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Month: May 2021

Tibetan Buddhism Says: It’s All In The Mind

Tibetan Buddhism Says: It’s All In The Mind

It comes up infrequently on this blog, but I am broadly interested in spiritual perspectives and metaphysics, and have a modest collection of books on religion and spiritualism which has fed my knowledge over the years. Of all the spiritual traditions I’ve read about, the one that resonates the most with me is Tibetan Buddhism. Buddhist philosophy in general is scientific, in that it is based on contemplative study, and is non-dogmatic. Tibetan Buddhism also happens to be the system that most closely aligns with the “science within consciousness” theories of my favorite philosopher, Amit Goswami.

So I was delighted when my partner showed up at home one day with a copy of “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying,” which she had found at a thrift store. She’s always shopping at thrift stores and when she saw this book thought – correctly – that I would be interested in it. It was written by Sogyal Rinpoche, a Tibetan spiritual master who lived in exile in the West until his death in 2019. It’s essentially a layperson’s guide to The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which is an esoteric work that is difficult to understand (I know, I have a copy).

Here’s my review of the book on goodreads:

If you’ve ever tried to read “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” you know that it’s much too esoteric a work for the layperson. “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” makes the same teachings more accessible to the ordinary Western reader. The author is a Tibetan spiritual master who was living in exile in the West, and in his writing he adds a personal touch connecting the book to his autobiography and his experience as a spirtual practioner. At the heart of the Tibetan Buddhist teachings is recognition of impermanence and the need to prepare for death. This life is a transitionary stage only, a precious opportuntity to realize the true nature of reality, by encountering the true nature of the mind, the pure state of awareness called Rigpa. As the book puts it, “The View is the comprehension of the naked awareness, within which everything is contained.” (p. 156). This ties into the idea of primacy of consciousness, or monistic idealism, the metaphysical principle behind Tibetan Buddhist philosophy. The book goes into details of how to practice meditation and spiritual devotion, with emphasis on the power of compassion, but also the importance of finding a spiritual master. The book then goes into ways to help the dying. Western society does not connect death to spiritual growth, choosing instead to isolate the dying and prolong their suffering, which is a terrible approach (there is recognition in the book of how the hospice movement is changing this). There is also a detailed description, from the perspective of Tibetan Buddhism, of the process of dying, and of the experiences of the “bardos,” or transitionary states between death and rebirth. This is where the book ties into the more difficult to understand wisdom of the “Tibetan Book of the Dead”, which is poetic and ritualistic in format. This book explains the Tibetan beliefs and ritual practices in ordinary language. How much of it would be applicable to a Westerner in their life is another question, but certainly the overall philosophy and understanding of the meaning of life and death is valuable. The sincere and hopeful intention of the author, who was expelled from his suffering country at a young age, is heartwarming. This is a recommended work for anyone trying to decipher the “Tibetan Book of the Dead,” as well as for anyone looking for an insightful spiritual perspective on the nature and meaning of death.

Review of “The Tibetan Book of LIving and Dying” on goodreads.com.

What the Tibetan Book of the Dead is essentially doing is providing guidance on how to prepare for death, and on what to expect in the experience of dying. Part of this preparation is meditation, in order to train the mind to be still, to not grasp at thoughts and be troubled by turbulent emotion, so that you can experience awareness in its primal state. In that way, you will be prepared at death for encountering higher dimensions of the mind, and potentially becoming liberated. Buddhism focuses on the mind, because, as this post’s title suggests, the mind is the universal basis of experience, and all life and death occur within it.

Ideally you should be conscious and in a meditative state at the moment of death. If death is sudden and violent, or if you are in a troubled mental state while dying, these encounters with higher dimensions will pass by in a blip, and you will simply be propelled into a new incarnation. But if you are prepared, you will recognize these encounters, as described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

First, at the moment of death, you will encounter the Ground Luminosity, which is described by Sogyal Rinpoche as a self-originating clear light. It is the fundamenal inherent nature of everything, which underlies all existence. It might even make sense to call it “the Supreme Being” – that is, that which is and beyond which nothing else is. You can see what I am getting at here. Should you recognize this Supreme Being and become One with it, then your karmic journey is complete. You’re done with it.

If not, you will next encounter what The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying calls the Intrinsic Radiance, which is like the mind in its purest state. You’re basically in a dream realm now. Within this radiance, the Peaceful and Wrathful Gods manifest, of which there are a large number, and which are all named and correspond to different aspects of the psyche. You might think of them as like Angels and Demons. You actually have a chance of remaining in this realm as an enlightened, disembodied being, but if not – off you go to your next birth.

I make the comparisons to similar concepts in Christian theology because I believe that all religious traditions derive from the same fundamental truths about the nature of reality. That’s why they end up with similarities in their models. Sogyal Rinpoche recognizes this too, and makes an explicit comparison between Buddhism and Christianity, when discussing the different mental realms in Buddhist philosophy.

These realms are the kayas, a word which literally means “body” but which signifies a dimension or field, according to Sogyal Rinpoche. They are the realm of the absolute, the realm of fullness without limitation, and the realm of the finite and relative. The experience at death is like a sudden ascent to the highest realm, followed by a descent into the realm of finitude, and incarnation.

This trinity of realms has a correspondence with concepts in Christianity, as follows.

Dimension of the mindTibetan BuddhismChristianity
dimension of unconditioned truthDharmakayaFather
dimension of fullness, beyond duality, space and timeSambhogakayaHoly Ghost
dimension of ceaseless manifestationNirmanakayaSon (Christ)

Now to the parallels between what Sogyal Rinpoche writes and Amit Goswami’s science within consciousness. I hinted at them in the review with this statement:

As the book puts it, “The View is the comprehension of the naked awareness, within which everything is contained.” (p. 156). This ties into the idea of primacy of consciousness, or monistic idealism, the metaphysical principle behind Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.

What Goswami argues in his theories is that consciousness is the ground of being. Consciousness does not emerge from material interactions, as materialists would have you believe, but rather contains the material universe as a manifestation within it. As the Beatles put it, “it’s all within yourself.” This is similar to the Buddhist idea that all experience is within the mind.

Goswami’s argument for the primacy of consciousness is based on the measurement problem in quantum physics. The particle is not there unless it is observed, but if awareness were an epiphenomenon of material (i.e. particle) interactions, then how could observation manifest the particle? Awareness must be fundamental and the particles themselves the emergent phenomena.

In Goswami’s model, the ground of being is what he calls unitive consciousness – undifferentiated and universal. In the words of Erwin Schrödinger, “Consciousness is a singular of which the plural is unknown”. This unitive consciousness is like the Ground Luminosity, or the realm of Dharmakaya.

Consciousness must be unitive to avoid the “Wigner’s friend” paradox from quantum mechanics: how can two different observers collapse the same wave function? What if each observer collapsed it from its probabilistic wave form state into a different particle state? The Universe would be a mess!

Well, the answer is that there are not really two different observers. There is one field of awareness and one consciousness which chooses and manifests reality. The apparent separation of consciousness occurs because in the moment of observation, consciousness identifies with the measurement apparatus itself – that is, with the organism whose sensory systems are entangled in material reality. This creates a subject-object split – a subjective experience of an objective reality.

But really, both subject and object are aspects of the one field of consciousness, of the Absolute. The individuated self is a mirage. Everything, the experiencing self and all the objects it experiences, are encompassed in this one highest realm. As the Beatles put it, “life flows on within you and without you.” This is in concordance with the ideas of Tibetan Buddhism and other mystical traditions.

When unitive consciousness collapses the quantum wave function and manifests reality, there is at first an experience in “primary awareness.” This is akin to the experiences in the higher mental dimensions as described in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, and it is possible to directly access this experience though disciplined meditative practice. But ordinarily we experience reality in the “secondary awareness” of the ego, which gives us the familiar subjective sense of self and identity.

Goswami posits that, in addition to the material body which humans possess, we also possess subtle bodies whose forms determine our vital experiences and mental experiences – that is, our feelings and thoughts. The connection between our subtle bodies and our physical bodies is maintained through the entangled manifestation within consciousness. In the words of William Blake:

“Man has no Body distinct from his soul; for that called Body is a portion of a Soul discerned by the five senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.”

– William Blake, from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

The physical and subtle bodies via which we experience reality are thus what we would call “Body and Soul,” and exist within the Sogyal Rinpoche’s dimension of Nirmanakaya, the realm of manifestation. But because our awareness emerges from a higher order, we are able to get a glimpse of higher realms. It is just difficult and not likely, especially if we allow ourselves to be distracted by all the goings on down here on Earth. That is precisely the point of mystical wisdom such as that of The Tibetan Book of the Dead: to teach us about this potential and remind us of its importance, given that our time in the world of manifestation must inevitably come to an end.

Sogyal Rinpoche doesn’t know about Goswami (The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying came out well before Goswami’s publications), but he does bring up one physicist whose theories connect to Tibetan Buddhism. That physicist is David Bohm, whose ontology of an implicate order and an explicate order to explain the mysteries of quantum physics can be likened to the different realms of mental experience which Sogyal Rinpoche describes. This correspondence is given in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, and I’ll just add to it here, from Goswami’s model.

RealmDavid BohmAmit Goswami
Dharmakayasuperimplicate orderThe bliss body of unitive consciousness
Samboghakayaimplicate, enfolded orderThe formless body in the archetypal realm
Nirmanakayaexplicate, unfolded orderThe limited body of experience in the realm of manifestation

I hope this introduction to spiritual science has been illuminating. It’s a subject which has intrigued me for a long time, though I tend to study it more from an intellectual perspective than as spiritual practitioner. I know I should meditate more, but the world of manifestation is always beguiling me with its fascinating goings on.

Here is the wisdom of the Beatles to close off this post. May you see beyond yourself and find peace of mind!

Ruling the Waves Reviewed, Part III

Ruling the Waves Reviewed, Part III

This is the last of three posts where I review the book Ruling the Waves, by Debora L. Spar. This actually took me nearly two years to do, which is not my usual pattern at all, but this was as much a research project as a good read.

The goal of the project was to relate the thesis of the book – that ground-breaking technology goes through four phases of development before becoming commonplace – to the cycles of four turnings in Strauss & Howe generational theory. In generational theory, alternating patterns of generational archetypes lead to a pattern of social eras with first decreasing, then increasing degrees of social order. And since Spar’s work describes a pattern of an unregulated market transforming into a well-regulated one, there might be some correlation.

Spar breaks her narrative up into the stories of different specific technological waves: the compass/age of navigation, the telegraph, radio, satellite/digital television, cryptography for the masses, PC operating systems, and finally digital music. What I found and related in the first post of this series is that the story of the telegraph actually lined up pretty well with the turnings of the Civil War saeculum. In the second post I related that the next waves – radio and television – had happened on more compressed timelines, and so didn’t line up with the roughly 80 year period of a saeculum. Instead, they sometimes fit entirely within one decade! Part of this reflects, I speculated, a greater sophistication on the part of corporations and government entities in responding to technological change.

Finally, looking at the personal computing/Internet related waves, we see similarly that they occur within a tighter timeframe. But here we must also face the fact that Spar’s book was published in 2001, and the whole issue of how these technologies would be regulated wasn’t necessarily fully resolved yet – in other words, the pattern isn’t complete. This is where Spar is using her thesis to provide guidance about what might be coming in the future (from a 2001 perspective).

What I will note about the last three technology waves is that the Boomer generation is predominant in their stories, in both the initial invention phase, and the subsequent entrepreneurship phase. Let’s start by looking at encryption. The inventors of public-private key encryption were all Boomers: Whitfield Diffie (b. 1944), Martin Hellman (b. 1945) and Ralph Merkle (b. 1952). So were the inventors of the RSA algorithm: Ron Rivest (b. 1947), Adi Shamir (b. 1952) and Len Adleman (b. 1945). And the guy who put these together to give us the popular PGP software used by the masses on the Internet is also a Boomer: Phil Zimmermann (b. 1957).

The invention phase of encryption started in the recent second turning (in the 1970s), and continued into the third turning (the 1980’s and 1990s). The entrepreneurship phase began in the third turning with the rise of the Internet, as Zimmermann developed PGP in the early 1990s. At the time of Spar’s book’s publication, the legal status of PGP was up in the air, but today it is accepted by government in the US and EU, and is widely used. It’s also open source, meaning that Zimmermann, though he’s the entrepreneur in this story, has not become obscenely wealthy because of it. I see this particular story as a great example of the Boomer generation’s role in computing technology’s transition from being used solely by big corporations to becoming a technology for the masses.

This is, of course, the story of the personal computer. The Boomers who are most associated with this tale of the empowerment of the common man are Steve Jobs (b. 1955) and Bill Gates (b. 1955). The latter figures prominently in the next wave of which Spar writes – the PC operating system. But it should be noted that the inventors in the first phase of this wave were other men. The first hobby PC was the Altair, invented by Ed Roberts (b. 1941 – Silent), and the OS which Bill Gates famously licensed to IBM was based on an earlier operating system called Q-DOS, invented by Tim Paterson (b. 1956 – Boomer). These inventions happened in the last second turning, in the 1970s.

Gates was the entrepreneur in this technology wave; you might even call him the chief entrepreneur. He did get to be one of the wealthiest men ever, after all. His famous arrangement with IBM, which made him wealthy, happened at the end of the second turning, in 1980. Throughout the third turning, his dominance of the marketplace only grew, to the point that his company, Microsoft, was being called “the evil empire.” At one point, it was challenged by another technological development, which Spar covers in the same chapter: the web browser, an alternative platform for information access that might have derailed Microsoft’s control over software applications on its system.

With the World Wide Web, the invention phase was very fast, occurring in just a couple of years in the early 1990s. The inventor was yet another Boomer, Tim Berners-Lee (b. 1955). The entrepreneur whom Spar singles out for her narrative is a Gen Xer, Marc Andreessen (b. 1971). He developed the first highly popular web browser, Mosaic, later Netscape Navigator. Depending on your age, you may or may not have used it. Microsoft tried to muscle Netscape out of the business by bundling their web browser with their operating system, precipitating a famous anti-trust lawsuit, U.S. v. Microsoft.

So this technology wave actually gets to the rule-making phase in the narrative. The rule-maker in this case is a judge, Thomas Penfield Jackson (b. 1937 – Silent). His ruling was that Microsoft was indeed practicing monopoly, and would have to break into two separate units, one to produce the operating system, and one to produce other software components. But in a settlement after appeal, this was rescinded. Spar’s book was published before this settlement, so her narrative misses this plot twist. And what was the final result of this attempt at regulation? I would say that Microsoft remains a powerful monopolist, but in a field where new monopolists have arisen, with the coming of yet another technology wave which this book could not predict: smartphones, which come with their own OS, and the application platforms on them, which completely circumvent the web.

The last technology wave discussed in Spar’s wonderful book is digital music, specifically the MP3 format. This was invented by committee in the late 1980s and 1990s, a committee of mostly European peers of the Boomer generation. The entrepreneurs of the next phase are Gen-Xers who, in the 1990s, leveraged MP3 technology to build music-sharing empires which made them money, but were of dubious legality and sparked legal wars with established music labels, and many of the music artists as well. These are Sean Parker (b. 1979) and Shawn Fanning (b. 1980) of Napster, and Mike Robertson (b. 1967) of MP3.com. Their companies didn’t survive the legal battles ultimately, though at the time of Spar’s book publication, the rule-making phase was only just underway, with the formation of the Secure Digital Music Initiative, which was attempting go come up with standards for digital music usage that would satisfy all stakeholders.

In the end the SDMI got nowhere, and other standards were developed for digital rights management. These are in use today in the age of streaming music and video, which gives consumers access to huge libraries of content for an affordable price. The old content owners, and the artists, probably, have lost out in this deal. But it’s the way the market ended up regulated: in a way that could meet the huge consumer demand which digital encoding inevitably wrought. I discussed this in a review of another book; the streaming model provides what people want, and allows them to get it in a way that is fair and legal.

It’s too bad that Ruling the Waves left off in 2001, and didn’t get into the smartphone and social media era, and the rise of the now dominant Big Tech companies. To my knowledge, the author has not continued this study approach with any other technology waves. But I think that if she did look at developments of the past twenty years, she would agree with this assessment of the dominant tech corporations today – Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and yes, still Microsoft: they are the winners of the once dynamic competition, during the early days of the Internet, among different information technologies and platforms.

The world standardized on Big Tech’s platforms and technologies because they provided the best experience, or because it was just easier for everyone. As with Western Union and the telegraph, they are the monopolists who emerged from the free wheeling creative anarchy phase to become the rule makers. As with the story of the telegraph, this happened during a saeculum’s fourth turning, which in the case of the current saeculum began in 2008. And as was the case with Western Union, the Big Tech companies are resented for their monopoly power.

Conclusion

Debora Spar’s Ruling the Waves is a remarkable book, with a brilliant insight about the history of technology and the patterns of technological change. The idea that technology comes in waves, with different phases of development, from a period of loose rules to a period of tight rules, reminded me of the similar idea with respect to social norms in Strauss & Howe generational theory. Both theories tie into the concept of enantiodromia, the principle of things or states tending to transform into their opposites. That is why I embarked on a review of Spar’s book through the lens of generations theory.

What I found is that, as is generally the case with these high level theories, the patterns are not perfectly there. But where they are there and do line up, it is striking that the periods of greatest technological innovation and development of markets for new technologies which Spar identifies match the social era from Strauss & Howe theory that has the greatest degree of individualism and tends to be focused on commercialization and free markets. This suggests a clear relationship between social eras and the degree of technological innovation, and means that some generations, by dint of their location in history, are more strongly associated than others with technological change.

I should note one caveat: half of Spar’s examples are from recent history; they are digital technologies developed at the end of the twentieth century. So of course they are all stories from the same social era, meaning there is sample bias in the survey. It would be wonderful if Spar’s principle were applied across a great many of the major technological developments of the past few centuries – would we find that technological innovation is clustered in particular social eras? It would also be wonderful to hear Spar’s take on the developments in digital technology over the past twenty years. How different the world of the Internet looks today than it would have to a professor of business writing at end of the “dot com” era!

To the best of my knowledge, however, this book is the only example of this line of research. It took me two years to read it, and nearly two decades after it was published to boot, but I still found it insightful and a great read.

YOLO through a Pandemic (You Hope)

YOLO through a Pandemic (You Hope)

When the pandemic started last year, I posted this dire warning about how the fun was all over. Financial markets and supply chains were in deep trouble; Generation X could kiss their 401Ks goodbye. I guess I really thought we were in for some serious hell. I mean, doesn’t everyone remember the toilet-paper shortages? Didn’t it seem like we were doomed?

I don’t mean to be glib. 2020 was a terrible year for many – either because loved ones died of Covid-19, or because of economic hardship. And on top of that, politics in the U.S. hit a new low. But for many of us – those of us lucky enough to be able to work from home, those of us who didn’t lose family members – the lockdown turned out to be a boon.

For one, we spent less money. I keep a pretty close watch on my budget, and I know from having done so for years that the three things which eat up the most income are housing, healthcare, and food. Well, it turns out that not eating out ever means spending a lot less money on food. I know this was bad for the restaurant industry, but I’m telling the 2020 story from my perspective here.

In addition, because we were suddenly never leaving the house, I ended up moving in with my BFF. So housing costs also went down for us. Add in the money saved by not travelling, and our savings grew. Frankly, it’s also really nice not to have to commute. It’s hard to imagine now that I used to spend two hours a day driving to and from work – whatever for? Staying at home means an easier pace of life, with no rushed schedule and more time for family.

The icing on the cake: because of the measures to avoid infection by the coronavirus, we didn’t get sick from anything else either. Normally we catch a few colds each year, what with the teenagers going to school and the girl doing her theater work. But not in 2020.

It all just seems like the next level in the steady progression of my fortunes over the years of the Crisis Era. Literally, from 2008 on things just keep looking up for me. I know I’m not the only one having this experience. It’s like for some Gen Xers, the pandemic lockdown was the perfect situation.

We’re even seeing this idea now of the YOLO economy: workers ready to quit their jobs and pursue their passion, now that they have savings and have had a taste of what it’s like to *not* drive to work every day. Should I resign from my FinTech job to become a full-time blogger?

Now I couldn’t do that without first consulting with my partner. And for her, 2020 was a different story. She’s basically a gig worker in the theater industry, so the pandemic was a disaster for her from a work perspective. All of the gigs she had worked hard to line up just evaporated. So I’d better stick with my job that pays well.

Another story we’re hearing is that retail businesses are struggling with a hiring crisis now. Essential workers are better off on unemployment benefits than going back to their low wage jobs. It makes you wonder why they are deemed “essential” but then not compensated very well. Perhaps an improvement of the conditions of the lowest paid workers in our economy will be a lasting effect of the pandemic. Pandemic relief (“stimulus payments”) is sort of like basic income, after all.

Now that restrictions are being eased, my partner has actually been able to find gigs again, and I can tell she is excited to get back to work in 2021. But are we really out of the woods in terms of the pandemic? One of my projects this year has actually been research on pandemics throughout history, and from what I’ve learned I’m not feeling too easy.

Just take a look at this list of the worst pandemics in history. One pattern you’ll see here is that the more recent large scale pandemics are caused by ineradicable viral pathogens. The older ones chronologically are typically bubonic plague or cholera, which are controllable now thanks to improved sanitation and antibiotic medicine, or smallpox, which has been eliminated through vaccination.

But some viruses cannot be wiped out by immunization, both because they can reside in non-human hosts (waiting to infect the next generation of non-immune human hosts), and because they can mutate (nullifying previously acquired immunity). These include the influenza virus and the SARS coronavirus. We’re stuck with them, barring some next level development in medical science.

A pandemic like the Covid-19 pandemic, the eighth deadliest in human history according to that list, should be a once-in-a-lifetime event. But you never know. So enjoy your time on Earth, because as they say, you only live once.