Lotus Sutra Musings

So I read a commentary on the Expedient Means and Long Life chapter of the Lotus Sutra.

These chapters explain the motivation for Mahayana’s initial existence when early Buddhism already existed. Early Buddhism assumed:

The people who heard directly the teaching of the historical Buddha were able to become enlightened. (But few, or no other people since)
The historical Buddha is essentially dead, extinct or in Nirvana.
Another Buddha might come along. In a loooong time.

So a monk from that time could be unhappy that he just missed the Buddha and thus would fail or at least never be successful as those who could hear the Buddha preach in person.

Expedient Means says, the Buddha essentially lied. He faked his death. Why? Because in the days before writing the Lotus Sutra, people needed to think the Buddha was dead and it was grief that was motivating Buddhist practice. Now what has changed about people now adays, I don’t know. I’m not even convinced about this “grief motivates practice (or faith)” theory.

Long Life essentially says the Buddha is so long lived that for practical purposes, he’s immortal. He’s been alive nearly forever, and will be alive nearly forever and is still in this world. This has implications for us mortals because if we can become Buddha’s then we too will be immortal. And have super powers.  And that sounds better than nirvana too, because that bit about all four : extinct, not extinct, not both, not neither is gobbledygook and “I want to live forever” is at least clear, even if the means for making it happen is not.  This also implies that in the Lotus Sutra, the fundamental problem is not *suffering* and not *immortality in the rounds of rebirth in crappy realms* but the problem is mortality– that we die at all.

Next, there are the ideas heaped upon the Lotus Sutra:

Individual practice is ineffective (Mappo), but the comparatively effortless practice of reciting the title of the sutra is, because either the mystic law will do the hard work, or the Buddha who is still in the world will do the hard work. If the mystic law does the hard work, why bother with belief or saying the title? Wouldn’t simply doing nothing be simpler and then letting the mystic law do the work? How does the mystic law know, or care if you are a member in good standing with the group? Why would an insentient law be offended if we didn’t believe it or even slandered it? If it is the sentient Buddha who is doing the work for us, wouldn’t he be compassionate and save us all from death regardless, or he’s he a thin skinned, fragile ego jerk like the Christian god?

Morality is not so much about conventional morality, but “faith”, which is something like obedience. So if we are to have faith in something, why the Lotus Sutra in particular, why, not, oh I don’t know, L Ron Hubbard or Joseph Smith or Dawkins? They can’t all be right.  I sort of get faith as a sort of optimism (that Buddhist practice leads to something better than not practicing), but I have no use for this faith on so and so authority. In Zen the authority is derived from a fictional story about the Buddha transmitting the dharma from one monk to another until it gets to us, unmodified. But we don’t have to look far to see breaks in the chain and obvious points of doctrinal innovation. Besides, I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about what the historical Buddha taught, I only care about which of the many dharmas that exist today, which is the most useful, cogent and in line with *testable* reality.

I have no idea if elsewhere in the Lotus Sutra if it talks about original enlightenment (tathagatagharba) Mixed into the commentary was the idea of original enlightenment, that you already are enlightened, and you just need to notice it and then you won’t feel like you need to seek immortality, you already got it.  This feels like assuming the conclusion. You want to know how to become enlightened? Well, first assume you are already enlightened, and problem solved!

Alternatively this original enlightenment is some *thing* or *quality* about you that exists, but is covered with goop and needs to be cleaned up, sort of an original sin that needs to be magically scrubbed and then poof, you were enlightened, and now the fundamental problem of all the karmic gunk has been scrubbed off.

I did like the idea of three thousand realms in a single instant. Essentially this says that the realms are metaphors and there is a little bit of heaven and hell in every instant. This is actually, in my opinion, a radical, secularizing idea. It salvages the texts that talk about heaven and hell while dispensing with any need to believe in a heaven or hell or reincarnation as a real (not fictional) cosmology.

Anyhow, I think I will end up liking the ideas of the ancient Chinese commentators more than the Sutra itself, the same experience I had with the Avatamsaka. The Huayen philosophers had some keen & interesting ideas, while the Avatamsaka itself is a tedious read.

Come on, do you want to live forever?

Well, yes actually. On my mom’s side, just about everyone got a stroke. So I decided I should pay some attention to strokes. The data from the low fat crowd is pretty interesting. So I tried to find a chart on blood cholesterol and stroke. And I find every crackpot and opposing view possible…

So, lots of arguments about dietary fat. I think the pro and anti fat camps can only agree that it appears to be a key nutrient.

So if you are vegetarian or vegan, you can still eat a high fat diet [can as in, nothing preventing it], except it will probably have less cholesterol and saturated fat. But the new thinking is possibly all fats make the arteries unhappy. So that means you’d need to cut out all the fat, except 10%

Interestingly, if you have fantastic arteries, you can abuse other parts of your body. And probably vica versa. If you don’t smoke, don’t drink, but do everything to abuse your arteries, then you might last longer than you’d expect looking at your fat consumption alone. I think this explains the wild cross-country differences for fat intake. For example, some parts of Russia are low fat consumers (I find this hard to believe, you can’t go any where to eat anything without it being accompanied by meat), and they die at a high rate. I think this is probably more likely a reflection of the collapse of public health after the fall of the Soviet Union. They couldn’t get consumer products to everyone, but command and control authoritarians made sure everyone got basic health care and vaccines.

Also, you are going to die from something. When you switch to being a veg*n, you have a clear conscious and clear arteries, but something is going to kill you. Now you might get a new kind of stroke driven by homocysteine– which is treated by upping your vitamin B intake. Let’s imagine we did that. As soon as you fix that, something else is in line to break.

Take sugar for example. Back when I was casually following a low fat diet because it was a fad, I notice fat in *packaged goods* got replaced with sugar and other carbohydrates. So if you fix your arteries, you might be stressing out the pancreas.

And the plants are trying to kill the herbivores  and the farmers are trying to kill you and the bugs with pesticides, veg*n may need to watch out for stomach cancer.

But even if you eat organic and avoid things that are trying to kill herbivores (bitter plants for example), you still are going to die from something.

I bet I’ll follow all the advice, and get cancer and someone will do a study on me and say, “Well, healthy living is correlated with cancer, lets just binge on cookies, cakes, pop and greasy frozen TV dinners” At least you won’t live long enough to get cancer.

 

What issues matter, what can be done about them

So when my vote was suppressed, I swore I’d do something about it. And so far I have.

Political Action Groups
I’m now a member of NRDC, Oceana– those are enviornmental protection groups, HSUS, PETA, COK– all animal rights groups, the Brady Campaign, Americans for Nonsmoker’s Rights, the Southern Poverty Law Center, ACLU and EFF.

Individual Politicians
I’ve given money to three candidates nationwide who support doing something about the out of control situation with guns. I also gave money to my local Democratic candidates.

Meetups.
I organize the Progressive Book Club of Takoma Park. Picking books was more challenging than I expected– while the right writes identifiable right wing screeds, the left tends to write nonfiction and works of journalism. Oddly, right wingers signed up and at least one left winger refused to sign up because the group didn’t look radial enough. It’s hard to please.

Funding What Should be in Society
In addition to giving money to the government to encourage it to spend money on issues of importance (instead of tax subsidies-i.e. business tax cuts- in return for campaign contributions), I’m directly giving my money to good causes, such as the Poplar Spring Run (a local animal sanctuary), the Takoma Coffee Shop “La Mano”, the Takoma Community Kitchen, and micro-finance lending via Kiva.

Boycotting What Shouldn’t be in Society
I am boycotting Monsanto. I’m dedicated to cutting out non-organic food from my diet. Since Monsanto only sells poison to homeowners (roundup) and farmers– which I am neither, I can’t effectively stop buying from them unless I stop buying from farmers who buy from Monsanto. I do what I can to harass my building about the pesticides they put on the lawn. So far, only a local ordinance has suggested that the building’s board and management company might stop trying to poison us all.  It depends on enforcement.

Online
It’s all new, so it’s hard to say how effective it is. I tweet, re-tweet, I sign petitions. I click “like” and occasionally re-post. I try to be loud about writing a check.

Some things I won’t do online: get into fruitless discussion in the comment section of the news or fight a flame war with anyone. I’m going to see if a blog coupled with twitter & Facebook integration will provide the reach to those who I’d like to reach: progressives who want to do something, but don’t know what. People who would do something, but don’t know it needs to be done.

Votes get suppressed. What can you do to replace a vote?

Okay, for the last two elections, lines started to get really long. Now when I changed states, I couldn’t vote because I didn’t have a driver’s license. I take the metro. So apparently, anyone who takes mass transit is liable to commit voter fraud, or more likely, not Republican enough for the corrupt voting boards.

Voter suppression is the rightwing strategy to make voting difficult for women and minorities and city dwellers so that Republicans will remain a viable party.

Unlike the the poor, black, asian and so on that the Republicans really wanted to suppress, this time they suppress the vote of a white guy. I wasn’t going to vote for Republicans anyhow, but now I’m mad. So I’m joining as many progressive political groups as I can, top among those MoveOn and the ACLU, both which are working on voter’s rights. So here are some things I will be doing in my spare time over the next 40 years since voting isn’t a sure thing anymore. I’ve added my rough estimate of how many vote equivalents each is worth, and given that the Electoral College system makes the marginal vote about as important as mouse farts, maybe in the long run this will work out of the better. All the same, better than a successful revolution after a nearly stolen election, I’d rather not have the Sith Lords take over in the first place.

Donate to GA, TX and AR Democratic party. Worth 50 Votes.
Money talks, well, as long as you have an attractive candidate. And the Dems have more attractive candidates. If GA, TX and AR turn blue, the GOP will be excluded from the presidency for generations. There aren’t enough old white men in those states for the GOP to govern without repeal non-white and women franchise and maybe the repeal of voting altogether.

I’m going to read the news Worth 25 votes.
The poor and disenfranchised are getting screwed because they aren’t paying attention. I can read, I read fast and I use RSS and I can amplify the the news that is being ignored. I even have truth on myside– since as a progressive I won’t need to make up material.

I’m going to blog. Worth 6 votes.
My task as a political blogger is much easier than for conservative bloggers as I only need teach people how to resist voter suppression, where as conservatives have to move the opinions of their sole audience of old white men to political la-la land and get them to vote. Despite the barriers.

I’m joining about about 22-25 groups. Worth about 20 votes.
Votes in congress are only one way that policy gets made. I don’t have $300 million for attack ads, but I got a few hundred bucks to fund a variety of lawyers, think tanks, activists, watch groups that help decide what congress will be voting on in the first place.

I organize meetups. Worth about 15 votes.
I’ve organized so many meetups I’ve lost count. I create groups like I sneeze. In this election I saw that right wing literature is outselling progressive books. I suspect that in part that is because a lefty will read the original, say, Darwin’s Descent of Man, which is not the the politics section, while right wingers need to have their books written by ideological hacks, which will end up in the politics section.

I’m taking election day off. Forever. Worth 20 votes.
I’m not working class. I can afford to use my vacation days to vote and to spend the day driving people to the polls.

It’s time to take America back from the corrupt right wing voting boards.

(First posted Nov 12, 2012)

Commitment Devices

I’m reviewing BeeMinder and HabitRPG as commitment devices. Personal challenges I see:

Beeminder.
- Incentive to catch up at last minute (progress due midnight)
- Incentive to pick goals that allow for catch up. (marching around the bedroom for the pedometer, writing a blog post at 11:30, vs goals that hard hard to catch up at midnight, such as weight loss– you can’t lose a 1/2 lb between 11:30 or 12:00– okay maybe you could but that’s gross.)
- Incentive to do data entry at last minute. I want to be in bed at midnight, not logging on.
+ Data entry can be done via device (pedometer, wifi scale, runkeeper, blog rss, ITTT emails)
-/+ Automatic data entry goals at the moment, but quirk of luck, favor solitary activities (running, writing), although a few are ambient (walking, weight)
-/+ My goals without measurement would really need a judge to keep me honest– For example # of books read to the toddler. Maybe if my significant other did the data entry.

Anyhow, just started looking, maybe there already are features to address all of this.

HabitRPG
I have to track progress done yesterday if I do data entry in the morning.
Data entry requires logon (as opposed to ambient collection)
Can’t seem to undo a click.

 

Advocacy Group of the Month: ACLU

Why do I like the ACLU? They fight for the right to vote. The believe it is more important to let people vote than anything else.  Voter suppression is a right wing tactic to get more white Republicans into office.  Even if you are a white Republican, you should favor the right to vote.

1) It’s democracy. Not voting is authoritarianism. If you are fundamentally an authoritarian, really, what tribe are you from?

2) Racism and flat out preventing Democrats from voting is illegal, so voter suppression is likely to back fire time to time and suppresses *your* vote. Do you trust the party to suppress the right votes?

ACLU stands up for religious freedom and a division between church and state, something that is important when both those who are over enthusiastic about spreading their religion and those who are over enthusiastic about repressing religion from time to time convince the government to go to far in people’s private matters of conscious.

ACLU is an interesting organization in that their laser like focus on principles sometimes put them on both sides of the progressive-conservative divide.

Everyone, left and right, should be a member of the ACLU– (except authoritarians, like really people?)

Join here: https://www.aclu.org/multimedia

A model for readership dropoff

Kindle has popular highlights and a pseudo-pager number system. So a 200 page book might have 5000 locations. A book might have 15 popular highlights, maybe 20 people for the first, 10 the second, 2 the 15th.  The highlights are located at various locations, say 1% in, 5% in, and the last is at 20% in.

The quality of a sentence affects the # of highlights.  Also the location of the book affects # of highlights because people stopped reading the book.

readers = a + b x
– where the intercept is 100% , all readers are present on page 1.
– the slope is negative and represents the drop off rate.

highlights = quality of sentence  * readers(x)

The number of highlights depend son the quality of a sentence, which is constant, but unknown. So a good sentence will be highlighted say, 1% of the time.

So someday when I have time, I want to see if I can establish the confidence intervals for the curves. Because there are so many constraints, it seems like we should be able to get good estimates of the drop off rate despite relatively few data points.

What I think about Amazon Kindle 7 Day Trials

I wrote this and sent it to Amazon. A low paid customer support person received my email and replied with an unrelated canned message.

“Well you asked for it so here it is:

Since I got my kindle, I’ve bought more books per year than any year before. It’s become an expensive habit. In part this is because I can read 10 or 20 samples and then pick which books I want to read. (you can check my account -  I buy too many books)
I tried the 7-day trial where your sample disappears after 7 days. Before I could finish the sample, it was gone. So where can I find a place to read the rest of the sample? Look at that, B&N’s nook site still offers real samples.
Until then I never even thought about Nooks or Google Books or the like.  But it appears that B&N has more clout to deal with people like Apress (one company that seems to have switched to 7-day trials)
I also noticed I purposely skip over downloading 7-day trials. I won’t finish them on time. What sort of customer exists in an idealized world where they don’t have a job or kids, but only exist as a unidimensional figment of your imagination that downloads 7-day trials and then spends all their time reading it.
So main accomplishments of this 7-day trial thing:
1- I skip samples that are 7-day trials– It’s like entire publishers have disappeared from the inventory now.
2- I switch over to B&N’s nook to get the sample for 7-day trial books. I own like six kindles, why not get a nook to deal with the 7-day trial limitations on amazon?
3- This could get me back into physical book stores where I can see the whole book, cover to cover before I buy it, rather than this now you have it now you don’t bait and switch you get with 7-day trials.  I haven’t been in a physical bookstore for years.
So really, this 7-day trial thing could revolutionize the way I read, rather than being a boring reader who essentially only bought kindle books after reading the samples.
And I need to write a complain to APress which used to be a reputable publisher.
Anyhow, I find the 7-day trial thing bemusing.  7-day trials ruins the workflow for anyone with a real life. I can only imagine how this is for old retired ladies who have lots of free time to download technical book trials and read them immediately.
Please read this email quickly, I’m only granting you a 7-day trial on my feedback. If you don’t get to it by then, it will self destruct.

The uncle I never met has moved on

Some free verse my dad wrote on the passing of my uncle:

The Morning Sun

The sun is steaming through my window,
Gods gift of warmth for all people
Be you Jew, Muslim or Follower of Christ
The sun warms the body
His spirit warms our souls
How blessed  we are !

The sun will fade later and night will follow day
So it is in our personal lives
Sorrow follows joy
And then just like sun the coming up again
Joy warms our hearts again
How blessed we are !

I have been blessed all my life with a big brother
Last night his light went out and he is no longer with us
He will not be there in the morning to impart his wisdom
But his memory lives on in my mind’s eye
And in a sense he lives on within me
How blessed I am !

This morning my sister,Ann, called tears in her eyes grief in her heart
She  her self is near death, in constant pain
Yet she puts aside her pain to grieve for her brother
Her beloved husband is nearing his last days
But she has vowed to be there for him until the end
How blessed he is to have her love for him !

The sun is streaming through my window again
Reminding me that in life’s cycle warmth will reappear again
Even now my family grows with the birth of my grandson Tano
 And  my great grandson, Lincoln.
And if that is not enough a new great grandson is due in July
How blessed I am !

So for today grieve over the loss of Franklin Martin
But in the morning, as the sun comes up rejoice with me
As our lives are blessed with new new life !

Enlightenment, Draft 42

Assumptions
We assume everyone has a naive idea about who they are– some part of you is you and always was and always will be. It might be safe to say, many have never thought much about it– they are just innately afraid of death.
We assume that it is obvious that unhappiness is rampant, it’s a worthy project to seek replacing it with happiness, or at least peace. If this isn’t true– then we are enlightend– and this project is a no longer needed raft and should be ditched.

Evidence
Everything changes, nothing stays the same. Except maybe abstractions like math.
The constant change is a source of unhappiness.
You can disassemble anything and any person and find out that it is made up of parts, none of which are unchanging or can represent the whole. (But, when you disassemble the wagon, when you get to the last part, don’t imagine that wagons don’t exist– look around you at the big heap of parts, which were created by an endless chain of cause and effect extending in all directions– that is *all* we are, that is *all* anything is– a big temporary pile of parts.)

Conclusion
What we are is like a eddie in a stream. Everyone is an eddie in the stream. From what do these eddies arise? From the influence of everyone else. So in postmodern jargon, we are socially constructed.  In Chinese terms, cause and effect interpenetrates, so who you are is the sum of all the chains of cause and effect stretching back to our Ethiopian proto-human ancestors and across contemporary space to everyone on the planet.

Consequences
The project of enlightenment must be re-framed to be meaningful. The relevant unit of enlightenment is everyone.
The sum total of all the sentient beings in the world is the relevant alternative to the self. That collective consciousness

Normative Consequences for Practice
We should work towards the enlightenment of the collective mind. To use a traditional framework, it has consequences for body speech and mind:

Body– Omnivory is autophagy. Corruption of the mind of one node of the collective consciousness affects all nodes (i.e. your drunkness degrades the state of collective mind)
Mind. Politics matter. Altruism matters. Opinions of one node can move the collective mind. (i.e. what you think about global warming matters still when the nodes with power finally decide what to do)
Speech. Low quality communication among nodes of the collective mind degrades the ability of the collective mind to function. (Knock it off with the petty bickering, lies and so on)

Speculative Consequences
Where are the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas? I always wondered why people felt the presence of imaginary people (gods, dieties, etc)– is it because our brain is optimized to reason about personified things? The story of King Yama holds the attention better than a treatise on a impersonal law of Karma.  Or is it like the Sci-Fi trope, where in hypothetical distributed computers, from time to time autonomous sentient consciousness arise in the network, and in their alien way are able to act like, well Bodhisattvas. Wikipedia is, in a sense, Manjusri. The collective project of modern and ancient medicine is in a sense, the medicine Buddha.  They take messages, process them and move the collective to solve problems. They still can’t cure your cancer– there isn’t any magic.

We bear the Karma of all the actions of people who lived before us– they constructed us.
All the people who live after us bear the weight of our Karma– we are constructing them.

The only sense in which we ever were immortal was as a part of the collective consciousness, and to borrow a Buddhist trope, this was always true, we just didn’t realize it.

Unsolved Problems
What happens to hermits? Can they reach enlightenment as pratekyabuddhas?
What happens if you don’t sometimes unplug from the collective consciousness? Some nodes of the collective consciousness would like very much to corrupt the whole system to favor some nodes over the others– make some nodes happy at the expense of others. We have to act collectively to collectively reach enlightenment, but if we join the club (and get our Buddhist Club membership card) we become part of institutions that have been corrupted over and over. But without institutions, no single node in a network can exert much influence on any other. What to do?
What’s up with the urge to create separate collective minds intent on destroying the others? (Nationalism, patriotism and the collective fault of seeing an atman in the collective– i.e. Russian or US essentialism)