Enlightened Business, Meditatation, Musings & Adventures

Materialism, Benefit, Disengagement and Stupas

Boudhanath stupa in Kathmandu

Boudhanath stupa in Kathmandu

The stupa in Boudha has a magical, peaceful quality. When you approach it on foot, you can actually feel it before you see it. The air changes, sounds become less sharp, and people move more slowly. Around the stupa is a wide, paved circular path where people do “khorra” (tib. འཁོར་ར་) – circumambulation – all day & night while saying prayers,

Circumambulating the stupa on the khorra path

Circumambulating the stupa on the khorra path

talking with friends, meditating or simply passing time. This circular plaza surrounding the stupa, sometimes called the “khorra path”, is lined with shops selling local wares like Buddhist statues, Tibetan thangkhas, incense, jewelry, and shawls. When you emerge from a side street onto the khorra path, one’s natural impulse is to to be swept up in the flow of happy, peaceful energy flowing clockwise around and around. What a wonderful thing to pour oneself into!

In 2011, I coordinated travel plans with my mother and her friends Anita & Larry so that we could meet in Kathmandu. I was coming from Bodhgaya & Varanasi while they had arrived days earlier from Delhi and the Golden Triangle. When I arrived from the airport, while walking along the khorra path in search of the hotel where they were staying, I saw my mother emerge from the cicumambulating crowd with a joyful ease that I’ve never seen her embody anywhere else. With a backdrop of the sun-dappled stupa and elderly Tibetan ladies counting prayers on rosaries, I saw a lighter, happier version of this person I’ve known my whole life.

The busy khorra path and shops

The busy khorra path and shops

According to legend, the Boudhanath stupa was built in the 5th or 6th century CE. It was begun by an old woman and later finished by her four sons. It’s commonly said that the four of them later reincarnated as the Tibetan King Trisong Detsen (tib. ཁྲི་སྲོང་ལྡེ་བཙན), his minister, the Indian pandita Shantarakshita and the great realized master Padmasambhava who together brought Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th century.

A lot can be said about Stupas and their purpose. In one sense, they’re said to act like anchors giving stability to Buddhist wisdom and its practice in a land. While that might be true, there’s an inner sense that particularly resonates with me. In Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s recent book Not for Happiness he talks about stupas as a bold challenge to the belief that spiritual pursuits have anything to do with material practicality. He quotes Patrul Rinpoche in pointing out that those who walk the authentic spiritual path must abandon the idea that you can fix the material world; to believe that the material world can be fixed, even for the benefit of others, is just another kind of material clinging. Building stupas speaks directly to that view, because Stupas have no practical function. They take a lot of time and resources to build and maintain, for what? Many of them don’t even have doors. They’re like a satire of all the foolish worldly projects we pour so much effort into.

3 workers whitewashing the stupa

Whitewashing the stupa – maintenance operations are ongoing year-round.

So why build them? Because authentic happiness doesn’t come from external things. Erecting and maintaining these odd structures is a substantial investment in the habits and patterns that go beyond hapless participation in the destructive cycles of confused life. It punches a hole in the ordinary rhythms of things so that people might see a glimmer of alternative.

Sitting by the Boudha stupa or walking around it today, it’s easy to reflect on the amazing beauty that can come from this kind of project. Nearly 1500 years ago a handful of people put their resources into something that made absolutely no sense from a practical perspective. According to tradition (and plausible given the philosophical & cultural context of the time), they did it because they truly wished to do something beneficial in the world and they believed that the only way to achieve real benefit for oneself and others is to completely abandon all attempts to seduce the world into giving us what we want, to instead scrutinize our own minds and to strip away even the most subtle forms of ignorance. It’s like that seemingly irrational selfless act put a kink in the armor of ignorant existence. Over time, thousands of beings have come across this anomaly in the flow of things and their minds have been changed by it. Each one has added a bit to the system, and taken away other bits. The cumulative effect is manifestly present. Anyone can go there and witness it.

In light of all these reflections, I find it interesting that, far from being anti-commerce or somehow divorced from daily activity here, the stupa seems naturally mixed with everyday operations. Rather than condemning the practicalities of life, there’s the air of engaging with and elevating them. Giving up material clinging, even going so far as to let go of the idea that we can fix the world for the benefit of others, does not mean doing nothing. Nor does it mean climbing high on a pedestal and looking down judgmentally at the rest of les miserables. This abandonment is something much more subtle and much more challenging because it must happen in our hearts and minds. Inwardly we have no choice but to abandon material views while outwardly we must constantly seek skillful ways to make the world better: to increate happiness, to decrease suffering, to rejoice in positive qualities and to wash away false differences for all beings.

Buddhist practitioners, surrounded by small stupas, doing prostrations on wooden boards on the first terrace of the Boudhanath stupa

Buddhist practitioners doing prostrations on the first terrace of the Boudhanath stupa

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.


Cymothoa exigua on my mind

Photo by Matthew R. Gilligan

Today I’ve been particularly fascinated with Cymothoa exigua, the tongue-eating parasite. I first heard about it in an episode of This American Life a couple weeks back where scientist Carl Zimmer mentions an isopod that eats and then takes the place of a fish’s tongue. A fleeting moment of googling turned up many images of giant deep sea isopods, which gave me the heebie jeebies. I didn’t think of them again until this morning when I my uncle, who works for the Texas Marine Fisheries as a marine biologist, sent this photo of a giant isopod that had hopped a ride on an oil rig’s deep sea ROV.

When I passed the image on to a friend who I was chatting with on skype, I mentioned the tongue eating isopods. He ran a quick search for “tongue eating isopod” and all intelligible conversation ended for a good five minutes. He just couldn’t get over the idea. Some of the lolcats photos are pretty funny too [1][2].

Eventually I succumbed to reading the wikipedia page and found a link to a video of a live Cymothoa exigua. Watch through to the final minute. It gets creepier, with a complete dearth of explanation.


The humor and curiosity hit a brick wall, however, when in my louse-inspired meanderings I stumbled across this crushing image labeled simply “fighting dog”. Fun’s over, stop in your tracks. It’s amazing how perspective can come crashing down in unexpected ways. Given where I found it, this photo has probably circled the web a few thousand times. It should keep circling until people start doing more to prevent such cruelty.

Apologies for the odd tangent at the end here.

Daybreak of the Mind – Netflix on hold, thinking about Mud and Happiness

I cancelled my Netflix subscription yesterday. It was possibly one of the best favors I’ve done for myself all year. Don’t get me wrong; I love Netflix and I definitely love films, but I’m an addict and I needed to learn to say no. We live in a spectacularly diverse and engaging information-rich world. I couldn’t justify spending any more time or energy on passive consumption.

In recent months I’ve been pondering a definite pattern in my life — that I just don’t pay attention to the news. This is not to say that I am ignorant of current events; rather, I simply seek my information elsewhere and I relate to it in a peculiar way. If I want to know more about the debate on health care reform, I seek out something like the recent episode of EconTalk: Brady on Health Care Reform, Public Opinion, and Party Politics. I don’t read the latest articles about the current state of the machinations around it. If anything, I consistently ignore them.

I feel particular familiarity with this quote from Pico Iyer:

… and when I return to the United States every three months or so and pick up a newspaper, I find I haven’t missed much at all.

This quote, which comes from a wonderful, refreshing post about The Joy of Less on the NY Times Happy Days blog, was tacked onto the tail end of an unrelated post by Garrick Van Buren. To my delight, Garrick has been boldly predicting that the Dow will hit 10k by Labor Day, but my favorite one of his current projects is Kernest, a repository of free and commercial web-embeddable font faces. He writes about that development effort on the Kernest blog.

Pico Iyer’s post led me to the poignant Living with Less project on the NY Times website, which in turn proffered a tweet about a Cob House Built For Less Than $3,000 which was featured on treehugger. Ah, mud.

Once, while on pilgrimage in Bodhgaya, India, I was pulled aside by one of the local kids who wanted to show me his home. It was clear that he was working; his intention was to evoke pity and walk away with a couple Rupies. Instead of pity I felt a twinge of admiration upon seeing his family’s simple mud hut, whose air was cool despite a hot day outside. The interior looked extremely similar to the cob house in the treehugger article, even down to the fire pit that also functions as a bench. I was fully aware of the fact that this kid had a really tough life — intermittent access to clean water, his mother stretching to feed her four children, and I’m sure a mud hut is no fun during a monsoon. Despite this, for a moment the aesthete in me managed to fix its tunnel vision on the minutiae of organic forms, functional design, and perceived simplicity. I was jealous. The self-cherishing mind is a quizzical and depressingly short-sighted thing.

Witnessing the begging industry in India taught me new things about economics. After showing me his house, the boy asked me to buy some schoolbooks for himself and some of his friends. I did so, happily. The boys seemed genuinely glad to have the books. Later that day, a fellow traveller told me that the kids will sell the books back to the bookshops for a tenth of what I paid. It’s like Trickle Down Economics somehow applies itself irregardless of the starting point, as if wealth had a magnetic quality that sucks money and resources out of the hands of the poor and into the hands of the affluent. Some might point an accusatory finger at the institution of capitalism; I point the finger at selfish existence in general, which in turn implicates my own self-cherishing materialism.

As I understand it, there are three primary components to news — the facts, the interpretation, and (possibly most important) the emotional human element. At Thubten Choling, the Buddhist monastery and retreat center where I lived for 3 years, I experienced the human element of news from a perspective that fundamentally altered my outlook.

Every Saturday morning at Thubten Choling is dominated by the weekly tong chö (tibetan: སྟོང་ཆུ), which most of the monastery residents participate in along with a chorus of visitors from the near and far. After filling 1,000 bowls with saffron water, lighting 1,000 butterlamps, and setting up 300 bowls of rice, flowers and incense, everyone gathers in the shrine room to chant a beautiful set of prayers which they call the Monlam Choga (tibetan: སྨོན་ལམ་ཆོ་ག). Before beginning the 2 hours of chanting, which includes a traditional tea service, the chant leader reads aloud all of the prayers of everyone who has sponsored butterlamps. Now you have to understand that a lot of people sponsor the tong chö and the monastery takes this very seriously. It easily takes 15 or 20 minutes, sometimes longer to get through all of the prayers. For much of my time at the monastery, these prayers were my main conduit for news about the world.

People pray for all sorts of things — Please pray that my house will sell; Please pray that my Father’s pain will subside so he can die in peace; Please pray that my patients’ ailments and suffering will be decreased; Please pray that my horse will win the Kentucky Derby — and you get used to taking it all in, meeting each wish with love, compassion, and openness. After a few weeks I found myself waiting for updates while I sat there in the shrine room — Did her surgery go well?; Is his father still in pain? — compassion is a contagious thing. It’s in this mindset that we would be hit by things like pray for the victims of the SARS virus and their families; pray for everyone affected by Hurricane Katrina; pray for XXX celebrity who died this week; pray for everyone affected by XXX divorce. I can attest to the fact that this information hits the brain in a completely different way when your mind is settled into a mode of compassion and loving kindness. It’s irresistible – your heart goes out without qualifications or stipulations.

After growing accustomed to this way of encountering world events, I saw conventional news in a different light. Tabloids in the grocery store became tragic, almost painful, because of the alienation they invoke in all directions, but even the best news sources often fell short. I wandered further and further away from the traditional channels. After returning to the regular world, I found new ways of plugging in and slurping information from the world around me. I never fully went back, and to this day I’m especially perplexed by the sense of urgency that our culture has about news. Even in the technology industry, things actually happen pretty slowly but we choose to be frantic. When there is news, we scamper as if afraid to actually let it sink in, and when there isn’t news, we create it.