Book Summary: Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha

To summarize the main ideas:

Thinking is not a substitute for lived experience. The idea of being a mother, combat veteran, a disciple of a spiritual teacher – pick any experience you don’t have – and having the idea about it is not the same as having lived it. And, it is worse than that, many of the experiences we do have, we’ve replaced the experience with thoughts, so we are alienating ourselves from our own lived experience, at practically every moment.

The substitution of our ideas for our lived experience is the source of our suffering. The idea of self, preferences and aversions for certain experiences, etc., all work to alienate us from our actual experience. The way to counteract this effect is by the three trainings: morality, concentration, and wisdom.

Morality is everything we do in the ordinary world that requires judgment and planning. Concentration is the ability to settle your mind on what you wish. Wisdom comes from focusing our attention on our lived experience to the point that we see it clearly, not through abstractions. Through these three trainings, we can improve our receptiveness, our focus and these will lead to a fundamental realization of what’s real and what is mind-made.

The unreal has three characteristics: impermanence, dissatisfactoriness, and no-self. Everything is impermanent. If nothing is permanent, then the person at birth is not the same as the person you are now. This is equally true, no matter how thinly you slice time. The person you were a nanosecond ago is not the same person you are right now. It is our desire to reject that reality for permanence, of condition and of self, that gives rise to dissatisfaction.

Drop to the level of sensations. The only thing that is real is what you are experiencing in this moment, and even then, by the time it registers, it is over. Everything is a phantom – memories of the past, plans for the future, ideas about the present and even sensate experience is over before we realize it. This is why it is difficult to understand what is real.

On the path to understanding the real, there are five spiritual faculties to cultivate: faith, wisdom, energy, concentration and mindfulness. The first four can be thought of as wheels on the bullock cart with mindfulness as the driver. Balance faith/wisdom and energy/concentration. Then, strengthen and balance them again.

Awakening is achieved through seven factors: mindfulness, investigation, energy, rapture, tranquility, concentration, and equanimity. The hindrances are sensory desire, ill-will/malice, sloth/turpor, restlessness/worry and doubt. Finding the right balance between focus and ease is the secret to a good life.

What makes it good? We are able to access peace and happiness by turning our minds to them. By renouncing certain aspects of life, we cut off sources of suffering. Just knowing that it is possible, right here in this life, right now, to be free of suffering is a huge relief.

These are the Four Noble Truths. You’re going to be dissatisfied. This dissatisfaction has a cause. It can end, and we have a method to end it. No need for heaven, secret teachings or being a saint. All you need to do is follow the instructions. If four is too much, all you need is one idea. Suffering can end.

There are people walking around right now that are enlightened. It wasn’t just back in Buddha’s day. You may know a person who is enlightened. If you don’t, perhaps you could. How?

Buddhists talk about the Noble Eightfold Path.

  • Morality: right speech, right action, right livelihoo
  • Concentration: right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration
  • Wisdom: right view, right intention

If you want to make quick progress, then:

  1. Do lots of practice in daily life
  2. Go on more and longer retreats
  3. Consistently concentrate and develop the ability to investigate quickly and precisely
  4. Pay attention more often in their daily activities
  5. Be morally together

The best time to meditate is any time you can, preferably right now. With strong enough concentration, our whole inner landscape becomes subject to our control.

Possessed by Demons or Become Your Own?

It is of course famously difficult to say exactly what happens in [Philip K Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch], because the essential question that the major characters have is always: What is actually happening? But at least one major potential timeline, perhaps the most likely timeline, tells a story like this: Palmer Eldritch is a titan of capitalism, in many respects the Jeff Bezos of this world, and he travels to Proxima Centauri on a quest that is ambiguous in character but certainly involves financial motives. Eldritch discovers on Proxima Centauri a substance that the sentient beings of that solar system use in their religious rituals — a substance he thinks he can manufacture and sell and thereby win a victory over the currently dominant corporation called PP Layouts. But on his return from the Proxima system he is — well, perhaps the word is possessed by a sentient creature from some other part of the galaxy. And this creature is at least for a time interested in distributing its consciousness, through the mediation of Palmer Eldritch and the substance he has discovered, into the consciousness of human beings…

…Of course, this is not the only possible explanation of what is happening in the book. It is certainly possible that there is no alien being possessing Palmer Eldritch; rather, Eldritch himself has, through a combination of economic leverage and biotechnology, assumed equivalent powers. That is, it may be possible for surveillance capitalism to generate its own demons. Whether this is a better or worse fate than the one I previously described I leave as an exercise for the reader.”

-Alan Jacobs, “It’s Palmer Eldritch’s world, we’re just living in it.” ayjay.org. April 8, 2021.

Given the choice between being possessed by demons from some other culture or possessed by demons generated from one’s own, both are bad options, and your answer is probably determined by how much novelty you prefer. I think the more interesting question is whether you’d rather be possessed by a demon or become one yourself. Neitzsche hits on the point:

““Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”

― Friedrich W. Nietzsche

Most people can’t imagine being (or that they are) a monster. So, this choice is really about one’s self-concept. Are you good? Then, you may be more willing to be possessed, so you aren’t responsible for acting like a monster. But, choosing to be a monster? The first casualty is conscience, and then the body count goes up from there. Still, it’s probably true most people, even good people, would rather be predator than prey. This fact probably explains a lot about the human condition.

On Being Evil

Are you a good person? If you ask most people this question, they’ll answer, “Yes.” Of course they are. They might think to themselves, “I’m not a monster. I’m not like X.” Pick your monster, let X equal Hitler for illustration purposes here.

But, what’s the threshold for good? Does the same thinking apply in the opposite direction? Do we think to ourselves, “I’m not a saint. I’m not like X.” Pick your saint, let X equal the Buddha for illustration purposes here.

If we draw a line, with the most evil person that ever lived, assuming talking about “the most evil” could be quantified in some way based on objective analysis of the horror that was a direct result of their existence, and drawing it to “the most good” quantified in a similar way, where do we sit? Are we on trajectories over the course of our lives, moving in more evil or more good directions? Does it vary based on specific features that are dominant at a particular historical moment?

Is it easier to be good, or evil, in a particular time and place? Was it easier to be good when humanity was living in pre-history, in small bands before the dawn of the agricultural revolution? Are there some eras where evil and good don’t even apply, e.g., if you worked 18 hour days in one of the early factories after the Industrial Revolution? Or, perhaps being literate and being exposed to new ideas makes us more inclined to be evil, or good.

When I think on these things, I come to one conclusion. We aren’t good. We aren’t bad. We are people in a particular situation, and we all think that what we are doing is good, in some sense of that word.

Hitler, for instance, believed that some people were sub-human, and if you got rid of these lesser humans, humanity as a whole would be better off. Even saying it in that way implies a value judgment because if some “people” are sub-human, they are still human. Hitler’s argument seems to be that they aren’t really people at all, so it should be said differently under that assumption. If you accept the perspective that people are people, then Hitler’s line of thinking is evil.

But, Hitler’s line of thinking is the norm. Humans are tribal, and outsiders are always not quite as human as insiders. If you think that some people are better in some fundamental way – whether that is because they subscribe to a particular idea/dogma, such as a religion or they belong to a particularly ethnic group – whether that is a Han Chinese in modern China, white Englishman in Colonial America, or any colonizing civilization’s view of aboriginal hunter/gatherer groups, or simply because you know them – how much different are you from Hitler? What differentiates Hitler’s view from the tribal view?

Beyond views, there are actions. Does the ability to act in the world make us capable or greater evil or good? If someone has the same views as Hitler but is unable to act on them as he did, are they also evil? Is it the idea that some people aren’t people the evil part? Or, is it the causing, in one way or another, the deaths of millions the evil part? Well, it seems they both are evil, right? It’s just more evil if you act on and the scale of your actions amplifies the evil in some way.

The same idea applies the other direction. We all want to be good. But, is it enough to have good ideas? Or, does the good need to impact the world in some significant way? If we do smaller acts of kindness, are we less good than a Bill Gates who can do something like eradicate a disease? Is Bill Gates good? Is he more good than the Dalai Lama or the historical Buddha? Why or why not?

When we look into our hearts, we know that the desire to be and do good competes with other desires. We also want to be comfortable and materially well-off. We want to be important, respected, possibly famous. We want to be accepted by the communities in which we are part, some of which may not be good communities. We may want power or control over our environment. And on and on. All of these desires compete, and while everyone wants to be good, we very often want these other things more.

I think it helps to understand that none of us are inherently good or bad. None of us are “good people”. Luck and circumstance plays a very important role in who we are. We are the sum total of a vast network of influences: genetic, environmental, psychological and so many others. But, perhaps, the important thing is that we always have a choice in what we think and do, and perhaps it is helpful to realize that we may be rationalizing some evil, and that we are in fact being and acting evil. That the good we believe we are or doing might be evil and perhaps, it is time to stop.

There is No Preparation for the Present Moment

“Generally, we tend to prepare too much. We say, ‘Once I make a lot of money, then I will go somewhere to study and meditate and become a priest,” or whatever it is we would like to become. But we never do it on the spot. We always speak in terms of, ‘Once I do something, then …” We always plan too much. We want to change our lives rather than use our lives, the present moment as part of the practice, and this hesitation on our part creates a lot of setbacks in our spiritual practice. Most of us have romantic ideas–‘I’m bad now but one day, when I change, I’ll be good.”

-Chogyam Trungpa, “Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism.” Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, 1987. Pg. 237.

Power of the Powerless, Vaclav Havel (1978)

“Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them. As the repository of something suprapersonal and objective, it enables people to deceive their conscience and conceal their true position and their inglorious modus vivendi, both from the world and from themselves. It is a very pragmatic but, at the same time, an apparently dignified way of legitimizing what is above, below, and on either side. It is directed toward people and toward God. It is a veil behind which human beings can hide their own fallen existence, their trivialization, and their adaptation to the status quo.”

—Vaclav Havel, “Power of the Powerless.”

Conquering Evil

“Evil can not be conquered within this world. It can only be resisted in oneself.”

Kung Fu (television series), Master Po

The world is full of people that look at the world they live in and see evil all around them. It’s easy to point to outliers, such as Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a., the Unabomber, to illustrate the point. But, looking at individuals is a good way to only look at trees and miss the forest.

The fundamental problem is that every human being has evil tendencies, and they live with other human beings that use those tendencies to increase the group’s chances of survival in a world with limited resources. Hunter-gatherer groups protect sources of water for their groups exclusive use from other hunter-gathers. With the advent of agriculture, surpluses allowed a larger population, which could then take control over the sources of water in their area from hunter-gatherers. Larger societies took from smaller ones, and killed and consolidated with outside groups. Human history is simply a chronicle of the rise and fall of these groups, whether it be tribe, city or modern nation.

How then can these tendencies be eradicated? How can evil be fought?

The first step is to transcend the notion that our group is somehow special, whether this idea is talked about as “The Chosen People”, the “twice-born” of Hinduism, the “Elect”, or any of the other many permutations of this idea of a special group that is above others. This kind of thinking allows for a double standard of morality, where the in-group is treated one way and the out-group is treated in another.

The second step is to realize that all human beings are the same, with capacities for both good and evil. Evil is the product of desires to get the things we want or need. We need to turn and face this tendency in ourselves and make a choice. That’s the only evil we have any hope of eradicating, and realistically, most people can only hope to reign in their evil tendencies, particularly in a cultural environment that promotes them.

The Impossibility of Comparative Consequences

A calculus of comparative consequences is impossible. Every effort to develop one is a process of rationalizing bias.

Consequentialism assumes, based on experience or thought experiments, that it can assess the consequences of a particular act. This position implies that one act causes consequences. These consequences can be evaluated, reduced to some kind of common metric, and then compared to other actions and their consequence to determine which action is best.

At the most broad philosophical level, consequentialism raises the problem of causality and induction. The problem of causality is one can never be certain that one event causes another. The problem of induction comes up when one makes assertions about circumstances where one has no experience by assuming that they are similar to circumstances where one does have experience, e.g., actual events are similar to counter-factual ones.

Therein lies sufficient grounds to reject consequentialism. One can never be certain consequences were caused by a particular act. Further, even if one wanted to pretend that one can draw a line between an act and a consequence, there is no way to be certain one is accounting for all relevant consequences.

Suppose it is possible that one can draw a line between an act and a consequence and that all morally relevant consequences can be accounted for. Consequentialism also claims that it can compare among the many different possible outcomes and determine which is “best” according to some criteria.

This assumes two things. One, it assumes that not only can one account for all relevant consequences in circumstances that actually occurred, but one can also do so in evaluating the consequences of actions that were not taken. This is the problem of induction, where one assumes that some possible course of action would happen with consequences similar to what one has experienced in the past.

Consequentialists defend against the problem of induction by saying that consequentialism is not intended as a guide for decision making but as a standard for evaluating consequences after the fact. Yet, the standard still requires making comparative judgments about acts that did not happen, which is as impossible to know as knowing all consequences in advance before acting. Making this distinction does not help them.

Pretend for a moment that even if one’s sense of consequences is not perfect, it is enough to draw useful moral distinctions. Now, suppose one has a billion US dollars, and one decides to invest it developing a space elevator. Based on consequentialist moral standards, which out of the infinite number of ways or combination of ways one could have spent that money is best? For example, it could have been used to provide clean water and food to people starving or suffering from food insecurity, eliminate disease through vaccination programs, train physicians, etc. Ultimately, any assertion of which way is best is based on a value judgment that comes before the consequences. If one thinks eliminating suffering right now is more important, then one is going to think an action aimed at addressing the here and now, such as alleviating hunger, is preferable to a space elevator even if, in the long run, the space elevator may have better consequences.

Consider the Trolley problem, where a trolley is out of control and going to kill five people and you only have the option to throw a switch which will turn the trolley down a track to kill one person. What is the “best” outcome? Aside from moral questions about the responsibilities of the actor and committing harm, how does one value the lives in this and other hypothetical scenarios? If these five people being saved are a criminal gang, then it seems difficult to argue that saving them would result in the most happiness for everyone. Or, perhaps the person being sacrificed is a once in a generation talent of some kind and the other five bring less happiness than this gifted person on one’s consequential scale. On the other hand, perhaps the criminal gang will eventually turn into good people that bring better net consequences than the person that was sacrificed. The only thing that is certain is that all lives do not have equal consequences, and it is impossible to tell what they are if some of those consequences remain in the future, and every action of current moral import will have future implications.

So, what is consequentialism really doing when it says it is evaluating consequences, when in fact it cannot? It is cherry picking moral options and which consequences are relevant. If one dictates the premises, one can dictate the conclusion. It’s a system for rationalizing bias. At base, consequentialism is a morality market with only one buyer determining the value (consequences) of different products (actions). And, like any market, there are externalities that are not factored into the price that are borne by society at large or are simply ignored. It’s a terrible basis for a morality.