The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs

You’ve probably heard the story of the goose that laid the golden eggs. The version I first heard had it that: There was a serf who had a remarkable goose that started laying eggs of solid gold. The serf in question, having no right to anything at all except the right to do what he was told, inevitably had to give the goose to the Lord. It was either give the goose or have the Lord’s thugs take it from him and give him a beating in the process. So now the Lord has the goose, and it lays a gold egg nearly every day. Wouldn’t it be nice to have the goose lay two eggs a day? The lord starts force-feeding the goose, and indeed, for a little while, the goose lays two gold eggs a day. The lord decides that three eggs a day would be far better, so he ups the feeding. The goose dies of heart failure because it got too fat.

Another ending: The lord decided that if he could figure out why the goose was laying gold eggs he could make all the geese lay golden eggs. Bright idea. He dissects the goose and learns nothing. Dead goose = no gold eggs.

This type of outcome is suggestive of what is happening due to America Capitalism today. In chasing money through the manipulation of money (rather than through making, maintaining or developing things), the country’s infrastructure (the gold laying goose) has been dismantled and the American system is generating less and less wealth. The poorer people of American are having to tighten their belts as they become poorer while the richest plot to corner the biggest share of a shrinking pot. The American nightmare.

Why did all this start running through my head last night at 2:30 a.m.? It was due to the news I had heard earlier, that the information highway was in danger of being sold off to big corporations who want to control your and my access to websites. Internet access providers will increase our upload and download speeds but only if we go to the big corporation sites who pay for faster speeds. Conversely, internet providers will slow down our upload and download speeds if we try to go to small, less wealthy sites that cannot pay the big bucks. Desire for incredible wealth is turning the internet into TV. Soon we will be able to turn the internet on and watch, but we will not be able to get to anything we really need. In China the government wants to control what you think by stopping you from seeing other ideas. In America the corporations want to control what you think you need to buy by controlling the ads you see. It is totally possible that in this new wwworld order, zen blogs will load slower and slower.

Why am I thinking about this in the middle of the night? Isn’t this kind of stuff (people trying to control other people) always the way of humanity? When was it any different?

It’s all about desire. The desire to get the universe to do what we want it to do so that we can have a perfectly pleasant and worry free life. Big corporations are no different in this than individuals because corporations are made up of individuals. Individuals desire impossible things, and so do corporations.

I stare into the darkness and watch my mind trying to plot the perfect blog that will make everyone sit up and become enlightened. But I don’t take any of my metal monkey business seriously. I just watch it flow on by. I know whence comes my desire to make perfect everything in the world, but to analyze it fully here would take pages, novels. At the most superficial level, I can say that my training by the Catholic church included the idea that because Christ, by the age of 32, had saved all the souls of the world, I should have done the same. Doesn’t help that the Bodhisattva vows include the idea that we should save all entities. I tell myself that attachment to Buddhism, or to its rites, injunctions, vows, precepts, and advice, can cause problems with self-worth every bit as deep as the problem caused by that pesky idea from Catholicism. Whenever my early desire-program, to save all entities, pops up in the dead of the night, I try to let it run its course without getting involved, obsessed, attached. Or I get out of bed, which is always tiresome at such a late(early?) hour, and go read a book. Then I can get back to sleep.

But the need, the desire, to save all beings can be traced back to the desire to control the universe and make it treat you (me) in such a way that you(I) will no longer suffer. If everyone was enlightened (saved) then the world would be sweet for me! But we can’t make people enlightened. All we can do is act in such a way as not to cause more suffering. That is the only saving we can do. Be an example of non-desire, of non-suffering, of non-attachment. Ho!Ho! Ho! Another aspiration to get attached to.

Why can’t we see that desire is useless? We can never get what we desire. No body can. The mind is not capable of parsing the infinite variables affecting reality sufficiently enough to allow a plot or a plan to bring about any specific and finely detailed outcome. In other words, any time we try to make something happen, we fail to the exact degree that we try to make the event happen in an exact manner. Yes, we can decide to go on a picnic, but we can’t make the ants stay away, nor can we make our picnic partner fall in love with us over the egg salad sandwiches, nor can we control the weather.

“The best laid plans of mice and men/ Gang aft agley.” Sometimes our plots seem to succeed; but at second thought, the desired outcome never meets up with our expectations. When we finally win that long desired golden fleece, all sorts of worries creep in: will someone try to steal it, how much can I get for it, and is the buyer trying to fleece me? How may people can I beat up to get them to work for me for free before they start a revolution? And why doesn’t he/she love me like I want? If only….

Attachment to any desire is a mug’s game. We can’t think up a sure-fired path to any outcome, and outcomes keep changing long after the attainment. In desiring something we are exercising our imaginations. But our imaginations are not powerful enough to encompass the infinite number of smaller details, small events, that go into making any one thing happen. How then can we work up foolproof plans to save all sentient beings? The only tools we have is to make sure we are not attached to any specific outcome, and to work hard at finding out how not to engage in our own suffering.

And now, surfing backwards through time about 2500 years: Buddha was doing his thing, and the Ancient Greeks, approximate contemporaries, were doing theirs. Socrates was being interpreted by Plato in this book The Republic. Near the beginning of Plato’s long dialogue, Thrasymachus argues with Socrates. Thrasymachus claims that the ‘good’ is what is good for one self and never mind anyone else. Plato tries to argue that Thrasymachus is wrong, that the good is what is good for everyone. As far as I can see, the rest of the Republic is Plato’s attempt to prove Thrasymachus wrong. He never does.

Plato is often cited as the node through which all western philosophy passes. All the philosophical questions that concern us today were anticipated by Plato/Socrates. In terms of how to do the good, no one in the last 2500 years has been able to prove Thrasymachus wrong. And in not being able to be proved wrong, a lot of people act on Thrasymachus’s advice. One possible way Thrasymachus could be proved wrong, and the argument Plato ends up with in the Republic, is to invent a metaphysics. There are only two possibilities of defeating the idea that the good is nothing but self-advancement and self-interest. Either we invent a religion (and you know of the kind of damage people are capable of doing in the name of religions), or we rely on a person’s inherent need for goodness for all. And this completes a circle back to the story about the goose that lays the golden egg. The good never came into it.

In the armed forces there is a principle known as the facts on the ground; only the officer on the ground in the event can interpret the orders as they apply to that event. If necessary, the ranking person can change the orders because orders given at a remove cannot anticipate changing circumstances. Even if philosophy cannot prove that the good is what is good for all, the facts on the ground give us a good idea of what is real.

Capitalism as it is practiced in America funnels wealth into the hands of fewer and fewer people. This means that more and more people become poorer. But instead of talking about the good (it spanks of dichotomy and dualism), let’s change the concept into Buddhistic principles and talk about suffering. The state on the ground in America tells us that large and increasing accumulations of wealth increase the amount of suffering for increasing numbers of people. One would think that the opposite would also be true, that the wide distribution of wealth would help alleviate suffering. In Plato’s terms, to alleviate suffering would be the good.

Another leap of topic, but germane perchance.

Check out The Price of Sugar for an extreme example of accumulation of wealth and what it leads to in terms of suffering.

And now, to get to the point of all the previous: Awareness. How can we really know what the facts on the ground are? If we understand that we live in the new global order, are not the facts on the ground everything that happens on the earth? How can we know what suffering is unless we know how the world works, unless we know how people act towards each other, unless we know why people act in the way they do? And unless we know how people act and why, how can we alleviate their suffering?

The big questions for today, kiddies, are: do any of my actions increase the suffering of others? If I eat sugar from the Dominican Republic, am I increasing the suffering of others? What is the suffering that causes someone to think that by doing harm to others they are doing the good? How can I do the good? (Hint: The Eightfold Path.)

All essays on these and related topics are already long past due.

And now I am going to back to making bread, my task for the day.

Advertisements

Politics, Sex, Commercialism, Education

the scream

”Though they become our sworn enemies, reviling and persecuting us, we should regard them as bodhisattva manifestations who, in their great compassion, are employing skillful means to help emancipate us from the sinful karma we have produced over countless kalpas through our biased, self-centered views.” Torei Zenji (second entry, down the page a bit, under other sutras)

*****************

I’m cutting my latest loaf of sourdough this morning, and I think it is too wet and heavy. My partner again states that she really likes my bread because it is good for the sandwiches that she takes to work. She says the tomatoes don’t make the bread soggy. All well and good, but what am I doing worrying about making the perfect loaf (a delusional goal) when all around the world most people have a hard time finding enough to eat? I live like the kings of old were accustomed to living, in terms of creature comfort, not in terms of life and death over others. At least not that I’m aware of, or am I?

I was in at the swimming pool a couple of days ago and a fellow in the change room was musing about how it would be nice if the pool bought a heat-less spin dryer to dry the swimming suits. I pointed out that we were going to have to do it the old-fashioned way and dry the suits on a line. He pointed out that the ‘Y’ had a spin dryer. “Maybe the pool management is saving the cost of the electricity and the machine?” I suggested. And then he made what I thought was a nonsequitur. “Somebody pays,” he said. I offered,”Taxes.” He came back with, “Even people in the third world pay for us. They send us all their stuff.” He suggested I look up The Story of Stuff, which I pass on to you in the spirit of dancing lessons from god, or being aware of what is really going on in terms of commercialism and economy.

On many Buddhist themed blogs lately I have been reading various musings, some tortured, some determined, all reflecting on the sorry state of the world today. Topics range from poverty, sex, politics, commercialism to war. The eternal human stuff. Well, if I am going to write yet one more blog about zen, what is my stand on these topics? I started musing about what I thought about politics, although the topic, politics, stands in for all the other topics as a test case.

Lessons learned from Nathan’s blog and Peter’s blog. Nathan writes from a zen perspective, often wondering how things in the world look when subjected to a certain amount of introspection and analysis. Peter directly points to common concerns and often asks how certain difficult topics affect your life, how zen practice affects your perception of the world. Or at least this is sort of what I take from the two of them.

What does Buddhism tell us about the world? This is territory for the Four Noble Truths.

Looking at all the world’s problems from the perspective of the 4NTs

If all is suffering then all the worlds peoples are suffering. What causes suffering? Suffering is the result of having desire, but desire results from having an incorrect or incomplete view of reality. In short (in terms of Buddhism), suffering is the state of not being enlightened. If the great majority of the world’s peoples are short of enlightened then their pursuits, for the most part, can be nothing other than an engagement with and a further perpetration of suffering. When suffering is caused by misapprehension of self and the world, we have to ask what is the major error in perception. It seems to me that the major error is a person’s idea of self. The old zen saw: the problem of the ego. Suffering people often feel that they are more important than other suffering people, that their suffering is somehow more important or significant than other peoples’ suffering. Politics is often called the art of the possible, but it is really the art of one suffering person tying to get advantage over other suffering people. Yes, compromises do happen, but few people are ever satisfied with a compromise. Compromise rarely (like never) stops the suffering.

What is the enlightened person supposed to do? Or more realistically, what can anyone who is writing about zen do about politics when confronted with the solipsism of suffering? Suffering is a real thing. It is everywhere. As zen nuts we vow to alleviate it. Should we get involved with politics if politics does not really relieve suffering? That depends.

So what am I doing writing this blog? I am trying to look at the world from a zen perspective. Trying to be aware of what really is going on. What is really going on in politics is that people try to thrash out some workable compromise. But how can a compromise work unless it makes deluded suffering peoples stop blaming each other for their suffering? If we want to engage in politics we need to point out that what is good for one is what is exactly good for another and that unless the good becomes general, suffering ensues. Supposed enemies are not really enemies in the long run. They are merely suffering people who have the misguided idea that someone else is causing their suffering. Oh, yes, someone might shoot you. But the reason they do so is because they are suffering and have mistakenly blamed you for it. The only way to stop someone or their brother or sister or friend from shooting you in the future is to help them alleviate their suffering. To try to subject your enemies to suffering is no solution at all. The proof of this pudding is that we have an endless history of people blaming each other for their suffering and going to war to put and end to the situation and yet we still have suffering and war. All attempted solutions have so far not worked.

Politics to a zen nut has to be an attempt to educate people about the nature of suffering, and it cannot be making accusatory or judgemental statements, or trying to get the advantage over another. Zen does not cast blame. The “beam in your own eye” is the blame you (I) give others for your suffering.

This is a hard lesson, especially when someone is coming over the hill with guns intent on killing you. How does one have compassion for the person who is causing you pain? The only reason they are causing you pain is because they blame you for causing them pain. This situation is the universal suffering circle from hell.

I have absolutely no idea how to go about educating the world. All I can do is argue that the first step in ending suffering is to stop blaming others for your (mine, our) disease of suffering. Have compassion for the (metaphorical) suicide bomber who sees his/her life as so awful that the only way they can stop their suffering is to cause others to suffer. How to make their life one of less suffering? What do you think?

Happiness

Are we having fun yet?

This post was inspired by Nathan over at Dangerous Harvests.

According to Ludwig Wittgenstein (if I understand him properly), language is a tricky business in that all words have meanings that are idiosyncratic. Each one of us thinks and feels something completely different when we hear or use any particular word. Wittgenstein likens language to a large map. Each word inhabits one address on the map. Each person understands any particular word not in terms of the address but in terms of the route they took to learn the word. It is like going to school. We each took a different path to get there and had different emotional, intellectual and physical experiences along the way. It is the experiential route that brought each person to the word that informs, colours and gives meaning to the word.

What about concrete words such as ‘apple’? We can each experience an apple by biting into it and so come to some common idea of what the word apple means. But each one of us has an idea of the word apple that is coloured differently than all others’, depending on the apple pies our grandmother did or did not bake, by the day we fell out of the apple tree, by the wasp nest hanging in the midst of the fruit, by the story in the bible or by the story about Newton…

Abstract words are a different kettle of fish. In effect, the word ‘happiness’ only has a private address on the map. Worse, each person’s word ‘happiness’ has a private and undisclosed address. Only the individual knows where their experience of happiness resides. Because of this, the word ‘happiness’ is almost useless because it is not easy to know what others mean by the word. Happiness is a warm gun. I’m so happy to see you. What you did made me feel happy. Is everybody happy? Let me make you happy, baby.

Nathan asks if we can find out what everybody really wants. We already suspect that what everyone wants cannot be happiness because happiness always means different things? And we cannot say everybody wants the same thing when what they want is described by the word happiness which meaning completely different things for different people. So if happiness is ruled out, is there something that everybody wants?

One of my favourite stories (I do not know if the story is true or an urban legend, nor do I know where I heard it or if I only dreamt it, but I like it anyway):

Some people were studying gorillas, their social interactions and contracts, how they shared things and how they played scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Someone wondered what a sudden change of state would do to the social contracts in the herd (tribe, group). So they dumped a load of bananas into the gorillas’ clearing, far more bananas than the group could eat before the fruit rotted. The silver back, the toughest honcho, wouldn’t let anyone else near the bananas. I like to think that he thought that with more bananas than he could ever eat, he had enough to last him forever and so didn’t need to cultivate his mutual aid relationships with anyone else. He drove all the other gorillas away from the pile of bananas. No more scratch my back, I’ll scratch your. No more Mr Nice Guy.

When the bananas rotted, the silver back wanted back into the mutual aid society. All the other apes gave him a hard time, wouldn’t interact with him. It took him forever to win back his place.

What this story says to me is that, in terms of our type of capitalism, our western economic adventurers have figured out how to abstract the bananas and make them last forever (turned them into money), thereby allowing the monied to ignore the social interdependence that makes everything grow. The American Dream, the Western Dream, is to become wealthy, comfortable, privileged, beholden to no one.

I’d say that our biology tells us to want all the bananas. But in every animal society, the biological imperative of wanting all the bananas is tempered by the overwhelming need to live in a mutual aid network. Oh so clever humans have figured out how to do an end run around mutual aid networks by inventing non-perishable money to stand in for bananas. The idea of money allows our desire to have all the bananas run rampant, untempered by cooperative effort. As soon as money shows up in a society, everyone forgets their mutual aid pac and goes for all the money, for all the bananas. As far as I can see, cornering the market on bananas is merely a misguided attempt to stop suffering by attempting to control the universe (by buying it with the power of money), to make it do what we want. What we want the universe to do is to stop making us suffer. Yes, and if we stop suffering we might call that happiness.

You might think the word suffering is like the word happiness in that everyone suffers in different ways. Yes, but according to Buddha, all states of suffering can be alleviated in the same way for each person, but unless we learn to stop being attached to our suffering (more on this later) the desire for happiness cannot be fulfilled except in the most fleeting of ways. There is no one way to get all the bananas. There aren’t enough bananas in the world to allow everyone to get all the bananas. According to Buddha, instead of buying lottery tickets, the sure and only way to stop suffering is to rigorously apply the knowledge contained in the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Yes suffering exists, and suffering exists because one desires all the bananas. But you don’t have to suffer just because it’s impossible to have all the physical and emotional bananas. Check out the Eightfold Path.

RICHES

Yesterday on the ferry I said these exact words, “Rich people are all psychopaths. Well, to be polite about it they are all sociopaths.” Ha! Ha! Ha! How funny can a man get? I was sitting with someone who was richer than me and with someone who was poorer than me. What a joke. Self-condemned by my own words. After all, I am richer than some + 90% of the human race. What? Life as an exercise in comparative psychopathology?

My only excuse for saying such an inane thing is that I was so tired that I had momentarily slipped into past brain patterns (way back when I was a callow youth and had read too much Marx) and it wasn’t until I woke up this morning that I remembered I had voiced such an foolish unkindness. This is my attempt to correct that mistake. Why would I not feel compassion for anyone who got rich instead of finding their true nature? Finding one’s true nature is far more important than money or no money. To paraphrase the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, “True nature will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no true nature.” But then I’m not burning any of my money.

My poorer companion proved that he was really rich by telling me about the importance of serving others.

Ah well, not all was a loss yesterday. In the grocery store a young man, juggling too many things to carry, dropped a bag. I bent down to pick up the bag for him. At least I pleased one person that day.

You might want to check out Peter Renner’s two blog posts on a similar topic:

what’s wrong with this picture and whats not right about yesterdays post.