My Zen Art

Mandala of ice.
My Mandala of the Winter 2016. Impermanent, like Frosty the Snowman.

A principle I try to uphold on this site is that there is no requirement for belief in a supernatural power. No Magic Necessary. By “supernatural”, I mean things not of our “normal” experience readily explained by math and science. For example, answered prayers, Angels, psychic powers, or 5-dimensional beings. I certainly believe in something much bigger than us, something beyond our human comprehension and 100% Good. But I believe intervention from that Source would defeat the purpose of this Life on Earth.

If such Divinity exists, I believe our Universe is a school where we’re on our own to incubate our Sentience. If the supernatural does not exist, at the very least, the teachings of the Eternal Fishnu and Rubber Ducky Buddha of Joliet alleviate our personal suffering while we’re here – even if our sentience is just a fluke of chance in the evolution game.

This blog site is written from the perspective of a computer programmer, not a philosopher or theologian. However, I wish to be clear that this blog site isn’t targeted towards computer programming types. I think most people today are familiar with what computer programs are and what programmers do – much more so than say what physicists do in the realm of quantum mechanics, another non-supernatural point of view from which the study of Buddhism is effective.

For me, computer programming is my Zen art. That is, the activity I’ve chosen as an Earthly/Human metaphor through which I explore deeper meaning. It’s actually a wonderful Zen art, as practical today as sword skills were for the samurai until about 150 years ago. But it’s so much richer for building insight into our minds as software development is about modeling worlds.

Praying mantis zen art.
Programming is my Zen Art, not this kind of Zen Art. Although this praying mantis is by Rev Dukkha Hanamoku.

I first realized the value of computer programming as a Zen art long ago when I was still in my early 20s. At that time I had about five or six years of experience of programming under my belt, as well as a few systems still in production that I’d developed from scratch.

One day I was called to fix a bug in software I’d written, a practice management system for a medical office. I made sure I understood the problem, gave thought to what could cause the problem, pulled up the source code, found and validated the bug, made a few modifications, and implemented the fixes. The software was “all better”, as a parent might say to a child after fixing up a wound.

I thought jokingly that the software should thank me, but realized it cannot because it has no conception of me, beyond that I have a patient record occupying a few bytes of the disk drive. A child would thank her parent for fixing up her wound, a skill still beyond that child’s capability. That child clearly can see that her parent, another human, does indeed exist. However, although I fixed my software, my creation, I’m incomprehensible to it. But I do exist.

It dawned on me then that analogous to how my software doesn’t need to comprehend me in order for me to fix it, I don’t need to comprehend God for God to be there. Further, I realized that I didn’t wave a magic wand to fix my program. As with fixing most bugs, I went through a relatively mind-taxing process. Our Zen art is our path towards becoming a “god” with a “little g”, a Bodhisattva.

I suppose if I were a better programmer, I would have noticed the flaw at the beginning and it never would have broke. But that’s being very unfair to me and all the other programmers who have had to fix their own bugs. Software for anything tougher than what’s required for a calculator will already have too many moving parts so as to be mindbogglingly complex.

Software developers are like the Samurai in that we’re all much more than just a technician. We’re also artist, poet (really, good code is poetry), philosopher, gardener, and tackle life with a touch of an outlaw spirit.

Hopefully, Life on Earth is the way God develops a new sentience. A sentient being is much more complex than practice management software, so building a sentient being requires a much more elaborate setup. Building sentient beings is a process. And it’s a painful one at that as our rough edges are ground down and our defects stress-tested into the open so they can be fixed.

It can be a painful process if we’re somewhat awake, sentient enough to see the gory details, but not sentient enough to see what’s really going from a higher perspective.

Compound Interest of Enlightenment

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The Rubber Ducky Buddha of Joliet marvels at the result of lots of time and energy.

Freeing ourselves from dukkha saves us energy, no different than how a well-tuned car engine is more energy efficient. We can use that freed energy to fuel us further through the chaotic Yin and Yang dynamics of our daily lives. We can divert that energy from anger, envy, jealously, etc towards improving our ability to flow with the constant change. For example, digging deeper into higher maths enables you to more readily pick up the latest technical breakthroughs or finally dealing with that technical debt of hastily developed software frees you from incessant support calls. You not only are more at peace but you’ve invested it into things that let your energy go further.

Buddhism is a skill. Yes, it is a religion and it is a philosophy, but above all, it’s a skill. It’s the skill the Enlightened practice every instant. Buddhism isn’t something practiced in the classroom or office Monday through Friday, or at church on Sunday. For every instant we’re not practicing Buddhism, we’ve actually practiced un-enlightenment. Think of practicing a sport – for every minute you don’t practice well, you not only lose that time, but you’ve also practiced bad form, paying a double penalty.

Enlightenment is 100% acceptance of what Is right here, right now. Therefore, there is zero-tolerance for accepting only what we deem good and fun, rejecting what we don’t like from what is right around of us. That’s the very definition of not accepting what is right here.

For me separating fun from drudgery means wishing I could just sit at my home office coding all day, just me, my laptop, and my brain. Coding is by far the most enjoyable part of my work. Indeed, it’s what I enjoy doing at whether the corporate office, at home, or even a bit on vacation.

However, to be of value to the Universe – that is, to put up my share of Yin or Yang – the software I produce must be useful in the World, not just useful for my own entertainment. To produce such software of value it must be fully engaged with the world. Therefore, much more than half the energy of developing software is spent gathering requirements, demoing what I’ve done, coordinating with other programmers, fixing bugs in production, taking care of administrative stuff. And that is perfectly fine, after all, we are One with the Universe, which includes the corporation to which I should add value for my paycheck.

Time vs Energy

We’ve all thought many times of improving our situation in life by starting our own business with our own ideas or getting an advanced degree that opens doors. But we tell ourselves we don’t have the time. If we think about it, we actually do have the time because we still find time to watch TV, golf, or indulge some other sort of entertaining thing.  But it’s critical to remember that our brains are physical things. They do run out of fuel, require refueling and other maintenance, and they do malfunction. Saving time by not letting our brains rejuvenate is counterproductive.

It’s more so that we don’t have energy. We all push back on requests shoveled on us by blaming a lack of time: “I don’t have the time!” No one can argue the physical constraints of time. But if we said, “I don’t have the energy”, they think us lazy.

Enlightenment is freedom from the energy drain of dukkha, the wasted energy from a vehicle on a wobbly wheel. Freed from things we cannot change from the past and running from futures that will probably not happen, we have more energy to focus on now, the only place that actually exists. Our enlightened recognition that change is constant and all things are temporary means we spend energy honing our Enlightened skills for the moment opportunity knocks, rather than spending that energy forcing the issue.

Focusing that energy on now, pays double dividends as we’re not spending that energy whining, alienating people, or otherwise shooting ourselves in the foot. Instead we use that energy in a virtuous cycle, fixing the wobbly wheels so we better blend in, align with the Universe. Like the samurai perpetually striving towards perfection, we don’t know when our moment of opportunity will come, but we will be ready when it does.

Life is the Dojo

Be mindful of what you’re doing. Neither drink the Kool Aid at the corporate rah-rah meetings nor fight what Is. Joyfully practice your kata and embrace the randori, as the randori is the only true validation of your practice. Empty your cup and embrace the madness, thankful for those others on their own paths, who will be your worthy uke and to which you will gladly return the favor.

I very much want to avoid a supernatural dependency on what I’m conveying. But time and time again, the Universe seems to be extremely wise in presenting me with opportunities only when I’m genuinely ready, not when I think I’m ready. However, opportunities are always right in front of you. You just need to see it as they are more often than not nothing like what you’re hoping for.

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.
  • 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.

 

Genuine Fearlessness

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Last Fall, the Rubber Ducky Buddha of Joliet and I were hiking around Canyonlands. “Is this catcus hiding under this ledge with its weapons deployed fearful?”, asked Rubber Ducky.

I thought about it for a few minutes. With Rubber Ducky, strange questions never have an obvious answer, so you need to deeply ponder his questions. If I blurted out my instinctual answer, I would have answered “Yes”, been wrong, and that would have been the end of the lesson. As Ringo Starr says, “Why plahnt seeds where it cahn’t grow.”

So I prepared the garden of my mind for this lesson. Hmmm … OK … the cactus under the ledge redminded me of “preppers”, tucked away in the mountains living in fortresses they call home, lots of guns and ammo, lots of food.  They’re obviously afraid of something. That similarity is probably why I would have blurted out “yes” without pondering the question further.

But the cactus can’t make decisions like the preppers. The cactus are what they are and the preppers are humans with the power of design and choice. What would the nature of a plant living in a dry, hot desert among thirsty, hungry critters be? Well … it would be like the catcus tucked away under the ledge with its thorns. That’s just one solution to that question. Another solution would be to live in an air-conditioned home of a human who thought you were nice thing to have.

I asked Rubber Ducky if this lesson is about eliminating fear, to which he answered with the question, “Why would we want to do that?”

Me: Because fear is debilitating. You go off and hide.

RD: Is that it? Are rock climbers, MMA fighters, and skydivers fearless?

Me: Maybe they are fearless … or better yet, they’re brave enough to face their fears. You can’t deny their courage, whether they actually have something to fear or not.

Rubber Ducky deciding to save us a bunch of time: Here’s the punchline to this lesson: No creature on Earth is fearless. That is, no ant, no dog, no human. It doesn’t make sense to be fearless. Without fear, Life on Earth would fall apart. What if predator and prey did just give up?

Me: I know this one! Predators wouldn’t be able to drive prey to do better and prey wouldn’t be able to drive their predators to do better. They push each other to be better!

RD: Yyyyyes … but what else? So they stop evolving … so … bigger picture … Earth would continue along its merry way over time, orbits changing, axis tilting, continents moving, volcanoes erupting, meteors striking … What would become of Life on Earth, the three billion years old creature in which we’re each like just a cell?

Me minutes later: The Earth continues evolving! But Life on Earth would be like a hermit clinging to his old ways as society around him changes, grows, impinging more and more on his solitude, eventually snuffing him out!

RD: The mechanics involved in this thing you think of as fear is actually fundamental to Zen. It’s the basis of the decision-making process of all creatures. For humans, it is a blown up decision-making mechanism.

Simple Answers to Simple Questions

The Eternal Fishnu later taught me that this fear thing started as simple heuristics – simple, quick and dirty, good enough rules. It’s a mechanism that can possibly spontaneously emerge within in a few short billion years. That is, as opposed to human-designed machines that would take way longer to pop up in that way.

Let’s go way back a billion or so years ago to much simpler times, when only single-celled creatures roamed the Earth, and see that the fear thing began as just a binary (Yes or No) rule at a decision point to choose left or right. For example, “sense” more food to the left then move to the left, to the right then move to the right.

For creatures a little smarter, sense a predator to the left then move left, sense a predator to the right then move right.

For even smarter creatures, left or right upgraded into fight or flight. Can I take that bastard? For these creatures that mostly translates to: Is that bastard bigger than me? Yes, then fight. No, then run like hell.

For such non-sentient or low-sentient creatures, such as ants and fish, if they were wrong, they didn’t care because the aren’t aware of their own mortality. All that matters in that some percentage of them live to reproduce so the species – not that individual – survives. Remember, the reality of Life on Earth is that it’s a competition of species, not individuals. It just seems that way to we sentient humans because in a way we each are a species of one.

Complex Answers to Complex Questions

For the not-quite-as-sentient-as-humans-today creatures (such as dogs, apes, or even humans in much simpler times) this decision-making mechanism became much more sophisticated. The increased complexity of life has grown the list of choices to more than a binary decision of fight or flight and the factors to consider that are plugged into our decisions have grown way beyond whether something is bigger or smaller than you.

For these creatures, a new heuristic had to emerge, much more powerful but still rather simple. And that heuristic is: If someone else is doing it, chances are that it’s  good. What’s great about this heuristic is that it doesn’t require great intelligence to purposefully come up with better ideas. One lucky individual could simply accidentally stumble upon something that works – and many of the greatest “inventions” are accidental, then it spreads like the plague, only it’s just an idea, not a virus/bacteria. See Mimetic Theory (Mimesis) to dive deeper into this very intriguing notion.

Today, with seven billion people in the world, instant communication, global-scale commerce, “fast-food technology” (everything providing instant gratification), way enough food, there are just too many things for us to copy. How many really neat things are going on out there? So many things to catch our attention because they seem fun, or things we should be doing, or things we should be avoiding. We sentient humans are plagued with desires, all because of this web of competing fears of missing out on multiple things because we have just one body. Our new heuristic has reached its limit, unless we like being pulled in every direction and constantly tortured about what we should be doing. That’s Dukkha to a degree not existent in the Buddha’s time when he thought that was bad!

Genuine Fearlessness

So that’s the rough story of Fear and Dukkha, give or take a few liberties with the facts. For humans today, it’s a relentlessly churning world out there where hiding under a rock ledge with our weapons pointing out isn’t a plausible long-term option. It’s a fine option for the cactus in the photo above because it has no goals, it has no desire to be anything other than what it is and doesn’t know to care about how its life will play out. It just does what it does in real-time response to what is presented.

So what’s the answer? The only genuinely fearless critters are the truly Enlightened. The Enlightened have no fear because they have no goals, yet they play their part – just like the cactus in the photo above. The only real difference between a human and the cactus is that we get to make choices about the part we play, even though we don’t have much say about the script. The cactus can only be a perfect cactus, nothing else.  They are 100% accepting of what is now because there is only now, the past and future are just ideas in our heads.

Becoming bigger is the way the unenlightened (that is, almost everyone) tries to deal with fear; richer, bigger, more powerful, more beautiful, more muscular, more talented, bigger car, bigger gun, more whatever than the next guy. It’s just a manifestation of that primal heuristic that is still in us – bigger is stronger. By hoarding these qualities, we believe we’re fortifying our hold on what we cling to, but it’s all just deodorant masking our fear.

You begin by emptying your cup – empty your mind of all that you know. Replace your “NO FEAR” bumper sticker with “no pride” … hahaha. Start with a 7-Day Bodhi Day Season.

Reverend Dukkha Hanamoku

 

 

 

Everything Forms Every Thing

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In annoyingly paradoxical Buddhist style I will now talk about how Everything Forms Every Thing, even though I just got through talking about how No Thing Exists. How can there be things that form when no things exist?

No Thing Exists is a statement about the true nature of the Universe. Everything Forms Every Thing states the same thing, but from the point of view of we symbolically thinking creatures. And therein lies the paradox. Let’s explore this paradox by first revisiting the statement of No Thing Exists then followed by our gift of sentience.

On one side of the coin, the Universe is a Mega Process churning away on its own, not much different from how on a smaller scale our bodily animal functions churn away. Our heart beats, blood rushes around, cells give and take things to the blood, food is metabolized, bad stuff and waste is gathered and expelled. Aside from our brain and breathing (to a limited extent), there are no organs in us that wistfully long for a time in the past or aspire to or fear some special future. It just does what it does – no questions asked, no whining, no procrastination, no fear. Which is why our conscious mind really has no control over those processes. If our conscious mind could control all of that, it would make a mess out of things.

There are no inherent things in the Universal Process. Whatever seems like a thing is just a snapshot taken in our heads, like a photo encoded in a JPG file on our laptops. Whatever things we think we recognize are no more real than what we see in our photos, a temporary phenomenon, ethereal ghosts, caught at an instant of the constant churning.

What can trick us into thinking that there are indeed consistent things is that things change at different rates, some so slow our brains don’t notice, like rocks. Some in an unimaginable instant such as an explosion and the aftermath. Even as you may sit in front of me talking, your mind doesn’t think of me as changing, but my blood is in different places, I learned something I didn’t know a second ago, probably forgot something, both which alters my immediate motivations.

However, there is a level of order even in the constantly churning process of the Universe. Although change is constant, so are the underlying laws of physics constant, at least in the realm in which our human bodies are manifested.

On the other side of the coin, we are symbolically thinking, sentient creatures. We’re able to manipulate the world around us. Over our lives we observe things, building a vast library of tactics in our heads. With that vast library, we slice and dice those things into simpler pieces, and construct from those pieces some image we desire, and proceed to manifest that image in the real world.

In order to manifest those images only in our heads, we need to move things around. Manifesting those images we construct in our heads is done in steps, a process. To grow crops, we must gather seeds, fashion tools, prepare the soil, plant the seeds, care for the plants (water, fertilize, protect from weeds and pests), and harvest the plants. Each of those steps are in themselves a hierarchy of sub-processes. However, until we actually accomplish those goals, it’s just a theory in our head because the Universe churns away and whatever happens is what happens.

How did we humans break out of the Oneness with the Universe becoming these symbolically thinking, sentient, designing creatures? No human really knows for sure, although there are many very plausible theories in the fields of Artificial Intelligence (close to what I do for a “living”), archaeology, neuroscience, sociology, evolutionary psychology, mimetic theory, etc.

But The Eternal Fishnu constantly reminds me that sentience is a continuum and that our sentience is just our human brand. Meaning all creatures of Earth are sentient to some extent, mice more than cockroaches, dogs more than mice, chimps more than dogs, and us more than chimps. Additionally, Fishnu reminds me that there are many kinds of sentience for which we are not aware or at least choose to ignore. For example, Life of Earth is sentient in a different way.

What we can state from a Buddhist and Zen perspective is that the great gift of the ability to design and manifest our designs is also the great curse for the unenlightened. These symbols, the things we know of which exists only in our heads, are things in the past which no longer exists. And our desire to manifest our designs based on these things  break our hearts when they either don’t work and begin disintegrating even as we’re still building it. There is nothing we build that lasts without our becoming a slave to it. In other words, we cling to a past that doesn’t exist and we strive for a future based on designs dependent upon a Universe that has no notion of cooperation. This is dukkha, the side-effect of our great gift which the Buddha has taught us to smooth out.

For we sentient beings the phrase Everything Forms Every Thing is the enlightenment that the Universe is One big process. Saying it “backward” makes sense too: Every Thing is dependent upon everything. Our sentience is based on the pitifully inadequate model of the Universe in our heads. We try to impose our desire (our will) in the Universe with varying success but our plans are based on future conditions we cannot possibly predict. Even a tiny thing we fail to consider will grow over the time it takes us to execute our process to manifest our vision.

Dukkha is that gap between what we want and what the Universe just does anyway. So is the answer to our suffering, our dukkha, to shut off our ability to design and manifest those designs? Are you crazy? This is our great gift!

Sure, simply letting go of all our desires would make us One with the Universe. But that’s not our nature, it’s our schtick, no less than an eagle is a perfect eagle. We have a duty to exercise our ability to design and manifest those designs. That is our schtick, our way to contribute our Yin to Yang, or the other way around.  It’s no different from the array of schticks of among all other creatures. If any species in an ecosystem just gives up, it’s all thrown into a tailspin.

We evaporate dukkha by practicing the lessons in the three Zen stories I wrote about:

  1. Empty our cup – We really don’t know anything because everything we know (in our brain) is something that no longer exists.
  2. 100% Acceptance of What Is – We don’t cling to a past that no longer exists, run or hide from a future that probably won’t come, or even enslave ourselves to “dreams” which are nothing but arbitrary things we see someone else has. We 100% accept what is in front of us, right here, right now, and that’s where we focus our attention.
  3. Continue on the Path – We recognize that the Universe is constantly in motion, even when it may not seem like it, whether we like it or not. There is no destination on this path. The Path of Enlightenment means that as the Universe moves in time, we move along with our attention here, not back there, nor way up there.

Think of the sand mandalas of the Tibetan Buddhists – so intricate, so much human effort to build something of such beauty, so delicate. But instead of attempting to preserve something so incredibly beautiful and delicate with Herculean effort, they let go of it. It freely returns to the chaos from which it came. We simply enjoy it, no remorse, no guilt. We appreciate that thanks to our sentient design and manifest capability, we didn’t need to wait the vigintillion years it probably would take before clumps of sand spontaneously to fall in that pattern.

 

Lastly, on a completely unrelated note, Happy Birthday to our friend, the uber-wise Ringo Starr, who turns 78 today.

No Thing Exists

Observation Point at Zion.
No Thing here today will be there in a geological blink of an eye.

In yesterday’s post, See, I discussed the phrases “Nothing exists” versus “No thing exists”. Let’s recap that discussion from another point of view because this is a fundamental Buddhist/Zen topic.

Think of having heard a Buddhist priest saying, “Everything is an illusion. Nothing exists.” Does the priest mean there are no stars, no Earth, no chair I’m sitting in as I type, no laptop, no Cable One providing my Internet connection, not even me? That’s what I thought the first thousand or so times I heard something like that.

Why would it be said that everything is an illusion, nothing exists? Well, it’s pretty much what the Heart Sutra is about, particularly the line, “Form is emptiness and Emptiness is form”. The Heart Sutra succinctly captures Buddhism – thus “Heart” as in “heart of the matter”, not the organ or Valentine’s Day heart.

But things do exist. When I leave for work in a couple of hours, I need to deal with the traffic on real roads, real traffic lights, real other cars with drivers, and everything else that prevents me from just driving in a straight line to work.

You’re probably thinking, “What a load of crap!” Things are there, but yet that is something Buddhist priests do say. So are they insane, high, scamming us, having fun at our expense … perhaps it’s wishful thinking on their part, as if reciting a mantra, “If I say this enough, I’ll actually believe it”. Perhaps some of them … hahaha. Things obviously exist, so out of the priests who aren’t insane, high, or whatever, they must mean something else, something completely different from our Western frame of mind.

Here’s my real-life version of an old Zen story: The hike to Observation Point (the scene in the photo above) is magical. The heights, the views of Angel’s Landing, the very real dangers, the wildlife, the constant change of it all, the untamable erosion. I said to Rubber Ducky, “I feel the Oneness with this place, nothing matters, things will be what they’ll be, there is no pain.” As I looked around in awe and contentment, my toe kicked a rock in the middle of the trail. I hear Rubber Ducky laughing his ass off – Mack Mack Mack Mack Mack Mack …

The Buddhist monk isn’t saying the Universe is empty but that whatever our brain thinks of, whether my car, Mrs. Hanamoku, or the leftovers from yesterday’s Independence Day celebration, are just snapshots of something I encountered in the past. Like JPG photo files on my iPhone or my laptop, they are just snapshots of scenes from the past, specifically the whatever the “Date Created” says.

These files are encoded on my iPhone and laptop, such as the photo at the top of this post, in no way resemble what is displayed, and even less what was actually there. It doesn’t capture what is behind the things you see in the photo, how things are moving, the sounds, the “Fall-ness” of the time I was there – the cool temperature of the air, the smells. It doesn’t capture that I’m standing very close to the edge of a 2000 foot drop, nor does it capture the spirit of awe I share with the few others there.

Such photos are pitifully inadequate models of what we are seeing. Likewise, my brain holds encoded snapshots of things I recognize that are just encodings in my brain. To be certain, our brain encodings are in most ways magnitudes more sophisticated than the encodings of a JPG file. But still, they are pitifully inadequate models of the what is really there now.

This beautiful scene rendered in the photo above no longer exists. You may be thinking that if you were to go there this coming late October, you could take a photo “exactly” like this. It may even be difficult to differentiate our photos side by side. But by this coming October, tons of the canyon will have eroded away, the trees will be different (although imperceptibly because of the distance), the drama of the wildlife will have a different cast. It may be so crowded there that it could actually be a bit unenjoyable. Do our two photos really represent the same thing?

Everything is an illusion. Nothing exists. Every single thing we think of is just a ghost living only in our brain. The only thing that exists outside of our brain is what is right here, right now. What do you do with this insight? Don’t be the guy who “knows everything”! You know nothing! Do you now know what that means?  Empty your cup! Take off your “black belt”, tie on that old “white belt” you haven’t seen for decades, and ironically sew the knot on permanently.