Tomorrow Begins the Secular Bodhi Season

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For all of you aspiring Buddhas, the seven days of meditation starts tomorrow! Today you’re supposed to be really frustrated (Wah, life is so unfair!) then insist on sitting under a Bodhi Tree (mine is a log cabin) until you’re enlightened. It will take seven days. On the morning of the 8th day (Friday, December 8th – “8th Day of the 12th moon” – not Thursday … hahaha), as you watch Venus rise, you should have the Four Noble Truths all worked out. It sounds like a tranquil thing, but Mara will torment you all the way through. So empty your cup, drop the bag, and you’ll greet everything with “Is that so?” And look forward to the rice and milk gruel someone from the village will feed you because you’re so emaciated … for me, that’s a big hahaha.

Photo: Look at all that to explore!

The Path

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Rubber Ducky Buddha of Joliet is in samadhi, which has been the case as we approach Bodhi Day two weeks from today. So he wanted me to share the story of what he said as we looked at the petroglyph during this past sabbatical.

I pointed to the spiral and self-deprecatingly joked that it looks like me walking around in circles. He said:

“Then to the left, that must be you walking aimlessly. That is, before the light went on and you entered the spiral, followed the path up the mountain, around and around, higher and higher, to the highest point, where you can see the forest!”

I said, “That sounds purdy and all, but it’s … well … not good enough. I don’t need to actually see the forest to know I’m in the forest … Oh!”

Rubber Ducky added said the wandering around is part of the whole deal. If I were just magically dropped to the top of the mountain where I could see the forest, it wouldn’t have meant anything. But wandering around for years in the trees loaded me with questions, with context … which have meaning as I look at the forest now.

I would have thought more about it, but I was yanked out of the instant of satori by someone nearby yelling, “Will you shut the duck up?!!!” Or at least that’s what I heard him say.

Ugly Stage

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Very cute piece of street art near L.A.

I asked Rubber Ducky how one who attains an enlightened state can keep it. We’ve all had those experiences of Oneness and peace, but like a Pink Lady apple thrown into a vat of Red Delicious, it’s assimilated back into that lowest common denominator slurry once we walk back into civilization. How can a snowball stand a chance in Hell?

Rubber Ducky reminded of me something he said to our friends last week when we said good-bye. I thought he said to mark 12/17. I thought, “OK, that’s the day before the 7 days of the Lunar Bodhi Period begins.” But then Rubber Ducky started talking about the Industrial Revolution as the most powerful religion ever; so out of context.

It’s the religion of humanity’s so-far proven ability and continued faith to master the world and eventually beyond. The Industrial Revolution is a religion, complete with dogmas, parables, zealots of all sorts. For over 200 years, our human ingenuity has been able to spin the world faster and faster, hurtling the side-effects, which opens even bigger doors to walk through. It hasn’t really failed us yet. No nuclear winter, Florida is still above water, no mega plague … so let’s double-down on it!

He continued:

“The Industrial Revolution is in the realm of the human species. The Industrial Revolution is our faith in our ingenuity’s ability to control, new rules to solve a problem, and another new rule to solve the problems caused by that new rule. Our ingenuity is fueled by the law of the land, survival of the fittest, the instinct to compete. The funny thing is those solutions become tougher and tougher to engineer. But people still dogmatically believe we will solve problems through yet another law, which will contradict other laws, requiring more laws …

“The realm of the Universe has only one law, keep your cup empty, which awakens you to see the way the world really is and not how your mere 80 billion neurons compute it to be. The Universe is a kaleidoscope in constant change, and the only thing that keeps up with the change is what is right in front of you this instant, Now, It. Whatever your brain tells you is for many reasons based on seriously flawed data and algorithms optimized for a short-term in a merely complicated system. The Universe, and Earth for that matter, is a complex system, not a complicated system, a deterministic machine, that our brains make it out to be.

“At this ‘ugly stage’ of our evolution from larval Earthly animals to Beings of the Universe, we belong to both worlds at the same time. So ‘give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s’ (Mark 12:17), not in terms of money, but terms of faith. Meaning, joyfully play your part in this human world to perfection – embrace your work, smile when you do it, enlightened people are still people. Laugh at the folly of thinking this complex system is a just a complicated machine. Let the worldly Dukkha of others pass through you like just the formless noise that it is. You can laugh at it all because you know the human world is a just a human-made separation of us from the rest of the Universe.”

It’s Not Magic

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The Christmas lights in my home office window went on early this year because of Rubber Ducky’s enlightenment.

The great part about having an awakened being like Rubber Ducky sitting on your home office window sill is that I can ask him about enlightenment.

Here is a transcript of what Rubber Ducky explained to me last week Sunday on the long drive home. He says this is guidance. His enlightenment happened to prepare for a large number of enlightenments this coming December 8, Bodhi Day, and many more on Christmas when the real (lunar – 8th morning of the 12th month) Bodhi Day coincides with it:

“Enlightenment is just a choice, chronic angst versus everything about you and the world you know. It may seem like a tough choice to start a long, arduous journey – like getting an PhD, climbing Mt. Everest, or losing 100 pounds. But it’s just flipping a switch on.

It sounds like a brain-dead decision, so why can’t people just flip that switch on? First, people think enlightenment will somehow make the world go their way which is not enlightenment, just really lucky. Everyone can be calm when things are going your way. But this world is a complex system in constant flux, never exactly the same instant to instant.

Enlightenment isn’t magical. Once you realize there is nothing magical about Enlightenment, what becomes clear is it means you must drop everything. It doesn’t mean you give away all of your material possessions. Possessions of any quantity are fine as long as you know in all sincerity that you will be happy without them.

What is very hard is to give up everything you believe. But it’s only hard because those beliefs are all your brain knows and it keeps computing that if you drop a belief, it contradicts with another. For example, if I decide to change my eating habits for good, no more luscious brisket from Papa Gus, which means less income for Papa Gus, and he’ll go out of business.

Dukkha is a web of linked angst, which like cancer, can only be removed in whole. It requires a wholesale drop of all you believe, 100% humility where you have no beliefs to defend; 100% acceptance of what is right in front of you – “Is that so?” You then see all possibilities – when you become nothing, you become everything.

Enlightenment isn’t a mid-life crisis on steroids where you will give away all of your possessions or abandon your family, friends, and career for a vagabond or cult life – even though ironically, that’s exactly what Siddhartha Gautama did … hahaha. It also won’t make you a magical creature with any new powers. You will still be a normal human playing your part in this life, just as eagles and trout play their parts to perfection. You will still win and lose like everyone else. The difference is that free from angst, your energy can focus on what is right in front of you. And you won’t be a contagion of angst spreading it like a flu to all you encounter. You will truly believe that even when you “lose” you’ve really won more and become all the richer.

All of your angst are computations of your neurons. Your brain wants to “solve” problems and we just can’t “save the world” – some problems are other peoples’ success, some things such as life and death are intricate aspects to how we evolved to here is the first place. When we decide to flip the switch on, we’ll see everything – everything is in relationship to everything else, it’s in constant motion, and our brains went haywire trying to control it all, but now our brains accept and play jujitsu with it all. There is only a One, not you and that and that – so there are no problems to solve, just playing being our parts as genuinely as we can.

You flip the switch to on by dropping that heavy burden you’ve been carrying, look around at everything now that you’re unburdened, then pick that bag up and continue joyfully along that same path. Enlightened, you fully embrace what is right in front of you, not pulled away by any Dukkha. Nothing outwardly has changed, but everything changed.

Or maybe not. Don’t worry, if you find enlightenment doesn’t suit you, the world will bring you back to this ‘ugly stage’ life caught between animal and fully sentient.”

 

Bright Dot in the Sky

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Venus rising in the morning near Zion National Park.

One morning during the Fall 2017, as Rubber Ducky Buddha of Joliet and I watched Venus rise (for the last time on this sabbatical), he asked, “What are we seeing?” The first thing that came to my mind is a bright dot in the sky.

“Is that what it is?”, Rubber Ducky asked.

What didn’t come to mind first is that Venus is an entire planet with all sorts of complex systems and a relationship with the Sun and other things in the solar system, really everything in the Universe. Of course, I did know that Venus is not just a bright dot in the sky, but subconsciously, my mind first thinks “bright dot in the sky”, a very simple answer. For my normal life, the details of Venus never matter. All that matters to me about Venus is that it’s a pretty bright dot in the sky that I like to watch as I contemplate stuff.

If I were an astronomer researching Venus I may have answered differently. But Rubber Ducky still could have easily said, “Is that what it is?” That’s because Rubber Ducky is a blowhard, contrarian … hahaha … just kidding. That’s because our animal brains (not just human brains) abstracts very complicated stuff into salient points and remembers them – labels, categories, prejudices … When confronted with a situation in which we need to act quickly, it’s easier to process a few salient points than to consider every single detail. Animal brains, evolved in this system of competition, abstracts data to just the salient points. We wouldn’t be able to process knowledge of every single blade of grass and every rock under our feet as we chased down game in time to realize that’s a grizzly bear. The salient point is that it is solid and smooth enough for our legs to do its thing.

In the world of Big Data Analytics, we don’t perform analytics thinking about each individual sale or each heartbeat. Data is abstracted (using techniques such as Machine Learning) to salient points such as “sales of pho increase during colder weather” or these series of heartbeats is an erratic pattern associated with an impending heart attack. We abstract exabytes of raw data into a few megabytes of relatively few salient points, so that we can make fast decisions when that grizzly bear appears on our hike.

The difference between Big Data processing tons of elemental data into few salient points and animals abstracting countless photons in our eyes, molecules on our tongue, etc., is that we still store that elemental data in Hadoop clusters were we can re-abstract in case we missed something, but animals don’t store the raw information on every single photon and molecule.

The salient points in animal brains is something that lives only in there, artifacts of the past computing delusions of the future; it isn’t reality. Our energies are diffused in a tesseract of space-time (4-dimensional shape) which only exists in the wiring of our neurons. But by default we make decisions based on these salient points.

OK, OK … this post would take an entire book to fully explore. Rubber Ducky went on for three hours! The salient point of this lesson Rubber Ducky bestowed upon me is:

A big part of our angst is based on delusions of life that our brains reduced down to a few key points we use as shortcuts in our thinking. It takes effort to override these shortcuts, for example, a parent failing to remember her 30 year old son is no longer that little kid. If so many of the assumptions we subconsciously make in our decisions are inherently obsolete, our thoughts computed today are probably delusions. Therefore, if we’re constantly mindful of that, we can be comforted in knowing that our imagined angst most likely isn’t real, no matter how “real” it may seem.

Epilogue for Computer Folks: This lesson from Rubber Ducky is actually at the heart of better analytics as well as eliminating Dukkha. For most of the computer era, data structures are rigid, engineered once, even as the world around it changes, even over decades. Yes, programs and data structures are modified, but in very painful, Frankenstein manners. Mostly, more effort is made to keep the world in the same shape than to modify the software applications – “Oh, that’s not the way we do things here.” But the move from the “relational databases” of today with their 3rd normal forms to graph databases as the foundation of data enables the “fuzziness” of “things” in the world to the forefront.

Am I Enlightened?

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I asked Rubber Ducky some time during our hours-long drive from our Peaceful Slumber to a Residence Inn in the heart of the Big City: Am I enlightened?

I asked him that because I feel different and have been acting differently the past few days, but it was at our magical sabbatical place with people and animals for which it would be difficult to not be different in good ways.

He answered: “Mack! Yes, you are enlightened … but … others still have access to the light switch.”

Oh!

He continued:

“Mack, you do see clearly that the source of all angst is clinging to a past that you can’t change and a dizzying array of futures, most of which will never happen – it all exists only as wiring of your neurons – there is only the present. You see clearly that there is nothing magical about removal of Dukkha, it just requires emptying your cup so we can fill it with a better, more scalable way.

Your task now is to rescind all of that access you’ve granted others to your enlightenment. Not by force though, but through non-resistance, like dodging punches – which is much more skillful than throwing punches.”

It seems like the life of a Buddha isn’t sitting on a big lotus flower spouting off what seems to be gratuitously contrarian crap (even though that is what Rubber Ducky does). Our human bodies are still part of the competitive complex system of Life on Earth and so for us to “make sense”, we must be of value. As an old Zen parable goes, enlightenment is like dropping your heavy burden, then what comes next is picking it back up and continuing down the path, but now dodging the obstacles rather than making each the “hill you will die on” – outwardly, nothing has changed, but internally everything has changed.

Epilogue: You know, most people have felt enlightenment a time or two. It happens when things are going so terribly that you kind of resign yourself to it and can taste a sense of strange calm. But it almost always disappears as the world re-indoctrinates you. Like with money, the part even harder than earning it is keeping it. It may even sound selfish to eliminate clinging, the source of all angst (dukkha), as the Four Noble Truths say, but it’s like the air masks on the airplane – put yours on first or you’re of no help to anyone.

Immortal Life of Earth

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The Universe provided a wonderful sunset picture for our last venture of the sabbatical. Rubber Ducky, who I found in Joliet and who is now enlightened, sensed the air of sadness in the car and said that this is the harder part of Dukkha to grasp. It’s easier to understand the “bad” aspects of clinging such as grudges, the torture of jealousy, or a phobia. It’s harder to understand that we experience Dukkha even during times we feel happy, even enlightened. It’s easy to be happy in the warmth of a place such as Zion with friends you feel you’ve known forever but have only known for a couple of years or a couple of weeks. But we know the time is coming to pull of the warm blankey and walk out into the cold world. Even when things are good, we know it’s temporary and try to run backwards in time to avoid going out that door!

So when is there not Dukkha?! It’s when we realize that there is no good and bad, just One. Good and Bad are our human-made categories. We call ourselves sentient creatures, but we are only sentient enough to be dangerous to ourselves. Life on Earth is an organism in the Universe. To it, each creature, human, prickly pear, chicken pox virus, is to us like a cell or bacteria of our body. Life on Earth is in reality just a massive number of replicating molecules which periodically replicate with a slight error. These replicating molecules relentlessly replicate, but they don’t “strive to” replicate as we strive to become financially wealthy. They “strive” no more than a clock strives to tick along – the clock just ticks along because it is a simple machine that “just does”. What we humans see from our vantage point, the chaos we try to tame in our daily work, is complexity built on top of this simplicity.

Over hundreds of millions of years, those replicating molecules grouped together into progressively complex objects – viruses, bacteria, plants, animals – life. Because these molecules relentlessly replicate, life changes like a big kaleidoscope. That means old patterns yield to new patterns. This works so well that Life on Earth is over three billion years old. It withstood countless meteor strikes, life-threatening patterns such as Snowball Earth, and maybe a species that is a little too confident in themselves. This beautiful kaleidoscope called “Life on Earth”, where patterns come and go in unpredictable ways results in this sort of immortal “being”. There is nothing good or bad about a pattern being squelched out by others – that’s what this beautiful Life on Earth is.

But when a species called homo sapiens became self-aware, they saw that just about every creature on Earth makes its living devouring another creature in very gory ways. Being self-aware, they know that they and their loved ones will eventually be devoured. With their symbolic-thinking powered intellect, they devised processes to avoid being devoured. Things that added value towards that goal were deemed “good”, things that didn’t were deemed “bad”.

“What kind of sadistic God set up such an awful system?”, we should think. But that good and bad are just our little human definitions, as half-baked sentient creatures not sentient enough to see beyond our own minute corner of space and time. But just because we can’t see beyond our minute corner doesn’t mean there isn’t anything else.

From birth, our brains are wired for playing our human part in this cause to transcend Life on Earth. Our human brains can see beyond this, but we must first “empty our cup” of that. We are all like North Koreans indoctrinated with Dear Leader’s insanity, but that there is a much bigger world out there with great stuff going on. Similarly, there is a much bigger Universe than our human endeavors.

There is no good or bad, there just Is. And true understanding of that is the elimination of Dukkha, and the key to Enlightenment. Like any work in progress, a painting, software, we’re in an “ugly stage” of our evolution, caught between being creatures of Life on Earth (a creature of the Universe) and creatures of Humankind. Enlightenment isn’t magic like tapping into a supernatural power, but removing the bindings, which are just neural connections in our brains, allowing us to flow again, re-engaging us in the bigger picture. Well, that’s what Rubber Ducky says anyway …