The Dhammapada exploration – part 22: Nirayavagga

It’s Dhammapada-time again! This time we talk about Nirayavagga, the Abyss, the state of woe. In your typical carrot-and-stick duality, you would call this something like hell. Also, there’s some stuff about rebirth.

Again, rebirth is not understood as physical reincarnation by all brands of Buddhism. There is significant disagreement about this. If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of physical rebirth (I sure as hell am), rebirth is also be defined as the reconstruction of your illusion of self that happens from any moment to the next.

At any one time your brain holds a certain pattern and a synaptic configuration and whatnot, and that configuration makes you think you are you. But this structure is always changing. Your consciousness gets its image of itself and its surroundings from the sense organs in small snapshots, but it also stores (not like a tape recorder) a memory of many of the past configurations. That means that from moment to moment, you are reborn. The you that was a moment ago has given rise to the you that is now you in a series of interdependent events that started when your brain developed in utero. You will never be that you again. In that sense you are reborn every moment.

By your actions you can influence this rebirth. That’s also part of what all that kamma talk is about. Want some more about self as illusion? Watch Sam Harris give an explanation.

Buddhist philosophers figured that shit out millenia ago, and today’s science is also curious about some of those topics. Topics like free will is an illusion, the self is an illusion, time is an illusion, it’s all very trippy stuff and it’s no wonder that a bunch of ancient monks, bored silly by staring at walls for hours every week, dug into this first.

But now, let’s descend into hell!

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The Dhammapada exploration – part 21: Miscellaneous

The old masters probably had some pretty smart verses that wouldn’t fit neatly into any of the chapters they’d laid out for the Dhammapada, so in the end they thought “screw it, let’s just put them all in a chapter titled ‘Miscellaneous’ and be done with it”. You’d think this would become a boring chapter, but it contains some real gems. Let’s read!

290. If by renouncing a lesser happiness one may realize a greater happiness, let the wise man renounce the lesser, having regard for the greater.

Chasing after worldly delights, clinging to money, fame, the ego, getting extremely drunk, partying all weekend, amassing Italian luxury sports cars (that break down every time you drive them), those are examples of lesser happiness. You might think they make you happy, but the rest of the Buddhist literature explains why this is a delusion. Soon after buying that Lambo, you find out it can’t fill the hole in you. And then you want another Ferrari. But guess what? That Ferrari won’t plug what’s missing either. This type of craving for belongings is a never-ending cycle that can only be stopped by avoiding it in the first place, by recognizing what it is.
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Where will you step when there is no more safe ground?

You thought you’re safe and you have privacy because you use some fancy-schmancy encrypted email provider? I don’t think so.

This year saw some remarkable changes, bear with me while I go off on some tangents:

  • The UK voted to leave the EU and subsequently introduced one of the most far-reaching and invasive surveillance laws in the world.
  • The USA elected Donald Trump under speculations of Russian involvement, possibly thawing US-Russian relations and forcing Edward Snowden to be extradited to the US, where he might be executed for revealing truths the US didn’t want revealed. Keep in mind that he never invented anything, he didn’t lie, unlike the US President-elect. He merely told the truth.
  • Switzerland, which had formerly been ready to offer asylum to Snowden, was pressured by the US government to stop that. All the while, US intelligence agencies were illegaly patrolling through Swiss cities and running surveillance operations in Berne and Geneva. The Swiss government stopped any investigation of these operations after the US increased their pressure.

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The Dhammapada exploration – part 20: The path

At some point the Buddha promised that he knows some wild tricks that could make annoyances and stupidity disappear from your life. He was talking about dukkha, but that word doesn’t have a good translation; “suffering” it ain’t. Think of dukkha more as unpleasantness, an unsatisfied state, things going not quite as they should. It is said the word comes from the sound a wagon’s wheel makes when one of its spokes is broken — dukkhadukkhadukkhadukkha. So things aren’t quite round and smooth.

Following the Buddha’s path to liberation requires treading the Noble Eightfold Path. So let’s hear how the Dhammapada advertises this cool product:

273. Of all the paths the Eightfold Path is the best; of all the truths the Four Noble Truths are the best; of all things passionlessness is the best: of men the Seeing One (the Buddha) is the best.

Of course it would be the best!

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A modern example of Christian proselytizing in Cambodia

TL;DR: A bunch of Christian missionaries are destroying Cambodian culture in exchange for  building orphanages and schools, and a guy made a film about it. It’s full of vague statements and misinformation about Buddhism.

It’s not really news that Christian missionaries use very creative means to get the native population of an area to adopt Christianity. Catholic priest Diego de Landa Calderón for example grew furious about the fact that the people of the Yucatán region continued worshipping their old gods along with the new Christian god he had only just forcibly thrust up their asses.

Now what would a sane, wise and compassionate person do in this situation? Perhaps accept the fact that whatever belief system you hold as a Catholic priest, there are other belief systems that were there before you arrived. And your own system might not be the right one for everyone, even if your holy book says so and even though your religion instructs you to spread it. A wise one would perhaps acknowledge that there is value in these people’s culture and beauty in the way they adapt their own religion to fit the new Christian god right into their own pantheon.

What did Landa do instead? He systematically wiped out their entire written history of the people he conquered and destroyed every last trace of their culture and religion, robbing all future generations of their identity and annoying historians to this day. Bravo! A good Catholic if there ever was one.

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The Dhammapada exploration – part 19: The just/the judge

It’s Sunday, so it’s time to catch up on our Dhammapada reading! Buddhism gives some advice on judging, and as we’ve learned earlier, prejudice is particularly frowned upon. But Buddhism never goes into the “hey man, don’t judge!” hippie territory either. Instead, you should reflect on the proper things and in the proper way before reaching judgment on something or someone.

Now what are these proper ways? Let’s have a look.

256. Not by passing arbitrary judgments does a man become just; a wise man is he who investigates both right and wrong.

257. He who does not judge others arbitrarily, but passes judgment impartially according to the truth, that sagacious man is a guardian of law and is called just.

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As AI absorbs your life’s data, how do you feel?

Humanity has started down a new road in its history and those of us alive today get to watch it unfold. Companies like Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Amazon and to some degree Apple are now beginning to train their artificial intelligence systems on your data. Data from real people, available for the first time in the vast amounts that are useful to AI programmers.

First attempts might be clumsy. Cortana might direct you to a Thai massage parlor that smells of smegma from ten meters away, when all you wanted was some Thai-Italian fusion food. But as you complain about bad results, Cortana learns and improves, her data size increases, the next results will be better.

Free comes without freedom

Have you wondered how Google can afford to give you unlimited storage for all your photos in original resolution for free? Storage costs money, data centers suck up huge amounts of electricity and some person or robot has to change failing hard drives and monitor the hardware and services. This might be offered for free to you, but it’s not free for Google. So what do they gain? Pictures taken by real people, plus GPS data about where the picture was taken, and thanks to the high-accuracy sensors in their new phone, Google knows the pitch, tilt and yaw of your phone when you took the picture. It gets placed into a sort of 3D collage of the world, owned by them, not you.

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