Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Deer's Playground


"Expect poison from the standing water." —William Blake's Devil

     I just noticed that a "current events" post hasn't been posted since April, so I reckon it's time to catch up.
     The melodramatic saga of The Bhikkhu Without a Country left off just after a short, yet formidable, fast atop a mountain in Bali. The remainder of my stay in Indonesia was rather mild, and I spent most of my time in town, trying to get as much accomplished with my musical friend Marcus as possible, as we've been working on a kind of musical Dharma project together, (two roughish samples of which may be found on the website nippapanca.org). Aside from this, possibly the most noteworthy occurrences during my stay there was that I got fatter than I've ever been in my life, and for several days, I somehow acquired the rather distracting ability to smell my own nose. After two luxurious months in Bali, I flew back to Burma.
     I spent one month in Rangoon/Yangon with my dear friends, the family of Z. In addition to being dear friends they are also great and generous benefactors to me, and I really have no desire to criticize them on this blog. That being said upfront, I still will remark that staying with them always reminds me of Somerset Maugham stories about English colonists living in Southeast Asia during the days of the British Raj. It's not just them; there appears to be a whole new breed of Western expatriates in Burma—or if they're not new I simply didn't know that they existed until recently. 
     Prominent themes in my thoughts and feelings of Burma are bullock carts creaking down dusty roads, village girls gracefully balancing clay pots on their heads as they walk barefoot to the river or well to fetch water, sampans slowly motoring up and down rivers, faithful Buddhists standing in front of their houses in the morning to offer food to wandering monks, and little kids and village maidens with their faces done up with cosmetic thanakha bark paste so that they look like little witch doctors. Staying with the venerable Z family is more like staying in Marin County, California, than like being in the same country as the bullocks and little witch doctors. Most Western expats appear never to learn the Burmese language, even after years in the country, so they mostly associate with each other, and with Burmese people mainly on business or if they are servants. Otherwise, the few Burmese friends that they have seem to be thoroughly westernized and speak fluent English. The expats live at a standard of living almost beyond the imagination of most of the inhabitants of the country, buy expensive imported food (even the fruit juice is imported), watch tennis on TV, and go to restaurants in which the only Burmese people present may be the serving staff. It is as though they spend most of their time in Burma inside a kind of western bubble, like temperate zone plants protected from the foreign, tropical climate by a special, artificial environment. I don't see that there's anything necessarily wrong with this…but still it seems bizarre. A certain sweet person who I sometimes call the "mem sahib" (which is what British ladies were called in colonial times) has requested that if I write about her lifestyle I should mention that she is happy.
     Speaking of a high standard of living, rents and property values in Burma, presumably still a fourth-world country, have skyrocketed into the stratosphere since the grand opening to the West, and continue to skyrocket higher. I've been told that land, bare dirt, in some of the better suburbs of Rangoon may sell for $85 US, or more, per square foot, or approximately $3.7 million per acre. A simple bungalow in Rangoon may rent for $5000 per month, even though it may also flood in the monsoon season, be infested with cockroaches, and have electricity that goes on and off at random. Property values in the less remote areas of Burma have increased twentyfold over the course of a few years. (Meanwhile, the average Burmese family probably earns the equivalent of about $1200 per year.) I've been told that UNICEF pays a rent of $80,000 per month for its headquarters in Rangoon (almost a million dollars a year), for no better reason than a desire to have their headquarters in a stylish neighborhood—thereby lavishly donating UNICEF's funds to rich landlords as well as to poor children. Some of the people who work for NGOs in the new Myanmar, not to mention embassy staffs, live in relative opulence; so those of you who make charitable donations to such organizations might want to investigate a little to see what proportion of the donation goes to the poor, and what proportion to the rich. (In America, I have been told, the rich receive more in charitable handouts than the poor do.)  One more observation on Burmese urban society is that more and more houses are being surrounded by brick walls topped with military-style razor-sharp concertina wire. Those who are making the most money obviously intend to keep what they've managed to rake in.
     One of the great highlights of the month in Rangoon was the privilege of hanging out with two little blonde girls, one seven years old, one four. Once I was requested to read a story to the four-year-old. She asked where I would sit, so I pointed to a chair and said, "How about there?" But she informed me that we couldn't both fit on it, and suggested I read to her on her bed. So I, the bhikkhu, wound up reclining on a bed with a little girl right beside me, reading a story about Girard the dancing giraffe. She didn't understand all the words, but it didn't bother her at all, because understanding the words wasn't really the point of the thing. Afterwards we had a uniquely enjoyable conversation about pink bugs. Later I discovered about this little person that when she plays cards ("go fish"), with me at least, winning or losing is totally irrelevant. In fact, if the game is disrupted before reaching its conclusion it doesn't matter to her at all. The whole point of all of it, as far as I can tell, is simply interacting with another person. I've had relatively little experience with small children since I was one myself; and I don't know if this is an individual character trait, or if children in general go through a stage like this. By comparison, when her seven-year-old sister plays a game, she's out to win.
     But by far the most important event of my visit occurred two days before I left for the north. It started when a friend gave me a small amount of ayurvedic butter infused with "sacred plant medicine" of a non-hallucinogenic variety, because she believed it would be good for me. I took the stuff, and when it was starting to have some effect I met my friend Conor, and mentioned that I'd like to parasitize his cell phone sometime before I left town, as I had a few things to do with Internet, and didn't know if I would have access to it at Migadawun monastery, which is where I was headed. He said something like, "OK, let's do it now," which was not what I had in mind, considering the ayurvedic butter. But, make hay while the suns shines, and all that, so I used the digital aura of his phone to check emails. As is not at all uncommon in Rangoon, the Internet connection was so slow and crummy as to be virtually nonexistent; and I was barely able to read one email, from my brother in America. He was totally distraught, and informed me that our mother had just died. She was 80 years old, and her sense of balance and reflexes were not so good anymore, and she fell down sometimes. I had encouraged her in the past to use a cane, but I think her female pride would not allow that. Anyway, she was in a parking lot, and fell down, and hit her head (I suppose on the pavement), and she died. That's all the information I received about it, and to this day that's still all I know about it.
     So I felt that I really should contact my distraught and weeping brother and find out more if I could, like, was he sure? and if so, what kind of funeral arrangements there would be, and whether or not I should immediately start looking around for some way of flying back to America. With the ayurvedic butter kicking in, I went to Conor, explained the situation, and asked if he could take me somewhere where the Internet might actually be functional. He kindly escorted me to a French restaurant with free wifi, we drank some fruit juice, and I sent an email to my brother asking for more information and consoling him as well as I could. 
     Upon hearing that my mother was dead, my heart was thrown into a strange turmoil. I certainly was not totally unmoved, yet the main thought that bothered me was, Why am I not more bothered than this? It wasn't that I didn't love her, but I didn't cry, or really get upset. In fact I felt a sort of relief in that she was able to leave this world so quickly, painlessly (I hope), and mercifully. I used to worry about her; I used to wonder what would happen if her health became so broken down that someone had to feed her, bathe her, and wipe her behind, and all that. I didn't like at all the idea of her going to a nursing home, and felt that I might be the one who wound up feeding, bathing, and wiping her—which I was willing to do, although it would have been a feat for an ordained monk with no money. As it was, she was pretty much self-sufficient up until the day she fell, hit her head, and suddenly left this world. So very much better than dying slowly in a hospital bed with a plastic tube up one's nose! Along with the other elements of chaos in my chest, there was gratitude that she, who I think was really afraid of death, was allowed to make her exit so easily.
     Still I wondered, is my lack of tears indicative of wisdom, or simply of a cold heart or of being "shut down"? Buddhism teaches that even grief over the loss of a loved one is unskillful, or "bad karma." This particular kind of unwholesome suffering, in addition to being called soka, sorrow, is called macchariya in Pali, which includes any kind of aversion or unhappiness concerned with loss. As the Salla Sutta of the Sutta Nipāta declares, "lamentation is useless." It may seem inhuman and politically incorrect by Western standards, but that, as far as I'm concerned, is totally irrelevant. Buddhist training and wisdom may be part of my lack of tears, but it's almost certainly not the whole story, and that has troubled me.
     Edgar Cayce, in trance, once said that we usually have a strong karmic connection with one of our parents, but rarely with both. If that's the case, my strong karmic connection obviously was with my father. My mother was my mother, who loved me very much, as mothers do; but my father, in addition to being my father, was also a close friend with whom I could communicate deeply, and also my first important guru (—going with Indian lingo, he was just an upaguru, not a satguru). I loved him more than anyone else on earth, with the possible, occasional exception of a young beauty I was passionately in love with; yet even when he died, although I felt a deep, hollow, empty sensation in my chest, like I had never felt before, for about a week, I didn't shed a tear. It's very strange. I've cried over dead dogs before, and I remember once even getting choked up and teary-eyed while watching a claymation version of The Little Prince (it was during the scene in which the snake who speaks in riddles informs the Little Prince that it's time for him to die), but when my own parents die, I don't cry. I've pondered this, and am still not sure exactly why it is. One guess is that crying over little things is a kind of luxury, but when something big happens, like the death of someone close to me, a wiser, or at least more objective, level of consciousness takes possession of this meat puppet I call "myself." That's just a guess though. A soldier may have tender feelings at home, and may dearly love his comrades as brothers, yet on a field of battle he may see one of his dear brothers get his head blown off, and he may simply run over the top of the body as though it were a log of wood. I don't know.
     So anyway, I did my best to scavenge Internet access for the next two days, but heard no further news from my brother. Also, I had no obvious, viable way of getting back to America at very short notice. So I left Rangoon, according to plan, for Migadawun monastery, knowing essentially no more about my mother's death and its aftermath than what I have already related here.


Mother (1933-2014), with little Davey (1963-    ), a long time ago


     Migadawun Monastery was established in the early 1980's, on the western edge of the Shan plateau about 45 miles east of Mandalay (by winding road), mainly as a refuge for Western monks ordained in the Taungpulu tradition who just couldn't stand the blazing, furnace-like heat of Taungpulu country, i.e., central Burma, especially the area around Meiktila, south of Mandalay. It was named after the deer park near Varanasi where the Buddha, according to tradition, delivered his first formal sermon after his enlightenment. The original purpose of the place has almost come to an end, since, as far as I know, I am the last and only Western Taungpulu monk remaining in Burma—the last of my kind, sort of like that last swamp sparrow at Cape Canaveral in Florida. The total number of Western Taungpulu monks on earth is probably only two or three now, four at most. I am sure of only one other, and he has followed the Mahasi tradition practically since his ordination. The last I heard, he was living in Mexico.
     If one looks at this area on a map it may still declare a large area east of the monastery to be a "wildlife refuge"; but long before I first came here in 1993 it had been chopped down, allegedly with the connivance of the Forest Service, except for a smallish last stand of trees used by the Burmese movie industry for filming forest scenes. Within the past few years the brushy wasteland which remained has been, illegally I've been informed, divided up into parcels and sold as real estate; so Migadawun, which had been a forest monastery situated on the outskirts of Yay Chan Oh ("Cold Water Pot") Village, is now being engulfed by some giant real estate amoeba, and now has masonry walls enclosing new properties, some of it topped with broken glass or razor wire, on almost all sides. 
     So inside the monastery boundaries there is still thick forest, and it is relatively quiet, but I suspect there are no more deer (little barking ones the size of German shepherd dogs), and no jackals or mongoose anymore, and since coming here in July I have heard no owls and only one half-hearted nightjar, although they were numerous here just a few years ago. Maybe they died off from trying to perch on razor wire. I would guess that there are still a few cobras though, one of which I saw last year. And I am very sure that there are still myriads upon myriads of mosquitoes, although fortunately no malaria. If one is courageous or foolhardy enough to pee outdoors, one is practically required to pee while marching in place, to keep them from clustering up on one's legs and ankles and feasting on human blood. This trick (of peeing and marching simultaneously) takes a little practice, and I've peed on myself many times in my efforts to answer the call of Nature while feeding as few mosquitoes as possible.
     There are only two of us spending the rains retreat at Migadawun this year, Sayadaw U Vimala being my only companion here. (He lives on the other side of the property, and we see each other only about twice a week.) And this despite the fact that this monastery is really a pleasant place, relatively speaking, as Burmese monasteries go. The weather especially is quite comfortable up here in the hills, except during the cold season, which is actually cold. 
     I suppose the solitude of this place is largely due to ven. U Vimala's rough edges: he doesn't get along with everybody, and to this day I'm unsure as to why he seems to like me, and even welcomes me here. He is much mellower nowadays than he used to be, but his reputation persists. One reason why Burmese monks in particular don't stay here much is because the place is just too peaceful. When I arrived here in July there was a Burmese monk here who had almost reached the end of his rope, in a state of mild desperation to hang out with someone. I was not in the mood for satisfying his social instincts at the time, though, and neither was U Vimala, so the visiting monk moved out in search of a less quiet place to spend the rains retreat. One reason why some Western monks don't like it here is because of the rough food. Most of my alms food is offered by poor people, some of whom live in simple shacks; and so I receive a lot of unidentifiable glop, flavorless boiled weeds, and smelly bamboo shoots that would be better if they were flavorless. There is a little mohinga (a kind of Burmese noodle soup) stand by the Mandalay-Lashio-China highway, the proprietors of which offer their specialty almost every morning; and sometimes I hit the jackpot, like when a nice Gurkha lady offers a big bowl of fried potatoes; but some days the smelly bamboo shoots are offered relentlessly. I'm not nearly as fat here as I was in Indonesia. Living on rough food is good practice though. In general, outside the epicurean westernized bubbles in the largest cities, Burma is not a good place for fussy eaters. A handy rule of thumb: Don't Eat Anything You Can't Identify.
     About four days after I arrived, I somehow became sick as the proverbial dog. At first I was a little worried that maybe I was sick from drinking stagnant water, as the rainwater in my water tank had a film of fungal and bacterial scum on the surface almost thick enough to be opaque; but I figure in retrospect that it was some kind of flu. I'm happy to say that, after a three-week long, almost daily ritual of scum-skimming when fetching water, the film of decaying dead spiders, etc., is almost gone. The water's fine now. Anyhow, while I was sick I was practically incapable of reading anything heavy, so I flipped through a few old Reader's Digest magazines from the 1950's that had somehow found their way to the Migadawun library. Approximately two weeks after remaining tearless at my mother's death, I was moved to tears while reading stories about dogs in a 1955 Reader's Digest. I don't fully understand this.
     While on the subject of dogs, I may as well mention that my favorite dog here, named Wa-dote, went blind a few years ago and then recently disappeared. I have had very bad luck with favorite dogs in Burma, and have occasionally considered that I should avoid having a favorite, for the dog's sake. I suppose Wa-dote may have been hit by a car, since he was never very alert with regard to traffic even when he could see; but U Vimala is convinced that some people who live nearby caught him and ate him. Some people do eat dogs in this country; but then again back in 2010 U Vimala was reluctant to give some excess puppies to a Franciscan convent, even though the sisters were quite willing to accept the dogs, because some of the sisters belong to the Karen ethnic group, and Karens allegedly eat dog meat. So I figure if ven. U Vimala can suspect Christian nuns of killing and eating dogs, he can suspect anybody. 
     Due to the aforementioned rough edges and solitude, along with the material poverty of most of the people in the vicinity of Migadawun, I as a newcomer, or rather a very infrequent inhabitant, have almost no supporters other than the good people who put food into my bowl when I walk for alms down a dirt road and then down the highway. Back at Wun Bo, "my" monastery, I'm the Sayadaw, practically the king, and a little too famous for convenience, but here I'm nameless, just a visiting foreign monk. I have everything I need: food, water, shelter, soap, etc.; but there was one thing I very much wanted to have for six weeks without getting it, and that was access to the Internet. 
     A computer is like an extra sense organ, and a computer with Internet is like a fully functioning extra sense organ. Once I got used to having it, suddenly being deprived of it was almost like going deaf, and definitely more inconvenient than, say, suddenly losing my sense of smell. After a few weeks of no supporters coming forth with an offering like, "If you ever want anything, Bhante, please tell us," I began to be rather frustrated. By the time I had been here almost six weeks with no Internet access at all, not even bad Burmese Internet access, I was very frustrated, and disgusted, and wanting to leave Burma and never come back. On my 51st birthday I remember thinking, "I wonder if screaming into a pillow would help me feel better. Probably not. Besides, someone might hear me." Then I looked over at a little umbrella that someone had donated, and thought, "I wonder if smashing that umbrella into little pieces would help me feel better. Probably not." Later that night as I lay sleepless on my bed, I considered punching the wall a few times to relieve my frustration, but decided that punching a brick wall would very likely mess up my hand. 
     When I am unhappy I am in the habit, or practice, of carefully assessing what it is that I desire, since according to the Second Noble Truth all unhappiness is caused by desire. So first of all, of course, I wanted Internet access. That general desire also contained some more specific sub-desires, like the desire to contact my brother and find out more about the situation with our mother. Also, I desired not to lose contact with friends and supporters beyond U Vimala. I lived in almost total isolation of that sort for many years, and I do not wish to revert to that. Also, and I hope at least a few of you out there can sympathize with this, I desired to keep this blog going. This blog is possibly my greatest and most satisfying means of communicating with other members of my species most of the time, and I like it. And helping to motivate those last two sub-desires, to some degree anyway, was the desire to return to the West and live there, in some kind of association with beings who can appreciate what I have to offer—at the very least, an unusual and not particularly stale approach to Dharma. Breaking off contact with friends and supporters and breaking off the upkeep of this blog would probably not be helpful in that regard. I have found that being famous can be a pain, but I've also found that being a completely unknown Buddhist monk in America can easily lead to starvation. So it seems appropriate to "put myself out there." Also, I very generally had a desire for sufficient physical freedom to do as I please, especially when it's not something completely, outrageously unreasonable. To the average person who handles money, walking (or even driving) to an Internet place, or getting it hooked up in one's home, is no big deal at all. It's easy. But for me it was like having to scale an iron cliff, or maybe having teeth pulled. So, to recapitulate: I was frustrated.
     I observed the frustration, and analyzed the desire, and was humbled to think that just a few years ago I had no computer at all and no Internet access at all, and it simply was not an issue. (In those days just to make an ordinary phone call required an all-day trip by sampan into town and back, leaving at dawn and returning at dusk.) Now it was a big, icky issue. I remembered some humbling passages from Schopenhauer that I had come across recently while looking up something else, with regard to the ancient Cynic philosophers, like: 
"…the Cynics followed a very special path to this goal [of happiness], one that is quite the opposite of the ordinary path, that, namely, of carrying privation to the farthest possible limits. Thus they started from the insight that the motions into which the will is put by the objects that stimulate and stir it, and the laborious and often frustrated efforts to attain them, or the fear of losing them when they are attained, and finally also the loss itself, produce far greater pains and sorrows than the want of all these objects ever can." 
and this:
"…the fundamental idea of cynicism is that life in its simplest and most naked form, with the hardships that naturally belong to it, is the most tolerable, and is therefore to be chosen. For every aid, comfort, enjoyment, and pleasure by which people would like to make life more agreeable, would produce only new worries and cares greater than those that originally belong to it." 
Buddhism teaches much the same thing of course, although in a more ancient Indian manner of speaking. I knew that all I had to do was to say Yes to the situation—"Yes, I have no Internet access, and I can accept that, even if I lose contact with friends, don't find out about Mother for a few more months, have to shut down the blog, and even if I am required to live here in Burma for the rest of my life." I knew this, but rebelled against the thought. I also reminded myself that I could still make efforts to avoid terminal isolation, and that being frustrated didn't help anything. I could clearly feel the relief in acknowledging this…but old habits die hard, and I quickly lapsed back into chronic frustration. I could exhort myself with monologues like, "Look on the bright side: It could be a lot worse than this—and undoubtedly will be soon. I mean, compared with how bad things are going to be, this is practically nothing! So cheer up!" But even that didn't work. I obviously had a stubbornly rooted desire that resisted relief. I acknowledge that I just do not want to be cut off from communication with friends, and with the "outside world," for more than, say, 15 days at a time. 
     Back in May a friend of mine, a layperson (formerly a monk) who lives in Burma, offered to help me obtain Internet access while I was at Migadawun. He drove up here from Rangoon, with me still in Rangoon at the time, but was too preoccupied with his own affairs to attend to the monastic Internet project. Upon return he asked if I could wait till his next trip upcountry, which would be between July 5 and July 17. That seemed like a long time to wait, but since I had no other supporters who were in a position to help, I said I could wait. I was told that he came up during this time, but stayed only a short time and then went back to Rangoon. Around the 20th he returned, dropped by for a few minutes, said he would help, and then didn't come back for more than a week. Now, one of my life-long pet peeves is having to wait for people; and this combined with the aforementioned chronic frustration contributed to my becoming rather disgusted with my friend—even though I was fully aware that I had no right to insist upon anything. Around the same time that I was contemplating the value of screaming into a pillow, I had halfway decided that if my friend did actually show up again I wouldn't open the door to him. I'd just stay in my room in the congregation hall and refuse to come out and meet him. But then, when he did eventually show up, I opened the door readily; and after one or two gruff statements regarding his lateness he was my good friend again. One of the greatest blessings I have gained over the past few years is that, although I can still find fault with people at a distance, in their presence I automatically forgive them and accept them as they are. Almost always. Looking through one eye, everybody in the world is hopelessly messed up. Everybody. Looking through the other eye, everybody in the world is divine and perfect. Being close to someone helps me to see them through the second eye. I am deeply grateful for this.
     To make a long story even longer, my good friend's help was simply coming too slow for my tastes (and I really shouldn't criticize, since he's handling my visa stuff in Rangoon too), so ven. U Vimala, not nearly so crusty as he used to be, compassionately helped me out by contacting a generous shoemaker in town who lives next door to an Internet place, and was happily willing to pay my tab there. The Internet is crummy, slow Burmese Internet, but it's enough to check my emails sometimes, and to maintain this blog. The website nippapanca.org, on the other hand, may require a faster connection than I am likely to find for awhile. 
     Sayadaw U Vimala's help was all the more appreciated since I have heard through a certain Balinese grapevine that he is of the opinion that computers, and a desire for fame(!), will eventually destroy me. He knows of "Let This Be a Lesson," so why he didn't throw in desire for a woman too, I don't quite understand. Maybe it's because deep in his heart he also desires a woman—as most monks probably do. 
     Anyway, during this whole issue of support, and lack of it, it occurred to me that having to rely on another person, when that person loves you and when you are an important part of his or her life, can be part of a truly beautiful relationship; but having to rely on a person who is otherwise often becomes uncomfortable and unpleasant for both parties. It can still be beneficial for both however—it may help to cultivate generosity and other skillful states in the giver, and encourages gratitude, consideration, and contentment with little in the receiver. All in all, it is best for a monk to ask for as little as possible. The Dhammapada contains a verse comparing a monk walking for alms to a bee, lightly moving from flower to flower without causing any disturbance to any of them. Such considerations help to explain why Westerners are less likely to support monastics: not only are monastics not a very important part of their life, but they suppose that the lifestyle of a monk is necessarily expensive, since their own lifestyle is expensive. Monks may easily live under rough circumstances that Western laypeople would consider so unacceptable for themselves that they do not consider the possibility or advisability of anyone living that way. Plus in America, living below a certain standard of living is simply illegal. But I digress.
     So here I sit as one of the two bhikkhus spending the rains retreat at the Deer's Playground, with no more deer. I spend my days "chilling," reading, writing, sweeping (with a soft grass broom indoors, with a stiff bamboo and palm-frond one outdoors), meditating sometimes, pacing back and forth in the mosquito-free congregation hall, carrying water, and thinking compulsively (let alone eating, drinking, sleeping, bathing, using the toilet, doing laundry, and hanging out with a dog named Uncle Wiggly, an old friend and associate of my old favorite who went blind and disappeared). Any blessings directed toward my mother, which might help her in the transitions she is currently undergoing, if any, would be gratefully appreciated. 
     And now we're caught up again, more or less.

               
    



Appendix: Two Dog Stories from an October 1955 Reader's Digest

     The dog I can never forget is Verdi, a lovely Alsatian. Physically superb, she turned out to be incurably shy and timid. Strangers and loud noises would make her cower and shiver with terror. I despaired of making her a watchdog.
     One day I was alone in the house when Verdi pawed frantically outside the back door and, when I opened it, ran down the basement stairs. A rough-looking man pushed his way in behind her and grabbed me. Just before he clamped a hand over my mouth I shrieked, "Verdi!"
     As I struggled to get free, I heard swift claws clattering up the steps. The next instant a tawny whirlwind struck my assailant. A snarling dog and a terror-stricken man rolled on the floor as I stood by and watched, my knees weak as water. The man managed to wrench himself loose from the slashing jaws, and plunged out of the door. Verdi, in one tremendous moment of indomitable will, had found her birthright.
     A few days later, without warning, she died. The vet said that she appeared to have undergone some unbearable strain on her heart. —Mary Kyle


     We had raised Rawleigh, our black Alsatian, from the time he was a pup. For three years we had treated him almost as a child—and then there came into our life a real baby of our own.
     Rawleigh resented the baby deeply. When he heard us baby-talking, he would come running, thinking we were speaking to him—and when he saw we weren't, he would slink away in misery at our neglect.
     Then one day I left the baby in her cot while I went out to work in the garden. Looking up presently, I saw the most terrifying sight of my life. Our dog was lumbering down the kitchen steps. In his mouth he held our baby. I screamed and fainted.
     When I came to, my baby was lying across my breast, unharmed. Over me stood Rawleigh, licking my face. All around me swirled smoke. Our house was in flames.
     In that hour of emergency, a great-hearted dog had stifled all his hurt and jealousy and saved the life to which our love had been transferred. —Mrs. I. H. Raney


Postscript: Shortly after writing this, my friend who I considered not opening the door to came through in a big way, and provided me with some relatively excellent Internet access. So the blog will continue, insh'allah. Also, another monk showed up for a late rains retreat, so now there are three of us. Plus just a few nights ago I heard a barking deer, and an owl.   



Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Ethics of Killing


     Ahimsa, or "non-harming," is fundamental to the ethics of Buddhism, as well as to the ethics of most Eastern philosophical/religious/spiritual traditions. It may, for all I know, be fundamental to spirituality or "Dharma" in general. Some people think that Buddhism goes a little overboard in this direction of nonviolence, however, and even many professing Buddhists continue to kill animals, especially small, pesky ones. I've seen Burmese laypeople, at monasteries yet, go into a berserk killing frenzy upon seeing some harmless, non-venomous snake. But then again, some take non-killing very seriously, even refusing to eat the eggs of their own chickens because there is a virile rooster strutting about, ensuring that the eggs contain live chicken embryos. I know a devout Buddhist lady in northwest Burma whose family were utterly scandalized when her brother married the daughter of a fisherman, a killer of animals.
     On the other hand, interestingly, most Western religious traditions condone the killing of animals, or may even require it. I was surprised to read that at the Trappist monastery where Thomas Merton lived, the monks actually slaughtered their own livestock, and had a storeroom where bloody goat hides were stored. According to the Christian Bible, Jesus Himself, after he died, helped his disciples to catch a prodigious boatload of fish. Many people do not realize that Islam to this day requires bloody animal sacrifices—a pilgrim performing the Hajj at Mecca is expected to cut an animal's throat there. Traditionally the victim is to be a camel, although nowadays a goat is usually killed instead; I imagine that camels are rather expensive. Although Jewish animal sacrifices pretty much came to an end with the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., still rabbis work at slaughterhouses for the purpose of producing kosher meat. And of course, Judaism and Islam in particular condone even the killing of humans under special circumstances. Moses and Muhammad were both military leaders, and commanded the deaths not only of enemy combatants but of unarmed civilians. Moses commanded the complete extermination of the Canaanites, which, ironically, may be the first case of attempted genocidal ethnic cleansing in recorded history; and Muhammad at the very least commanded the massacre of a tribe of uncooperative Jews in Medina. (It may be though, now that I think of it, that most of the women were not killed, but just enslaved. Incidentally, the first time I read the Old Testament, when I reached Numbers 31:13-18, (click) a passage following shortly after Moses is called "the gentlest of men," I was sorely tempted to fling the Bible across the room in disgust.)
     But even some forms of Buddhism and Hinduism allow the killing of conscious beings. For example, animals are regularly sacrificed to Kali in India; and I actually saw in an Indian edition of Where There Is No Doctor a stern warning against sacrificing human babies to Kali for the purpose of inducing fertility. So Western religion has no absolute monopoly on slaughtering and butchering.
     Plenty of killing was going on in the Ganges valley in the Buddha's time too, of various sorts. The Brahmanisitic proto-Hindus still ate meat in those days, and killed vermin; there were frequent and bloody wars; there were public executions of criminals, in various nasty ways, for the good of society; and also there were Brahmin-conducted animal sacrifices not so different from those conducted by the contemporary paganistic Greeks. The Buddhist texts indicate that, although there was a wide variety of killing being practiced, the Buddha protested most outspokenly against animal sacrifice, possibly because he realized that Indian society was ripe for leaving it behind, and could accept what he said on the issue (whereas it was hardly likely that people were ready to stop eating meat then, or executing criminals, or waging wars). Or it may be that he was so outspoken against animal sacrifice because it was ostensibly a religious act, and he wanted formal religion, at least, to be ethically pure. Politics, as opposed to spirituality, tends to be beyond the direct influence of sages. However, Buddhist ideas of ahimsa did ultimately inspire many or possibly most Indians a few centuries later to be vegetarian, and even to avoid onions and garlic. Also Buddhist ideas inspired that great political anomaly Asoka. But although the Buddha apparently was reconciled to living in a violent age, the killing of conscious beings has always been forbidden to Buddhists, whether ordained renunciants or laypeople. 
     Abstaining from pāṇātipāta is the first moral precept for Buddhist laypeople, pāṇa meaning "breathing" and atipāta meaning something like "falling upon" or "attack." More specifically and less literally, it refers to killing macroscopic animals, including human ones. The killing of microscopic organisms, fortunately, is allowed; and laypeople are allowed to kill plants also, although ordained monks and nuns are forbidden even to damage a living plant deliberately—just detaching a single green leaf from a tree entails an ecclesiastical offense requiring expiatory confession. This may seem strict to the point of making life unnecessarily inconvenient (for instance, monks are forbidden to pull weeds or mow lawns at their own monasteries), but there are special allowances. For example, a monk is allowed to wipe mildew off a wall, thereby killing the poor mildew; he is allowed to set a water pot turning green with algae out in the sun to eliminate/exterminate the algae; and he may also spread bedbug-infested bedding in the hot sunshine to expel the bedbugs—thereby indirectly condemning most or all of them to an untimely death. I've taken advantage of that last allowance, and it turned into a massacre, with swarming ants capturing hapless bedbugs and, flushed with victory, carrying them on a bustling little ant highway back to their nest. 
     The Jains are rather more severe than are the Buddhists with regard to ahimsa; for example some of them sweep the ground before them with a soft broom in order not to step on tiny insects, and wear face masks like a surgeon in order not to inhale them accidentally. This is because the Jains consider killing in and of itself to be ethically impure, even if it is accidental or totally unperceived. On the other hand, Buddhist philosophy asserts that, as with all moral issues, killing is unethical or akusala (literally "unskillful") only if it is deliberate, or volitional. It is primarily the anger, hatred, or malice of the killer that constitutes the unskillful karma, not the suffering or death of the killed. Buddhist ethics is emphatically psychological, subjective, and volition-oriented. So stepping on a bug accidentally, possibly without even realizing it, is not unethical for a philosophical Buddhist. (The careless semiconsciousness which allows the person to walk around cluelessly squishing bugs may be unethical, however.) A monk who knows that he is killing animals, or that he will kill them, yet whose purpose is not to kill, also commits no offense. This presumably would apply to lay ethics with the first precept also. If a monk wants to walk from point A to point B, yet there are countless myriads of tiny, swarming insects covering the ground between these two points, then so long as he's not going to point B in order to step on them, his going is grounds for no offense, regardless of how many hundreds of them he steps on. I would assume that taking vermifuge (dewormer) medicine would be a similar case. (Some monks take care to use only dewormers that don't kill the worms, but only cause them to move out because they're temporarily paralyzed or don't like the food; but obviously, once the worm has left the protective environment of the monk's intestines, it's pretty much a goner anyway.) Refusing to feed a starving dog would also be no offense—or for that matter, watching somebody drown without lifting a finger to help—regardless of how cold-hearted and assholish it may be. Also, "striking out in self defense" is allowable to a monk, although not with intent to kill. But if he did accidentally kill some assailant while fighting for his life, he would not be considered guilty of murder. Thus monks in such situations must examine their own volitions very carefully.
     Which leads to a consideration of homicide. For a layperson it would be included under the same first precept which forbids the salting of slugs, but for a monk it is the third pārājika, and grounds for excommunication from the Sangha for life, being the most grievous ecclesiastical offense a monk can commit—only deliberately lying about having attained superhuman mental states is possibly worse, that being the grounds for the fourth pārājika. Murder must be deliberate to qualify, and includes hiring an assassin, setting mantraps, killing by means of black magic, persuading somebody to commit suicide, and sponsoring or facilitating an abortion. (According to Theravada Buddhist philosophy, "rebirth-linking consciousness," and thus existence as a human being, begins at conception. And even if a person disagrees with that philosophy, as well one might, the Pali specifically mentions the case of abortion, and condemns it, and the rules remain the same.) There is actually a case mentioned in the Pali of a monk who exhorted an official executioner to keep his axe well sharpened and to aim carefully, in order to behead his clients as swiftly, painlessly, and mercifully as possible, and the executioner took his advice—resulting in that monk being judged by the Buddha to be guilty of murder, since he had instructed the executioner on how to kill. He was an accomplice. Buddhist ethics, and Buddhist ecclesiastical law, may be very subtle. 
     There are some strange gaping loopholes in the rules, however. For instance, a monk could hire an assassin and tell him, "Kill So-and-so at precisely 5:30pm," knowing full well that this particular assassin is always running behind schedule. So when the assassin finally gets around to murdering So-and-so at 6:02, the naughty monk is not guilty of pārājika #3 because the assassin did not act according to his instructions. I'm not exactly sure about this next one, but I'm pretty sure that if a monk tries to kill person X, but accidentally kills person Y instead, again he is not guilty of murder, at least according to Vinaya, because the only person he killed, he killed accidentally. (When I was a young Vinaya student I used to think about this stuff a lot.) For example he aims his assault rifle at X, but misses and hits Y. Or let's say he poisons a piece of cake, and gives it to a monastery attendant saying, "My good fellow, please give this cake to X, with my regards"; but then the greedy attendant, liking the looks and smell of that cake, eats it himself, and dies. The murderous monk killed the attendant completely unintentionally, and so is off the hook, and still a monk in good standing. He still makes seriously unskillful karma through his murderous intentions and efforts though, and is guilty of a lesser offense for trying and failing, despite his non-excommunicated status. I'm pretty sure. The moral of the story is: If you're a monastery attendant and are requested by a monk to give some food to another monk, don't eat it yourself.
     With regard to monks killing animals other than humans, it is in violation of exactly the same rule, pācittiya #61—"And whatever bhikkhu intentionally deprives an animal (pāṇa) of life: pācittiya"regardless of whether the animal in question is a mosquito or an elephant. This is the official ecclesiastical ruling, although the unskillful karma of the act is not necessarily equal in both cases. Interestingly, the official position that I have been taught is that the more volitional effort required in the killing, the more unskillful the act; and thus killing an elephant is worse than killing a mosquito because it requires more volitional effort, especially if one is trying to slap it to death. But it seems to me that killing an elephant could conceivably involve less effort than killing a mosquito. For instance, simply firing a shot with a high-powered rifle may be easier than exasperatedly chasing, with intent to kill, one pesky little mosquito (hard to see, but you can hear it whining) back and forth through one's dwelling before finally squishing the little bastard with a roar of triumph. I suspect that even in that case, killing the elephant could be more unskillful.
     Following is a modern, biological consideration with regard to the killing of animals, which occurred to me as a university student and later as a professional biologist. Many invertebrates, such as mollusks and arthropods, lack a true central nervous system, consequently have a sensory system very different from ours, and apparently do not feel pain or fear. I was told by a monk with a degree in Neurophysiological Psychology, or some such, that they have no pain receptors at all. Thus they experience life much differently than we vertebrates do. (And by the way, the word "neurophysiological" contains all of the vowels.) One example based on my own experience arose when I was working as a biologist on a Japanese longline vessel in the Bering Sea: The ship caught bottom fish by laying about thirty kilometers of line, with baited hooks about every one meter, every morning, and spent the rest of the day reeling it in. One of my duties was to examine every crab that came on board, recording species, sex, size, weight, and viability—i.e., how healthy it was after being caught. The longline ran through a roller apparatus called a "crucifier" as it entered the ship, and crabs would often be crushed and mangled if they went through this thing. Anyway, all crabs were tossed into a holding tank and were attended to when I had the time. One time a crab came up and was tossed into the tank with most of its legs ripped off or totally mangled; it had six or seven of its ten legs destroyed. But, to my surprise, when it found a piece of squid bait, it calmly began eating it, apparently totally unconcerned that most of its legs had just been ripped off. (If a rat or mouse were to have three of its legs torn off and then a peanut placed before it, it certainly would not behave like that crab: it would in all likelihood go into convulsions and die.) Another example: An octopus, which is a mollusk, albeit a relatively extremely intelligent one (being, I have read, approximately as intelligent as a cat), may sit in its water and nervously bite off the ends of its own tentacles, apparently not bothered at all by any discomfort. And as for insects, I won't even tell you what happens if one severs the head of a male praying mantis. The mantis actually seems to like it. Thus some invertebrates, insects for example, may be essentially organic robots, with some kind of consciousness, but with no real perceptions, and no pain or fear. Thus a mosquito fleeing a slapping hand is no more afraid than the automatic door at the grocery store when it moves out of your way. Its body's circuitry is simply programmed to make it do that. I'm not trying to justify killing insects, crabs, or octopi here, but if the ethics of killing at all involves the suffering inflicted upon others, or the suffering added to the world in general, and not just the intention and effort required to perpetrate the slaying, then eating clams and shrimp may be a more compassionate and more ethical way of obtaining animal protein than eating fellow vertebrates like fish, let alone chickens, pigs, and cows. 
     Rather than justifying the killing of animals for food, or parasitic insects (because they're parasitic), or even plants, it is probably better to consider ALL life to be sacred—not just our own life, not just human life, not just the life of animals that we approve of or consider to be intelligent, but all of it, including bloodsucking, disease-causing parasites. But then why not consider everything else to be sacred too, like bricks, pop bottles, sin, and death? Life is sacred, death is sacred, everything is sacred. Then we have to kill what is sacred in order to live, but that's sacred too. To see and experience the sacredness of every being, of everything, and of every act would eliminate most, if not all, of our hangups and moral problems. See everything as Divinity, and then do as you please.
     With regard to the question of whether the ethics of killing is purely subjective, i.e. depending entirely upon our own conscious volitions and not upon the feelings of the being attacked (not to speak of the will of an almighty God who determines ethics by decree), it is interesting that some kind of subconscious telepathy, or empathy, or anyway something beyond subjective, conscious volition appears to be involved, at least sometimes, even in the orthodox, official version of Theravadin Dhamma. One striking example is that, according to the authorities, killing an enlightened being necessarily always causes the perpetrator to go straight to hell (do not pass Go, do not collect $200) at the moment of death. To kill an arahant accidentally does not necessitate hell; but so long as the intent to kill is there, all else, including the amount of effort required, seems to be irrelevant—and this is presumably regardless of whether one even realizes that the being one is killing is in fact an arahant. How could a murderer, or any other unenlightened person for that matter, really know that anyway? 
     Following are a few more strange examples of karma involving enlightened beings. In the commentaries there is a story of a man who happened to see an enlightened monk adjusting his robes outside of a town. This monk had beautiful, shining golden skin, which showed during the adjustments, and the man was sexually aroused and thought, essentially, "Wow, I wish he were my wife, or that my wife had skin that looked like that." As a result of this lustful feeling and profane thought concerning a perfected saint, despite the plain fact that he had no idea that the monk was fully enlightened, he instantaneously (also contains all the vowels) metamorphosed into a woman, and remained a woman until he apologized to the saint several years later. (Incidentally, this kind of instant sex change allegedly happened every now and then in the Buddha's time. Consequently, in some orthodox circles the spontaneous transformation of at least five ordained bhikkhus into women would be the only way to revive the order of fully ordained nuns in the Theravada Buddhist Sangha, since an instantaneous change would not invalidate the ordination like a gradual change, passing through the stage of a eunuch, would do. Eunuchs may not be monks or nuns. The whole commentarial story is a rather interesting one, and perhaps worthy of being translated on this blog someday.)
     There is another story in the commentaries of a rich miser who offered food alms to a paccekabuddha (a fully enlightened being who lives during an interval when Buddha-Dharma has disappeared from the world), but shortly afterwards regretted it, considering that he had wasted it by giving it to a beggar, and that it would have been better just to have given it to one of his servants instead. As a result of his regret and contempt for the paccekabuddha, an omniscient saint, he went to hell for many eons after he died; but after finishing his time in hell, he went to heaven for more eons for having made the offering in the first place. (Or maybe he went to heaven first—I don't remember now—but the point is the same.) He could hardly have known that the beggar was a paccekabuddha, yet his momentary actions had tremendous results, seemingly far beyond the scope of his brief little volitions.
     So in cases like this there is apparently something at work other than the mere conscious volition of the agent. I suspect it may be like this not only with arahants, but even with animals, rendering the killing an elephant or a chimpanzee or a sperm whale much worse than killing a mosquito, even though one might kill the one with a mere word or the push of a button, and might kill the other after half an hour of chasing it, slapping at it again and again, and angrily cussing like a sailor the whole time. For similar reasons I consider believing that one has killed some person or animal, but being mistaken, to be less weighty karma than having actually killed that person or animal, even though the subjective volitions and perceptions may seem exactly the same. There is, I believe, a deep connection of spirit between beings, and even the average person experiences this sometimes, maybe much more than she/he realizes, or is willing to believe. Maybe even all the time. 
     Long ago I asked my first Vinaya teacher, Which is more unskilful, performing an unskilful act, like killing, knowing that it's unskillful, or performing it without knowing? (I think what I had in mind at the time was people like terrorists who believe that their killing is not only good, but will actually get them into heaven, or, on a much smaller scale, people who consider hunting and fishing to be good clean fun.) My teacher said that it is worse to do wrong not knowing that it's wrong; and the example he gave was to the effect that, if you know something is hot before you handle it, then you will naturally handle it more carefully. So a person who kills while knowing that it is unethical, or bad karma, or wrong, is likely to be burned less severely than someone who thinks killing is glorious and honorable, or just a job. This makes sense; it seems fairly certain that any action performed with knowledge would be closer to enlightenment than one performed in ignorance. However, knowledge should not be confused with mere dogmatic belief, which is quite a different thing, and frankly, most people cannot tell the difference. Also the knowledge, or the mere belief, that one's action was unskillful may lead to subsequent feelings of guilt and remorse, which in themselves are unskillful, and make the situation worse than it already is. But is being positively glad that we acted unskillfully better or worse, considering that gladness is presumably a more expanded mental state, generally speaking, than remorse? I remain unsure about such fine points, but I accept that, as ever and always, karma and ethics are fundamentally conditioned and determined by volition—conscious, subconscious, and superconscious. Regardless of whether we consider killing to be wrong, the karmical/ethical quality of an act depends predominantly on the intensity of the volition involved; but that volition is itself conditioned by the aforementioned connection of spirit. 
     A murder victim, again speaking from the perspective of Buddhist philosophy, is killed according to his/her own karma, which is to say his/her own volitions, since karma is volition; and I can't help but feel that the feelings of the murder victim influence the act and its outcome for the murderer, even if invisibly. For example, we couldn't kill anyone unless it were according to their own volition (this is not to excuse murderers: the killing is the murderer's own karmic act, just as being killed is the victim's karmic act), so their own volitions obviously would have an effect on other's actions—and the other's volitions—toward them. So karma would be contagious, in a sense.
     But they say trying to figure out karma may lead to insanity, so I'll stop here. Hopefully it's not too late. And I still slap mosquitoes sometimes, including one that was trying to bite me while I was writing this. 













Saturday, August 16, 2014

Events of Mass Extinction


     Are God and Nature then at strife,
     That Nature lends such evil dreams?
     So careful of the type she seems,
     So careless of the single life.

     "So careful of the type?" but no.
     From scarped cliff and quarried stone
     She cries, "A thousand types are gone:
     I care for nothing, all shall go."                     
                                                     —Tennyson

     People nowayears often mention the topic of greenhouse gases and global warming, and the current theory seems to be that it's almost certainly going to produce major, possibly catastrophic, upheavals in the earth's environment. Almost certainly, because we humans are too self-centered, stubborn, and myopic to change until the hammer has already come down—such, apparently, is human nature. Many environmentalists, including James Lovelock, father of the Gaia Hypothesis, believe that increased global temperatures will turn large areas of now fertile land into hot, barren deserts, resulting in a major human population crash due mainly to starvation. I've wondered about this, and am not sure how they have arrived at this prediction. There have been many times in the history, or rather prehistory, of this planet when the climate has been much warmer than it is now (for example, during the age of dinosaurs the Antarctic Circle was warm enough for dinosaurs to live there), yet at such times it has often been humid and jungly, not dry and deserty. 
     Still, there are very likely going to be major changes in the environment, possibly resulting in a mass extinction event in the earth's biosphere. In fact, a human-induced mass extinction event has probably already started on this planet, but we are too short-lived to have seen it clearly. Already species are dying out in the Amazon rain forest, or so they say, faster than scientists can record them. For that matter, even in the stone age we apparently drove a few species to extinction, like the woolly mammoth and the cave bear. And in the so-called "Age of Discovery," especially in the 17th and 18th centuries, hungry sailors not content with eating sea biscuits wiped out entire species, like the Stellar sea cow, the great auk, and the dodo bird. Just today I happened to read about a species of parakeet that once was common in the eastern United States but became extinct back in the 1920's. So the mass extinction event seems to have already started, but, like geological changes in general, it's happening too slowly, thus far, to be really obvious to most people.
     Not that driving most species of life to extinction, or lots and lots of them anyway, is anything new under the sun. There have been plenty of mass extinctions on this planet already. For example, around 240 million years ago there was a very big one, in which around 95% of marine genera (i.e., almost all kinds of living things in the ocean) became extinct, although only about 50% of terrestrial genera disappeared. One theory as to what happened is that a gigantic coal field somehow caught fire, pumping countless millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, creating a much more serious greenhouse effect than we humans have managed to create so far. When some of this overwhelming amount of carbon dioxide was absorbed into the ocean, it changed into carbonic acid, which acidified the ocean sufficiently that most organisms with calcium carbonate exoskeletons—like corals, clams, snails, tube worms, marine arthropods, animals most people have never heard of, and even some microscopic plankton—had their shells dissolved, and they died. After which, the creatures higher up on the food web that specialized as predators on these organisms also died. It was very much worse than we humans have managed to accomplish as of yet.
     Another, more famous mass extinction is what, when I was in college, was called the "C-T Boundary." This is the one that notoriously caused the dinosaurs to become extinct about 65 million years ago, so it is like the bookend to the age of dinosaurs on the other side from the other mass extinction, mentioned a moment ago, which helped the dinosaurs get started. This extinction was not so bad overall as that one, but while it was happening it was pretty damn awful: some say the mass extinction mostly took place over a matter of days, maybe even hours. When I was in school I was told that it was caused by a mountain-sized meteor smacking into the Atlantic ocean where Iceland is now, Iceland being essentially a scab where the magma gushed up through the wound. But now they say the meteor struck what is now called the Gulf of Mexico, causing a cataclysmic wall of fire to sweep across much of North America. As it turns out, cataclysmic walls of fire cause dinosaurs to become extinct pretty quickly.


extinct ammonites, with thanks to the Hooper Museum

     Much more recently—literally recently, since geologists say that anything that happened less than 10,000 years ago is "recent"—there was another mass extinction: the most recent Ice Age. Every Ice Age, and there have been several in geologically rapid succession, causes more than half the living things on land, if not in the ocean, to become extinct. Most terrestrial life becomes squeezed into a relatively narrow band near the equator. Many species die every time this happens. They say that we are in an Ice Age Age, an Age of Ice Ages, and that another one is due to happen at any time; although I assume that our greenhouse effect will probably hold it at bay for awhile, especially if Ice Ages are caused by world-wide primeval forests sucking the carbon out of the atmosphere in a kind of anti-greenhouse effect, thereby chilling everything. That's not likely to happen soon; although it would be nice if global warming and the next, expected Ice Age could cancel each other out.
     Much more recently than the last Ice Age we have been threatened by mass extinctions of other kinds, the most blatantly obvious being the threat of thermonuclear Armageddon. People don't worry about this nearly as much as they did when the Cold War was raging at full intensity. The early 1960's especially were a very scary time, with people digging fallout shelters in their back yards, government officials declaring that a nuclear war with Russia was inevitable, and both sides threatening, in accordance with the game rules of "brinksmanship," to annihilate the other. Nuclear war is still possible, of course, because even though America and Russia are not so hostile towards each other as they used to be, now there are lots of other countries with H-bombs, including the likes of North Korea. And still some fool could push the button, or a malfunction somehow could push it for us.
     But nowadays people seem more concerned with global warming, the sea level rising higher than coastal cities, overpopulation, and the terrible effects of wheat gluten. People aren't concerned enough to make any of these problems go away, however. We have our everyday lives to attend to. Let tomorrow tend to itself.
     Yet a mass extinction in modern times will not necessarily be our own doing. There could be other causes, like another mountain-sized meteor or comet smacking into the world. It does happen sometimes; and although it seems safe to gamble that it won't happen anytime real soon, in the long run it's practically inevitable. Sooner or later the earth will be smacked into again, possibly by a large asteroid, possibly even by some invisible black hole. 
     In fact, in accordance with the universal law of impermanence, our entire planet will someday cease to exist. At the very latest this will occur when our beloved sun starts running out of fuel and metamorphoses into a red giant star, thereby swallowing, or at least vaporizing, Mercury, Venus, and Earth. This is assuming that astrophysicists understand the development of aging stars aright, and that I understand the astrophysicists well enough not to misrepresent them.
     But the whole planet, or at least all life on it, could meet its end long before the sun swells up or goes nova. For example, it is a bizarrely, terribly common occurrence out there in space for entire galaxies to explode. This kind of bothers me sometimes. Assuming that what happened on earth (i.e., the evolution of life) could happen on other worlds too, then when a galaxy of literally tens or hundreds of billions of stars explodes, there's a very good likelihood that some of those stars are suns for planets with intelligent life on them. One day a race of intelligent, sensitive, relatively happy space aliens are calmly going about their business…and suddenly an astronomically immense shockwave of extremely lethal radiation slams through their world and disintegrates it, and them too. This is probably really happening out there, assuming that the astronomical universe is real, and that some Semitic deity hasn't singled out our little species as the main purpose of the whole Universe.

An exploding galaxy, courtesy of the Hubble space telescope

     As a teenager my favorite science fiction author was Larry Niven, and he actually explained, somewhere in his writings, his understanding of how galaxies explode. According to him, the central core of a galaxy has its stars very close together, on average much less than one light year apart from each other. The night sky on a planet in a galactic core must be spectacular. Anyway, what happens is that when an old star finally goes supernova, an immense shockwave of radiation is unleashed; and when it hits nearby stars it gives them an energetic jolt which brings them closer to their own time of exploding. Eventually, enough old, repeatedly jolted stars at the core are poised so that one really big supernova is sufficient to trigger the supernovae of them too…starting an unimaginably gargantuan chain reaction that eventually spreads throughout the galaxy, eventually reaching even the remote areas. It may even be that most galaxies eventually explode.
     In Larry Niven's "Known Space" series (probably the most well-known story of which is Ringworld), the author assumes that our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is currently in the process of exploding. There's no way we could know this, though, since we couldn't see the core exploding until the light from there, thousands of light years away, finally reaches us; but the deadly radiation travels at the same speed of light, so we'll probably be killed before we can know what is going to happen, or is happening. And even if we did have some advance warning, there's nothing we could do to stop it. It's really strange to think that our earth could suddenly, at any moment, be vaporized by the radiating shockwave of billions of exploding stars. But again, it's probably a safe bet that it won't happen any time real soon. We may as well get out of bed tomorrow morning.
     But the threats to our planet's extinction are not exhausted, and can be even weirder than an exploding galaxy. In fact our extinction could be caused by some cosmic phenomenon totally un-understandable to us, or even totally unimaginable. 
     Possibly the mind-blowingest story I've ever read in my life is "Heresies of the Huge God," by Brian Aldiss (who became my favorite science fiction author when I was in my twenties). In this story, one fine day, possibly any day now, a creature like a metallic lizard with six legs, about a thousand miles long from head to tail, falls from space and smacks into the Mediterranean Sea, landing with its tail end in North Africa and its head end in Southern Europe. The impact causes earthquakes, tsunamis, and millions upon millions of human deaths. After this it just rests there, motionless; but nevertheless it is so huge that it disrupts weather patterns, resulting in droughts, floods, famines, and lots more deaths. So before long the nations of the earth decide to get rid of this thing by launching missiles at it—the first heresy of the Huge God, incidentally, being that It was just some thing to be gotten rid of—but with no discernible effect. Next they try nuclear weapons, but even nukes fail to scratch the surface of the Huge God. Many more people die from the radioactive fallout though. Occasionally, maybe every few decades, for no known reason, the creature shifts its position, usually jumping up and smashing back down, resulting in the inevitable earthquakes, tsunamis, millions of deaths, etc. Of course before long a new religion is born, of worshipping this being. And not long after that, naturally, hostile sects of this religion begin waging holy wars against each other over matters of doctrine (the losing side being guilty of gross heresies), possibly resulting in almost as many deaths as the Huge God's shifts of position. Finally, after more than two hundred years of this, the last scattered vestiges of the human race come up with the last of the great heresies: They begin praying to the thing, "We're unworthy of Your greatness! You are too good for us! Please go somewhere more worthy of Your Huge Majesty!" Perhaps It hears their prayers, because at last it suddenly, unexpectedly leaps into space and disappears. The trouble is, though, that it kicks off so hard that it knocks the earth out of its orbit. The story concludes with the monk who has chronicled all the heresies begging the Huge God to forgive them and to come back, because it's getting very cold and they're running out of virgins to sacrifice.
     Now, for all we know, something like this really could happen. As Arthur C. Clarke used to say, not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine. So there's really no telling when and how this earth of ours is going to meet with destruction. Who knows, maybe some multidimensional deity who is dreaming us right now will wake up at any moment, causing us instantaneously to poof out of existence. His alarm clock will suddenly go off; and although he'll press the snooze button, it will already be too late for us. (Later on he'll be at work, drinking a multidimensional deity's equivalent of coffee, and he'll tell the deity in the next cubicle, "You know, last night I had the weirdest dream—but now I don't remember what it was.")
     Even so, even though we cannot possibly know when our planet is going to explode or otherwise stop supporting organic life, it's a fair guess that it won't be real soon. It is, however, inevitable. The end of our world, if anything is certain, is certain. Not to mention the end of polar bears, Asian rhinoceroses, Amazonian tree frogs, and a prolific species of ape called Homo sapiens.
     Another point to consider, for me to consider anyway, is that according to my theory of everything (TOE), in a truly infinite Universe, which I consider our Universe to be, anything that possibly can happen does happen; and anything that is conceivable, is possible. So assuming that the Universe is really infinite, then somewhere Adolf Hitler didn't mess up and let the British Army escape from Dunkirk, and came up with a better strategy for invading Russia, so that the Nazis won World War II. Also, somewhere, the Cuban Missile Crisis led to World War III, a meteor the size of Manhattan Island is smacking into the earth, the Huge God is landing in the Mediterranean Sea today, etc. etc. If it can be imagined, then it is happening somehow. It all has to happen in order for the Universe to be infinite. This is not just a crackpot theory, but may actually be scientific; a similar idea found in physics is called the Many Worlds Hypothesis.
     However, as Eckhart Tolle says in his first famous book, it doesn't matter at all. From the perspective of Ultimate Reality, our entire galaxy could explode, and it wouldn't make any difference. Reality, or Being, or "God," would not be harmed or lessened by this event, not in the slightest degree. As venerable Mr. Tolle also says, what is Real does not die. Only an illusion seems to die. It just doesn't matter.
     Some may be of the opinion that, if it doesn't matter, then why think about it? Why should I bother to write about mass extinction events or the Huge God on an ostensibly Buddhist blog, unless it is simply out of the self-indulgent exhilaration of contemplating the morbidly apocalyptic? Well, all this is a variation on the theme of maraānussati, or recollection of death, one of the forty standard themes of meditation taught in Theravada Buddhist texts. In fact, recollection of death is considered so important in Dharma that it is called one of the Great Protectors. It protects us by preparing us for arrival at the end of the road we are walking.
     So, we're all going to die. The whole world is eventually going to die. The entire galaxy is going to die too. Everyone and everything will die, and is in the process of dying even now; and ultimately it doesn't matter. Life is strange. Such is life. 


"Yeah, I'm extinct too. Don't worry about it."




Saturday, August 9, 2014

Similarity, Identity, and Nonexistent Dill Pickles

    
     At the time of writing this I am almost finished reading F. H. Bradley's metaphysics text Appearance and Reality. Less than twenty pages to go—woohoo! It has taken about six months to wade through the thing; mainly because it's rather heavy and hard to read, with lots of deep, strange ideas, and so after five or ten pages it becomes necessary to put the book down and digest what one has managed to swallow. But also, while I was in Rangoon, after reading all but the 70-page-long Appendix, I took a break and read some science fiction. Then after coming here to Migadawun Monastery I became sick as the proverbial dog, and reading dense philosophy books just doesn't work out so well when one is nursing the flu. Plus sometimes I just haven't felt like reading. But I'm getting there, little by gradual.
     Anyway, in Bradley's Appendix (his supplement to the second edition of A & R), he tackles the rather psychological issue of Similarity and Identity, their nature, and their relation to one another. I gather from his long Note on the subject that this particular issue was somewhat controversial in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, at least at places like Oxbridge. Some people actually got worked up over it.
     Bradley claims that identity is primary, and that mere similarity MUST be derived from it secondarily; and he declares himself mystified at how any rational person could possibly suppose otherwise. He maintains that if two objects are considered to be similar, it is because they MUST have some quality, or group of qualities, in common—i.e., they share the same quality, and in that limited respect they are identical. Two objects or entities simply cannot be similar without sharing an identical quality. Two red spheres are similar because they share what is apprehended as the same redness and roundness. Without this perceived sameness, there could be no similarity, because there would be no respect in which they were similar. Obvious, right? He even ventures to suggest that anyone who denies this primacy of identity suffers from "intellectual bankruptcy." Resemblance without some identity serving as its foundation is monstrous superstition. 
     On the other hand, I apparently am intellectually bankrupt and superstitious, since I just cannot agree with Bradley on this point, or even really relate to what he's saying. It underwhelms me; it just doesn't ring true somehow. It seems to me that his way of thinking and philosophizing is heavily conditioned by Plato (and also Hegel); and although he's willing to deny the ultimate reality of Platonic universals, ultimate, eternal qualities like Redness and Roundness that things in the phenomenal world merely borrow, so to speak, he considers universals to be not only valid as a way of explaining the phenomenal world (or "appearance," or Samsara), but necessary for such explanations. But I have never had much use for Plato, except maybe for entertainment or for salvaging historical information about ancient Greece. (For instance, the rather homosexually-oriented Symposium contains interesting details about the personality of Socrates, the Critias contains a weird story about Atlantis, and the Euthydemus is just plain funny. Yet the famous Simile of the Cave in the Republic definitely resonates with me, as something profound.) 
     Bradley believed in the essential importance and power of human rational thought, largely because he was an Idealist who didn't believe in physical matter at all (except as a convenient working fiction), and largely because of ways of thinking that he inherited from previous Western thinkers, especially Plato and Hegel. He believed, for example, that thought operates through lifting qualities (or "what") from substrates ("that"), and then applying them to other substrates. Thus thought cannot be entirely wrong, since the qualities, or adjectives, that it isolates have their roots in Ultimate Reality. This way of thinking may seem rather odd to a Westerner in the early 21st century; it is probably not very impressive at all in a world that has come to consider thought to be a kind of inexplicable side effect of brain biochemistry. I can sympathize with his Idealism, and occasionally regret that the "barbarous intellectual monoculture of Scientism" has overwhelmed the world, but still I don't buy Bradley's theory. And I don't like Plato, or Aristotle either. 
     My theory of similarity (which is undoubtedly half-baked, and which I haven't worked out nearly so thoroughly as Bradley worked out his) comes from the other side. Let's say that at one level there is "A is similar to B." Beyond that is another level—"A is identical to B"—and, as already mentioned, Bradley insists that the former is derived from the latter. But on the other side of "A is similar to B," opposite "A is identical to B," is "A is reminiscent of B." In other words, when I look at A, certain perceptual associations arise, and when I look at B certain perceptual associations arise, and the more overlap there is between these associations, the more similar A and B seem. If there was complete overlap, so that the associations were exactly the same when looking at either A or B, then we simply could not tell them apart. They would be perceived as exactly the same—not "A is the same as B," but just "A." The qualities seemingly shared between A and B are not really the same qualities; it's just that we can't always tell them apart. So considering two entities to be similar or the same is not based upon a positive recognition of universal qualities that they share; it is based more upon a negative failure—a failure to differentiate those qualities. The similarity or sameness is an abstraction of something positive based upon what is actually negative.
     Here are two points to consider. First, real identity, absolute sameness, would be a virtually meaningless tautology, and would involve no relation or comparison at all. If two things really are identical in every way, even with regard to their relations to other things, then they are not two things at all, but only one. Again, we wouldn't have "A is exactly the same as B," we would simply have "A." We would perceive them as the same thing. Even Bradley, who was no idiot, acknowledged this, for example in his strange observation, "When resemblance is carried to such a point that perceptible difference ceases, then, I understand, you have not really got sameness or identity, but you can speak as if you had got it." So absolute sameness, complete identity, is meaningless, unless you want to make the tautological statement "A is exactly the same as itself." (Whether absolute difference is possible or not is irrelevant to this discussion, I think.)
     Second, consider the case of two people watching a movie and one of them saying, "That guy looks like So-and-so," and the other promptly responding with, "No he doesn't!" (This actually happened to me recently.) The first person perceives a similarity that the second person doesn't perceive. It may be that there is no exact identity of any feature between that guy and So-and-so. The nose isn't exactly the same size or shape. The jaw isn't exactly the same shape. Maybe some skin on the forehead appears exactly the same color and texture as the corresponding skin on So-and-so, but that's just because of the imperfect reproduction of images via photography, plus maybe makeup. So-and-so's patch of forehead skin is really slightly different. Yet that first person saw a certain resemblance, not based on any exact likeness at all.
     Furthermore, there apparently is no precise line separating "reminds me of" and "is similar to." Going with the example just mentioned, where do you draw the line between someone who just reminds you of Brad Pitt and someone who begins to start to kind of resemble Brad Pitt? Of course, someone who resembles Brad Pitt's ex-girlfriend might indirectly remind you of him, but that's not quite the kind of "reminds me of" I'm talking about.
     So relative sameness is derived from perceived similarity, not vice versa; and absolute sameness shrinks down to zero (which F. H. Bradley acknowledged).
     In the mind of a being devoid of conscious logic, say, a chicken, there may not be enough intellectual sophistication for that being to conjure up an idea of "similar to," let alone "same as." "Same as" would appear to be the more advanced of the two ideas, if only because it is less realistic. If a chicken sees an object A, and then later sees an object B which stimulates pretty much the same associated perceptions, then the two objects are simply the same. It's not anything so sophisticated as "A=B," or even "A=A," it's just "A." The chicken is unaware of any "B" in this case, or of any "=" either. Yesterday a guy came out and threw food on the ground. Today a guy comes out and throws food on the ground, and today's perceived guy elicits many of the same kind of associations as yesterday's perceived guy. So the chicken perceives, simply, in the language of chicken thoughts, "That's the guy." The chicken doesn't lift the same positive quality from two different substrates; it just fails to see sufficient differences to consider today's guy to be different from the usual guy. But language fails me in my attempts to describe chicken psychology. 
     In a somewhat more logically advanced being, such as a human, there are ideas of "similar to" and even "same as," even though the latter, like those mirages of puddles on the road on hot days, disappear the closer you come to them. We furless apes have evolved the sophistication to generate positive abstractions based on a mere failure to perceive something. For instance, we generate the positive universal of sameness as the result of failing to tell a difference. Sometimes, however, we still think like chickens and simply don't even try to make differences. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that, unless maybe we're writing about logic at the time. 
     Negation, or failure to find something and then turning that failure into a positive idea, is much more sophisticated intellectually than finding something directly. Consequently I have sometimes wondered if a dog is intelligent and logical enough to perceive a positive absence. He may whine and be restless if his master is away, or may hungrily approach his food dish, find it empty, and walk away whimpering in apparent disappointment, but still I'm not sure if a dog is sophisticated enough to be that abstract. A chicken almost certainly isn't bright enough to perceive a positive absence (although it may have evolved some instinct to imitate it or make up for it, if in fact perceiving absences has been conducive to the survival of the chicken species).
     Here is a case of what I'm trying to convey: Let's say someone asks you, "Is it raining?" So you look out the window and check. You don't see rain falling, and you don't see wet ground and puddles—or if you do see them, you don't see the spreading circles of raindrop impacts on the surface of the puddles. You don't see water dripping down car windshields, or from tree branches or the eaves of the house. You don't hear the sound of rain either. Plus maybe your gimp knee isn't acting up. So you turn to the other person and say, "No, it isn't raining." (And if you're a joker you might add something like, "It doesn't even look foreboding out there…although it looks like it could start to forebode at any minute.") So to form a positive perception of "It isn't raining" or "It's non-rainy" one must first hypothesize that it is raining, and then fail to confirm the hypothesis. Hence this is much more advanced reasoning than looking out the window and simply seeing rain, and forming a positive idea of "It's raining" on that.
     Here is another example: You go to the refrigerator looking for a jar of dill pickles. You open the door and look around…there it is…no, that's relish…wait, there…no, that's olives…hmmm. You don't see the jar of pickles after looking in the places where it might be, so you give up and form the judgement, "There is no jar of dill pickles in the fridge." It may be that you've been out of pickles for several months, or it may be that the pickles are behind the carton of milk, and you just didn't see them; but the perception of "no pickles" would be essentially the same in either case. 
     But why exactly did you perceive an absence of pickles and not, say, an absence of caviar? There may have been no caviar in the fridge either, but you didn't notice at all. And if the pickles really were behind the milk, then the caviar would really have been more absent than the pickles. But you were totally clueless as to the absence of caviar. In fact, there are literally an infinite number of things that are not in that refrigerator. Live gibbons, for instance. Extremely few refrigerators contain live gibbons, but how many people notice this? How many people walk to the fridge in search of pickles or beer and suddenly realize, exclaiming at the strangeness of it, "Hey, there are no live gibbons in the fridge!" But those gibbons may be more absent than the pickles.
     The reason why we don't notice an infinite number of things that are not in the refrigerator is because we don't first hypothesize their presence, and then fail to confirm that hypothesis. The absence of something may seem very simple, maybe even more simple than that something's presence would be, but a perceived absence is a complicated abstraction, based on a deduction, based on a failure, based on an initial hypothesis. We may think of that absence as an "it," but really nothing's there. Unless maybe it's behind the milk. 
     Platonic universals, or Bradley's identities, or any notion of "same as" or "similar to," may be generated in this same general way, indirectly. Sameness or similarity might seem like something obviously positive, but I consider it to be a camouflaged version of the same process as perceiving an absence of rain. Two red balls may seem alike, but if there are two of them, then they are really different. One may reply that the balls are different, but that the shade of color, the redness, for example, is the same. But the principle is still the same: it doesn't matter if there are two grains of salt or two identical twins or two tones of B-flat played on the same instrument or two spheres or two samples of fire engine red; so long as there are two of them, they are not the same, even if in certain respects we can't tell them apart. The two balls have two different roundness and two different rednesses. We call it a positive sameness because we have failed to tell the difference, and then failed to notice our abstraction from a deduction based on that failure. Or else we're being meaninglessly tautological by saying, essentially, "A is the same as itself." But again, if there are two different things, they really are different. That statement too is tautological, but most people don't fully "get it." Human thought is based upon generalization; and if we fully acknowledge that different things really are different, pretty much every word in the English language except "this" and "that" becomes uselessly futile. We would land ourselves in a meaningless, absolutely specific Now, with even "Now" not meaning anything. Even a proper noun like "Abraham Lincoln" is a generalization, considering that it's lumping together infinitely many Abe Lincolns in various moments, various places, various states of existence.
     It may be that the beginning of "consciousness," that which separates frogs, chickens, and us from bricks, moss, and possibly even insects, is this ability to generalize; and it may be that our strange ability to perceive as a positive state of being something that doesn't exist at all, to form an abstraction based on a failure to perceive, and even to believe in its palpable reality, is the beginning of truly human intelligence—or truly human delusion, take your pick.
     All this may seem like idle, gratuitous philosophizing, but it can be very useful to understand how our own mind works. Even many meditation teachers in the West (and East too) are relatively clueless as to the processes of their own thinking, despite the fact that they supposedly observe those processes while practicing mindfulness, and teach others how to observe them. Even meditating monks can be pretty clueless. I once knew a monk who was born in a Spanish-speaking country, but who had become an American citizen and had lived in America for several years. His English wasn't perfect, but it was fluent. One time I asked him, out of curiosity, what language he thought in, his native Spanish, or English; and to my surprise he answered, "I don't know." How can we practice introspection regularly and still not even know what language we're thinking in? (Hopefully he knows by now, as he has become a relatively famous Dharma teacher in certain circles.) Western meditation teachers may have considerable handicaps in this respect, such as the distractions of Western worldliness, busyness in making a living, and the Western "Protestant" approach to Dharma, like unwillingness to follow much of it, inability to believe much of it, etc. But I haven't been writing this to pick on Western meditation instructors. No offense intended. Trubba not, no trubba. 
     Carefully examining our own thought and feeling processes can be very beneficial. At the very least it's an exercise in introspection. It may even lead to Insight. For example, we may realize how so much of our suffering is the result of abstract perceptions based on what isn't there, on what doesn't actually exist at all. We hypothesize the presence of something, like money, or a certain person, then fail to confirm that presence, and then suffer because of this abstraction. But if we hadn't made the hypothesis in the first place, or turned into a positive "something" an abstraction based on a negative failure of perception, then we wouldn't have experienced the unnecessary suffering. Or we imagine that we might lose something or need something, and suffer because of that worry, when we haven't really lost or needed it. Most of human suffering, especially in the West, is this kind of unnecessary futility. Chickens have it much easier than us, especially if they're free-range.
     In my personal case, careful, complicated introspection and analysis of thought can also demonstrate to me (and maybe to some of you) how living alone in Burmese forests, without emotionally complicated, heart-oriented women giving input (or otherwise getting on my case), tends to make me pretty damn top-heavy. If I am to continue developing in spirit, with not only a clear head, but with head and heart in harmonious balance, then it's likely I'll have to go back to the West and face chaos, turmoil, and lovely females in the Plato's cave of America. 
      


Are the two 85mm artillery shell vases on this altar identical, similar, 
or completely different? How do you know?
      


Appendix I: A Thought Experiment Concerning Sameness

     This post is already a long one, but what the hell.
     Years ago I happened to encounter the following statement by Leibniz: "To suppose two indiscernible things is to suppose the same thing under two names." In other words, if two things have exactly the same qualities, or for whatever reason we just cannot distinguish them at all, then they are not two things, but only one. I can accept this statement of Leibniz's, largely because I don't accept the Scientistic dogma that there is an objective world out there with individual things going about their business, even if no conscious mind is perceiving them. This strikes me as a case of human ape psychology being superimposed onto a supposed material universe…but I digress. The statement of Leibniz inspired me to devise a rather odd thought experiment, which is as follows.
     Imagine a small, baby universe (and Stephen Hawking says they exist, so they must) which contains only two entities which are exactly identical and have exactly the same orientation toward each other. Would there be one, or two? If the entities were unconscious there would be no observer in that universe to count, so it might be argued that there would be no number at all. So let's assume that both entities are conscious, and observing each other, like two conscious eyeballs. If they were self-conscious they might count two things, themselves plus the other that they are observing; that would complicate this thought experiment, so let's further assume that they are conscious the way a chicken is conscious, without having a developed concept of "me." (Incidentally, I once read that scientists experimentally determined that the only animals other than humans who are self-conscious enough to look into a mirror and perceive that it is a reflection of themselves are chimpanzees, orangutans, and (probably bottlenose) dolphins. Gorillas didn't make the cut; although some creatures that weren't tested, like sperm whales, might also qualify as "self-conscious.") So the two identical conscious beings in this universe each see the other, and in exactly the same way. And so are there two entities, or only one?
     As far as I can remember, every person I've posed this question to has responded without hesitation that there are two entities; but this is mainly because they are adding themselves to the universe as a third, imaginary entity. Or else they're dogmatically assuming the truth of that Scientistic belief about objective universes that was mentioned just recently. But if all that existed in that universe was an eye observing an identical eye, then those two eyes would be exactly the same, especially if we accept the relativity of space (i.e., the idea that space does not have absolute orientation, as Newton assumed). And if they are exactly the same, then they are one, not two. It seems surreally counterintuitive, but I still can accept the notion that those two identical beings merge into a single being. So I suppose describing them as two at the beginning was nonsense. But even so, in a way there would have to be two, since one is presumably observing the other. Strange.
     Now let's complicate the experiment and let them be self-conscious, so that even they count two entities in their little cosmos, themselves, plus the other. But still they are exactly identical! So even if they're both counting two, since they're doing it identically is there still only one? Then again, maybe they're identical only to an imaginary third entity, so that there really is a difference? Yet if this is the case, the difference would not be between the two supposed entities, but between the subjective "me" and "that" perceived identically by both, rendering each of them both "me" and "that"!
     Now let's go back to conscious eyeballs with the consciousness of a chicken, but this time let there be three of them, each with exactly the same orientation towards the others, that is, each at the vertex of an invisible equilateral triangle, looking exactly at the midpoint between the other two. Now each entity would be able to distinguish the other two from each other, since one of them is on this side, and the other is on that side. All three of them would make exactly the same distinction between the other two. So would there now, ex hypothesi, be two entities—with each of the "three" being both of the other two in the view of the other two, even though they all see things in exactly the same way? 
     This is all making me a little dizzy, so I think I'd better stop at this point.


     
Appendix II: A Passage from Plato's Euthydemus 

     …If you will answer my questions, said Dionysodorus, I will soon extract the same admission from you, Ctesippus. You say that you have a dog.
     Yes, a villain of a one, said Ctesippus.
     And he has puppies?
     Yes, and they are very like himself.
     And the dog is the father of them? 
     Yes, he said, I certainly saw him and the mother of the puppies come together.
     And is he not yours?
     To be sure he is.
     Then he is a father, and he is yours; ergo, he is your father, and the puppies are your brothers.
     Let me ask one little question more, said Dionysodorus, quickly interposing, in order that Ctesippus might not get in his word: You beat this dog?
     Ctesippus said, laughing, Indeed I do; and I only wish that I could beat you instead of him.
     Then you beat your father, he said.
     I should have far more reason to beat yours, said Ctesippus; what could he have been thinking of when he begat such wise sons?

     (—translated by Benjamin Jowett)