Monthly Archives: May 2012

Life as Meditation

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Busy busy weekend. I realized that my posts are getting progressively longer so I’m going to break up the weekend into more manageable chunks. On Friday, we met with the first female geshe (the highest monastic academic degree,) who is actually a German woman. She was born in Germany and went through a relatively unreligious childhood until taking a gap year after high school before returning for university. She spent the year traveling the world and ended up in Dharamsala for her final stop and instantly felt at home here. She decided to stay for awhile to take Buddhism classes and learn some Tibetan, but ended up enrolling at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics. One thing lead to another and she went through the entire school. It was really refreshing to meet someone with such a relatable story that hadn’t grown up in a Buddhist-dominated culture; it was a very inspiring tale. I’m not saying I have any intention of becoming a monk, but the idea of spending all my time studying and learning about Buddhism, taking classes with incredible names like ‘The Perfection of Wisdom,’ sounds like a pretty sweet deal (though I think I’d probably have to work on the whole self-discipline thing. And cut my hair…)

Geshe Kelsang Wangmo also had some interesting things to say about meditation. One of my classmates asked her what advice she had for beginning meditators, and Geshema responded that formal sitting meditation is actually a very minor part of her practice. Rather, life itself is treated as meditation. One must remain mindful at all times, carefully monitoring one’s thoughts, words and actions as the self becomes habituated to Buddhist teachings. While sitting meditation is a good way to develop the focused attention to deeply probe some of the issues to gain a deep understanding of them, the best way to realize them experientially is through daily encounters with others. By giving oneself the opportunity to exercise the key values of compassion and loving-kindness in day-to-day interactions, one can truly come to embody those ideals.

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From Homo Economicus to Homo Sapiens

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I had a reasonably long chat with one of my teachers, Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi (Geshela for short), today about economics in general and neuroeconomics and behavioral economics in particular. We talked about the general unsustainability of the current system built on its assumptions about self-interest and the invisible hand (or at least the common understanding of Smith’s quote about it.) Clearly reform can’t come from the top, since it’s in the top’s best interest for things to remain as is. So change needs to come from the bottom up, which is why movements like Occupy are hopeful. Even if the implementation and results have been somewhat questionable, at least the awareness is there. Geshela was also suggesting that I get back into econ once I’ve seen through my endeavors in religious studies by bringing Buddhist ideas of compassion and loving-kindness into the field. With the growing fields of neuroeconomics, behavioral economics, and a growing interest in Eastern contemplative traditions, I don’t think it’s unreasonable that the discipline could move in a more positive direction. I think it’s something I’ll need to consider; maybe take a look at my credits and see what a minor would entail. Even if I don’t do that, at least I can further develop my knowledge in a constellation of religion, psychology, economics and anthropology. Economics has so much potential to help people and I think I lost sight of that somewhere along the way, which definitely made things seem far bleaker than they need to be.

Our recent readings have been getting at a lot of these ideas as well. One of them in particular, Born to be Good by Dacher Keltner, discusses the growth of rational choice theory and its image of Homo sapiens as Homo economicus, defined by his two primary traits:
1) Selfish and always acting to maximize self-interest
2) Treats competition as the natural and normative state of affairs in which kindness and altruism are either a cultural convention or a deceptive form of self-interest.
As I talked about in my last post, these ideas paint a very depressing picture of man, as bleak as that of one possessing original sin. These conclusions are rooted in evolutionary theory since they presumably promote the survival of those that possess them. But history has also shown innumerable examples in which man acts against these principles in favor of acting altruistically. Furthermore, neuroeconomics is making it increasingly obvious that, while a baseline of wealth is necessary to achieve happiness, there is no correlation between wealth and happiness beyond that point. So clearly something else is at work.

Keltner’s piece then turns to a discussion of emotion and Paul Ekman’s work (building on Darwin’s) in proving that a biological facet of emotion-the movement of facial muscles- is universal. This manner of expressing emotion is crucial since our other primary method, language, is deeply flawed. In addition to being able to fake emotion via language, emotions must also be filtered through the specific meaning of spoken words, distorting and normalizing one’s emotional experience. Considering that most meaningful human engagements hinge on establishing long-term commitments, ambiguity of emotions can be dangerous to our very survival. This commitment problem has two facets:
1) We must usually put aside self-interest in the service of long-term commitments.
2) We must reliably identify who is committed to us.
This is where emotions are key. The very nature, as seeming to strike us at our very core, can override complex calculations of self-interest. Moreover, although, of the 43 facial muscles, most can be moved voluntarily, there are a set that 85% of people find impossible to move voluntarily, meaning that they are unable to fake many emotions. While emotions may feel irrational from the individual’s point of view, they are vital to establishing the long-term commitments that contribute to our survival. From this view, moral judgements rely not only on reason, but on our visceral emotional response as well. Emotions serve as guide to our moral reasoning, particularly in face-to-face interactions. By treating Homo sapiens as Homo economicus, then, economics not only ignores how people act in markets, but also appears to be vastly misjudges man’s motivations and intentions.

This circles back to my noting in the last post about man originally living in small tribes of 50-75 members. By means of our early environment of evolutionary adaptedness, we became creatures that thrived through altruism and care-giving behavior (even to non-kin.) These humans lived almost entirely face-to-face, as well, suggesting that faking such emotions would be near impossible. Add in the introduction of language and the ability to spread information rapidly across time and space, and we’re faced with a situation in which selfishness might as well be a death sentence. By contrast, the spread of positive emotions (love, compassion,etc.) formed a foundation for ethical guidelines and bound individuals into groups.

It seems to be that this isn’t merely a case of self-interest happening to align with collective interest as I suggested earlier. I think that’s taking a modern cynical perspective by assuming that early man only acted well to the group because he consciously knew it would benefit himself. As creatures with higher cognitive faculties than any other animal, our basic empathetic and altruistic instincts toward close relatives that are also found in other animals (kin selection theory) have the capacity to be expanded beyond our inner circle. Given science’s recent discovers on the ways in which compassion (an active desire to alleviate others’ suffering) provides us with physiological and psychological benefits, whereas stress eats away at our well-being, the evolutionary perspective seems to support that we are naturally driven towards pro-social behavior. This is not to deny the existence of war-like behavior or horrible practices such as infanticide; it’s just to say that, as naturally social creatures, it makes sense that we would have evolved to be inclined towards acting well towards each other. This need for positive social interaction and affiliation may even override our survival instinct in some cases as displayed by people who commit suicide due to feelings of loneliness and abandonment.

Our currently troubled state as a species, then, seems less an actual inherent flaw in our nature than what we repeatedly assume to be one. From Hobbs to Ayn Rand and Machiavelli, Western thought is dominated by pessimism of the human condition. As we come to believe this, people find justification for their anti-social actions, proving the initial point and perpetuating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So getting back to how we might fix this, the answer doesn’t seem to lie in policy, which only covers up a deeper problem, but in a fundamental shift of global consciousness. A large task to be sure, but certainly doable considering the initial perspectival shift that got us here in the first place. Our innate drive to compassion needs to be recognized and fostered in childhood, giving education an indescribably important role in the survival of our species. Thankfully, within the past decade, a large amount of research on developing secular compassion training practices have emerged (many of which are pioneered by my teachers on this program, Brendan Ozawa-de-Silva and Geshe Tenzin Lobsang Negi. Again, such a remarkable privilege to be here.) In this usage, secular doesn’t suggest anti-religious but rather a lack of partiality towards any particular religious sect. For any mindfulness-based compassion-generating technique to be widespread and effective it must exist within this domain of the secular in order to avoid the pitfalls of the biomedical and religious paradigms in which contemplative techniques have previously been explored. The biomedical sphere has been concerned solely with the physiological benefits of meditation and uses the practice as a treatment for developed ‘illnesses’ rather than as a preventative technique for improving already ‘healthy’ humans. While the religious paradigm has addressed both of those issues, it is burdened by innumerable connotations and historical associations that limit its cross-cultural applicability.

These practices aim at affecting a transformation of the individual’s subjective perspective of the world and one’s relation to it. This perspectival shift can be founded on the idea of embodied cognitive logic, which suggests that, just as humans have evolved to have many physical commonalities, we have many psychological commonalities as well, enabling secular mindfulness techniques to cross-culturally tap into our shared internal complex of causal relationships between cognition, affect and body functions: our shared moral calculus. This view does not discard all notions of cultural relativism, but simply points at places in which commonalities exist, as in the importance of pro-social emotions such as compassion. One specific form of this type of practice that has been developed by Geshela is Cognitive-Based Compassion Training (CBCT), which follows an 8-step progression to cultivate compassion (the following is drawn from Brendan Ozawa-de-Silva’s piece, “An Education of Heart and Mind: Practical and Theoretical Issues in Teaching Cognitive-Based Compassion Training to Children.”):

1) Develop attention and stability of mind
2) Cultivate insight into the nature of mental experience as being fleeting and deeply affecting our mental and physical states
3) Cultivate self-compassion
4) Develop equanimity founded on the understanding that we all desire happiness and to be free from suffering
5) Develop appreciation and gratitude for others founded largely on the realization of our interrelatedness
6) Develop affection and empathy
7) Realize wishing and aspirational compassion
8) Realize active compassion for others

These practices have recently been applied to elementary school students, as well as those in foster homes, with extraordinary results. While these changes in perspective may initially only act on the individual, if the technique is given the opportunity to expand there is bound to be a gradual societal shift of consciousness. It may appear to many that this type of shift is unnecessary given the tremendous material prosperity Western civilization has generated over its lifetime, suggesting what many feel is a superior way of life. However, in this regard our society seems to be like a failed flying machine. One may launch the machine off of a tall cliff and glide for a long time, believing things to be going wonderfully, all the while not realizing that the ground is getting ever closer as the machine plummets to earth. We may have been gliding for what seems to be quite a long time, but in the entire history of man’s existence this doomed flight is really quite brief. It seems that people must come around to this realization before any sort of change can come about. Hopefully the impetus for this epiphany comes before it’s too late.

Man’s Innate Nature And More

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I’ve been spending a lot of time in McLeod Ganj these past couple days and have met a lot of fascinating people. I met a group of Brits who have been traveling around India for the past couple months, mostly in the north, so it was nice to get some travel tips from them for the future. Also met a couple of two photojournalists that are in Dharamsala writing a piece on the rise of Tibetans committing self-immolations over the past few years. Since 2008, there have been over 30 cases and nearly all of them have been by Tibetans under the age of 20. It absolutely blows me away that there hasn’t been more media coverage (though it actually shouldn’t be surprising at all considering how censored the media is.) I also met an Australian guy who’d spent a number of months in India over the course of his life. There’s such a great atmosphere in Dharamsala of friendly travelers looking to get to know each other and share a bit of their life stories. Even after only three days of poking around the city I’m starting to recognize people around. It’s such a real, personal way of getting to know people and establishing connections in a way that I feel so unfamiliar with back home. It seems that this is how relationships are meant to be made, away from cellphones and the Internet (disregarding that I’m on it right now) and the billions of other things that divide our minds and remove us from the present moment. It’s good to get out of the well. Just trying not to let the sea explode my mind (unless it’s a mindnut.)

In general, I find it very interesting talking to travelers. It’s a tremendously different experience from both of the times I’ve been in India so far. I feel incredibly privilege to have so many opportunities to meet with such revered Tibetans but can’t shake the feeling that I’m missing out on an ‘authentic’ (don’t really like this word choice but can’t think of anything better) experience due to being tied down by classes. Still, this is really the only time in my life when I’d have the chance to take this program, and I have to imagine I’ll have other opportunities in the future to travel, so it would be a shame to have let this chance slip by.

As if to emphasis the point of my taking classes here as opposed to just bumming around the country, this morning’s class on the Dalai Lama’s vision of secular ethics was particularly enlightening. I find his writings to be extremely logical and coherent, but also unreasonably idealistic, which makes sense given that he’s the reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion. The class reached a consensus that he had many good ideas but he’s rather vague on implementation, largely because there doesn’t seem to be any apparent policies that could feasibly achieve his aims. We broke down into groups to discuss various aspects of his conceptualization of ethics. The group that I was in was tasked with answering the question:

Is man innately good or evil? How does one’s response to this question shape their vision of ethics?

Personally, I’m inclined towards the Aristotelian idea that the will acts solely for the attainment of some good pr pleasure, whether for one’s immediate or future benefit. However, all this really seems to say is that man simply does what he does, since if we always do what pleases us then it’s impossible to distinguish between what we do and what pleases us. Some might take this to mean that man is inherently self-centered  and therefore evil, but I think modern man really just doesn’t know any better. We’re social creatures whose existence is dictated by the environments in which we live. In our early development as a species, this was as a small community in which everyone knew everybody else and it was in each individuals best interest to act for the good of the group, or otherwise face sanctions and a decrease of well-being. In such an environment, it was impossible to overlook our interrelatedness and so self-interest and collective interest conveniently aligned.

In modern society, however, we live in a global community in which our interrelatedness and its implications are frequently and easily overlooked. Man has much less reason to act for the collective well-being since the benefit of acting in his own self-interest is far more apparent. Throw in capitalism and its promotion of the pursuit of self-interest to a high virtue and there’s a recipe for disaster. It seems to me that the way out is a restructuring of incentives (though that may just be the little bit of econ left in me talking.) How exactly this can occur is beyond me, at least until peak oil finally becomes a crisis that cannot be ignored and we experience rapid reverse globalization and return to life as small communities. But I digress.

Ultimately, then, I don’t think one can conclusively say whether man is innately good or evil. He just makes choices and can decide on a daily basis which road to take. However, many people have made definitive statements on man’s inherent nature and it has drastic effects on the formulation of a code of ethics. Christianity, for example, proposes the idea of original sin, ensuring mans natural proclivity towards evil. This idea goes well beyond Christian thought and seems to have become ingrained within the Western ethos, appearing in secular works of philosophers such as Hobbes (“Life is brutish, nasty and short.”) This view of humanity is extremely bleak and requires an ethical code build on rules and regulations telling man what NOT to do, and requires a counterbalance to this evil, either through the transcendently good God or a dictator that knows best.

Conversely, Buddhism posits the existence of the inner Buddha nature within us all that guides us towards compassion and loving-kindness. This type of thought also appears in Locke’s work through his suggestion of man as a tabula rasa (blank slate) who will ultimately act well even at the mercy of his environment. An ethical system built on this perspective merely guides man as he is already inclined to act, rather than prohibiting him from any number of things. Again, as to how we can shift the perspective from a notion of original sin to that of buddha nature is beyond me.

Edward Wilson has proposed that our struggle between good and evil can be explained by our species’ evolutionary history. On the one hand, we have come to be as we are today by Darwin’s process of natural selection, which favors the individuals with the greatest fitness that produce the most offspring. These instinctual urges encourage us to be opportunistic and, as it might be put in a religious sense, sinful. On the other hand, we have also been shaped by the process of multilevel selection by which hereditary social behavior improves the competitive ability not of just individuals within groups but among groups as a whole. Wilson believes that during the habiline period as groups of our prehuman ancestors became crowded into a single site the groups that acted altruistically had greater survival and reproductive success than those that acted selfishly. This leads to a conflict with individual selection, promoting behavior that would be traditionally labeled as ‘good’, producing a group-wide sense of morality and conscience. As Wilson puts it: “The competitor between the two forces can be succinctly expressed as follows: within groups selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, but groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals. Or, risking oversimplification, individual selection promoted sin, while group selection promoted virtue.” So we are creatures forever torn between the dual natures inherited by our evolutionary past. We are neither inherently good or evil, but a complicated mixture of the two.

Also, yesterday we took a field trip to two nunneries to witness debates in the Tibetan style and a Chod ritual. The debates entailed a group of monks standing around a single monk sitting on the ground, occupying the defensive position. The standing monks bombard the sitting monk with questions, clapping at them to emphasis points and shaking their prayer beads when the defender is unable to come up with a suitable response. I enjoyed that part of the trip, but I was bummed to not have much of a briefing on the Chod religion beforehand. We had a reading on it that was terrible uninformative, but it seems to be a Bon-influenced shamanic tradition within Buddhism focused on dividing the body to induce ego death. I definitely want to learn more about it. Thank goodness for the Interwebs.

Still working on pictures…

The Frog in the Well

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Once upon a time there was an old frog who had lived all his life in a dank well. One day a frog from the sea paid him a visit.

“Where do you come from?” asked the frog in the well.

“From the great ocean,” he replied.

“How big is your ocean?”

“It’s gigantic.”

“You mean about a quarter of the size of my well here?”

“Bigger.”

“Bigger? You mean half as big?”

“No, even bigger.”

“Is it…as big as this well?”

“There’s no comparison.”

“That’s impossible! I’ve got to see this for myself.”

They set off together. When the frog from the well saw the ocean it was such a shock that his head just exploded into pieces.

Hiking the Dhauladhar

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Another stupendous day, probably the best yet. No classes today but I woke up at 5:30 anyways to do yoga and meditate. Had some breakfast (with fresh fruit!) and took a 2 hour walk with Corinne up the road. We got to a nearby village just as all the little kids were heading to school.Walking in the village was relaxing and I’ve really been enjoying visiting the various shrines and temples that are in the area. As much as I enjoy being at the IBD campus, I definitely need to get out and into the actually countryside as much as I can to keep from going stir crazy. I don’t want to leave India and realize that I was never even really here.

I got back from my walk and found out that I didn’t need to register my passport and visa at the police station, which made my day, since it took 12 hours for the group to do it last year and completely opened up my day. I Initially planned on going to the Tibetan Library Archive to look at mandalas and read about proofs of rebirth, but Mike (one of the teacher’s husbands) had been telling me about an incredible waterfall hike and I couldn’t turn it down since I had a whole day free. Terrance, Corinne and I joined him for breakfast #2 in McLeod Ganj (the main suburb of Dharamsala) before setting off for Dharamkot, about 2 km up the road. From there, we started off on a pretty makeshift trail and after an hour or so we came to a building/yurt made of sticks and Indian tapestries, which had a teepee in the back. We went inside for lunch and stepped back into the 70’s. The whole place smelled like charras (hashish and tobacco) and a bootleg Grateful Dead tape was playing in the background. We stayed there for 2 hours and ate a leisurely lunch with some chai before heading up a steep incline and along the ridge of the Dhauladhar mountains on the way to the falls. We kept a good pace and got there in another 50 minutes or so, though we got held up by a hoard of 200+ goats. We had to climb off the path because they refused to go by with us anywhere remotely in the way.

Hike was completely worth it though. We arrived at the most astoundingly beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever seen. Just pool after pool connected by dozens of falls. Even better, the area was near empty sans a small chai stall, and was absolutely pristine, which is almost unfathomable to me at this point given how much trash is everywhere in India. The water was freezing, which makes sense since it was direct snowmelt, but I jumped in anyways. It was so hot that I was completely dry within minutes of getting out. I did some bouldering above the pools, which felt amazing. Despite all the exercise I’ve been getting and yoga I’ve been doing, nothing feels quite like climbing and my body has been sorely missing the pleasure that only climbing gives me. We spent about half an hour at the falls before heading back to town. Mike took a tuktuk (auto rickshaw) back down to the IBD Sarah campus, but Terrance, Corinne and I stayed up in McLeod for dinner. We went to a rooftop restaurant with a bunch of expats and had incredible Indian food. Most of the food at the campus has been delicious, but rather bland, so it was great to have some really spicy Indian food. Plus, some people had brought a guitar and there was incense burning and an amazing view of the mountains so we spent a few hours up there enjoying the ambiance. I’m thinking I’ll start coming into McLeod regularly on weeknights since it’s not like I’m doing homework then anyways. I want to start talking to more of the residents and finding out the good secrets about the area. I get enough of IBD during the days and could use a change of pace in the evenings.

Reflections on Death and What’s Next

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Woke up at 4:45 this morning to watch the sunrise. Turns out it doesn’t make it over the Himalayas until 6:15 so I had about an hour and a half to kill doing yoga and meditating on the roof before formal meditation at 6:30. For one of today’s classes, the reading was on reincarnation and death. About halfway through the reading, I was suddenly struck by how poor my conception of my Self is and how completely unprepared I am for my death. I went and meditated in the woods for 40 minutes, which calmed me down a lot and helped put a lot of things in perspective. Then we had a guest lecturer geshe in class who spoke about karma, transmigration, anitya (impermanence) and anatman (no Self), which further eased my panic. This is an issue I need to keep at the front of my mind though. Even if I don’t believe in transmigration (and it’s not out of the question that I might one day,) there’s a lot of value in understanding anitya and anatman simply for improving things in this life and preparing for my passage out of it. Rationally, I think I’m reasonably familiar with the ideas of impermanence and no Self and would say that I’ve had a few moments in which it’s really hit me deeply, such as today, but I definitely lack the deeply experiential awareness of the fact to truly come to terms with the concepts. It’s such a daunting topic that my attention needs to be far more refined to really plumb the depths of the matter. Meditation is seeming increasingly urgent to sharpen my attention. The only two things I know about my death is that its occurrence is certain and that I can never know when or how it will occur. So postponing preparation is only doing a disservice to myself.

Also, I’m absolutely blown away by how refreshing, calming, and effective I found meditation to be today after my freakout. I generally find myself feeling relaxed afterwards, but today it grounded me on a whole new level. I’d been in a terrible mood when I sat down and I stood up afterwards feeling reinvigorated and eager to get back into the world. I’m also finding it easier to stay focused on my breath and to sit for longer periods. Practicing multiple times a day for 30 minutes or so is making a tremendous difference. I’ve also been doing yoga, or at least sun salutations, on a regular basis and am already feeling things loosen up. I can touch the soles of my feet, which is remarkable considering I can barely even touch my toes most of the time. To think its only my 4th day here. I need to set a strong intention to keep up both of these practices to this degree, if not more, over the next month. If things keep progressing at this rate I can scarcely imagine who I’ll be when I leave here.

Returning to the idea of transmigration and the Indian concept of rebirth, there really is a tremendous amount of logic behind the whole thing. Reality consists of two things: the material (matter) and the immaterial (mind). Additionally, all compounded things are subject to the laws of causality and are thusly interrelated (this is known as dependent origination.) There can be no cause without an effect and no effect without a cause. Furthermore, causes can be of two types: substantial and cooperative. Substantial causes are the stuff from which effects are produced and cooperative causes further contribute to that causation. From this perspective, while matter may be a cooperative cause of mind (as demonstrated by the neural correlates of particular thought processes), it cannot be its substantial cause. Only an immaterial entity can be the substantial cause of an immaterial effect. Therefore, the birth of a new mind cannot be from matter (i.e. the brain,) no matter how complicated its arrangement. Only a prior instance of consciousness can spark a new mind, demonstrating the continuation of the subtlest levels of consciousness from one life to the next.

All of this makes sense to me, except the conclusion that matter cannot be the substantial cause of the immaterial. We had a debate with the monks tonight and I asked them this question, but none of their answers were particularly satisfactory. One told me that only like entities can have a relationship of causality. Another told me that it’s just a natural law and if it were broken than anything could cause anything (this one seemed ridiculous.) The best response I got was that if matter could act on the mind then there would be an observable phenomenon, which there isn’t. However, just because we have yet to identify it doesn’t mean that the phenomenon doesn’t exist. Ultimately, the issue comes down to a matter of faith. Science holds that mind is an emergent property of matter, whereas Buddhism believes they must be separate entities. At this point, neither position can be proved, though Buddhism does have meditative experience on its side.

Other than that leap of faith, the Buddhist concept of rebirth makes sense to me. Karma provides a far more comprehensive explanation of occurrences than concepts such as luck or chance, and the idea of being perpetually hurled forward by the afflictive desire of attachment, aversion and ignorance (chiefly of their being an autonomous Self and our desiring for its existence) has a logic to it beyond any other explanation of death I’ve encountered. In the end though, I’ve heard very little regarding the topic of death. Western society marginalizes and stigmatizes the topic, which is absurd since its one of life’s only certainties. No man has ever escaped it. I’ve been blessed (or earned through karma) a remarkably healthy body, but clearly it can’t last forever and will deteriorate. Death should be mans best friend but instead it’s his worst enemy. Ignoring the topic is the absolute worst thing to do since it ensures that most people will arrive at death entirely unprepared. Death needs to be contemplated, understood, and accepted. Hopefully I can make strides in that while I’m here.

For anyone that’s interested in exploring any of these ideas further, I would highly recommend the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche. It’s a contemporary update to the traditional Tibetan Book of the Dead, which addresses matters of life as well as our encounters with its end. I’m only a third of the way through and already feeling that it’s a life changing work.

Nechung Oracle and 1st Trip to McLeod Ganj

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What a day! Each day here just keeps getting better and better. Brief overview of the day for those who don’t want to deal with the long post that follows: woke up at 5, drove up to McLeod Ganj, saw the Nechung oracle go into trance, visited the Tibetan Library and Museum, had a private audeicne with the Nechung medium, went to the Dali Lama’s temple to perform a large circumambulation, ate lunch at the Upper Dharamsala Institute of Buddhist Dialectics campus, and spent some time walking around McLeod Ganj before heading back south for dinner at IBD Sarah at 6:30, which I’m currently missing to sit on the roof while reading, playing my new singing bowl, and watching the sunset next to the Himalayas. I’m very excited to finally have a singing bowl of my own to establish a rhythm to and begin meditating with. I spent a long time in a number of shops before I finally found this one. He was asked for 2500 rupees and I got 2, one for me and one for a friend, for 3000, so I’m reasonably happy. The seller claims that they were made in the mountains in Tibet. However, he also told me that it will give me of my past, present and future, as well as transform tap water into mineral water and cleanse all the impurities in my system if I drink it, so the jury is still out on all of that for now. Either way, I’m looking forward to integrating it into my practice.

Watching the Nechung medium enter trance this morning was one of those remarkable moments that really made me question some of my most deeply seated beliefs. First off, members of our program constituted roughly a third of the people in the room, once again demonstrating what an absurdly privileged position we’re in. The Nechung Monastery itself is absolutely beautiful, so ornately decorated with intricate golden patterns and tapestries of various wrathful looking protector deities, the chief two being the male Pehar Gyalpo, also known as Dorje Drakden and Nechung (translating to ‘small place,’ named after his original Tibetan location of worship,) and the female Sridevi. Here’s a picture from google of the spirit that descended upon the medium today (http://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://dorjeshugden.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/nechung2.jpg&imgrefurl=http://dorjeshugden.com/wp/?p%3D1332&h=470&w=302&sz=73&tbnid=t7C8NJuBOAapAM:&tbnh=90&tbnw=58&zoom=1&docid=JXfIS3yzX_3PcM&sa=X&ei=o7O7T9G-JZDQrQeBxOnSBw&ved=0CG8Q9QEwAw&dur=1070). The medium came onto the stage dressed in an elaborate golden costume, resembling the garb of an ancient Tibetan warrior. A large mirror hung around his neck, which rested over his heart. A group of monks played short and long horns (thungchen), cymbals, and drums while chanting before the seated medium for roughly 15 minutes. As they changed their chant, his eyes began to flutter wildly as he began thrashing around in his throne. THe monks quickly fastened a 3-foot tall, 30 pound helmet on his head, after which le leapt up and performed a brief ceremonial sword dance (cham.) Monks passed him questions written on small slips of paper, which he didn’t appear to read, and he then responded in a shrill and ethereal voice. The monks then received his blessing and a handful of blessed barley seeds, after which the rest of the crowd followed suit before filing out of the room. Superficially, I guess the whole thing looked like a ritually-induced seizure, but clearly something much larger than that was going on. The dance in particularly was eerily precise, especially since the whole outfit weighs so much. I wouldn’t consider myself much of a believer in the spiritual world, but its hard for me to doubt what I saw today. COnsidering that Nechung is the state oracle and holds a cabinet position in the exiled government, clearly a whole country believes in his efficacy and validity as well, revealing the collective belief in a spiritual realm that is deeply bound with our own perception of the world. Talking to the medium afterwards, he mentioned that his view of Self has profoundly changed since the possessions began, since his ego is thrust out of his body during every trance. It’s all so much to digest. I’m still not sure what to make of it. I doubt I’ll ever be able to make sense out of it, which is probably a good sign. I was also tremendously happy that the medium, while unpossesed, performed a healing ritual for us. He chanted while a monk waved a container of burning juniper. Each of us then knelt before him to receive his blessing and a red cord. The whole experience was quite soothing and deeply relaxing, which is surprisingly how I’ve felt this entire trip. I’ve been amazed at how quickly I’ve acclimated to being back in India: it took less than a day for me to get over jet lag, my stomach has been unscathed by the food, and I’m already feeling comfortable in the heat. Things are certainly novel and exciting, but hardly in the overwhelming and occasionally scary way that they were on my first trip. I keep finding myself being struck by the inherent rightness of things and I still can’t stop smiling.

The visit to the Tibetan library was fantastic as well. It’s filled with hundreds of handwritten manuscripts, many of which took a lifetime to produce, along with a number of books that are accessible to the public. I spent nearly an hour pouring (poring?) over a giant book of Tibetan mandalas, which got me thinking it would be a cool topic for my large project. However, I seem to come up with a great new idea for my final project on a daily, if not hourly, basis, so we’ll see what sticks.

Circumambulating the Dalai Lama’s temple was equally wonderful and peaceful. The path is covered in prayer flags, prayer wheels and Tibetan mantras, serving as constant reminders of the mantra of Avolokiteshvara (the Buddha of compassion who is incarnated in the Dalai Lama), “Om Mani Padme Hum,” guiding one to unite wisdom and compassion for the perfect forms of thought, word, and action. During the walk, I talked with Geshe Lobsangla about Buddhism’s entry into Tibet, as well as the modern collision of Tibetan spirituality and contemporary science and the implications of this convergence. It’s so incredibly cool that I can have a casual conversation with a Buddhist geshe that has worked intimately with the Dalai Lama for over a decade. I’m very excited to get to know him better over the next month.

McLeod Ganj was nice, though felt oddly tourist trappy. Lots of white hippie-type fellows who I probably look nearly indistinguishable from by this point. After the last time I left India, never thought I’d end up here.

Classes start tomorrow, which I’m not particularly excited for. It’s not that I’m not excited to learn, it’s just that I think I’ve already been learning so much and haven’t had to sit down and get lectured at once in order to do so. I’m still in much more adventursome than studious mindset, though maybe the pile of reading I still have to do for tomorrow will help me make that switch. I start off the day with group meditation at 6:30 tomorrow morning, though I’ll probably get up at 5:30 to do some yoga on the roof as the sun rises. Life is good.

Hopefully I’ll get some pictures up in the future, though the internet here is rather slow. Think I’m about to hit the hay, though I have no idea what time it is since i don’t carry a phone or a watch here, which is absolutely wonderful. Too bad that it probably wouldn’t fly back home.

Arrived in Dharamsala

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Finally made it up to Dharamsala and I’m so tired I can’t see straight. The room is nice, but sparse, as expected. We have a Western toilet and a shower, which is more than I could have asked for. The mattresses are so hard they might as well be planks of wood but I’m so tired that it hardly makes a difference to me at this point.

It’s amazing how exhausting doing nothing but sitting in a car for 14 hours can be. We left Delhi around 5:30 this morning in groups of 3 and headed up through Ambala, up into Punjab, through the countryside and up a series of switchbacks until we finally reached the IBD Sarah campus in Lower Dharamsala. I basically went through 14 straight hours of déjà vu and couldn’t stop smiling the whole way. I’ve surprised myself with how happy I am to be back. Having spent so much time learning about Hinduism over the past 9 months has enhanced my enjoyment of the country tremendously. It’s so satisfying to recognize particular deities’ temples dotted along the roads. Most of them seem to be Shaivite, though there are also a number to Durga and Hanuman. I’d forgotten how ridiculously prevalent religious life is in every part of society here. Aside from the countless number of temples along the road, there are dozens of smaller shrines, as well as trees, rocks and even cows painted up for some form of puja/prayer. Even the industrial smoke stacks look like temple spires, a humorously ironic contrast. Everything is so colorful and the air smells amazing, aside from the small stretches in the countryside that smell like a petting zoo. Tomorrow we’re having orientation and our first class to get us acquainted with the Nechung oracle, Tibet’s state oracle, in preparation for our audience with him on Tuesday. We’ll witness him go into a trance, which he was called into by either himself, the Tibetan parliament, or the Dalai Lama, and then get to have a private audience with him to ask him questions after he has some time to recuperate. I’m still constantly blown away by the ridiculous opportunities this program is providing me. I’m starting to lose focus of the screen so I’m calling it a night. Still no Internet but this will hopefully get posted at some point soon when Geshe Wifila gets things running.

Airplane Thoughts

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I’m writing this on the 14-hour flight from Newark to New Delhi. I’m about six hours in, and actually pretty shocked at how quickly it’s gone by considering I’ve spent most of the time staring at the seat in front of me. With so much time and nothing to do but think, I’m starting to process what’s about to happen much more so than I have over the past week or so. I’m realizing that this experience is not only an incredible opportunity to witness truly dedicated religious practice firsthand for the first time in my life, but it’s also my first legitimate foray into what the world of religious studies holds. Books and classes are all fine and well, but can hardly be said to compare to immersion in a deeply religious world. As scary as it all is, I’m definitely starting to feel the first pangs of excitement about the first real test of my intentions in the discipline. I was lucky enough to face the same sorts of tests in the world of economics and finance while at a hedge fund and venture capital firm and I discovered the huge difference between finding a job tolerable and finding it truly enjoyable. By conventional standards, I would have to say that I failed the test of the financial world. But I never felt remotely as secure in my econ path as I do on my current one, so the upcoming trials are less of a burden or concern than an opportunity. A large part of my academic success on this program will be determined by an in depth research project on the topic of my choosing. I’ll have the chance to conduct interviews to help construct my argument, whatever it may be, and will find out what actual ethnographic fieldwork entails.

Earlier today I was reading something by Alan Watts that I’ve found to be particularly comforting in the face of the unknown. While there is assuredly room for personal growth over the span of each of our lifetimes, these developments are relatively minor and inconsequential when compared to the vast aspects of our nature and circumstances that remain fixed. Confronting this issue, one can either attempt to futilely resist this conclusion or one can come to terms with it and follow it to its logical conclusion: it’s all good. We can only do so much and, in the end, everything is exactly as it needs to be in its own existence and interconnectedness to the rest of reality. Things couldn’t be any other way besides as they are right now. Such an acceptance offers relief from so many of life’s daily anxieties and provides a level of assuredness in every thought in action, requiring no justification beyond the fact that it exists in the first place.

However, there’s also a school of Buddhism that holds that, while man’s physical development is bounded, the growth of psychological states of virtue are not. I’m not entirely sure what to make of these seemingly contradictory viewpoints. I don’t know if it’s due to one being from a Zen Buddhist perspective and the other being a Tibetan Buddhist perspective, or if they can possibly be reconciled. I can’t quite grasp how the idea of the possibility for limitless psychological growth can combine with an acceptance of the world’s inherent rightness. Maybe the realization of the latter leads to the former? I don’t know. Hopefully I’ll become better versed in these topics over the next month to the point that I can reach a more satisfying conclusion.

William James recognized that, throughout history, man has arrived at this conclusion of the world’s natural perfection both by the path of the philosophical stoic and by the road of the impassioned religiously-minded folk. He notes that the stoic faces this realization with a calculated resignation and acceptance, whereas the religious man tackles it with exuberance, enthusiasm and excitement. The world is perfect in its manifestations of both good and evil because they are opposite sides of the same coin, depending on each other for definition and existence. While the stoic may reach the same conclusion through rationality, religion can bring a man to the same place experientially:

“Religious feeling is thus an absolute addition to the Subject’s range of life. IT gives him a new sphere of power. When the outward battle is lost, and the outer world disowns him, it redeems and vivifies an interior world which otherwise would be an empty waste” (James, Varieties of Religious Experience).

I find that James’ sentiment gets at one of the key reasons of why I find the personal religious experience to be so interesting and worth studying on a serious level: it opens up a realm of motivations and coping mechanisms that are unfathomable to the non-believer. That isn’t to say that reason cannot excite passion in man, but I doubt that it can rival the sheer electricity felt by a man who truly believes in something beyond materiality. It holds a power that no other sentiment appears to awaken in man, at least not the same degree. Whether this power incites behavior that is to the benefit of the world or to its detriment seems to be guided by the disposition of the individual, the nature of the doctrine, and the prevailing environmental circumstances. Regardless of its manifestation, its power to act on men’s lives is undeniable and inescapable. There’s an incredible power to be harnessed, which can be directed to vastly improving the world.

Jumping back to Watt’s idea of the inherent rightness of things as they are, such a perspective lends a humorous quality to modern existence, my own certainly not excluded. So much of life is directed attaining this or that particular goal, but to what end? Tomorrow never comes and this endless striving offers little assurance of ever arriving at some ultimate goal. The seeds of our discontent seem not to lie in any problem with our phenomological world, but are rather sown within our manner of approaching it as part of the collective illusion that we have somewhere to get to. We don’t.

Speaking of futile goals, when I got to the hotel after the flight and was trying to get online to post this, I spent at least 20 minutes with one of the members of the hotel staff attempting to figure out how to access wi-fi. He kept pointing at my screen and saying ‘linksys,’ and I kept clicking it, and nothing happened, and we had no other way to communicate so we both just starting doing the characteristic Indian head bob until I finally gave up. So by the time I actually post this I’ll be in Dharamsala. Presumably from here on out, my posts will contain less religious ramblings for my own edification and more pictures and fun little anecdotes about living in a 3rd world country. If anyone reading this wanted to read William James or Alan Watts, they would go pick up one of their books instead of coming on here. Does being aware of my own pretentiousness on here make it any less obnoxious? Probably not. Probably even more so. Oh well. Peace.

The Obligatory First Post

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Hey Internet. While I recognize that egotistically keeping a blog to write about myself and experiences over the next few months goes directly against the principle of anatman (no self) that I’ll be learning about in Dharamsala, I figure it’s practically a pretty useful thing to have. Over the next 9 months I’ll be spending time at the Institute of Buddhist Dialects in Dharmsala studying modern Science and Buddhism’s varying perspectives on the mind/body relationship, traveling in Northern India, working at the deCordova Museum & Sculpture Park in Boston while taking a class at BU and getting tutored in Google SketchUp, hiking in Tibet, and living in Beijing in the fall. It’s going to be a remarkably busy summer, the busiest I’ve ever had. But life is short and we only get one shot at it (as far as I know) so I figure busier is better. 

I would love to have some wonderful words to share about my expectations and how excited I am but, sadly, I don’t. The next 9 months, and particularly the next month and a half, are so far removed from any of my prior experiences that I don’t have any point of reference for comprehending what my future holds. Even though I’ve previously lived in Vishakhapatnam, India for four months, I imagine that living in Dharamsala will be so remarkably different that my time in Vizag will be about as useful of a reference point as my life in Boston and Claremont. However, I don’t intend any of this to have a negative tinge to it. The mystery is easily the most exciting (and debatably anxiety-inducing) aspect of this entire experience. If I were able to clearly comprehend what lies ahead, I doubt it would even be a journey worth taking.

If you understand, things are such as they are;
If you do not understand, things are such as they are. 

Really, the most that I can say is that I’m expecting a tremendous amount of culture shock, both in going to India and in my return to the states. I can’t even begin to predict my mind state after having spent a month surrounded by some of the most deeply committed Tibetan Buddhists in the world. Above all, I hope I can keep in mind that whatever happens happens. Life wasn’t meant to be corralled and mastered, but simply lived.

In the landscape of Spring there is neither better nor worse;
The flowering branches grow naturally, some long, some short.