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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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

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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.

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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)…

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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.

My Misanthropy – 1. The Roots

I confess it: I am a misanthrope. Misanthropy is defined as hating people or mankind as such. Hate sounds a bit too strong to me. Yet, I can’t deny that my image of people and of mankind as a whole is very negative. I guess, that is a very important part of me, one that you (Tsolmo) will be exposed to sooner or later. Therefore, I dedicate this and the next five blog entries to this topic. I will start with an attempt of a short self-analysis to find out what made me a misanthrope. Then, I will reflect on friendship and on the idiocy of people. A four-dimensional model of responsibility will support my claim that we may expect more from people. Moreover, I will widen the scope from individual people and social collectives to mankind as such, examining anthropocentrism and the inevitable failure of the human race. The series can’t be complete without a link to Buddhism and its cure against hatred: compassion and loving-kindness.

It is important to point out one thing: I don’t suffer from it. I hate people because they lower my life quality, not because misanthropy is a kind of phobia, mania or psychopathic disease. Someone with arachnophobia usually doesn’t suffer from spiders themselves, but from the phobia that causes unpleasant states of mind in the presence of (harmless) spiders. Not spiders are the problem, but the phobia! These dispositions are irrational and the result of a malfunctioning or distorted psyche. Misanthropy is different. As I like to explain in this series, there are good rational reasons to justify a misanthropic mindset. The view itself doesn’t cause me any trouble. I don’t feel mentally exhausted, scared, or puzzled after moments in which misanthropy is manifesting itself. When people or mankind show their despicable features again, I feel rather confirmed in my misanthropy. Therefore, not misanthropy is the problem, but people!

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1. My Narrative

The first question is, of course, what the roots of my negative image are. I believe there are basically two influences: My experiences with being bullied and teased, and my upbringing in a very rational spirit (“If you just use your brain properly, you will never face any trouble!”).

I don’t want to blame it on the countryside. I don’t think rural people (at least in Germany) are different from city people. All kids are exposed to social interaction. Yet, living in the countryside might have had one significant impact: I could choose to live remotely in my own world. In this world, life was harmonious and simple. Out there, in the social world, at Kindergarten and primary school, and later at secondary school, life was not that easy. For a reason that I didn’t understand (and still don’t understand), other kids (mostly older boys) teased me. On the school yard, on the school bus, in the village. Maybe my introverted and shy character gave them the expression that I am weak and a good target for their fun. For me, it wasn’t fun, though. What’s wrong with those boys? Why can’t they just accept me and see my qualities. Being told that I am smart very often by parents and teachers, I liked to believe it. I was also able to build magnificent Lego castles and could even play drums. So, why the hell would they tease me? There was only one possible solution: They must be stupid. Unintelligent. Not able to see beyond the narrow margin of their stupid life. Not able to grasp the implications of their actions and words. Not able to see things from someone else’s perspective, from MY perspective! I assume, it was during those primary school years that I formed the strong conviction that being smart always results in being nice, and that people who are not nice and kind must, therefore, be utterly foolish and stupid.

This idea had a serious consequence, according to my logic: If everyone was as smart as I am, then the world would be full of nice and kind people, and there would be no bullying, no unfairness and injustice, no exploiting of the weak by the dominant people, no misery.

The teasing of the primary school village boys turned into bullying at the secondary school. Classmates – even those I considered my friends – had fun calling me “farmer”(even though my family didn’t have a farm, just a house in the countryside) and making nasty comments about it (like “Ew, there comes the farmer again, what a stink!” or “Will your father come to pick you up with your tractor?“). I hated that! Those spoiled city kids, what do they know?! In the countryside, I could play drums without bothering the neighbours, and I could even have my own country Pannonia! Why can’t they appreciate those benefits or even envy me for having that kind of awesome life, but instead have to make it look like I am a fool?! I was quite confident and knew that they are wrong. What bothered me more was: Why are they doing that? Again, there was only one plausible solution: They must be stupid! I started keeping track of my classmates performances with a little book like those used by teachers to note down marks and students’ performances. Florian made a stupid comment about my jacket: 6! Anika smiled at me: 1! Stefan wanted to know where I bought that new cool pencil case: 1! [Note: In the German school system, marks range from 1 (very good) to 6 (insufficient).] Then, at the end of the year, I knew who was my friend and who will not be my friend. It wasn’t that serious, I guess. For example, Florian (a real example) became my bandmate later, so I was obviously good at forgiving. Yet, it shows how serious this thing was for me, the 13 year old Jan.

I am not a psychologist. Maybe my retrospective analysis is simplistic and plain. Certainly, the logic that I am a misanthrope because classmates made stupid comments is fallacious and too simple. Yet, I believe that the discrepancy between my peaceful and idyllic countryside life and the unpleasantness that I was exposed to whenever having to deal with other people plays a very important role in developing this negative attitude towards people. A seed was planted: Be careful! Don’t trust anyone! People don’t have the capacity to understand you! See what stupid things they do all the time! This seed was watered at countless occasions! The boy scouts summer camp, the rock festival, the carnival parade, the local fairground, any public place – everywhere stupid people doing stupid things that make this world a worse place! Of course, this is not true, but this is what I perceived (and still observe). With this mindset, I retreated more and more into my world, delving into my hobbies with a rather small circle of close friends.

Another factor seems important: News. Problems everywhere! I didn’t mind poverty, crime and war. That was a human problem. But I was seriously concerned about the destruction of our planet by the human race. Loss of rainforest, pollution of air and water, destruction of landscapes by industry and agriculture. A life form that destroys its own habitat – how stupid is that? On top of that, the church (and religion classes at school) wanted to tell me that mankind is the crown of creation. What a bullshit! We are like a disease for this planet! This insight raised my misanthropy to the global level. Not only the idiots around me bother me, but mankind as a whole! Beautiful and innocent species go extinct because of human stupidity! The ecosphere suffers from the ignorance of men. There is a clear parallel to me suffering from the idiocy of people around me. I understood and felt for the planet! Both of us, Earth and me – that was utterly clear to me – would be better off without people!

I use the past tense because I thought like this at the age around 18. In parts, I still think like that, but in the meantime my thoughts and reflections became a little more sophisticated and differentiated. As I explained in the introduction, my misanthropy is not a misled sociopathy, but the inevitable result of my experiences and observations. Two problems arise from it: If I hate mankind (as in every human), how can I love you (and everyone who means something to me), or does it mean that I also hate you (and my wife, my friends, my parents, etc.)? And: If I am such a hater, wouldn’t it be better for society to get rid of me, or at least sanction my negativity and my insulting attitude?

The first problem: I find it totally legitimate and acceptable to make a clear distinction between the particular level (me and my personal relationships, interpersonal ties and emotional connections, etc.) and the general level (mankind). My capacity for love is not interfered by my misanthropy. I value my family and my friends with a healthy portion of emotions involved and with the moral integrity that may be expected from an educated member of society. Moreover, needless to say, my misanthropy is purely intellectual, but never violent, aggressive or attacking (neither with hands nor with words). I admit, I don’t care much about people dying in wars or in natural disasters as long as I don’t know them. But I will, of course, to the best of my abilities, always protect you (Tsolmo) and my dear ones from any danger, harm or threat. More about that later!

The second problem: You (the reader) may find it disturbing that I judge you as stupid even though I don’t know you. I said it, right?: Everyone is stupid! How offensive! You may give me animal names or use other swear words, telling me what I can do myself. You may block my blog or unfollow it, and never visit it again. Haters are not welcome in our contemporary societies. Yet, be reminded: I try my best to explain my views. I try to examine the (psychological) roots as well as the logic and heuristic of my current conscious worldview. I will give reasons and arguments (in the next 5 texts of this series). If there is anything wrong with my idea, there will certainly be a way to convince me of that. It’s just that nobody succeeded with that, yet. I want arguments! The burden of proof that people are NOT stupid and that mankind is NOT a problem for this planet is on you!

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/
evaluative
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.

buddhathink

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.