Monday, December 31, 2018

The Four Noble Truths, series table of contents

A few years ago, I wrote a somewhat comprehensive series on the so-called Four Noble Truths as supposedly propounded by Mr Siddharth Gautam, or the Sakyamuni Buddha, circa 2500 BC.

In light of the current human understanding, a better title for those four "truths" might be: The Four Tenets about Suffering.  Those tenets are neither true, nor very noble.  They are of course the foundation of the religion of Buddhism, and as such derive a certain nobility due to their scriptural status.

To clarify, I have absolutely no problem with someone who chooses to follow the moral precepts of a religion.  Most religions posit moral tenets which are quite in line with being a good human being, and for the vast majority of religious people, religion is essentially a force of conscience, morality, community and culture.  It is only for the philosopher/monk that this series of articles is intended, not for a lay practitioner of Buddhism.  A lay practitioner will probably find himself in more trouble if he discards his religious beliefs and tries to find meaning elsewhere.

  1. Part I: Introduction, The First Noble Truth
  2. Part II: The Second Noble Truth
  3. Part III: The Second Noble Truth, continued
  4. Part IV: The Third Noble Truth

    The Fourth Noble Truth: The Eight-fold Path
  5. Part V: Right View
  6. Part VI: Right Intention
  7. Part VII: Right Speech
  8. Part VIII: Right Action
  9. Part IX: Right Livelihood
  10. Part X: Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration
  11. Part XI: Epilogue

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The Sickness unto Death

(the title is a nod to that melancholic groan by Kierkegaard)

Krishnamurti famously said (and it became famous because spiritual misanthropes gleefully latched on to this quote) "It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society."

Is humanity "sick"?  Or are you just sick of it.

Those very naturalists who decry man for not being in harmony with nature are also quite miffed with the natural, animal instincts which man has somewhat tamed.

It is true that modern life has its discontents.  Alienation, Stress, Loneliness, Financial insecurity.  Is life as an animal better?

One of my friends expressed a wish to be a bird.  To be human was too burdensome for him.

Rent, mortgage, health insurance, car repairs, immunizations...

But he could choose to live as a bird even now.  He can give up his home, his family and his work, and be a bum.  He could choose never to go to a doctor or a mechanic.

We think the birds are happy.  But the birds (if they could think) must be envious of our comforts.  Birds must suffer during every rain, during every storm, and one can imagine their distress when they fly back to their nest and find that a ravaging predator has left blood soaked mess of feathers and bones of the birds' young ones.

Our greatest gift, the mind, also imposes its burden.

Happiness is not to wish to be someone else.  That someone else is probably not that happy either.

The Quest

Someone shared this aphorism: "In Zen, we don't find the answers, we lose the questions."

An adult seeks understanding.  A child wants to know.  Only an infant is free from the desire to know and to understand.

Spirituality can best be understood as a regression to an infantile state.  You go to a Guru as an adult, he denigrates your mind and intellect enough that you give up.

"Logic is hardly the means."

"Your mind is the enemy."

"Thought cannot touch That."

"That which is unconditioned cannot be experienced by the conditioned."

"Live from the heart, not from the brain."

The resulting state is not one of understanding, but of stupidity. 

One may be a happy idiot, but almost universally, the happy idiots who live in the now are supported by the toiling ones who worry about the future and have to plan for the harvests and oil prices.

I am more proud of a man who has unanswered questions than of one who is content with his ignorance.

Sunday, December 09, 2018


Atheists debate the notion of God as if disproving a math equation.

Recently a colleague of mine lost her daughter to cancer.  The deterioration was sudden and crushing, and within a few weeks of being diagnosed, her daughter died a painful death.

The thought that her dear daughter was now in peace and in a better place must have given her comfort in her immense pain.  Flooded by the sudden loss, her faith kept her afloat.

Human understanding of the world continues to advance, but we will never know everything.  As limited beings in time, our knowledge remains ever finite.  The moments, days, years of the future remain uncertain, no matter how much we know about the present and the past.

This uncertainty, this limit and this finitude will continue to imbue our lives with fear, as well as with mystery and wonder.  And therefore, God will never die.  As much in our moments of fear and pain, as in our moments of wonder and gratitude, we seek to express our feelings toward that which is unknown to us, and that unknown is God.

An astrophysicist may know some things about the stars, but even he must be filled with wonder at their sight.  We know a bit about the moon, but that does not take away the beauty of its silence, of its changing form and its movement across the sky.

To feel that sense of beauty and wonder is also a prayer.  The mystery, the silence, the vastness fills us with awe, and we seek almost to kiss the very feet of its artist.


For many days now, a long forgotten melody had been on my lips.  I asked many which song did the melody belong to.  But to no avail.  I did have an inkling that it was a song of devotion, and I persevered and finally found it.

It is the Aarti composed by Guru Nanak, sung in the evening at the Sikh temples.  Even an obstinate intellectual as myself found the beauty of the poetry absolutely marvelous, and listening to the song almost brought tears to my eyes.

The aarti is a traditional ritual in Indian religions where the prayer to a deity is accompanied with lamps, incense and offerings.  This particular hymn is remarkable in that it combines the wonder and beauty of nature with a homage and a prayer.

The first two verses of this long poem are as below:

ਰਾਗੁ ਧਨਾਸਰੀ ਮਹਲਾ ੧ ॥
Raag Dhhanaasaree Mehalaa 1 ||
रागु धनासरी महला १ ॥

Raag Dhanashree, First Mehl.
(the "First Mehl" refers to Guru Nanak being the author of this hymn)
(Raga Dhanasri, or Dhanashree, is an Indian classical raga, denoting that this hymn should be sung in this particular way)

ਗਗਨ ਮੈ ਥਾਲੁ ਰਵਿ ਚੰਦੁ ਦੀਪਕ ਬਨੇ ਤਾਰਿਕਾ ਮੰਡਲ ਜਨਕ ਮੋਤੀ ॥
Gagan Mai Thhaal Rav Chandh Dheepak Banae Thaarikaa Manddal Janak Mothee ||
गगन मै थालु रवि चंदु दीपक बने तारिका मंडल जनक मोती ॥

With the sky as the platter, and the sun and the moon as the lamps, the very stars being the studded pearls for this offering.

ਧੂਪੁ ਮਲਆਨਲੋ ਪਵਣੁ ਚਵਰੋ ਕਰੇ ਸਗਲ ਬਨਰਾਇ ਫੂਲੰਤ ਜੋਤੀ ॥੧॥
Dhhoop Malaaanalo Pavan Chavaro Karae Sagal Banaraae Foolanth Jothee ||1||
धूपु मलआनलो पवणु चवरो करे सगल बनराइ फूलंत जोती ॥१॥

The fragrance of sandalwood in the air is the temple incense, and the wind is the fan. All the plants of the world are the altar flowers in offering to You.

It has been beautifully sung by two traditional religious singers from India:

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

An Obstinate Elegy

Continuing from a slow reading and analysis of Dylan Thomas' And Death Shall Have no Dominion, a dear friend told me about a similar poem by Edna St Vincent Millay.

The poem is titled Dirge Without Music.

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.  Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone.  They are gone to feed the roses.  Elegant and curled
Is the blossom.  Fragrant is the blossom.  I know.  But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know.  But I do not approve.  And I am not resigned.

Saturday, September 08, 2018

The Natural Mantra

Chanting a mantra repeatedly has been a well-known practice to calm (clam) the mind and to feel relaxed and focused.  This practice is especially common in Indic religions.

There are many mantras which have stood the test of time.  The effectiveness of a mantra depends on its perceived sacredness, its association with deities, or its mention in important scriptures.

Some of the popular mantras are:

The Gayatri mantra

ॐ भूर्भुवस्व: | तत्सवितुर्वरेण्यम् | भर्गो देवस्य धीमहि | धियो यो न: प्रचोदयात्

The Pavamana mantra

असतोमा सद्गमय । तमसोमा ज्योतिर् गमय । मृत्योर्मामृतं गमय ॥

The Shanti mantras

ॐ पूर्णमदः पूर्णमिदम् पूर्णात् पूर्णमुदच्यते |
पूर्णस्य पूर्णमादाय पूर्णमेवावशिष्यते ||
ॐ शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः || 

ॐ सह नाववतु |
सह नौ भुनक्तु |
सह वीर्यं करवावहै |
तेजस्विनावधीतमस्तु मा विद्विषावहै॥
ॐ शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः॥

The Soka Gakkai mantra

Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō (南無妙法蓮華經)

Mahamrityunjaya Mantra (one of my favorites)

The mool mantra In Sikhism

ੴ ਸਤਿ ਨਾਮੁ ਕਰਤਾ ਪੁਰਖੁ ਨਿਰਭਉ ਨਿਰਵੈਰੁ ਅਕਾਲ ਮੂਰਤਿ ਅਜੂਨੀ ਸੈਭੰ ਗੁਰ ਪ੍ਰਸਾਦਿ॥
Do you notice anything common between them?

There is a preponderance of the nasal consonants in all of these. The "mmm" and "nnnn" sounds predominate.

Many of these chants begin with "Om".

The "mmm" sound is the most effortless sound while exhaling. These mantras often involve rhythmic breathing and a constant speed of chanting.

I consider the mantra "Aum" or "Om" to be the most natural mantra. It is essentially "mmm" but includes an initial segment when the lips are open. It is linguistically neutral and its various meanings are obvious constructions.

You can try: Inhale through the nostrils, and while exhaling, if you keep your lips open and then closed, and make your exhalation audible (by involving your vocal chord), the sound is: aa ... aa ... mmmm .... mmmm.

I find, for example, the following chant, to be quite effective.

The longer mantras engage the mind a little more by having to remember the sequence of consonants and therefore can be more effective in quickly getting to a state of mental silence. The "mmm" sound reverberates through the skull, and the mild effort involved in repeating a long mantra focuses the mind.  Also the alliteration and repetition of the nasal consonants can be somewhat resonant.

It is similar to the background musicality of a tanpura in Indian classical music.

The mantra is obviously more effective if you give it a religious significance or meaning, which puts the mind in a certain soft emotional state of devoutness or surrender. Silent meditation is harder (to calm the mind), but chanting achieves the same effect much quicker.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

I Am This Body

You must have heard and read many spiritualists and spiritual teachers assert "You are not your body".  Holy scriptures from India claim similarly.  In Bhagwad Gita, Krishna even advises Arjun to not feel bad about murdering someone because he is "only" killing the body, while the soul is eternal.

Yesterday I had a conversation with a spiritualist in which he claimed that he felt a sense of oneness while doing his spiritual practices.  When I asked him what that meant, he kindly elaborated that while in the normal state of affairs, we think of ourselves as having a boundary (usually at the limit of our skin), in his state he did not experience this boundary.  That while in our conversation (for example), I felt that "I" was speaking to "him", such distinctions disappeared in his felt state.  It was illuminating to listen to him.

Then I asked him: But there is a clear way in which we can ascertain this boundary.  You may feel a oneness, but the fact remains that you have the power, and you can will, to move your hand, but not mine.  He said in that state, such analytical considerations did not enter the picture.  Or rather, that he was too blissed out in that state to be asking any questions about it.

Well, that is just too bad.  That confirms my oft-repeated statement that spiritual bliss is a regression to an infantile state.  In that state, the analytical/thinking parts of the brain are undeveloped or in abeyance, and feeling states reign supreme.  The infant develops a sense of "me" and "not me" only at a certain stage of brain development.  And that seems important for survival.  If a predator comes lurching at "you", it would be quite a mistake to not run away to save your "self".

The question "Who am I", despite being a favorite of many spiritualists, is a loaded question.  A more neutral question is "What am I".  An even more neutral question is: "What is this feeling of I-ness" or "What is this sense of being me".

The statement "You are not your body" is equally loaded and misleading.  It assumes a "your body" phrasing which assumes a separate entity.  And spiritualists are very fond of pointing at this loaded-ness of commonly-used phrases "my body", "my mind" as proof (sic) that you are different from them.  A much more neutral, but therefore more easily seen to be flawed, statement is: "You are not the body."

The linguistic argument is very flawed, as I have pointed out elsewhere.  In simpler terms, saying "my arm is in pain" or "my mind is whirling" is a linguistic tool to avoid confusion when speaking to someone, lest they be confused which arm or mind is being spoken of.  Saying on the phone, or to someone in another room, "This mind is whirling", or "An arm is in pain" might elicit further queries.  "Whose mind?", "Whose arm?"  Answer: MINE.  "And who are YOU", he may ask?  [The right answer to him is: "your dad".  :-)]

Another favorite spiritualist statement is: "You are identified with your body." This commits the error of being a loaded statement not once but thrice.  The question is then, naturally, "who is identified" and then donations to the guru are not too far into the future.  But better questions to ask when hearing such assertions are:

"What do you mean by identification?"
"Are you assuming that there is a 'me' apart from the body?"
"What is the basis for your assertion?"

In the old days, an investigation into the psyche and feelings of selfhood was undertaken without the benefit of understanding evolution, the social aspects of mammalian behavior, and developmental psychology.  Many of the fields related to studying brain and its emergent phenomena are still in their infancy, but some clear statements can be made.

- There is a continuity to this body.  It is born, it grows up, and gets older, and dies.  There is no confusion about the body being, so to speak, continuing as a cohesive unit through time.  The old parable/paradox of the "Ship of Theseus" was an instructive one at the time, but with our understanding of DNA and cellular science, there are many ways to resolve it now.

- The brain has direct connections to the parts of the body, as compared to, with an outside object.  The brain can will the arm to move in a way that is quite different from a human being able to drive a car.  In the former, the connectivity is, so to speak, organic.  The body forms a cohesive whole with the brain as one of the organs.  There is two-way connectivity between the brain and the limbs.  It is interesting to consider various mechanical prosthetic limbs, or a future implant in a brain being able to control a car just by thinking of it.

- The sense of "I" has many components: memory, patterns of thought and behavior, "linkages" (relations to other entities and objects) and "imprints" (others remember me as "me"), social and legal abstractions (citizenship, credit history, etc.), etc.  It is natural to consider it therefore a mostly brain-related phenomenon.  The sense of "I" probably does not suffer as much at the cutting of a limb as at a severe trauma to the brain leading to loss of memory.

The sense of oneness experienced by my friend is a feeling.  You may feel like you are one with the tree, but, that's just a feeling.  It is likely a temporary shutdown of certain brain functions which are responsible for a sense of "I"ness, and that may be quite pleasurable for various reasons.  Suddenly the whole burden of taking care of "me", my worries and desires and fears and concerns and social perceptions, might disappear.  Leading to an intense feeling of freedom, bliss and euphoria.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Deep Sleep, continued

Earlier article: The Advaita-Vedanta fascination with Deep Sleep

The four states in traditional Vedanta are: Waking, Dreaming, Deep Sleep, and the Fourth state (Turiya).  They are talked about in various Upanishads.

From the Wikipedia entry on Turiya
Turiya is discussed in Verse 7 of the Mandukya Upanishad; however, the idea is found in the oldest Upanishads. For example, Chapters 8.7 through 8.12 of Chandogya Upanishad discuss the "four states of consciousness" as awake, dream-filled sleep, deep sleep, and beyond deep sleep.  Similarly, Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, in chapter 5.14 discusses Turiya state, as does Maitri Upanishad in sections 6.19 and 7.11. 
Verse VII of the Mandukya Upanishad describes Turiya:
Not inwardly cognitive, nor outwardly cognitive, not both-wise cognitive,
not a cognition-mass, not cognitive, not non-cognitive,
unseen, with which there can be no dealing, ungraspable, having no distinctive mark,
non-thinkable, that cannot be designated, the essence of assurance,
of which is the state of being one with the Self
the cessation of development, tranquil, benign, without a second,
such they think is the fourth. He is the Self (Atman). He should be discerned.
Not content with asserting the state of Turiya, some minor Upanishads talk about a fifth state, Turiyatita (the state beyond Turiya):
II.4. There are five AvasthA-s (states): jAgrat (waking), svapna (dreaming), suShupti (dreamless sleeping), the turIya (fourth) and turyatita (that beyond the fourth)...
II.5. The Yogin is one that has realised Brahman that is all-full beyond turIya.
(Mandala Brahmana Upanishad, Translated by K. Narayanasvami Aiyar)
Search the texts and the internet, talk to the sages and the gurus, discuss it with Vedantin monks or seekers,  and here is what you will find.

What to talk of the fourth and the state beyond the fourth, only a rare few have so much as experienced some consciousness during deep sleep (though they might tell you about vivid dreaming, and awareness during light sleep, and awareness of when they fall asleep).  The states of Turiya and the even more transcendent state of Turiyatita are seemingly just fanciful concepts, having absolutely no counterpart in human experience.

One has to just read some of the things people say about "awareness during deep sleep" to see what tosh it all is, in their conception of it as a spiritual or mystical phenomenon:
In fact, even the apparent fact that deep sleep lasts for a period of time, say for four hours, is a superimposition in the mind’s own terms onto something called ‘deep sleep,’ in which, by definition, time is not present. Therefore, deep sleep does not last in time.
As scientists continue to study sleep and brain rhythms, there is some initial fringe research which is now questioning whether some form of consciousness can still persist even in what traditionally is dreamless sleep:
The third category is a "selfless" state of sleep. The researchers said that this state not only involves dreamless sleep, but also a certain amount of conscious awareness on the part of the person that he or she is sleeping. This state may be similar to the experiences of Indian and Tibetan meditators, the researchers said. They suggested that people who are skilled at meditation are more likely to experience this third state, but more research is needed before scientists can tell whether or not this is true. 
Calling it "selfless" is disingenuous.  Of course if the person is aware that "he or she is sleeping" that it is not really a disembodied awareness, but one that is firmly rooted in the body.  One might be totally oblivious to sense experiences, but still somewhat aware internally and have a very, very mild and soft-spoken inward dialog.

But more pertinently, there is nothing "spiritual" about this awareness.  Of course the brain is not dead during sleep, so some minor waves might still exist which can, perhaps in a suitably trained individual, make him or her somewhat aware of even dreamless sleep.  What is so mystical about it?  How can someone say that "time is not present".  Just because oneself is not totally aware of what is going on, does not mean that the outside world is no more.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Signs of Inner Growth

As you go through life, it is a fair question to ask yourself if you are becoming any wiser.

Consider a man who is enamored of some sportsman or celebrity in his teens, becomes passionate about a political cause in his twenties, and starts following a self-help practice in his thirties.  As time goes on, he exchanges one self-help practice for another, starts reading Zen Buddhism instead of Stephen Covey and talks of oneness and things "beyond the mind".  A few more years pass, and the man is now disillusioned with the usual self-proclaimed "roshi"s of Zen Buddhism, and becomes more of an adherent of orthodox Buddhism.  After going through a meditation retreat or twenty, the man declares that he has developed discrimination and inner wisdom.

What is a way to test yourself, and to test someone else, for a claim of inner growth and wisdom?  It is an important question.  After all, every day one is bombarded with wisdom by all kinds of wise men.  They claim a superior moral status or insight into the world, and feel entitled to tell you how to live your life.  I need not list some of the popular ones, in India or elsewhere.

Here are ten questions that you can put to yourself, or to such a man:

1. Do you now acknowledge and understand some of your shortcomings and limitations?  What are they?

Do you now know your own desires and fears?

2. Have you become less prone to judging people as good or evil, and more prone to seeing them as complex and contradictory bundles of thoughts and influences?  Do you get less angry at people in your interactions?

If a friend of yours is accused of an embezzlement and dismissed from work, do you blacklist that person from your social circle or do you continue to engage with him, perhaps a bit less than before, and seek to understand him?

3. Do you now have fewer answers to world's problems than before?  While earlier you might have had some quick knee-jerk formulae to solve poverty or crime or corruption, do you now understand the complexity of the problem in a way that makes you hesitant to offer short and simple answers?

Do you engage less in wishful tyranny?  "Can't we just hang all these anti-nationals?"

4. As the years have gone by, have you studied more about the world and about our understanding of it (via interactions, experimentation, scientific journals, history books, reflection)?  Before forming an opinion on a matter, do you now try to study something from various angles?

Are you now more aware of your region's history?  Are you now more informed about a particular lifestyle disease and how to avoid it, not just depending on newspaper columns?

5. Do you now have less or fewer esoteric assumptions about phenomena, and can explain more and more of life and the universe without recourse to faith or mystical notions?

Do you reject, or at least regard as mere useful fictions, notions of heaven and hell, nirvana or reincarnation, divine justice, etc.?

6. Do you have more insight and experience about the various experiences and struggles that humans go through, whether they be feelings of love, or obsession, or joy, or depression, or distress and trauma, or stress, or addiction?  Have you seen both your better angels and your "dark side"?

As an example, have you been through both love and heartbreak?  Have you experienced the terminal illness or death of a loved one?  Have you struggled with a bad habit?

7. Do you now have a better discrimination as to how you make or accept a claim?  Does that better discrimination now result in fewer disappointments at being gullible?

As an example, do you now refuse to believe in levitation or psychic abilities?

8.  Do you now have a better grounding in language, logic, the philosophy of science, the various biases and fallacies?

As an example, do you now understand the notion of "Correlation is not causation."

9. Do you now have less of a desire to argue with everybody to convert them to your point of view, and are you more accepting that people might think differently from you?

10. Can you love and admire people knowing that they are flawed?  And conversely, do you now no longer have a need to consider a particular individual as perfect, god-like, and who can say or do no wrong?

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Ten Questions for a Pure-Observer-ist

Many spiritualists believe in a "pure observer" that exists independent of the body, the brain, and is "untouched" by the interactions of the body and the brain with the rest of the universe.

This pure observer (also called "drishta" in Hindi) is however, a very hazy notion that quickly falls apart when subjected to some very basic questions.

This belief in a pure observer is quite common in non-dualist Hinduism (Advaita-Vedanta), many strains of Buddhism, and is often an unspoken assumption in those who preach mindfulness and "choiceless awareness".

What follows is a list of ten simple questions for anyone who professes this belief.  Thinking hard and trying to respond to these questions will, I hope, be instructive for the believer.  And who knows, it might even convince the non-believers that there is some sense to the notion.

Unless there is a more clarifying definition, I take the pure observer to mean the following:
Pure Observer: An entity which is able to observe human experiences (both inner, as in pain, and outer, as in visual), but is neither a part nor an effect of the body or the brain.  It almost goes without saying that it is not a man-made device like a camera or an EEG.
Now, the questions:

1.  What is the basis of your claim that the pure observer exists?

2.  A sense experience is an interaction of matter/energy/waves.  If you claim that the pure observer is able to observe sensate experiences, then it must be that the pure observer is reachable by matter/energy/waves.  If so, it should be detectable, modifiable and even be prone to destruction by a suitably harsh damage.  What is your explanation about the communication from senses/brain to the pure observer?

3. In deep sleep and in coma, the brain is oblivious to sense experiences.  What happens to the pure observer in those states?

4. Does the pure observer have a memory?  Where are the memories stored?  How can it have memories and still be "untouched"?

5. What is the role of the pure observer, if at all, in affecting your thoughts and behavior?  How does it communicate in the reverse direction (to your body and brain)?

6.  How does your brain know of this pure observer.  As one example, your brain is right now responding to these queries and stating things about the pure observer.  Is your brain able to "observe" this pure observer?  How does that work?

7. What happens to the pure observer when you (as in, the body) are dead, or not yet born?  How did you come to that finding?

8. If the pure observer is not part/effect of your body/brain, why are its experiences restricted to your experiences only.  Why doesn't this pure observer know things that your body/brain can't perceive?  Does it, for example, know what is happening right now on the moons of Jupiter?  Have you met anyone who can show extra-sensory perception decisively and repeatedly?

9.  Does the pure observer have any morality or sense of justice?  Does it judge and use that judgment to some effect, say for example, doling out divine justice or assigning a new body at the time of reincarnation?

10. Perhaps you would agree that the pure observer theory has lots of arcane and at-present-unverifiable assumptions.  We should generally avoid needless assumptions.  Is there any phenomenon that is better explained by this theory than by the current scientific understanding?  Is there anything that this theory predicts which can be verified?

Saturday, August 11, 2018

The Advaita-Vedanta fascination with Deep Sleep

Advaita Vedanta (Nondualist Hinduism) has a special fascination for the state of deep sleep.  That is because nondualist Hinduism holds that the observed (reality) is only created due to the observer.  Since in deep sleep, nothing is being observed, it is claimed that deep sleep is a spiritually higher state pointing to the "pure" observer.

Some quotations will illustrate:
Question: Sushupti [deep sleep] is often characterised as the state of ignorance. 
Bhagavan (Ramana Mahrishi): No, it is the pure state. There is full awareness in it and total ignorance in the waking state. It is said to be ajnana [ignorance] only in relation to the false jnana prevalent in jagrat [the waking state]. Really speaking jagrat [the waking state] is ajnana [ignorance] and sushupti [the sleep state] prajnana [wisdom]. If sushupti is not the real state where does the intense peace come from to the sleeper? It is everybody’s experience that nothing in jagrat can compare with the bliss and well-being derived from deep sleep, when the mind and the senses are absent. What does it all mean? It means that bliss comes only from inside ourselves and that it is most intense when we are free from thoughts and perceptions, which create the world and the body, that is, when we are in our pure being, which is Brahman, the Self. In other words, the being alone is bliss and the mental superimpositions are ignorance and, therefore, the cause of misery. That is why samadhi is also described as sushupti in jagrat [sleep in the waking state]; the blissful pure being which prevails in deep sleep is experienced in jagrat, when the mind and the senses are fully alert but inactive. (Guru Ramana, pp. 112-13)

Sushupti is the natural state.  Immutability is the true condition of things, for that is independent of external forces. Modification is not the true state, as it is dependent on external causes. . . . The perception in waking and dreaming moments is a modification of the original state. That state of a thing which is independent of external causes is its true condition, and that state of a thing which is dependent upon external causes is not its true condition ; for this state cannot subsist in the absence of the external cause. Therefore, sushupti being the natural condition, there is no modification there, as in waking or dreaming’ (Sankara's Commentary on Taittiriya Upanishad 11.8.1.) 
When it {the individual soul) becomes fast asleep—when it does not know anything—it comes back along the 72000 nerves called Hita, which extend from the heart to the pericardium, and remains in the pericardium. As a baby, or an Emperor, or a noble Brahmin lives, having attained the acme of bliss, so does it remain. (Brihadaranyaka. 2.1.19) 
(The teacher Prajapati said) ‘ That which is in deep sleep, at perfect rest, seeing no dreams,—that is the Self, that is the Immortal, the Fearless, that is Brahman.(The pupil) Indra went away satisfied in his heart, but before he reached the Devas (i.e. his home) he saw this difficulty. He thought “ In truth he does not rightly know himself as ‘ this is I ’, nor does he know these beings. Therefore he has reached utter annihilation, and I see no good in this. (Chandogya Upanishad 6.8.1.) 
This state of profound sleep is not a complete non-being or negative, for such a hypothesis conflicts with the later recollections of a happy repose of sleep. The self continues to exist, though it is bereft of all experiences. The consciousness is continuous. You feel you have existed even during sleep as soon as you are awake. You feel that you exist always. Vedantins build their philosophy around this Sushupti Avastha. This stage gives them the clue to the non-dual state (Advaitic state). A careful study of the three states-Jagrat, Svapna and Sushupti (waking, dreaming and deep sleep)-is of immense practical use for the clear understanding of the Vedanta. (Swami Sivananda)
Let's start from the last excerpt.  Swami Sivananda claims that "The consciousness is continuous." even during deep sleep. That is just factually wrong.  So he can be summarily dismissed.

A lot of mental activity is absent in deep sleep (as evidenced by electrical activity maps by MRI and PET), including the kind of consciousness during our waking state, or even dreaming, that we all understand.  Nondualists claim that that attribute-less state (no objects of consciousness) means that the so-called "pure consciousness" existing during that time is evidence of the Self (with a capital S), the atman.  What they probably mean is that during deep sleep, the "spiritual" consciousness is untied (or dis-identified) from body/brain.

That is just hokum.  By definition, there is no awareness in deep sleep - otherwise it is not "deep" enough.  There is no "pure consciousness" in deep sleep.  There is just oblivion.

Many vedantins who want to challenge this sense of oblivion claim that you do say when you wake up that you had a sound sleep.  And according to them, it is evidence that you were aware that you were in deep sleep.  That is also not true.  When someone claims he had a restful night, he is remarking about an absence of restlessness and the sensations of refreshed-ness when he has just woken up.  It is not a comment about having been aware, it is a comment about having slept so soundly that one was UN-aware.  Deep sleep is known to induce greater restfulness to the brain and the body.  A cursory survey of the scientific literature about REM sleep vs non-REM sleep and its neurochemistry will be instructive for anyone curious.

Sankara is stating that the "true" state of something is that which does not undergo change.  Waking and dreaming consciousness goes through moods and different perceptions, so according to Sankara, the "true" consciousness is that which is not externally directed, or even directed to be aware of the mind.  That is, the experiencer is waking and dreaming states is intermingled due to identification, but the experiencer devoid of experiencing anything but itself (in deep sleep) is the true self.  That could be an interesting philosophical position, if only Sankara could tell us how and why he assumes there is an experiencer in deep sleep.  This is also what yogis term as "nirvikalpa samadhi" (attribute-less union/bliss). 

But it is just an abstract notion.  There is no such thing from all that we know and understand about consciousness.

And at least one man (take his words with a big grain of salt, as he doesn't explain what he experienced and is not very rigorous) who claims to have experienced this condition says that this is no different than deep sleep and oblivion and that it is entirely useless in fostering any understanding.

Interrogating the Enlightened Man, a digression on Eckhart Tolle


Eckhart Tolle--One of my Favorite Hypocrites

I am not against the earning of money by "spiritual"or any other means if done through the free market by voluntary exchange. I am not criticising Tolle for making money, but--if the information by Titmuss quoted below is true (and if it is not it would behoove Tolle to reply to it as untrue)--for his hypocrisy, that is saying one thing and doing another.

Here is what Titmuss wrote below, germane to my claim about hypocrisy being the issue I am addressing here:

It is surely appropriate to question whether his [Tolle] growing personal wealth, and his desire for more, is compatible with his spiritual teachings. If the thought of such transparency is too difficult for you [Tolle] to handle, then I have a small suggestion. You are on the world’s Rich Man List. You are very wealthy. From now on, please offer all your public talks and retreats on the basis of dana  (a Pali word meaning the act of giving, the offering of a donation) and minimise the price of your books, cards, calendars etc.

When younger (even!), say 20 to 30, having gone through a lengthy and various "Spiritual" life "Researching" about, more than "Searching" for, "Enlightenment", meeting a few "Top Gun Gurus" in person, becoming a minor “Guru” myself, forming or joining new Communities committed to "Enlightenment", getting "Enlightened" myself...etc...I think perhaps some of my comments and quotes on "Spirituality" might prove useful to others pursuing "Spiritual Enlightenment", etc. (Note: I place quote marks “-” around words to signal that the conventional, traditional, mass media meaning of these words is very different from my meaning of them.)

The term/concept I have found most applicable to the "Spiritual" INDUSTRY (Yes, Virginia, it is!), is HYPOCRISY. What a wonderful word!

Here’s the etymology: hypocrisy (n.) c.1200, ipocrisie, from Old French ypocrisie, from Late Latin hypocrisis, from Greek hypokrisis "acting on the stage, pretense," from hypokrinesthai "play a part, pretend".

Some quotes on it:

HYPOCRITE, n. “One who, professing virtues that he does not respect, secures the advantage of seeming to be what he depises.” Ambrose Bierce

“Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.” Francois de La Rochefoucauld

“The essence of immorality is the tendency to make an exception of myself.” Jane Addams

“Go put your creed into your deed.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

“The hypocrite's crime is that he bears false witness against himself. What makes it so plausible to assume that hypocrisy is the vice of vices is that integrity can indeed exist under the cover of all other vices except this one. Only crime and the criminal, it is true, confront us with the perplexity of radical evil; but only the hypocrite is really rotten to the core.” Hannah Arendt

“The greatest way to live with honor in this world is to be what we pretend to be.” Socrates

It seems Eckhart Tolle is near number Uno in the current rank of “Spiritual Gurus or Leaders” worldwide. All persons I put in the category of “Guru” are GRUESOME! Some are malignant growths, others are benign. Among the former I would put Da Free John, L. Ron Hubbard, Muktanada, Jim Jones, Sai Baba, and Rajneesh. Among the latter, Tolle, Gurdjieff, Dalia Lama, and Krishnamurti.

The questions to ask of the “spiritual gurus” such as Tolle SHOULD NOT BE:

What is God, Truth, Reality, etc.,
but SHOULD BE (as Titmuss does below):

How much are you worth, your total assets?
How do you earn your money?
Are you sexually active and with which sex and why or why not?
Do you believe in monogamy and why or why not?
What do you do with your money?
Do you use psychotropic substances and why or why not?
Do you support governments? Which kinds? Why?
Do you believe in disembodied spirits, life after death? If so, why?

Below is first the mainstream, then the critical alternative, views of the "Spiritual Hero" Eckhart Tolle (note the dates):

“He says he doesn’t pay much attention to money, although he jokes that he “should pay more”. He has used his new-found wealth to buy a flat, which overlooks wild parkland, and a car. He says that while he has no intention of setting up an ashram or centre, “it could develop organically”. Still, he has no plans to create an empire or “a heavy commercial structure”.

Munro Magruder, assistant publisher at New World Library, the American publisher that picked up the American rights for Tolle in 1999, says: “The last big best-seller we had was The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success by Deepak Chopra … One of those laws is to practise detachment, but Chopra doesn’t. He is very involved in the business.

(But) Eckhart truly practises detachment. “He’s never asked how many copies of his book we’ve sold, nor enquired about the marketing campaign. He couldn’t care less. He’s only interested in being a teacher, and people resonate with that. He’s the genuine article.” Telegraph Magazine 2003

"Whatever you think people are withholding from you praise, appreciation, assistance, loving care and so on give it to them. Soon after you start giving, you will start receiving." Eckhart Tolle 2010

“Money is a good example. An enlightened person or business is not concerned primarily with making money, because when you are concerned with making money you want the future more than the present.” Eckhart Tolle 2010

“When asked about his wealth some of his replies seem evasive. I noticed he once justified the price of his seminars with some comment about it costing a lot to organise such things. But this failed to address the obvious point that the tours are raking in a fortune. It actually seemed like a slightly dishonest answer from someone trying to defend their self-image. He also reacted by making some vague comment about the possibility of setting up a foundation to help people with his money. However to my knowledge he has held onto vast reserves of cash he could never possibly need for well over a decade.” Blog 2013

“Eckhart Tolle has established a huge worldwide commercial enterprise through his business company, Eckhart Teachings. Last month, Watkins Bookshop in London named Eckhart as the world’s second most influential spiritual teacher after the Dalai Lame and immediately ahead of Pope Francis. He has become one of the best known spiritual teachers in the Western world offering retreats, public talks as well as appearing on various television programs. Millions have read one or more of his four books: The Power Of Now; The Practise Of The Power Of Now; A New Earth; Stillness Speaks. Published in 35 languages, these four books have gone onto sell some 12 million copies or more between them. His commercial activities in the UK alone include Eckhart Tolle TV Live Stream for six months. $99.65, New Earth Card Deck for £19.00, New Earth Calendar for £11.00, Inspirational Selections from A New Earth £18.00, Eckhart Tolle’s Findhorn Retreat (2 DVDs and a book). £27.00, Eckhart Tolle’s Music to Quiet the Mind £13.00, In the Presence of Mystery (Audio) £22.50 and much, much more. Eckhart charges individuals between the cheapest seats at £50 to £75 for the “platinum seats” to listen to him give a two hour talk with questions and answers.

Eckhart gives talks addressing the suffering of clinging to ownership. Yet, it is stated on his website: “Absolutely no recording devices of any kind are allowed at the retreat.” Eckhart Teachings keep a tight control over recorded access to his words. In A New Earth (page 46), Eckhart writes about the problem of the ego. ‘I don’t have enough yet’ by which the ego really means ‘I am not enough yet.’ ‘Having – the concept of ownership – is a fiction created by the ego… Wanting keeps the ego alive much more than having. It is an addictive need….’Fine words, Mr. Tolle. You have made $millions in the last 15 years. Do you really need to own so much money? Why do you still want to make even more money?

Please explain to your many followers how your desires and needs to make so much money from your talks, retreats and commercial sales contribute to a new Earth.
Please let your followers know what you do with your immense wealth?
Do you use your money to create a better life for people? If so, what organisations, trusts, charities do you give to?
Do you invest you invest your money in the financial markets? If so, which?
Do you leave your money in your bank? If so, why?
It is surely appropriate to question whether his growing personal wealth, and his desire for more, is compatible with his spiritual teachings. If the thought of such transparency is too difficult for you [Tolle] to handle, then I have a small suggestion. You are on the world’s Rich Man List. You are very wealthy. From now on, please offer all your public talks and retreats on the basis of dana  (a Pali word meaning the act of giving, the offering of a donation) and minimise the price of your books, cards, calendars etc.

Your teachings have given much support to the spiritual journey of your followers. You deservedly receive a lot of goodwill from people. You can make a contribution towards developing trust in spiritual teachers and their teachings. Your practise of dana would dispel the growing widespread disillusionment with spiritual teachers who accumulate vast sums of money. This is not a hair-shirt philosophy but an act of kindness and support for all regardless of their financial status.

If you developed trust in dana, you would show to yourself and your followers the power of now to let go of old desires. I am sure you would agree. 2014

To Conclude:

Ask not for whom the Bell Tolles as you toil for his Toll, same as you pay your Tax to the other Guru or God called Government.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Interrogating the Enlightened Man, part 4

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Q: What do you mean by liberation from the cycle of birth and death?
A: This world is a plane of suffering.  My teaching is to become free from this suffering, and that can't happen if you continue to be reborn.  After attaining liberation, the cycle of birth and death is ended.

Q: That is very perplexing.  All that we know and see is people getting born and dying.  What do you mean by "reborn"?
A: When the body dies, the soul does not die.  The soul is eternal, and is reborn as another living being.

Q: What is this "soul"?  I know of soulful music which is kind-of sentimental, but what is this eternal "soul" that you speak of?
A: Your sense of "I".  Death is just like falling asleep and then waking up as another body.

Q: That can't be true.  When I wake up from sleep, I still have all my memories.  Does soul also have memories from its "previous body"?
A: Yes, many children have been observed to speak languages that they had no exposure to during their known lifetime.

Q: That is highly doubtful.  I am not sure if there is such an incident ever recorded in a reputed medical journal.  That said, how come I don't remember anything from my "past life"?
A: You can, if you meditate.  "Remembering past lives" is a very high state achieved after a long period of meditation.

Q: But isn't memory a material thing?  We are born, our sense organs perceive many things.  We form memories.  Language, for example, is learned by reading and listening.  And this learning is then stored in the brain's neural matter as patterns.  The body is burnt to ashes after death.  How are that body's memories stored in the "soul"?
A: It was not clear for many hundreds of years how the brain stores memories.  Similarly, at present it is not possible to give a physical explanation of your question.

Q: But this much is clear that memory is a pattern formed from sense (matter) experiences.  To store this pattern somewhere, anywhere, must require a substrate.  Are you saying that the soul has a storage medium?
A: That is possible.  It may be a subtle form of energy which has waveforms/imprints from your present and past lives.  I'm sure you understand that a television broadcast signal can have all kinds of information.  Just like physicists discovered the weak nuclear force only recently, it is possible that this soul-energy is too subtle to be measured by our present instruments.  And it is possible that only some important memories are stored in the soul-energy.

Q: That is very interesting.  So the soul is definitely a matter/energy form which is able to store patterns.  I'm sure you don't think it is matter, because that would mean we could hermetically seal a body before death and thereby trap the soul from escaping and grant freedom from rebirth to the poor soul.  That would be a nice shortcut to liberation.
A: Yes, it is not matter.  It is definitely an energy.

Q: Hmm.  Till we are able to detect this energy in some way, what can you say that will convince me that the "soul" exists?  Why should we believe you?  I don't give credence to those stories of little kids speaking a foreign tongue.
A: You don't have to believe me.  You can follow the path of meditation and discover on your own.

Q: But that is quite an investment of time and energy.  You are asking a lot from an ignorant man.  It will be such a waste if after meditating for thirty years, I come to the conclusion that there is no soul.  I will be very angry with you then.  What do you suggest?
A: Up to you.  You can continue to live a worldly life, or start on the path of holiness and eventually attain liberation.

Q: Oh, that liberation again.  But actually I don't find life that sorrowful.  Yes, there are stresses and challenges, but also such joys, pleasures, moments of wonder and delectation.  If given a choice, I would definitely want to be reborn.  The future is bright, I feel, and we as a species will understand so much more, and create such intricate art and machinery in the future.  This liberation doesn't appeal to me that much.  I would much rather be here and alive.  And I would give anything to be reborn.
A: That may be so for you.  Many others have seen life more deeply and concluded that liberation is the only worthwhile goal.

Q: They must be really depressed with life.  Obviously for them, the sorrows over the longer term must be outweighing the joys.
A: Or maybe you are just chuffed with little delights, whereas they have seen the real tragedy of life.  All joys wither.  All mans' creations are toys.  Suffering is always there in the end, if of nothing else, than of the fear of death.

Q: Toys?  Don't you wonder at the design of a VLSI chip, the proof of Poincare's conjecture, man's landing on the moon, the work of great sculptors and composers?
A: All trifles, when compared to liberation.  Death conquers all of these tinkerers in the end.  At the time of death they will understand what was truly important.

Q: I'm sorry but I know many who are not afraid of death.  In fact, I know many soldiers who have preferred a glorious but certain death to retreat.  I know artists who died of penury in the service of their art.  Poets who composed their works in the battlefield.  I know a mother who gave up her life for her child.  Death doesn't seem to be the ultimate tragedy.  The joy they got from their creation, or from saving their community or their child seems to have been greater than the fear or pain of death.
A: Such people are attached to worldly things like "art", honor, community and their children.  If they knew that their human birth was the most precious of gifts, they wouldn't squander it that easily.

Q: So can one say that liberation appeals to those who don't really have anything to live for, who don't find joy in creation, who crave a meaning in this vacuum, and who don't find this life and world a place of wonder and delight?  In other words, the alienated, the depressed and the maladjusted?
A: Quite.

(to be continued)

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Interrogating the Enlightened Man, part 3

Part 1, Part 2

Q: What is your experience like in the state of Enlightenment?
A: The world is perfect as it is.  Nothing remains to be done.  As the Buddha said in The Fire Sermon: "The task fulfilled, there is nothing further for this world."

Q: But then, why continue to live?
A: Told you earlier: to help others achieve the freedom that I experience.

Q: But you said nothing further remains to be done?
A: That is the supreme state of Nirvana. I am a Bodhisattva, who eschews Nirvana.  My state of affairs is described in the Lankaavtara sutra:
A bodhisattva wishes to help all beings attain nirvana. He must therefore refuse to enter nirvana himself, as he cannot apparently render any services to the living beings of the worlds after his own nirvana. He thus finds himself in the rather illogical position of pointing the way to nirvana for other beings, while he himself stays in this world of suffering in order to do good to all creatures. This is his great sacrifice for others. He has taken the great Vow: "I shall not enter into final nirvana before all beings have been liberated." He does not realize the highest liberation for himself, as he cannot abandon other beings to their fate. He has said: "I must lead all beings to liberation. I will stay here till the end, even for the sake of one living soul.
Q: I see. So you are still not in Nirvana (no Buddhahood, but only a Bodhi-citta). So some desire, at least to help others, still remains. So how do you then claim the existence of that final state when no more desire exists? You are not there yet.
A: I have experienced it in spurts. I know that that state exists.

Q: But that's quite a common experience. I was sitting by the river yesterday, watching the water, and had no desire or sorrow at that time. What makes you different from me?
A: You did have latent desires, which came up as soon as you probably started driving back home.

Q: And what makes you confident that you do not have any latent desires? I saw you getting annoyed a while ago.
A: (inaudible)

(to be continued)

Interrogating the Enlightened Man, part 2

Part 1

The Enlightened Man: I thought about the cars and mansions a bit more.  The reason I don't sell them off to help the poor and the sick is that with these facilities, I can help and bless a larger number of people.  If I lived in a small cottage, how will so many thousands be able to visit me and seek my blessings?

Q: That makes sense.  But then, you are desirous that more and more people should come and visit you.  Why?
A: It is not that.  People will visit me anyway.  But since there are so many of them, it is good to have proper facilities for them.  The number of visitors have been increasing over the years.

Q: I can understand that you need a big hall to meet all those people.  But why the need of luxury cars and a luxurious mansion for yourself?  After all, that is not really essential for you to survive.
A: This body is special, as a vehicle for blessing.  This body needs to be kept in comfort and hygiene so it may function at its optimum potential.  I can't subject this blessed body to normal food and housing and an erratic power supply.

Q: So, all this expense on yourself is for you to live a better life than most of your followers, so that you may continue to bless and guide a large number of them for many years to come?
A: Yes, now you have got it.

Q: Why this desire to bless and guide others?  It is obviously making you do a lot of things which look questionable to someone not enamored of you.
A: I don't care about criticism.  Even Jesus was abused.  As for my desire to help others, as long as I am able to live, the best use of my time and energy is to bless and guide others.

Q: How does this blessing actually work?  I thought we agreed that this was all in people's minds and they felt good at having received blessings from someone they think is a blessed man.  We also agreed that lay people can't really distinguish between you, a true holy man, and all those impostors.
A: The blessing is an energy around me.  When that touches people, it subtly orients them toward a life of holiness.  Not only human beings, it affects plants, animals and all life.  Even dogs become quiet and birds sing songs of joy.

Q: What about life forms harmful to humanity?  Say, viruses and pathogens?  Do they also get blessed by this energy and become harder to eradicate in your vicinity?
A: (inaudible)

(to be continued)

Interrogating the Enlightened Man, part 1

The Enlightened Man proclaimed to one and all that he was free of any sense of "I", had no attachments, and that he no longer suffered.  Unfortunately, he agreed to a Q&A session.  The transcript follows:

Q: So if I hit your ankle, there is no pain?
A: There is pain, but no suffering.

Q: No suffering, as in?
A: Full acceptance of the pain and no desire to be free of this pain.

Q: So if I keep hitting you, you won't move your leg away?
A: That will happen, but there is no desire to move it away.

Q: Then why move it away?
A: Because it is sensible to do so.

Q: So if someone wants to avoid pain, and thereby "suffers", is that not sensible?
A: It is sensible, as long as if one is unable to, one doesn't cry about it.

Q: Oh, so wanting to avoid pain is alright.  Accepting inevitable pain is what distinguishes you from Ron?
A: Pretty much.

Q: How do you conclude that a particular pain is inevitable?  Let's say you are in a jail with lots of mosquitoes.  Will you try to escape that jail, or accept that the jail is inevitable?  What about a life-threatening disease?  Will you get it treated, or accept that it is what it is?
A: (inaudible)


Q: So why are you still making efforts to remain alive?
A: It is effortless.  People give me food, and I eat it.

Q: How did people come to know that you are a holy man and that they should give food to you?  After all, they don't give such good food to any odd guy on the street.
A: After I became enlightened, I told them.  That's how I became well-known.

Q: What was the reason you proclaimed to one and all about your special state?
A: I had found the secret to everlasting bliss and it was natural for me to want to share what I was experiencing.

Q: Is it possible people are giving food and gold to you in the hope that they can also experience what you claim you are experiencing?  Aren't you therefore exploiting their ill-informed hope?
A: It is possible.  But I have no desire to exploit them.  If they give me something of their own free will, that is their choice.

Q: Why do you then sit on a pedestal and make people feel as if they have received a blessing from a great man?
A: I have compassion for all.  I cannot help but bless anyone who comes to me.

Q: Does the blessing actually help them?
A: It does make them feel good, doesn't it?

Q: How should they distinguish between a truly blessed man like you, and an impostor?  As you know, there are many of those around.
A: That distinguishing can't be done by a lay person.  Only a blessed man can recognize another.

Q: Do you know of any other blessed man currently alive?
A: None.  All others are impostors.


Q: If you are free from all attachments, how come you have such nice cars and a nice mansion?
A: That just happens to be given to me to use.  They can be taken away and I will still be happy.

Q: Why don't you give them away?
A: There is no reason to.

Q: But selling them and using the proceeds might help people who are poor and in need of, say, medical treatment.
A: One can't remove all suffering.  Even if I do all in my power, suffering will still continue for so many.  I intend to help people remove the root cause of suffering.  Helping people materially is not my intent.

Q: But if someone is suffering from a lot of pain and is bed-ridden, won't it help them if they are somewhat free from pain and can come listen to you and follow your advice?
A: (inaudible)


Q: Will a man free from desire and attachment still be able to be a family man?
A: Yes, why not?

Q: But if he has no desires, why will he want a sexual partner?
A: He won't.  But women might come to him on their own.

Q: But he will have to remove his clothes and make love to one of them?  Why will he do that?
A: It will be natural, and not an outcome of desire.

Q: So, the beauty of the woman will play no part in it I guess?  Beauty is intimately tied to attraction and desire.  The women I see in your harem are all quite young and pretty.  Why no ugly or fat women?
A: Well, only the outwardly beautiful have the inner beauty which makes them come to me.

Q: Say that again?  You mean if an ugly or fat woman comes to you, you will make love to her also?
A: (inaudible)

(to be continued)

The Jump Instructor

The legend was that in the mountains in the east, there lived a great instructor.  The legend said that he was able to train and teach students to jump from one mountain to another.

S was a great athlete but in recent times had developed a limp.  Instead of trusting and following medical advice that was frequently given to him, he still wanted to become the best jumper in the world.  Doctors had told him that his limp was because of his reckless jumping on hard rocks during his youth.  He was advised to undertake moderate exercise, massage his ankle, and eat a good diet, but S thought such advice to be pedestrian.  S wanted a doctor or an instructor who would somehow cure his pain in such a way that eating a good diet became second nature to him.  He did not think that just changing the diet was the cure.  For S it was merely treating the symptoms, and he wanted the cure to go much deeper.

So one day, S decided to go to the legendary instructor in the mountains and to become his student.

The instructor was happy to get a new student.  The instructor disregarded his particular story, and quickly gave him his standard booklet on exercise and do's and dont's.  The do's and dont's contained similar advice as what the doctors had suggested, but the exercise was very different.  The exercise involved not massaging and treating the limp, but focusing one's gaze on the moon at night.

S tried hard to follow the practice, but gazing at the moon incessantly was boring and somewhat unnatural.  During his gazing, he became drowsy and used to fall asleep.  The instructor told S that such drowsiness was natural but that he should persevere.  Eventually he would be able to jump across mountains.  S saw the other students around him also gazing at the moon, and many told him of a great athlete in some far-off-land who had, after sufficient gazing, been able to jump across the mountain.

S stayed with the instructor for many years and gazed for hours at the moon.  His limp became somewhat less painful but whenever he tried to test his jump, the limp returned.  S was frustrated but when he saw others diligently and faithfully persevere in their gazing, he blamed his own impatience and indiscipline.  After all, he still wasn't able to gaze all night.

At the tenth year anniversary of his apprenticeship, S went to the instructor and told him that there had been some improvement and asked him when S would be able to really jump across the mountain.  The instructor handed him the same booklet, now in its fifteenth edition, and asked him to just follow the practice.  The instructor did not think S's situation required some adjustment to the practice, or another exercise than moon-gazing.

It was rumored that the instructor was able to jump the mountain himself, but that he wasn't a show-off so nobody had seen him do it.

After twenty years of practice - and the instructor was now dead - S had started blaming himself.  He was a bad student.  His indiscipline and drowsiness were to blame.

Crestfallen, S returned to his home in the valley, and told all his friends about the instructor.  He bought and gave them a copy of his holy booklet and the exercises and the pictures of legendary jumpers in it.

The booklet was now in its fiftieth edition.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

The Spiritual Surrender

Many devotional spiritual texts and traditions emphasize the need for Surrender.  Surrender is supposed to lead to a state of "egolessness" and the famed Nirvana.

Especially in Sikhism, Sufism and Bhakti strains of Hinduism, surrender to the Guru or the deity is touted as the only way to "salvation".

Impressionable seekers read such exhortations and try to follow them.  But these are vague concepts, and if you really ask a teacher what surrender means, you will not get a clear answer.

Fear not, yours truly is here to clarify.

In continuation with my previous writings on what exactly is egolessness and Nirvana, let me repeat my understanding that the closest experience we have to that state is our experiences as an infant.  During those years, our needs and expectations were taken care of by our parents.  Our selves were still in an undeveloped form.  We had singular feeling-states, as contrasted with conflicted states as an adult.  As an infant, we were either happy or miserable.  An adult can be both at the same time.  The feeling states during infancy are what I call monochromatic.

During that time, since the "me" is still just a seed, there is little division between "me" and "not me".  Life is full of wonder and miracles.  There are only "energies" and "vibes".  The feeling-state is all powerful and the intellect is unformed, and therefore inactive.

So the first insight is that spirituality is a seeking to return to a state of infancy.  In that state, one has obviously surrendered (by dint of inability) most important decisions to others.  Is that possible as an adult?

If we understand that as an adult, the burden of making choices is inevitable, then what does surrender mean for an adult?  What are the Gurus really asking for?

A soldier is in the battlefield.  Should he choose to fight, or run away?
You are having trouble with your spouse.  Should you work it out, or go your own way?
You are poor.  Should you start a business, or seek a salaried job, or beg/borrow/steal?

The Sikh belief of regarding the book as the Guru is especially unhelpful.  Many Sikhs, believe it or not, seek guidance from the holy book by opening a random page, reading the first sentence, and trying to guess what the Guru wants them to do.

If you are familiar with Bhagwad Gita, you might be wondering whether the soldier's dilemma is not well-addressed there.  I think Krishna's advice to Arjun in the battlefield is massively flawed due to at least three big reasons:

1.  Not everybody has a Krishna by their side all their life.
2.  Krishna bamboozles Arjun not to be worried about killing as, according to Krishna, it is not really "killing" someone but only their bodies (eh?).
3.  Krishna tells Arjun to accept his "dharma".  The question is who decides what is my "dharma".  For most people, it will be the force of tradition and social power structures.  Are we really to believe that the best choice for an adult is to accept his given role and not question it?

Even for fairly elementary decision-making, the notion of "surrender" is useless.  If you are feeling cold, you will not, and should not, surrender to it but find a way to get warmer.  If you are in pain, you will not, and should not, surrender to it but find a way to ease that pain.  If you are in danger of drowning, you will not, and should not, surrender to water but try to swim to the surface.  If you decide to surrender to whatever physical state you find yourself in, and not do anything about it, pretty soon you will be dead.

You are constantly making choices to navigate life to get to a "better" place.  Whatever that "better" place might mean for you, you are trying to move in that direction. 

Even for longer-term life decisions, to surrender is to admit defeat.  Why will one want to advance in one's career, why will one want to get married to have a child, why will one want to equip the child for a better life?  If to surrender means letting life happen without you trying to change your circumstances, then that will quickly lead you to the bottom rung of the ladder in society.

Even for spiritualists, the quest is to reach a certain state.  We all know of the oft-repeated spiritual nonsense: "only when you stop seeking shall you find."  So the effort of the seeker then shifts from "trying" to "not trying", which is just trying in another form.  He is now trying to be not spiritually ambitious, thinking that this path of "not seeking" will get him there.  All the while, the underlying focus is still to get there.  It is like loving someone unconditionally so that she will love me back.  Unconditional in one way, but not expectation-less.

So, surrender is impossible in day-to-day life.  And surrender is counterproductive in life decisions.  And surrender is contradictory for your spiritual quest.

An astute individual has to therefore discard the notion, the path, and the entire hagiography of surrender.  "Surrender" is for lifeless forms.  You are alive, and by God, you shall not surrender.  On the contrary, you should fight to the best of your ability to better your life and circumstances, to become more prosperous and happy, and to help others become happier too.

Instead of surrender, a better notion is forbearance.  If despite your best efforts, you still fail, then don't mope about it and withdraw from life.  Accept the failure with fortitude and dignity.  That does not mean resigning to failure, but only that there are myriad other forces at work, and while you gave it your best, it was not to be.  The difference between a defeated but brave soldier and a deserter is not in the outcome of the battle, but between their states of minds and the possibilities thereof.  The defeated soldier might have won, but the deserter will always lose.

One might be tempted to argue that that's what Gita really means.  To make efforts, without attachment, and then to accept the results.  The question then is, why make those efforts, if there is no attachment to the result?  The real knowledge of Gita's paradigm on detached work is contained here-under:
नैव तस्य कृतेनार्थो नाकृतेनेह कश्चन ।
न चास्य सर्वभूतेषु कश्चिदर्थव्यपाश्रय: ।।  (Chapter 3, Verse 18)
A self-realized man has no purpose to fulfill in the discharge of his prescribed duties, nor has he any reason not to perform such work. Nor has he any need to depend on any other living being.
Maybe, a "self-realized man" can lead a purposeless life.  And since it is not clear why he does anything (no reason to do, but no reason not do), it would be perhaps not very wise for you to emulate him.

During the battle, the soldier cannot but be attached to victory.  Why would he otherwise fight?

Monday, July 30, 2018

The Meaningless Ideal

Many talk of it, few have seen it.

Ask anyone who talks of "everlasting happiness" or "enlightenment" how they came to even have a notion of it in the first place.  They will have to point to a scripture or to the sayings of a guru.

Ask them what that state is, that they are seeking.  They will again quote someone.

Is it not strange that they have formed a major goal in their lives based on hearsay?

Have someone say something about "all are my part" or "unconditional love" or "I am not real", and ask them how that notion translates itself into their daily lives.

Do they, literally, care for a stranger as much as they care for themselves?  Do they have a bank balance or a home that they allow themselves to use, but not a stranger?  Is their "care" only emotional, or does it translate into action?

Do they not expect anything from their beloved?  It their love is literally unconditional, why do they only love a particular person and not everybody?  If they love everybody, once again, do they give to the first beggar all that is in their pocket?

If their "self" does not "exist", can they emphatically tell first what they mean by the word "self"?  Do they mean to say that their body, or their brain, or their past and memories, or their dreams and thoughts, or their ways of thinking, preferences, credit history, criminal record, national ID number, the property in their name, is not "them"?  Do they not give special treatment to their "own" family versus a stranger on the street?  Ask them what is this "self" that they are denying the existence of, and whether this self, evidently not being all of the above, is not just a notion which has no bearing on their day-to-day life?  It is as if they fill gas in their car, care for its battery, change its tires, drive it to the office, but deny that the "car" exists just because all one can point to is the gas tank, battery, tires, gear handle and the various other parts?

Such phrases are used by people with little understanding of what might constitute meaningfulness.  In an impressionable state, people read a book which says "And in unconditional love I found everlasting bliss and freedom from care" and think that this is a meaningful sentence.  Every phrase in such a sentence - "unconditional love", "everlasting bliss", "freedom from care" - is an abstract notion which falls apart when subjected to the slightest analysis.

And if "analysis" and the "mind" cannot fathom these notions, then how come they are speaking of them?  Is it not their mind which speaks of them?  Is it not a thought that is coming out of their lips? Even more alarmingly, how did the minds of those holy ones come to know of these and how did they write (apparently) meaningful sentences about these notions and the inter-relation-ship of these notions with other such (vague) notions?

The important quality which is missing from such thoughts and notions is Rigor.  It is important to set out the parameters of one's discrimination in any quest for understanding.  Without those parameters, it is only too easy to spend one's life chasing chimeras and illusions.  Rigor is not compressible into a few sentences, but the following few heuristics will help:

I.    What is the meaning of this phrase or notion in terms of what I know?
II.   How does one evaluate the truth of what someone else is saying about this notion?
III.  In what tangible, observable way does the truth of a notion, or its acceptance, change one's day-to-day life?  Is that change discernible in the claimant of these notions?
IV.  What if the notion were untrue?  Will I be heartbroken?

A seeker of understanding must subject himself and his notions to the highest rigor.  For if mind-less notions are allowed to reign, it is not understanding that one seeks, but self-satisfaction.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Out of the Hospital

There was once a man who did not feel well, and he therefore went to the hospital to get better.

He found many doctors there, each with his own plan of treatment.  He trusted one, and then another, and then still another.  He tried their medicines, their exercises and followed their advice.

He felt he was getting better and better, but he still remained in the hospital.  Curiously, now and increasingly when he looked outside of his hospital window, he saw only sick people.

He still remained in the hospital, but believed that he was now healthier than he had ever been.

He continued to be on medication, and if he missed his daily dose, he felt uneasy and anxious.

One evening as he was looking out of the window, and saw so many sick people of the world, a beggar stopped on the street and looked at him.  The man in the hospital looked with pity at the beggar, sympathetic to what he thought must be a pitiful existence.  He invited the beggar into his room to share some fruit that had been kept by his bedside by the hospital staff.

The beggar smiled and turned as he walked and entered the hospital through its main door, and found himself in the man's room.  He was very happy to eat the fruit so generously shared by the man.  The two started talking.

The man told the beggar about his past, that he had been sick.  He told him that after spending more than seven years at the hospital, he felt as if he had found his destiny and had found the elixir of health.

The beggar had a twinkling look in his eyes.  He kept listening to the man as he told the beggar about the eternal sickness and its nature, about the medicines and the doctors, and about his daily exercises.  The man told the beggar about his realizations during this period, and how he now understood sickness and health and the deepest truths underlying the mechanisms of the body.

The evening had become the night, and conversation was nowhere close to its end.  But the beggar had to go.  He had to go back to his little tent near the railway line, where he slept every night.

As the beggar got up and said his farewell to the man, the man exclaimed, "It is your birthright to be healthy.  I have found the fountain of immortality, and I only wish everybody knew the secret."

The beggar nodded as he threw the banana peel and the apple crumbs into the wastebasket, and started walking out toward the door.

With one foot out of the door, the beggar turned around and said to the man, "If all that you say is true, you need not remain here.  Come with me."

The man was dumbstruck as he saw the beggar walk on, and walk toward the exit, and walk out of the hospital.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Stand-Up Comedy and Sitcoms

Sitcoms used to be a thing. It would be a skit in a room where on cue, there would be recorded laughter to remind you that what you just heard was supposed to be funny. This Pavlovian programming then "progressed" to repetitive infantile clown tunes when a joke was cracked.

During the last decade or so, stand up comedy has become quite popular. There is a guy (or rarely, a woman) wearing not-too-smart clothing (because they have to be relatable) on the stage weaving in rehearsed routines in between remarking on the audience and quipping about some recent events.

In India, there are special "laughter" shows on TV.  Navjot Sidhu or Kapil Sharma or the AIB shows try relentlessly and desperately to make you laugh.  You wonder if you are weird for not finding their jokes funny.  In humor, "trying" is always trying too hard.  A joke or anecdote weaved in a conversation is a very different beast than a show whose very raison d'être is to crack one joke after another.

There is also the phenomenon of well-dressed sarcastic news coverage called "late night commentators" pandering to their audience and making fun of easily targeted celebrities (Trump has been a God's gift to these) or social classes (usually men and conservatives). Examples are Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Jimmy Fallon, ...

Due to what I can only consider a quirk of constitution, I have rarely if ever found them worthy of my time. They are in a position of power where they can make fun of somebody, usually by mimicry or exaggeration or cherry-picking out-of-context quotes) to millions of people, and the other has no way of responding. I consider these shows vulgar and low-brow. Their target audience is the educated middle classes, which is somewhat informed about what is going on the world but is only too keen to be schooled in what is deplorable and what is admirable, what is regressive and what is progressive, what is urbane/hip and what is gauche.

My introduction to sitcoms was when I watched a few episodes of Seinfeld or Friends, and I might have seen some ancient replays of "Small Wonder" and The Bill Cosby show. My introduction to stand up comedy was watching a few clips of Russell Peters and George Carlin. I think both George Carlin and Mr Peters are quite skilled and I admired their felicity and expressions. But for some reason, I never became a fan. Sarcasm is witty and entertaining but generally simplistic. It pokes fun at others, and even sometimes aspects of one's own identity, as a form of fashion. It is a mistake to regard a quip by a professional comedian as an insight. You might say "But nobody makes that mistake!" You'd be surprised at people who are influenced by these comedians and forward their clips as persuasive arguments for something that they believe in already.

I guess my primary negation about these shows stems from their pandering nature. A comedian is in the business to make money. He will only make jokes that are going to not make him unpopular. A book by Voltaire, Jonathan Switf or Oscar Wilde was published without much regard to its royalties. The aim was social commentary, not agreeableness or entertainment. A comedian has to make sure he offers "value for money" in these days of art as a form of consumption. If you are paying $100 for an hour of laughter, he better not make you feel bad by poking fun at a holy cow or by making a politically incorrect joke.

The stand-up comedians are to real humor what Andrea Bocelli is to Opera. The popular, easily-digestible, ticketed version of an art form. People go to these shows to "unwind". One cannot these shows to really provoke or inspire deeper thoughts.

Perhaps they are similar in vein to most things on sale these days. A relief to counter the tedium in most people's lives. I think I understand why people watch The Big Bang Theory instead of a discussion about cosmology. Such stuff is "comfort food" for the brain. Just like comfort food is to make you feel good, and is not really meant for nourishment or health, such shows are for entertainment, not for edification.

I guess a "need" for unwinding and entertainment as a persistent, chronic feature of modern life is what I rebel against. People are paying others to make them laugh. I can't be the only one who sees the tragedy of this.

Two Views of Revolutionary Road

I first watched Revolutionary Road (Sam Mendes, 2008) soon after it came out.  I watched it again yesterday.

It was quite amazing to me how a mere ten years had made me see the film in a completely new light.

I remember being quite impressed by the film in 2008, and recommending it to family and friends.  It was the portrait of a suburban couple who dared not take a risk for happiness, and it ends in disaster.  It resonated with my own thoughts on society.  The film's narrative confirmed my own viewpoint: that most people live lives of "quiet desperation" (cf Walden Pond, Thoreau), that socialized living was full of hypocrisy and in-authenticity, and most people were too scared of realizing their full potential.  Also, that people gave excuses for not living the life they wished for, because they were probably too scared (or so I thought), and they were loath to give up the comforts of certainty and security for adventure.  I saw myself as an iconoclast, having taken the "road less traveled", and had an attitude of condescension toward the regular folks who were doing unexciting jobs, and taking care of their family.

But in these ten years, 2008-2018, I have come a long way.  Richer in life experiences, and having studied sociology, politics, gender dynamics, modernism in all its forms (modern jobs, modern family, modern urban living) and the individual and communal consequences of modernism, I now consider the film and the director's message to be deeply flawed.

The film is based on a book, and I'm not sure how much the film deviates from it.  Perhaps the book is more balanced and may be less flawed in its message.

But I cannot recommend the film anymore.  Not for its message at least.  Some of the performances, especially by one of my favorite actors, Michael Shannon, are nice, even if over-dramatic.  But I will recommend it to anyone who can watch it without getting influenced by it.  It can be an interesting sample in the study of at least three things:

1.  Creativity versus tedium.
2.  Narrative obfuscation: I call it the "Ayn Rand" technique.  How one's opinion of a character and a situation is prejudiced by the narrator.
3.  Gender dynamics, as portrayed by Hollywood and its financiers.

A heavily flawed book or a film can nevertheless be an instructive study-aid, if there is enough clarity in the reader/viewer.  I wouldn't give any awards to Mein Kampf, but I do consider it required reading for anyone interested in the history of Europe. 

I consider "Revolutionary Road" to be a pretentious, facile film.  It pretends to be deep and insightful, but it has very little depth and understanding, as it depicts its characters and their interactions.  The film is cartoonish, with caricatures instead of real characters.  Its message is Oprah-esque, with much Betty Freidan thrown in.  It is apparently the faux intellectual's version of "Eat Pray Love".

My second viewing of the film made me aware of how blind I was to not notice these in my first viewing:

1.  The woman as the sympathetic, self-aware character, with the male being depicted as an insensitive brute, closed to his own subconscious.  This continues the overwhelming bias of Hollywood in non-noir films: the woman being on the pedestal and having the higher moral standard.

2.  Regular life being demonized and worthy of rejection, with very little understanding of what Unabomber called the lack of "power process" in modern times.

3.  The "unhappy wife" blaming all her unhappiness on a husband, and her refusal to love him as a valid, justifiable state of affairs.  If her lack of love for him was only because of his lack of risk appetite and spirit of adventure (while he being an otherwise good man), the film's message would be weak.  So the director/author throws in some other character flaws as well.  The husband cheats.  He is a bad listener.  He is obviously therefore to be hated.  But observe how the affair of the wife is then later depicted.  It is as if we are supposed to feel sorry for her. 

4. The depiction of gender roles, motherhood and domesticity as subtly evil and oppressive.  In a telling scene, the wife is shown to be irritably and harriedly tidying up the house.  While the husband is shown as having "fun" at work, with very little drudgery, despite the proclamation that he hates his work.  So he hates his job, and the wife hates cleaning up around the house.  I would venture to say that the problem is not what they are doing, but something else.  They go to the beach, they play with their kids.  But notice the total lack of joy (especially in the wife's character).  She loses her temper frequently with her daughter, and has no enthusiasm for a new baby.  She has no friends to speak of.  She doesn't enjoy reading or cooking.  Does anything in her current life bring her joy?

5.  The Maslow model of human fulfillment being a perverse consequence of modernity.  Fulfillment or self-actualization was earlier realized in the day-to-day living and its challenges.  But since those are no longer enough for a man's soul, he or she needs to "find" themselves.  The finding never happens.  But this fantasy has been peddled relentlessly by new age philosophy, spirituality and self-help authors.  "If only you live in a different way, either inwardly or outwardly, you will find the pot of gold."  For the inwardly ambitious, they seek to demolish their egos (while in the process inflating it to be bigger than an average bloke).  For the sheep, the message is to leave this herd and become a different kind of sheep (cuz "Think Different"): finding fulfillment through Lonely Planet or Anthony Bourdain or the iPhone.  For the vast majority of the world population, the lifestyle of the Wheelers would only be a heavenly dream.  But for the Wheelers, it is nothing but hell.

6.  Most people do not really have enough of a creative/adventurist side to them, even though they might want to think romantically of themselves.  For such people, it will be far more helpful for their contentment and happiness if they, with self-awareness, accept their vocation instead of constantly wishing for something in "Paris", where no one bakes bread or drives the bus, but everybody is an artist and is on the verge of finding themselves.  A parallel study to this film can be the book/film pair "Into the Wild", in which a romantic young man leaves society to live free, and travel.  With no long-term goals or commitments, his life is one adventure after another.  The century of the self, indeed.  But then, who will till the soil?  If only we could be back in the Garden of Eden, with apples falling from the trees.