On Awareness, pt. 1

by Evan Edwards

Nan-in

There’s a zen koan about master Nan-in and a younger monk, Tenno, who had been studying with his teacher for ten years. Tradition went that a student had to study this long before they were qualified to begin teaching, and Nan-in had invited Tenno over for tea to celebrate his pupilship coming to an end. Since it was raining that day, Tenno wore clogs and brought an umbrella, and left them by the door when he entered Nan-in’s home. After his guest had sat down, Nan-in asked Tenno, “I assume that since it is raining, you brought an umbrella. Correct? And did you put it on the left or the right of your clogs?” When he didn’t have an immediate answer, Tenno stood up and returned to the monastery in order to continue as a student for six more years.

The story is usually interpreted as an illustration of the value of attention and, more importantly, what we might call ‘awareness.’ Because Tenno was unable to recall the position of his umbrella, or perhaps better, because he was unaware of how he had arranged his things in the other room, he was not practicing “every-minute zen.” In other koans, the theme of the significance of attention and awareness return again and again. A student asked Master Ichu to write him something of great wisdom. Ichu took up his pen and wrote “attention.” The student asked Ichu what “attention” meant, and he responded that “attention means attention.” This theme seems to be so recurrent because, as individuals in the Vipassana school argue, nirvana, as a kind of “Budda-consciousness,” has to do with a particular state of vijnana, or “consciousness.” This kind of consciousness is a state of perfect awareness.

Certain strains of ecology and western environmental philosophy, also, stress the importance of awareness. In the work of Henry David Thoreau, we see an intense attention to nature that has been described by several commentators as an attempt to integrate himself more fully, and therefore live more authentically, within the web of life. Read more »

TIIME and SPACE. Richard Long. Arnolfini, Bristol until 15th November 2015

by Sue Hubbard

It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.

— Nietzsche

Arnolfini_Long_003Since early Christianity pilgrimages have been made to the Holy Land, to Rome, to Lourdes and Canterbury, by walking on foot. Buddhists, understanding that a journey of a thousand miles starts with one step, walk in mindfulness. The writer, Bruce Chatwin, wrote in his celebrated book, The Songlines, that “… a Bushman child will be carried a distance of 4,900 miles before he begins to walk on his own. Since, during this rhythmic phase, he will be forever naming the contents of his territory, it is impossible he will not become a poet”. According to Aboriginal legend, the totemic ancestors – among them the great kangaroo and dream-snake – were first sung into existence, as was every feature of the natural world, as ancient Bushmen walked across the Australian continent.

The British artist Richard Long also walks. Other artists paint, sculpt or make installations but Long walks and as he does so he notices and records the minutiae of the landscape. Sometimes he stops to create interventions using the raw materials – stones and driftwood – found along the way as a means of articulating ideas about time and space. Through the act of walking connections are made to rivers and mountains, deserts and clouds, sky and ground. He touches the earth lightly, rarely re-tracing his steps. His interventions are tactful: a realignment of stones, a path trodden across scree, a track left in grass or water poured slowly onto rock. He has been walking for more than 40 years. His process is simple. He takes time, pays attention and records what he notices and hears, sometimes as text, sometimes in photographs so we, too, can share something of the experience. And although we might all engage with the natural world this way, the point is, we don't. He makes looking and seeing into art.

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The Northern Moment

by Gautam Pemmaraju

Because I could not stop for Death
He kindly stopped for me
The Carriage held but just Ourselves
And Immortality.

– Emily Dickenson

FadingAway

The wise emperor of Marguerite Yourcenar’s masterful Memoirs Of Hadrian, says to his successor Marcus Aurelius that his frail, diseased body is fast approaching its demise. It is the evening of his life. Despite the “vague formulas of reassurance” that his loyal physician Hermogenes offers him in an attempt to mask the imminent end, the sage old man knows that he is sure to die of a dropsical heart. The time and place is uncertain, and he “no longer runs the risk of falling on the frontiers, struck down by a Caledonian axe or pierced by an arrow of the Parths…” but he does know that his days are numbered. His body, a faithful companion all these years, may well turn out to be “a sly beast who will end by devouring his master”. But what of the moment itself, Hadrian contemplates:

I shall die at Tibur or in Rome, or in Naples at the farthest, and a moment’s suffocation will settle the matter. Shall I be carried off by the tenth of these crises, or the hundredth? That is the only question. Like a traveler sailing the Archipelago who sees the luminous mists lift towards evening, and little by little makes out the shore, I begin to discern the profile of my death.

Often enough in literary descriptions we find familiar tropes: the inner light dims, an ethereal illumination brings in the uttara kshanam, a phrase used in literary Telugu to describe the dying moment. A most intriguing phrase if ever, it can be translated in numerous ways but the most literal one appears to me the most elegant. The moment exists ‘up there’, in some mystical northward quadrant, and as we approach it, it reveals itself. As we apprehend it, it embraces us. The Northern Moment is then the final one. It is the peak of earthly life. There is a wide fascination for the dying moment – how will it come to pass, in what circumstances, will it be filled with pain and suffering or under the comforting shroud of sleep, will it be in the presence of loved ones, or alone, on some forsaken highway? Will it be a ‘good death’ or a ‘bad death’? How indeed do we imagine our final moments?

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Cerebral Imperialism

Neurons The present is where the future comes to die, or more accurately, where an infinite array of possible futures all collapse into one. We live in a present where artificial intelligence hasn't been invented, despite a quarter century of optimistic predictions. John Horgan in Scientific American suggests we're a long way from developing it, despite all the optimistic predictions (although when it does come it may well be as a sudden leap into existence, a sudden achievement of critical mass). However and whenever (or if ever) it arrives, it's an idea worth discussing today. But, a question: Does this line of research suffer from “cerebral imperialism”?

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The idea of “cerebral imperialism” came up in an interview I did for the current issue of Tricycle, a Buddhist magazine, with transhumanist professor and writer James “J” Hughes. One exchange went like this:

Eskow: There seems to be a kind of cognitive imperialism among some Transhumanists that says the intellect alone is “self.” Doesn’t saying “mind” is who we are exclude elements like body, emotion, culture, and our environment? Buddhism and neuroscience both suggest that identity is a process in which many elements co-arise to create the individual experience on a moment-by-moment basis. The Transhumanists seem to say, “I am separate, like a data capsule that can be uploaded or moved here and there.”

You’re right. A lot of our Transhumanist subculture comes out of computer science— male computer science—so a lot of them have that traditional “intelligence is everything” view. s soon as you start thinking about the ability to embed a couple of million trillion nanobots in your brain and back up your personality and memory onto a chip, or about advanced artificial intelligence deeply wedded with your own mind, or sharing your thoughts and dreams and feelings with other people, you begin to see the breakdown of the notion of discrete and continuous self.

An intriguing answer – one of many Hughes offers in the interview – but I was going somewhere else: toward the idea that cognition itself, that thing which we consider “mind,” is over-emphasized in our definition of self and therefore is projected onto our efforts to create something we call “artificial intelligence.”

Is the “society of mind” trying to colonize the societies of body and emotion?

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