29 October 2008

Siddhartha - Gautama - Buddha

The other day I heard an interview with Deepak Chopra about his recent book Buddha: A Story of Enlightenment. In the end he piqued my curiosity enough for me to read the book, but maybe not for the right reason. Describing Buddhism, he said that it is a secular spirituality, not a religion in the Judeo-Christian sense. While it is true that Buddhism stands apart from the Westernized faith traditions in several fundamental ways, it horrified me to qualify it as secular spirituality. Now that I have read Mr. Chopra's book, and now that I have reread Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse and looked into the matter at least enough to understand what that statement could mean, I'd like to share my conclusions in hopes that this exercise will help those thoughts to continue evolving.

Both books repeatedly mention the "gods" in a way that we today speak of luck as that which helps you do something surprisingly effective. Both books make it clear that at the time it was common belief that people could become gods through an ascetic and holy life. In the same way, both speak of demons as the opposite force, and Mr. Chopra's book personifies a demon as one of the main characters who eventually provokes the final battle that leads Gautama to enlightenment. If this understanding of gods and demons is historically accurate, then Buddha would logically avoid confusing people further by centering his teachings on an Absolute, or God as we understand the concept. His focus on right view, aim, speech, action, living, effort, mindfulness and contemplation were surely the proper medicine that provoked the spiritual and material transformation necessary at that moment in time.

"The following is the Buddha's description of [the Absolute] in the famous Udana passage in the Khuddaka Nikaya: 'There is, O monks, an Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unformed. Were there not, O monks, this Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unformed, there would be no escape from the world of the born, originated, created, formed. Since, O monks, there is an Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unformed, therefore is there an escape from the born, originated, created, formed. What is dependent, that also moves; what is independent does not move' (Udana 8:3). Nagarjuna, the founder of the Madhyamika school of Buddhism, argues from this passage that without the acceptance of an Ultimate Reality (Paramartha) there can be no deliverance (nirvana) (Madhyamika Karikas, cited in Murti 235)."

If you think about it, no Founder of any religion has ever encouraged his followers to dwell on the concept of God beyond basic concepts of uniqueness and certain qualities that God embodies.
"Baha'u'llah similarly speaks of an entity, an Unknowable Essence, of which nothing can be predicated: 'To every discerning and illumined heart it is evident that God, the unknowable Essence, the divine Being, is immensely exalted beyond every human attribute, such as corporeal existence, ascent and descent, egress and regress . . . He standeth exalted beyond and above all separation and union, all proximity and remoteness. No sign can indicate His presence or His absence' (KI 98). It is simply not spiritually profitable to spend too much time trying to gain further comprehension of God's essence.

If we qualified Islam, Christianity or the Baha'i Faith as secular spirituality, we would surely rob each of them of their essence. So, why should Buddhism be any different? It is saddening that Buddhism seems to have gained much popularity over the past few decades because of this fundamental misunderstanding of Buddha's message.

Another key concept in both books, although more implicit than explicit, is that of reincarnation. Contemplating this has led me to conclude that reincarnation exists in the story of the Buddha, which especially as presented by Mr. Chopra, is the story of each and every human being. He grows up as Siddhartha and upon maturing beyond that role, transforms into Gautama in search of true meaning. This search leads him to again transform, this time into the Buddha when he discovers the reality behind suffering, time and all of creation. This enlightened state provides an unimaginably powerful vehicle for him to generate the same transformational process in others.

In a very real sense, Siddhartha died in order for Gautama to be born and Buddha was born from Gautama's ashes. Thus the same fundamental person was reincarnated twice in order to escape the wheel of suffering. All true change of the order presented in the movement from Siddhartha to Buddha implies death as well as birth. Embracing both as a single forward flowing journey opens us to constant evolution, a maturation process that can eventually induce enlightenment.

Moving beyond the illusion of duality is the single most important concept explored in both books, and they both do it brilliantly. In Mr. Chopra's rendition, Buddha becomes the elements around him, perceives the innermost sensations of others and is able to touch and heal them. In Mr. Hesse's rendition, this vision is personified in the river by which Siddhartha makes his final home. "He saw that the water continually flowed and flowed and yet it was always there; it was always the same and yet every moment it was new. Who could understand, conceive this? He did not understand it; he was only aware of a dim suspicion, a faint memory, divine voices."

Visudeva, Siddhartha's greatest teacher explains that "the river knows everything; one can learn everything from it." On this occasion, Siddhartha learned "that it is good to strive downwards, to sink, to seek depths." He also grows to learn that the present only exists for the river, "not the shadow of the past, nor the shadow of the future." Thus, "Siddhartha the boy, Siddhartha the mature man and Siddhartha the old man, were only separated by shadows, not through reality." Which also clearly implies that all sorrow, self-torment, fear, difficulties and evil happen in time and are thus conquered as soon as time is dispelled.

The river has many voices, in fact the voice of all living creatures are in its voice, as all living creatures come to the river for both physical and spiritual nourishment. This nourishment becomes those creatures, and their voice and their life and death.

"Siddhartha saw the river hasten, made up of himself and his relatives and all the people he had ever seen. All the waves and water hastened, suffering, towards goals, many goals, to the waterfall, to the sea, to the current, to the ocean and all goals were reached and each one was succeeded by another. The water changed to vapor and rose, became rain and came down again, became spring, brook and river, changed anew, flowed anew."

"Siddhartha listened. He was now listening intently, completely absorbed, quite empty, taking in everything. ... He had often heard all of this before, all these numerous voices in the river, but today they sounded different. He could no longer distinguish the different voices - the merry voice from the weeping voice, the childish voice from the manly voice. They all belonged to each other: the lament of those who yearn, the laughter of the wise, the cry of indignation and the groan of the dying. They were all interwoven and interlocked, entwined in a thousand ways. And all the voices, all the goals, all the yearnings, all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world. All of them together was the stream of events, the music of life. When Siddhartha listened attentively to this river, to this song of a thousand voices; when he did not listen to the sorrow or laughter, when he did not bind his soul to any one particular voice and absorb it in his Self, but heard them all, the whole, the unity; then the great sound of a thousand voices consisted of one word: Om - perfection."

This poetic description of the river, and the transformation into enlightenment resonates deep within me. I have felt this flow not in a river as the rivers near here don't flow too well, but in compost, of all places! The life-decay-life process that eventually becomes the source of nourishment as healthy, teeming, fertile soil attracts me like a magnet. All of our mineral, plant, animal and human ancestors are there, present, becoming nourishment. I have always felt that it is a terrible injustice to throw away kitchen waste because it interrupts this life-giving process. I tend to this process in my house, and I sit and listen to it, and watch it and work with it just to learn its lessons in my effort to become spiritual nourishment for others. Just as the river, humus carries a wisdom far beyond my current grasp.

So, beyond highly recommending both of the books under review, I hope that reading them leads the reader to such contemplation of our potential as spiritual beings as I have been provoked to undertake.

22 October 2008

Cognitive Surplus


a screen that ships without a mouse, ships broken...

Watch this video. It is really worth it. It provides an extremely insightful analysis of social evolution and the power of Web 2.0 applications in reconceptualizing mass media to provide opportunities for everybody not only to consume but also produce and share.

Spending four formative years in countries like Taiwan, South Korea and Egypt, where tv was mostly just plain bad and more often than not spoken in a language I could not understand, got me away from tv and into activities like sports and games and just enjoying simpler things. Of course upon returning to the US I watched my fair share of MASH reruns, but I escaped getting hooked to the boobtube like most of my schoolmates.

What puzzles me now is how we feel that we need to turn our brain off in order to shed and get over financial stress or other types of stress caused from having to work too long or too hard in a job that is more often than not quite meaningless. If you want to escape from something too meaningless to bear, then why do something even more meaningless? In this sense tv serves the same purpose as alcohol and other recreative drugs. True, sometimes we identify with Giligan or Samantha or the guy on CSI and we like to feel that we can be like them. However, more often than not, as Mr. Shirky says in the video, we just aren't sure what else to do with our time. This is partly because before Web 2.0 applications like blogs and social networking and podcasting, watching tv (and of course listening to the radio) was basically our only opportunity to be part of popular culture through mass media. For decades this reinforced the messages from tv adds encouraging us to become net consumers.

The cognitive surplus created from becoming such consumers needs to be looked upon as an opportunity. Having enough time to watch trillions of hours of tv while our social and spiritual fabric comes undone at the seems provides us with one of the greatest opportunities available to humanity at present. Mr. Shirky would have us believe that it is better to do something, anything, as long as it implies being an active participant and not a passive consumer. As insightful as this talk is, I just can't agree that we need to set the bar of expectation so low because doing just anything won't get us very far from our tv set.

This concept elevated to principle in the video arises from a misunderstanding of the potentiality of human capacity.

"Man is called today to the attainment of that station to which he was destined from the 'Beginning which has no beginning.' This, then, is why 'Abdu'l-Bahá so exalted the station of Servitude. This is why He intimated that man accepting any station lower than this, any putting of self before service to others, qualifies himself as of the animal, the bestial nature, and places himself outside the pale of real manhood. It is because the definition of Man is altered. That which has been hinted in the past as a possible goal is now a requisite. Man's dreams, his highest dreams, must now be realized. And the path to that realization is the path of Service; its Goal the attainment to the station of pure Servitude.

"'The sweetness of servitude is the food of my spirit.' These words of the Master indicate the source of His power. His was a vastly higher quality of service than even that of my fanciful imagination... It went far deeper; it rose to far greater heights. It was a quality inherent in His deepest being, and manifested itself in every look, gesture, deed, ... in every breath He drew." (Howard Colby Ives)

If our essential humanity means attaining to an exalted station of servitude to others, then building the capacity necessary to make that service an efficient and effective contribution to helping our society reflect spiritual values held in common by all of humanity becomes top priority. Building and applying such capacities is the true source of power, of a nurtured spirit, the means by which our highest dreams will be realized, the sweetness that cannot be equalled. Further, it provides our life with the meaning that can dissipate stress on a magnitude that tv will never hope to attain.

If this weren't the case, then doing just about anything that implies participation would be a healthy social goal. However, in light of our essential nature, and the source of our true joy, it would be foolish to not push ourselved to greater heights. Of couse, Web 2.0 applications will play an important role in deploying the current massive cognitive surplus in the right direction, but there are such a variety of avenues leading to the station of servitute that we should be constantly exploring as many as we can find.

19 October 2008

Double-Edged Prices

'There is nothing in the pot. We have no food for a meal. Often a pot is put on the fire so children think a meal is being prepared. It gives them hope. If we told them there was no food they would start crying and there would be nothing we could do. This way they just go to sleep quietly.' – Aliou, a mother from a rural village in Mauritania

Not that the current financial meltdown isn't important - it is mostly for the failed mentality that it represents - but let's not let it distract us from what is urgent. This is admittedly difficult when anti-interventionist governments move astronomical sums to prop up their banking systems while ignoring their own commitments to curb world hunger. "...in stark contrast with the response to the current financial crisis, where huge financial resources have been mobilised by the international community in a matter of days... countries suffering from the food crisis received promises of just $12.3bn at the Rome FAO conference in June 2008, well short of UN estimates of the $25bn–$40bn needed (and five months on, little more than $1bn has been disbursed)."

Oxfam International just published a briefing paper aimed at bringing us back to this reality. It is called "Double-Edged Prices, Lessons from the food price crisis: 10 actions developing countries should take". Basic staple prices have recently risen and this should have been wonderful news for countries with economies focused on agriculture, and for the small farmers themselves. However, as the report states, "decades of misguided policies by developing country governments on agriculture, trade, and domestic markets – often promoted by international financial institutions and supported by donor countries – have prevented poor farmers and rural workers from reaping the benefits of higher commodity prices. As a result, the crisis is hurting poor producers and consumers alike, threatening to reverse recent progress on poverty reduction in many countries. To help farmers get out of poverty while protecting poor consumers, developing country governments, with the support of donors, should invest now into smallholder agriculture and social protection."

During the last year, the price in staple foods around the world have risen from 30 to 150%. Even before the current food crisis, over 850 million people lived in hunger and approximately 30,000 children died daily from related causes. The title of the Oxfam report refers to the false dilemma created when donor institutions ask themselves whether they should support consumers by lowering prices or producers by raising them. This leads to food donations from rich countries on one hand, and on the other, structural adjustments to economic policies aimed at directing the agricultural sector of a nation towards producing what can be sold on the international market, even if it can't be eaten by local communities. For example, cacao prices have increased dramatically since this crisis began (people eat more chocolate in times of anxiety), so Ecuador is expanding cacao production as well as other similar products like flowers, bananas and shrimp and seeking to open new export markets. Meanwhile staple food prices in Ecuadorian markets have risen 8% over the past year. In these cases, people buy cheaper foods, that usually have less nutritional value, rather than buying less food.

Higher fuel prices have led to increases in critical agricultural inputs like nitrogen-based fertilizers, insecticides, pesticides and seeds. In fact, Monsanto, the world's largest seed (genetically modified) and agrochemical company has seen a 26% increase in revenue during the past year. Vanity Fair recently carried a major feature article on the mafia-like tactics of Monsanto in its pursuit of total domination of various facets of agribusiness aimed at consolidating corporate power even in the face of increasing food shortages.

The report concludes that in general, "those countries that have invested in smallholder agriculture and social protection policies have proved to be more resilient to the crisis. Conversely, where countries have opened their markets too widely or too rapidly to food imports and have failed to invest robustly in their agricultural sectors, they have fared far worse." Mexico is a perfect case in point.

"In the 1980s, Mexico was reeling under massive foreign debt. In 1988, interest payments made up 57 per cent of federal expenditure and, following World Bank and IMF recommendations, the country set about reducing public spending and dismantling a system under which the State subsidised agricultural inputs, provided loans and technical assistance, regulated imports, set guaranteed prices for producers, and subsidised the price of tortilla.

"State marketing committees and the National Company for Popular Subsistence (CONASUPO, a body which retained 15–20 per cent of production for distribution to remote areas) were also eliminated. Control of the market was usurped by a handful of agribusinesses and intermediary companies. Currently, Cargill, Maseca, ADM, Minsa, Arancia Corn Products, and Agroinsa among them control 70 per cent of Mexico’s corn imports and exports.

"A further blow to domestic agriculture came with the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, under which Mexico agreed to liberalise its corn sector. Subsidised US corn began to flood the market and the price of corn in Mexico fell by more than 70 per cent in real terms, pushing thousands of corn farmers out of production and reducing overall output. After more than 4,000 years, Mexico became a net importer of corn."

The report provides a general action guide in the form of 10 recommendations. They are well thought out from the perspective of the more vulnerable countries. However, it gives too much importance to the IMF and the World Bank, which simply need to cease to exist or be completely transformed into institutions that are democratically accountable and which move resources to mitigate the effects of and ultimately eliminate poverty and wealth extremes.

This report succeeds at providing a timely and clear analysis of the current food crisis that it hopes will make a "difference to the millions of poor people hit by the current crisis, and build resilience to future shocks."

14 October 2008

Currency, Debt and Poverty (for Blog Action Day)

This week one of my favorite blogs, Dot Earth, posted a fabulous and timely reflection called "Growth Economics on a Finite Planet". The post quotes an article written my Dr. Herman Daly, specialist in "ecological economics". The article speaks about something that many of us have been thinking for years, that speculative finance is not economy at all but a sophisticated way of gambling that only distracts our attention from the real economy of producing for real needs. "To Dr. Daly, the implosion after the burst of trading and investment in high-concept paper offerings was inevitable, and simply a reorientation of the market toward the only real economy — the one grounded in actual assets. In the end, the only economy that can’t be gamed is one that is grounded in the way the Earth works. That is where 'real wealth,' and real limits, lie, he says."

"High-concept paper offerings" (reminds me of "edible foodlike substances...") really represent the tip of the iceberg. The larger, submerged base is made of money, the principle instrument that financial institutions and corporations use in their effort to create a consumer culture. Later in the above-mentioned article Dr. Daly lists the factors that allowed financial assets to become so disconnected from real assets, and the first point in this list is especially interesting: "...the fact that we have fiat money, not commodity money". Currency systems created by fiat work when the authority issuing the currency (government) guarantees the value of the currency although it's value is not referenced by any commodity. The idea is to ground the value of money to what is produced in that country, but this connection has deteriorated over time. So, paradoxically the connection between the value of money and real assets has weakened and at the same time high-concept paper offerings and money itself have became confused with real economy and real wealth. To understand this confusion, it is necessary to briefly explore the nature of money.

Over the past century the purpose, use, issuance and meaning of money have undergone a profound transformation that has allowed it to be used towards the construction and maintenance of the globalization process. Without delving too deep into the evolution of the concept of money, let it suffice to state that money served humanity principally as a means of exchange until the globalizing, and especially the speculative, process gave it new roles to play.

For many years money was generally issued by local banks at rates necessary to facilitate exchange. However, "…with problems caused by over-issuance and speculation, governments stepped in to regulate the issuing of money, creating the first central banks and issuing money … by printing it, selling government bonds to commercial banks and the public, [and] by borrowing it from the bank at interest. Thus, in order to ensure an expanding money supply, money is issued as interest-bearing debt."

As time passed, governments discovered that a particular difficulty with this system existed because "at any given moment in time, the total amount of debt in a conventional money system always exceeds the total amount of money available in the system. The money needed to pay the interest over these loans can only come from some other similar circuits, i.e. money issued by some other borrower. If that happens, the second borrower will not be able to earn back enough money to pay his debt. In order to prevent economic stagnation, the money supply must be continuously expanded: there is need of a perpetual borrower that can never go bankrupt despite the fact that he never pays his debt. Since the 1950s, governments have assumed this role. In order to stay above this debt, economic growth must exceed the growth of debt. However, in reality the global economy is not catching up with the exponential growth of interest bearing debt."

Scarcity is then a central component of the current economic system. This brings up several issues each of which merits attention. Scarcity of money has a double effect. First, it motivates people to work harder to earn money out of fear of falling into poverty. This is a key source of society’s deterioration as people are driven towards a profit motive and are frequently forced to work for unsatisfying and often socially and ecologically destructive jobs. Second, since money is put into circulation by creating principal, but not the interest owed on the principal, people and corporations must compete to obtain the scarce money to pay the interest. If the total money supply does not increase at least by the amount owed on interest, some necessarily go further into debt and even bankrupt. However, because interest is calculated to expand exponentially, it is at odds with the impossibility of producing and consuming goods or services at an exponentially growing rate.

Both commodity backed and fiat currencies are used as a store of value. "Using currency as a store of value, to generate interest or for expected profits at a later time" encourages hoarding and therefore competition. While money is stored "others cannot use it as a medium of exchange, which works against the interests of the economy" as fewer transactions can take place causing a downturn in the economy. Of course, when signs of recession appear, more money is issued or interest rates are lowered, enabling more transactions to take place. This give and take of the money supply keeps people fluctuating with the system, a perpetual scarcity-abundance, boom-bust uncertainty. "Providing incentives to ensure that the medium of exchange does not also incorporate the store of value function would therefore automatically dampen this boom-bust tendency of the current system."

Giving money the function of a store of value also motivates people to search for short-term profits at the expense of long-term growth, creating conflicting moral and economic incentives. "Consider as metaphor, for example, the life of a tree (or any other living resource). Because of interest, the net present value of any income far away in the future is negligible. So, it literally pays to cut down a tree and put the proceeds in a savings account instead of letting it grow for another decade or century. Similarly, the only types of trees worth planting commercially are the fastest-growing varieties such as pine. (Nobody plants redwoods for commercial reasons.) So even when we plant trees, we are systematically losing biodiversity."

As we have recently been reminded, another detrimental use of money is speculation. Over the last five or six decades money increasingly developed into a tool for speculative profit until it became the dominant use for money. "Today more than 95% of all currency transactions are motivated by speculation; less than 5% are for trades of goods and services." Able to generate spectacular profits within increasingly short periods of time, money acquired a new purpose: to merely reproduce itself. Investors search for schemes that will offer the largest profits within the shortest amount of time, essentially blind to real human needs and ecological concerns.

In the meantime, money has become confused with wealth. "Wealth is something that has real value in meeting our needs and fulfilling our wants. Modern money is only a number on a piece of paper or an electronic trace in a computer that by social convention gives its holder a claim on real wealth. In our confusion we concentrate on the money to the neglect of those things that actually sustain a good life." Even those who understand the difference between money and wealth are often forced to participate in unsatisfying or damaging means of acquiring money in order to maintain a dignified style of life.

For these reasons, and I am sure there are many more, we have put ourselves in the particularly malevolent quandary of needing to produce and consume as fast as our debt multiplies or invent "high-concept paper offerings" that dupe people into believing that real wealth is being produced. It all adds up to a negative sum game that as more people and businesses lose we slowly conclude that this system is making losers of all of us.

To round out this post on a more positive note, many people are realizing that national currencies "have been designed for specific purposes only, and cannot fulfill certain social objectives (such as fostering trade and cooperation, or ecological sustainability). Some currencies already operational today or being proposed for the future are designed to fulfill such objectives, and operate best when they are used in tandem with the national currencies." Because these complimentary currencies do not bear interest, they

  • "promote longer-term planning by encouraging participants to invest in productive assets rather than hoarding currency; and

  • encourage trade and cooperation, because the money is in sufficient supply."

These new currencies open exciting possibilities for a healthy economy in which poverty is no longer seen as an inevitable and is rather viewed as the anomaly it really is.