Sunday, November 13, 2016

Systems Science and Buddhist Emptiness

I have been reading Modern Buddhism, by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso (2013). The central message in this book is the section titled "Training in Ultimate Bodhichitta" (starting on page 101). That chapter is about emptiness (or non-existence), which is possibly the single most difficult teaching of the Buddha for most people to grasp (including me). The chapter may be the best explanation that I have personally come across. It may be that is speaks to me because I can see connections to systems science, which is an area of interest in my day-job.

Bamboo forest, central Taiwan


I was recently explaining to a student how important it is to clearly define the spatial and social boundaries of the systems that one is researching, because that will tell you what variables are relevant and valid to measure and what variable are not. In this student's case, there are four geographic (spatial) systems that are fairly easy to define. Three of them are small, separate islands, and the fourth is the combined group of three islands, which is administered as a single "village" government. These all exist as subsystems in a spatial hierarchy extending to the country and the globe, and there are, of course, many alternative ways that one could divide the geography of this place, such as coastal and inland, higher and lower elevations, settled and unsettled areas, different types of landforms or vegetation, and more. Fortunately, in this study, these other spatial scales are mostly not relevant.

There are, however, social systems that also need to be defined. Examples of possible social systems that could be studied are: government, religion (maybe different kinds), businesses/livelihoods (both all and grouped into different types), residents (maybe of different social classes and ethnic or language groups), physical infrastructure (utilities and roads/paths), the NGO/civil society (which can have multiple interests), and more.

In my opinion, there are an infinite number of ways in which both spatial scale and social scale could be defined, meaning the potential systems than can be studies are also infinite. How we define the best systems to study depends on the nature of the research question that is being asked (and its theoretical foundations), and the types of responses or results that the research question and methodology anticipates. In turn, the research questions and methods adopted are driven by the literature that has been consulted and established in the researcher's mind in preparing the study.

Rice paddy fields, Shan State, Myanmar

  • "The instant you speak about a thing, you miss the mark." - Wumen Huikai (Chan Buddhist Monk, 1183–1260)
Recognizing that I may miss the mark, here is how I currently understand the Buddhist concept of emptiness, based on the book Modern Buddhism. Emptiness is the essential nature of all things -- everything. Emptiness is also known as "non-self" in reference to ourselves. What struck me is that Geshe Kelsang Gyatso explains this in a similar way as I describe what a system is. Every object that we think is real, is actually a system of component parts that only has meaning because we (individually and collectively) give it meaning. (Buddha used the concept of "aggregates" to explain how multiple components come together to enable our different perceptions of the system that we become aware of.)

He uses a car as an example (p.105). If we try to understand exactly what part of the car is the car, we cannot do it, because the car is not found in any of its parts. Nor is it found in all of its parts piled together. It only exists as a system of parts that are connected to each other and operate together in a certain way. We "know" a car when we see it because we have been taught that when these feature come together in this configuration, then it is called a "car".  This system-building process is also true for each component that goes into making a car -- each has it own name -- down to the smallest screw, which also is made up of particles, none of which is a screw in itself.

In the opposite direction, we define the car a a system that is separate from the roads, driveways, parking areas, fuel supply, brand name and image, color scheme, surrounding air molecules, owners, vehicle taxes, dead bugs on the windshield, and innumerable (infinite) other components to which it is almost always, or very often, connected. That is because we have drawn a system boundary around the "car", based on our social conventions.

This path of logic applies to everything that we see as materially existing, including the human body. They are all systems composed of finer elements that are independent systems in themselves. And they are also deeply connected to components that, within our normal conceptualizations of them, are usually considered external them. In reality, there is no car and there is no body without the mental constructs that we hold of their existence.

Another possible way of thinking about this comes from a story told by Oliver Sax in his 1995 book, An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales. It is about a man who was blind for 50 years and whose sight was restored through an operation. Upon seeing for the first time, all he saw was a mass of colors and lights that had no organized structure. It was not until a doctor spoke that some of those colors and lights came together to form a human face. Because of his age, his brain was never able to fully conceptualize, or structure, the mass of visual information that he was now exposed to. (Apparently this story was made into a movie in 1999, titled "At First Sight".)

This story points to two things. The first is that there is definitely a real and useful evolutionary biology in us that seeks to structure the world into simpler systems than actually exist. The second is that structures do not exist in reality until we form them. While this example is related to visual reality, Buddhism says that this is true of all reality.

With this in mind, it is possible to conceive of a civilization that is equally intelligent as ours on another planet, but which constructs its reality systems in an entirely different way than we do on Earth. This would make for significant challenges in communication, as it already does on our planet between the subtle (and maybe not-so-subtle) differences that exist between different cultural (and political) groups today.

Because everything that we perceive as reality is a mental construct, there is nothing real in reality. As a friend of mine often says, "there is no there there". For Buddhism, the only thereness is emptiness (or the awareness of emptiness/non-existence) because emptiness is all that is left when the mental constructs (the systems) are taken away. As ephemeral as they may be, once we have defined a system at our gross level of awareness, we have also defined the variables that we use to test it and to understand it, just as with the systems defined for social science and physical science research, described above.
  • "The purpose of realizing emptiness is to end attachment." - Gautama Buddha
With an awareness of the ultimate emptiness that underlies all things, we are no longer attached to our expecting or requiring a system to behave in a fixed way. Instead, we appreciate all of the systems we encounter (that is, everything that we encounter through our awareness) as being equally valuable and full of wonder. This is the foundation of Buddhist enlightenment and happiness. (Although, again, enlightenment is one of those things that is fundamentally non-describable).


As I said above, emptiness is the essential nature of all things -- everything. In Buddhism, the awareness or experience of emptiness is the ultimate happiness and satisfaction, free of the vicissitudes of our emotions and attachments. System science has some theoretical considerations that come fairly close to that. In general systems theory, all systems are subsystems of other systems and complete independence (a closed system) does not exist (Klir, 1969. Approach to General Systems Theory). In addition, systems are in constant flux. System boundaries, therefore, do not exist as fixed entities except in our minds, usually based on assumptions. If we did not have a preconceived idea of what the boundaries "should" look like, they would not be there. Phenomenology, as a social science research approach (as I understand it), seeks to reduce preconceptions by fully recognizing them, and then investigates social phenomenon with an openness to all possibilities and without prejudice. Emptiness, however, is not quite within the realm of system science -- maybe quantum physics....

So, as this is about Buddhism, I am posting it here on my Buddhism blog. Since it is also about system science, I am also posting it on my community resilience blog, This version tends to speak more to Buddhism related topics, whereas the other version of this post discusses the system science side a little bit more.

And of course, as always, ... "this, too, shall pass."

UPDATES above are Underlined.

UPDATE: 18 November 2016 - Another perspective on non-existence from Modern Buddhism (page 120), which also has significance for systems building:

"If all the necessary atmospheric causes and conditions come together, clouds will appear. If these are absent, clouds cannot form. The clouds are completely dependent upon causes and conditions for their development; without these they have no power to develop. The same is true for mountains, planets, bodies, minds and all other produced phenomena. Because they depend upon factors outside themselves for their existence, they are empty of inherent, or independent, existence and  are mere imputations of the mind."

UPDATE: 22 November 2016 - So I like the Sutra part (first 1/3) of the book, Modern Buddhism (2013, available free online), which is what my discussion above is all about, However, I am not so crazy about the Tantra part (remainder) of the book, which feels too much like "religion" for my tastes. I have also been reading about the author, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, and the controversies related to his New Kadampa Tradition, which I find somewhat disturbing. You can find out more by searching online about this.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Close your eyes and look with your ears

Close your eyes and look with your ears.
See and touch the world through the sounds that you hear.

(This idea came to me as I was laying on my bed and resting after my morning meditation today)

Monday, September 26, 2016

Buddhist Mantras with Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros

A couple of months ago I was looking for music similar to what I hear in some of the yoga classes that I attend several times a week. Mostly these are from singers such as Krishna Das, Snatam Kaur, Wah! and Trevor Hall. While listening to songs come up on YouTube, I came across Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. Since I do not listen to popular music at all, this group did not mean anything to me.

There are two songs, however, that are associated with this group has on YouTube that I have a hard time getting out of my head. The melody is part of it, but I think more important are the words and their significance from a Buddhist perspective.

The first song is "Every Part of You" - the singer, I later found out, is Aaron Embry (not Edward Sharpe/Alex Ebert, who is the guy drumming on his chest). The main chorus of the song is "Every part of your is another part of me" and it compares that to the rivers flowing into the sea. This is obviously aligned with the "not two" mantra that I wrote about previously. There are two version on YouTube: Version 1 (my favorite, embedded below),  Version 2,

The second song is "Do You Realize??", which is actually by The Flaming Lips (singer Wayne Coyne) - another group that I had not really known about, but is here performed with Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros (Edward Sharpe/Alex Ebert plays the bowl at the end). So again, not a song sung by Edward Sharpe/Alex Ebert. The main chorus is "Do you realize?", which is then answered in a number of ways, with the closing chorus being "That everyone you know someday will die." This song reminds me of the "this, too, shall pass" mantra that I also had written about. Awareness of death is, of course, on of the recommended five daily reflections taught by the Buddha. The song has some other Buddhist refrains, such as "that happiness makes you cry". This song was voted the official rock song of Oklahoma in 2009 -- apparently a very Buddhist state.

There are many versions of Do You Realize?? on YouTube, this is, in my opinion, the best one, by far...

There is one other Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros song that I also sometimes get stuck in my head -- and I think this one is actually sung by Alex Ebert (aka Edward Sharpe). It is "Man on Fire" and the video (below) may be part of why it sticks. Enjoy!

Monday, August 1, 2016

This, too, shall pass

"This, too, shall pass..."

That is the latest mantra that goes through my head as I encounter bumps along the path of everyday life. It helps give me that little bit of extra patience to get past things that pop up and have the potential to derail me during the course of the day.  At least it does that some of the time.

It also makes me reflect on the previous posts that I have made to this blog, with the realization that whatever I may be experiencing now, will change.

I almost feel like deleting some of those past posts, about my spiritual-related experiences, because that is what they are, the past. They have evolved and changed along with me, and while still there as a footnote to my current experience, they are not what I am now, at this moment.

Well, I almost feel like deleting them, but I won't -- and I am not sure why.

"This, too, shall pass..."  also makes me think of all the things that I have allowed to pass along the way to where I am now. Like podcasts.

When podcasting started in 2005, I was an avid listener, because I could control what I wanted to hear. I even had my own podcasts for a couple of years at that time. I was also listening to dharma talk type podcasts (some were more New Age than Buddhism), but usually only late at night before going to bed.

By the time that I started writing this blog, however, I had completely stopped listing to news and technology podcasts, and instead I was heavily into listening to dharma talks. That lasted for about a year and a half, until fairly recently.

I reached a point a couple of weeks ago when I decided that dharma talks could only take me so far. What I really need to know is who I am, to understand my true inner nature. And I think the best way to do that, at this point on my path, is to be quiet, listen to my mind, and observe my experiences. (Although I have recently started to play "chakra music" while I am working at my day job.)

So that is what I have been doing. And one of the things that I listen to is "This, too, shall pass..."

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Empathy and Compassion for the US

Yesterday, I saw some of the continuous news stories about the shooting of five police officers in Dallas, Texas at a peaceful protest over recent shootings by police officers in Minnesota and Louisiana. This was, of course, devastating and heartbreaking for all involved, if not for the entire country.

I do not normally watch TV, so I do not claim to know all the details of any of the shooting events around these stories. But from what I did see, my heart went out to both the police officers and the shooter. I felt empathy and compassion for both sides of this story, because I could understand the grief that both sides were feeling: the anger that the shooter felt, and the unjust loss of police lives. Both are, I think, caught up in the seething tensions of contemporary America, with young Black men being 21 times more likely to be killed by police officers than young White men.

At some point, soon I hope, events like this will get all Americans to empathize and feel compassion for both sides of this dilemma, as I did while watching and thinking about this event. Only through true empathy and compassion will people be able to see past their ignorance and delusions, and the resulting hatred and aversion that they those generate toward different groups in our society.

I have often felt that it would be good if more people understood the Buddha's teachings on topics like delusion, aversion and compassion, and that more people practiced some kind of meditation to experience those teachings from a subjective feeling level. However, now I am now thinking that it would not only be good, but it may be the only way that the divisions and stresses of today's world can be made better.

The personal tragedies that are broadcast across all of our media outlets today are, I think, increasingly senseless, out of control, and random. In that context, the only logical response possible is compassion for all involved. This is an opening to a Buddhist understanding of the challenges (dukkha) of life.

(P.S. I, personally, have no interested fiction TV of movies, and I prefer to get my news on my smart phone, where I think I can better avoid the hype and click bait of commercial media. When I do see our TV, it is usually because my wife is watching the news, and I happen to be in the same room.)

Thursday, July 7, 2016

A Loving Gaze

This is a bit awkward to discuss, but here goes… Like many male humans, I am (naturally, I think) attracted to nice looking females. While I recognize that there is an underlying sexual attraction in my gaze, I would never act on that, I just look in a hopefully unobtrusive way (more like a glance). Well, I heard a recording recently by Ram Dass about relationships, which brought together a number of different ideas that I have been thinking about for awhile...
  • “Love all beings”, "Love everything" [Meher Baba, Ram Dass, and many others]
  • “If I am going to love all beings, then I better be celibate” [a Theravada monk/teacher]
So, what I thought I would try to do is to transfer the attraction impulse that I felt toward attractive women, which easily arises on its own, to random other people who I see. So, when I feel that visual attraction toward one person, I then started to look, one by one, at other people nearby. The results….

Wow, is all I can say! First, it was very easy to do this (for me, at least). And second, it worked incredibly well – I could feel an honest appreciation of the beauty in everyone that I looked at. It was not sexual in any way. In fact, any sexual connotations that might have started the initial gaze on the pretty woman faded instantly and was replaced by a really nice and warm appreciation and affection – even toward the person upon whom the whole thing started. Third, I found that I could do this at almost any time in almost any setting – I did not need the pretty woman to start the gaze, though it does help. Fourth, I currently need to see the face of a person for that Loving Gaze to kick in. I am not sure of the significance of this, but it is a potentially interesting observation.
  • “It is only when we rely on love, or have a very caring attitude, that we bring the outside into ourselves. Only then do we understand it, do we see its truth.” [Ajahn Kasanah?, quoted by Mark Coleman, I think]
I say almost, above, because I started doing this in Taiwan, a couple of weeks toward the end of a two-month stay there. I found it very easy to do there, in part because I feel very comfortable in Taiwan. When I left Taiwan, I went to China for a week, before going home to the US. It was my first visit to China in two years, and it was a working visit, not a recreational one. My China visit was fraught with challenges and frustration over using the internet (most of the web services I use are blocked in China) and communication and understanding barriers between me and many of the people I encountered – in other words, culture shock. (I think Taiwan spoiled me.) I tried my Loving Gaze technique, but it was not nearly as easy as it was in Taiwan – which, of course, is a lesson in itself. I also think there are more grumpy people in China, which may be another reason why it was harder there.

I recently heard Gil Fronsdale talking about desire and saying “want what you have, not what you do not have” as a way to more happiness. This made me think that I should be able to transfer my Loving Gaze beyond humans to the places and the context (like my job) that I am in. I tried it on my trip back across the Pacific to the US. I can get a little bit of that, but I think I need to work on it more. I do, however, think the outcome might be really worthwhile.
  • “Everything wants to be seen. Everything wants to be known. Everything wants to be loved.” [anonymous Buddhist monk]
  • “Real change will only happen when we fall in love with our planet” [Thich Nhat Hanh]
This point, of loving places, is the basis of a keynote presentation that I gave in several locations recently on "Tourism and Global Understanding". I created this presentation for the International Year of Global Understanding (2016). In it, I suggest that there are three forms of global/geographic understanding: (1) knowing where places are; (2) knowing how places work; and (3) the subjective knowing of places. I close with the suggestion that to address global issues today, the tourism industry needs to get people to fall in love (and therefore care about) the places they visit.

All of this is about loving one's self. Ram Dass says that we want to possess others (and I think other places, as well) because we rely on them to open our 'soul' to experiencing love (or "oneness"). We say "I am in love with you" because I use "you" as a method to bring me into a feeling of love/oneness. However, as we become less needful (less attached, through meditation, perhaps), we are increasingly situated in our own place of love/oneness. So instead of needing another person to have love (which is a very vulnerable and confused position), we are able to feel love for everyone we see, and are independent of the need to possess another person. This can only happen when we can fully rest in what is ("be here now"). This changes our relationships from a position of trying to get love from another, to one where the relationship is coming out of an internal feeling of love that is enjoyed with the other, but not dependent on the other.

Finally, Ram Dass suggest that this "yoga of relationship" is one of the hardest to do, because it is working with animal reproduction, species survival, human pride, individual freedom and sense of personal space. All of these make it hard to stay focused on being here now.

Heart-shaped fish trap, Chimei Island, Penghu, Taiwan

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Un-Aging Witness

We see our bodies aging in the mirror, but we ourselves do not feel that we are older. 

That is because your body is aging and your body exists in time. But the one who witnesses the aging body is awareness itself, and that does not exist in time. 

As you sit in meditation, you become more and more the witness of experience (the one who knows, who is aware), and not the experiencer who is ever reacting to ever changing sensations. 

The wise one witnesses in awe as life renews itself in every moment. 

(1) These ideas are indirectly quoted from Jack Kornfield in a recent dharma talk -

(2) In TM, this "witness/awareness" is known as "transcendental consciousness", and the regular practice of TM is intended to awaken that consciousness so it is ever present, not only during meditation, but in our waking and sleeping states, as well.

Friday, January 8, 2016

(Un)Lucky Karma

Buddha did not allow his disciples to participate in fortune telling, prophesizing about the future, interpreting dreams, wearing magic or lucky charms, finding lucky days in the calendar, and similar activities. He considered these useless superstitions, "low arts” and wrong livelihoods -- even if the person had such skills.

Buddha believed that everything that arises has a cause and effect. Nothing happens by chance or fate, and everything that exists is related to everything else that exists. 
Buddha taught that it is more important to develop our heart and mind, through the Noble 8 Fold Path, than to hope for good luck. Every action we do as a sentient being results in some form of karma. However, I once heard the Noble 8 Fold Path described as the "karma that brings and end to karma".

My rational (Buddha) mind thinks that the laws of karma and dependent origination make logical sense, and are fundamental and essential in governing our worldly experience. They, and the 8 Fold Path, guide my personal ethical thought and behavior.

However, my emotional ego mind is more grounded in illogical social and cultural norms, and takes pleasure in at least some of the rituals of superstition (like burning incense for past and present family members in a temple).

I know that there is a contradiction here, and a dualism (rationality and superstition) that needs to be transcended at some point. This contradiction is also seen in the daily practice of most every Buddhist temple in the world,  especially the Mahayana ones. But, like most of the world, I am not yet awakened / enlightened, so I guess I have an excuse...

A variation on the famous Zen saying may give some additional insight on this contradiction:

  • Before enlightenment, visit temple, burn incense, bow. After enlightenment, visit temple, burn incense, bow.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Enlightenment, Karma and Mindfulness

Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. 
                           After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. 

This is one of my current favorite zen sayings, attributed to the Xin Xin Ming, one of the earliest Chan (Zen) Buddhism texts in China.

To me, this is about karma and life. We come into this world with a karmic past that plays itself out throughout our life. We cannot change that past, and the karmic energy must be played out in some way.  

Buddha teaches us in the 8 Fold Path how to live the life we have without creating more karma on top of it, which will require additional lives to be worked through. An enlightened one has learned the lessons of the Buddha (or perhaps discovered them in some other way), and is able to live out the karma of this life (chop wood, carry water) with adding more karma to it.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

If This, Then That

... If This, Then That...

Mantra-like sayings can be useful to summarize complex ideas and apply them in a quick, mindfulness way.

One that I have been using a lot in my daily life lately is "if this, then that" -- which, yes, is like the web service, IFTTT.

I use "if this, then that" to remind myself of the ultimate union of all phenomenon - that I am not separate from all that I experience. Specifically, I use it to mean 'if this is my experience now, then that (the other) is also my experience'.

Most often, I use it when I encounter some uneasiness in my relationship with another person or with things around me.

For example, if I find that I am annoyed by some unknown person's loud voice or aggressive driving, I will think "if this, then that". Similarly, if I become frustrated that my computer is not working the way I think it should be working, I will stop and think "if this, then that" -- or at least I do that some of the time.

"If this, then that", or sometimes "when this, then that", has two effects:

(1) It making me remember that there is no duality -- that I could be that other person in another time and space, just as easily as that person could be me. It reminds me that everything in my awareness around me is a mirror of myself, with a lesson for me to learn.

(2) It turns my attention away from the other and to my own experience of annoyance or frustration, helping me to detach from those aversions, or at least to not let them consume me in such a way that I might act unwisely and turn them into a karmic (stressful) situation with long-term impacts on my mind and body.

"Not Two"

I had earlier heard (on a dharma talk podcast) a similar mantra-like saying, "Not Two", which basically has the same idea. It is used to stop the mind whenever one notices it creating a duality of me and other, usually accompanied by feelings of desire/envy, hatred/dislike, or confusion/wrong thinking (the defilements). (I think "Not Two" was recommended by Joseph Goldstein, but I am not positive about that.

I tried "Not Two" for a while. It works, and I still use it at times because it is shorter to say. But I use If this, then that" more.

“We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness.”- Thích Nhat Hanh

[updated 18Jan2016]

Friday, January 1, 2016