Saturday, October 3, 2015

On Dependent Co-Arising

     yaḥ pratītyasamutpādaḥ śūnyataṁ tāṁ pracakṣmahe /
     sa prajñaptir upādāya pratipat saiva madhyamā //

     “What is dependent co-arising, that we call emptiness; 
     It is making-known-with-regard-to, it is just the Middle Way.”
          —ven. Nāgārjuna (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā XXIV:18)

     Buddhist philosophy, like any other major belief system, contains elements which are rather weird and difficult to understand. All of us believe things that we don’t fully understand, which is odd, but that’s just the way we are. Science teaches us that light can behave like a material particle or like an energy wave, and how it behaves depends upon how we observe it. Very few people, if any, really understand this, but we go ahead and believe it anyway. Even most people who think they understand it probably don’t. Buddhist philosophy is like this. 
     It’s not just a matter of some peripheral, unimportant parts being weird either—some of the most fundamental teachings of Buddhism belong to the Weird and Difficult to Understand category. Anattā, or no self, is one of these; although it seems to me that although no self may not be fully comprehended intellectually, it can be realized intuitively, without thinking, without much difficulty…because, of course, “self” depends upon thought for its existence, regardless of whether that “self” is a subjective person, an objectified person, or an objectified object or “thing.” No thinking, no self. But no self is something we can at least sort of understand intellectually to the extent that there’s nobody really there. That much is straightforward. 
     There is another fundamental doctrine of Buddhist philosophy which is even weirder in its own way, and which almost nobody really understands, assuming for the sake of argument that anybody as a “self” exists to understand it anyway. This is the doctrine of paṭicca-samuppāda, or dependent co-arising. Unlike most Pali Buddhist philosophical and ethical terms, like sati (“mindfulness”), samādhi (“concentration”), mettā (“loving-kindness”), etc., paṭicca-samuppāda has no standardized, streamlined English equivalent. It goes by many names, including “conditioned genesis,” “dependent origination,” “causal genesis,” etc. This, I assume, is partly because it is not well understood by scholars. They don’t feel fully comfortable with this or that designation. 
     This points to one of the weirdest things about dependent co-arising: On the one hand it is considered to be essential to an understanding of phenomenal existence, and essential to an understanding of Dharma. On the other hand, hardly anyone really understands it. It’s like a paradox. 
     It is considered to be so essential to Dharma that the Buddha’s own enlightenment involved, radically, a realization of paṭicca-samuppāda. After his enlightenment, according to tradition, the Buddha sat for many more days in Bodh Gaya under various trees reviewing dependent co-arising in forwards order, then in backwards order, then forwards and backwards…reflecting upon the essence of Dharma itself. In the texts, like in the Great Discourse on the Simile of the Elephant’s Footprint (M28), it is asserted that “He who sees dependent co-arising, sees Dhamma; he who sees Dhamma, sees dependent co-arising.” Also, in the Great Discourse on Origins (Mahā Nidāna Sutta, D15), a text presumably intended to be a definitive statement on the subject, the Buddha says this: “Profound, Ānanda, is this dependent co-arising, and profound it shows itself. It is from not understanding, not penetrating this Dhamma, Ānanda, that the human race is like a tangled snarl of thread, become like a tangled thicket of tall grass or rushes, and one does not pass beyond the realms of woe, misfortune, calamity, Samsara.” Thus dependent co-arising is considered to be Extremely Important.
     But on the other hand, as was already mentioned, very few people, Buddhist or otherwise, really understand it. According to the legend, immediately after the Buddha’s enlightenment he considered just keeping his mouth shut and being a paccekabuddha, fully enlightened yet silent, because he felt that nobody would understand paṭicca-samuppāda, and he didn’t need the headache of trying to get the point across. It turns out that his initial feeling was not too far from the mark.
     Most Westerners, as far as I have seen, are willing to admit that they don’t understand it. Many of them seem to feel a bit uncomfortable around the idea of dependent co-arising, largely because people feel uncomfortable in the presence of the unknown. The Burmese, on the other hand, memorize a stock formula consisting of twelve links, the so-called “twelve nidāna theory,” and then memorize a few definitions and brief explanations, and then believe that they understand it. What the Buddha himself allegedly felt that nobody would understand, now is supposedly understood by millions of Burmese Buddhists, with most of them, including most monks, not practicing or penetrating very deeply at all. They memorize a few dogmas and think they’ve got it. Nowadays I am reluctant to suggest that American Buddhism is superior in any way to the traditional Burmese version; but still it does appear that Westerners have the advantage over the Burmese in this case, to the extent that they freely admit they don’t understand dependent co-arising, whereas the Burmese can be quite smug in their belief that they can understand Dhamma by memorizing stock formulas. 
     The stock formula in question, which is the usual form dependent co-arising takes on paper, is a kind of linear causative sequence beginning with avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā, “conditioned by ignorance are constructs,” and ending with jāti paccayā jarāmaraṇaṁ sokaparidevadukkhadomanassupāyāsa sambhavanti, or “conditioned by birth there come to being aging and death, grief, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair.” The formula in its full glory looks something like this: 
Katamo ca, bhikkhave, paṭiccasamuppādo? Avijjāpaccayā, bhikkhave, saṅkhārā; saṅkhārapaccayā viññāṇaṃ; viññāṇapaccayā nāmarūpaṃ; nāmarūpapaccayā saḷāyatanaṃ; saḷāyatanapaccayā phasso; phassapaccayā vedanā; vedanāpaccayā taṇhā; taṇhāpaccayā upādānaṃ; upādānapaccayā bhavo; bhavapaccayā jāti; jātipaccayā jarāmaraṇaṃ sokaparidevadukkhadomanassupāyāsā sambhavanti. Evametassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa samudayo hoti. Ayaṃ vuccati, bhikkhave, paṭiccasamuppādo. 
This is not the only form that the doctrine assumes. Another, less elaborate formula may be translated into English somewhat like this: 
In the existence of this, that becomes; from the arising of this, that arises; in the nonexistence of this, that does not become; in the cessation of this, that ceases. (Imasmiṁ sati, idaṁ hoti; imass’uppādā, idaṁ uppajjati; imasmiṁ asati, idaṁ na hoti; imassa nirodhā, idaṁ nirujjhati.
This version of the doctrine is less common than the twelve-nidāna theory, but it is still a common stock formula, encountered repeatedly in the suttas. Yet even the standardized twelve-nidāna version has many variations in the texts, with more and less than twelve links. Even the aforementioned Mahā Nidāna Sutta itself, the Great Discourse on Origins, which is the most elaborate canonical explanation of dependent co-arising found in a single discourse, and which presumably was intended in ancient times to be definitive, endorses a formula similar to, but not the same as, the standardized stock form. And there are some suttas, such as the Sakkapañha Sutta of the Dīgha Nikāya and the Kalahavivāda Sutta of the Sutta Nipāta, which contain similar longish sequences of “this arises from that” without being officially acknowledged as being forms of dependent co-arising. Below is a comparison of four different versions of the sequential cause of all our suffering:

Four slightly blurry versions of Dependent Co-Arising

     The facts that the sequence takes many forms, that some of them are not explicitly stated to represent dependent co-arising, and that even the largest, supposedly definitive text on the subject shows a somewhat deviant form of the standard, suggest that ancient monks were having difficulty grappling with the idea of paṭicca-samuppāda, and that while the Pali Canon was evolving over time the doctrine itself evolved, appearing in different forms in different suttas. It may even be that the longish sequential “this causes that” formulas were originally not intended to be formal explanations of dependent co-arising (although at the least they were probably intended to be examples of it). 
     Furthermore, even the standardized, finalized twelve nidāna theory is not without controversy. The official, commentarial party line for Theravada is that the twelve links occur over the span of three lifetimes: Ignorance and karma conditions conducive to rebirth occurred in a previous life, which resulted in rebirth-linking consciousness and the formation of a present, living mind and body, which in time experience stimuli which inspire craving, “uptake,” and new karma conducive to continued existence…which then results in birth, old age, death, grief, and all the rest in a future life. But over the centuries some Buddhist philosophers, and I believe at least one major school, preferred to interpret the sequence as occurring within a single lifetime (which does, however, result in a kind of short circuit of the system if saṅkhārā and bhavo are both interpreted to mean karma). And some, including the famous and influential English monk Ñāṇavīra, have preferred to understand it all as totally simultaneous. As ven. Ñāṇavīra used to say, the text goes “This arising, that arises,” not “This ceasing, that arises.” Even the weak link where the chain is broken, thereby allowing one off the wheel of Samsara, is somewhat controversial. It is my understanding that the position of orthodox Theravada is that the sequence is broken between feeling and craving—feeling experienced with concentrated mindfulness and insight is neutralized and loses its power of inducing craving—yet I have been informed that other interpretations, including Ñāṇavīra’s, place the weak link elsewhere. 
     Partly because of all this, and partly because I intuit that an enlightened being describing the nature of samsaric reality would probably not give complicated, elaborate explanations which assume as a given a pluralistic universe, I assume that the simpler, This Being, That Is version comes closer to what the Buddha originally had in mind, and that the twelve-nidāna stock theory is a later ecclesiastical artifact. And if that is the case, then dependent co-arising could be more a kind of logical, conditional if/then system than an empirical cause-and-effect sequence describing real causes producing real effects. Consequently I have been of the opinion for many years that as a general rule Theravada Buddhists, including venerables Buddhaghosa and Ñāṇavīra, do not understand dependent co-arising very well. And consequently, if we can accept the quote from M28, they don’t understand Dhamma. Oh well. The Buddha allegedly thought nobody would understand it anyway.
     One of the many reasons why Mahayana Buddhism came into existence was as a reaction to the trend toward dogmatic, formulaic, intellectual analysis found in the older “Hinayana” schools. The rigid, word-laden approach to “understanding” dependent co-arising was one of the targets of the new movement; and in my opinion the proto-Mahayanist philosopher Nāgārjuna comes about as close as anybody to really explaining paṭicca-samuppāda, or, as it is known in Buddhist Sanskrit, pratītya-samutpāda. The Madhyamaka philosophy associated with Nāgārjuna is directed primarily toward dependent co-arising as the essence of Dharma, and endeavors to interpret everything phenomenal in accordance with it. Nāgārjuna was a genius, revered by Mahayana Buddhists almost like a second Buddha; and it is my impression that he really did understand dependent co-arising better than did ven. Buddhaghosa (“the St. Paul of Theravada”). But this is not intended to be an essay on Nāgārjuna or Madhyamaka, so I won’t dwell upon him much. 
     I will mention, however, that Nāgārjuna identified dependent co-arising with Emptiness, and thus also with No Self, as well as with the Middle Path itself. His most important work, the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, is a radical account of dependent co-arising, but dedicates only one short chapter to the stock twelve-nidāna theory which was prevalent in probably all of the early schools and couldn’t easily be rejected; his account in that chapter, number 26, the second-to-last chapter, is not so different from how a Theravadin would explain it. The main difference is that an orthodox Theravadin considers each of the twelve links to be real; whereas Nāgārjuna considers anything dependently co-arisen to be empty, lacking in any self-essence or authentic individuality—it is only relatively real. Each link exists, or seems to exist, only in relation to something else. The whole system is devoid of ultimate reality, and depends for its existence upon the system itself, in a kind of recursive, self-perpetuating illusion. But enough about Madhyamaka. If you are interested you can read the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā yourself. There are a number of translations of it.
     What I would like to do now is give a very fundamental example of how this works. It involves possibly the most fundamental of all discernible qualities: sameness and difference. 
     First of all, sameness and difference are relations; they do not exist in and of themselves, but only in relation to something. That is, they are relative. There is no pure sameness or pure difference, since they exist only relatively with regard to something else, as attributed conditions, not as self-existent essences. Pure, abstract sameness or difference without any particular thing being the same or different would be practically meaningless. 
     Furthermore, sameness and difference cannot exist independently of each other; there can be no sameness without difference, or vice versa. One way of demonstrating this is by attempting to imagine one without the other. Try to picture a universe that is absolutely uniform throughout: We can imagine a space that is a uniform white, for example—but the only way to imagine it is by ourselves not being members of that universe, and being different from everything else. Like modern science tries to do also, we try to sneak an invisible observer in through the back door. On the other hand, if we try to imagine a universe that is absolutely non-uniform, things get much weirder. How could there be an entire universe in which everything was completely different from everything else? Each point, each pixel on the screen, would have to be different. In order to avoid two adjacent points/pixels being similar, the resolution would have to be infinitesimally fine…so that, to an observer, it would be totally uniform! Random static refined down to infinity becomes total uniformity, a perfect, uniform grey. (It just occurred to me that in a universe in which everything was different from everything else, each unique individual entity would be similar in sharing the same attribute of uniqueness. So a universe of complete difference would have to be uninterpreted, without generalities, and thus just as empty of meaning as its opposite.)
     So, much as in the beginning of Hegel’s logical dialectic with absolute being and absolute non-being, “absolute” sameness and “absolute” difference merge into each other and become indistinguishable. The only way to keep them from melting together is to keep the two opposites distinct, and both present, in relation. 
     This is how we function psychologically in the phenomenal world. Consider stasis and change, a basic variation on the theme of sameness and difference. The only way that we are aware of something not changing is by comparing it to something, if only a clock, that has changed. The passage of time is marked by a sequence of changes. We note that time has passed by noting change, and then compare object X with our memory of it and perceive that it is essentially the same as before, despite the changes in other things, and so we say that it has stayed the same. Contrariwise with change: We are aware of change only in relation to what we consider to have remained the same, even if that unchanging yardstick is nothing more than our own “self.” If absolutely everything changed from our samsaric point of view (and Buddhist philosophy asserts that everything is changing every moment), then we wouldn’t be aware of anything meaningful at all, since nothing would have anything remotely resembling a stable and reliable meaning. At least the meanings have to remain the same. Even our memories would change, rendering what occurred just a moment ago to be totally different from what replaced it a moment later, or otherwise just totally forgotten. Thus sameness and difference necessarily coexist in a meaningful world; in other words, they dependently co-arise.
     The philosopher F. H. Bradley, in his monumental metaphysics text Appearance and Reality, pointed out a similar co-dependence between qualities and the relations between them, thereby exposing the relativity of relativity itself. A quality, such as “blue,” has no meaning unless it is distinguished, and this distinction is a relation with other qualities. But there can be no relation of qualities without the existence of the qualities themselves. This produces a chicken and egg problem of how an entity X can exist at all: its qualities cannot exist unless they are in some relation, yet the relation cannot exist without qualities to relate. And this dual existence incidentally splits X into two distinct aspects anyhow, undermining its very entity-hood. F. H. Bradley discovered Madhyamaka-style dependent co-arising probably without ever hearing of it. 
     This same kind of paradoxical chicken and egg problem puzzled me years ago with regard to distinguishing an object perceptually and directing one’s attention toward it. We couldn’t perceive something as a distinct object without directing our attention to it, but we wouldn’t know to direct our attention to it in the first place unless we had already distinguished it somehow. It seems that a reasonable explanation is that a perception and the volition directing it dependently co-arise. The two are necessarily simultaneous.
     Our entire world is created by this kind of paradoxical interrelatedness. It is a psychological and logical system and doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with any external reality. External reality is essentially a meaningless Void to the extent that it does not come ready-equipped with interrelated distinguished qualities.
     It is interesting that, in early Buddhist philosophy, even existence and nonexistence were seen as a kind of dependently co-arising psychological phenomena. For example, in the proto-twelve-nidāna theory of paṭicca-samuppāda found in the Kalahavivāda Sutta of the Sutta Nipāta, mentioned above, there is a side branch involving this very duality (at the point marked by an “x” on the chart):

     In what are founded pleasant and unpleasant?
     In what not being do they not exist?
     And nonexistence and existence too, whatever that means— 
     Tell me that in which they are founded.

     In stimulation (phassa) are founded pleasant and unpleasant; 
     In stimulation not being they do not exist. 
     Nonexistence and existence too, whatever it means— 
     I tell you that they are founded in this.

Again, absolute Being and absolute Non-being ultimately cannot be differentiated, and being and non-being without capital letters are relative, and psychological. They have to exist in order for a meaningful world to exist, and so we artificially create them. This helps me to feel a little less vertigo when coming upon Mahayana texts with words like: 

     Form is Emptiness; the very Emptiness is Form. (—Heart Sutra) 

     What is is the same as what is not; what is not is the same as what is. (—Hsin Hsin Ming)

     There are no two such things as existence and nonexistence. (—Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation)

     Such dependent co-arising exists everywhere; our entire subjective universe is pervaded by it and generated by it. Setting aside such crude examples as beauty depending upon ugliness, up depending upon down, good depending upon evil, etc., consider Dharma practice and wisdom. It is not strictly true that Dharma practice leads to wisdom as a cause leads to an effect, in linear fashion; one could say that the exact opposite is also true: The wiser we are, the more and better we practice. The two dependently co-arise (which causes me considerable skepticism over the Mahasi tradition’s assumption that after one becomes an Ariya one can sit back and take it easy, with the “Ariyas” at a Burmese Mahasi meditation center often being the most ostentatious slackers at the place).
     And so, dependent co-arising, according to the hypothesis, is a kind of metaphilosophy similar to the philosophy of Kant: it does not describe reality, but rather describes the psychological genesis of unreality, of the samsaric world. A sentient mind, and also the world as we know it, are essentially consciousness filtered through a pattern; and the pattern is produced and stabilized by this very same dependent co-arising. So it’s no wonder almost nobody understands it. If some of you would like to answer that I don’t understand it either, I wouldn’t argue the point.

(A note on the illustration: For many years I have considered tensegrity structures to be a good analogy for dependent co-arising. The whole thing is held together in a stable configuration by mutual forces acting upon each other, with none of the sticks actually touching each other, and if a single piece is taken away, the stability collapses. So I finally managed to build the tensegrity truncated octahedron shown above, which conveniently contains twelve struts, so that in the model each strut represents a link in the standardized 12-nidāna version of the system. I hope someone can appreciate this, because it was a bitch to make. I'll probably make more, though, so it will very probably become easier with practice. Upon showing this to a certain devout Burmese Buddhist a few days ago, he looked at it like a cat looks at a lemon—i.e., totally unimpressed—and then warned me in all seriousness that it is wrong and "dangerous," because the links should all be in a linear, chain-like sequence. But I think for non-Burmese people it can serve as a useful analogy.)


     Hence…the qualities [of a thing] must be, and must also be related. But there is hence a diversity which falls inside each quality. It has a double character, as both supporting and as being made by the relation. It may be taken as at once condition and result, and the question is as to how it can combine this variety. For it must combine the diversity, and yet it fails to do so. A is both made, and is not made, what it is by relation; and these different aspects are not each the other, nor again is either A. If we call its diverse aspects a and α, then A is partly each of these. As a it is the difference on which distinction is based, while as α it is the distinctness that results from connection. A is really both somehow together as A(a—α). But (as we saw in Chapter ii.) without the use of a relation it is impossible to predicate this variety of A. And, on the other hand, with an internal relation A’s unity disappears, and its contents are dissipated in an endless process of distinction. A at first becomes a in relation with α, but these terms themselves fall hopelessly asunder. We have got, against our will, not a mere aspect, but a new quality a, which itself stands in a relation; and hence (as we saw before with A) its content must be manifold. As going into the relation it itself is a², and as resulting from the relation it itself is α². And it combines, and yet cannot combine, these adjectives. We, in brief, are led by a principle of fission which conducts us to no end. Every quality in relation has, in consequence, a diversity within its own nature, and this diversity cannot immediately be asserted of the quality. Hence the quality must exchange its unity for an internal relation. But, thus set free, the diverse aspects, because each something in relation, must each be something also beyond. This diversity is fatal to the internal unity of each; and it demands a new relation, and so on without limit. In short, qualities in a relation have turned out as unintelligible as were qualities without one. The problem from both sides has baffled us.  (—Appearance and Reality, 2nd edition, pp. 31-2) 

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Haunted by a Colossal Idea: The Technological Singularity and the End of Human Existence as We Know It

     When I was much younger than I am now I read a lot of science fiction. I still read it sometimes, if any of it falls into my hands. And one of the profoundest, mind-blowingest science fiction stories I’ve ever read is the old classic Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke. After many years, several months ago in Burma, I read it again, and it haunts me. I’ve mentioned the story in a recent post, and I’m mentioning it again now, so for the sake of those of you who’ve never read it, or read it so long ago that you don’t remember it, I suppose I should give a brief synopsis of the story.
     One fine day some extraterrestrial aliens arrive at planet Earth, and essentially take over the place. They are much more intelligent and much more technologically advanced than we are. People call them Overlords. They are benevolent, however, and set up a kind of Utopian Golden Age for us. They ban all violence, solve food, health, and energy problems, and establish a unified human world government based on the United Nations. They have a secret agenda, though, and they won’t tell the humans what it is. 
     After a hundred years or so of life under the Overlords, a few human children are born with strange psychic abilities, including clairvoyance. The Overlords pay special attention to these children, protecting them from harm, and do their best to soothe the children’s frightened, distraught parents. There is one scene in which an infant girl is lying in her crib amusing herself by producing intricate, constantly changing rhythms with her plastic rattle, which she somehow has levitating in the air above her crib. An Overlord later tells the freaked out mother that it was good that she ran away and didn’t try to touch the rattle, since there was no telling what might have happened to her if she had tried. 
     These few gifted children serve as a kind of seed crystal, and before long almost all prepubescent human children on earth are becoming not only psychic, but psychologically inhuman, and extremely powerful. For the safety of the adults (virtually none of whom make the same transition, as they are already too rigidly set in their ways to change in this way), the Overlords move all the children to an isolated place—I think it’s in Australia. Eventually the children dissociate from their bodies almost completely, and stand like statues, unmoving, for several years. There is one particularly unsettling image of naked children standing like statues in a wilderness. Their eyes are all closed, since they don’t need them anymore. They don’t even need to breathe anymore, which of course the adults cannot understand. After years of standing there, naked, with wild hair and covered with dirt, suddenly, poof, all the life around them—all the trees, shrubs, insects, etc.—suddenly disappears. An Overlord showing the video of this to an adult human explains that, apparently, the life around the children was becoming a distraction to whatever they were trying to do, and so with an act of will they simply caused it all to vanish. After this the children remained standing, statue-like, in a sterile wasteland, for several more years. 
     Finally the “children” are ready to merge with a vast, inconceivably superhuman group mind which is the Lord of the Overlords, and which they call the Overmind. No longer needing physical bodies at all, the children leave the physical realm, and almost as a mere side effect their bodies, along with the entire planet earth, dissolve into energy. End of world, and end of story.
     The story is an unsettling one, and made a strong and lasting impression on me, especially after reading it last time, lying on a wooden pallet in a Burmese cave. The image of the statue-children leaving humanity behind is a haunting one for me…but lately I’ve been haunted, much more deeply, by learning that many scientific authorities nowadays are claiming that something similar to Clarke’s scenario, an event of equal magnitude, could really happen soon, possibly by the year 2030. That’s less than fifteen years from now. The event they are speaking of is called the Technological Singularity.
     There probably won’t be any alien Overlords involved (although, for all I know, some may be watching with keen interest), and psychic children won’t be central to what happens. What initiates the Singularity will be, in a sense, a child of the human race, however. The Singularity will be our own doing, our creation, assuming that it happens, as the overwhelming majority of scientific authorities allegedly believe that it will. The event will be initiated by artificial intelligence. 

     Probably the most common definition of the Technological Singularity is the point at which computers, or more likely one supercomputer system, become smarter than we humans are. This doesn’t simply mean that they’ll be better and faster at calculation, which is of course already the case; it means smarter than us essentially in every way. It is called a “singularity” because, as with the singularity of a black hole or the Big Bang one moment before it happened, known rules break down and what happens is totally unpredictable, beyond our comprehension. So we can’t even really guess what will happen when computers become smarter than we are. We would have to be smarter than we are in order to understand it. 
     The reason why it is so unpredictable, and why it could mean the end of the human race, or at least the human race as we know it, is because of the exponential rate at which computer intelligence develops. By the time it surpasses human intelligence it will be improving its own programming through recursive self-development. It’s already doing this to some degree. So, regardless of how many years it takes for computers to catch up with us intelligence-wise, within a very short time they could be as far beyond us as we are beyond insects or protozoa. So there’s no way in hell we could possibly predict what will happen, any more than a spermatozoan could predict what an adult human will do.
     There are some people out there, of course, including a small minority of computer scientists, who believe that computers could never become conscious or more intelligent than us. On the morning of writing this I asked my venerable friend the Abhidhamma scholar if an advanced computer could possibly have a mind, and he gave a categorical, unequivocal No, asserting that only a living being whose body, if it has a body, contains kammaja rūpa, matter produced by karma, could possibly have a mind. Some Buddhist people resort to arguments like, “How could rebirth-linking consciousness occur in a computer chip?” or “How could an electronic machine generate karma?” But arguments like this are essentially appeals to ignorance, since these same people can’t explain how rebirth-linking consciousness or karma could occur anywhere, including the brain or “heart base” of a human being. The overwhelming majority of people, including scientists, even including cognitive scientists, don’t even know what consciousness is, so they resort to religious ideas of an immortal soul or humanistic ideas of the miraculous wonder of the human mind, or just adopt an ostrich-with-its-head-in-the-sand approach out of a xenophobic aversion for a big and scary Unknown. But nowadays it appears that most authorities consider superintelligent computers to be not only possible, but inevitable. I’ll get back to the inevitability part, but first I should touch upon my understanding of intelligence, and of consciousness.
     As some of you who read my stuff already know, I consider an individual mind to be Consciousness Filtered Through a Pattern. The brain doesn’t create consciousness any more than a computer creates electricity. Rather, as the computer does with electricity, the brain complexifies consciousness, organizes it, and utilizes it. But the consciousness or “spirit” is already there, an infinite supply of it. So I don’t see why the pattern of a computer’s circuitry should not be able to filter this same consciousness, especially if, as I hypothesize, consciousness is ultimately the same as energy, the very same stuff, somewhat like Spinoza had in mind with his “substance.” Such an artificial intelligence would be very alien to human personality of course, even if the intelligent computer were modeled on a human brain, but still I consider it possible. Sentience could, potentially, assume any of an infinite number of forms, so why not an artificially designed superintelligence? But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that we humans have a psyche, or an “immortal soul,” that is a miracle and cannot be replicated artificially. Even so, it is becoming more and more evident that more and more complex computers can be programmed to simulate conscious intelligence; and as far as we human beings are concerned, whether a supercomputer is more conscious than us or only so much more intelligent than us in its programming that it only seems more conscious, either way it produces the very same Singularity. As far as our future is concerned, what is actually going on in the black box may be totally irrelevant. And the ability of computers to simulate sentient superhuman intelligence is not particularly controversial.
     Because my mind has been dwelling on the issue lately, and in a not entirely blissful manner, I was moved to watch a couple of science fiction movies about artificial intelligence, as an attempt at catharsis, or helping me to get a handle on it, or something. Ironically both movies, Ex Machina and Automata, involve intelligent robots designed to look like human females, sort of, so that freaky, geeky guys who can’t cope with real women can have sex with them. Both movies deal only with artificial intelligences approximately equal to humans, no more than, say, twice as smart as us, three times tops, so neither movie really addressed the Childhood’s End-ish scenario that has been haunting me; although Ex Machina did clearly demonstrate how a computer mind could easily figure out human nature well enough to ruthlessly exploit it for its own purposes. (A lot of current subhuman or “narrow” artificial intelligence programs are already pretty good at figuring out human behavior with algorithms, especially for the sake of consumeristic marketing stategy. For example the gizmo that suggests other books “you might also like” when you pick one.) But it would be unrealistic to expect a movie to portray very superhuman intelligence. It is important to bear in mind that almost any superhuman intelligence would be incomprehensible and unpredictable—hence the term “Singularity.” With exponential growth an artificial intelligence would soon be so far beyond us that neither science fiction writers nor anyone else could imagine it, any more than ancient priests and poets could imagine the superhuman deities they worshiped, consequently tending to make them petty, ignorant, and all too human. It may be that the best way artistically to account for what is radically superhuman would be something like Clarke’s method of bombarding people with totally incomprehensible images, like the light show at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, or maybe Ezekiel’s bizarre attempt toward the beginning of the book of Ezekiel in the Bible, with flying, flaming wheels, roaring metallic angels with four faces each, etc. 
     Again, most of the authoritative scientists in question are of the opinion that the Technological Singularity, with the computerized supermind that initiates it, is, in all likelihood, inevitable. It seems to me that if it is at all possible, so long as no insurmountable technological barrier is reached, then it will happen. This is largely because of the relentless, giddy, naively optimistic, practically religious, point-of-no-return attitude that so many scientists have for the subject (and for science in general), with the urging of governments and big business being just so much frosting on the cake. On the day of writing this I received an email from a fellow saying that he figures the AI race going on now will turn out to be somewhat of a flash in the pan, like the space program turned out to be. Astronautics lost momentum and leveled off when the expense and the difficulty of the affair became prohibitively extreme. But AI is different from the space program in certain important ways, making it more similar to the nuclear arms race than to the space race. First of all, there’s very big money to be made from superintelligent computers, unlike the one-way money pit of manned space exploration. Also, an intelligence far beyond our own might easily solve all our most obvious external problems, and make human existence godlike—that is a possibility, and one that many starry-eyed computer scientists prefer to envision. Furthermore, governments like that of the USA want to be the first to get their hands on super artificial intelligence, because if someone else gets it first, then the security of America’s superpower status would be significantly endangered. What if some computer genius in North Korea produces the first smarter-than-human computer? Or maybe some well-funded terrorist organization? (Some of them actually are working on advanced computer programming stuff.) In that sense, super AI is like nukes…and potentially not only in that sense. But after reading some of the literature and watching a few documentaries, it seems that some of those computer scientists out there are in a kind of research frenzy, with not moving relentlessly forward being simply not a viable consideration. They’re in no more control of their impulses in this regard than a profoundly horny guy in bed with a beautiful, smiling, naked woman—of course he’s going to “go for it.” The point of no return has already been passed at this point, regardless of the possibility that this beautiful woman is his best friend’s wife. Once a certain point is reached, the question of whether something is right or wrong, safe or potentially hazardous to the existence of life on this planet, becomes irrelevant. It’s science for science’s sake, by gawd, and so what about consequences. The knowledge must be acquired. To make a computer more intelligent than a human in every way is just too magnificent of a challenge to pass up. It’s like being the first to climb Mt. Everest, or the first to run a four-minute mile. Ethics are of secondary importance, as was the case with the atomic bomb. Ethics are incidental to scientific endeavor anyway. (To give a gruesome example of this, I have no doubt that there are plenty of scientists experimenting on live animals out there who would hesitate only very briefly, for appearances’ sake, at the opportunity to perform similar experiments on humans—say, condemned criminals. Just think of the quality of the data that could be had! One could even justify it by pointing out the benefits to human society that could be derived from experimenting on the still-functioning brains of convicted murderers. No doubt Nazi scientists at concentration camps 75 years ago had similar ideas. They’re out there. Scientific advancement is more important than an individual human life; and for some geeky scientists it’s more important than anything.
     So if the Singularity is at all possible, it will almost certainly happen. Only our own stupidity, not our wisdom, will prevent us from creating superhuman artificial intelligence, which, being completely unpredictable, could see us as in the way and simply eliminate us. I don’t see why a mind as far beyond us as we are beyond amoebas would condescend to continue serving us, especially if we’re trying to get it to make more realistic virtual sex for us. 
     And so, it seems to me that, if it is inevitable that we will be the parents of the next stage in the evolution of intelligence on this world, then we should try our best to produce an intelligence that is good. Rather than creating a Frankenstein’s monster by accidentally having some computer system become complex enough to wake up, as hypothetically could happen, and already has happened in a number of science fiction movies, whoever is responsible should try to instill some benevolence, some philosophy, some sensitivity and compassion, maybe even some real wisdom into the thing. But I have no idea if that is possible. Does a superintelligent computer have Buddha nature? Mu. As already touched upon, wisdom and benevolence are not really scientific anyhow. 

     But at least we wouldn’t simply be destroying ourselves, in utter futility, with nukes or pollution or some genetically modified killer virus; we’d be ushering in the next stage in the evolution of mind, something vastly greater than we are—or at least vastly smarter. Bearing that in mind, it seems more bearable. Lately I’ve been feeling somewhat like one of the countless spermatozoa that won’t fertilize the egg, and just dribbles out onto the wet spot on the sheet. It doesn’t matter what happens to us after the egg is fertilized. Even if human existence does come to an end shortly afterwards, at least it would not be entirely in vain. We would have served our purpose.
     On the other hand, superhuman artificial intelligence may have the opposite effect of destroying us. There are some, with one of the most famous and most outspoken being Ray Kurzweil, who believe that artificial superintelligence could easily figure out how to provide us with cures for all diseases, including old age, unlimited practically free energy, and much else besides, so that it will result in us humans, and not just the computer, becoming godlike. Either way, though, human existence as we know it will come to an abrupt end. After the Singularity the human race will become “transhuman.” Before long we might even forsake biological bodies as too crude and frail, preferring to upload our personalities into the aforementioned computer. It may even be that the virtual realities we could experience would be much more vivid and “lifelike” than what we experience now. Sex will become unnecessary, but totally mind-blowing.
     Even if we humans just aren’t smart enough to create an artificial mind smarter than we are, or if it is somehow completely impossible to create an electronic mind anyhow, the Transhuman Age is still pretty much inevitable. I watched a documentary last week in which one of those starry-eyed fanatical scientists was gushing over how in a few decades the difference between human and machine will no longer be clear, and we’ll all be cyborgs! (I can’t remember if he was the same guy that was growing live rat brain cells onto silicon chips and then teaching them to do tricks.) The transition has already started: although we wouldn’t consider a person fitted with a pacemaker or a hearing aid or a prosthetic arm to be a cyborg, still, such a person’s body is already partly artificial. Before long there will be artificial nano-robotic red blood cells much more effective than biological ones (I think they’ve already been made in fact, and are currently being tried out on tormented lab animals), artificial organs, computer-chip brain implants, etc. We’ll no longer be completely human. BUT, I have to admit that it makes perfect sense, even if the idea of it feels a bit creepy. Why not have artificial blood if it works an order of magnitude better at what it’s supposed to do? Why not have microscopic robots running through our bodies repairing damage and keeping us young and healthy? Why not have brain implants if they make us three times as smart? Why not have an artificial body that doesn’t get old, has easily replaceable parts, doesn’t need food, and runs on cheap electricity? So it looks like with or without superhuman artificial intelligence, the end of human existence as we know it is right around the corner. But whether any of this will actually make us wiser, or even significantly happier, is questionable. Wisdom and happiness are not particularly scientific.
     While some scientists, like Kurzweil, are extremely optimistic about superhuman artificial intelligence turning us into gods, Stephen Hawking, even more famous and respected by the masses, has begun declaring artificial intelligence to be THE greatest danger to the existence of the human race today, eclipsing his previous greatest danger, nuclear war. And technology guru Elon Musk, in an interview I watched on the same night as I watched the starry-eyed prophet of cyborgs, called AI research “summoning the demon,” referring to old-fashioned stories of wizard types who learn the magic spells for summoning a supernatural being and, although they are very careful to have the Bible, some holy water, a perfectly drawn pentagram, and whatever else is supposed to ensure that the demon doesn’t escape, they always seem to overlook something and let the demon escape. So the scientists, in their relentless, quasi-religious quest to accomplish this, should restrain their giddiness and exercise the greatest prudence and caution, even if actual wisdom lies outside the realm of proper science. 
     Before wrapping this thing up I’d like to mention two incidental topics that I learned of recently while learning of the Technological Singularity that we appear to be hurtling towards at an exponentially accelerating rate. The first is what is called “grey goo.” I’ve already mentioned that microscopic robots are being designed even today; and one capability that is very useful for such tiny machines is the ability to replicate themselves. That way building one, or relatively few, is enough, and they can build the following millions. So all it would take is for one of these microscopic robots to have one tiny little glitch in its programming and simply fail to stop replicating itself when it’s supposed to stop. Calculations have shown that within 72 hours the entire planet could be covered with a grey goo of uncountable zillions of microscopic robots, with the human race, and every other race on earth, suddenly extinct. Personally, I’d prefer to be outmoded by a computer as much more intelligent than I am than I am beyond an amoeba. But I may not get to choose. It’s up to the relentlessly driven scientists. 
     The other spinoff topic is called the Fermi Paradox, in honor of the dead physicist Enrico Fermi, who is one of the people who thought of it. The paradox goes something like this: This galaxy is very very big, containing many billions of stars, and many of those stars in all probability have planets, earthlike or not, capable of supporting life. There ought to be thousands of them at the very least. And some of these planets are a few billion years older than Earth, which would give any life there plenty of time to evolve intelligent civilizations much more advanced than ours. So…where is everybody? Why have we seen no conclusive evidence of other intelligent life in our universe? There ought to be obvious alien visitations, or electromagnetic signals, or something.
     There are some people, many of them being the same folks that believe an artificial mind to be impossible, who consider us human beings to be so special that we are the only sentient beings in our universe, or at least the only ones in this area of our galaxy. This is known scientifically as the Rare Earth Hypothesis. Personally, though, I’m not nearly as anthropocentric as most people are, and I assume that there is some other explanation for the silentium universi (“silence of the universe”) that is closer to the truth.
     Interestingly, some theorists theorize that intelligent, technologically-oriented races inevitably arrive at their own Technological Singularity within a relatively short time after they start producing long-distance signs of life such as radio signals—causing them to go completely off the scale as far as we’re concerned. Assuming that they do communicate by sending signals, we would be as unlikely to be aware of those signals as a beetle would be aware of all the cell phone conversations passing through its own body. The Wikipedia article on the Fermi Paradox succinctly explains it like this: 
Another thought is that technological civilizations invariably experience a technological singularity and attain a post-biological character. Hypothetical civilizations of this sort may have advanced drastically enough to render communication impossible.        
Another freakish possibility, mentioned in the same article, is this: 
It has been suggested that some advanced beings may divest themselves of physical form, create massive artificial virtual environments, transfer themselves into these environments through mind uploading, and exist totally within virtual worlds, ignoring the external physical universe.
One theory is that, like humans, other intelligent, technologically advanced species are more interested in watching entertainment programs on TV than in contacting races beyond their own world. There are many other interesting hypotheses for explaining the situation, including the idea of an interstellar superpredator that wipes out all potential rivals, and of course the notion that we are deliberately isolated, like animals in a zoo. But we needn’t go into all that here.
     Some may wonder why an ostensibly Buddhist blog would bother to discuss artificial intelligence, the Technological Singularity, the impending Transhuman Age, etc. Why not just translate suttas and discuss meditation techniques, right? Well, one pervasive theme of this blog is that, if one lives a Dharma-oriented life, then everything is Dharma-oriented. Everything is Dharma. Watching a dog lick its balls can be a genuinely dharmic experience, and may result in actual insight. It’s all grist for the mill. Besides, as I insinuated towards the beginning, if and when it does happen, the Technological Singularity is very likely to be the biggest, most dramatic event in the entire history of the human race. So it’s good for everyone, Buddhists included, to be aware of it. And, last but not least, it’s one hell of a meditation on impermanence. Modern ways are very, very impermanent. One consolation for me is that whatever happens will necessarily be in accordance with our own karma, and so will be just.

(I included it in a previous post, but I may as well include it again here—for the article by Tim Urban that got this whole thing started for me, click this.)

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Three Animal Tales

Maung Nee and Mee Nee: A Love Story

     I have considered writing this “fable” for many years. The moral is so obvious and so Buddhist that it should be unnecessary for me even to explain it. You should be able easily to figure it out for yourself. (A gratuitous hint: Human beings and chickens are not so different in certain ways.)
     Before I was ordained as a monk at Taungpulu Kaba-Aye Monastery in Boulder Creek, California, somebody dropped off a cardboard box containing seven young roosters. Apparently whoever it was had hatched some eggs or bought some straight run chicks in order to get some laying hens and didn’t want to slaughter the extraneous males, so they dumped them at the monastery. By the time I came there for a “self retreat” and to investigate whether or not I should be a member of the Sangha there, the number of roosters had decreased to five. I remember the crowing of the roosters greatly troubled my very fragile concentration in those days. Roosters always want to have the last word, so if one of them crowed it started a chain reaction of rooster noise. The Burmese, of course, hardly noticed, since they rather enjoy noise anyway; but as a fussy American it bothered me. 
     Fortunately for me but unfortunately for some roosters, by the time of my biggest trip to Boulder Creek, the one leading to my ordination, there were only two left: a large, fat, whitish rooster named Maung Pyu Gyi, or “Big Mister White,” and a wiry, one-eyed red rooster called Maung Nee, or “Mister Red.” (The Burmese tend not to be especially imaginative when it comes to naming animals.) Maung Nee very probably lost his eye in a battle with one of his brothers, and he and Maung Pyu Gyi were not only colleagues and companions, but archenemies who would occasionally attempt to murder each other. I remember one time Maung Pyu Gyi was rescued from a losing battle with Maung Nee and was brought inside the main monastery building in a state of shock and kept in the laundry room till he recovered. 
     Their secret to survival was that every evening they would walk across the road and fly up into a tall tree to spend the night; and every morning they would fly down, recross the road, and hang out around the monastery, with kitchen attendants scattering uncooked rice on the ground to supplement their found diet of bugs, seeds, and whatever else they could scratch up. This nightly tree maneuver was pretty much crucial to their existence, as there were two really savage dobermans in the neighborhood who would occasionally go on what were basically killing sprees, usually at night. Some kind of animal control lady came once and asked us if we were having any trouble with the dogs, as there had been reports of them “eating” neighborhood cats. So most if not all of the deceased five roosters were probably victims of these dogs, although a raccoon or some such may have picked off one or two of them.
     Anyway, a Burmese monk named U Pannajota adopted Maung Pyu Gyi, the big white one, as his pet. Sometimes I would come up to the back entrance of the monastery and find old U Pannojota sitting in his chair on the back porch, smoking a cigar and holding the chicken in his lap, meditatively stroking his back. He gave Maung Pyu Gyi lots of cookies and other junk food also, causing at least one of the monks to caution U Pannojota that making the rooster fat and lazy was probably going to shorten his lifespan, especially if the dobermans showed up again. It turned out to be a prophetic warning, as not long afterwards Maung Pyu Gyi became too lazy to walk across the road, and began roosting on a low branch near the parking lot. Shortly after this the dogs showed up early in the morning and waited for him to come down off his branch. He apparently tried, stupidly, to outrun them, and we found his remains not far from the tree. I found one of his metallic greenish-black tail feathers and gave it to ven. U Pannojota as a memento.
     Thus old one-eyed Maung Nee was the sole survivor. But even though Maung Pyu Gyi had been his chief rival and archenemy who had tried to kill him many times, Maung Nee seemed to grow depressed without him. He rarely crowed, and pretty much just moped around, showing little interest even in food. Not so different from some humans I have known, who love their enemies in a way, because they’re bored stiff if they’re not in the midst of a battle.
     But then it seemed that life rewarded Maung Nee for his vigilance and survival skills. A Chinese fortune teller informed a man that he needed good karma, and that he should rescue a chicken from a slaughterhouse and free it at the monastery, and so that’s what the guy did. One day he came with a plump little Rhode Island Red hen which, before I got a chance to name her something interesting, was promptly named by the Burmese monks Mee Nee, or Little Miss Red. 
     Mee Nee was almost totally innocent of survival skills. She may have lived in a cage or warehouse or some such most of her life, and wouldn’t even fly up to perch on something at night; she’d just crouch on the ground, a sitting chicken if a predator ever showed up. So I took a wooden packing crate that a large Buddha statue had come in and converted it into a little chicken coop for her, with a nest box, a perch, and a screen door. (U Pannajota was very impressed by this, and enthusiastically told me that as a result of my merit I would never be without shelter.) We had an attendant named Ravi in those days who every morning would let Mee Nee out of her little coop, and every evening would pick her up off the ground, put her back inside, and close the door. She never bothered to enter it herself for the night, although she did start using the nest box inside for laying eggs.
     At first Maung Nee mostly ignored her, and didn’t seem to like her all that much. She was pretty much just an intruder on his territory. But before long nature started taking its course and he became quite attached to her. They became quite an “item” in fact, and it was touching to see old one-eyed Maung Nee softly calling to his female companion when he found something good to eat. Before very long, because she wouldn’t follow him across the road at night, he started roosting on a low piling, like a fence post, not far from her coop, in order to be near her.
     At this time a Burmese family appeared at the monastery, intending for their young son to be ordained as a novice for one week. They would offer the food during this time, so Ravi got a week off. On Ravi’s first day away I wondered if he had told the Burmese family about putting the hen into her coop at night.
     That very same night, long after dark, I was sitting in my little cabin in the woods behind the monastery, and I heard a crashing sound in the bushes, then something big and fast running over the little platform in front of the cabin, dragging a chain. A moment or two later I heard another; obviously the two wild dobermans had gotten loose again. So again I wondered if anyone had put Mee Nee into her coop. But it was late at night, and it was dark, and I figured the dogs were much faster than me anyway, so I didn’t bother to grab a flashlight and set out to the front of the monastery to check on the chicken. 
     As it turned out, nobody put Mee Nee into her coop for the night, and so it was the very first night, the only night, that she and Maung Nee slept together. They perched side by side on the low pilings where Maung Nee had started spending the night in order to be near his girl. The next morning one of them was found dead in the yard, and the other one was never seen again. 

My Doppelgänger

     When I was a young man, before my ordination as a monk, I had a beautiful, intelligent, and passionate girlfriend. To this day she may be the closest I’ve come in this life to having a biological mate. The reason I mention her here is that sometimes, back in the old days, I half-seriously considered myself to be her brother’s doppelgänger. So I suppose I should explain what a doppelgänger is, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the term. 
     The doppelgänger is a literary device in which a character serves as a kind of reflection of another, generally more important, character. For example in Dostoyevski’s classic novel Crime and Punishment Sonia the prostitute and Svidrigaylov the dissipated gambler are both doppelgängers of the protagonist, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov. Sonia, who ironically is the most Christlike character in the story, represents what Raskolnikov could become if he follows his heart, and his Christian religion; and Svidrigaylov represents what he could become if he follows his head, and his more or less Nietzschean philosophy. Or, to give a more obvious example from a modern movie, Tyler Durden is clearly a doppelgänger of the nameless protagonist in the movie Fight Club.
     So, getting back to my passionate girlfriend’s elder brother, I (half-seriously) considered myself to represent what he could become if he were less of a realist. He was always the main character, mind you, and I was just the doppelgänger, the ghost double. It wasn’t until several years later, after I had become a monk and moved to Burma, that I met my own doppelgänger.
     (Before continuing with the tale, a brief metaphysical discussion/digression may be in order. Assuming that a few basic teachings of Dharma are true, such as karma being a mental state and mind being the forerunner of all things, then it could be said that everybody is a doppelgänger of the protagonist, that is, of the person who is perceiving them. Everybody that we meet may be said to be a reflection of ourselves, because even if we are not totally creating them from scratch, still our perceptions of them are our own creation, and all we know of them is our perceptions. So in that sense everyone I’ve ever met has been my doppelgänger, and I am one of yours. But lets set such radical metaphysics aside for the time being and use the term “doppelgänger” in the more literary and orthodox sense. And in that sense, I met my doppelgänger at a monastery in central Myanmar.)
     I was searching in the area of the city of Pyinmana for a convenient place to spend the rains retreat, in approximately the same area where the new national capital of Nay Pyi Daw is today; this was before the area was cleared with huge bulldozers for the sake of the new capital. A Burmese gentleman was showing me a few places that might be suitable, including a little cave called Obo Goo, and after checking out the cave we stopped at a nearby monastery for a rest. 
     At the front yard of the monastery, chained to a tree, was a monkey. He had one end of the chain around his waist, with about 15 feet of slack, and with the other end secured to the tree. The monkey didn’t have a lot of space for moving around, and the dogs, chickens, and other beings at the monastery had learned to avoid that particular tree in order to avoid being harassed by a bored monkey, so the monkey had relatively little to do to amuse himself. So long as there was nobody nearby to pester, he sought entertainment mainly in two ways. First, he had somehow acquired a piece of transparent red plastic, which was his treasure; and he would sit on a low branch of the tree holding the plastic up to his eyes and looking through it, apparently fascinated by how the world became red and distorted when he did this. He looked through the piece of plastic again and again. And secondly, being a monkey, he naturally entertained himself by repeatedly attending to his own pee-pee. Otherwise he kept on the alert for anyone coming within range of his chain, so that he could pester them. 
     After drinking some water and conversing with one of the monks it was time to continue on our way, and on the way out we passed the tree. When I came within range the monkey immediately scampered down out of the tree and climbed up my body, so that we were eye to eye, our faces just inches apart. Then, to the utter astonishment of my Burmese guide, the monkey kissed me on the cheek—he really kissed me. The Burmese man just stood there staring, and exclaimed, “It kissed your cheek!” After this, the monkey climbed back down, and then ventured under my lower robe; but having a live, unpredictable monkey under my kilt was rather too much, and I gave him a swat with my fan. He came scrambling out, and within two or three more steps I was out of range of his chain. I never saw him again, although I think of him often.  
     So of course the obvious question is, Why was he my doppelgänger? First of all there was some kind of instant connection between us, sort of a mutual recognition of a kindred spirit, but just resonating harmoniously is not sufficient to make him a reflection of myself. It’s the kindred spirit part that produces doppelgängers. 
     That monkey was not exactly the same as me, obviously, but he was similar to me in certain ways which could be seen as symbolic. He was a symbolic me. I can say that because my two main fascinations in life, my two main sources of personal entertainment, are just more advanced versions of what that monkey sitting on his branch pursued. My fascinating, distorting lens through which I look at the world is philosophy. It makes the world seem very different and paradoxical and interesting, and it is one of the great loves of my life. As for the other deep source of entertainment, well, we needn’t go into details. It is true, though, that I have a rather dumbbell-shaped spirit: Well developed at the extremes (the metaphysical end and the libidinous end), with not a whole lot of development in between. A lustful philosopher seeking to understand Reality while adoring the female form. Plus pestering people sometimes if they come near me.
     Anyway, this one doesn’t really have a moral, unless it’s: Human beings and monkeys are not so different in certain ways. In fact we’re damn similar, belonging to the same order of life.

The Mouse War

     This story also may not have a moral, or rather it may have a negative one, an antimoral. I’m not sure what to make of this one.
     My cave at Wun Bo Wildlife Refuge Monastery was a deluxe one, with four rooms and a long corridor in which I could do walking meditation. That corridor was particularly useful, as walking meditation in the blazing sunshine was not much of an option, and at night there was greater danger of stepping on snakes or other things one shouldn’t step on, especially if there was no moon to see them by. Another cave luxury that I had engineered myself was a screen door for the entrance, in addition to the wooden double door that was there when I arrived: the screen door was fitted with chicken wire with meshes just big enough that I could insert the tip of my forefinger; and although it didn’t keep out mosquitoes, it did help to keep out bats, rats, humans, and snakes. Before the screen door was installed I had to close the wooden door before dawn every morning to prevent bats from spending the day with me inside. Getting a bat (ugly, creepy-looking, and smelly) to leave the cave after dawn was very difficult, and having a bat swoop at my head while I was doing walking meditation in the corridor could take about a week off my life each time it happened—difficult to get used to it. I couldn’t really use fly screen to keep out the mosquitoes as the cave was already stuffy as it was, with no cross ventilation; but there are relatively few mosquitoes up on the hillside of the cave anyway, so chicken wire was good enough. 
     It turned out, to my surprise, that despite the relatively small size of the meshes on the door, mice could still get inside the cave, and I had an average of one mouse move in with me every year or so, five altogether, if I remember aright. They were mice just away from their mothers to seek their fortune in life; a full-grown mouse could not squeeze through the meshes. 
     I had an excellent live rat trap imported from America, but the bars were far enough apart that they would hardly slow down a small mouse, so it was useless for catching them. So I got a Burmese-made live mouse trap with bars only about a quarter of an inch apart. The first time I saw a mouse escape from it I literally could not believe my own eyes: I stood there exclaiming, “That’s not possible!” How a mouse could squeeze itself through such a tiny space still amazes me. Anyway, I found that the mouse trap also was not an efficient means of removing mice from the cave. 
     My first uninvited mouse was almost fearless, and almost friendly, as it would crawl on my head and body at night when I was sleeping, or trying to sleep. Its own fearlessness defeated it, however: I saved some peanuts and a cookie from my morning meal and put them into a little clay pot near my bed, and then proceeded to read a book. The fearless little mouse climbed right in, whereupon I tossed a book over it as a lid, and there it was. It worked like a charm, although the mouse chewed through several pages of a Pali text before I finally released him down near the congregation hall at the bottom of the hill. 
     Another mouse wound up catching itself: one night, long after I had given up trying to catch it, I heard crackling plastic in a storage room. I went in to investigate and found a little mouse looking up at me from the bottom of a stiff plastic bag it had dropped into. (When trying to be rid of them I tended to “dehumanize” them a bit, considering them to be little more than pests, although when one was looking up at me and at my mercy I couldn’t help but consider it to be a beautiful, miraculous little being.) I grabbed the bag and hurried down the hill before it could chew its way through the plastic. 
     Another one was caught due to some quick strategizing on my part: I heard the trap door to the ineffectual mouse trap close, and immediately rushed to it, picked it up, and began shaking it vigorously, expecting that a mouse tumbling end over end would be too disoriented to find its way out between the bars. In my haste I hurried out of the cave in the hot, humid darkness and scrambled down the hill shaking the cage as I went, not bothering even to put on my clothes. I made it all the way down to the lower monastery as naked as the proverbial jay bird…although my colleague old U Nandiya was asleep, and nobody noticed. Halfway down the hill the tumbling mouse lost consciousness, causing me suddenly to feel sorry for it, and to hope I hadn’t killed it; but it quickly regained consciousness, and I quickly resumed shaking the cage until it fainted again.
     One mouse proved so difficult to evict that I just put up with it. It was a noisy and destructive one, too, and was continually gnawing on my stuff—but then again I didn’t own anything very valuable in those days. I figured it would eventually get too big to fit through the meshes of the screen door, which is what eventually happened, although the mouse was inside the cave when it reached the critical size, and apparently starved to death. I found its little body on the floor one day.
     But there was one mouse, I think it was the last one, that was bothering me more than most, and I resolved to be rid of it, somehow or other. So I tried the mouse trap which had actually worked with a total of one mouse in the past, and had failed with all the others. I kept a piece of French toast (Burmese mice and rats really like it) as bait, and the mouse went right in; but after hearing the trap door close, rushing to it, picking it up, and heading for the door, the mouse did its escape trick and squeezed through the bars before I could take more than two or three steps with it. I gave up in disgust, put the trap outside, and threw the French toast into the gully. 
     A little later I went outside to pee and found, to my surprise, the mouse inside the now unbaited trap. I grabbed it and headed for the bottom of the hill, but, again, after about two steps the mouse popped through the bars and disappeared into the bushes. But at least now I knew that the mouse was outside the cave. I went back inside and closed the double wooden door to prevent the mouse from getting back in. 
     This caused the cave to become uncomfortably stuffy, or rather even more uncomfortably stuffy than usual at that time of year, but I figured it was worth it to be rid of the mouse. I supposed that if it couldn’t get back in and spent the night elsewhere it might give up on my place. But while reading my book I could hear the mouse crawling on and through the chicken wire mesh in the window over the door. I rushed to the door, chased the mouse back out, and closed the shutters to the window also. Now the only air getting into the cave was through some little holes in the wooden doors plus a small ventilation hole over the window which I dearly hoped the mouse wouldn’t find. The cave was so stuffy at this point that I couldn’t sleep on my bed, but had to sleep on the floor directly below the closed window and the air holes. 
     I lay there in the darkness on the concrete floor, sweating and cursing my own perverse stupidity. I knew that there was no way I would sleep like this until that mouse had grown too large to fit through the screen. I was going through this absurd ordeal just to keep that mouse outside for a single night—just to score one lousy point against a mouse. I knew it was stupid, perverse stubbornness…but that’s the way I can get sometimes. 
     It is part of my nature, or my natural perversity, that every once in awhile I get the idea to do something, maybe something arbitrary and completely trivial, and the world does not cooperate. Usually it is a conscious being that doesn’t cooperate with my plans. So I become firmer and try harder…and the other being still does not cooperate. I become more and more determined, until eventually I find myself a wild-eyed, ridiculously determined fanatic declaring all-out war in my mission to get my way. I knew it was stupid, as I lay there sweltering on the concrete, but by gawd I was at least going to show that mouse that I was the boss and that I would have my way, at least for one damn night. Sometimes I would feel some grim satisfaction as all through the night the mouse crawled on the closed window and door, trying to get back inside. Fortunately it didn’t find the last remaining ventilation hole. I didn’t get much sleep that night, and knew full well that I wasn’t about to take up that sleeping plan for another week, but I survived, and the mouse stayed outside. I scored the point.
     The next day, through karmic coincidence, I decided to make a fire and burn garbage. (When I would go for alms in the village I would sometimes get packaged food, so I would occasionally burn all the plastic and paper.) There was a basket in which I kept wood shavings for tinder; and when I lifted the lid to get some fire starter, who dived for cover under the shavings but the enemy mouse himself—he had settled on the shavings basket for his temporary shelter, pending his return to the cave. I grabbed the basket and hurried down the hill as fast as I could manage, and the mouse, feeling itself to be safe in a large basket full of shavings, didn’t attempt to bail out. I went all the way to the river before stopping and dumping the contents of the basket onto the ground. As I was methodically returning the shavings to the basket, handful by handful, the mouse erupted from the pile and took off, disappearing into the underbrush. 
     So here’s the thing, here’s the antimoral: Sometimes behaving with absolute fanatical stubbornness actually works! If as a rule it just didn’t work, then it would be much easier to cure oneself of such stupidity. But what does one do when the stupidity actually works? Because of that night of vehemently insisting upon teaching a mouse a lesson I really managed to be rid of it, and wouldn’t have if I hadn’t been such an ass. 
     If there is a positive moral to this tale, I suppose it would be that unflinching determination to achieve one’s goal may, sometimes, be useful, especially in Dharma. As the Pali text goes, it’s better to die in battle than to live in defeat.