Projecting Happiness

Posting a few, final quotes this week from Karma Yeshe Rabgye‘s book The Best Way to Catch A Snake.  In this quote he talks about the joy of getting a new iPad:

Every time you look at it [your newly purchased iPad], a warm feeling fills you.  You are so happy, your life seems complete.  Then the inevitable happens—a newer, faster, smaller and more powerful version comes out.  You hold the iPad in your hand, but our happiness has turned to discontent.  Why is that?  The Buddha taught us that all sense objects, including these fashionable technical gadgets, are impermanent.  There is no happiness inherent in them; we simply project happiness onto these objects. (pg. 165)

This reminds me of the famous Yogacara school of Buddhism that I wrote about here, here and here among other places.  The main teaching of Yogacara Buddhism is that the you experience is a projection of one’s own mind and ego onto the world (overlaying the raw sensory input).  There’s basically no world outside your own interpretation of it.

This may seem kind of weird, but let’s look at another example.  Imagine falling in love with a pretty girl.  You meet, and as you both fall in love, the world is new refreshing and wonderful.  Every moment you’re together is just pure happiness, and your life before you met her seemed so dull and grey.  The future with your partner is bright and you feel like you’ve finally found true contentment.

….or did you?  (duh-duh-duhhhhhh)

Fast-forward 6 weeks, 6 months or even 6 years later.  Whatever.  Inevitably, you’ll meet another girl that you’ll find hotter, prettier, more attractive than your current partner.  Sure, your partner is great, but something’s changed and you’re no longer content with her.  You two don’t do things like you use to, don’t quite have the same passion as before, and now you’re not happy as you once were.

But did she really change?  Or did you change?  When you first met and all was right in the world, were you not projecting your happiness onto her, and yet over time as reality differed from your projected happiness, did you not start to feel a bit of disappointment?  Now, are you not doing the same thing again but with another girl?

That’s basically how the mind works.  We do it not just with people, but with TV shows, new restaurants, etc.  Over and over until we breathe our last.  Always projecting our happiness onto something, thinking “this is it! This thing will make me happy!”, but like water slipping through our fingers, it always eludes us again and again.

The first step in avoiding a trap, is becoming aware of its existence

P.S. Another example of projecting happiness on something that clearly won’t give you lasting satisfaction.


Korean Woodblock Prints in Japan


A while back I had talked about Buddhist texts in Japan and Korea and in particular wood-block printing. Wood-block printing of Buddhist texts, rather than copying by hand, predates printing in the West by centuries and, in particular, Korean Buddhist temples had developed a refined approach that is still preserved in temples like Haein-sa among others.

While visiting the temple of Kawasaki Daishi in Japan, the family and I took a trip to the sutra room there, and that was when I saw this photo above. It seems that the Jogye Order in Korea has lent a woodblock used for printing the Heart Sutra to Japan, along with an example print of the Heart Sutra (the Chinese writing on the right-hand side of the plaque).

In fact, the woodblock above does bear resemblance to the ones at Haein-sa, based on this photo on Wikipedia.  It’s not clear which temple this block came from, but it would be interesting if it really did come from Haein-sa.  Of all the temples I would like to visit in Korea, Haein-sa happens to be very high on my list.

Anyhow, it was really neat to see this first-hand.



Flowers on a cross remain, marking an ending scene
Damn it all if blood you spill, turn the grass more green…

–Alice In Chains, “Private Hell”

Recently I took some time away from everything, somewhat abruptly.  It all started with a phone call a few weeks back.  My mother informed me that my grandfather, whom I had not seen in person in about 10 years, was dying of stage 4 lung cancer.  Ever since my grandmother had passed away back in the 1990’s,1 he had become a very private person and didn’t correspond much with the rest of us.  The last time I had seen him was when my first child, Princess, was about 1 year old, and since then we had only talked on the phone briefly for birthdays and such.  He had never even met my second child in person.

After talking with both my mother and uncle, it was clear that grandpa was going to be gone soon, and that he was in no condition to see anyone anymore.  The news wasn’t terribly surprising because I knew he was a lifelong heavy smoker, but I had no idea how ill he had become.  When I spoke to him on the phone, he never gave any indication of his condition, and had sounded like the grandpa I had known all these years.

Finally, while hiking with the family at Mount Rainer National Park (and therefore out of phone signal coverage), I got a phone call from both mom and my uncle that grandpa had finally died.  Yet another missed opportunity.

A few days later, I met my uncle and we went through his house together to try and clean up some of the mess and maybe put some things in order.  Since he had been ill for so long, the house had become somewhat neglected despite his best efforts, and it was kind of surreal seeing all the old Christmas cards and such I had sent him over the years neatly stacked up by the fireplace, old pictures of my daughter (his great-granddaughter) and such.  I saw parts of his life I never really knew, like old photos from his Navy service and met his neighbor who had spent a lot of time with him in his final years.

It’s been quite a while since I had lost someone in the family,2 and the particular way in which he died, coupled with the fact we had very little contact over the years really left my kind of hurt and numb. When I was younger, I looked up to him a lot as the gruff, but lovable old sailor. When I graduated college, he gave me a couple items: a ring he got in South Dakota, and a money clip. No one else in the family had cheered me on like he did (apart from my future wife) and it really meant a lot to me. I still have old pictures of him when I was a kid. My wife and I met him once shortly after we got married, and he talked a little bit about his days in the Navy stationed in Japan just after WWII, but before the Korean War. You could tell he liked Japan even if he never had much chance to get to know the culture or language.

But now it’s all gone. I will not get to meet him again and tell him thanks for all he did for me as a kid. I never got to introduce my son to him either. It’s all done. Over.

Between this and a stressful month at work, I just shutdown in a way. I didn’t notice it at first, and was still being productive at work, but more and more I feel haunted by his memory, and no amount of Buddhist prayer and dedication of merit helps that. When I visited his home just after he died, I remember saying a prayer to him, and also many times that following week in front of the Buddhist altar at home, but it always felt a little hollow. Did any of it make a difference?

Since then, the altar at home has been closed, and I have been feeling kind of numb all the time. I just haven’t been able to pick up the keyboard, make another Buddhist video, or even read another Buddhist book or sutra. I just couldn’t give a shit.

Maybe this is all just the Five Stages of Grief, but I guess I still don’t give a shit. I’ve been playing Magic with friends, playing with my kids or reading old Zelazny books mostly. Some days I don’t even really think about him, but then the memory comes back again. But in general I feel kind lethargic and a bit sullen even at work.

And yet, in spite of all this, I wanted to start writing again, and so I have dusted off some of my half-finished blog posts and started writing again.

Not sure what will happen over the coming weeks and months, but for now please enjoy more (possibly a bit dated) posts and thank you for your understanding.

1 Also due to cancer, and she too had been a heavy smoker like grandpa. I remember she died just days after Thanksgiving (I always get a bit moody after Thanksgiving as a result) and seeing her lying dead in the hospital, her face still wracked with pain. 27 years that memory hasn’t left me.

2 The last death in the family had been my other grandpa. My daughter was just a few months old when he died, and we only had one picture of him holding his great-granddaughter.

Remembering the Civil War


“Reunited – One Country Again and One Country Forever.
–President McKinley, Atlanta, Dec 15th 1898

Let no one deceive another
or despise anyone anywhere,
or through anger or irritation
wish for another to suffer.
— The Metta Sutta, translation by Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu

A few years ago I had a business trip in Tennessee and visited the nearby Chickamauga National Military Park in northern Georgia.

Unlike the statues that glorify the antebellum South and the Confederacy, the war museum focused on a spirit of reconciliation and highlighting the horrors of war because the Battle of Chickamauga was incredibly bloody even by standards of that war. A lot of young men died that didn’t need to.

A lot of the Confederacy statues that exist now and are subject to controversy were erected decades after the Civil War, often during a revivalist movement in the 1910’s and 1920’s, which not coincidentally was also one of the most overtly racist periods in American history. The 1920’s had many race massacres and extra-judicial lynchings and the Jim Crow laws had reached their peak.1 There is a definite connection between those statues and the horrors of post-WWI racial discourse.

It’s important to remember the Civil War and the South but for the right reasons, not the wrong ones. The Chickamauga Museum shows how reconciliation and respect for the sanctity of life is much more admirable than war heroes who represented and dying and dubious cause.

Civil War monument

If people wish to remember the Civil War (and we should) it’s important that they ask themselves why they are doing it?  By this they are truly known.

The Buddha strongly warned against divisiveness: divisive speech, factionalism, and so on.  Buddhism is all about harmony.  You don’t have to necessarily like other people, but in following the Eightfold Path, particularly Right Intention, you also give up any ill-will or intention to harm them.  It’s also the spirit of the Metta Sutta quoted above.

Reconciliation and harmony are much more powerful and beneficial in the long-run than divisiveness and elevating one group at the expense of others.  In the famous Dhammapada the Buddha said:

5. Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.

6. There are those who do not realize that one day we all must die. But those who do realize this settle their quarrels.

If we wish to uphold any ideals, this is the ideal we should uphold.

P.S.  Speaking of the power of reconciliation (sorry for reposting this again Facebook followers).

1 Somewhat tangentially related, but definitely read about the Harlem Hellfighters of WWI. This was the famous, decorated all-black regiment that fought in the trenches of France, but faced unjust conditions at home.

Staying Buddhist in Crazy Political Times

Hi guys,

With all the nonsense happening in the past weeks in the news, I wanted to share some advice from the Buddha:

This video was also inspired by a book I got from Powell’s City of Books during our family trip to Portland, Oregon last year.

Enjoy and please be safe out there!

P.S. Here’s a really great essay by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi on the subject too.