The Rubber Ducky Buddha of Joliet thinks I need to dig deeper into Dukkha itself.
The Prism of Suffering
In the Western world, Dukkha is typically translated as “suffering”. That typical translation is drawn from Siddhartha Gautama’s succinct and seminal realization under the Bodhi Tree that “clinging is the cause of all suffering”. To me, simply using a Pali or Sanskrit word for “suffering” is an inadequate icon for such a rich tradition as Buddhism. Dukkha must mean more than suffering.
According to Wikipedia, long before Siddhartha Gautama’s life on Earth, dukkha meant an off-center axle hole in a cart wheel, a bad (dus) space (kha). However, it’s not entirely clear to me from that Wikipedia article whether Dukkha refers to the off-center axle hole or the resultant uncomfortable ride on a cart with such a wheel. So is Dukkha in Buddhist terms referring to clinging – the cause of suffering, or suffering – the effect of a misaligned wheel?
Whatever the case, in the tradition of The Eternal Fishnu, Dukkha refers to the cause of the suffering. Why does Fishnu teach that Dukkha means the cause rather than the effect? “Suffering” isn’t the only word translators attempt to assign to the word Dukkha. They’ve tried practically every uncomfortable emotion there is. The notes of that Wikipedia page list among others, pain, stress, unsatisfactoriness, sorrow, anguish, misery, unhappiness, affliction …
That’s just much too complicated. A simpler way is to see that there is one cause to those many effects. As white light that passes through a prism comes out in that rainbow of colors, a single cause results in that array of manifestations of suffering. That one cause is the pitifully inadequate model of the Universe we call our brains. All those manifestations of suffering is the result of the inability of our brain to keep up with what Is now. That inability is due to the impermanence of the world, relentless change.
Change Management … HAHAHAHA!
Everything is constantly changing. Even if our eyes, ears, nose, and skin do not detect any changes, there are still countless chemical reactions happening in our bodies and everywhere, all sorts of things are going on in the homes next door, in the next town, across the ocean, and the Earth and other planets are still spinning around the Sun. Our mere 80 billion neurons and quadrillion synapses can’t possibly keep up with all of that change.
Our brains are models of the world that starts to organize from conception. We experience things through our senses, eventually recognizing things, and our brain organizes those things into a webby knowledge base of cause and effect, relationships between those things encoded with neurons and synapses. For example, if I cry, I’ll get attention. Unfortunately, at some point the rules change and that doesn’t work anymore.
Others contribute to that model by teaching us things they’ve learned about the world. Which means we save lots of our precious little time on Earth not needing to reinvent everything. We can pick up where others left off. However, this can be bad if what we’re taught doesn’t apply anymore because the world has changed.
But we still teach it because that’s the way it’s always been done. Whatever we teach others, of course we believe it to be true. At least we paint a picture that makes it look true. And so we all train each other with the same reality, whether it’s true or not.
Perpetual Beginner’s Mind
When we learn a new skill, we need to model the rules of that skill in our brains. The skill is composed of things involved with it and the relationships between those things. In our brains, it’s all synapses, wiring up of neurons – that web of cause and effect.
It takes time to fully master a skill. We start by learning the fundamentals of the skill. If we’re lucky we can relate those fundamentals to things we already know. For example, video game players are well primed to be drone pilots. If our brains happen to be primed with such prerequisites, we initially progress quickly and are called “naturals”.
If we initially progress so quickly, we may think, “this ain’t so hard”, and jump to the conclusion that we know everything. With our “green belt” skill, we will be able to dazzle almost everyone with our new-found talent. That is, except for the true masters with decades of experience under their belts. Those who have that last 10% which takes years to learn through real life experience, where rubber hits the road. That last 10% requires us, which is our pitifully inadequate model of the Universe, to rub right up to the real Universe – let the Universe polish us up.
Whether we struggle at first because we are not naturals or we later get slapped down by a “black belt”, we will either persevere or give up – both of which can be filled with suffering. In either case, not having yet crossed the finish line, we are in a state where our skill is half-baked, at an ugly stage. Not all the connections are there, or if they are, they are loose.
We will be awkward, there will not be an apparent light at the end of the tunnel. But if we persevere, at some unknown time those final few connections are made and the skill gels, it becomes “second nature”. We can execute it with not much thought, almost effortless, we make it look easy.
The problem is that things are always changing. If not changing in the world of that hard-earned skill, then in some other facet of our lives as humans. So we always need to update some skill or another and even learn completely new skills. Or conversely, we can instead hold our ground and try to make the world stay where it is – and that, my friends, is Dukkha.
The Gift of Sentience
How frustrating would it be if we played poker for money every night, but the rules changed every day at any old time? How would we become masterful at poker if it keeps on changing? The gap between the average and the best becomes narrower, so no one has enough of an edge over the vast majority to make a living at it.
And it wouldn’t be just the last rule change we’d need to be cognizant of. There may be rules that survived for decades that just changed a few days ago and we’re still overcoming that lifelong habit. We can’t escape change. Most individual creatures can’t … but the species does, through the process of evolution.
Human sentience, though, despite the price of suffering because we’re self-aware, gives us the power to learn to be anything we want or need to be at any place and time. That is unlike all other animals that can only be what their genes dictate they will be. We humans are soft-coded creatures.
Sentience is the gift to change with the change around us. And that means our brains will always be filled with half-baked, ugly stage skill. When we accept the beauty of our sentience and fully accept the half-baked stuff, we will be Dukkha-free. How do we do that? Live The Buddha’s teaching in the Four Noble Truths, and the Eight-fold path. And explore the roots of our human nature.
See that we were always Buddha, always part of everything, and that it was just the model we call our brains that thought otherwise. It’s as enlightening as it was for astronomers when Copernicus realized the Sun does not revolve around the Earth, but the other way around.
Astronomers tried all sorts of convoluted schemes to force things to add up with the Earth at the center. But it just kept covering up one mess with another. Similarly, we suffer convoluted lives because we futilely attempt to control the Universe with our brain thinking it’s reality, not the other way around. It’s that simple.
Analogous to how Lust, Greed, and Gluttony arise from Envy, the last two of the Seven Deadly Sins, Wrath and Sloth arises from Pride. From the perspective of the quasi evolutionary psychology point of view of this blog series, Wrath and Sloth emerges in our Earthly lives from our fight or flight mechanism, respectively. That is, the simple rule we employ to decide to stand our ground or run away to live another day.
Recall from Part 2 that Pride only masks our fear, similar to how deodorant only masks body odor. Pridefulness is not genuine fearlessness. Pride is the reason we become wrathful, vengeful. We’re defending our self-worth, that thing which exists only in our mind and nowhere else.
Wrath is our conviction that the wrathful actions we are executing – or wish to act on – are indeed justified. It’s crucial for our minds to have that conviction as we’re battling our enemies because doubt will undermine our efforts. Whether we’re right or wrong, over or under-reacting, Wrath doesn’t let doubt trip us up, dissipating our focus.
Sloth also masks our fear so we can protect our pride. However, Sloth masks our fear in the opposite way of Pride by making excuses for not dealing with a problem for which success is far away. Sloth is procrastination – doing something you made yourself think is more important, or dulling the nagging of your mind with drugs and other vices.
Instead of masking our fear with wrath or sloth, why don’t we cut off the source of our fear? That is, the fear of losing what it is we’re clinging to. So cling to nothing. Stop clinging to your self-importance, even your hopes and dreams, and the most difficult of all – all the stuff you’ve always believed.
Well that’s easy to say. It’s even surprisingly easy to do once Life pushes you far enough. Hopefully, we can figure this out before we’re pushed that far.
But if we stopped caring about anything, wouldn’t we eventually get fired from our jobs, lose all of our things, dreams, and families? What happens if we stop working 70 hours per week? Maybe we’ll be replaced by someone who will.
What if we didn’t stop? Would we burn out and lose everything anyway? Would we be rewarded accordingly? In any case, it’s time that we’ll never get back, and that’s how we chose to use that time.
The Middle Way?
Surely, perpetually wrathful, vengeful, hateful, people can and often do end up being the ones driving the BMWs, living on Melody Lane, and wielding the power at work. These “successful” folks are the ones we notice and envy while ignoring those wrathful, vengeful people in jail or homeless or isolated, who just simply fizzled out.
Did those failed people simply not try hard enough, not understand the concept of “go big or go home”? Perhaps in some cases, one could have won if they were more committed, all-in to their fearsomeness. But like any other game, and the quest for material success is just a game, there can be only one winner. And there’s a whole lot of luck involved.
Contrary to the “wisdom” of “Go Big or Go Home”, in Buddhist literature it’s often said that Buddhism teaches a “middle way”. You know, Goldilocks chose Mama bear’s porridge because it was not too hot and not too cold. It was just right.
Siddhartha Gautama was an indulged, coddled Prince, not even knowing there was anything to fear. He eventually learned that this wasn’t the way for most of the world. He lived in a fantasy world. He wouldn’t survive if that fantasy world suddenly disappeared. And it very well could have, as it has for many other such coddled prince and princesses throughout history.
He then ran away, did a complete one-eighty living the life of an emaciated ascetic, near death, not much wiser. The many great self-inflicted pains did connect him to much of the “real” world, but he was still just as troubled. Then one day, after a nice meal brought to him by a nice village girl and a nice long sleep, he awoke on Bodhi Day to the wisdom of the middle way.
The “Middle Way” thought of in the Goldilocks context is easy to understand and it is usually a wise thing to follow. The Middle Way is indeed a very good simple rule of thumb, a heuristic, which is right more often than wrong. Unfortunately, Life is so complex that there is a mindbogglingly large number of things to which we need to be in the middle at any given time. We can barely manage staying is our lane, eating a hamburger, and carrying on a conversation while driving in rush-hour traffic. There’s only so much multi-tasking we can do.
The Middle Way is attractive, not only because it’s easy to understand, but because it doesn’t force us to give up anything completely. It keeps us from crashing on the side of the road, but it doesn’t vanquish those Seven Deadly Sins, tamed, but still lurking in our animal brains. They await you losing balance and starting a slippery slope.
Alcoholics Anonymous understands that. An alcoholic avoids trouble by never touching alcohol again, but you’re still always an alcoholic. There is no middle way in that case. The advice as you leave the rehab center isn’t “drink in moderation”.
That Middle Way is useful, but not nearly good enough. However, there is a different way, the Way that the Buddha intended. It’s a way that is in some sense not as simple as the middle way, but like many paradoxes in Buddhism, in some ways even simpler.
Go With the Flow vs Being One with the Universe
It’s easy to see how the Goldilocks context of the “middle way” can be mistaken for the different way. They both mean the right amount at the right place at the right time. But sometimes the middle way is a euphemism for half-assed and sometimes the different way requires going all-in.
For example, in the case of Wrath, it’s not a simple a matter of being neither too wrathful nor too unwrathful. Any level of Wrath in your heart pollutes your Enlightenment. But yet, we must go all-in with full wrath while pinned down by a bear. The different way, the Buddha’s way, is to not cling to anything – to be fully accepting of what Is. That’s certainly different as we’re all indoctrinated from birth with attachments to what we should want and the way things are.
When we hear the phrase, “Go with the Flow”, we imagine complete passivity such as a leaf flowing down a river as if it was just part of the water. But the intent of non-clinging, that is non-resistance, is subtly different. The leaf flowing down the river leaves (no pun intended) no sign of ever being there. It may as well not have been there. Without resistance, nothing in our Universe would exist. All the phenomena we experience, including our own selves, is the result of Yin and Yang friction where things meet.
Non-Resistance means no resistance to what Is. It means to be sensitive to what is and fully do your part with a light heart.
All things put up this resistance to things, but they don’t suffer as we do. Unlike we sentient humans, other things have no will of their own, just their mass and energy. Anthropomorphically speaking, things just 100% yield to the will of Everything else.
Remember, though, we do still compete with other creatures. Our primal brain does come in handy. Our sentience emerged out of a mechanism, our limbic brain. It evolved simply for creatures to compete with other creatures for survival. At a relatively mundane level, Wrath does at least get our head out of our ass. Ringo says, “Bettah mahd than sahd … but bettah yet, glahd … Lahds.”
A tricky thing about the virtues countering each of the Seven Deadly sins is that taken to extremes, it circles back to another sin. In this case, too much patience, the antidote to Wrath, can merge into Sloth. Too much diligence, the antidote to Sloth, creates a lot of unnecessary drama in the form of Greed, Envy, Lust, and Gluttony.
Wrath at the extreme is horrible when it leads to killing or ruining the lives of people with whom you have conflicts. The key word is conflict. If we have no conflicts, we have nothing to defend.
As just mentioned, the virtue typically considered the antidote to Wrath is Patience. “Patience” says to await the right moment, not necessarily never to react to something. This suggests that it’s not so much the acts of wrath itself – fighting, revenge, preemptive strikes – that is the sin. It’s impetuousness – taking actions without a complete awareness of the present. We jump to conclusions with outdated assumptions from the past, incomplete information from the present, and flawed predictions about the future.
People do get mugged. Sometimes bad things are done to us. But genuine patience means we should logically carry no burden of Wrath in our heart. Wrath really does weigh you down like carrying around a 200 pound cross everywhere you go. As I say, I don’t like to write about dependence on anything “supernatural”, but I nonetheless know that the Universe is surprisingly just.
It’s difficult to convey how can I suggest the logical train of thought that if we have no wrath, we have nothing to fear, which means we should cling to nothing, without concluding you may as well just walk away from your job, your friends and family? Mostly, it’s because simply walking away from what is in front of you is clinging to the Dream of Sloth. Sloth will get your brain to demonize everything around you so you feel justified in walking away.
Remember too that not everything is bad. Running away means you run away not just from what you think is bad, but all the good things that take a back seat in your mind, while you deal with those bad things. Your life is interconnected with all that is around you. Go back and read the beginning of this series, Envy.
Ringo says, “Even if ya have nuthin tah cling tah, ev’rythin’s still clingin tah you.” What this means is your suffering is your insistence on molding the world to your image. That “image” based on that pitifully inadequate model of the Universe we refer to as our brains.
At best, running away will hit the restart button for you to start again, but you’ll be no wiser. You’ll run the same patterns and soon enough end up in the same place, just another decade or two older. Whatever seems annoying in your life is just your rough edges being polished away. Lean into that seeming discomfort like you would with a good massage.
Another difficulty with writing about Buddhism is avoiding the invocation of very tired cliches, such as:
You don’t appreciate what you have until it’s gone.
Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
We’ve all heard them. Chicago and Kelly Clarkson have sung these gems of wisdom to us. Yet there are still so many unhappy people in the world. After thousands of years of human sentience and a great many geniuses having said their part, humanity’s knowledgebase is an incredible treasure trove of wisdom that’s already here. Those cliches make sense, are difficult to intelligently argue against, and we can even offer logic holding up the wisdom. So why can’t we just fully digest these cliches and be happy?
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all be born with that wisdom already wired into our heads? After all, we’re not born completely blank canvases. Of course, there are our instincts with are hard-wired or at least there is a foundation laid that makes it easy to learn certain things and build certain tastes. But for the most part, our immensely complex web of neurons and synapses is well beyond hard-wiring such wisdom encoded in our genes.
We’ll each need to learn those things unprogrammable in genes. The great thing is, unlike most creatures, we humans have that choice! Most brains aren’t capable of learning things like “you’re stronger than you think you are”. The problem is these cliches don’t mean much until you have context under which you can appreciate it. Without experiencing any pain, what good is it to know you’re stronger than you think you are? When you hear it, it has nothing in your brain to link itself to.
The answer lies in the complexity of our brains. We mostly learn the same lessons, but the wiring is different. Wisdom isn’t not like the bits on a DVD for installing software. Each character is carefully crafted by very highly skilled people, every copy is exactly the same. It’s Windows or Office or SQL Server.
This isn’t an inadequacy in humans. This learning that each of us has to do also means we’re capable of being wired to be whatever we need to be at the place and time of our life. Creatures not as loosely wired as we are have no choice but to be whatever they were born to be. In the whole scheme of things, it’s a small price to pay for sentience.
What Buddha promises with the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path (the recommendations enumerated as the 4th of the Four Noble Truths) is to eliminate suffering. He doesn’t promise to to solve the World’s problems with these teachings. Easing our pain is like restoring oxygen if we’re trapped in a cave. There’s nothing we can do to get ourselves out without it. But once we have oxygen, we can devise a way to get out of the cave using what is right there for us to use.
We sentient humans always need to know why we’re doing something. Our brains are constantly analyzing, constantly predicting what will happen. Knowing why an opponent does something is the secret to figuring out how to outsmart it. There are many paths to the same place, but fewer destinations. For example, there are tons of ways to satisfy hunger and many ways to get to our work place.
In my field of Business Intelligence, there is something called the last non-empty value, in English, the last known value. For example, a patient’s body weight. If we’re doing analysis, say predicting who may contract diabetes with the next three years, we probably haven’t seen many of those patients recently and will use that last weight, with the bad assumption that it’s better than no weight at all.
It’s good to ask questions about what’s happening now. Where asking questions becomes a pain in the ass is when we spend a great deal of time planning around a truckload of assumptions we’ve gathered over the years that may no longer be true. We’re afraid to ask questions because the answers have probably changed and that means our plan probably won’t work. By not asking questions, we can continue to work in our delusion.
There’s a Zen joke that goes: A candidate arrives at the site of her job interview for a Senior C# programming position. She is stopped by a burly security guard. He spurts out “Who are you? Where are you going? Why are you here?” She say to him, “Wow! I really want this job now because hopefully you’ll ask me that every day!”
Sometimes we completely forget why we’re angry, and since we always need to know why, we settle on something plausible if we can’t remember the original reason. It’s true – read Oliver Sachs’ great book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Sometimes our reasons aren’t really even our reasons, but a bill of goods we were sold.
Do lions hate gazelles? Is the praying mantis at the top of this post vengeful towards crickets? In the big picture, they are a Yin and Yang system within recursive levels of a much larger Yin and Yang system of dynamics. That dynamics is the mechanism of the evolution of Life on Earth, which at three-plus billion years old, is the secret of Her eternal youth. She is forever young because whatever Life on Earth looks like, it’s fit for now, was fit for all times past, and will be fit for whatever future there may be.
Addiction goes way beyond the vices we normally think of such as gambling and drugs. If vices were the only addictions, why are there so many miserable people who aren’t drug or gambling addicts? That’s because anything we desire is an addiction – whether under the societal norms in which you happen to live it’s legal or illegal, moral or immoral. And for all addictions, there is a Universe of things standing in our way of satisfying them.
Addiction is an attractive force that actually pulls us to a goal – versus needing to push ourselves to that goal. A goal to which we’re attracted is a desire. For example, the desire to pour a glass of Bourbon if you’re an alcoholic versus the chore of getting into your car for the morning traffic jam to work.
Those goals! So many of them! So many people telling us what to think. Some cajoling us with promises of wonderful things, some with threats. Many of them contradict each other. They enslave us. Maybe we shouldn’t have any goals! Let’s look at that here.
Recapping this series on The Root of Dukkha:
Envy is the fundamental, underlying mechanism of Dukkha (clinging, addiction). Part 1 of this series looked at envy through the lens of mimetic theory, the heuristic of learning by copying. A heuristic is a simple rule, not requiring thought, that works more often than it doesn’t: If someone you respect does something, chances are if you just copy it, it will be beneficial.
Part 2 of this series looked to the exploration of pride as the answer to the question, “How can we be happy in a world infested with assholes?” The antics of the pridefulness in others disrupts our efforts like Earthquakes leveling our cities. Our self-Pridefulness engages us in the Dukkha of others, like a fish to a baited hook, dissipating our energy, the source of unforced errors.
This post lumps Lust, Gluttony, and Greed together because they are so tightly-knit that it’s hard to tell where one begins and the other ends. That tightly-knit band is Addiction, which is clinging – the actual Root of Dukkha.
Lust is the driving force. It fuels us to our goals through the roadblocks. Lust is closely related to Envy, since things we lust for often “belong” to someone else. Gluttony and Greed attempt to secure our lust’s satisfaction for the future. This is how they tie together:
If I never had cherry pie with cherry ice cream, I wouldn’t think of ordering it. I’d probably go with something familiar like chocolate cake. But if I saw many others eating that cherry pie with great delight, I’ll envy it, order it, love it, and thereafter lust for it. However, because I know the supply of Cherry Hut cherry pie is finite, I’ll eat as much as I can while I’m there and it’s available, and take a few home as well.
We not only lust for the obvious things such as fame, fortune, beauty, and delicious deserts, but also for things we wouldn’t phrase as “lust”, such as lusting for peace. What?! How could searching for peace be a bad thing? In fact, isn’t that point of Enlightenment? What in normal life we think of as peace is a lack of conflict. That is, conflicting with my desire to relax. And that is a destination as much as lusting for a week in Waikiki. In the world of Enlightenment, the only desire is the be in sync with what comes your way.
It’s not really the physical things, the objects of our bedazzlement, we lust for but rather the belief that it will make us feel good1. And it usually does. The problem is that darn impermanence thing, everything good and bad passes. Impermanence is one of the facets of dukkha. Not only do we obviously suffer when things are bad, but nonsensically we suffer when things are good, while we have the thing we lust for, because we know we’re about to lose it. The biggest example is our sentient awareness of our impending death. How much time, emotional energy, and other resources do we spend staving off death?
So we find ourselves in cycles of pursuing the thing we are lusting after, enjoying it, losing it, and once again pursuing it. This sort of resembles the pattern of reincarnation. We are born, we live our lives, probably repeating the same old self-destructive patterns from our past lives, maybe learning a thing or two, dying, and being reborn to give it another shot – until we finally get it right.
But reincarnation doesn’t play a part in the The Teachings of the Eternal Fishnu since one of the principles is that for our mortal life on Earth there should be no dependency on any “supernatural” phenomenon2. But what is relevant here is the pattern of the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth as it pertains to dukkha. Life is full of suffering and the cycle ceases when we finally get it – like on Groundhog Day.
Instead of looking at that pattern from the larger level of iterations of entire lives, we can look at numerous smaller patterns that rise and fall, over and over, within lifetimes. We keep repeating patterns that end up in job-hopping, multiple marriages, no long-term friendships, yo-yo dieting. Those cycles are played out over and over during our lives – until we break the cycle.
I’m going to use as graphic an example as I can with the “family audience” to illustrate this cycle. It’s not for any gratuitous effect, but because it has to be something bad enough to overcome one’s inertia, a slap in the head, knocking you out of complacency – like when the Ghost of Future Christmases showed Scrooge his grave.
The Cycle of the Meth High and Obtaining More Meth
First, everything I know about meth and the meth lifestyle I learned from the TV show, Breaking Bad. So please forgive me if the life of a meth addict isn’t quite what is portrayed, and I bought too much into the Hollywood crap.
In particular, I’m thinking about the awful life of the character, Wendy, the meth-addicted prostitute. Her life is an endless cycle of getting high on meth then earning money – in awful ways – to buy more meth. It’s a cycle that repeats itself on at least a daily basis, sometimes a few times per day. There’s no good and easy end game.
Of course doing what Wendy has to do to obtain meth is very dukkha-filled. But even once she does obtain meth and gets high, she’s already suffering knowing that in a few short hours she’ll need to get more meth. What’s even worse is that greed mechanism in her brain kicking in, and now she need even more! It’s a senseless cycle of suffering that can only be broken when the addiction, the bedazzlement of that meth high, is broken.
Our Hopes and Dreams Too?!
No one has a problem understanding the virtue of kicking addictions to alcohol, drugs, gambling, and even eating too much. It’s hard enough for alcoholics and drug addicts to kick their vice. But those are easy compared to kicking addictions to your hopes and dreams. Our hopes and dreams are as clingy as addictions to any vices. And remember, cling equals dukkha.
Most of us won’t achieve those typical lofty, bedazzling hopes and dreams we harbor from youth that were instilled in us by media and our well-meaning parents who wanted us to have successful lives. Whether our hopes and dreams are selfish, like becoming a rock star, or socially generous like ending world hunger, the world is a huge place with hundreds of millions of others with the exact bedazzling dream.
It’s one thing if all those people only cared about ending world hunger. However, the credit will go to the one (or few) who have a passion for ending world hunger AND wants to be the celebrated one who ended world hunger, Nobel Prize and all. It’s that latter part, the celebrated one, that is lust.
What’s worse for your lofty hopes and dreams than hundreds of millions of others competing for what you’re shooting for? What’s worse are hundreds of millions of others with hopes and dreams counter to yours! For example, ending world hunger will involve drastically changing many political strongholds, which will be met with much resistance.
Your hopes and dreams narrow your world to only a few possibilities out of the mind-boggling possibilities. Whatever it is you lust for makes the rest of the world seem unfairly mundane. That’s a ludicrous as can be with all that is there in the Universe. Your addiction, vice or aspiration, are just petty chemical reactions living only in your head.
In some sense, Gluttony should have been the first in this series on the Root of Dukkha. That’s because most of us readily relate to the joy of shoving more hamburgers and ice cream in our faces well past what we need to live. It’s also easy to accept as plausible that behavior as having arisen in us due to how scarce food often was in the past, so we’d better fill up while be can.
For the extremely impoverished today, not knowing when your next meal will be is still a fact of life. But that’s probably not the case for most people reading this blog. When we’re able to buy any sort of meat at about $2-3 per pound, and comparing that to the effort of hunting animals much bigger and stronger than us with a stick, the availability of enough food couldn’t possibly be an issue.
But during the times before agriculture, was food really “scarce”? It was scarce, from the point of view of our poor ancestors who were usually on the verge of hunger. From the higher perspective point of view of Life on Earth, food never was and never is scarce. There was always enough to keep the cycle of life moving along in balance. Periods of lush vegetation generate lots of deer, and they support a boom of wolves, the deer and wolves are then in balance – for now.
From the point of view of modern humans constantly striving for more, “scarce” is a relative term. Meaning, as opposed to some absolute/objective definition such as “less than 2000 calories per day”. For modern humans, with our sentient ingenuity, “scarce” means “less than or equal to what we have now”. And when we have more, that becomes the new normal. That’s greed.
Greed is a human or sentient phenomenon. That’s because we creatures blessed with sentience have the intellect to design and execute processes to satisfy our greed. We are able to design processes that exacerbates our gluttony by proactively ensuring we always have “enough”. The problem is that even after we have enough for multiple lifetimes, we’re still driven for more.
Greed is founded upon the primal heuristic of bigger is better, or stronger. For a non-sentient creature, the simple rule of thumb is that if a creature is bigger than you, you’ll probably lose in a fight. How easy is it for the bigger is better heuristic to develop without intelligent design? Think of being halfway between the Earth and the Sun with no form of propulsion. Which way will we be pulled? Why? There’s nothing more simple than that.
So we instinctively strive for more money, more of everything. Unfortunately, although wealth is power, power doesn’t equate to dukkha-free happiness.
It’s also true that the odds are greatly stacked against those without money overtaking those with a great deal of money. Certainly, this isn’t always the case as the countless of stories of people overcoming the odds of beating a giant demonstrate. However, for every David beating Goliath, there are countless defeated Davids. As Ringo Starr says, “For every Beatles, there are millions of unplayed guitars hanging on home office walls.”
Because of our primal bigger is better heuristic, more is never enough. Our mind will always want more. We need to be cognizant of that heuristic subconsciously playing in our heads and see through that smoke at what really is there. For judo, there is only so much physical strength a human body can build. Physical strength is indeed a factor. Lions, tigers, and bears, are much stronger than us, but not very inventive. Once we know their “bad moves”, we can avoid it and counter it with something they never would imagine.
And it’s imperative to work through knowing that the primal heuristic will tell me I can’t beat a bigger opponent. As a judo practitioner, I know that the elbow of an arm sporting “22 inch biceps”, in the right position, will break as easily as that of a normally sized arm. The key phrase is “in the right position”, which will eventually happen with someone not fully in the present. With patience and some care a fruit will ripen, and with patience and presence, that arm will eventually get in the right position.
We are sentient beings, already much more powerful than other creatures that don’t dwell on the past nor are consumed by futures that probably will not come. And yet Life on Earth goes on.
When Siddhartha Gautama awoke from his mediation under the Bodhi Tree, his mind had coalesced4 to the Enlightenment that our selves are inseparable from everything else. It’s a realization that runs very counter to the logic of our symbolically thinking mind, and it is hard to reflect in our spirit even when we intellectually understand that.
When the human lineage became sentient, that is, having a brain capable of modeling the Universe, beings with minds of their own, we each are born into this world naively thinking we can herd the entire the Universe to our bidding. Of course, we soon realize that the rest of the Universe is comprised of countless other things with minds of its own trying to herd us. Instead of giving up on making the world in our image, we drunken ourselves with Pride, raise our swords against our opponents with a great kiai, and dive into battle for the thing we lust after.
That was all great before we became sentient and realized how terrifying all that can be to a being aware of their own immortality. As terrifying as that may be, that is still the way of Life on Earth, and it’s bigger than humanity. We depend on Life on Earth as we are at least for now completely dependent on Her.
But we don’t want to roll back to the days of our non-sentience when we were just like other creatures without a sense of self. We just automatically did what evolution happened to hand us as behaviors for that time and place. We should push through this ugly stage of our journey to Enlightenment.
We’re almost there. The simplest things we humans do are god-like to all other creatures. We can design around the physical inevitability of events and evolution ruled solely by the laws of physics and chemistry. But we suffer because we expect to control the Universe, and it usually has other things going on.
We don’t need to retreat back to non-sentience. We just need to realize that the Universe is a complex system requiring “solutions for complex systems”. All of our suffering is due to the ugly stage of the journey, like the treacherous open ocean between the two shores of our journey, in reference to Thich Nhat Hanh’s interpretation of the Heart Sutra.
It takes faith and patience. And so let’s conclude this blog looking at how we move beyond Envy, Pride, Lust, Gluttony, and Greed through the Three Zen Stories of Is that so?, The Empty Cup, and Picking Up the Bag.
No Buttons to Push – Is that so?
So why would we bother to do anything when The Rubber Ducky Buddha of Joliet advises us to throw out our bedazzlement, our addictions to vices, and addictions to hopes and dreams? What’s the point with no goals?
Do bees lust to make honey? The bees do what they do. Does the activity of bees only concern bees? Doesn’t their activity affect all plants? They pollinate and cross-pollinate, helping the plant species along their evolutionary path.
We do this because we are one with all that came before us and all that will come. For sentient beings, the genes we pass on are minor compared to our deeds.
One word of warning, though. None of this means to give away all your possessions or leave your family for a monastery! Giving away all your possessions is a cheap gesture compared to tossing out your beliefs. It’s cheap like tossing out all the candy and other carbs when you start dieting. There’s just something intuitively troubling about Hernando Cortez burning his ships so his men had no choice but to follow him.
Nor does it mean to get really lean and mean (ascetic) because all you have should be what you need right now 3. Nature has a mechanism for us to have a margin for error. The ability to store fat in our bodies is huge – no pun intended. As it is for an Inventory Manager, there is an art and science to having a buffer of supply – not too little, not too much.
You actually can have all the riches you want – as long as you know you’ll be Enlightened if you lost it. It’s easy to think you will take losing everything well while you have it … but I don’t know.
Judgement – The Empty Cup, The Beginner’s Mind
Why can’t we throw out only the “bad” addictions and “immoral” things we lust after and still cling to our hopes and dreams, which give us purpose? For one, it’s sometimes hard to tell the good guys from that bad guys. Is it immoral to kill an animal for food? Most people eat meat, but a good proportion of people are vegans or at least vegetarians for the reason that it’s immoral to kill any creature. How could so many people be on two completely different sides?
If we think back to our younger years, aren’t there many instances of things we were told to do and thought were unjust (do your homework, eat your vegetables) but turned out to be true? Are eggs good for us? The “experts” told us they were good … then bad … then good … and will probably be bad again.
But the issue isn’t what is good or bad. The issue is to transcend the framework of these primal heuristics, which work spectacularly for non-sentient beings. It’s there that the notions of good/bad, big/small, worse/better matter. Under the framework of Enlightenment, we blend into what Is.
Our brain, the pitifully inadequate model of the world, just doesn’t have enough information to pass judgement with all certainty. And haven’t we all on multiple occasions insisted we were right, and found out we missed something. What we can do is cut all clinging so we are completely sensitive to what is right now and settle in.
The Lord is my Shepherd, I Shall Not Want … – Picking Up the Bag
The thing about achieving Enlightenment is that it’s just your mind that has changed because now you see with the light on. Everything has changed, but nothing has changed. When that light switches on, you’ll still be where you left off an instant ago. There’s no need to take any drastic actions like giving away your possessions or leaving your family – which kind of means you’re still missing the point. After Enlightenment, you pick up the bag and continue down the path, but now with the light on.
If you’re breathing, there’s nothing more you need. There’s nothing you need to run away to or from.
Does this mean settling for less? No, settling for less or striving for more are notions of the normal world. In the world of Enlightenment, what seems like settling for less is a full acceptance of what Is, whole-heartedly blending into the drama instead of fighting it. That is Peace.
If you’re mindful of Now, you’ll see that it is everything, it is all that you need. Here’s Matthew 6:7-10:
7 “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.”
8 “Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
9 “This, then is how you should pray:”
10 “Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.”
The Root of Dukkha – Seven Deadly Sins Series
This post on lust, greed, and gluttony is part of a series looking at Dukkha from the point of view of the seven deadly “sins”.
1 What is the feeling of “good”? Is it the shot of serotonin or dopamine we get when we land that big contract? If that’s what it is, why can’t we always be like that? Well, why can’t be always eat ice cream, all day, all night? It’s the relief of a pain.
2 Whether there is a supernatural world or not, Fishnu says that the purpose for being on Earth is to incubate our sentience. As we don’t interfere with the development of our unborn babies, except for a few times we need to intervene, we are on our own.
3 Think about the inventory concept known as “Just in Time”. The idea is to minimize your inventory, which keeps storage costs down, and keep s cash liquid. It’s a good idea, but if you’re too lean, and your demand forecast is somehow wrong, you’re in for a world of Dukkha.
4 Please note that I carefully chose to phrase The Buddha’s enlightenment as, “… his mind coalesced to the Enlightenment that our selves are inseparable from everything else”, because all Buddhas come to this same realization. Why can’t we just take this as fact from The Buddha and save us all the trouble? It’s because with 80 billion neurons and a quadrillion synapses, our brains aren’t even closely wired similarly – as would be the case for every single iPhone 6. Each of us is thus forced to find our own unique wiring to that same realization.
Why do we cling to horrible things from our past that should just be left behind like garbage or futures we only imagine? Conversely, we cling to things we hold dear that are pulling away from us or obsessively pursue dreams we are warned to be careful about wishing for because we may just get it.
The big problem is how to solve this conundrum: To abolish suffering we must be 100% accepting of what is. But we live and work in a world where most people live defined by horrible pasts and relentlessly pursue unnecessarily greedy dreams. So if we were to be a shiny jewel of enlightenment, 100% accepting of What Is, we are a snowball in Hell.
Most of us have at some time in our lives stumbled into precious moments or periods where we are in such a state of enlightenment. These are times such as during a long vacation or a retreat such as a Tony Robbins seminar or time at a monastery.
Interestingly though, enlightenment can happen at the height of periods where things seem like it just couldn’t get worse. Then from out of nowhere this sort of magical acceptance, capitulation happens. Counter-intuitively, your mind just gives in to it, as a gazelle may mercifully passes out in the jaws of lions. You get to that nice place beyond mad, where everything doesn’t mean much to you. And then, you get back to life, where slowly, you’re dissolved back into the muck of the world of Dukkha.
The Root of Dukkha
This post begins a series that looks at our suffering-related emotions through the prism of the so-called Seven Deadly Sins, inspired by a quasi evolutionary psychology point of view. Answering the question, “Why do we Suffer?”, is under the umbrella of that discipline because it’s quite universal among people everywhere and of every time.
I say “quasi evolutionary psychology”2 above because I’m not an evolutionary psychologist. I’m a software developer with decades of experience working on decision support systems3. These systems I develop involve a whole lot of moving parts resulting in chaotic systems that are really tough to control – just like real life. The complexity of the world we find ourselves in cannot be eloquently explained without looking down to the simpler underlying mechanisms. So let’s look to the underlying roots of dukkha. And let’s throw in other prisms of Zen, chaos theory, and mimetic theory ending up with something that doesn’t quite look like any of those things.
The “sins” of the Seven Deadly Sins are still within us despite our great intellect because they are deeply rooted in mechanisms that were of immeasurable value to our individual survival during our lower-sentience1 past. These “sins” are not “bad” things about us. They are relics of our old friends that manifest within us in uncomfortable ways as we muddle our way through this ugly stage of our transition to fully awakened beings.
We’ll start this journey by tackling dukkha head-on with the root of dukkha – the deadly “sin” of Envy.
Knowledge from Nothing
Imagine awakening alone in a strange forest where you don’t recognize anything – none of the plants, animals, rocks. There is no one around to tell you what’s edible or poisonous. You’re as helpless as if you were five years old. You’re hungry as hell and wander around these strange woods hoping to stumble across familiar food like apples or the the neighborhood McDonalds. You’re unsuccessful, but you do see a variety of bushes full of fruits, mushrooms, and yummy looking vegetation, none of which you recognize.
You also learned from a ranger-lead tour years ago at Yosemite that there are many yummy looking berries that are very poisonous to people. What do you do? You have one chance to be fatally wrong, no hospital here to pump your stomach. But you eventually spot what appears to be some sort of mammalian animal eating berries from one of those bushes. You reason, “The animal is alive, it’s kind of like me, so those berries are probably edible.”
If someone else is doing something, it’s probably OK. That sounds like a very logical rule of thumb, a heuristic. Most know that we can pretty much eat what mammals such as bears, seals, dogs, and cats eat. But there are exceptions such as eating eucalyptus leaves, the staple of koala bears, or chocolate supposedly being toxic to dogs. Conversely, some things poisonous to other animals are edible for us.
The “math will state” that living by the simple rule of eating something another animal that kind of looks like you eats offers higher odds of surviving to reproduce than playing Russian Roulette with the random variety of unrecognized plants (eating whatever you stumble upon) or starving. Countless other creatures played Russian Roulette for you.
You can benefit from the hard-won information gained by the fortunate ones that survived a particular berry variety by simply copying that creature. No sophisticated thinking is required. You don’t need the intelligence required to add two plus two or reason your odds for winning a round of heads and tails to execute a generalized simple rule: Copy what another creature is doing.
There are at least two major ways that new methods and machines, innovations, and knowledge come to be by we humans. The first way is that we can invent them purposefully using our intellect – so-called “intelligent design”. This can range from something as mundane as organizing my office to meet the competing requirements of comfort, efficiency, function, and pleasing aesthetics to inventing something epic such as it was with the nuclear bomb in Manhattan Project style.
The second way to innovate is less obvious to us in our daily lives but magnitudes more prevalent. That is copying something you observe. You discover a paradise city, it’s mentioned in a highly respected source such as Forbes as a great place to live, and before you know it everyone else has moved there. For me as a programmer, I can “learn” a new programming language fairly quickly by copying snippets of code without ever formally learning the language – even though I will eventually run into walls.
I need to digress a bit to explain that those examples roughly encapsulate Mimetic Theory. We can make decisions based on copying what respected sources are doing or endorses without having to invest a ton of energy getting into the weeds of the decision. However, as such copying of that good advice goes viral, it leads to a follow-up proposition of Mimetic Theory. That is, the increased demand for those resources leads to annoying shortages, leading to conflict – competition for those limited resources. As a great example of Mimetic Theory, I became interested in it because Peter Thiel is heavily influenced by it.
Back to the two mechanisms of innovation. The two mechanisms aren’t mutually exclusive, meaning we don’t use one or the other. In fact, I think one could argue that just about everything we do in the “intelligent designer” mode is founded upon copying and pasting, mixing and matching, copied components already in our heads that we’ve collected over our lives.
The copying mechanism came first. Why? It is much more likely to eventually spontaneously develop in evolution’s big game of chance than the mechanism of “intelligent designers”. Our human intelligence, along with the knowledge and technology we’ve developed using that intelligence is built upon that mechanism of copying.
Is a monkey smart enough to purposefully invent a solution for cleansing dirty yams, for example, taking it to a stream and rinsing it off? That monkey will associate the yam and motions of dipping the yam into the stream with a better eating experience. It isn’t sitting there pondering its discovery, “Eureka! The kinetic energy of the water in the stream and of my hands dislodges pathogenic particles from the yam that would be detrimental to my teeth, sense of taste, and my gut!”
That lucky monkey will “robotically” continue to practice the rinsing ritual. Unlike us, he cannot then write a book on the subject (a good title: The Stream of Cleanliness) and earn a living for the next year or so on the talk show circuit. Or compose a PowerPoint presentation to the decision-making executives in SBAR fashion:
Situation – We suffer from health problems due to poorly prepared food.
Background – Yams are dug from the ground. They are dirty.
Assessment – The mechanized removal of the undesirable matter will result improved taste and hygienic quality of the yams.
Recommendation – Yams should be transported to a stream where the constant flow of the water and agitation of the undesirable matter by our hands will remove it.
That presentation is well beyond the level of sophistication in the monkey education system. If not for the phenomenon of monkey see, monkey do, that “happy accident” (as Bob Ross would say) will die with that monkey, perhaps not to be re-discovered for millennia: A thousand monkeys eating yams for a thousand years will eventually learn to wash them.
They observe and mimic. Remember, it’s just a heuristic. They really don’t purposefully observe the happy accident and appreciate its value. They just copy it.
On the Shoulders of Consulting Giants
As mentioned earlier, even for we intelligently designing humans, we still primarily copy. Here are a few corporate mantras that refer to copying:
Why reinvent the wheel?
We need Big Data>!!!!
No one was ever fired for hiring IBM.
The last one isn’t necessarily a testimonial to IBM. It means that going with IBM is (was?) such an obvious, almost prudent, choice that no matter how poor the outcome, the executive that approved it couldn’t possibly be faulted. It’s herd mentality. The opposite is Not invented here, which is prideful resistance to copying.
All software developers today copy snippets of code all day long from blogs, github, stackoverflow, posted by the many generous software developers out there. The bulk of the code I write today mostly “plagiarizes” myself out of my toolkit/library of thousands of functions and megabytes of code I’ve written over the years. But most of that code and patterns in my head are in turn learned by copying examples of others.
It’s not cheating (the bloggers usually intend for us to use the examples they provide), or is in any way akin to taking charity (programmers are a prideful lot). It’s prudent. Yes, why reinvent the wheel? I remember back in those pre-Internet 1980s when I pretty much had to re-write practically everything except for the OS and compiler for each customer. Imagine writing my own browser, database engine and providers, analytics graphs, and all!
Metaphor and analogy are a type of copying. Even the overall structure of the analytics systems I develop are based on patterns, “cook books”, decades-old generalized algorithms. It’s all copying.
Envy – The Root of Dukkha
This notion of the simple, primal heuristic of copying is still our predominant mechanism for doing things, updating our skills, ensuring our fitness in civilization. That’s why advertising works. We’re presented with an image and there’s a good chance we’ll want to copy it, even if it is frivolous or even harmful. We really don’t have enough time to diligently think through every question presented to us, nor do we in reality have all the information we need.
It’s important to note that the model of our envy (the person in possession of what we desire) needs to be someone we perceive as successful. In a nutshell, that would often be those who we’ve been conditioned to perceive as glamorous and/or successful people. As children, we would mimic adults. At the very least the fact that they survived to be older implies that they must be doing things right. So even if you give it no thought at all, it’s a good heuristic.
We humans still take consciously and subconsciously take advantage of the countless unwitting experiments that happen in the world every second. Like gene mutations, the vast majority of these experiments are completely benign, no value, no harm. A few will end up harmful, maybe fatal. Even fewer will end up as a happy accident. Of those rare happy accidents, a small percentage will “go viral” – catch the eye of someone else who will copy it, and it will be observed by others, and on and on.
The problem is that with our unimaginably complex society consisting of seven billion people all connected to Kevin Bacon within six degrees, all striving for a piece of limited resources, there is just way too much to copy. It’s not the simple days of long ago in the days of Moses where envy was dominated by “coveting thy neighbor’s wife”4 or literally looking at that “greener pasture” over yonder.
We’re pulled in all directions, constantly bombarded with ads, not just while watching TV, but also during work hours while innocently researching on the Internet. And they are all appealing! Subconsciously, thousands of functions in your brain are screaming, “I do want all of that stuff!”
In today’s Big Data era, it’s interesting to note that Machine Learning models are just copying machines too. The only difference is that the algorithms look for a rule hidden in our data. No one tells it to us, but we copy it anything under the theory that if it worked before it’ll work now. Again, a pretty good rule of thumb.
Jealousy – Envy’s Partner
The thing about envy is that it’s not just about wanting something someone else has. In our sentient, self-aware brain, coupled with our instinct to survive, it’s also about not losing something we already have to someone envying us. That could be loved ones, our life, things we worked so hard to earn, our good reputation, lack of physical pain. Is this what jealousy is? The flip side of envy – protecting what we have as opposed to wanting something someone else has.
Gratitude – The Antidote for Envy
Each of the seven deadly sins is associated with an antidote, a virtue. For envy, that virtue is gratitude. But being thankful for what we have doesn’t really shut up the dukkha of missing out on all those things going on out there. It’s hard to be grateful for what you have when you’ve fallen short of your hopes or when loved ones are ill. The thing is, those thoughts are just in your head.
Every single thing you feel, whether it’s suffering or joy, are all just computations just in your head. Others may concur with you that this or that sucks or is great. But that’s because we’ve all learned from and taught each other these same things. Agreement by others doesn’t make things right. They are still just computations calculated in your three pound brain.
The reality is:
We can’t do or have every single thing we observe. Nor do we want every single thing we see.
We have nothing, and we want nothing. If you don’t understand this, you’ve missed the entire point of Zen. “Want” is the most terrible four-letter word. As Ringo Starr said, “I want nuthin’, not even nuthin’.”
Certainly, all that is going on out there pulling you in every direction isn’t just noise. For every choice we make there are choices we must leave on the table, opportunity costs. So to worry about what we didn’t do is madness since that means we would be in a perpetual state of buyer’s remorse.
Things we envy are of value to someone who for some reason we want to emulate as a model. But that doesn’t mean it’s of more value than what we have. It just means this person is someone your primitive brain considers a worthy model and so there is an instinct to emulate that person.
Cut out that noise. Be here with what is here and now. Yes, other of those countless paths you could be drawn to would lead to something else. But in the end, they are neither worse nor better. All we really want is not to suffer, to not live in a state of dukkha. Love what you have, evolve with it. Nothing is better or worse than anything else.
The Root of Dukkha – Seven Deadly Sins Series
This post on pride and fear is part of a series looking at Dukkha from the point of view of the seven deadly “sins”.
The puddingstone in the photo at the top represents all the change over the 4+ billion year old life of Earth. This quartzite puddingstone is metamorphosed (a very slow type of metamorphism similar to the slow smoking of brisket BBQ) sand and jasper stones for over two billion years ago, respectively hardened and re-crystallized over billions of years of activity on Earth.
1 By lower-sentience, I mean that I think sentience is a continuum, but there is certainly something different about human sentience. 2 I attempt to tie Buddhism/Zen to ideas from a wide array of disciplines. In order to stick to the topic (Buddhism/Zen) as much as I can, I cannot get too much in the weeds. 3 My reasoning for considering Decision Support Systems as Buddhism is because these systems are directly linked to our thought processes. This is unlike utilitarian software that are more machines like cars than something actually engaged in our decision-making process. I could term these Decision Support systems as analytics, business intelligence, data mining, whatever. Often, the differences in such sets of terms are stretches in order for vendors to differentiate themselves. 4 Moses may have noticed perhaps Aaron was taking a fancy to Mrs. Moses, so he made it one of the Top 10 Rules for Godliness.