The Five Aggregates – Part 2 – A.I.

The Five Aggregates in Artificial Intelligence

To help drive home the meaning of the Five Aggregates as I wrote about in Part 1, let’s try an exercise devising a high-level architecture for an Artificial Intelligence mapping to the Five Aggregates. In some ways it could be easier for us to relate to an Artificial Intelligence than our own intelligence since the parts (computers) were created by us. Using our brain to figure out how our brain works is way tougher than using our brain to understand how something that we created works.

five_aggregates_hibi
An Artificial Intelligence modeled after the Five Aggregates.

The theme of this blog site is Zen/Buddhism from the point of view of a software developer; who finds much insight into ourselves by building software, which are models of things we do. It’s my Zen Art. That is, I research and build “A.I.” systems in the hope of gaining a better understanding into how our consciousness works – as opposed to the businessman’s purpose for A.I. being a dream of incredibly cheap, non-complaining, replicatable,  re-programmable workers.

If you’re not a “computer person”, I still think someone with just a casual knowledge of software development could appreciate this high-level exercise of mapping of the Five Aggregates to a hypothetical A.I. architecture.

Before diving into this exercise I’d like to mention that because the frontier of A.I. is rapidly changing at the time of this writing, January 2019. Much of what I write here could be either obsolete, wrong, or very obvious a month from now. So I won’t burden you further by qualifying every other sentence with ” … at the time of this writing …”.

Machine Learning

The term “A.I.” is often interchangeably and incorrectly used with “Machine Learning”. What makes it confusing is that whatever we call A.I. depends upon how you define “intelligence”. And there really isn’t a solid definition. For the sake of this blog, it may be easier to first consider an un-intelligent thing. An un-intelligent thing needs to be told every single detail about what to do. That includes practically all machines such as cars and computers.

It may sound strange to those who don’t know much about how computers work to call it un-intelligent? In workshops I’ve presented on “data mining” topics, there are a couple of things I often say that are obvious when you’re mindful about it, but overlooked as you go about in the normal life frame of mind:

  • What is the best thing about computers? They do exactly what you tell them to do. What is the worst thing about computers? They do exactly what you tell them to do.
  • What’s obvious to you may not be obvious to a computer. For example, consider the obvious observation that pregnant humans are female. It’s ridiculously obvious to us, but imagine if a computer figured that out all by itself.

It’s not necessarily that a computer itself is stupid. Rather, it’s the way we manually program them into these “intellectually brittle” dead ends. Instead, an intelligence must be self-adaptive in a very ambiguous world.

Currently, there are three major categories of machine learning: Supervised learning, unsupervised learning, and reinforcement learning. They are often presented as three kinds of tools, as if you were deciding between the purchase of a sedan, a pick-up truck, or a van. Rather, the three types of machine learning are three modes of learning, all required by an intelligence.

Before getting into a little analogy about the three modes of machine learning, I’d like to mention a fourth way a computer “learns” – programming. We may refer to propaganda and advertisements “programming” us, but that’s not correct. Rather, we are “trained” through those means. Programming a human would entail opening up our brain and manually wire up our neurons and manually adjust neurotransmitters.

Supervised Learning

Supervised Learning should really be called “Training”. Imagine you’re three years old sitting in your marine biologist  mom’s office. You’re looking through a picture book of marine animals. You ask her about each picture, but since she’s busy, she only can glance over and answer with the general class of the animal; fish, mammal, crustacean, etc.

Eventually, you will figure out, find the patterns of what differentiates the mammals from the fishes. You’ll notice the whales and dolphins have tails pointing sideways and sharks have tails pointing up and down. The mammals also have fewer “fins”. If the picture has enough resolution you may notice fish have scales, mammals don’t. In the future, when you encounter such a creature you’ve never seen before, you’ll at least know whether it’s a mammal or fish.

Remember, this is training, not programming. To be programmed, your mom needs to get into your head and wire the neurons up and tune all sorts of other things in there.

Unsupervised Learning

Now, let’s say your mom is incredibly busy and just leaves the three year old you with the book. You’re on your own classifying the animals in the pictures. Without being given any labels for the animals, you may classify orcas and great whites together or blue whales and whale sharks together. Is that wrong? Orcas and great whites are predators of other big critters, blue wales and whale sharks are huge creatures that filter feed little critters.

The trade-off between supervised and unsupervised learning is that the former saves you lots of time learning what humanity already knows, whereas the latter allows you to be creative. Even if some knowledgeable adult were 100% available to teach you via supervised learning, you’re still being trained, not programmed.

Reinforcement Learning

Remember in the movie, City Slickers, where Norman the calf is walking just minutes after being born? No one taught the calf to walk. The calf awkwardly gets on his feet, stands very shaky, starts taking clumsy steps, going through cycles of trying, receiving feedback, adjusting neuron connections in his brain and muscles, trying again. After many fast cycles of this incremental training, the calf can run.  That’s reinforcement learning.

The A.I’s Job

Even we mighty humans aren’t “intelligent” about everything. We each have our unique sets of skills, both seemingly natural and learned. So let’s give our A.I. a job. Let’s give this Artificial Intelligence the skill of a CEO of a corporation, an A.I. CEO. Let’s refer to this as an aCEO.

Taking advantage of what computers can do better than brains, the aCEO could be more effective than a human CEO if it could have a superior:

  • “Feelers” into all aspects across the corporation.
  • Feelers to life outside the walls of the corporation throughout its ecosystem.
  • A map of how all the parts relate, inside the enterprise as well as outside in the ecosystem.

Keep in mind too that it doesn’t need to look or act like a human CEO. It just needs to come up with superior plans and decisions and communicate and manage the executions effectively.

If we think of an enterprise as an organism, the CEO, real or artificial, is the brain organ of an enterprise. The entire enterprise is the “body”. The departments are like the other organs. Cash flow is like blood. What the company produces is their job, their livelihood. I guess that makes the human employees like our “gut bacteria”.

As with the human version of the Five Aggregates, the aCEO version is not a “series of five steps to consciousness”. It’s more the “five parts of sentience” where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts . So I present them in numerical order, but do jump back and forth to other parts. The illustration below provides a high-level view of how the five parts relate.

five_aggregates_3-1
A very high-level view of how the Five Aggregates of A.I. interact. Remember that Alerts, Functions, Metrics, and Relationships all exist as an integrated graph of relationships.

The 1st Aggregate – Integrated Data Model (Body/Form)

The body of the aCEO would of course imply the hardware, the computers. But body/form is much more than that. It’s information about things going on around us. In the Buddhism context, these are “conditioned” forms, the phenomenon that everything is resulting from everything else. The fact that things are moving and interacting means things are impermanent.

So the aCEO needs a way to obtain current data about things related to the business it runs. This current data could be current snapshots or just what has changed since the last time.

At this point, the data coming into the system from its surroundings is raw. To use an analogy based on the old “data mining” term, it’s like mud in a gold pan. But it’s mud from a place we think contains gold, not just randomly looking around. The 1st aggregate also filters out and cleanses most of the mud/crap before it gets to the Perception functions, the 2nd Aggregate. At the end of the 1st Aggregate, five pounds of mud is reduced to a couple ounces of “black sand”.

The 1st Aggregate further does some rough “data prep” on that cleansed data. This data prep organizes the cleansed data to a set of statistics about the data, the composition of values, and even looks for interesting “events” such as spikes in values, trending up or down. Still, this is just data.

This is pretty much where Data Warehouses are at. It encompasses all the processing and massaging of data from many different data sources. But it’s just data at this point – not much different from corn sitting in silos, grown and harvested with a combine. In general, this is where “Business Intelligence” system passes that integrated data to humans to make sense of with their superior Human Intelligence. Human analysts, data scientists, managers. “BI Developers” will author reports using tools such as SQL Server Reporting Services, analysts will visualize data with tools such as Tableau, PowerBI, or even good ol’ Excel. Data scientists could develop predictive models.

The 2nd Aggregate – Alerts (Sensation/Feeling)

Every machine or creature must operate within parameters conducive to its nature, whether it was designed by some intelligence or evolved over time. For example, without special suits (ex. SCUBA gear), humans thrive within strict parameters of atmospheric pressure, temperature, etc.

When it gets too cold, we put on more clothes. When we’re thirsty, we seek water. These are feelings, they are metrics. Your car dashboard is full of them. Going too fast, ease up on the gas pedal.

I make a living as a Business Intelligence consultant, which is all about maximizing performance of a business’ resources. A big part of that is deploying analytics tools conveying metrics to workers of all types – human employees in many roles as well as machines such as computer servers and manufacturing equipment. A tired cliche in my field is “what gets measured gets done”. We call these metrics “Performance Indicators”.

Metrics are determined by executives and “MBA types” and monitored throughout the execution of enterprises processes. Metrics aren’t just a business thing. Practically everything we do involves metrics, from our health (blood pressure, weight, temperature, cholesterol), to driving a car (speed, temperature, distance from other cars), to economic health (unemployment rate, GDP, stock market value).

An example of a business metric, in fact a key metric (called Key Performance Indicators – KPI) is Revenue Growth. What’s interesting about revenue growth is that no growth is usually bad, but too much growth can be bad too. Sometimes we need to limit growth to give the infrastructure time to catch up. Growth that’s too fast can overwhelm the infrastructure leading to mistakes, which lowers quality, which pisses off customers, which sends them away, which lowers revenue.

So a metric is more than a measurement, just one number. It’s more than simply stating Revenue growth is 10% over this time last year. Because too little or too much can be bad, a metric includes a component called a target, in this case, something like 5% growth, no less and no more.

Another component of a metric is a trend. Is the metric trending upwards, downwards, or steady? This is important to know because nothing stays still. Imagine your revenue is trending up and today it’s at goal, but it’s still trending up, which means tomorrow it won’t be where you want it.

The most interesting component of a metric is the status. Remember, too little or too much is bad. But we can live with a margin of error, say 2% on either side. So anything within 3% to 7% is good, from between 0% and less than 3% or greater than 7% and less than 10% is not good. But less than 0% or greater than 10% is bad. In general, the good, not good (warning), and bad are represented by green, yellow, or red icons.

The status of metrics are analogous to our feelings in the human 2nd Aggregate – pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. The 2nd aggregate is interested in the status value of the metrics mostly so we know what needs attention – correction. In other words what metrics are in a bad (painful) status? In contrast, the target is the domain of the 5th Aggregate, the goals/objectives of the enterprise.

As with our human feelings, there are very many metrics (sometimes thousands) monitored in an enterprise. Some are very high level, such as Revenue Growth and Profit. But most are lower level, for example, the uptime of the reporting system, minimizing office break room expenses, and maximizing employee retention.

Before heading into the 3rd Aggregate, let’s review the process for a human. When pains are felt in the 2nd Aggregate, the 3rd Aggregate tries to recognize what’s going on, the web of goals/desires/beliefs of the 5th Aggregate engage the thoughts of the 4th Aggregate to make everything in the 5th Aggregate happy.

The 3rd Aggregate – Functions (Perceptions)

The 3rd Aggregate is mostly what we’re familiar with in regard to software systems of today. Software systems of today are machines automating some well-defined and tedious job at a really large scale.

If the job that software is automating was not well-defined, not highly predictable, we humans wouldn’t be able to encode the rules as software. But the real world outside of today’s somewhat totalitarian corporate culture is not highly predictable. That world outside is made up of countless independent things, at least seven billion of them with minds of their own. This is where Artificial Intelligence differs from conventional software. Intelligence deals with ambiguity and complexity.

Software today is made up of a designed (meaning “human-crafted”) web of designed functions. Functions take inputs, do some processing within the confines of a “black box”, and output an answer. Examples of computer functions range from something as simple as addition – takes in two numbers, adds them, and output the sum – to something as complicated as an image processor that takes in a picture, does a lot of processing, and outputs where it calculates what are faces, bananas, and cars.

It’s OK for now to let humans write logically tough functions. It beats the hell out of evolution which does things on its own time – like millions of years. But we still need the ability for a large percentage of the functions to self-organize, organize without human intervention. An A.I. consists of so many functions and require constant updating. It would be an insane nightmare for programmers to maintain that much, yet, that’s pretty much how software is currently maintained.

A general purpose programming language (for example, Java, C++, C#) is intended to encode a model of the world that is runnable by a computer. Because the world is so complex, programming languages must be very versatile. So programming by humans is tough. However, Nature found a way for the human brain to model the world. Our neurons wire according to what we’re exposed to at the time and place of our life.

So programming is hard. We try to mitigate that difficulty by creating specialized programming languages on top of specialized software. For example, SQL is a programming language limited to creating, reading, updating, and deleting rows from a table. Of course, there are libraries of packaged functions preventing “reinventing” of code that works across a wide array of applications.

Functions are machines, whether little or big, simple or complicated, natural or man-made, material or encoded. They all take in some inputs and output something. For example, a coffee machine that takes in water, ground coffee, and electricity, and outputs hot coffee. A single neuron is a function. It accumulates charge from many synapses on its dendrites, and at some very complicated point it “fires” a charge out on its axon.

Functions share a couple of very important characteristics. They shield we civilians from the intricacies (nice way of saying “yucky guts”) of how they really work. Imagine if we were required to know all there is to know about building and repairing a car and all its parts in order to drive one. The car’s guts are encapsulated in a tidy package for we civilians such that we just need to know five things; turn on/off, shift gears, gas, brake, steer.

Another important characteristic of functions is for a specific input always return the exact same output. Machines would be impractical to use or even useless to us if they weren’t predictable. Imagine what it would be like if the amount we stepped on the gas pedal fed gas into the engine in a linear manner as usual, but sometimes exponentially, sometimes according to the angle of the sun at the time of day.

That would be a dangerous car to take on the road! I’d be forced to drive very slowly because I never know when the function of the gas pedal will change. Therefore, I can’t go on the freeway because I’m forced to drive slowly. Do you see how any unpredictability drastically makes like tougher?

If a function does the exact same thing for the exact same input, complexity and risk are mitigated … even though complexity and risk can never in practice be eliminated, but at least on paper. Our example of the gas pedal only offered three different outputs and already I wouldn’t drive such a car.

All of our machines, including software 1, are composed of functions. Machines are a composition of parts, where each part does it’s thing and only its thing. Functions made of functions made of functions … However, the functions composing most of our software today do not have the quality of firing out the same output for the same input.

Note that a very interesting class of functions are those so-called “Machine Learning” (ML) models discussed towards the beginning of this blog. These are the product of “data scientists”, functions for guessing things such as how many people in a given population are at risk for becoming diabetic. Input whether you’re obese, over 45, high blood pressure, etc, and it guesses if you’re at risk for becoming diabetic.

They are often incorrectly referred to as Artificial Intelligence. Those functions are just machines. As is typical for machines, they beat the hell out of human effort as long as the rules don’t change.

So imagine again what it would be like if the gas pedal on a car didn’t react the same way for an amount the pedal is pushed down. Perhaps there is a rhyme or reason for its erratic behavior. What else is going on around us when the gas pedal responds to our foot pressure as usual versus when otherwise? This is the purpose for thought, the 4th Aggregate.

The 4th Aggregate – Relationships (Thoughts)

When our collection of functions in the 3rd Aggregate encounters something it isn’t designed for, it throws an exception an error message. Or if it’s a tangible machine, it may “crash and burn”. Usually, human programmers are alerted to these exceptions. They find the cause, use their human intelligence to formulate a solution, and implement it (modify and re-compose the functions).

As discussed towards the end of the 3rd Aggregate, to find a solution for a problem, humans search through webs of relationships – associations we’ve learned over our life. In the field of A.I. and neurology, there is the saying, what fires together, wires together. These relationships include:

  • Correlation – These are events that occur together to some degree. The simultaneous occurrence may be coincidence, due to another factor, or does indeed imply some sort of cause and effect.
  • Perceived cause and effect – This is anything where we believe one thing will follow another because it has happened a lot.
  • Intended cause and effect – These are cause and effect of our human-engineered machines. We intend for gas to explode in cylinders, driving a transmission, that ultimately spins wheels.

For software, such relationships have traditionally been programmed by people. These are procedural relationships. However, in this Big Data age, relationships are wrested from a large history of facts by statistical algorithms.

Thoughts, whether human or machine, are about wonder, “what-if”. The human or machine then investigates what if by playing around with the web of relationships in the heads or in a graph database.

For example, in these pre-A.I. days, the process for optimizing something like low sales goes like this:

  1. A sales manager experiencing low sales (pain in the 2nd Aggregate) would wonder what to look for in a customer most likely to purchase a luxury car now. That way, the sales personnel can maximize their sales performance (a goal of the 5th Aggregate) by spending more time with such people.
  2. A data scientist will then run years of sales history and customer demographics through some sort of “machine learning” algorithm. That sales history and demographics data could be thought of as “sensed” in the 1st Aggregate.
  3. The output of the algorithm are relationships between various customer attributes – gender, education level, age, income level, etc. This set of relationships is then deployed into production as a function (3rd Aggregate) of the enterprise, no different from anything we know to do as a human.

As it is for a human, the 4th Aggregate is the web of relationships as well as the process of finding possible solutions to a pain detected in the 2nd Aggregate. It’s not really that hard to trace a line of relationships when the dots are all connected. What is hard is finding a solution that minimizes negative side-effects. What are negative side-effects? Those are goals and desires that are hampered, the 5th Aggregate.

The 5th Aggregate – Metrics (Consciousness)

Like human creatures, corporate enterprises have goals, missions, and feel “pain”. Some of these corporate goals keep us from breaking laws and there are goals towards growth and higher profits. Goals not doing well register as pain. Metrics (nodes) statuses tie to functions of the 3rd Aggregate – think of these as pain and joy receptors. The web of these goals dictates the “values” or character of the system.

Businesses are founded upon strategies. Strategies are a web of “cause and effect”, a theory that if we perform some action, there will be a chain of effects leading to the satisfaction of our goals. For example, in the 2nd Aggregate, I mentioned Revenue Growth as a key metric. However, Revenue Growth itself isn’t a good thing. We could increase revenue easily by slashing prices, increasing revenue, but lowering profit – and increasing volume, which increases expenses, which also lowers profit.

The illustration below shows a simple strategy map for a doctor’s office. If the practice adds a doctor, that leads to more billable hours, which contributes to higher utilization which leads to higher revenue, which contributes to higher profit.

strategy_map
A Strategy Map lays out the theoretical cause and effect for actions taken by a corporation.

The strategy map above illustrates the trade-offs taken for some action represented by the blue boxes. If it weren’t for the fact that more doctors cost more (in many more ways than just salary), we could simply add as many doctors as possible to make as much money as possible. But there’s always trade-offs.

The complex world in which the aCEO must thrive goes way beyond such simple trade-offs. There are cascading webs of cause and effect that make almost everything hard. For example, the task of something as universal as hiring is so complicated that every business has a specialized Human Resources department. Do candidates have a long list of required skill, required education, are they trustworthy, will they get along with everyone, will they be assertive when necessary, cooperative otherwise?

A more realistic strategy map would be a big unwieldy mess, impractical as a visualization for our human brain. Fortunately, handling such a web of relationships is something computers can do better than us!

Each item is an issue because it interferes with some goal or another. Such magical employees meeting all requirements are rare and so delicate trade-offs (compromises) are made that will hopefully make all goals reasonably “happy”.

Because things are always changing in a business ecosystem, the aCEO will always be “buzzing” like a human brain dealing with constant change. A consciousness isn’t some static picture, but an in-motion process. It’s a process that goes something like this:

  1. Things in the world change (1st Aggregate) …
  2. Which could result in pains (bad KPI statuses in the 2nd Aggregate) …
  3. As well as invalid results from functions in the 3rd Aggregate …
  4. Which results in goals in the 5th Aggregate trying to minimize pain, re-balance itself …
  5. And the 5th Aggregate employs the web of cause and effect in the 4th Aggregate to find candidate solutions, and test them out.

Exploring for a set of measured trade-offs that will eventually satisfy all goals, a solution to a minimizing pain, is actually the relatively easy part. Much tougher is organizing the map of relationships in the 4th and 5th Aggregates, connecting the dots. “What” is usually an easier question to answer than “How”.

The biggest breakthrough in software will not be further improvements in accuracy, speed, and volumes of data processed with well-defined tasks. It will be the ability to re-program itself, self-organize the connected dots.

From a Buddhist perspective, software today is dukkha, incapable of adapting itself to constant change. Software today is mostly rather “hand-wired” organizations of functions – meticulously hand-coded by highly-skilled human programmers. And that’s starting to change.

 

Notes

1 It’s not exactly correct to say that software is composed of functions since what appear to be functions can return different results under since it depends upon circumstances outside its inputs and/or the functions often does not handle exceptions (inputs it wasn’t designed to take in) well enough. Those two inadequacies account for much of the reason software has so many bugs. There is a movement towards “functional programming” that enforces at least the first issue, towards the goal of writing software that is less complex.

2 Any time I utter the phrase “cause and effect”, someone reminds me that “correlation does not imply causation”. I don’t think anyone actually does think correlation implies causation. It doesn’t make sense to do something for an effect unless you believe there would be the desired effect. Whatever decisions that are made by people of sound mind are based upon what they perceive to be cause and effect relationship.

 

The Five Aggregates – Part 1

end_of_bodhi_season_2018
This is the last photo I took of our Bodhi Day 2018 (the “secular” one on Dec 8, 2018) place as Mrs. Hanamoku and I left our Airbnb cabin. The photo looks so dynamic, but to my human sentience, it was so still and quiet. Do you see The Eternal Fishnu towards the middle-left waving good-bye?

Happy Bodhi Day !!!

Today is January 13, 2019, the 8th Day of the 12th moon for 2018 – Lunar Bodhi Day. The header above is painted in the Eternal Fishnu’s colors.

Here is a little post I hope helps you meditate on a very important aspect of Enlightenment on this Bodhi Day: What is the Five Aggregates?

The Whole is Greater than the Aggregation of its Parts

Here’s what the “The Five Aggregates” are if you’re taking an online practice test and just need a fast answer: In Buddhist literature, it’s a collection of things/concepts that comprise our sentience – body, feelings, perception, thoughts, and consciousness.

The Five Aggregates plays a big part in the core lesson of the Heart Sutra. The most succinct way to state the lesson is:

The Universe is One inseparable thing, so stop acting like it’s a bunch of independent pieces.

Roughly, the argument of that lesson can be broken down like this:

  1. Everything is always changing …
  2. So any thing we think we see is just a temporary assemblage of other things  …
  3. So none of the things we use our brains to recognize really exists anymore  …
  4. Which renders as invalid any cause and effect relationships that we’ve learned about between those things which no longer exists …
  5. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense suffering through our relentless and eventually futile attempts to coerce the Universe to what our minds compute based on that outdated information …
  6. Rather, turn it around and learn how to better read and respond to the Universe.

However, point #6 above doesn’t mean we humans should become completely thoughtless, spineless, gooey, creatures. As many say in Buddhism, “there is a middle way“.

But even if we can intellectually understand that lesson, at our human realm of sentience it’s really difficult as our actual experience is more like that of a goldfish in a bowl. We’re trapped in our little cubicle of space with a whole lot going on outside of those glass walls, as well as a whole lot more we cannot ever see.

Let’s start this journey with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote, “Man is a piece of the Universe made alive.

In this post I will cover the Five Aggregates one at a time, but remember that the whole that’s made up of those five aggregates is our Sentience.

An “aggregate” is the product of an assemblage of parts. That product could be a homogeneous collection of customer service reps, a stack of one dollar bills, or inventory of some mass-produced commodity. For such a collection of things, each member is interchangeable. These are things we count and measure in volume, for example, 50 cartons of milk or one-thousand dollars.

More interestingly, an aggregate could be a heterogeneous collection of parts. For example, an automobile, a surgical team, a hamburger, the Earth’s environment, or the Beatles. Such assemblages of  parts into a whole are very different things from simply a “bag o’ parts”. Think of the music from each of the Beatles members’ solo work. All are very different nor as good as the music they created as a band.

Therefore, we say that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That’s not usually true for homogeneous aggregates where the whole is simply the sum of its parts – ten customer service reps is just ten customer service reps.

Each of the Five Aggregates is a heterogeneous aggregate. We’ll cover each shortly, but for now, let’s take the example of the 1st Aggregate, which includes our senses – sight, sound, taste, smell, touch. They are all very different kinds of information at our human level of existence. For example, the picture painted in our heads through the photons hitting our retinas are an aggregate of three kinds of rods (red, green, blue), a bunch of cones, the adjustable aperture of our pupils, etc.

As just mentioned above, our Sentience is an aggregate of the Five Aggregates. In fact, it doesn’t take much pondering to realize that practically everything we can think of is a hierarchical aggregate of aggregates – from the uber aggregate of the Universe itself, to the Earth’s ecosystem, to machines we design and build, to sub-atomic particles.

For example, a car is a hierarchical aggregation of aggregations. One of those parts of a car is the engine which is itself an aggregation of parts. One of those parts of the engine is the distributor, which is an aggregation of parts, …

We often call an aggregation “the Big Picture”. Do we see the forest or do we see the trees? It’s easy for us to lose sight of the big picture because we’re trained to specialize – break down the big picture into smaller pieces so each of us can become an expert in our assigned bite-sized piece. As specialized experts, we can optimize the hell out of each of those pieces, then assemble all the pieces back together into a theoretically better machine.

Overview of the Heart Sutra

This blog could be considered part of a set centered around the The Heart Sutra along with these three others:

  1. No Thing Exists
  2. Everything Forms Every Thing
  3. The Other Shore

If you haven’t read or don’t want to read those three blogs before continuing, the section  below, Symbolic Thinking, sort of recaps the material covered in No Thing Exists and Everything Forms Every Thing. As for the notion of “The Other Shore”, think of it simply as the side of the Bay where the sun shines brighter and there’s a prettier view.

From Thich Nhat Hanh’s English translation of the Heart Sutra, The Five Aggregates are mentioned a couple of times such as in this excerpt:

That is why in Emptiness,
Body, Feelings, Perceptions,
Mental Formations and Consciousness
are not separate self entities.

Deeper understanding of the Heart Sutra equates to peace of mind. The Heart Sutra is a succinct encapsulation of Buddhism which one can read within about two minutes, three tops. However, as “spot-on” as the Heart Sutra may be, what it encapsulates is ineffable without decades of experience mindfully soaking in its deepest wisdom.

For example, I know what Business Intelligence is – at least I hope I do, as that’s my job. But I can’t effectively pass on the full depth of that knowledge to someone, even through a big book. To fully understand that knowledge space, it takes years of pressure-filled work, exploration of thousands of dead ends (which usually comes in handy some time in the future), an endless succession of unknown unknowns, terrible mistakes incentivizing you to find betters ways, and the resourcefulness skill built from having the technological rug constantly pulled out from under you every other year.

Likewise, progress towards a full understanding of the Buddha’s teaching (enlightenment) goes well beyond reading the Heart Sutra over and over again or analyzing each word to death. Think of it more as a periodic test of your understanding gained through your direct life experience and guidance from those who offer advice from their own experience. Hopefully, this post and the other three I mentioned above is one of those sources of guidance.

Change

Our capabilities provided through these Five Aggregates – senses, feelings, perceptions, thoughts, and consciousness – enable we flesh and blood creatures to “preserve” our form longer (live longer) in this indescribably dynamic reality in which we are manifested (Life on Earth). In our human case, “long enough” means to live long enough to mature enough to raise children. The Five Aggregates are our “smarts”, which enable us to some extent to outsmart the soul-less laws of physics – at least for a while.

If things didn’t change, we wouldn’t need senses, thoughts, consciousness. As Ringo said, “I think because things change.” We may recognize things such as our parents, our car, or our chair at work, but what we think we recognize is never exactly as it was before. “No man ever steps in the same river twice”, as Heraclitus observed. We could be seeing someone in disguise, they could be high on drugs, angry, therefore “different”.

Sentience

Sentience for humans is centered around our awareness or ourselves being aware – self-awareness. That is, I’m aware of something I define as “myself”. My sentience involves my body, sensations about my body and other things out there, my primal emotion about what I’m sensing, my perceptions of what I’m sensing, my thoughts, and the ability to reflect upon those thoughts – the Five Aggregates.

We’re aware of our mortality, in fact, the mortality of other creatures as well. But that awareness is merely a by-product of the real value sentience afforded to us. That real value is that we can manipulate things in our environment. Our human forms are machines that can recognize things, form a map in our heads of how those things relate to each other, imagine what the rearrangement of these things will look like, and to a good extent mold the physical world to that vision.

Sentience isn’t a uniquely human thing. It’s a continuum onto which creatures of Earth fall at some point. Even an amoebae is an intricate assemblage of molecules resulting in the skill to conduct a species-perpetuating life; birth, eat, develop, evade being eaten, reproduce. There’s really no  man-made machine as I write this that can do that with absolutely no human intervention.

pyranees
Gus, a dog we met on our Bodhi Day Holiday, is certainly feeling something right now. These feelings may not be exactly expressible in human terms, but something is going on in that big lug’s head.

Sentience isn’t just “thinking”. Most if not all animals can “think” to some extent. We humans are just much better at it than other animals. It also depends on how one defines “think”. For the purposes of this blog, “think” means that when presented with a decision to make, you’re capable of coming up with a novel answer that’s more effective than what you’d get plugging numbers into some rote formula.

And, although we humans are “sentient”, our sentience isn’t the epitome of sentience. Perhaps we’re at the top of one kind of sentience. But as our human brand of sentience may stand at the very top of a hill, there are other types of sentience throughout the Universe on peaks much higher than ours.

Symbolic Thinking

The Eternal Fishnu tells me that symbolic thinking is what the story of Adam and Eve is about. Adam and Eve were at first one with the Universe, until they made a choice to exercise their own will by going against God’s instructions not to eat the apple. The ability to exercise their own will is founded in symbolic thinking.

We are trained from the instant we’re born to recognize things – usually starting with Mama, Dada, then on to various toys, foods, etc. We’re taught the alphabet, a set of symbols, before we’re taught to recognize words (a symbol for a thing) before we’re taught to read a book (a symbol for a story).

The coffee mug sitting on my desk as I type is a thing. If I drop it on my foot, will I not feel pain? If I bonked my teeth with it, will I not require a trip to the dentist? The mug is a thing in the context of the “normal world”, that realm where you need to go to work to pay the bills and have no time to ponder enlightenment.

However, in the realm of your Dukkha, enlightenment, the Heart Sutra, and Buddhism, a “thing” is a symbol in your brain representing something we’ve sensed. Those things and the relationships between them form a “soft” model of the Universe from which we make all of our decisions.

Those things in our brains are organized into a map of relationships we’ve observed between those things, we’re able to perform experiments in our brain before taking physically irreversible actions. However, none of those symbols in your head, any of those “things”, really exist anymore – in the Buddhist context.

Those experiments we run in our head are the secret sauce to humanity’s ability to manipulate our world … as well as the source of our Dukkha. We take the continuous, fully inter-dependent processes and break them down into discrete things and discrete steps. If we think of any machine we humans have made, such as a watch (the mechanical sort), we can see all of the interacting gears, springs, and dial hands. We can understand how the cascading cause and effect from spring to gear, to gear, to dial works.

The Five Aggregates

The Five Aggregates comprises the high-level architecture of our human sentience – all that we feel and think, the foundation of decisions we make. In the context of the Heart Sutra, the Five Aggregates are discussed to methodically lay out the wisdom that all we think about is based on what is usually a highly flawed reading and interpretation of what’s really out there.

There are two over-arching points to keep in mind as you read through this section on The Five Aggregates. The first, as just mentioned, is that our reading and perception of what is around us is very prone to mistakes. Our symbolic thinking breaks down the oneness of the Universe into discrete things and discrete steps. That way, we can move around the pieces on the game board in our minds to predict what will happen. Thinking that this is an adequate model of the real thing is like thinking we can butcher a cow, reassemble the steaks, soup bones, organs and hide, and it will again be a live cow.

It’s all about building, utilizing, and maintaining a model of the Universe encoded in our neurons. However, this model is never nearly as good as the real thing, the Universe. In fact it’s pitifully inadequate.

Second, we really don’t have much control over anything going on around us, even though we want to think we do. We have some control over what is “close” to us. That is, what is physically nearby, not far off in the future, or what we have strong ties to, such as our possessions, our responsibilities at work, our close friends and family, etc. But that level of control, already not very well-founded, rapidly diminishes the farther out in time and space we go.

More interestingly, we don’t even have as much control over our own selves as we want to think. We have little control over how we feel about an event, what we think about it, and often what we decide to do about it. We don’t have much control over rather hard-wired instincts. What we often think of as our ability to control ourselves is our ability to suppress our expression of negative feelings that will get us into trouble. That’s not the same as genuinely expunging a negative feeling out of our mind.

Therefore, the point of this blog is to convince you of the futility of your desire to control things. Then you can settle into the world, at peace.

The 1st Aggregate – Body and Form

The Body and Form Aggregate is an aggregation of all that there is outside of ourselves and our sensory organs to detect what is out there. Those sensory organs sensing – sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch – are the windows into our brain.

But practically everything we sense is flawed. Or at least information we sense will quickly become obsolete because everything is always changing. Right out of the gate, our sentience is prone towards huge opportunities for misinterpretation of the world.

At this point, it’s easy to think of the phrase, garbage in, garbage out. However, that’s not quite right. Our eyes see real photons. Our ears pick up real sound waves. Our noses and tongues detect real molecules. There’s no “garbage” being sensed – those photons, sound waves and molecules are right here, right now. Where there is garbage is in your brain where there are conclusions you come to founded upon outdated and limited information.

Imperfect Information and Information Overload

The philosopher, Bishop George Berkeley’s, “koan” of the tree falling in the forest (and no one was there to hear it, does it make a sound?) fantastically reminds us that although we don’t hear or see everything, that doesn’t mean it’s not there. What we sense with our senses is such a small part of the whole story that there’s an inherent degree of speculation to everything. There is so much going on in the Universe that it’s impossible for our brains to sense everything.

Just about all information we process in our brains is based on imperfect information – we don’t and can’t know everything. But none the less, we still must make our decisions based on what little we really know – the real world won’t stop to give us all the time we need to make a decision.

Although it’s easy to accept that we don’t and can’t know everything, it may be even tougher to accept that we shouldn’t know too much. Even if our brains were much larger, capable of sensing much more than it currently can, that information still needs to be processed. “Process” means connect the dots about what all is happening and make decisions fast enough to matter. This point is very loosely analogous to having 80 billion neurons in our head, but that the real information is in the quadrillion connections between them, connecting those neuron “dots”.

Sensing more information than our brain can effectively process is information overload. Imagine your eight bosses in a room overwhelming you with all they need and all the reasons why. Your brain will be so scattered that you wouldn’t be able to help even one of them as well as you can. That’s a minor illustration of information overload.

Nature worked out the problem of the immense volume of information in several ways. One is the natural tuning of our senses, limiting them towards the goal of optimized fitness for competing in the game of Life on Earth. Everything we’re geared to notice is a lean and mean package of sense capability, honed through thousands of generations of competition – light, sound, smell. All so the better to notice our predators or our prey smartly and quickly enough to matter – day or night, hot or cold, in the forest or on the savanna.

Pretty cool, huh? But it comes with the price of the atrophy of whatever doesn’t matter most of the time. Our eyes have cells (rods) that detect red, blue, and green, but not yellow. Yellow rods would be redundant because we can also detect yellow as a combination of red and green. So if we hypothetically used to have yellow rods, if a human were to be born without them, it wouldn’t matter since there is a workaround. In fact it would positively affect that unfortunate yellow-rod-less human, as there’s room for more red, green, and blue rods.

Similarly, we don’t have receptors up our nose for every chemical – which means those left out chemicals have no smell, and so as far as our brain is concerned, it doesn’t exist. It can seem detrimental that we can’t smell everything, but if we could, that would again overload us with information. Now, if we really needed to smell more things, we could have evolved long snouts like dogs to expand the number of olfactory receptors.

So we don’t see, hear, smell, or taste everything – just what happens to have been the bag o’ powers most beneficial for our ancestors at the time and place of their lives, going back tens of thousands of generations. We’ve naturally evolved the bag o’ powers that recognizes the most important things – even though every now and then that trade-off of a wider breath of powers towards the goal of mitigating information overload fails us. But it works well enough for enough of us to mature enough to raise enough children. The heuristic of evolution is a “good enough”, not necessarily the “best”.

Further, much of what we sense undergoes a lot of massaging before it hits our thinking brain, like highlighting a picture for better presentation. For example, our eyes take in our three dimensional world on our two-dimensional retinas and uses algorithms in our brain to simulate three-dimensions. It even creates the illusion that we’re seeing a big view of what is in front of our eyes, even though only a small percentage of it is in focus at any instant.

Predator and Prey

If Life on Earth were a board game, it would be named “Predator and Prey”.

Our senses are mostly geared to sense change – i.e. the activity of our predators or our prey. Change is a good word in Buddhism, right? Ironically, at our human scale of existence, time frames of seconds and at the scale of creatures we would normally consider predators and prey, you often will not notice change – you won’t see your predators or prey move. Why? Because a primary tactic is to stay really still and/or pretend you’re something else so your predators walk right passed you and your prey walks closer.

At our “normal” scale of existence things may seem unchanged, but that doesn’t mean things are not changing. Although we may be aware of how things work at smaller or larger scales, we live at the scale of human existence. Are we usually cognizant of the billions of bacteria on our skin? Or the electron buzzing in the atoms? Even at the scale of an insect, “normal” is different. Insects can carry balls of water as big as them.

The bottom line is that our senses don’t see everything, and that’s by design. The net of what nature evolved in humans to sense and ignore, at the end of the day, results in nothing less than our position as the apex animal of Earth.

The Sixth Sense

Guess what? We are psychic. Not like Miss Cleo, but we do have the ability to read the minds of other people. We have empathy because we need the ability to read other minds – predict what is in their heads, so that we can effectively work with them or not be fooled by them. This is another sense along with smell, sight, hearing. Big parts of our brain are dedicated towards recognizing very subtle things in faces, such as the minutest of eye twitch or smile. Without a word or a sound, we’ re pretty good at telling if someone didn’t like something we said, if they are happy, angry, we’re still on the same page, maybe even lying to us.

It’s not “psychic” as in fortune tellers, seeing into your future. There’s nothing magic, it is mind-reading, an innate skill developed in our human brains out of necessity we call Theory of Mind. It’s just reading body language, which we all have as a natural gift and can improve with training.

We wouldn’t be able to communicate anything more than the simplest of information if we weren’t able to read peoples’ minds to some extent. That “unspoken” communication in peoples’ expressions and body language sets swaths of context.

It would be too cumbersome to craft completely unambiguous messages to be of practical use while we’re working together. It’s very valuable for to me just see the look of fear or anger in your face and know I’d better run now and ask questions later. No need for you to write an essay first.

But of course, we’re still often wrong about what we sense people are thinking. We may see someone is angry or in a receptive mood, but incorrectly guess why, which can lead to wrong conclusions.

Further, they could be great actors faking a behavior. Lying is something every animal is capable of. For lower animals, it’s called camouflage – prey hiding from predators and predators hiding from prey to ambush them. We humans are just able to take lying to another level.

The 2nd Aggregate – Feelings

Think of feelings as our most primitive and simple of thoughts. For example, when we were simple one-celled creatures swimming around a billion years ago, we felt water too hot or too cold and moved away from it. These are the sorts of mechanisms that are simple enough that we can imagine them evolving without some sort of “intelligent design”. I’ve described these simple “thoughts” in a series of blogs starting with The Root of Dukkha – Part 1 – Envy.

The Buddha mentions that feelings can be pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. In our human logic, we tend to seek pleasant feelings and avoid unpleasant feelings. However, the actions of seeking and avoiding are the cause of stress. That’s because in our human realm of existence, which is little more complex than that of an amoeba, seeking pleasure and avoiding pain isn’t as easy as binary choices of yes/no, up/down, or fight/flee.

The only widely effective solution in a complex world is to be like the Zen master, Hakuin, 100% accepting of what Is. Or, at the very least, learn to be happy with what you have, and know things can always be worse – believe me, it’s very true. I know that’s boring, cliched advice, but it is a necessary start that does lead to 100% acceptance like that of Hakuin.

This doesn’t mean we ignore our feelings. But we have no control over them, so ignoring them is too a kind of avoidance. Besides, our feelings are often wise advisers nature honed for us over countless generations. We keep faith and patience that they will pass through us knowing they are temporary.

However, although the ability to take comfort in knowing everything is temporary is a vast improvement, it really means you still don’t get it. It means you’re still judging things as good and bad as opposed to seeing the Universe as One, where all the wonders out there are due to opposing Yin and Yang forces.

The 3rd Aggregate – Perception

The 3rd Aggregate is the aggregate of the things we “know”, things we’ve learned, which we use to assess what’s happening now or could happen later. That knowledge is applied to information we’re sensing from the 1st Aggregate, our senses. We smell turkey roasting, we see people we know coming over to our house, and we assess that the Thanksgiving festivities are at hand. This is what’s happening now, right around us.

The 2nd and 3rd Aggregate differ in that the former is an aggregate of fairly hard-wired instincts, whereas the latter is more like software, the things we’ve learned and can modify as we learn more and our environment changes. Both are similar in that they process what we’re sensing and outputs actions we should take.

However, the problem is the world is constantly changing, as described in the 1st Aggregate. We sense only a very small fraction of what is going on, and it’s filled with deception due to the game of predator and prey. But we do need to make decisions before life makes a decision for us. We can’t all just sit still doing nothing. So we settle on something that seems plausible enough.

That means our brains often make mistakes.

I don’t mean to sound so negative. It only sounds terrible to humans because we’re aware of our mortality. Remember, we are spawned from a world where pretty much every creature makes a living devouring another creature. That’s how Life on Earth works, that’s why Life on Earth is over three billion years old, immortal for all practical purposes.

Note too that our perceptions of things dictates what we focus on. So going back to the 1st Aggregate of body/form, we direct our senses to focus on certain things, ignoring everything else. That’s how magicians fool us and fish get hooked. But we’re better than that. Aren’t we? Yes, we can think … we can reason.

The 4th Aggregate – Thoughts

Imagine having the intelligence of a fish. For that level of intelligence, if it looks like a worm, smells like a worm, and moves like a worm, it’s a worm. Or is the lure of a clever human fisherman?

It’s here in the 4th Aggregate (and the 5th Aggregate) where humans are much more developed than fish, reptiles, and plants. Thoughts and Consciousness are the keys for our highly adaptable skill. We’re harder to fool by our non-human predators or prey, we can manipulate our environment towards something we envision, and we can learn new skills.

Thoughts are what takes our minds to the past so we can better predict the future. But it comes with the cost of diluting our attention towards what’s happening right now. If what’s happening right now is that Thanksgiving festivities are underway, we may have thoughts of eventual family bickering based on past experience, regrets of weeks of dieting being wiped out, the mess that must be cleaned up.

It’s our unparalleled prowess in the 4th Aggregate, thoughts, which separates us from the other animals. By “unparalleled”, I mean that to be fair to other animals, our thought capability isn’t exactly exclusive to humans, since most have some level of thought capability. We’re just alone on the far end of the spectrum, an outlier of intelligence on Earth.

The 4th Aggregate is our “smarts”. It causes us to question what the 3rd Aggregate recognizes. It causes us to be on guard because we’re aware of the risk of something bad happening. It motivates us to action based towards what we predict to be something good. It develops novel solutions where the 3rd aggregate fails to find a fit tactic to employ.

It’s not quite as easy to say that perceptions are a picture of what we’re seeing now versus thoughts are what we make of it, what else could be going on, and what we should do about it. Thoughts and perceptions go back and forth, with thoughts coloring, distorting what we’re perceiving. There are dozens of types of biases applied to what we are perceiving.

We don’t record our memories as we would film. We reconstruct much of what we try to recall, and it’s always at risk for being pulled together in a slightly different way.

Thoughts come into play in perception when what we’re seeing doesn’t make sense. Thoughts direct us to look for something else that play provide a clue or something that may prove a hypothesis.

Thoughts possibly can be massively parallel, responding to stimuli, but putting two and two together, trying to recognize something not quite right.

Thoughts predict the future by projecting from the past. Perceptions and Thoughts are logical computations. They aren’t always right. Sometimes events are recalled, assembled, and are a little off. Occasional Error is a critical component of genes and memes.

The 5th Aggregate – Consciousness

I don’t know what consciousness is. There are good ideas out there, but all leaving gaping, unsatisfying holes. Understanding of consciousness is a nut really smart people have been trying to crack for thousands of years. For now, let’s go with re-purposing U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous phrase on pornography, “I don’t know what consciousness is, but I know it when I see it.”

Materially, consciousness is the aggregation of all our goals and desires. These include our responses to our primal emotions (2nd Aggregate), addictions, hopes and dreams, habits, and even our sacred beliefs. They are encoded in a yet undecipherable code distributed all over the web of neurons and synapses of our brain. But that’s not our consciousness any more than being a human means having human DNA.

That material description of consciousness is as dead as a photo of a Giant Sequoia or Bryce Canyon versus being there in person – with walking around it, smelling the smells, sharing moments of awe with fellow visitors, the tactile feel of the heights of the tree and walls. Even a video or art by the best artists ever falls short of fully capturing the conscious experience.

There is a big hint in the paragraph above. When we’re really there at Sequoia National Forest and Bryce Canyon, our senses are fully engaged, dynamically reacting to incomparably richer information than we could get from a photo or video. But “richer information” doesn’t mean higher resolution of what we’re seeing (5 megapixels vs 20 megapixels), or simply adding smell and touch to the experience.

The richer data stimulates more things in our head, and they are all connected in that web of neurons, synapses, and all the other stuff (fluids, neurotransmitters, “glial cells”) crammed into our skull. All our goals and desires compete with each other. For example, our addiction to junk food versus our desire to be healthy versus our limited time to shop for healthy food versus the convenience of junk food.

Our consciousness is made up of this tangled web of competing goals and desires. But consciousness is the dynamic process of trying to make all our goals and desires happy. Consciousness is a verb.

The Aggregate of the Five Aggregates is Us

So how does this knowledge of the Five Aggregates help us to be at peace? We see from much of the discussion above that the Five Aggregates are highly integrated. That means changes to one of the Aggregates affects them all.

We can conclude a few actionable items that will help us:

  • The fewer goals and desires that we have, the easier it is to make all of them happy, and so the less “turmoil” it makes for your brain.
  • What we think we sense and what we make of it is most likely incorrect to varying degrees. Therefore, we’re better off not clinging to what our experience tells us about what we’re sensing. Always have an open mind.
  • We have little control over the Universe and that our mostly futile attempts to control it is the source of our own suffering.

Our minds are not something we can see in a static blueprint. Our minds are a dynamic process as it is for the entire Universe. But we spend the bulk of our energy trying to stop the world, rather than using our sentience just to provide an occasional nudge to something caught in an endless loop.

See You on the Other Shore

There is a big trade-off taken for our prowess thoughts, the 4th Aggregate. Caught in the storm of the turmoil of thoughts, we suffer because we’re mercilessly sloshed around by years of our hoarded crap trying to predict uncountable possible outcomes.

If we didn’t have thoughts, we could be as content as the other animals just being what they are – perfect cows, perfect ants, perfect fish, perfect trees – unhindered by what has happened and what could happened. Cows, ants, fish, and trees perceive and react. With our advanced level for thought, life isn’t nearly that simple.

Zen and Buddhism are the skills we utilize on board our boat (our mind and body) to the other shore, just as we would utilize sailing skills on a literal boat. That journey starts from the shore of content animals perceiving and reacting, One with the Universe – to the other Shore, where surprisingly, we’re also One with the Universe! So what’s the point of getting to the other shore?! In between is a journey across a treacherous ocean where we’re at an Ugly Stage, half-way between the shores.

On the treacherous ocean we suffer. We’re aware of our mortality. We’re cut off from the “solid” ground from which we emerged and and all it offers. It’s a journey all humans are on because our elders pulled us onto the boat. They intend to take us to a better place, but the vast majority don’t make it all the way to that other shore. Caught in the middle of the ocean, caught between animal and fully awaken sentience, they suffer until the end.

Our ability to think didn’t develop in us for the lofty human goals and desires we strive for. It developed to better protect ourselves from lions and tigers and bears, as well as to better hunt rabbits and seals and deer. But it swept us off the safe shore of just being another animal to another shore.

What awaits us at the other shore? Well, almost magically, we’ll have our cake and you can eat it too! That is, we’ll be sentient creatures capable of design and manipulation, without all the suffering we experience due to clinging. If we see that everything is connected, we’re all one, not fragmented, we don’t cling to the past, we don’t cling to beliefs, we’ll be a force of the Universe. We’ll again we One with the Universe, without our Dukkha and the effects of our Dukkha on everything around us.

What is Dukkha?

Rubber_Ducky_a_Little_off_Balance
The Rubber Ducky Buddha of Joliet showing us how an unbalanced ballast results in a bad swim.

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.

metamorphic_rock
The Rubber Ducky Buddha of Joliet called this his Metaphoric Rock. Like this metamorphic rock, through heat and pressure, we change.

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.

The Other Shore

Waimea Bay.
Waimea Bay – Looking out to the ocean. What’s out there?

The Heart of the Matter

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 awakened 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 it occurred to me that in this Internet age I could find an English translation. It would be nice to 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.

Hanya Shingyo Heart Sutra
Rev. Hanamoku’s mother jotted down the Hanya Shingyo, the Japanese name for the Heart Sutra. It’s a “Japanese-ized” Sanskrit. For example, “han ya ha ra mi ta” is supposed to be “prajna paramita”, actually the sanskrit title of the Heart Sutra.

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.

Hanauma Bay
Hanauma Bay. The desert-like Leeward side of Oahu. My mother used to sing “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” here to me when I was a very young child. Why didn’t the guy pining for Bonnie go over the ocean too?

Like a Fish out of Water

All journeys are treacherous to some extent 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 … after a few hundred million years evolving to all land vertebrates we see today … including us.

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 towards the other shore today. Whether they reached the other shore or not, they all found freedom from the moment their journey began.

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My Bodhi Day gear.

My Bodhi Day

Very early in the morning of December 8, 2017, I left the warmth of my Airbnb log cabin in the Utah desert, 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 as a child and the English translation I just discovered, 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 it 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.

Then came the time I found myself on a relatively far-off island staring off in a direction with no other islands in sight. I looked out into that endless expanse wondering what was out there. But that’s all I did. I went back to my parents’ little island, eventually some time later 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 out 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 anything 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.

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This is from the day I met 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, confident, 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.

Fishnu said:

“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 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 until he left his sheltered life to find the Truth,

“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 that world with 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.

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The long steady path of the Enlightened. Enlightenment is having the smarts to visit the fantastic Zion National Park.

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: “Hello! Carlos Castaneda called and wants his meme back.” 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 skills we need to make the big journey to the other shore. With those skills built, when we fully recognize that reality isn’t a bunch of fragmented islands to experience each in isolation, we will want to venture out to the Other Shore.

The Root of Dukkha – Part 3 – Lust, Gluttony, Greed

Cherry Hut pie, Rubber Ducky Buddha of Joliet
The Rubber Ducky  Buddha of Joliet enjoying the greatest desert anywhere. Cherry Hut’s tart cherry pie with black cherry ice cream! Really, what’s there not to lust for and be a glutton and greedy about?

Situation

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.

Background

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.

Assessment

Bedazzlement

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.

Gluttony

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

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.

Recommendation

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

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Life in the desert adapted to make due with less. Yet, everything in the desert is so full of character.

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”.

Notes

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.

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.

The Four Noble Truths is an SBAR

Four Noble Truths is an SBAR

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, and can flow with harmoniously through the Universe.
  • 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:

Obutsudan

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”.

Fishnu and Rubber Ducky bless our bento.
Fishnu and Rubber Ducky bless our bento.

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:

Obutsudan we hoped to adopt.
Obutsudan #2. Mrs. Hanamoku and I were hoping to adopt this one. But I suppose someone else got it.

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:

A grand obutsudan.

The one pictured below is made from a kamaboko box!

Kamaboko box obutsudan.

Most sincere one:

cardboard_obutsudan
Fishnu and Rubber Ducky blessing the maker of this obutsudan.

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.

Bodhidharma.
Here is Fishnu and Rubber Ducky communing with Bodhidharma:

The Eternal Fishnu says I kind of remind him of Bodhidharma … which I mostly take as a compliment … hahaha.