Taming an Ox

We often recognise in daily life that something goes wrong with us. Sometimes our body sends signals that something is wrong, especially when a part of the body feels pain or when an organ doesn’t function well. Also, our emotions may be sources of unease or imbalance sometimes, when we often feel gloomy, lose temper too easily or when too enthusiastic happiness or joy makes us do things that we later regret or regard as stupid. Finally, the most difficult to detect among these three, our thoughts disturb us, cause insomnia, circle around the same things again and again, make us doubt, worry, complain, etc. I guess nobody (except Buddha and some Bodhisattvas) can say that everything in life goes well. When we recognise, understand and accept this fact, we are a big step further!

Imagine you are driving a car at high speed and something is wrong with it. You hear a strange noise or it trembles suddenly. It would be very dangerous and also impossible to find out the reason for the malfunction while driving high speed. Instead it would be reasonable to stop the car, get out of it, walk around it and find the problem (maybe a loose wheel, or something like that). Meditation is the same procedure for the malfunctioning of ourselves. When we recognise something goes wrong with our body, emotions or thoughts, it would be very difficult, almost impossible, to examine, identify or even heal the problem while driving high speed, that means in daily life when we use body, emotions and thoughts as usual. Meditation means to stop, hold on, get out of oneself and observe from outside. That’s what mindfulness is good for. Get out of ourselves and into our mind. Feel and recognise our body signals, not only pain, but also breathing speed, muscle tensions, heartbeat, and so on. Detect emotions and their sources, how they take control of us. With some training we can notice how the pure primary emotions (positive, negative or neutral feelings) are turned into secondary emotions (anger, hate, sadness, happiness, joy, boredom, etc.) by processing those original perceptions with our experiences and habits. We can also observe our thoughts from the outside, which is most difficult, because people tend to think a lot even during a meditation, and can’t imagine how to capture thoughts without thinking about them. In order to explain this matter I found another picture from real life. Imagine you give a party at your home. At 8PM the first guests arrive, you open the door and let them in. With everyone you start a conversation, talk about this and that, debate, tell the latest News, etc. If you proceed like that, many guests will have to wait outside until they have a chance to pass you, and you will be very busy. It would be better to open the door, let everyone in, recognize everyone, but not to talk to everyone for a long time, so that everyone can come in. There will still be time for further talking later. Now transfer this to the situation in our mind. There are always many thoughts that rush into our mind. And usually we spend a lot of time on each and every thought, discuss, debate, follow a line of thought, consider consequences, analyse implications, etc. By this we can never have a clear mind, because all the thoughts that are still waiting for their turn make us feel stressed and overstrained. During the meditation you let all thoughts in, like the party guests, but just recognise them and don’t let them start a deep conversation with you. When all thoughts are there, you have an overview and can say “Aha, these are the things I am thinking. Well, those thoughts are ill-logic and make no sense, so I won’t spend more time on them. These thoughts over there are interesting, I will focus on them later…”, and so on.

With the help of meditation we can understand ourselves much better and we can make strategies on how to behave in a healthy way in daily life. We can understand which behaviour is unhealthy (for example negative emotions that pull us down, or thoughts that keep us awake all night long), so that we can find ways to free ourselves from those patterns. It sounds so simple but is yet so difficult. I guess it takes years to gain an obvious effect from meditation (those 20-30 minutes every evening at home) on our daily routine (all the rest of the time, at work, in the subway, in the supermarket, on holiday, at home, etc.). Another analogy: In my very first swimming class, I didn’t enter the pool but practiced movements on a mat besides the pool, a dry practice. When the teacher was sure that I got it right, he let me enter the water. Meditation is the dry practice for the deep waters of daily life.

The goal of meditative practice is a clear pristine mindfulness, a being-in-the-moment, here and now. With this ability we expand the state of floating – the psychological term for indulging deeply in a hobby or pleasant passionate activity for some time, for example  two hours that feel like 15 minutes – to the entire life. The practice itself is not easy and requires continuous and steady exercise. Among laymen, there is the common misconception that meditation is a form of relaxing, a kind of retreat on a pillow to step out of the stressful daily life. They underestimate that the attempt to disconnect the mind from default emotions and thoughts and to re-configure it in awareness of how things really are is a notoriously difficult and exhausting endeavour. The Buddhist traditions refer to a huge canon of instructions with detailed description of sitting positions (like Zazen), emphasising the importance of unhindered flow of Qi for the liberation of the mind. A central element of different forms of meditation is an object of mental focus that serves as an anchor or fix point whenever the mind drifts off into thoughts and emotions. Some meditations suggest real items like a flower or a Buddha statue, others employ the most natural constant clock that we have: our breath. In Zen meditations, whenever we notice a thought protruding into our pure awareness, we should draw our mental attentions back towards the flow of our breath.

Experiencing these difficulties makes many beginners give up soon after starting the practice. Progress seems slow and the efforts are not rewarded in the same way as for other exercises (like piano lessons – everybody can play at least a simple song after a few classes – or basketball exercises – everybody will hit the basket sooner or later). What even is progress or success in meditation, and how can we notice it? In Korea (maybe also other East-Asian countries, but I don’t know about that), the idea and progress of meditative practice is often described with 10 graphic illustrations that show the stages of herding an ox. It dates back to the 12th century (Song dynasty) when a Chinese Master called Gao-An Shiyuan composed the oldest known ox-herding series. Since then, every influential Master designed his own series of drawings and composed poem-like verses to describe each scene. Here, I’d like to explain meditation with the help of such a series of ox-herding pictures. I use illustrations by the skillful artist Peter Mahr.

  1. In search of the ox


Beginners of meditation often feel like someone who heard of rumours that somewhere out there is a wild ox, lured by the idea to have his own tamed ox, but having no clue where to start looking for it. Same as the man in the image may ask himself after some time whether the rumours are true, you may start doubting the usefulness and meaning of meditation. You start to consider various different ways of improving the practice. You find yourself at a complete loss as to what you should do. Maybe, after struggling for a while, you reach a point at which you consider giving up altogether. Although you have tried to practice, you cannot see any progress at all. To alleviate this sense of frustration, some people turn to other kinds of practices that seem easier, like praying to the Buddha, repeating the Buddha’s name, or reciting some sutras. By doing this, they lose the original goal of meditation out of sight. Therefore, for someone who is really interested in reaching a stage of increased mindfulness (in a symbol from the Matrix movie: someone who chose the red pill), it is of utmost importance to continue the frustrating practice! No worries, the next stage will come!

  1. Discover the footprints


Efforts in meditating can only be achieved with strong will and perseverance. You will face many obstacles that interfere with the practice, for example the people around you, your family, or some harmful friends telling you that you may as well drop the idea of meditation since it doesn’t seem to be getting you anywhere. By resisting the temptation to just give it up (like the man deciding to go back home and live without a tamed ox), you will achieve the first small successes. When there is no progress, it is simply because you are not exerting sufficient effort yourself. To think otherwise is foolish. It is ridiculous to complain that no one is helping you when you yourself are not making any effort.

At this point you may also start to notice that here and there are footprints. Maybe you suddenly realise that you were sitting without any thought for 10 minutes, feeling like only 1 minute has passed. The time between two thoughts is increasing, and you get a feeling for what it means to have a clear mind. A spoor! This may lead you to believe that now you are surely on the right path. Your task is to follow these footprints. You have to proceed entirely on the basis of your own effort. You may proceed slowly or quickly, but no matter how you proceed, you have to go on your own. You only find your own ox by following your own track. Other people found other oxen by following their own tracks.

  1. See the ox


As you persevere in following the tracks of the ox, you finally begin to glimpse its tail or a horn behind a bush now and then. In this way you first catch sight of the ox. After practicing for some time, you gradually start to make progress. Occasionally, a little insight will light up for a few moments, die, light up again, and then die again. But, even the slightest experience of the pure mind, the Buddha Nature that the ox here stands for, is a proof-of-principle. It works! What you experience at this stage is something that you have never heard or seen before. Recognising now that such a thing exists, you reflect that it is probably correct to keep going in this direction. At such a moment the mind has to make an important decision: Continue or go home? Neo or Cypher (in terms of the Matrix movies)? Facing the ox may frighten the man. Find one’s Buddha Nature – a non-self – may be shocking for you. Only when you don’t give up now, when you don’t let the ox slip away again, when you proceed with confidence, you will be merited with your own ox. Although you are encouraged to continue, this is still an uncertain and ambiguous time.

  1. Catch the ox


To attach a rope to the ox is incredibly difficult and exhausting, requiring the endurance of physical and mental hardships. The fiery nature of the ox is hard to control. Whatever you do, the ox will always try to retreat quickly and run away. After you have caught the ox and pulled it toward yourself with great effort for a while, it will suddenly pull you off in another direction. You try to pull it back, but again it manages to drag you elsewhere. It goes on and on like this.

What exactly is this difficult time? It refers to the stage when the meditation is composed partly of the state of clear mind, partly of distracted thoughts, and partly of sinking into dullness. At this time, these three factors seem to be competing with one another: at some time you find yourself in a state of dullness, at other times beset with distracting thoughts, and at other times in deep concentration. Our strong ego, manifested in solid patterns and habits that formed over years and decades, rebels against a free and clear mind since that would lead to its destruction (which is the actual goal of all these efforts). This is a very difficult period because now you are really fighting with the ox, like Neo fighting with Agent Smith.

  1. Tame the ox


It is at this stage that you learn to handle the ox in the right way. Yet, this stage is still very critical. You become aware of the danger that the ox may be hurt or injured by your exerted forces with whip and bridle. In that case, all trust would be lost in a moment. At the same time, you don’t want the ox to break lose again and escape. This can be a very frightening time. From here, you can’t go back to a worldly life like before. You faced your Buddha Nature and can never ever again pretend that it is not there. People who reach this stage and stop here often drift off into nihilism or madness.

If you exert a great deal of effort for a while, then you will pass the critical moment. Thereafter, the ox comes following you voluntarily. This is the turning point. From an ox-less person we become an ox owner. We turn from a blind person into a seeing one. Once such a firm resolve has arisen in the mind, then you truly seize the abode of the meditative retreat. Now that the ox is being tamed in this way, the serenity of the mind is firmly held and does not move. The ego (as an external power over your mind) gives way to the Buddha Nature as the guiding force. Having passed over the critical moment, the ox now obediently follows without your having to grab hold of it and pull it.

  1. Ride home on the ox


The fight is over, we can go home. Now, when you sit meditating, your wandering mind stops roaming around. You are here. When you sit, you sit. When you eat, you eat. When you walk, you walk. You are at a point where meditation also works in the supermarket or at the workplace. You play the flute while riding the ox, because there is nothing that could shake your firmness, nothing to be concerned about. Left to himself, the ox will just follow the way it has to go. Now that it has been tamed, however much you ignore it, it will no longer go anywhere that is not allowed. As for yourself, no matter whether you are sleeping or moving around, standing or lying down, no one else will be aware of the inner composure you have attained. At this sixth stage the practice really begins to develop with every step.

  1. Forget the ox, take a rest


Now the ox is gone. First, you had to make an effort to hold on to the ox; then, after some time, it began to follow you with its own accord. At this stage, you do not have to pay any attention to it at all. It proceeds correctly along the way by itself. You are your Buddha Nature. Now, you can rest, doze, sleep, or whatever you prefer to do, because what costs you effort before, now proceeds constantly without any extra bit of mind power. Resting in balance and equanimity becomes part of our daily life. Even vigorous activities like working, driving a motorcycle, playing a music instrument or performing sports are, somehow, a way of resting in the Here-and-Now. Like in Daoism the wuwei (literally doing nothing), this form of inner stillness must not be mixed up with laziness and complete inactivity. It means that now you don’t do anything as the result of your fears and mind poisons (delusion, attachments, resistance), but as the result of your free and clear mind. There is no more waiting, since there is never nothing going on. There is no such thing as wasting time, since there is only this moment. Anyone coming and saying “Do something!” is just stirring up sand since you are doing the highest of all things all the time: Resting in mindful awareness. 

  1. Man and ox are both forgotten


Both the ox and the man have now been forgotten, and you are sitting in silence and emptiness. Everything has been identified as constructs of your worldly default mind. In your initial deluded state, all phenomena – including space and time – are experienced as existing. But at this time, space and time collapse, there is only here and now. Finally, you grasp the real essence of what this means. Emptiness is form, and form is emptiness. Conventional and ultimate truth become one. This is finally the moment of awakening. This is the moment of complete freedom of mind. It is fine to come and fine to go. It is fine to lie on your back and fine to lie on your belly. Whether you are in hell, among the hungry ghosts, or amid the animals, everything is fine. If you find yourself in hell, in heaven, or in the Buddha lands, all you know is smiling mildly.

  1. Return to the origin


Finally you realize that you have recovered your very own treasure, which you had forgotten all about. When you quietly reflect on it, you recognise that all of the exertions you put into the practice were actually unnecessary. Now when you simply open your mouth, this is a teaching of Dharma; when you walk along, this is also a teaching of Dharma. All of this has been there all the time, but you had to walk a long detour and get rid of all the luggage, the ballast that you accumulated since birth. In fact, it would have been better, had you been blind, deaf, and dumb because then you would not have been dragged into doing so many useless tasks. But you saw, heard, and thought, all coloured and deluded by desires and fears under impact of the mind poisons. Now your seeing, hearing and thinking have been cleared so that everything you do, say and think is filled with the Dharma.

  1. Teaching on the marketplace


Now you are a Bodhisattva, a Buddha-like being that chose to remain in the world of Samsara rather than entering Nirvana in order to be of benefit to sentient beings. You cultivate the way of the bodhisattva in sharing your insights and gently hint others at wild oxen so that they can start their awakening process. You perform the deeds of a bodhisattva and embody the virtues of the Dharma (the Eightfold Path). Your mindful equanimity is unshakeable: If circumstances are favourable, you smile; and if circumstances are unfavourable, you still smile. With a laugh you take things as they are. In this stage, you are supporting all sentient beings in beneficial ways. Your karmic imprint on the world is tremendously positive! This is the highest state of mind you can reach.


For more details, further insights, and a great collection of other ox-herding illustrations, visit this website by Gabor Terebess!


My Misanthropy – 6. Remedy

6. Remedy: Buddhism

All in all, my life is very pleasant, I think. I have everything I need, especially the freedom to choose my lifestyle and activities, a lovely family, the chance to gain pleasure from creative hobbies (music, cooking, DIY), and life skills that make my life easier and less troublesome. I have no phobias or neuroses (as far as I know), and my mental well-being is generally quite stable on a high level. I have many reasons to be happy, and I really am. I see only one source of problems that has a negative impact on my life quality: stupid people. Of course, many conveniences and features of modern life have to be attributed to the brilliancy of people like inventors, engineers, scientists, doctors, and other knowledgeable and skilled practitioners. Thanks to their vision, creativity and genius, we have electricity, fridges, constant access to clean water and food, high mobility, cures for many diseases, good education and stable world politics (more or less). I must not forget that, even though it is easy to regard these achievements as daily matters of course. On the other side, there are too many people who mess up the larger picture. Living in Taiwan, I enjoy a good standard of life, but once going out and experiencing the traffic, I wish a volcano would wash this island with its 21 million idiots back into the sea (Just to be sure: I had similar thoughts while living in Germany, just that the number was 81 million). Another source for me to be upset, angry and sad is reading or watching the News: burning jungle in Indonesia and Malaysia for cheaper palm oil, destruction of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, blatant US-American idiocy (corporate politics mixed with religious ideology leading to climate change denial, war-mongering and unsustainable economic practices), and many more items on an endless list of hopeless human stupidity. I guess I should stop taking News as a feed for my image of humanity, otherwise it is getting more and more negative.

My view of people and mankind stands in sharp contrast to the Buddhist doctrine of compassion and loving-kindness. Human stupidity as explicated in the previous posts of this series is the expression of dukkha (suffering) which is caused by delusion (ignorance), attachment (greed) and resistance (hatred). Instead of being upset about it, I should forgive people and – following a Bodhisattva path – try my best to help them overcome their suffering. Misanthropy – especially when choosing it consciously – is the opposite way. A giving-in to the dark side (in Star Wars terms). It seems it is quite difficult for me to maintain such a true Buddhist mindset. Why?

Buddhist philosophy attracts me mostly for its epistemological and ontological commitments that appear highly plausible to me. Naturalistic, holistic, constructivistic. Buddhism is one of the few worldviews that allows the idea that humans are one of countless elements of the world fabric, and that there are possible worlds without humankind that are better (=more harmonious and karmically favoured) than this one. Buddhism – understood correctly – is not about individual well-being and salvation, but about seeing clearly how everything is connected and how only our discriminative judgments produce the worldly matters we are busy with day in day out. Overcoming delusion and ignorance – what I called stupidity throughout this series – is an epistemic task for everyone devoted to Buddhism and its mission. Buddhism, in this respect, can serve as a remedy against stupidity, especially common forms of mindlessness and ignorance. The question is whether this is also an ethical call.

It seems to me, the ethical task of Buddhism – respecting life, showing compassion and loving-kindness, refraining from negative attitudes and actions against other living beings – is more a task for me, the misanthrope. Buddhist ethics is, then, a remedy against my misanthropy. On the other side, doesn’t forgiveness and compassion imply that others have flaws and insufficiencies that need to be forgiven? You (all you people) suffer from stupidity (=my misanthropy), so I kindly remind you of that, giving you a chance to realise it, work on it and perform better (getting closer to enlightenment). This would be in line with the Four Noble Truths: First, we need to admit that we are all suffering and that the roots of this suffering are ignorance/delusion, attachment and resistance. In contrast to a common misunderstanding of Buddhism, this is neither nihilistic nor pessimistic or “negative”. It is a realistic view of man’s mind (see the scheme of 12 links of interdependent co-arising). I believe, my misanthropy should be interpreted in this way, too! No change to the better without admitting the problems in the first place! Short-sighted harmony-lovers would deny facing the problems. Confucians, for example, rather keep silent about problems for the sake of harmony (This is a descriptive statement about communication styles in contemporary Confucian societies, not about Confucius’ own philosophy!). A Buddhist practitioner will admit “I am ignorant, attached and resistant = suffering!“, and then try to work on it. This is characteristic for a far-sighted harmony-lover, one that realises that there is no real harmony in a state of delusion. A Bodhisattva will help others realising their suffering. Is the Bodhisattva a misanthrope when claiming that all unenlightened people are suffering from delusion, attachment and resistance? Buddhists’ answer will be “No!“, I guess. In the same way, I wish my misanthropy to be understood as motivated by a noble goal: raising awareness and mindfulness, and making this world a better place. People are stupid, but it doesn’t have to be like this! There is a way out (the third Noble Truth)! Again, I get the impression that my initial claim that I am a misanthrope might be misleading.

There are two problems left for me: Is my view arrogant? Isn’t it arrogant to claim that I am like a Bodhisattva, able to see what others can’t see, as in “Everybody is stupid, except me!“? I defend myself by including myself in the claim that people are stupid. I am not less stupid than anybody else. Maybe the one thing that I know more than many others is that I realised it and admit it! And I work on it, sometimes successfully (I believe I have a high ethical integrity and a solid knowledge base), sometimes not (I am still deluded and often controlled by emotions that dominate my (re-)actions). I wonder if my call for fighting stupidity can be arrogant, then, but must rather be seen as my ethical obligation.

The second problem is the tensions that arise when including non-human life forms in my considerations concerning compassion and loving-kindness. Supporting humans on their path to enlightenment is a noble goal, but obviously – as explained – there could be a situation where the best karmic state of the world is one without human beings. Buddhists are not anthropocentrists. Strictly speaking, we are not even biocentrists, ecocentrists or cosmocentrists, but holists. If my task is to create the most beneficial and advantageous karmic potential, maybe I should support every chance for the planet to get rid of mankind. As a chemist, I may have the knowledge to synthesise a pathogen that selectively kills all humans around the globe. Maybe in my function as technology assessor and policy-advisor I have a chance to promote and implement a new technology (like AI bots or invasive nanomedical devices) that wipes out the human race. Will this noble act of freeing an entire race from its suffering grant me the status of a Buddha?

No, it doesn’t! Who am I to judge what is good and right for the world? Buddhist ethics is neither consequentialistic nor deontological. I will just wait and see what happens, as mindful and aware as possible. In the meantime, I will keep writing about human stupidity and ignorance, making myself, you, and everybody else more alert of human stupidity. Deep in my mind, I expect that I will fail, and that mankind deserves the fate of going extinct. But, especially from an ethical perspective, there is no other choice but keeping trying. In the end, I am most concerned about your (Tsolmo) and our family’s well-being (as the result of our karmic imprints). Therefore, my most important task is to equip you with the cognitive and intellectual tools that are necessary to reduce your stupidity to a minimum! Be mindful! Be (self-)critical! See things as they are! Cultivate wisdom and ethical integrity! That is true Magagpa!


Me in a Buddhist temple in South Korea, October 2012

My Misanthropy – 3. Stupidity

3. Stupidity everywhere!

In the first two posts of this series, I mentioned it already: My image of the cognitive and intellectual capacity of people is generally rather low. In simple words: I think people are stupid. But this is not precise enough. Moreover, it sounds like an offensive judgment. Here is not the place for insults and bashing. Instead, let me try to clarify my claim by more precise definitions and observational facts that circumstantiate it.


Many people would agree that stupidity, in some way, has to do with a lack of knowledge – be it factual or technical knowledge (facts, logic, anticipation of consequences of action, etc.) or normative, social, moral knowledge (values, norms, customs, etc.) – or with a lack of personal and social competences like emotional self-management, empathy, social interaction, or performance as a citizen. According to this definition, all babies are stupid, and so are all those who didn’t get a proper education (for example the population of poor and underdeveloped countries). It is obvious that the definition of lack, here, strongly depends on the expectation on how much a certain member of a society should know and on what is the standard for social performance. We would not call a member of an aboriginal tribe in the Amazon jungle “stupid” just because he doesn’t know the physics, biology or geography that are taught in high schools. We also wouldn’t blame a baby that drops his toys for not knowing about the effects of gravity.

A first useful classification would be intended and unintended stupid behaviour or action. This separates those who are fully aware of the stupidity or wrongness of their decisions and actions (still doing it anyway) from those who are either not aware of how and why their action is stupid (not reflecting it at all) or convinced that their action is not stupid at all (even after reflecting it). Intended idiocy covers crime and – in deontological terms – immoral acts. Thus, I distinguish three forms of stupidity:

  • Foolishness: This is an unconscious and, therefore, unintended form of stupidity. Fools just don’t know better. It includes uneducated people, mentally disabled or demented people, little kids, but also clumsy and unlucky people. Fools do stupid things rather by accident and out of ignorance.
  • Asininity: When people know how to do well in a particular situation but don’t do it due to a lack of understanding and/or intelligence – mindless people. Asinine people somehow choose to do stupid things since they have a chance to choose otherwise. With other words: Asinine people are those who don’t use their brains even though it may legitimately be expected from them, for example adults with school degrees, sufficiently socialised members of a society.
  • Idiocy: Intended wrongdoing and misconduct, a product of bad intentions rather than ignorance. Idiots are people who choose to cause harm to others, people with a lack of ethical integrity, people who aim at increasing the suffering of others.

These categories are, of course, not very clear. From a Buddhist as well as from a psychological perspective, also idiotic acts with bad intentions are the result of ignorance. In fact, many mental disorders are named with the medical term idiocy. A person with bad intentions might be misled by emotions or by lack of coping abilities, not being aware that there is an alternative to choose that would be less idiotic. I use these categories to make a clear distinction concerning forgiveness of stupidity: Foolishness can easily be forgiven. Asininity has to be pointed out, criticised, and eliminated (besides being forgiven). Idiocy has to be punished and sanctioned (besides being treated and forgiven). Let’s have a look at some cases.

Half of mankind has no access to proper school education or lives in existential fear (hunger, war, natural disasters), and doesn’t care much about intellectual capacity, scientific knowledge, or intelligence. It would be highly unfair to demand smartness and cognitive farsightedness from them. When nomadic farmers in the Savannah in Africa destroy valuable land, it happens out of ignorance and lack of education. We can’t demand sustainable agriculture and stock-farming from them as long as they have no chance to understand what it means. All they know is that they are hungry, and how their ancestors did it. Yet, a lot of human activity has a severe impact on the ecosystem with devastating effects on Earth’s biosphere (including mankind), and must, therefore, be labelled foolish. Education and better dissemination of knowledge (know-how, know-what) and competence might be a remedy, making the fight against foolishness a political task.

I like to believe that the group of idiots is the smallest of these three. We find criminals, rude and hateful people, reckless and ruthless assholes all around the globe. Yet, they are often the exception rather than the norm. Most societies established law-and-order systems and social sanctioning pathways that keep most members on the track. The crime rates in Germany and Taiwan are both rather low compared to violence stricken countries like Mexico or Afghanistan. Generally, Taiwanese people are very kind and well-behaved (exception: animal abusers and黑道 (heidao, Taiwanese mafia) people), whereas in Germany I often came across disrespectful, insulting, shameless assholes, like football supporters destroying trains and beating up people, vandals destroying public property for fun, moochers, and other scum (one of my reasons for moving to an Asian country). Among the most despicable crimes, from my perspective (feeding my misanthropy), are business crimes that lead to environmental destruction (illegal pollution, bribing regulators to get permissions to build facilities in protected habitats, burning rainforest for bigger plantations, etc.) or exposure to harm (concealment of known consumer risks for reasons of profit, violation of food safety regulations, etc.), and violation of political responsibilities by lying, supporting inequality and injustice, suppressing critical voices, violating rights, and knowingly undermining social stability. I will write more about this form of inacceptable human behaviour in section 5 of this series.

The most tricky group are the mindless asinine people. They are tricky because it is less obvious that they are stupid. They are not idiots because they don’t commit any crime or choose to act unethically. Yet, their performance has a huge impact on my life! In Taiwan and Germany, we may assume that everybody receives or has received a formal education. Still, many people choose ways of meaning construction (default setting, dogmatism) that lead to undesirable manifestations of social spheres. Religiosity, political ideologies, economy with its monetary system, consumerism, hedonistic pleasure-seeking – none of these phenomena are illegal or directly immoral. Yet, they are all the result of mindlessness and stupidity. Why is that? In everything we choose to do we are driven by archaic deeply rooted experiences: fear, attachment (greed, envy), and resistance (anger, hatred). These forces override empirical rationality and reason. It makes no sense at all to take the Bible literally and believe in an almighty God in the sky, but still people choose to believe it because it makes their life simpler and feeds their most fundamental fears (of death, of loss, of hopelessness). We all know that our consumerism damages the ecosystem, but still we buy more useless products, produce more trash, and keep insisting on cheap energy (rather than expensive but sustainable energy). We know that mass-media entertainment and most TV program is entirely nonsensical and stupidifying, but still many people choose to watch it day in day out. We know that social media has an adverse effect on our socialisation and friendship quality, but still many of us spend hours per day staring at screens. Because it is simple, easy, and satisfies our desires, the root of all dukkha (suffering in the Buddhist sense)…


I would like to go one step further and include everyone into this group (stupidity in the form of mindlessness) who is self-centered, or even wider: who has a self that is more or less strongly manifested and unquestioned. We are all the undoubted center of our universes. We follow interests and desires, shaped by experiences and our matrix (education, culture, society, etc.), and find it perfectly legitimate to put ourselves above everybody else. This is a very natural occurrence and nothing despicable. Yet, it causes trouble. Since 2500 years, European and Asian societies know better. The Ancient Greek identified the human capacity to step out of our animalistic nature and raise ourselves up towards freedom. Laozi, Kongzi (Confucius) and especially Gautama Buddha proposed manifold epistemic and practical ways to cultivate a mindful character and personality. Yet, only few people have the capacity to understand those ideas and put them into practice. In Taiwan, the self-centeredness and mindlessness of people is strongly manifested in traffic: People are completely inconsiderate and unaware of the consequences of their actions. Imagine the stupidest and most reckless manoeuvre that comes to your mind (like making a sudden U-turn on a crowded main road at rush hour) – there will be a Taiwanese who does exactly that right in this moment. As I said before, Taiwanese are very kind and friendly people, so they have certainly no bad intentions when behaving like that. They are just not able to anticipate and comprehend why they should pay attention to such things, and they are utterly impatient and careless. Road safety? Responsibility? Consideration for others? Pfffft! It is late and I want to get home, so out of my way! This form of recklessness is especially problematic since it effects the life quality of everybody! Moreover, it is avoidable! Also Taiwanese have driving classes and have to pass a test. They should know all the rules and the effect of their violation! Yet, the Taiwanese society failed in establishing a culture in which people understand that it is useful and important to have such tests and such regulations. Instead, people learn the rules only to pass the test and then forget them again because who cares?!.

Another aspect in this category is the entire field of emotional incompetence. Bad-tempered, aggressive, capricious, whiny, uncontrolled people terrorise their surrounding. Lack of emotional intelligence is, certainly, one of the most impacting factors for loss of life quality, both for the emotional person him/herself and the people around such a person. I know, we are all victims of our emotions, and blame or accusation may be a little unfair. I even know people (like my first girlfriend) who think it is perfectly OK and “human” to lose temper and freak out in a burst of furious rage from time to time. We are not robots, right? Right! We are civilised, mindful, conscious beings that have a chance – and, therefore, an obligation – to reflect upon emotional triggers and resulting reactions! Yes, I demand too much, I know. That’s why the only solution is misanthropy. We just can’t do better!

All these forms of stupidity – the ignorant, the superstitious and religious, the mindless, the self-centered, the greedy, the bad-tempered, the reckless and ruthless – lower my life quality significantly! Some directly by bothering and annoying me in daily life situations, others indirectly by messing up the social and ecological environment. The worst is: The situation seems so hopeless! We simply can’t implement proper education (for knowledge AND values) everywhere around the globe! There will always be injustice, motivation for crime, lack of vision, self-centeredness! Human stupidity is ubiquitous and eternal – I am sure I am not the first to state this.

In this post, I made some bold claims. The most debatable one, probably, is that people in civilised societies have the moral and social obligation to cultivate a mindful and considerate awareness for their ignorance and stupidity so that they have a chance to overcome it and perform better in their lives. This point needs more convincing arguments in the next episode of this series.

Four Levels of Truth

When reading Buddhist scriptures, especially those sutras that directly cite the historical Gautama Buddha, it can be confusing that there are often obvious contradictions and statements that downright oppose each other. Besides a few obvious mistakes that were made by ancient translators and later scholars, the majority of those result from Buddha’s conviction that it is necessary to adapt the teaching to the recipients’ capability of understanding. In this sense, a doctrine is true as long as it is appropriate to serve as a suitable means to the noble end of guiding people towards the right or the good (understanding, action, behaviour, insight, etc.). This argument was promoted in the most sophisticated manner in the later Chinese Buddhist school known as Tiantai (天台). The founder of this school, Zhi-Yi (智顗), divides all Buddhist treatises and sutras into four kinds (his famous “Fourfold Teachings”, 四教):

  • The Tripitaka Teachings (藏教): The Theravada teaching that renounces the experiential world, meant for people who have little intelligence and low ambition. Its truth is that the world is empty in the sense of being illusions. The path to Nirvana is the renunciation of the world of suffering.
  • The Common Teaching (通教): Shared by both Theravada and Mahayana schools, this teaching for people who can understand the truth of emptiness and recognise that dharmas have no real self-subsisting nature is still about emptiness, but with the notion that it means nothing other than dependent co-arising. It doesn’t necessarily advocate exiting the mundane world to reach Nirvana.
  • The Special Teaching (別教): A Mahayana teaching for people with compassion for other sentient beings. It preaches the Bodhisattva goal of attainment, based on the understanding of the Buddha-nature and the Middle Way (often referred to as the ultimate truth).
  • The Perfect Teaching (圓教): The teaching of the ultimate reality which is the Middle Way itself. It identifies Nirvana with the phenomenal world: One does not need to leave the phenomenal world to enter Nirvana. Under this teaching – in contrast to the Special Teaching – afflictions and attachments are not necessarily bad. One can gain enlightenment even in the midst of afflictions. One only needs to attain perfect wisdom with all that it entails (inner harmony, loving-kindness, pure awareness of dharmas, etc.).

I guess we can summarise it like this: The first approach is based on experiences and teaches rules on how to deal with those experiences. The second grounds on factual knowledge and teaches strategies on what to do with that knowledge. The third focuses on values and teaches virtues that preserve and cultivate those values. The fourth refers to wisdom and teaches how to attain a mindset in which perfect wisdom can flourish.

Obviously, there is a form of hierarchy in this list concerning the mental capacity of sentient beings. I don’t want to limit it to humans, since we can include animals in our reflections, as we will see. First, I think it is possible to link the teaching approaches to the different phases of development within the lifespan of one person. Second, we may group different members of society according to which kind of teaching they are best confronted with. In the first sense, I think of my ways of dealing with you (Tsolmo) as a father through the years:

Now, while you are little and without much knowledge, I will tell you rules and orders, like “Don’t touch the fire!” or “Don’t stick nails into the power sockets!”. It would be useless to explain to you that fire is the exothermic reaction of oxygen with anything organic (including your skin and the tissue underneath) and that the feeling of pain is a signal transduction of your nerve cells that triggers certain brain activities, manifesting in your consciousness as an unpleasant feeling, or that electricity is the result of a charge gradient along a conducive material like metal wires or your body (in which it causes pain, see above)… Your world at this stage is that of experience, so I guide you in your way of making experiences, keeping more serious dangers away from you.

Then you will acquire more and more knowledge about the mechanisms of this world, and simple rules and orders will not satisfy your insatiable curiosity about the Hows and Whys. You will learn a lot at school, but also at home. THIS is what happens when you expose your body to heat. THIS is what happens in a flow of charges. And THAT’s WHY you shouldn’t touch it. In this phase, however, you will sometimes learn “wrong” things in the sense of oversimplifications and half-truths. In primary school you might learn that electricity is a “flow of electrons”, but when you study physics or chemistry at university you will find out that it is not entirely “correct” to put it that way. The knowledge in this stage will help you to acquire technical skills: You will know how to switch on the gas stove and how to plug devices into the power sockets. However, you might need supervision, because you might underestimate the risks and expose yourself (and others, eventually) to dangers.

The next stage is the alignment of your choices and decisions with values and preferences: You need orientational knowledge to answer questions like “Why would I want this or that?” and “Why ought I to do this or that or maybe better not?” and “What kind of knowledge shall I look for in order to aid my decision-making?“. With this capacity you will also be able to relate your own interests to those of others and to mediate empathically in case of conflicts and dilemmas. Factual knowledge of the world won’t help in these cases, but only normative-ethical knowledge and prescriptive and evaluative modes of thinking (with subsequent action). Here you become a responsible person, so that I can stop being concerned about the risk of fire and electricity, because you will know how to deal with it properly. There is no more need to keep you away from the gas stove, because you will be skilled AND mindful enough to use it for your benefit without being in danger of its potential harms. You will be able to evaluate the outcome of your decisions, balance risks and benefits and even include the people around you in your reflections. I can trust you!

Finally, you might reach a level of wisdom. Here, it is not anymore about fire and electricity and their risks, but about the question “Why would I use gas stoves or electronic devices at all? Isn’t there an alternative?”. You let fire be fire, electricity be electricity and yourself be… well… what?… YOU. The point is not a nihilistic “Nothing really matters.”, but a visionary and clear-minded “This is how things are, and I see it!”. You see the larger picture of mundane and phenomenal conditionality and karmic interrelations. You will have inner peace and strength, resulting in a balanced mind. Yes, you will still burn yourself accidentally or make the fuse blow by improper handling of an electric device. But flawless perfection of worldly matters is not a goal anymore! The goal is: Seeing things as they are and approaching them with an unshakable clarity and momentariness. I have nothing to tell you in that stage.

The second way to interpret the Fourfold Teachings, as I mentioned, is a societal classification of mental capability. First, there are those who are ignorant. I say that without any judgment or offense. However, we need to separate two kinds of ignorant minds: Those who can’t be claimed to know it better, and those who can. Among the first are animals, small children, mentally disabled, comatose or in any other way unconscious or mindless patients, and those who have no access to proper education or even a “normal” way of life (for example, children that grow up in war zones). We simply wouldn’t expect children, dogs, people with down syndrome or Alzheimer patients to always know what is the right thing to do, so we decide for them in a paternalistic way (restrict them from access to certain things and areas, put them on a chain (I mean, the dogs!), or give them clear rules that are for the best of them). Among the second are people with a lack of intellect and with a high degree of narrow-mindedness. Now, the opinions might deviate strongly on who that typically is. My image of “common people” is rather bad, so I would put many (MANY) people into this group. Most of all, there are all the scumbags like racists, fascists, supremacists, haters, priggish and egocentric fools, but also many religious people (used to follow doctrines and dogmatic orders rather than questioning anything), mindless consumers (of all kinds of things), people with high susceptibility to addictions, emotionally incompetent people (bad-tempered, labile, or inappropriately overconfident). They all have one thing in common: They don’t know (or: are not aware of) something important (either worldly facts, or emotional self-management, or how to control themselves). It would take great effort to teach them knowledge (especially when they are adults), not to mention values or wisdom. Their picture (as in “the larger picture”) is so small that the only things that can keep them on track towards a more or less meaningful and fulfilled life are clear rules and guidelines. These are provided in the form of laws by the legal system these people live in, in the form of cultural, traditional and religious value- and belief-systems and their established ways of social sanctioning, or in the form of institutions and clubs with shallow messages and philosophies (like churches, gyms, meditation circles, WeightWatchers, Alcoholics Anonymous, etc.). Again: There is nothing to blame, here! The only question is: What kind of approach is of any help or benefit for the people?

Then there are people who choose the way of (factual) knowledge as the best path towards a good life (whatever that means). Today, the access to such knowledge is better than ever! You don’t need to go to the library and spend hours there, anymore, but can look for and get all the knowledge you want almost everywhere with your mobile communication device. Most people know that it is not a punishment by a god when the room is suddenly in darkness, but a broken light bulb or a blown fuse – and they know how to fix it by themselves! They also know that racism has no scientific foundation, that addiction arises from certain psychological mechanism, that emotions can be managed, and that consumption of mass-produced goods (including cosmetics, smartphones, meat, and TV program) most likely has unethical implications like environmental destruction or mental decay. This knowledge increases the quality of your decision-making (but not necessarily that of each and every of your decisions!). So, what helps you to increase your quality of life? More knowledge!

Also this approach has its limits. As pointed out in other letters, factual and procedural knowledge about the world is not able to tell us what to do. This requires orientational knowledge: values, norms, goods. When realising that, your life is good when you are convinced that you made the right choice, in contrast to a correct choice as in the former strategy. Your decisions should, in this sense, be informed by possible consequences of them for you and for others. You see how orientational knowledge adds up to factual knowledge: In order to foresee consequences and implications of certain decisions and actions you will need particular factual knowledge (for example, of physics, of social mechanisms, of psychological interrelations, of values in a descriptive sense), so that you know what you need to apply your normative evaluations to. People that belong to this group – those who reflect on the question “How do I know what something is good for?” before making a decision – tend to be more altruistic, but also more hesitant and sometimes insecure, because it is always possible to make the wrong choice (which is a bad choice).

This problem is none among the very few people (if any at all) in the fourth group: Those with the farsighted wisdom similar to that of Gautama Buddha (possibly). I certainly don’t claim to be one of them! Therefore, I am actually not able to write anything here, because I (probably) didn’t really get what it means. However, let me try to explain my understanding of it: A wise person understands that it is pointless (because impossible) and unnecessary (because overambitious) to try to live a perfect and flawless life. We will never be capable of foreseeing all karmic effects of our actions, neither the physical ones (as if we were able to predict the exact position of every billiard ball on a table after knowing all the data of how the queue hits the white one) nor the personal ones (one’s position in the society, friend networks, impact of one’s actions and words on others and their subsequent actions and words, etc.). Trying to optimise our decision-making in terms of these factors has an obvious cognitive limit. Wisdom doesn’t mean to always do the right thing, but to figure out what is the best choice among given options in this moment (the moment of choosing). An important precondition for this state of mind is a complete freedom from attachments (including self-attachment) and mindless craving. A selfish choice, then, is per se not a wise choice. Pure wisdom concerning the ultimate reality leaves the self-perspective entirely and sees the world as a conditional network of karma that seeks harmonious equilibrium. Good, then, is what supports this larger scale harmony, which might often not be the direct personal benefit. There is no wrong or bad decision in this stage, because you will understand that the world is a dynamic momentary manifestation of karmic conditions and that your only choice is to take this moment to make a decision. If that is good or bad, right or wrong – who will ever know? However, a high degree of mindfulness and awareness of this moment will increase the chance that your decision will have more sustainable long-term effects on the quality of your life. All the rest (desires, interests, concerns, worries, fears, confidence, (in)security, etc.): Let it go!

This table summarises the reflections on the four levels of teaching (entirely debatable!):

Teaching Knowledge type Lifespan stage Societal group
Rules Experience Child Ignorant
Strategies/Skills Factual Teen/Adolescent Educated
Virtues Orientational/
Adult Mindful
Clear Mind Vision/Wisdom Senior Wise/Enlightened

Once more, it (hopefully) became obvious why I don’t like the term truth. Certainly, there is no absolute truth. Statements can only be true in a defined set of conditions under which communicators can agree that its content resembles a certain form of truth, for example a semantic truth, a linguistic truth, a logic truth, a historical truth, etc. Here, in this letter, I wanted to show that the notion of truth necessarily needs a pragmatic component: Truth as expedient means to an end needs to be viable in a given context, enabling people with different capacities and intelligences to gain true enlightenment (at least an insight on how to live their lives well). It is not what a statement says, but what it does (that is, what it accomplishes), that makes the statement true.


Nutshell Buddhism

There is a difference between “the actual world” and our idea of the world in our minds. Despite the scientific realists’ claim that scientific knowledge resembles real (natural) entities, many philosophers of different epochs and cultural realms concluded that we can’t be that certain of what we believe is the “reality”. This ranges from Daoists (the Dao stands for the ultimate reality that is in contrast to the human world that is perceived, explained and communicated by names (language)), to Indian (Hindu) worldview with two truths (ultimate reality and phenomenal (common sense) reality), to Kantian metaphysics (things-as-they-are (Dinge-an-sich) and forms-of-view (Anschauungsformen)), to constructive realism a la Friedrich Wallner (actuality vs. lifeworlds and microworlds). Nobody, however, expressed this difference more aptly than Gautama-Buddha, mounting in the First Noble Truth (“Life is suffering“). I understand suffering (dukha) in the Buddhist sense as the deviation between our idea of the world as the result of our deluded minds and the world as it really is. This is what he means with ignorance. Let me elaborate a little further on that.

In my tree of knowledge, I depicted our mental and cognitive features (and all they entail) including the experiences we make through them as the roots, the process of sense-making and meaning-construction as the channels in the trunk of the tree, and the manifestations of our worldviews, beliefs and values as the branches. This can be a powerful illustration to explain the essence of Buddhist worldview. The core of Buddhist philosophy is the scheme of the “12 links of interdependent co-arising“. Basically, it teaches that due to our ignorance we believe in the permanence of isolated separated entities, including ourselves (or: our self). We believe that “what we see is really there” (which, from an evolutionary perspective, is probably helpful for survival), which arouses our desires in a way that we judge what is “good” or “bad” for us so that we seek for some things (attachment) and avoid others (resistance). The desirability and non-desirability of things, however, is an illusion. It is formed by the framework of our past experiences and our vision of the future (driven by the fear of death). Buddha, here, elaborates on the roots (in my picture): He claims that the roots are grown in a rigid and inflexible way. We rely on perception tools that are limited (six senses, each limited to certain ranges of physical properties such as wavelengths (seeing), frequencies (hearing), molecular concentration (tasting and smelling), etc.). We are aware only of what fits our experiential margin. Emotions and desires are shaped by forces that are beyond our control. Therefore, relying on our roots is the first factor of suffering.

Then, he explains what the flaws are with our choices of channels for meaning-construction. We are driven by concepts and intellectual reasoning, external forces like dogmas and paradigms, or psychological punishment- and reward-systems. Same as the roots, they are all deluded by the illusory conviction that our mental reality is identical with the actual reality. Society with all its institutions (science, politics, economy, organised religion, etc.), culture (with its modes of identification in separation from other cultures), and also individual personality (as the branches of the tree) are all built on this level of reality. Things are, however, different. There is nothing permanent and separated. Everything is connected in a complex net of conditionality, non-deterministic, non-teleological, non-reductive, non-dualistic, and therefore: empty. Shunyata (“emptiness“), as understood by Nagarjuna and later the Chinese Mahayana schools Huayan, Tiantai and Chan, is the fundamental metaphysics of the world. This is the ultimate reality. The worldly features that we create on the basis of our deluded “roots” deviate from this underlying ultimate reality to certain extents. The bigger that deviation the stronger our suffering.

Now, there are two ways to overcome this suffering. One works on the roots. We may plant seeds for the roots to grow in different ways. To use the metaphor of a famous movie: This means to “exit the matrix” of the mindlessly grown roots and actively form new sources for experiences and cognitive access to reality. The other way – but most often both ways have to be applied together – is a change of meaning-construction, or in terms of the picture: choose a different channel through the trunk. This is meditative contemplation and mindful awareness. In order to get closer to the ultimate reality, we need to let go of concepts, deluded rationality, mindless following of doctrines and rules (acquired through education and socialisation), and especially the illusion of an independent self that dominates our psyche. Only then will we be able to see through the complex network of cause-effect-relations (karma) and set ourselves free in (not from) its matrix. The Diamond sutra may help to understand the important point here: “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.“. It sounds like a contradiction, but it is a rhetoric tool to describe the indescribable. Form (the things we perceive as independent objects or substance on the level of (deluded) common-sense reality) is actually empty (not outside the karmic cause-effect-conditionality), while it is exactly this metaphysical conditionality that brings about all which we interpret as form. This ontological understanding, with ourselves interwoven into the ever-changing web of the world fabric, will change our approach to life fundamentally! While the more traditional Indian Buddhists (Theravada schools) would probably state that there will be no more branches since enlightenment (that ontological break-through) leads to the other-worldly nirvana, I share the Mahayana view (esp. Tiantai) that enlightenment and nirvana are this-worldly phenomena from which we benefit within our lifetime. With an enlightened mind, our roots, the trunk and the branches all transform. We see our personality traits, emotions, fears, desires, and worldviews in the context of our past, our local surrounding (society, culture) and our cognitive capacities. We see how our past experiences form layers around our very core personality, the Buddha-Nature. In the next step, we disconnect the causal chains that control our decisions and choices. We see how sense and meaning are constructed in our mental processes and gain the ability to step back from it, question the strategies, apply different ones and get less dependent on the pre-shaped ones. Many branches, then, lose their significance and shrink. We see how others construct meaning and why they act like this or that within the thematic margins of certain branches, and we gain the empathic skills of compassion and loving-kindness.


by Alex Grey


Many of the decisions we make in our daily lives are – in one way or another – affecting other people, sometimes those around us, sometimes the whole society or mankind, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. In this respect, many of our decisions have an ethical dimension, because what we judge to be good or right might be evaluated and viewed differently by others. The decision to skip brushing teeth before going to bed, or our choice of TV channel, appear to be non-ethical issues, but even for these cases we can construct examples in which they are, actually, morally relevant – for example, when I as your parent am responsible for your hygiene habits and should act as a positive idol not going to bed without brushing teeth, or when I stupify myself with dumb TV shows and become a burden for society. One very obviously ethical element of our daily lives is the consumption of industrial goods, because it clearly affects the environment, workers, the economy, the society at large, and also ourselves. However, it happens often that we are not aware of the ethical pitfalls connected to consuming a certain product or product category because the processes related to it are hidden. Not only since Kant do we know that ought implies can. We can claim morally sound choices only from those who know what implications consumption has. Therefore, I tell you here and now what’s wrong with cosmetics so that you can never claim you “didn’t know“!

You are a girl. No matter how hard I try to avoid it, you will be exposed to stereotyping and gender roles, even if we leave Taiwan and move to Germany. Your Mom doesn’t use make-up or perfumes and only a very small set of cosmetics, but when you go to Kindergarten, to school or simply watch (and smell) people in public, you will find that many women paint their faces and smell like botanical gardens. That is their choice, even though many of them will refer to social pressure, like in Japan, where women can lose their jobs if they appear at their workplace without make-up. Some believe that women with make-up look “prettier”, which is clearly a brainwashing indoctrination from mass media and glossy magazines. But is it really just a personal choice and as such non-ethical?


Testing cosmetics on rabbit skin.

I see two problems with cosmetics. The first is the common practice to test each and every new ingredient and composition of a new cosmetic product on the skin of a test animal. The large variety of crèmes, powders, lotions, etc. that you find in the shops is grounded on millions of laboratory animals that are sacrificed for the flawlessness of your skin and the promise of eternal beauty. The second, from my point of view much more dramatic problem is this: One of the main ingredients in almost all cosmetics is palm oil. This is harvested from palm plantations in tropical countries, making it one of their major export products. I have visited the jungle in Malaysia and was shocked to see that huge areas are gone and substituted by oil palms as far as the eye can see. The native eco-system is gone forever. In Indonesia, jungle is burned down illegally to make space for more oil palm plantations, causing horrible air pollution in a huge area and destroying the habitat of apes and other threatened animals that will go extinct. Millions of women in mostly rich countries far away from the palm oil producing countries have a demand that creates a market which influences the strategies and decisions of profit-oriented companies and their business practices. In this environment of greed and (among the local farmers) existential fears, the eco-system and its vulnerable elements (jungle, apes, atmosphere) have no lobby.


Homeless Orang Utan

A common strategy in ethical reasoning for justification is the comparison of means and ends. Here, sacrificing laboratory animals and destroying the eco-system are means that serve the end of hygiene, skin care and appearing prettier. I will not go deeper into describing what is the problem with these means. The question is: are they justified by the ends? Hygiene is very closely linked to health. Modern hygiene standards are certainly the major reason for our high quality of life and long life expectancy. However, it is clear that the vast majority of cosmetics is not necessary for the establishment of good health (as, for example, the choice of a certain lifestyle with healthy food, sufficient movement, abstinence from drugs, etc. is). The main reasons for the decision to apply cosmetic products are convenience, ignorance and fear. Putting a crème on in order to deal with itchy skin is much easier than moving into a healthier environment (e.g. out of the polluted city into a cleaner green area) or changing the diet (eliminating all the unhealthy food). Ignorance is a broader case. It refers to a high susceptibility for cosmetics consumption due to the low level of knowledge about its implications, but also the unawareness for the social mechanisms that trigger the choice to buy and apply those products. This brings me to the aspect of fear: I believe, the main reason for women to use cosmetics (esp. make-up) is their attachment to superficial prettiness (not even beauty!), to the promise of eternal youth and their search for admiration and appreciation through outer appearance – formed, supported and sustained by role identifications, assumed expectations (by superficial men), mass media, and social environment (I read in a German article that “women want women to look pretty by wearing make-up. Most men don’t care or don’t like too much make-up.”). This makes it a perfect example for Buddha’s teaching of the “three mind poisons” (ignorance, attachment, resistance) as the source of suffering. Attachment to superficial characteristics (prettiness), resistance against the unavoidable (aging), ignorance of these decision factors and their implications. Moreover, it is even highly debatable whether this proclaimed beauty ideal (“bigger eyes” through eye make-up, whiter skin through powder, red lips with lipsticks, etc.) is justified by anything! The ethical problem with this form of suffering is that the price for this distorted mindset is the massive destruction of natural habitats, the extinction of species and a fatal disruption of the eco-system. it might sound harsh, but I want you to remember that whenever you smear anything with palm oil into your face just to wash it off again a few hours later, soothing your irritated skin with another crème containing… yeah… palm oil!

World Construction

The core question of philosophical reflection is “What is this world?”, or “What is being?”. Different epochs, eras and at different geographical places, people and their cultural realms found different answers on these questions. In case the historical answers are known, in retrospective, we can analyse them and – in view of later, more modern insights – find a certain course of development or sophistication in world explanations. We might also recognise that the “evolution” of insights is in good analogy to the process of knowledge acquisition for an individual from childhood to adult age.

By using our cognitive tools we perceive the world we are living in. The most naïve view is that of a real world that presents itself to us. Our task, then, is to “discover” as many facets of it as possible in order to increase the chances of a “successful” and fulfilled life in this world.


This was the idea of the Ancient Greek philosophers, starting from Heraklit and Parmenides up to Sokrates, Platon and Aristoteles. It was all about “the world”. Its features and properties (its “truth”) can be recognised by us so that we – by careful watching and philosophical reflection – get the most realistic image of it. Only then we can fulfil our most “human” task of overcoming our natural boundaries and get closer to the divine, closer to perfection. This is the basic idea: The specifically “human” element in us is the ability to go beyond ourselves, to exit the inevitable and be free. With an accurate picture of the real world that surrounds us in mind, this movement towards the divine is facilitated significantly!

There are two dangers in this idea, and both are deeply entrenched in the further course of European-Western philosophy. The first is the dualistic division into “outside” and “inside”, into “outer world” and “inner me”, finding its climax in the reflections of René Descartes (17th century). The consequences are tremendous! It took ages and the influence of East-Asian philosophy to correct this flawed idea. The second is the realist scientific worldview with its idea of “discovering” knowledge about real features of the world. Even though this realism has been replaced by constructivism in recent decades, many scientists, engineers, researchers, but also most scientific laymen are still convinced that the knowledge we can acquire by scientific investigation describes a somehow manifested actuality.

Immanuel Kant is the most prominent philosopher who modified this image of world perception. His basic idea was that we can only get aware of those features of the world that we have a pre-formed image of, that means that somehow match with our previously made experiences. He distinguished “things-as-such” (the features of the real world) from the things as they appear in our mind.


As a consequence, we can never know for sure what the actual world is. It remains obscured. The world that is represented in our mind is fed by an image of the world, and at the same time it feeds this image (for example by making new experiences that requires a modification of the image). In this view, “world” is all about the subject (or: the observer). Some even went so far to say that “world” only exists in the mind.

With this understanding of human possibilities to know anything about the world, dualism and realism are not overcome, yet. The apparent monism that “world is only idea (in the mind)” (we call that idealism) is a hidden dualism because it only emerges in view of its counterpart “materialism” that states that “world is only matter”. Moreover, it is still the somehow given (real) world with its “things-as-such” that impacts the human perception. This direction was reversed by phenomenology, most prominently pushed forward by Edmund Husserl and later Martin Heidegger. The subject can’t be taken as a passive observer and constructor of the world. The cognitive process of observation itself gets into the focus.


An act of perception, in this view, is not a mere “streaming-in” of stimuli, but an active “looking-out” (figuratively! it covers all senses, not just the visual!) into the world. By nature, this is a highly selective process. Insights from biology, physics, psychology, anatomy, and other scientific disciplines that tell us about the human condition deliver a better understanding of how we construct “world” by making experiences. The crucial point is the human cognition, the “lens” that we are unable to take off. It confines the cut of the world that we are able to pay attention to, and it also colours and shapes the incoming signals. One of the most impressive experiments that was conducted to show our selective perception was this: People were asked to watch the video of a volleyball match and count how often the ball was passed between players all dressed in white. A man in a black gorilla costume appeared in the center of the scene during the match, beating his chest and making silly movements. The big majority of watchers didn’t see him, even though he was clearly visible among the white dressed players. Now, we can say that it was “unfair”, because the people were asked to concentrate on the ball, they can’t be blamed. But isn’t “life” exactly like that? We are always so busy focusing on certain clear cut aspects of life, occupying our full attention, that occurrences beyond this don’t find a way through to our awareness. Nobody can be “blamed” for that, however, since this is simply a neutral observation.

Phenomenology stresses the importance of “experience”. Every experience (drawn from every act of cognition) involves the entire set of experiences made in the past. An experience is the manifestation of all experiences. A simple example: When seeing only the front of a house, we “know” that this is a three-dimensional building because we know the concept “house” from former experiences. In every perception of a part of the world, we are aware of the entire world, because only in this relation the experience makes sense. This sense-making is the basis of all experience. Not only do we align all experiences with our worldview (constructed from previous experiences), we also can only experience what fits into our margin of “sensefulness”. That’s why we don’t see the gorilla during the volleyball match, because a gorilla has no place in the world “volleyball”. The house front is automatically “completed” in our mind to an entire house. When walking around it we might find that it deviates from our imagination, for example the exact size, shape, etc., but these are just details. In the same way, we almost always succeed in identifying an item as a “table”, even when it is a very unusual modern art design, because its entire embedment into our world (including its functionality) is constantly present. Sometimes our imagination is fooled, misled, surprised or puzzled. When we walk around the house front and find that it is only the decoration of a movie set, for example. Then we either have to re-align the constructed reality (here: from the world “house as living space” to the world “movie making”), or we have to construct new meaning from the new experience.

How can we be sure that the way we construct meaning from experience is in any way supported by real features of the surrounding world, and by that somehow “justified”? How do I know that what I “see” is the same thing as that what you “see”? There could be a simple answer: by talking about it!


Both our world constructions don’t represent the actual world sufficiently, but if we integrate our two – almost necessarily deviating – images into one, we might get closer to what may count as “real”. This “discourse approach” to world conceptualisation was promoted in the later 20th century by Jürgen Habermas, Karl-Otto Apel, Niklas Luhmann and others. Mankind is a species that constitutes its environment through communication and collaboration. World construction is, therefore, always a process from the “inter”-space: inter-personal, inter-relational, inter-cultural. My world becomes my world by setting it into relation to yours. My experience is only valid (or not) in view of your experiences (and all others). In case there are insurmountable differences, we need to engage in a conversation (or a discourse) in order to create new clarity.

However, communication is not a trivial thing. Its most important tool is language. This includes our spoken language using words, but also numerical systems (mathematics) and symbolism, non-verbal interaction, body language, etc. Language itself is conditioned and constituted by experience, which means that we only have linguistic expressions for what is already part of our experience (made by any of our ancestors). Translatability of “thoughts” and other cognitive impressions is a difficult endeavour, not only between the different languages of different countries or cultures, but even on the very basic level of interpersonal conversation. Therefore, philosophy spends a great big deal on clarifying and defining words and terms. When all that is done it is still not guaranteed that one really understands the other, because experience is not fully transferable. With sufficient exchange of information I might be able to anticipate your experience, but since my framework of experiences and their connection is different from yours, I will never be able to see the same thing in the same light. Actually, “world” can be defined as exactly this “framework of connected experiences”. Then, it makes sense to talk about “worlds” rather than “the world”, because what is “world” for you is more or less different from what is “world” for me. Identifying and getting aware of the overlapping parts of our world is as interesting and inspiring as the deviations.

These reflections, obviously, are inspired by European-Western philosophy. Much of this can be found in East-Asian philosophy as well. Especially Buddha’s teachings and their early philosophical analysis, for example by Nagarjuna, give insights into their idea of “world”. To my understanding, they have never been as naïve as the Ancient Greek. They didn’t split the world into outside and inside, they didn’t conclude this childish realism, and they were well aware of the human condition (i.e. human cognitive mechanisms) that underlie the world construction processes in our minds. This knowledge, ever since, could be exploited for actual down-to-earth mental liberation and enlightenment attempts. “Freeing the mind” from the “default setting” became the main endeavour of Buddhist practice. In contrast to the Greek idea, THIS is the main human challenge. In my illustrations that would be like removing or “clearing” the lens through which we see and interpret everything.


That would mean that we try to be less dependent on the patterns that we formed through our experiences but see things “as they are”. I’d like to add that it would also mean that for the large part of our surrounding (I avoid the term “world”, here) that is beyond our conscious capacity, we simply accept that we “know nothing”. This awareness makes a crucial difference! We will not be tempted to rely on our illusion of “knowing” but see through the flaws of our deluded minds and question everything. We could express it as “having no world in mind” or “having a no-world in mind”. Inter-personal or even inter-cultural communication about “worlds” is brought onto a completely new level by this understanding. Not only are we more open-minded towards others’ ideas and experiences, we are also less likely to fight for our own views and against the others’ views, because we understand that after all everything is “empty” of actual “substance” or “independent reality”. Then it also becomes entirely irrelevant to talk about “truth”. Much more important than truth is the viability of an experience and its subsequent subjection into meaning construction. The things “as they are” (which is not the same as Kant’s “things-as-such”), experienced directly and purely, span up the framework in which we live our lives and make our choices and decisions. Making this margin as wide and flexible as possible and ourselves as less conditioned and controlled as possible is the core practice of Buddhism. If we succeed in that, we see through the cycle of the 12 links of interdependent co-arising, we become aware of the three mind poisons, of our attachments and desires, of the dominance of our self concept, and of the Matrix that we live in. Then we can exit it.