Ghost Dog is a film by Jim Jarmusch. Forest Whitaker plays the title character, a lone wolf hit man who follows the ancient code of the samurai. He lives in a homemade cabin on the roof of an abandoned tenement building where he keeps a flock of pigeons. Ghost Dog is cold-blooded but he also has warmth and humanity, something that was already a bit of a cliche by 1999 when the film was made, but it works. Ghost Dog broods a lot and in voice overs, frequently quotes from the Hagakure, a book of commentaries by a 18th century samurai, Yamamoto Tsunetomo:

Our bodies are given life from the midst of nothingness. Existing where there is nothing is the meaning of the phrase “Form is emptiness.” That all things are provided for by nothingness is the meaning of the phrase “Emptiness is form.” One should not think that these are two separate things.

“Form is emptiness, emptiness is form . . .” comes from the Heart Sutra, of course. It has been called the most famous statement in Mahayana Buddhism.

Boiled down from the much larger Maha-Prajnaparamita Sutra, the Heart Sutra not only touches upon every major concept in Buddhism, but I would say that of religion and philosophy as a whole. There’s even a shorter version of what is already the shortest Buddhist sutra, which in any of the Asian languages amounts to a mere paragraph, and it’s not much longer in English. Recited daily by Buddhists all over world, the Heart Sutra transcends sectarianism. I think the Pure Land, Nichiren and Theravada are probably the only mainstream schools that do not use the Heart Sutra in one way or another.

Interpretations of this famous phrase, “form is emptiness . . .”, might be as numerous as the sands of the Ganges. It is not my intention today to add another one, but rather present some words by a few contemporary Buddhist teachers.

The Five Skandhas are the components of existence. Buddhism holds that an individual is a combination of the skandhas, or aggregates, listed here in the passage that contains the statement under discussion:

Kuan Yin Bodhisattva, while practicing deep Prajna-Paramita, clearly saw that all five Skandhas are empty and thus crossed over all suffering. O Shariputra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form. Sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness are also like this.

Thich Nhat Hanh, contemporary Zen Master, from The Heart of Understanding:

Form is the wave and emptiness is the water. You can understand through that image. The Indians speak in a language that can scare us, but we have to understand their way of expression in order to really understand them. In the West, when we draw a circle, we consider it to be zero, nothingness. But in India, a circle means totality, wholeness. The meaning is the opposite. So ‘form is emptiness, emptiness is form,’ is like wave is water, water is wave. ‘Form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form. The same is true with feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness,’ because these five contain each other. Because one exists, everything exists.

Sheng-yen, (1930-2009) Chinese Ch’an monk, from There is No Suffering:

Indeed, everything is empty, but emptiness is wonderful existence. It is precisely because our existence is illusory that we can experience enlightenment and help others to do the same. For this reason, “emptiness is not other than form” is more important to understand than “form is not other than emptiness,” in that the workings of the five skandhas are the full display of emptiness. The five skandhas do have a conventional existence. Our bodies are illusory, but we will suffer if we do not care for them. Food is illusory, but we will starve if we do not eat. Our activities are illusory, but only through activity can we help others. For this reason, there is action in the midst of emptiness, and because of this, we should remain active and positive, and avoid nihilism.

Tenzin Gyatso, The 14th Dalai Lama, from Essence of the Heart Sutra:

It is important for us to avoid the misapprehension that emptiness is an absolute reality or independent truth. Emptiness must be understood as the true nature of things and events. Thus we read, “Form is emptiness; emptiness is from. Emptiness is no other than form; form too is no other than emptiness.” This does not refer to some kind of Great Emptiness out there somewhere, but to the emptiness of a specific phenomenon, in this case form, or matter.

The statement that “apart from form there is no emptiness” suggests that the emptiness of form is nothing other than the form’s ultimate nature. Form lacks intrinsic or independent existence; thus, its nature is emptiness. This nature – emptiness – is not independent of form, but rather is a characteristic of form; emptiness is form’s mode of being. One must understand form and its emptiness in unity; there are not two independent realities.

Mu Soeng Sunim, Korean Zen teacher, from Heart Sutra: Ancient Buddhist Wisdom in the Light of Quantum Reality:

The sutra insists that form is emptiness. There is a critical difference between form being empty and form being emptiness. Sunyata [emptiness], in Prajna-paramita sutras, is the ultimate nature of reality; at the same time it does not exist apart from the phenomena but permeates each phenomenon. Therefore, sunyata cannot be sought apart from the totality of all forms. And, although all forms are qualified at their core by sunyata, its presence does not negate the conventional appearance of form. In this sense, emptiness is dependent upon the form it qualifies, as much as form is dependent on emptiness for its qualification. Thus form is emptiness, and emptiness is form. At its core level, form does not differ from emptiness nor does emptiness differ with form.

Shunryu Suzuki (1904-1971), Soto Zen Master, from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

We say our practice should be without gaining ideas, without any expectations, even of enlightenment. This does not mean, however, just to sit without any purpose. This practice free from gaining ideas is based on the Prajna Paramita Sutra. However, if you are not careful the sutra itself will give you a gaining idea. It says, “Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.” But if you attach to that statement, you are liable to be involved in dualistic ideas: here is you, form, and here is emptiness, which you are trying to realize through your form. So “form is emptiness, and emptiness is form” is still dualistic. But fortunately, our teaching goes on to say, “Form is form and emptiness is emptiness.” Here there is no dualism.

When you find it difficult to stop your mind while you are sitting [in meditation] and when you are still trying to stop your mind, this is the stage of “form is emptiness and emptiness is form.” But while you are practicing in this dualistic way, more and more you will have oneness with your goal. And when your practice becomes effortless, you can stop your mind. This is the stage of “form is form and emptiness is emptiness.”


If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you’ve probably figured out by now that I love poetry. The first poem I read that gave me a real sense of how wonderful poetry could be was e.e. cumming’s “in-Just spring.” I was either in the 3rd or 4th grade and the poem just bowled me over because it was so simple and it was so different from any other poem I had read and it made you feel what he was writing about. “When the world is mud-lucious . . . puddle wonderful . . . eddieandbill” – I remember it was cold outside but as I read the poem, I felt I was touching spring.

Since then I have always preferred poets whose styles are similar in some way to cummings. People like William Carlos Williams, Aram Saroyan, and Charles Bukowski to name a few. For me, the best poets use as few words as possible. That’s one reason why I also like Chinese and Japanese poetry so much. Saroyan once wrote a poem that consisted of just one word – crickets – typed repeatedly down the center of the page. You can see that poem and more of his minimalist word experiments here.

Langston Hughes is another poet I admire.  He’s best known for the work he did during the Harlem Renaissance, a literary and intellectual cultural movement of the 1920s and 1930s and he was one of the first poets to experiment with blues and jazz rhythms.

Saturday’s post featured one of Hughes’ poems and I thought that some readers might not be too familiar with him or his work. You can read about Hughes here, while today, I present another of his poems. I think it’s one of the best pieces of poetry ever written.

Hughes wrote “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” while riding a train on his way to Mexico to visit his father. He was just 18 years old. Short and spare, yet containing powerful imagery, the poem manages to tell the story of human civilization in a mere 60 words.

I am not African-American, but this poem speaks to me. I, too, am familiar with rivers and very familiar with the last one he mentions, along with that city, and I’ve seen the river just as he describes.

The Negro Speaks of Rivers

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

The word “freedom” is often used to refer to an absence of restraint or control of a person’s physical and mental activities.  This kind of freedom is always limited by conditions that prevent individuals from doing certain things. These conditions may be natural or human-made laws, or they may be physical or mental limitations.

Different people feel free in different ways. Everyone has a somewhat unique sense of personal freedom. Some persons may feel that one way to be free is to be entirely unconnected with anything else. However, this sense of freedom is only an illusion because in truth there is nothing that is unconnected with anything else.

As far as Buddhism is concerned, spiritual freedom is release from suffering. Buddhism teaches that an understanding of interdependency is crucial to attaining this kind of freedom.

The Indian term for this relativity is Pratitya-Samutpada, rendered in English variously as dependent origination, inter-dependent origination, dependent arising, conditioned co-becoming, co-dependent production, etc. I like interdependency. It’s short and to the point.

Interdependency is often explained with the formula of “because of this, that arises; because of that, this arises.” Nothing exists by itself because everything is inter-connected and nothing can arise or come into being without be produced by causes operating under various conditions.

Since the Buddha was primarily concerned with the problem of human suffering, he used interdependency to trace the causes of suffering, which he ultimately attributed to ignorance. This resulted in a reverse formula: “because this is not, that ceases; because that is not; this ceases.” According to this reverse formula, if ignorance is not then suffering is not. The Buddha taught that if we remove ignorance and replace it with wisdom, suffering can be transcended.

What do we mean by ignorance? In 1997, while giving teachings on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland, the Dalai Lama offered these words:

The very word avidya or ignorance in itself shows a state that one cannot really endorse as positive. It is said to be fundamentally confused, so, surely it cannot be a state that is desirable. The point is that if our existence  is said to be completely determined and conditioned by that fundamentally flawed way of viewing the world, how can there be scope for lasting freedom or lasting peace? Therefore, it becomes crucial to see whether avidya or fundamental ignorance can be eliminated.

Some schools of Buddhism consider the root of ignorance to be self-grasping; the mind grasping at self-existence on one hand and ignorance on the other. In the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) school, ignorance is understood as a state of mis-knowing, viewing the world in a distorted way, and this arises from non-comprehension of the interdependency of all things.

I feel that interdependency is a key word for the future. As our world keeps shrinking though advances in technology, we are seeing more and more how things are truly interrelated. Each day, science provides us with new examples of how life and our environment are both like fabrics woven into a complex pattern of causes and effects. In medicine, recognition of the mind-body connection is now more commonplace than ever. If, in the future, we human beings can ever begin to cultivate a deep understanding of interdependency, we might be able to turn the world around and establish some measure of lasting peace.

This last point is the great benefit of the concept of interdependency because it leads us to a true understanding of equality. Owing to the fact that we are interconnected and because we are subject to the same causes and conditions, we are all equal.

Seeing ourselves as unconnected to other things, particularly other beings, is not freedom. Here again the reverse applies in that true freedom is embracing inter-connectedness. It’s seeing the world as it really is.

The person who thinks that freedom means being unconnected is just grasping after a “self” which does not exist. A self that is independent, permanent, and unchanging, and nowhere can such a thing be found. We like to feel we are a self that is different in both appearance and substance from other beings, which is true, but only in relative terms. Science tells us that the components which make us different from other beings constitute only a percent or two of our total being, so ultimately the rest is the same as every other being.

If nothing else, here lies freedom from hatred and racism, for it makes no sense to hate another person because one or two percent of difference. Not to mention that for any reason, hate is not cool.

Nagarjuna said, “Everything stands in harmony for the person who is in harmony with interdependency.” He taught that peace and harmony in the world is possible when we reject the idea of the unconnected self, and further, that anyone who comprehends interdependency deeply can help all beings realize freedom. Such a person is called a buddha, one who has awakened.

On this date, 47 years ago:

Some 200,000 people were gathered for “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” an event that was more of a rally than a march. They stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial, where the great man in white marble looked down upon them, and where the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, uttered these historic words:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

According to biographer Anthony Scaduto, young folksinger Bob Dylan, who was to perform that day along with Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and others, while in a private moment, looked over to the Capitol with a skeptical eye and said, “Think they’re listening? No, they ain’t listening at all.”

Hope and optimism was in the air. The times they were a’changin’. Yet, Dylan had already sensed the dark days ahead.

Only some listened and the country paid a heavy price: riots ignited in cities across the country and the cities went up in flames to the chants of “Burn, Baby, Burn!”, assassinations, student protests over the war in Vietnam turned into violent melees – unrest was as much the tenor of the times as peace and love.

In 1951, the great African-American poet, Langston Hughes wrote:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

I remember a day in April of 1992: I stood on the roof of my building which offers a panoramic view of the Los Angeles basin. The sky to the east was a solid wall of black cloud. Smoke. Plumes of smoke rose from locations all over the city. I went downstairs and on TV was Rodney King, the man savagely beat by the policemen whose acquittals had sparked the riots. Rodney King was speaking to a group of reporters. He looked confused, overwhelmed, like a man caught in a Kafkaesque nightmare. He said, “Can’t we all . . . just . . . get along?”

It seems so simple. If we could just get along . . .

Another Buddhist blogger, Adam, at Fly Like A Crow, wrote yesterday that he was tired of talking about race. I left a comment on his blog, agreeing. I am tired of talking about race. I am tired of racism. I am tired of everything having to be an issue. Tired of no one listening and everyone shouting. I am tired of young people dying in wars that should not be waged. I am tired of terrorism, and really tired of what it has done to our lives and our politics. I’m tired of the way that we can’t get along.

I changed my mind about that comment. I realize now that I can’t stop talking. We can’t be silent when there is injustice in the world. No matter how weary we may be, we can’t give in to complacency. We are interdependent, so when one dream is deferred, all of our dreams are deferred.

The former Mayor of Los Angeles, the late Tom Bradley (an African-American) once proposed the rather controversial idea of taking kids out of the ghettos and barrios and putting them into camps where they could get the kind of education and exposure to positive thinking they deserved. The problem he said was that many children, African-American youth especially, didn’t know how to dream. After being beat down for so many generations, they had lost the ability to dream. Their parents didn’t teach it to them because their parents had not taught it to them.

Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream and almost fifty years later the dream is still deferred for too many Americans. Hate crimes are on the rise. The nation is a battleground and the ominous signs of violent confrontations once again are on the horizon.

Yesterday I also read a piece by Katie Loncke at The Buddhist Channel who said she disagreed with the notion that smiling at strangers on the subway is resisting militarism. But that is just the sort of thing that many people can do in the midst of their busy lives to keep talking. We don’t have to open our mouths to communicate. It seems to me, from my experience, that a smile can be a pretty powerful thing.

Loncke talked about inner work and outer work. I don’t know what that means. The work is both. There is no duality. In Buddhism we call it esho funi – self and environment are two but not two. However, the environment itself is really one. We all share the same environment, this world. When we strive to make it better for others, we’re making it better for ourselves, too.

We need to keep talking, but even more importantly, we need to listen. We should be like Kuan Yin, the Bodhisattva of compassion, the Hearer of the Cries of the World. We need to lay down our soldier arms, lay down our barbs and jabs, our hate and selfishness – lay down these arms so that we can embrace our brothers and sisters, so that we can smile and hold them close, and hear their cries, and smother those cries with our understanding and compassion.

First smile, then listen, and then talk . . .We cannot continue to defer this universal dream.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream . . .

If you have never watched or heard the complete speech delivered by Dr. King on August 28, 1963, here it is:

This is Bob Dylan with Joan Baez at the March singing “When The Ship Comes In” along with a snippet of Dylan doing “Only A Pawn in Their Game” (both songs introduced by the late actor and social activist, Ozzie Davis):

“To be or not to be – that is the question” is, of course, one of Shakespeare most famous lines. Hamlet is contemplation suicide, and this phrase, according to Schopenhauer “is, in condensed form, that our state is so wretched that complete non-existence would be decidedly preferable to it.”

However, this assumes that there is existence and non-existence, being and non-being. Within the Buddhist tradition, there are divergent opinions on the subject of being and non-being. Nagarjuna rejected both the notions that ‘being is and nothing is not’ and ‘nothing exists.’ In considering this matter, he set up a formula of four possibilities, each one of which he rejected: something is, it is not, it both is and is not, and it neither is nor is not.

What Nagarjuna was really refuting were modes of thought, opinions, views, statements, and so on. As an antidote to the disease of clinging to either being or non-being, he took a middle path between the two. He taught that the tendency to cling to concepts and views was the root of suffering. His Middle Way is to see things as they truly are and to understand that nothing in the world actually exists absolutely, just as nothing perishes completely.

Here is an excerpt from a dharma talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh in Plum Village, France, in which he discusses this ‘question’ of to be or not to be:

Descartes said: “I think therefore I am.” He was caught in a notion of existence, clinging to it to overcome the fear of non-existence. Because he did not look deeply enough, he was fearful of being nothing especially when he was confronted with the death of someone, or with his own death. If we are caught in the notion of being we will also be caught in the notion of non-being. From the perspective of life span, we think we start to exist at the point of time we call birth; and we think we continue to exist until the point of time we call death, after which we think we cease to exist. Thus the notions of birth and death form the basis of the notions of being and non-being. Both of these notions have their roots in the fundamental notion of life span. The Buddha has taught that when conditions are sufficient things manifest, but to label that manifestation as being is wrong. Also when conditions are not sufficient, things do not manifest, but to label that as non-being is also wrong. Reality is beyond being and non-being, we need to overcome those notions. Hamlet said: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” We can see that he was caught by these notions. But according to this teaching, “to be or not to be”, is not the question. Because reality is beyond the notion of being or non-being, birth or death, coming or going. Where do we come from and where do we go to? Those are philosophical questions. But if we understand suchness then we know that we don’t come from anywhere and we don’t go anywhere.

I had another post planned for today, but I read something yesterday that rather disturbed me. Actually a couple of things, but I will deal with only one today. I’m just going to write this off the cuff, so to speak, so it might be a bit disjointed, and may seem like a rant, but so be it.

If you think of yourself as a Buddhist then as far as I am concerned you have an obligation to try to practice and behave as one. This is not a free for all party. There are some standards, and sorry to say, they are not really subject to your interpretation. At least not until you have had some real years of practice, or you are a qualified teacher.

Some people think Buddhism has nothing to do with morality or ethics. They’re wrong. Ethics is one of the cornerstones of Buddhism. And one thing I’ve noticed in the Buddhist Blogosphere is that some people also seem to be under the impression that when we switch on our computers, the reasons for why we should engage in ethical behavior somehow magically vanish. Ethics has no on or off switch.

If you are going to identify your blog as Buddhist then I believe that your blogging should reflect Buddhist values. That means more than just blogging about compassion and peace and stuff. Your blogging should be ethical and compassionate. It is neither ethical or compassionate to mislead people.

Most blogs are about opinions, and as such, they have a limited value. But whether it’s opinion or some sort of factual reporting, blogging falls under the category of journalism. It’s very true that people believe what they read. People forget that it’s merely opinion, especially when there are so-called facts thrown into the mix.

When mixing opinion with fact, I think one has to be very careful to make sure that somehow they stay separated or duly noted for what they are. When representing something as a fact, it should be a clear fact that is verifiable and linked to a source. To use hearsay or someone’s opinion and represent them as facts is, I believe, unethical.

If I were to write something like “In Zen Buddhism the practice of hitting people with sticks is widespread,” I would have to call this a misleading fact. Yes, it is true, it’s a fact, but if I don’t provide the context and some explanation, readers could get the wrong impression. If I want to be ethical, fair and balanced, then I should either mention that this is just something I’ve heard and since I have no personal experience with it, it should not be taken as a hard fact, or I should write that this only occurs within the context of formal meditation sessions and only with the consent of the practitioner. Otherwise, people might think that Zennies are just a bunch of stick-wielding abusers going berserk.

If I say that I am going to offer my opinion and then present what appears to be layers of facts that are not linked to any sources beyond a vague mention of some individuals I know, this is the same thing. Misleading and unethical.

As Buddhists we should try to rise above the fray, not sink to the lowest common denominator. We should try to set an example for others, not follow their misguided examples. Just because everyone else in this crazy world today seems to have forgotten about fair play and the importance of having some integrity, we should to? No way.

I think we should have the spirit that as Buddhists we will hold ourselves to a higher standard than anyone else. Why so? Well, I’ll have an explanation for that and more on the subject of ethical blogging when I’ve had time to sort out my thoughts. Had to get this off my chest for now.

Growing up I loved the “funnies” in the newspaper, especially the Sunday Funnies when the comic strips had big panels and were in color. My favorites were the usual suspects for that time: Peanuts, Blondie, Dennis the Menace, Steve Roper, Tarzan, Flash Gordon and so on. I really liked Milton Caniff’s illustrating in Steve Canyon and Hal Foster’s in Prince Valiant, but I usually found the story lines in those two strips rather boring.

Pogo was a strip I didn’t appreciate until I was a bit older. That’s because it often contained more mature humor and references that were way over my head. In this way, Pogo was like the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, which I didn’t get a lot of until later on either, and then in the 1990’s, Pinky and the Brain. Both of those shows included some very dry and sometimes, sophisticated humor. A lot of bad puns, too, but that’s beside the point.

Pogo was the creation of Walt Kelly, whose birthday it is today. He’s not around to celebrate because he died in 1973 at the age of sixty. Kelly was an animator and cartoonist who worked for the Walt Disney studio from 1935 to 1940.  After that, he drew for Dell Comics, where in 1941 he created the characters of Pogo the possum and Albert the alligator.

In 1948, while drawing political cartoons for the New York Star, he decided to use Pogo and Albert in a daily strip and thus Pogo was born on October 4, 1948. In syndication, it became one of the most popular strips in the country, appearing in over 400 newspapers and it continued running until a few years after Kelly’s death.

Pogo was a real mixed bag, a combination of wit and broad humor: sometimes it was just silly, sometimes it was social and political satire. It would take too long to describe Pogo – the setting, the characters, etc. I recommend you check out the official Pogo website here to learn about all that.

Even if you’ve never heard of Pogo, chances are you’re familiar with one very famous phrase from the strip. It was a parody of a message received during the War of 1812 by Army General William Henry Harrison from U.S. Navy Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry after the Battle of Lake Erie: “We have met the enemy, and they are ours.” Kelly first used it in the forward to a Pogo book in 1953, in which he defended his attacks on McCarthyism. The best known version of the phrase appeared on a anti-pollution poster for Earth Day 1970.

First, here is the comic strip version featured in daily newspapers a year after that initial Earth Day, and then the passage from the forward of The Pogo Papers.

By the way, today’s comic strips don’t do much for me. The humor is more contemporary, but the artwork is nothing near the quality of old masters like Walt Kelly.

Traces of nobility, gentleness and courage persist in all people, do what we will to stamp out the trend. So, too, do those characteristics which are ugly. It is just unfortunate that in the clumsy hands of a cartoonist all traits become ridiculous, leading to a certain amount of self-conscious expostulation and the desire to join battle.

There is no need to sally forth, for it remains true that those things which make us human are, curiously enough, always close at hand. Resolve then, that on this very ground, with small flags waving and tinny blast on tiny trumpets, we shall meet the enemy, and not only may he be ours, he may be us.


Walt Kelly, 1953

Happy Birthday, Walt. Long live Pogo.

Ole Nydhal is from Denmark. He’s a teacher  in the Karma Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Also the founder of  a worldwide lay organization, The Diamond Way. I’ve attended a few of his talks and have spoken with him, briefly, a couple of times. I like his informal teaching style and liberal attitude.

I know he’s the subject of a few controversies, but I’m too far away from them to have any opinions. The first time I attended one of his talks, he just walked into the room, wearing a plain white t-shirt and faded blue jeans, hopped onto the edge of a table and started talking. No pomp and circumstance, no fuss, no muss. He’s a Lama and that’s supposed to be a big lofty deal, right? When I spoke with him afterward he seemed to be a pretty ordinary, down-to-earth guy. That told me a lot.

Actually, being a lama is not really a big deal. It only means teacher.

I don’t remember where I culled this from, but it seemed like a natural segue from yesterdays post. Here is Lama Ole Nydahl talking about the nature of the mind:

There are two kinds of wisdom: that which concerns the things happening in the mind, and the kind which knows the mind itself. The first we learn in schools and universities. It enables us to have interesting jobs, earn good money, drive fast cars and die with more debt than our neighbor. It is very fine, but when they put us in the grave, all benefit is gone. This wisdom is limited to things that we cannot take with us.

Insight into the nature of the mind, on the other hand, can never be lost. Mind is open, clear and limitless like space – it has never been born and can never die. For that reason, whichever of its aspects we realize, they are of a permanent nature and will benefit us from life to life.

Mind in its true nature is open, clear, and unlimited. When it recognizes its space-like nature, all fear is lost. Knowing that our essence cannot be destroyed, complete security arises, a resting in oneself. The important insight here is that we are neither the body, which gets old, gets sick and dies, nor the thoughts, which come and go. What looks through our eyes and listens trough our ears right now is radiant space. It is beyond coming and going, birth and death.

Wisdom – the enlightening kind pointing to the mind’s timeless nature – also manifests as our true nature. It shines forth naturally when the veils of disturbing emotions and stiff ideas have been removed. Experiencing things both as they truly are and as they appear, one can benefit countless beings.

Photo: Ginger Neumann

Tarzan's chimp, Cheeta, had a real bad case of Monkey Mind

Saturday CSPAN2’s Book TV re-aired a panel from the 2010 Chicago Tribune Printers Row Lit Fest this past June. The subject was how technology is affecting our minds and one of the panelists was Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

The book has been called a “Silent Spring for the literary mind.” I would say any mind. Carr is of the opinion that the Internet is changing our brains and not necessarily for the better.

Here is a pretty accurate transcription of what Carr said at the beginning of the CSPAN2 program. After reading a sentence from Carr’s book (“The price we pay to assume technologies’ power is alienation.”) the panel moderator went on to ask him if he thought “alienation is a necessary byproduct of our winding up bombarded by all this stimuli?”

Yes, I do. I’m using alienation not in the kind of metaphysical sense, but in the very simple sense that technology alienates us in different ways from ourselves . . . it happens . . .  in the most extreme and the most personal and the most intimate ways with media and other technologies that we use to think with . . . I think we’re seeing it with the Internet and other digital technologies. One on the hand they give us enormous convenience, they give us access to far more information than we ever had access to before. But on the other hand . . . they are emphasizing a certain mode of thought and deemphasizing another mode of thought. I think what the net and related technologies are doing is emphasizing the side of our mind that wants to skim and scan and browse and jump around and gather as much information as possible,  a very kind of primitive side of our mind . . . but what they’re deemphasizing is a very different mode of thought, slower, quieter, more solitary, the mode of thought that underskins contemplation, introspection, reflection . . . and I believe that we’re seeing on a personal level and a societal level a shift away from those modes of thought to this ever faster more superficial . . . mode of thought . . . My fear is that lose our capacity for the more contemplative modes of thought we are going to lose something very important to us as individuals and also one of the underpinnings of culture in general.

If Carr’s right, or only half-right, perhaps we should reconsider how we choose to use the Internet and other new technologies. This would seem especially crucial for Buddhists, or anyone who practices meditation. According to Carr’s research, our brains are changing on a cellular level and not only are we losing our ability to pay attention and focus, but also we’re eroding our contemplative mind, the very thing that we as Buddhists are trying to cultivate.

Those who have been so earnestly promoting online practice and sanghas might now want to reevaluate. I’m not saying that they have no value, yet considering some of the rather extravagant claims I’ve read, not to mention some insensible criticisms of traditional modes of communication, I am beginning to feel that this is seriously misleading people, however unintentionally.

I am certainly aware that these new technologies are not going away, nor would I want them to, as I greatly appreciate and enjoy all the convenience, access to information and fun they provide. However, the prospect of a future overrun by people with ADHD is rather frightening.

Actually, Buddhism considers Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder to be our normal state with or without technology. We call this “Monkey Mind.”

Those of you already familiar with the term might have noticed how Carr’s statement quoted above contained a very accurate description of Monkey Mind: “the side of our mind that wants to skim and scan and browse and jump around.”

Most scholars seem to believe that the term “Monkey Mind” originated in China. I’m not so sure. Chih-i in the T’ung Meng Chih Kuan or “Stopping and Seeing for Beginners,” composed in the 6th Century CE, quotes a sutra (which not identified in any English translation that I’m aware of): “A fixed mind is like a bound monkey.” This sutra could be an apocryphal Chinese text, but it could also be an authentic Indian sutra.

In any case, a modern meditation master, Yin Shih, in his book Experimental Meditation for the Promotion of Health, offers a good explanation of Monkey Mind:

The mind is like a monkey and does not stop for an instant. What then should we do? We should prevent this monkey mind from moving by tying it to a stake and it will cease jumping about aimlessly. In the practice of [meditation] the first step is to fix the mind on an object (hsi yaun chih). When the false mind moves, it looks for something that is called its object. When all of sudden it thinks of one object, then of another, and then of a third and a fourth; this is its clinging to objects. The purpose of [meditation] is to fix the wandering mind to a post in the same way that a monkey is tethered to a stake; this stops it wandering.

A number of reliable studies in recent years have shown that people with ADHD can benefit from meditation. In fact, nowadays, it is almost universally accepted that meditation is an effective tool for reducing stress, improving health, and boosting concentration and creativity.

Most of us know this and it shouldn’t be necessary to go through all the reasons why a “contemplative mind” is something that we should not only cultivate, but cherish. The questions we need to consider are: Does the Net and other digital technology cancel out everything we gain from meditation? Do we break even? How should we balance this out?

If, as Carr suggests, the contemplative mind is important both individually and culturally, then we need to take steps to protect it. Of course, not everyone is convinced by Carr’s arguments, and they point to the fact that the jury is still out, after all while some studies support his thesis, others have found significant cogitative benefits from exposure to the Internet and digital media. But if we ignore the possible negative effects, if we wait until the jury comes in, it may be too late to reverse the damage done.

Lastly, let me share with you something from Winston Churchill. It’s a piece of wisdom that has really helped me out as I’ve made my way down this long road of life: “Never hold discussions with the monkey when the organ grinder is in the room.”

Now you know.

Here’s a short piece of original music. An instrumental that I suppose falls into the “ambient” category.

It’s called “Eastern Evenings.”

Click on the toggle in the right hand corner to view in full screen.

I realize now that there are no Horned Owls in Asia. Oh well. Cool pic, though.