The Mental Echo Chamber

This was an interesting article from the BBC about the so-called “echo chamber” that people create online by subscribing to news feeds, and social groups that they already agree with. What the article shows is that people are actually exposed to more ideas than before (in other words, the echo chamber is a myth), but that we only become more entrenched when we encounter differing viewpoints.

The Buddha spoke about this habit of “I-making” in the old sutras as something we all do, and comes from a fundamental ignorance about ourselves and how we relate to others. We cobble together our sense of identity from birth based on our sensory experiences, and our relation to others, but we take this to be an “immutable self” and the core of who we are.

The trouble is that when we perceive anything as a threat to our views (and therefore our sense of self), we become entrenched.

Instead, the Buddha encourages us to set aside personal views and observe things as they are:

“A ‘position,’ Vaccha, is something that a Tathagata has done away with. What a Tathagata sees is this: ‘Such is form, such its origination, such its disappearance; such is feeling, such its origination, such its disappearance; such is perception…such are fabrications…such is consciousness, such its origination, such its disappearance.’ Because of this, I say, a Tathagata — with the ending, fading away, cessation, renunciation, & relinquishment of all construings, all excogitations, all I-making & mine-making & obsessions with conceit — is, through lack of clinging/sustenance, released.”

(MN 72 PTS, Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta: “To Vacchagotta on Fire’,
translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu )

To do otherwise is ultimately unproductive and will not lead to peace and liberation.

P.S. For more on the self (or pack thereof) check out the Sutra on the Simile of the Water Snake.


Politics and the Parable of the Elephant and the Blind Men

Something I found in the Pali Canon particular the Udana 6.4 (Ud 66) which includes the famous parable of the blind men and the elephant:

Some recluses and brahmans, so called,
Are deeply attached to their own views;
People who only see one side of things
Engage in quarrels and disputes.

The Buddha’s point in explaining this parable is how people assert their own viewpoints even with just partial information and oftentimes wrong assumptions.

With all the political back-and-forth that goes on these days, we’re used to hunkering down with our “camp” of like-minded colleagues against an “other” who threatens us with their differing views.

But as the Buddha explains:

“The wanderers of other sects, bhikkhus, are blind, unseeing. They do not know what is beneficial, they do not know what is harmful. They do not know what is Dhamma, they do not know what is not Dhamma. Not knowing what is beneficial and what is harmful, not knowing what is Dhamma and what is not Dhamma, they are quarrelsome… saying: ‘Dhamma is like this!… Dhamma is like that!’

(trans. John D. Ireland)

Here in this context “Dhamma” means “the way things are” in an objective sense.  Instead, these people who cling to certain viewpoints becoming increasingly divorced from reality and thus bring misery and confusion to themselves.

This is a hard thing to let go of too, because it’s woven into our sense of self.  While Buddhism does teach “anatman” or “no-self”, nevertheless we construct our world from our lifetime of experiences, good and bad.  Thus, when someone attacks our views, it is an attack on our sense of self.

But so long as we cling to this sense of self, we suffer in myriad ways.

Thus, when the Buddha taught his son/disciple Rahula, he said:

And that should be seen as it actually is present with right discernment: ‘This is not mine, this is not me, this is not my self.’

(trans. Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu

The first step in avoiding a trap (even one you create for yourself) is being aware of its existence.  😉

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.

While People Go About Their Day…

Buddhism teaches a concept called śūnyatā sometimes translated as emptiness. This means:

  1. All phenomena, both physical and abstract, arise due to external causes and conditions. Things don’t just pop into existence on their own. 
  2. Thus, all things, both abstract and physical, are impermanent because they’re sustained by those external causes and conditions until such time as they are not. 
  3. Also, because of #1, all things relate to one another either directly or indirectly. 

While watching the BBC video above on the ongoing battle for Mosul, I couldn’t help but think how we are all connected by this conflict. What happens in one part of the world affects us all in some way. What we do in our daily lives affects others in some way halfway across the world. 

It’s important to consider one’s actions snd how they mighy affect others. Also, it is important to hold others around the world  in our thoughts as we go about our day. 

Finding Common Ground

….A lot of people want to separate the left and the right, think that everyone on the right is like Trump, and they’re not. They have grown up where they’ve grown up, experienced what they’ve experienced and see the world the way they see it. But if you can sit down and have a good conversation with them instead of calling them stupid or condescending to them, you can actually accomplish some things over time.

I really like this article above. It’s so easy these days to get caught up in heated arguments with political opponents, and forget that they’re people too. 

One of the teachings in Buddhism is that of right speech, which the Buddha explains like so in the Pali Canon courtesy of the Magga-vibhanga Sutta (SN 45.8):

“And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, & from idle chatter: This is called right speech.”

— trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu

This is because the Buddhist religion is grounded in goodwill toward all beings as shown in the famous Metta Sutta:

Whatever beings there may be,
weak or strong, without exception,
long, large,
middling, short,
subtle, blatant,
seen & unseen,
near & far,
born & seeking birth:
May all beings be happy at heart.

— trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu

You can’t just wish goodwill toward those who agree with you. Goodwill includes all beings from all walks of life, and all inclinations.

Further, in the Buddhist teachings, people do not exist in isolation. People need one another. All living beings need one another in some manner or form, thus the further one tries to assert their own way, the further they isolate themselves and the further they sink into unease, despair and conflict. 

In other words, people need communities, not cliques.

But all of this starts with right understanding.  Being able to see yourself in other people and other beings is the first step to wisdom, and that will gradually change your point of view from one of cliques and antagonism, to one of inclusiveness.

Love Conquers All

This is another great article by the BBC, and the video is worth watching.  This is a former white-supremacist talking about how he had a change of heart due to the kindness of others.

It reminds me of a famous quote from the Dhammapada, translation by Ven. Acharya Buddharakkhita:

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

My belief is that many such people who dehumanize and abuse other people are really suffering from self-hatred, but are unable to see it.

One of the things I’ve learned from Yogacara Buddhist thought is how the mind projects itself onto the world around it.  Thus, a mountaineer and an artist will view the same mountain differently even when standing right next to one another.  In the same way, the recurring mental habits in one’s mind create a feedback loop that in turn distorts the world around them according to their disposition.

If a person is filled with self-hate and obsessed with rage, frustration and a sense of inferiority, they will inflict pain and humiliation on others, living by an us-versus-them mindset.  This will in turn reinforce the existing mental habits over and over.

But at the same time, the Buddha taught not to get caught up blind reaction toward such people.  The first instinct is to fight back and punish such people.  Fight violence with violence in other words.  However, as the article above shows, it may be more effective to rely on a combination of truth (not paranoia and lies) and goodwill to counteract such people.  If those people can find personal healing, they may change their ways.

As the Lotus Sutra teaches, all beings are capable of becoming buddhas, they just need the right trigger.

Why The Hell Won’t They Listen?

This is something I’ve been meaning to share for a while.  I found this article by the BBC a few months back about how our minds are naturally tend to be biased toward anything that confirms our already-held beliefs.  This is a well-known psychological phenomenon, but what’s interesting is that the article shows how simply telling someone to be objective and unbiased isn’t enough.  You have to actually get someone to see the other side of a viewpoint before they will break out of their mental shell.

This is of course nothing new to Buddhism.  The Buddha taught that all living beings suffer from an array of mental distortions.  These are called kleśa (क्लेश) in Sanskrit, or in Japanese bonnō (煩悩).¹

It’s like wearing a pair of sunglasses for a really long time.  After a while, you forget you’re wearing them, and you just see the world as filtered through the sunglasses.  If you were to take off the sunglasses, even for a moment, you would be surprised and maybe a bit disoriented at how the world looks.  In the same way, Buddhists strive to undo these mental distortions they project onto the world around them, so they can see things as they are.

But what is the source of these distortions?  Ignorance, particularly regarding one’s own self.  As the BBC article shows, people are inherently biased toward themselves.  They form their world-view from limited information and personal experience, and selfish needs regardless of whether that’s accurate or not.  An attack on one’s views, even if they’re wrong, is an attack on one’s self.  People crave validation, sometimes even at the expense of truth.

However, if one were to see the limitations of one’s own self, and their own viewpoint, they may be able to break out and consider possibilities they never considered before.  That is the first step toward wisdom.

¹ I mention the Japanese word here only because you do here it mentioned in Japanese conversation every now and again.  “People are bonnō” and other such comments.