Threefold Purity

A couple of nights ago, I picked up The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom and read a few more pages where I had last left off. The two chapters I read addressed the Mahayana Buddhist idea of the Six Perfections, especially generosity. It seemed timely:

Here a Bodhisattva, who courses towards enlightenment, and has stood firmly in the perfection of giving, gives a gift not for the sake of a limited number of beings, but, on the contrary, for the sake of all beings…

…His perfection of wisdom consists in that he sets up the notion that everything is made of illusion, and in that he gets at no giver, recipient, or gift…

…It is just as if a clever magician, or magician’s apprentice, were to conjure up a great crowd of people, and give food to the hungry, and thing upon thing to those in need of it. What do you think,… has this magician, or magician’s apprentice given anything to anyone?

Giving Thanks

Today is clear and unseasonably warm again, but yesterday, Thanksgiving Day, was a day of cold driving rain that lasted from before we woke until after we went to sleep. This made our driving up to and around Connecticut for the holiday much more difficult this year. What would normally be four and a half hours of relatively easy driving became more than six hours of white knuckle driving. And though I drive less than once a month, I feel compelled to comment on the apparent incompetence of so many other drivers, particularly their reliance on their brakes. It seems that many drivers, when not quite sure what to do in a situation, step on their brakes. Over and over again, the car ahead of me would would hit its brakes and slow significantly for no more reason than that the rain had gotten harder. To take it slower is fine, but slow down smoothly, easily, and predictably. At least as often as not, stomping on the brakes is not the right reaction, and given my personal impatience, it only spurs me to drive more aggressively to get around the timid, inept driver ahead of me. It’s unpleasant for all concerned.

In the late afternoon, driving on I-84 through Hartford from my mother’s house to my aunt’s, there was less traffic than there had been coming up from New York in the morning, and I was, fortunately, driving less aggressively. In the walled section of highway that goes through downtown Hartford, we were in the left lane with another car one lane to the right and about a car length ahead of us. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a third car speeding by a couple of lanes to the right. As it got past us and the car to our immediate right, this third card lost control and began sliding across the highway to its left, in front of us.

My mind became very clear and fast. I saw that the car was going hit the wall to our left ahead of us, so I got ready and waited for what would happen after the car hit the wall. I couldn’t react until I knew how it would come off of the wall. While considering the various possibilities, I actually thought to myself, “This is taking forever. Come on, hit the wall already.” As it happened, the car didn’t hit the wall as hard as I expected (it didn’t seem to be very badly damaged), and it only bounced out enough to obstruct my lane, but without enough space to pass between it and the wall. At the same time, the car to our right was slowing down, so I couldn’t move to the right. I slammed on the brakes to try to get behind that car anyway, turned the wheel and started to skid to the right. I had slowed enough that I didn’t hit the still slowing car that had been to our right. I was halfway into the center lane, pointing more right than forward, and skidding sideways. I released the brakes, shot behind the car and around it to its right, and righted our car. We had gotten over two lanes, and were settled in the right lane, driving smoothly, safely past the wrecked car and the still slowing car in the middle lane.

The whole thing took two or three seconds. My wife wasn’t quite sure what had happened (she only became shaken a couple of minutes later), and Olive was still sleeping peacefully in the back seat. I only felt an adrenaline rush a few minutes later myself. I wasn’t quite sure how things had worked out, but they had. And they could have gone so much worse. The residual anger I felt (because for me, there’s always anger) was not at the car that had been driving far too fast, lost control, and almost killed us all, but at the car in the center lane that couldn’t come up with anything better to do than slow down. It didn’t shift lanes to the right to get away from the car hitting the wall and to give me space to maneuver. Instead, it just automatically slowed and down and guided me toward the unfolding accident. Had the car that hit the wall bounced out into the center lane, I’m sure the car in the middle lane would have just jammed on its brakes and skidded into it, never considering the possibility of shifting lanes to the right.

When you’re driving, remember that your brakes don’t automatically make things safe. Using them can cause you to skid and lose control of your car, and sometimes slowing down is exactly the wrong thing to do. There seems to be an ingrained wish when things go wrong to just stop the situation, but brakes don’t do that–they don’t allow you to disengage from the emergency. To properly respond to an emergency, you have to engage in it and consider all options, rather than wishing it away. You must accept the reality of your situation and respond appropriately.

The Great Pathetic Joy

I’ve been reading Edward Conze’s translation of The Perfection of Wisdom in Twenty-Five Thousand Lines, a far longer and more elaborate discussion of emptiness than The Heart Sutra. In a section describing the thought of enlightenment–the selflessness that makes ordinary generosity, patience, discipline, exertion, meditation, and wisdom infinitely more effective–there are lists (as is often the case in Buddhist texts) of the practices and experiences to be developed by the bodhisattva. These lists include a host of exotic-sounding practices (including “the four trances, the four Unlimited, the four formless attainments, the eight deliverances, the nine attainments of successive stations, and the nine unlovely perceptions”), some of which I’ve heard of (and perhaps even tried) and some of which I haven’t. At the end of the last list, there are these four generally more comprehensible-sounding experiences: “the great friendliness, the great compassion, the great pathetic joy, and the great evenmindedness.” I say generally more comprehensible-sounding, because I have some idea of what’s meant by friendliness, compassion, and even-mindedness, but “the great pathetic joy” is a little harder for me to parse.

My first instinct was to check the dictionary entry for “pathetic” to see if there’s more to that word than I’m familiar with, and it turns out there is. According to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, pathetic comes from the Greek pathetos, meaning “liable to suffer.” That makes some sense to me, though perhaps not others. After all, how can there be a great joy that is liable to suffering? That question is a powerful and pithy indication of the difference between Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism.

The Hinayana notion of enlightenment (typically referred to as Nirvana) is the cessation of suffering. This is generally understood to be a personal attainment, with little concern for the suffering of others (though someone attaining this enlightenment would no longer cause suffering for others, which is no small achievement). Mahayana practice begins with the insight of no-self that is the basis of the Hinayana cessation of personal suffering, and radically expands its implications in an attempt to liberate all sentient beings from suffering. Where the Hinayana view of no-self is taken to mean that there is no self to suffer, the Mahayana view is taken to mean that there is no self that can be separated from suffering. The primary fact of emptiness is indivisibility. Therefore, any joy separate from suffering is illusory (as are all apparently separate entities according to prajnaparamita). The joy of enlightenment isn’t the absence or opposite of suffering–it’s a joy that contains suffering. It is, indeed, the great pathetic joy.

I Am Jigme Tsöndrü

Last weekend, I took my Refuge Vow. So for a week now, I’ve been a Kagyu Buddhist named Jigme Tsöndrü–the name is Tibetan (Jigme means “without fear,” Tsöndrü means “exertion“). I decided to take my Refuge Vow six or eight months ago (around the time I shifted from saying things like “The Buddhists believe…,” to saying things like “It seems to me that…”), and it felt like an obvious step. Yet as often happens with me (given my incredibly poorly developed ability to accurately predict my emotions in just about any situation), I had a much stronger reaction than I expected.

At the end of this week, I got a promotion. I’ve already been doing the work of my new title for a month or two, but its being official carries more meaning. To this, I’ve had very little reaction. My practice has led me to see through so much of what I had been attached to, to see the illusory nature of, well, everything. That is, after all, the aspiration of my vow: to eschew the comforts of accomplishments, possessions, or diversions; to be awake to all that is happening, without distraction or distinction.

The cumulative effect of this is that I’m now, without qualification or caveat, an adult. I’m not the kid in his twenties that I still see in the mirror. Nor am I the teenager with poor impulse control and a grudging attitude toward anything I don’t want to do who has filled my iTunes library and left all of my chores undone. And I’m certainly not the much younger child I see looking out at the world from deep inside. All of these selves, and any others I may develop in their place, are illusory. They are all attempts at defense, attempts to ground myself in something, and they only lead to further suffering. There is just the present and my undeniable interdependence with it. I can no longer feign separateness, pretend it’s not my concern, or deny the effects of my actions on everything around me.

This is a hard truth to integrate. For my part, it’s not the truth I wanted, but I’m convinced that it’s the truth nonetheless. I set out (for reasons that still aren’t clear to me, by the way) to find the reality of reality, and I won’t set it aside just because it says that I won’t enjoy an afterlife of endless frolic with all of the dogs I’ve ever had. That, I suppose, is how I’ve earned my new first name. Still I suffer. I accept the Buddha’s truth, but I don’t yet act in accord with the reality that it indicates. I haven’t renounced this illusory self for which I now feel so sorry. I’m still capable of taking offense, both on my behalf and on behalf of those I care about (which are really the same thing). In fact, stripped of the illusion that the suffering of others isn’t mine as well, I find the world around me that much more uncomfortable. And it’s by living up to my last name that I’ll see through that clinging.


“Just for fun,” Marijo posted a brief comment on my thoughts about form and emptiness. Brief though that comment was, it was brilliant, and it opened the discussion out in so many different directions that I couldn’t adequately respond in a comment. In fact, I don’t know that I’ll be able to adequately respond here, but let’s see if I can catch at least some of the insights to which she pointed.

Marijo starts by rightly recognizing my use of space in the discussion of emptiness as no more than a metaphor.

I like your explanation of the double negative of emptiness through the analogy of space.

This is a subtle insight. Our usual conception of space, particularly as I described it, could easily be confused with emptiness. But in Buddhist terms, emptiness means to be empty of duality or concept. Space, as a conception, isn’t emptiness. In his commentary on the Heart Sutra, while discussing dharmas (the smallest particles of experience–not to be confused with the Dharma), Red Pine explains the difference between space and emptiness.

When we establish a dharma that either exists or does not exist, we create a separation in time, in space, and in our minds. Emptiness is not space but the absence of space. Dharmas represent the creation of space, the conjuring of division into our awareness. Emptiness represents the removal of that space or division. Thus, where there is emptiness, which is everywhere, there are not dharmas. Dharmas as self-existent or non-existent entities are fictions. Dharmas as emptiness are real. Thus, the separation of dharmas from emptiness is impossible.

Marijo then goes on to describe the birth of form.

In thinking about form, I usually find it helpful to think of an activity–our thinking of things forms them, gives them form, makes them formed things.

Like space, the term “form” is often used without being carefully considered. It might seem to be the very essence of a thing, but she rightly recognizes that it can be very helpful to consider it as an activity, to see form (and thus emptiness) as a verb rather than a noun. Edward Conze offers this perspective on emptiness as a noun.

It may either be described as an object without a subject, or a subject without an object. When viewed as an object without a subject, it is called “Suchness.” When viewed from the subject-side, the transcendental reality is known as “Thought-only.”

Using the notions of subject and object maintains a subtle, though incomplete, notion of duality. The step that would take us beyond duality from there is one suggested by a friend of mine from class (and echoed by Marijo), which is the metaphor of form or emptiness not as a noun (either subject or object) but as a verb without subject or object. There’s still a residue of concept there, but the difficulty in trying to conceptualize that is probably very much like the difficulty we have in trying to grasp emptiness.

And in his discussion of the five skandhas (which he translates as form, sensation, perception, memory, and consciousness–the five “pillars” that together we mistake for a self according to the Buddha), Red Pine elaborates on Marijo’s claim that “our thinking of things forms them.”

But if we stop to consider these five pillars that support our awareness, it becomes clear that the Heart Sutra presents them to us backward in order to make them easier to grasp for those whose understanding of reality begins with the material world. In terms of the world as we actually experience it, we begin with the skandha of consciousness and then extrapolate the memory of previous states of consciousness from which we extrapolate perceptions from which we extrapolate sensations from which we extrapolate an objectified world of form.

Which brings the discussion back to form, and Marijo emphasizes the difficulty inherent in it.

The difficulty lies in that the form things are thereby given is the form of an object–something unified yet, in itself, unrelated to other things, independent, and therefore non-composed, and therefore indescribeable.

Red Pine describes form, or rupa, similarly.

Rupa is not the material world. It is simply the outside world, in contrast to what we presume is an inside world. Thus, the word rupa does not actually refer to a concrete object but to the appearance of an object. Form is like a mask that cannot be removed without revealing its own illusory identity. Such a mask might be worn by a table or a sunset or a number or a coin (the rupee), or a universe. Whether such things are real is not relevant. The important thing is that they make up a presumed outside to a presumed inside.

I hope I haven’t done too much violence to Marijo’s reasoning with these elaborations and parallels.

There’s Nothing Like a Good Translation Controversy

The portion of the Heart Sutra that we’re discussing in class next week reads:

Therefore, Shariputra, since the bodhisattvas have no attainment, they abide by means of prajnaparamita. Since there is no obscuration of mind, there is no fear. They transcend falsity and attain complete nirvana.

The end of that section sounds wrong to me. First, if bodhisattvas have no attainment, how or why would they attain complete nirvana? Perhaps this is one of the paradoxes with which Buddhism is rife. But then there’s also the deeper question of why bodhisattvas, practitioners of the Mahayana, would seek the Hinayana attainment of nirvana. After all, the bodhisattva vow is specifically not to attain nirvana (which, as the Madhyamaka school demonstrates is not separate from samsara, with both being empty) until all sentient beings have done so.

In other translations of the Heart Sutra, Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche renders that last line as, “Completely transcending false views, they go to the ultimate of nirvana,” and Geshe Thupten Jinpa, translating for the Dalai Lama, has, “…by going completely beyond error, they will reach the end of nirvana.” These translations point, the latter more clearly, at bodhisattvas going beyond nirvana. Red Pine, translating a shorter and, he claims (convincingly from my uninformed perspective), earlier version of the Heart Sutra, offers this translation of that section

Therefore, Shariputra, without attainment,
bodhisattvas take refuge in Prajnaparamita
and live without walls of the mind.
Without walls of the mind and thus without fears,
they see through delusions and finally nirvana.

And he offers this discussion of that last line (“viparyasa atikranto nishtha nirvanah,” or “they see through delusions and finally nirvana”):

Since this sutra is a critique of the views of the Sarvastivadins in particular and other early Buddhist sects in general, Avalokiteshvara includes under “delusions” not only the four views of the mundane world but also the four views of those early sects that maintained nirvana was permanent, pleasurable, self-existent, and pure. Thus, bodhisattvas not only see through (atikranto) delusions concerning the existence of sansara, they also see through delusions concerning the existence of nirvana. But this is not all. Bodhisattvas also see through delusions concerning the non-existence of nirvana, for existence and non-existence are terms in a dialectic that does not apply to what is beyond all duality.

Several copies of the longer version of the Heart Sutra add the verb prapta (attain) at the end of the phase nishtha nirvana (finally nirvana). Conze also included it in his Sanskrit edition 1948/1957 (cf. Buddhist Wisdom Books), but he deleted it in his second edition of 1967 (cf. Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies). Other translators and commentators, either aware of this variant or thinking it must be implied, have taken this phrase to mean something equivalent to “finally attain nirvana.” But this would amount to the attainment of something that cannot be attained and would contradict Avalokiteshvara’s earlier statement in line 20 that there is “no knowledge, no attainment and no non-attainment.” To avoid this problem, I have read both viparyasa (delusion) and nishtha-nirvana (finally nirvana) as objects of the verb atikranto (see through), which is allowed by the vagaries of Sanskrit grammar in the absence of prapta. Thus, bodhisattvas do not reach or attain nirvana but overcome all delusions, including those that concern the ultimate goal of nirvana, namely, views that see nirvana as either permanent or not permanent, pleasurable or not pleasurable, self-existent or not self-existent, pure or not pure. Nirvana is simply the final delusion. Thus, Mahayana sutras never tire of telling us that bodhisattvas do not attain nirvana and even avoid it, that their goal is elsewhere, namely the liberation of all beings. This is also the view of the Perfection of Wisdom in Twenty-five Thousand Lines, which states that while bodhisattvas lead others to nirvana, nirvana itself is a dream or delusion. And in Chapter Two of the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha tells Shariputra and the other arhans seeking to become bodhisattvas that the nirvana they have attained is really but an imaginary oasis on the road to buddhahood.

I find this compelling. Do you?

Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form

Red Pine has this to say on the line “form is emptiness and emptiness is form” in his translation of and commentary on The Heart Sutra:

That form is is empty was one of the Buddha’s earliest and most frequent pronouncements. But in the light of Prajnaparamita, form is not simply empty, it is so completely empty, it is emptiness itself, which turns out to be the same as form itself.

The logic of this, which has become the most famous statement in Mahayana Buddhism, goes like this: Form, or any other entity of the mind, is defined by the mind and exists only because we claim it exists. The only thing that exists, in this case, is our definition of form. Form itself is empty of anything that could be called self-existent. Whatever we use to define form, it is dependent on something else. Thus, the essential nature of form is emptiness. But emptiness is simply another name for reality–not just a part of reality, for reality has no parts, but all of reality–though neither can reality be considered to be a whole. The essential nature of reality is that it is indivisible, or empty of anything self-existent. But if form is equivalent to emptiness, or the indivisible fabric of reality, then emptiness must also be equivalent to form. Thus, Avalokiteshvara goes beyond the understanding of early Buddhists, who understood that form is empty, and surprises Shariputra with the statement ’emptiness is form.’ Avalokiteshvara turns Shariputra’s understanding of the Abhidharma upside-down and tells him that in the light of wisdom the seamless fabric of reality is equivalent to any attempt to separate reality into parts, including parts, such as form, that are attempts to account for all of reality, as we experience it. The absence of anything self-existent is the true nature of all that we experience, however distorted that experience might be by the matrix of our minds. But it is also the true nature of reality.

This, then, is the hub around which this sutra turns, the equation that puts an end to the dualistic conception of reality. The problem that arises when we reflect on our experience is that we reflect on our experience. We think, therefore we are. And once we are, we are in trouble, forever divided by what we use to define our existence. In analyzing the elements of this particular definition of self-existence, namely the Five Skandhas, Avalokiteshvara sees that they are empty of anything permanent, pure, or inherent; they are empty of anything real. They are empty as a group, and they are empty individually. They are so completely empty, we might be tempted to say that they do not exist. But we can’t say that they do not exist, because they exist as delusions. And we can’t say they do not not exist, because they are completely empty. Thus, as used by Avalokiteshvara, and by Mahayana Buddhists in general, the word ’emptiness’ does not mean nothingness. It is a double negative that stops short of establishing a positive. Emptiness means indivisibility.

Something that is empty of self-existence is inseparable from everything else, including emptiness. All separations are delusions. But if each of the skandhas is one with emptiness, and emptiness is one with each of the skandhas, then everything occupies the same indivisible space, which is emptiness, and the same indivisible time, which is also emptiness, and the same indivisible mind, which is emptiness again. Everything is empty, and empty is everything. Avalokiteshvara denies all views regarding the skandhas that would regard any of them as real by telling us that ‘form is emptiness.’ But he also denies all views that would regard any of them as annihilated by telling us that ’emptiness is form.’ Neither do the skandhas exist, nor do they not exist. What we are left with is a koan: ‘form is emptiness and emptiness is form.’

Tempting as it may be to dismiss things like this as Sophistic nonsense, I’ve found, the longer I’ve studied and practiced Buddhism, that what at first looks like the ramblings of a particularly precocious, but nonetheless stoned, teenager will yield increasingly profound insight upon increasingly careful contemplation. How can we say of something that neither does it exist, nor does it not exist? Consider space at either the gross level of cosmological objects or the fine level of sub-atomic particles.

Think first of the gross level. It’s pretty easy for most moderns to grasp that our solar system is floating, with vast expanses of space around and between the objects of which it’s composed. There is, for instance, our planet with its atmosphere (and some miscellaneous detritus at various levels of orbit) and, tens of thousands of miles away, the moon. Does the space between the edge of our atmosphere and the moon exist? Since it’s empty space, a vacuum or void, we can’t claim that it exists, but at the same time, since our atmosphere doesn’t touch the moon–something separates them–we can’t claim that it doesn’t exist either.

And zooming in through the earth’s components (its atmosphere, oceans, crust mantle, core, etc.) to the fine level, it’s not much harder to imagine sub-atomic particles floating in a similar way in that same space. In fact, at that level, there’s even less floating in even more overwhelming space. So space not only surrounds at the gross level, but it also pervades at the fine level. And at that fine level, we’re starting to find that those sub-atomic particles themselves–composed, it seems, of quarks, which are in turn composed, perhaps, of vibrating strings of energy, which are themselves composed of we may never know what–are more like space than like something solid, which suggests that space–which doesn’t quite exist or quite not exist–surrounds, pervades, and even composes our physical world.

This may still seem like precious, Sophistic nonsense, but it seems to me that there’s naught but emptiness. All else is only delusive conception.

Let the Backlash Begin

There are probably more annoying things than being hectored about African development by a wealthy Irish rock star in a cowboy hat, but I can’t think of one at the moment.

And so begins Paul Theroux‘s refutation of Bono’s loud and ultimately misguided bid to become Africa’s savior, which has since gotten him named, with Bill Gates and his wife, Time‘s “Person of the Year.” As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I think Theroux has a very clear understanding of what’s wrong with Africa and why efforts like Bono’s (and the Gateses’) can only make the situation worse. This latest piece is probably about the clearest distillation of that argument, and unlike so much other criticism of efforts to improve the world, it actually offers useful suggestions of what might be done instead. It’s well worth the five minutes it takes to read, and I think it would be great if this is what most people were vaguely aware of, rather than of Bono’s and the Gateses’ efforts.

As I read this piece, I returned to a thought I’ve had about what the difference between liberal and conservative or right and left has become. Based on the classical definitions of liberal and conservative, it’s difficult to phrase a definition of, say, the political right that encompasses both what are now called economic conservatives and what are now called social or moral conservatives. Assuming philisophical consistency, those groups shouldn’t be able to find any common ground on the issue of the government’s role in its citizens’ lives. And there are similar philosophical inconsistencies to be found within the political left. It seems to me that the issue that serve to clearly distinguish right from left, as those terms are currently used, is responsibility. The right believes that people suffer only as a result of their own choices and that they should, while the left believes that people suffer only as a result of what others have done to them and that they shouldn’t. Those two views have profound implications for the way that their holders see the world and how they seek to solve what they see as problems. Those on the left will see any suffering as something that the government must seek to redress, while those on the right will see any suffering as something that the government must prevent from being redressed.

For example, if you really listen to so-called pro-life advocates, it becomes clear that what they really want with respect to abortion, birth control, and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases is that people not be able to have sex without being subject to all of the consequences that might entail. This may be based on the religious belief that sex should only be for procreation, but it’s more sweeping than that. Similarly, it’s important to so-called free market advocates that the poor are poor only because they haven’t done what it was within their power to do not to be poor. These two positions couldn’t be reconciled if the pro-life stance were motivated by concern for the unborn child, but they’re perfectly compatible if it’s motivated by a desire that no one be spared the consequences of their actions, regardless of the influence, direct or indirect, that others may have had on those actions. To provide or allow birth control, abortions, or welfare would be to upset the natural order of things, to distort the proper functioning of decision and consequence.

Along these same lines, many have pointed out the apparent inconsistency between the political right’s stance on birth control and abortion on the one hand and its stance on the death penalty on the other. But, again, viewed from the perspective of decisions and their consequences, these stances are perfectly consistent. Given any more than a cursory glance, the death penalty has no deterrent effect, and it certainly can’t lead to rehabilitation or redemption. And if the advocates of the death penalty are honest, they’ll admit that execution isn’t especially satisfactory as vengeance. Yet crucially, the rote, grim enforcement of the death penalty in the case of capital offenses, however pointless in practical terms, ensures that the perpetrators bear the full consequences of their actions, just as unwanted pregnancies, the children born of them, and sexually transmitted diseases ensure that those engaging in casual sex bear the full consequences of their actions. I don’t claim that adherents of the political right are conscious of this stance. Rather, I imagine that this is a subconscious basis of their worldview that finds expression across the range of the issues upon which they take a stance.

Opposed to this belief in the moral necessity of personal consequences is the political left’s apparent belief that suffering in any form is itself evil and must be prevented or redressed regardless of its cause and regardless of the implications of intervention. This, I believe, is the essential difference in view between the otherwise incoherent collections of ideas and followers known as the right and left in our current political discourse. This basis of the left’s thinking is nowhere better illustrated than by the position on African development that Theroux critiques:

When Malawi’s minister of education was accused of stealing millions of dollars from the education budget in 2000, and the Zambian president was charged with stealing from the treasury, and Nigeria squandered its oil wealth, what happened? The simplifiers of Africa’s problems kept calling for debt relief and more aid. I got a dusty reception lecturing at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation when I pointed out the successes of responsible policies in Botswana, compared with the kleptomania of its neighbors. Donors enable embezzlement by turning a blind eye to bad governance, rigged elections and the deeper reasons these countries are failing.

…Mr. Gates wants to send computers to Africa–an unproductive not to say insane idea. I would offer pencils and paper, mops and brooms: the schools I have seen in Malawi need them badly. I would not send more teachers. I would expect Malawians themselves to stay and teach. There ought to be an insistence in the form of a bond, or a solemn promise, for Africans trained in medicine and education at the state’s expense to work in their own countries.

That Bill Gates–a bumbling software engineer and a rapacious and clumsy businessman–is an inept philanthropist should come as no surprise. And I can’t imagine that there’s anything about being a pop star that would give one any special insight into the issues of poverty and economic development. I only hope that their vanity doesn’t do too much more damage to a continent that has already endured centuries of devastation at the hands of ignorant and self-interested outsiders. My fervent wish would be that both and Bill Gates and Bono read Theroux’s Dark Star Safari (or, better, that they take the whole of the journey that it describes), and that they and Africa profit enormously from the effort.

My own understanding is that cause and effect, choice and consequence, or karma, in Buddhist terms, is of primary importance. However, the causes of a particular situation and the effects arising from a particular choice are far more vast and more complicated than is generally appreciated. We have no hope of clearly seeing the host of causes and effects of a situation if we view that situation through our prejudices and self-interest. It’s here that Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s admonition that “before we cultivate compassion, we first need to understand how to be properly” is applicable. Charity motivated by ego rather than wisdom (called “idiot compassion” by Buddhists), like any effort motivated by ego rather than wisdom, will be ineffective. No action (or inaction) is purely or abstractly good or bad. The virtue of a particular choice depends entirely on the situation in which it’s made. Just doing something, no matter how dire the circumstances, isn’t inherently preferable to doing nothing.

National Geographic

I did my talk in class last night, and I think the final verdict is that I write well, but don’t read nearly so well.

Prior to class, as I was sitting outside the shrine room, I saw a copy of the latest issue of National Geographic, which has a great article about Buddhism. Unfortunately, the article is only available in the magazine, but there’s a multimedia supplement on their Web site. The first picture after the title image of the “Call of Compassion” section was taken at the New York Shambhala Center, where I study and practice. You can see some of my classmates, though it’s odd for me to see them dressed up.