At some point I might write something explaining what’s going on in these photos, but for now I’ll just share the photos themselves. The full set of nearly 300 photos is in an album on on Google Plus.
While sitting in Drupon Kehnpo’s lectures on the views of the various Buddhist schools, I frequently find myself understanding his explanations by means of modern scientific understanding. In my experience over the years, the cautious critical combination of these systems of explanations consistently gives rise to deep clarity of understanding that advances my ability to work with, explore, and discuss either system. I’m prone to become exuberant when I see how this blending of insights has helped me, and when I see how it could also be fruitful for others.
In these cases, when I look carefully, I see that what excites me is the possibility that the incredible system of post-enlightenment western science, which has made unbelievable progress in a mere few hundred years, actually has the capacity to express insights about mind, cognition, reality, and experience that align with those of Buddhism but are formulated using language that arises entirely from the axioms of the western scientific viewpoint.
From the time of the enlightenment until now (though with roots going much further back), there has been a fairly strict division between so-called “hard” science and metaphysics in the west. This division, partially arising as retaliation against the hegemony of the Christian church, has been extremely fruitful. To study the philosophy of science is to study the pracitcalities of a concerted communal effort to circumvent self-deception in the strident pursuit of truth. Now we’ve reached a point in history where some fields, particularly cognitive science, neuroscience, and physics, find themselves being forced to grapple with topics that were previously categorized as metaphysics but they’re addressing them with grounding and language that come from scientific method combined with observations accumulated over centuries of scientific exploration.
When you look at the history of ideas in Buddhist philosophy, particularly the mahayana schools’ progressively refined analyses of phenomena and the mind that observes them, and compare their observations and explanations with those of modern cognitive science or post-Einstein physics, you find clear parallels along extremely important lines. In those cases I’ve found my western-educated mind naturally prefers the explanations coming from western traditions. In fact, the novel observations from western traditions sometimes sidestep sticky points that have harangued Buddhist philosophers for centuries, or provide explanations whose grace, simplicitly and completeness makes it much easier to find an intuitive understanding of the patterns being explored. This does not, however, mean that western science has outdone and overtaken the Buddhist traditions; it means that western science is able to offer its own graceful explanations of many aspects of phenomenal reality. In other words, Western science is excellent at explaining phenomena on both a coarse and extremely subtle level — even better than the most refined Mahayana schools — but when it comes to the most important questions about the mind that experiences those phenomena, western explanations falter and quickly descend into a confused space on the boundary between science and metaphysics. That thrilling space is where all the interesting action occurs and where the most strident explorers are continually honing, revisiting, and reimagining their assumptions about how to make observations that are not deceptive.
Some people think that this means western scientists need to loosen their standards and welcome outside views with a warm embrace. I think the opposite. Western scientists need to make their standards more strict than ever, then with an open mind and a precise understanding of what we do and don’t know they need to apply those standards equally to all assumptions including their own. Meanwhile, what’s really needed is for people within older traditions, ones that never shied away from metaphysics, to also apply their most thorough scrutiny to explanations coming out of the west and see how much mileage they can get. I’m certain that in both cases, we will find that each tradition has profound improvements to offer to the other especially in the domains of pedagogy, vocabulary, and praxis.
These are some of my thoughts on what tantric meditation traditions have to tell us about how to pro-actively deal with situations where technology triggers culture-wide crises of identity and ethics. It’s all about training the mind.
In 2001 Dr. Vladimir Chaloupka at University of Washington invited me to participate in a graduate seminar on “Knowledge Enabled Mass Destruction” whose purpose was to foster interdisciplinary discourse about the feasibility of, and possible responses to, the kind of global threats posed by Eric Drexler’s Grey Goo Problem and Bill Joy’s related essay Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us. In short, if you measure the progress of civilization in terms of the amount of damage that could be wrought by five determined people acting on their own, what does it mean when you reach a point where those five people could wipe out civilization completely, or make the planet uninhabitable? Is that even possible? Have we already reached that point? What can/should we do in response? As discourse and speculation about the so-called singularity continues to build, this topic seems more relevant than ever.
I think Dr Chaloupka’s reason for hosting the seminar sheds useful light on the subject. He said that the nuclear bomb led Physicists to talk about ethics for the first time in a field that is designed to be entirely focused on observable facts, explicitly excluding any deference to normativity. He painted a picture of this high-minded pursuit of pure science being stopped in its tracks by that single moment where the hubris of scientific progress led to holocaust on a previously unimaginable scale. He said the discipline of Physics was forever changed by the burden of knowing that their work had produced nuclear bombs, and thus indirectly made nuclear proliferation possible. This has led Physicists to tackle issues of global ethics in ways that most other traditions haven’t. As other fields have now taken on a pace & tone of innovation that almost promises the invention of new horrific dangers, he wondered if the contrite inventors of the atom bomb might offer some guidance or preemptive inspiration towards caution.
Dr Chaloupka asked each participant in the seminar to present some contribution from zir own field of expertise. For example, a virologist addressed questions about weaponized superbugs and an engineer described the nuances of nanotech. I, an undergrad pursuing a Bachelors in Comparative Religion, spoke about Tantric Sex. My presentation focused on the fact that tantric traditions include meditation practices that are dangerous if you engage in them if you’re not adequately prepared.
Though the idea of a meditation practice being dangerous may seem strange, there’s ample evidence floating around these days. Some people definitely get really messed up when they do this stuff. Even with carefully maintained traditions, things get seriously colorful at moments. For this reason, before teaching these meditation techniques, authentic lineages are extremely careful to ensure that practitioners have first completed the appropriate foundational practices to stabilize their minds.
There is a wild and colorful variety of tantric traditions. Most of their practices do not involve sex at all. I chose to focus on tantric sex for this presentation because it’s something appealing and potent that has come to be taught outside the original traditions. I drew the parallel that tinkering with potent technologies in pursuit of exciting innovations is like going to some snazzy weekend course on tantric sex and then tinkering with the techniques in pursuit of better orgasms.
In the end, I was happy with my choice of subject matter, but I wasn’t satisfied with my presentation. When I finished my slides, the other participants asked questions to the effect of “Ok. So these traditions say you should be careful to prepare before you let the cat out of the bag, but what does that tell us about how to deal with a situation where the cat (technologies allowing determined people to do global harm) was never in a bag?” I couldn’t give a satisfactory answer, despite being convinced that there was something to be gleaned from this parallel. I simply didn’t know enough about the subject.
For years afterward, I’ve periodically sought to formulate a more complete presentation of the idea I was trying to get across. Now finally, I think I might have put my finger on it. I’m not going to speak about tantric sex, though it’s such a compelling idea. Instead, I’m going to look at the traditional purpose of initiation and secrecy in tantric traditions and how that applies to the contemporary crisis of ethics that Dr. Chaloupka challenged us to address. This analysis definitely applies to the idea that humanity is approaching a technological singularity, but it also applies to run-of-the-mill crises of ethics triggered by technological advancement.
Tantric meditation traditions carry thousands of years worth of repeatable observations, drawn from trial and error, about the potential and limitations of the human mind. They also carry myriad praxes/technologies for fulfilling that potential. What does that tell us about super viruses and murderous nanobots? Actually, it tells us a lot. Remember that technology is created and used by humans. To understand technology, you must look at the human mind. In that sense, these tantric traditions are particularly useful because they’re all about skillfully working with the mind when it’s at its most potent, when it’s overwhelmed by its own energy.
Why do tantric meditation traditions have structures of secrecy and initiation? Within these traditions, the few practices that are kept secret are ones that are particularly potent. They’re designed to dismantle the ego and obliterate our ordinary, confused ways of seeing things so that the practitioner can perform the profoundly simple act of nakedly seeing mind as it is. In a way, these practices are invoking a deep crisis of identity that cuts straight down to your fundamental concepts about reality. If you encounter practices like this outside the context of the tradition in which they were developed, there are four main dangers:
1) You could pose a danger to yourself.
2) You could pose a danger to others.
3) You just might miss the point, or get the wrong point. In other words, for pragmatic pedagogical reasons, things are presented in a particular order.
4) You could pose a danger to the tradition.
What does that mean, and what does it mean to be adequately prepared? Of course the details will be unique to every tradition, practice, and teacher, but there are some basic patterns that apply consistently.
1) Without mental stability you could pose a danger to yourself.
2) Without loving kindness and compassion, you could pose a danger to others.
3) Without precise understanding of what you are/aren’t doing, what’s being communicated, and why you’re doing it, you might not get any benefit from the practice or might harm the tradition by developing an incorrect understanding of the practices being transmitted.
So the reasons for this secrecy are actually very practical, and the fundamental requirements for doing these tantric practices are the same key things that all Buddhist traditions emphasize: mental stability (shamatha), loving kindness & compassion (bodhicitta), and precise understanding (prajna) combied with insight (vipassana).
We can apply this directly to the crisis of ethics posed by technological advancement, which actually comes down to a crisis of psyche and a crisis of society triggered by the fact that technology is outpacing our psychic and social capacities. Specifically, this manifests as
1) Crisis of mental stability
2) Crisis of ethics & normative decisions
3) Crisis of realizing that we lack understanding, lack connection with reality, and lack insight into what we’re doing or why we’re doing it
As you can see, it’s the same issues. We’re encountering a crisis of identity — one that could challenge our fundamental concepts about reality — and what we lack are mental stability, loving kindness, compassion, precise understanding and insight. It’s the same situation, with the same solution.
Say you did take that snazzy weekend course and instead of groovy orgasms you got a tantra-style psychological crisis and totally freaked out. Now your mind’s been blown and it keeps re-blowing and you can’t cope at all. What do you do? If you’re lucky, it occurs to you to go find an authentic master and ask zir for help. While the advice you get from that master could end up being almost anything, we can be certain that the remedy is going to eventually focus on those same ingredients that I keep repeating — mental stability, loving kindness, compassion, precise understanding and insight.
Solution: Training the Mind
Here’s the good news. Absolutely every moment is a crisis of the sort we’re talking about, and always has been, because our confused way of seeing the world doesn’t line up with reality. Our ordinary way of thinking assumes that reality is made up of finite truly existent things experienced by a finite truly existent self, but we know that’s not true. That friction manifests as constant dissatisfaction, which Buddha called dukkha (suffering). The Buddha spent a lot of time cutting to the heart of the matter of suffering and he found that it has a cause — confusion/ignorance — which can be cut. What methodology did he use to cut that cause of suffering? Mental stability, loving kindness, compassion, precise understanding and insight. [This paragraph is paraphrasing the Four Noble Truths, which is the first thing the Buddha taught and comprises the most essential Buddhist tenets.]
The mind is plastic. You can cultivate these things. These are the authentic, tested means. Test them. Until you do cultivate them, the crisis will continue and you will continue to harm yourself and others over and over and over and over. Grey goo is just the latest turn.
Friday 25 January 2013, Pullahari
This morning I learned that Tibetan Buddhist philosophers have a term for the kind of God posited by traditions like Judaism, Christianity & Islam. They call it sam minchi chepo (tib. བསམ་མིན་གྱི་བྱེད་པོ་) – an inconcievable creator . This is probably a translation of an older sanskrit term, but we didn’t cover that. It refers to philosophical systems that posit a creator god without any reference to valid cognition or logic. In other words, a sam minchi chepo is a creator whose existence can’t be established by verifiable observation nor through inferential cognition.
There’s something satisfying about seeing this oppressive topic packaged up with a simple label. In western cultural dialogue, so much of philosophy, religion, metaphysics and discourse about spiritual paths is dominated by this single question about whether the creator God exists. Meanwhile, the Buddhists wander through that field and say “Oh. You believe in a བསམ་མིན་གྱི་བྱེད་པོ་. That’s problematic. Let’s move on – so much else to cover!”
Here at Pullahari the buildings that house the Three-Year Retreat participants are just uphill from the buildings where westerners stay while studying in the Rigpe Dorje Programme. The three-year retreat is a noisy operation, with pujas starting around 4:30am and often running late into the night. Each puja has its own melodies, instruments, drum sequences and often a dedicated time of day, so someone who’s familiar with the practices can tell what’s going on in there just by deciphering the ritual noises that echo out their windows.
The other night heavy clouds of strange-smelling smoke wafted out of the vicinity of the retreat buildings. I assume they were doing some sort of puja that involves dumping so much stuff on a bonfire that it simply smolders for hours.
At the moment, all of the retreatants are alone in their rooms doing chöd practice. Imagine the sound of 34 men each proceeding – with no synchronicity whatsoever – through cycles of chanting, ringing bells and rattling two-sided hand drums the size of inside-out melons. Periodically the air is pierced by the slow, shrill howl of a kangling (tib. ཀང་རླིང་), which is a horn made from human thigh bone.
This feels like home. Some people feel relief at the sound of urban flow. Some sigh at the sound of song birds. Others drop their guard when they smell manure wafting across grassy fields. Likewise, I feel profoundly at ease when I hear serious meditators doing noisy pujas across the way.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!