"All right action flows from the breath"
- Hajakujo

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

How do we know what we are?

Once, a student wondered about many things, and questioned constantly in his quest to attain enlightenment. One day, he asked the question "who and what am I, so that I can seek the path to enlightenment?"
No one answered, and in that moment the student was enlightened.

I often wonder who and what I am, and in the wondering hope to move my experiential state vector towards a more optimal phase where information processed gives the greatest possible return on processing energy, thus increasing total wisdom. On occasion, I wonder if this wondering is not itself enlightenment of a kind. Consider this koan:

"A Zen master named Gisan asked a young student to bring him a pail of water to cool his bath.

The student brought the water and, after cooling the bath, threw on to the ground the little that was left over.

"You dunce!" the master scolded him. "Why didn't you give the rest of the water to the plants? What right have you to waste even a drop of water in this temple?"

The young student attained Zen in that instant."

Clearly, the student already knew all that he needed to become enlightened, since his master did not provide him any new learning, nor pose a question the answering of which would lead to new learning, of anything outside himself. Merely, he gave the student a cause to reflect upon himself ("What right?") and his actions ("Why?"), and in so doing learn what it was that had previously seperated him from his Zen state.

What was this moment of revelation? What relationship does it have to enlightenment, to the classic Zen description of enlightenment - "It is no-mind...the disappearance of the ego...loss of all identification with the body and the mind. It is freedom from beliefs, opinions, ideals and concepts. It is always sudden, because it is not an achievement; it is already the case. It is a remembering."

On what level can this take place in the cognitive process? We can point to the concept of no-mind to bypass the conscious cognitive process, but the state of the mind notwithstanding the corporeal body remains. And it is difficult to accept that mind and body are not one, so that the state of the individual is both body and mind. Can we say that smaller enlightenments can take place in the day-to-day, because our tie to physicality makes the whole concept of enlightenment one that exists on a continuum. Once reached, it is not the end. Why not?

Compassion draws the enlightened one back, to continue to exist in disharmony with everyone unenlightened. Compassion is empathy. Empathy is fellow feeling. It is all predicated on knowledge of one's fellow, which is the encapsulation of the existence of other minds within a theory of mind.
In Accelerando, Charles Stross talks about the predictability of a normal human to one whose cognitive functions have
accelerated, i.e. been boosted by direct interface with technology (something another TED'er - the insufferable but farsighted Ray Kurzweil - talks about). The theory of mind becomes so powerful that the normal human is essentially encapsulable as a predictive model (theories are postulated to predict real phenomena).
Can one feel compassion for an automata? A completely predictable person might look as such to the modeller. But the knowledge of the person required to build the model is itself an emotive context, and processing affective information causes affect. So compassion arises from knowledge, even when that knowledge is great as to be 'weakly godlike'.

Robert Thurman seems to be coming toward this viewpoint from a tangent in his talk for TED, available here. I am just rambling, but the notion that learning and consequent minor frequent epiphanies could be considered in a certain light as progressive enlightenment, even to the connection with compassion, is a comforting one. So much of our work is working toward completion of our own work, that considering its larger futility is all too easy. Who can change the world? But if the changing is worth the doing, then the fact that we are changing ourselves is worth remembering.

Work is the koan.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007


Just a curiosity for those who accord discord, from this site.