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.

chakras

by Alex Grey

Let there be trees!

I am not very convinced of ancient Chinese philosophy. There is certainly an insightful metaphysical depth in the Yijing (易經) and its elaborations on change, harmony, conditionality and emergence. This was aptly substantiated by Laozi’s (老子) philosophy, but I always feel like something is missing in the Daodejing (道德經). His wu-wei (無為) idea is often not feasible in daily life and, therefore, appears a bit too easy and naïve. His follower Zhuangzi (莊子) is closer to my taste with his skepticism and pragmatism. Kongzi (孔子), Mengzi (孟子) and Xunzi (荀子) have been much too idealistic in their vision of “moral cultivation”, and much too optimistic concerning the intellectual and mental capacity of the “ordinary people”. At the same time, Mozi (墨子) and Hanfeizi (韓非子) have been too extreme, each in their way. Mozi was what we would now call a “Hippie”, convinced that human nature is unconditional love for everyone and everything, while Hanfeizi on the contrary depicted the human nature as evil and selfish, only tamed by strict law and punishment. Chinese Buddhist philosophy (Wei-shi, Hua-yan, Tian-tai and Chan) is much more inherently consistent and plausible from my point of view. However, that doesn’t mean that there is nothing to learn from ancient Chinese scholars!

There is an allegory told by Mengzi that I find very meaningful: The Ox Mountain (Niu Shan, 牛山, written in Mencius 6A:8). Imagine a mountain slope with a forest of tall firm trees. Lumberjacks come with saws and axes and cut down the trees. New sprouts appear, but the new open space is immediately occupied by oxen that eat the fresh sprouts or trample them down so that no new trees can grow. Therefore, once the lumberjacks did their work, the mountain slope will forever be bold, threatened by erosion and home to rampaging oxen.

oxmountain

Nothing can grow here no more…

He used this image in the context of explaining why despite the inherent goodness of people there is, apparently, so much evil in the world. He regards morality as “firmly grown” in the human mind, but cut and corrupted by “human affairs” and the inevitable negative experiences that every human being makes throughout his or her course of life. Once the perforated morality gave way to “the dark side”, the void is filled with instances that support the evil ways, destroying all chances for the healing of morality. The trees are our morality, the lumberjacks are the negative experiences, the oxen are the powerful agents of evil that keep us on the immoral track.

I think this story can also illustrate approaches of psychotherapy and how we deal with “bad people” in general. To me, it appears reasonable to regard character traits as subject of constant change. This change can be actively influenced. Thoughts and “mindsets” lead to particular actions, and repeated actions form habits and customs, and these habits constitute a person’s personality and, therefore, his or her “fate”. It is of lesser significance whether the “nature” of human is good or bad. I regard it as more significant that human character depends strongly on experience and how meaning is constructed from it. That also means that nobody is like this or that eternally and unshakeably. The criminal is a criminal because his way of life made him that. The idiot is an idiot because his or her experiences formed certain character traits that make him or her appear as an idiot to me. The bad-tempered freak has a good chance to develop a calm and easy mindset if only the conditions for it were set right. There is always a chance for transformation and change. The question is: Do we spend efforts on directing and guiding this development in a desirable way, or do we fatalistically believe in destiny, get desperate over is-states and remain inactive? Let’s try to give everyone a chance. Everyone’s mountain slope (mind) has the potential to be covered by a vivid forest of tall firm trees of emotional, intellectual and moral integrity.

When dealing with a “weird” person, someone with a low integrity or with distorted character traits, the first question we have to ask is: What cut down the trees? What in this person’s life acted like the lumberjacks with saws and axes? Very often it has been incidents or continuous experiences in the person’s past, for example education, family situations, mistreatments, unfavourable outer conditions, stress, existential fears, etc. Of course, the past can’t be changed, but understanding the past and its role for the present state is the first important step to initiate the future course in this moment. Empathic skills and a good will certainly help to see a person in a more understanding light rather than from an accusing and reproaching stand. The second question, then, is: What are the oxen that prevent the new sprouts from growing healthily? Therapeutically, this is the most pressing issue. Most psychoses, neuroses, obsessions, addictions, emotional and other disorders, habits and character manifestations can be understood as compensations of a lack of something existential (for example love, attention, self-fulfilment (freedom), respect and acceptance) or as an outlet for suppressed desires and needs. This must not necessarily be grown into a psychological disorder or disease, but may be expressed through imbalanced emotions and their eruptions, in self-isolation and diminished self-esteem or self-confidence. These “oxen” kill every chance of “recovery” since they occupy the person’s mind, decision-making capacity, actions and statements, and thus dominate both inner balance and social interactions. When encountering people that we label as “weird”, “bad” or “sick”, we often don’t care about their lumberjacks and oxen. We just see them as “this” or “that”. Admittedly, we also don’t have the time and capacity to show everyone our empathic and caring side. However, in case of friends and family members, we should always be aware of the fact that every person has an individual narrative of his or her life, with a history full of lumberjacks and oxen, and at the same time a mountain slope full of sprouts that desperately try to grow into tall trees. Chasing away the oxen and inviting the lumberjacks for a tea so that they are distracted from doing their ruinous work, that would be true help and support from a friend or a family member! I am firmly convinced that not only studious psychotherapists have the competence to do that, but everyone who has the capacity to love a close person, who is willing to lend an ear or a shoulder, and who understands that NOW is the time to let the past be past and pave the way for a desirable change towards a brighter future.

About your father

Autobiographical notes are not easy to write! Too big is the danger of falsifying facts, romanticising the past, whitewashing incidents and exaggerating the one or the other thing. However, you might feel like it is important to know my “background story” that makes it easier to understand why I think like this or that. I will try to be as precise as possible without going too deep into detail. And, of course, I won’t publish some delicate private stories on the internet…

I entered this world on October 9th in 1981. After two years in a small town my family moved to the countryside. We had no agriculture, just a few animals (cats, dog, chicken, horses, sometimes ducks, geese and for a short time even goats, sheep and three pigs). So much space for me! And so many things to explore! I grew up with the nature. I learned a lot about trees, flowers and animals. And I loved them! I was playing outside everyday, I never cared about the weather. I love sunshine same as snow or thunderstorm (oh, thunderstorm even is my favourite weather!). From 1985 to 1988 I went to the kindergarten and in 1988 I entered the primary school. I didn’t have many friends there. I was invited by other classmates for their birthday partys, I invited them for mine, sometimes we met and played together… But I was never the “dominant” part in class. Maybe living in the countryside was the reason why I was often playing on my own. But there was an advantage to live in the countryside: There was so much space, so many things to do.

My youth was just very usual. I entered Gymnasium, the German secondary school type that permits to study at University afterwards. From time to time I fell in love with a girl, but I was too shy to ask her. I found out that I like to play drums and entered the school’s BigBand. I took part in a scientific competition for young pupil and was member of the pupil’s council. I learned three foreign languages: English (nine years), Latin (five years) and French (two years). French I learned voluntarily, I think this was the only mistake I made in school. A little bit later I found out that I prefer the natural sciences. The last three years are called “Oberstufe” (upper grade), this was the best time of all! I could select my subjects, and I mainly chose natural sciences like chemistry, biology and mathematics. I also had “Music education”, which was very important! I got really good marks in music, because I learned to play musical instruments (drums and piano). So my average mark at the end of school was quite good. The language subjects were not so good, but music and chemistry gave me a good final grade!

Here are some “lessons learned” from my teenage years:

  • People are evil.
    I was bullied a lot at the age of 13,14,15… My classmates made fun of me living in the countryside, making bad jokes about being a farmer. I can’t blame my friends because they probably never realised they were bullying me, but I started to hate everyone! My intraverted and rather anxious personality and my lack of self-confidence made me escape even more into my own world, playing on my own, even starting my own country (“Pannonia”) in which I was the King, in which I made the rules. But ever since I can’t get along easily with “dominant” outgoing and extraverted people. Still today I often feel shy, insecure and want to hide when facing people that are “too strong” and dominant. These incidents back in the days mark the first step in developing serious misanthropy.
  • Mankind as a failure
    Inspired by a book called “Trial and error: Mankind – a failure of Nature” written by German Anthropologist Theo Löbsack I felt confirmed in my anti-human viewpoint at the delicate age of 16. The book states that the human race is condemned to die out because of its “excessive organ”, the brain. We developed technology, ethics, medicine, social systems, etc., which in the long run lead to a weakening of mankind. I hope mankind disappears as soon as possible, before destroying earth more! It would be the best for the planet! Mankind is like a plague, like a virus for this planet! Finally the planet will get rid of it. And it will be painful for mankind!
    I often asked myself: How can I think so terrible about mankind and at the same time just lead an ordinary human life? I talked about mankind as if I was not part of it. Finally I came to the conclusion that it is OK to see things from two points of view: Regarding “mankind” as the sum of all humans, without any individuals, and regarding myself as an individual that has to make its own way among all the others. For a while I felt very guilty and unhappy, but I think it is just part of evolution. Mankind had to develop into that, and we will leave that planet as soon as we have gone too far! And no one will ever cry any tear about us! Sad but true!
  • Emotional intelligence
    My first girlfriend was a very emotional person who often lost temper and freaked out even because of little things. She claimed it “human” to live out anger whenever it came up, and that I am weird because I obviously suppress my anger and other emotions. I tried to control my negative emotions, because I realised that they always have only bad effects: anger made other people also angry or sad, sadness made me feel powerless, greed or envy made me do evil deeds. Also in my family I learned: be considerate! Do not make everything with too much emotion, but think about it first. In my opinion “emotional” is not the opposite of “rational”. Emotion and ratio always work together. But emotion is faster, so people do “emotional” deeds and it seems they did not think (ratio) about consequences or the effect of their action. Having “emotional intelligence” means to have a high self-awareness, the ability of self-management, but also empathy and social awareness. I think all these things can be trained – and should be trained. They are essential for good physical and mental health, for having good relationships and for leading a good life with a peaceful soul.

Since Chemistry was my favourite subject at school I decided to study Chemistry at University. I entered Münster University, because it was close to my hometown and I can continue my bands that I had for many years. I lived in a “community” with my old school friend Jonas (we know each other since 1992), that means we lived together in an apartment, one room for each of us, sharing kitchen and bathroom. I really enjoyed having my own space, experiencing all aspects of a students life (Party, drinking, hanging out with friends, playing music… oh, and sometimes study…), and learning more about chemistry. I got the Diploma degree after successfully finishing several lab courses, exams, a semester in Korea and a really great time with new “lessons learned”!

  • Emotional Intelligence revisited
    My second girlfriend was the opposite of the first one in this respect: She seemed to be completely emotionless, like a stone or a block of ice. It was much easier with her, she never got angry. When we quarreled we simply discussed about what happened or what is wrong. And we came to a conclusion very fast. We always used our brains when quarreling, finding arguments, listening to the other, trying to understand the other and finally find an agreement (= solve the problem). This is the advantage of being emotionless. But on the other hand she also never showed joy or happiness. She seemed to be callous or even apathetical. It was very difficult to make her smile or even laugh. Or people might say, she was not so natural… Always controlling herself, never “letting herself go”. As I said: with negative emotions this is very useful, but not with positive ones. This was my first time experiencing that the best way is usually the middle way between two extremes.
  • To have or to be, that is the question
    Erich Fromm taught me a lot about these two different life approaches. Having lifestyle, which is found in industrialised countries, is based on possession or ownership, Being lifestyle – as an example the Asian countries are mentioned – is based on self-development, finding the own abilities and strong points and lead a life in agreement with the environment. Three examples:

    • Loving someone in the Having-style takes love as a “thing” that you can “have”, but that you can also lose. “Love” is there, but it can vanish, so that the partnership is always at danger. Lovers might stick to “love” as a concept. “Being-style love” doesn’t waste time on such aspects, it is enjoyed in the moment, the two lovers “are” (or become) the love.
    • In Western medicine a disease is often regarded as a disturbing factor that came in from outside and must be taken and removed. Eastern medicine regards the disease as a momentary part of the patient and must be transformed instead of removed.
    • Studying in the having-lifestyle mainly means memorizing (having knowledge), whereas studying in being-style means growing by making the learned a part of oneself.
  • No life without Music
    When I was 12 years old I was a nobody. I was shy and weak. People in school treated me like a fool and I never raised my voice against that. But then I learned to play the drums and I was really good! Someday I noticed that there is something I can do better than everyone else at this school! I had no reason to hide or to act shy. Drumming made me strong, I got a lot of self-confidence. Still I identify myself with music! It is my most passionate hobby. Next to playing drums I also learned to play Piano a little, and if there is no instrument I just sing. I will make music all my life! I hope I can motivate you and your future siblings to play musical instruments! I would play together with you as a family band!
  • The peaceful warrior
    A book by Dan Millman changed my life! The key message is: whatever you do, do it HERE and NOW, with all your concentration and an aware mind. Don’t let anything distract you, especially eliminate all your attachments that give you the illusion of controlling the uncontrollable. Inspired by his “peaceful warrior” I started to think a lot about my life. I identified so many attachments and unhealthy patterns in my life! First I started to take more care of my body and lost 20 kg of weight by changing my eating habits and going swimming regularly. Then I tried to transform my mind by practicing a positive attitude towards life: Don’t talk negatively, don’t see negative aspects in something, but appreciate beauty and harmony. It was very obvious to me that this book explains the ideas of Buddhism applied to daily life aspects, even though it doesn’t use the term “Buddhism” a single time! It was my first time to get in touch with that philosophy and since then I learned a lot more about Buddhism. I must say, my life is better since then! I think I found a way to LEAD my life (instead of only existing…).
  • Exit the Matrix
    I began to understand the deep meaning of the “Matrix” movie trilogy in which all people live in a “Matrix” generated by computer programs to create the illusion of a free world whereas in reality the people are exploited by machines that rule the world. There are so many hints to Buddhist philosophy in those movies: Our mind construes the world by interpreting perceptions according to previous experiences and shaped patterns. It should be our goal to free ourselves from this mental prison and see the reality. The “hero” in the movie, Neo, tries to do that by fighting against the agents (the Matrix elements that keep us trapped in it), which doesn’t bring him any further. Finally he succeeds by stopping fighting. When there is no fight, the concept of an “opponent” looses its meaning. The peaceful warrior is always the winner. This topic kept me thinking for many years. I will write more about it in a separate article.

My second girlfriend was a german-born Korean. Through her family I learned a little about that Asian country, but since she knew nearly nothing about her roots I decided to study one semester in Korea – a good chance to get to know that country. I successfully applied for a DAAD (German academic exchange service) scholar ship to do two practical courses in a material science lab and a biochemistry lab at Seoul National University. A few weeks before I left Germany that girlfriend broke up and revealed that she already had a new boyfriend. That was a shock, but after a while in Korea my heart was healed. It was simply too exciting to explore this beautiful culture with its friendly people, the delicious food, the unique traditions and stunning modernity, so that I forgot about my Ex quickly. I had wonderful six months there, made many good friends, travelled around the whole country, played music in clubs in Seoul, learned to work from 8am to long after midnight, and found a “second home”. Since then I was in Korea 5 times and will probably always come back once in a while!

The research I did for my Diploma thesis and during my PhD course, Microcontact Printing, can be explained in analogy to “potato printing” from the Kindergarten: Potatoes are cut into two halfs and on the inside a pattern is cut with a knife. Then, colour is put on it and printed onto paper. I did the same, but with a little difference. Instead of potatoes I took polymer stamps. The pattern on the stamps is in the nanometer scale, very very small. The eye can not see the pattern, I have to use special microscopes to make it visible. The “ink” is not paint, but a solution of molecules. And the “paper” is not real paper but glass with special other molecules on the surface. The molecules on the stamp and on the glass undergo a chemical reaction. With this method I can pattern a surface in a certain way. There are many applications in medicine, nanotechnology, industry (for example car coatings…) or life science. In my first project I investigated which molecules I can print and which are not so good. So first I have to synthesize these molecules. I prefer the printing and investigation work. I detect the patterns by fluorescence. The ink molecules glow red or blue in a fluorescence microscope. In another project I printed Carbon Nanotubes with special electronic properties in order to fabricate a field effect transistor.

My institute at Münster University had a collaboration with Nagoya University in Japan and I was participating in that. It included a 6-months-stay in Japan, working in the labs of Prof. Shinohara (the carbon nanotube project). I found that Japan is very different from Korea. People here are extremely polite, but a little superficial and not as heartful and friendly as Korean. The whole country is very superficial and totally money-oriented. The majority of people is not interested in anything (people have no hobbies, don’t talk about politics, never complain, just work, eat and sleep) and never talk about personal things, even not with close friends or family members. Of course there are many good sides, for example excellent food, very beautiful cultural items and historical spots, and high safety wherever you go. But the six months made it very clear to me: I will spend my future rather in Korea and definitely NOT in Japan!

Philosophy has always been one of my interests, especially its “application” to daily life aspects. My daily work raised many philosophical, especially ethical questions. Next to some fundamental issues about the theory of science (What does it mean to “observe”, to “do experiments”, to assume certain theories of matter and how to interpret results?) I was highly interested in ethical and social implications of Nanotechnology, because I saw many problems arising from it. Before I followed the debate on genetic engineering, which was very emotional and caused the wide public to refuse it. But Nanotechnology had very similar characteristics: It has a high uncertainty because many nanosized particles can’t be seen and can’t be found after releasing them (for example in medical, cosmetic or food products). For sure it has benefits, but there are also risks. How can benefits and risks be balanced? How can they be predicted and controlled? Which role does the researcher play, what is his responsibility, if he has any at all? Together with an Amercian Professor I started a side project on this topic, developing and carrying out a “Seminar on ethical and social implications of scientific research”.

Exactly at that time I found an offer from the Philosophy department of my university: a Master course in Applied Ethics! That was perfect for me to switch the direction of my career a little: away from “pure science” to “talking about science” and governing science. I saw a gap between science and Philosophy and wanted to become a bridge between the two. In that course I learned a lot about medical ethics, bioethics, media ethics, political ethics, science ethics and concepts of justice, autonomy, freedom, dignity, responsibility, etc. I learned to use the ideas of Aristoteles, Sokrates, Plato, Kant, Mill, Hobbes, Rawls or Singer to evaluate special phenomena, incidents or dilemmas ethically. And most important: I learned how to read and write! Philosophical texts are very different from other texts. Every single word needs to be read or written carefully, high precision in the details is very important! After two years I finished the course with a Master thesis on “Ethical implications of artificially intelligent machines with decision-making ability”.

My third girlfriend was Korean (student in Germany). I found she was perfect for me because she was the middle way between the first two: controlled emotional, but healthily rational. We had a lot of harmony! Just one thing made us disagree over and over again: she was deeply religious, a “fundamental Christian”, as she called herself. She was “married to Jesus” and took the Bible as the ultimate truth, word by word. She believed the Earth is 6000 years old and created by God in 7 days, as described in the Bible. No room for interpretation. For me as a Scientist and Philosopher it was unacceptable to use “religion” and “truth” in one sentence! I spent a lot of efforts on eliminating all dogmas (I mean, beliefs that can’t be further reasoned) from my worldview. As a teenager I called myself “atheist”, but in the meantime I found that I am rather an agnostic: I just don’t know if there is a “God”, but it also doesn’t really matter. My most plausible explanation: God stands for the principle of basic harmony, the driving force of the universe. Buddhists call it “love”, Daoists “Dao”, Muslim “Allah” and Christians “God”. Believing can be a strong source of inner peace, hope, inspiration and balance! But I define “religion” as “belief plus politics”. Church exploited mankind over centuries in order to have power and wealth. What people need is faith and knowledge! But religion makes people blind and keeps them small and stupid. Without religion peoples’ faith would be more pure and peaceful!

The combination of a PhD in Chemistry (with research in a Nanotechnology field) and a Master in Applied Ethics gave me a job at the “European Academy for Research on Implications of Scientific and Technological Developments”, a technology assessment institution in Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, Germany. I was involved in a large research project of the European Union with 15 partners (universities, hospitals, companies) researching on “Nanoparticles for early diagnosis of Arthritis”. My task was to do “accompanying research” on the ethical and social aspects of Nanomedicine (using Nanosized materials for medical applications). Our work was quite political: the final report was taken by the EU as help and orientation for making useful regulations for this new field of technology. That is what this job is good for: Help shaping the future in a way that risks are minimized and peoples’ benefits are maximized. First, it needs to be defined what is “good” for people, values have to be pointed out. Then, the current and near-future development have to be analysed in order to identify aspects that violate or endanger those values. Controversial debates are unavoidable, of course, because every stakeholder has different interests and viewpoints! The main task of an ethicist is to “moderate” the discussion, to sort and classify arguments, to point out errors and unlogic statements in argumentations, and to bring different opinions to one conclusion.

For my new job I moved to Bonn. I found a nice apartment with a kitchen, a bathroom, two rooms (living room and bedroom) and a balcony. Here I could live out my third hobby (after playing music and cooking/baking): constructing furniture and decorating my home, making it a nice and homy place. I built a multifunctional bed with many features, a decorative shelf structuring the living room, chose the wall pictures and other decorations carefully by colour (mainly red, combining well with white walls and black furniture), installed comfortable lighting and put many plants and flowers everywhere. Especially a well-equipped and well-organized clean kitchen is important to me! In this respect I might be typically German: The “home” is the center of my life, here I can be myself, be creative and let my mind fly around freely (another hint that I am intraverted). That apartment in Bonn was so far my most comfortable living place…

My girlfriend (the religious one) was psychology student. I often helped her to write homeworks or her Bachelor and Master thesis, and we talked about psychological topics often. I was more and more interested in understanding the mechanisms of “mind”. In Biochemistry I learned the molecular basis of how the human body works, the “chemistry” of perceptions and of thinking. Psychology added a new “flavour” to it by trying to answer the question “why?”. Before my reflections on “emotional intelligence” or “Matrix” had psychological elements, but they were very amateurish. I learned a lot from my girlfriend and got many new insights into the “inner structure” of people, the effect and usefulness of emotions, the connections between environment and mental health, etc. By discussing with her (a strong dualist) I was more convinced of a monistic worldview. I am by far not professional psychologist, but I am sure that on my list of “majors I would have studied if not chemistry” psychology is on top! Followed by anthropology (the american understanding of it) and architecture…

After the failed third relationship I threw myself more than ever into studying Buddhism and its healing effect on body and mind. I blamed Christianity for “destroying” my partnership and wanted to prove to myself that Buddha’s philosophy is much more efficient in leading to happiness and inner peace than the Bible! After months of studying theoretically I found that I can only make progress when I apply the findings and practice actively. I decided to spend all my annual vacation for a trip to Korea to do a “templestay”: Four weeks in a Buddhist temple, living like a monk, meditating, chanting, bowing, having vegan meals, cleaning the body, purifying the soul, clearing the mind. The temple I chose for it (Golgulsa) had a specialty: it is headquarter of Sunmudo, a traditional Korean form of martial arts, that I had to practice three hours per day. This time was really intense, very helpful, a great source of inspirations and one of the best things I ever did in my life. But I also learned this: I am not a Buddhist! In the western world we often underestimate that Buddhism is mainly this: a religion! The templestay didn’t make me more religious but intensified my interest in the philosophical and psychological aspects of Buddha’s teachings.

The templestay experience changed my mind about many things. I identified so many “unhealthy” things in my life! But most of all I started to question my way of life. First I felt very happy with my change from the lab to the office desk, but I began to doubt that this job is the right thing for me. After all this institute was a kind of “company” with interests that I had to follow. But I wanted to do research! I wanted to publish my findings and write articles with my own arguments and viewpoints, convincing other people. I wanted to be free and indipendent! I can reach that goal only with an academic career at universities. After thinking thoroughly about it, I decided to quit my job and look for a postdoc job in Korea! I had the plan to find such a job first, but then a Korean friend came up with an unusual idea: Her friend is headmonk in a small new temple that is still under construction, I could stay there and help building it as long as I don’t have a job yet. With high confidence I quit my job, sold all my stuff (except a few personal things and my musical instruments), quit all contracts, left my apartment and Germany towards Korea…

This second templestay in the middle of nowhere deepened my insights into Buddha’s teaching, but more from the perspective of religious practice which – as you know – is not so much my interest. My attempts to find an academic scholar as collaborator for my postdoctoral project failed, mostly because South Korea wasn’t open for reflections on science ethics and social implications. After three months my visitor visa expired and I had to leave the country for a trip. Therefore, I visited my friend in Taiwan in September 2013. I didn’t know much about Taiwan at that time and assumed it must be like China (the mainland). During that visit I noticed that it is very different: more developed, more “civilized”, with everything available that is necessary to maintain a good lifestyle (e.g. doctors, well equiped supermarkets, public transport, a certain degree of freedom). I also felt welcome after meeting a Professor at a University in Taichung who didn’t hesitate to host me as a postdoc in his institute. A few months later I moved entirely from Korea to Taiwan.

The above-mentioned friend is now my wife, and you are the offspring of our love. Therefore, my connection to Taiwan is very strong and, somehow, even sealed by a contract! I call Taiwan “home” for now because it is the place where I reside and live my life, not just visit. Therefore, I try to keep a certain distance that allows me to “observe” and reflect. I don’t “love” Taiwan unconditionally and I don’t hate it totally. Compared to Germany and Korea, my former two “homes”, Taiwan is far less “socially developed”, it has much bigger environmental problems, the education level is low and the historical and political situation is very different. In many respects it would be unfair to compare Taiwan to Germany or Korea, but since Taiwanese regard their Island as a “modern” country it should be possible to face the truth: There is a huge gap! I often find myself cursing at the stupidity of people and wish a volcano would wash this damn island  with all its dirt and scooters and stupid idiots back into the sea. But then I realise that my “problem” lies within myself. I guess, this is the real “Buddhist practice”: the challenge to lead daily life with a mindset of forgiveness, loving-kindness and compassion.

Patterns and attachments

I am sorry. There is something very important that I didn’t mention in the last letter. I talked about “mind” as if it is clear or trivial what is meant by it and as if there is no trouble about it. In fact, as you will experience in the next few years, most challenges and conflicts you’ll face originate from mind-related phenomena and complications. Let me try to explain what I mean with that:

First we have to make some definitions:

Mind” is very close to “consciousness”, but it needs an element of “awareness” or “mindfulness”. It is a kind of generic term for the complete chain of perception (of some kind of stimulus), mental processing (interpreting the stimulus, aligning to memories and experiences, understanding, etc.) and reacting to the stimulus (inducing a process of (re-)action or emotion). “Mind” must not be mixed up with “thought” or the process of thinking.

We perceive the world that we live in through six cognitive senses: seeing (light of specific wavelengths (~380-700nm) through the eyes), hearing (sound waves of certain frequencies through the ears), feeling (with sensors and nerves all over the skin), smelling (with receptors in the nose), tasting (with receptors on the tongue) and thinking (with the neural network of brain cells). A cognitive process is the reception of the stimulus, its transportation to the brain and its interpretation. Some don’t agree that “thinking” is a sense like seeing or hearing. However, same as the other five perceptions, a thought can be understood as a “stimulus” for further action: same as a visual perception can induce a mental process (for example, seeing a cake, recalling the memory “cake = delicious”, inducing “appetite” or “the desire to eat it”, followed by saliva production in the mouth), also a thought alone, without outer influence, (for example a logical deduction of a new insight) can bring something to our awareness that can then serve as a trigger for an action or emotion.

Emotion” is a huge topic by itself, but it is fundamentally connected to the “mind”. I understand an emotion as a two step process: First, a stimulus causes a body reaction, then a mental process determines the reaction onto the changed body state. An example: A big aggressive dog comes running towards us. As soon as we notice that through our senses (we see or hear it), and our memory or experience classifies this perception as “harm”, signals are sent to our body that bring it into an appropriate response state: fear. The body heat rises, the heartbeat gets faster because the heart pumps more blood to supply muscles with more oxygen, the neurotransmitter adrenaline is released to increase the efficiency of metabolic processes of cells – all this as a preparation for a possible escape. But this is just the first step. The changed body state is, of course, also recognised by the mind. It will then, again, analyse this stimulus according to memories, experiences and programmed behaviour patterns in order to find an appropriate reaction on it. In our example, the state of “fear” (expressed by heat, heartbeat, adrenaline, etc.) might trigger a channel “escape” and makes us turn around and run. Or, if we made other experiences, it might trigger a channel “attack” and makes us face and threaten the dog. With this understanding it also becomes obvious that only the first step of the emotion, the body reaction, is – for a “normal” healthy human being – somehow “natural”, since we all have the physiognomic preconditions for all kinds of emotions (like fear, anger, sadness, happiness, etc.), but that the reaction on it – the way we express an emotion and what we do or say in response to an emotion – is highly dependent on the condition of our mind which is shaped individually in complex processes by our interaction with the environment and our experiences.

Let’s see how all this goes together and what it means for our lives:

Mankind developed into a species with the ability of introspection, self-recognition and self-awareness. Different from other animate earthly beings we consciously desire to “understand” the world in order to exploit it for our benefits. Driver and motivation for all activity and eagerness is fear: the fear of death that results from our knowledge about the inevitable transience of life. Equipped by evolutionary processes with the abovementioned properties (mind, senses, thoughts, emotions) the modern man has no other choice but perceiving the world, reflecting on it and interpreting it. Last but not least, this leads to fundamental metaphysical questions about the meaning and purpose of life, what is “reality”, and our origins and destinies. However, we have to admit that our biological tools are by far insufficient to get a complete grasp of what the world is. Moreover, as we will see, the mechanisms of recognition and mental processing of information and knowledge are highly corrupt and flawed.

We can be convinced of the fact that our six senses can give us only a very limited and confined fraction of the actual world by understanding how the senses work, that their range of physical or biological abilities is limited, and that other life forms have cognitive abilities that we simply don’t have (for example ultrasonic senses of bats and dolphins, the perception of Earth’s magnetic field by migration birds, or “molecular” communication via pheromones by ants and other insects). However, we have to rely on our six senses since every other source of information is inaccessible for us. Today, thanks to science, we know how cognitive processes work and have to conclude that the “reality” is nothing but a construction in our mind based on the input delivered by the perception senses and our rational reason.  The problem is not the lack of “complete” equipment of sensory organs, but the human ignorance of human insufficiency and a blatant overconfidence in our perception. We often believe we “know” how things really are, and we trust in our perceptions. When you go out into the garden in the twilight and see a snake in the grass you might get scared and run back into the house, shouting “There is a snake in the garden!”. In your mind, the snake is “real” because you have seen it, and your reaction is “the right one” given your “reality”. However, when I go into the garden to check, all I find is a water hose in the grass that I forgot to remove after using it earlier that day. Your perception fooled you. The structure that your eyes perceived and delivered to your brain was interpreted by your mind as a snake because that was the most reasonable conclusion. The interesting part is: This misinterpretation tells us something about your “mindset”: Maybe you are easily scared, or have a general fear of snakes, so that this is the first thing that came to your mind. Maybe you watched a scary movie with a snake before. The point is: we usually “see” what we want to see, or we “see” what we “know” or what we focus on. In this respect, our perception is highly dependent on our mind, and not vice versa (as many people believe). Later I will talk about “confirmation biases”, then we come back to this aspect.

The limited set of perception tools and the confined range of possibilities of the ones we have might be a pity, but we don’t need to waste time and efforts whining about it because we can’t change it anyway (until we talk about trans- and post humanism, but that is another topic). Therefore, we better focus on the mind’s role in processing the information that streams into us. I mentioned one aspect above: When we are not aware of the flaws and limits of our mental processes we are victims of ignorance. This becomes especially unwholesome and unhealthful when it makes us overconfident and “blind”. Again, note that the ignorance has two dimensions: “not knowing” and “not knowing that we don’t know”. But there is more than that: Not only our perception tools are limited, also the strategies and methods that our mind exploits to deal with that input are often inefficient, flawed, corrupt or simply inappropriate. From a certain perspective it is actually good like that: There is so much information streaming into our mind that we have to select what reaches our consciousness. We can’t process every light ray that enters our eyes, or all sound waves that reach the ear. Therefore, we use a filter: we align the incoming information with our experiences and memories to “make sense” of it. When we see three dots within a circle, we immediately associate that with a “face”. These associations are the result of pattern and habit formations that start as soon as our senses start working (when an embryo turns into a fetus, definitely before birth) and solidify and grow in the childhood and teen ages. The first experiences are very rudimentary and related to the “body” sphere (see the body-mind-spirit model of the previous letter): a baby feels hungry, perceives that as “unpleasant” and expresses this uneasiness by crying. Someone comes and brings food. The association “crying à someone brings food” solidifies the more this pattern is repeated, so that the baby will always signal “hunger” by crying. These patterns become especially significant in aspects of emotion. As we have seen before, the physical part of an emotion is the same for all human beings, but the way it is expressed and given power over reactions and behaviour is different from person to person according to pattern formations and manifestations of habits. Imagine 3-year-old children that experience something unfair – let’s say, another child takes away the toy that our child just plays with. Perceiving this as “unfairness” increases the child’s pulse, triggers the release of adrenaline and produces body heat – the child feels uneasy. What happens next strongly depends on what the children have “learned”: One child might get aggressive: yelling at the “thief” and hitting him. It is very likely that this child made a previous experience that this behaviour leads to “success” in terms of “fulfilling the child’s desires” (here: it might get back the toy). Maybe the child’s parents are aggressive, or impatient or insecure, and – by this – support the manifestation of aggression in the child. Another child “recalls” another behaviour in the same situation, for example “diplomacy”, talking to the child, trying to convince it to return the toy. A third child might not even express any form of “uneasiness” (aggression, anger, envy, etc.) but just “let go” of the toy and look for another one. We can regard emotions and their associations with behaviour patterns as “seeds” that grow when they are constantly “watered”. When a child’s desire is fulfilled and satisfied by a certain strategy, when it feels it can help reaching its goal, then the child will repeat it whenever possible. This also corresponds to what I tried to explain in the previous letters: no child is born like anything (for example “a calm child” or “impatient child” or “aggressive child” or “anxious child”, or whatever), but all these properties are solidified patterns and habits formed by experiences and “reward or punishment situations”. I call these patterns “attachment”. The good thing is: same as a plant dies when it is not watered anymore, a “pattern” (as the manifestation of an often watered “seed”) can be changed by cutting of “the water supply” and watering other seeds instead. However, once a pattern is formed, it is very hard to change it!

I used another small but important word: desire. In general, we can state that our desires determine our will and what we actually decide to do and say. Again, you may relate this to the body-mind-spirit model of the previous letter: at early age, our desires are dominated by the body sphere, then mental and finally spiritual desires take control. The mental desires, however, are highly corrupt when we are not aware of the origins of desires and the mechanisms that let some desires grow and others decay. Most of our desires are the result of attachments. There are the “behaviour pattern attachments” I just mentioned (for example the way we react on emotions), but also attachments to things that mean something to us (material things, but also abstract entities like love, fame, health or “our life”) which is expressed in fears (of losing these things), or attachment to the “self” or “ego”, the  illusion that there is a “self” that is separate from the rest of the world. Most of these influences occur subconsciously, and all these attachments are fed and nourished by our environment and our activities in it – the “Matrix”. Let me give you an example: You feel the desire to go to McDonald’s and eat a chicken burger. You can, of course, just go and get one, following your desire or understanding it as “your free will” to have one. But you can also ask yourself what makes you decide to voluntarily choose this kind of crappy low-quality unhealthy food! Maybe you saw the McDonald’s advertisement somewhere, with a colourful delicious juicy burger on it, that gives you the (wrong and misleading) impression that eating a McDonald’s Burger is a good idea. Or your friends give you the impression that you appear more “cool” when you go to McDonald’s with them. Maybe you like the colours red and yellow (another attachment formed by impressions in the childhood) and, therefore, feel attracted to the McDonald’s logo design, so that it comes to your mind first when you wonder what and where to eat. “Living mindfully” means to pull all these factors into our awareness, to understand what “controls” our desire and will, and to start turning it around: to control these factors. The experience shows that we do many “unhealthy”, “unwholesome” and “unsustainable” things when we just live mindlessly and let the “Matrix” control our decisions and choices. Instead, when we open our mind and realise as many attachments and control mechanisms as possible, we gain power over them and can “dissolve” them, making our will and our decisions truly “free” – or with other words: exit the Matrix. The McDonald’s example is a simple and obvious one (pseudo-desires formed by manipulation, group dynamics, etc.), but there is many more that have a big impact on our life, for example how to choose the right boyfriend or the major to study, how to identify the difference between dogmatic religion and wholesome spirituality as source for inner peace, or the emotional stability to deal with all the difficulties and obstacles of daily life. An important remark has to be made concerning the “freedom” that I mentioned. It is not about being free “from” emotions, desires, preferences or patterns and habits. It is almost impossible to be free from these, and it would even be terrible to have no emotions or preferences! Instead, the worthwhile approach is to be free “in” the emotion, “in” the choices and desires, and “in” our patterns and habits! That means, we are able to disconnect the link between the trigger (for example the physical occurrence of an emotion in the body, or the stimulus of an advertisement) and the associated reaction pattern (for example “yelling” as response to the feeling “anger”, or “buying something we don’t need” as response to manipulating advertising). At least, we can try to increase the time between trigger and response so that with a mindful awareness we are able to intervene and reflect what would be the best reaction, conclusion, decision, etc.

Now we can understand better what I mean when I write in the previous letter about the “mind sphere” and “physical and psychological needs”. What these needs are and how they determine our well-being or non-well-being is highly dependent on what I call “mindset”. When we are “slaves” of our desires and needs and don’t spend considerable mental capacities on reflecting our life, it is more likely that our attachments drive us into a direction that we won’t find fulfilling or satisfying later. A more “sustainable” lifestyle would be to practice our mindfulness and awareness so that we are able to identify our attachments and the elements of the “Matrix” that is constructed around us, and ultimately set ourselves free in it.

Do you think all this makes sense? Is it convincing? I tell you something: This is the heart of the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha from India 2600 years ago. His insights into human psychology and the mechanisms of our minds are astonishingly precise. He used different terminology and often communicated his ideas by stories and narratives rather than by analytical or scientific language, but today, with modern psychological research and a Philosophy of mind, his teachings are confirmed and supported surprisingly well! In the “12 links of interdependent co-arising” the theory of mind that I described here is well reflected:

12-links-of-interdependent-co-arising

The 12 links of interdependent co-arising constituting the wheel of life (samsara), with the three mind poisons (ignorance, attachment/greed, resistance/hatred) depicted in the center.

There is birth (jati), but it inevitably leads to death (jara-marana). We are born “blank” with a high degree of ignorance (“not-knowing”, avijja). Out of this ignorance we become victim of the formation of patterns, habits, of “will” and the drivers of all we do, say and think (sanskara). This is the basic idea of “Karma”: We are “forced” to act in this world and, by this, are exposed to the cause-effect-laws that form the world fabric. In this process we realise and recognise ourselves (or “our selfs”) with our consciousness (vinnana) and start sticking to our “identity”. The self is manifested in body and mind (the spiritual self comes later) (namarupa). We feed our consciousness through the six sense organs (salayatana), that Buddha understood as mediator between sense object (that what is to see, to hear, etc.) and our awareness. The mental process is, therefore, a “contact” between object and our consciousness (phassa). These contacts go along with “feelings” (vedana) that can be either “pleasant”, “unpleasant” or “neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant” (some kind of neutral). This differentiation of emotional states causes our desires (tanha) – longing for “pleasant” states or for “being” and “becoming” (attachments) and avoiding unpleasant ones or “ceasing” (the counterpart of attachment – resistance, an aspect that I left out in this letter). Attachments and resistances (upadana) are the basis of our thoughts, ideas, concepts and imaginations. These need to be expressed and realised and, therefore, lead to constant “becoming” (or manifestation) of our self (bhava). Here the cycle is closed, arriving at “birth” again. This is the Buddhist idea of “reincarnation”: Our desires cause attachments which drive us to manifest our self constantly. As long as we have ignorance we are not able to escape this cycle, because we will always stick to the idea of a self with our cognitive tools feeding our unfree consciousness. The cycle can be broken at any of the twelve elements, but with different degree of difficulty: we can overcome ignorance by acquiring wisdom. We can identify the flaws of our sense organs. We can reflect and “dissolve” our desires. All are attempts to get out of the “samsara“, the eternal circle of life, and enter “nirvana“.

Ignorance, attachment (or greed) and resistance (or hatred) are often called the “three mind poisons” by Buddha (depicted as snake, pig and rooster in the center of the wheel). They blur our mind and lead to what is unluckily translated as “suffering”. This is the first “Noble Truth”: Life is suffering. This is neither pessimistic nor nihilistic, but just the objective observation of the mind phenomena that I described above. When our mind is not free but victim of pattern and habit formations, our choices and decisions (our will) are not trustworthy and most likely leading to unhealthy and unwholesome states. Going to McDonald’s to eat a chicken burger is “suffering” when this choice is motivated by “Matrix” elements and not by the output of your free mind. The second Noble Truth simply tells that “There is a reason for suffering.”. In Buddhist Philosophy (or Psychology) this is described in the abovementioned “12 links of interdependent co-arising”. The essence of this important insight is: The suffering is not a divine law, a heavenly punishment or a reason for hopelessness and depression. When there is a reason, it means we are able to discover and understand that “reason” (for example through insights from that cycle of dependent becoming, or with any other “modern” psychological method). The third Noble Truth is the claim that “The reason for suffering can be overcome.” or, with other words, “The cycle of Samsara can be broken.”. The realisation of ignorance or the understanding of our attachments are the first step to weaken them and decrease their power and impact. This “Truth” sounds as trivial as the second one, but for many people it is, actually, not self-understanding that it is in our own hands to “lead a good life”. Some believe in “destiny” or “fortune”, but from Buddha we can learn that the state of our well-being and satisfaction is determined by our own choices and actions – he called it “Karma”. The fourth Nobel Truth, then, says that there is “a particular way” to overcome suffering, and that is “the eight-fold path”, a model of Buddhist Ethics that suggests concrete guidelines for life conduct. I think, we can insert here any “good”, “helpful” and “healthy” approach that we find and approve. The most important Buddhist practices are meditation and active mindfulness training in order to gain knowledge, wisdom and inner peacefulness. Very helpful advices are the “Middle Way” (avoiding extremes) and the “here-and-now” philosophy (that I will certainly write more about in a later letter). Ultimate goal is to realise that there is no “self”, no element in us that is specifically and only “ours”. This is called “emptiness” in Buddhism, one of its most sophisticated and difficult aspects. You see, the whole Dharma is reflected in this model of the human mind. That’s why I find it so much more helpful for my daily life than other (especially Western) worldviews. I will probably always come back to this when we talk about aspects of your life: when you break up with your first boyfriend, when you are nervous before a stage performance or sports competition, when you are desperate about a bad teacher at school, when you don’t know what to do with your life after school – I will try to help you freeing your mind and seeing clearly, here and now, in this moment, peaceful and balanced, fearless and full of love. And you help me…