Meditatation, Random

Pullahari: On the mountain above Kathmandu

Stupa at Boudhanath

Stupa at Boudhanath

For the next three months I’m living in Kathmandu, Nepal at a Tibetan Monastery called Pullahari.  In the weeks leading up to my departure from the US, when people asked me where I was going I would answer “About an hour walk uphill from the big famous stupa with the Buddha eyes.”  It felt right to place myself in human-scale relation to a near-mythical Buddhist landmark rather than to simply rattle off the names of a city & country on a subcontinent that most of my friends have never visited.  In terms of my decision to come here and the activities that I’ll be immersed in while here, it’s the social, intellectual and metaphorical contexts of this place that relevant.  The geography of nation-states is mainly an afterthought.

In both Tibetan and Indian religions, there are traditions that view the Indian subcontinent itself as a holy entity.  For centuries, people have done pilgrimage to 24 spots spread across the continent that correspond to chakras on a body (metaphorically — it’s not like the feet are in the south and the head is in the north.).  Some Hindus view these as corresponding to the body of Shiva while Tibetans associate them with the body of Chakrasamvara — a yidam (tib. ཡི་དམ་), or representation of mind’s enlightened nature and its capacity to act skillfully for the benefit of beings.  Whether Shiva, Chakrasamvara, or something else, the main thing to know is that the physical place is seen as being spiritually alive in ways that are almost completely foreign to anyone living in the modern post-industrial world.  I point this out because, while the political geography of this place seems almost irrelevant to my current sabbatical, the physical place itself naturally plays a prominent role.

Boudhanath area in a haze

Boudhanath area in a haze

The city of Kathmandu sprawls through the northern two thirds of Kathmandu Valley.  The lowest point in the valley is roughly 1500m (4,000 ft) above sea level and is surrounded by peaks that are about 2000m-2600m (6,500-8,000 ft).  Beyond those peaks are the actual snow-covered mountains, ranging from 3.500-6.000m+ (10,000-18,000ft+).  The part of the city that was once the ancient kingdom of Kathmandu occupies the northern half of the valley.  It’s flanked by two prominent hills, each with an ancient giant stupa on it.  In the west is Swayambunath, which is sometimes called the “wrathful” stupa.  In the east is Boudhanath, which is the stupa you’ve probably seen on postcards, in storybooks, and in ads for trekking adventures.

There’s a photo of Boudhanath in the early 1970s that gives you a sense of how much has changed in the past 40 years.  It shows the stupa and a few buildings surrounding it.  Beyond that, there are only fields and the occasional monastery.  Now, there’s barely a field to be found between Boudha and the mountains that ring the valley.  What fields remain stand out as emerald terraces, worked using agricultural methods that have been stable for generations.

Green Fields on Edge of Kathmandu Valley north of Kopan District

Edge of Kathmandu Valley north of Kopan District

If you face northeast at Boudhanath with the stupa at your back and walk uphill for roughly half an hour, you’ll find yourself on a hillside below Kopan Monastery, main seat of Lama Zopa Rinpoche and the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition.  Continue around the bend and up the hillside and you will arrive at Pullahari, seat of His Eminence Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche and the location of Rigpe Dorje Institute.

For the past 15 years or so, Pullahari has hosted a 3-month long study program for westerners, often referred to as “the winter programme”.  It was initially started by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche as a way to train his students to be skillful translators of the meaning contained in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.  Khenpo Tsultrim is famous for many things and I would love to write about all of them.  For now, suffice it to say that he is one of the greatest living masters of the Kagyu Lineage, a true wandering yogi, and also one of the top scholars of the Kagyu Lineage.  He’s particularly famous for his presentation of madhyamika prasangika (Middle Way Consequence School) according to the Shentong view.  The best place to find more information on Tibetan Buddhist philosophy as presented by Khenpo Tsultrim is in his book Progressive Stages of Meditation on Emptiness, which was arranged and edited by Shenpen Hookam.

Students settling into class at Rigpe Dorje Institute

Students settling into class at Rigpe Dorje Institute

Every year, the structure of the Rigpe Dorje winter programme at Pullahari is the same – two months of intensive study focused on Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan language, followed by a week-long break and then a two-week meditation retreat focused on that year’s philosophical content.  In the past, they structured the curriculum to work through one chapter of Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara each year, culminating with the 9th chapter on precise knowledge (tib. ཤེས་པ་ shepa).  Recently they’ve switched to a 5-year cycle that instead works more explicitly through the various historical Buddhist philosophical schools, but still climaxes in year 4 (that’s this year) with Shantideva’s presentation of (rangtong) madhyamika prasangika in chapter 9 of bodhicharyavatara and then concludes in year 5 with a presentation of Mahamudra and the shentong view.

Pullahari is a beautiful place full of flowers, spectacular traditional Buddhist art, wonderful architecture, monks chanting pujas, and scholars scrutinizing the patterns of mind.  Situated on a mountain top above Boudhanath and Kathmandu, it has expansive views on three sides.  It’s the ideal environment for combining meditation with scholarly discipline.  Hopefully I will have the opportunity to write more about this magical place and share more of the photos I’ve taken.

Monks sweeping Pullahari Shrine Hall at sunrise

Monks sweeping Pullahari Shrine Hall at sunrise

5th floor Hallway of shrine hall at Pullahari

5th floor Hallway of shrine hall at Pullahari

In 1999, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche composed a song about Pullahari.  We sing an english rendition of it every morning at the opening of the first class.

In Pullahari, with its good clean earth,
Its water so sparkling clean and its clean fresh air,
Here in the solitude of this secluded place,
With its spacious scenery and relaxing view,
To listen and reflect on the Teachings here,
In Pullahari, what a lucky star!

View to the west from roof of Pullahari shrine hall.

View to the west from roof of Pullahari shrine hall.

Creative Culture, Enlightened Business, Musings & Adventures

We wanted world peace. Instead we got viral videos.

06 January 2013
Mumbai,  Chhatrapati Shivaji Airport (BOM), International Terminal

On last night’s flight from Atlanta to Amsterdam, along the way to Kathmandu via Mumbai,  I found myself sitting next to a woman who works with the Aspen Institute. She’s a former Fellow of the institute who continues to participate in their activities by serving as an occasional organizer and mentor.  Impulsively, I asked what the Aspen Institute thinks of B Corps.  She informed me that B Corps were actually created by an Aspen Institute fellow, a friend of hers, who worked on creating the B-Corp structure as part of his fellowship.  How exciting!  We spoke briefly about it but she seemed tired and not particularly excited about the prospect of spending a transatlantic flight getting her brain picked by a strangely enthusiastic hacker who wants to talk about about corporate structures.

Etiquette constrained what I could say, and how much of her attention I could presume to demand.  She was, after all, trapped in her seat between me and the airplane chassis.  She was at a disadvantage; basic manners dictated that I should not commandeer her headspace.  What I really wanted to tell her was that I was sitting on that plane right then, escaping to a monastery in Nepal, because I’ve had a crisis of orientation & resolve.  Fundamentally, I believe that the only way to make life meaningful is to cherish benefit for others and to bend one’s life and opportunities towards creating that benefit. How does one translate this conviction into action?  For nearly a decade my path has been to explore what it takes to build technologies and companies that create benefit through dissemination of information, preservation of human knowledge, and celebration of craft.  I intend to continue that work because many things about it ring true but, in part, I’m reeling from a lack of camaraderie because, more broadly, I find myself grappling with unsolved, contentious questions about the structure, function, and limitations of the modern capitalist economy.

I think that corporate culture and startup culture are biased against thinking seriously about social benefit because we all believe, to some extent, that capitalism is fundamentally cold, selfish and skewed in favor of exploiting the poor while rewarding those who are already well off.  Part and parcel with that belief is the assumption that the primary ways of explicitly achieving benefit  are through charity and/or government welfare rather than commerce.  However, when I look at my personal  experiences in business while scrutinizing the mechanisms of suffering, injustice & welfare and considering the past 40 years of research into topics like game theory & behavioral economics, I see a remarkable amount of graceful skill in the patterns of modern capitalism.  I find myself suspecting that free market advocates might be right -that capitalism itself can and does serve as a great tool for achieving benefit, and the things that make capitalism harmful are mistakes of distortion.  This is only a suspicion; I remain skeptical while intrigued.  If my goal was to merely achieve benefit for myself while telling a good story about why my actions are actually beneficial for everyone, I could glean convenient satisfaction from the existing free market argument.  Alas, my goal is the opposite; my goal is to act for the benefit of everyone while telling a good story about why that’s even possible.  This leaves me inclined to proceed with caution.

I’ve personally witnessed how embarrassingly easy it is for a bright individual to raise giant sums of money in order to build technologies and companies whose focus is relentless financial profit.  More importantly, with that money comes brilliant, skillful, well informed guidance from mentors who know how technologies work and  how companies grow.  In contrast, it’s remarkably difficult to find shrewd guidance, funding, or even encouragement when attempting to create technologies and companies whose primary purpose is benefit rather than profit.  In that domain, there is very little support infrastructure that a person like myself can readily access, and there’s even less community.  I’m not saying that this support infrastructure and community are nonexistent, rather that they are difficult to access and insufficiently prominent in the flow of civil discourse.  Organizations like the Aspen Institute are out there drumming up discussions, but we need to see a lot more of it.  For example, If you were to toss around cocktails at almost any bar in San Francisco you would be able to find a chorus of silicon valley devotees proffering intense, opinionated, well informed conversation about topics like profit models for tech startups or equity strategies for stakeholders.  Some of those devotees will be schmucks, but others will turn out to be genuinely talented and insightful individuals who are ready and willing to act as sounding boards for new ideas and new perspectives, as long as your ideas fit within the established paradigm of software startup culture.  Where can I find that same kind of sounding board when I need to have a serious, pragmatic conversation about finding the balance between idealistic vision and sustainability?  Where do I turn when I need to discern between a shrewd business decision and a good one?  Why does it feel like I lose connection with the people asking these types of questions when I assert that market forces and modest profit models are preferable to relying on government funding, charitable organizations and grant cycles?

Venture Capitalists like the Founders Fund challenge us to be strident and visionary — they complain that “We wanted flying cars. Instead we got 140 characters.”.  They have a great point, but they call for a bland, technocratic type of visionary thinking. What about asking whether flying cars will do any meaningful good in a culture that lacks compassion, and what about acknowledging that in the pursuit of flying cars we will run a high risk of inventing new forms of weapons while potentially giving rise to new flavors of coercion, conflict, environmental ailment and strife? Progress is a deceptive thing, and the relationship between technology & happiness is fraught with complexities.

I am a strident technologist, inventor, creator and futuristic dreamer, but I have no interest in merely pushing technology (or art) forward.  That type of so-called forward motion is a thinly veiled illusion.

I know that I’m not alone in harboring these sentiments, and I’m hopeful that the world is secretly bedazzled with a network of pragmatic dreamers who get it. I see their sentiments reverberating in the ideas of those around me, but these ideas are beseiged by skepticism and they grind against the presumption that kindness, generosity and concern for human happiness are incompatible with successful business.

Where is the chorus of benefit-driven ventures?  Why isn’t it the dominant voice in our culture and economy? How can I participate in that chorus? Who will help me steer true?  Where are you?

It’s thoughts like these that are driving me to Pullahari.  I have built plenty of momentum in my work, but that is not enough to ensure it will be benefitial to others.  On a fundamental level, I’m convinced that the adjustment I need to make is mental.  After all, our mental habits and views dictate our actions. Our actions, in turn, create our world.  Hence, a sabbatical on a mountaintop in Nepal, spent translating & meditating on Shantideva‘s Bodhicaryāvatāra, is exactly what I need right now.

I guess the other reason why I held my tongue with my fellow airline passenger from the Aspen Institute is that I don’t have much to offer in the way of solutions or innovations yet.  I don’t even have a coherent critique of what I see as the current state of things.  All I have are open-ended questions, some experience,  a bit of lonely frustration, and a strange long-shot hunch that my next steps have something to do with storytelling.  We will see where this goes.

Musings & Adventures

Killing 10 hours at Mumbai Airport

06 January 2013

When I checked in at the Delta desk in Minneapolis airport yesterday morning, the woman at the counter pointed out that I’ve made a foolish mistake.  I neglected to remember that, though Nepal allows you to purchase a tourist visa in the airport, India requires to to apply for one weeks in advance.  In order to make the most of my 10 hour layover in Mumbai, I had reserved a room at a nearby hotel so I could shower & sleep.  Alas, leaving the airport would require at least a Transit Visa.  Instead of getting some sleep, I find myself with 10 hours to kill in the International Terminal of Chhatrapati Shivaji Airport (BOM).

I’ve heard horror stories of visa-less travelers being forced to spend hours sitting in stark waiting rooms until their connecting flight is ready to depart, but my experience transiting through the then-new airport in Delhi in 2010 was quite nice.  The terminal there is spacious and relatively quiet despite the bustle and has large open spaces whose ceilings soar some four stories above the main floor. If memory serves, they even have a hotel attached to the terminal. Mumbai’s airport is older, so I steeled myself for the worst but held out a little hope that it would be at least moderately comfortable.

The International Terminal at BOM is like an upscale American strip mall built in the 1990s, with two primary differences : terrible air quality and squatting toilets.  Its basically a single long, curved hallway 6 meters wide with 5 meter ceilings.  Shops and cafes line both sides of the hall, and each end opens up into a sort of loop of shops & gates.  A periodic stream of travelers gushes into the middle of the terminal at regular intervals, freshly arrived off incoming flights.  Though the process of getting into the terminal from my arrival gate was both confused and confusing, the officials and security agents were, as a whole, friendly and willing to help when I greeted them with a smile and looked them in the eye.

I’ve ensconced myself in a vinyl armchair in the sitting area of “The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf” cafe opposite the security checkpoint.  A latte here costs as much as they do at Starbucks and tastes like the lattes you get at strip malls in the US.  I’ve got my eye on midnight lunch of Dhosa & Idli from “”, right next to the much more popular “Pizza Hut Delivers” and  KFC.  I wonder if the KFC chickens are factory farmed here in India.  They must be, no?

There’s a refreshing flow of travelers here.  Most of them are in good spirits.  Occasionally people stop and strike up a conversation.  So far I’ve spoken with a guy from Sri Lanka, a guy from Sacramento, a middle-aged couple from the UK, and a young German guy wondering whether I had gotten wifi here (answer: you can get free wifi if you are able to send an SMS from your phone to the wifi operator — useful for domestic travelers, but stupid in an international air hub).

Daily Reason to Dance

Reason to Dance: Mr Tambourine Man

Mr. Tambourine Man (Live at the Newport Folk Festival. 1964)
Bob Dylan

Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow

Full lyrics:

I was inspired to look up the video while reading the OpenCulture abstract about a video of Johnny Depp reading letters of Hunter S Thompson. Read the OpenCulture page about it, but here’s the first video:

I found the Johnny Depp video while watching OpenCulture’s video of a “Jerry Springer-esque clip” of Hunter S Thompson being confronted by a Hell’s Angel on Canadian television. During the confrontation, the audience seems completely comfortable with the assertion that beating your spouse is necessary while beating a dog is wrong.

Again, I recommend reading the OpenCulture page about it, but here’s the video.

Creative Culture

Reimagining the dance club

Conventional Roles @ a dance club:

  • DJ 1-4
  • Bartender 1-20
  • Bouncer 0-20
  • Willing Dancer 0-3000
  • Wallflower 12-1000


Add more roles, with goals, constraints & rewards. Draw from mythological traditions, Yidams, Organizational theory/practice & Season-driven calendar of greater & lesser holidays.

Example themes/Assignments:

  • Tribalism
  • Gender
  • Politics
  • Industry
  • Materialism
  • Class (& Class Warfare)
  • Love
  • Heat
  • Darkness
  • Water, Air, Earth, Fire
  • Etc…
  • Compassion in Action

Misc Examples of Minor Details/Rules:

  • Have an “ideas box” that gets responses within the night. Any & all ideas entertained & responded to. Farm out tickets to appropriate responders.
  • all actors mandated to breakopen circles & engage the lonely but willing
  • all actors discouraged from closing off / pairing off (or pursuing it) during public events

Constraints on personal interaction: Bollywood Rules.

Musings & Adventures, Random

Parenting Done Right

From NPR News

DefCon Camp for Kids

If Alaetheia can pick the digital lock her father built, she will have earned the right to decide for herself how much time she spends online.

“Right now what we say to kids is, your privacy is as precious as your virginity, and once you give it away you can never get it back,” says Cory Doctorow, a science fiction writer and blogger.


Not another dichotomy: response to the idea of a liberal/conservative divide amongst devleopers

Response to Steve Yegge’s thoughts on a conservative/liberal divide amongst developers

This whole idea really irks me. All I see is a meaningless and harmful dichotomy.  A healthy collaborative culture allows everyone to have their own sensibilities and allows everyone to benefit from the variety of strengths & perspectives.  I agree that it’s crucial to understand the viewpoint & patterns of each developer who you work with, but this Conservative/Liberal divide doesn’t speak to the characteristics that will help or hamper your ability to make the most of a person’s contributions, nor does it create opportunities to improve communication.

Off the top of my head, here are some of the core patterns & principles I’ve seen at play in highly functioning groups of developers:

1. Working Code Wins.

2. Learn to Communicate.  Listen to each other.  Advocate for your views.  Soften your ideals while focusing on creating a great product.

3. Use distributed version control

4. Test your f*cking code.  Have a CI server, publicly shame people who break the build

5. Keep informal technical documentation that allows anyone on your team to set up, test & run the software locally.  When that documentation gets too complicated, spend time making your build process simpler.

6. Pass code around: Read, use, modify, and maintain your peers’ code – we all have our strengths but a team must collectively own the code base


Within that, do whatever works for you to satisfy the tasks assigned to you.  Use your perogative.  Pick up tickets that resonate with your strengths or concerns (ie. If you have strong opinions about how to make the login screen secure, take the lead on for implementing and testing it)  Ask for help & seek mentors as necessary.  If you are concerned about flaws or weaknesses in the software, speak up and/or do something about it.