Sunday, July 30, 2006

Animal Sacredness, in Response to a Comment

A good friend of mine commented on my post here, and so I'm posting my answer here. Here was the comment:
Mmm. What's your feelings on people's treatment of cockroaches when they don't go with the decor? :) Where does one draw the sacredness line on life?

I decide daily which lives around me will live, die, and how, and there's nothing anyone can really say about my choices without appealing to a Greater Principle.

Which is what ACS does daily, deciding whether a puppy should die rather than live a few months as a commodity.


Ok, first off, I admit that cockroaches rarely match one's decor. :) I think there are several issues to consider here. First, I think prevention is of utmost importance. There are recommendations out there that will help you prevent insect infestation. Proper prevention can go a long way toward eliminating having to make this decision at all. However, that's not always enough. So in the cases in which you find yourself living with a few cockroach friends, here are my thoughts.

Ideally, in the case of any unwanted house guest, one would do one's best to remove the guest without causing undue injury, releasing the animal outside. Unfortunately, cockroaches generally preclude this possibility. We all share this planet; but just as we would not be welcome in a lion pride's territory, cockroaches are generally unwelcome in our homes. Therefore, I understand the need to have them exterminated. However, I don't think that when we have to resort to extermination, we are necessarily drawing the line on sacredness of life at all. I admit that it is impossible not to kill every day. Every day in my life, I squish millions of small organisms as I walk. But in no way am I intending for this to happen. As a matter of fact, if it were up to me, I would go far out of my way to avoid killing any of them.

Just the other day, I was at the beach and there was this fly who kept landing on me. But it was the strangest thing—he woudn't fly away when I waved my hand at him, like most flies. He just stood there and let me touch him. I put my finger down, and he crawled onto it. I've honestly never seen anything like it before. After a while, he left, and I continued reading my book. A few minutes later I felt a tickle and I unconsciously swatted. Immediately, I realized what I had done, and I looked down and saw my little fly friend walking toward the shade with his right wing bent unnaturally back. A wave of sorrow and regret flooded over me for my lack of mindfulness. I had lost my concentration and swatted unconsciously, and it was 100% my fault that I injured the most peaceful fly I'd ever met. As he walked toward the shade, I remembered he would let me touch him. So I reached down and gently brushed his wing back to its normal position. It went back! But he continued walking toward the shade and, when he reached it, he just sat there. I felt sooo bad, just watching this fly. If he couldn't fly, he was going to die. I, honestly, could not go back to my book. I just sat there watching this fly. After about 3 minutes, he flew off! I was so relieved! That experience taught me a lot.

Back to our cockroach issue. If your house is infested, you have no choice but to exterminate them. They won't leave of their own accord, you cannot capture and release them (there's too many!), and they can impair your health. Thus, you have no choice. But there are an infinite number of mental states that can drive your decision to exterminate them. Many people, I expect, will simply call the exterminator without a second thought, and be glad that the roaches are dead. This view, I argue, is a case in which one does not view cockroach life as sacred. Me, personally, I would make that call with a heavy heart, and would be very sad at their death. I would perform my daily meditations keeping them in mind, wishing them well in their next lives. In my view, roaches are sacred, and I would treat them as such.

My friend said:
I decide daily which lives around me will live, die, and how, and there's nothing anyone can really say about my choices without appealing to a Greater Principle.

Yes, you do make those choices. But I'm not sure what you mean when you say there's nothing anyone can say about your choices without appealing to a Greater Principle. If you are trying to say something about a judgement of the ethics, or lack thereof, surrounding your actions, then that's something too long to handle in this post, but suffice it to say that such an article is already in the works. However, if you mean something else, I'm not following.

My friend said:
Which is what ACS does daily, deciding whether a puppy should die rather than live a few months as a commodity. Right?

Actually, no, not in the manner in which I think you are speaking. ACS will never euthanize an animal that is adoptable. What this means is that they will euthanize when an animal is very ill and is not going to recover, which in my view is a compassionate act. They will also euthanize an animal if it was, for instance, trained as a fighting dog and was not responding to rehabilitation, and was thus very dangerous to be around. That's it. Therefore, I don't think that what ACS does is "deciding whether a puppy should die rather than live a few months as a commodity." I think they do their utmost to keep animals alive and happy, and will resort to euthanasia only in the most extreme circumstances.

Thanks for the thought-provoking comment!

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Frightening Encounter at the Anti-Cruelty Society

My fiance told me this story over dinner this evening.

The Anti-Cruelty Society (ACS), where she volunteers, had a dog-washing fundraiser today, at which Jen was volunteering. The ACS has an attached parking garage, and after the dog-washing event, she and several other volunteers were taking the elevator down from the upper levels to the main floor when a woman who had just parked got on. She said she was to meet her daughter there, who was hoping to adopt a dog that day. Once the woman discovered that she was surrounded by volunteers, she asked them a question: "What is your return policy?"

To their credit, the volunteers handled the situation well, explaining that if the puppy became ill, she could obtain free vet care through ACS for the first 15 or so days after adoption. They also explained that, if something was truly problematic for her daughter with her new family member, ACS prefers that she return the dog to them rather than just releasing it or giving it away to somebody else. However, they diplomatically and subtly emphasized that having to return the dog was frowned upon because it, more often than not, signified an owner who was not serious about living with a pet.

I am appalled. And, as I found out from Jen, so were the volunteers. While of course there is a chance that, even with the most careful screening and love, a dog might be destructive or dangerous and not respond to training. In these instances, bringing the dog back to ACS is understandable. However, the woman's question belies her misshapen view of animals as commodities. You return a purse or a shirt or a stereo because something's wrong with it or you end up not wanting it. You don't "return" a fellow animal. Who among you would ask your doctor just after giving birth if you could give the baby away if you didn't like it or if it was too much work?

There are highly related questions that ARE appropriate and important to ask, such as, "What do we do if the dog becomes ill shortly after adoption?" or "What if he's having a behavioral issue that I am having trouble dealing with?" These questions are good to ask before adoption, and are coming from a mental state of love for the animal because they are focused on solutions for common problems—ACS can tell you about their vet care or about training options.

What worries me further is that the treatment of non-human animals as commodities is a pretty common view—Jen told me that she had read that a statistically significant number of people have given up their pets of several years to shelters with the reason, "She doesn't match our decor anymore." (sorry, I don't have a source link for this; it's hearsay)

We need greater educational systems in place to teach people the true value of life: non-human life is no less sacred than human life. This broad statement has many subtle implications and sub-points, and I can immediately think of a number of arguments that people I know would put forth to argue this point. That's a topic for another post. For now, just give some thought to our treatment of non-humans. Generally speaking, if you wouldn't do it to your own child, then you probably shouldn't do it to your dog or cat or ferret.

Five Aggregates

The Buddha taught that five aggregates comprise our being in the here and now. What are these five? Form, Feelings, Perceptions, Formations, and Consciousness.

What is Form? Our body, our physical nature.

What is Feeling? When we experience something, we immediately judge it as a pleasurable feeling, an unpleasant feeling, or a neutral feeling. We see a beautiful person and hence experience a pleasurable feeling. We see what we deem to be an ugly person and hence experience an unpleasant feeling. We see a snake (snakes are scary!), and experience an unpleasant feeling—and it gets even more unpleasant if we're bitten!

What is Perception? The six sense bases, the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind are like doors that directly sense the external (and internal) environment. The pure recognition of the contact between an object and the sense door of the eye, ear, etc., prior to any mental sorting, judging, categorizing, or identifying, is Perception. Note that the mind is a sense door as well.

What are Formations? Thoughts, judgments, emotions, and other "mind-stuff" that arise.

What is Consciousness? The recognition of things perceived by the sense doors.

As an example, a table is in the room. If you look at the table, your eye acts as the primary sense door and allows in the light reflected from the table. From the contact between the object and your eye, you Perceive a visual image. Your Consciousness then identifies (without judgment or further thought or analysis) that the image has a texture, it has a color, it has a shape that seems very much like what it would call "wood table." Now, based on that identification of the object, Feelings might occur that make you think this is an attractive table (pleasant feeling), a replusive table (unpleasant feeling), or just your average ordinary table (neutral feeling). Note, though, that if you were shopping for a table and had been told that the table in the next room was very beautiful and ornate, but once you saw it, it was ordinary, the associated Feeling might be unpleasant rather than neutral. Now, you'll very likely have thoughts about that table, judging its value, its craftmanship, how well its color matches with your painted room, etc. These thoughts are Formations. Your body itself, and your physical eye which was the primary sense door in this example, is Form.

As another example to help explain Consciousness, which tends to be the most difficult of the aggregates to define, note that a camera can Perceive an object, as it can act as a pure sense door, but it cannot recognize the object as having a texture, a color, a temperature, and a shape that we might call "table." Consciousness allows us to identify characteristics of the Perceived objects.

1-Minute Contemplation: What do you think? Is there any more to us than that? One might say that we also have a "soul." But what can we identify as that soul? Where is that soul?

I'm very curious to hear different takes on this, since it can be somewhat disconcerting originally to hear that these 5 things are all that we are made of. The more I meditate on them, the more obvious it becomes through my own experience that the Buddha's teachings on this are true. But I would love to hear others' experiences and, if you perceive (with a small 'p') something else that comprises us, what is it, where is it, and how do you know it's there?

Friday, July 28, 2006

Emotional Lives of Non-Human Animals

In the wild, researchers were observing a herd of six giraffe when they noticed a lion stalking nearby. The lion pounced and the giraffe bolted. But one giraffe, a baby calf, was too slow. The calf's mother (the researchers had been observing this herd for quite awhile and were aware of the familial relations of the various giraffe) got behind the calf and tried to push it to run faster. Within a few strides, however, she realized this was not working, and she stopped, turned, and faced the charging lion. Lions regularly take down adult giraffe, so this was a dangerous act on the part of the mom. The lion circled the two giraffe, and the mother continued to face the lion as it circled, placing itself between the lion and calf the entire time. Any time the lion approached, the mother gave a violent kick in his direction, forcing him back to the perimeter. An hour later, the lion gave up and left, and the mom and calf rejoined the herd.

Was this an example of love? Most animal owners would answer "yes" in a heartbeat. But many scientists will say no, or say they don't know, either unwilling to allow that non-humans experience emotions or are simply not convinced based on current evidence. You might say that this reaction was the result of survival instincts in the giraffe. In that case, consider the following story.

A male red fox named Smudge had a litter of pups with Whitepaws. Male foxes typically supply food to the female and her pups after birth, but otherwise leave the female alone in a den with the pups. Smudge did this with excitement, according to researcher David Macdonald, who was studying these foxes. However, as the cubs aged a bit, Smudge enjoyed playing with them. But this wasn't always allowed by Whitepaws or Big Ears, the pups' maternal aunt who also watched over them. Oftentimes, Smudge would approach the cubs to play, but the females would chase Smudge off. So what did Smudge do? He waited in hiding until the females fell asleep. Then the researcher watched Smudge sneak a little closer to the den and give a very soft warble. Within a few moments, the pups quietly tiptoed out of the den to their dad, and they proceeded to play. Of course, at some point the pups would make enough noise to wake the females, who promptly ran over and reprimanded Smudge. But this didn't stop Smudge. He kept sneaking play time with his pups whenever he could!

I'm reading this book entitled When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals (J.M. Masson & S. McCarthy, 1995) and these are only two of about fifty such stories I've already read, and I'm only on page 73 of 236. It's a great book that demonstrates (pretty conclusively in my opinion) that other animals experience emotions—it's not just impersonal instinct.

7/29/05 Edit:
Bill, at Integral Options Cafe kindly linked here and his comment there reminded me of something I had wanted to add to this post but forgot before submitting. He mentioned the anthropomorphizing of non-human animals, and as a matter of fact, that's exactly what the authors discuss in a well-written (and fairly long) first chapter in the book. They mention the scientific suicide that can often result by attributing even the slightest emotion to non-humans, and give many examples of such, including instances where an emotional word slips into an otherwise "objective" description, and instances where a scientist attributes some emotionality and is chastised bitterly for it. The authors' purpose in this book was to cull the scientific literature and present evidence based on all those studies (there are 32 pages of Notes at the end that cite the literature from which they draw their stories) that emotions are evident in non-humans. They argue (correctly in my opinion) that the main reason for the taboo against non-human emotion is the—conscious or unconscious—placement of humans as the pinnacle of creation/evolution (rather than the species that just happened to evolve the greatest complexity, today).* So while they are quick to point out that we don't fully understand emotional responses in non-humans, and their experience of love is probably a bit different from our experience of love, they argue that there is ample evidence that they do experience emotions and there's no shame in admitting such. Keep in mind that it's not anthropomorphizing if non-humans DO experience emotion.

*I mean, at one point in time, dinosaurs were the most complex creatures on the planet and were the "pinnacle of creation/evolution." Look what happened to them, after which small mammals were given the chance to evolve, eventually resulting in us. But once we go, something else is bound to take our place. Perhaps the reptiles will have their revenge! :)

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Joseph Campbell on Myth and Religion

A quote from the late Joseph Campbell:
"Myth is other people's religion. Religion is misunderstood myth."

1-Minute Contemplation: What does this quote mean to you? Is it accurate, in your opinion? If yes, how? If no, why not? What about your closest friend or relative? What would they think of Joe's opinion?

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Sunday, July 23, 2006

Verse of the Sixth Patriarch

In the 7th century CE, the Fifth Patriarch was aging and felt it was time to bestow the Patriarchal robes to his successor. In order to find his successor, he instructed the monks at his temple to submit to him a verse describing their understanding of the Dharma. The one who conveyed a true understanding would become his successor. Late that night, the head monk at the temple knew that the other monks would not submit verses until after he had submitted one, so he wrote the following verse on the central section of the south corridor in the temple:
The body is the Bodhi tree,
The mind is like a clear mirror.
At all times we must strive to polish it,
And must not let the dust collect.

The Fifth Patriarch read this verse the next morning, and after having learned that the head monk wrote the verse, said to him, "This verse you wrote shows that you still have not reached true understanding. You have merely arrived at the front of the gate, but have yet to be able to enter it. If common people practice according to your verse they will not fall. But in seeking the ultimate enlightenment, one will not succeed with such an understanding." He then instructed the monk to meditate for several days and write another verse. If the monk's new verse showed that he had seen his own original nature, he would earn the Robes. The monk was unable to write another verse.

Several days later, the illiterate cook Hui-neng, who had been working at the temple for eight months, noticed the verse on the wall, and asked an acolyte to read it to him. After hearing the head monk's verse, Hui-neng recognized that the author of that verse had yet to know his true nature, and had the acolyte write the following verse on the same wall:
Bodhi originally has no tree,
The mirror also has no stand.
Buddha nature is always clean and pure;
Where is there room for dust?

After reading this new verse, the Fifth Patriarch expounded the Diamond Sutra to Hui-neng who was immediately awakened, and bestowed the Patriarchal Robes upon him. (Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, trans. by P.B. Yampolsky)

While the head monk's verse does not display a true understanding of his nature, the practice he expounds is the base of all our training.

Ethics. Concentration. Wisdom. Build a strong base; polish your mind. And know that Bodhi originally has no tree.

Ringing of the Bards 5

Ringing of the Bards #5 is posted now! Go check out Cecilia's wonderful presentation of some great poetry.

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Saturday, July 22, 2006

Spiritual Seeking and Buddhism

"There are some cases in which a person overcome with pain, his mind exhausted, grieves, mourns, laments, beats his breast, & becomes bewildered. Or one overcome with pain, his mind exhausted, comes to search outside, 'Who knows a way or two to stop this pain?' I tell you, monks, that stress results either in bewilderment or in search." (AN VI.63)

This is the classic cause for spiritual search. Many people go through their lives not caring about spiritual pursuits ... until something very painful happens to them. As the Buddha noted here, one of two things tends to happen at this point: either the person begins searching spiritually, or he becomes confused and has trouble handling the situation, often resorting to repression and other such coping mechanisms. But what can come of the spiritual search? One can find solace looking outside oneself, as in devoting oneself to a god, or one can see that one need only take refuge in oneself. In the Dhammapada (160), the Buddha said:
Your own self is
your own mainstay,
for who else could your mainstay be?
With you yourself well-trained
you obtain the mainstay
hard to obtain.

But how can we be sure of this? When we observe closely our body, our feelings, our perceptions, our mental formations, and our consciousness, we see that (Dhp 165):
Evil is done by oneself,
by oneself is one defiled.
Evil is left undone by oneself,
by oneself is one cleansed.
Purity & impurity are one's own doing.
No one purifies another.
No other purifies one.

Initially, we may need to have faith that the practice will reap such rewards. However, faith is only the catalyst. Soon, with true effort, one will experience for oneself the self-evidence of these two verses by the Buddha. One will know for oneself that they are true, thus faith is dropped in favor of knowing. This knowing is the basis of the path of Buddhism.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Response to Bible Battles Essay

A good friend of mine just started up a blog (the Pastor friend I've referred to in past posts here), and here he posted an interesting essay on a History Channel show called Bible Battles. In this show, they have military historians examine some of the battles in the Old Testament from a strategic and tactical perspective—it's quite neat! However, also in the show, one of the historians started pontificating on theological themes, which is the part of the show Jon commented upon.

For the most part, I agree with Jon's analysis. The historian was an expert in military history, and his contributions to the show on this topic were very good. However, he really was out of his element in commenting so briefly upon theological matters. The problem, honestly, was less that he decided to comment on his religious views and more that he did not preface them with something like, "I cannot conceive of a God who..." or "In my view, such a God..." Instead, he stated it as, "A God such as this could only..."

From Jon's essay: "A merciless attack on a series of cities would convince others of the need to move to a different area."
I agree with this as well. In this story, if God's desire was to drive out the Caananites, a "shock and awe" strategy would be effective and less bloody, in the long run.

"These kinds of land displacements were common in the Ancient Near East."

And yes, this was a pretty violent time in history. Tribes frequently attacked other tribes for territorial expansion, with their local tribal god leading the way. The Israelites were no different.

However, here is where I part ways with his analysis.
"Their noxious religious behavior (including ritual prostitution and child sacrifice) cried out to the Creator for judgment."

Ok, their actions are pretty sick by today's standards. However, I can't agree that it cries out to the Creator for judgment. For the sake of argument, I'll assume for the moment that a creator god exists. If that's the case, that god created us and gave us free will in how to live. Therefore, to rain down judgment by killing the Caananites via the Israelites violates this gift of free will. Regardless of this (admittedly non-rigorous) argument based on logic, I have a bigger issue with this judgment. While I don't condone child sacrifice, "wholesale slaughter of every man, woman, child, and animal," which is what was instructed of the Israelites by God, disgusts me.
"There are situations that cultures become so repugnant in their morality that the only just thing for them to face is destruction. Clearly, the Nazi party needed to be destroyed for their behavior, not just reformed."

No. Clearly, we should not be exterminating entire cultures. Clearly, the minimal number of leaders of the Nazi party needed to be (ideally) captured, or (much less ideally) killed, in order to stop their horrific crimes. It is our right to defend ourselves with the minimal amount of force necessary in order to save our lives. However, I feel it is a major ethical violation (call it a sin) to go any further than is necessary. Therefore, once the Nazi party was stopped, remaining Nazis deserved imprisonment. Any more violent retribution than was strictly necessary would be a result of succumbing to anger, which is our greatest enemy.

As taught in the Kodhana Sutta:
When anger does possess a man;
He looks ugly; he lies in pain;
What benefit he may come by
He misconstrues as a mischance;
He loses property (through fines)
Because he has been working harm
Through acts of body and speech
By angry passion overwhelmed;
And anger fathers misery:
This fury does so cloud the mind
Of man that he cannot discern
This fearful inner danger.
An angry man no meaning knows,
No angry man sees the (Truth),
So wrapped in darkness, as if blind,
Is he whom anger dogs.

Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Jon!

Replicators: "Bless you" as an Example of a Meme

In the United States (at least), when somebody sneezes, it is very common to hear another person say, "Bless you." Even strangers frequently will respond to a sneeze with, "Bless you." Originally, a sneeze was thought to make one vulnerable to evil spirits. Therefore, people would say, "Bless you" in order to counteract that. But how is this a meme (a replicator of culture)?

There had to be a first instance of "Bless you." When that occurred, other people heard it said, and perhaps questioned why it was said. For whatever reason, they were convinced that it was a good idea to continue saying it when people sneezed. And that habit has continued to this day, even though the meaning now has mostly been lost—people basically do it out of courtesy and habit. Regardless, is this a meme? Let's look at the primary characteristics of a replicator:
  • Copying Fidelity: Clearly the behavior of saying, "Bless you" has been copied by people through generations, unchanged in essence.

  • Selection: Other things may have been said or done after a sneeze, but those behaviors, if they existed, have not carried down to us. However, the saying of "Bless you" has been selected as a behavior to be imitated.

  • Variation: The behavior has continued unchanged in essence through generations, but small variations have occurred. For instance, this behavior likely started as, "God bless you," from which has evolved the shorter variation, "Bless you." Also, "gesundheit" is a very common variation as well, which is German for "health." Technically, gesundheit might not be considered a variation, given that it conveys the same concept as "Bless you," just in another language. But the fact that native English speakers, who know no German, use "gesundheit" in place of "Bless you" indicates that it has been adopted (imitated) for the same purpose. Hence, I think we can classify it as a variation.

Additionally, as this behavior is still prevalent today, one would assume that it would exhibit the characteristics of a successful replicator:
  • Fidelity: As I noted above, the essence of the behavior has carried down nearly unchanged, which means that this behavior's copying fidelity is quite high.

  • Fecundity: This behavior can replicate quite quickly. One might be exposed to the behavior every time a person nearby sneezes or, more strongly, every time one sneezes. Even if one did not learn such behavior when young, one can easily imitate it through frequent exposure throughout life.

  • Longevity: This behavior is simple to perform and is courteous; thus, there will be little aversion to performing it. Hence it has an innate leaning toward longevity.

Therefore, it seems that the behavior of saying "Bless you" can be modelled as a replicator that is passed from person to person through imitation. Therefore, it can be classified as a meme.

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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

An Example of a Replicator: Meme

In my previous post in my study of Darwinism, I discussed Replicators. We know genes as the primary replicator, but in reality, genes are only a special case of replicators. If we were to discover aliens, their lifeforms would most certainly be based on a replicator, although not likely the gene as we know it. The gene evolved from earlier replicators, and there's nothing special about the gene—the early replicators could have evolved differently, resulting in a replicator different from the gene as we know it. Therefore, it is actually quite improbable that the alien civilization we discover would be based on the exact same replicator that Earth-life is.

Replicators are not limited to the biological world. In 1976, Richard Dawkins coined the term "meme" to represent a theoretical replicator of culture. In the primeval soup of chemicals in the early days of the Earth, infused with energy from lightning and the sun, the situation was ripe for molecules to form and, over time, at least one of which was likely to exhibit self-replicating properties. In terms of life, once consciousness evolved, that provided fertile ground for a new replicator to emerge, the meme.

Instead of discussing memes in complete detail (this isn't a book :) ), I'm going to give several examples over the next few posts and rely on them to explain the essence of memetic thought. There is one important thing to note, however. The gene is a physical molecule with a specific topology—it exists in the world. The meme, in contrast, does not exist. It is simply a model that explains quite well how culture has changed through time. Nobody thinks that we can look inside our brains and find this molecule called a meme. Rather, it is simply a wonderful tool of analysis and planning that is worthy of study, not only for deepening your understanding of replicators and the process of natural selection, but also for understanding of the culture in which we live.

Stay tuned on Wednesday for the first example!

Monday, July 17, 2006

Self Protection

Those who engage in bodily misconduct, verbal misconduct, & mental misconduct leave themselves unprotected. Even though a squadron of elephant troops might protect them, a squadron of cavalry troops, a squadron of chariot troops, a squadron of infantry troops might protect them, still they leave themselves unprotected. Why is that? Because that's an external protection, not an internal one. Therefore they leave themselves unprotected. But those who engage in good bodily conduct, good verbal conduct, & good mental conduct have themselves protected. Even though neither a squadron of elephant troops, a squadron of cavalry troops, a squadron of chariot troops, nor a squadron of infantry troops might protect them, still they have themselves protected. Why is that? Because that's an internal protection, not an external one. Therefore they have themselves protected. (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, "Atta-rakkhita Sutta", 18 June 2006).

I'm sure I've mentioned this before, and I always come back to it for the structure it provides: The Buddha taught that our practice consists of Three Trainings,
  • Ethics
  • Concentration
  • Wisdom
The Three Trainings intertwine and are practiced concurrently. But in this sutra, the Buddha is emphasizing the karmic aspects of ethical conduct. Practicing good bodily, verbal, and mental conduct provides the ultimate, complete protection because all thoughts, actions, and speech have an effect on both you and on the world—without fail. And you have no choice but to experience its effect. It's like billiards. If you strike the 9-ball with the cue ball straight in the center, having applied no english (spin) to the cue ball, the 9-ball will roll straight away from you. If you strike the 9-ball at a 45o angle, the 9-ball will move away at a perfectly determined angle. Now, because of the interaction of all your acts, thoughts, and speech, both current and past, the effect of any one action is not as deterministic as in billiards. But the analogy still holds. Without "foul play," there is no possible way to hit the 9-ball with sufficient force to cause it to move, and have it stand still. In the same way, all of your actions—note that this includes your thoughts!—will have an effect. So the only true way to protect yourself from negative effects is to engage in good bodily conduct, good verbal conduct, and good mental conduct.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Worldy Happiness and Your Practice

In the Culatanhasankhaya Sutta, The Shorter Discourse on the Destruction of Craving, it is said that Sakka, the ruler of the gods, visited the Buddha and asked him how to eliminate craving. The Buddha gave him a teaching, after which Sakka bowed to the Buddha, thanked him, and returned to his heavenly abode where he lived in ultimate happiness. The monk Maha Moggallana was nearby when this happened, and he questioned whether Sakka truly grasped the Buddha's teaching. So he travelled to Sakka's heavenly realm where he asked him if he recollected having spoken with the Buddha. "Yes," Sakka replied. He then asked him to relate the Buddha's teaching to him, so that he may learn too. Sakka replied, "What was well heard, well learned, well attended to, well remembered, suddenly vanished from us," and asked Maha Moggallana if he wished to see his (Sakka's) palace.

While at the palace, Maha Moggallana realized that he would have to instill in Sakka a sense of urgency to allow him to remember the Buddha's teaching. So he transformed the base of the palace to water, causing the entire palace to quake to and fro. Sakka applauded his power, and was shaken. And this time, he was able to relate the Buddha's teaching, after which Maha Moggallana returned to his realm. (Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, Bhikkhus Bodhi and Nanamoli, 2001)

The lessons we learn, that seem so clear and worthwhile when we are lightly troubled, can vanish in an instant when things are going well in our world. Suddenly, the urgency of the spiritual pursuit is put aside for worldly goals and events. If we are not vigilant, we can lose our way in the "good life."

1-Minute Contemplation: Think back to the last time things were going well (hopefully this is recent!), when you were very happy. Did your practice, be it meditation, prayer, chanting, or writing, wane? When the happiness faded, as it always will, did you find yourself asking, "Where did my practice go?" Or "Why is my practice suddenly so hard?" Or were you able to remain vigilant and practice diligently even in the face of such worldly happiness? Which response would you rather have?

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Darwinian Study: Replicators (part 2)

(Part 2)

Also, remember that a replicator only has to develop once during this time. Once it forms, it will begin replicating. The first replicator will become two. Each of those two will become two. Each of those four will become two. Each of those eight will become two. Each of those sixteen will become two. And so on.

This exponential growth rate will result in a lot of resultant replicators over a short period of time. If it takes 1 month for a single replicator to replicate (which is a long replication time for a single molecule), after 1 year, 4,096 replicators will be floating around. After 2 years, there will be over 16 million replicators! And we've had several hundred million years for all this to occur.

The evolution of these replicators into what we see today in our genes is a topic for another study.

Successful replicators exhibit three properties:

1. Copying Fidelity

If a replicator copied itself and regularly made errors, it would soon create a copy that was incapable of replication, thus potentially ending the line of replicators. This is particularly true in the early life of a replicator, when it is a more simple molecule. There, any change could be fatal. Once a replicator has evolved to the point of our complex DNA molecules, errors in replication may have little to no effect (we have many strands of DNA that appear to contain unusued information, so changes in these strands might have no effect). However, regardless, modern DNA exhibits tremendous fidelity, as must all replicators.

2. Fecundity, or Rate of Replication

The faster a replicator can replicate, the more quickly it can spread. Additionally, the sooner it replicates, the greater chance it has to replicate before it dies or is killed. Therefore, fecundity operates in two dimensions to increase the number of replicators in the world.

3. Longevity

The longer a replicator is capable of surviving, the greater the number of times it can replicate. Additionally, increased longevity improves the chance it has to replicate. For example, the longer you live, the greater chance you have to pass on your genes to offspring.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Darwinian Study: Replicators (part 1)

This is the first in a series of studies I'm doing on Darwinian ideas and principles. I'm doing these studies to improve my own understanding of Darwinism, and hopefully you'll learn something too. :) Now, on to the first topic, Replicators.

What is a replicator? A replicator is anything that is capable of self-replication, a.k.a. making a copy of itself. Why is this important? Because replicators are means by which life can form. Our genes are replicators. Now, there are a number of theories that speculate where and how replicators formed, but one of the most recognizable is the "primeval soup" theory (I will examine others in future studies).

In the early days of our planet, chemicals were in abundance. According to Richard Dawkins (Selfish Gene, 1989), some of the possibilities include such simple and frequently-observed molecules as water (H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and ammonia (NH3). Simple molecules such as these were capable of forming based on simple proximity and attraction. For instance, carbon easily attracts, and is joined with, pairs of oxygen molecules to form carbon dioxide. None of these molecules is capable of reproducing itself, hence these are not replicators. More complicated molecules, however, such as amino acid chains, the units that comprise proteins (i.e. alanine C3H7NO2), generally require extra energy to form. Lucky for us, the early Earth had energy in abundance in the form of sunlight.

Experiments have been performed (Dawkins, p. 14) in which chemists placed simple molecules like I mentioned above into an isolated test tube, and subjected the tube to energy in the form of ultraviolet light or sparks of electricity (i.e. lightning), to model the early environment of the earth. After a surprisingly short period of time, they noticed that much more complex molecules had formed in the test tube—including amino acids! Therefore, we have evidence that, in the presence of abundant energy, chemicals bond to form complex molecular structures, such as those that we see around us today. What about replicators, however? What are the chances that a molecule with self-replicating properties could form? The chances are pretty small—most molecules don't exhibit this property. However, we have to remember that we are talking about vast, vast stretches of time. Over the hundreds of millions of years about which we are speaking, even exceedingly improbable events will occur several times. To better comprehend the immensity of time that a replicator had to develop, here's an analogy. Assuming an average life span of 70 years, 1.4 million generations of humans would live for each 100 million years. Over a billion years, 14 million human generations would have lived. In contrast, since Jesus walked the Earth, only 29 human generations have come and gone. Combine all this with the fact that hundreds of millions of chemical reactions naturally occur every day on our planet, and it suddenly doesn't seem all that improbable that a replicator could develop.

Stay tuned for part 2 tomorrow!

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Our True Father

I think we too often take for granted our true father—Sol, the sun. Back before life on our tiny speck of a planet began, chemicals were in abundance, but they required energy to bond in complex ways. Where did this energy come from? That great nuclear reactor in the sky, the sun.

So today, take just a moment to look up at the sun (don't stare directly at it in all its blinding glory!). Feel its warmth on your skin. And make a small bow, in respect, for providing the energy that first brought life to our little sphere.

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Friday, July 07, 2006

Marriage Bans

I normally try to avoid political topics on my blog, but this is something I feel so strongly about, it deserves mentioning. I personally feel that New York, Georgia, and all the other states that have banned gay marriage, have degraded humanity by their decision.

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Thursday, July 06, 2006

Lying - Its Effect on Virtue

From the Lokavagga Worlds section of the Dhammapada:
The person who tells a lie,
who transgresses in this one thing,
transcending concern for the world beyond:
there's no evil
he might not do.

When I first read this, I thought, "That seems pretty extreme." It's only a lie, right? What's the big deal? But when I reflected on it a little longer, I noticed that being truly virtuous takes not only discernment to know what is a virtuous action and what isn't, but also great determination and resolve. Many times, I may not know the right thing to do, but as long as I make the best choice possible at that time, and pursue it with resolve, I can't really regret it. But if I know what is right, and I don't have resolve, I can easily rationalize my behavior and do what is not right. Therefore, if I can't even keep myself from lying when I know it's not right, then how will I fare when it comes to something with greater perceived "benefit" to myself?

I went back into my recent past to recall times when I had lied and, reflecting on those times, it was almost as though allowing myself to lie loosened my mental state, making other nonvirtuous actions more likely, even days later. I would find my mind giving me rational arguments for things that required extra effort on my part to refute. I also reflected on times in which I stood firm and did not allow myself to lie, even if it would have made things easier. And amazingly, that had an equivalent effect over the subsequent days—being virtuous came more "naturally," with less effort.

Has anyone else noticed anything like this? Either similar or oppposite to my experiences?

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Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Is Your Chosen Path Fruitful?

In the Silabbata Sutta, the Buddha asked his disciple Ananda whether every holy life is fruitful. Ananda responded (which was ultimately praised by the Buddha) that if one's holy life of precept and practice results in one's unskillful mental qualities increasing and one's skillful mental qualities declining, that practice, that holy life, is unfruitful. He continued that a practice in which one's skillful mental qualities increase and unskillful mental qualities decrease, that is a fruitful path.

What did Ananda mean by skillful and unskillful mental qualities? Well, the Abhidhamma, a compendium of Buddhist psychology, goes into complete detail. But, honestly, you can use your common sense and get it mostly right. A few examples of unwholesome qualities: shamelessness and fearlessness of wrongdoing, greed, hatred, conceit, sloth, worry, etc. A few examples of skillful, or wholesome, qualities: faith, mindfulness, compassion, love, appreciative joy, etc.

1-Minute Contemplation: Take a moment to reflect on your chosen path. Does your path have a name like Buddhism, Christianity, or Wicca? If not, no matter, it does not need one. Do your spiritual practices, be they prayer, meditation, writing poetry, communing with nature, or communing with a pantheon of gods & goddesses, result in an increase in skillful mental qualities and a decrease in unskillful ones?

If your practices are fulfilling the criteria described by Ananda, then you are on a fruitful path. If not, then perhaps you should re-examine your path. If you are Christian, but find that your practices are not improving your skillful qualities, that is not reflective of Christianity (as others have greatly benefited from that tradition), but rather is reflective of the fact that Christianity just may not fit your mental disposition. Just as diversity in species is required for the Earth's ecosystem to survive, diversity in religion is required for the many dispositions and personal experiences of people in the world.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Story of a Wise Samurai

A samurai warrior once was charged with avenging a noble's death at the hands of a rival warlord. He trained for four years, studied the warlord's habits, and planned his attack. When the day came, he stealthily approached the warlord when he was alone, and cornered him. The samurai held his katana aloft, poised to strike the final blow, when the warlord, utterly defeated, spit in the face of the samurai. The samurai sheathed his sword and walked away, rather than kill the warlord out of anger.

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Saturday, July 01, 2006

Ringing of the Bards #2

The 2nd Ringing of the Bards has been posted!

Please check it out and enjoy some wonderful poetry. Thanks Katy for all your hard work.

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One True Sin

I believe there is one sin in the world, and it's one that most of us succumb to almost constantly. So it's obviously not killing or stealing or evil speech, acts listed in the Ten Commandments and the Five Precepts that are deemed wrong or unhealthy. See, these acts are bad, but none of them would be committed if it were not for the one sin about which I'm speaking: a lack of mindfulness.

To be present in the here-and-now, to be aware with penetrating insight into that which is occurring now inside you, this is mindfulness. The past is over, and the future is yet to come, so what use is there to dwell on them? Realize that I am not knocking reflection on the past and planning for the future. Mindfulness is when you decide it's time to plan, you plan; when it is time to reflect on past actions, you reflect on past actions; when it is time to reminisce, you reminisce. When you do not wish to engage in those activities, then you do not.

I made the claim that none of those heinous acts (murder, stealing, etc.) would be committed when one is mindful. But can't one mindfully steal something? Actually, aren't the best thieves mindful because they're so aware of what's going on around them, and thus avoid getting caught? No, and here's why. True mindfulness does not refer to being mindful of the external environment (like the thief), although this, too, is present when mindfulness is present. Rather, mindfulness is being fully aware of that which is going on within you. See, when one is mindful, one will not engage in murder because the emotions that fuel murder (anger, jealousy, et al) will be noticed by mindfulness and thus will be analyzed and defused. Same with our master thief—if he were mindful, he would notice that greed is fueling his thievery and would not engage in such activity. Gossip? Rooted in attachment to our ego in most cases, or anger/vindictiveness in others. Hence mindfulness would prevent us from gossiping.

The best teaching on mindfulness that I have seen is Sayadaw U Pandita's book, The State of Mind Called Beautiful. He also has an online teaching entitled In This Very Life. Mindfulness meditation instructions are listed in the first chapter of In This Very Life. They reflect, in lesser detail, what he teaches in the book. There is also a section under Chapter 4 of In This Very Life entitled "Mindfulness" that is a good read.