Epimenides, who once became interested in Eastern Philosophy, made a long pilgrimage to meet Buddha. When he finally met him, Epimenides said, “I have come to ask a question. What is the best question that can be asked and what is the best answer that can be given?”

Buddha replied, “The best question that can be asked is the question you have just asked, and the best answer that can be given is the answer I am giving.”

– Raymond Smullyan, 5000 B.C. and Other Philosophical Fantasies.

The Introduction to Mark Epstein’s book Open to Desire (The Truth About What the Buddha Taught) begins with the following story about the famous wise man fool:

“… A man sits in the center of a Middle Eastern marketplace crying his eyes out, a platter of peppers spilled out on the ground before him. Steadily and methodically, he reaches for pepper after pepper, popping them into his mouth and chewing deliberately, at the same time wailing uncontrollably.
“What’s wrong, Nasruddin?” his friends wonder, gathering around the extraordinary sight. “What’s the matter with you?” Tears stream down Nasruddin’s face as he sputters an answer. “I’m looking for a sweet one,” he gasps.”

With the aim of delving deeper into the various sociological, political, philosophical, psychological and cultural aspects of Buddhism, I have been, lately, reading quite extensively books, scholarly works, published papers and articles on the same, and I have to say the whole exercise has been a very rewarding experience on many levels. There is, for instance, a deeper understanding of the different schools of Buddhist thought and how and why they arose based on their soteriological and metaphysical foundations as well as the influence they have had on the development of Buddhism in different regions of the world. And, then, there is the wisdom gained by immersing oneself in the variegated ways that other Buddhists think and feel about Buddha’s teachings.

There is, in fact, much material I have read and absorbed in a relatively short span of time that could be the subject of my posts on this blog. And, I shall begin with a gem that I found in Smith and Novak’s Buddhism – A Concise Introduction. In chapter 7 (titled ‘Theravada and Mahayana: The Great Divide’) of their book, the authors lay out some of the key differences between Theravadins and Mahayanists in their approach toward the Buddhist goal (if there is just one!) assuming that such a conceptual bifurcation of Buddhist thought is even admissible. I don’t think it is, but others will beg to disagree.

At the risk of oversimplifying, the salient features of the two schools of Theravada and Mahayana can be be laid out by way of comparison. Smith and Novak write that Theravada maintains that “Human beings are emancipated by self-effort, without supernatural aid” while in Mahayana it is accepted that “Human aspirations are supported by divine powers and the grace they bestow.” Wisdom is the key virtue in the Theravada school, whereas compassion is the key virtue in Mahayana. Theravadins maintain that “Buddha [was] a saint, supreme teacher, and inspirer”, while Mahayanists  look at the “Buddha [as] a savior.” The former downplay both metaphysics and rituals while the latter elaborate metaphysics and emphasize rituals. There are other distinct features  of the two schools, but the one that stands out most prominently, to my mind, is related to the Buddhist Ideal. In Theravada, the Buddhist Ideal is “the arhat who attains nirvana“, whereas in Mahayana, it is that of “the bodhisattva who indefinitely postpones nirvana to care for others.”

But, Smith and Novak narrate a story (which is the gem I was referring to, earlier) that essentially demolishes most of the differences  (notwithstanding the doctrinal ones) between the two aforementioned schools.

Following World War II, two young Germans who were disillusioned with Europe went to Sri Lanka to dedicate their lives to the Buddha’s peaceable way. Both became Theravada monks. One, his name changed to Nyanaponika Thera, continued on that path; but the other, while on a sightseeing trip to north India, met some Tibetans, switched to their tradition, and became known in the West as Lama Govinda. Toward the close of Nyanaponika’s life a visitor asked him about the different Buddhisms the two friends had espoused. With great serenity and sweetness the aging Theravadin replied: “My friend cited the Bodhisattva Vow as the reason for his switch to Mahayana, but I could not see the force of his argument. For if one were to transcend self-centeredness completely, as the arhat seeks to do, what other than compassion would remain?”

Christopher Titmuss has an insightful article on the NOW.


This article is a critical examination of the beliefs and conclusions invested in the Now. Despite the inner benefits from contact with the here and now, I regard it as irresponsible to grasp onto the Now, as if the Now served as the answer to everything. There are spiritual teachers whose claims to enlightenment rests on the conviction that there is only the Now, and they intimate that they abide in it all the time.

I suspect the Buddha would be bemused at the new lightweight determination of enlightenment as being totally in the Now that is on offer in the West. We might have the impression that the Buddha used the phrase “here and now” hundreds of times in his teachings, but I can’t find a single reference to “here and now” in his 5000 discourses. When the term “here and now” does appear it is usually as a translation of two words that the Buddha used – dittha dhamma. However this is a very, very free translation since neither dittha nor dhamma means here or now respectively. The Buddha would not be so shortsighted as to fix the now as the only truth.

Our culture has put such a positive spin on living for the moment that, sadly, this standpoint has entered into exploration of the Dharma. Dittha dhamma literally means “a thing seen” or when in the locative case ditthe dhamme – “in the visible order of things; in this seen dharma”. The Dharma points to awakening amidst the view and presence of phenomena. It is not a teaching of being in the Now or identifying with it in any way.

(Hat-tip to Hokai!)

Over at the Dharma Overground community, a member started a thread by posing the following question: how to investigate no-self? For serious meditation practitioners who may have encountered this question before or may have reflected on the same, it poses an “enigma”, if you will. One of the members, haquan, from the same community responded by setting up an illuminating dialectic, a sort of a koan.

David Hume criticized those thinkers who claimed that there was no self, saying “They are like the man that leaves his study, goes outside to look through the window, and concludes that he is not home.”
My counter (haquan): “Those who claim there is a self are like someone who leaves his study, goes outside to look through the window, and points to the desk and empty chair saying “See – there I am!””

Now does the self exist or not? How can the man investigate it when he can not see himself, and has no mirror?

There is only the field of experience.

In traditional Buddhist cosmology, there are six Lokas or realms into which a sentient being may be born: as devas (gods), asuras (demigods), humans, animals, pretas (“hungry ghosts”), or as denizens of hell. The usual understanding is that based on one’s actions and dispositions in past lives, it is possible to be reborn in any one of these realms, and certainly Buddhists around the world hold such beliefs very strongly. There is in fact quite an extensive literature giving precise descriptions of each of these worlds and their various subdivisions, and in the history of Buddhism, there is tell of various people who, convinced they would be reborn into one of the purgatories, made an all-out effort to attain Buddhahood in one lifetime in order to avoid such a terrible fate (Naropa, for instance, according to the telling of David-Neel, and also Milarepa).

Surely some people reading this will think it all utter nonsense: rebirth, heavens and hells, and all that. But as usual in these things, there is a second, dual reading beside the literal one: the various descriptions of these realms can also be read metaphorically, as vividly rendered portraits of psychological states that each of us may pass through. None of these states is permanent, of course — one may morph into another in a blink of the eye; in fact we may pass through all these realms in the course of the day, or even in an hour.

Personally, I think some of these psychological portraits can be pretty witty, and if I had to pick one realm that corresponds to typical mental states of mathematicians, it’d have to be the asura realm, also known as the realm of the “jealous gods”. Here is the brilliant Chögyam Trungpa, describing a “monkey” in transit from the human realm to the realm of jealous gods (from Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism):

But the monkey discovers that, although he is intelligent and can manipulate his world to achieve some pleasure, still he cannot hold on to pleasure nor can he always get what he wants. He is plagued by illness, old age, death — by frustration and problems of all kinds. Pain is the constant companion of his pleasures.

So he begins, quite logically, to deduce the possibility of heaven, the complete elimination of pain and achievement of pleasure. His version of heaven may be the acquisition of extreme wealth or power or fame — whatever he would like his world to be, and he becomes preoccupied with achievement and competition. This is the Asura Realm, the Realm of the Jealous Gods. The monkey dreams of ideal states that are superior to the pleasures and pains of the Human Realm and is always trying to achieve these states, always trying to be better than anyone else. In his constant struggle to achieve perfection of some sort, the monkey becomes obsessed with measuring his progress, with comparing himself to others. Through developing increased control of his thoughts and emotions and therefore greater concentration, he is able to manipulate his world more successfully than in the Human Realm. But his preoccupation with always being best, with always being master of a situation, makes him insecure and anxious. He must always struggle to control his territory, overcoming all threats to his achievements. He is always fighting for mastery of his world.

The ambition to gain victory and the fear of losing a battle provide a sense of being alive as well as cause irritation. The monkey constantly loses sight of his ultimate goal, but is still driven on by his ambition to be better. He is obsessed with competition and achievement. He seeks out pleasurable, appealing situations that seem beyond his reach and tries to draw them into his territory. When it is too difficult to achieve his goals, he may shy away from the struggle and condemn himself for not disciplining himself, for not working harder. So the monkey is caught in a world of unfulfilled ideals, self-condemnation, and fear of failure.

That, I find, is a very accurate sketch of how I guess a lot of mathematicians often feel, and I’m no exception!

Interestingly, it’s said in Buddhism that only in the human realm is it possible to break the karmic chain. You could say that the human realm is the realm of action based on discrimination, of using one’s intellect and passion to shop around between alternatives. (“Choosy mothers choose Jif!” would be a quintessentially human utterance.) In the other five realms, there is either too much fascination with one’s world or projections at work (whether of a more heavenly or more hellish sort), keeping ego in thrall, or else (in the animal realm) there is a kind of ignorance or stupidity at work. Whereas in the human realm there is at least some possibility of stepping back a bit and examining one’s situation, to question the whole process of struggle. Therefore in Buddhism it is said that birth in the human realm is the most fortunate of all, even more so than birth in the realm of gods.

You might be curious about this business of “hungry ghosts”. In the traditional iconography, hungry ghosts are depicted as beings with enormous guts but pencil-thin necks. They have more freedom of movement than hell-born creatures, but suffer from intense longings and cravings that have essentially no chance of ever being satisfied. There’s even a little symbolic ritual practiced during sesshin (in the Zen tradition), where at mealtimes the participants put aside a little morsel of their food, offered up with a kind of prayer to feed the hungry ghosts!

About ten years ago there emerged a most remarkable book,

The author is a neurologist cum Zen practitioner, and the book itself is a fascinating glimpse both into the science of brain and neural biochemistry, and into one man’s inner experience of Zen meditation and the “peak” experiences (kensho) which may accompany committed practice. From the preface:

Aldous Huxley called mankind’s basic trend toward spiritual growth the “perennial philosophy.” Herein, I take a different perspective. To me, the trend implies a dynamic, intimate perennial psychophysiology. It is a series of processes, slowly evolving, that culminate in defining moments of extraordinary character. What are such “peak” experiences? How could they both profoundly enhance, yet simplify, the workings of the brain? This book summarizes the latest evidence.

This is also the story of one neurologist’s personal quest and professional search. These two paths converge in ways that lead to one straightforward thesis: awakening, enlightenment, occurs only because the human brain undergoes substantial changes. Does prior meditation help the brain to change in this direction? If so, how? This subject is explored throughout the book.

To me, the book had something of the character of feeling its way into new territory, and I’d be interested in learning more about what has come of the science in the last ten years. (Although I admit that I found the “neurologizing” pretty hard going — Austin is a graceful writer and a fine expositor, but the science is presented at a pretty detailed, technical level, far beyond my competence to judge.) It also reminded me of another book at the crossroads between neuroscience, phenomenology, and Buddhism:

not because of any explicit mention of this line of thought, but because of the intensely phenomenological descriptions of Zen experience that Austin presents. Here, I have to say that I really admire Austin’s courage in probing and describing unusual “states of mind” (from his personal experience) in such a detailed, concrete way: experiences which are usually simply passed off as “ineffable” — beyond description. [I mean, of course all that's true -- but all the more reason to admire Austin's effort!] Here, let me give an excerpt (from Chapter 94, The Feel of Two Hands): “… On one occasion, I felt this latent tactile world leap out by itself. It did so, unannounced, in the following manner.”

On an average morning, after 25 minutes of zazen, I will shave and casually rinse my face. Then, eyes closed, rubbing rhythmically with both hands, I’ll dry it off with a towel. It’s an old routine, overlearned for decades. I am not thinking at the time, nor will I be paying any special attention to the way messages from either hand enter my sensate consciousness.

So at first, nothing about this particular Saturday morning seems any different from any other. Around 7:30 A.M., five minutes after zazen ends, I shave, rinse my face in my hands with cold water, pick up a towel, and then start to dry my face as usual. Suddenly, for the first time ever, I really feel my hands. Abruptly, during toweling, my tactile sensations are enormously enhanced. Perception increases dramatically on the right hand and shades off around the elbow. On the left, it increases perhaps one third that much and extends above the wrist. Only the sense of touch is enhanced, as it is elicited by the towel in my hands. The way the towel feels on contact with my face is the same as usual. I still retain all the usual distinctions between myself as subject and the towel as object. Vision, hearing, and other sensate experiences are unchanged. My hands are as strong as before. No fingers are jerking (as they might if this were some kind of seizure).

Astonishing, delicious perception! How much richer this tactile experience is than ordinary feeling! The episode lasts perhaps five or ten seconds, then gradually fades over a second or two.

“Never before, or since, has my tactile sense so vastly expanded. For five or ten seconds, I was witness to acute touch perceptions which sober estimation placed as being amplified perhaps fifteen times more than usual. These were perceptions that one usually tunes out. What had released them?” There follows several pages of speculation on what had transpired neurologically.

And, speaking now to Vishal’s post Enlightened Teachers, Austin’s book is also moving testimony to his Zen teacher, Nanrei Kobori-Roshi, and the towering state of mind attained by this modern-day master.

I would enjoy hearing other reactions to this book.

I have always wondered – and I am sure there are many others who do too – if there really are enlightened beings today! And just like anyone else, I have my own “model(s)” of enlightenment which I constantly use in order to evaluate the writings and teachings of so-called “masters”. It is a very tricky business, and for quite some time I have been very much aware of the severe limitations I impose upon myself by using those models: how can I even have a model of enlightenment if I don’t know what enlightenment means. This is even more problematic considering the fact that there is a growing consensus now that “enlightenment” is not the correct term to use; rather, “awakening” is more accurate!

So, with the above in mind, when I listened to this particular show/podcast titled “Enlightened Teachers” on Buddhist Geeks, wherein Daniel M. Ingram talks about arahatships and the like, my mind was immediately drawn to the topic in discussion. What is particularly striking is the fact that Daniel claims he is an arahat/arahant and writes more about it in this essay. He seems to be able to cut all that crap about enlightenment that one hears from different sources (including tradition) and talk directly to the practitioner. The feeling one gets is that it is possible, after all!

The show is just 12 mins long and the essay isn’t too long either. I would be interested in any kind of comment/feedback from readers of this blog. Thanks!

Six wise but blind elephants were discussing what humans were like.  Failing to agree, they decided to determine what humans were like by direct experience. The first wise, blind elephant felt the human and declared, “Humans are flat.”
The other wise, blind elephants, after feeling the human, agreed.

A quote from one of Shunryu Suzuki’s book.

The purpose of studying Buddhism is not to study Buddhism but to study ourselves. It is impossible to study ourselves without some teaching… We need some teaching, but just by studying the teaching alone, it is impossible to know what ‘I’ in myself am. Through the teaching we may understand our human nature. But the teaching is not we ourselves; it is some explanation of ourselves. So if you are attached to the teaching, or to the teacher, you should leave the teacher, and you should be independent. You need a teacher so that you can become independent. If you are not attached to him[her], the teacher will show you the way to yourself.

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

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