Day 4 – Bodhi Day Season 2017 – Tidy Symbolism

Bodhi Day Christmas Cookie, Bodhisattva of Fragmentation

Today, December 21, is day 4 of 7 of the Lunar Bodhi Season of 2017, which began December 18 with the 12th New moon of 2017. Today, things start to get “real” … hahaha … I so crack myself up.

The 4th of the Bodhisattvas to go into the world providing guidance is the Bodhisattva of the tidy Symbolic world – as signified by his tidy, symmetric design – well, at least as tidy as one can be with sugar water. Four corners and four sides makes a square, rectangle. It’s a tidy piece – straight, perpendicular lines. With those perpendicular lines we can easily identify some point within that rectangle. We love them in our analytics charts because our eyes have an easier time comparing the size of two of them as opposed to comparing two pie charts. “Are we square?” We crop parts of our photos primarily as rectangles. This screen onto which I’m typing is a rectangle – I’m glad it’s not a triangle or circle.

We humans are sentient, we are self-aware. We have the extraordinary power of design. Even the laziest, least intellectual of us has power of design far surpassing any non-human. However, for the purpose of what I’m presenting, although there are other sorts of intelligences we cannot imagine, we are talking about human intelligence, as I know that all two readers of these Bodhi Day posts are human.

The power of design, at least of the Human Intelligence brand, means that we can compete against other species, other humans, and our predators (the ones we’ve already vanquished like lions, tigers, and bears – as well as the ones we’re currently dealing with like viruses) by going beyond our nature. Lions, tigers, and bears are all experts at being lions, tigers, and bears. But humans can exceed our human nature. We’re all expert humans no more or less than a lion is an expert lion. It’s that design capability of our that push us beyond what Mother Nature endowed upon us, resulting is our awful angst, our Dukkha.

The capability we humans have that no other creature have, at least anywhere near our level, is Symbolic Thinking. That capability means in our brains we create models of the world, symbols (you, me, car, work, project manager, deadline, success, failure), and manipulate them in our heads as thinking – games of “what if”. This virtual world allows us to experiment in the privacy and safety of our thoughts for free without having to do it in the real world, where everything is irreversible. In fact, Fishnu told me that the story of Adam and Eve is not literal, but about the emergence of this symbolic thinking. This “gift” of symbolic thinking is the bite of the apple that gave us powers beyond compare on this Earth.

However, that tremendous gift came with a side-effect of perpetual suffering. Now we can see that every creature on Earth makes its living devouring another, we are aware of our immortality, we now have goals we are enticed to meet – because with no goals, what good is the power of design. So do we eliminate our goals (desires), not kill other creatures? I don’t know. But what I do know is that in all processes, there is an “ugly stage”. Treating cancer is a great example. What an ugly process, sometimes so ugly that we wonder if the treatment is worse than the disease. Sometimes it is, and we choose against the treatment. But we may still go through the process with the Faith that the mid-course ugliness are phases that will pass and we will end up “on the other shore” cured. Think of Buddhism as what gets us through this ugly stage going from the shore of animal to the shore of enlightenment.

So what in our brains is this symbolic thinking? Is it a special part of the brain, a “sub organ” humans have that other animals don’t have? Is it because our brains are very large – some emergent property of enough neurons? No one really knows right now although there are very nice theories, some put into practice as A.I. It is the foundational interest of my own software development and I’d say it’s in some ways a little of all of that.

But there is a huge “cultural” side to our sentience as well. We train each other to recognize things from the second we are born – mama, dada, binky, spoon, toy, no, book, no, etc. We “recognize things” by drawing boxes around them from the background we observe of all that interconnected mess of the One. In this way, all of us humans have a shared reality because we’ve trained each other for tens of thousands of years, indoctrinating every one of us into the glorious religion of symbolic thinking, a reality where our will be done, or if not, we will be sad.

Back to the rectangles, squares, and let’s take a little liberty with today’s theme of four and throw in cubes, we can define opposing directions. Most familiar to us is up/down, left/right, East/West, North/South. Our brains are duality machines, judges of yes/no. So it extends beyond mere direction to good/bad, ugly/pretty, smart/stupid, fun/boring, you/me. But we can take those dichotomies further combining them into the blessed “Magic Quadrants” which the gods from Harvard worship. For example we can combine fun/boring with smart/stupid, throwing people into tidy boxes of fun/smart, fun/stupid, boring/smart, and boring/stupid categorizations of people. Now we have a tool for predicting who we should party with.

To design, we carve out things from the indivisible One, create a virtual model of the world in our brains with them as a graph of relationships, and imagine how we can manipulate things to get from one shore to the other. In carving out those things, we conveniently strip it of all the “irrelevant”, “non-significant” relationships, tossing that chunk of reality like fish guts into the garbage, and all the chosen stuff into a tidy box for which we provide a name. We pretend those irrelevant relationships don’t exist, otherwise it complicates matters.

But do you know what? That actually works! We’ve developed our great society, sky-scrapers, trillions of machines, drugs, etc. However, the One is in constant motion, even if our senses and brain don’t realize it. All of the things we’ve learned to recognize will cease to exist as our brains have recorded them, some faster than others, but they will change. So we fight valiantly to stop that leak in the dam, we will stop the march of time, we fight the relentless change of the One, clinging to all that we’ve built – at the cost of whatever suffering that entails.

However, Reality will win, because there is only the indivisible Reality. That world we fight to preserve is just a delusion of our brains. And don’t ask for confirmation from others because remember, we all trained each other to recognize the same “reality”. And with this paragraph, we have a preview of Day 5’s Bodhisattva, the Bodhisattva of Impermanence.

With that, here are the first four lines of the “Great Blue Heron Sutra”, given to me by Rubber Ducky:

[1] Infinity is all that is real, it is indivisible, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
[2] Dukkha results from the interference from our intent to treat Phenomena as if it is separate from the Infinity. We remove Dukkha by following the path towards perfectly blending in with the Universe with 100% acceptance of what Is.
[3] The Universe is a complex system and beyond the total control of anything. I will walk the path with no expectations. “Is that So?”, I will say at every turn.
[4] The reality of forms that we believe in is just a model of the world in our brains. It is a pitifully inadequate model as the only adequate model is the One itself. Our reality of forms is a delusion.

Keep Calm, Merry On!
Reverend Dukkha Hanamoku
Ordained Zen Priest of the Order of the Common Area Ponds

Links to each of the Bodhi Season 2017 days: