Saturday, October 21, 2017

Moving beyond science: Doing what one must, not merely what one can

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. And probably the biggest story we have ever told ourselves is ‘The scientific story’ and we always think of science as this ultimate truth, but science is just a story”.
That was Lynne McTaggart the American investigative journalist and author of “The Field” quoting Joan Didion during an interview with movie director Tom Shadyac (Ace Ventura, Liar Liar etc.) for his 2010 documentary “I am” in which he attempts to figure out what is wrong with this world and what we can do about it. 
As I finished watching that excellent documentary in Phlladelphia in 2012, my mind went back 11 years, to 2001, 9/11, anthrax and a frosty December day in Flint, Michigan. On that day, Dr. Kim Thet Oo, a doctor from Bhurma, proved the truth of Ms. McTaggart’s statement to me.  Much in the news today because of the Rohingya massacres, the protracted pogroms by Burmese Buddhists against Burmese Buddhists over decades in the longest ongoing conflict in the world went completely under our radar. Dr.Kim lived through that, and, as a Buddhist and humanist, didn’t care what race, cast or creed he treated. This is his story my friends, and I share this with the hope that you will smile, as I did, so many years ago. 
I had taken a Greyhound from Ann Arbor to Flint to meet my Theravada Buddhist friends Ken and Visakha Kawasaki to help them set up the Buddhist Relief Mission and Burmese Relief Fund websites when I met Dr. Kim for the first time.
Having joined the 8888 uprising in Burma he fled the Junta in 1990 just months before graduation. He lived the next eleven years in the jungles along the Thai-Burmese border. The Kawasakis had somehow managed to get him and his family out of there and over to America. He had arrived in Flint just a few months before my visit. As you will find out, he was already accomplished in many ways – including driving on American highways.
We talked. Chuckling over the reason why only  Sri Lankan and Burmese people can eat rice with the tips of their fingers. Clucking in disgust at the way Therawada ritual had almost killed off Therawada practice in our two countries. Skimming, inevitably, through various conflicts across the world from Peru to the Philippines.  Hesitantly, I also asked him about his experiences in Burma. In response, he described an interview with a breathless young thang from the local newspaper in Flint. So vivid and detailed was his description of it that I felt almost as if I were there so I am reproducing my notes from the perspective of a fly- on-the-wall.
Breathless Young Thang (BYT): You were exiled before graduation.
Doctor Kim Thet Oo: (smiles) Yes. I graduated in the jungle.
BYT: What?
Kim: There was no one else in the jungle with medical experience. Just me. My practice stretched 1000 miles. I tended thousands of Burmese homeless. Many  sick. Burmese and Thai authorities were hounding and pounding  them.  Do you know any American doctor with such a practice?  
BYT: (blinks) er…no, I guess not.. er…we had some of that terror during 9/11.
Kim: Yes. I am sad.  Many people died without knowing why.
BYT: Nothing can compare to that.
Kim: (mildly) There are situations that compare.
BYT: (looks blankly at Kim)
Kim: You experienced 9/11 once, I dealt with it five or six times a year for eleven years.
BYT: (Gapes) huh?
Kim: (smiles) I was joking.
BYT: (relief)
Kim: Definitely it wasn’t more than three times a year.

Breathless young thang wisely decides to change tack.

BYT: There has been much worry in the USA about Anthrax.
Kim: Yes, I feel sorry for those medical people. They are in great fear.
BYT: I think, surely, anybody would be terrified?
Kim: That depends.
BYT: (laughs) You aren’t?
Kim: In the jungle, I did not have those protective suits I saw the doctors wearing on TV. Jungle doctors  cannot afford fear.

At a loss for words, BYT stops. She smiles weakly around the room, wishing she were somewhere else. But she had this darned interview to do. She steels herself, takes a deep breath and asks the next question.

BYT: (carefully) You…you mean you treated anthrax cases in the jungles?
Kim: Of course.
BYT: Without protection?
Kim: Yes.
BYT:  (Incredulous) Can’t have been many cases or you would not be here.
Kim: (shrugs) You are right. I am lucky.  I did not treat  more than four or five a month.

Poor BYT. She just gave up. Wanting an interview she walked into a reality show. Not just any old reality TV but something that literally and figuratively broadsided everything she had ever been taught about life and science.  If I had been there, I would have seen Dr. Kim watch, with deep concern, as she walked a bit unsteadily out the door and I would have heard him mumble, “She doesn’t know…she cannot know… she will never know”. 
He drove me back from Flint to Ann Arbor. He was studying to get a license to practice in America and I asked him how that was going. He said it was tough.
Language?” I queried. He shook his head.
No. My problem is trying to find the answers they expect from me”.
What do you mean?
They ask these various questions you know. Like about some procedure maybe say like setting broken bones”.
So, yes…” he said, swishing past a few vehicles Asian style.
“… there is a correct answer in medical science but I also discovered about 50 other far better methods. But medical science has never heard of those. Because medical science did not have to practice medicine in a bamboo hut with no drugs, no nurses, no equipment. The only thing I had was  my will to somehow cure the patient. But American medical exams do not know how to ask about such things so it is difficult for me.
We were silent for a couple of highway miles and then Dr. Kim said something that changed my view of science forever.
 “I learned something in the jungle. Desperate desire to heal is a far better weapon against disease than science”.
Something clicked on in me at that moment that has never been unclicked. It is this: Science, despite how big a story it is, despite its laudable successes, is a very limited tool, and, because of its structure, it can never  be anything more than a limited tool. More seriously though, I realized that it was also a limiting tool.
Dr.Kim” I said. “I really don’t know if I should sympathize with you or be jealous of you”.
Neither. I am human. And, humans do what they must, not only what they can. I not only had to provide medicine, but also food and shelter since my patients did not have those either. No point giving them any sort of medicine if they died of starvation or exposure. My hospital hut was also a hostel and a hotel. I cooked. I cleaned. I doctored. We ate this really heavy rice because we never knew when our next meal was going to be”.
As we barreled down that American highway I thought to myself that at that very moment, similar miracles were probably happening in the north of Sri Lanka. That thought, contrarily, served only to depress me. So I thought about his family instead.
Warm, inviting and never out of a hot meal for the hungry because Asian hospitality is always ready for the uninvited guest. He had three lovely daughters. One was around twelve and the others around five or six years of age. That got me thinking that he must have got married while still a student in Burma and I asked him about it. He said in his usual quiet voice, “We have been married eight years now. We met in the jungle”.
I glanced up sharply but he had anticipated my question “My oldest was two and dying of diarrhea when  her mother brought her to me. She didn’t expect the child to live. Neither did I. I fought for her life but it was hopeless. I was exhausted. I slept. The mother disappeared in the night thinking the child would be dead by morning. But she survived. Somehow she survived. Not because of me. Not because of medicine. She is my daughter now.  She rode to America on my back”.
I smiled then. I am still smiling. Ten such and this earth will be a worthwhile place to inhabit. In the darkest places on this planet, where the worst qualities of human beings are seen, there, I firmly believe, are to be found the finest as well.

In people who  see beyond their noses.  Who feel beyond their hearts. Who prove that science is just a story.  Join me people and say “Thank you Doctor Kim for being around”. 

Friday, September 15, 2017

Does anyone need to tell us what is good?

NO, we can think, say and do whatever we want” most people say, adding, (if they feel kind) “Bread is 60 bucks a pop, grandpa, ya can take it or leave it”.

This is shallow, casual and anarchic thinking that has washed over the world like a plague. So much so that each time I have thought “there cannot be anything more vicious than that”, “there cannot be anything more terrible than that”, “there cannot be anything more disgusting than that” I have been forced to recalibrate lower. In every new time, clime and social sub-stratum I traversed, I saw people standing on their rights to what they want, screwing themselves, screwing the world and assailing me with new and improved versions of human viciousness. Clobbering me with bigger and better versions of human failure.  Horror in human thought, word and deed was a bottomless pit I concluded. These days, be it politics, religion, education, ethnicity, medicine, finance, art, fashion, war;  there are few men and fewer matters that can elicit more than an amused smile and casual shake of my head.  Mildly tragic perhaps, but nothing really surprises me anymore. But one.

Quality surprises me. Nay. The presence of quality in people, ideas and things shocks the living bejesus outta me.  And I was surprised to say the least when I came across it in an article by Gamini  Akmeemana titled “Math, Idiocy and All Those Sums Which Don’t Add Up”. He and I both seem to share a mutual regard for Robert Pirsig and his book “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance”.  He and I both seem to share a mutual regard for Robert Pirsig. He says a few nice things about stuff I’d written earlier but that was not the reason why I think he is a quality human being. Not as a reciprocal patting of backs but rather as a statement of fact, he did three things in that article that set him way apart from the raff that I deal with on a daily basis. In it, he said a beautiful thing, he did a beautiful thing, he triggered a beautiful thing.  Any one of those is kinda rare but to be at the receiving end of all three at a single sitting is indeed an event. Let me take a few paragraphs to explain because I feel that will give me a nice Segway into the topic and an opportunity to present eventually, a comparative example.  

First, even before I read the piece, I saw his strapline where he says that books are not mentioned anymore. With that statement he indicated a love of books and a nostalgia for their true worth as precious and valuable creatures, pets even, that can, as Pirsig says “edify” and not merely inform. To be read, reread, caressed, dog-eared, underlined, annotated, mulled over, discussed. Giving them relationships with their readers that are unique and personal and pretty much impossible with your Kindle versions of them. In an age and day where the time between thought formation, thought consolidation and thought dissemination is zero, where knowledge acquisition has been completely subsumed by information interchange and information overload, where harried people hurry through their own experiences and those of others, where, as Gamini says, “today’s big becomes tomorrow’s trivia” it indicates an uncommonly even keeled person. When I saw that, I fondly remembered the greatest love strong ever written about the love of books: Helene Hanff’s “84, Charring Cross Street” and I silently saluted Gamini for bringing those memories flooding back.

Next, he excellently outlined the gist of a very complicated read with a tapestry of images veined with the thread of all of those sums that cannot possibly add up through any rubric known to modern man. As I was writing my previous piece, the thought had crossed my mind that I should speak in greater detail of Pirsig’s brilliant defense of Sophism and rhetoric and his deviously clever strategy to sweep the church of reason and dialectics into the intellectual dustbin. But that task is no longer required. Gamini has executed it very well.

Finally, he took me back to the meat of the book itself and Pirsig’s tortuous route to understanding the meaning of quality.  Those memories also put in sharp relief, its most lasting takeaway for me. It is when Pirsig, towards the end of the book, in what  I consider to be its most powerful and dramatic chapter, finally ties his real self “Phaedrus” to a Platonic dialogue of the same name and says “What is good, Phaedrus and what is not good, need we ask anyone to tell us these things?”.  This is both the apex question and the rhetoric answer to the question  “what is quality?”  where this quality in described in terms of the Greek word araté meaning moral value.  It triggered in me the thought that I should write about that at some future date and with that thought came another one. That the man making me think all of this was a man of quality.  

It is tempting to leave this question in the realm of Sophism and rhetoric where Pirsig left it. I would be justified in walking away with a vague sense of easy unease that the question was completely and fully answered - not through the convenient method of actually answering it but rather, by expanding the potency of the question-answer matrix to the point where any dialectic answer would be the silly indulgence of the church of reason and its henchwoman – rationality. Yet, we have moved on from a hundred years ago when guys like Pirsig was battling these issues. More importantly, we, as easterners, know that our dharma licked this problem of quality yonks ago through ways of seeing (dharshana or philosophy) that the west (Pirsig included) found difficult to understand. We used a whole body of material generally described by such words as sathdharma, saarachiththa, sathguna, sathyakriya to explain moral value. Rather than delve into the complex intricacies of these terms, I will give an idea of araté  through a comparison of how the meaning of a set of key social tasks and those assigned to execute them have changed over time. Those that I choose for this example are the ones associated with protection and the reason I choose them is that they are the foundation upon whose strength all societies and all nations either fly or fall.

The things that protect us and make us safe, we value over all else. The people that protect us and make us safe, we revere above all others. There are four ways in which we are protected and there are four types of people who use them for our protection.

We are protected by knowledge, we are protected by truth, we are protected by medicine and we are protected by the material requisites of food, clothing, shelter and security from physical attack. Until quite recent, these factors, also known as the four societal shields against disaster, were deemed so critical that they were provided to all for free. The first was provided by teachers, the second by the renunciates, the third by healers and the fourth by the kings.

Gurukama, pavidikama, vedakama and rakajama  as we used to call them protected us. I use the past tense here on purpose.  Not too far back, kings thought, spoke and acted in accordance with the kingly virtues and disciplines (raaja dharma, raaja vinaya) and similarly, written edicts of virtue and discipline governed the way in which the other shield bearers engaged society. The basis for those codes of conduct were simple: they were put in place to make sure that every thought, word and deed of the societal shields served to protect and succor the people and make their lives more content, more even, more stable, more sober. Therefore, they were callings, often thrust upon people because of proven ability and never considered to be livelihoods. Their practitioners were the “aristo” or the best, as Pirsig notes. Their conduct increased, every day, the trust and love that the people had for them. For that they were revered.

Now, instead of kings we have leaders. Instead of healers we have doctors. Instead of teachers we have educators and instead of monks we have clergy. The difference between these is devastating. Whereas the earlier crop had these vested upon them to protect society, the present crop take these labels on simply to protect themselves. They set themselves out to become leaders or doctors or teachers or clergy and quite apart from being shields for society, they want society to protect them. Through that very desire they prove that they are the worst. The filth. The slime. The dregs of society. Defaulting to conduct that lacks both value and morality. All the while, they also insist that their self-serving hollowness is given the same status as that of the protectors of yore  and that they too are similarly worshiped. Compounding the insults they heap upon society, they also insist that everything reduces to money and therefore they are merely cat’s paws of those who have it. They damage. They destroy. They give us, day by day, increasingly more terrible examples of human mediocrity and failure. Sucking almost all people into their horrifying vortex of disaster, they wipe out whatever goodness remains in them. Their conduct continuously increases the doubt, suspicion, anger and hatred people have for them. For that they are reviled.

Taking the above comparative example folks, as Asians, steeped in our dharmic tradition, cocooned in our dharmic ethos, we do not need to be told what is good. We know. But that knowledge has been subsumed, marginalized, ridiculed and finally eliminated from societal ordering by a set of shield bearers that sit, not upon thrones of honor but rather, upon their brains. Let us therefore resolve to redeem ourselves and reclaim our knowledge. Our heritage. Our legacy. Let us, my friends, resolve to blow away the clouds of ignorance and webs of deceit that have trammeled our vision for decades and see our true worth. Our true quality. Our true  araté

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Buddhist Economics Part II - The Means

(Click here for Buddhst Economics Part I - The Way)

Present day ideas of meaningful economic action:

Well, that is not all that hard to figure out. For most of us, any action that minimizes effort and optimizes profit is to be considered above all else. So, wheeling, dealing and selling dreams to pessimists is the order of the day. From doing the bare minimum to hold a job, to promoting other’s work as our own, to blowing up our own work and resources and marginalizing and minimizing that of others, to currying favor with more powerful people, to resorting to commission and omission, to devouring TV soaps, all the way to futures and derivatives, we, in our self-centered madness, want to live a lie and live it as if it were good and true. This implies that we, as economic entities, will incessantly attempt to default to unfair use of power, position and resources for personal gain or, to put it succinctly, we default to corruption in the broadest possible use of that word. In the shallow sense, we think of corruption only in terms of graft and theft but the issue is far more widespread. Far more sinister and deadly. It goes to the blatant violation of natural justice with the commandeering of commons, suborning highly questionable use of science to provide proofs where none exist, and, most dangerously, lowering performance benchmarks  and reducing the quality of “quality” by suppressing and destroying the better work of others so that one’s own work lands on top of the heap. Modern economics  ensures that the basest of human desire, the worst human effort and the most despicable of human beings lead, decide and chart our socioeconomic futures while the capable, the worthy and the visionary are filtered out of the system like a sieve that retains the discards and drains the essence.

Present day ideas of high quality work:

That’s easily figured out as well. The highest quality work is that which we can get others to do. If others are not going to do it, then get machines to do it. Our task is not to bring our work to an end. Rather, our task is to put an end to our work. Period. We desire above all else, to engage exclusively in  vacant-action or vacation. Such a goal has only one possible outcome and it is not good. Such a goal demeans us as human beings and insults, denigrates and derogates the whole idea of human worth. It destroys human dignity, stunts human growth and cauterizes the ability of human beings to become strong within. Unfortunately, this is the shameful “history of less” that is our economic legacy, our social foundation and development debacle.

How the Buddha’s Dharma informs us on economic action:

It is tempting to approach kriya (action, work) via the eightfold path that the Buddha prescribed for the wise (Dhammacakkapavattana Sutra, Samyutta Nikaya, Sacca Samyutta, SN 56.11). It seems on the surface that right view, right resolve, right living (livelihood) and right effort are tailored to inform the world on the matter of all human activity of which economic activity is part. Indeed, Schumacher starts his essay with this very reference. However, I shall desist because that path was given to the wise (Ariya) and not for the worldly (Pothojjana / pruthagjana) and if I use it, paraphrase it or reduce it to the worldly plane of existence, I would be guilty of the fifth heinous crime (ananthariya karma) of stating something in the name of the Budhdha that the Buddha himself did not. 

Instead, I will take my cue from the Khaththiya Sutra (Anguththara  Sixes, 52) which discusses the basis of life of various types of people from kings to thieves. Here, when the Brahmin Janussoni inquiries from the Buddha (among other similar queries): “What, Master Gotama, is a householder’s aim, what is his quest, his mainstay, his desire and his ideal?”  the Buddha responds, “Wealth, O brahmin, is a householder’s aim, his quest is for knowledge, his mainstay is his craft, his desire is for work and his ideal is to bring his work to an end”. 

Thus, for a householder, a common person, the quest and mainstay are knowledge and craft respectively and necessitates a significant level of understanding and an equally significant level of skill. They imply an incremental growth of the human being as well as sufficient time to reach specific levels of capability. They require instruction, observation, study, guidance, mentoring, apprenticeship,  expansion of mind, internal stability, personal growth.

Next, according to the Buddha, his desire is for work and indeed, a human, worthy of the claim, will ultimately desire nothing else. This obviously is the exact opposite of the modern human being  whose every effort seems directed at ensuring greater and greater amounts of idle time or vacant time. Eschewing rote in any form, work, based on knowledge and skill, indicates an entire lifetime spent alert, aware, and, most importantly, as Schumacher states “developing faculties”. Finally, his ideal is to bring his work to an end. Is it therefore terminated upon its accomplishment and not by what it can reciprocate its doer.

Thus, the entirety of a person’s worldly actions are exercises in human development from birth to death and the constant exercise of effort to become a fuller, more internally accomplished person.

It is not, as is the wont of the modern world, towards the oxymoronic exercise of striving so that striving can be completely stopped but rather,

The relevance of work in a Buddhist Economy:

From the Kaththiya Sutra, it is clear that at the most fundamental level, human work is an end in itself and not a means to an end. If a person is considered accomplished, recognized for skill and knowledge, acknowledged for capability, lauded for societal contributions, obtains material wealth etc. those are complimentary outcomes of economic action and not the reason for it. Although human beings desire such things very much, the desire for work overarches all of those and therefore they must execute, applying both knowledge and skill, aiming and quality and accomplishment, regardless of and in spite of reward. The question then reduces to why do anything? Why do anything if its outcomes are, at least on the surface, irrelevant for the person doing it? Well, obviously the measure has to be personal since external, mundane, material metrics provided by mainstream economics are useless. Since the measure is internal, it is not one of perceived truth but rather one of absolute truth and here, the Anama Sutra (Anguttara Fours:62)and the Pattakamma Sutra (Anguttara Fours:61) gives it to us.

The  Anama Sutra informs us that the four kinds of happiness which may be achieved by the laity enjoying sensual pleasures are the happiness of possession, that of enjoyment, that of debtlessness and that of blamelessness.

From the Pattakamma Sutra we understand that the four rarities of the material world, namely, the acquisition of wealth righteously, fame regarding self, parents and teachers, longevity and rebirth in a good destination are impossible without accomplishment in four other factors, namely, faith, virtue, generosity and wisdom.

So, from these two sutras, we understand that without spiritual accomplishment there is no possibility of any sort of happiness. It is clear that without being capable of giving, one is incapable of getting. It is clear that without virtue, there is no righteous acquisition of anything. It is clear that without faith and wisdom, there is no possibility of debtlessness or blamelessness. Therefore, the approach to quality physical living is through a metaphysical exercise that rejects and negates activities for personal gain, glory and comfort on the part of one human that results in putting a massive, unfair burden on every other.

This is where the world has gone very wrong, creating thankless, mindless jobs for millions so that a few can vacate their responsibility to work or creating machines that take as many human beings out of the loop as possible and putting equal stress and burden on people who are placed in a position where the essence of their lives, namely, their need and desire for work, is cauterized. As Schumacher states, in Buddhist Economics, “To organize work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-racking for the worker would be little short of criminal”. I will add to this the following “creating machines that render people jobless would be little short of criminal”.

All of this informs us that in Buddhist economics, meaningful action is something that results in happiness for the whole community. It is action to which each person contributes whatever skill, knowledge and insight they possess, fully understanding that the result of such a contribution is to be shared among all. It is action based on recognition and optimal common use of the capabilities of all members of a community. It is action where machines are not created to replace human beings but rather, tools are created to help everyone accomplish their economics goals and bring their work to a close. It is action that is based on an understanding that every human being must be given every opportunity to grow more and accomplish more while acquiring less and achieving less. It is action that defaults human beings to saving more for the benefit of all and consuming less for the same purpose. It is a purpose that calls for restraint and detachment, insight into what constitutes  the building blocks for sustaining contentment and implicitly, maintaining happiness. It is action that leads human beings  to gradually rid themselves on one side and transcend on the other, the crude, the vulgar and the inferior (pothojjana) and  to ultimately exist only within the refined, the wholesome, the superior (ariya). In that sense, Buddhist Economics is like a winnow that blows away the chaff and leaves only the grain.

This fact is implicitly mentioned in the Sappurisa Sutra (Anguttara eights: 38) where the Buddha states this about a superior person “Just like a great rain cloud, bringing all the crops to growth, arises for the good, welfare and happiness of many people, so too it is when a superior man is born into a family”.


Looking at our world these days, we see it has indebted itself three times more than there is physical money to cover it. We see everyone accusing everyone else of every type of transgression imaginable. We see everyone looking over their shoulders with eyes clouded in doubt instead of looking ahead with untrammeled vision. We see massive increases in vacancy – in life, in attitude, in work, in pleasure, in quality. We see everyone paying for their imagined joys in soul-coin and fear-dollars, leaving them gasping in the final throes of life, even as they live out their twilight existence in a self-imposed prison of want, need and greed, tired beyond redemption, shattered beyond remedy, chasing after Chimeras and mirages of some unidentified happiness dreamt up by fevered minds and tortured souls. This world is drowning in unhappiness. Therefore, it is miserably poor.  If it is to enrich itself it must trash all mainstream economic theory, and completely destroy all of the structures and processes that they claim are the outcomes of  science. It must understand that none of that is the outcome of rational thought but framed in ignorance and cooked in insanity. But… will it? 

The great tragedy of our times is not that it doesn’t get this simple equation but rather that it does not want to get it. On the one side,  the world has blindly bought into the idea that self-centric economic development of the material kind is the honorable pursuit of all who  desire to be known as “worthy”. On the other, it has hoodwinked itself into thinking that the effort to improve their social standing  is the laudable exercise of all who desire to be known as “important”. So, of course, Buddhist Economics is an “oh horror” eventuality for most people on earth for it destroys fondly held but foolish ideas of what is of worth and what is of note.  Habit, or “assavakkaya” or “ashrava dharma”, as the Buddha notes, dies hard and “artha” or meaning is hard to swallow and even harder to digest. 

Sabbe Saththa Bhavanthi Sukhi Thaththa (May all beings be happy)

Monday, August 28, 2017

Buddhist Economics – Part I: The Way

Sabbe Saththa Bhavanthi Sukhi Thaththa (May all beings be happy)

The sparking of interest:
If you are a follower of the Buddha’s Dharma and not merely a mainstream, ritual-addicted, gatha-singing, fear-driven Buddhist, the first thought that might have popped into your head  on reading the title might have been “What the ….?”.

I don’t blame you.

The Buddha instructs the laity
When  the phrase first hit my ears in January 2016, my reaction was not dissimilar. That was when Prof. Clair Brown of the University of California, Berkley, was visiting with us in Sri Lanka. She it was who had started the first course in Buddhist Economics in the west after realizing that her students were tired out by the flat, stale, commonplace and useless ideas of mainstream economics and starved for  something fresh, something new, something different.

I was tasked with interviewing her and Prof. Mohan Munasinghe on Buddhist Economics and Sustainomics respectively.  As we sat in the reception area at Rupavahini to discuss my planned structure for the interview, I waded in with, “Well, Clair, I am not too sure if we can tie a subject like economics which is worldly and horribly bound to iffy science to something as pristine and steeped in the truth as the Buddha’s Dharma?”. For me, the oxymoronic nature of that phrase needed no macroeconomic dissection to figure out. I was rather taken aback when she didn’t attempt to dispute the point but casually and disarmingly sidestepped the issue.  Diplomacy kicked in on my side as well and we went on to discuss a few other points and then live to the studio.  While the interview was more focused on sustainability than economics, there were some notes, flavors and scents in her responses that seem to arise from an idea of economics that was people centric and holistic in approach with happiness as an implied goal and the effort to meet, mesh and marry off  the approach to the goal as the process.

Identifying the rationale:
Although still skeptical,  I was urged by that exchange to explore this more worldly aspect of the Buddha’s teaching. An aspect that hitherto, I had no reason to examine since my practice of the Dharma was purely for the purpose of enlightenment.  So, a few months later found me sitting in front of my teacher in the blackness of a typical Kataragama night under a bower created by bo-trees. Detailing at some length the whole idea of Buddhist economics as I understood it up to that point and expressing my doubt as to both its validity against the dharma as well as its effectiveness against future civil and civic disaster.

” Do not think so” he said. “Start by understanding aarthikaya (economics) as a component of artha-kriyawa (meaningful action)”.  “WOW!” I thought to myself. It was a gentle reminder, a surge of ever expanding linkages and understanding of how the dharma can inform us on the conduct of worldly economic effort and help those of more material bent to live out their lives in an environment less fraught with worry. 

The term itself is not new, first coined by the German statistician and economist E.F. Schumacher in a 1966 essay that later became the fourth chapter of his classic “Small is Beautiful” which is an antithesis of the “Greed is Good” way of economic excess that has brought us to this calamitous juncture in world history. Ten years later, in his book, “A confused Society”, economist, former governor of the Central Bank and former chairman of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka Dr.Neville Karunatilake describes Buddhist Economics as a system founded on developing co-operative and harmonious effort in group living where selfish and acquisitive pursuits are eliminated by developing man himself.  

Very nice. That should put a cap to it and we can very well stop here but indulge me a bit folks. I want to unpack all of this a bit more and see what it reveals to us.

The basis for Buddhist Economics:
The key takeoff point for me is the Buddha’s reading of wealth is stated in the much quoted, mostly ignored  line from the Dhammapada “Santhutti paraman dhanan” (Happiness is the greatest wealth).  This firmly ties wealth to achieving a satisfactory state of mind and not to the acquisition of an overload of people, position, power and pieces.  According to the Buddha, in this case as in most, the mind overrules both matter (in this case fiscal, natural and human resources) and matters ( in this case, production, distribution and consumption).  Here, dhanaya or wealth is not merely personal acquisitions but rather the entire set of economic things and actions. And, regardless of how much of these an individual can control or own, if that individual Is not satisfied and satiated, then there is no sansindima or contentment and no happiness so the individual is impoverished. 

Now, this is interesting.  Since santhutti  or happiness as the primary idea of wealth is something that is internal, once achieved, it  is maintainable over the long term with little further effort. All other ways of determining what constitutes wealth are external and once acquired, high in risk of loss. We all know that the acquisition of external wealth forces  us to up the ante, increasing the overall effort of protecting, consolidating and growing our various acquisitions and assets.  We are all fully aware what a suicidal, lifespan decreasing, earth destroying  exercise this is. We have all experienced the fact that such an effort comes with a veritable symphony of mental trauma and physical sickness,  played upon the various instruments of competing, controlling, manipulating, conniving, coercing, threatening, weeping , worrying, stressing, diseasing and dying.

The rational slicing here then is in how we give ourselves a definition of wealth and how we understand its import. In the Buddha’s reading, happiness is wealth and essentially marginalizes every other way of defining it. In every other reading, wealth is supposed to lead to happiness where such “happiness” is acquired through the channels of gain, fame, praise and pleasure. Well, human history has shown us that this effort has the opposite effect to the one intended. Those who seek happiness through gain, suffer loss. Those who hanker after it through fame suffer shame. Those who think they can find it through praise suffer blame. Those who attempt to catch up with it in their pursuit of pleasure suffer pain.  So, if happiness is the outcome of an effort to remove suffering, then mainstream ideas of wealth can only compound suffering and never eradicate it. This is an awful conclusion for it implies that most supposedly civilized effort is mad and most human beings are deranged. Small wonder then, that in our insanity, we have only managed to “develop” ourselves to the point where we are just a hairbreadth away from annihilating ourselves and our planet. 

Thus, the whole Buddhist framework essentially sideswipes into the dustbin classic socioeconomic  questions that have vexed us for millennia. Questions such as how to optimize earning potential, how to minimize effort and optimize profit, how to infinitely acquire and horde fiscal and natural resources, how to infinitely consume as much as one can, how to rise within the serried ranks and tiered  hierarchies of foaming, snorting, angry, jealous, frightened, confused, confounded society are of no real importance.  It also implies that lasting (sustainable, durable) solutions to the problems of economics must come from sociology, anthropology and metaphysics rather than from crunching down and treating the impacts of the lodestones of classic economics  such as man-hours, machine hours, money markets, material management etc.

So, overall them, the only question that remains is how we can achieve and maintain happiness. That, after all is said and said and said, is the only thing that really needs doing.  To do it, we must figure out how to find real meaning in our economic actions or, in other words, the arthaya in the aarthika-kriya

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Sustainable engagement: The art of making one’s self progressively unnecessary

(This may also be found here on the Daily Mirror)

Today, I will tell a story that is of great use and limit my reading of it because it is not of that much use. The dialogues are not a perfect lifts because memories such as these are long and rambling as they flit across one’s mind but… the essence is there. Indulge me folks.

Mrs. Seelan (not her real name for reasons that will become apparent),  is a small scale farmer in the Vanni. Back in 2012. I was on a project to uplift the lives of farmers and looking for people who were already on their way without my intercession. Full of NGO-ese gunk like “empowerment”, “micro-entrepreneurship”, “value-chain enhancement” Looking for champions for case studies, I heard of this lady from people in one area as I was rooting around with my Tamil speaking buddy Damien. They were doing fine with a bee-keeping collective but flat out refused to speak about it. Instead, they named another. “Go see Mrs. Seelan” was the stock statement within the community and try as I might, they pointed to none other. Yet, their directive was anything but casual, as noted by the lowering of the voice, the glazing of the eyes, the tiny smile at the edge of the lips.  This then, was one of significant standing among them. A lady held in honor by all to the point that everyone else felt they were not quite as good, quite as enabled. A formidable person, I decided, as we parked our big bad vehicle in front of her gate. A gate  which was one by name only for it was not designed to keep anyone out. We proceeded through into her small haven.

As I stepped out of the super-heated sunlit blaze into her cool, green-twilight, elven-fantasy land it didn’t take me more than a second to realize that our very presence there was an aberration. A break in some complex internal harmony within the place. A distraction at best. An irritation at worst.

We wandered in. We wondered in. There was no hurry to the process of walking across the acre from gate to house and much wonder swirled around us as we did so. Her two acre land was dense and dark with shockingly luscious and green foliage. Birds tweeted in the trees. Lizards and monitors sat, straddled and waddled across the ground. Insects zinged, hummed and chirped in that strange, constant concord of intermingled harmony and cacophony. The very air seem aware, excited and enthused by the idea of life.  Seated in front of her house and bound up with it all was Mrs. Seelan, a tiny tiny lady with many smiles and few words.

Despite our fractious intrusion, she did by us because the great hospitality of our people was not be denied. Indicating a rough seat in her garden, she stepped into her house and returned with two sizable slabs of honeycomb fat and dripping with golden goodness. I sat there, holding it in my hand, and spoke to her with Damien translating.

The people call you the bee-lady, although looking around, it seems to me that you are an everything lady”. 

She didn’t reply for a while then “… they call me that because I was the first to teach them the art and they are quite successful now”.

Oh??” The penny dropped.  “So it was you who introduced it to them?

No Sir, many came with the science. They failed. I gave them the art. They succeeded”.

I nodded. “They have formed a very profitable business group but you are not a part of that. Why?”.

She said nothing.

“They respect you a lot you know?”

She said nothing.

Perhaps they would love it if you lead them?”.

She said nothing.

I dropped it. Not entirely insensitive to these things and I saw that I was very quickly going from being a mere irritation to being a downright nuisance so I decided to shut my notebook and concentrate on the honeycomb instead. That honey had a unique sharpness, caused no doubt by the mix of flowers in the area. Tricky thing, eating honey from the source. Much care is needed to extract it and its certainly not an “on-the-fly” type of food that is preferred these days.

In that place, the taste seem somehow enhanced by an infusion of the essence of its multifaceted aliveness. So concentrated was I in the task and the ethos of the place, that it was a while before I realized that she was speaking in a slow, casual monotone, murmuring to no one in particular, almost as if she were revealing something to herself.

Once they understood, my task was done. Some will teach their children. Others will teach their relatives in other villages. All will enjoy benefits. The art can only be taught if the student owns the process. Otherwise, the knowledge is with the teacher. This is the big mistake of teaching the science. The teacher always tries to be bigger. Always wants credit for the skills. Then the student becomes lesser. Less interested. A good teacher must become progressively unnecessary. I never had to teach them the full art. The last third, they figured out for themselves. I was not needed and that was good. I did not need to be known. I did not need to own. I did not need to belong. I was only the source of the energy. They used it to light their own lamps. It is well. My task is done. The benefit of the action is theirs. The recognition for the action is theirs. The respect for the action is theirs”. 

Damien was silent for a long while before he translated and I understood why. If roles were reversed, I would have wanted to hold to her soliloquy for as long as possible myself.

When he finished, I said nothing. All was well. All was very very well. We finished our treat, he exchanged a few words with her, we all exchanged many smiles and then we took our leave, walking slowing out of a piece of mini-magic.

As we retraced our steps, Damien said “do you want to know why she spoke?”.


It’s just… well, in all the time I have known her, she has never spoken that much”.

I shook my head. “Drop it bro, it doesn’t matter”. I was not in the least interested in making her into a case study or a report on “best practices”. But he couldn’t let it lie.

He made a mistake, that one…” she had said.

“…but then he realized and he stopped. Many have come here. He is not the first. But he is different this one. He is wiser. He put his book down. I spoke because I saw that he was eating honey as it should be eaten”. 

I smiled, nodded, opened the door of our SUV and tossed the notebook inside.

Damien glanced quickly at me, pointing at the discarded book. “You will write it up later?”. 

I shook my head as I got in.

Such things are to be passed from person to person. Not report to report. Someday, if I am in the mood, I might tell someone the story. For now, I am satiated”.


“Satiated…” the driver started the engine. “…full, complete, aware. Aware that the world is not really all that bad”.

Mrs. Seelan, by example, exposed the root of sustainability, continuity, durability. She showed the point of takeoff for a more equitable and contented future for us all, less fraught with danger, less driven by fear. To get there, we must understand three things. First, that our base dynamic energy should kindle the potential energy of many. Next, that our capability must trigger innate capability in many. Finally, that when many people benefit a little, entire communities and nations benefit a lot.

Moreover, we must honestly recognize and unequivocally reject our past lives of shame and sham.

Lives where the extent to which we were able to hoard and guard our very minor stores of wealth, knowledge and power defined capability. Where the extent to which we were able to viciously suppress any who dared threaten them, using policy, acts, rights, politics on one hand and lying, cheating, manipulation and thuggery on the other defined ability. We must understand that if we are the reason for the contentment and happiness of many, we are automatically giving ourselves a reward a hundred times greater without any requirement to be counted as those who started it all. As Mrs. Seelan is well and her world is well, so, we, too, can make our worlds well. When we do that, we will heal the planet.

As Mrs. Seelan proved without ever setting out to do so, honor, recognition, power and above all –respect - does not come to people through demand or command or because of what they are but rather, because of what they make others see in themselves. 

The low of higher education

It was in my teens that I first read Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and came face-to-face with his “law” which states that “The number of hypotheses that can fit a given set of facts is infinite”. The statement was anathema for a budding young math and science person. If it was correct, it meant that both those fields of inquiry were going nowhere fast. Fast-forward to school at the University of Murdoch where my Vietnamese mathematical genius friend Duong Pham and I were taking a course in “Structure, Thought and Reality”. That was where we both first got to know about Thomas Kuhn, Immanuel Kant, Naom Chomsky and other such philosophers of science (We had both already gotten waist deep in the incompleteness theorems of the philosopher of mathematics Kurt Gödel before we got there). Discussing, collating, correlating and analyzing was (and is) the great and honorable exercise of all academics and career achievers of worth and we were no different back them.

So, Doung and I were in the habit of hitting the school pub to discuss outcomes after each class as well as the voracious back reading we did to understand how the world worked both in general as well as when viewed through the lenses of mathematics and science. One cloudless, blameless day, as we sat there discussing Khun over a beer, he happened to casually say to me (paraphrased), “you know Jun, around 200,000 math discoveries are made each year by masters and doctoral students. Each is seen by about 6 members of the student’s friends and family list who don’t understand a word of it and read by about six people on the student’s thesis defense team who actually understand it and hopefully, give the student the sort-after degree. No surprise that the rediscovery rate is greater than 70%”. That was a shocking revelation that brought home to me the sheer uselessness of our 400 year old education system and its utter waste of human effort, money and resources.

How many of us actually use any of the learning we absorb after years of what is tantamount to forced labor in our various portals of education? In my years of life, I’ve seen very few whose life work can be directly linked to the education leading to their degrees.  If what we slave over is useless, then the immediate next question we must ask ourselves is “why do this?”.

Well, since at the highest level, higher education is largely useless, I must reluctantly recognize that its importance is merely cosmetic. You see, it is fashionable to have a degree or three. It doesn’t really matter if its owner is actual a master or doctor of the skill area that he or she claims lordship over. There is a general perception that they are people of some account. However, if we take a step back and look at the conduct of millions of these people proudly armed with their diplomas, we must understand an inconvenient truth – quite a lot of these folks have no clue about anything at all.

The best proof of this is that if they were of any worth, our world would not be in the place it is. A place where our doctors, engineers, scientists, lawyers, financiers, businesspeople, policy makers and leaders have actually managed to retrograde development and bring us to our knees. Pandemics, epidemics, development disasters, natural disasters, money market crises, food crises, climate crises – all point to that uncomfortable conclusion. Looking back over the sum total of human effort in the last century or so, I have to affirm that most of the things that actually eased the burden of life on people were things created by people who never saw the insides of a university. Diplomas were never the reason why they did what they did and their effort was based on accomplishing something good for the world – not achieving something that was only of good to the industry that overarches all other industries – the social-fashion industry and its attended manufacturing of a vote for things that are mostly made of air. 

It is not their fault. They acquire these three letter dirty words because they feel that those will give them stability, position, recognition, money, power and acceptance in the world. Hitherto, to a large extent, that, indeed, has been the case. However, the world is now well past the time when it can be satisfied with gaseous diplomas or window-dressing degrees. Those bought us a world of fear and alarm. Now, knowledge has necessarily taken precedence over learning and Insight has taken precedence over education. Hanging above it all, wisdom has become the great need of the day and folks, wisdom comes from getting one’s hands muddied in this kickass reality we call the world. 

On that matter, I can share some great, positive news with you. Wisdom doesn’t require us to pass the O’Level or the A’Level or get degrees or masters or PhDs or post-docs. It can be acquired by all regardless of the social, economic or academic sub-stratum to which they belong. It is the outcome of a kind of self-service where the effort is worthy because it a) is part of a greater collective effort, b) is simple, responsible, replicable and useful and c) requires no validation or adoption by anyone.

A wise person is generally not a scientific person or career person. Nor is he or she a discussing, arguing, researching, collating, correlating, analyzing person. Those are things that are the vacuous mainstream indulgences of people who, hell bent on getting an education for a living, have completely lost contact with life. Wise people will take time off to grow a chillie plant in a pot instead of complaining that the price of chillies is Rs.1,600 a kilo. They will have a small composting bin on their balcony and not be the cause of the Meethotamulla disaster. They will have a solar panel on their rooftops instead of screaming at CEB tariffs. They will switch off their lights instead of railing at power cuts. They will use public transport at non-peak hours and weekends instead of howling about congestion. In short, they are problem solving people not problem-complaining people or problem-contributing people and as they proceed down this road, they acquire greater and greater insight into the working of the world. Insight that is impossible for the PhD holding specialists and qualified career people who naively believe that they are worth something when they are not.

Twenty nine years ago, as I studied Duong over that pitcher of beer, I said (paraphrased) “The intellectuals are able, only. The intellectually intelligent are enabled, only. The intellectually intelligently creative are knowledgeable, only. The intellectually intelligently creatively emotionally stable are wise and Doung wisdom cannot be if we are thrilled by our intellect, intelligence, creativity, mental stability and what it can personally give us in this world ”.

He grinned, turned to me and said “Yup! so, whatcha gonna do doc?”. I looked him straight in the eye and said “You reminded me why I should get the hell out of education because it can give me absolutely nothing of worth”. And so it happened. Both Duong and “Jun” as he was wont to call me, walked out of the convenient, fashionable, useless, conventional route of becoming someone through the stifling, mind stilting, insight killing, resource guzzling, world destroying path of higher education – happily, positively and very productively, never to return.

For those of you who want to know...