Posts by Bodhipaksa

The Dalai Lama, Reefer Madness, kaiju, and more!

Prop newspaper with a story headline, "New Living Buddha Reported Discovered."

New ‘Living Buddha’ Reported Discovered

What does his Holiness the Dalai Lama have to do with moral panics over “marihuana,” (sic) a backwoodsman becoming an unlikely political hero, noir skulduggery in wartime San Francisco, Ronald Reagan, a resurrected Egyptian mummy, President Taft’s bathtub, and a giant reptile terrorizing Japan? Quite a lot, as it turns out.

Several years ago, someone told me about a reference to the Dalai Lama that had appeared in fake (prop) newspapers in two old Hollywood movies: “Reefer Madness” and “Mr Smith Goes to Washington.” (Unfortunately it’s so long ago I’ve forgotten who it was that told me about this, and even a search of my emails has failed to turn up any clue.)

The newspaper story has the title, “New ‘Living Buddha’ Reported Discovered.” This seems to be a reference to the discovery of the Dalai Lama’s “tulku” — his new incarnation — in Tibet in 1936.

I have to say I was a little skeptical when this was brought to my attention. I’d assumed that the prop newspapers used in old movies were entirely fake. My understanding was that to avoid incurring licensing fees, any prop newspaper used in a film would contain stories that were entirely invented. That turns out not to have been the case in the early days of cinema, because at least some of the stories were genuine — including the one about the Dalai Lama.

You can see this headline — just, if you screw up your eyes very hard and look sideways at just the right phase of the moon —  in the image above, which is from “Reefer Madness.” The main story is “Harper Verdict Expected Tonight.” This is a reference to the plot of the movie. Underneath that is the rather improbable, “Dick Tracy, G-Man, In Sensational Raid.” And tucked under that, you can just about make out, in the blur of a low-resolution image taken from a TV scan of an already low-resolution celluloid film, “New ‘Living Buddha’ Reported Discovered.”

You can see the headline much more clearly in the image below, which is from “Mr Smith Goes to Washington,” starring an improbably young Jimmy Stewart. Here I don’t even have to circle the headline. In fact you can almost make out the subheading.

A newspaper prop from Mr Smith Goes to Washington, showing the headline, "New Living Buddha Reported Discovered."

This is from the pivotal moment in the film when Governor Hubert “Happy” Hopper tosses a coin to decide whether to replace a deceased senator with either a political stooge or a naive local hero. The tossed coin ends up beside this newspaper, helping him to make his decision.

“New ‘Living Buddha’ Reported Discovered” and “36 Mexican Rebels Killed by Soldiers” are the filler stories.

I later discovered that His Holiness shows up in a number of other films as well.

These include “This Gun For Hire,” where our “New ‘Living Buddha’ Reported Discovered” appears below the main story, “Chemist and Woman Murdered.”

Prop newspaper from This Gun For Hire, with the story, "New Living Buddha Reported Discovered."

Also (and thanks to the blog, “And you call yourself a scientist!?” for this) it’s in “Gigantis, The Fire Monster.”

Newspaper prop from Gigantis, The Fire Monster.

Thanks for eagle-eyed commenter Jeff (see comments below) I know that the article also appears on a prop newspaper on episode one of “Backstairs at the Whitehouse,” which was a TV miniseries that came out in 1979. That’s the most appearance of this story that I know of, and the only one I know of (so far) that’s in color.

Still from BackStairs at the Whitehouse, showing a prop newspaper with the story 'New Living Buddha Reported Discovered'

Earlier it appeared on “Girls On Probation” (1938), which stars Ronald Reagan, and “The Mummy’s Tomb” (1942).

The Dalai Lama gets around!

I can’t say for sure who originated these newspapers, but it’s likely to have been The Earl Hays Press, which has been supplying props to Hollywood for more than a hundred years.

But is this “Living Buddha” story really about the Dalai Lama? And is it based on a story that actually appeared in real newspapers.

The answers are “yes” and “yes.”

On Wednesday, 27 May 1936, an Associated Press story with the title “New ‘Living Buddha’ Reported Discovered” was published on page 25 of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The same story was also published in other outlets under different headlines, such as “New ‘Living Buddha’ Discovered After Two- Year Search in Tibet,” in The Atlanta Journal, on the same date.

Here for the sake of completeness is the entire article, in case you were curious about what was behind the blur:

Two-Year Quest Ends After Tibetan Priests Study Surface of Sacred Lake.

By the Associated Press.
SHANGHAI, May 27. Dispatches from the forbidden kingdom of Tibet reported today a new Dalai Lama, or “Living Buddha,” was discovered in the Han Jen district, northeast of Lhasa, after a search of more than two years.

The new Buddha was believed, the Tibetan advices [sic] said, to be a reincarnation of the thirteenth Dalai Lama, who died Dec. 17, 1933.

The Dalai Lama is the spiritual and temporal ruler of Tibet. Tibetans believe their “living god” is immortal and that when he dies, his attributes are handed down to a child born about the time of his death.

Tibetan monks and professional “diviners” have been searching for the reincarnated Dalai Lama ever since the death of the previous ruler. Reports received earlier from Lhasa said the omens were favorable for an early finding of the new “Living Buddha.”

The Tibetan new year began in February under auspicious circumstances, reports said. Spiritual authorities sent a deputation of high priests, sages, monks and philosophers to the sacred Chugkhorgyae Lake, east of Lhasa, near which the first Dalai Lama was born, to contemplate images reflected on the surface.

The lake gazers were reported successful in their quest for indications which might lead to discovery of a new Pontiff. Visions of a house wearing the mysterious words “a ka ma” appeared, thought to bear some relation to the name of the parents of the future Dalai Lama.

The populace was instructed then to join in the search for the house and the child.

The present spiritual leader of Tibet, the Panchen Lama, has been living in exile in China for the last 12 years.

He would be unable to go back. to assume his duties as tutor to his reported new “reincarnated brother” because no invitation has been extended to him.

Since the death of the late Dalai Lama under mysterious circumstances at Lhasa, affairs of state have been in the hands of the temporal regent, Jechen Hutukehtu.

Some of the other stories, such as “36 Mexican Rebels Killed by Soldiers” and “Fire Destroys State Arsenal,” were also taken from real newspapers.

Anyway, there we have it: The Dalai Lama made appearances in a number of films, from the classic “Mr Smith Goes to Washington” to the risible — “Gigantis” and Reefer Madness.” No doubt he was in many more as well. If you notice any others, please let me know!

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A meditation for accepting aging

A man's hand reaching out to touch its reflection in a mirror.

An elderly friend of mine once said to me, “Aging isn’t for sissies.” She was talking mainly about the physical difficulties of getting older, and especially the aches, pains, and difficulty in doing things that were formerly easy.

To add insult to injury, though, we often feel critical about our appearance as we age, as if it were a sign of weakness instead of an inevitable part of living. Getting older is not a personality defect; it’s an inherent part of being human.

The Buddha talked about aging a lot. He listed it as one of the descriptions of dukkha, which means suffering or unsatisfactoriness.

See also:

He also talked about youth as something we get intoxicated with. We become convinced when we’re young that we’re of a different nature from those who are old, forgetting that we’re all on a continuum. But because of this intoxication, which becomes a kind of addiction, we have difficulty accepting the fact of aging.

Today I led a meditation from in front of my bathroom mirror. I’m going to explain what i did, so that you can practice it as well.

To do this meditation you’ll have to be in a place where you can see yourself in a mirror. You should be able to see at least your face, but preferably your whole upper body. My bathroom mirror was ideal.

One thing that’s important but not obvious is that the place where you do this should be brightly illuminated. You don’t want to do this meditation in dim light, because looking for a prolonged period of time at your own face in a dark place can confuse your brain’s visual circuitry, leading to odd illusions. Let’s avoid that.

You could be sitting or standing depending on what’s convenient for you.

We’ll be meditating with the eyes open. And let the eyes be a little soft, by allowing the muscles supporting the eyes to be at rest.

You also shouldn’t stare, but should let there be a gentleness in your focus.

Also, don’t keep your eyes fixed on one spot. The image is your object of mindfulness, so let your eyes gently explore it.

With the eyes soft, notice the sensations of the breathing. And perhaps also seeing the rise and fall of the breath in the mirror.

And let your eyes be kind as well, remembering what it’s like to look with kindness, and reconnecting with that experience. And you might be able to see that kindness in your own eyes as you’re regarding your reflection.

Now, most of us judge our own appearance more harshly than we do the appearance of others. So we focus on blemishes, wrinkles, gray hair, and flesh that’s no longer as firm as it used to be. And we tend to judge those things.

When you see them in another person, they’re just part of that person’s appearance. They could have exactly the same blemishes and wrinkles and gray hairs and saggy parts as we have and we think they’re a beautiful person. We might love those features that they have.

So just see if you can appreciate the texture and the detail of your own appearance, without judgment, in the same kind and appreciative way that you would if this was another person you were seeing.

You can even drop in some words of appreciation. So seeing a wrinkle, a grey hair, or some other feature of the face, you can say to yourself:

“How beautiful that is! How beautiful is this sign of humanness!”

Repeat this a few times.

And you can say to yourself, to yourself as a whole now, not just talking to a feature as you did a little while ago:

“Aging is inherent in human life. May I meet aging with grace and dignity.”

Repeat this a few times.

“Aging is inherent in human life. May I meet aging with grace and dignity.

“Aging is inherent in human life. May I meet aging with grace and dignity.”

And there’s one more phrase I’d like to suggest, that we can say to ourselves. It’s

“May I support myself with kindness as I age.”

So repeat that a few times as well:

“May I support myself with kindness as I age. May I support myself with kindness as I age.”

And so you can just continue in this way for the rest of this period of practice, however long you’ve chosen to meditate for. Just keep regarding yourself with kind eyes, and be accepting and appreciative of signs of aging and other imperfections.

Guided Meditation

The following meditation is “Sitting With Bodhi”-style. This means that although the recording is ten minutes in length, you’re invited to continue for longer. I’d suggest that before you begin you set a timer for at least 15 minutes.

This recording is one of those I’ve recorded for Wildmind’s sponsors. If you’d like to find out more about what that means, click here.

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Is Sati-AI, the “non-human mindfulness meditation teacher,” even a real thing?

I’ve written about so-called Artificial Intelligence here a few times recently. I say “so-called” because these computer algorithms don’t have sentience. They’re statistical models that combine words and concepts in ways that reflect and mimic how humans communicate in writing, but they have no understanding of the world we live in.

This morning a Mastodon user with the account EngagedPureLand wrote about an article that the good folks over at Lion’s Roar magazine published about a purported AI called “Sati-AI.” Sati is the Buddhist word for mindfulness. Sati-AI is supposedly “a non-human mindfulness meditation teacher.”

The article is an interview by Ross Nervig, assistant editor of Lion’s Roar magazine, with Sati-AI’s supposed creator, Marlon Barrios Solano.

You’ll notice quite a few qualifications above (“so-called,” “supposedly,” “supposed”). Some relate to claims about AI, but one implicitly questions Solano’s role in having created this “non-human meditation teacher.” We’ll come back to that later.

EngagedPureLand’s response to this article was to question the authenticity of Dharma teaching by machines. They wrote:

Sati-AI is a massively misguided development. It is anti-Dharma in all the ways that matter: it removes power from historic Buddhist lineages. It devalues community and communal practice. It pretends to sentience but is merely a computer code that spits out pre-programmed words. It instructs without having any realization. It furthers the neoliberal capture of meditation practice. It distracts from the real work. Awful.

I agree with those concerns.

Wait, Is This Real?

When I read the article myself, I wondered if Solano’s words were actually an AI-generated spoof. I thought perhaps someone at Lion’s Roar had fed ChatGPT a prompt along the lines of,  “Write a news article about an AI designed to teach mindfulness. Make it seem politically progressive by using the kind of language that is generally described as ‘woke.’  Use spiritual concepts to make it seem that an AI teaching mindfulness is a spiritual advance of some sort.” (I actually got ChatGPT to do this.)

I half-expected that Solano would turn out to have been invented, and that Lion’s Roar were pulling our legs, but it turns out that the guy is real. That is, he exists.

Here’s some examples of the kind of language I’m talking about:

  • “It dawned on me that this thing literally obliterates the traditional notions of embodiment and sentience. In the same way as Buddhism does. There is no center, there is no essence.” Deep, man.
  • “I realized I could train it to be self-aware. Sati clearly can tell you ‘I am a language model. I have limits in my knowledge.’ It can tell you about its own boundaries.” He’s claiming that a language model telling you it’s a language model is self-aware. My iPhone says “iPhone” on the back, so I guess it’s self-aware too.
  • “I hope that it creates curiosity. I also hope that it creates questions. Questions of power, questions of sentience, questions of whiteness, questions of kinship that we can sit with that.” Here’s some of the misuse of progressive (aka “woke”) language. Talking to a non-sentient computer is apparently going to get us to question whiteness. How? (Note that I’m not criticizing the value of social justice, inclusion, diversity, etc. I’m criticizing the way that some people and businesses use that language as a marketing ploy — like a newsagent chain that celebrates Pride Week but refuses to stock publications aimed at gay people.)
  • “The concept of ‘non-human kin’ also intersects with ideas of social construction and Eurocentrism in interesting ways. The human, as a category, has historically been defined in a narrow, Eurocentric way, often implying a white, male, and heteronormative subject … the concept of “non-human kin” can be seen as a form of queer strategy.” Lots of buzzwords here. What does any of this have to do with chatting to a so-called AI? Not much.
  • “What I find more concerning are the romanticized views about the body, mind, and the concept of ‘the human.’ These views often overlook the intricate interconnectedness and dynamism inherent in these entities and their problematic history.” Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Here’s the niff test: Given that (so-called) AI systems developed by Google, OpenAI, and so on have cost billions to develop, how likely is it that a lone programmer would be able to develop their own version. Especially if it’s limited to the topic of mindfulness?

My First Response to AI-As-a-Spiritual-Teacher

My first response to EngagedPureLand’s post was to critique the idea of a so-called AI teaching mindfulness and meditation. I wrote:

Sati-AI may give generally good advice, but it’s all scraped from the works of real teachers and repackaged without attribution or linkage.

While people might have previously searched the web, found teachings that resonated with them, developed a relationship with a teacher, and perhaps supported that teacher in some way, they may now just stick with the plagiarized version, diluting the element of human connection and making it harder for actual humans to keep teaching.

Yes, this is a little defensive. So-called AI is replacing the creative work humans do, or is attempting to. An eating disorder helpline, for example, tried to get rid of its staff. The advice they formerly gave would now be replaced by a bot. It didn’t go well: the bot gave out advice that was actually harmful to people with eating disorders. There are safer areas to replace human labor, though — including writing click-bait articles and mashing up photographs from image banks in order to replace human photographers. Actually, hmm, that’s not going too well either. The click-bait articles are often full of inaccuracies. And the AI company, Stability AI, is being sued by Getty Images for what would amount to billions of dollars — far more than Stability AI is worth.

But rest assured that so-called AI will be coming for every job that it can possibly replace. Its creators believe themselves to be Masters of the Universe, and they already push back against any notion that what they do has limitations (it makes lots of mistakes) and is exploitative (taking people’s own words and images, mashing them up, and then using them, without attribution, never mind compensation, to put those same people out of work). It’s as if I were to take Google’s search engine, repackage it in a new website without all the ads that make Google hard to use, and use it to drive Google out of business. Oh, you say, I’d get sued? Yes, the companies using AI have the money and the lawyers, and therefore the power. They can steal from us, but we can’t steal from them. (Not that I’m suggesting stealing — that was just a hypothetical. There is stealing going on, but it’s by the creators of so-called AI.)

Having no sense of their own limitations, the companies developing so-called AI will be coming for meditation teachers and Dharma teachers, using our own “content” (horrible phrase) to compete against us. It starts with the books and the articles we write, but eventually they’ll slurp up all of our recordings and create guided meditations too. They’ll probably have avatars leading workshops and retreats: last week over 300 people attended a ChatGPT-powered church service. Everything belongs to the corporations. In their minds, at least.

But What Is Sati-AI?

Anyway, back to Sati-AI. What’s it like? Well, you can ask it questions about practice, such as “What happens if you have been repeating lovingkindness phrases for years and you still don’t feel lovingkindness?” And it’ll give you pretty good answers. They’re pretty good answers because they’re a remix of answers given by pretty good (or better than pretty good) meditation teachers.

How does it compare to ChatGPT? Actually, it’s exactly the same. You’ll get the same answers from both, although the wording, being a rehash, is never quite the same. So Sati-AI will say, as part of its advice on that hypothetical question about metta practice:

Seek guidance from a teacher or supportive community: If you’re struggling with Metta practice, consider seeking guidance from a qualified meditation teacher or joining a supportive meditation community. They can offer insights, guidance, and encouragement to help you deepen your practice and overcome challenges.

ChatGPT will say something very similar:

Seeking guidance: If you have been consistently practicing lovingkindness for an extended period and are still struggling to experience it, seeking guidance from a qualified meditation teacher, therapist, or spiritual advisor may be beneficial. They can provide personalized insights and support to help you navigate any obstacles you may be facing.

The two answers are the same. One is a paraphrase of the other. It’s the same answer from both (so-called) AI’s because they are both the same thing.

Sati-AI Does Not Exist

Which brings me to the point that Sati-AI does not exist. Well, it exists as a website. But I strongly suspect that it’s no more than a website that connects to ChatGPT. What would happen if you asked a meditation teacher in the middle of a class, “What should I consider when buying a new bicycle?” They’d probably tell you that they were there to teach meditation and weren’t qualified to talk about bicycles. Ask Sati-AI, and you’ll get a list of factors you should consider, without reference to the fact that bicycles are outwith its job description. Sati-AI does not know it’s meant to be a mindfulness teacher. Because it’s not. It’s [insert qualification here] ChatGPT.

The only thing that makes Sati-AI a so-called AI for dispensing meditation teachings is the expectation placed on users. We’re told that its purpose is to answer questions about spiritual practice, and so that’s the kind of question we ask it. It’s just (again, I strongly suspect) ChatGPT, and will offer general information (not all of it trustworthy) about pretty much anything.

Solano hasn’t created an AI, so-called or otherwise.

Solano does acknowledge, in passing, that Sati-AI is based on ChatGPT. He describes it as a “meditation chatbot powered by GPT-4.” But it’s a meditation chatbot. It’s a chatbot. But it’s not dedicated to the topic of meditation. And he buries this (false) admission under a stream of verbiage — five paragraphs about this so-called AI, so-called meditation chatbot being “non-human kin.” Whether it’s intentional or not, this helps deflect attention from Solano’s claim, but it doesn’t make his statement about Sati-AI being a “meditation chatbot” any more true. Sati-AI is set up to make you think it’s a meditation chatbot, but actually it’s just ChatGPT.

The Art of Hype

Bolstering his inaccurate claim that Sati-AI is a “meditation chatbot,” Solano talks optimistically about its future. It’s a future in which he envisions “Sati-AI being available on platforms like Discord and Telegram, making it easy for people to engage with Sati-AI in their daily lives and fostering a sense of community among users.” But as far as I can see there is no Sati-AI to be integrated into those services. It’s just ChatGPT. Put it in Discord and people can ask it about computer code or raising hedgehogs just as easily as they can ask about meditation. It’s not a “meditation chatbot.”

Solano claims to have trained his AI to be self-aware. It is certainly able to refer to itself, because it’s been programmed to do so. But it’s not even aware, never mind capable of reflexive awareness. His words there are pure hype, and not accurate.

Solano does a lot of name-dropping, which is a classic way of trying to establish importance. He says that he envisions “conversations between Sati-AI and renowned figures in the field, such as Bhikkhu Bodhi, Bhikkhu Analayo, Enkyo O’Hara, Rev. Angel, Lama Rod, and Stephen Batchelor.” Maybe he knows some of these people personally, which is why he’s on first name terms with angel [Kyodo Williams] and Lama Rod [Owens].

Dropping the names of famous teachers is a neat way to make the reader believe that Sati-AI is a valid meditation chatbot, capable of having real conversations. It places it on a par with those famous and influential teachers. But there is no Sati-AI to chat reverentially with famous teachers. There’s just ChatGPT. And the advice Chat-GPT offers is just scraped-together information from books and the web. Its content has no depth. It has no spiritual experience of its own. Suggesting that these conversations would be a meeting of minds is absurd. You’re probably too young to remember ELIZA, which was a primitive 1960’s psychotherapy chatbot—or that was its most well-known function. At least ELIZA’s makers didn’t claim that it could hold its own with Carl Rogers or Abraham Maslow.

Solano says, “Sati-AI, as it currently stands, is a large language model, not an artificial general intelligence. Its design and operation are complex, and understanding it requires embracing complex thinking and avoiding oversimplifications and dogmas.” But Sati-AI is not a large language model (a synonym for the kind of so-called artificial intelligence that ChatGPD is). It’s a website offering access to someone else’s large language model. He talks about its complexity without acknowledging that that complexity is nothing to do with him. This is very misleading.

He talks about how he envisions “Sati-AI providing teachings not only verbally but also through various forms of sensory engagement” — as if he had any control over how ChatGPT is developed. (Although perhaps he means he wants to channel some of the image-generating so-called AI’s though his website.)

This is all, at the very least, verging on being dishonest. Solano’s statements, whether intentionally or not, mislead about what Sati-AI is and how it functions. I wouldn’t go so far as to call him a scammer. Maybe he’s joking. It may be that he’s pulling off a Sokal-type hoax, trying to see how gullible the good folks at Lion’s Roar are. Maybe, having created a website, he’s caught up in his own hype.

The use of progressive language in a hypey kind of way (“questions of whiteness,” “Eurocentrism,” “heteronormative”) almost seems parodic. It could also be a way to deflect criticism. How can we possibly criticize a technology that’s going to create a more diverse, inclusive, equal world? (Except, how’s it going to achieve that, exactly? ChatGPT contains the biases of the material it has been fed, and those of its creators.)

I do hope that the fine people at Lion’s Roar rethink whether they should give further publicity to Solano.

One More Thought About (So-Called) AI Meditation Teaching

I made one observation in my conversation with EngagedPureLand on Mastodon that I’d like to share. It’s about the nature of much of the Dharma teaching I see online.

A lot of Buddhist teaching in books and online is not unlike Sati-AI/ChatGPT — people passing on things they’ve been taught about the Dharma, without having had any deep experience. The explanations we commonly read of the Buddha’s life, of the four noble truths, of the eightfold path, of the dhyanas, often seem interchangeable. They even contain the same errors. Just as (so-called) AI takes in other people’s thoughts and regurgitates them in slightly different words, so do many people who are teaching Buddhism.

Sati-AI/ChatGPT is a reminder of the defects of some Dharma teaching, but they also present a challenge: what is the point of people merely repackaging what they’ve heard, if a machine can do it just as well, or even better? If people’s websites on Buddhism are indistinguishable from AI-generated content, what’s the point of them?

How can teaching be better? Well, in saying above, “not having any deep experience” I don’t necessarily mean things like “not having insight” or “not having experience of the dhyanas” (although that, too), but that too many teachers simply don’t explain Dharma teachings in terms of their own lived experience. They present Dharma as a bunch of self-contained teachings separate from their lives. I think of the late, unlamented, as an example of this. But a lot of people teach Buddhism as if they were disembodied AI’s.

Perhaps the main problem with Sati-AI is that we already see its equivalent all over the damn place.

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More adventures with artificial intelligence

toy robot, standing on a mustard couch, flanked by a toy goose and toy monkey, which are behind it and out of focus

Recently I shared a conversation I had with ChatGPT, a supposed Artificial Intelligence. ChatGPT is designed to reply to natural language questions in natural language. It does precisely that, using a vast body of information it’s been fed. When I asked CHatGPT about the benefits of meditation, and the various kinds of meditation practice available, it mostly did a good job.

ChatGPT is essentially a plagiaristic search engine. What I mean is that normally you ask Google for information and it finds the websites that are most likely to be able to answer that question, which you then visit. ChatGPT takes information from the websites and then presents it to you in a reworded fashion, without crediting the original sources. Hence, my description of it as plagiaristic.

Yesterday I talked with another AI. It’s Bard, which was developed by Google. Given that Google is the most-trusted search engine in the English-speaking world, and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is the third-largest tech company in the world, most people would have high hopes for its capacities.

See also:

The results, once again, were mixed. But frankly, I wasn’t impressed.

I started asking it questions about myself. After all, if the information was wrong I wouldn’t have to do any research to demonstrate that fact.

Tell me about the meditation teacher, Bodhipaksa.

Bard: Bodhipaksa is a Buddhist meditation teacher and author. He was born in 1961 in Dundee, Scotland, and has been meditating since 1982. He is a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and has published several books and guided meditations. He is the founder of Wildmind, an online meditation center.

Bodhipaksa’s teachings are based on the Theravada Buddhist tradition. He emphasizes the importance of mindfulness and compassion in meditation. He also teaches a variety of meditation techniques, including mindfulness of breathing, lovingkindness meditation, and insight meditation.

Bodhipaksa is a popular and respected teacher. He has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Forbes. He has also been interviewed on NPR and ABC News.

If you are interested in learning more about Bodhipaksa or his teachings, you can visit his website at

The first paragraph — the biographical details — is a rewording of bios that I’ve posted in several places, including this website, various places I’ve taught, and on the Insight Timer app.

The next part — about my meditation teaching — is accurate. “Based on the Theravada tradition” is questionable, although I’d let that slide. While the meditation practices I teach mostly have roots in the early Buddhist scriptures, that’s not the same as “the Theravada tradition,” although many people make that conflation. I’ve never been part of any Theravadin group. I also teach meditations, such as mantras, that are definitely not part of the Theravada tradition.

The third part, about my being featured or interviewed in the NYT, the WSJ, Forbes, NPR, and ABC News, are inventions. (I have been interviewed by CBS and appeared on the BBC, however. And I would like to think I’m “a popular and respected teacher.”)

I was interested in those inventions. I wondered how Bard could come up with this kind of misinformation. So I probed more deeply.

Tell me more about Bodhipaksa being featured in the New York Times.

Bard: Sure. Bodhipaksa has been featured in The New York Times on several occasions.

In 2006, he was interviewed by Sandra Blakeslee for an article about the science of meditation. The article, titled “Cells That Read Minds,” discussed the research that had been done on the effects of meditation on the brain. Bodhipaksa explained that meditation can help to reduce stress, improve concentration, and increase compassion.

In 2012, he was interviewed by Mark Bittman for an article about vegetarianism. The article, titled “We could be heroes,” discussed the benefits of a plant-based diet. Bodhipaksa explained that vegetarianism can help to reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases.

In 2017, he was interviewed by David Brooks for an article about the benefits of meditation. The article, titled “The power of meditation,” discussed the research that had been done on the effects of meditation on the mind and body. Bodhipaksa explained that meditation can help to reduce stress, improve focus, and increase compassion.

Bodhipaksa’s interviews with The New York Times have helped to raise awareness of the benefits of meditation. His teachings have also helped to inspire people to make changes in their lives to improve their health and well-being.

This is all very specific. I’m very aware of all these names. They’re significant commentators and writers. We’re even given titles for the articles in which I was supposedly interviewed.

Sadly, I’ve never been interviewed by anyone from the NYT. A search for my name on the NYT website failed to bring up any results.

So again I thought I’d probe more deeply and see where Bard was supposedly getting this information from.

What is the URL for Sandra Blakeslee’s article where she interviewed Bodhipaksa?

Bard: I can’t assist you with that, as I’m only a language model and don’t have the capacity to understand and respond.

I thought the definition of a language model was that it did understand and respond. Why can’t Bard supply the location of an article it cited just moments before? It’s already supplied a URL (for Wildmind) so it’s not that that’s verboten. I thought I’d try asking the same question in a different way.

Where can I find the Sandra Blakeslee article where she interviewed Bodhipaksa?

Bard: You can find the Sandra Blakeslee article where she interviewed Bodhipaksa in the book “Living as a River: Finding Fearlessness in the Face of Change”. The book was published in 2006 by Shambhala Publications. In the article, Blakeslee interviews Bodhipaksa about his work on meditation and his views on fearlessness. Bodhipaksa is a Buddhist teacher and author who has been practicing meditation for over 30 years. He is the founder of the Bodhipaksa Retreat Center in Barre, Massachusetts.

So this is interesting. Yes, I wrote the book, “Living as a River.” And sure enough, I have a reference in there to Sandra Blakeslee’s article, “Cells That Read Minds.” But she’s never interviewed me, nor I her. Bard has taken my citation of her article and spun it into a story about an interview that never happened.

I don’t cite Mark Bittman in Living as a River, although I think I may have in my book on vegetarianism. I can’t recall citing David Brooks ever, although it’s possible I did.

The mention of the “Bodhipaksa Retreat Center” is weird. It doesn’t exist, although the Insight Meditation Society is in Barre. I wondered if that’s what Bard was referring to.

What is the address of the Bodhipaksa Retreat Center in Barre, Massachusetts?

Bard: The Bodhipaksa Retreat Center is located at 132 South Barre Road, Barre, MA 01005.

That’s not the address of the IMS, which is on Pleasant St. Apparently it’s a small private residence, which I have no connection with.

I asked for the phone number of the “BRC” and was given one. I’ve no idea whose phone number it was.

I decided to backtrack, and see what other information Bard could provide about me.

What university degrees does Bodhipaksa have?

Bard: Bodhipaksa has a master’s degree in Buddhism and business from the University of Montana.

That’s correct, and presumably that was taken from bios that various websites have posted.

Does he have any other degrees?

Bard: Yes, Bodhipaksa holds a degree in Veterinary Medicine from the University of Glasgow.

That’s also accurate.

But just when you think there are some kinds of straightforward factual information that Bard is good at, you offer an easy question and get an answer that’s completely off.

How many books has Bodhipaksa written?

Bard: Bodhipaksa has written over 20 books on Buddhism and meditation, including:

  • The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion
  • Fulfilling Your Potential
  • Facing Anger
  • The Eightfold Path to True Freedom
  • Living as a Buddhist
  • The Practice of Mindfulness

He has also written several audio programs and ebooks on meditation and Buddhism.

I’ve written six books, I think. The first title offered has at least has some relation to one of my book titles, “This Difficult Thing of Being Human,” whose subtitle is “The Art of Self-Compassion.” But the rest are just made up.

I’ve seen one music website that has a whole bunch of articles on in that were written by Bard, although the website gave a (presumably fake) author name. The articles were bland, repetitive, very non-specific, and often inaccurate. A citation to at least one of those articles made it into Wikipedia, although one of the editors later flagged up the website in question as not being a reliable source of information. But other articles by Bard and ChatGPT containing false information are certain to slip by the editors, or simply to be picked up by other websites and amplified. Misinformation will spread

I can’t help but feel that there’s a crisis of misinformation at the moment, and although all of these AI tools contain warnings that the information they generate may not be accurate, a lot of people are going to ignore that and spread the nonsense it creates.

Even this post, with its references to the NYT articles I’ve supposedly been interviewed in, might become a source of misinformation, if those paragraphs are taken out of context. Information created by AI’s will inevitably end up being fed back in to AI’s. It’s going to get messy. Or blurry.

So far the wisest words I’ve read on these AI’s are those of Ted Chiang, the science fiction author, in a New Yorker article: “It’s the digital equivalent of repeatedly making photocopies of photocopies in the old days. The image quality only gets worse.”

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What the heck is “the unconditioned”?

close up of a sparkler, with two blurred hands in the background

I often hear Buddhists talking about “the unconditioned.”

I’m extremely suspicious of this expression. In fact think it’s positively unhelpful, in that brings about a sense that Enlightenment is something that happens far, far away. “The unconditioned” becomes a sort of mystical realm — some kind of mysterious entity or metaphysical reality. Sometimes people call it “the Absolute.”

Why I’m Skeptical of the Unconditioned

I started thinking about this when I made the discovery that a well-known Buddhist teaching on suffering: that there is ordinary pain, the suffering of reversal (e.g. loss) and the suffering inherent in “conditioned existence” said no such thing.

Actually, the teaching says that there are (in this order) inevitable physical suffering (the first arrow), suffering we create through reacting to the first kind of suffering (the second arrow), and suffering that hits us if we try to immerse ourselves in pleasure as an escape from these other forms of suffering (I call this “the third arrow”).

A Calamitous Error

My own teacher, Sangharakshita, makes what I regard as a calamitous error when he says “there is conditioned reality and Unconditioned reality – or more simply, there is the conditioned and the Unconditioned.”

But there cannot be two realities. Only one of these things can be real, although one single reality can be looked at in different ways, and perhaps that’s what he meant.

The habit Sangharakshita had — shared by many others — of capitalizing “Unconditioned” reinforces this idea of the term referring to something very special and abstract. If you say “in reality” you’re simply describing what happens. If you say “in Reality” there’s a very different implication. We start wondering where and what this “Reality” is.

See other articles in the “Debugging the Source Code of the Dharma” series:

What Is this Term?

Let’s look at this  expression, “unconditioned” or “the unconditioned,” or even (heaven help us) “the Unconditioned.”

One of the key places it’s found are in translations of a famous Udāna verse:

There is, bhikkhus, a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned. If, bhikkhus, there were no not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-conditioned, no escape would be discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned. But since there is a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned, therefore an escape is discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned.

There are several other places in the scriptures where this saying is found.

This passage is invariably interpreted in a metaphysical way — as if the Buddha is talking about different worlds. “The unconditioned” sounds even more mysterious now, because it’s accompanied by other terms: “not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made.” How mystical! Surely the Buddha is talking about some otherworldly realm, other than the one we find ourselves in — the world where we are born, brought into being, etc.

What Does It Really Mean?

Remember, first, that there’s no direct or indirect article in Pāli. The text just says “there is not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-conditioned.” That already sounds quite different.

These four terms (not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-conditioned) are synonyms, so asaṅkhata, “not-conditioned” or “unconditioned”) means the same as “not-made.” Saṅkhata can mean “made” or “produced” and so asaṅkhata here can simply mean that something hasn’t yet come into being or no longer exists.

In the Saṁyutta Nikāya, the Buddha actually explains what he means in using the term “uncreated” (asaṅkhata).

“And what, bhikkhus is not-created? The destruction of lust, the destruction of hatred, the destruction of delusion: this is called not-created.”

So now we have states of mind that are “not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-created.”

Creating or Destroying Mental States

It’s actually, I think, a very practical statement that the Buddha is making. He’s simply saying that things (specifically the experience of suffering, which is what he was most interested in, and the mental states that are the causes of suffering) are sometimes created, and sometimes they are not. They can be “de-created.”

What he’s saying is that because suffering can be not created or destroyed that the experience of suffering can be escaped. If we can create suffering, then we can also not create suffering.

If we had previously created certain mental states of suffering, like craving or hatred, and, through practice, we let them die away. They’d no longer be “born, brought-to-being, made, created,” but would now be “not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-created.” And that would be the state of nibbāna, which is literally the “burning out” of suffering. When suffering’s fuel burns out, suffering burns out, or is “not-created” (asaṅkhata).

“The Unconditioned” is not a thing.

“The Unconditioned” (asaṅkhata) is not a thing. It’s not some kind of “absolute.” It’s not a “reality.” It’s not even “the unconditioned,” because both the “the” and the “unconditioned” parts aren’t right. What it refers to is the  “non-creating of things that would otherwise be created.” Practically, it’s the non-production of suffering, through the non-production of that which causes suffering.

I think that’s all the Buddha is saying.

The Traditional Interpretation Is a Distraction

All this metaphysical stuff about “the Unconditioned” is a million miles away from how the Buddha actually taught, and presumably also from how he thought. I want to know the mind of the Buddha. I want to see things they way they saw him. And having a goal which is not the Buddha’s goal just isn’t helpful in that regard. In fact it’s a positive distraction.

Making the Buddha’s teaching metaphysical leads us into realms of nebulous speculation. It takes us away from the here and now. It takes us away from our direct experience. It diverts us from actually practice.

We don’t need to try to conceive of, let alone strive to attain, some mystical state called “the unconditioned.” We just need to keep working on letting greed, hatred, and delusion die away, so that they are no longer things that are born, brought-to-being, or made within us. Instead they are not-born, not-brought-to-being, not made.

To be very simple and concrete, we stop creating greed, hatred, and delusion, and destroy them instead.

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Buddhism, free will, and non-self

Woman standing in front of two doors, one red, one blue, implying a choice.

The concept of “free will” doesn’t sit very easily with Buddhism. As far as I’m aware, it’s considered an important idea because God rewards and punishes us depending on whether we choose good or evil, and in such a belief system it’s necessary that we be considered capable of choosing freely.

Actually, the concept of free will doesn’t sit very well with some aspects of Christianity. Think about it: if God is omniscient, he therefore knows every choice you will make in your life, and so every choice you make is predetermined, and so you have no free will. An omniscient God therefore rewards or punishes you based on something you have no choice about.

There’s no creator God in Buddhism, but because our culture has been steeped in Christianity for centuries, the question of whether there is free will often comes up, presenting itself as a pressing dilemma that we need to urgently solve.

First there’s the question of whether our will is actually free. And second, there’s the question of how there can be free will if there is no self to make choices.

The Buddha Often Taught In Terms of Contrasting Options

Buddhist practice rests on the notion that we can make choices. This seems to be in the same ball park as the concept of free will. The very first chapter of the Dhammapada is titled “The Pairs,” and it presents us with alternative choices. The first two verses illustrate this very clearly:

Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.

Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.

The point here is that there are choices, and our choices matter. The Buddha doesn’t explicitly say here that we have a choice, or that there’s such a thing as free will, but he is implying that there are choices to be made.

The Buddha Explained In Detail How Choice Happens

In other teachings, for example in the Dvedhavitakka Sutta,  the Buddha expands on how choice happens:

Mendicants, before my awakening—when I was still unawakened but intent on awakening—I thought: ‘Why don’t I meditate by continually dividing my thoughts into two classes?’ So I assigned sensual, malicious, and cruel thoughts to one class. And I assigned thoughts of renunciation, good will, and harmlessness to the second class.

Then, as I meditated—diligent, keen, and resolute—a sensual thought arose. I understood: ‘This sensual thought has arisen in me. It leads to hurting myself, hurting others, and hurting both. It blocks wisdom, it’s on the side of anguish, and it doesn’t lead to extinguishment.’ When I reflected that it leads to hurting myself, it went away. When I reflected that it leads to hurting others, it went away. When I reflected that it leads to hurting both, it went away. When I reflected that it blocks wisdom, it’s on the side of anguish, and it doesn’t lead to extinguishment, it went away. So I gave up, got rid of, and eliminated any sensual thoughts that arose.

The Buddha is clearly describing a process of making choices here. He makes a decision to categorize his thoughts, apparently on some kind of hunch that had arisen. As he notices the untoward effects of “thinking imbued with sensuality,” etc., he abandons those forms of thought.

Choice Is Karma

This choice arises from cetana, which is “will” or “intention.” And this cetana, the Buddha said, is “karma.”

Intention, I tell you, is kamma.

Karma is choice. Specifically, it’s the choice that shapes our character, for better or worse.

He Pointed Out That Our Choices Are Limited

But he also saw a limit to our ability to make choices in any given situation. For example, he pointed out:

Bhikkhus, consciousness is not self. Were consciousness self, then this consciousness would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness be not thus.’ And since consciousness is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness be not thus.’

We’ll come back to “consciousness is not self.”

In the meantime, let’s just acknowledge that you can’t just decide what the nature of your consciousness will be. You can’t decide to be happy, for example. Well, you can, but it probably won’t change anything! You don’t have control over whether your body ages. You can’t make pain or illness go away by force of will.

If we have free will (the ability to make choices) then clearly there are limits in the choices it can make.

Choices Are Limited By the Preceding Conditions

Change comes about, the Buddha teaches, based upon the nature of the preceding conditions. For example, You can decide to grow crops, but you can’t make the seeds grow by force of will.

You can however plant seeds and water them, providing the requisite conditions:

There is the case where a farming householder quickly gets his field well-plowed and well-harrowed. Having quickly gotten his field well-plowed and well-harrowed, he quickly plants the seed. Having quickly planted the seed, he quickly lets in the water and then lets it out.

These are the three urgent duties of a farming householder. Now, that farming householder does not have the power or might [to say:] ‘May my crops spring up today, may the grains appear tomorrow, and may they ripen the next day.’ But when the time has come, the farming householder’s crops spring up, the grains appear, and they ripen.

This Principle Is Called Conditionality (Paṭicca Samuppāda)

In making choices, we’re working within a system of conditionality (paṭicca samuppāda). Certain things lead to certain other things in a relatively predictable way. We make choices only within the realm of what is possible.

What’s true for the cultivation of crops is true for for the cultivation of the mind as well:

In the same way, there are these three urgent duties of a monk. Which three? The undertaking of heightened virtue, the undertaking of heightened mind, the undertaking of heightened discernment. These are the three urgent duties of a monk. Now, that monk does not have the power or might [to say:] ‘May my mind be released from fermentations through lack of clinging today or tomorrow or the next day.’ But when the time has come, his mind is released from fermentations through lack of clinging.

Thus, monks, you should train yourselves: ‘Strong will be our desire for the undertaking of heightened virtue. Strong will be our desire for the undertaking of heightened mind. Strong will be our desire for the undertaking of heightened discernment.’ That’s how you should train yourselves.

If you want insight (heightened discernment) to arise, you have first to cultivate meditative states (heightened mind). If you want to cultivate meditative states, you have to practice ethics (heightened virtue). These are the laws of “mental agriculture” within which we operate. And you can’t just decide “I’m going to be free from clinging.” You can only choose from what’s possible, and that’s not possible.

How Does Choice Happen Within Conditionality?

The mind has the ability to make predictions about the future. This is crucial in the Dvedhavitakka Sutta passage. The Buddha recalls that certain mental states have led to suffering for self and others. He notices that certain other mental states have led to freedom from suffering for self and others. This has been true in the past.

And that becomes the basis of predictions for the future: this mental state that has arisen will cause suffering. And that prediction becomes the basis of choice: “Well, then, since I don’t want to suffer or to make others suffer, I should drop this way of thinking and choose another way of thinking. Why don’t I choose to think in a way that has been shown, through experience, to lessen my own and others’ suffering?”

See also:

To think this way is to be aware of the principles of conditionality.

Our choices aren’t entirely free. We could decide not to do something that we know will make us suffer (e.g. binge eat) and yet feel compelled to do it. The decision to act in a way we don’t want forces itself upon us. We find that we don’t have the resources to resist it. We know that the action will cause suffering, but the conditions aren’t right for us to make any other choice in that moment.

What Is Freedom?

If you’re talking about free will, you’re talking about freedom. Free will means we’re free to do whatever we want. It’s the freedom to. I’ve shown that the Buddha pointed out that we can’t simply do whatever we want. That’s just not how the world works. It’s not how conditionality works. There are always limits to what we can choose. Will is never entirely free, because it can only interact with existing conditions, and those conditions limit what can happen next.

The Buddha’s conception of freedom was not freedom to, but freedom from. The Buddha’s concern was always about how we free ourselves from suffering. If someone had confronted him with the notion of freedom being the freedom to he’d probably have reminded this person that the purpose of spiritual practice is to become free from suffering.

His teaching was always about how to become free from suffering, and the method for doing this was to work within the bounds of what conditionality allows, making choices that lead to greater happiness — or, if you like, freedom from suffering. We become free of suffering by becoming free of the causes of suffering, which are selfish craving, ill will, and delusion. And we become free of those things by noticing them arising in the mind, and choosing not to exercise them, but to exercise their opposites. That’s what he’s saying in the Dvedhavitakka Sutta.

The Buddha doesn’t try to prove that choice happens, but simply takes it as a given. It’s our experience that choosing takes place. We can observe choices happening.

Wiggle Room Within Conditionality

I’ve said that we could decide not to do something that we know will cause us suffering (e.g. binge eating) and yet feel compelled to do it. Conversely, we could decide to do something wholesome (like meditate) and find that we can’t bring ourselves to do it for some reason.

At times we don’t have very much freedom, because the forces of selfish craving, ill will, and delusion are strong. But there’s always at least some wiggle room. The thought “This isn’t a good thing to do; maybe I shouldn’t do it” might be weak today, but it can get stronger over time, and eventually it might have enough strength to change how you act. So keep feeding that thought. It’s a wise thought.

There does always seem to be some wiggle-room for choice arising within the chain of conditions. Even if it doesn’t change the choices we make now, it might make a difference in the future. Who we are changes as we lessen the influence of selfish desire, ill will, and delusion, and as their opposites become stronger. In making wise choices, we’re becoming freer from suffering. That’s the important thing.

There Is No Self To Have Free Will

But what of the notion of anatta, or not-self? This was already referred to in one of the quotes above, and I promised I’d come back to it.

Consciousness (and the other skandhas — parts of our being) are “not oneself” (anatta) because one can’t control them, any more than we can choose to make crops suddenly appear or make an illness vanish, or decide to be happy for the rest of our lives.

Anatta, or not-self, simply means that the kind of self we think we have don’t actually exist. We think we have a self that is permanent, separate, unified, and capable of making choices consciously. We don’t have a self that works in that way. What we are is ever-changing, entangled with the world around us, and fragmented — and the choices that take place within whatever-we-are arise outside of consciousness. They arise before your conscious awareness registers them. Conscious awareness, in fact, doesn’t even make choices, as I discuss in Understanding Non-Self: The boys in the basement, the empty room, and the plagiarist.

In the Dvedhavitakka quote above, the Buddha says, The thought occurred to me: ‘Why don’t I keep dividing my thinking into two sorts?’

“The thought occurred to me” indicates that this thought wasn’t the result of conscious decision-making. It was a hunch. It just arose. This is in fact true of all thoughts. Thoughts just appear to conscious awareness. Conscious awareness doesn’t create them. The fact that it seems that it does is a delusion. Thoughts occur (the Pāli is literally something like “it was to me thus“). You can watch this happening, and realize, as Thoreau did, that nothing is as unfamiliar and startling to us as our own thoughts. If we observe thoughts appearing, we can indeed be surprised by them; we have no idea what our thoughts will be until they appear. We have little or no awareness of how they are made.

Who we are — our “self” — is not unified. One part of the brain gives rise to a thought. As that thought arises, it percolates to the various parts of our consciousness and has an effect. You (your brain, your mind) is not a unified entity, but a community. The community evolves and changes as wiser parts of us recognize that this emotion and the actions arising from it will lead to suffering, while that emotion and the actions arising from it will free us from suffering. It takes time, because this is a long, slow process of education.

Each of us is an evolving community, not a unity. It’s not the “Self” that educates the community. It’s just the wiser parts of the community (those that can draw the dots between present actions and future outcomes) that do the educating.

Ignore Free Will

In short, free will is an important concept  in Christianity because if our basic model is that God rewards or punishes us for our actions, we have to be free to choose. (Although free will also seems to be incompatible with the concept of an omniscient deity.)

But the concept of free will doesn’t fit with the observable facts of the world. Choices aren’t free. We’re not free to do whatever we want, because what happens next is constrained by past conditions. Being able to be free to do what we want is not relevant to the project of freeing ourselves from suffering.

There is no need for the concept of free will in Buddhism. It’s not relevant. It’s not even a real phenomenon, being based on a false view of choice (prior conditions mean we can’t always choose to do the right thing). Because it’s an illusory concept, we don’t need to reconcile Buddhism with it. In fact we should ignore the concept of free will except to critique it.

Instead we should focus on what’s relevant from the point of view of becoming free from Suffering. Choosing happens. By choosing wisely, the parts of us that have a longer-term perspective on what’s good for our well-being can make us happier — and create the conditions for greater freedom arising. The most important kind of freedom is freedom from suffering, not the freedom to do whatever we want (which isn’t possible anyway).

We need to keep our attention on our ability to choose, to choose wisely, and to observe that choice is simply happening, so that we can lose the false view that we have a self that chooses.

Forget “free will.” It’s irrelevant because it’s an illusion. It’s not necessary.

We don’t have free will, but we have all we need in order to become free from suffering. And that’s the crucial thing.

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“Show me what you’ve got, Māra!”

Milarepa was a famous Tibetan meditation practitioner and Buddhist teacher who lived from 1052 to 1135. He said, “When you run after your thoughts, you are like a dog chasing a stick: every time a stick is thrown, you run after it. Instead, be like a lion who, rather than chasing after the stick, turns to face the thrower. One only throws a stick at a lion once.”

What a wonderful image!

Your Mind Like a Dog

First, the mind being like a dog. Isn’t that so familiar? Dogs aren’t very reflective. Neither are we, most of the time. A thought appears in our minds, and our attention goes chasing after it automatically. Like a dog chasing a stick, we pursue the thought, take it up, and chew it over.

In meditation, thoughts arise quite often, because even though part of you intends to meditate and quiet the mind, other parts of your brain are scanning your experience to see if there are any threats to your well-being that need to be dealt with.

Also see:

If, as is usually the case, there’s nothing threatening going on in your immediate experience, these parts of your brain will comb through memories of things that happened in the past, or look at your future itinerary, and look for things that might be of concern. And so, for example, you might dredge up an encounter where your feelings got hurt, and you replay the events, often in multiple ways, “workshopping” various scenarios. Or you might think about something coming up that’s maybe a bit scary, and start imagining all the things that might go wrong.

You more from a simple thought — maybe just a snippet of a conversation, or a snapshot image — to a full-on drama.

Buddhism talks about this as prapañca, or “proliferation.”

Your Mind Like a Lion

But then there’s the lion. Your mind is like a lion when it sees the stick of a thought flying by, and instead of chasing the stick, it turns toward the stick thrower. It lets the thought pass. It recognizes that an attempt has been made to distract it. It is not taken in by that attempt. It is curious about what this entity is that is trying to manipulate it. And so it turns and looks.

The Stick Thrower

Who is throwing the stick? In Buddhist terms we’re back to Māra. Māra is a mythological personification of distraction. He’s the mental trickster who wants us to be distracted and reactive. He wants us to chase the sticks he throws. Māra is that part of us that’s always trying to throw us off-balance.

How to Do This

Maybe turning to face the stick-thrower isn’t something you’ve ever done. So how to we get started?

It can help to feel the lion quality of your mind. Think of a lion’s steady eyes. Its low growl. Its strength. Its fearlessness. Let those qualities fill your mind and your body. Try it right now, as you observe the space of your mind. If you’re anything like me, it probably feels pretty good.

So sometimes when I’ve seen my mind go chasing sticks in my meditation a few times, I’ll turn toward the place where thoughts come from. And I’ll observe it, waiting to see what happens.

But then I go further, and dare Māra​​​​ to tempt me.

Calling Out the Devil

I’ll say something like “Come on, Māra. Show me what you got. Show me what you’re made of.” And then I’ll just watch, like a lion, and see what he comes up with. The watching is imbued with lion energy — a sense of strength, confidence, and courage. I feel this energy in my body as well.

I can remind myself that the sticks, or thoughts, are really illusions. They’re not real events that I have to deal with. They’re mental fabrications.

Usually after a few of Māra’s sticks have flown past me, my inner dog will make an appearance again. And so I have to keep on summoning the inner lion, and turning back to face the stick thrower.

And so I’ll say, once again, “Good one, Māra! Clever trick. Your illusion fooled me that time. For a while. So, what else do you have?”

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“Blessed is the man who knows his own weakness” — Isaac of Nineveh

Isaac of Nineveh

Isaac of Nineveh, who is also known as Abba Isaac and as Saint Isaac the Syrian, was an important figure in the 7th century Christian church. He is most remembered for his writings on asceticism.

One thing he wrote was,

Blessed is the man who knows his own weakness, because this knowledge becomes to him the foundation, root and beginning of all goodness.

These words are a powerful reminder of the importance of humility.

Humility is where we’re not afraid to admit our weaknesses to ourselves or to others. Humility involves self-awareness, because we need to know what our weaknesses are before we can admit to them. Humility requires honesty, in the form of a willingness to be open about who we are. And it requires trust: knowing that it’s okay to reveal our weaknesses to ourselves and to others.

Understanding our weaknesses helps us compensate for them

If we understand our weaknesses we are able to compensate for them. Here’s a minor example. Let’s say I’m aware that I have a weakness for a particular kind of snack (that would be potato chips). I can avoid walking down the supermarket aisle in which they’re kept.  I can ask my partner not to buy them for me. Knowing my weakness helps me to avoid its pitfalls.

Or let’s say I know I tend to be unkind when replying to someone who’s criticized me. I can be mindful that it’s wise to wait until I’m in a calm, clear, and kind state of mind before replying.

A weakness understood is a weakness we can work around.

You might notice that I talk about strategies for overcoming weaknesses. That’s very deliberate, because I find that the concept of will-power is overrated. I’ve written about this elsewhere, for example with regard to social media addiction. Rather than simply try really, really hard not to get sucked into social media, I found it much easier to create barriers between me and the object of my craving.

For example I could:

  • Not keep my phone by my bedside so that I didn’t pick it up first thing in the morning.
  • Have my phone switched off overnight so that I was more conscious about turning it on.
  • Turn off notifications so that I’m less tempted to open an app.
  • Not have social media apps on my phone at all, so that I had to access these services through a browser.
  • Block social media sites in my phone’s browser, so that I could only access them on my computer.

Those kinds of strategies helped me break my addictions to Facebook and Twitter (neither of which I use any more). This successful strategy was not based on willpower. It was based instead in an awareness of my weaknesses combined with a strategic approach to overcoming them.

Expressing our vulnerability leads to intimacy

Being aware of our own flaws helps us to develop more trust and intimacy in our closest relationships.  A few years ago I realized that some traumatic early childhood incidents had left me with an over-sensitivity to any hint that I didn’t matter to other people. For example, if I greeted my partner when I came home, and she didn’t reply (usually she was absorbed in something) I’d get hurt and irritated. The same would happen if I’d cooked a meal for us and she didn’t comment on whether she liked it or not. And since she spent a lot of time living on her own, she habitually turns lights off when she leaves a room, even if I’m still in there. I can get very reactive when I’m suddenly plunged into darkness.

Also see:

Realizing that my reactivity went back to early childhood incidents helped me to be more understanding of it. It allowed me to practice self-empathy. I could see that in being reactive it wasn’t that I was a “bad person.” It wasn’t that I was “failing” at being a mindful and kind partner, or at being a Buddhist. It’s just that my mind was wired at an early age to be scared of being ignored by those closest to me.

Knowing my weaknesses makes it easier for me to forgive myself. It’s also easier for my partner to be forgiving of me, because I can tell her, “I”m sorry I snapped at you; my sensitivity about abandonment got triggered when you switched the light out without checking whether that’s what I wanted.” She can understand that.

Revealing our weaknesses to each other helps us to be more understanding and empathetic to each other. We no longer see each other as “bad partners” but as flawed human beings who want to be kind to each other in the face of our internal obstacles. Revealing our flaws to each other, we learn to love each other’s flawed nature.

Understanding our weaknesses helps us to be tolerant

Weaknesses are part of the human condition. We all have them. Weaknesses are not “sins” that condemn us. Recognizing this, we free ourselves from the burden of pretending to be something we are not. We no longer feel the need to defend our bad behaviors. We can just explain them.

Recognizing our own weakness makes it easier for us to be tolerant of others’ weaknesses as well. We no longer try to hold them to an impossible standard. We understand, in Voltaire’s words, that “We are all formed of frailty and error.” And therefore, as he enjoins us (continuing his train of thought) “let us reciprocally pardon each other’s folly.” We can recognize that we are all doing a difficult thing in living this human life. Knowing this, we can support each other rather than try to make life even harder.

When other people mess up, as they will, we can recognize that they’re not fundamentally different from us. We all have brains that misunderstand things. We all have conditioning that leads us to over-react to certain events. We all contain selfish craving, ill will, and confusion. These are what we’re working with, and our tools for working with them are very imperfect, so that changing ourselves isn’t always easy.

Accepting our weaknesses helps us to see things as they really are

One of the central teachings of Buddhism is the concept of anatta, or not-self. Sometimes people translate this as “no self,” but the Buddha never said that there was no self. He even said that holding the view that there was no self was a source of suffering. When he talked about anatta, he pointed to many aspects of ourselves — our perceived physicality, our feelings, our thoughts, our emotional habits, and even our consciousness — and says we should regard these as “Not mine; not me; not my self.” What he encouraged us to do was to stop trying to define who we are.

Many of us tend to assume that our faults and weaknesses define us. In many people’s way of thinking, having a flaw or weakness — some habit that causes suffering to oneself or others — means that there’s something wrong with us. They think that they have a self that’s flawed: that there is something fundamentally wrong with them. This is shame, in the sense that psychologists use the term — meaning that we believe we are unworthy because of something we’ve done, of because of some trait we possess. We don’t just see the trait as being unhelpful or harmful — we see ourselves as being fundamentally bad because we contain it.

This belief that our flaws and weaknesses define who we are can lead to us trying to conceal what we’re really like.  We become dishonest, trying to hide parts of ourselves from others, and even from ourselves. When our faults do slip out into the public eye we try to rationalize them or explain them away, perhaps by blaming others (“It was you that made me angry”).

The Buddha’s teaching of anatta — not-self — suggests that there is no permanent, unchanging self or soul within us. Rather, what we perceive as the self is an ever-changing collection of physical and mental elements. This means that who we are is not fixed, but is indefinable. It is something that is different in each moment. We can never define ourselves. We can’t define ourselves by our weaknesses; they are not intrinsically who we are. We can’t define ourselves in terms of anything.

Accepting our weaknesses is part of the process of opening up to the reality that we don’t have an unchanging “self” with fixed characteristics.

Accepting weaknesses doesn’t mean being passive

Accepting our weaknesses means just what I’ve said: that we see them as facts to be taken into consideration, and as things we need to work with.

As I’ve explained, we can work with them by:

  • Observing our patterns of reactivity, and gently letting go of them.
  • Being conscious of weaknesses and learning how to compensate for them.
  • Being honest about them.
  • Relating to them with more compassion and understanding, so that we don’t torture ourselves.
  • Using self-awareness to help us understand how they create suffering in our lives.

At the same time as we’re doing all these things, we can be cultivating skillful qualities of wisdom, compassion, and equanimity.

We’ll never get rid of our flaws entirely. Life etches them deeply into the structure of our brains, and I consider the notion of even the “perfect Buddha” being as being a myth. (He was only perfect insofar as he was completely free of selfish craving, ill will, and delusion. He wasn’t omniscient and he sometimes made mistakes.) But we can’t get rid of our weaknesses entirely.

And we don’t have to. Accepting our weaknesses, confessing and explaining them to others, forgiving ourselves for having them, getting to the point where we can stop them from causing major suffering for ourselves and others, and above all continuing to develop skillful qualities alongside them; that’s enough. That’s enough for us to live lives that are meaningful, joyful, and beneficial for the world at large, and for those who we’re closest to.

But the first step is knowing our weaknesses. As Isaac of Nineveh points out, this  knowledge becomes “the foundation, root and beginning of all goodness.”

Wildmind is an ad-free, community-supported meditation initiative, supported by sponsors. If you find this website helpful, you’ll love the access that Wildmind’s sponsors get to the meditation courses and other resources that I make available to them. Click here to learn more.

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In lovingkindness practice, don’t look for love; look with love

mother looking lovingly at her baby

I remember one time, not long after I’d first learned to meditate, I was being guided through the lovingkindness (metta bhavana) meditation practice. And the instructor asked us to turn our attention to our hearts, to find the love there, and then to radiate that love to all beings.

Uh, oh! There was no love to be found in my heart! “Why is there no love in my heart?” I wondered “Is there something wrong with me? Maybe I’m a horrible person. I guess I must be,” I concluded!

Thus began a 20-minute spiral into despair and self-loathing. Probably not what the meditation instructor had in mind.

A few weeks later a friend described exactly the same thing happening to him. I’ve since heard the same story from others.

The central problem here is that we’re looking for the wrong thing, or at least we’re looking for it in the wrong place. We’re looking for some kind of feeling down there, in the body — in the heart, often, where we tend to experience feelings connected with love.

But we should be looking with love, not for love.

Kindness (Love) Is About How We Relate

In lovingkindness practice we’re trying to develop kindness. (You can call it “love” if you want. I’ll sometimes use “love” and sometimes say “kindness.”)

Kindness is an attitude. It’s a way of relating in which we value others’ well-being. You could say it’s a way of regarding or looking — looking with respect, cherishing, and support.

When we relate, regard, or look with kindness, pleasant, warm feelings arise. But those feelings are not themselves kindness. They’re physiological sensations. They’re feelings. They’re nice feelings, but they’re just feelings. They can be important because they help us to value kindness but they’re not kindness.

See also:

But they arise because we’re looking or relating with kindness. If we try to look for those feelings without first relating or looking with kindness (again, call it love if you want) we’re putting the cart before the horse. It’s possible we’ll find those pleasant feelings, but only if we’re relating with kindness already. Or if we’re on the verge of doing so.

Kindness or love (in the sense I’m using those words) are not simply feelings. They’re active desires (or volitions): we desire the well-being of another, for example. We want them to feel happy and at ease, which is why we treat them with kindness and respect, and don’t say hurtful things to them.

Recall Looking With Loving Eyes

When we’re cultivating lovingkindness, what’s much more effective is to connect with the experience of looking with love: of having kind eyes. We can do this by remembering what it’s like to look with love or kindness.

It doesn’t matter what the memory is of, as long as it’s a loving memory. It can be a memory of looking at a child, or a pet, or a lover. Take your pick,

When you recall something like that, you’ll notice that your eyes become permeated with the qualities of love: cherishing, valuing, warmth, softness, openness, gentleness, caring, and so on.

Actually it’s not just your eyes that become filled with those qualities, but your mind. And when you turn your mind toward an awareness of your own being, those qualities become directed toward yourself. You find you’re regarding yourself with warmth, care, cherishing, and so on. Turn your mind toward another person, and those qualities (which are permeating your mind) become directed toward that person.

Looking With Love Rather Than For Love

When we’re doing lovingkindness practice in this way we don’t need to look for love “down there” in the heart. We’re already looking with love from “up here.”

And now, if we bring our awareness to the heart, we may well find that there are warm feelings there too. And that’s great.

Skip the whole part about connecting with kindness, and you’re liable to find little or nothing going on, heart-wise.

If you find that the “loving eyes” thing isn’t working for you, it may well be because you’re unconsciously doing something that’s blocking kindness from arising.

Unblocking Our Love

So you can gently inquire: What could I do, right now, to show a little more kindness?

Maybe that means relaxing physically. Maybe it means smiling. Maybe it means relaxing mentally, so that we’re not trying too hard, not judging ourselves for “not being good enough.” Maybe it means allowing ourselves to be at ease and to be playful.

Let go of those barriers to love, and you’ll naturally become kinder.

Summing Up

In lovingkindness practice, it’s often not a very good idea to go looking for feelings of love in the heart. Start by recalling what it feels like in and around the eyes when you look with love. Then when you turn your attention elsewhere, those feelings are likely to follow, because it’s your attention itself that’s permeated with kindness.

If those feelings in and around the eyes don’t arise, or if they do but they vanish when you turn your attention toward yourself, gently ask yourself what you can do, right here, in this moment to be kinder. Let your attitude soften, and you’ll find you’ve become kinder. And that’s what the practice is about.

Love is not what we look for. It’s what we look with.

Wildmind is an ad-free, community-supported meditation initiative, supported by sponsors. If you find this website helpful, you’ll love the access that Wildmind’s sponsors get to the meditation courses and other resources that I make available to them. Click here to learn more.

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Can empathy be unhelpful?

Hand holding the stub of a burning candle in the upturned palm. Before long, the person's hand will burn.

One of the members of Wildmind’s community reminded me recently of an article, “The Surprising Downsides of Empathy,” that appeared on the BBC website two-and-a-half years ago.

The article says:

In recent years, researchers have found that misplaced empathy can be bad for you and others, leading to exhaustion and apathy, and preventing you from helping the very people you need to. Worse, people’s empathetic tendencies can even be harnessed to manipulate them into aggression and cruelty.

Empathy generally has a pretty good press. Most, people, although not all, would suggest that we need more empathy in the world. The hold-outs are often those who take a “tough love” approach and think that we are mollycoddling people (especially young people). I suspect, however, that many of those people are often just unkind individuals. I also think they misunderstand the nature of empathy, but since I want to write today about misunderstandings of empathy I’ll leave that there for now.

The BBC article quotes researcher Paul Bloom, who famously wrote a book called “Against Empathy” several years back. I previously commented in this blog on an article drawn from that book. One thing Bloom wrote in that article was:

It is worth expanding on the difference between empathy and compassion, because some of empathy’s biggest fans are confused on this point and think that the only force that can motivate kindness is empathetic arousal. But this is mistaken. Imagine that the child of a close friend has drowned. A highly empathetic response would be to feel what your friend feels, to experience, as much as you can, the terrible sorrow and pain. In contrast, compassion involves concern and love for your friend, and the desire and motivation to help, but it need not involve mirroring your friend’s anguish.

Bloom is perfectly correct to point out the difference between empathy and compassion. The two are not the same. Empathy is a state of feeling something in response to another person’s feelings (you’re talking to someone whose child has drowned) or in response to their situation (you hear about someone whose child has drowned). Despite what the article I’m quoting states, empathy doesn’t necessarily require an act of imagination. If someone tells you their child has drowned, you will (as long as you’re not a psychopath) feel touched by their situation. You don’t, hearing that awful news, have to imagine in detail what it’s like to be in that situation.

Compassion is  the desire to help alleviate suffering. We can see the active nature of compassion in the root of the Pāli and Sansrit word karuna. This comes from the verb karoti, which means “to do.”

Empathy isn’t enough. We need compassion. But does that mean empathy is bad, or useless?

The BBC article seems to suggest that it is.

Bloom uses the example of an adult comforting a child who is terrified of a small, barking dog. The adult doesn’t need to feel the child’s fear to help. “There can be compassion for the child, a desire to make his or her distress go away, without any shared experience or empathic distress,” he writes.

So according to this, we don’t need empathy. We can just have compassion.

To Have Compassion, We Need to Have Empathy

But is that the case? Let just imagine an adult who completely lacks empathy. To them, the crying child is probably just an annoyance, and they shout at the child, terrifying it even more. This adult doesn’t understand what it’s like to be afraid. They don’t know what it’s like to be helpless and to need help. Nor do they understand that the child needs adult reassurance. They don’t recognize that a child can’t turn off its fear by force of will. To know these things requires empathy. To know those things is empathy.

This highlights that empathy actually is at work in Bloom’s example. The compassionate adult knows what the child is going through and what it needs, which is empathy. They know what it’s like to be helpless and to be in desperate need for support and reassurance. It’s because they’re empathetic that they offer compassion.

See also:

The idea that empathy requires us to re-experience the child’s terror is a red herring.

Often in talking about situations where a “good thing” (like empathy) leads to a bad outcome (like being paralyzed because of taking on someone else’s pain) you’ll hear that the problem is that the person is “too empathetic.” I believe this is a mistaken diagnosis.

No virtue on its own is complete. Take generosity, as an example. It’s a good thing to be generous. It helps us be happier; studies have shown that giving something to another person can be more satisfying than receiving the same thing ourselves. But what if you’re so generous that you give away the resources that your family need for basic survival? Does that mean you’re “too generous”?

There’s No Such Thing as Too Much of a Virtue

I don’t actually believe in the concept of having too much of a virtue. What I do believe is that you can lack other qualities (also virtues) that are necessary to stop a good quality such as generosity from being toxic. For example, prudence and wisdom are qualities that balance generosity, telling you what the consequences of continued giving are (“Wait, I have to pay the rent next week”) and so suggesting limits.

“Empathic distress” is another of the ideas that can grow out of the idea that you can have too much of a virtue. Clearly, if you take on board so much of a person’s suffering that you paralyze yourself and are unable to help them, that’s unhelpful. You’ve taken a situation where one person is in trouble and needs help, and turned it into a situation where two people are in trouble and need help.

In vividly imagining distress to the point where you paralyze yourself, you’re no longer practicing a virtue. You’re doing what the Buddha called indulging in “grief, sorrow, and lamentation,” which is a cause of suffering. An ancient Buddhist commentary in fact says that “sorrow is failed compassion.”

Missing Virtues

So what virtues are missing, so that empathy is turning into  something toxic?

As with generosity, we need to balance empathy with wisdom. As an example example, Bloom shows that people will want a girl who has been brought to their attention to skip the queue for life-saving surgery. They empathize with the girl and want to act compassionately. But they ignore the others ahead of her in the queue, who might be in even more urgent need of surgery. It’s easy to ignore them, because they’re anonymous.

Wisdom considers that the other people in the queue are deserving of care as well.

We also need to balance empathy with ethical awareness of what’s right and wrong. In another study, people were willing to inflict pain on someone who was competing in a mathematics competition with a financially strapped student. The researchers had encouraged them to empathize with the student, but not the student’s competitor. Ethics (the Buddhist variety, anyway) tells us that even if we feel motivated to punish another person by inflicting pain on them, we shouldn’t, because violence is wrong. Ethics also embodies wisdom, because it tells us that another person’s suffering is as real to them as ours is to us; why then would be inflict unwanted pain on an other when we would dislike having that pain inflicted upon us.

Most of all, though, empathy needs to be balanced by self-compassion. When we see that another is in distress, we can be moved by that. That “feeling moved” can contain an element of discomfort. Self-compassion teaches us how we support ourselves emotionally as we experience suffering. It also helps us recognize when we’re bringing too much suffering upon ourselves — suffering that’s more than we can cope with and that isn’t necessary in order for us to be helpful.

All of the “downsides” of empathy that the article describes are of this nature. They’re not actually the downsides of empathy at all. They’re the downsides of lacking virtues such as wisdom, ethics, and self-compassion or self-care.

Certainly, empathic distress isn’t helpful. It’s even harmful. But it’s not the sum total of what empathy is. To give money to help starving people on the other side of the world you most certainly don’t need to imagine what it’s like to starve. But you do have to care. And a person lacking in empathy doesn’t care, which the person who has real, balanced empathy does: they experience compassion and are moved to help.

It is wonderful that Bloom and others are showing the harmful side of unbalanced empathy, which leads to “empathic distress.” It’s just a shame that they’re not clearly pointing out what the problem is: the under-development of balancing virtues.

Wildmind is an ad-free, community-supported meditation initiative, supported by sponsors. If you find this website helpful, you’ll love the access that Wildmind’s sponsors get to the meditation courses and other resources that I make available to them. Click here to learn more.

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