July 24, 2007


“This....this isn't real?” Neo.

“What is real? How do you define real? If you're talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” Morpheus

“What is The Matrix? Control. The Matrix is a computer generated dream world, built to keep us under control…” Morpheus

My slogan card for the day, written by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, is "Reguard all dharmas as dreams." The lower case dharma denotes phenomena, rather than the upper case Dharma which is used to refer to the Buddha’s teaching, the Truth or Law of Buddhism.

This Law is not like the law which we as human beings make to regulate our societies and keep ourselves safe, but more like a Law of physics, existing indisputably (though we’ll argue about it anyway) whether we are aware of it or not. This lower case dharma is the phenomenal world, which obscures the upper case Dharma, the Laws of the Universe, so to speak. Even then, it is not the dharma which confuses, but our minds and our perceptions of it. Therefore, we must observe all phenomena as if we were in a dream, a place where our mind does not distinguish reality from delusion.

Even when were are aware of the existence of delusions, even with our malas of 108 beads to remind us of the 108 types of delusions from which humans suffer, we cannot always see the delusions. It is like knowing that air exists, but only noticing it occasionally, when a strong wind blows, when we change altitudes, when our throat closes off and we can’t breath, when our tires are flat. Then we notice the air, even though we can’t really see it, or pinpoint where or what it is, we at least know it is there.

Similarly we only notice our delusions when given specific cause. I notice them when my equanimity falters in the face of hormones. Or when a friend points out a gross assumption I have made in my continuing effort to connect the dots and make my world into a coherent picture. Or when I hear someone describing the atomic connections of our DNA and I realize we really don’t know anything about how life works, how we work. According to atomic theory, the entire universe is just atoms bumping into atoms bumping into atoms, which rules out any possibility of free will at all. Or is that idea just another delusion?

We like to think we are in control. I like to drive. When I was a teenager, I had reoccurring nightmares of being killed in an out of control car. I conquered this phobia by always being in control, always driving, never letting anyone besides my family and a few very close friends drive. Slowly I have come to realize those dreams are not premonitions, but reflections. When I am feeling particularly out of control of my life, pushed around by the system, by the universe, my dreams reflect that. But how much in control was I ever?

“Do you believe in fate, Neo?” Morpheus.

“No.” Neo.

“Why?” Morpheus.

“Because I don't like the idea that I'm not in control of my own life,” Neo.

The desire for control is based on two assumptions: a) that we need to control our lives, for safety, security, happiness, or any other reason, and b) that we can control our lives.

The question is: Does it matter?


Kelley said...

"According to atomic theory, the entire universe is just atoms bumping into atoms bumping into atoms, which rules out any possibility of free will at all."

Actually, atomic theory is leaning more and more to a theory of consciousness that controls all events on a cellular and atomic level... which is good news if you're meditating and putting positive energy out there... it means it isn't all chaos, we shape reality.
Just my thoughts. Nice blog- I enjoyed it :)

J Dart said...


I've been slowly reading through your posts. It is great to realize that there are others out there that feel and think and understand in many of the same ways or directions that I do. I am from IL and too a vegetarian (but i eat it when its made for me) and i just finished up a masters in anthropology in australia, and now i'm back home with really no current direction. southwest seems to be calling me, but i'll see. anyway, just wanted to say hey and tell you that its your writing is really well written. good luck.

jazz said...

It is precisely because those atoms are bumping into one another that we actually do have control - just as we have control over our breath and our reactions to experiences, good and bad.

Perhaps "influence" is a better word. We certainly influence one another - or none of us would ever have converted to Buddhism. And science has shown that we have influence over those atoms, too.

Robin said...

"The desire for control is based on two assumptions: a) that we need to control our lives, for safety, security, happiness, or any other reason, and b) that we can control our lives."

Interesting statement. Is b) implying all or nothing control? May be we could control or attempt to control some portions of our lives, at sometimes, being aware in a general way, that all control all the time is not possible?

Should we ask if exerting (or trying to exert) control- for example, on certain people, or in certain situations, or in certain places- is necessary, indeed, obligatory on one's part?(if you are a leader in a dangerous situation, teacher in a classroom, parent of a child,....)

Looking at it in a deeper way, should we give up any attempt at anything at all since nothing any of us will ever do matters naught because all livig things will die eventually, or should we gamely try our very best in meeting our obligations,-either assumed, assigned or imposed on us-because that is what we are supposed to do, that is the only thing we can do?

dolores thomas said...

So far away... yet so close. I share most of your interests, love the way you write, and feel some sort of "spirit" that makes me ineffably comfortable with what you say. Maybe I'm looking for somethnig similar, though on a different - much more architectural - track. Up to now, balance sounds pretty good. My blog's in spanish, but you might want to take a look... www.esto-lootro.blogspot.com

Kirti Pandey said...

Control is essential and justified as long as it is our own actions and thoughts that we try to master. True Dharma, which originates from its parent religion Hinduism, is about being fair and just to all as well as being focussed on your own real inner self.
As long as you seek to drive your own car, nothing is bad. It is attempting to control others' thoughts and actions that brings grief and misery to all.

TK said...

I stumbled on this blog through an NYT article...

To a buddhist, there is no such a thing as free will. If there was, there would be self. And clinging to the notion of free will is same as clinging to the idea of self and existence.

The modern neuroscientists tend to agree that there is no free will. They say all our actions are already decided by firings of neurons, and the thinking part of our brain deludes itself as having the control.

If you think about it, only things that is truly free are random things. But nobody other than psychotics are random. And psychotics are not free.

Monica said...

All these comments are great! You keep the wheels in my head whirring along.

I like Jazz’s idea of “influence” rather than control. I am familiar with more recent atomic/quantum theories which believe one’s will can influence reactions at an atomic level, as I believe Kelley is as well.

To Robin: I do not believe b) implies an all or nothing idea of control, however, I believe we like to think that way. We like to believe we can control all aspects of our lives, even though we might intellectually concede this is not so, I don’t think we actually operate that way. I think we hide from the idea that there are things we cannot control because they are scary. We are afraid that if we start to tally up all the things we can not control, the list will grow to be so large it will appear that there is, in fact, nothing we do control. However, neither is the truth.

The idea of attempting to control others is an ongoing discussion I have with a friend of mine here at the mountain center who works at Shotoku, the children’s center. She works with the older kids (9-11) and expressed very real and valid issues with coercion, control, and force. We have not resolved these issues, nor do I think we are likely to do over the summer. All I can say on that subject is that all situations are different and we simply have to do the best we can as they arise.

The description of Mahakala comes up when I think of this kind of parent-child control. We have a statue of four-armed Mahakala in the Stupa and it is said that he exhibit’s a wrathful protective energy which is most like that of a mother. A mother may slap the hand of a child reaching for a fire or yank them forcefully out of the path of an oncoming car. These actions are not gentle and may provoke a sense of wrath, but they are first and foremost protective.

Finally, I would not give in to nihilism. I do not necessarily see the connection between “no control” and “nothing matters.” I see where others might make that connection, but I believe it is a fallacy. Then again, I think I’m probably optimistic beyond all sanity. I figure if we really don’t have any control, then we might as well be just as happy about that as anything else. No reason to “give up,” that sounds too much like misery to me and I’m just not that ambitious. :-) Sorry if I seem to be making light of your comments, but I find cynicism, nihilism, and irony as little more than good sources of humor. (I love de-motivational posters.)

Delores: thanks for your comment I may have one of my bilingual friends help me with your blog. I do tend to think about a lot of this in relation to architecture, but I am much less successful at articulating that and I wanted to keep this blog more Dharmic than Arch-speaky. Glad to know there are others out there that connect the dots along the same lines, though.

Kirti: I don’t know enough about Hiduism to really respond, but I would just like to point out that I don’t believe I have a “real inner self” to focus on. I have a mind, certainly, (though I often think that’s just a figment of my imagination) which I continue to work with and learn to utilize and control for the benefit of myself and others, but I think the idea of a “real inner self” defies the nature of non-inherent existence. Of course, I could be wrong…

Thanks again to all! Keep them coming!

Monica said...

TK, I have never heard it said in Buddhist liturature or by any Buddhist teacher that there is no free will. Can you reference this?


TK said...

There isn't explicit declaration of no free will that I'm aware of. But, in formulation of the doctrine of no self, Buddha speaks, in Digha Nikaya, "...if feelings were your self, you would not (choose to) suffer. ... if mind was your self, you would not suffer..." This to me is a formulation of no free will as well as no self.

Any case, what is free will without self? It's a lot like the sound of one hand clapping... Something to meditate on, I suppose.

Monica said...

TK, I do not believe from this scripture you can infer that we have no free will. I think itstead it is simply that the things we think of as ourself are not that at all. Our feelings are not our 'self' and our mind is not our 'self.'

To say that we do not choose to suffer, and yet we suffer anyway, may indicate a lack of free will. However, this also invalidates all other Buddhist teachings which state we and we alone are the cause and relief of all our own suffering. If our suffering is not by our choice, then it is entirely external to us. If this is the case, Buddhahood, or freedom from all suffering, is an impossibility, thereby negating all the Dharma.

What is free will without self? I would say it is free will. If our feelings and our mind are not our 'self' than neither is our will our 'self.' No-self does not equal no-(free)will, because self does not equal (free)will.

Oy! I think my head hurts now!

TK said...

The way I read it, the doctrine of no self says there is no such thing as self, not just what we think of as self is not us. It's expounded both as unsubstantiality of what we call "self" and nonexistence of "will" (as to volitional formation which is a mere conditioning) in my reading.

I'd disagree that cessation of suffering is impossibility if there is no free will. The question of free will is rather a sophistic one that has no bearing on the cessation of suffering. Whether it exist or not, the future is guaranteed to be unknowable and therefore the question of free will absolutely doesn't matter to mortals bound to this realm. (To me, it's no different than the question of whether Tathagatha exists or not exist after his death.) And, once you speak of responsibility, as christians often do, you have to assume the existence of self. I don't think there is any way of getting around it.

Monica said...

How I always understood it (granted not well) is that the concept of no-self is an extension of the concept of emptiness. All things are empty as in they are empty of inherent existence, therefore the self is also empty in this way. Our belief in a self is predicated on the idea of a self which inherently exists.

In saying what the self is not, the sutras do not say that the things which the self is not do not themselves exist. If the self is not the mind, that does not mean the mind does not exist. Therefore, even if there is no self at all, there is still mind. Likewise, I treat will similar to mind. I still do not understand how no-self = no-will. They do not correlate. Can you site examples of any commentaries on the sutras or other teaching which explain this?

I agree that the question of free will may be just as moot a point as the questions of the origin of the universe - unknowable and ultimately only good at driving people bonkers. But I like bonkers, so no worries there.

As for responsibility, I don't think that assumes the existence of self either. I think that merely assumes the existence of consequences, which is rather karmic. I don't think the existence or non-existence of self is an if A, then B scenario.

TK said...

Unlike the question of free will, the question of self is an important one because the notion that there is such a thing as self leads to suffering.

That said, I also enjoy occasional academic discussion just for the fun of it, so here it goes.

Mind is merely an unsubstantial (passive) phenomenon in buddhist's thinking. (Descarte may disagree, butI think he was wrong). Free will, on the other hand, requires an active agent which should be substantial enough to be called self. Hence my claim that existence of free will should lead to existence of self.