Buddha's Brain

"Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without." ~ Buddha


Posted on October 17, 2016

 One hot June morning some years ago, I got off the all-night train in the Northern India region of Uttar Pradesh, best known as the most holy city of Varanasi on the banks of the Ganga River  (Ganges). Out on the street and off the train, I ran into a group of rough men standing beside their bicycle rickshaws. One of them came up and offered to show me around. The price he quoted was outrageous. It was less than I would pay for a bar of chocolate at home.
So I clambered into his trishaw, and he began pedaling us slowly between the palaces and pagodas where century’s old Hindu, Jain and Buddhist rituals had and still continue to take place. And as he did, he told me how he had come to the city from his village. He’d earned a degree in mathematics. His dream was to be a teacher. But of course, life can be hard, and so for now, this was the only way he could make a living. Many nights, he told me, he actually slept in his trishaw so he could catch the first visitors off the all-night train.
And very soon, we found that in certain ways, we had so much in common…..we were both in our 40s, we were both fascinated by foreign cultures…..then he invited me to his family’s restaurant for a morning meal and cup of chai.
So we turned off the wide, crowded streets, and we began bumping down rough, wild alleyways. There were broken shacks all around. I really lost the sense of where I was, and I realized that anything could happen to me now. I could get mugged or drugged or something worse. Nobody would know.
Finally, he stopped and led me into a hut, which consisted of just one tiny room and a kitchen area. And then he leaned down, and reached under the front counter. And something in me froze. I waited to see what he would pull out. And finally he extracted a box. Inside it was every single letter he had ever received from visitors from abroad, and on some of them he had pasted little black-and-white worn snapshots of his new foreign friends.
So when we said goodbye that afternoon, I realized he had also shown me the secret point of travel, which is to take a plunge, to go inwardly as well as outwardly to places you would never go otherwise, to venture into uncertainty, ambiguity, even fear.
At home, it’s dangerously easy to assume we’re on top of things. Out in the world, you are reminded every moment that you’re not, and you can’t get to the bottom of things, either.
Everywhere, “People wish to be settled,” Ralph Waldo Emerson reminded us, “but only insofar as we are unsettled is there any hope for us.”
I was recently at a conference in Boston where we were so lucky to hear about some exhilarating new ideas and discoveries and, really, about all the ways in which knowledge is being pushed excitingly forward. But at some point, knowledge gives out. And that is the moment when your life is truly decided: you fall in love; you lose a friend; the lights go out. And it’s then…..when you’re lost or uneasy or carried out of yourself…..that you find out who you are.
I don’t believe that ignorance is bliss. Science has unquestionably made our lives brighter and longer and healthier. And I am forever grateful to the teachers who showed me the laws of physics and pointed out that three times three makes nine. I can count that out on my fingers any time of the night or day. But when a mathematician tells me that minus three times minus three makes nine {(-3) x (-3) = 9}, that’s a kind of logic that almost feels like trust.
The opposite of knowledge, in other words, isn’t always ignorance. It can be wonder. Or mystery. Possibility. And in my life, I’ve found it’s the things I don’t know that have lifted me up and pushed me forward much more than the things I do know. It’s also the things I don’t know that have often brought me closer to everybody around me.
I have had the great fortune to travel with my dear teacher, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. And the one thing he says every day that seems to give people reassurance and confidence is, “I don’t know.”
“What’s going to happen to Tibet?” “When are we ever going to get world peace?” “What’s the best way to raise children?”
“Frankly,” says this very wise man, “I don’t know.”
The Nobel Prize-winning economist and Princeton Professor Daniel Kahneman has spent more than 60 years now researching human behavior, and his conclusion is that we are always much more confident of what we think we know than we should be. We have, as he memorably puts it, an “unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.” We know…..quote, unquote…..our team is going to win this weekend, and we only remember that knowledge on the rare occasions when we’re right. Most of the time, we’re in the dark. And that’s where real intimacy lies.
In Christianity, the parents of us all, as some people call them, Adam and Eve, could never die, so long as they were eating from the tree of life. But the minute they began nibbling from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they fell from their innocence. They grew embarrassed and fretful, self-conscious. And they learned, a little too late, perhaps, that there are certainly some things that we need to know, but there are many, many more that are better left unexplored.
When I was a kid, I knew it all, of course. I had been spending 20 years in classrooms collecting facts. Knowledge is a priceless gift. But the illusion of knowledge can be more dangerous than ignorance.
Thinking that you know your friend or your enemy can be more treacherous than acknowledging you’ll never know them.
I’ve been a monastic for 30 years. And the one thing that I have learned is that transformation comes when I’m not in charge, when I don’t know what’s coming next, when I can’t assume I am bigger than everything around me. And the same is true in love or in moments of crisis. Suddenly, we’re back in that trishaw again and we’re bumping off the broad, well-lit streets; and we’re reminded, really, of the first law of travel and, therefore, of life: you’re only as strong as your readiness to surrender.
In the end, perhaps, being human is much more important than being fully in the know.

Divisive things Divide

Posted on October 10, 2016

  • Divisive:  creating disunity or dissension <a divisive issue> <Divisive things divide>
  • divisively   adverb
  • divisiveness   noun

The Buddha once asked:

What is the most destructive organ in the human body?
What is the most helpful organ in the human body?”

“The tongue.”

So much of my work over the past 2 or so decades has been about bringing people together, not tearing them apart. Healing, not hurting. Feeding the needy….not depriving. Helping the innocent….not ignoring.  And making the world a better and safer place for all the children and beings of our future.  A lot of the work has been with children, education and the building of Upasanti Village….and part of that work has been within myself… learning about how my actions and words affect others (either positively or negatively), understanding the repercussions of those actions and being accountable for them.
Yesterday (Tuesday…and for the rest of this week), I had the incredible honor to be invited, and to attend, the United Nations General Assembly in NYC as an official UN delegate representing Upasanti Village. In listening to the concerns of Presidents/Representatives from all over the world (36 Presidents/Representatives spoke on Tuesday; 37 due to speak Wednesday, including Myanmar’s H.E. Ms. Aung San Suu Ky regarding Myanmar’s human trafficking problem), a few threads ran vibrantly and consistently through all their concerns.  Divisiveness.  In countries and communities where hatred and divisiveness is not known, there is no need for human rights.
The Buddha often taught that the divisive nature of mankind is responsible for all of the suffering which mankind endures. Divisiveness occurs both internally and externally. Within ourselves we build images of what we want to be or what we think we should be, which is in general terms called, the ego. But these images can never reflect what we truly are. A conflict exists between reality and mental images which cannot be resolved by thought, because it is thought that is projecting these images in the first place. Any attempt by thought to resolve the conflict ends in more confusion, frustration, and suffering.
As this year’s US presidential race kicks into high gear, the left has moved even further left and the right further right. If you could graph the result, it would resemble a barbell…..two clusters at the extremes and only a narrow connection between them.
No matter who wins the election in November, the next president of the United States will face a heavyweight challenge: lifting a divided society out of entrenched differences and into a common mission or vision. Don’t expect that to be easy.
Divisiveness in politics is certainly nothing new. As The New Yorker observed: “The strong partisanship of the American electorate has been a strain running through political science for decades … ” Abraham Lincoln is remembered as one of the greatest US presidents of all time, arguably because he found a way to lead through the extreme of “a house divided.” Before his election, he faced numerous rivals who despised him (some he later recruited for his leadership team, like William Seward, his secretary of state). And let us not forget the obvious: Lincoln led during the Civil War.
Now, the US is waging an ideological battle against itself. Building walls in immigration policy, breaking up big banks, weighing the benefits of Obamacare, or any of the politically charged rhetoric of the day are best viewed as symptoms…..not the cause of the political divide.
This ideological battle is as old as the Neolithic Revolution some 10,000 years ago when people first learned to cultivate crops and domesticate animals. No more roaming after the herds for food; suddenly there was a new option…..staying in one place near a freshwater source, growing crops and storing the excess harvest, and raising animals for meat and breeding. Humans, ever tribal, lived in communities where it literally took a village to realize the shared purpose of having enough food. The bounty of a plentiful harvest produces contentment.
I can recall from my childhood, neighbors with backyard gardens who shared from their abundance of homegrown tomatoes and zucchini. I was reminded of this while riding in a taxi yesterday morning. The driver, reminiscing about his village back in India, told me about his family’s mango grove. “When we harvested, we had so many, we gave them to everyone.”
But when famine strikes…..whether nutritionally, economically, occupationally or otherwise…..shared purpose splinters into self-interest. This is more likely to happen now as yellow warning lights flash across the global economy: The International Monetary Fund is projecting only 3.2% global economic growth, a notch above the 3% technical recession level for worldwide output. The US manufacturing economy remains a concern. With the pace of hiring in the US being closely watched, fears have heightened that economic recession, while not imminent, is looming on the horizon. Add to that a low return on assets, geopolitical turmoil, Britain’s startling vote in June to leave the European Union, terrorism threats and a host of other concerns.
These fears raise the specter of scarcity like a poor harvest. When you perceive your livelihood and lifestyle (i.e., “survival,” as we know it) are threatened, shared interest feels like an altruistic luxury few can afford. Feeling threatened, people look for someone to blame, from illegal immigrants to the super-affluent “1 percent” to terrorist cells in Belgium. Such fears even spread the contagion of survivalist thinking in the workplace of who will stay and who will go in a recession.
It’s no surprise, then, that the angry and disenfranchised flock to support Republican candidate Donald Trump, and that those who feel Wall Street triumphs over Main Street sided with Democratic challenger Bernie Sanders. Both are products of the polarization of America. This polarization has also pulled Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, more traditionally a centrist, further to the left.
From politics to business, though, a key trait distinguishing the best leaders is the ability to create a common purpose around which individual self-interest can transform into shared interest. Unquestionably, the most compelling commonality of our time…..a vision to unite rather than divide the nation…..is economic security. Nothing brings that home to Americans more than jobs and wages. With the Great Recession still fresh in people’s memories, any warning lights on economic outlook send people into scarcity mode. People move away from the “gatherers” who cultivate and share, and instead return to hungry-hunter mentality, huddled in their respective caves (left and right).
While divisiveness may generate news headlines and sensational comments make for Tweet-able sound bites, the question remains: How will the next president deal with the reality of the bitter harvest of divisiveness? Without shared alignment, the next leader of the free world will be hard pressed to chart a course forward.


Posted on August 24, 2016

Years ago, while watching a baseball game on television, I saw Mariano Rivera, pitching for the Yankees, throw a fastball that hit a batter. The camera was on a close-up of Riviera, and I could read his lips as he mouthed, “I’m sorry.” The batter, taking first base, nodded to the pitcher in a friendly way and the game went on.
Just two words, and I felt good about Riviera and the batter and the game all at once. It was only a common courtesy but it made an impression striking enough for me to remember after many summers.
The blood relatives of common courtesy are kindness, sympathy and consideration. And the reward for exercising them is to feel good about having done so. When a motorist at an intersection signals to another who’s waiting to join the flow of traffic, “Go ahead, it’s OK, move in,” and the recipient of the favor smiles and makes a gesture of appreciation, the giver enjoys a glow of pleasure. It’s a very little thing, but it represents something quite big. Ultimately it’s related to compassion, a quality in very short supply lately, and getting scarcer.
But look, let’s not kid ourselves. It would be foolish to hope that kindness, consideration and compassion will right wrongs, and heal wounds, and keep the peace and set the new century on a course to recover from inherited ills. That would be asking a lot from even a heaven-sent methodology, and heaven is not in that business.
It comes down to the value of examples, which can be either positive or negative, and it works like this: Because of the principle that a calm sea and prosperous voyage do not make news but a shipwreck does, most circulated news is bad news. The badness of it is publicized, and the negative publicity attracts more of the same through repetition and imitation.
But the Buddhadharma teaches us that good can be as communicable as evil, and that is where kindness and compassion come into play. So long as conscionable and caring people are around, so long as they are not muted or exiled, so long as they remain alert in thought and action, there is a chance for contagions of the right stuff, whereby democracy becomes no longer a choice of lesser evils, whereby the right to vote is not betrayed by staying away from the polls, whereby the freedoms of speech, assembly, religion, and dissent are never forsaken.
But why linger? Why wait to begin planting seeds, however long they take to germinate? It took us 200-plus years to get into the straits we now occupy, and it may take us as long again to get out, but there must be a beginning.