Are NGO leaders our new Gurus?

A familiar sight in NRI Desi progressive circles is the yearly visit by an NGO dignitary, the Magsaysay award winners and their like. The visiting activist tours the US and Canada, lecturing to sold out crowds in university towns like Boston and Berkeley.

Each event has a typical logic — it starts with a litany of complaints about the Indian political system (don’t get me wrong, our system is incredibly corrupt and venal, but I am more interested in how this commonplace insight has been ritualized), and then how the activist and his fellow warriors have battled the forces of evil, followed by ritualized questions from the audience. Typical question: “How can we help while staying here?”

As far as I am concerned, there is no difference between these ceremonies and more traditional religious events, where a Guru comes and lectures about life and people ask him (its mostly a him) questions about how they can make their life better. In Desi progressive circles, the whole “working for the people” mystique is derived from its association with sacredness, as if karma yoga has been secularized and made into a progressive mantra. At least since Gandhi, the Indian social work ethos has been suffused with religiosity, which isn’t wrong, but what bugs me is the extent to which activism has been ritualized.


Death and Objectivity

The world is like an impression left by a story says the Yoga Vasistha. This world of ours is deeply impermanent. It is less of a ground than we think — one can try to play the scientific trick of trying to recover an objective world from the fleeting impressions obtained by our senses, but we know that tactic is not going to work. None of these eternal scientific laws are going to help; in the long run we are all dead.

More importantly: why cling to this life? Is there something special about this existence that makes one want to continue this for ever and ever? There is no percentage in banking on this world. Here is a thought — we normally think of the fear of death as an affect or emotion, almost instinctual. But, is it not a cognitive attitude as well? Is it not an admission of ignorance, about the true nature of our finiteness?

I have been born in a human form: not a dog, not a deva, it is human this time, independent of any beliefs in reincarnation. What is one to make of that? It is not as if I can just change that whenever I feel like it, can I? It is not as if I can shift my shape or become a rock or something.
There is something non-arbitrary about our current shape and form, but why should that make one conclude that Samsara is the ultimate ground of existence? Where do we get the inference “The world is non-arbitrary → the world is real”? I just do not see that inference.

The quest for objective truth is the cognitive version of the desire for immortality and objectivity is as false a norm as immortality. I am not saying that science will not make it possible for us to live a thousand years — all I am saying is that the human form requires death in order to fully comprehend its finite condition — otherwise you are reifying something that is incomplete.


Why did the Buddha leave his home?

A sensitive young man is brought up in the lap of luxury. He is the favored child of his father, who doesn’t want him to be exposed to the cruel ways of this world. A new father, he goes for a ride with his charioteer, and is exposed to disease and deprivation. What does he do? He goes back home, takes leave of his sleeping wife and child and heads off to the forest, to meditate and to end the cycle of suffering. Six hard years of practice and asceticism later, he strikes gold and is revealed as the Buddha, the Tathagatha, the Enlightened one.

Is it just me or does something not compute? Why would a sensitive man, a royal to boot, flee when he sees disease and deprivation? Why not stay and work for the welfare of his subjects? I know that his father was not a king but the tribal chief of a republic but hopefully you get my point. Furthermore, why did Siddhartha leave his family? It’s not as if his wife and son were fetters (as Prince Siddhartha was supposed to have uttered when he saw his newborn son). No royal personage I know of has had any real childcare responsibilities. When was the last time you saw the Dalai Lama changing diapers?

Twenty five hundred years later, when another young man was subjected to overt discrimination, he did what we expect modern human beings to do, which is to start a political movement. Perhaps the difference between the Buddha and Gandhi was that ancient Indians didnt care about objective or intersubjective knowledge, preferring instead to look inside themselves. That would be the classical stereotype of the Hindu as a navel gazer while westerners are all about understanding and changing the external world. One can’t take this idea seriously either, given what we know about the argumentative traditions in Indian thought, and that the forest communities where the Buddha honed his meditative skills were also intellectual centers.

The sceptic might say that the story is just allegorical, that the scenes of deprivation were not so stark and that the man was not so priveleged. He was just an upper middle class type fleeing responsibilities. I seriously doubt this revisionist scenario since it doesn’t do justice to the existential radicalism of the Buddha. Furthermore, in the Buddha-to-be’s era, the forest was a hotbed of radical experimentation, the Parisian cafe of his time. The Buddha was no recluse, he studied with some of the best teachers of his era and then spent most of his post-Buddha decades living close to cities, where he could talk to other sophisticated thinkers. So the idyllic myth of going away into the wilderness to meditate (The Buddha as Thoreau) does not make any sense either.

I guess what I am trying to say here is that the original gesture (of leaving home) has profound existential import, which prefigures a great deal of the Buddha’s message. It says much about the Buddhist conception of the world (Samsara, to be precise) and what it means to drop Samsara as a whole. How is that even possible? What does it mean for a finite being to say that the very condition of finiteness can be dropped? These are profound questions that are hidden behind the romantic facade of leaving home in the pursuit of truth. It’s a pity that Buddhists rarely talk about the meaning of this gesture.


Meditations on Walmart

A week or so ago, like countless other people, I saw the new documentary on Walmart. As a movie, it leaves much to be desired, though it is definitely in the top tenth percentile of anti-corporate propaganda. To give him credit, the director did a good job of presenting the facts and after a while, the disap pointments mouthed by one ex-employee after the other begin to feel real. But my concern is not so much with the politics of Walmart but rather the metaphysics behind it.
I think that the existential situation when dealing with Walmart and other egregious corporate violaters (or to use an even vaguer term “the system”) was well captured centuries ago in the ancient Indian claims about the terrors of Samsara. What do I mean by that? The original conundrum enfolding us in Samsara is the following: the world as we see and experience is filled with suffering, i.e., everything we do causes suffering in some form or the other. Not a link in the chain is free of corruption. Greed leads to Desire leads to Coveting leads to Grasping and so on (paraphrase of Buddhist scheme, ask your local Lama for the details) and nothing seems to be capable of alleviating this problem. Even if you try some local solutions — lead a more ethical life, for example, whatever that might mean — the inertial of the global suffering laden world is bound to drag you down. So how is one to get out of this hellhole when it seems as if there is an entire system that infiltrates the air your breathe and the water your drink? Meditation, ideally, is supposed to be a way out of this seemingly intractable maze. Whether it is successful or not is another story.
The modern capitalist system seems quite like the old suffering world in many ways. Customers go to Walmart because their prices are cheap. As a result Walmart lowers its wages, slashes benefits and buys from China. Chinese factories in order to keep costs low, become sweatshops and so on — there is a whole chain. If you ask Walmart management why they behave the way they do, they will tell you that in a business with margins as low as 1% you have to be cut-throat or someone even more vicious will take over, a little bit like the oppressive Arab regimes that the US supports for fear that if they are toppled, Muslim fundamentalists will take over. And the Chinese will tell you that without keeping labor costs low, they will loose business to Bangladesh or somewhere else, which they will. It seems, at the surface and even a few levels deeper that there is no way out. All hands on deck — we are off to a race to the bottom! True meditative insight is about seeing solutions to problems that seem overwhelming, ones that seem utterly insoluble because everything we think and do involves elements of the very thing we are trying to avoid. I dont think it is about sitting in the lotus posture and controlling your mind or whatever. While mind control is one form of intervention (and since it is not harmful, it is surely not a bad thing to do) it cannot possibly see into the nature of the world around us as we find it now, not three thousand years ago. If meditation is not about seeing the true nature of our condition, here and now, then it is a party trick, useful for a few laughs, but not something that serious people should take seriously.


Unstructured Time

Sometimes I think that there is more confusion about the nature of time than about anything else. Usually, when people talk about time, they are talking about a representation of time, not time itself. We represent time in so many ways, for example, in the form of clocks or more generally, by replacing time by the occurrence of change or the making of a choice. In the first case, time passes only if things change, so if nothing changed, no time would pass. This has been argued most forcefully in physics by the maverick physicist/historian Julian Barbour, in his excellent book The End of Time. While Barbour might be right about the role of time in physics (since physics cares about dynamics more than anything else, its no surprise that time = change as far as a physicist is concerned), physicists have no ultimate monopoly on the nature of time. Similarly, looking at time in a narrative context, the role of time in stories is deeply tied to action and events, which involves characters making choices (see McKee’s excellent guide to storytelling). Once again, sure, I agree that time, when represented in narrative, is structured in the form of events and actions, but that only says something about the representation of time on stories, and not necessarily anything about time per se.

Contemplatives (such as Krishnamurti) talk about a kind of time that does not involve change and has no structure, a choiceless awareness if you will. You could call this bare time, or unstructured time, or “time on its own” as my friend Emily called it in our conversation about this topic. However you name it, there is an existentially potent kind of time that was never implicated in change, never moving from past to future and always present. I don’t think this bare time is supernatural or otherworldy or mystical, its just beyond the reach of our structuring mind which one shouldn’t confuse with the mind as such.



It does seem as if interesting things happen in clusters. The last couple of months have been very productive. I have been writing a lot and the more I write, the easier it is for me to write more. Strangely enough, as I pursue my own writing interests, I have been running into people who are writers in the making. These people are complete strangers who start talking to me without any knowledge of my background. Its almost as if I am giving off a “writer” vibe.

You could try to explain this phenomena in several ways. For example, you might say that I am more willing to entertain a conversation with a fellow writer, that I frequent places like cafes and bookstores teeming with writer types, that I make friends with people who are interested in literature and their friends are more likely to be writers. All of these explanations are surely part of the story, but they cannot be the whole. I feel that each time I get interested in something, I randomly run into people who share those interests at a greater rate than before, people who I meet in settings that have nothing to do with the interest per se.

I might be romanticizing purely accidental events, but I wonder if there is such a thing as synchronicity? Is there a form of causality that’s utterly different from our usual interactions with the material world (like pushing and pulling and lifting and moving)? Note that there is nothing supernatural about synchronicity, it just happens to clash with our naively materialistic conception of causality, which we know is a wrong notion — after all, ever since Newton’s account of gravitation, we have known that action at a distance is very much possible.


Intelligent Design and Physics

I never understood why theories of evolution (Darwin’s theory in particular) are politically explosive. I would have thought that physics presents a far more radical challenge to Creationism. After all, it is:
(a) Far more reductive, claiming that we are nothing but a bunch of moving particles.
(b) Moves the center of the universe as far away from human beings as can be imagined.
So why do creationists get into a tizzy about Darwin and not about Einstein?

Perhaps it’s because evolution introduces a different conception of time and history into our self understanding, while physics is decidedly a-temporal. Physics does not deal with the question of origins, notwithstanding big bang cosmology and other theories of the birth of the universe. Questions of origins really do not play an important conceptual role in physics, because the laws of physics are the same today as they were when the universe was created. By getting rid of special moments, moments that mean more than others, physical theories sweep “why” questions under the rug. Which, unfortunately, also means that physics does not say much about value and meaning.

If I am right, disciplines such as history and evolutionary biology are contentious because they still frame their theories around “why” questions, questions that go to the heart of human nature, which cares about meaning deeply. The good news is that people debate Darwinian theories of evolution not just because they are blinded by faith, but because they instinctively know the importance of “original” thinking, if by original, one means thinking about origins. Disagreements about our evolutionary history have less to do with faith and reason and more to do with embodied notions of the roots of knowledge.


Philosophy and pornography

It is hard enough to define pornography: “I know it when I see it” according to Judge Potter Stewart. If you thought that was a tough cookie (what do you think of the new Victoria Secret ads on Network TV?), try to define philosophy. “I know it when I define it” says the self reflexive smart alec. He might be right, but he didnt really solve the problem did he?
What is philosophy anyway? I remember being pleasantly surprised and then taken aback during my first visit to a Barnes and Noble megastore (in Madison, Wisconsin if you really want to know) and stumbled into the metaphysics section. I was expecting treatises on Plato and Nagarjuna and was instead confronted with rows and rows of brightly colored evocations of previous lives and astral bodies.
At that time, I remember turning back, screaming silently and mocking the befuffled masses arrayed around me, but were they right? Who owns metaphysics, thats what I want to know.