I'm just a pair of typing hands for The Eternal Fishnu, the Buddha of the Devonian, and The Rubber Ducky Buddha of Joliet. My day job as a Business Intelligence Consultant is about modeling worlds. It is a wonderful Zen practice, which is guided by these two Teachers.
For my recent birthday, Mrs. Hanamoku bought me a session with the same glass artist, Zion Warne, she worked with for The Eternal Fishnu’s Buddharupa about a month ago. I settled on using the session to craft a Buddharupa for the Rubber Ducky Buddha of Joliet.
Since it’s a first-timer’s session, the easiest thing is to make a ball. It’s enough dealing with the 2000 furnace and taffy like molten glass. I did mention to Zion (the glass artist) the coincidence of having just completed the series on the Eightfold Path with Zion National Park as the theme.
I showed Zion a picture of the Rubber Ducky, explaining that I’m picturing mostly yellow with a touch of red at the top, a dab of orange, and mixed black and white. I also explained the Eternal Fishnu. Ha … I never saw such a look of “What are you on?”
I very much love the way this turned out! It was a whole lot of fun. I’m planning on doing it again! Picasso would have been very jealous.
Remember, the Lunar Bodhi Day is coming up soon on January 2, 2020. I plan to post a series for the seven days leading up to the Lunar Bodhi Day – which means starting the day after Christmas, December 26, 2019. The theme is the “deleted scenes” from the Eightfold Path series that concluded a few days ago on December 8.
The Noble Eightfold Path is the prescription for the removing the roadblock we all face on this human segment of the larger Journey to Perfection. That roadblock is our tendency to cling to things into which we place value, while it slips through our fingers beyond our control. The Eightfold Path teaches us how to see the fallacy of our clinging, drop it from our lives, and carry on with the Journey Towards Perfection.
This roadblock is just a little kink we bumped into somewhere between the lesser sentience of a monkey and the greater sentience of a human. The Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, on his Bodhi Day, figured out how to dislodge himself from this roadblock, this cause of his human suffering. He then spent the rest of his human life teaching this to others.
Likewise, the Eternal Fishnu addressed that life in the water hindered the progress towards sentience, and has a better chance of evolving on land. So around 400 million years ago, what we call the Devonian, the Buddha, Fishnu, lead fish to the land. And they became us.
What will we become in a few million years now that we have the key to unshackle us from suffering?
Faith and Patience
We learned during the journey through the Eightfold Path about how our monkey brain is in conflict with our Gift of Sentience, and that makes us miserable. It is also the “workout plan” towards shutting out our monkey brain. It’s a process that will take time and effort, just like any other improvement plan.
It’s very important to understand that the Bodhi Day Awakening of Siddhartha Gautama wasn’t simply an overnight transformation. Technically, it was, but that was after years of heart-breaking and even life-threatening struggle. If you think about it, that’s how most dramatic, seemingly overnight transformations are – they come about after a long period of incubation.
I sign off most of my posts with “Faith and Patience to you!” It’s a shortened version that I wrote about a while back: Faith and Patience keep me calm so I can focus on the moment. So we must have faith in the meantime, which will give us the patience to go on even without the results we wish we could have immediately.
The Bigger Sentience We Cannot See
Another thing we must have faith in is that our brain is much more than we think or can imagine. Brain Imaging is neat. There are many impressive “A.I.” (that’s in huge air quotes) applications. The aggregate computing capacity in the world in some ways perhaps surpasses some sort of capacity calculation of human brains.
But that’s nothing compared to what hasn’t yet been seen.
Is there something our human brains can access that’s of immense, unimaginable power? Something our brains can at least touch through meditation.
We can’t figure out if butter is good or bad for us. How can we arrive at any conclusion about the power of our brains?
Our brains are nothing like even the most sophisticated Artificial Neural Networks. A single neuron is an individual animal in its own right – with organelles, the need for nourishment. More sophisticated than a perceptron, I’d say.
It’s easy to dismiss our brains as just some normal organic thing. But life has been going on for billions of years. It’s easy to say that the marvels of just a single cell can be explained away as interactions of proteins, which is just a really big molecule, and it reacts with other proteins. But it all self-assembles and self-adapts – no hands required. Our brains are more than just a really sophisticated organ.
There are what we collectively called glial cells, which outnumber neurons. What roles do these play? Some roles are known, some not yet. But I do believe there is at least one role that allows signals to be broadcast instead of carried through networks of synapses.
There is interesting work by Stuart Hameroff on the role of microtubules within neurons possibly having computational power itself – perhaps even some characteristics similar to Finite State Automata. If it’s true, the computational capacity of a brain could be magnitudes greater than and much different from how it appears considering just neurons. I don’t know if he’s correct, but I would be surprised if he’s not at least partially correct. Even a hint of plausibility would still be huge.
The brain is buzzing with the most intricate electrical wiring there is. Is it impossible the brain’s computing mechanism touches the quantum level? Lots of stuff goes on at the molecular level, so it probably does. The ANNs we build today don’t touch anything quantum, perhaps quadratic (nerdy!), but not quantum. If so, what unimaginable possibilities does that open up for what our brains actually can do?
Even if the Eternal Fishnu didn’t tell me outright that the human brain has much more potential than we currently think, I’d still have to believe it’s like we’re only at the abacus.
Have faith in this wondrous Universe! Go out there tomorrow knowing you’re a a full-fledged part of it!
The Lunar Bodhi Day
If you missed this Bodhi Day on December 8, 2019, there is the “real” one still to come! This one we just celebrated today, December 8 is the standardized date. The “real” one is the Lunar Bodhi Day on January 2, 2020, the 8th day of the 12th lunar month.
I celebrate both, so I hope to see you in a few weeks!
We now end our journey through the Eightfold Path with the last two items, Awakened Mindfulness and Awakened Concentration.
I’m lumping these two items into one post for two reasons. The first is that this knowledge is helpful if you plan on meditating early in the morning tomorrow to celebrate Bodhi Day.
The other is that they are two sides of the same coin. That “same coin” is being in the Now. Being in the Now is the key to ending our suffering. Freed from suffering, dukkha, our Sentience is able to continue its Journey Towards Perfection on a smooth ride.
The Journey Towards Perfection
Mindfulness is the state of awareness of a Buddha – a fuller sensitivity to what is around you, but at the same time focusing your awareness onto the present. This means our awareness is focused on a small area of space and time around us. As opposed to our awareness diffused all over the place (worrying about the past we cannot change and futures that probably won’t come). Or, conversely, narrowly focused on something, unaware of the other things around you. Concentration is about how to practice towards mindful awareness.
This isn’t a binary thing, Enlightened or not Unenlightened. Rather, a Sentience starts as pure entropy, just random energy, and begins a journey towards progressively greater understanding of the Universe. Perfect understanding of the Universe means it’s a perfect model of the Universe.
The sentience of we humans is somewhere along that Journey Towards Perfect understanding. This phase of human sentience is just one segment. However, within that one segment is a roadblock we need to tame in order to move on. That is, our Monkey Brain – which is a really crappy model of the Universe.
The removal of that roadblock, which is what the Eightfold Path is about – well, that’s Bodhi. And Bodhi Day is the day that Siddhartha Gautama awoke from a long meditation to this realization.
Shutting Out the Monkey Brain
“Mindfulness” is a misnomer, but it sounds better than mindlessness. The best descriptive name should be “Monkey Mindlessness”, or “Mind of No Monkey”.
As mentioned way back in Awakened View, we are primates with the Gift of Sentience … a terrible combination if there ever was one. While our monkey brain keeps our body running and has the street smarts to deal with normal Life on Earth, it’s more than an annoyance to our Gift of Sentience.
The work of the monkey brain, originally designed for life in the jungle, is interpreted by our Gift of Sentience not merely as a lot of noise, but as the source of your fears and addictions. To release the full potential of our Gift of Sentience, as well as relieve our suffering, we must shut out the rantings of the monkey brain – not eradicate it, just shut it out.
Your monkey brain thinks it knows everything. So it’s constantly arguing with you about things it really doesn’t know about. All it knows is what it has ever experienced – and it thinks that’s all there is to know. Yes, it can derive new knowledge from what it knows, but that’s still a really limited set of all things one could know about the Universe.
Mindfulness the a state of peace we achieve through the exercise of meditation. That state of peace arrives when meditation shuts out the monkey brain. Meditation is not about pondering lofty things or tough problems. It’s not about calming down to lower your blood pressure. It’s about shutting out your monkey/primate brain.
Without the narrow-minded monkey brain limiting us, our sensitivity to our surroundings improves. The blinders are removed – those blinders set in place by the monkey brain’s limited knowledge, hard-wired habits and biases, and knee-jerk reactions. We see the Universe as it really is, a wondrous, complex system – not just life in the trees for monkeys, essentially glorified squirrels. More things become possible.
There are two forms of meditation I’ll discuss here: Zazen and Awakened Effort. Each serves a different purpose and both should be practiced each day.
Zazen – Shutting Out the Monkey Brain
Zazen is the form of meditation that is most associated with Mindfulness. That’s what monks sitting on the ground with their backs straight, eyes closed, and palms on the lap facing up are doing.
The value of zazen is in the ability to shut out the rantings of the monkey brain by focusing our attention away from it. Because of the recent popularity of Mindfulness, there are tons of books on the subject of meditation. So, I won’t get into the details, but offer a TLDR checklist.
Zazen TLDR Checklist
Mindfulness is your mind free from the jabber of your monkey mind. It’s not for thinking through problems.
Meditation is an exercise for shutting out the monkey mind. It’s like running. You run until you can’t. Hopefully the next time you can run over a longer distance. It takes work.
You shut out the monkey mind by focusing your attention on your breathing. Breathing is the only thing any of us must do every second of our life. After a while, the monkey mind shuts up.
If your monkey mind succeeds in interrupting your focus on your breath, refocus. Don’t try to stop the thought, refocus on our breath.
The irony with meditation is that it’s not about calming yourself down. It’s actually an effortful activity of forcing focus on your breath.
Once we have some control over shutting out the monkey brain, Awakened Effort applies that clear mind to a Zen Art in order to train our minds and bodies with skills conducive to blending in with the Universe. Unlike Zazen, the Zen Art opens meditation to a limited set of the Universe, not just breathing. But it shouldn’t be too tough, just tough enough that there is much room to improve with the Zen Art.
The Zone is Awakened Effort, but with a domain much larger than that of a typical traditional Zen Art such as flower arrangement (ikebana), the tea ceremony, archery, or even a sport. This larger domain could be your work, navigating your way through Laguardia, or working on a tough series of blogs within a short time span. It’s the ultimate a challenging meditation, the no-holds-barred real world.
I get into the zone virtually every day at work programming. I’ve mentioned in other posts that software development as my Zen Art. Software development is on the tough side of a Zen Art. It’s magnitudes more complicated than an art like ikebana. A typical application involves tons of moving parts across many systems, meaning software development is indeed complex. It takes a while to get into the zone programming, getting all those balls in the air. But it all comes crashing down by a visit from a colleague with a, “Hey, quick question …”
Your zazen skill will strengthen your ability to get back into the zone after such interruptions.
It’s Bodhi Day Eve
Yes, today, December 7, 2019, is Bodhi Day Eve. We’re at the end of our journey through the Noble Eightfold Path.
Today is December 6, 2019 – the 6th Day of Bodhi Season 2019. Today we’ll very briefly discuss the 6th item of the Eightfold Path – Right Effort.
Since our sentience gets around this Universe in our physical bodies, as it is for any vehicle, it needs fuel and maintenance. There are physical constraints within which our bodies operate. We can’t do much about the amount of energy available to our bodies, but we can drastically improve our fuel efficiency.
Awakened Effort is about minimizing wasted energy to improve our fuel efficiency. This means whatever we may do, our efforts shouldn’t be diffused through worries about a past we cannot change, futures that haven’t happened, addictions and random thoughts screaming from our monkey brain for our attention, fear, or dancing around constraints that aren’t there.
Is energy wasted being stuck in traffic an hour each way to work? Sure, if we’re complaining about it all along the way. Traffic is what it is. For me, it takes 30 minutes and a half gallon of gas each way. Barring magic, 26th Century technology, or allowing me to work remotely, that’s what it takes to get to the office. Anything above that is wasted energy of my own doing.
We could be clever, listening to books online, carpool, or figure out how to work remotely. But there are usually trade-offs. Even if we found a perfect solution to the commute problem, other problems will come along. Eventually, there will be big problems, some with no worldly solution. Commute traffic is really a petty problem. We need something more powerful.
We could be on a path that removes the word “problems” from our vocabulary. From the Awakened View there are no problems to solve because there is only what is right there, on the path, where you stand. Awakened Effort is achieved by doing what needs doing with 100% acceptance of where you are. If you were hiking the Peekaboo Trail at Bryce Canyon, you wouldn’t think of a hill as a pain in the ass problem, but simply what it takes to get to the next view.
The traditional Zen Arts mentioned in the post on Awakened Action are intended to hone efficiency, minimize wasted action. The limitations imposed by a traditional Zen Art (for example, ikebana is a subset of all that could happen in the Universe) enables the practitioner to focus on building the skills related to the aspects of minimizing wasted energy, without worrying about the countless things that can pop up in the open world.
In the post on Awakened Action, I wrote, “All of these Zen Arts train your ability to blend into the Universe.” The Zen Art trains in us the sensitivity to execute graceful actions that blend in so well with what is going on that it looks effortless. Both Awakened Action and Awakened Effort end up minimizing wasted energy – but from two different sides of the same coin.
In the post on Awakened Livelihood, our chosen line of work is the practice that hones our ability to execute graceful Awakened Actions. As we go about our Awakened Livelihood, we’re also mindful of the efficient use of energy through Awakened Effort.
The question now: How do we shut up our primate/monkey brain, that source of much wasted energy? That is the 7th item of the Eightfold Path, Awakened Mindfulness.
Faith and Patience to You!
Reverend Dukkha Hanamoku
Posts on minimizing wasted energy, fears, and addictions:
Today is December 5, 2019, Day 5 of the Bodhi Season 2019. Today we’ll take a short look at the 5th item of the Eightfold Path, Awakened Livelihood.
This is probably the most “pragmatic” item of the Eightfold Path. We are creatures of Earth and all creatures provide some sort of value. Most creatures can’t choose their livelihood, it’s baked into them. A tiger can’t be an rabbit, just a perfect tiger.
But not for us. We humans can become whatever is needed at some given place and time. If programmers are needed we could be programmers. If farmers are needed, we could be farmers. We get to choose.
So are there good and bad livelihoods? As with all of the items of the Eightfold Path we’ve explored so far, there is a view from “normal daily life” and that of the Awakened View. For the view from normal daily life, by the norms of the society we’re in, there are obvious lines of livelihood we should avoid. But then again, I can’t think of any line of work that’s immune from criticism somehow from somewhere.
The point of Buddhism isn’t a matter of good over bad. It’s about accepting that what we experience and interpret as our lives is just ethereal phenomena emerging from a relentlessly churning Universe. All phenomena comes with a guaranteed shelf life of an instant. The Universe is a wondrous dynamo of opposing forces, multi-dimensional tapestries of Yin and Yang.
We grow fond of these ethereal phenomena and suffer as what we fell in love with churns away into something else. Therefore, through the method of the Eightfold Path we train our minds to let go of what we cling to, releasing the cause of our suffering. That’s Buddhism.
But we’re also flesh and blood creatures of Earth requiring ongoing sustenance. So we need to make a living … which means engaging in this world of suffering souls and limited physical resources. We’re caught in a seeming hell between making a living in a world where whatever we gain immediately slips through our fingers.
So Awakened Livelihood isn’t about the line of work you choose. Rather, it’s about using your work, your livelihood to hone your Awakened View. Rather than work from the view of material gain, we work to smooth out the ride.
Let’s look at one of the Zen Arts, a martial art, for an idea of how to approach Awakened Livelihood.
Tori and Uke
In judo, one form of training is kata where there is the notion of Tori and Uke. In kata, Judo athletes (judoka) pair up taking turns to practice throwing one another. The one practicing the execution of the throw is the tori. The one being thrown in the uke (oo-keh).
While it’s more fun to be the tori (the one practicing the throw) the role of the uke (the one being thrown) is of equal importance for both. The uke isn’t just a dead weight to be thrown. An assailant in a real conflict won’t be anything like mere dead weight. The skill of an uke is to challenge the tori just enough, but not so much that the tori can’t execute the throw.
It’s of great value as well if the uke senses a weakness in the tori’s skill and provides the appropriate resistance to train that gap away. Additionally, playing the uke role provides the judoka essential insight into what a tori should not do.
The best part about being an uke is that it’s a small price to pay for the immense value of someone else being a worthy uke for you when you switch roles. Take no offense at being someone’s uke in the world in general.
Rei … Hajime!
A custom in judo is to respectfully bow (rei) to our opponents before each session with each other – no matter their ranks, and whether it’s kata or a full-contact randori bout. It says to our opponent, with honor and respect, thank you for helping me to improve and I ensure you that I will do my best in return. That is Awakened Livelihood.
Improvement of yourself is very different from the goal of beating your opponent. In daily life, winning is what matters. From the Awakened View, even if you “lost”, recognize that as long as you were fully present with the spirit of improvement, you improved. In fact, for most “wins”, there often isn’t as much to learn. Therefore, the opponents again bow to each other after the bout, “winner” and “loser”.
Now, you can probably imagine bowing to someone at your corporate job, thanking them for teaching you about their “unique point of view” and receiving no bow in return. It would probably be more of a look of confusion or it’s taken as sarcasm.
Yes, the corporate world isn’t a Judo dojo. But it doesn’t matter – you are still on the path of Awakened Livelihood. That is, faithfully and patiently, you practice your work maintaining the beginner’s mind, you have 100% acceptance of what is, and you’re fully present to what is right here, right now. It is the foundation of the Eternal Fishnu’s teachings.
Whatever livelihood you choose, it must be practiced with that spirit of training your sentient mind to see from the Awakened View. Approach every day in the “dojo” of your chosen livelihood to hone your Zen. And of course, to produce valuable goods we exchange with our fellow students, since there is still that physical side of us that requires ongoing sustenance.
Today is Wednesday, December 4, 2019. Welcome to Day 4 of the 2019 Bodhi Season. Today we discuss the 4th item of the Eightfold Path – Awakened Action.
With Awakened Action, we’re now in the realm of physically irreversible phenomena. Before we take physical actions, we have a chance to first think about it, then to express an idea, plan for collaboration, or warning to other sentient beings through Awakened Speech. But once we act, there’s no going back.
Prior to the recent popularity of Mindfulness in the West, Awakened Action was probably the most familiar aspect of Buddhism to non-Buddhists. Zen practitioners practice arts such as the tea ceremony (chanoyu), flower arrangement (ikebana), Samurai swordsmanship, archery (as popularized by Eugen Herrigel), and martial arts, particularly Judo, Aikido, and Kung Fu.
All of these Zen Arts train your ability to blend into the Universe. Awakened Action isn’t so much about what we do, but how masterfully we’re able to execute our actions. However, first we do need to address actions from the daily life point of view, since that’s what is most familiar to us.
Rules of the Game
Life on Earth is a massive system of processes. We could call it a school attended by trillions of creatures, each with their unique curriculum. We could call the curriculums “systems of games”. All games have rules to play by. For the case of Life on Earth, these are the rules around DNA and proteins, which subdues the chaos so that life can evolve, adapt to changes and periodic catastrophes.
For humans, we have laws of conduct that have evolved since we first realized our Sentience created all sorts of havoc. Some of these laws are almost visceral such as not killing, some laws were invented by us as a people and require constant enforcement. These laws make it easier to focus on higher aspects of life while we’re not preoccupied with worry about issues such as being murdered, having our family units disrupted, or having things stolen from us.
From the point of view of our daily lives, of course, we shouldn’t commit actions that break laws. Buddhism is about freedom, and jail isn’t conducive to freedom. As with speech where we know lying and berating simply isn’t nice, we know that actions of stealing and assaulting/killing are wrong beyond simply being against the law.
So, although Awakened Action is something aside from following the rules of society, we can at least remember that the intent for rules and laws is to lay down some level of order. Buddhist practitioners or not, we all benefit from these ground rules. That is, as long as they are applied equally across the board and there is a fair mechanism to allow them to evolve. Of course, that’s hardly the case, but it’s a discussion for another time.
Compassionate Awakened Action
Kindness and compassion are words readily associated with the teachings of the Buddha. With the Gift of Sentience humans can pull a thorn from a lion’s paw, pick up a duckling that can’t hop from the street onto the curb, and help out a lost soul who made an honest mistake. To other creatures of Earth, anywhere along the continuum of sentience, the actions of our sentient hands can be the answer to another creature’s prayer.
Our Gift of Sentience benefits us individually, but it also benefits us as a whole. We use our Gift of Sentience on ourselves to alleviate our own pain and hunger like no other animals can. For that benefit, such acts of kindness towards other beings are a duty we have for the Gift of Sentience.
We should never perform such acts with expectation of compensation in any form. With all the complexity of Life on Earth, the numbers tell us that someday we will need such help, and we will receive help from out of nowhere. Even if we’re materially rich, we will need help in some form some day, because some forms of help are priceless.
However, acts of kindness and compassion are not in itself Awakened Action. Rather, Awakened Action isn’t so much about actions themselves, but skillfully executing actions honed through Awakened View.
Polishing of Awakened Action
Awakened Action is masterful action. It is the subtle, masterful brushstroke that makes Mona Lisa smile. Awakened Action is the application of the right amount at the right place at the right time. It’s honed through a kind of practice where it’s understood that Life on Earth is a complex system, not just a really big machine. Therefore, although we cannot prepare for every possible thing that could happen, we can effortlessly engage unforeseen problems in a dance towards harmony.
The Zen Arts I listed towards the beginning of this post polish your Awakened Action. That is, the sensitivity to a wider view of the situation and the clear mind focused on the present, contradictory as that may sound, somehow opens all possibilities. Both of these topics are respectively covered in the 7th and 8th items of the Eightfold Path as Awakened Mindfulness and Awakened Concentration.
But at this point in our journey through the Eightfold Path, training of Awakened Action is about building an intimacy with the training arena. For Zen/Buddhism, the training arena is the complex system that is Life on Earth. This training isn’t about simply memorizing countless of principles and tips and tricks. No matter how many such fragments of knowledge you may learn, it is always just the tip of the iceberg.
The intimacy we build with Life on Earth starts with the understanding that because it’s a complex system, we have no direct control over it. Rather than foolishly insisting on controlling Life on Earth, we learn to blend into it and be content with merely influencing it. Then letting go towards whatever is next to come.
So find your Zen Art. I’ve mentioned many times on this site that my Zen Art is software development. Whatever art it is, become intimate with it. Approach it with a perpetual Beginner’s Mind. Know how it works on the inside. Know that it is a miniature but full expression of the truth of the Universe.
With high level of training towards Awakened Actions, honed in the light of Awakened View, we roam the Earth without fear. We’re aware of the impermanence of Every Thing, therefore, we readily and fully accept what is right in front of us.
Our training through Awakened Action hones our Sentience. Ultimately, perfectly honed Awakened Action means our actions are effortless – Awakened Non-Action. In other words, so effortless it doesn’t feel like any action.
For Day 5, we will explore long-term patterns of action. Awakened Livelihood is where we use and further hone our Awakened Action skill to play a role, to paraphrase Shakespeare, on the World Stage.
Thereafter, we hit the home stretch of our journey through the Eightfold Path delving into the development of sensitivity to what our eyes cannot see and our ears cannot hear – Awakened Mindfulness and Concentration.
Today is Tuesday, December 3, 2019. Welcome to Day 3 of the 2019 Bodhi Season. Today we discuss the 3rd item of the Eightfold Path – Awakened Speech.
Awakened Speech kicks us into 2nd gear on this Bodhi Season 2019 journey through the Eightfold Path. It’s part of a sub-group that includes Awakened Speech, Awakened Action, and Awakened Livelihood (3rd, 4th, and 5th items of the Eightfold Path, respectively). This sub-group of the Eightfold Path begins the exploration of thoughts that originated from inside our heads and now out into the swirls of world.
The items of this sub-group are less “exotic”, easier to swallow, and easier to digest than the two “1st gear” subjects of Awakened View and Awakened Intent. However, without the prerequisite of seeing through the perspective of Awakened View, Awakened Speech devolves into just another way to say what the proverbial mothers always told us: ” If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” So please visit or re-visit the posts on Awakened View and Awakened Intent before continuing.
Compassion Versus Passivity
A seeming take-away from this post, which may seem odd to many, is that Buddhism can’t be defined simply as selflessness and compassion. For many not familiar with Buddhism, I’d say the most famous Buddhist, even more so than Siddhartha Gautama himself, is His Holiness, the Dalai Lama and his image of pure compassion. And that’s absolutely great. He is pure compassion, and a Buddha.
The problem is, at least in my observation, “compassion” sometimes seems to be confused with “passivity”. Compassion is fully understanding that other creatures share this Earth with us, all creatures must play their parts in the system of Life on Earth, we all learn from each encounter, and to be grateful those others for the lessons. Passivity is to turn the other cheek, which isn’t very rich with opportunity to learn.
Life on Earth emerges from countless, balanced interactions between all creatures, the geologic processes of Earth, the Sun, and even a few meteors shaking things up every now and then. Buddhists don’t think in terms of good and evil, but balancing systems of paradox and fixing the wobbliness of a wobbly Sentience.
So when discussing Awakened Speech, it would be easy to assume this means simply to say only nice things, never lie, never berate. But it’s not quite that simple. Blending into this wondrous system of Life on Earth is definitely about participation.
Decoupled Thought and Expression
The trade-offs for cheap, short-term wins through lying or angry expression (words and body language) aren’t worth the long-term costs. As Ringo says: Don’t engage. Take the small loss over an ugly win … or ugly loss.
We can forever destroy a relationship with others in a second with a single impulsive outburst of poorly chosen words and a poorly chosen delivery. The Gift of Sentience acts as a buffer between thoughts in the privacy of our brains and what we express out into the real world.
For most higher animals, there is a decoupling between our recognition of a situation requiring some sort of action and the action we actually take. We aren’t push-button machines – a button is pushed, information is processed, a decision is reached, and actions are carried out. A concrete analogy is someone commits a crime, a trial is held, a decision and sentence are determined, and the sentence is carried out. We don’t just throw someone in jail without first exploring the case.
Monkeys have less of the ability to ponder possible actions than humans. That’s a really good thing for monkeys since in their world, they often only have an instant to react. In fact, the less of a gap between recognition and action, the better … for them. Monkeys are impulsive, and impulsive decisions add up to a waste of Sentience.
For humans, it seems the evolutionary trade-off of the ability to think through a response before carrying it out versus the ability to react quickly worked out – we are the apex predator. But it wasn’t a complete trade-off. We still have this amygdala thing that still provides some level of knee-jerk reaction. Cougars and bears still live where we hike and aggressive drivers now place the cost of a few seconds over the safety of their fellow travelers.
Nice is Usually Right
In the system of Life on Earth, practically all creatures, plants and animals, are essentially lying and exaggerating to each other through camouflage in the game of the eternal struggle between predator and prey. Animals all hiss, roar, bark and aggressively posture at each other with the sole purpose of intimidating the other. Such expressions from animals such are deep, natural phenomenon that is suggests Awakened Speech is not as simple as following rules to not lie or exaggerate, yell at or threaten, or gossip about others.
From the point of view of one of these creatures caught in that game of Predator and Prey, it’s horrible. But it’s horrible because we happen to be sentient, thus cognizant of being part of that game since we are still animals. But from the point of view of Life on Earth, that game is fundamental to how Life on Earth survived for over three billion years. For all practical purposes, immortal.
“Oh, what a tangled web we weave … when first we practice to deceive.” – Walter Scott
“Deceive” could involve physical qualities as well as just words. Think of the camouflage of any animal. They are physical lies. Most plants and animals do it, both predator and prey.
Although telling lies about people or berating people is simply not nice, Walter Scott’s quote captures that Awakened Speech (from the Awakened View) is more than just being nice.
One of my favorite books is How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World, by Harry Browne. One of the primary lessons in his book mirrors Walter Scott’s quote. Lying is cheap, and it’s always for short-term gain. When we habitually lie, some lies will be exposed and we need to cover those lies with other lies. It may not be a single new lie covering one old lie. It may take multiple new lies to cover one old lie.
You become indentured to the lies. You’ve incurred a growing tax on your activities since you risk being exposed. Eventually, there will be no escape and your credibility is shot. Of course, there is a network of others involved who may have suffered damage through the web of lies.
Exaggeration is lying, but what’s different is that the goal is simply to be respected – to show off, like peacocks. For example, if you exaggerate about some work experience to get a job, that’s the kind of lying I’m talking about. In that situation, you definitely will step into a web of lies to cover it up or need to churn like hell to meet those expectations. For some, that latter may not be too much of a problem.
If we exaggerate our accomplishments for just increased popularity, that may be relatively harmless. However, wouldn’t it be incredible to actually become what you’re exaggerating about? Even if it’s just half of what you exaggerate about being.
The thing is, you must first free yourself from the tyranny of seeing through the lens of your primate brain and see through Awakened View. Otherwise, any effort towards becoming what you exaggerate about will be met with frustration.
This is a tough one. Sometimes violently yelling at a bear actually works. Sometimes you are unfairly the scapegoat or punching bag. Some people only respond to a scolding. Sometimes “the airing of grievances” (thanks, Seinfeld) is what’s needed.
However, those statements are through the lens of the primate brain. As the Enlightened Soul in this complex world that you wish to be, de-escalate. You may not be able to actually resolve the problem, but perhaps you can untangle everyone, freeing all of you to go off on your separate ways.
Considering Ringo’s advice earlier (“Don’t engage. Take the small lose over the ugly win.”), the highest level of understanding comes from fully digesting the 2nd Zen Story underlying the Teachings of the Eternal Fishnu, Is That So? This isn’t simply about turning the other cheek.
The story teaches to the seeker of enlightenment that we can fight whatever comes our way depleting energy and suffering through our short time on Earth. Or we can shut up our monkey brain, listen carefully to all that is going on, blend into it, and learn all we can from the unique situation – all the wiser, a further polished mind of the Buddha.
The first two items of the Eightfold Path, Awakened View and Awakened Intent, takes place in our heads – respectively, how our brains perceive the world around us and that things we cling to are leashes that exist only in our heads. Today’s item, Awakened Speech, gets out of our heads into the world.
We’re taught to turn the other cheek, not say anything if we can’t say something nice, don’t lie, don’t speak harshly. Those are excellent heuristics – general rules to go by as a default without enough information. However, life isn’t as easy as that. Capacities for aggression evolved in us for a reason. We must see clearly from an Awakened View to better know when such hopefully rare expressions are appropriate, and to measure them carefully.
Speech is soft-action. Your intentions are disclosed, nothing physical actually needs to happen. Tomorrow’s item, Awakened Action, is about ensuring your actions, which are physically irreversible, are as free from unforced errors as possible.