30 August 2017

Secular Buddhism

Anyone who has made any real effort to practice or understand Buddhist doctrine (Dharma) will acknowledge that the traditions of Buddhism can be very complicated, and frequently challenging, both intellectually and in terms of putting them into practice. But I think it's fair to say that for many in the modern western context, there are hangups that frequently interfere with success in either of those endeavors that arise from what you might call the supernatural aspects of the traditions, particularly any even modestly literal view of the doctrines of karma and rebirth, both of which seem to lack any plausible mechanism consistent with modern objectivist, or empirical, or scientific, thinking. These paradoxes have caused many a well intentioned practitioner to stray from Buddhist practice, even though they may have experienced an overarching truth in the teachings of compassion, lovingkindness, meditation practice, and the doctrine that our discursive thought and focus on, and concern for, ourselves and our own well being, are largely based on active and malignant delusions. We may feel that these insights are true, but get bogged down on other things that are incorporated into Buddhist tradition which seem, well, impossible.

There are a couple of relatively new books out that try to grapple with these issues, reviewed recently in an essay/review by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker. (See their website, you can read it free). The first is Robert Wright's Why Buddism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment, and the second is Stephen Batchelor's After Buddhism

As a "secular" Buddhist myself, I find these attempts to define what it means to be a Buddhist without resort to nonscientific beliefs very interesting and helpful. I do agree with the letter writer to the New Yorker who says (paraphrasing) that Gopnik focuses too much in his essay on the wisdom aspect of Dharma (emptiness, or the illusory nature of clinging to a particular view of reality), as opposed to the equally important role of compassion, which is often most thoroughly experienced in the practice of what in Tibet is called Tonglen, or more generally "exchanging self with others," i.e., recognizing the essential truth that we are all the same in our essential view, and that suffering is pervasive. Without compassion, we are lost. But the good news is that when Gotama taught not to accept what he said on faith, but to try the recommended practices and see if they work for you, he was creating a tradition that sill lives, and still works. Because what is objectively real is that you can in fact learn to drop story lines, and see the present moment as it is, and you can learn to practice compassion. There are simple techniques, and they aren't magic, they're just method. And they work. In those techniques lie the essential "truth" of Buddhism, which we "secular Buddhists" contend is not a religion but a practicum, which requires no faith, but rather trust in a system that has been shown to work over a very, very long time by a large body of serious and dedicated practitioners. 

22 August 2017

Eclipse set up

This is our set up near Antelope, OR for the eclipse. It was extraordinary. Eerie. Spooky. Truly a once in a lifetime experience. We got up at 3 AM to drive out to central Oregon, and found this spot; clear skies except for the smoke visible to the South. Coming back was an epic traffic jam (partly due to poor choice of exit route), but it was worth it. 

Antelope was formerly (temporarily) known as Rajneeshpuram. And if you've forgotten or never knew that amazing and sordid tale of the 80s, look it up in Wikipedia. We were a good 15 mi. from the Big Muddy Ranch, which was their desert city for a time. 

09 August 2017


People never give up trying to predict the future though. So test me on these. 

By 2025 (hey, even folks born in the 1950s stand a good chance), over 50% of all new cars will be electric. The cost of electric transportation will drop to less than the cost of fossil fuels, and since the cars are simpler and last longer, the long term transition to carsharing as the norm, with the coming on line of driverless technology, will mean that the paradigm where people will order a car to their house per use rather than own them will have begun to transform transportation, at least in urban and suburban areas. This process will take some time but will be evident by 2025. 

It's already the case that solar and wind energy is cheaper than fossil fuels in some markets. This presumes new plants; it will take a long time for existing infrastructure to be replaced. But by 2025 in the US, which will lag the developing world, especially China, all new electric generating capacity will be solar or wind, with minor hydroelectric and tidal. Nuclear will be phased out, because it's way, way more expensive, never mind waste considerations. (The nuclear industry doesn't like anyone to point this out, but the truth is that no nuclear plant has ever been built without government subsidies, anywhere). Fusion will still be the perennial "ten years away." I actually do imagine fusion energy will eventually be developed, but the Earth receives more theoretically usable solar energy in an hour than the human race uses in an entire year, so the perfection of solar technology (essentially already here), coupled with continuing improvements and cost reduction in battery and other storage technologies, will be the main drivers of the energy economy post 2025 worldwide. 

Combining these two trends, fossil fuels (and not just coal, but oil and gas, too), will be in the beginnings of a long term decline to near zero by the end of the century. Oil and coal will be used essentially entirely for materials, not energy, by 2100. (A use for them that has a bright future long term; we will not stop using plastics anytime soon, and fossil carbon is a great source of raw materials). All energy production will be carbon neutral by 2075 or so, everywhere on Earth.  

OK, enough.