In-depth series of teachings on The Jewel Ornament of Liberation and how practitioners in today’s world might approach traditional texts written hundreds of years ago.
The Suffering of Samsara (pt 2)Download
Review of the first two types of suffering; the third type of suffering and the six realms; how a society’s cosmology (medieval or modern) reflect its psychology; how we experience the six realms in daily life (anger as hot hell, hate as cold hell, etc.); how the development of numbering systems impacted mythic descriptions; perception of time and the realms; personal values and social norms; the four major and four minor sufferings of the human realm. The Jewel Ornament of Liberation by Gampopa, commentary on Chapter 5.
Ken: Okay! Is this twelve or thirteen? I think it’s the thirteenth class, January 15th, 2008. This evening we’re going to focus on the six realms. In case you’re wondering why the flip chart and everything; it’s a math class tonight but I have reasons for it. I know there are all those groans, I love it! Okay.
For whatever reason, my own teacher, Kalu Rinpoche, greatly enjoyed teaching about the six realms, walking us through, time and time again, the sufferings of the hell realms and the hungry ghosts and the animals and the humans, titans and god realms. And you may notice in the descriptions here; the two realms that are given the most weight are which? Pardon?
Student: The hell realms?
Ken: Hell realms is one of them. Anybody read this over before?
Student: Hungry ghost.
Ken: I think it’s more the human realm. He really goes into a lot of detail about birth and old age. You know, [Wryly] The ten inconceivable sufferings of old age.[Laughter]
Student: He didn’t live in L.A.!
Ken: No, where there are a hundred inconceivable sufferings! The photographers stop coming around. The make-up artist says, “It’s hopeless!” The camera man says, “We’ll have to have a sharper focus than that!” [Laughter].
Ken: Okay. From last week, we talked about the three kinds of suffering. The suffering or struggle—whatever term you want to use—the suffering of existence, which is basically experienced ordinarily as a kind of neutrality. It’s not experienced explicitly as suffering, but just a kind of slight sense that things aren’t quite right.
And then the suffering of change, which arises out of desire or attraction. And now we’re going to talk about the suffering of suffering, which arises out of aversion, when things impinge on us. It’s a way that we react to stuff that arises.
Now there are all kinds of translation problems in here. And there’s also all kinds of cultural problems. The Tibetan terms—well, let’s just review the six realms very quickly.
Ken: You have the three lower realms, and the three higher realms, which Guenther translates as evil and happy. It would be more in keeping with the Tibetan to say these were the bad places to be born and the good places to be born. So it’s not about evil and happiness, which aren’t even really comparable but subjectively speaking these are the bad places because it’s just untold suffering and unremitting suffering, and these are the good places because at least you get a break from time to time.
So I’m going to turn to Khenpo Gyaltsen. He just calls them the higher and lower realms, which is the other designation. So the lower realms: the hell realms, the hungry ghost and the animal realms.
Tibetan cosmology, which was derived from Indian cosmology, looked like this: There was a mountain—please excuse my lack of artistic sense. [Drawing a picture] This was Mount Meru, which is usually associated with Mount Kailash in the northwest of India, west of Tibet. Many people have been there. And it’s a four-sided mountain. You’ll notice in this that I’ve drawn it so that it’s opening upwards.
Now, if I remember correctly, this sat on a number of, you might say, platforms, like this. [Drawing] I can’t remember how many. And they’re surrounded by rings of oceans and mountains.
You also had the various continents and subcontinents; I can’t remember all their shapes now. Ah, I’ve got the shapes wrong, so I won’t worry about the shapes now. There’s one back there, behind Mount Meru, and one over here, and then above here you had Indra’s Palace right at the top of this mountain and then you had seventeen form realms and four formless. Then all through here and mixed up here you had the animal realm, then underneath that—underneath was the hungry ghost. Underneath that you had the hot hells over here and the cold hells, here. These were divided into eight levels each. There were a few other things, but we won’t worry about those.
First off, what is this? It’s a map of the world. This is India. This was probably Madagascar. This is Sri Lanka. A very crude map. And this was China and those funny things over there, and this was Africa, and this was northern Asia. But in these times, all of this was really felt to exist. The sun and moon went around Mount Meru like this, and they were fairly good astronomers. And that was the picture.
So, when you were going around from life to life, you could be born here or you could be born here. The titans lived here, and the gods lived up here. They were always fighting, here. And if you wanted to know why was the sky blue, It’s because the side of Mount Meru was blue on this side, and its reflection made the sky blue and the ocean blue. Over here it was red, over here it was yellow and back there it was green. So you had different colored skies in those directions. This was the map which explained the world. It was their version of the Ptolemaic Universe.
That’s one way to understand it. It’s how it’s often described. There were debates about how far down was the deepest level of hell, and so forth. Which were roughly comparable to medieval arguments about how many angels could you put on the head of a pin, which actually was a very important theological debate, but I can’t remember why. You can look it up in Wikipedia or something. It sounds trivial, but there was an actual important theological basis behind that.
Ken: This, of course, is not our cosmology. A friend of mine says, A culture’s cosmology reflects their psychology. So if we look at this, this is all about emotional reaction, because if we look at this in terms of mythic language: all of these different realms are coded language, coded descriptions, for how we experience the world when we are consumed or in the grip of one or other of these reactive emotions. So when you are feeling above it all, you’re here in the god realm. And when you are really angry, we say: he is burning with anger, his red-hot anger. The hungry ghosts is about greed, where you just feel there isn’t enough, and so forth.
Ken: Now, I have a question for you. Here’s our cosmology. We have the sun, affectionately referred to as sol. At quite extraordinary distances—I can’t draw this possibly to scale—we have the various planets and we have Earth out here. Actually, Earth would be like that on this scale. So there’s absolutely a great deal of empty space. If we expand this out and go into galactic things, we have all of these galaxies all over the place, you know, and billions and billions of miles between each one. We measure it in light years which is a very long distance. Even within these things, they’re 500 light years across or something ridiculous, which is a ridiculous distance.
But the cosmology comes down to all of these spheres—stars and planets and things—suspended in infinite space.
Now, the psychology: well the question I posed myself is, “What is the psychology behind this cosmology?”
Cara: Separation? Independence?
Ken: Wow, you got there quickly! That only took me five years to get to that! How did you get there so quickly? Hand Cara a microphone. Cara says, “Separation, independence.”
Cara: The western psychology is more based on individuality and differentiation and separation.
Cara: and the eastern mindset is a lot more geared towards collectiveness and a collective consciousness.
Ken: Well, that’s very true. But I puzzled over this question for a long time and eventually came to the same conclusion.
Cara: Get raised by psychologists.
Ken: Ah. I did not have that good fortune, slash curse! [Laughter] Anybody else? This make sense to you? This is a cosmology in which people feel that they exist independently and are separated with huge distances with no real possibility of communication.
In our cosmology, how far is the nearest star other than the sun?
Student: Four light years.
Ken: Four light years. In Alpha Centauri. Do you know long it takes to travel that? Hundreds of years. Even if you manage to ramp up to the speed of light it still takes four years! And nothing can travel faster than the speed of light—Star Trek, notwithstanding. Pat? Take a microphone.
Pat: I also think that our cosmology is that we are the center of the universe. That even though we are that tiny little thing, we tend to think of ourselves as the only thing that exists.
Ken: I think that’s true. I think that’s actually a carryover from the creation myths in the Abrahamic religions.
Pat: Well, I think it carries down to the psyche. It’s like, we are the only thing that exists. Therefore when it comes to the individual it’s all about us. So, it kinda goes from us as a planet to us as an individual.
Ken: I think you could look at it that way, yeah. But my main point here is this idea that our psychology is one of separate, individual selves which communication between which is virtually non-existent. It’s rather a sad psychology.
But in a certain sense, it certainly accounts for the extraordinary despair that arose in the twentieth century with existentialism and so-forth. That’s one thing that I want to point out: we’re actually working with two very different cosmologies and the consequence of that is two very, very different psychologies.
The map of the six realms is very useful to us, because it describes how we experience the world when we are in the grip of these reacting emotions. The reason I was presenting it in terms of cosmologies is that we tend to think that our cosmology is the one true cosmology. No, it’s only a way of interpreting our experience. It’s a very powerful one, because it explains many things, and one of the things that make this possible is the law of gravity that Newton discovered back in the seventeenth century which makes all kinds of things possible, like satellites and global communications and things. But it doesn’t necessarily mean—and this may sound very radical—that it’s how things actually are. It’s how we experience things. We find it useful when we want to do certain kinds of things.
In terms of waking up, Western cosmology is not particularly useful. Susan?
Susan: I’m a little confused, although I feel like I’m about to walk into something, but…
Ken: Come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly! [Laughter] Does anybody know that nursery rhyme? What happened to all the good ones? [Laughter]
Susan: Western cosmology, the way you’ve illustrated it and explained it, seems to be based on scientific observation.
Ken: Absolutely, yeah.
Susan: Are you saying there’s also a subjectivity in that? And that it’s not really objective?
Ken: Yes, I am. Science has done a wonderful propaganda job here. And I’m trained in math and physics, so I’m not speaking out of ignorance here. It’s a propaganda job. The underlying assumption, and what defines science as science, is that it only works with measurable quantities. Because, if you can’t measure it, then you can’t talk about it, you can’t build a model, etc., a mathematical model (we’ll get to the math part later).
You remember, I think it was during the Money and Value workshop, I talked about frames? The frame that science presents is that only that which can be measured exists. And if you take that as the frame, then you get the scientific view, and from that point of view only those things are real. Anything which can’t be measured has no value, in the scientific view.
That’s only one way to look at human experience. To say that it’s the one true way to look at our experience is the propaganda job. That’s why science—and many people have written about this—is the dominant religion of our age. Because that’s an article of faith: only that which can be measured exists. Fundamentalism is the reaction to that religion. It is also a modern phenomenon that arises because of the imposition or the attempt to impose the scientific view, the rational view as the one true view.
There isn’t one true view, there are just different frames. When you look at things from the scientific point of view, all kinds of weird things happen. Among them, is the undermining of confidence in your own experience. This goes way back.
Aristotle dropped a feather and a ball. And the feather goes down like this—and the ball goes chunk! So, He came to certain conclusions from that.
Fast-forward a few hundred years, and Galileo drops a very light ball and a very heavy ball from the Tower of Pisa—supposedly. No one knows if this actually happened, but it’s the story. They both fall at exactly the same rate. Even that’s suspect, because he’d have to have a really good stopwatch to time it in that frame. They didn’t have those kinds of clocks back then.
If you are able to incorporate other factors and things like that—because Aristotle couldn’t incorporate things like air resistance. That wasn’t a concept back then. That’s what makes the feather fall more slowly than the ball.
If you’re able to get rid of those factors and abstract things down to their very simple forms, which is exactly what mathematics does when you do mathematical modeling, then you get very different descriptions—non-intuitive descriptions—but they work much better! But the effects of those are that you undermine confidence in what you actually observe.
Now fast-forward to the 20th century. In order to have a valid thing, you have to be trained in a certain field. You have to be an expert in that field, trained. The whole idea of knowledge becomes: that which is ordained as true by a certain body of people according to certain rules, and not your own experience.
So you can have psychologists telling you how you actually feel! And why you’re doing things. That doesn’t feel right, things like that. And that’ll stand up in court against your own testimony. That’s just one area that it comes up in. This has been very, very confusing to people. So people will accept an expert’s opinion about their own situation even when it contradicts their own experience. I think everyone’s encountered that. Art, do you have a comment here?
Art: I just want to make sure I understand what you’re saying. I understand and agree that from a scientific perspective if you can’t measure it than it doesn’t exist. I think that’s their mindset.
Ken: And so they seek a way to measure whatever they want to study. That’s the first thing you have got to establish metrics.
Art: But that doesn’t necessarily negate the realm of measurement, for example. In other words—Alpha Centauri is four light-years away. It’s not in the glove compartment of my car or—
Ken: Depends on your perspective.
Ken: Well, what are you trying to hold onto here, Art?
Art: I don’t think I’m trying to hold onto anything.
Ken: Oh yes you are.
Art: Well, maybe. Here’s how I viewed what you said. The map, as we currently understand the universe—I don’t necessarily know that that’s an outcome of our collective psychology, as it might be a Rorschach test, where we see the measurements and we project on it that we’re separate. I mean somebody else could look at that and go, “It’s something else completely different.” The raw measurements of that are what they are.
Ken: [Laughing] Could I borrow a piece of paper, blank piece of paper? Thank you.
Student: I’ve never believed those distances. How do they know?
Ken: Well, there’s a fairly complicated way of determining them. And according to those, their distances are absolutely accurate.
Student: Yeah, but accurate according to what?
Ken: Well, that’s what we’re getting to.
Cara: Not the paper again!?
Ken: Yeah, the paper again. I’m sorry. This comes from Trungpa Rinpoche. [Drawing]
Student: He’s like that Marilyn Monroe, Einstein thing. Joe D’Maggio, Marilyn Monroe—have you seen that?
Ken: No, I haven’t.
Student: Oh, it’s Joe D’Maggio, Marilyn Monroe and—who’s the third one? Come on, you know who I’m talking about. They all get together and explain the theory, the law of relativity.
Ken: [Laughing] That sounds fun. Is it on YouTube or anything?
Student: Yeah, it was turned into a movie.
Ken: Okay. Gesturing to paper] Big. Small.
Ken: Big, Small.
Ken: So what is it, Big or small?
Art: It’s relative to what you hold up next to it.
Ken: Thus, with all measurements.
Student: Okay, but how do we know what Earth really—
Ken: This is the point. There isn’t any absolute reference point.
Ken: That is what is behind your question, Art. In no way am I saying I can reach out and touch Alpha Centauri. I’m too thoroughly conditioned in this culture to do so! [Laughter] That’s one way of putting it.
My point in presenting this is that just as the six realms are a frame, a way of looking at our experience, which has certain uses, so our scientific way is a way of looking at our experience which has certain uses, very powerful uses. I love technology, I enjoy my computer, and that’s all made possible by that particular framework. But, it’s very important if we’re going to be awake to recognize these things as frameworks, and that the scientific way of interpreting experience is only one way of interpreting experience and understanding experience. Because there’s all kinds of things that we talk about here which don’t come under the scientific point of view and hence don’t exist in that framework.
Art: Got it.
Ken: Okay. Cara, you had a question.
Cara: It’s kind of a jumble, but just relative to what you wrote…never mind.
Ken: Go for it!!
Cara: Well, you’re talking about like medieval models of the universe. So what you drew—for those of you playing at home. [Laughter] If you get a piece a paper—
Ken: I guess I’ll have to do a quick sketch of this and throw it up on FaceBook, won’t I?
Ken: Oh great.
Cara: So you have the sun as the dominant body, and then the earth as the smaller, outlying body. And you’re talking about that influencing our cultural psychology.
Ken: That way of looking at things influenced—
Cara: But when this would have been developed, this map of the six realms that you’ve drawn up, more than likely in the West, we still would have been with the flat earth or “earth is the dominant property in the universe” mindset. So that is a much better example of how our psychology has evolved, both scientifically, I think, and spiritually.
Ken: Oh, I think that’s a good point. So you’re saying I should have done a comparison within the culture rather than cross-culture?
Cara: No, I’m just saying, just the evolution, the strict evolution—because it’s only a recent, within the last 500 years phenomenon—that we’ve actually decided that we’re not—
Ken: Yes, we’ve moved from being geocentric to heliocentric to no-center. And that has, as you say, been a rapid evolution. Yep. Randye.
Randye: I guess my objection is making that leap from cosmology to psychology, because initially, if you recall, the first astronomers were Chinese, which is an Eastern culture, collectivist culture, not an individualistic culture.
Randye: They operated very much on an integrated model of each individual fitting into the culture as a part of a whole. And they were the first astronomers, not Westerners.
Ken: Yes, but let’s be careful here. I don’t know what Chinese astronomical theory is, but the Assyrians were astronomers, very good astronomers. They had very precise measurements of things. But they never thought that it was the Earth moving around an object. It was the center of things and all of those things were moving around the Earth. So it was a very geocentric model, like the Ptolemaic which evolved out of that system. The only reason that there was a move from the geocentric and the Ptolemaic models to the heliocentric was because Tycho Brahe and after him, Copernicus and then Galileo. Tycho Brahe’s measurements were so precise they could no longer be explained—or they could be explained but it produced a very complicated theory. And one of the principles of science is that you only use a theory which is complicated [sic], and by shifting it from the geocentric to the heliocentric, you got a much, much simpler theory.
Randye: It’s more parsimonious.
Ken: Yes, it’s Occam’s Razor.
Randye: But I thought you were referring to the whole galactic model where you have individual bodies that are separate, representing whatever individual beings or individual psyches.
Ken: Yeah, well, if we look at our galactic model, if you want to interpret it psychologically you have these galaxies which are millions of light-years apart, and within each of these are hundreds of millions of stars, but even those are so far apart that they can’t really communicate, even though they influence each other very significantly. To me, it’s all about action at a distance and no real communication or connection.
Randye: The influences are inexorable.
Ken: Yeah, but the influences are inexorable, exactly. I don’t want to spend much longer on that. I just want to offer this as a framework. We are so in the thrall of the scientific worldview and the rational worldview that we often do not recognize how thoroughly it permeates our thinking. The dominant model of western science and neuropsychology and everything, is that awareness is an epiphenomenon, at best an emergent phenomenon of neurochemical activity.
Okay, so I’m sitting here and I’m just this—fluky product. And everything you’re hearing is just this fluky product of chemicals and electricity flying around in me. It has no meaning! Zero!
But that’s not your experience, and that’s not my experience. This is what I mean about the scientific worldview undermining our experience. It leads to other things like the binding problem: what makes our experience my experience and so-forth. But I don’t want to get into all of that this evening.
Returning to the six realms—
Ken: What I asked you to do over the last week was to look at the experience of these six realms and see if you could identify any of the descriptions that resonated with you in particular emotional states. Let’s hear from a few people. I hope you had a chance to do that. Did any of you find anything which reminded you? Susan. You’re wearing the expression that says you did! So, have a microphone. Be generous.
Susan: Well, from time to time, when I remember, it’s actually interesting for me, as I go through my day, to note what realm comes up. What realm I can label my experience as it occurs. So that’s pretty interesting. It depends upon what’s going on, but there’s animal realm, and, to my surprise, titan.
Ken: [Laughing] To your surprise? Okay! Diane. There you are, slaving for this big corporation, right in the animal realm, I suspect!
Diane: That, too, but I noticed that there were different realms for work, and different realms for my personal life that seemed to pop up.
Ken: What operates in your work and what operates in your personal life?
Diane: Well, at work, it was either the animal realm, or actually the god realm. You know, things were going quite well.
Ken: You were just above it all, and just wished everybody else did things they way you did!
Ken: And then everything would be fine!
Diane: Yeah, because I’m right and that’s just the way it is! [Laughter]
Ken: We’re learning our lines!
Diane: In my personal life, I had a very interesting experience with the titan realm. I was talking with a friend of mine and I started to feel this feeling like I wasn’t—it’s hard to describe—it was like, “there’s something wrong with me.” This nagging little “something wrong with me.” I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. It was just very odd. The more I explored it, though, it was actually anger.
Ken: Umm hmm. That’s right.
Diane: So. That was interesting!
Ken: Not fun, but interesting, Okay!
Chuck: Well, the “ten inconceivable sufferings of ageing” sounds like something I could think about.
Ken: We’ll get to that in a minute, Chuck.
Chuck: The human realm, I think.
Ken: You enjoy things and you work hard to enjoy things and you enjoy them and then you work hard again to enjoy them.
Chuck: Right and things sort of dissipate and you have to work hard again.
Ken: Okay, alright. Anybody over here? Diane? Anybody over here?
Ken: You live in all of them.
Student: Well, the hell realm—there’s so many! It’s like there’s just one door and you go in another one and you go in another one. And I read the hell realms and there were like pools—
Ken: You recognize yourself in these realms?
Student: Well, I think the hungry ghost in a way, more than—I always see that painting, or maybe it’s been described in another place—where the throat is tiny and you can’t get any food. Where is that from?
Ken: Oh, there’s all kinds of descriptions of that. It’s in here.
Student: There’s a painting, where I’ve actually seen that throat. Somewhere. It’s like a beak and it’s a really skinny beak with a huge mouth. Almost like the famous painting. It’s not The Scream but I’ve seen it. It’s like a beak and a huge mouth. And it has a tiny, little skinny neck.
Ken: But, you said greed. I don’t see it as greed. I see it as you get a moment of satisfaction then you kind of go, “Okay, that’s done, now what’s the next problem?”
Ken: That’s more human realm. In the hungry ghost realm there’s never any sense of satisfaction. That’s the difference between those two realms. If you get to enjoy something, even if it’s only fleeting, that’s human realm. But in the hungry ghost realm, you’re grasping, grasping, grasping. Even when you get something, you don’t enjoy it, your greed is so great.
Student: Sounds almost the same.
Ken: Okay. That’s the distinction. Anybody else? Diane?
Diane: I was trying to figure out which of the hell realms it was. It turns out it was the number one all pervasive suffering—no, no—the suffering of change.
Diane: That’s in the hell realm, right?
Ken: No. The suffering of change is the second. All the realms are in the third: the suffering of suffering.
Ken: They are ways that when we are gripped by one or other of the six reactive emotions. In this particular map, that’s how we experience the world. So when we’re in the grip of anger then we experience the world in one of two ways.
I’m gonna run through them, just to be clear about these.
Ken: So when we’re in the grip of anger, then we experience the world in one of two ways. Either anger is felt as something burning, which is what gives rise to the descriptions of the hot hells. You can be burning from the inside and there can be different degrees of burning from the inside.
There’s the black thread hell where we experienced being sliced finely with searingly hot saws and razors! People can relate to anger that way. That’s what anger feels like, like they’re being sliced that way.
Or the crushing hells, being crushed by red hot rocks that are tumbling all around you and so forth. Some people experience as anger as just closing in and crushing them. But all of those have that image and quality of heat.
The other way that anger arises is as hatred. And hatred is cold, where anger is hot. That’s why you have the cold hells. When you hate something, it’s really difficult to move and change. Hot anger is much more volatile and can change. But hatred is far more difficult to change; it’s really in the system.
That’s why the image of being frozen, of ice. If you really hate something and somebody comes in with some evidence or some aspect of the situation you have to acknowledge so it means you have to change. It’s actually excruciatingly painful because you have to adjust within that hatred. That’s why it says: When you move the finger the skin cracks apart. That’s what it’s referring to.
Ken: You notice that in the descriptions of the hot hells and the cold hells, they have these rather large numbers.
Student: Like 20,000.
Ken: Oh, it goes way beyond 20,000. It like into the billions and trillions and so forth, describing the length of time, here. Yes, what is it? In the lowest hell, well, the second lowest hell, the seventh hell, it’s 53 quintillion years. That’s a long time!
Why these big numbers? They have similarly big numbers for the god realms, because they’re correlated. There are two points here. First I want to talk about why these big numbers, from a cultural perspective. And to do that, I have to give you a little math lesson.
Mathematics is all about notation. Okay, that’s a bit much, but notation’s crucial. When you start to count, how do you count? Suppose you’re sitting jail and all you’ve got is a rock to mark off the days. What do you do?
One [Draws a hash mark], and the next day passes and you go [Draws a hash mark], and the next day passes and you go [Draws a hash mark]. What do you do at this point? You cross them. Why do you cross them? Once you get too many, it’s hard to tell how many are there. You put that in, and there’s still five strokes there, but now it’s very easy to tell that there are five strokes. It’s a form of notation.
So, you’re still in jail. [Draws more sets of five lines]. But you run into the same problem after a while. So now what do you do? I mean, you have four bundles there, so what’s the system?
Well, the Greeks, they tried something. They tried naming numbers, letters. So, the first letters, alpha, beta, gamma, delta, epsilon, I can’t remember. That’s good enough for our purposes. So they tried this system. Now what happens here? This is basically what the Assyrians did. It was a bit more developed, and I’m going to come back to that.
Now let’s try a very simple mathematical equation. In our script, it looks like [Draws image]. How many of you are familiar with Excel? How many of you have had to program a spreadsheet with more than 26 columns? What happens after 26? The first 26 is just A, B, C D. What happens next?
Ken: It goes to AA.
Ken: It goes to AA. See? We get into the same problem. How do you call this? Now you get that. [Points to image]
Ken: So, developing notation for large numbers is difficult. Now the Romans, they were a little more sophisticated. You have I, and when you get up to this, you got V. And rather than doing that, you went, I, II, III and then you went IV, which showed you took one away, and then you got to V which is 5. This worked quite well. They could write down a lot of numbers.
Has anyone tried to do a addition or multiplication in Roman numerals? [Laughter] Addition’s not too bad, subtraction’s not too bad. It’s a bit messy. Do not try long division! It’s really hard!
Chuck: Even V plus V equals X isn’t very intuitive.
Ken: No, it isn’t! This is actually a problem. There’s another thing we need to look at.
Ken: This is a hell realm!
Ken: It’s gonna get worse, Patricia, it’s gonna get much worse. Anybody heard of 360? It’s a full turn. Why 360? Why not 100? Well this goes back to Assyria, again. [Drawing] Because in this system, how do you represent fractions?
Ken: A decimal point?
Ken: No, you don’t have a decimal point. How do you represent fractions here? You don’t. So that’s why you used a number like 12. What’s half of 12?
Ken: Nice whole number. What’s a quarter of 12?
Ken: Thank You! [Laughter] What’s a third of 12?
Ken: You see? Yes, a third of 12 is four. So you didn’t need to use fractions, because you had all of these things. Now if you said what’s a fifth of 12, you had a little bit of a problem. And fifths would often come in handy, so what’s 5 times 12?
Ken: There you are. Now this is why the clock dial has 60 minutes. This is where it comes from. And if you want to develop a system which really isn’t going to involve many fractions, six times 60 is 360. That’s where it comes from! This number base, the 12-base number, and the 60-base number system were developed to avoid fractions. Eventually, fractions were developed.
Let us go to India now. We’re going to our familiar Arabic numeral system. What are the numbers? Call ‘em out.
Ken: Start with one. It’s not too difficult! Two!
Students: Three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine.
Ken: Now what?
Student: We need a zero.
Ken: A what? What’s zero?
Students: Count your fingers!
Ken: Okay, yeah, you can count your fingers: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. But what do you do now? How do you represent a full hand? Well, I know how to represent a full hand. I’m gonna draw a hand! [Draws a hand].
Students: Don’t you need two hands?
Ken: Ah, but I can just say this stands for that. Okay? So now I have hand-one, that would be 11. And hand-two. Does this work very well? No, we’re back into the same problem as the Roman numerals.
So, what happened in India—I’m not sure when it happened—is they invented something. They invented this number [Draws a zero]. It’s one of the greatest inventions of human history. Why? Because now it became possible to write: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight Nine. Now we put a one and a zero because the zero stands for the ones. And the one stands for two hands; ten fingers. Now what happens?
I can have ten of the tens, just by adding another zero! And then another zero! And then another zero! How large a number can I construct?
Audience: You can just go on, and on and on.
Ken: And that’s exactly what they did!! That’s why you have all these big numbers here.
Patricia: They wanted a lot of hell realms.
Ken: Somebody discovered this and just they just went crazy, making up arbitrarily large numbers because they could. They couldn’t do it up to that point.
Student: This is just enthusiasm over the latest invention?
Ken: Exactly! They had to use metaphors, like this huge pile of sesame seeds, and one bird coming once a century to take one sesame [seed] away, and when that whole pile had disappeared, 80 bushels or something like that. The one I heard is: a pile of sesame seeds a mile high and two miles wide and once a century a bird comes and takes away one seed and when that pile has disappeared, one day of eternity has passed. [Laughter] Or, one day in the deepest hell realm has passed.
If you look in the Tibetan dictionary, which comes from this, they have lists of these, with each of these numbers having a different name, because somebody would name a number this and some would name a number that. This is what happens whenever there’s a new invention. This is what baroque music was. In baroque music, they discovered how to make instruments that could play all these different notes and they just went crazy making up all this wonderful music!
Now we have the same thing with technology: computers and all kinds of gadgets. It’s what people do.
Chuck: [unintelligible] one from your zero.
Ken: Yeah! Because now you can make arbitrarily large numbers and manipulate and write them down very easily.
Ken: But the reason this is very important to us is that there was also something else that the Indians introduced into Buddhism, more or less around the same period, which has a great deal of connection with zero.
Ken: Exactly!! Emptiness! [Laughter]
Which is one of the great things—the possibility of not being a thing. That, spiritually, has just a profound an impact and creates just as many possibilities, if not more, as the number zero does. And they’re very related concepts, which is why I wanted to introduce you to them. I hope that wasn’t too painful for you, Pat!
Pat: I was actually thinking this whole night about something that I don’t think you’re going to want to think about. I never looked at the realms before and wondered whether the caste system had any influence on that in India.
Ken: I have no idea; I just don’t know.
Pat: I knew you weren’t going to want to think about it. But it’s interesting that a country that had such a strong caste system would also have a religion or a philosophy that would have such a tight system of putting things into realms or into beliefs about…in kind of an order.
Ken: I think the caste system and the system of rebirth, that you’re born into a caste came out of, as things often do, as a way of preserving social order. I’m not sure—you see there’s nothing implicit in the six realms that implies or leads to a caste system.
Pat: Only in that it’s a system? It’s interesting that as a people they had such a system for the way they saw themselves as people.
Ken: Okay. Randye.
Randye: I read somewhere that the focus on numbers and counting and putting things into very orderly system was because of the lack of writing. Most of the information was passed down verbally and it’s easier to memorize six of this and three of that and—
Ken: You’re quite right; that’s where all the lists come from. Absolutely. It was to facilitate memorization. But these arbitrarily large numbers have nothing to do with that. That was the discovery of zero. And you can just play and have fun.
The other big discovery, just to complete things, was the decimal point. Because once you had the decimal point, then you could write arbitrarily small numbers. Does anybody know what a google is, though?
Student: It’s a one with a million zeros?
Ken: It’s actually a hundred.
Ken: Yeah. That’s a very large number. Yeah.
George Gammow was a Russian mathematician/physicist who wrote a book One, Two, Three, Infinity back in the fifties. In it, he was discussing large numbers. He said, “Just so I can talk about really large numbers, like the number of the atoms in the universe and so forth, let’s say one with a hundred zeroes after it, we’re going to call that a google.” And then he came up with a googleplex, which was ten to the power of a google. That’s where the term google comes from.
Randye: So what does it say about our civilization that we got rid of all those zeroes by inventing power notation?
Ken: I’ll leave that one to you, Randye. Okay.
When you’re reading this, why these very, very long periods of time in either the god realm or the hell realm? I mean really long periods of time: fifty-three quintillion years by the American numbering system. Cara?
Cara: I have to backtrack a little bit, I’m sorry. So within the confines of the Hindu structure, within Hinduism there is not a whole lot of focus on the afterlife. There’s a lot of focus on the next life, in being born again. Which would go very far to explain the caste system and societal order. So…
Ken: The afterlife is just regarded as an intermediate state until the next birth.
Cara: Headed on towards the cessation of samsara, whatever that ends up being. But would you say the development of the realms—not the development, the doctrine behind it—I’m lacking in adjectives for this. Would you say that that’s a reaction to this? Like if you were of the lowest class in Hindu society, the development of the realms or your ability to now focus your attention on the realms—if you became a Buddhist—would be a way for you to explain or cessate [sic] your suffering. Am I making any sense?
Ken: Yes, you are. [Drawing] This is samsara. We haven’t talked about the possibility of getting out of samsara. The Marxist view of religion is that it was a way of promising, or appearing to promise, a better future for people so that you can enslave them in the present.
Cara: So in that sense, Buddhism is just a better way to dope up the masses, right?
Ken: Except that Buddhism wasn’t actually ever used. Buddhism itself, the way it was developed, wasn’t used for that purpose. Was it subsequently used for that purpose? Yes. But that wasn’t the rationale behind Buddhism at all. It was very much to chart a way out of this.
Ken: Okay, so what was my question before? Why the hell and god realms appear as such large periods of time. Anybody? Peri?
Peri: Well, when I’m suffering, time passes very, very slowly.
Ken: Well, what about the god realm? You have to go a little bit further; you’re in the right direction, but it’s not quite about suffering. Who do the Gods think about?
Peri: No one but themselves.
Ken: Right. This is the point. When your attention is focused on yourself, the more highly developed or more explicit the sense of yourself is, the more slowly time passes, subjectively speaking.
So, when you have a headache, it seems to last forever. Depression: time really slows down, everything drags by. So when you’re preoccupied with a sense of self, then time seems to pass very, very slowly.
What if you’re having fun? What if you’re completely engaged in something? How quickly does time pass?
Ken: Time flies. Very, very quickly. So when you’re not feeling any separation, there is no sense of time. So the relationship between time and sense of self is very close. And that’s what those large numbers are referring to. I’m trying to show you how to read this text.
A few points: the hell realm and the god realm represent the extremes. It’s where you experience the most separation from your experience. One because you’re consumed by the anger; one because you feel you are above it or different from it all.
Ken: The next two realms, the titan realm and the hungry ghost realm: these are both based on a sense of deficiency. In the hungry ghost realm, that sense of deficiency is projected onto the world: there isn’t enough out there. You’re so infused by that mentality that it doesn’t matter what comes. You don’t enjoy it. That’s why you have the image of some of the hungry ghosts, as soon as they take hold of something it turns into flame or turns into excrement or something. There’s no possibility of enjoying it.
In the titan realm, the sense of deficiency is projected inwardly. That is, it’s not that the world isn’t providing enough, it’s that I am not enough. So there’s a whole identity built out of that sense of deficiency. What this leads to is a need to achieve; an insatiable need to achieve. You’ve got to achieve one thing after another.
I read in The New Yorker many years ago, an account of Erich Fromm. He was the psychoanalyst, right? Yeah. This is one of the great psychologists of the twentieth century who had a very far-reaching influence on how Freud’s work was interpreted and practiced subsequently. He died feeling that he was a failure. Why?
Because he hadn’t won the Nobel Prize. Insatiable need to achieve. The deficiency was inside. And it didn’t matter that he influenced psychology and psychiatry this way. It didn’t matter that his books were widely read. He hadn’t achieved the pinnacle, etc. Lynea, did you have a question?
Lynea: So is the sense of “don’t they know who I am”? [Laughter]
Ken: Perfectly expressed! [Laughing] That could be god realm as well.
Lynea: That’s what I was wondering. Is that god or—
Ken: It could be either. [Laughing] But thank you for that; that’s great! When you have that feeling of specialness, to differentiate: “Don’t they know who I am” is more the god realm. “I will show them who I am” is more the titan realm. From the god realm, you can’t believe that nobody knows who you are.
I once had a celebrity come to my office, a minor celebrity. Her secretary was setting up the appointment and she asked, “Do you know who so-and-so is?” and I just said, “No.” There was this shocked silence at the other end of the phone. Pat?
Pat: On the titan realm. Just like holding up that piece of paper: the size is relative?
Pat: He made a decision that he was a failure if he didn’t win the Nobel Peace Prize. So he picked that.
Ken: I don’t think there is a Nobel prize for psychology.
Pat: Right. Exactly! So he picked that as the bar for success or failure. So he held up that sized piece of paper. So the suffering is the size of the paper that you hold up in your perception in the titan realm.
Ken: Very much, but look what happens to people in their careers. When you start off in your career, you think, “I’d really like to earn sixty, seventy thousand. That would be a nice salary.” So you get to sixty-seventy thousand and you think, “Eh, I want a hundred thousand.” You get to a hundred thousand and you think, “Eh, I’m worth more than this. I can earn two!” It’s never enough. You just keep going up!
Pat: No, but I actually think it goes the other way. So, you make a hundred and then two years later you don’t. And now you think, wow, what happened to me. I made a hundred two years ago.
Ken: Yeah, “There must be something wrong!” Yeah. Exactly.
Pat: So, you’re screwed no matter what you do. [Laughter]
Ken: If you’re basing your sense of who you are in terms of how much you earn, yes!
Ken: One of my favorite stories is about this apparently brilliant jazz musician who lives on the streets of New York and busks.
Student: And what?
Ken: Busks. He plays music in the subways and things like that. Apparently he is the expert in counterpoint, which is one of the trickier aspects of jazz composition.
Every now and then he gets hauled down to the police station and when he gets his phone call, he calls up one or more of the really top-flight jazz musicians and they give the police hell for a thing like that. “This is the guy we come to when we have trouble with counterpoint. What are you hassling him for? He doesn’t care about earning money!”
Cara: Wouldn’t he be considered crazy, though?
Ken: It is crazy from our point of view. From the people who bought into the conventions of life. It is completely crazy. You’re quite right. But is it actually crazy? Well, I don’t know. Is this big, or is this bigger? [Laughing]. Microphone for Cara, and then Diane.
Cara: I’m not saying that it’s wrong of him to live that life. But when you start talking about perceptions, there are entire communities—self-help communities that are geared towards helping us change the way we perceive situations because we are wrong-headed and they’re not Buddhist per se. They’re all about learning how to perceive insanity. And in many ways. I would ask you, this man who is living in the subway, does he drink?
Ken: I have no idea. From the way it was reported, there wasn’t anything wrong with him. It’s just how he chose to live. If you wave the microphone around like that it doesn’t get be recorded.
Cara: I’m not sure I want to be heard! [Laughter] No, I find that frustrating! Like when you said that someone can sit on the stand and say “You’re nuts” and I can say “No I’m not!” You know, like—
Ken: Yes, but they can trot out all the scientific evidence and it doesn’t matter what you think about yourself. The court will judge you nuts, because that’s the system.
Cara: But why is that wrong?
Ken: Why? It isn’t necessarily wrong. Many of those people, they might be seriously disturbed. But, there is a way in which what is decided as acceptable or not acceptable behavior becomes what is insane and not insane.
Pat: Can I give a better example? There are some teachers who do not go after tenure. And many people say, “What?”
Ken: “They’re completely crazy!”
Pat: They’re completely crazy. They don’t choose to publish. They don’t choose to go through the pressure of getting tenure in a major university and they are extremely loved by their students. But it causes great havoc because they do not choose tenure, which creates a lot of insecurity in their professional life. That is an interesting study of what happens when they don’t do that, because it goes against the grain of everything you’re supposed to work for. So what is their value?
Ken: Yeah, but the reason those people are disliked so much by the system that they reveal that the system does not actually value good education. They reveal that the system is primarily about producing money for the university through publications and reputation. So they’re exposing the fallacies within the University system. Diane, you had a comment.
Diane: Back to the jazz musician. I don’t necessarily make the same assumption. I think that the anecdote about the jazz musician has conditioned sentimentality to it.
Diane: And I think there are assumptions that are made in the example that I don’t think are proven out by the example. The idea that because he is so…I mean we do also have this western idea, the concept of the specialist. The example that you stressed was that he had a profound gift and we do value the idea that since he has a profound gift, how could he choose to reject the system that rewards the gift? And I can’t make those assumptions from the story.
Diane: The thing that you’ve been talking about all class is the concept of how we measure things.
Ken: And that measuring things leads to a certain way of interpreting experience.
Diane: Measuring things leads to a way of interpreting experience. And it is possible that the only way he can perform at all is to perform only in that condition.
Ken: Maybe. I was just using it to illustrate a point. That’s all.
Diane: And I was only saying that before I nod and say, “That illustrates how it might project god or human or titan realm,” it doesn’t necessarily.
Ken: Okay, yeah.
Ken: Okay, so now we come down to the human realm and the animal realm. This is where actually there is the least conditioning, in these two realms.
Least is probably not the right word. The conditioning is least solidified. And so there are more possibilities. There aren’t possibilities in the animal realm because there is not enough awareness operating or not enough attention.
In the human realm, there is. Then we get into the four major and eight minor sufferings of the human realm. The four major sufferings are birth, old age, illness and death.
You’ll notice from these descriptions of the birth process that the fetus as regarded as conscious, in some sense, from a very, very early state. That it is actually responding to experience and that is increasingly being corroborated by measurements of fetus awareness in the last couple of decades or so. So all of that is shifting in Western science.
For much of the twentieth century, the fetus was regarded as inert matter that somehow became a human being at the moment of birth, but that view is changing mainly from a lot of the inquiries coming from psychological conditioning.
Illness: everybody’s familiar with that. I don’t know how many of you have had really serious illnesses but, I was knocked out by a flu a few weeks ago and that was plenty unpleasant enough. I’ve had food poisoning a few times and dysentery and things like that. Haven’t had anything cholera or typhoid fever or the plague, etc. But they can be pretty horrendous. And cancer and so-forth.
Ken: Old age: what is that, that Diane liked, “The Ten Inconceivable Sufferings of Old Age.” T.S. Eliot, if I can find it. Yes, here we are:
This is Collected Poems of T.S. Eliot, it’s from Four Quartets. In particular, it is Little Gidding.
Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
To set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort.
First, the cold friction of expiring sense
Without enchantment, offering no promise
But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit
As body and soul begin to fall asunder.
So, the decline in the ability to taste and smell and sense things.
Second, the conscious impotence of rage
At human folly, and the laceration
Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
Enjoy! I love that passage. It just says it so well, even if he is a little wordy.
Ken: The minor sufferings: being with people we don’t want to be with. Not being with people we do want to be with. Not having what we want. Not being able to keep what we have.
I remember when I had an office down in Orange County. I was working through the six realms with one person down there. He was a management consultant. I gave him these four minor sufferings, and he just said, “That’s my life!”
Everything in his life was concerned with one of those four things. Trying to hang out with the people he wanted to be with, trying to avoid the people he didn’t want to be with, trying to get what he didn’t have, and trying to keep what he did have.
This actually describes the human condition very, very well.
So something you might take note of is: how much of your life, how much of your life energy is taken up by those four things? And it’s usually a pretty substantial amount. Trying to create the world that will make us feel good, and of course as soon as we do, impermanence sets in and then we’re back in the whole soup again!
What did you say, Cara?
Cara: I said, “That’s just sucky!” [Laughter]
Ken: Well, on that cheery note I think we’ve run out of time.
We may spend a little more time on the six realms because there’s other aspects that I want to touch on next week. Read ahead on to karma, because we’ll be starting on karma. I’m going to say this now, because it’s very important.
Karma is almost always regarded as cause and effect. That’s how it was first translated and used. It’s not a very good translation at all. Increasingly, a number of us are using the language of evolution to describe the operation of karma. It is much closer, much closer to what is meant.
When Rinpoche was teaching us karma, he always drew a picture of a tree growing from a seed into a trunk and into things like that. It’s an evolutionary process; it’s a growth process. It’s not a cause and effect as we commonly understand cause and effect.
So when you’re reading the chapter on karma, think of it terms of evolution: of how actions evolve into experienced results, not how actions cause results. We’ll go into it in detail next week, but I wanted to present that as a way of looking at it. Okay?
Ken: Any last questions before we close? Randye.
Randye: In general, Buddhism operates much more on the stick approach than the carrot. Why aren’t there worlds describing the worlds of compassion or empathy or generosity, the so-called positive emotions?
Ken: I know this is quite the hot topic in psychology these days, studying the positive emotions. You have the carrot and the stick approach. There’s a very interesting thing about the carrot approach: when the donkey starts to move, what do you do with the carrot?
Randye: You move it?
Ken: Exactly. Does the donkey ever get the carrot?
Randye: So that really represents the titan or the human realm?
Ken: When you use the carrot approach, it’s very, very easy to be conditioning the titan realm into people: trying to achieve rather than putting them into their own experience.
When you say that Buddhism uses the stick approach, you can certainly look at it that way. But I would suggest that this raises the much larger question which I’ll throw at you for consideration.
Buddhism, at least the way it’s always been presented to me, tries to describe how things actually are. And does so equally for compassion: “This is what compassion is like” and then leaves it up to you how you want to live. But Buddhism provides the tools to get there.
All of which is, as we all know, a version of rational choice theory. How many people make their decisions rationally?
Ken: So I find it very ironic—this is something I’ve just started to think about—that most of Buddhism’s presentation, like economic theory, is based on the theory that everybody knows is invalid. So the question—and I’ll just throw this out to you that I’ve been rolling around in my head—if you don’t rely on rational choice theory, what does it mean to be a teacher?
I’ll just leave that as a question.
Can we do the dedication?
[Notes: History of Zero; George Gammow; Erich Fromm]