The Rubber Ducky Buddha of Joliet thinks I need to dig deeper into Dukkha itself.
The Prism of Suffering
In the Western world, Dukkha is typically translated as “suffering”. That typical translation is drawn from Siddhartha Gautama’s succinct and seminal realization under the Bodhi Tree that “clinging is the cause of all suffering”. To me, simply using a Pali or Sanskrit word for “suffering” is an inadequate icon for such a rich tradition as Buddhism. Dukkha must mean more than suffering.
According to Wikipedia, long before Siddhartha Gautama’s life on Earth, dukkha meant an off-center axle hole in a cart wheel, a bad (dus) space (kha). However, it’s not entirely clear to me from that Wikipedia article whether Dukkha refers to the off-center axle hole or the resultant uncomfortable ride on a cart with such a wheel. So is Dukkha in Buddhist terms referring to clinging – the cause of suffering, or suffering – the effect of a misaligned wheel?
Whatever the case, in the tradition of The Eternal Fishnu, Dukkha refers to the cause of the suffering. Why does Fishnu teach that Dukkha means the cause rather than the effect? “Suffering” isn’t the only word translators attempt to assign to the word Dukkha. They’ve tried practically every uncomfortable emotion there is. The notes of that Wikipedia page list among others, pain, stress, unsatisfactoriness, sorrow, anguish, misery, unhappiness, affliction …
That’s just much too complicated. A simpler way is to see that there is one cause to those many effects. As white light that passes through a prism comes out in that rainbow of colors, a single cause results in that array of manifestations of suffering. That one cause is the pitifully inadequate model of the Universe we call our brains. All those manifestations of suffering is the result of the inability of our brain to keep up with what Is now. That inability is due to the impermanence of the world, relentless change.
Change Management … HAHAHAHA!
Everything is constantly changing. Even if our eyes, ears, nose, and skin do not detect any changes, there are still countless chemical reactions happening in our bodies and everywhere, all sorts of things are going on in the homes next door, in the next town, across the ocean, and the Earth and other planets are still spinning around the Sun. Our mere 80 billion neurons and quadrillion synapses can’t possibly keep up with all of that change.
Our brains are models of the world that starts to organize from conception. We experience things through our senses, eventually recognizing things, and our brain organizes those things into a webby knowledge base of cause and effect, relationships between those things encoded with neurons and synapses. For example, if I cry, I’ll get attention. Unfortunately, at some point the rules change and that doesn’t work anymore.
Others contribute to that model by teaching us things they’ve learned about the world. Which means we save lots of our precious little time on Earth not needing to reinvent everything. We can pick up where others left off. However, this can be bad if what we’re taught doesn’t apply anymore because the world has changed.
But we still teach it because that’s the way it’s always been done. Whatever we teach others, of course we believe it to be true. At least we paint a picture that makes it look true. And so we all train each other with the same reality, whether it’s true or not.
Perpetual Beginner’s Mind
When we learn a new skill, we need to model the rules of that skill in our brains. The skill is composed of things involved with it and the relationships between those things. In our brains, it’s all synapses, wiring up of neurons – that web of cause and effect.
It takes time to fully master a skill. We start by learning the fundamentals of the skill. If we’re lucky we can relate those fundamentals to things we already know. For example, video game players are well primed to be drone pilots. If our brains happen to be primed with such prerequisites, we initially progress quickly and are called “naturals”.
If we initially progress so quickly, we may think, “this ain’t so hard”, and jump to the conclusion that we know everything. With our “green belt” skill, we will be able to dazzle almost everyone with our new-found talent. That is, except for the true masters with decades of experience under their belts. Those who have that last 10% which takes years to learn through real life experience, where rubber hits the road. That last 10% requires us, which is our pitifully inadequate model of the Universe, to rub right up to the real Universe – let the Universe polish us up.
Whether we struggle at first because we are not naturals or we later get slapped down by a “black belt”, we will either persevere or give up – both of which can be filled with suffering. In either case, not having yet crossed the finish line, we are in a state where our skill is half-baked, at an ugly stage. Not all the connections are there, or if they are, they are loose.
We will be awkward, there will not be an apparent light at the end of the tunnel. But if we persevere, at some unknown time those final few connections are made and the skill gels, it becomes “second nature”. We can execute it with not much thought, almost effortless, we make it look easy.
The problem is that things are always changing. If not changing in the world of that hard-earned skill, then in some other facet of our lives as humans. So we always need to update some skill or another and even learn completely new skills. Or conversely, we can instead hold our ground and try to make the world stay where it is – and that, my friends, is Dukkha.
The Gift of Sentience
How frustrating would it be if we played poker for money every night, but the rules changed every day at any old time? How would we become masterful at poker if it keeps on changing? The gap between the average and the best becomes narrower, so no one has enough of an edge over the vast majority to make a living at it.
And it wouldn’t be just the last rule change we’d need to be cognizant of. There may be rules that survived for decades that just changed a few days ago and we’re still overcoming that lifelong habit. We can’t escape change. Most individual creatures can’t … but the species does, through the process of evolution.
Human sentience, though, despite the price of suffering because we’re self-aware, gives us the power to learn to be anything we want or need to be at any place and time. That is unlike all other animals that can only be what their genes dictate they will be. We humans are soft-coded creatures.
Sentience is the gift to change with the change around us. And that means our brains will always be filled with half-baked, ugly stage skill. When we accept the beauty of our sentience and fully accept the half-baked stuff, we will be Dukkha-free. How do we do that? Live The Buddha’s teaching in the Four Noble Truths, and the Eight-fold path. And explore the roots of our human nature.
See that we were always Buddha, always part of everything, and that it was just the model we call our brains that thought otherwise. It’s as enlightening as it was for astronomers when Copernicus realized the Sun does not revolve around the Earth, but the other way around.
Astronomers tried all sorts of convoluted schemes to force things to add up with the Earth at the center. But it just kept covering up one mess with another. Similarly, we suffer convoluted lives because we futilely attempt to control the Universe with our brain thinking it’s reality, not the other way around. It’s that simple.
Early this morning I was recalling Thict Nhat Hanh’s English interpretation of the Heart Sutra and its place in my Bodhi Day ceremony last year. In particular, the phrase “… while practicing deeply with the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore …“, strikes a profound chord within me. I envision crawling onto the shore, nearly dead, after being adrift at sea for days as a very good visualization of Enlightenment. It’s not all that different from Siddhartha Gautama’s journey to his Enlightenment on his Bodhi Day.
The Heart Sutra is the Elevator Pitch of Buddhism, succinctly capturing its essence, its “heart”. It’s something familiar to me since my earliest memories, mindlessly chanting that Sanskrit (sometimes “mindless” is not really that great a thing … hahaha) at my family’s Shingon Mission. It wasn’t until a few years ago that the thought occurred to me to find an English translation so I could know what I was saying all those years.
And that didn’t help. “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” What?! Since then, through hundreds of hours of contemplation, meaning in the Heart Sutra began to take shape for me. I wrote of my understanding of “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form” in two posts, No Thing Exists and Everything forms Every Thing.
Back to “the other shore” and why that phrase in Thict Nhat Hanh’s interpretation clicked something in me.
I was born and raised on Oahu, one of the islands of Hawaii. Before moving to the Mainland in my mid twenties, I spent a total of less than a month outside of those islands over three separate trips. In my mind, Oahu seemed like it was the entire world. I recall as a very young child riding in the car with my parents around Hanauma Bay, thinking that must be the deserts I saw in cowboy movies.
Like many others born on isolated islands, or small towns, we sense that there is so much more out there. But we don’t leave. It’s a long swim or hike to whatever is out there. People on our islands and small towns need us. And we need them because they are part of us.
Like a Fish out of Water
All journeys are treacherous as all of them by definition mean we’re leaving our comfort zone, the safety of what we know. The Eternal Fishnu says that in the entire history of Earth, there have been countless brave souls reaching the other shore. The fish of the Devonian, from where Fishnu first appeared, made a horrendous journey from ocean to land.
The Eternal Fishnu has told me tales of small bands of brave souls he appeared to as a blue salmon well over ten thousand years ago. They came from Asia and Europe, reached the other shore of North America, and continued Eastward or Westward, respectively. Some drowned, starved, or froze along the way. Some who actually made it to shore were greeted by the short-faced bear. Of course, brave souls continue to reach this shore today. No matter how far they got, they all found freedom.
Very early in the morning of December 8, 2017, I left the warmth of my Airbnb log cabin, my Bodhi Tree, on a two mile hike into the dark desert to my chosen place. It was very cold and very dark. I needed absolutely no distractions, so I didn’t bring my phone, no camera, just what’s shown in the photo above.
It wasn’t just very cold and dark. I also heard rumors over the week of a cougar in the neighborhood. It is also a place filled with history of Native Americans, miners, and Mormons. If anywhere is haunted by spirits, my Bodhi place certainly is a great candidate. But I had no fear of cougars or ghosts – for Thou was with me.
I arrived at my Bodhi site, sat down on a rock, still dark, cold and very isolated. I had no idea how to begin, so I just starting playing the singing bowl (towards the left in the photo above). The sound amplified in the open desert unlike anything I’d ever heard. Soon enough, something took over.
I spent what I think was around thirty to forty-five minutes chanting, starting with the Hanya Shingyo the way I learned it and the English translation, to the Morning Star Mantra, to Psalms 23. I then closed my eyes and went into a deep meditation. There, I found myself standing on a long shore that went both ways forever as I could tell. Just off the shore were many little islands. From one of the islands I could here my name being called.
I wanted to get to the island to see who was calling me. There wasn’t any vehicle to take me there, so I would need to swim. It wasn’t a big swim, but I didn’t know how to swim. They kept calling me over. I eventually learned how to swim and made the tough but doable journey over to the island. I found it was my parents calling me.
I spent much time on that island, getting to know if very well. Periodically my parents and I would take trips to the nearby islands to visit friends and relatives. Eventually, I would hop to further islands, by myself, making friends of my own.
Until the time I found myself on an island staring off in a direction with no other islands in sight. I looked out into that endless ocean wondering what was out there. But that’s all I did. I went back to my parents’ little island, eventually finding a nearby island of my own.
The world was made up of countless islands. All those islands were worlds of their own in the most obvious sense, but the isolation seemed so artificial. Life was experienced little chunks at a time, no big picture. It was like eating a wonderful hamburger one ingredient at a time. The parts were certainly not as good as the whole hamburger, but there was comfort in the confines of those little chunks. As Siddhartha Gautama jumped from guru to guru diving all-in to what they had to teach, I went from island to island never finding the one with all the answers.
I tried to go back to the shore from which I came, but no one would let me go back there. Well then, what about that big ocean? Everyone warned me not to go there. They really didn’t know what was there. They just knew a few went a little way out and came back terrified, never to try it again, learning to be happy with their island life.
See, not everyone discouraged me from jumping out into that ocean. Some seemed curious and wanted me to go further to see what’s there so I could report back to them. The problem is that anyone who swam far enough out of sight never came back.
I jumped into the ocean heading out towards something that wasn’t just another of these islands. I wasn’t much of the way into the swim before I wondered what I had done. There I was beyond the point of no return, trapped, needing to struggle for every little breath, to stay afloat, and to ferociously battle the creatures of the deep.
As I thought I lost all hope in finding anything out there, too far to turn back, and the creatures of the deep would soon defeat me, I disengaged. I let myself settle into the calm of the deep water. Then the blue of the ocean turned into The Eternal Fishnu.
The Eternal Fishnu
“Fishnu! I’m a terrible Buddhist, probably the worst ever!”
For months I had been more cynical, dissatisfied with my accomplishments, and just about gave up hope that I would ever be happy with myself. How could anyone be further from Enlightenment?! I recalled something Ringo said, “Sometimes it’s hard tah tell a good Buddhist from a wankah.”
Fishnu asked, “Who from your daily life do you think is happy with themselves and really have things figured out?”
Many people came to mind. Those who I’ve been comparing myself to because they always seem so happy and calm. Those who started life with more than me, those who seem so comfortable with themselves and others, those who aren’t afraid to sell anything.
“There are four ways people appear happy and calm – not necessarily happy, happy at least from outside appearances. They could be Enlightened, they could have their head stuck up their ass, they could be masters of camouflage, or they could be lucky enough not to have faced genuine hardship.
“For the Enlightened, all of them have made this gruesome journey to get to the other shore. All of them left behind their comfort and faced what they thought is the Demon Mara.
“The people who have their head stuck up their ass have learned to ignore horrors, sweeping them under the rug. They are sometimes mistaken for being enlightened because they’ve indeed let go of things – which in a nutshell are all the things in the direction of the other shore. These are people who have jumped into the ocean, made some headway to the other shore, but turned back. This group accounts for well over 90% of people who appear happy and calm.
“For the masters of camouflage, virtually all creatures on Earth utilize camouflage as a very inexpensive form of weaponry in the eternal battle between predator and prey. They only appear happy and calm just as a puffer fish only appears to be big and strong. These are the poker players.
“Then there are those who have not have encountered horrors – either because they are very lucky to have not bumped into any yet or they have been sheltered from it by others. The latter being the situation of Prince Siddhartha Gautama.
“During Siddhartha Gautama’s long meditation under the Bodhi Tree, he was tormented as never before by the Demon Mara. But it wasn’t a demon stopping a soon to be Buddha for whatever reason. There was no demon, just a tough journey to the other shore that all must make to see the reality of the Universe.”
With that, The Eternal Fishnu vanished and I found myself on The Other Shore. None of those islands in sight, none of those creatures of the deep either. There was just a big frontier, a dynamo of One, with no boundaries.
For what seems like eternity, I explored the big frontier of no boundaries. Nowhere to be, nothing to defend, met everything with “Is that so?” Until one day, I happened upon another shore, a shore that seemed so familiar. It was the shore where I began, before I knew anything about the islands, or the ocean, or the Other Shore. I could again see my parents calling to me from that little island. And again, I swam over, but this time knowing what is on the other shore.
Picking Up the Bag
I opened my eyes, awakening not just from my deep meditation sitting in the Utah desert, but from the illusion of the islands. The sun was just rising over a mesa in the distance. No Morning Star, Venus, to greet my awakening as she had done for Siddhartha Gautama, The Buddha, about 2500 years ago. I later learned that Venus actually was there, but behind the mesa. By the time she rose above the mesa, the sun was too bright in the sky to see the her. That was a little lesson driving the point home a little more.
I sat there in the desert for a few minutes, not knowing what was next until a raven flew just above my head. I told the raven that’s too cliche, too Carlos Castaneda. Nothing changed, but everything changed. I collected my things and walked back to the log cabin, back to what wasn’t “my life” anymore, but just “Life”.
We’re all unique souls and even if the end lessons are the same, we all converge to Enlightenment from different paths. And that’s the beauty of human sentience, the way each of our complex brains reflects the vastness of the One. But we must all live among the islands for a time to safely gain the skill we need to make the big journey to the other shore. Then we must fully understand that reality isn’t a bunch of fragments to experience in isolation before we want to venture out to the Other Shore.
Addiction goes way beyond the vices we normally think of such as gambling and drugs. If vices were the only addictions, why are there so many miserable people who aren’t drug or gambling addicts? That’s because anything we desire is an addiction – whether under the societal norms in which you happen to live it’s legal or illegal, moral or immoral. And for all addictions, there is a Universe of things standing in our way of satisfying them.
Addiction is an attractive force that actually pulls us to a goal – versus needing to push ourselves to that goal. A goal to which we’re attracted is a desire. For example, the desire to pour a glass of Bourbon if you’re an alcoholic versus the chore of getting into your car for the morning traffic jam to work.
Those goals! So many of them! So many people telling us what to think. Some cajoling us with promises of wonderful things, some with threats. Many of them contradict each other. They enslave us. Maybe we shouldn’t have any goals! Let’s look at that here.
Recapping this series on The Root of Dukkha:
Envy is the fundamental, underlying mechanism of Dukkha (clinging, addiction). Part 1 of this series looked at envy through the lens of mimetic theory, the heuristic of learning by copying. A heuristic is a simple rule, not requiring thought, that works more often than it doesn’t: If someone you respect does something, chances are if you just copy it, it will be beneficial.
Part 2 of this series looked to the exploration of pride as the answer to the question, “How can we be happy in a world infested with assholes?” The antics of the pridefulness in others disrupts our efforts like Earthquakes leveling our cities. Our self-Pridefulness engages us in the Dukkha of others, like a fish to a baited hook, dissipating our energy, the source of unforced errors.
This post lumps Lust, Gluttony, and Greed together because they are so tightly-knit that it’s hard to tell where one begins and the other ends. That tightly-knit band is Addiction, which is clinging – the actual Root of Dukkha.
Lust is the driving force. It fuels us to our goals through the roadblocks. Lust is closely related to Envy, since things we lust for often “belong” to someone else. Gluttony and Greed attempt to secure our lust’s satisfaction for the future. This is how they tie together:
If I never had cherry pie with cherry ice cream, I wouldn’t think of ordering it. I’d probably go with something familiar like chocolate cake. But if I saw many others eating that cherry pie with great delight, I’ll envy it, order it, love it, and thereafter lust for it. However, because I know the supply of Cherry Hut cherry pie is finite, I’ll eat as much as I can while I’m there and it’s available, and take a few home as well.
We not only lust for the obvious things such as fame, fortune, beauty, and delicious deserts, but also for things we wouldn’t phrase as “lust”, such as lusting for peace. What?! How could searching for peace be a bad thing? In fact, isn’t that point of Enlightenment? What in normal life we think of as peace is a lack of conflict. That is, conflicting with my desire to relax. And that is a destination as much as lusting for a week in Waikiki. In the world of Enlightenment, the only desire is the be in sync with what comes your way.
It’s not really the physical things, the objects of our bedazzlement, we lust for but rather the belief that it will make us feel good1. And it usually does. The problem is that darn impermanence thing, everything good and bad passes. Impermanence is one of the facets of dukkha. Not only do we obviously suffer when things are bad, but nonsensically we suffer when things are good, while we have the thing we lust for, because we know we’re about to lose it. The biggest example is our sentient awareness of our impending death. How much time, emotional energy, and other resources do we spend staving off death?
So we find ourselves in cycles of pursuing the thing we are lusting after, enjoying it, losing it, and once again pursuing it. This sort of resembles the pattern of reincarnation. We are born, we live our lives, probably repeating the same old self-destructive patterns from our past lives, maybe learning a thing or two, dying, and being reborn to give it another shot – until we finally get it right.
But reincarnation doesn’t play a part in the The Teachings of the Eternal Fishnu since one of the principles is that for our mortal life on Earth there should be no dependency on any “supernatural” phenomenon2. But what is relevant here is the pattern of the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth as it pertains to dukkha. Life is full of suffering and the cycle ceases when we finally get it – like on Groundhog Day.
Instead of looking at that pattern from the larger level of iterations of entire lives, we can look at numerous smaller patterns that rise and fall, over and over, within lifetimes. We keep repeating patterns that end up in job-hopping, multiple marriages, no long-term friendships, yo-yo dieting. Those cycles are played out over and over during our lives – until we break the cycle.
I’m going to use as graphic an example as I can with the “family audience” to illustrate this cycle. It’s not for any gratuitous effect, but because it has to be something bad enough to overcome one’s inertia, a slap in the head, knocking you out of complacency – like when the Ghost of Future Christmases showed Scrooge his grave.
The Cycle of the Meth High and Obtaining More Meth
First, everything I know about meth and the meth lifestyle I learned from the TV show, Breaking Bad. So please forgive me if the life of a meth addict isn’t quite what is portrayed, and I bought too much into the Hollywood crap.
In particular, I’m thinking about the awful life of the character, Wendy, the meth-addicted prostitute. Her life is an endless cycle of getting high on meth then earning money – in awful ways – to buy more meth. It’s a cycle that repeats itself on at least a daily basis, sometimes a few times per day. There’s no good and easy end game.
Of course doing what Wendy has to do to obtain meth is very dukkha-filled. But even once she does obtain meth and gets high, she’s already suffering knowing that in a few short hours she’ll need to get more meth. What’s even worse is that greed mechanism in her brain kicking in, and now she need even more! It’s a senseless cycle of suffering that can only be broken when the addiction, the bedazzlement of that meth high, is broken.
Our Hopes and Dreams Too?!
No one has a problem understanding the virtue of kicking addictions to alcohol, drugs, gambling, and even eating too much. It’s hard enough for alcoholics and drug addicts to kick their vice. But those are easy compared to kicking addictions to your hopes and dreams. Our hopes and dreams are as clingy as addictions to any vices. And remember, cling equals dukkha.
Most of us won’t achieve those typical lofty, bedazzling hopes and dreams we harbor from youth that were instilled in us by media and our well-meaning parents who wanted us to have successful lives. Whether our hopes and dreams are selfish, like becoming a rock star, or socially generous like ending world hunger, the world is a huge place with hundreds of millions of others with the exact bedazzling dream.
It’s one thing if all those people only cared about ending world hunger. However, the credit will go to the one (or few) who have a passion for ending world hunger AND wants to be the celebrated one who ended world hunger, Nobel Prize and all. It’s that latter part, the celebrated one, that is lust.
What’s worse for your lofty hopes and dreams than hundreds of millions of others competing for what you’re shooting for? What’s worse are hundreds of millions of others with hopes and dreams counter to yours! For example, ending world hunger will involve drastically changing many political strongholds, which will be met with much resistance.
Your hopes and dreams narrow your world to only a few possibilities out of the mind-boggling possibilities. Whatever it is you lust for makes the rest of the world seem unfairly mundane. That’s a ludicrous as can be with all that is there in the Universe. Your addiction, vice or aspiration, are just petty chemical reactions living only in your head.
In some sense, Gluttony should have been the first in this series on the Root of Dukkha. That’s because most of us readily relate to the joy of shoving more hamburgers and ice cream in our faces well past what we need to live. It’s also easy to accept as plausible that behavior as having arisen in us due to how scarce food often was in the past, so we’d better fill up while be can.
For the extremely impoverished today, not knowing when your next meal will be is still a fact of life. But that’s probably not the case for most people reading this blog. When we’re able to buy any sort of meat at about $2-3 per pound, and comparing that to the effort of hunting animals much bigger and stronger than us with a stick, the availability of enough food couldn’t possibly be an issue.
But during the times before agriculture, was food really “scarce”? It was scarce, from the point of view of our poor ancestors who were usually on the verge of hunger. From the higher perspective point of view of Life on Earth, food never was and never is scarce. There was always enough to keep the cycle of life moving along in balance. Periods of lush vegetation generate lots of deer, and they support a boom of wolves, the deer and wolves are then in balance – for now.
From the point of view of modern humans constantly striving for more, “scarce” is a relative term. Meaning, as opposed to some absolute/objective definition such as “less than 2000 calories per day”. For modern humans, with our sentient ingenuity, “scarce” means “less than or equal to what we have now”. And when we have more, that becomes the new normal. That’s greed.
Greed is a human or sentient phenomenon. That’s because we creatures blessed with sentience have the intellect to design and execute processes to satisfy our greed. We are able to design processes that exacerbates our gluttony by proactively ensuring we always have “enough”. The problem is that even after we have enough for multiple lifetimes, we’re still driven for more.
Greed is founded upon the primal heuristic of bigger is better, or stronger. For a non-sentient creature, the simple rule of thumb is that if a creature is bigger than you, you’ll probably lose in a fight. How easy is it for the bigger is better heuristic to develop without intelligent design? Think of being halfway between the Earth and the Sun with no form of propulsion. Which way will we be pulled? Why? There’s nothing more simple than that.
So we instinctively strive for more money, more of everything. Unfortunately, although wealth is power, power doesn’t equate to dukkha-free happiness.
It’s also true that the odds are greatly stacked against those without money overtaking those with a great deal of money. Certainly, this isn’t always the case as the countless of stories of people overcoming the odds of beating a giant demonstrate. However, for every David beating Goliath, there are countless defeated Davids. As Ringo Starr says, “For every Beatles, there are millions of unplayed guitars hanging on home office walls.”
Because of our primal bigger is better heuristic, more is never enough. Our mind will always want more. We need to be cognizant of that heuristic subconsciously playing in our heads and see through that smoke at what really is there. For judo, there is only so much physical strength a human body can build. Physical strength is indeed a factor. Lions, tigers, and bears, are much stronger than us, but not very inventive. Once we know their “bad moves”, we can avoid it and counter it with something they never would imagine.
And it’s imperative to work through knowing that the primal heuristic will tell me I can’t beat a bigger opponent. As a judo practitioner, I know that the elbow of an arm sporting “22 inch biceps”, in the right position, will break as easily as that of a normally sized arm. The key phrase is “in the right position”, which will eventually happen with someone not fully in the present. With patience and some care a fruit will ripen, and with patience and presence, that arm will eventually get in the right position.
We are sentient beings, already much more powerful than other creatures that don’t dwell on the past nor are consumed by futures that probably will not come. And yet Life on Earth goes on.
When Siddhartha Gautama awoke from his mediation under the Bodhi Tree, his mind had coalesced4 to the Enlightenment that our selves are inseparable from everything else. It’s a realization that runs very counter to the logic of our symbolically thinking mind, and it is hard to reflect in our spirit even when we intellectually understand that.
When the human lineage became sentient, that is, having a brain capable of modeling the Universe, beings with minds of their own, we each are born into this world naively thinking we can herd the entire the Universe to our bidding. Of course, we soon realize that the rest of the Universe is comprised of countless other things with minds of its own trying to herd us. Instead of giving up on making the world in our image, we drunken ourselves with Pride, raise our swords against our opponents with a great kiai, and dive into battle for the thing we lust after.
That was all great before we became sentient and realized how terrifying all that can be to a being aware of their own immortality. As terrifying as that may be, that is still the way of Life on Earth, and it’s bigger than humanity. We depend on Life on Earth as we are at least for now completely dependent on Her.
But we don’t want to roll back to the days of our non-sentience when we were just like other creatures without a sense of self. We just automatically did what evolution happened to hand us as behaviors for that time and place. We should push through this ugly stage of our journey to Enlightenment.
We’re almost there. The simplest things we humans do are god-like to all other creatures. We can design around the physical inevitability of events and evolution ruled solely by the laws of physics and chemistry. But we suffer because we expect to control the Universe, and it usually has other things going on.
We don’t need to retreat back to non-sentience. We just need to realize that the Universe is a complex system requiring “solutions for complex systems”. All of our suffering is due to the ugly stage of the journey, like the treacherous open ocean between the two shores of our journey, in reference to Thich Nhat Hanh’s interpretation of the Heart Sutra.
It takes faith and patience. And so let’s conclude this blog looking at how we move beyond Envy, Pride, Lust, Gluttony, and Greed through the Three Zen Stories of Is that so?, The Empty Cup, and Picking Up the Bag.
No Buttons to Push – Is that so?
So why would we bother to do anything when The Rubber Ducky Buddha of Joliet advises us to throw out our bedazzlement, our addictions to vices, and addictions to hopes and dreams? What’s the point with no goals?
Do bees lust to make honey? The bees do what they do. Does the activity of bees only concern bees? Doesn’t their activity affect all plants? They pollinate and cross-pollinate, helping the plant species along their evolutionary path.
We do this because we are one with all that came before us and all that will come. For sentient beings, the genes we pass on are minor compared to our deeds.
One word of warning, though. None of this means to give away all your possessions or leave your family for a monastery! Giving away all your possessions is a cheap gesture compared to tossing out your beliefs. It’s cheap like tossing out all the candy and other carbs when you start dieting. There’s just something intuitively troubling about Hernando Cortez burning his ships so his men had no choice but to follow him.
Nor does it mean to get really lean and mean (ascetic) because all you have should be what you need right now 3. Nature has a mechanism for us to have a margin for error. The ability to store fat in our bodies is huge – no pun intended. As it is for an Inventory Manager, there is an art and science to having a buffer of supply – not too little, not too much.
You actually can have all the riches you want – as long as you know you’ll be Enlightened if you lost it. It’s easy to think you will take losing everything well while you have it … but I don’t know.
Judgement – The Empty Cup, The Beginner’s Mind
Why can’t we throw out only the “bad” addictions and “immoral” things we lust after and still cling to our hopes and dreams, which give us purpose? For one, it’s sometimes hard to tell the good guys from that bad guys. Is it immoral to kill an animal for food? Most people eat meat, but a good proportion of people are vegans or at least vegetarians for the reason that it’s immoral to kill any creature. How could so many people be on two completely different sides?
If we think back to our younger years, aren’t there many instances of things we were told to do and thought were unjust (do your homework, eat your vegetables) but turned out to be true? Are eggs good for us? The “experts” told us they were good … then bad … then good … and will probably be bad again.
But the issue isn’t what is good or bad. The issue is to transcend the framework of these primal heuristics, which work spectacularly for non-sentient beings. It’s there that the notions of good/bad, big/small, worse/better matter. Under the framework of Enlightenment, we blend into what Is.
Our brain, the pitifully inadequate model of the world, just doesn’t have enough information to pass judgement with all certainty. And haven’t we all on multiple occasions insisted we were right, and found out we missed something. What we can do is cut all clinging so we are completely sensitive to what is right now and settle in.
The Lord is my Shepherd, I Shall Not Want … – Picking Up the Bag
The thing about achieving Enlightenment is that it’s just your mind that has changed because now you see with the light on. Everything has changed, but nothing has changed. When that light switches on, you’ll still be where you left off an instant ago. There’s no need to take any drastic actions like giving away your possessions or leaving your family – which kind of means you’re still missing the point. After Enlightenment, you pick up the bag and continue down the path, but now with the light on.
If you’re breathing, there’s nothing more you need. There’s nothing you need to run away to or from.
Does this mean settling for less? No, settling for less or striving for more are notions of the normal world. In the world of Enlightenment, what seems like settling for less is a full acceptance of what Is, whole-heartedly blending into the drama instead of fighting it. That is Peace.
If you’re mindful of Now, you’ll see that it is everything, it is all that you need. Here’s Matthew 6:7-10:
7 “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.”
8 “Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
9 “This, then is how you should pray:”
10 “Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.”
The Root of Dukkha – Seven Deadly Sins Series
This post on lust, greed, and gluttony is part of a series looking at Dukkha from the point of view of the seven deadly “sins”.
1 What is the feeling of “good”? Is it the shot of serotonin or dopamine we get when we land that big contract? If that’s what it is, why can’t we always be like that? Well, why can’t be always eat ice cream, all day, all night? It’s the relief of a pain.
2 Whether there is a supernatural world or not, Fishnu says that the purpose for being on Earth is to incubate our sentience. As we don’t interfere with the development of our unborn babies, except for a few times we need to intervene, we are on our own.
3 Think about the inventory concept known as “Just in Time”. The idea is to minimize your inventory, which keeps storage costs down, and keep s cash liquid. It’s a good idea, but if you’re too lean, and your demand forecast is somehow wrong, you’re in for a world of Dukkha.
4 Please note that I carefully chose to phrase The Buddha’s enlightenment as, “… his mind coalesced to the Enlightenment that our selves are inseparable from everything else”, because all Buddhas come to this same realization. Why can’t we just take this as fact from The Buddha and save us all the trouble? It’s because with 80 billion neurons and a quadrillion synapses, our brains aren’t even closely wired similarly – as would be the case for every single iPhone 6. Each of us is thus forced to find our own unique wiring to that same realization.
Miscommunication results in unnecessary and disastrous errors while engaged in “battle”. While in the chaos of battle, communication between team members is severely hampered. If communication were consistently structured, succinct, and deeply ingrained in the team’s culture, information could be passed with higher fidelity. That structure should identify the problem, provide some background on the context, describe a conceptual solution, and lay out the steps.
SBAR is an acronym of such a structuring for clear communication. It was developed by the military towards the purpose of communicating in an unambiguous, readily digestible manner where misunderstanding and/or delay is extremely costly. The components of SBAR are as follows:
Situation – This is our problem. Before solving a problem, we need to clearly identify and define the problem.
Background – Information about the current situation. This is like a learning phase.
Assessment – Exploring options. This is the thinking phase.
Recommendation – This is what we’ve decided as the course of action. This is the tactical, doing phase.
The first paragraph of this blog is in fact my attempt at using SBAR to describe SBAR.
It’s not surprising to imagine that enterprises dealing with life and death matters such as the military would develop such a structure of communication. But it’s found its way into civilian enterprises. For example, many healthcare enterprises have adopted this recommended structure for communication. In fact, I was introduced to SBAR as the recommended form for structuring email while working at a hospital. My job itself wasn’t on the “front lines” as it is for the doctors and nurses, but it was being woven into the culture of the hospital.
I noticed that The Buddha indeed is a great communicator, way ahead of his time, as the Four Noble Truths are an SBAR:
Situation – Suffering. We suffer from physical pain, from loss, from impending loss.
Background – The Cause of Suffering. We suffer because we cling to things, all of which are impermanent in our relentlessly changing world.
Assessment – The Cessation of Suffering. If we remove clinging, we stop resistance to what is right before us.
Recommendation – The Path to the Cessation of Suffering. The Eight-Fold Path.
I think I chose to write a blog on this because I keep the Four Noble Truths example in my mind as my SBAR template as I compose emails at work every day. It’s a very nice way to fold Buddhism into my daily life at my day job – which is nothing like a temple … hahaha.
I’d like to point out before I end this post that this is just a method of expression. Actually performing background (discovery, learning), assessment (analysis, engineering), and recommendation (execution, doing) is an iterative process. For example, during assessment we often need to go back and gather more information, and during execution we will run into unplanned obstacles requiring adjustment to the plan.
These are the best links I’ve found on SBAR, The Four Noble Truths, and the Eight-Fold Path:
Mrs. Hanamoku, His Holiness The Eternal Fishnu, His Holiness The Rubber Ducky Buddha of Joliet, and I attended a very nice Obon Festival last night. We had a (actually more than “a”) bento with musubi, nasubi, inari, tomagoyaki, shoyu chicken! Wonderful!
The Eternal Fishnu blessed the event with the largest turnout ever in the event’s 70+ year history. The line of cars was reminiscent of “Field of Dreams”.
There were many obutsudan on display for “adoption”. They were donated to the Church after owners passed away and no one was there to carry on the Buddhist tradition. Mrs. Hanamoku and I are hoping to adopt “#2”. Here is the The Eternal Fishnu and The Rubber Ducky communing with Amida Buddha – Namu Amida Butsu, Namu Amida Butsu, Namu Amida Butsu:
The obutsudan is a personal or family “Buddha house”. Both of my grandmother’s had them in their house. Some are more or less elaborate than the one Mrs. Hanamoku and I put in for:
The one pictured below is made from a kamaboko box!
Most sincere one:
Of course, we’d be proud and thrilled to adopt any of them. Many of the people in the area where the Obon Festival took place are Japanese-Americans whose ancestors found themselves there through railroad work during the 1800s and/or after release from the internment camps of World War II. So these have much spirit and history to them.
Mrs. Hanamoku and I have an obutsudan inspired by Zion National Park. My home office has two walls lined by tall bookshelves, with rocks from our extensive rock collection displayed in front of the books. All of our Buddhist “things” occupy the top of the shelves, as if they are sitting on top of Angel’s Landing.
The Eternal Fishnu says I kind of remind him of Bodhidharma … which I mostly take as a compliment … hahaha.
In annoyingly paradoxical Buddhist style I will now talk about how Everything Forms Every Thing, even though I just got through talking about how No Thing Exists. How can there be things that form when no things exist?
No Thing Exists is a statement about the true nature of the Universe. Everything Forms Every Thing states the same thing, but from the point of view of we symbolically thinking creatures. And therein lies the paradox. Let’s explore this paradox by first revisiting the statement of No Thing Exists then followed by our gift of sentience.
On one side of the coin, the Universe is a Mega Process churning away on its own, not much different from how on a smaller scale our bodily animal functions churn away. Our heart beats, blood rushes around, cells give and take things to the blood, food is metabolized, bad stuff and waste is gathered and expelled. Aside from our brain and breathing (to a limited extent), there are no organs in us that wistfully long for a time in the past or aspire to or fear some special future. It just does what it does – no questions asked, no whining, no procrastination, no fear. Which is why our conscious mind really has no control over those processes. If our conscious mind could control all of that, it would make a mess out of things.
There are no inherent things in the Universal Process. Whatever seems like a thing is just a snapshot taken in our heads, like a photo encoded in a JPG file on our laptops. Whatever things we think we recognize are no more real than what we see in our photos, a temporary phenomenon, ethereal ghosts, caught at an instant of the constant churning.
What can trick us into thinking that there are indeed consistent things is that things change at different rates, some so slow our brains don’t notice, like rocks. Some in an unimaginable instant such as an explosion and the aftermath. Even as you may sit in front of me talking, your mind doesn’t think of me as changing, but my blood is in different places, I learned something I didn’t know a second ago, probably forgot something, both which alters my immediate motivations.
However, there is a level of order even in the constantly churning process of the Universe. Although change is constant, so are the underlying laws of physics constant, at least in the realm in which our human bodies are manifested.
On the other side of the coin, we are symbolically thinking, sentient creatures. We’re able to manipulate the world around us. Over our lives we observe things, building a vast library of tactics in our heads. With that vast library, we slice and dice those things into simpler pieces, and construct from those pieces some image we desire, and proceed to manifest that image in the real world.
In order to manifest those images only in our heads, we need to move things around. Manifesting those images we construct in our heads is done in steps, a process. To grow crops, we must gather seeds, fashion tools, prepare the soil, plant the seeds, care for the plants (water, fertilize, protect from weeds and pests), and harvest the plants. Each of those steps are in themselves a hierarchy of sub-processes. However, until we actually accomplish those goals, it’s just a theory in our head because the Universe churns away and whatever happens is what happens.
How did we humans break out of the Oneness with the Universe becoming these symbolically thinking, sentient, designing creatures? No human really knows for sure, although there are many very plausible theories in the fields of Artificial Intelligence (close to what I do for a “living”), archaeology, neuroscience, sociology, evolutionary psychology, mimetic theory, etc.
But The Eternal Fishnu constantly reminds me that sentience is a continuum and that our sentience is just our human brand. Meaning all creatures of Earth are sentient to some extent, mice more than cockroaches, dogs more than mice, chimps more than dogs, and us more than chimps. Additionally, Fishnu reminds me that there are many kinds of sentience for which we are not aware or at least choose to ignore. For example, Life of Earth is sentient in a different way.
What we can state from a Buddhist and Zen perspective is that the great gift of the ability to design and manifest our designs is also the great curse for the unenlightened. These symbols, the things we know of which exists only in our heads, are things in the past which no longer exists. And our desire to manifest our designs based on these things break our hearts when they either don’t work and begin disintegrating even as we’re still building it. There is nothing we build that lasts without our becoming a slave to it. In other words, we cling to a past that doesn’t exist and we strive for a future based on designs dependent upon a Universe that has no notion of cooperation. This is dukkha, the side-effect of our great gift which the Buddha has taught us to smooth out.
For we sentient beings the phrase Everything Forms Every Thing is the enlightenment that the Universe is One big process. Saying it “backward” makes sense too: Every Thing is dependent upon everything. Our sentience is based on the pitifully inadequate model of the Universe in our heads. We try to impose our desire (our will) in the Universe with varying success but our plans are based on future conditions we cannot possibly predict. Even a tiny thing we fail to consider will grow over the time it takes us to execute our process to manifest our vision.
Dukkha is that gap between what we want and what the Universe just does anyway. So is the answer to our suffering, our dukkha, to shut off our ability to design and manifest those designs? Are you crazy? This is our great gift!
Sure, simply letting go of all our desires would make us One with the Universe. But that’s not our nature, it’s our schtick, no less than an eagle is a perfect eagle. We have a duty to exercise our ability to design and manifest those designs. That is our schtick, our way to contribute our Yin to Yang, or the other way around. It’s no different from the array of schticks of among all other creatures. If any species in an ecosystem just gives up, it’s all thrown into a tailspin.
Empty our cup – We really don’t know anything because everything we know (in our brain) is something that no longer exists.
100% Acceptance of What Is – We don’t cling to a past that no longer exists, run or hide from a future that probably won’t come, or even enslave ourselves to “dreams” which are nothing but arbitrary things we see someone else has. We 100% accept what is in front of us, right here, right now, and that’s where we focus our attention.
Continue on the Path – We recognize that the Universe is constantly in motion, even when it may not seem like it, whether we like it or not. There is no destination on this path. The Path of Enlightenment means that as the Universe moves in time, we move along with our attention here, not back there, nor way up there.
Think of the sand mandalas of the Tibetan Buddhists – so intricate, so much human effort to build something of such beauty, so delicate. But instead of attempting to preserve something so incredibly beautiful and delicate with Herculean effort, they let go of it. It freely returns to the chaos from which it came. We simply enjoy it, no remorse, no guilt. We appreciate that thanks to our sentient design and manifest capability, we didn’t need to wait the vigintillion years it probably would take before clumps of sand spontaneously to fall in that pattern.
Lastly, on a completely unrelated note, Happy Birthday to our friend, the uber-wise Ringo Starr, who turns 78 today.
In yesterday’s post, See, I discussed the phrases “Nothing exists” versus “No thing exists”. Let’s recap that discussion from another point of view because this is a fundamental Buddhist/Zen topic.
Think of having heard a Buddhist priest saying, “Everything is an illusion. Nothing exists.” Does the priest mean there are no stars, no Earth, no chair I’m sitting in as I type, no laptop, no Cable One providing my Internet connection, not even me? That’s what I thought the first thousand or so times I heard something like that.
Why would it be said that everything is an illusion, nothing exists? Well, it’s pretty much what the Heart Sutra is about, particularly the line, “Form is emptiness and Emptiness is form”. The Heart Sutra succinctly captures Buddhism – thus “Heart” as in “heart of the matter”, not the organ or Valentine’s Day heart.
But things do exist. When I leave for work in a couple of hours, I need to deal with the traffic on real roads, real traffic lights, real other cars with drivers, and everything else that prevents me from just driving in a straight line to work.
You’re probably thinking, “What a load of crap!” Things are there, but yet that is something Buddhist priests do say. So are they insane, high, scamming us, having fun at our expense … perhaps it’s wishful thinking on their part, as if reciting a mantra, “If I say this enough, I’ll actually believe it”. Perhaps some of them … hahaha. Things obviously exist, so out of the priests who aren’t insane, high, or whatever, they must mean something else, something completely different from our Western frame of mind.
Here’s my real-life version of an old Zen story: The hike to Observation Point (the scene in the photo above) is magical. The heights, the views of Angel’s Landing, the very real dangers, the wildlife, the constant change of it all, the untamable erosion. I said to Rubber Ducky, “I feel the Oneness with this place, nothing matters, things will be what they’ll be, there is no pain.” As I looked around in awe and contentment, my toe kicked a rock in the middle of the trail. I hear Rubber Ducky laughing his ass off – Mack Mack Mack Mack Mack Mack …
The Buddhist monk isn’t saying the Universe is empty but that whatever our brain thinks of, whether my car, Mrs. Hanamoku, or the leftovers from yesterday’s Independence Day celebration, are just snapshots of something I encountered in the past. Like JPG photo files on my iPhone or my laptop, they are just snapshots of scenes from the past, specifically the whatever the “Date Created” says.
These files are encoded on my iPhone and laptop, such as the photo at the top of this post, in no way resemble what is displayed, and even less what was actually there. It doesn’t capture what is behind the things you see in the photo, how things are moving, the sounds, the “Fall-ness” of the time I was there – the cool temperature of the air, the smells. It doesn’t capture that I’m standing very close to the edge of a 2000 foot drop, nor does it capture the spirit of awe I share with the few others there.
Such photos are pitifully inadequate models of what we are seeing. Likewise, my brain holds encoded snapshots of things I recognize that are just encodings in my brain. To be certain, our brain encodings are in most ways magnitudes more sophisticated than the encodings of a JPG file. But still, they are pitifully inadequate models of the what is really there now.
This beautiful scene rendered in the photo above no longer exists. You may be thinking that if you were to go there this coming late October, you could take a photo “exactly” like this. It may even be difficult to differentiate our photos side by side. But by this coming October, tons of the canyon will have eroded away, the trees will be different (although imperceptibly because of the distance), the drama of the wildlife will have a different cast. It may be so crowded there that it could actually be a bit unenjoyable. Do our two photos really represent the same thing?
Everything is an illusion. Nothing exists. Every single thing we think of is just a ghost living only in our brain. The only thing that exists outside of our brain is what is right here, right now. What do you do with this insight? Don’t be the guy who “knows everything”! You know nothing! Do you now know what that means? Empty your cup! Take off your “black belt”, tie on that old “white belt” you haven’t seen for decades, and ironically sew the knot on permanently.