Posts tagged ‘buddhism’


A couple of books I’ve read some of

To update this post from (gad) three months ago on the book “Superintelligence”, I’m finally slightly more than halfway through it, and it has addressed pretty reasonably my thoughts about perfectly safe AIs, like for instance AIDungeon or LaMDA, that just do what they do, without trying to optimize themselves, or score as many points as possible on some utility function, or whatever. The book calls such AIs “Tools”, and agrees (basically) that they aren’t dangerous, but says (basically) that we humans are unlikely to build only that kind of AI, because AIs that do optimize and improve themselves and try to maximize the expected value of some utility function, will work so much better that we won’t be able to resist, and then we’re all doomed.

Well, possibly in the second half they will suggest that we aren’t all doomed; that remains to be seen.

Conscious experience is unitary, parallel, and continuous

Another book I’ve read some of, and in this case just a little of, is Daniel Ingram’s “Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha” (expanded 2nd edition). There’s a page about it here, which includes a link to a totally free PDF, which is cool, and you can also buy it to support his various good works.

An internal Buddhists group at The Employer has had Daniel Ingram join us for a couple of videoconferences, which have been fun to various extents. There’s a lot that one could say about Ingram (including whether he is in fact a Buddhist, what one thinks of him calling himself “The Arahant Daniel M. Ingram” on the cover, etc.), but my impression of him is that he’s a very pragmatic and scientific (and energetic) sort of person, who has a project to study the various paths to things like enlightenment in the world, in a scientific sort of way, and figure out what paths there are, which ones work best for which kinds of people, what stages there are along the paths, what works best if one is at a particular point on a certain path, and so on. There is apparently a whole Movement of some sort around this, called Pragmatic Dharma (I was going to link to something there, but you can Web Search on it yourself at least as effectively).

I’m not sure that this is an entirely sensible or plausible project, since as a Zen type my instinctive reaction is “okay, that’s a bunch of words and all, but better just sit”. But it’s cool that people are working on it, I think, and it’ll be fun to see what if anything they come up with. Being both pragmatic and moral, they are all about the Kindness and Compassion, so they can’t really go far wrong in some sense.

Having started to read that PDF, I have already a couple of impressions that it’s probably far too early to write down, but hey it’s my weblog and I’ll verb if I want to.

First off, Ingram says various things about why one would want to engage on some project along these lines at all, and I get a bit lost. He says that in working on morality (by which he means practical reasoning in the relative sphere, being kind and compassionate and all that) we will tend to make the world a better place around us, and that’s cool. But then the reasons that one would want to work on the next level after morality, which is “concentration”, are all about vaguely-described jhanas, as in (and I quote):

  • The speed with which we can get into skillful altered states of awareness (generally called here “concentration states” or “jhanas”).
  • The depth to which we can get into each of those states.
  • The number of objects that we can use to get into each of those states.
  • The stability of those states in the face of external circumstances.
  • The various ways we can fine-tune those states (such as paying attention to and developing their various sub-aspects)

Now it appears to me that all of these depend on an underlying assumption that I want to get into these “states” at all; unless I care about that, the speed with which I can do it, the depth, the number of objects (?), the stability, and the fine-tuning, don’t really matter.

I imagine he will say more about these states and why they’re desirable later, but so far it really just says that they are “skillful” (and “altered”, but that seems neutral by itself), and “skillful” here just seems to be a synonym for “good”, which doesn’t tell us much.

(In other Buddhist contexts, “skillful” has a somewhat more complex meaning, along the lines of “appropriate for the particular occasion, and therefore not necessarily consistent with what was appropriate on other occasions”, which a cynic might suggest is cover for various Official Sayings of the Buddha appearing to contradict each other seriously, but who wants to be a cynic really?)

It seems that if the jhanas are so fundamental to the second (um) training, he might have made more of a case for why one would want to jhana-up at the point where the training is introduced. (One could make the same sort of comment about Zen types, where the reason that you’d want to meditate is “the apple tree in the side yard” or whatever, but those types make no pretense at being scientific or rational or like that.)

In the Third Training, called among other things “insight”, Ingram talks about becoming directly aware of what experience is like, or as he summarizes it, “if we can simply know our sensate experience clearly enough, we will arrive at fundamental wisdom”. He then talks about some of the ways that he has become more aware of sensate experience, and I am struck by how very different from my own observations of the same thing they are. Let’s see if I can do this in bullets:

  • He starts with basically a “the present moment is all that exists” thing, which I can get pretty much entirely behind.
  • He says that experience is serial, in that we can experience only one thing at a time. He describes focusing on the sensations from his index fingers, for instance, and says “[b]asic dharma theory tells me that it is not possible to perceive both fingers simultaneously”.
  • Relatedly, he says that experience is discrete, and that one sensation must fade entirely away before another one can begin. At least I think he’s saying that; he says things like “[e]ach one of these sensations (the physical sensation and the mental impression) arises and vanishes completely before another begins”, and I think he means that in general, not just about possibly-related “physical sensations” and “mental impressions”. He also uses terms like “penetrating the illusion of continuity” (but what about the illusion of discontinuity?).
  • And relatedly relatedly, he thinks that experience is basically double, in that every (every?) “physical sensation” is followed by a “mental impression” that is sort of an echo of it. “Immediately after a physical sensation arises and passes is a discrete pulse of reality that is the mental knowing of that physical sensation, here referred to as ‘mental consciousness'”.

Now as I hinted above, the last three of these things, that consciousness is serial, discrete, and double, do not seem to accord at all with my own experience of experience.

  • For me, experience is highly parallel; there is lots going on at all times. When sitting in a state of open awareness, it’s all there at once (in the present moment) in a vast and complex cloud. Even while attending to my breath, say, all sorts of other stuff is still there, even if I am not attending to it.
  • Similarly, experience is continuous; it does not come in individual little packets that arise and then fade away; it’s more of an ongoing stream of isness (or at least that is how memory and anticipation present it, in the singular present moment). If thoughts arise, and especially if those thoughts contain words or images, the arising and fading away of those feel more discrete, but only a bit; it’s like foam forming on the tops of waves, and then dissolving into the water again.
  • And finally, there’s no important distinction to be had between “physical sensations” and “mental impressions”; there is only experience happening to / constituting / waltzing with mind. If there were a mental impression following each physical sensation, after all, how would one avoid an infinite regress, with mental impressions of mental impressions stretching out far into the distance? Something like that does happen sometimes (often, even) but it’s more a bug than a feature.

I suspect that some or most of all of these differences come because Ingram is talking about a tightly-focused awareness, where I am more of an open and expansive awareness kind of person, even when attending to the breath and all. If you really pinch down your focus to be as small as possible, then you won’t be able to experience (or at least be consciously aware of) both fingers at once, and you may manage to make yourself see only one sensation at a time in individual little packets, and you may even notice that after every sensation you notice, you also notice a little mental echo of it (which may in fact be the sum of an infinite series of echoes of echoes that with any luck converges).

This kind of tightly-focused conscious awareness goes well, I think, with what Ingram says about it being important to experience as many sensations per second as possible. He puts it in terms of both individual sensations, and vibrations, although the latter doesn’t really fit the model; I think he means something more like “rapid coming into existence and going out of existence” rather than a vibration in some continually-existing violin string.

He is enthusiastic about experiencing things really fast, as in

If you count, “one, one thousand”, at a steady pace, that is about one second per “one, one-thousand”. Notice that it has four syllables. So, you are counting at four syllables per second, or 4 Hertz (Hz), which is the unit of occurrences per second. If you tapped your hand each time you said or thought a syllable, that would be four taps per second. Try it! Count “one, one thousand” and tap with each syllable. So, you now know you can experience at least eight things in a second!

and this strikes me as really funny, and also endearing. But he takes it quite seriously! He says in fact that “that is how fast we must perceive reality to awaken”; I do wonder if he is going to present any scientific evidence for this statement later on. I’m sure it has worked well / is working well for him, but this seems like a big (and high-frequency) generalization. I don’t remember ol’ Dogen, or Wumen, or the Big Guy Himself, talking about experiencing as many things per second as possible, as a requirement. I guess I’ll see!


A few more sentences

Having covered the two kinds of roads there are that join The Way, as in something like:

Bodhidharma’s “Introduction to the Four Practices of Insight”
So, to enter the Way, there are many roads, but essentially speaking, there are no more than two kinds. The first is the entrance by reason, and the second is the entrance by practice.

The next bit starts to describe the entrance by reason, mostly to get it out of the way before delving into a longer discussion of the entrance by practice. There’s some heavy going here, so we’ll see how far we get before I decide it’s getting too long.

To start with, these two sentences; the Chinese and Red Pine’s English:

To enter by reason
means to realize the essence through instruction.

The first sentence more literally is ” [理] reason [入] entrance [者] thing* [。]”. We’ve seen those first two characters before; the third is subtler. It’s described in Wiktionary as (inter alia) “Used after a term, to mark a pause before defining the term” (which turned out to be a bit of a red herring I think). It’s a picture of Earth and a Line on top of Daytime (natch).

I struggled a little with it, and how it relates to the first character of the next bit (see below), and eventually asked in r/zen and ultimately r/classicalchinese, where I got an extremely helpful answer: apparently here 者 is a nominalizer, that makes the preceding term into a noun. 理入 by itself might be just “enter reasoningly”, and 者 does roughly what “to” does, making it into a noun phrase. Also (to quote the answer verbatim since it’s phrased perfectly) “Since Literary Chinese constructs its sentences in a topic-comment structure, the 者 also marks the topic, and the phrase that follows is a comment on that topic.” Which is maybe sort of what Wiktionary was getting at, I dunno.

The second line is even harder. :) It’s maybe like “[謂] say [藉] rely on [教] teach [悟] understand [宗] follow/revere [。]”. Gadzooks! “To understand by relying on and following the sayings of teachers”? But that’s not feeling compelling to me yet; seems like there are too many redundant characters, aren’t there?

Google Translate renders it as (wait for it) “Said by the Pope Wuzong,” which is pretty funny. :) The last two characters are indeed wù and zōng. Also MDBG says that 教宗 is “Pope” (maybe as “Revered Teacher”?), but that means Google Translate is consuming 宗 (zōng) twice, the silly thing.

The helpful r/classicalchinese answer tells us that 謂 here is “is called” or “is named” (or Red Pine’s quite reasonable “means”), so that works, now that we realize that 者 isn’t already doing “means” on the line before.

When asked about the characters 悟宗 one at a time, Google Translate gives “enlightenment” for 悟, which might be a Helpful Clue. MDBG translates it as “to apprehend, realize, become aware”, and the Japanese / Kanji section of Wiktionary gives a first meaning of “enlightenment”.

Widening our examination of 宗 by asking MDBG for all words (“words”) containing that character, we see a bunch of words around ancestors, religion, sects, clans, and things. So “禪宗” is described as “Zen Buddhism”, and “密宗” as “Tantra”. Perhaps 宗 is something like “-ism” or “the doctrine of”? That might give us something like “the doctrine of enlightenment” or “the doctrine of awakening / realization” for 悟宗 (while admitting that neither MDBG or Wiktionary actually have it as a single word/term as such).

The r/classicalchinese person says that 悟宗 is in a common verb-object form, and should be interpreted here as “awaken the essence”, 宗 originally meaning “ancestor”, but having grown lots of meaning beyond that. This is closer to Red Pine’s “to realize the essence”, obviously, and so is probably right! I do wonder how 禪宗 and 密宗 relate; maybe someday we will find out. :)

The very helpful answer also points out a nested verb-object structure in our text, which is apparently common in literary Chinese; the second line can be glossed in a notation I just made up as:

(verb: means; noun: (verb: rely upon; noun: instruction) (verb: awaken; noun: essence))

It’s likely that if we went back through the first few posts in this series, we could find more examples of this that would improve our analysis; but that would involve work!

Anyway, so far we have (keeping in mind that the process, not the result, is the real focus here) something like:

Bodhidharma’s “Introduction to the Four Practices of Insight”
So, to enter the Way, there are many roads, but essentially speaking, there are no more than two kinds. The first is the entrance by reason, and the second is the entrance by practice. To enter by reason is to rely on instruction to awaken the essence.

Next time: another aspect of the reason entrance!


The First Sentence of Bodhidharma’s Outline of Practice

Or, as we said last time, the first sentence of Bodhidharma’s “Introduction to the Four Elements of Insight”.

Again, we have just five characters: 夫入道多途。(The “。” is the period at the end of the sentence!)

Red Pine renders this as “Many roads lead to the Path”.

Google Translate (because why not) says “The husband enters the road in many ways”. Interesting that a husband showed up in there!

Literally word by word, it’s something like “[夫] So [入] enter [道] Way [多] many [途] roads”.

We got “husband” apparently because “夫” is “fū”, which means, well, “husband” (and “man” and even “worker” or “laborer”). But I wrote “So” because “夫” is also “fú”, which is a little helper word that means things like “this” or “that” or “he/she” or “this next thing that I’m going to say is what I think”, and the latter seems kind of like “So”.

(Keep in mind that I have no idea what I’m talking about here, of course, and that I welcome any and all comments and corrections. Also while I’m thinking of it the MDBG Chinese Dictionary is really nice and helpful. And I have no reason to think it’s not correct.)

“道” and “途” have both similar glyphs (do I mean “glyph”?) and similar meanings.

“道” shows (obviously) a little person with a stick standing on a road; this is dào, aka Tao, meaning a road, a path, truth, reason, skill, method, the thing that Taoism is about, and also an indicator of long thin things (like say roads and paths!).

“途” shows (obviously) a different little person with a stick standing on a road. This is “tú”, and also refers to a road or a path, a journey, or a course. Apparently it doesn’t get into all the philosophical stuff, though, so it’s just a route.

Let’s look inside of these two characters. Both of them have the road from “辶”, which is “chuò”, meaning “walk” or “walking”, which is sensible since it’s a picture of a road and a walking stick and all.

Now what about the little persons? In “道”, the little person is “首”, or “shǒu”, which is a person, but an important person, a “head” or “leader” or “chief”. (Also a “poem”, which is cool but we won’t pursue that.) Then in “途” the little person is “余”, or “yú”, which seems to be an old form of “I” or “me”. (Both of the little-person subsymbols are themselves made up of further small subsymbols, too, but we’re not burrowing in there right now.)

We could be a little whimsical here, and write “So, to get onto the road of important people, there are many roads that I can walk on”.

While we’re here, there’s “多”, which is “duō”, which straightforwardly means “many”, or “much”, or “lots”, or “more than” and like that. Just glancing at the glyph, it looks sort of like it’s showing two of a thing, which would make a lot of sense! And in fact it is: two “夕”, which is “xī”. It makes a little less sense that “xī” means “dusk” or “evening”; but it’s kind of poetic: “many” is expressed as “two evenings” (or “evening evening”).

(It’s (?) probably a coincidence that a character (word?) made of two of the same thing, is spelled “duō”, which is spelled about like “duo”, which also means “two”. Heh.)

And “入” is “rù” and means “enter” or “come in”, and also more figuratively “join” in the sense of “become a member of”. Which could be a sensible translation also, but doesn’t fit the road imagery as well. (Probably we could do “many paths join to form the Way, but we won’t right now at least.)

So anyway! :) Let’s take the first sentence of Bodhidharma’s “Introduction to the Four Elements of Insight” to be something like “So, to enter the Way, there are many roads.” I like that!

(Still no decorative images or even pullquotes, but at least we looked quasi-visually inside some glyphs…)

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The Title of Bodhidharma’s Outline of Practice

Various things have converged lately, and gotten me increasingly interested in Zen and Buddhism and all again. First (in some order) my GP decided that the diastolic blood pressure that I’ve had like forever is too high, and that I need to exercise more and eat less salt and stuff, or else I’ll have to take a tiny additional pill.

(I tried to tell him that taking a tiny additional pill seemed by far the easier solution, and he was kind of taken aback. I suppose that’s the Easy Way Out or something. Doctors, eh?)

But anyway in order to placate the doctor, I am now walking a treadmill at a bit over three miles per hour for a bit over forty minutes, something like four days a week. And since I’m developing habits anyway, on the other three days I’m trying to sit (“meditate”) for thirty minutes, in order to see clearly my original nature and all (rather than doing it on whatever days I happened to remember and wasn’t doing anything else, which wasn’t nearly three times a week I don’t think).

Second, someone at work started a “Buddhists” chatroom-thing on the intranet, and people have been talking about some interesting stuff in there, including the fascinating ambiguity or otherwise complexity of translation from original Zen and Buddhist sources into English.

And as a result of the second, and because I’ve been active in Reddit lately due to that being where most of the GPT discussion seems to be happening (outside of Discord, which I’m still resisting), I went and looked at some of the relevant subreddits. It turns out that r/zen is a peculiar kind of place (in some ways like ol’ alt.zen back in the day) dominated by a smallish number of highly opinionated and sharp-quilled posters who apparently have lots and lots of time on their hands. r/zenbuddhism is more peaceful (and, notably, not often mentioned on r/zen, because at least one of the opinionated and quilled posters there is of the opinion that Zen and Buddhism are unrelated, and refers to Zen Buddhism as “Dogen Buddhism”, and has a highly negative view of ol’ Dogen).

Combining those things with how easy it is to order books on a whim (even from places that aren’t Amazon!) I am slowly adding to my collection of Zen-related books, and one of the new arrivals (not that there might not be a copy upstairs already that I just forgot about) is the very nice “The Zen Teachings of Bodhidharma”, translated by Red Pine. This volume is especially nice, in that it has the translation on the right-hand pages, and the original Chinese (in some sense) on the left-hand pages.

Combining that with Google Translate and online versions of the Chinese, and some discussion in the chatroom at work, has resulted in my wanting to look at some of these Chinese characters, and figure out how some of these English words relate to them. (Very very long-time readers may recall that I did my own “translations” of the first few verses of the Tao Te Ching many years ago; I don’t think I referred to the original while doing that, though; and I’m too lazy to look it up, heh heh.)

So! Let’s consider the title of the very first piece of writing in here. If we work really hard, we might later get to the first sentence!

The title is rendered in English as “Outline of Practice”, which I expect isn’t Red Pine’s fault and that’s what it’s been called since forever or something, as it seems to be a rather poor title. It doesn’t even count as a translation, really, of the actual title, which is “入道四行觀” (and I really hope nothing in WordPress or anything has any trouble with those characters; it’s 2021 after all!).

These characters do not mean “Outline of Practice” except in the most general possible sense. Literally one at a time, they say something on the order of “[入] Into [道] Way [四] Four [行] Xing [觀] Insight”; that is “Entrance to the Four Xing of Insight”.

I write just “Xing” for ” 行 ” there, because omg it means a lot of different things. Amusingly, for instance, it means “row” (as of a table of data) in mainland China, and “column” (as of a table of data) in Taiwan. Or so Wiktionary tells me. That must cause… some confusion.

Another thing that “Xing” can mean is, roughly, “thing” or “item”, or more grandly “aspect” or “element” (I may be stretching it a bit with “aspect”). Which might get us to, say, “Introduction to the four elements of insight”, which is kind of nice.

If we point ol’ Google Translate at the whole title, it happily says “Entrance into the four elements of Taoism”, which is a bit surprising! “觀” as “Taoism” is fun, and presumably highly contextual, as if we reverse the direction of translation, Google Translate renders “Taoism” as “道教”, which is, well, “Taoism”, as “道” is “Tao” and ” 教” is “teaching”. When we put “觀” into the big Google Search Bar, we get a sidebar that tells is that it means “Vipassanā”, which is not the same thing as Taoism.

Isn’t that all fun and complicated? And it’s just five characters!

So if I continue to be interested in this, and motivated to type about it in the weblog here, maybe next time we will analyze the first sentence (also, fortunately, just five characters) of Bodhidharma’s “Introduction to the Four Elements of Insight”. :)

(Also if I can figure out how to freaking introduce small decorative images into this stupid WordPress editor, maybe it will be more visually interesting, too, heh.)

Update: Turns out that “行” is even more complicated than my initial amateur fiddling revealed: the meanings having to do with row and columns and items are not Xing but háng, and even Xing is not Xing but xíng. Among the many meanings of xíng are things like “to walk”, “to go”, “behavior”, and “conduct”, so we might also have say “Introduction to the Four Practices of Insight” which among other things would be very slightly closer to that “Outline of Practice” thing. Whee!


January First

I keep meaning to start this weblog entry about how I’m going to play WoW less and write in my weblog more, but it’s tempting to play WoW instead.

Why is that?

That is probably my main New Year’s Resolution. I don’t normally make New Year’s resolutions, ’cause y’know.  But that’d be a good one to try, anyway

I have a couple of max-level characters in WoW Legion now; my Demon Hunter (whose only concern is whether she can get enough enemies to attack her at once that her victory over them isn’t boringly trivial), and ol’ Spennix the Rogue (whose main concern is whether she has enough run-away abilities off cooldown to avoid dying yet again).

(And the Demon Hunter’s next major task is to gather 80 (eighty) of something that sometimes (once in awhile) drops from the very last boss in a dungeon.  So yeah.)

My Official 2017 Comic Frame and Aspirational Resolution is of course:

for the obvious reasons.

I’ve even joined the DSA, along with a zillion other Twitter liberals; we’ll see if I manage to do more / other than sending them money and posting anti-Nazi memes.

2017 is sure to be interesting in one or more ways. After 2016, I have no confidence whatever in my ability to make predictions about the future (that’s the hardest kind!) that are any more specific than that.

I should probably Resolve to do Twitter less as well. Twitter is a pretty good thing, really; I’ve encountered lots of interesting people, learned lots of stuff.  It’s my main source of news now. But I spend an absurd amount of time reading it and Liking and Retweeting things; a less absurd amount might be good.

I should sit more, too. And maybe work on my irrational (irrational?) dislike for the word “meditation”. :)

I’ve been doing Quora a bit. At first I was impressed by the quality of the questions and answers; over time I’ve gotten a little less impressed, and wonder how good a use of time it really is; but I did write this, of possible interest:

Why do you practice Zen?

So when you ask a Zen question, you’re likely to get a Zen story. :)

This student is sitting meditating, and one of those annoying Masters comes by and says, “Why are you meditating?”. And the student says “So that I may become an enlightened Buddha.” (Or for that matter “To save sentient beings”, or really any sort of aspirational statement at all.)

The Master nods, and picks up a floor tile, and starts polishing it with a corner of his robe.

The student (perhaps sensing he is in a story) says, “Why are you polishing that floor tile, Master?”.

The master says, “To make it into a mirror.”

The student says, “But Master, no amount of polishing will — oh, I get it, very funny, very funny,” and goes back to meditating.

Or, alternately, how much do we really know about why we do anything?

I meditate because it seems like a cool thing to do. Because it is the practice of the Buddha Ancestors. Because lots of really interesting people meditate. Because when I was small, I would have these moments when I sort of lost track of which was the world and which was me (“I just don’t see how I am me,” I summarized it), and meditation is the best way I’ve found to sort of get back to that feeling again.

Also to save sentient beings.

And to make a mirror out of this floor tile. :)

Again largely thanks to Twitter, I’ve become very aware of my privilege, and of what that means. I can rest and just not think about discrimination and injustice and oppression for awhile, pretty much any time I want, because their effects are not right there in my face unless I go out looking for them. I’m grateful for this, but also want to figure out how to be effective at making the world a freer and juster place even though it’s not forced upon me.

I have fallen even more in love with New York City in the past year. I want to spend more time walking randomly, more time in Brooklyn (and even maybe boroughs that aren’t Manhattan or Brooklyn!), more time out of, and in, Chelsea (or is it Meatpacking?). I want to go to BAM, I want to go to Birdland, and to little music clubs that aren’t Birdland. I want to talk to more people.

Have I mentioned that I wrote a NaNoWriMo novel in 2016? I finished it with like twelve minutes to spare, Pacific time, in November, which was a first. I think it’s online somewhere, let’s see…

The Mercy of Fate

In a fancy Google Doc this year, rather than a flat text file (ooohhh!).  I remember very little about large chunks of it, which were written very very late at night. Or at least what felt like very very late at night to these ancient bones.

All various good people died in 2016, and an awful pathological narcissist was somehow elected President of the United States. But probably you know about those things, and I don’t feel like I have much original to add on those subjects at this point.

Today we are going to make New Years Dumplings, as is extremely traditional!  The little daughter is here, but needs to sleep before she is functional enough to help.  M and the little boy and I are sitting around doing more or less normal Sunday Morning things, except for no bagels because The Bagel Store is not answering their phone and therefore we have concluded they are probably not open because it is New Years Day.

Tuesday (day after tomorrow, apparently!) I go back to work, after a nice long year-end vacation. I’m looking forward to that in various ways; still loving work and even the commute, and of course being in Manhattan with all of its energy and infinite variety.  Maybe tomorrow I will connect my little Chromebook to work, and get a head start on the email backlog.

Maybe today I will go into Second Life and take my usual pictures for a New Years card and a new profile picture.

Maybe I will also play WoW.  Just a little?  :)


Not a good comparison


My mind is like the Autumn moon
Shining clean and clear in the green pool.
No, that’s not a good comparison.
Tell me, how shall I explain?

Han Shan, Cold Mountain (trans. Burton Watson)

I dreamed last night (or I probably did; see below) that I was with some people, and we were laughing about someone who claimed that they’d been officially declared Enlightened by some mystical Teacher, and someone asked me, hey, you’re all into that Zen stuff, I’d think you’d take this more seriously?

And I nodded and said something like:

You know, except for a few annoying [something] sects, it’s not like you go to your teacher and show how you’ve progressed and eventually the teacher says “okay good, you’re enlightened now”.  They might say “okay, keep going” or “okay, here’s what you should work on next” or even like “okay, I think you are ready to teach some students of your own”, but never “okay, you’re enlightened”, that would be just…

and I shook my head and laughed.

(Where the [something] was some Japanese or Chinese word, maybe kensho, or RInzai (no offense to any Rinzai folk in the waking world), or some dream-word entirely, but there was a word there.)

The reason I say above there that I probably dreamed this last night is that it’s like the most literal, ordinary, realistic, unadorned dream I can recall having had, so it’s not by any means impossible that it wasn’t a dream at all, but actually happened sometime recently, and I’ve just lost track of the actual time and place and details and who was there and what that missing word was and all.

It all sort of blurs together, amirite?

So I say to you,
This is how to contemplate our conditioned existence in this fleeting world:

Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream;
Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.

ol’ Buddha, the Diamond Sutra (right at the end there)


Liebe ist ein welthaftes Wirken

Kaufmann translates this, from Buber’s “I and Thou”, as “love is a cosmic force”, but gives us the original in a footnote to see for ourselves.

One thing I like about German and how synthetic it is (in the technical sense that I just learned; I was going to say “agglutinative“, but that turns out to be wrong) is that you can look at the parts of many words, and see how the meaning compares to the sum of those parts.

The most simple-minded translation of that phrase might be “Love is a worldly work”, which has the same nice consonance of double-ues, but a very different sense, since the English “worldly” has strong connotations that are almost the opposite of Kaufmann’s “cosmic”.

It’s interesting that the translator chose “force” here, rather than the obvious “work” (which would have read a bit awkwardly), or perhaps “act”. Because Buber is talking about love in the context of “those who stand in it and behold in it”, “force” probably makes more sense than “act”, since you can stand in a force (a force field!), but not so much in an act.

$50 FINEBut then I wonder why Buber wrote Wirken rather than say Kraft. And then I am at, or perhaps well beyond, the very end of my competence as a translator. :)

The other day the little daughter, watching me staring into my phone and clicking and swiping without end, commented more or less “you’re taking in so much content; I don’t know if that’s healthy”.

I found myself very much in agreement with that thought, and put the phone away (temporarily) and looked at various stacks of books sitting unread here and there, and picked up “I and Thou”, read the Acknowledgements and Translator’s Key, skipped Kaufmann’s very long Prologue (these things should generally be at the end of a book, in my ever so humble opinion, so that one can encounter the work itself with more or less fresh eyes, and then read the prologue-writer’s thoughts about it afterward, when one has already one’s own ideas to compare them to), and started very slowly into the work (Werk, Wirken, Kunstwerk?) itself.

It’s a very dense book, or feels like it deserves to be treated as such, which means that I have to be careful not to spend so much time on each sentence that I eventually drift off and do other things before I get past the first chapter.

As I tweeted not long after starting (and yeah, I know; somehow Twitter and the Face Book and now even plague have all taken up residence in my ways of relating to the world):

I can’t of course actually empty the cup, and I admit I’m not really trying all that hard to.

Currently, a few more pages in, I’m wondering if Buber will go from talking about the ineffable relating that is I-You (and that he identifies with, or as, love in some sense), to a realization that the duality present even in I-You (because after all there is still I, and You) is at some level an illusion. Because that would be so Buddhist.

There are no sentient beings,
And I vow to save them.

It will be interesting either way; if he does get to some kind of non-duality, I’m sure it will have a flavor all its own. If he doesn’t, it will be interesting to see if he simply stops short of it, actively considers and denies it, or goes off in some other direction entirely.

I’ve been meaning to read this book since college sometime :) and it’s nice to finally get to it.

Solstice was nice, thank you for asking, if a little atypical. All four of us were here together, but instead of the usual Christmas Dinner with ham an’ all, we went out to the local diner.

The story: M smelled gas in the basement, so on I forget maybe the 22nd we had the gas man come and test things, and he found there was a leak somewhere in the kitchen range, and while we were moving the range out from the wall it got caught on something and when we pushed on it a little to get it past the something, the entire glass front of the oven door very enthusiastically shattered into a zillion pieces and fell onto the floor.

That was exciting!

We called the appliance place who sent out a person who determined that the range was old enough to vote, and that no one makes parts for it anymore (either for replacing the door glass or fixing any possible leak).

A new range arrived yesterday and I have baked my first loaves of bread in it, but between the breaking of the old and the installing of the new we could cook only in the microwave and crockpot, and although we considered trying to design a satisfying Solstice dinner around those, in the end we decided the local Diner would be more fun.

And it was very nice.

How do Diners do it, by the way; anyone know? How can you have that enormous a menu of available things, and be able to produce absolutely any of them in a reasonably short span of time? Are they all designed to be producible from some smallish set of ingredients, and you keep those around and ready at all times? Do all of the chefs know how to make all of the things? Are there big recipe books? Or do they look at the menu when the order comes in, figure out what you are probably expecting, and wing it?


Where with white clouds for my pillow, I sleep

A long time ago, and I just remembered it recently for some reason, when I used the Opera browser for awhile, there was this lovely odd thing.

For some reason (and I’m sure that I did it somehow by accident, but I never did figure out how) whenever I had the focus on a text input box (or something like that), it would offer me a default value to fill in, and that default value was:

Where with white clouds for my pillow, I sleep.

And that made me smile every time I saw it.

I kept it as an enigma at the time, and never looked up the phrase, or the part of the Opera documentation that would have told me how it got there.

I still haven’t done the latter :) but it turns out that the phrase is from Cold Mountain. No, not the film, or even the novel; the poems of Han Shan.

I’ve been wanting to go to that Eastern cliff,
To the present–for innumerable years.

So yesterday I came and climbed up through the vines,
But halfway there, I was hampered by mist and wind.

The path was narrow–with my clothes it was hard to advance;
The moss was sticky–my shoes could not go on.

So I stay at the base of this red cinnamon tree,
Where with white clouds for my pillow, I sleep.

I will attempt to resist talking about what it might be “about”. :)

That particular text seems to be poem number 295, in a translation copyright 1990 by one Robert G. Henricks; I found it today on Google Books.

It looks like we know nothing of Han Shan besides what is in the poems; in fact “Han Shan” is likely not his name at all, apparently it is just the words “Cold Mountain”.

I love the thought of the unknown hermit-poet’s words coming down through the long years, and somehow ending up embedded in my Web browser.


Fifteen years!

Wow, you’d think something would have changed after a week away; flying cars, or aliens walking around Manhattan, or at least a new subway line or something, but NO, everything is pretty much just the same!


Extremely attentive and/or precognitive readers will suspect rightly that we were away for a week because we were in Maine; the first time that happened was in 1999, and this is 2014, so it’s been fifteen years!

And since that first Maine trip was when I started writing a weblog, and this is in some sense the same weblog as that, this is the fifteenth anniversary of the weblog!


Here is a picture of Maine:


Isn’t that gorgeous? Along with M’s sister’s family, and their father and stepmother, we rented a house on top of Dodge Mountain, overlooking Rockland and the bay and points East, with a lovely deck, and chairs to sit in, and tables to put your book and your wineglass on, and beds to sleep in, and all.

It was great.

I did a lot of reading, as usual. That book there is “Karma and Rebirth” by Christmas (sic) Humphries. I wrote it up for GoodReads (hope that link works for not-me people).

(I will resist the obvious temptation to produce lots of weblog content by pasting in all various book reviews I have written instead of just linking to them!)

I read that because I happened across it in some used book store (perhaps Hello Hello Books?), shortly after watching Hemant Mehta’s rather offputting “Can Atheists be Buddhists“, and it seemed like a nice synchronicity.

The Mehta piece is offputting for a few reasons:

  • His conclusion is basically “no”, and I’m sort of both of those things, so yeah.
  • The reason his conclusion is basically “no” is that, he says, although Buddhists don’t believe in a deity, they do believe some stuff (specifically Karma and Rebirth) that Isn’t Scientific, and therefore atheists won’t believe it.
  • This implies that for Mehta “atheist” doesn’t just mean “doesn’t believe in God” for some value of “God”, it means “only believes stuff that is Scientific”, and that seems like just sloppy thinking or sloppy word-usage or something,
  • His conclusion that Karma and Rebirth are Not Scientific seems very offhand and not particularly well thought out; as for that matter is his assumption that all Buddhists believe in either or both of them in any form.

Some day I will have to write a post on Buddhism and Scientificness and Karma and Rebirth and all, and why atheists can in fact be Buddhists, and vice-versa, at least when they are me. Not today, though. :)

Another book, that I’m sure I bought in Hello Hello Books (which is a great bookstore, by the way), and then I read and enjoyed very much, is Doris Grumbach’s “The Pleasure of Their Company”, which I also wrote up for GoodReads. It was good.

I do love lying about in Maine, feeling the wind and reading books and thinking about things.

Also I went out on a boat! And held a lobster!

Here is a picture from on the boat, with the notable deck hand Dana holding the lobster in question:

Dana with the lobster

and here is the lobster, with parts of my hand holding it:


and a little girl looking dubious in the background.

We did many other things in Maine! I took three of the four kids to the beach one day, but the sun was behind clouds and the sand was too wet and rocky and the waves too small and they got cold, so we didn’t stay very long.

Here are some rocks!


They do look coldish.

We went into Rockland a couple of times (although sadly we were not in town for this

Internet Cats

which I bet would have been noteworthy), and into Camden a couple of times (here is a classy black-and-white shot of some water in Camden:

Water in Camden

just because we are posting lots of pictures; more and/or different ones can as usual be found on the Insta-Gram).

Reading back through some of the various Maine and post-Maine postings in the weblog over the years, I see lots of variety in terms of thoughtfulness, randomness, introspection, and so on. I did feel introspective, in a good way, and renewed, in a good way, by it all this year, but in writing about it I’m mostly just writing random things, I think. :)

Maybe largely because I didn’t feel like writing about it at all while I was there (too busy doing it?), and now am writing about it retrospectively, having been home for a couple of days and back to work one day, so somewhat back in the quotidian mindset. Or something?

Here is another picture :) this one of ol’ Red’s Eats (where we didn’t eat this year) as randomly enhanced in its usual drive-by way by Google Plus:

Red's Eats

Kinda neat, I thought.

What else? I read some other books, acquired some other books, sat zazen a bit, had some thoughts, drank some wine, ate some lobster and some blueberry pie, enjoyed some sun and wind.

And I’m not unhappy to be home. :)

About all one could ask for, really!


So, I’m an atheist

I’m an atheist.Atheist symbol

But wait, says a hypothetical reader, don’t you call yourself a pantheist? And sometimes a Buddhist? And an Ariadnite? Don’t you believe that there are deep mysteries and weird things going on in the universe, beyond what science knows? Isn’t consciousness itself a profound mystery to you? And haven’t you said that you aren’t 100% certain of anything? Shouldn’t you be at most an agnostic?

And yeah, except for that last question there, those are all very true of me.

But none of that prevents me from being an atheist.

Specifically, I am an atheist because I do not believe that there is a God, where a God is an omniscient omnipotent being, existing prior to and outside of the universe, who has opinions or preferences or plans about what should happen in the universe, and who serves as the basis for morality.

(If by “God” you mean instead “an entity that is significantly more advanced technologically or morally than humanity”, or “an entity that caused there to be life on Earth”, or “a ham sandwich”, then none of this applies. Also, we are speaking different dialects of English, and mine is by far the most common one.)

I will go a little beyond that, and say that not only do I not believe there is a God in that sense, I also believe that there is not a God in that sense.

So I’m an atheist even if “don’t believe” isn’t enough for you, and you insist on “believe that not”. :)

On the hypothetical reader’s questions:

  • I’m a pantheist in that I think the universe (as broadly construed as possible) is worthy of worship. But that involves no omniscient omnipotent thing outside of or other than the universe.
  • I’m a Buddhist to some extent or other, but relevantly for this discussion Buddhism’s attitude toward deities outside of the universe is basically “don’t waste your time worrying about it”, so again there’s no conflict between Buddhism and atheism.
  • I’m an Ariadnite in that my worship of the universe (as broadly construed as possible) involves images of this lady in a white gown, swords and balls of string, and so on; but that is all metaphor, not truth-claims, and in any case the Goddess is not something other than the universe.
  • On deep mysteries, sure. Being an atheist doesn’t mean thinking that our current scientific knowledge is correct and/or complete. Same thing on consciousness. This was driven home to me recently by this very good piece and even some words in this by Sam Harris (with whom I only occasionally agree).
  • I’m not 100% sure of anything (even this!). But being an atheist doesn’t require being 100% sure that there is no God; at most it requires believing that there is no God (and really I think just not believing that there is a God will do).

On Agnosticism, we get into edge cases.

When asked “Do you believe that there is a God?”, someone who says “Yes” is a theist.

When asked “Do you believe that there is no God”, someone who says “Yes” is an atheist.

Someone who says, “well, I really don’t know” to both questions is an agnostic.

But what if someone says “No” to both questions? I would count that person as an atheist, since they don’t believe that there is a God. But if you’d rather call them an agnostic (since they also don’t believe that there isn’t a God), that’s okay with me.

I’m an atheist either way. :)

And of course I could be wrong. I could be wrong about any belief of mine; as I think I’ve said before, anyone who thinks that some particular belief of theirs couldn’t possibly turn out to be wrong just isn’t using their imagination hard enough. But that doesn’t stop me from being an atheist.

I’m bothering to say this pretty much because of the Bacon Moose post, and because of a certain frustration I have with intelligent people, who I am pretty sure believe the same way that I do, who don’t identify as atheists.

I’d like more people to identify as atheists, because every time someone says they aren’t an atheist, 99% of the people who hear it assume that they are Christian or (theistic) Jewish or something, and that just bolsters the “atheists are weird and rare” feeling, even if what the person really meant was that while they don’t believe there is a god, they have some (generally rather contorted) reason for not identifying as atheist.

When I posted a link to the Bacon Moose posting on Facebook, in fact, I had two friends comment that (although they don’t believe there is a god in the relevant sense), they aren’t atheists. One said she is not an atheist because (if I understand her right) she just doesn’t think the question is all that important, and doesn’t want therefore to bother having a label relating to it. The other said (if I understand him right) that he’s not an atheist because if you change the meaning of the word it wouldn’t apply to him: say if you define “atheist” as “someone who is 100% certain there is no god”, or if you define “god” as “whatever caused there to be life on Earth”.

Needless to say, I didn’t find either of these arguments very compelling. :)

I suspect that, buried deep in the back of most of our minds, there is this ancient inculcated meme that atheists are icky, or grim, or narrow, or closed-minded, and that really one should not identify as one in polite company.

That is a meme I’d love to see wither away.

So here I am! :)


All One Dharma

Just past the traffic circle there were two people by the side of the road: a woman with her arm up and her thumb out, and someone else crouching at her feet tying a shoelace or something.

I didn’t think quickly enough to pull off right then, but I thought “well, yeah”, and so I made a U-turn at the next break in the median, drove back past them on the other side, turned left into the parking lot of the old deserted and For Sale building at the edge of the water (I do hope someone buys that and doesn’t knock it down, but puts something neat like a seafood restaurant or a bookstore in the ramshackle old place), turned right out of that, and then pulled over onto the right shoulder just past them, with my blinkers on.

They were headed, as it turned out, to the Appalachian Trail where it crosses Cat Rock Road (Route 403), which was right on my way, so that was nice. She was a sun-browned and somewhat sun-wrinkled woman, maybe about my age, and he was her younger son. They were headed north on the Trail with their two big packs, from North Carolina (I think she said), where her older son (who had done the whole trail before) got them started and then went back.

We passed Roa Hook Road, and she said, oh wow, and that she used to live in Westchester, and one of her sons was born in a house on Roa Hook Road, and in fact it was that one right there, on the street we’re just passing over on the bridge. Her son (not the one born in the house, I don’t think) looked out the window for it and was impressed.

They were on their way back to the trail after a few days in the City visiting family and/or friends; the City had been, she said, quite a culture shock after the trail. Especially the subway, said her son.

So we dove North, talking about how it was indeed a rather hot summer to be hiking, but they were from Texas, and the woods are much cooler than the asphalt, and it wasn’t really so bad. And that yeah there were quite a few people on the trail, although as the season went on lots of people who’d started out had dropped off. And people walking the trail are a community, and look out for each other, and that that’s a Good Thing.

And then we got onto Cat Rock Road, driving slowly, and pulled over just after her son spotted the sign (facing the other way for some reason, maybe we missed the one in our direction) for the Trail, and they got out and pulled out their packs, and thanked me, and we wished each other well, and she said she hoped I’d get out on the trail again (me having mentioned that I’d done tiny bits of it, but never as much as I’d really like).

“Only myself in the way of my doing it,” I said.

“That and some good equipment,” she said, “equipment is important.”

And then I drove North some more, by myself in some sense, to where 403 ends at 9D, and turned left, drove past the golf course, and then turned right and parked near one of the “Garrison Institute Guest Parking” signs, on the grass next to a white truck with a “No Farms, No Food” bumper sticker.

Following the instructions from the website (which I’d written on a napkin and put the napkin in my pocket before I left work, but didn’t need to take out because writing them down helped me remember them), I found the main entrance (which is on the opposite side from the Guest Parking, on the side that faces the river, and it’s a lovely view), and went in, and through the first double doors, and took off my shoes and went through the second double doors into here:

The big room is pretty impressive (the place was built as a Capuchin monastery), and when I got there it was all quiet and echoing, because I was about ten or fifteen minutes early, despite the hikers, since I’d left myself lots of time, in case I got lost or anything, it being my first time.

Still following the instructions I crossed to the left side of the room (bowing slightly to the Buddha at the head of the room, ’cause that’s What You Do when you cross in front of him), and went through the door into the (much smaller) Meditation Annex, where there were zafus and zabutons all waiting, and one woman sitting quietly next to the door, who said “I was half an hour early, wasn’t I?”, and I smiled and said it starts at six thirty I think, and she said yeah, well, I’ve had a lovely little sit here waiting. Outside in the big room, someone was playing a guitar (never did find out who or why that was, but a nice effect).

I bowed to the smaller Buddha (or maybe a Kuan-Yin, but hey) in crossing to the left side of the room, and sat on a random cushion and squirmed around a bit in a half-lotus to wait. The teacher came in briefly and said Hi and that he had to go back to his car to get the materials. And maybe eight or ten more people came in, in ones and twos, and sat on chairs or cushions, and the teacher came in with the materials, and we did the Tuesday evening meditation.

I won’t go into incredible detail. Lot of nice little things, though. One of the people coming in after I sat down was a friend, or friendly acquaintance, from the Lab who was also there for the first time, completely at random, and that was highly synchronic. The lesson was about Meditating with Thoughts, which involved various words, and we did little exercises and said words to each other and smiled and laughed and nodded and things, and that was all good. The things we were officially supposed to be doing were rather different from my own zazen practice, the author of the book being a Tibetan type, but it wasn’t High Church in any way, and besides it’s All One Dharma.

(There were apparently a number of first-timers there tonight for no apparent reason, and he had us each say who we were and briefly what our practice, what our experience with meditation, was; it was an interesting mix. I was silly and said that I had a sporadic (very true) Shikantaza (in my dreams) practice, and the teacher looked interested and said that there are some Zen groups that use the room, too. I really should have said I have a sporadic Bu-ji Zen practice, but I don’t know if anyone would have gotten the joke.)

So we did that from 6:30pm to roughly 8:00pm, including some meditation (my legs in a half-lotus and hands in a comfy zazen mudra, everyone else sitting or kneeling or whatever in whatever way they were sitting or kneeling or whatever), and some guided meditation, and some exercises, and discussion.

Words of a Buddhist teacher are no more to be attached to than anything else :) so I haven’t brought many home with me, and I didn’t care too much exactly what they were while I was there, but enjoyed watching people’s faces and hands as they talked, and occasionally saying some words also.

I credit the little daughter with all of this; she texted (“texted”) me the other day saying that she’d been to something at a local sangha, and we texted back and forth about that a little, and that night I sat zazen myself for a little while, and then last night I did a random web search for nearby sittings, and there was this one right tonight, so I made sure with M that it wouldn’t interfere with anything, and it wouldn’t, so there I was driving Northward and picking up a mother and son and delivering them to the Trail. On the way home, there was a big white moon in the darkening blue sky.

And that was all very nice. :)

Maybe I’ll go again next Tuesday.