Buddhism, TaoismPagodaSmall and Hinduism


This is the Wild Goose Pagoda, essentially the birthplace of Mahayana Buddhism in China.

Like Christianity, Buddhism has many, many varieties. Traditionally, these are grouped into three major streams or
“vehicles” – Mahayana (the “Greater Vehicle,” by far the biggest, especially in China); Hinayana (the “Lesser Vehicle,” essentially the oldest form),

and Vajrayana (said to be somewhat more magical, and more common in Tibet itself.). The Tang Emperor in his capital in Xian commissioned the monk Sanzang to obtain the scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism from Tibet – a perilous journey of over 10,000 miles. When Sanzang returned, the Emperor had this tower built to house the scriptures. The fictional version of this story, Journey to the West, is one of the four official classics of Chinese literature. Simplified and cartoon versions – “the Monkey and the Monk” -- are very popular among children.

            For a larger image and extended caption, click here.

XianTemple2MsmallThis is the view of the Buddhist temple attached to the Wild Goose Pagoda, looking back from the stairs which lead to the tower itself.

            For a larger image and extended caption, click here.

ViewFromQingChengShan_smallThis is part of the view from QingCheng Shan, the Dao Mountain, a couple of hours northwest of Chengdu. Many regard this as the traditional ancient center of Taoism. There are many trails and “Taoist Master” caves throughout the complex, which would require weeks to explore. It is interesting how Journey to the West discusses a cave in the back of the mountain far to the south where the Taoist Patriarch teaches.

            For a larger image and extended caption, click here.

TopOfQingChengShan small This is the top of QingCheng Shan, with Christopher in the center of the picture.

TopOfQingChengShan2 smallThe friendly spirits at the top of the mountain come closer to Christopher.

TaoGoatTempleLaoTzuClaimedBirthThis room is one of the legendary birthplaces of Lao Tzu, in one of the mainly small buildings in the Goat Temple Complex. This complex, in downtown Chengdu, is considered the birthplace of the Tao Religion, but is far more recent than the Taoist activities on QingChengShan and far more recent than the TaoTeChing. When people kowtow and pray to a golden statue of a Ming Emperor (in a different building in the complex), it is natural that many modern mainland Chinese look no further. Someday I imagine a Chinese comedy movie, where an old grandmother visits her daughter in the city, and visits a modern shopping mall; when the grandmother suddenly drops to the floor, lights incense and kowtows to a giant statue of Santa Claus, the daughter looks totally exasperated – yet how much worse is the grandmother than the other Santa Claus worshippers in the mall?

Ehrlang_smallThis is the great statue of the traditional folk god Ehrlang, next to the ancient irrigation works near QingChengShan. Ehrlang was actually the government official and engineer who led the construction of these irrigation works, still in use. He was considered to have become an immortal as the result of his great achievement. He is also a character in Journey to the West. Nice to see a little respect for engineer/officials sometimes…




DragonRaces_small These are the annual traditional ancient dragon boat races in Chengdu. They celebrate the victory of fisherman and engineers over the dragon spirits of the rivers, which previously caused many deaths along with the  flooding of the YangTse River. As time went on, the meaning and significance of the dragon became ever more positive in Chinese literature (except for an imperialist streak), but the early folk culture was more like what you see in some Japanese cartoons influenced by Shinto.


This picture shows an eagle over a dragon over a tiger. I bought it for a small price from an old man at the entrance to the big Buddhist temple complex in Nara in Japan in 1991, where I was a guest of Professor Toshio Fukuda of the Computational Intelligence Society (CIS).

            In the late 1970’s, a great earthquake hit Shantung province, northeast of Beijing, which was a major center of nuclear development at the time. The New York Times reported that many Chinese people interpreted this as a sign of “a war between the tiger and the dragon,” which happens at the close of a great dynasty. When the Emperor (the tiger) is too far out of line with the City of Heaven (whence the dragon), Heaven signals its displeasure more and more strongly until the tiger is replaced. The Times suggested that these beliefs played a role in the true end of the period of the great Cultural Revolution, which had been instigated by the “Gang of Four” under Mao.

            In 1992, I had a chance to ask some leading Chinese intellectuals about this picture. The CIS invited me to Beijing, to receive the Neural Network Pioneer Award for inventing backpropagation. The Chinese group invited me to a small dinner of leading engineers, including Jiang Zemin. Jiang had to cancel at the last minute, because of a real and serious emergency, but still I learned something. At that time, they all knew of the story of the tiger and the dragon. They were proud to be well-educated in all aspects of Chinese culture, including such things as Taoism and exercise. (This was before the fear of Falun Gong caused an intense withdrawal towards more Western ideas.) But what is the bird in this picture? Is it the dragon’s wife? Is it some attempt at imperialistic meddling by the United States or by Russia or by American Indian tribes? No one had any idea. But I think it is interesting that it did come from a Buddhist Temple and has other associations.  For more detailed (2.5 meg) picture and explanation, click here.

            To try to enhance their credibility, many emperors of China would wrap themselves in the symbol of the dragon, just as rulers and would-be rulers in Europe and the Middle East have often pretended to speak in the name of God.



People in most countries are taught only a very simplified version of the complex beliefs in other nations. What they are taught is like a simple black and white cartoon version of the real color picture – or else like a black and white picture with shades of grey but still without colors. These simplified versions can be very useful, to start with, because they raise some basic logical issues which need to be faced up to. Sometimes a simplified version of a religion may be more attractive and worthy of respect than the entire picture, with warts and politics included. Sometimes it is the opposite. But which simplification do we choose?


Here, I will begin by discussing the cartoon version of Buddhism and Taoism which they taught me before College. Then I will try to say something about the larger human reality of Buddhism and Taoism, which is harder to explain in a brief web page. (The pictures above give some hints.)

Added on March 2008: comments on the “six planes of existence,” from hungry ghosts to demigods, which has provoked some worthwhile and energizing fiction.


The American Children’s Version of Buddhism and Taoism


The “People of the Book,” from Islam to Christianity, often view religions as a defining set of fundamental beliefs. We are generally told that Buddhism is really just a branch of Pure Hinduism – the same beliefs, but a slight change in the advice for how to live up to the beliefs.

In Pure Hinduism, we are told that every human and animal possesses its own soul. Almost always, after death, the soul eventually is born again, either in an animal or human body on this plane of existence, or on another plane of existence. But existence on all planes is all about ugliness and suffering, if we look closely at it. The supreme goal of life is to purify the soul, so that it will be reincarnated on higher and higher planes, until finally it goes out of existence altogether, and thereby escapes from this universal pain. In some variations, the soul continues to exist after this final stage – but in a state of total nirvana or emptiness without any desires or goals or thoughts whatsoever. The true source of pain is desire, for if we do not have desires or goals, then our desires or goals can never be frustrated.

We are taught that Buddha started life as a prince shielded from all pain. When he finally left this shelter, he was so overwhelmed by the reality of pain all around him that he became a devoted traditional Hindu ascetic. In this path, the aspirant forcibly denies all human desires, and forcibly acts in a direction opposite to all such desires. To counter the desire for food, they keep themselves as close as possible to starvation. They do not indulge in other normal desires at all. And they actively seek pain. But sitting under a tree one day, Buddha was offered a cup of milk by a young girl. At that moment, he realized that the pure ascetic path was as bad in its own way as the path of self-indulgence, in centering the mind on bodily desires. Living to fight them is a distraction as bad as living to serve them. Thus he saw the Middle Way, a path of true detachment, neither serving nor fighting what comes from the primitive mind, striving for a kind of absent-minded state in which one can even forget that the desires exist at all.


There is a wonderful set of books for young children in the US, called the “Care Bear” series. In one of these books, there is a Professor Cold Heart, who hates all human feelings, because of how they bring pain to people. One day, he meets a young boy who has had a very bad day, and offers him a new medicine which eliminates all feelings – pain, pleasure, hate, anger, love, all of them. The boy succumbs, and wanders for a time like zombie, until the magical Care Bears and the people who love him help him recover. In the original books, the Care Bears generally do not do anything destructive or mean to anyone at all, but I forget how they managed to be kind to Doctor Coldheart himself. Perhaps that book could be seen as a kind of Christian response to a cartoon image of Buddhism.


With Taoism (Daoism), the story is totally different. They did not actually teach us anything about the content of Taoism before I went to college, except for a very few limited fragments like yin-yang symbols showing up out of context. But people seem to talk about Taoism more often these days in cosmopolitan US society. From all of this talk, I can imagine what they might be teaching some children now in the US.


In such a cartoon view, Taoism has its own Bible. It is the Tao Te Ching. But the Tao Te Ching is very hard to understand. (By the way, the two editions of the Tao Te Ching which I have found most informative are the classic version by Arthur Waley and the illustrated translation by Kwok, Palmer and Ramsay.) In practice, Taoism believes that the reality we see easily with our eyes and the reality of spirit and energy form one world of nature, all around us. The natural and proper way of life is simply to be true to ourselves, to what we really are, which is a part of nature. In the popular Western simplification (and in some trends of thought in China), this implies that the supreme principle of action and thought is to strive to be more in harmony with all of nature.


But now: what can we say about these two different philosophies, simplified Buddhism and simplified Taoism, from the viewpoint of our new worldview? Again, the simplified Buddhism is not the real, true Buddhism – but still it is an important question.


Which is the proper ultimate principle of action for us to follow in life – to seek nonexistence, to express our inner natural selves, or something else? Perhaps this is the most important question of all, which any religion or philosophy must answer.


Perhaps some Buddhists would say: “We don’t strive for nonexistence. We do not strive at all. Of course, it does not matter.” But if it does not matter … this creates a logical situation similar to Pascal’s ancient “Pari Pascal.” Either it matters or it doesn’t; there is no sense considering the possibility that it doesn’t matter, because in that case we can equally well choose either principle. Logically, the choice should depend on the possibility that it matters somehow.


But still.. the pure logic of words  cannot tell us which of these three principles is the right one to follow (nonexistence/ inner nature/ something else). The choice matters to us and that is enough. In fact, the logic of this choice is exactly what I faced up to in great detail at age 15; there is no need to repeat that logic, since I described it in another paper posted here. It leads exactly to the Taoist approach, for the fundamental ethical principle of our existence. (Of course, it is not only Taoists who have said something similar!)


In fact, just as many Christians adhere to a simplified and even destructive version of Christianity, many Buddhists actually do fall into the gigantic trap offered by simplified Buddhism.


In modern psychoanalysis, it is well known from decades of clinical experience that some of Freud’s basic insights are correct. For example, human personalities do need to have “defense mechanisms” in order to maintain some kind of coherence in their thinking and plans (one aspect of “ego”) when they are under great stress. Harvard Magazine once published the story of a deep longitudinal study of Harvard graduates, comparing their characteristic defense mechanisms versus their success in life by their own standards, with respect to their own goals. They had a catalogue of over forty standard defense mechanisms, for which each subject was evaluated at the start of the study. They found that two very common defense mechanisms – “denial” and “repression” – correlate with great self-deception and pathology, in ways that hurt the person. Two others – ‘the silver lining” and “postponement” – correlate with good outcomes. (Actually, when I told my older son about this, I warned him not to rely too much on postponement. Even more mature than that is wise and rational time management; I cited the book which Clinton said turned his life around, and allowed him to become President.)  The ancient wild saying “I don’t care,” especially popular among children having an irrational outburst, is a classical extreme example of total denial, and total lack of self-understanding in the words one uses. And so many people may actually use simplified Buddhism as an excuse for indulging this simple kind of defense mechanism, which is not a sign of profound insight or feeling, but of very common low-level human weakness.


In other parts of Asia, I remember visiting a high-ranked Buddhist monastery where the monks were very very good people, and friendly to strangers. But I remember especially one typical monk who almost seemed to be surrounded by a cloud of dryness and parched feeling, just like old dry paper about to crumble to dust. Having strived for true nonexistence for so long, he really was close to achieving it. There was an air of success about him, as with people who are close to achieving any difficult goal – but also a kind of rictus of a smile edging into a look of creeping, growing horror as he realized this wasn’t really what he wanted, and something was wrong somehow. But I also met some very bright-eyed Buddhists of a very different kind.


Of course, there are also rural people who worship through statues to Buddha, Lao Tsu, Mao Tse Tung, golden goats, politicians and the Virgin Mary – sometimes all at once. I would not really call that Buddhism or Taoism in a proper sense, but it is part of the phenomenon of religion which requires discussion at some point. (Maybe later.)


Beyond The Children’s Version


As with the entire web page, it is hard to provide linear organization to a very complex web of thought, for people with different backgrounds. I will do my best to avoid writing something long, rambling and sequential – but it may help to divide it up into several categories:


 Some Key Ideas: Mind, Cultivation and Qi (“Chi”)

Nirvana, “Wu” or Emptiness

Buddhism and Taoism As Part of a Larger Culture

The Meaning of Some of the History

Some Recent Developments: Falun Gong, Communism, Exercises, Internet


Mind, Cultivation and Qi -- Key Ideas in Buddhism and Taoism


Here I will comment on three big ideas in Buddhism and Taoism – Mind, Cultivation and Qi.



Mind, the Soul and Reincarnation


Did Gautama Buddha even believe in reincarnation? The answer is not as clear as many have claimed.

            There is a common story about Buddha and reincarnation. According to my (fuzzy) memory -- a follower in India once asked him: “Will we be born again? Or does your dark philosophy say that we will all just die at the end of our mortal lives?” Buddha then said: “Do you see this drop of water in my hand, which I will soon return to the stream? When these drops fall from the rain, and reach the stream, and go down to the ocean… it may seem as if this bit of water has totally ceased to exist. But in fact, it still exists. The sun will shine, the water will evaporate, clouds will form, it will rain again, and the cycle of life will continue. It does not really die.”

            The water continues, but the drop loses its individual identity. In fact, I would guess that Buddha must have been well-educated in the higher schools of Hinduism and Vedanta – not just the childrens’ version.

From this quotation and from what we know about Buddha, it is not at all clear that he even agreed with the old belief that each of us has a personal soul which survives after death. (For a longer discussion of that belief , click here.)

            I have only read a few bits of the Upanishads (traditionally the “highest” part of the Vedas), but I do remember something like three geological strata in those books: (1) a very formal level, probably the oldest part, which does not require any belief in “spiritual reality”; (2) a middle level, which discusses concepts of a more operational form of “Atman” or “Brahman” as a kid of greater unified active Mind; (3) a “later degenerate” part, very practical in nature, which provided the foundation for practices of yoga addressing individual personal cultivation. Again, please forgive the fuzzy and oversimplified nature of these old memories; what matters in this context is the logic, not the historical accuracy!!! The challenge is to learn from the history, not to be a slave of it. (Still, I sometimes kick myself for not speaking about it with Oppenheimer when I met him at Princeton, and he was poking around on the same shelves of the same library! And still it is important that I insert the caveats.)

            The oldest part of the Upanishads  appealed to me most when I was a young mathematician and could easily see the beauty of it. It fit so well with the kind of culture I was raised in, the same kind of mathematical and universal culture that once led early people to cross big oceans and build stonehenges to try to reach out to the stars. But by 15, I learned to ground myself better in humanity and life and our reality. And now… I can better appreciate the other, later parts.

            When Buddha spoke of “the ocean,” could he have been referring to the old metaphor of the “ocean” as the greater mind of which we are all part? Do the thoughts and ideas live on, but only as part of this greater whole ? Was he echoing the middle part of the Upanishads, where the individual personal soul is just an illusion or temporary event, an illusion which does indeed dissolve at the moment of mortal death? Most likely he was. If the “ocean” is the One Soul which all of us on earth are part of, then this is generally consistent with “the standard model of the soul.” And perhaps, instead of escaping existence, he was really striving for unity, to “dissolve” himself – still active, intelligent and alive – into this larger living Mind.

            This version of Buddhism reminds me a great deal of an important scientific book, Lucid Dreaming, by a Stanford Professor, LaBerge. When he wrote this book, LaBerge was head of the international sleep research association, and his theory about dreaming had been published in Science. The transcripts he published in this book were quite startling to read. The people he had trained in his laboratory would begin by saying something like “This time, as I floated in the air above the laboratory, I decided to float through the wall on the left…” To avoid getting in trouble with his colleagues, he inserted a caveat something like: “Don’t worry. I know that these people were not really floating out of their bodies. There is excellent reason to believe that this was all just an artifact within the mind.”  And then – a footnote to an ancient text saying that the entire universe as we see it is just an artifact of the mind. But which mind are we floating in? Our personal mind? The mind of “Gaia” or “the noosphere”? The mind of everything which exists, which some call God? Is everything but the One Mind a grand illusion?

            Many physicists have in fact become very excited that the universe as a whole might be understood as One Great Mind. There is a famous quote from a quantum physicist who said “the Universe is looking less and less like a great machine and more and more like a great mind.” But this vision has yet to be translated into a workable, useful, operational model of physics.  It is worth trying, and I have a few ideas here, but there is nothing there at all in physics to support it as yet. On the level of psychology – Mind as we know it has purpose; purpose and goals are the main organizing principle. But what could a purpose be of everything which exists? There is an idea from Cabbala (Jewish mysticism) which says that the universe was once whole, but fractured into little pieces; in fact, any mind which is totally deprived of external stimuli would be expected to fracture to pieces, and there would be little point in pulling it back together just to fracture again! The “standard model of the soul” makes no claims about collective intelligence beyond humanity and our immediate neighbors. (If we postulate a different kind of “mind” – different from mind as we know it – then the word ”mind” suddenly loses its meaning! The whole idea degenerates into empty rhetoric, unless we find a more specific way of providing meaning to it.) Furthermore, I do not see any credible hint of evidence in the entire history of humanity (even for someone like me who can take a hint much more than most…) which would favor the Universal Mind theory over a complete version of the “standard model of the soul.” The earth is a big place, and we should be very careful about our speculations about what lies beyond the furthest galaxies that we can see. Seeing the earth better, and extending our economies into space, is enough of a challenge for us now anyway.

            Nevertheless, a Buddhist way of thinking can be useful in reminding us that there is something beyond our furthest horizon… and we do not know it all.

            On a more concrete level… the “standard model” as described in my book chapter (even with an extension) does not immediately tell us whether we should believe in a personal soul or not. (For more discussion of that issue, click here.) But when I think about this question, I remember a book from the Freemasons which I found by accident many years ago, when visiting a house in old Philadelphia. I would guess that that book came from a Scottish Rite Freemason, the same group that George Washington was an officer in; I guess this because people have told me that Scottish Rite Freemasonry has a heavy Neoplatonist origin, unlike the York Rite people, who, they tell me, are analogous to the “Programmed Quakers” who retreated from their original universal vision in order to fit better with their local neighbors and politicians. In that book, it describes us all as being like “cells” in a greater self or mind. In fact, well-organized organisms  on earth really are a kind of amalgam of individual cells and matrix. It is reasonable that cells or modules should be reused somehow – but this does not necessarily imply the simple traditional notion of reincarnation. For me, it is more plausible (both in logic and in experience) to think of the kind of “reincarnation” that a subroutine might experience within a large, well-designed computer mind – sometimes reused multiple times in parallel, sometimes linked to other subroutines, and sometimes (if it is not very useful) left on the shelf long enough to be digested by a “garbage collector” subroutine from the matrix. The garbage collectors may have been very busy lately.

            The true Buddhist or Taoist would not care so much about whether he has a personal soul or not. Either way, one does one best to support the natural flow of life. Still, one can do this more effectively if one understands what is going on, and what the flow really is.




Even in the children’s version of Buddhism, the theory leads to an immediate question: what do we need to do, in everyday life, in order to achieve the desired ultimate state, whatever it may be? An extreme true Buddhist would dedicate his or her entire life, and his or her energies, towards the goal of inner cultivation. But what is the best way to achieve that goal? How does it work?

            Buddha himself proclaimed the “Eight-Fold Way” as his set of practical recommendations for how to cultivate the soul. Many ordinary Buddhists will say they do not really care about achieving nonexistence or Nirvana in their own lives; they merely try to follow the Eight-Fold Path, as a way of being a good person. But many different schools of Buddhism have arisen, which offer very different guidance in practice.  They explain their diversity in part by saying that  different people have different needs, just like children at school, who are ready for different courses – but this does not really answer the general question in a concrete way. Some Western schools of mysticism have also said “Life is a school.” But what is the curriculum? And does it make sense to say that cultivation of the Soul is the true purpose of life?

            In the “standard model of the soul” (which I discuss in a previous book chapter), I agree with Teilhard de Chardin and others that our collective inner intelligence here on earth is basically just an immature organism. Some might say “Gaia is still just a baby.” (Here I am referring to the “Gaia Theory” in science, not to the ancient pagan version! Science is full of such unfortunate confusion between technical terminology and popular ideas; the same problem has also led to a lot of misunderstanding of Freud.) For any immature organism, the number one task is to grow up – to learn, to mature, and so on. As humans, we are not only spiritual entities, in my view – but for the spiritual side of us, the real natural imperative is exactly an imperative towards cultivation. Not just cultivation of our own personal souls (if those exist), but of the whole. This is what inner spiritual dialogue is really about. That doesn’t tell us what the curriculum is – but I hope that the kind of understanding I have been striving for may be of help in coping with that question. In the face of ignorance, however, it makes sense to bring ourselves a balanced curriculum, developing the most general possible abilities and understanding. Greater understanding is a vital part of the curriculum for every one of us; it is the essential prerequisite to moving to a more fruitful path, both in terms of performance and stability. Naturally, authentic global dialogue within humanity (and the ecosystem) does include the topics which humanity is really thinking about on all levels – including our collective physical survival and religions and science and economies and emotions and all – wherever that dialogue actually happens.

            I have spoken a lot in these web pages about the idea of sanity or sapience, as it applies to the individual brain. In my view, all of the same considerations also apply – and more – to the challenge of collective spiritual cultivation which lies before us. In the “standard model,” we as humans are by nature a symbiosis of the two. Total, “whole person” sanity entails a kind of “alchemical marriage,” a harmonious blending and accommodation of the two goals and what goes with them.

            Curiously enough, in wandering around places like Harvard, I met several people who (1) were much closer to attaining this inner harmony between their brains and their spiritual selves than most religious people, but (2) would hate all this talk about spirituality and such. It weakened them that they could not see themselves as they really were – but they were much further along in many ways than those wild fundamentalists who foam at the mouth and brandish knives while shutting both their physical eyes and their spiritual eyes! (Sort of like Good Samaritans?)

            Buddhism sometimes makes a distinction between Buddhas – who depart from the world – and Bodhisattvas, who have compassion and stay here in order to help humanity as a whole. Mahayana Buddhism tends to emphasize Bodhisattvas more than Buddhas. Some regard this as a kind of regression – but could it be that the Bodhisattvas are actually the more advanced in a way, more in tune with the greater reality of which we as individuals are just one part? Or is it possible that it is important for us to think so, for now, as we strive to reach that level – even as something larger may ultimately open up in the far future? The “standard model of the soul” could be reconciled with either one of these views; it leaves certain details open. And of course, based on the ideal of sanity – I would not want to feel more than 50% conviction in any model, even the one which best fits my present experience and scientific understanding.


Qi (“Chi”), Ki, Energy, Mana, “The Flow” and “The Force”


I sometimes say “Qi is basically just backpropagation

. That is all that it really is.” To truly understand what qi is, one must first understand what backpropagation is; click here for a brief simplified explanation of what it is. But how can I explain the connection more completely?


Let me start with a few passages from the Tao Te Ching (in the beautiful translation by Kwok, Palmer and Ramsey):


Chapter 4:


“The Tao pours out everything into life --

It is a cornucopia that never runs dry.

It is the deep source of everything –

It is nothing, and yet in everything.

It smooths round sharpness

And untangles the knots.


Chapter 6:


“The Tao is … the fountain of Heaven and Earth, laid open,

Endless source, endless river

River of no shape, river of no water..


Chapter 8:


The sage’s way, Tao, is the way of water.

There must be water for life to be,

And it can flow wherever.

And water, being true to water

Is true

To Tao.


Chapter 10:


“Can you nurture your souls by holding them in unity with the One?

Can you focus your chi  - your energy – and become as supple, as yielding as a baby?

Can you clear your mind of all its dross without throwing out the Tao with it?”



This is from the translation by Kwok, Palmer and Ramsay. In actuality – the Tao Te Ching is hard to understand because of the diversity of views it contains, in addition to the poetic language, the sophisticated ideas and implicit assumptions. At times, perhaps, we are like color blind people trying to make sense of simple stories about objects described in color. But here I will try to explain qi or “chi”, not all of the Tao Te Ching! (By the way – “qi  and  “chi” are the same word in Chinese; people have used different systems at different times for writing Chinese words in our alphabet.)


Nirvana, “Wu” or Emptiness


In general, Buddhism says that we should somehow seek “wu” as our ultimate goal. “Wu” is essentially the same as “nirvana,” which is commonly called “emptiness.”

This sounds like the American children’s version of Buddhism – but is it really?

       This month (November 2007), I went back to seriously read part of a book, The Spirit of Chinese Philosophy by Fung Yu-Lan (translated by E.R. Hughes), which I was unable to penetrate very far when it fell into my hands decades ago in Princeton. Chapter eight is called “The Inner Light School (Ch’an Tsung) of Buddhism.” This is basically the original Zen Buddhism, which he ascribes to Tao Sheng (d. 434.). On the fourth page of this chapter, he says:

      “What in the last resort is this ‘wu’ which we translate as ‘non-being’? In regard to this, there are two interpretations. One is that it is not anything at all, a final nil, nullity as against all that is, even null in relation to its own nullity. (Comment: Does this sound silly? Does it make you want to laugh? If so, many Buddhists would say they should laugh with you, about this and about the White House and about Communism and about all of it. Just laugh. But what if you feel like crying after that?) It is without any quality whatever, and therefore cannot be defined as something. The sage’s mind is one with this nullity, hence the statement that the sage’s mind is like empty space. The other interpretation is that wu denotes the mind, the mind which brings all things into existence… ‘the intrinsic nature’… ‘the Buddha-nature’… Tao Sheng put this as follows: ‘To turn one’s back on delusion is to attain to the ultimate; to attain to the ultimate is to attain the origin..”

            Sheng Chao adopted the first interpretation, Tao Sheng.. the second. Later.. there were two tendencies.. ‘not mind, not Buddha’.. (and) ‘being mind, being Buddha.’ To use the criterion of this book, the second interpretation is inferior to the first with its complete transcendence of shapes and features.”

            And so, folks, what do we make of all this? When I was a young mathematician taking courses at Princeton, this book was such a tangle that I was unable to make myself read it. (Remember, this is just one paragraph that I just cited!) But now, having a solid foundation in the mathematics of intelligent systems and some perspective, I can look back with appreciation and amusement at how many levels of meaning there are in that one paragraph. It reflects so many levels of the hall of mirrors we seem to see whenever we approach the human Mind in a deep way.

            Yet the truth itself is not so tangled, in my view.

            Sheng Chao’s glorious sounding words about nullity which is null to nullity itself is almost as good as Godel’s paradox, in showing how silly human thought can become when we try to rely exclusively on symbolic reasoning or formulae without a sense of empirical reality. For some people, the whole purpose of religion and spirituality is a grand assertion of the ego to try to deny empirical reality – a grand all-encompassing neurosis, which is possible in human brains only because human brains are at a stage of evolution where a proper use of symbolic reasoning is not yet hard-wired. (See “What is Mind?”.) Sheng Chao’s old version is the American children’s version, which is popular in the West among pure academic intellectuals attracted by the glorious solipsistic nature of it, and by the way it seems to justify running away from all reality. But Tao Sheng’s version tries to bring people more in touch with the greater reality and mind, larger than themselves. The theory of One Universal Mind gives him an excuse for that approach, but the practical implications for the early stages of individual human development are really quite close to the practical implications of the more cautious theory that I would rely on. And so, Ch’an Buddhism chose the better fork in its road, at first.

            But what about those later “two tendencies”? It sounds like the same old choice, all over again… reverting back to the empty nonsense of Sheng Chao! How could that happen? Fung Yu-Lan himself explains how it happened, because he himself supports the same mistake. He says the first must be superior because of its “complete transcendence of shapes and features.” Here, Fung Yu-Lan reminds me of the Christians who think it is superior and more praiseworthy to believe that Jesus is the omnipotent and omniscient God of all that exists, because omniscience and omnipotence are greater than merely seeing a million times deeper than the average couch potato. Fung Yu-Lan and those types of Christians both make a very simple typical mistake in human reasoning: if X is superior to Y, they conclude that BELIEVING in X must be superior to BELIEVING in Y. Again, humans are capable of such mistakes only because their brains are at a kind of intermediate stage of evolution, and because human schools of development do not always train people how to think in a clearer, more sapient way. (For discussion of sapience, see “What is Mind?” )

            Life is not only mind – but certainly I agree with Tao Sheng that a greater development of Mind is one of the key challenges that we all need to rise to. I applaud the inner instinct which drove Tao Sheng to try to fulfill this valid inner need, no matter what the theories were that he used to justify it. Yet the experience of history shows that the attempt to achieve nirvana directly in one step has often hurt human development more than helped it. For many of us, the best path is to first seek sanity and sapience in the brain, in coping with mundane reality, and discarding the kinds of illusions or neuroses that Freud talks about. The discipline of science and mathematics is a very important tool in that development of the mind. Because sapience does include awareness of all nonverbal experience (not just eyes but touch and stomach and inner feelings), it can lead in a natural way to some kind of experience-based, empirical approach to the level of mind which is beyond the individual brain as such. We can become more self-conscious and aware of the nature of our soul as part of the larger noosphere, a state which Tao Sheng and Siddartha tried to express in words as “nirvana.” And yet, logic says that there is a further state which even they could not try to express, because they had not yet experienced it: a state of greater self-awareness even within the noosphere itself. The noosphere itself does not have the tendency to use words to escape from reality, as humans brains do, because it represents a different level of biological evolution. But there is the old expression “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” Nirvana is not an end state, but only a kind of awareness of reality, which leads to a rolling up of the sleeves to start doing the larger work which lies beyond it. Part of that work does include contributing to the efforts to work together to achieve sustainability on this earth. More precisely, it means contributing to the effort to give humanity both a “solid place to put our feet on and an open free place for moving our arms and our mind,” as I discuss in the final part of the discussion of Communism and economic materialism. Part of that work involves the further development of the noosphere itself; that further level of development, beyond mere nirvana, cannot be accomplished by isolated individuals who run away from the complex mental state of humanity as a whole.  


Some Recent Developments: Falun Gong, Communism, Exercises, Internet


In filling in the “religions” web page, I decided to start with Buddhism and Taoism because of the really intense “hot buttons” which can upset people very easily, and generate “negative energy,” if one is not extremely careful to take a positive and sympathetic approach.  China has a history of unusual tolerance between alternative worldviews like Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, but the mutual respect has never been perfect even within China, and there are major “hot buttons” there even today.


Communism and Marxism is such a large and complex subject that I decided (in November 2007) to give it an entire web page of its own here. But the interactions between Communism and other streams of thought in China still require more discussion..


            I am not yet ready (in 2006) to do justice to the complicated subjects in the subtitle here – but I would briefly like to assure the reader that I do not intend to engage in any kind of propaganda for or against any of the major streams of thought  listed. All of these streams are a “part of us,” yet they are all the product of fallible human beings who are capable of doing better, like all of the rest of us.

            With Falun Gong, in particular, I have heard some very intense views from Chinese friends, a couple strongly in favor and several intensely against. I do not intend to take a position on the matter. The two in favor gave me a copy of Zhuan Falun, one of their primary books. Those against told stories about people who became so obsessive about their exercises that they suffered a great deal, and did not make real progress, and stated that the founder of this religious movement was creating a cult of personality that reminded them of those golden statues of Ming emperors. Certainly I have seen abuses of that kind in the history of Christianity, Islam and Buddhism.

Nevertheless, as in those other religions, there were some interesting thoughts in the book that they gave me. Most of all, there was a notion of a three-fold path of cultivation – to cultivate truthfulness, benevolence, and “ren” (which is essentially untranslateable to English). It seemed a bit odd to me at first – one more ancient laundry list of virtues. Yet as I thought about this… I thought about the two major themes I have pursued in my own life, the search for scientifically grounded truth and understanding, and the effort to address the larger needs of humanity. (I can almost hear the control engineers saying “system identification and optimal control.” Or “cultivate the Model networks and the Actor/Critic networks in your brain.”) Certainly these are fundamental. But what about “ren,” which the Falun Gong folks translate as “tolerance”  but is more like tolerance of adversity, endurance, robustness, resilience? When I thought about that, I laughed, because life has certainly been forcing me to work on that one too – and the control engineers as well – whether I like it or not. And so, there is something valid there, even if there are some negative things out there as well. We all need to work on trying to overcome the negative aspects, no matter what paths we choose. How should society as a whole deal with these conflicts? Again, I do not feel it would be appropriate for me to add many words on that issue at this time.


2015: Re-Reading the Upanishads


Many commentators say that the Upanishads are “the New Testament of Hinduism” (unlike older parts of the Vedas which have lots more fighting and mythology and revenge and stuff, like the Old Testament).  After a long, first trip to India last March/April, I decided to purchase and reread the Upanishads; click here for more of that story. (clicking on the word “Upanishads,” you can see I did not have to buy the physical book, but I did anyway.).


Compared to my present, more mature understanding of these issues, I did not see as much interesting new stuff as I would have hoped, but the following two passages have some special interest; they have some power, through poetic imagery, to help one attain some feeling for the “Atman,” the greater Self, which here and now I would identify with the noosphere.  They are from the Third Adhyaya of BṚIHAD-ĀRAṆYAKA UPANISHAD, the oldest of the Upanishads.


1. Fourth Brāhmaṇa

The theoretical unknowability of the immanent Brahma

1. Then Ushasta Cākrāyaṇa questioned him. ‘Yājñavalkya,’ said he, ‘explain to me him who is the Brahma present and not beyond our ken, him who is the Soul in all things.’

‘He is your soul (ātman), which is in all things.’

‘Which one, O Yājñavalkya, is in all things?’

‘He who breathes in with your breathing in (prāṇa) is the [112] Soul of yours, which is in all things. He who breathes out with your breathing out (apāna) is the Soul of yours, which is in all things. He who breathes about with your breathing about (vyāna) is the Soul of yours, which is in all things. He who breathes up with your breathing up (udāna) is the Soul of yours, which is in all things. He is your soul, which is in all things.’

2. Ushasta Cākrāyaṇa said: ‘This has been explained to me just as one might say, “This is a cow. This is a horse.” Explain to me him who is just the Brahma present and not beyond our ken, him who is the Soul in all things.’

‘He is your soul, which is in all things.’

‘Which one, O Yājñavalkya, is in all things?’

‘You could not see the seer of seeing. You could not hear the hearer of hearing. You could not think the thinker of thinking. You could not understand the understander of understanding. He is your soul, which is in all things. Aught else than Him [or, than this] is wretched.’

Thereupon Ushasta Cākrāyaṇa held his peace.

2. Seventh Brahmana


‘Quite so, O Yājñavalkya. Declare the Inner Controller.’

3. ‘He who, dwelling in the earth, yet is other than the earth, whom the earth does not know, whose body the earth is, who controls the earth from within—He is your Soul, the Inner Controller, the Immortal.

4. He who, dwelling in the waters, yet is other than the waters, whom the waters do not know, whose body the waters are, who controls the waters from within—He is your Soul, the Inner Controller, the Immortal.

5. He who, dwelling in the fire, yet is other than the fire, whom the fire does not know, whose body the fire is, who controls the fire from within—He is your Soul, the Inner Controller, the Immortal.

6. He who, dwelling in the atmosphere, yet is other than the atmosphere, whom the atmosphere does not know, whose body the atmosphere is, who controls the atmosphere from within—He is your Soul, the Inner Controller, the Immortal.

7. He who, dwelling in the wind, yet is other than the wind, whom the wind does not know, whose body the wind is, who controls the wind from within—He is your Soul, the Inner Controller, the Immortal.

8. He who, dwelling in the sky, yet is other than the sky, whom the sky does not know, whose body the sky is, who controls the sky from within—He is your Soul, the Inner Controller, the Immortal.

9. He who, dwelling in the sun, yet is other than the sun, whom the sun does not know, whose body the sun is, who controls the sun from within—He is your Soul, the Inner Controller, the Immortal.

10. He who, dwelling in the quarters of heaven, yet is other than the quarters of heaven, whom the quarters of heaven do not know, whose body the quarters of heaven are, who controls the quarters of heaven from within—He is your Soul, the Inner Controller, the Immortal.


11. He who, dwelling in the moon and stars, yet is other than the moon and stars, whom the moon and stars do not know, whose body the moon and stars are, who controls the moon and stars from within—He is your Soul, the Inner Controller, the Immortal.

12. He who, dwelling in space, yet is other than space, whom space does not know, whose body space is, who controls space from within—He is your Soul, the Inner Controller, the Immortal.

13. He who, dwelling in the darkness, yet is other than the darkness, whom the darkness does not know, whose body the darkness is, who controls the darkness from within—He is your Soul, the Inner Controller, the Immortal.

14. He who, dwelling in the light, yet is other than the light, whom the light does not know, whose body the light is, who controls the light from within—He is your Soul, the Inner Controller, the Immortal.

—Thus far with reference to the divinities. Now with reference to material existence (adhi-bhūta).—

15. He who, dwelling in all things, yet is other than all things, whom all things do not know, whose body all things are, who controls all things from within—He is your Soul, the Inner Controller, the Immortal.

—Thus far with reference to material existence. Now with reference to the self.—

16. He who, dwelling in breath, yet is other than breath, whom the breath does not know, whose body the breath is, who controls the breath from within—He is your Soul, the Inner Controller, the Immortal.

17. He who, dwelling in speech, yet is other than speech, whom the speech does not know, whose body the speech is, who controls the speech from within—He is your Soul, the Inner Controller, the Immortal.

18. He who, dwelling in the eye, yet is other than the eye, whom the eye does not know, whose body the eye is, who controls the eye from within—He is your Soul, the Inner Controller, the Immortal.

19. He who, dwelling in the ear, yet is other than the ear, whom the ear does not know, whose body the ear is, who [117] controls the ear from within—He is your Soul, the Inner Controller, the Immortal.

20. He who, dwelling in the mind, yet is other than the mind, whom the mind does not know, whose body the mind is, who controls the mind from within—He is your Soul, the Inner Controller, the Immortal.

21. He who, dwelling in the skin, yet is other than the skin, whom the skin does not know, whose body the skin is, who controls the skin from within—He is your Soul, the Inner Controller, the Immortal.

22. He who, dwelling in the understanding, yet is other than the understanding, whom the understanding does not know, whose body the understanding is, who controls the understanding from within—He is your Soul, the Inner Controller, the Immortal.

23. He who, dwelling in the semen, yet is other than the semen, whom the semen does not know, whose body the semen is, who controls the semen from within—He is your Soul, the Inner Controller, the Immortal.

He is the unseen Seer, the unheard Hearer, the unthought Thinker, the ununderstood Understander. Other than He there is no seer. Other than He there is no hearer. Other than He there is no thinker. Other than He there is no understander. He is your Soul, the Inner Controller, the Immortal.’

Thereupon Uddālaka Āruṇi held his peace.

Some parts of this list remind me of a book by Pete Sanders, giving much longer and prosaic discussion of four of the aspects mentioned here, also grounded in direct experience – unlike many other parts of the Upanishads which are grounded more in politics, pride and imagination. It is especially touching to read passages saying “he who does as I say will ultimately have food...”...  That was not just a metaphor!