seek certainty in them. This is a problem because change or flux is fundamental to reality. And flux (anicca) is fundamental to seeing-things-as-they-really-are (yatha-bhuta).

, it would seem, is the fullest acceptance of flux - or fullest recognition thereof. It is a rising above the happy-one-moment, sad-the-next that dominates samsaric existence. This is a true happiness, one unconditioned by the vicissitudes of daily life, one which runs much deeper.

So for both Kant and Buddha it seems that happiness is a result of disentangling ourselves with the ways of the world around us in search of something deeper. This 'something deeper' was for Kant the 'moral law' and for Buddha the dharma. For both this was the goal of a good life. For both, bad things could still happen - living morally or according to dharma is no guarantee that things will be hunky-dory. The Buddha still had to confront angry elephants, a serial killer (angulimala), and his jealous and murderous cousin devadata. In recognizing this, Kant was quite clear that living a moral life is no guarantee of happiness - stuff will still happen - but it does guarantee that we are worthy of happiness, that is, we can rise above the stuff as it assails us.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Life: wandering 'round London

London can be a dark and dreary place, especially these days when we seem encased in clouds and the sun, when it does cut through, sets around 4pm. 'Tis even drearier to sit around my flat (see my earlier post), or the Goldsmiths library, or most anywhere else in my neighborhood.

Luckily I have adventurous flatmates. Sjors (pictured) is one such flatmate. Born on the tiny Dutch island of (insert unpronounceable Dutch word), Sjors has since sought a life of international travel and artistic media stuff.

Yesterday we ventured south and west on foot up Telegraph Hill and then on randomly until we found Nunhead Cemetery. The place was amazing. First thing was saw? A fox! After that we meandered up its main avenue toward the burnt-out church in the middle.

I'm not sure why, but I always feel a little extra sense of peace when I'm in cemeteries. Perhaps its the R.I.P. mantra engraved on so many headstones. Perhaps it's an extra jolt of awareness that there are bigger problems in the world than those I face each day. Perhaps it's knowing that I'm surrounded by people who... can't really talk to me. It has all the people-feeling, without the people-noise. I get that in churches too - the big, quiet churches where no one talks. 'Tis nice.

In any case, I came away feeling refreshed. Last weekend we ventured to Blackheath, a very nice (posh, villagy) area not far from here. I think we're starting a tradition.

Oh, I can't help but toss in this poem I found on the Brockley wikipedia page (it seemed appropriate on so many levels):

Linton Kwesi Johnson mentions Brockley in his poem "Inglan Is A Bitch". He spells it "Brackly" as this is roughly how it sounds in Jamaican patois:

dem a have a lickle facktri up inna Brackly
inna disya facktri all dem dhu is pack crackry
fi di laas fifteen years dem get mi laybah
now awftah fifteen years mi fall out a fayvah

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Buddhist Ethics, Free Will, and the logic of Karma

It seems like it's been forever since I've posted on Buddhist Ethics, and almost that long since I've done any work on it. Oh well. We're moving past that slump now with a bit from an article fresh off the press (well, electronically, and it may be a few months old, hard to tell). The article is:
"'Freedom of the Will' in the Light of Theravāda Buddhist Teachings" by Peter Harvey [view] [print] from the 2007 edition of the Journal of Buddhist Ethics.
I should note a big kudos to Asaf Federman, a former coursemate of mine at Bristol (and soon-to-be co-panelist, more on that to come), who is cited frequently and approvingly by Harvey.

The one point that I wanted to post today was Harvey's modern logical extension of of the Buddhist concept of Karma.
While the idea did not exist in the pre-modern era, contemporary Buddhists are able to say that, as one gets one's genes from one's parents, and one gets one's parents from one's past karma, then any genetic influence on character, and thence behavior, is itself a mode of karmic influence. (p.47)
This is something I discussed a bit a while back. In that post I discussed the Buddhist five niyamas*. Though it is never, as far as I know, made explicit in primary or commentarial literature, I think these sets of causality may be seen as nested, that is, all that falls within a narrower category necessarily falls within the next larger. One example of such nesting is found in the similar categorization in the natural sciences, which may go something like this:

1) all that is, is determined by laws of quantum mechanics
2) within that is the category of (observable) classical physics
3) within classical physics are organic things governed by biological laws
4) certain biological things appear to have mental states*
*since the mental is so poorly understood in Western thought, no proposal that these be governed by laws has yet caught on.

Notice that this is a sort of 'bottom-up' nesting, from the littlest things to bigger and bigger. Many materialists will simply leave it at biology and say that mind is 'reducible' to that level (thus avoiding messy talk of mind all together).

And here's the Buddhist model (with my nesting interpretation):

1) all that is, is within dhamma-niyama
2) within that is a category of (moral) action, the kamma-niyama
3) within kamma-niyama are mental actions, citta-niyama
4) only within mind (citta) are organic or cyclical processes, bija-niyama
5) and within that is the category and laws of mere matter, utu-niyama.

The Buddhist nesting theory is 'top-down'. It starts with the big, abstract stuff, dhamma, and works down to the material world. This makes matter itself a consequence of cyclical processes, which one could stretch to (match with contemporary physics and) say that the creation of universes itself is a cyclical process and it only within these that matter may be produced. More difficult to match up with any Western thought is the idea that organic or cyclical processes themselves are an outcome of mental actions, or that those fall on moral foundations.

Yet in Buddhism, at least in Tibetan expositions I have heard, everything does rest on moral, or karmic, foundations. Even our non-volitional actions, like rolling over and hurting a bug in our sleep (or a mouse if you're me), can only happen because our karma led us to have this body and live in this place. Yes, it would be silly (not to mention pedantic) to attribute every little thing to karma - to some past deed.

Later in the paper, Harvey explicitly asks: Is everything due to karma? (p.50) He suggests, that it is not karma, but other forms of conditioning that can be the cause of experiences (p.51):
At S.IV.230-231, the Buddha discusses the various causes of the experiences (feelings/sensations: vedayitāni) that a person might have. They can originate:

in phlegm the winds (of the body) ...from a union of humors (of the body) ...born of a change of season ...born of the stress of circumstances ...due to (someone else’s) effort (opakkamikāni)… and some things that are experienced here, Sīvaka, arise born of the maturing of karma.

It is thus seen as incorrect to say that, "Whatever this person experiences, whether pleasant or painful or neither painful nor pleasant, all that is due to what was done earlier."

But how does this match up with Harvey's logical extension of karma above? Certainly if we wish to say that things caused by "(someone else's) effort" are not due to karma, then wouldn't our conception (so clearly a result of our parents' effort) be not karmically caused? It seems to turn on how you interpret the Pali canon passage cited above. I take it to say that it is incorrect to attribute every experience to some (particular) past action (karman). Harvey is interpreting it as saying that there are experiences for which karma (our past volitional actions) has no causal role.

But then another question comes to mind. If being born as a human is due to karma, as all schools of Buddhism emphatically claim, then aren't all experiences in this human body due to that same karma? Now, that is emphatically not to negate other causal factors. If I have a belly-ache, it makes more sense to investigate the Thai food I ate last night, not what I did in a past life. I take this to be what the Buddha was suggesting here.

It is said that in this passage the Buddha was specifically refuting Jain theory. This fact supports my interpretation. The Jains focused so heavily on karma that they sought both to create no new karma (through an ultra-minimalistic lifestyle) and to burn off remaining karma through austerity (tapas). In this context we can see that the Buddha is simply giving a less radical, more common-sense teaching: "maybe you are sick because of the 'changing of the seasons' or because someone sneezed on you, (in cases such as this) don't worry so much about karma." He is not making the more radical claim that there are certain things in our life completely outside the sphere of karma.

* niyama = conditions, constraints, or laws - see p.199 of Keown's Dictionary of Buddhism, 'Fivefold Lawfulness' or 'natural order' in Nyanatiloka's Buddhist Dictionary, p.135.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Life: My house is famous

(Jan 16 update: I just found a poster from one resident offering anybody $300 to take their place (lease) at Batavia Mews. Yikes! Not only is it unlivable, but we're trapped! And residents are paying other people to take their places!)

This week my flat, Batavia Mews, made the front of the London Student newspaper.

The story focuses on the mouse infestation that has run rampant through the flats for the last six or so months, and also discusses a couple other problems students have faced: electrocution (from faulty wiring) and dirty mattresses.

Here at flat 4, we have had a few of our own problems:
  1. No heat until mid-October
  2. Clogging sinks
  3. Clogging shower drains
  4. Three days in December (19th-22nd) with no heat or hot water - (meaning no showers and lots of cold, stinky flat-mates)
  5. Loud cleaners (who come with friends and/or chat on their cell phones in the kitchens - right next to my room)
  6. Broken cabinets (one in the kitchen just fell off its hinges over a week ago, yet to be fixed)
We also live right on a major thoroughfare, meaning people with rooms on one side of the house (with old, thin windows) hear traffic noises day and night - the traffic never really stops. And then their is the nightclub half a block away, providing a persistent 'thump, thump, thump' of bass on Friday and Saturday nights, and the heavy 'fire' doors that are rigged to slam shut - they have mechanical arms that are supposed to prevent this, but most of those are worn out, and the creaking hinges (I'm looking for WD-40) and stairs and paper-thin walls and floors.

Hmm... Is that all? I think so. I really don't like to complain, especially about somewhat trivial matters when so many people in the world have it so much worse and I should be spending time on loftier academic-type things. But, I'm afraid that conditions here have made other thought and work and relationships quite difficult.

A friend of mine, when I told him that London was draining me, commented that he thought a Buddhist could be happy anywhere. I suppose this is a common misconception, that we can somehow retreat from the world around us with meditation or chanting or some such thing. On the one hand, I could retreat inwards to some extent, focus on immediate tasks and cultivating calm and metta. I think I did this three years ago when I was in Bristol.

But going underground and inward for a bit is not always so easy with the "householder's" life. The struggle for balance is an almost daily one, between the solitary academic Buddhist and the community and family-oriented guy from Montana. Both sides love nature and silence, and both are far removed from these in Southeast London.

And I sigh, sitting in my room listening to the banging of utensils and cupboards in the kitchen - and sirens from streets below, looking out over a grey, blustery day in London.

Where is my mind?
In the kitchen?
Watching over Kelly as she sleeps 4000 miles away?
Watching a summer sunset from my favorite perch near Missoula?
Where is my mind?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

2007 in Review (part one)

In looking back at a year passing I suppose we search for insights, teachings, and lessons for the coming year. Or just a quick summary to answer the question: what happened to my year?

I'll begin with my greatest insight: that no matter how great last year was, each year has the potential to be even better.

I say that mainly because, for some reason, I had the idea that at some point in my mid-20s I would reach a peak, after which life simply couldn't be as good. Granted, I had some great years, so I felt justified in thinking, "It can't possibly get better than this." For instance, going back to 2003, I had a beautiful relationship with T., the second love of my life, and began really growing to love Missoula through community and academic activities. In '04 things with T. ended and I committed myself to intensive self-improvement, with several hours each day in dharma study (via the Asian Classics Institute) and meditation, and then I was off to Bristol for my Buddhist studies MA.

In 2005 I found my feet in my Bristol studies, traveled around England, Ireland, Wales, and Spain, and developed some amazing friendships before returning to Missoula and philosophy studies. '06 began with a trip to Hawai'i, a note from my Bristol advisor that I had been awarded the mark of Distinction on my dissertation, and the rekindling of my wonderful (though long-distance) relationship with Ana in Spain.


The year began well enough, celebrating with friends in Missoula. I was living in what is known widely as simply, "the 6th Street house," a dilapidated old mansion (which, legend has it, was one of Montana's brothels). An air of unhappiness filled the house, so I was all to happy to spend my time on campus, starting an intensive Philosophy of Religion (musings on omniscience and politics) class, working at the Center for Ethics, and hiding out in my office in the Liberal Arts building.

As January came to a close and the new semester began, I posted on the terrible situation in Tibet (which only seems to be getting worse). I was quickly overwhelmed with the new semester, teaching a course on Tibetan Buddhism at the University and taking a full load of courses myself.

February began with an excellent (if I do say so myself) post on Kant and Happiness. I conclude it by saying:
I like the youthful exuberance that I see in Kant's philosophy, his revolutionary anti-authoritarianism, his fist-pounding exhortations to self-development and loyalty to our moral sense, his recognition that the world provides a thousand and one distractions and excuses keeping us away from that very moral nature within us.
That is followed by yet more brilliant musings on Genesis as a coming-of-age tale and the book Ishmael.
The premise that the world is 'for us' and that we are separate somehow from the rest of creation is the premise of our culture. It is the story we tell our children before bed, but also the story we hear on the evening news and on the corporate billboards, in the academic curricula and in the novels we read. And, according to Ishmael at least, it is the premise of a dying culture. It is a myth gone bad.
And as much as I lament television and major corporations, I did find this to be a wonderful message:

By mid-February I was moaning groaning with too much work and waxing on about children and society. And by month's end I was in a fancy hotel in Cincinnati for an Ethics conference, pondering humanity's (including my own) destruction of the planet.

In March, an article was written about me in the college newspaper, I wrote about how multi-tasking is actually a huge waste of time (we operate more efficiently when we have only one task before us - as I know all too well!). Then I was lucky enough to find real grounding in a Native American sweet lodge ceremony, and to ponder the right proper recipe of balance and striving that would result in virtue. The month ended with me in pain, having visited England again and Ana and encountering the beginning of the unraveling of our relationship. My reflections consequently turned to my previous love and 'levels' of contentment and discussion, and to grief and letting go.

In April I found myself back in nature, reflecting more positively on life and love and setting new direction for myself. And then a little diddy on Dali - and philosophy
"Mistakes are almost always of a sacred nature. Never try to correct them. On the contrary: rationalize them, understand them thoroughly. After that, it will be possible for you to sublimate them."

-Salvador Dali

Me: This speaks to our reactive tendencies: problem? fix it! So much of our lives consist of 'quick fixes' and superficial bandages on problems/mistakes that go quite deep in our lives/society. How does the story in Australia go?...
Then, perhaps in a subconscious foreshadow of my current living situation, I posted this image and the question:
from the British/Bristolian artist Bansky - click to see his website and more workWhat does it mean that we "live in a technologically mediated world?"

That was followed by three posts on Buddhism (go figure!): one on community, one on dzogchen (great perfection) teachings, and one on Buddhist Ethics - communal or individual. I then posted on the Virginia Tech incident, and my - then - current obsession, Regina Spektor: Fidelity.

And then yet more on Buddhism: a recipe for social action:
So before we act [in the world/with our bodies], we need understanding [the activity of clarity in the mind]. We need to empty ourselves of notions of how it is supposed to be. From there we can look at the world anew, just soak it up. And from there also we are able to respond without preconditions, without prejudices.
and lessons on letting go; along with a lovely bit of Missoula graffiti and my acceptance to the University of London ph.d. program :)

With May I think things lightened up a LOT. I finished teaching/studying, regained my footing, spent time in nature (much needed!) and finally got to a Socrates Cafe!

Specifically, I started off posting a great video on the value and beauty of living for others; and my decision (finally) to definitely go to London. Then, as the semester ended, I posted a round-up of the term. After that I returned to a regular topic in my thought, Buddhism: Happiness and Community, concluding that "Community is good, but for true happiness, we need solitude."

Then a very pointed post; feeling perhaps at the hight of my (often very high) disgust for the selfishness and superficiality of Western society. Returning to some of the things I enjoyed so much - time in nature, I blogged about the beauty and tranquility of Missoula, at times, and the existential questions arising from a close encounter with a young fawn. Then - Life: Every Day a New Dawn - And new opportunity - to share, grow, exercise, work, play, smile, and be grateful.And even more beautiful Montana nature photos! May ended with a meeting with my thesis advisor at UM - encouraging me to finish things up - and my formation of a book-club on Happiness (because I can always find ways to avoid doing what I need to do!).

June brought my birthday (27 years old!) and plenty of freedom to enjoy, reflect, and to spend time with a very special, beautiful new person in my life.

My first post discussed (or lamented - see February stuff) my ecological footprint in Missoula, which was WAY too high. Then I went on about my thesis - apparently I was making progress - but still got overwhelmed and began pushing back deadlines. Then a nice post from a news story on nature and depression (get enough of the former and you'll likely avoid the latter), and my own particular Buddhist interpretation of depression:
Depression in my experience consists of a brooding, a mind unable to just settle, a disconnection between the world around me and my experience. Meditation then is simply the exercise in settling the mind, over and over and over again, on the breath. It's like a work-out regimen for the mind.
In my second encounter with Kelly (after the Socrates Cafe) she mentioned the writer Edward Abbey... My following blog post? Philosophy: Edward Abbey "Note to self: get/read Edward Abbey (Desert Solitaire, or whatever)... Any of you know this guy? Want to recommend anything from him?"


The next day (June 7th) I got to look through my teaching evaluations (holding my breath....) and found out that, in fact, most everybody had really nice things to say :) - I guess I REALLY am my own worst critic. Then I traveled home to Helena, where some movies gave me impetus to take stock in life. I also managed to get out a bit with the family:

Here we all are [me and the family] after a day in Philipsburg, MT mining for sapphires. I then returned to philosophical/Buddhist ponderings with the question of identity (another one of my regular topics), wondering:
What exactly does Buddhism teach about "who we are?" Is it to abandon such labels and live purely in the moment? Perhaps is it more to recognize the contingency of all labels, to use them but not be trapped by them? Or could it be that for some, labels, as bonds to history and other beings, are as necessary as the air we breath?
My last post of the month came on the 23rd, as by this time I was spending nearly every day with Kelly - still as 'just friends' - but friends with an immediate deep spiritual bond and some major chemistry heating things up.

And that post, go figure, is about Edward Abbey and the amazing experience granted in true wilderness.

Well that gets us through June; and wow there's a lot there! It interesting to look over. In one sense I'd say it's pretty unremarkable in contrast to prior years. I seemed to be following a trajectory much the same as before. Little there would lead one to expect the major changes about to take place... And 'tis those that will be the subject of a future (very soon) post.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Fun with Pāli and Sanskrit

In my last meeting with my thesis advisor it was revealed to me that I ought to be learning Pāli. Ohhh... Shoot.

No worries. Picking up a canonical language of Buddhism should be a breeze. I've studied Sanskrit, after all, the canonical language of early Hinduism and 'father' language of P
āli. The two are remarkably similar: karma is sanskrit, kamma is Pāli; dharma / dhamma. Simple stuff, right? I'm sure there are some much tougher cases. I know 'ignorance' in sanskrit: avidyā, becomes avijjā in Pāli. But anywho...

In my search for 'learn Pali easy' on Google I came across some great resources. Here are a few:

एवेर्योने शौल्ड लीर्ण संस्कृत: everyone should learn sanskrit. I don't know if this is really useful (e.g. if I should need to compose something in Devanagari, the alphabet of early Pali and Sanskrit - and contemporary Hindi). But it can be fun. For instance, ever wonder what your name looks like in Devanagari? Mine is:

जुस्तीं व्हिताकर (Justin Whitaker)

I actually found that on the Sanskrit Links Blog, a useful and current repository of helpful links. (largely Hindu-based, but still helpful)

And that I found from Granthinam, a German academic's Blog - which itself has a good half-dozen other academic blog links.

I've also spent some time (too much for now, as Tibet is off my radar for a bit) at; an excellent repository of the work and thoughts of Sam Van Schaik, a recent ph.d. and current worker at London's own British Library.

A few more - and more useful ones given my current assignment - are:

The Pali Text Society's Pali-English Dictionary
Lily de Silva's excellent book the Pali Primer (online), and

a Concise Pali-English Dictionary by A.P. Buddhadatta Mahathera.

So, there are some fun resources if you're interested in fun with Pali and Sanskrit. I'm sure that's not many of you out there! BUT, for those with the interest and dedication, these should make for a fine start. Good luck and enjoy!

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Buddhist ethics and metaphysics

This is a bit of notes composed about three years ago when I was a student in Bristol working on a paper on the Early Buddhist Philosophy of Mind. Today as I work on Buddhist ethics it is again important. The Buddhist path, most of us know, is commonly divided into three parts: sīla, samādhi, and paññā (morality, meditation, and wisdom). Just how these three come together to form a path is a matter of dispute, but it is said that:

… sīla-paridhotā hi bho Gotama paññā, paññā-paridhotaṃ sīlam, yattha sīlam tattha paññā, yattha paññā tattha sīlaṃ. Sīlavato paññā paññāvato sīlaṃ, sīla-paññānañ ca pana lokasmin aggam akkhāyati. (Dīgha-Nikāya i. 123)

Or, if like me you can’t read a lick of Pāli:

… For understanding, Gotama, is washed around with virtue, and virtue is washed around with understanding. Where there is virtue there is understanding, and where there is understanding there is virtue. Those who have virtue possess understanding, and those who have understanding possess virtue, and virtue and understanding are declared to be the best things in the world. (translated by Keown, 2001, p. 39)

(Is it just me or is the Pali language just a lot more economical?)

The point is that ethics, or morality – doing the right thing – is tied in with wisdom, insight, or philosophy. As Socrates stated, “To know the good is to do the good.”

What is the good? What is reality itself? These are questions of metaphysics.

Metaphysics: 1.the branch of philosophy that treats of first principles, includes ontology and cosmology, and is intimately connected with epistemology. (
Metaphysics first aims to be the most general investigation possible into the nature of reality, asking, “are there principles applying to everything that is real, to all that is?” The second aspect of metaphysics is its quest to uncover what is ultimately real, frequently offering answers in sharp contrast to our everyday experience of the world. For instance, the ancient Greek philosopher Thales suggested that water was all that was ultimately real, George Berkeley is famous for asserting that mind alone is real, while many contemporary thinkers believe that matter alone is real. Understood in terms of these two tasks, metaphysics is very closely related to ontology, which is usually taken to involve both "what is existence (being)?" and "what (fundamentally distinct) types of thing exist?"

To elucidate what Buddhist metaphysics may look like we may employ the trilemma introduced by Prof. Earnest Sosa (In The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Honderich ed., p.559) of illusion, well-founded appearance, and fundamental reality. If we recall the three marks of existence: anicca, anattā, dukkha (impermanence, non-self, and unsatisfactoriness), then we can explain the Buddhist position on these three metaphysical levels of reality.

Illusion is obviously anything thought to have permanence, attā, or sukkha (satisfactoriness or unending happiness). To hold anything thinking, “I will have this forever” is to merely grasp illusion. To think to yourself, “this is my true self, this is who I am” is to create a boundary, an illusion. Even the view, “I am already enlightened” is an illusion. In fact the Buddha described the “conceit of I-am” (asmi-mana) as one of the most nefarious forms of ignorance. As Rupert Gethin clarifies, “Thus Buddhist thought suggests that as an individual I am a complex flow of physical and mental phenomena, but peel away these phenomena and look behind them and one just does not find a constant self that one can call one’s own.” (1998, p.139) Lastly, To strive for anything thinking it will bring unending happiness also is an illusion. Often, especially when we are young and ambitious, we think that reaching this goal or that will bring us happiness. And sure, we find happiness in reaching goals, but isn’t it always the case that our happiness is lost as we see yet another goal to strive for (thinking, “then I’ll really be happy.”). This is what psychologists today aptly call the hedonic treadmill. To get beyond mere illusion we must get beyond the ideas of permanence, of who we truly are – our true Self, and true happiness (in this world).

Well-founded appearance, it would seem, is represented in the various Abhidhamma accounts of dhammas. These are the essentials of experience: momentary, self-identical (svabhava), and caused. This is a move to a level of reality where spiritual growth can occur. It is in advanced vipassanā meditation practice that one moves his or her attention to the ever-changing flow of dhammas, to experience itself free of conceptual constructs – free of illusion. Of course, as any vipassanā teacher will tell you, this is based on a great deal of preparatory work, work done within the realm of illusion.

The final level, fundamental reality, is empty of its own qualities, but is itself the anicca, anattā, and dukkha quality of all dhammas. This may be better understood by referring again to Inada’s claim that the anattā doctrine represents a Copernican turn in philosophy.[1] Whereas we would assume that metaphysical claims should come in the form of an assertion of an underlying reality, the Buddhist metaphysics points instead to everyday reality and says “this, this is fundamental reality.” There is no foundation beneath it to be found.

It thus becomes plausible to say that Buddhist metaphysics is an anti-metaphysics, insofar at it rejects abstract theorization and points instead back to the pragmatic aspects of meditation and ethics. Again, the metaphysics of Buddhism may be summarized as such: ultimate reality is nothing other than this reality seen correctly (yathabhutaṃ), this reality may be analyzed into constituent parts or dhammas, and it is from these dhammas that we, out of ignorance, construct the stories of our lives.

The therapeutic, or ethical, aspect arises when we truly come to terms with this understanding and its implications. The first step is in understanding that most of the big problems in life are illusions. War, poverty, disease, famine: all illusions. But they are based on well-founded appearances: instances of death, hunger, illness, and waste. Well-founded appearances are not themselves illusions: death is real, so is hunger and the rest. Yet it becomes illusion when it is seen as permanent, possessing self, and/or leading to ever-lasting happiness.

Seen correctly, as impermanent, not-self, and unsatisfactory, death, like life, takes on a new meaning. The two lose their mystique as opposites and we see that they are intermingling all of the time, just as wealth and poverty, disease and health, and so on are always commingling. Knowing this, it no longer makes sense to struggle so much for one and to avoid the other. Knowing this one lets go. One flows with life rather than against it.

[1] Kenneth Inada, “Problematics of the Buddhist nature of self,” Philosophy East and West, 1979, vol. 29, no.2, p.141.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Smiling at 2007, welcoming 2008

Soon I'll post a bit of a round up of 2007 blog posts akin to the one I did last year. Overall I suppose I don't make much of new years, but I have been surprised at each passing one, including 2007, that they just keep getting better. I really thought I would peak some time in my early 20s, but alas, samsara's grip has continued to weaken year after year with no end in sight.

But enough about that for now. I have a very busy year ahead of me. Through it all, one thing has remained constant for me these last seven years:
A gift of Dhamma conquers all gifts;
the taste of Dhamma, all tastes;
a delight in Dhamma, all delights;
the ending of craving, all suffering
& stress.
- Dhammapada v.354
It is somehow beyond what I can put into words, but even as life gives me more and more to be happy about, I find still a deeper happiness in those moments of calm when I realize that all of this is impermanent, that clinging to it is suffering, that there is no Self here to make happy by it all. It's as if above worldly happiness, which I have had so much of lately - and so much to be thankful for - there is simply something more.

So I will let that be my first lesson for 2008.