Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Buddhism, souls, and Process Philosophy

In Buddhism there is no self and no soul and no permanent objects of any sort. In Christianity there is a soul that goes to heaven. Seems different but of course it is more complex. In Buddhism there is reincarnation so it is fair to ask, what gets reincarnated if there is no soul. To answer this we need to turn to process philosophy, which is an often ignored branch of western philosophy that explains Buddhist ideas on permanence using language more suited to western philosophers. The main difference is that Buddhist explanations are usually made in the pragmatic context of reducing suffering in individuals, whereas western philosophy is more about universal truth and metaphysics. Anyway, process philosophy is very unpopular because it states that nothing exists, there are only cause and effect processes. So a rock is not a rock it is rocking (this is actually how some North American First Nations languages (e.g, Cree) work). Applied to the soul it means there is no soul, there is only souling. So reincarnation occurs because souling continues after death. This can be applied equally to notions of heaven, where souling continues but not in a new body. In fact, with this notion you can have both, where after death souling continues in new bodies and elsewhere. In ancient Chinese religion the soul was believed to go to more than one place. However we have trouble thinking without permanent objects so we need them. We just need to keep in mind that they are not real. In the diamond sutra the Buddha says, there is a mountain (belief in object), there is no mountain (realization that there are no objects), there is a mountain (pragmatic use of the idea of mountain to refer to mountaining). So with the soul. The concept of the soul as an object helps us to make progress under certain conditions. But beyond that it can become poisonous, and cause people to selfishly pursue wealth and immortality in an imagined afterlife with all delusions of this life. A dogmatic adherence to the idea of no self can also be a problem, for different reasons. Tich Nhat Hanh sometimes talks about the existence of the soul and the non existence of the soul as being equal. This is because dogmatic attachment to a belief, even if the belief is of the absence of something, is still a type of permanent object, albeit a more rarified one.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Seriously, the mind is most likely a Hologram

Spaun is the worlds largest functional simulated brain. It is built of realistic virtual neurons and operates by creating holographic or high dimensional vector spaces for doing computation. 

The Universe is a Holographic Gem

Some physicists think the universe is a hologram. Some neuro scientists think the brain operates by generating holograms. This would make the mind a hologram built within a hologram, which is perfectly acceptable from a technical point of view. Holograms seem like complex things but the basic idea is very simple - they are high dimensional spaces that can be used to describe or compute things (this is usually portrayed in movies or on tv by showing 3d visual holographic imagery but holograms can be used for any information). In addition to the possibility that holograms underlie all  physical and mental phenomena, they can also be used as a way of thinking about ones own place in the universe and how suffering works. Think of the universe as a high dimensional gem (or a hypersphere if you like math). You are a vector in that gem, that is you are a straight line from the surface to the centre of the gem. Metaphorically, this could correspond to looking into the gem from a particular point on its surface. Since everyone is a different vector, everyone will see things aligned differently when they peer into the gem because they look from different angles. This image can be used to understand suffering in ourselves and in others. Specifically, a lot of saints and bodhisattvas got a lot of happiness helping the poor (e.g., consider Saint Francis and the Lepers). For them, the suffering of others was an opportunity, a gift from God or a Karmic reward. But when put in this way it sounds like they exploited the suffering of others, or that God or Karma created suffering in one person to benefit another person. However, if we use the gem metaphor then we can see that the same situation will be different for each actor. As actors we can be aware of this and understand that for someone else the situation involves suffering but if we help them it can also be a blessing or merit for ourselves. It’s really a win/win situation. We help another and also benefit from this. This is also a way of seeing how we are all separate and different but all equally important and valid. We are all the gem, just from different angles. Anyway, I hope this gem metaphor works for people who are unfamiliar with the idea of high dimensional spaces. I know the holographic stuff sounds a bit crazy but it's really serious science.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Reading Texts

Buddhists and Christians often reading sacred texts in order to gain understanding, and this is a good thing. However, the texts are also meant for meditative reading and this really should be what ultimately guides understanding as well. Often, for modern westerners, Buddhist and Christian traditional texts can seem repetitive, meandering, pointless, or worse, evil minded (e.g., some passages in the old testament make God and his people sound like a bunch of crooked real estate agents). However, spending time on the texts, saying them slowly and with a meditative rather than analytical focus, possibly visualizing them, can spontaneously produce new and deeper insights. On another level altogether, this practice can also sometime produce powerful emotional and spiritual responses without any accompanying insight. These can hit you in different ways but regardless the point is not to analyze them but to sit with them and experience therm. In this way, a text that you cannot intellectually connect with can be an important tool. Thomas Merton was initially drawn to Christianity because sitting in churches gave him a feeling he could not explain. I think texts work in this way too. Many things can work in this way, even things from your own life.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Consolation, desolation, and the four noble truths

In the Jesuit tradition, consolation refers to the feeling of moving closer to God and desolation refers to the feeling of moving further from God. Consolation is generally associated with a lowering of suffering and desolation with an increase in suffering. However, both can be seen as good in that are both feedback about our spiritual state. In Buddhism, ignorance of the Dharma (i.e., truth about reality) causes suffering. The term enlightenment is usually meant to refer to the state of being of a fully realized buddha but, in terms of process, the word enlightenment refers to a decrease in ignorance. The first Noble Truth is that suffering happens, the third Noble Truth is that suffering ceases. In my opinion desolation can be thought of as the feeling accompanying the occurrence of suffering (the first noble truth). It is not the initial suffering but can be thought of as an additional suffering laid on top of it. For example, if you learn that your child is seriously ill you will experience suffering because you love them. Desolation occurs on top of that, when you despair, when you curse God or the universe, when you think there is no hope. This is the heaping of ignorant reactions on top of a compassionate response. It is the feeling of moving in the direction of increasing ignorance. Contemplative or mediative spirituality is based, in part, on a belief that humans have a seventh sense, a way of sensing the truth about the universe or God’s will. But this sense is often buried and therefore difficult to detect. Desolation is not simply despair, it involves a sense that we are acting in ignorant or sinful ways. Consolation, or the process of enlightenment, comes when we cease acting ignorantly (the third noble truth). Further consolation can occur if we replace it with something that is good for us. In both Buddhism and Christianity there is a belief that we can detect or discern movement in either direction - desolation is the feeling of moving toward greater ignorance, and consolation is the feeling of moving toward less ignorance

Friday, April 17, 2015


Judging is a complex issue as we have to make thousands of judgements a day, but judging another person, not their actions but the person themselves, is a special case. Judging entire groups (e.g., homosexuals, infidels, gentiles, atheists, women, etc.) also falls in this category. In my opinion this is where "judge not lest ye be judged" clearly applies. So how to deal with people who judge, should we judge them? Well, yes. Judging someone for judging is not the same as judging the person themselves. When someone condemns another human being based on religious beliefs they are sinning (or acting in ignorance from a Buddhist perspective) so opposing them is an act of compassion. We should show them the right way and stand up for the people they are victimizing.  If it's their religious or cultural beliefs informing the judgement, then those beliefs are wrong and should be actively opposed. That's the great thing about religion, it's not relative, there is right and wrong. But there is a split amongst religious people, there are those who  use rules to judge others, and those who follow compassion to judge others. Both cannot be right. There can be no compromise, no quarter given. Jesus was clear on this, the Buddha was clear on this. Compassion trumps rules, always. 

Ultra Orthodox attitudes towards Women

I am just listening to a story on the radio about a woman who was seated next to an ultra orthodox Jewish man on an airplane, he refused to sit next to her and she refused to move. As noted on the radio, these rules about contact with women are relatively new (i.e., not rooted in ancient practices) but more generally this gets into the confusion between religion and culture. For many people, religion means following a set of rules, but this misses the point. Ultra orthodox groups of all faiths fall prey to worshiping the rules. Rules should always be flexible based on compassion. Treating women, or other groups, as second class citizens is not compassionate and is wrong.  These rules are false idols and cause nothing but misery. No one should tolerate or accommodate such rules. A refusal to extend compassion to another human being because of a rule is a deeply selfish and judgemental act. Cultures that support such rules should not be allowed to label it as a religious right. This is an uncomfortable topic for many people who want to respect other peoples cultural values but also find it unacceptable to accept prejudice against different groups. You cannot have it both ways. If you want to move forward in compassion you must stand up against bad cultural beliefs. Think of Jesus causing a riot and driving the merchants out of the temple. Historians agree that the merchants would have been armed, so this took guts. Compassion trumps culture.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Lord of the Rings

Many people do not know that Tolkien's lord of the rings was written as an allegory for Christianity. In my opinion the ring, the precious as golem calls it, represents the shadowy force that underlies all desire. It can be read that the ring represents addiction, but to understand it in terms of Christianity I think the ring needs to be understood as representing what underlies addiction or any type of desire. In this sense addiction is just a word that we use when someone has a single overwhelming desire rather than the usual scattering of many smaller desires. Many small desires is equally a problem but it allows people to function in less extreme ways. Instead of being pulled in one direction they are pulled in different, at times contradictory directions. We label this as normal but it is equally poisonous. 


People renounce different things and different systems of spirituality require different types of renunciation. Renunciation is a really important practice in both Christianity and Buddhism but the most important thing to understand is that it doesn't matter what you renounce. The real goal of renunciation is not to renounce different types of behaviours or thoughts. The real purpose is to renounce what underlies all of them. However, this underlying factor is very subtle and it is difficult to get direct experience of in its pure form, uncoupled from specific desires. It is  far far stronger than any specific desire in its pure form and it cannot be overcome by any act of will. Using will to renounce specific things is useful to gain insight but also dangerous because the use of will must ultimately be abandoned. If it is not then the desire to use will will replace whatever desire has been renounced and the situation will be much worse. Historically, this appears to have been a dangerous trap for well meaning monks.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Peter Singer: The why and how of effective altruism

Choosing Compassionate Actions

Choosing the most compassionate action can be tricky

First it is tricky because there are so many unknowns. Things about the situation we just don't know. For example, I could give a street person some chocolate, not knowing he is diabetic. Second, most of what we do know is probabilistic. For example, I could give a street person outside McDonalds some money for a hamburger and that's probably what they would spend it on, but there is also a chance they will spend it on crack. Time scale is also tricky, appeasement in the short term reduces immediate suffering but can create longer term suffering. However, using the ends to justify the means is often been used to justify cruel actions. Additionally, there is the problem of none actions. If I choose not to donate to famine relief is that the same as deliberately starving a child? Finally, there is the issue of being compassionate towards yourself. For example, if I give away all of my money to the poor then I will be poor and in need of money

The wisdom to make choices that are more likely to help is known as skillful means in Buddhism. Buddhists also have the opposite concept of idiot compassion. This occurs when a person acts on compassion in an ineffective way. For example, giving a child junk food because they are taking a fit. However, ultimately no one can predict the future. You might save a starving child only for them to grow up and lead a genocide. 

  1. You cannot know the long term consequences of your choices. There is no way to tell if a specific action will ultimately lead to less suffering
  2. Small things matter, maybe more than big things
  3. If you have time you should use contemplation for important decisions. Take three days to abide with the issue and after you act take three days to observe and react to the outcomes (good advice from the I Ching) 
  4. Do not regret, there is no point in this, it will not make things better (also see point 1). Understand and accept your limitations. Sometimes we have to choose quickly. Hopefully your practice will help you to make good spontaneous choices. If you believe you have made a bad choice then humbly acknowledge your limitations, try to learn, and keep going
  5. Worry is not useful but thinking over a problem carefully is itself a compassionate act (i.e., you are using your time in service of compassion)
  6. If you achieve a level where you can feel peace while something bad is happening, do not feel guilty, it's all good as long as you are focused on helping. In fact, the peace can help to create a better internal space for problem solving and you can set an example by not panicking or acting badly

Unknown Boddhisatvas and Saints

Some monks torture themselves. Buddhists are not as big on this because the Buddha tortured himself and later eschewed it. The same goes for saint Francis. But actually, self inflicted torture is very mild compared to tortures that can be inflicted by life. People are mercilessly tortured everyday, both physically and mentally. Others are tortured by being powerless to stop the torture of those they love. These types of torture are much worse because it is not by choice. Not much is written about the unsung saints who endure this sort of torture without reacting, without acting out in violence towards others. These people act as karmic sinks, suffering goes in but it does not get amplified, instead it is destroyed or reduced. When we think about saints or bodhisattvas they are often people who achieved big things. This is good, but the unknown saints and bodhisattvas are greater still. When the moment of choice occurs, anyone can be a saint or a bodhisattva. The critical issue is, will your reaction make things better or worse? You can't always know but the key is to act on what you believe will lower suffering. Then, in that moment you are a Saint or Boddhisatva.

Suffering, Compassion, and Happiness

Boddhisatvas and saints are happy, they experience great joy and peace. But they also have a constant awareness of suffering. The condition of life involves existing in a constant flux of suffering. When suffering temporarily dips lower we call that happiness and when it temporarily goes up we call that suffering. In Buddhist terms, this is the product of the attachment system. In terms of the Desert Fathers we could call this the product of demons. However, there is a source of true happiness and peace that everyone has access to. It is always there but it is obscured by our constant focus on the ups and downs of suffering. In Buddhist terms, this is Buddha nature. Christians might refer to this as a connection to God. To experience it we need to clear our minds of the goals and conditions that drive the attachment system. When we fail to do this we experience a different type of suffering, one characterized by the absence of Buddha nature or God's presence. However, people who have had little experience with this experience do not miss it as much because they are unaware of what they are missing.

Bodhisattvas and saints are constantly immersing themselves in suffering. In particular, compassion causes them to focus on the suffering of others and desire to alleviate it. And yet they are happy, joyful, and peaceful. This is because they understand the true nature of suffering and do not get caught up in trying to escape it. By doing so they use their attachment system only sparingly, allowing them to experience nirvana or grace.