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    Archive for the 'Uncategorized' Category

    The Buddha Su-u-u-cks

    Friday, November 17th, 2006

    My favorite thing about the title of this blog post is that it might get some people a bit hot under the meditation cushion, but it’s not too likely to get my website firebombed. However, had I replaced Buddha with Jesus or Mohammed… well, that could lead to a whole different set of consequences.

    And what’s most interesting to me about that is what Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed all have in common is:

    They are a collection of lines and squiggles that people interpret into sounds, add meaning to them and then act in some way based on what they think the person who created the lines and squiggles meant.

    Silly humans.

    Anyway, back to the Buddha sucking…

    So, many people engage in meditative practice to achieve the goal of awakening or enlightenment. And they turn to their various teachers and books and tapes and workshops and retreats to travel down the “spiritual path.”

    Now, I’m not going to argue about the validity of the motive or the existence of the goal or the reality of some sort of path. Instead, let’s just take a look at the success rate of one of the greatest teachers and his students.

    The Buddha is often called “The Great Doctor,” because it’s said that he taught 84,000 different people and gave each one of them their own unique meditation technique because he could see exactly and perfectly what they needed to attain awakening.

    First things first. In the area that the Buddha had influence over during the 45 years of his teaching, there were approximately 5 million people. So this tremendously powerful teacher only got to about 1.7% of the people in his neighborhood.

    Leaving that alone for a second, let’s look back at the 84k who decided they wanted to hear what the ochre-robed one had to say. According to the texts, there were 500 “Arahants”, five hundred people who “Got it” (they are, it’s said, the ones who codified the Buddha’s teaching after the Buddha died).

    So, 500 people who reached the goal. Five hundred who got the brass ring.

    Five hundred out of EIGHTY FOUR THOUSAND.

    Let’s to the math, shall we?

    500 out of 84,000 is just less than 0.60% …

    The greatest teacher that ever was, according to Buddhists, had a success rate of barely more than one half of one percent.

    I don’t know about you, but there aren’t many things I’d put a lot of energy into with those kinds of odds.

    Now, granted, if we were all living 2500 years ago in Northern India, there’s no way of knowing if you, me or your noisy neighbor would have been one of the 500… and there’s no way to know now.

    As my friend, the meditation teacher Robert Hover, said to me, “The number of beings who must conspire to allow for your awakening is so vast as to be unknowable… so you may as well assume it’ll happen because that’s just more fun… but it’s completely out of your control.”

    Kinda takes the pressure off, doesn’t it? 😉

    Last Meditator Standing… or Survivor, Tibet

    Saturday, August 26th, 2006

    No, I’m not proposing a new reality show where we put 10 meditators in a room, issue concentration challenges to them, and see who America votes for as the best meditator (though, now that I write it… nah, never mind).

    What I want to talk about today is the problem with monks and meditators.

    Not a problem with them as people or as practitioners.

    But a problem with them as examples, as role models, as “proof” that the spiritual path reliably leads to where you want to go.

    Now I’m not even going to touch the phenomenon of spiritual teachers and leaders who, it turns out, have been sleeping with their students while preaching celibacy, or stealing money while claiming poverty, or eating frozen burritos right out of the 7-Eleven freezer at 3:00 am after years of subsisting on nothing but “universal energy” (it was amazing to watch this “breatharian” try to explain away the security video showing him doing this).

    What I want to look at is the honest-to-goodness, insightful, peaceful, clear-minded, level-headed men and women who spent their life in spiritual pursuits. These people (rare as they are) are the ones we admire, the ones we hope to emulate. They’re the ones who give us confidence that all the time we spend watching our breath, or praying, or doing good works, or going to workshops, or buying angel posters is not for naught.

    But should we be reassured by them at all? Does their life actually demonstrate something relevant for us?

    A few weeks ago, I spent some time with a good friend who also happens to be a high-ranking Tibetan monk. During one conversation, we talked about how most of the young men who entered the monastery with him had long ago removed their robes and gone onto mundane lives. There were relatively few who had been in monastic life as long as my friend, and he’s only in his late 30’s.

    By the time he’s in his 50’s or 60’s or 80’s — assuming he hasn’t replaced his robes with blue jeans by then — even fewer of his monastic brothers will still be in the monk business (one thing you learn from hanging out with leaders of religious orders is how much of a business it is).

    In other words, as time goes on, there are fewer and fewer “survivors” still in the game.

    It’s the same in any business or endeavor. Over time, some stay, some fall away.

    By definition, the ones still standing at the end are a rare and unusual breed.

    But, when we look at or to these people, we seem to forget how unusual they are (or get angry when they engage in one of those infractions I mentioned and find out how un-unusual they are!).
    Looking at the rare survivors as if they are typical is what behavioral economists and cognitive psychologists call “survivorship bias.” We have a natural tendency to look at the people who’ve “made it”, who’ve gotten what we think we want, and believe we can get what they got if we just do what we think they did. We overlook the significantly larger number of non-survivors, most of whom are much more like us.

    In other words, what I realized when I talked to my monk friend without nodding my head is that the we only hear from the spiritual survivors, the rare beings who, for reasons that we may never know, are still standing. And then we compare ourselves to them… And this is where the suffering begins.
    But once we recognize that they are just the survivors. Once we stop nodding at the idea that we can simply do what they did and get what they (ostensibly) got, things get pretty interesting.

    Rather than proving long-term spiritual practice leads to certain attainments, it’s just as likely that the people who have a propensity for certain attainments also have a leaning toward doing long-term spiritual practice.

    Look at your own life for examples of this: Did you ever start a sport or a hobby and then stop when it became clear that there were some people who were just naturally gifted and that you would never be as good as them? My running career ended in 9th grade when all the other sprinters suddenly grew to 6′ and I barely made it to 5’6″ — no amount of passion or training would overcome their physiological advantage. And then the tall group separated themselves when it became clear that, well, some guys are just plain faster.

    Many people I meet tell me how they need to meditate more, or better, or whatever, citing the example of some teacher who says “The only way to get what I have is to do what I do — 10 hours a day!”

    Maybe. Maybe not.

    Maybe you could do 20 hours a day and not get “there”, because they just happen to be “faster.”

    Or, maybe they have misapprehended their own life and believe that the 10 hour/day practice is what made them who they are… but, maybe being someone who would even consider a 10 hour/day practice is someone who, with 1 minute a day, would have gotten to the same place (looking over history and assuming we can identify the causes that led to the present is what cognitive psych and behavioral finance guys call “hindsight bias”).

    If we aren’t aware of how survivorship bias affects our thinking, we could put ourselves in some situations that we hope would lead to happiness, but get or infer information that points us in the exact opposite direction.

    Without understanding survivorship bias, we could 1000 people play Russian Roulette and, when there was only one person still standing ask him, “What’s your secret to success?!”

    “Simple,” he’d reply, “you just pull the trigger and don’t shoot yourself!”





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