Saturday, April 20, 2013

I'm uninterested in Zen scandals given the profound uniqueness of existence

I realize that this may be somewhat contrarian to the mode of where the Buddhist blogosphere is, not to mention previous posts I've done myself, but I'm less interested than I might have been previously regarding scandals in the Buddhist blogosphere and what-not.

Not to say the scandals didn't happen, not to say they didn't arise in part from "teachers" pretending they had more authority and power than that to which they were entitled, not to say all the points that have already been made time and time and time again on this.   But all of those points might be crowding out from our awareness the point.

I'm thinking of that Chechen young man, and the terrible stupid things in which he and his brother seem to have been involved.  I have had business at Building 32 of MIT, where the campus police officer was murdered.   If these reports are true, and I'd bet today that there's more than a grain of truth to them, these men have harmed and destroyed so much. 

Like politics, life ain't beanbag.  It's serious stuff, and freakishly random things can, do, and will continue to happen.  It is deeply imbued into the fabric of our existence.   That even a flawed human being can offer anyone at least a chance of succor, even in the midst of that helper's flawed motives, and even given the helper's flawed subsequent actions.

I read somewhere that Blaise Pascal had some kind of a carriage incident that profoundly influenced his view on life.  I think I know a little something like what that's about from the recent accident I had.   We're weak, often lonely, and sentenced to death as a result of our birth, and there's going to be things happening to us we just don't want.  Our personal physical pain is our personal physical pain, and others can feel compassion and empathy for us, but they literally cannot feel our pain.

I was reading the Twitter feed of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev; and the responses to them once that feed was identified as his.  I found it interesting that he gained thousands of "followers" once that feed was identified as his - did these people expect him to actually put for another Tweet in his life? Really? And most of those "followers" were just Americans it seems.  Moreover the responses to his Tweets, like the responses from some others, were not reeking of wisdom, to say the least.

Is this so?

Besides, I read the extracts from Brian Victoria's stuff years ago.  And even in the original edition Rick Fields' book on the history of Buddhism in America Sokei An doesn't appear to be completely a saint.

So, pleas for the sake of all, let's get past the mystification, exploitation, and condemnation.  Life's too damn short and we're all in need, some way more profoundly so than others.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

On Bombings and Buddhism and 武道

I have a take on this horrible terrorist act that is in response to posts by  Nathan and Brad.

Nathan's responding to Brad, but I read his piece first, so here goes. Nathan wrote:

[I]t's a little too easy to go there. To make the leap from soft interpretations of the first precept to "we should kill people who commit terrorist acts." [Brad's]  desire for punishment is, again, understandable. A pretty human impulse certainly. And yet it's also so Old Testament God. Or a really raw and unprocessed sense of karmic justice that screams Buddhist fundamentalism.

In addition, this who thing about having powerful militaries and police forces so "we" (whomever we are) can practice seems like a nice excuse for fascism. For "just" wars in "terrorist" nations. And for continued oppression of anyone here, in the U.S., who is deemed to be "disruptive" or "potentially" disruptive. Our government, regardless of the political party in power, is quite fond of pre-emptive strikes, "precautionary" measures, and the like. Not that they give a shit about meditation practitioners really. That's really not what they're concerned with. And it wasn't what the governments in medieval Japan were concerned with, nor the various royal factions in India during Buddha's time. Whatever space they "provided" for "safe" meditation practice and Buddhist study was a byproduct of power and resource control. Of oppression of one group by another. Of bloodshed and ecological destruction.

 I don't like parts of what Warner wrote there; in particular the idea that Buddhism only flourished because of strong military power.  I'll have more to say on that shortly. 

I think that's not historically true in general, and WWII era Japan is a case in point: while it's true that there was Yasutani, it's ALSO true that this had pretty much zilch to do with Buddhism. And State Shinto was favored over Buddhism.

It is undeniable though that religion prospers to the extent the powerful allow it to do so.   That's true of all culture that is the dominant "culture" of a "society."  It does no good to be fixed on decrying it, though; because that's being attached to the culture and to power by different means.  Let me put it plainly: decrying the power structures or the use of force or to advocate the use of force with a Dharma justification is the same thing: attachment.


It's not about "Omigod we need fascism!" The true spirit of 武道  - or if you like Western paradigms, military science - really does involve the cessation of violence - it's about, when attacked, doing as little damage as possible to create a peace as deep and long as possible.

And my response to Brad:

You wrote:

Our societies have to be stable before we can engage in our practice. This is an absolutely necessary prerequisite. That means we have to be able and willing to defend our societies against those who would disrupt them. There have to be very strong penalties against doing things like blowing up the Boston Marathon. In his comedy special broadcast this weekend, Louis C.K. made jokes about how great it is that there are laws against murder. “Because if there weren’t, everybody would murder at least one person.” Those who hadn’t murdered anyone, he said, would be seen as weirdos in a society where murder was legal. It was funnier when he said it. 
So I, for one, hope they find the piece of shit who did this and rip him to shreds. He deserves it. Whether they find him or not, his own actions will be his undoing. It can’t happen any other way. And yes, this news makes me angry. I wouldn’t be a real human being if it didn’t.
Still, society needs to make efforts to resolve matters like this without anger. Because an angry response leads to further tragedies, like the angry response of the people West Memphis, Arkansas that led to the wrongful conviction of the “West Memphis Three.” Still, one can expect anger as a response to something like this. I suppose the worthless motherfucker who perpetrated this bombing intended it that way. In the end, it doesn’t matter. Society has every right to remove him from its midst in any way it sees fit.

No Brad "society" does not have the right to remove the perpetrator from its midst in any way it sees fit; in fact it has the obligation to respond to this even in a way that creates as much of a stable, peaceful, caring and harmonious environment as possible, even if it requires a certain degree of violence to achieve that end.   But it should require absolutely no more than is necessary, and it should be understood that this act has meant that we, as a society, have failed in what Sun Tzu would have called the supreme excellence of achieving that peaceful, caring, harmonious, stable society without violence.  We have failed.  But we are not absolved of the responsibilities that come with our existence.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Evangelical Churches and ...Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is somewhat related to Buddhist practice because in certain forms of CBT the client is encouraged to be mindful of harmful thoughts and activities, and to replace them with better ones.

One way to see this is that the books [evangelicals use] teaching someone how to pray read a lot like cognitive behavior therapy manuals. For instance, the Rev. Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life,” one of the best-selling books of all time, teaches you to identify your self-critical, self-demeaning thoughts, to interrupt them and recognize them as mistaken, and to replace them with different thoughts. Cognitive-behavioral therapists often ask their patients to write down the critical, debilitating thoughts that make their lives so difficult, and to practice using different ones. That is more or less what Warren invites readers to do. He spells out thoughts he thinks his readers have but don’t want, and then asks them to consider themselves from God’s point of view: not as the inadequate people they feel themselves to be, but as loved, as relevant and as having purpose. Does it work? In my own research, the more people affirmed, “I feel God’s love for me, directly,” the less stressed and lonely they were and the fewer psychiatric symptoms they reported.

Because these churches seem to market themselves like Coca Cola it seems they latch on to any trend and "Jesusify" it.

Obviously the NY Times author is rather shallow not to have seen this.  Obviously too the folks who need this "evangelical CBT" are themselves hurting. 

While a good part of me wants them to see the "real" ways in which suffering is transcended (not to mention a better way to deal with theodicy), it's good that they're being helped at all, to the extent they are.  

I just wish they were helped more to transcend the whole strange evangelical thing.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Remote Viewing is a Pseudo-Science

I see C4Chaos has another post up about TED/TEDx and its discouragement of certain forms of pseudo-science.  

I am generally not too fond of TED, because too much of what they put up - like that "Blink" stuff - I think is nonsense.  But as an applied scientist, I need to respond to C4Chaos's post, because I think its implication that there's something to "remote viewing" is pro-woo,  as is the anti-vaccination crowd.  In fact I was inspired to write this when I saw a story on RT News sneering about how much the Brits spent on a bird flu vaccine - and people didn't get sick! And drug companies made money! 

But I digress a bit.  I don't really follow these kind of woo things, but this one's a no-brainer, frankly.  Here's what Wikipedia says (emphasis added):

Remote viewing (RV) is the practice of seeking impressions about a distant or unseen target using subjective means, in particular,extra-sensory perception (ESP) or "sensing with mind". Unlike traditional psychic practices, remote viewers use physical models to organize their alleged extra-sensory perceptions and to stabilize the virtual umweltScientific studies have been conducted; some earlier, less sophisticated experiments produced positive results but they had invalidating flaws,[1] and none of the newer experiments had positive results when under properly controlled conditions.[2][3][4][5][6] The scientific community rejects remote viewing due to the absence of an evidence base, the lack of a theory which would explain remote viewing, and the lack of experimental techniques which can provide reliably positive results.[7] It is also considered a pseudoscience.[8]Typically a remote viewer is expected to give information about an object that is hidden from physical view and separated at some distance.[9][10] The term was coined in the 1970s by Russell Targ and Harold Puthoffparapsychology researchers at Stanford Research Institute, to distinguish it from clairvoyance.[2] [11]Remote viewing was popularized in the 1990s following the declassification of documents related to the Stargate Project, a $20 million research program sponsored by the US government to determine any potential military application of psychic phenomena. The program was terminated in 1995 after it failed to produce any useful intelligence information.[3][4]

Note that bit: there's no theory that explains remote viewing and hence no thing that can be tested as to whether it works or not.  That means it's not a science.

I did see "Men Who Stare at Goats," by the way so I guess I'm not completely ignorant of "remote viewing."  Anyway C4Chaos writes:

I understand the remote viewing protocol — it’s double-blind. The late Ingo Swann was instrumental in designing the protocol. Then it was taught to a few intelligence personnels in the military (one of them is remote viewer #001 Joe McMoneagle). I’ve always focused my attention to the original people who started it all because they did solid research on the phenomenon and they’re the ones who designed the original protocol. Russell Targ and Hal Puthoff had a deal with the CIA and the Defense Department that in return for funding they helped the military with intelligence work (e.g. locating people and cites of interests). Another condition was that Targ and Puthoff were given free rein by the military to publish their work in scientific journals. The classified project — Stargate Project —  lasted for more than two decades. I don’t know about you but I don’t think Targ/Puthoff/Swann could’ve hoax the Defense Department, CIA, FBI, and even NASA for a long time, especially when millions of money were involved. The Defense Department might be wasteful in their spending but I don’t think the people running it were that stupid to be fooled for two decades without them getting valuable results. 

Well, first of all,  just because the Defense Department spends money doesn't mean that it's spending money for a good reason, so thinking that because the DoD kept a program around for 20 years doesn't mean anything.  Really.  In fact, let me name some of the other programs the DoD kept over the years:

  • The military had a project for the better part of a decade  with multiple contractors to develop an air force voice communication system for conferencing.  It was started in the late 70s, and went at until at least 1986.  The system called for multiple antennas to be retrofitted onto tactical jets.  Tens of millions of dollars and years of R&D were spent to create a system to work.  The antenna subsystem was finally killed when one general said simply that he didn't want the antennas on his fighter jets.  And that was that.  There were actually really good reasons why the general didn't want antennas on his fighter jets, but nobody cared to discuss that with the engineers.  
  • The Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle.
  • The original M16 rifle.  They could have just copied the AK47...but no...can't do that...
  • The most completely, totally obvious example is the our nuclear weapons program.  We've been able to kill humanity many times over, yet we still have more of these warheads than we ever need.  True the Russians still have nuclear weapons, mutually assured destruction, yada yada yada, but we could reduce our stockpile by 1/2 and the same principles would apply.

Let me continue, quoting from C4Chaos's post again:

Here’s another comment left by Russell Targ on TED Conversations:

Remote viewing is an ability that many people can easily learn. It is a nonlocal ability, in that its accuracy and reliability are independent of distance. Dean of Engineering Robert Jahn has also published extensively on his experiments at Pronceton, (Proc. IEEE, Feb 1982). I am not claiming it is quantum anything. It appears to possibly make use of something like Minkowski’s (8 dimensional) complex space/time that he described to Einstein in the 1920s, and is now being re-examined by Roger Penrose. This is not necessarily The answer. But the answer will be some sort similar nonlocal space/time geometry. We taught remote viewing to 6 army intelligence officers in 1979. They then taught a dozen other officers, and created an operational army psychic corps at Ft. Meade, which lasted until the end of our program in 1995. You can see two examples of real remote viewing on my website, One with Hella Hammid is double blind, live on camera for a 1983 BBC film, “The Case of ESP.” available on Google.

Again, how would you falsify this?  How can we predict whether someone will learn this easily? 

I have one more point I'd make: if this sort of thing existed it would have made its way to Wall Street, in a big way, a reliable way,  wouldn't you think? And Targ didn't do that. He claimed in the video  in  C4Chaos's post that the reason he failed to consistently make money was that greed got in the way.  Really?  Couldn't he have gotten much smaller stakes and done the thing himself and given the money to charity? He could do that today with Forex markets.  And, all other things being equal,  calling something correctly when the thing in question has a  probability 0.5 means that making money 9 times in a row is as equally likely as any other of the 512 outcomes. Claude Shannon, on the other not only made money in the stock market, but his theories have been expanded and have been adopted on Wall Street.  They also make cell phones, DVD players, and defense communication systems work as well; sometimes the DoD does get stuff right.   The number of technologies that were DoD funded that went to the private sector is ...well,  I can't name them all, but it's probably harder to think of technologies that weren't  developed with DoD funding.

Now about this non-locality thing: it's not needed for Buddhists.  The interconnectedness of existence follows from the very structure of existence itself, and the interconnectedness exists quite nicely within the framework of conventional, good ol' boring physics.   And if Targ was a competent physicist  I'd have to say he's got to know that he's not being honest with his audience: quantum effects happen on the microscopic level. And we can demonstrate how they work and test them in laboratories and these tests yield consistent results.

I watched about 17 minutes of Targ.  That's all I could take.   I don't need to spend an hour of my life with this subject. 

I find it sad that there's folks in our blogosphere writing favorable things about stuff like this.  There are legitimate criticisms of TED and TEDx.  Not giving a forum to the likes of Targ is not one of them.


Targ claims he published his results on remote viewing in the Proceedings of the IEEE.    I remember that issue in fact.  I'll be back with more of that.

Further Update:

Well, I perused Targ's article; and the first thing that came to me was "Are these results reproducible?" And the answer to that question is, no, they are not.  Targ I think would be ethical if he at least acknowledged that his "Proceedings" article was not the only article published on parapsychology, and Jay Hyman's critical approach to parapsychology (Parapsychological Research: A Tutorial Review and Critical Appraisal, Proc. IEEE, Vol. 74. No. 6 June 1986)  really ought to be read by anyone who wants to know what the IEEE editors later thought about such woo.

Junk gets published now and then. Targ's original article should not have been published, in my opinion, but probably was because he did have publications related to his laser work.   Hey, the IEEE  published my stuff, so that just shows you how low they might go sometimes!