CONVENTIONAL THINKING AND UNCONVENTIONAL THINKING
In Tibet, there is a saying about pilgrimage. When going to a holy place on pilgrimage, the best thing that can happen is for you to die. Failing that, the second best thing is to become gravely ill. If you are unable to manage that, at the very least you should lose something of great value. This unconventional approach is definitely not the way most modern people think. Imagine the conversation you would have with a friend returning from a trip to a holy place: “Oh, it’s you. You survived. My condolences. Did you at least get sick? No? That’s too bad. Please tell me you lost something valuable. No? I’m really sorry to hear that. You had fun? Oh, no, that’s awful. I hope you have a worse trip next time.”
We don’t have to be quite that dramatic about what we consider success or failure, but we should definitely re-evaluate our standards for determining what we consider to be “good” or “bad.” The Tibetan adage above is based on what they consider to be the big picture, considering that people pass through many lives on the way to ultimate enlightenment. By experiencing what appears to be an unfortunate event in a holy place, they believe their negative karma will be reduced and they will be much closer to achieving enlightenment in their next incarnation. The worse the incident appears on the surface, the better for the elimination of lingering bad karma. I’m not saying you should literally take things to this extreme, but I think it’s important to step back, look at the big picture, and stop viewing the world based only on what meets the eye, and with blinders of narrow self-interest.
Most people in the world today think in a very conventional way. If something puts money in our bank account, it is good. If it leads to less money in our account, it is bad. We also use this profit and loss tally-sheet in terms of how we view our jobs, our status, our possessions, our looks, our vacations, our food, our partners, and so on. Our mindsets and our decisions are based on what appears best for us in surface terms. If we take the attitude of the majority of people living on the planet today and condense it into a single representative character, this person would be as coldly logical as Spock, as greedy as Scrooge, and as narcissistic as in the bride in the Black Mirror episode “Nosedive” (season three, episode one). By thinking this way, we tend to act selfishly: not for the greater good or even our own long-term good. The obvious example is the tragedy of the commons, where each person thinks primarily in terms of the extra profit that they can get by feeding their own cattle more, so they wind up over-grazing the shared pastureland until there is nothing left to graze anyone’s cattle. This is essentially what we have been doing with the planet: with our cars, our chimneys, our mines, our factories, and our over-development in general, to the point where we are nearing a complete ecological breakdown.
Religious teachings are as unconventional as possible, and yet most of us cling to them for our identity. People who are willing to fight to the death over a perceived slight to their professed religious tradition nevertheless betray the principles of that religion in a heartbeat when faced with real-world issues. They want the label of being a Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, etc., but do not want to drop their conventional way of thinking (which essentially boils down to the motto: “show me the money”), even though this is directly opposed to the teachings of their stated religious beliefs. Self-professed Christians (who follow the man who said that a camel will pass through the eye of a needle before a rich man will go to heaven and that people should store their riches in heaven, not on earth) make it their goal in life to become fantastically wealthy. Buddhists (who follow a man whose “middle path” meant meditating in the forest and eating one bowl of vegetables and rice per day) focus on sending their kids to the best colleges, getting the best (highest-paying) jobs, having the biggest houses, the most luxurious cars, etc. Hindus revere the Upanishads, which claim that the good and the pleasant are far apart, yet they chase after the pleasant, material things in life the same way the ordinary non-believer would. Just watch some Bollywood movies if you have any doubts. Jains (who follow the most fastidious and Spartan teachings of all) are ironically reputed to be the best businessmen in India. The average Muslim, who claims to revere a man who said that anyone who goes to sleep with a full stomach while their neighbors are hungry isn't a Muslim, behaves about the same as everyone else. The list goes on and on. I’m not trying to pick on anyone in particular; we are all guilty of this sort of hypocrisy one way or another.
By using conventional thinking to determine the best course of action, we often shoot ourselves in the foot. By ignoring the unconventional approach, we miss unique opportunities, and fail to grasp what is really happening. One of my favorite Chinese stories demonstrates this principle. During the Han Dynasty, old man Sai lost his horse. All his neighbors came around to console him at the loss, but he only said, “Who knows if it’s a good thing or a bad thing.” Before long, the horse returned, but this time it brought another horse with it: a fine breed that was worth a great deal of money. All the neighbors came around, this time to praise him for his good fortune. Again, he showed no emotion, but only said, “Who knows if it’s a good thing or a bad thing.” The neighbors were annoyed by his non-conventional attitude, and they went back to their farms. One day, Sai’s son was riding the new horse, and it threw him, breaking his leg badly. The local doctor set the leg, but it seemed clear that he would never be the same again. All the neighbors returned, this time expressing sorrow at his misfortune. When old man Sai gave his usual utterance, “Who knows if it’s a good thing or a bad thing,” they definitely thought he was mad. Soon after, the war with the Huns was raging, and officials scoured the countryside to conscript able-bodied young men into the military. They would be gone for years and many would never return at all. When they reached the home of old man Sai, the officials took one look at his son’s leg and gave him a letter that permanently exempted him from military service. All the other families were filled with envy that their sons had not broken their legs in the same way, so as to avoid the draft.
The story from Mali of Emperor Sundiata is another great example. King Naré of the Mandinka people chose to marry a hunchbacked woman named Sogolon because of a prophecy that if he married her, his offspring would become a great leader. The king had a son by Sogolon, and he was named Sundiata. Sundiata disappointed everyone because he was sickly and bent over like his mother. By the age of seven, he was still unable to walk. He and his mother were teased mercilessly by the king’s first wife, Sassouma. For anyone who judged the situation by conventional means, it must have seemed that the king had made a terrible mistake in marrying Sogolon. In order to help Sundiata to stand up straight, he was given an iron bar on which to lean. He pressed down hard on this iron bar, and became so strong that that he slowly bent the bar into a bow. When the king died, his kingdom went to his first-born, Dankaran, son of Sassouma. Sundiata and his mother were sent into exile. Sundiata then traveled from place to place, training to become a warrior. Meanwhile, back in Mali, a sorcerer called Soumaoro conquered the kingdom. Sundiata returned with an army, carrying the only weapon that could harm the sorcerer: a rooster’s spur on the tip of an arrow, fired from his iron bow. After killing the evil wizard, Sundiata went on to be the greatest ruler in Mali’s history. Anyone who had advised King Naré in the beginning with logical, conventional thinking would have told him not to marry a woman with such a deformity. If he had followed this advice, the kingdom would have been ruled by an evil magician, and the great and just Sundiata never would have been born.
Siddhartha, the founder of Buddhism, and Mahavira, a founder of Jainism were both born as princes. They had everything that could be desired in the earthly sense. From a conventional standpoint, a person would have to be insane to give up the life of luxury and power that they enjoyed. However, each of them realized that their riches were empty and meaningless. Simply enjoying such a pampered life would not do any good – neither for them nor for the world. Both of them came to the same unconventional conclusion that they had to renounce their position and meditate in the forest. It is said that both men reached enlightenment and experienced complete nirvana: the highest state of omniscience, wisdom, and bliss. If they had not done this, they would not have given been able to offer guidance to billions of people ever since. If Jesus had made the conventional decision to either become a rich merchant or make himself a king, the largest religion in the world would never had existed. Instead, he fasted and withdrew to lonely places to pray, and the rest is history. When Muhammad (peace be upon him) was 40 years old, he acted in a most unconventional way for a wealthy man. Instead of single-mindedly plotting how to increase his wealth, he climbed a mountain and meditated in a cave. If he had not done so, the second largest religion in the world would never have existed in its present form. These civilization-molding events all revolve around people having the insight to turn away from the conventional path. What is needed is inner vision to know that there is more to life than meets the eye. This is easy to say but hard to put into practice. The allure of conventional thinking is powerful, and the peer pressure to conform is tremendous. The main elements of the world around us all seem to operate according to conventional principles. When we want to buy something (a house, a car, food), it always takes money; we do not get any special financial credit from sellers for our unconventional thinking, no matter how much love we have in our hearts for others.
The vast majority of us stay firmly within the parameters of conventional thinking, trusting only what we can weigh, measure, compare, and enjoy with the senses. This is unfortunate, because, generally speaking, the unconventional mode of thought is usually the best one to follow. The universe is, by nature, illogical and downright unconventional. Quantum mechanics has demonstrated this much. Religious teachings sound crazy to people who are intent on hoarding wealth, and who know that one plus one equals two. Unconventional thinking looks beyond this, into the quantum level, and sees that there is no solid, independently-existing thing to be counted, and no independently-existing person to be in possession of anything. What sounds nonsensical is actually the basis of deepest wisdom. If our only goal is to acquire more and more, we wind up losing everything, including ourselves. Even if our situation appears to be improving on the surface (with more money, better looks, more status, etc.), on the inside we are losing our humanity a la The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wisdom is unconventional. It teaches that we must let go. If you cling to anything, even your individual sense of self, you are missing out on your true identity. The truth is counterintuitive: to gain the universe, you have to give up everything.
JESUS CHRIST AND THE
PERIODIC TABLE OF THE ELEMENTS
Imagine that we lived in the Middle Ages, and I was an alchemist struggling to understand how the foundational building blocks of matter fit together. Suppose I announced that I had discovered a revolutionary way to explain why each element had the properties that it did, according to immutable, demonstrable truths of the universe. Suppose that I went on to claim that each element’s nature came from a particular Catholic saint or mythological being. This might have made some sense to people of the time, depending on how well my explanations were constructed, but to an objective observer who did not share my initial assumptions about theology and mythology, the arbitrary nature of my system would be apparent.
Now imagine that someone else comes along and introduces the periodic table of the elements as we know it today. With this revolutionary model, we have a way to explain the weight of the elements, their structure, and a way of arranging them in rows and columns according to their type and interaction with other elements. Now consider how you would feel if I introduced the modern periodic table of the elements with a complete scientific explanation, but left one element off the table, insisting that it was so different from the rest that the ordinary rules of physics did not apply. Suppose I picked mercury, for example, and claimed that it was a special, sacred element that could not be placed on the table with the others because it was created in heaven by God. Gullible people might accept this without question, but those who sat down and considered my words logically would wonder how I could claim that the rules of physics applied to all things in the universe except for this one element. It would make no sense for me to claim I had a way to explain everything, yet be unable to integrate this one magically and mysteriously privileged element into the schemata along with the others. The weakness in this view should be recognized with honesty, and the picture of reality should be amended to create an explanation of reality that takes everything into account.
Christianity is the largest religion in the world. Christian churches are by no means a monolithic group, but for the most part, all Christians believe in the exceptionalism of Christ. Almost all Christians today take the same view as early Christians in the Roman Empire that their religion is completely unique in the world, and that Jesus and his miracles are an utterly singular phenomenon. While many modern Christians have developed a more nuanced view of other religions, most continue to believe that those who follow different spiritual paths are being led astray, that they are on an evil, devil-inspired path, and that they can never get to heaven. If we compare this view of how Christianity is related to other religions with the example above, the Christian view is one of exceptionalism to the point of superstition. It is not believed that other religions are legitimate or even similar to Christianity in their basic nature. Each religion of course believes itself to be more correct than others, and some believe other religions to be evil or heretic, but the Christian view has more weight because of its size and its location in the developed, Western world, where the direction of modern culture is largely determined.
This view of the complete and utter uniqueness of Jesus and Christianity among world religions is problematic for a couple of reasons. First of all, it is illogical. If an objective observer considered the doctrines of the major world religions, he or she would find startling similarities in terms of basic messages and rules for proper living. Why, then, should one religion insist on its absolute superiority to others? Why should it be like an organism that is not classified with a Latin name (as if it did not evolve the same way as all others) or an element that is not put in its place on the periodic table with the rest? If a logical, intelligent being came from outer space to evaluate this practice, do you think they would be convinced by arguments of the clergy that this one religion is so different from others that they are not in any way comparable? Second, this belief, if adopted by all religions, would lead to pure hostility and a lack of tolerance around the world. Whatever you may personally believe about the superiority of your own religion over all others, if we want to live in a peaceful world, we should be diplomatic and publicly acknowledge both the merits of other religions and the decency of the people who practice them. If we claim that the devil is behind these other religions, we are literally demonizing people, and this cannot end well.
In the future, people will no doubt put the words of their parents and their communities to the test as never before. They will not allow their ancestors and societies to indoctrinate them as youths and let this last for their entire lives without rigorously examining the logic, consistency, symmetry, and soundness of the philosophies that they have been taught. The absolute uniqueness argument of Christianity (and other monotheistic religions) does not hold up to scrutiny. It has to be taken on faith, and it requires a suspension of all reason. An objective inquiry into principles and practices across religions will show massive similarities, as documented in Utopia Found. It is ridiculous to say, for example, that Tibetan monks who spend several hours per day in deep meditation are being led astray by the devil because they are focusing on something other than Jesus Christ.
I fully understand the conservative reaction to my view, and I respect people’s right to disagree. However, if we look down on other groups, call them evil, overtly declare that they are not real religions in the same sense as our own, and treat religion as Nixon treated politics (his motto was “Politics is war,” and he aimed to destroy his enemies), then we are headed for more alienation, rancor, and violent acts of hatred. If you believe that your religion is the one true teaching, different from and better than others in every way, I must say I disagree with you, but I concede that you have the right to your own opinion. If you insist on holding this somewhat hostile view of other religions, it is still best to take care to speak and act in a friendly way so as not to antagonize others.
If we step back and analyze these claims of uniqueness, they are impossible to prove and easy to refute with logic. Yes, we must all choose between religions. Yes, we have reasons for making choices that imply we believe one is superior to others. Yes, we can personally believe that they are not all equal. But, just as we may personally believe that all people’s religions are not equal, we should still treat all people with kindness, respect, and decency: as equals, the way we ourselves would like to be treated. Moreover, serious devotion to any religion requires that we practice (engage in prayer or meditation) and develop certain qualities in ourselves. These qualities are prized by all religions. They lead us beyond the world of earthly argument and division and toward a universal love that transcends surface differences. We must greet one another the way Jesus and Shakyamuni would have greeted one another if they had met in person: with love, conscious of the fact that there is no difference between self and other. We are all ultimately part of the same eternal, infinite spirit, and all religious teachings are expressing the same truth in different ways. The best way to exemplify the teachings of our own religion is to focus on making our own thoughts, words, and deeds more saintly, and stop criticizing others or the paths they follow.
WHO OR WHAT IS “GOD”?
Around the world, people have always sensed that there is a unifying power or intelligence behind everything that exists. Native Americans often call it something like “Great Spirit.” In English, the main word we have to describe this idea is “God.” What are the parameters of God? This is a tough one, since God has no boundaries. God is omnipresent. God is all of time and space: not only the entire universe, but the history of the universe, the creator of the universe, and the rules that made the universe operate as it does. God can be called pre-existent or self-creating, but either way, the origin of God is a mystery. The concept is an impossible one for us to fully wrap our logical minds around, because it includes (by definition) more than we can ever see or comprehend, and it also includes us and our comprehension of it. If we use the analogy of the manifest universe as a movie on a screen, God would be the entire film, including the entire cast and crew. But that’s not all: God would also include the company that made the movie, the screen, the entire theater, and the entire universe around the theater, its history, creator, rules for creation, and so on to infinity. We ourselves would not even be members of the theater audience, but only two-dimensional characters with bit parts in the film. What chance would we have of understanding God?
We use a three-letter word to describe this infinite, eternal concept, as if by giving it a short title, this automatically means we are on a first-name basis with the supreme ultimate. If I have a neighbor named Tom, I can get to know him and we can be on a first-name basis. I can describe the characteristics of this person named Tom by observing him and interacting with him. He has a physical description, an address, and definable qualities. Tom has clear likes and dislikes, which can be easily verified. When I say his name, it has meaning because the agreed-upon name connects to the actual person with knowable characteristics. None of this applies to God. What definable qualities can there be for that which is infinite and eternal? We are way out of our league if we imagine we have an understanding of this God person we speak of as if they were a neighbor. We are fooling ourselves if we think we know what we are talking about when we use the word God, unless we use it the same way scientists use the term “dark matter” to mean “the thing I know nothing about.”
In China, Daoists deliberately refrain from giving the ultimate a name. They believe the way that can be named is not the eternal name, and so they use the expression “the Way” (the Dao). They do this with the clear understanding that this word is not correct, but is a mere covering for a mystery (like dark matter), used as a place-holder to refer to that which can never be understood.
In India, Hindus call the God that is everywhere “Brahman,” and the spark of God within each living thing “Atman.” They believe the only way to know all of Brahman is to unite Atman and Brahman through Yoga. In the Bhagavad Gita, chapter nine, text five, Krishna (speaking as an avatar of Brahman), says, "Although I am the maintainer of all living entities and although I am everywhere, I am not part of this cosmic manifestation, for My Self is the very source of creation."
In Buddhism, there is an agreement with other religions that all things are united in an interconnected singularity. There is simply no discussion of a creator entity beyond the consciousness of all sentient beings. When people ask, "Do Buddhists believe in God?" the best answer is: "That depends on what you mean by God." They definitely do not think about it in the same terms as most believers in monotheistic religions do.
God is not like our neighbor, Tom, who has simple and definite characteristics. People who believe in the Abrahamic version of God, however, sometimes talk about him like a neighbor. For one thing, they tend to refer to God as a he, not a she. What does this even mean in the context of an all-encompassing deity? We can look at history and notice that the mother goddesses of the prehistoric era were eclipsed by beliefs in more male deities as civilization took hold. This can be explained in terms of humans feeling they needed a masculine war-god to guide their armies to victory more than they needed a fertility goddess to help the farmers grow food. As governments grew more complex and armies increased in size, prayers for victory in battle might have seemed paramount, and the best powers to ask for help on the battlefield might have been those who resembled the warriors themselves. Kings probably also encouraged this trend, wanting a god in heaven that reflected the masculine look of the king’s own court. As the Jewish people struggled for an independent identity in the Middle East against the larger, stronger civilizations all around them, they saw this emphasis on a male deity as a good thing. Jews had a growing belief that their God was not just a powerful war and storm god, but that he was literally the one and only God (with a capital G). A chain of unlikely events followed: Jesus the miracle-worker was Jewish, a new religion was created in his name, and the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire meant that Christians inherited the Jewish brand of monotheism. This, along with the subsequent rise of Islam, led to half the world identifying God as a he, not a she or an it. However, if God is everywhere and everything, if God has no mate, if God creates both the female and the male (and both genders are part of God), then why should we insist on God’s maleness? Isn’t that just another way of using our limited, puny intelligence to try and make God seem more like us? As we’ve seen already, God isn’t like us. We do not need to define God’s gender, and defining it does not mean our definition is correct. How can such a thing have any meaning whatsoever under the circumstances? If we follow this line of thinking in mainstream monotheistic culture, we inevitably wind up with an image of an old man sitting on a throne in the sky. Does this image have any basis in reality? To summarize: we have an image of a person who is not a person, a man who is not a man, and a shape with clear boundaries to describe an entity that, by definition, is boundless. This does not make much sense.
Some claim to know God much better than being able to simply assume God's gender. Some claim that God has clear opinions, preferences, and wishes – and that they themselves are somehow privy to all of this. Some people are convinced they know which political party or candidate God supports. I remember back in the 80s, when televangelist Jim Bakker was in the midst of scandal, a reporter asked why he needed such expensive chandeliers in his house. Jim replied with a smile, "Do you think God likes junk?" Again, this is the Tom-complex, whereby you imagine that because you have given the supreme ultimate a short nickname, you are somehow best buds with God, and can finish each other’s sentences. It's a funny how people naturally tend to see God's thought processes as always coinciding 100% with their own. Woody Allen made fun of this tendency for people to claim to be chummy with God in the movie Sleeper, when he said that Billy Graham used to go on double dates with God. Monty Python made fun of the human tendency to think we know what God is like in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, with God appearing from behind the clouds as a king with a long, grey beard to speak in a deep voice and give King Arthur his marching orders. These comedy sketches are funny because they are so overtly ridiculous, but how far removed is this from the over-simplistic way that millions (or billions) of people really think?
When we begin to go down the wrong path with assumptions and illogic, we become certain that we know the truth, although we may not have a clue. Many people in prehistoric and ancient times were absolutely convinced that their gods thirsted for blood. They were so sure of themselves that they engaged in human sacrifice. How many people today look back and think human sacrifice was a good idea, or that any of those ancient gods even exist? It is inherently dangerous to jump to the conclusion that you have special insight into ultimate truth, because it leads to rash actions, or at the very least, hostility between religions. When you think you know all about God and believe you are carrying out God's orders, you tend to look upon every other religion with distain. When you lose your humility about understanding the infinite, it becomes all too easy to think you are right and everyone who disagrees with you is wrong. Worse than that, you may jump to the conclusion that followers of other religions are evil, or at least on an evil path.
We should definitely practice spirituality and try to understand the big picture of what is going on around us. We should never cease in our attempts to connect ourselves with the entire universe. When doing so, however, we should be careful not to over-simplify or take things too literally. We must always be open-minded. We must remember that others feel as correct in their views as we do, and they have as much a right to those views as we have to ours. We must admit that, as certain as we may be about our convictions, we may be thinking about things entirely the wrong way, like a blind man with an elephant. Remember the lesson of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: if we ask the wrong question, we will always get a meaningless answer.
What does it take to win the big prize and make it to heaven? Most people assume that if you follow the rules of initiation into a religion and then behave yourself reasonably well after that, you will be saved. Christians think of this in terms of baptism, having faith, and trying not to commit sin. Muslims think in terms of professing the faith, following the Five Pillars, and of course refraining from sin. These two groups make up more than half the planet’s population. Jews think in terms of following the Ten Commandments. Even among believers in Eastern religions, which are by nature mystic, most people do not really practice mysticism; they act as if they are shielded from future harm by nature of their faith alone. People often use terms like “mystic” along with “occult,” as if to suggest that anything like this is dark, scary, evil, and leading a person into a dangerous sect or cult. So what is the mystic view of the world, anyway?
To explain the mystic view, we can use some analogies. If you bought a furniture kit at Ikea and dumped all the components on the floor of your living room, would you sit on the pile, or would you assemble it first? If you were following a step-by-step instructions while making a volcano model in chemistry class and everyone’s volcano erupted in the end with the intended chemical reaction – and only yours didn’t – would you consider your effort a success? When you go to a gas station, do you pull up, pay for the gasoline, and then drive away without making the effort to pump the gas? If you buy a book, do you read it, or do you put it under your pillow and hope the information in its pages will magically percolate into your brain while you sleep? Mystics view the average, non-mystic religious believer the way they view people who make these mistakes: lazy, unclear on the concept, or both. They think such people are like students who do not study for exams and yet somehow expect to pass. The exam in this case could be said to come only after this life is over, so the realization that one is unprepared for the test does not arrive until it is too late. In the mystic view of the world, too many people have taken a belief in an idea and confused it with the mastery of a skill. Mystics say these people think that faith is an accomplishment in and of itself, when in fact it is an assignment to do some homework. Knowing music theory, they say, does not mean you are ready to perform at the London Philharmonic.
So what do mystics believe? They think that being saved (or enlightened) is an accomplishment that involves a process; not something that happens just because you have faith, underwent a ritual, and behaved yourself reasonably well. As they see it, either you can juggle or you can’t, either you built a stable igloo or you didn’t, either you can do the quad in ice-skating or you can’t: the proof is in the pudding. Generally speaking, they believe spiritual achievement is self-evident, and dependent upon knowledge, skill, and enormous effort over time. Either the volcano erupts in chemistry class or it doesn’t. No eruption means you keep on trying until it does. If the engine doesn’t run, the mechanic needs to keep working till it does. Specifically, mystics believe everyone needs to engage in the spiritual practices of Yoga. This involves renunciation and concentration (meditation, prayer). It could also include devotion, recitation, study of scriptures, and many other elements. Mystics believe that the founders of religion are their teachers, and that everyone who believes in them should follow their examples as closely as possible. This means doing all those difficult things these people did: fasting, going to lonely places for contemplation, resisting temptation, etc. They believe that to be successful, we must practice strenuously and change so completely that we are literally “reborn.” Your original personality must all but disappear. As mystics see it, anything less means people are taking their religion to be mere play.
How can we know when a person has “made it”? There is not necessarily any outward sign, but the mystic view says that people who have truly accomplished their goal will develop siddhis. Siddhis are mysterious abilities to interact with the quantum field matrix we call reality. Siddhis include ESP, psychic powers, the ability to see through objects (or even pass through them), levitation, and so on. Basically, mystics believe that the miracles from the Bible and other holy books are real, and they are within everyone’s grasp if only we practice long and hard enough, using the right methods. Anything less than this, according to the mystic view, is inadequate. Siddhis will naturally accompany enough spiritual purity, but siddhis alone do not necessarily mean a person is fully enlightened. People who think it would be cool to have these powers and who practice in order to get them will be disappointed. Yoga philosophy says that to make progress, you have to lose all desires. As long as you want these powers, they will remain out of reach. They come as a side-effect of practice, and are given to those who no longer have an ego and therefore no longer desire the powers. Moreover, the practice of Yoga can’t be done properly for one’s own benefit; the goal must be to help others. The skeptical might think this sounds like a superstitious, ideological teaching to try and make people more selfless. Actually, it reflects the quantum reality that all consciousness is a singularity, and the realization that there is no difference between self and other. This sounds like a cliché, but mystics claim that when higher states of consciousness are achieved, this oneness can be directly experienced. In Buddhism, it is said that the recognition of emptiness engenders compassion. Some are confused by this, as it sounds illogical. I have heard people wonder aloud why emptiness doesn't engender terror, as if it means we are floating through a dark vacuum. This is a misunderstanding based on the image conjured by the word emptiness. If we think in a quantum sense, we see that time and space are illusions and that nothing exists independently from other things, we see beyond the world of opposites (no distance, no insides or outsides, no up or down), and we see that all beings have a non-localized consciousness. When we reach this stage, we know for a fact that we are all part of the same being, and we cannot help but feel their suffering as if it were ours – because it is ours – and want to help others progress to a state beyond suffering.
If siddhis are real, why don’t we see people displaying them every day? Mystics would say this is because only a few reach this level, and the prerequisite practices mean a person has no interest in making money or showing off. Many teachers give instructions to their disciples with the admonition that they never display their powers to others. The Buddha specifically told his followers not to make a demonstration of their abilities, and he rarely performed healings. If those who possessed miraculous abilities put them on display, they would be inundated with people wanting to be healed. People with these powers want to teach others how to follow the path themselves; not turn themselves into tourist attractions. If you want to find people with some of these powers for yourself, you will find them eventually if you seek with sincerity and persistence – and for the right reasons. Ordinarily, these teachers will not be found unless they want you to find them.
What should we think of the mystic view? If you don’t agree with mysticism, you already know what mystics think of you. They see you as the kid whose volcano didn’t erupt, but who won’t admit they made a mistake, or the student who bombed the test but still insists they studied enough. According to the mystic view, we have a job to do here on earth: practice Yoga so we can help others. People who believe but don’t practice are wasting their time, say the mystics. Whatever you yourself believe about siddhis and mysticism, it wouldn’t hurt to spend more time praying and meditating, as your religion suggests you should. It wouldn’t hurt to read up on the subject and do some personal investigation. There have been plenty of Christian mystics over the years, starting with Jesus himself. Muslim mystics are called Sufis. In Judaism, there is a mystic tradition called Kabbalah. People who follow these traditions say it is not so easy to get to "heaven," and that it takes a lot of effort. In Matthew 7:14, Jesus says, “The gate is narrow and the way that leads to life is hard, and only a few find it.” Eastern religions are overtly based on mysticism, though not everyone in these religions actually follows the mystic path. Instead of just doing the basic prayers required in your religion and making the necessary appearances in church, mosque, temple, or synagogue, you might try to go above and beyond. Try living and thinking according to the mystic view for a while and see what happens. You can definitely do this without compromising your religious beliefs. Actually, you should begin by taking your professed beliefs more seriously. Instead of thinking of mysticism as something weird, you might come to view it as common sense. Sitting on a pile of unassembled pieces from Ikea and calling it furniture sure doesn’t make much sense. Whether you are religious or not, don’t be too quick to dismiss mysticism. If you are religious, remember what Jesus says in Luke 6:40 – “. . . everyone, when their training is complete, will reach their teacher’s level.” If you are not religious, remember that scientific inquiry requires that we remain open-minded, collect information, make hypotheses, and conduct experiments. In this case, consider yourself to be the experiment. That’s what a mystic would do.
THE HUMAN BODY AS A SACRED MICROCOSM
A human is a microcosm: a reflection of the world, the universe, and God. If the true nature of the universe is a singularity, wherein all points are connected to all other points, and in fact the idea of multiple points is an illusion to begin with, then all “points” are actually contained in every single “point,” if viewed from an enlightened, multidimensional perspective. There actually is no difference between self and other, and no duality between the body and the things around the body. There really is no difference between inside and outside, except in our deluded minds, which cling to this illusion based on the tricks our senses play on us. The fact that we have this amazing consciousness in a brain that can conceive of this is due to the evolution of this most incredible gift – our physical body as a vehicle for spiritual advancement. The body is a sacred thing, and must be appreciated and revered as such.
In ancient Greece, Democritus wrote that humans are a “microcosm” – a miniature universe. The Greeks believed that humans were made in the image of their gods. The nude human form was therefore considered noble and godly. It was considered a sacred duty to keep one’s body in prime condition and display it proudly. The Greek word gymnos means naked, and the gymnasium was a place where males went nude for both exercise and study. In Sparta, females had a gymnasium of their own. In Plato's Republic, he argues that not only male athletes, but female athletes as well, should compete in the nude. The regal, realistic depiction of nudes in Greek art reflects this reverence for the human body. Socrates spoke of nudity as a form of honesty. “Gymnophilosophers,” or nude philosophers, were revered for their rejection of artificial social conventions, false coverings, and vanity. Diogenes was a famous philosopher who often went about unclothed. In a famous exchange between Diogenes and Alexander the Great, the latter discovered the wise man while he was sunbathing. Alexander, soon to be the most powerful man in the world, asked the naked, homeless Diogenes if there was anything he could do for him. Diogenes replied with the simple request for Alexander to step to one side, so as not to block his sunlight. For Diogenes, his body was a temple much finer than any mansion Alexander might have given him.
Reverence for the human body is shown in Judaism in a number of ways. The story of Genesis includes the idea that humans are reflections of God. This appears in Genesis 1:26, which says “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness . . .” In the beginning, Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden like innocent children: naked, pure, and without desire. Adam and Eve then taste the forbidden knowledge and begin to paint the world with artificial distinctions. This is why they covered their bodies in shame, and had to be cast out of the garden.
Traditional Chinese medicine teaches that the body is a direct reflection of the natural universe. Acupoints on the body can be seen as representing spots on the contours of the earth’s surface, the stars of the sky, or the days of the year. Every part of the body (especially the foot, hand, ear, finger, and area around the eye) are a reflection of the whole body and treatments to these parts can affect the entire body. Blood, fluids, and other materials of the physical body are more Yin and therefore belong to earth, while virtue (synonymous with power) and qi are more Yang and belong to Heaven. The human head represents Heaven, as it is nearest to the light above.
In Corinthians 1, 6:19, it says, "Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?" In The Nag Hammadi Library, in the tract called “The Gospel of Thomas,” Jesus says that when you can undress without being ashamed and stand on top of your clothes like a child, then you will see the son of God and be beyond fear. When asked whether circumcision is beneficial or not, Jesus answers that if it were beneficial, baby boys would be born already circumcised.
Shamans around the world have always held that the body is a microcosm. The Yanomamo tribe in South America in particular say that inside the human body is a copy of the physical world around us: a world with hills, trees, and seas.
In the words of Michelangelo: “What spirit is so empty and blind that it cannot recognize the fact that the foot is more noble than the shoe, and skin more beautiful than the garment with which it is clothed?” As Walt Whitman said, “If anything is sacred, the human body is sacred.”
Most people would agree that this idea of the human body as a sacred microcosm is beautiful. It remains an abstract concept, however, unless we act on it in some way. How can we make this notion an important cornerstone on our culture so that we behave in a way commensurate with this insight? Start by looking around you. Watch the news. Then look in the mirror. Imagine that all the horrific things you just saw on the news had happened to you - to your precious body that you love so much. We live in a world where war, violence, poverty, and homelessness are common, and we act as if this is just the way things are. Do we really want to find a solution to these problems or not? We can begin by remembering that these people being killed, hurt, impoverished, and unhoused are all sacred microcosms of the universe. They are all just like you. When we realize this at the deepest level, these issues take on a new urgency.
Part of the solution is to redesign our socio-economic system so that these horrible realities of today are not perpetuated in the future. Another part of the solution is to practice simple daily rituals that allow us to re-focus on what really matters, re-connect with the miracle that is the human body (a reflection of the world, the universe, and God – a temple of all that is holy), and to remember that this miracle exists in all other human bodies as well. To see a single person suffer or be harmed should pain us so deeply that we will take action to rectify the situation and prevent recurrence of such awful tragedies. This may sound melodramatic, but it really isn't. To avoid being desensitized, we must hold tight to the understanding that they are us and we are them. If you were starving, homeless, and beaten up, you would definitely think of it as a tragedy. Why do we think of these everyday occurrences so lightly just because it is others who suffer? By meditating on this each day, we would remain grounded in reality, be constantly reminded of our priorities, view everything in a human scale, and use love and compassion in all we do – as individuals, and as groups - to ensure that war, poverty, persecution, and violence are impossible in the world of the future. Yes, this is easier said than done, but we have all we need to reinvent the world in a way befitting to all the glorious, sacred spirits who live here. If it helps, you could think of others who suffer as children of God and ask the famous question, "What would Jesus do?" All it takes to change the world is a proper goal and adequate determination. Nothing is impossible.
WHAT MAKES TIBET SO SPECIAL?
Tibet is the roof of the world. The peaks of the Himalayas may be only a few thousand feet taller than other mountains in Asia and South America, but the Tibetan Plateau itself is completely unique: an area larger than Alaska with an average altitude of almost 15,000 feet – taller than Mount Rainier. It is the source of Asia's major rivers and contains so much ice that it has been called the Third Pole. It is so inhospitable that humans were unable to live there until they domesticated the yak. As you might imagine, the character of people who can survive in such an extraordinary place is unusual to say the least.
In the beginning, Tibetans were small in number but famed as some of the most ferocious fighters in the world. The Tibetan Empire expanded into Central Asia and challenged the Chinese on an equal footing in the high-altitude passes that controlled the flow of goods along the Silk Road. What the Tibetans lacked in number, they more than made up for in skill and determination. In the Tang Dynasty, they even captured the capital of Chang An in 763, requiring the Chinese to pay an annual tribute. It was during the Tang Dynasty that Tibet became Buddhist. King Songtsen Gampo famously married the Buddhist princess Wen Cheng from China as well as a Buddhist Nepalese princess, Bhrikuti. At about the same time, the famous founder of the Nyingma (the oldest lineage in Tibet), Padmasambhava, brought tantric Buddhism to Tibet from India.
Tibet was believed to be controlled by dangerous and powerful demons who lived in the land. Every mountain, canyon, lake, and glacier was said to possess a malevolent entity bent on the destruction of any human who chanced to venture there. The Tibetans believe that Padmasambhava and other Buddhist pioneers to the plateau wandered the land, sought out these evil forces, and subdued them one by one. The demons were not in the human realm, but they were still bound by the rules of reincarnation, although their lives might extend for many millennia. The early Buddhist leaders first used their magic to defeat the demons in epic battles, then explained to them the need to accept the Dharma, and in the end the demons were converted to become powerful protectors of the faith. They are fierce, fiery, and fanged, but don't let their fearsome faces fool you; they are no longer evil. Now they promote Buddhism and defend against non-Buddhist influences. This is what Tibetan Buddhists believe about their land and what makes it so special.
After becoming Buddhists, Tibetans mostly renounced warfare and devoted themselves to religious practices. Over the centuries (and continuing to the present day), something on the order of 20% of the population becomes monks or nuns. No other society on earth can compare with this fervent devotion. Tibetans believe that they can become fully enlightened in a single lifetime, and an amazing number of them have put all their time and energy into this effort. In the 1200s, the Mongolians met the Tibetans and were so impressed with their religion and their religious zeal that they adopted the Tibetan religion and promised to be protectors of the Tibetan people, further absolving the Tibetans of any need to maintain their earlier militaristic culture. Tibetans collected all the teachings of the historical Buddha, as well as all the later teachings of the Mahayana, delivered by other Buddhist thinkers, gurus, and allegedly by enlightened, non-human teachers (Buddhas or Bodhisattvas who appeared as needed to give instruction). The result is that Tibetan Buddhism became the high-altitude repository of the most complete library of Buddhist teachings in the world. Tibetan practitioners focused on solving every problem of the human psyche in a way that turned poison into medicine. Tibetans believe that the ¨84,000¨ causes of human suffering all have their cure in Tibetan Buddhist practice and traditional medicine. Tibetan tantric practices are a diverse collection of approaches, which range from the ordinary to the unorthodox. They are special because they compose a highly-effective toolkit of methods to correct the all the possible ailments of the mind that prevent us from reaching enlightenment.
Tibetan Buddhism is unique among all branches of Buddhism in that it is the only tradition in which a lama, or guru, is believed to return in future lives to teach more students in a new body. The first person to do this was the Karmapa Lama. The current Karmapa is believed to be the 17th incarnation. The more famous Dalai Lama is on his 14th incarnation. While Buddhists, Hindus, and many others believe in reincarnation, only Tibetan Buddhists look for the reincarnation of their deceased teachers and test them by having them identify items that were used by the previous incarnation, hidden among a number of similar items. Early western explorers who traveled there did not understand tantric Buddhism. They called it lamaism because of the extreme reverence for teachers there. It seemed to foreign observers that the Tibetans were worshiping their lamas. This was not actually the case; it only appeared so because the teacher (guru in Sanskrit, lama in Tibetan) was honored as if they were the embodiment of the Three Jewels (the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha), since they were the gateway through which a student accessed these things. The strong faith in the teacher as if they were both a living Buddha and the concentration of the whole community of Buddhist masters (past, present, and future) was believed to catapult a student forward in their spiritual practices.
Tibet was a hidden land of mystery for the longest time. The Manchus conquered the Mongols and then all of China in 1644. They took up the mantle of protectors of Tibet. They called it part of the Qing Empire, although to the Tibetans, this was a nominal arrangement. They were not occupied by the Manchus, nor did they pay taxes to them. The Manchu emperors developed a close relationship with Tibetan Buddhism, as did the Mongols before them. Tibet was protected by its natural defenses: its mountains and desert wastes. There was almost no need for armed forces. The Tibetans were able to hide from the rest of the world and pretend that change was not coming, but as China crumbled under the Western onslaught in the 1800s, more and more foreign explorers reached Tibet. The British invaded in the early 1900s with Sikh troops, but never occupied more than a tiny piece of Tibet, and that only briefly. After the communist revolution in China in 1949, everything changed. Mao Ze Dong saw his opportunity to take his millions-strong army and expand China's borders to India. In Chinese, Tibet is called Xi Zang, which means "western treasure house." Tibet was seen as a place of enormous mineral wealth, plus a kind of ¨high ground of Asia¨ from which the P.R.C. could defend its southwest, or project power if need be. The borders of Tibet were changed to make it look smaller. Two million out of six million Tibetans were killed or died of starvation. Some six thousand temples (and connected schools and monasteries, nunneries, etc.) were destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of Tibetans fled this oppression. They went to Nepal and India, but did not stop there. The Tibetan diaspora reached the West in the 1960s, and the esoteric teachings from the Roof of the World were spread like diamonds for the population of the entire world to access. Tibetan teachers took Western students, and some of them became lamas. Some Tibetan teachers were even believed to have reincarnated into the bodies of Westerners. Out of the apocalyptic suffering the Tibetan people have endured over the last seven decades, the once-secret gem of their spiritual traditions has been offered as a blessing to the entire world.
In Seven Years in Tibet, Heinrich Harrer's story about his life in Tibet in the 1940s, he describes a people so reticent to kill that they avoided harming the worms when they dug to excavate for the foundation of a new building. He befriends the young Dalai Lama, who grew up to be a world-renowned spiritual leader. Christ said to love your enemy. The Dalai Lama has said that your enemy is your greatest teacher because they put your compassion to the test. If everyone had an attitude like this, there would never be another war on earth. There would not even be another crime. This peaceful quality of the Tibetan people is a truly precious jewel. It contains the answer we have all been looking for to achieve world peace.
This is why there is such a large section on Tibetan Buddhism in book stores. This is why the hijacked plane in Lost Horizon crash-landed in Tibet and the survivors found the hidden valley of Shangri-La there. This is why Bill Murray, Ace Ventura, Alec Baldwin, and Batman all went to Tibet. This is why the Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. Tibetan people are single-minded and intense in everything they do. The Tibetan landscape is unlike anything else in the world. It is a metaphor for the pinnacle of human spiritual endeavor. The Tibetan religion is in many ways more more complex and sophisticated that any other. To cure a psychological problem, you can see a psychiatrist, or you can try the immense toolkit of Tibetan meditations, which claim to have the most diverse assortment of methods for self-improvement of any teachings on the planet. There is no undiscovered valley of Shangri-La – no physical actual place – where an idyllic lifestyle can be found. However, the real teachings from the Roof of the World are now available to all, and from these a veritable utopia can be built – in the real world: anywhere and everywhere. The hidden pearls of wisdom that people gleaned over painful centuries of practice and meditation, which were once sought so devoutly and with such immense difficulty, are now scattered at your feet. All you have to do is pick them up. You don't have to be a Buddhist to benefit from these teachings. You only have to apply the universal principles they embody and the whole world will begin to change.
In the year 1160, Lama Shang was given a new assignment by his teacher, Gomsul. Lama Shang was a man of peace who wanted to practice Buddhism, a religion that taught ahimsa (non violence), the purification of one’s karma, and meditation. Specifically, he wanted to disappear into the mountains to meditate alone. Now, nearing 40, he was being asked to hunt down and kill all the bandits in the region who were making civilized life impossible. Four clans were at war and the country was lawless. The two holiest temples in Tibet had recently been burned down in the chaos. Lama Shang was tasked with rebuilding these, as well as suppressing the bandits. If the bandits were not eliminated, it would be impossible for any Buddhist pilgrims to travel in Tibet, for they would all be robbed and perhaps killed by roving highwaymen. In addition, Lama Shang was told to end the fighting between the warring clans and bring peace to that region of Tibet. How does a man who is devoted to self-perfection become a real-life Rambo? How did he do this without compromising his principles, harming his karma, or losing his soul?
He did so by rising to a higher level. He dissolved his own ego so there was no longer any anger or desire to seek revenge; only a clear understanding that a greater purpose was involved, and that this necessitated the accomplishment of a particular mission. He realized that there is only a sea of energy, and that the normal prohibition on killing or harming others does not apply in such unusual circumstances. His karma remained unblemished so long as his intentions were driven by wisdom and a compassionate interest in the greater good. Lama Shang drafted monks into the army and led his own meditation students into battle. According to tradition, he won every engagement by using his yogic powers to prevail and was often seen to be surrounded by beasts of prey.
Just as surgeons need to make an incision with a scalpel in order to heal a patient, Lama Shang had to use forceful, military means to bring about peace. Simply talking peacefully to the warring armies and bandits was not going to be effective. Yet, even as he waged war, he remained in a state of enlightened equipoise. Lama Shang said, “Everything I do is Mahamudra.” Mahamudra is the “Great Seal,” the essence of mind itself. Those who can hold onto this can balance inner peace with the temporary requirements of unorthodox behavior in an insane situation. Tashi Repa was later instructed by Lama Shang to use his yogic powers for the purpose of defending Tibet from a Mongol invasion. He won two battles but refused to fight a third, saying, “I came here to learn dharma and not kill people.” Because of his unwillingness to continue acting as protector, the Tibetan kingdom of Tangut fell in 1226 when the Mongols attacked again.
The path of Mahamudra is known as tantra. Tantra is spiritual practice in unorthodox ways in the midst of life, not always by sitting in silence. When monastic asceticism is not an option, one must transform all the daily things in ordinary life (normally considered the poisons of desire) into medicinal nectar. In other words, when you cannot go to the monastery, you bring the sacredness of monastic retreat to your home and your workplace. This seems like self-delusion and fantasy, but think again. As quantum mechanics teaches, the solid objects around us are not so solid; they are a quantum foam, a sea of energy, and the symphony of its ebbs and flows is conducted by our minds. If you really believe you are in a sacred space, and treat it as such, it becomes sacred. You are in a retreat even in the midst of battle. If you visualize yourself as an angelic being in a Pure Land, you begin to become one. When you have a difficult, distasteful job to do, you will be tainted by the negative karma of these necessary acts – unless you can slip into the dimension of tantra and engage in actionless action.
Padmasambhava, or “lotus born,” was an Indian sage believed to be a living Buddha. He is said to have used perfect actionless action to enlighten others in strange ways. According to tradition, he went about unclothed, lived in cemeteries, smeared his body with ashes, and broke every social and legal convention to demonstrate that, with proper mental skill, spiritual development, and compassionate intent, any action, no matter how awful on the surface, could direct a person towards enlightenment. Padmasambhava was the first person to bring Buddhism to Tibet. He began the Nyingma sect, the oldest of the four main branches of Tibetan Buddhism. Padmasambhava showed that Yoga and Buddhism could be properly practiced in an infinite number of ways, and that no action could be rightly judged by surface appearances alone.
The Indian sage, Bodhidharma felt compelled to pick up stakes and move to China. According to tradition, he sat and meditated in a cave until he lost the use of his legs. He brought the Dhyana (meditation) style of Buddhism to China, which became known as Chan (Zen in Japan). He is said to have invented kung fu from the movement of animals in nature. The monks of the Shao Lin Temple learned kung fu as part of their meditative training. It began as a health-giving self-defense exercise, and then evolved to become the basis of all the martial arts, including Tai Ji Quan. The only proper way to study kung fu or to use it in real life is to maintain the proper mental and spiritual attitude. This means it is only to be used for good and only for defense. A martial artist must therefore practice actionless action. Their movements, while incredibly violent, are not done out of negative emotion. Kung fu, when done properly, is not so much a matter of moving physical objects (your body, your weapons, the body of your opponent, etc.), as it is a metaphysical matter of controlling the vortex of energy within you and around you. This is how Shao Lin masters can hang from trees by their necks without being choked, smash cinder blocks with their hands without breaking bones, rest all their weight on sharpened spears without being cut, start fires with their qi gong, and shoot needles like bullets while sparks come from their fingers. They use their qi, not their muscles. Ideally, they direct it while in an emotionless state, becoming one with the benevolent forces of the universe working for the greater good.
The Bhagavad Gita is perhaps the best example in history of actionless action. In this climactic scene from the Mahabharata, the hero Arjuna rides his chariot to a position between two giant armies. He sees that his family members are fighting on both sides, and so he cannot avoid killing some of them in the upcoming fight. He is filled with disgust and is on the verge of abandoning the struggle. Just then, his chariot driver reveals himself to be an avatar of Lord Krishna. Krishna then lectures Arjuna on the need to look beyond the normal rule of ahimsa and do battle for the greater good. Normally non-violence is the way of Yoga, but in this case, India will be put under the rule of evil people if Arjuna refuses to take up arms. It is not a simple matter of avoiding bloodshed; he is part of the ongoing equation and has a holy mission to perform, unpleasant as it may be in conventional terms. Arjuna has a lengthy conversation with Krishna, after which he practices actionless action and wins a great victory.
How does a person go on and win although they are in an impossible situation? More importantly, how do you do so without losing your mind or soul? You do this by rising above yourself. In every situation, you think of your body not as the real you, but as an avatar under the control of your spirit, which literally looks down on the scene from above the crown of the head. The spirit drives the vehicle of the body. When you realize that the real you – your undying spirit – is indestructible, it releases you from fear. You must let go of the ego, all self-absorbed emotion, and all earthly desires. Then you can see the big picture and make judgments based on concern for others who have not yet reached your plane of comprehension. It is your job to thread the needle, find the way through the maze, undo the Gordian knot, and assist all others who are lost in the darkness of their own suffering to see the light. By maintaining this state of repose, you are able to act without being internally affected. You do not need to stop feeling; in fact you will feel the pain of others more acutely than before. In so doing, you generate a dynamo of compassion, an overwhelming determination to save them. This stops the waves that buffet you on a physical level from destabilizing your mind with negative emotions. You vow that if your body ceases to exist, you will return to save others, and your fears of death dissipate. Remaining focused on this goal ensures that after this life ends, you will once again return in a position to help others. Those with no understanding of the mechanics of karma would argue that it is illogical to care so much for others and not for one’s own self. People who think this way can debate anyone to a stand-still with logic and sophistry, but theirs is a foolish, specious argument. In fact, the only reason we do not directly experience the unity of ourselves and others from birth is because we falsely believe that there is such a thing as “self” and “other” in the first place. A fully-enlightened being like Jesus or Shayamuni Buddha can see that such distinctions are false. At the highest level, all beings are one. Knowing this at the deepest level is the key to enable actionless action, which is the secret to survival in difficult times – as well as the proper way to go through life in “ordinary” times of peace and stability.
THE EGO AS AN ALGORITHM
Each of us likes to think we do not have an ego, which we define as an inordinate amount of pride and narcissism. No one ever admits to this. Even the most narcissistic people who are so self-absorbed and full of pride that they could compete with Napoleon or Mussolini deny that they have an ego. If they are proud or self-absorbed, they justify this by thinking that it is a proper reflection of their inner greatness. The elimination of the entire ego is a necessary component of any serious self-improvement program, but ego must first be defined. In terms of spiritual improvement, simply getting rid of pride and narcissism is too low a bar. For starters, ridding oneself of the ego means that a person has to get rid of all self love and concern for reputation.
This practice of destroying the ego was undertaken by the Christian Desert Fathers in Egypt. Abba Macarius once ordered a brother to go to the cemetery and be abusive to the dead. The brother went to the cemetery to curse the dead and throw stones at their graves. The next day, he was ordered to go back to the cemetery and praise the dead, which he did. When the brother returned home, Abba Macarius said to him that even as the dead did not react whether cursed or praised, so he too must be like a dead man, ignoring both praise and scorn, in order to be saved (Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 132).
In the Kabbalah tradition of Judaism, a student who wanted to learn meditation would be asked whether or not he felt unsettled by the insults of others. If the answer was yes, he was advised to spend a few years deliberately ridding himself of the ego before being taught to meditate.
In the Islamic Sufi tradition, the destruction of the ego is also extremely important. When Shiblī offered to pay the Sufi master Junayd for divine knowledge, Junayd refused to take money, and instead assigned Shiblī the preliminary work of destroying the ego. He told Shiblī to sell sulfur for a year, then live in the streets as a beggar for five years – until his concern for reputation had been eviscerated. Only then did Junayd accept him as a disciple (Nicholson, The Mystics of Islam, 34-35).
In Buddhist terms, the creation of the ego is a result of the belief that the apparent material world is the only world that exists, which implies that the self is an independently-existing entity that deserves special treatment. This is explained by the model of the five skandhas, or “aggregates.” It is composed of five interconnected links in an ever-spinning spiral that combine to create the persuasive illusion that the temporary self we see in the mirror is the true self.
The first skandha is rupa, the tendency of space to create forms in the proximity of sentient beings, or even in proximity to the field of mind generated by these beings. These shapes include our bodies, our sense organs, and all the visible patterns of the universe around us. Why do forms result from emptiness? To fully understand it, you must first become enlightened. Until then, just accept that forms appear from emptiness, but that the forms are themselves empty of independent existence. If you demand an explanation before you accept this, you are like the foolish man in Buddha’s parable of the poisoned arrow, who demanded that someone explain to him who made the arrow, where the poison came from, why the arrow was shot, etc., prior to the arrow being pulled out. He died of the poison, never knowing the answers to these questions.
The second skandha is vedana, or perception. This refers to the fact that sentient beings, while in the form of an incarnated living shape, use their sense organs to perceive the forms around them. This limits our ability to comprehend the true nature of forms, as it restricts our data intake to the limited input that our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin, and mind allow. Once we begin relying on the senses for our understanding, we shut ourselves off to intuition and extra-sensory perception.
The third skandha is samjna, or recognition. This means we take the jumble of information we receive from our senses and rapidly assimilate it according to our past experiences. Like any animal, we classify the things we encounter into meaningful, predefined categories: this is a car, that’s a house, a person, a fork, a cell phone, etc. When we see something we don’t recognize, we are curious. We investigate and look closely. If we can’t make sense of it, we make notes to ourselves like, “it has the body of a horse and the wings of a bird” until we come up with a new term like Pegasus to describe it. Some things we just put into a box labeled “does not fit with any known category.” Some of us leave this box alone. Others try to resolve its mysteries, which leads us to read and inquire widely, which leads us to the discovery of teachings like this about the skandhas.
The fourth skandha is samskaras, or mental formations. This includes all thoughts and concepts. In terms of our relationship with the outside world, this refers to the determination of our relationship with objects. We have an implicit understanding of each thing we have identified in terms of its relationship vis-a-vis ourselves. Food is good, but some food is better than other foods. Poison is bad, but some poisons are worse than others. A gold nugget is always something to grab and hold onto. A radioactive chunk of uranium, although valuable, is to be avoided. An attractive person draws us closer. A person with qualities we don’t like repels us. Money is always something we want. Disease is always something we don’t want. These mental formations color our ideas of the world in a fundamental way and make objective thought impossible.
The fifth skandha is vijnana, the awareness of the first four skandhas. It refers to the seamless continuation of this conscious experience. We see things, process the data, categorize, determine a course of action based on what we determine to be a proper relationship with objects around us (usually: accumulate money, seek out pleasure, avoid pain), and the fact that this formula works well enough most of the time appears to prove that our thesis about the world around us is correct. We wake up in the house that we bought with the money we earned, and enjoy the things we accumulated (food, furniture, cars, etc.). Those who do not carefully avoid the things they should avoid (dangerous people, things, and situations) seem to meet with unfortunate consequences. The continuity of this all reinforces our belief in the world created by the skandhas. Unless a person does a lot of drugs, their sense perceptions do not periodically glitch out into static, go into a dark state of limbo, then reboot in a different body looking at entirely different scenery. If this happened on a regular basis, we would begin to doubt the reality of our present situation. Since this doesn’t happen, it appears to confirm what scientists take for granted: that our collective experience in the material world is – for want of a better term – “real.” Scottish philosopher David Hume noticed the disconnect between this assumption of reality and our ability to prove it:
The mind has never anything present to it but the perceptions, and cannot possibly reach any experience of their connexion with objects. The supposition of such a connexion . . . is, therefore, without any foundation in reasoning.
Hume’s observation about this fault at the heart of all scientific thought was never really answered in a meaningful way. Scientists generally think we need to move beyond Hume’s doubts, as if dwelling on his critique would prevent further experimentation. Actually, his concerns can be traced all the way back to the original disagreement between Plato and Aristotle. Plato looked at the physical world as something that, due to its transitory nature, was unreliable and illusory. Aristotle saw the physical world as a legitimate area of inquiry in the search for truth, and he viewed the senses as necessary tools for its exploration. By declaring that our bodies and the things around us are “real” (in the ultimate sense – having firm, independent existence) without acknowledging that this is an assumption, we are jumping to an unfounded conclusion. This conundrum is reminiscent of the Daoist sage, Zhuang Zi, who had a famous dream of being a butterfly, then awakening to wonder if he was a man who dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly who dreamed he was a man. Hume, Plato, and Zhuang Zi all have a good point that scientists do not like to admit. If we cannot find a control or an escape hatch to step outside ourselves and view what is happening objectively, how can we ever be sure what actually comprises the nature of reality?
The existence of the self is a trick of the skandhas to convince each of us that we – as in the person we think of when we sign our name – exist in a meaningful way. “Of course I exist,” each of us thinks, “Here I am right now. Look at me. I see myself in the mirror,” or, as Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” The real question we can never answer with logic alone is: what will we do when we no longer have a body? The scientist, trapped in the material view (like Apasmara, the stunted demon from Hindu iconography), says there will then be no more existence of the self after death. This assertion, made without any evidence, of course flies in the face of the wisdom of all religious teachings. These teachings are represented by the god Shiva, who tramples the demon underfoot in the eternal triumph of wisdom over ignorance (that which is grounded in time and space, and which wrongly believes there is nothing more to reality than what the senses can perceive). Thus, like AI software that mistakenly believes itself to be an independent, living entity, we imagine ourselves (the imaginary self, the ego) to be real in a permanent, meaningful way. Laboring under this delusion, we use the senses to view the physical world around us and mistake it to be truth: the only reality there is. So, an imaginary thing looks at imaginary things, imagines a set of opinions about them, and then creates a set of algorithms to justify its erroneous, self-serving views. This invented algorithm is the basis of the synthetic set of interconnected suppositions that compose the ego. All living beings inevitably mistake this apparent set of likes and dislikes, the sense of an existent self with a body, the appearance of our body, the way we expect others to react to the sight of us, our reputation, as well as all our thoughts and conceptions of ourselves and the world around us, etc. (essentially the five skandhas) for their true selves. The Buddha said this was absolutely not the case: the skandhas are not the real you. The ego is not the real you.
If we are to have any success in eradicating the ego, we must first admit that we have one, and then recognize how expansive and deeply-rooted it is. It isn’t just a matter of not being a stuck-up jerk; it is a matter of realizing that everything we assume about the world and ourselves, no matter how nice a person we may be, is based on the illusion of the skandhas. We have to deconstruct the ego from the inside out, understanding how its architecture was created from a series of interdependent effects chasing each other around like a string of bulbs lighting in sequence to create the illusion of movement. It seems to be real because of our ongoing experience of it, but this is what makes the trap so hard to escape. If we cannot stop having an ego, then we cannot eliminate ego-clinging and desire. If we can’t get rid of desire, we can never properly practice any spiritual path and reach enlightenment. If, on the other hand, we succeed at seeing through the ego, we can realize that there are actually no insides or outsides. Our minds are not located in our brains as we assume, nor are we located in our bodies. We are infinite and eternal. The first step toward higher consciousness is understanding and believing this. We imagine what it must be like to be omnipresent and omniscient, but in fact we already possess the things. We do not experience them directly yet because we are blocked by the skandhas and our sense of ego. The ability to experience this enlightenment is buddha-nature, which is hidden yet accessible in all of us. The problem is that we refuse to accept the fact of our own infinite self, and this refusal prevents us from accessing the truth. The water cannot flow unless we unclog the pipe, but as long as we think of ourselves as the blockage instead of the pipe, we cannot conceive of how to bring about a higher state of being.
In considering this enigma and the means of resolving it, I often think of a movie I saw as a kid: the 1978 made-for-television version of The Thief of Baghdad, starring Roddy McDowall. In one scene (one hour, 14 minutes, and 30 seconds in), the thief was inside a giant cavern. The prized magic jewel – the all-seeing eye – was in the ceiling far above him. He sized up the situation and was disappointed to discover that the eye was impossibly high overhead. Then he noticed the inscription “BEHOLD THE TRUTH LIES WITHIN THY REACH” written on the floor below. After pondering the message, he understood its meaning. He ignored what his senses were telling him and reached his hand upward toward the distant prize. When he did so, he found that the height of the ceiling was a mirage. The jewel had been within his grasp all along.