My Misanthropy – 6. Remedy

6. Remedy: Buddhism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Me in a Buddhist temple in South Korea, October 2012


My Misanthropy – 4. Responsibility

4. Responsibility

Writing is a therapy. It makes many ideas clearer in my mind. After a text is produced, I think it over, which often induces some kind of progress or change in my views. At the end of the previous post, I sounded quite hopeless and daunted about human stupidity. Today, I am not that negative.

Where are we now? I explained that my misanthropy is the product of introversion, strong ego and self-confidence, and high expectation on rationality and reasonability. But in contrast to yesterday, today I think, my main concern is that there is always a chance for change. My critical statements are associated with a plea for practicing mindfulness and awareness, for sharpening cognitive and intellectual skills, and the strong belief in everybody’s potential to overcome mindlessness, delusion and stupidity. In this respect, my concern doesn’t even deserve the label misanthropy. There is always chance to do better, and that’s why I am telling all this! With other words: As a realist, I have to be a misanthrope (because people give me reasons for it), but as an optimist, I am confident that it doesn’t have to be like this forever.

Obviously, the call for fighting and reducing stupidity is an ethical one. Stupid decisions have an impact on others (human, biosphere, eco-system), usually a negative one. Therefore, I claim that everybody has an ethical obligation to reduce stupidity to his or her best knowledge and capability. This is a responsibility claim that needs further circumstantiation.

At a closer examination, we find that responsibility is never just one-dimensional as in someone is responsible. There must, at least, be a second dimension, that which that someone is responsible for. Moreover, it can be analysed what is means in this case. Where does responsibility come from? Usually it is attributed by someone to someone, or in some way expected by someone from someone, or delegated by someone to someone. These two someones should be in any way related to each other so that responsibility claims are justified. Last but not least, there is also a fourth dimension: Someone may legitimately attribute responsibility to someone for something only in view of a certain body of rules or a level of knowledge. A necessary precondition for being a carrier of responsibility is the ability to fulfil the duties and obligations that go along with it. Above all, the person claimed responsible must be in a position of knowing the rules or of having relevant knowledge.


In order to clarify responsibilities, there are two strategies: We can start from cases and ask who is responsible for what in which way; or we can start from roles and ask what is the particular person’s situation in terms of responsibility. The former is often perceived of as accusation and blame. Besides, responsibilities are denied and shifted to other people. The latter approach appears more useful for our purposes: What can people in their various roles (family members, friends, citizen, consumers, professionals, decision-makers) be held responsible for? A pragmatic standpoint is necessary: Responsibility is a useful concept only when it is enacted from the now-perspective. Someone is now held responsible for future issues, that means in the position to respond to inquiries and claims for taking action. Note that past-related claims are usually expressed in terms of accountability: Someone is now held accountable for the effects of a decision or action in the past, that means the burden of reacting on it is on that persons account.

Let’s have a look at the four dimensions of a responsibility claim concerning stupidity. The blue someone – who is held responsible – is everybody. For single cases, it must be clearly distinguished between particular roles and positions, and also between individual and collective (institutional, social, etc.) responsibility. Yet, in one or the other way, I am addressing every member of the human race.

The now-perspective helps us defining what it is, exactly, that people and groups are responsible for (the yellow something): I am not stating that people are responsible for their stupidity (which, to be precise, would be a case of accountability), since that would be more like blaming (“See the result of your stupidity! Now clean that mess!“). Legally, of course, many foolish, asinine and idiotic people are responsible for their deeds and are sanctioned accordingly. Mindlessness, for example, is not an excuse for causing a traffic accident. Even though a person that caused a traffic accident is not a criminal, the person still violated the obligation to pay attention to safety and proper driving style. Here, however, I’d like to shift the focus away from the consequences of stupidity and towards the chance to interfere with it before it manifests itself: fight and overcome foolishness, mindlessness and idiocy by right vision, right thought, right consciousness and right concentration. Everybody is responsible for self-cultivation and training one’s self-awareness and mental and cognitive capacity. Now we have clarified the simpler two dimensions.

I am the red someone – I attribute responsibility to you. All of you! Is that legitimate? I need to show that there is a relation between me and everyone, so that nobody can claim that their stupidity (whatever form) is not my business. I do that on the grounds of a holistic concept of conditionality: Human decision-making sets forth cause-effect-chains that determine future states of the world. Buddhists call this Karma. With everything we do, say, or think, we influence the further course of the world fabric, sometimes in very tiny and incremental amounts, sometimes in huge and clearly visible ways. An easy example might be the last presidential election in the USA. Why would I mind that a sick society gets the president that it deserves, the masterpiece of an idiot? Be it their problem, far away from me! Yet, clearly, the US-American politics have a global effect, be it through war-mongering, protectionist economy, climate change denial, American soft imperialism (spreading the American way of life through Hollywood movies and dumb TV shows around the world where mindless people admire and copy it), and so on. What you US-American dumbasses do in your country has a more or less direct impact on my life, my safety, my health, etc. If you are not able to maintain a political system in which you have good choices (and not a choice between the two most despicable individuals on the planet) and in which pragmatism rules (isn’t that even an American thing, see Dewey, James, Pierce…?!), and if you are not able to connect with people around you in proper communication and persuasion that can prevent them from making stupid choices, then either your activity or your inactivity sets forth a causal chain at which’s end stands the entire world. That’s why you are legitimately held responsible! The same goes for consumerism, for example mindless purchase and application of cosmetic products (supporting destruction of rainforest, animal testing, pollution of air, water and soil, etc.). Sometimes the paths are more hidden, especially when the stupidity occurs in the private and not in the public sphere. If you easily lose your temper, your kid will be emotionally instable. It is very likely that your kid plays with other kids – maybe my Tsolmo – in the kindergarten or school and exposes them to his or her own bad temper, learned from the parents. One more example that covers foolishness from lack of education and collective social and political responsibility: I mentioned the unsustainable forms of agriculture and nomadic stock farming in sub-Sahara Africa. Attribution of responsibility to those nomads and settled-down farmers only makes sense in view of their capacity to satisfy existential needs and to understand the local and global context of their practices. With other words: They should be open for changes and alternatives as soon as they are available, feasible and justifiable. Responsibility in this context, must, furthermore, be attributed to people in the Western developed countries (Europe, North America)! Without our support, our care, our concern, and our active pressure on politics, there won’t be any change to the better. Increasing the motivation of local decision-makers in politics and economy to induce political and social changes that lead to a more sustainable lifestyle and practice, should be the concern of all those who know about this problem. As Peter Singer also pointed out: Remaining inactive in the face of global poverty and lack of education is highly immoral. Everybody can be held responsible to engage in collaborative improvement of human capacity and decision-making.

In short: There is only one case in which your existence has no impact on me: You live in solitude at a remote inaccessible place with no connection to the rest of the world. In every other case, there are possible pathways of karmic potentials that connect you to me. Use your creativity to think of more examples, even with the tiniest and longest chain of events and entities!

The fourth dimension – rules and knowledge – secures that the attribution of responsibility is justified in terms of the responsible person’s ability to understand and fulfil the responsibility claims. The claim for responsibility to try one’s best to overcome foolishness, mindlessness and idiocy weighs much heavier for an educated person that grew up in peaceful times at a favourable place in a stable and loving family than for a member of a poverty stricken society in a war zone with no access to school education. I’d like to use the example of traffic in Taiwan again: People say the traffic in China, India or Vietnam is much worse than in Taiwan, as if it could be worse was a proper excuse or even justification for the local practices. In China, for example, the discrepancies between urban and rural population and their development are enormous! In contemporary Taiwan, the coverage of education is homogenously high, the lifestyle can be considered modern and developed. Taiwanese people see themselves as a developed nation, a knowledge society with high life standard, technological advancement and international competitiveness. A comparison with China or India is inappropriate since it would mean to lower Taiwanese standard to that of developmental states. All Taiwanese have school education and may be expected to be able to estimate effects of physical causes like the velocity of cars or their momentum when driving though curves. They have driving lessons before getting a license, so they may be expected to know the traffic rules. They grow up in a society that is built on Confucian foundations, highlighting the importance of respecting social relations, so they may be expected to know concepts like consideration, safety, patience. Yet, they drive like fools, violate or disregard traffic rules, and act inconsiderately, impatiently and in an extremely self-centred manner. When I claim that Taiwanese people are fully responsible for their driving style, I find that very much justified in view of the degree of development of the Taiwanese society, including education, culture and self-perception. However, we might also turn that argument around: As long as Taiwanese people behave like this in traffic, Taiwan can’t be considered a developed country. Driving like this and not attempting to change it means to admit that we are a country of mindless fools.

I hope these reflections could create some clarity concerning the attribution of responsibility for working on one’s stupidity. Nobody is perfect! Mistakes can be forgiven! Yet, we must try, harder, every day! Giving in to stupidity – no doubt the easier way – is something we as mankind can’t afford! Too powerful and impacting our activities have become! With this I leave the field of individual-focused misanthropy and turn to anti-anthropocentrism and the problem of mankind as a failure of nature. This will be the topic of the next post of this series.

Four Levels of Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Nutshell Buddhism

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

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

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

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


by Alex Grey

The rebirth of Now

In Western thinking – based on the historical experiences – religion is carefully separated from philosophy. Religious belief is dogmatic and “faithful”, while philosophical reflection is logic, rational and should be based on empirically acquired knowledge. Christian worldview and Aristotelian or Kantian worldview might overlap in parts but are fundamentally different in their derivation and character. Religious people are believers and worshippers, while philosophers are thinkers and doubtful skeptics. When I started being interested in Buddhist worldview, I found that it is not so much a religion, as often propagated, but much more a philosophy. The Western term “buddhism” describes two ideas of Buddha’s influence, which in Chinese are 佛教 (fojiao), used to describe the religious practices, rituals and beliefs of buddhists, and 佛家 (fojia), understood as the intellectual philosophical content of Buddha’s teachings. Am I a “Buddhist” when I agree to Buddha’s worldview and practice some of its essences like mindfulness, compassion, inner peace and meditative contemplation, without supporting the belief in some of its historical dogmatic elements like rebirth or the Japanese idea of a “pure land”? A friend said “You can’t just select what you like and ignore the rest!”. Well, I can, but then I am just not “a Buddhist”.

The most intriguing religious idea of Buddhism is rebirth. However, there are many misunderstandings about it, especially when communicating it in a Western language like English or German, and especially when talking about it with someone having a “Western” cultural and educational background. Let me try to clarify a few important aspects of rebirth and Karma, which is closely connected to this topic.

The Chinese term used in the context of rebirth is 輪迴 (lunhui) which is often translated as “reincarnation” or “transmigration”. This is very unlucky, because reincarnation and rebirth must be carefully distinguished. Christians believe in a “soul” that migrates to a new body after the death of the old one.


Souls are eternal and the core of a person. The reincarnation of someone is still that someone. The mortal body is merely a container of the soul. Sounds like typical Western thinking to me. We also find it in Hinduism, serving as the justification for the Indian caste system (that someone is “born into” by reincarnation). The whole concept of personhood and personality is different in Buddhist worldview. Nothing is permanent, so there can’t be this kind of “soul”. Also, there is no isolated, individual being that makes any sense regardless of its surrounding (let’s call it “world”). What determines a human being’s condition is the embedment within an environment and the interaction with it. By having a consciousness and a strong action potential, humans create causes and effects with what they choose to do. This is called Karma. We constitute the further course of our surrounding and, by that, our own path through our karmic actions and decisions. The ancient Theravada school of Buddhism, still closer related to Hinduism, interpreted this in a way that karmic conditions and tendencies are carried on into the next life cycle. It is karmic forces that “migrate” to the next life, not someone’s personality.


Karma, then, also determines the conditions of the next life cycle: The surrounding as well as the form of being itself. This has often been exploited for educational purposes: “If you misbehave and do bad deeds in this life, you will be reborn as an amoeba!”. So you better do well!

Now, the literal understanding of rebirth has never been and can never be proven. That makes it a religious belief. However, there is another way to give it a down-to-earth daily life meaning, as found in the Mahayana branch of Buddhism, especially in Chan (Japanese: Zen) Buddhism. Mahayana philosophy follows a much stricter monism (“all is one”) and rejects the idea of “Nirvana” as a particular moment occuring “someday” in one of an entity’s life cycles, as such separated from the profane life within the Samsara. Instead, Nirvana is always present, intrinsically interwoven into life in form of karmic potential. Moreover, there is no self that sustains itself independently over long periods of time (only our illusion of it does). From moment to moment  a being’s constitution changes, because it is dependent on all the karmic factors of its surrounding (which, obviously, is also constantly changing). With this understanding, “rebirth” doesn’t necessarily mean to be “born again” after death. Every new moment is a rebirth of the previous moment. Making a “moment” infinitely small ends up at the continuum that we perceive as “time”. Therefore, time is always “now”. What I choose to do in this Now determines my condition when “reborn” in the next Now. I am nice to you now, and in the next moment I might have a new friend. I steal an apple from my neighbour now, and I will be one step further down the spiral of crime with all its consequences in the next moment. Many of our choices and actual actions are somehow (ethically, normatively) “neutral”, but they impact our path and further course (call it “fate”). This matches perfectly with the understanding of Karma as “the law of cause and effect” rather than as a kind of punishment and retributive justice system. It also rejects determinism and destiny, because human consciousness enables the creation of new karmic tendencies. If not, the entire Buddhist endeavour of “enlightenment” would be useless. I think, this can be a reason for many Christians feeling uncomfortable with Buddhism: It would put them in charge of their lives, it would make them have responsibility for it, rather than blaming all on God. They feel good trusting in the benevolence and mercy of a loving God who takes good care of their lives. History has proven that this trust is too often disappointed. It is on us to take good care of our lives, to find “the right way” and make “the right choices”. Then Karma will increase the chance that in each and every “next moment” we find ourselves reborn in a “better world” with “better conditions”. This totally makes sense to me!

Further reading: click here