My Misanthropy – 2. Friendships

2. Friendships

When I was 20, my friend introduced the psychological test The Cube to me. I had to relax and focus on my mental awareness. My friend talked me through the scenery. I found myself in a desert. I saw a sand desert (like an extended beach) with dark yellow sand dunes and a dark blue sky. The atmosphere was pleasant and calm. The line of the horizon was more or less in the middle of my image. Now, the first object appeared: a cubic structure. Immediately, in front of my inner eye, a monolithic black massive cube stood firmly and unshakably in the desert sand. It had a metallic flawless surface that nothing could ever scratch. Certainly, it wasn’t hollow, even though we would never be able to find out. The second item was a ladder. I found an old wooden ladder leaning on one of the cube’s walls, about half the height. It was slightly damaged, with missing and broken rungs. Actually, it looked a bit like the old ladder in our horse barn. Now, a horse entered the picture. An impressively majestic black horse, rearing like the one on the Ferrari logo. It stood in a slight distance on the rear left of the cube. The next thing, a storm, didn’t want to fit into my desert. There was no space for a storm, it felt wrong. After a bit of hesitation, I settled my unease with a twister that roamed around at the horizon on the right. It added up to the impressive scenery by being at save distance (certainly never coming closer) and by being an impressive natural phenomenon itself. The last element that I had to add to the picture was flowers (or only one, if that seems more appropriate). A well arranged flower bed, yellow-red flowers surrounded by red bricks, appeared in front of the cube. It felt a bit misplaced, but was much more acceptable than the storm.


After returning to this world, my friend explained to me that all the elements in this image mean something and tell something about me. The desert depicts my soul, the cube is me (or the image I have of myself, my ego), the ladder symbolises friendships, the horse is my partner, the storm represents my perception of problems in my life, and the flowers stand for my (future) children. I learned that my soul is balanced and grounded, that I have a huge ego and strong self-confidence, that the main connection to my partner is admiration and that I wish her to have a strong and independent character, that my life is obviously free from any troubles and problems, and that my ideal concerning my future children will be to take good care of them and let them flourish. I skipped the ladder, here, because I want to talk about this particular item, since this article is about friendship. I may talk about the other insights in other blog posts, maybe. Or I leave it to your interpretation.

The ladder was short (in comparison to the cube), useless and weak. It leaned on the cube and didn’t seem to attract anyone’s attention, like a forgotten tool or discarded trash. The book that my friend used to interpret my picture suggested for this case: Friendships don’t mean much to me. It is rather me who is a stronghold and listener for others who see me as a friend, but not vice versa. My friends don’t lift me up or support me reaching different (higher) spheres. The fact that my ladder is old and broken might hint at past disappointments or other negative experiences with friends. Moreover, while my self appeared indestructible, eternal and firm, my friendships appear labile, perishable and transient.

I can’t tell whether psychology tests like this one make any sense or have any empiric foundation, or if they are not better than astrology and horoscopes. I know from my own experience, playing this game with many of my friends, that it very often resembles the life situation or worldviews of the proband. A woman with huge problems at her job (causing her a broken partnership) had a very strong and devastating storm in her image, blowing away her horse. Another friend who made the conscious decision never to have kids had the flowers trampled down and eaten by the horse. A friend that I would characterise as a dreamer with emotional weaknesses had a fragile glass cube floating above the sand. Let’s just assume for a moment that the depictions somehow represent the actual attitudes and personality traits of the image-maker. In my case, the ladder I visualised made very much sense to me!

I was never a dominant person that had a large group of peers and buddies around. Dominant and loud people scared me. My circle of friends has always been rather small. As a teenager, I had my Pannonia friends, my band mates, and around 5-6 good friends in my class at school. I had no friends in my village except the two boys in my class at Gymnasium. I was boy scout and member of the table tennis club in Hoetmar until the age of 14, and after that didn’t keep any contact with any of the boys and girls there. After Abitur (final exam of Gymnasium), most of the friendships faded away, because I didn’t really feel any urge to maintain them. In many cases I was happy that I didn’t have to meet those idiots anymore, in other cases they were happy that they didn’t have to meet me anymore. I remember, six months after end of Gymnasium, I complained to my best friend Jonas that he and some others meet up but never invite me. He replied that he felt like I don’t fit into that group and that the others don’t have a good image of me. Honestly, I never found out what is wrong with me. I can’t remember being rude or mean or offensive. I guess it has to do with the massive black cube…

The same happened after graduating from university. The few friendships I established – I was never a member of the Club of Cool People – just faded away after some time. When I left Germany in 2013 for Asia, I didn’t feel like leaving any important friendships behind. With modern communication facilities (social media, chat programs), I tried to keep in touch with some friends, but the mutual interest dropped rapidly after being out of sight. At my new (and current) home Taiwan, I only have rather superficial friendships with language exchange partners and (ex) band mates. The interest in what I have to share (for example in this blog, or on facebook) is close to zero. I guess, most people in my friend list on facebook unfollowed my posts. The focus of my current life is you (Tsolmo) and your Mom, besides my books, my music, and my writing.

Why am I so bad at maintaining friendships? Option 1: I am a complete idiot that nobody can like or get along with. Feedback from my wife, from family members, from friends, shows me that I am not that bad. My flaws are at a reasonable level, like everyone has flaws. Option 2: I don’t care. This is what the ladder in the desert image suggests. Friends don’t raise me up. I do! Friends come and go, anyway. Why invest energy, then? An important aspect might also be that I am the kind of person that is very much de-motivated by criticism and personal complaint. I tend to focus on things that I know I am good at and that I know I have a chance to get praised for. I will never sing an unknown song in Karaoke because there is a chance of failure and looking like a fool. I don’t like dancing in a club but would rather play the drums on stage. I will rather choose to meet a friend who likes to hear my advice on something than a group of people who might choose to do something that I am afraid of (like going ice skating). Whenever I feel unpleasant or stressful with people, I will give up trying to be their friend. This was the case with class mates at school, with those at university, with colleagues, and even band mates. Additionally, I am a total homey! I don’t like to go out drinking (but rather invite some buddies to come to my place and have a beer here!), am too thrifty to waste money for expensive drinks or food in restaurants and cafés (but rather invite… see above), and feel most comfortable at home, doing the things that I like (reading, writing, DIY, cooking, baking,…). So, it seems, I just don’t care about friendships.

How is this linked to misanthropy? The crucial question is: Does my situation make me unhappy or even depressed, or not? It is surprisingly difficult for me to answer this, and I spend quite some time and effort on finding out. Psychologists (like my ex-girlfriend, and in many books and research articles) often point out the strong link between firm embedment in social relations and perceived life quality and satisfaction. People with either quantitatively (many) or qualitatively (good) well established friendships are happier, less depressed, more successful and healthier. If that is true, I should be unhappy and gloomy. At the same time, I wonder if it is this generalised insight from the psychologists that causes me pressure and dissatisfaction, but not my situation as such, since I don’t feel unhappy with only few friends and little social interaction. As I explained, I am happy doing the things that I do, and I don’t need friends to ease my mind, because as an introvert I do that remotely on my own. Yet, it bothers me that obviously nobody is interested in my thoughts, ideas and reflections. The quantity is not an issue, but maybe the quality is!

What is a good friend, then? I define friendship mostly via communication. A friend is someone who is willing to share his or her thoughts and ideas, and to listen to my thoughts and ideas and talk about them. Conversations with a good friend don’t need to have any limits or restriction, we can just talk what we feel like. Especially, friends may give each other direct and honest feedback, something that not so close people shouldn’t do! I want a friend who can tell me “Your idea is wrong! Look how you appear like an idiot in this or that situation!“, but also “Wow, I never thought like this! Thanks for the inspiration!“. The basis is, of course, a mutual interest in each other and the other’s well-being. Unfortunately, in the age of facebook, instagram & co., real personal interest is rare. People have 2000 friends in their list, but don’t care about any of them like “traditional” friends. People lose interest when having to read more than three lines of text, but only want to see photos or funny memes. Same as I am not good at (and not interested in) small talk about meaningless nonsense, I am also not good at (in the sense of not willing to) sharing private photos and irrelevant trivial daily-life choices and decisions (like what to eat or what to wear or what to buy). A friend is someone who can give me inspiration, sometimes confirmation, sometimes criticism. I expect open-mindedness, honesty, the willingness to use the brain, and a consciously chosen high level of ethical integrity.

It means: Maybe I would care more about friendships if there were people around me that are worth it? Now, this is a highly offensive statement, of course! And THIS is the misanthropy I am talking about! My image of people in general is so low that I don’t see any necessity in making anybody my friend. If you don’t understand what I am talking about when reflecting on mindfulness, epistemology, constructivism, ethics, good life conduct, then leave it and don’t waste my time! If you don’t appreciate my cognitive skills and my creativity, then I am also not interested in you! I am working on and eliminating my own flaws, but if you are not willing to even face yours, then I have difficulties having any respect for you! You smoke? Weakling! You wear make-up? Mindless consumer! You think philosophy is useless? End of the conversation! You hate jazz? Goodbye!

Obviously, my expectation on people is very very high! Some (my Mom, for example) interpret that as arrogance. I look down on people, obviously. I disagree. I am very self-critical! I have many flaws! I am not better than anybody else. Sure, I have skills that others don’t have, but others have skills that I don’t have and never will have! I am not above anyone, so I can’t look down on anyone. I just demand a lot! Especially smartness and wisdom. And this is the major problem, as mentioned earlier: Most personal flaws are the result of not using the brain properly. The cardinal vice that people can have, the deadliest sin, is idiocy. I try very hard to eliminate all idiocy from my personality and character. However, I can’t see this attempt in many people. That’s what I dislike about people: lack of effort on self-reflection and self-cultivation! That’s my misanthropy and the reason for me having so little motivation to build friendships.

Or, maybe, I didn’t meet the right people, for reasons that are my very own problem. Fear (of failure, of humiliation, of trouble), attachment (in the Buddhist sense, to my habits and patterns), bitterness (from past experiences). Instead, I am King in my castle. The massive black cube…

To close this topic, here is one last message to you, Tsolmo: Don’t be like your father! Probably, you won’t experience your father as a very social person, going out with his buddies, often inviting visitors, or giving friendships an outstanding value. Yet, I hope you won’t become an asocial person like me! Meet friends, invite them to our home, visit theirs, establish strong bonds that give you emotional and cognitive support! It is important for your independence and for your personal development and integrity! You may take me as an idol in some respect, but please not in this one!


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!


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!

My Heroes – Visionary: Francisco Varela

This category could also be labelled “Everything”. What I have in mind is an award for someone who contributed extraordinarily to the “larger picture” we have of the world and mankind’s place in it, both in terms of a scientific understanding and in view of philosophical reflections. Nobody bridged these two domains better and more consistently than the Chilean biologist, cognitive scientist, constructivist and ordained Buddhist Francisco Varela (1946-2001)!


When he died in 2001 of Hepatitis C, the world lost a brilliant mind and engaged scientist much too early! His legacy included a great deal of insights for contemporary constructivism, a connection between biology, neuroscience and human cognition, and new concepts like autopoiesis and self-referentiality, greatly impacting our modern view of the human mind and its potentials in the world fabric. Among his most recognised and rewarded publications are:

  • 1980 (with Humberto Maturana). Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living. Boston: Reidel.
  • 1987 (with Humberto Maturana). The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Boston: Shambhala Press. ISBN 978-0877736424
  • 1991 (with Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch). The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-72021-2
  • 1999 (with J. Petitot, B. Pachoud, and J-M. Roy, eds.). Naturalizing Phenomenology: Contemporary Issues in Phenomenology and Cognitive Science. Stanford University Press.

Especially his works with Humberto Maturana are outstanding in the sense that they pave the way for a new definition of living systems and organisms. Autopoiesis describes the tendency of an organised system like a biological cell to sufficiently maintain itself solely by its own means and drives (but in exchange with its environment, of course), which is in contrast to allopoietic systems (like car factories, for example, that use the input of resources to produce cars but not themselves). Autopoiesis can be defined as the ratio between the complexity of a system and the complexity of its environment, with other words: we can describe autopoietic systems as those producing more of their own complexity than the one produced by their environment. Initially intended by Maturana and Varela to be applied to biological entities, it soon expanded to other fields such as cognition, consciousness, and social system theory as that of Niklas Luhmann. His tree of knowledge combines Heinz von Foerster’s first and second order cybernetics and the developmental and linguistic psychology of Ernst von Glasersfeld with Humberto Maturana’s and his own insights into biological systems. Therefore, he is regarded as a key figure (and his respective book as a key work) in contemporary constructivism.

From my perspective, it is not a co-incidence that he was attracted by the Buddhist worldview and its implications on daily life practice. I agree completely with Varela (and many others who recognise it) that Buddhist philosophy can be characterised as inherently constructivistic. Dependent origination (Pratītyasamutpāda) becomes even more clear and convincing in light of Varela’s autopoiesis model! Thus, key ideas of Buddhism such as karma, dukkha, the mind poisons, emptiness, etc. fit perfectly into this picture. Moreover, since the early days of scholarly Buddhism (the days of Nagarjuna), it has a lot to say about consciousness, human psyche and mind, so that an exchange with biological and cognitive sciences seems due. Varela (together with Adam Engle) founded the “Mind and Life Institute” that facilitates the dialogue of (cognitive) science with the Dalai Lama on the connections between our scientific insights into the human mind and the Buddhist understanding of it. Many conferences with renowned scientists and venerable Buddhist masters have been held since then, with very fruitful output.

I call him a visionary because in his last years he tried eagerly to connect the puzzle pieces to a picture in which normative implications of constructivism become obvious. What does it mean for our understanding of ethics? What does it mean for individual well-being and the creation of quality of life in a social collective? Unfortunately, before he could elaborate his thoughts to the fullest he passed away. His last contribution was the combination of Husserl’s phenomenology with first person approaches from neurosciences (so called neurophenomenology). He inspired many scientists and philosophers alike to continue working on what he started. I like to see myself as one of them, carrying on the mission to fruitfully connect our scientific knowledge base with normative orientational knowledge for which philosophical ethics as well as sophisticated worldviews such as Buddhism can (and must) be a source.

My Heroes – Literature: Max Frisch

I want to write about a “hero” from the field of literature. I really want to! But I had some difficulties choosing one! First, I was very sure I would write about Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). He impressed me sustainably with his psycho-horror and fascinating crime stories. From my point of view, he had an incredibly good sense for the “inner” terrors of people that are much worse than outer threats like diseases, losses, monsters or villains. The most horrifying “monsters” are our mental constructs, and in poems like The Raven, tales like The Tell-tale Heart as well as in his unputdownable novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, he illustrated these destructive powers of our vulnerable psyche extraordinarily well. However, after reading about his life, it is impossible for me to name him “a hero”! Besides being a literary genius, he seemed to have been quite a fool. He was alcoholic, sexually obsessed by women, married his cousine when he was 27 and she was 13 (!), and was an eccentric unreliable person. Not very heroic.

Then I remembered that I read all the books by the two outstanding Swiss authors Max Frisch (1911-1991) and Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-1990). Actually, I like Frisch’s works more for several reasons. Dürrenmatt’s plays like Romulus the Great or The Physicists are outspokenly funny and intellectually deep at the same time, and his crime stories like The Pledge, Suspicion, The Judge and his Hangman, or A Dangerous Game are must-reads for every bookworm! However, Frisch’s criticism of postmodernism and his literary analysis of the ongoing alienation of man from his social and environmental lifeworld  (like in Homo Faber, Stiller, Gantenbein, or The Fire Raisers (German: Biedermann und die Brandstifter)), is much more profound and subtle than that of Dürrenmatt. My favourite book of his is the early work Bin or the Journey to Beijing (German: Bin oder Die Reise nach Peking)! It is a mental odyssey around the question How do we want to live our lives? and What is in our own power to do about it?, employing even a Buddhist touch of mindfulness, emptiness and inner balance. It is primarily this book that makes me choose Max Frisch as “my literature hero” over Dürrenmatt.


However, I was hesitating also with this choice. The reason is – same as for Poe – Frisch’s personal lifestyle. He was a notoriously unfaithful man. After his first failed marriage, he had a liaison with Ingeborg Bachmann (also a famous author). Over several years they had a kind of partnership that was dominated by dirty public fights and exhaustive pulling-each-other-down, affecting both their literary work negatively. Later, he married the 28-years-younger Marianne Oellers, but also this marriage was divorced after Frisch had several love affairs. He wrote about his sexual life in his novel Montauk (which is the name of a city in USA where he had an affair with a young American woman) which caused a public debate between his wife and him about where to draw the line between public and private life, ultimately leading to the divorce.

It seems, I have to find a compromise. Maybe, there is no “good literature” without its producer being a bit “weird”, notorious, eccentric, and unheroic. In any case, I learned a lot from Max Frisch’s works, and in terms of partnership conduct I’ll just take him as a negative example.

The Pannonia Chronicles

The Pannonia Chronicles

One of the more unusual experiences of my life has been this: I was the dictator of my own country! Here is the full story:


Here is an overview of my family’s countryside house. On the right, between our residential house and the way that led from the road to the landlord’s bee house, that small stripe was my friend Christoph’s and my most favourite playground. We called it “the forest”.


However, we grew up and the space between those bushes grew smaller. Therefore, we conquered a new “playground” in Autumn 1993. It was an area of ~200m² between our garden, the paddock and the apple tree meadow on which trees and bushes were growing. In the beginning we had to fight our way through stinging-nettles and branches. Before, the area was a bawn for chicken and ducks, the only man-made structure was an old chicken barn, about 80 cm high. Here is a map of the area as we found it (tree positions only approximately).


The copse was surrounded by a fence, we installed a wire fence on the Northern end (in those schemes the right side) to mark “our” area. The old chicken house was used as a “desk”. In August 1994 we had an idea: In our “forest” we should build a real hut. After making drawings and plans, we asked our parents for material and built it. First we made a frame from wooden posts and sticks, and then covered it with silage film that the farmers in our neighbourhood use for covering the silage (animal food). We were so proud of our building that we celebrated its roofing ceremony and invited our families for a BBQ party. The hut was 3 meters long, 1,50 meters wide and 2 meters tall. I was playing (no, working!) in the “forest” nearly every day. Here I was king! I borrowed all kinds of tools from my father and built things, a table, a shelf and other things as interior for the hut. And sometimes I just sat there and thought about my life and that the world would be better if everyone was like me and not like all the idiots around me… In October 1994 we created a garden, fertilized it with horse dung and planted strawberries. In December we constructed an oven inside the hut to keep it warm. The first attempts were very terrible, the hut was full of smoke and the oven often broke. Then we masoned it with cement. We made a fire nearly every evening! We decided to have a cash box and paid “taxes”: 1 DM (~0,5 Euro) every 2 weeks. In the meantime we got a lot of material from our parents, like pots, a fuel lamp, and some tools. When we measured the area we found this data: Width: 6,80m, length (Paddock side): 9,80m, length (middle): 10,50m, length (meadow side): 16,50m. We counted 28 trees, 21 bushes and 13 small shrubs. At the end of 1994 the area looked like this:


I often made candles by myself from wax remains (my mother often used candles in the house and gave me the remains when they were too short). In February, we added a part to the hut as a storage space for some new stuff that we got (a barrel, several cans, a ladder). The oven still broke very often. Especially the stovepipe was very unstable.

Rise and Fall of Pannonia

One day in March, on the bus back from school to Hoetmar, Christoph and I talked about our “forest” (as usual). Then I had an idea: Obviously it is “our” ground, so why not making it independent from Germany and form our own country? We needed a name for it. I remembered a class trip to the “Panorama Park” in spring 1994, an amusement park 100km south of Hoetmar in which the mascot sang a song that goes like “I am the Pano from Panorama Park“. This name “Pano” sounds so stupid that we often made jokes with it. I remembered this name and suggested “Pannonia” (written with double-n instead of only one) as our country’s name and we are the “Pannos”. Christoph agreed, so we founded Pannonia on March 9th 1995. This day became the “national holiday”. As an independent country we needed a flag of course! I designed this one (with MSPaint of Windows 95 on our very first PC):


We also made passports for ourselves. We were now Pannos and chose new names: I was Detlef Panno and Christoph was Otto Panno.

We added a second entrance gate on the left side. The oven got a new bigger pipe, and a secret underground storage box was constructed (to hide important things from my sister who sometimes came and stole our things). To protect our country we attached barbwire around it. The inside of the hut was a little too dark, so we added a window. I enjoyed such construction work very much! And the more we made, the more skilled we became. The first constructions all broke, but later we built really cool things! Of course I told my classmates about my country. Some friends from another village (Everswinkel) also founded a country then, “Joppe”. It was self-understanding that we were arch-enemies! Christoph and me elaborated some military strategies, constructed weapons and practiced on the meadow (sword fighting with sticks, shooting with a “pea shooter”, a tube with the finger of a rubber glove). We planted carrots, peas and beans in the garden, also the strawberries grew well. When we repaired the oven once again we added a metal plate on it. Now we were able to cook! Sometimes we made Ravioli (canned ready-made noodles). In June 1995 we added another part to the hut. We still constructed with the same style: a frame made of wood covered with big pieces of silage film. In the beginning we used white film because we got that from Christoph’s parents. Later we got more robust black one from another neighbour.

In August 1995 we affiliated a new “inhabitant”: a boy from my class called Steffen (Erwin Panno). In October, a 4th Panno was accepted: Stefan joined us (Herbert Panno). We had our first official big assembly on October 19th and 20th. First, we tried to organise our politics. With only 4 citizen, we decided that we wouldn’t need a parliament or government, but that we elect a dictator for one year. We called that “democratic dictatorship”. I was elected as the first dictator of Pannonia, probably because I was the one who spent most time there, because it was at my home. However, in order to keep our society balanced, I appointed Christoph as our agriculture minister (who had to take care of the garden), and Steffen as our minister of defence (but we called it “war minister”, planning defence strategies, but also “foreign affairs”). We also reformed our tax system (more money!) and decided to write a constitution. Then, the pleasurable part of the meeting started: We bought Ravioli, snacks and coke and slept in the hut. Actually, we also bought some beer, but we had to keep it secret, because we were just 14 (Christoph even only 12) and definitely not allowed to drink alcohol. That was the first time in my life that I drank beer. I liked sweet drinks (like coke) more, but it was cool to drink like the adults do. We talked all night about girls in our class, which of them we liked most, what part of a girl’s body is most sexy, and all these things that teenage boys think about. At midnight we had a night walk for 2 hours and frightened the neighbours’ dogs. Of course we were very smelly and dirty the next morning, but that was part of the game.

In November, we constructed a second hut. It was only 1 meter high, but we wanted to dig a hole inside of it. We had agriculture (our garden), military and thought we also need industry: mining. One side of the hut was left open, so we could dig and throw the soil outside. Now I was digging nearly every day. After 2 days the hole was 60cm deep. At the end of the year the hole had a size of 1,50m x 1,80m and was more than 1 meter deep. It was often filled with water that came from the ground or from rain.

In the diary that I wrote about Pannonia I found a mysterious entry from December 12th: Julia and Sarah (Christoph’s sister) occupied Pannonia. On December 16th the occupation was put down successfully. I just ask myself why it took 4 days (in the future, Historians will have to do some research into this matter!)… Since then, the two girls had their own space on the right side of the copse and – of course – were our No.1 enemies! In the meantime our arch enemies (formerly known as “Joppe”) were renamed “Sestania” (made from the first two letters of each of their names, Sebastian, Stefan and André). Actually, in school we were all friends, but for boys like us it was more fun to have “enemies” and to be “at war”.

Here is a picture of Pannonia at the end of 1995:


During 1996, Pannonia saw major architectural advancements. In March, the old chicken barn was replaced by a two-storey tower, at that time our by far most sophisticated construction! The sand that we dug out of that hole was used to form a low levee around a wooden frame, a kind of bunker that had space for one person. Later it was fortified by an iron fence and a roof. The whole thing was connected to the hut above the hole which later turned into a tower, too. In May, we conquered “Lower Pannonia”, the North side of our country, by building an outpost: a hexagonal pavilion (classical Pannonia style: wood and silage film) with an elevated part in the middle of the roof. We made campfires inside this hut. The smoke could escape through the hole in the roof. One night we didn’t extinguish the fire properly, and the next morning I found wide parts of the film molten and burned. We were lucky that this didn’t turn into a serious bush fire! Here is one of the few real photos of Pannonia, taken in April 1996, when the bushes still had no leaves. Our silage film constructions looked pretty ugly – my Mom often complained about that, actually – but during summer it was almost invisible in the dense copse, covered by leaves.

1996-04 - Pannonia

Not only the architecture, also our political ideas advanced. As announced earlier, I tried to write our constitution. Of course, I had no idea about what a constitution should look like, so I took the German constitutional law and “translated” that into terms that meet our purposes. Most remarkably, the first sentence in the German constitution – “Human dignity is untouchable.” – didn’t make much sense to me. Dignity – what a hollow and hazy term! I changed it into “The freedom of the Panno is untouchable.“. In retrospective, it makes sense to me! What teenagers want to see protected the most is their freedom – freedom from parents, authority, limitations, and freedom to do what we like and to live out our ideas. Dignity is not much of an issue at that age.

In spring 1996, we recruited a 5th member, Benjamin alias Bruno Panno, but only as a “Half-Panno”, because his half-hearted commitment left certain doubts concerning his loyalty to Pannonia. By the end of the year, we attracted 4 further interested boys, all “Half-Pannos”, so that we can say that at the peak we had 9 citizen, counting all of them in. I must admit, I forgot who these others were (one was called Tim, I think).

A major obstacle for Pannonia was the lack of sanitary facilities and electricity. Yes, boys can pee everywhere, but for “big business” we still needed to run to my family’s house. Whenever we wanted to use electric tools or simply listen to the radio, I had to connect a 50 meter extension cord to the nearest plug in the garage (only possible when there were no horses in the paddock). Weather, though, was never a problem. We managed to make the huts rain-proof, they withstood storms and heavy snowfall, and with the oven it was even comfortably warm in winter. In summer, Pannonia was completely in the shade under the dense canopy of the bushes and trees and, therefore, not too hot.

We have been quite busy in Pannonia throughout the whole year, according to the notes I took. We constantly remodelled the area, built things, got more equipment, and made it a fancy place. The landlord turned his bee house into a kind of “holiday house” and gave us the discarded beehive boxes. We stacked them together as a locker shelf in the first hut. We finally managed to make the oven stable enough to survive our excessive night sessions with more and more beer and endless conversations about everything. We truly “grew up” in Pannonia! In October 1996 we held our second “National Assembly” (again, of course, combined with drinking and staying overnight in the huts) in which I was re-elected as the dictator.

Pannonia at the end of 1996:


In early 1997 we turned the mine (in the scheme labelled “hole”) into a new landmark building, a three floor tower with basement, ground floor and attic. It was the tallest structure that we built, but at the same time the least used one. I guess its construction coincides with a shift of interests away from Pannonia as our favourite playground towards other activities like playing music (I had my band “no more lund”, for example) or doing sports (Christoph played football in the local team). I still spent much time in Pannonia, working or taking it as refuge from the evil outside world. However, our space was almost fully exploited, and also our construction skills have reached their limits. Childish ideas like our self-drawn “passports” lost their attraction, and also our plan to make Pannonia independent – an option that we seriously discussed and (at least I) dreamed of – gave way for more pragmatic and down-to-earth considerations: Pannonia was and will ever be a fancy playground and, Anno 1997, a place to have fun. But definitely NOT a place to bring girls or to demonstrate our “coolness”, which both became more important in our lives when we got 15, 16, and beyond. The huts were cool but, as we had to admit, also dirty, ugly and uncomfortable.

On the photo, taken in February 1997, you can find me looking out of our first hut (in analogy to a real country, if the huts were cities of Pannonia, this hut was always regarded as “the capital”), and the beginning of the scaffold construction of the central tower above the hole.

1997-02 - Pannonia

After two years of stagnation – no visual progress, no more national assemblies, no new members – and after frequent complaints about the ugly appearance of Pannonia’s “skyline” (at least in autumn and winter), we decided to tear it down in late 1999. In 1998, I still spent much time in the huts, but when my interest and motivation dropped, too, I agreed that it would be the most reasonable thing to do. We deconstructed (if not to say “destructed”) all the huts, recycled the posts and boards (my father and the landlord used them for other purposes) and threw all the rest, especially all the silage foil, into the hole that we dug and covered it with soil. That was the end of an era for me. One of the most exciting and important parts of my life was buried in the ground.

Retrospective Reflections

Why has Pannonia been so important for me? Why did I put so much heart and soul into this “project”? I am inclined to characterise myself – the 12-16 year old me – as extraordinarily introverted and as unhealthily misanthropic, almost sociophobic. The experiences at primary and secondary school of being teased and bullied left a deep imprint on my view of other people: Everybody is either a fool or an idiot. Obviously, people didn’t appreciate my qualities – I was good at school, could solve mathematical and empirical problems, had some practical skills – but focused on exploiting my weaknesses (being shy, not good at small talk, not looking “cool”, low self esteem). Pannonia – same as my Lego role-playing worlds before – was my way of escaping, my refuge. In this smaller community with my childhood friend and two classmates who were like me, I felt much better and safer than in the larger, unpredictable and inhomogeneous conglomerate of the school classroom or the boyscouts group. Above all, Pannonia gave me confidence: The proof that I am good at something, namely being the leader of something and, as such, making it flourish and grow. I was a worthy dictator, and not the fool that everyone else wanted me to believe to be. Of course, these are thoughts that I can only have in retrospection. At that age, I was not able to reflect consciously about these kind of issues.

The time between the age of 12 and 16 brings significant and crucial changes in personal development and interests. I believe, this is the age in which the future path of a person is paved the most. Besides playing drums and acquiring musical skills, Pannonia is my main source of positive life attitude without which I would have drifted off either into depression, serious misanthropy, or aggressive disorders. It served as an outlet for all my inner insecurities, instabilities and worries – and as an introvert I had many! The experiences of being respected by my peers, of sharing thoughts and secrets (in those endless nocturnal meetings around the fireside), of experiencing that I am just a normal boy with an inside world that is similar to others, was extraordinarily relieving for me! It also taught me how to expose myself in front of myself, something that is far from being trivial for a young teen!

Besides this psychological dimension, there is also a normative one, as I believe. The idea of making Pannonia an independent country was most likely inspired by the conviction that “we – with the values that we defend – would be a better society than the one that we currently find ourselves in“. We reflected directly and in open debate about values like freedom, justice, or fairness, when we discussed our constitution. From an uninformed, greenhornish, teenage perspective, though, but firmly convinced that our views are “right”! But also on a deeper, rather unconscious level, since Pannonia fell into an era of my life in which I progressed from a “mindless” child into an assertive and reasonable teenager, it served as an environment in which I formed and contested my value system and normative (if not to say “ethical”) integrity. I wouldn’t underestimate this impact that Pannonia and my dedication for it had on me!

As a conclusion, I wish that all children and teens would have a chance to build their own personal version of Pannonia, maybe not physically in a copse (since that is not available for everyone), but at least in their own room and with the proper amount of freedom and creativity! It might be the main reason for me wanting to move to the countryside with my family, giving my Kids the chance to experience something like this. Not only for practical skills and creativity, but also for personality development in the very critical time from childhood to adolescence. Being a “dictator” one time in your life – letting confidence and integrity rule you until the end of days!

Parenting Check: Supporting Your Self-Esteem

I came across a few illustrations by Leonid Khan on which compare “common parents” with “wise parents”. The page originally presented the 10 graphics as the difference between Jewish parents and other parents, which is of course entire nonsense and earned them much criticism (upon which they changed it to the new wording). Whether parents are “common” or bad or wise is not a matter of nationality, culture, ethnicity or religious confession! Rather, we find all kinds of parents with all kinds of attitudes and flaws all around the globe. In today’s letter, however, I don’t want to compare parents. I tried to take the illustrations as an inspiration to check my own behaviour and attitude towards you in our daily life. Since currently I am a houseman and we spend a lot of time together, there are many situations and opportunities to reflect on my (re-)actions and habits. Some of the themes probably don’t apply to you, yet, because you are still too young. But reflection can never start too early! I’ll try to do it reasonably!

  1. Reaction to failure


You are still at the stage of trying many things. Naturally, there is a lot of failure! You want to draw, but hold the pen the wrong way and don’t produce any line. You want to eat by yourself, but whenever you scoop your food, it falls down before reaching your mouth. You want to stack blocks or do a puzzle, but the parts just don’t want to fit! In case of the food, I still help you and usually end up just feeding you. The rationale behind that is a pragmatic one: If eating takes too long you get impatient and whiny, and I don’t want to clean the huge mess that you produce. Maybe that’s wrong. I should just let you do until it works. In case of drawing and puzzling, I try to aid you more passively and let you figure out by yourself how you can make it work. However, this also has limits. You get increasingly frustrated when the piece doesn’t fit. Guiding your hand, hopefully, delivers the message “See! There is always a way! Just keep trying, for example like this…”. I observe that you are a fast learner, trying to copy what I do (for example, turning and twisting the puzzle piece until it fits). So, a little assistance can support your exploratory learning process. I have to be careful, though, not to be too impatient when you don’t succeed in your efforts immediately, but let you experience the feeling of failure and the sense of achievement after keeping trying. You are not too young for anything! Just not experienced enough. Providing situations to gain this experience is my task as your father!

  1. Supervising your activities


The point, here, is that you feel more trusted when we let you do things without constant supervision. As in all the eight examples in this article, the pragmatic considerations we as parents have to make are risk and safety estimations. There is never no risk! You can always trip, fall down, hit your head, bump into something, etc. We keep the really dangerous things (electricity, fire, blades, falling heavy objects, etc.) away from you. In this environment, we can let you move freely and safely everywhere in our apartment without having to worry about anything that exceeds the “base risks”. When you find trash (and with your perfect eyesight you find the tiniest pieces of dust in the corners!) and show it to me, I tell you to throw it into the trash bin, and you go there and throw it in. I trust you on that and don’t watch you doing it. You come back with a proud face and clap your hands, me joining in. On the playground, you climb the play structures and slide down all by yourself. I usually stand in some distance and let you enjoy it without giving you the feeling that something could go wrong and that you would need assistance. Just do it! You seem cautious, but not fearful or afraid, and you are always happy when you find out that you can do something by yourself!

  1. Letting you get dirty


I failed on this one this week. When we played in the garden of our community, I scolded you for picking the soil from the flowerbeds and for being more interested in all the dirt than in the play structure and the toys. You still put many things into your mouth, so I worry you eat the dirt you pick up. I am still too concerned about your health (not so much about the cleanness of your clothes and hands). I should let you play more in the mud, especially when we are close to home where we can clean you again! I spent most of my childhood in the mud (in the countryside), so I should know how happy it can make a Kid! Relax, Daddy!

  1. Your intended achievement vs. The actual outcome


The point, here, is different from the previous illustration: It is not so much about fun over cleanness, but more about intention over outcome. At this young age, you have (maybe not yet, but soon) an undisturbed, untamed creativity and the urge to explore and transform the world you find. Making a cake, as in the graphic, is just one example. Painting something, building something, helping with housework, anything that you observe your parents do – could be other examples. Your intentions are always good: You want to make a gift for your beloved parents, or you just want to do something well. Naturally, at the age of 18 months, there is not much you do, yet, so there are not many situations in which the approaches illustrated here would apply. As mentioned earlier, you like to throw trash into the trash bin. Sometimes, however, you classify things as “trash” that actually are not. Once I told you emphatically that you must not put that into the trash, but of course that has no effect! You will just not understand why throwing away one thing gives you a praise, throwing away another earns you a scold. You firmly believe you did a good job. So I reminded myself of always thanking you whenever you did something out of your own motivation that you learned in earlier situations, no matter how “wrong” it is in this context, no matter how poor the result is, and no matter how much work it causes me to reverse the result of your effort.

  1. Your energy level


You sleep very well and, as an effect, are very active and attentive when awake. You run around a lot, climb everything that can be climbed (recently also the dining table) and often jump around like crazy. Sometimes I find myself trying to calm you down or stop you from jumping too wild on the couch. I shouldn’t! However, again, I think there is the reasonable pragmatic limit of safety! And a second consideration is the experience with the phenomenon of you being “over-tired” (I wonder if there is a proper term for that): Sometimes you are so tired that you get carefree and coltish, like in a state of euphoria, extremely rebellious and – with a 100% certainty – ending up crying, either after hurting yourself, or when we have to stop you and put you into bed. In such a state, it would be very unwise to wait for you running out of energy! Most of the time, however, it is a big joy for us to watch your energy and untamed vitality! Why would we stop you?

  1. Do it by yourself


As far as I understand, the idea of this picture is not “You can do it by yourself!”, but rather “You have to do it by yourself!”. It wants to deliver the idea that Kids must not always rely on their parents fixing everything for them, but learning that sometimes (and according to their abilities, of course) they need to get active by themselves. For a Kid of your age, there are not many situations, yet, in which this approach applies. All I can think of now is eating your food (insisting on you eating by yourself when you ask for being fed), playing with your toys (including opening boxes and bags, stacking blocks, solving puzzles, etc.), and climbing stairs or play structures (which you usually ask no assistance for). In the future, there will be more situations in which I hopefully remember to find the right balance between helping you (to not disappoint and frustrate you) and insisting on you doing it by yourself (even at the risk of failure, see point 1). So far, you want to be independent rather a bit too much than not enough. You are far from being a “lazy” Kid!

  1. Support your sharing ability


In contrast to the other seven illustrations that all show a particular attitude of parenting that aim at certain effects, this one here depicts a result (or an effect). It is, of course, desirable to support the formation of a habit of sharing, rather than having to be forced to share. The question is what parenting approaches and attitudes can support that. Apparently, you have a good sense of sharing. When I cut a Mango for you and give a small fork to you, you take turns putting a piece into your mouth and feeding one to me. You also do that with your main meals. You are very happy offering your food to us, which might be an expression of copying our behaviour (feeding you) in a playful way, rather than a truly virtuous act of sharing. However, our reaction (appreciation and expression of happiness and fun) will hopefully motivate you to form a habit of sharing. When someday you have a sibling we’ll come back to that…

  1. Reward your efforts


This is a very important point! I appreciate the illustrator’s choice to present the “bad” Mom with her attention focused on her smartphone, a serious symptom of our modern society. I try to leave my phone at my work desk, so that it doesn’t distract me whenever I deal with you, especially while feeding and playing with you. This gives me the capacity to really “spend time with you” (instead of just being around). I hope you can sense my appreciation of and admiration for everything you do! Same as for point 4, you don’t produce much that can be rewarded or praised. I posted some of your “drawings” on this blog, and the Mother’s Day gift that we prepared together is exposed on the fridge door so that all visitors can see it. I am sure that in the future you will give me many opportunities to show my pride and admiration for anything you do! I expect that this won’t be difficult for me!


All (human) life and its decision-making is risk estimation. As parents, we have to reflect day in day out on questions like “Is it OK for you or not? Is it safe or not? Is the risk level acceptable or not?”. In this framework, your self-esteem and your own ability to assess the acceptability of risk levels to which you expose yourself have to develop. Finding the right balance within this tension of “letting you do” and “keeping you safe” is not always easy. I tend to be too cautious in some situations (stopping your wildness, keeping you clean when playing outside), and I am convinced to do it right in others (not creating an atmosphere of caution when you climb the play structure, but letting you explore it by yourself). The most critical phase for most of these attitudes is yet to come, at a time when your abilities are more manifold and your urges to do something creative and effective will have grown. I hope I can establish a mindful awareness for the effects of my own habits and behaviours that trigger the formation of certain traits in you – one of them being a healthy self-esteem. Then we will see if Mrs. Khan’s illustrations prove helpful as an inspiration for self-reflection!

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.