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Archive for April, 2015

Laser-Shaped Telescopic Glitter Clouds

Thursday, April 30th, 2015

No. It’s not an episode of My Little Pony. It’s an actual thing. A NASA thing:

In the future, mirror-based space telescopes might be replaced by “glitter clouds” of particles sculpted by laser light, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsi​on Laboratory (JPL). This mind-boggling proposal is called Orbiting Rainbows…

Becky Ferreira, Rainbow Cloud of Space Glitter and Lasers Could Image Alien Worlds [motherboard.vice.com]

Artificial Wisdom

Friday, April 24th, 2015

It’s not Artificial Intelligence that will trigger the singularity; its Artificial Wisdom.

The Big Lesson

Thursday, April 9th, 2015

I have just posted two papers I wrote in college that are at the core of who I am today. I found the papers on an old hard drive I unearthed two years ago [confusion.cc], I’m just getting around to posting them. I think it worth while to explain why they are important, out of the hundreds of papers I wrote. These two papers which are titled, Zen at Walden and Do or do not, there is no try were very early in my college days, in 1997 I think. They aren’t very good as academic papers go, one of them is in fact downright embarrassing but you can’t have one without the other.

Both papers were written for the same class; Study in Eastern Philosophy. The embarrassing one, Zen at Walden, was written halfway through the semester as a midterm paper. My professor gave me an F on this paper. There were almost no marks on the paper itself, just the grade on the last page and a note; “see me.”

When I did visit the professor she told me, basically, that my paper was rubbish. I don’t remember the details of the assignment but the professor said that what I had done was to write a paper which I thought would get me a good grade, I had not tried to learn, or to understand the material, I had tried to understand and learn how to get a passing grade and that was not the assignment.

She gave me a chance to revise the paper, to show that I did understand. But, in the end, I didn’t understand. She gave me the same grade on the revised paper.

Do or Do Not, There is no Try was written in the final days of the same semester, it was my final exam. We were given complete freedom in or final exam, no rules. Some people did demonstrations —I remember one guy, who went by the name Thor, performed a series of Kendo forms and explained how the Eastern martial arts were inexorably linked with Eastern philosophies. I wrote another paper.

This paper was a turning point in my education and in my life. Finding it now is a good chance to reevaluate what I learned.

For the first paper see here [confusion.cc] and for the second paper see here [confusion.cc]

Do or Do Not, There is No Try

Thursday, April 9th, 2015

This is the second of two posts based on papers I turned in for a class on Eastern Philosophy I took in 1997. This is the second paper, the final exam. For the first paper see here [confusion.cc], for the whole story see here [confusion.cc].

Somewhere between eating honey with Pooh and walking the narrow road with Basho I learned something more than eastern philosophy over the last semester. I learned how to live some of the ideals of the traditions we studied. Words spoken by the Dalai Lama now make sense beyond the words themselves. The moon is the moon and the finger the finger. So my final exam is not a retelling of the books we read in the course of the semester but a the answer to a simple question: what did I learn in Philosophy 260?

Why Worry?

“If it is fixable, then there is no need to worry. If not, there is no benefit to worrying.” These are the words of the Dalai Lama, but the sentiment is familiar to everyone: “Don’t sweat the small stuff”, “Don’t worry, be happy” and a million other turns of phrase. Though I have heard them before I have never really listened to them, until I myself said them.

…About halfway through the semester a friend of mine was in the process of getting a loan for a new car. She was hysterical about everything. Every little detail she worried over, completely stressing her out. She worried so much she was making herself sick. All I could say to her was don’t worry, if you are going to get the loan there is no need to worry, if not then worrying will only make you sick, not help you get the car. Stop. Hold the press! I sounded like some dime store version of the Dalai Lama. But, the more I thought about it the more it finally made since, in a way I can’t explain, and over the next few weeks I repeated if to myself when I worried. I works. It released me from the prison of my worry and calmed me down. The worry didn’t always go away completely but the words became a sort of mantra. My own litany against worry, like the Litany Against Fear which Paul Atreides used in Dune:

“I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

A practical example of how I applied my litany against worry is the written exam for this class. Given that the written exam forms 25% of our grade I worried about it long before the semester drew to a close. Normally I would have tied myself into mental knots worrying about my grade, zapping my concentration and rendering studying a vicious cycle. Applying the Dalai Lama’s words I strove to quit worrying about the grade, I reread the materials and reviewed our class discussions. I spent some time away from studying, spending the last hours before the test discussing other things over coffee with friends, just relaxing. When all was said and done, I got a better grade on the written exam than on the paper I spent so much time on worrying about late into the night.

The Bisy Backson

What is a Bisy Backson? In The Tao of Pooh a Backson is described as a person who goes through life always searching but never finding happiness. The Backson is so obsessed with saving time that they have none to spend and in the end has wasted all their time. This sounds familiar.

I go to school to learn so I can get a good job and make money. Why? So I can buy things to save me time so I can enjoy life. But in the meantime I waste the here and now. Trying to get ahead I take too many classes and work as many hours as I can in between. A quad-shot latte to start the morning is a necessity and it’s never shared over conversation and camaraderie. Drink it on the way to class. Finish the next assignment while eating lunch. More lectures and a six-hour shift. Sleep and repeat. Not allowing any time for myself, for life.

On the other hand I see people I go to school with who are wasting their money, or their parents money. They seem to be here to party. Their textbooks always fetch the highest trade-in at the end of the semester, mint condition, never used. Halfway through the this semester I sought middle ground. I missed, too far to the fun side and I know it. Last year I burnt out because I never did anything but work and study.

Somewhere between the Backson and the Hedonist is a better path that I will aim for. Hopefully I can find this path between the two extremes and walk it to success and happiness.

The Finger and the Moon

One koan from or studies of Zen this semester took on greater importance to me, the koan of the finger and the moon:

All instruction is but a finger pointing to the moon; and those whose gaze is fixed upon the finger will never see beyond. Even let him catch sight of the moon, and still he cannot see its beauty.

At first I dismissed this as just another formulation of the familiar “missing the forest for the moon”, and a silly one at that, how could anyone mistake a finger for the moon it points too? But that’s not quite it. Slowly over this semester I have come to understand the koan through my experience with our mid-term paper. I mistook the grade for the assignment.

Instead of trying to learn something I focused on writing a paper that would get me a good grade. I tried to impress my teacher instead of writing a paper. In doing so I fixed my gaze upon the grade and by fixating on it I lost sight of the assignment. It was only after being called out on this by two of my classmates outside of class that I was able to see the mistake I had made. Only now, too late, have I understood that the finger is a necessary tool but that it is the moon itself that is the point. Now I am applying this lesson and a paper on what I learned rather than just writing an “A” paper.

The Big Lesson…

The biggest lesson I have learned in class this semester was not something I got from a book or a poem or a play or a movie. The biggest lesson I learned came from myself. When I registered for this class I anticipated an easy ride. Because I had already taken Religions of the World and Eastern Religions I assumed I would sit back, read a few books, write a few papers and collect an easy A.

Wrong.

My problem was I started the semester with no intention of putting into class anything like the amount of effort that is necessary to learn. At the start of the semester it was clearly stated that we could only take away from this class what we put into this class. Other teachers have said it before yet I always did well even when my effort was less than what it should have been. This semester it caught up with me. I put minimal effort in and will get a minimal grade out.

This is a lesson more valuable to my life than any lesson I have learned in any other class. It is a lesson more valuable than any skill or facts I could learn. More than knowledge it is wisdom. Wisdom I will remember for the rest of my life: don’t ever do anything half-assed, do it right or don’t do it at all. As Yoda said in The Empire Strikes Back, “Do or do not, there is no try.”

In closing

In closing this examination, of myself for this class, I can say that Study of Eastern Thinking has been one of the most informative experiences in my life. One that I hope will be a transformative experience in my life. I have learned simple lessons; about worrying, about losing sight of what matters. Lessons that I hope I can apply to all aspects of my life now and in the future.

As with the essence of Zen, what I have learned I cannot express in words in a way that will make anyone understand. It is not a to be summed up in a word or a phrase. It is a feeling, and feelings must be felt to be understood. I am satisfied that I have, only now in the end, accomplished the objectives of this class, from it to it and everything in between.

Zen at Walden Pond

Thursday, April 9th, 2015

This is the first of two posts from an introduction to eastern philosophy class I took in 1997. I’m only posting this paper to tell a story about my own path to learning. The paper itself is not good, in fact it is quite bad. at best repetitive, poorly organized and altogether lackluster —showing no real insight into the material. For the second paper see here [confusion.cc], for the whole story see here [confusion.cc].

Zen. Simplicity. The feeling of simplicity i feel when reading Zen brings back memories of other writings. Simplicity connected not with a monastery in the mountains of Japan, but in the reflections of life on the shores of Walden Pond in Massachusetts. Life on Walden Pond imparted to me the same feelings of simplicity in living that Maura O’Holloran wrote about in Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind. Simplicity that is in the core of Zen. Simplicity of life living at Walden Pond. Walden helps me to understand Zen by relating to a more western perspective.

Henry David Thoreau’s Life on Walden Pond is a record of his everyday life during two years he lived there, alone, in a simple house he built in with his own hands. Zen is, Master Choa-chou said, “everyday thought.” Walden can be seen as the diary of Thoreau’s search for his version of enlightenment, living simply in the woods. In much the same manner as Thoreau, O’Halloran recorded her personal journey to enlightenment in the letters and diary that make up Pure Heard, Enlightened Mind. By documenting everyday experiences both authors allowed me to glimpse their personal journey down the path of life.

Living in Toshoji Temple O’Holloran learned the things no book could teach her. She learned the lessons of life, practical yet simple. The same lessons that Thoreau learned on the shores of Walden and recorded in his writing. “Walden, in short, is designed as a practical course in the liberation of the reader” (1676), writes Hershel Walker in The Norton Anthology of American Literature. In Walden Thoreau offers his everyday thoughts and experiences to the reader. Within its pages I shared in his journey to enlightenment. The idea that liberation comes through everyday living is summed up in one word in Japanese, “jiriki”. Jiriki refers to a persons attempt to “achieve enlightenment through his or her own efforts (Lindley). Jirkiki to me implies that to reach enlightenment we must learn from personal experience as opposed to what we can learn from outside sources, like books and people.

In Essays in Zen Buddhism, D. T. Sazuki says “Zen in its essence is the art of seeing into the nature of one’s own being, and it points the way from bondage to freedom” (13). In Walden Thoreau says, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essentials facts of life” (75). Thoreau went to live simply. Alone at Walden Pond, without the distractions of others, he could look within himself. The simplicity of life on the pond allowed him to discard the bondage of society, peal back the layers and reveal himself.

To reach the Buddhist goal of becoming one with everything and gaining freedom from the bondage of life, O’Holloran struggled with the idea of “mu.” Mu is the Japanese word for nothing. O’Halloran concludes that she must “embrace mu”. To embrace mu a person must become one with everything. Abandon your ego and explore yourself outside the complexity of society. In modern society, many people have walled their true self behind the complexity of conformity. Thoreau left society because as he said “the life of a civilized people is an institution, in which the life of the individual is to a great extent absorbed” (26). The institution forces most people to conform in each situation, adding a layer of complexity to them. The child whose clothing does not conform is pressured into buying the cool cloths, pressured into conformity. Else he is shunned by his peers, and made an outcast of society.

Our society grows more complex each day. Everywhere we look a new gizmo that promises to make our lives easier, in fact makes it more complex. My world is the ever-changing world of computers, the epitome of complexity, I must spend much of my time learning the new technology in order to continue to use the computer. Because of the complexity of my life the simplicity of Thoreau’s life, on the shores of Walden appeals to me.

Thoreau reduced his life to only the essentials, Hershel Parker, commented of Walden, that “[Thoreau’s] life became a refusal to live by the materialistics values of this neighbors” (1679). Thoreau himself said “I have three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, I threw them out in disgust” (30). The limestone on the desk is like the many things that I buy in a vain attempt to fill my world with beauty, but only clutter my life. Over and over I buy new things to put in my house to make it more appealing. Thoreau’s last of things is what made his life simple. The simplicity made his life appealing.

Thoreau abandoned the object of his life, like the limestone that were not necessities. Mumon, a Zen master said, “the treasures of the house do not come in by the front door.” The “things” that we bring into our house unnecessarily are just fluff, useless. Thoreau said “bare feet are older than shoes, and [one] can made them do” (19). A quote in The Little Zen Companion says “I threw my cup away when is saw a child drinking from his hand at the trough” (133). Both the shoes and the cup are items that perform as specific job, one that we can perform without them. They are examples of the fluff that my life has become filled with. It is the fluff that hides the true treasure of the house. The true treasure that enters the house when we enter, and leaves when we leave. Simple treasure that are always with us.

Our treasures have always been inside of us, but we have filled or lives with complexity and hidden them. Thoreau simplified his life on the shores of Walden Pond, by removing the materialistics treasure, leaving only himself, his treasures. In his writings I glimpsed an undiluted look into his journey to find himself. The simplicity of his life is a beacon of hope in the complexity of my world. Walden left me with the belief that a simple uncluttered life leads us to a simple uncluttered mind. A mind in which we may experience our true selves. O’Halloran, Suzuki, and all other Zen masters an teachers I have read have only help to water seeds planted by Walden. Thoreau likely never new what Zen was but his insights into life would have made him a master of Zen to me. His words taught me the essence of Zen before I know what Zen was, and he continues to help me understand the Zen I read.

The bibliography is missing, but as I still have most of these books, except the Norton Anthology. Here is what I have: