BOOK REVIEW: Three Japanese Buddhist Monks by Saigyō, Chōmei, and Kenkō

Three Japanese Buddhist MonksThree Japanese Buddhist Monks by Saigyō
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book collects three essays composed between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. They are in chronological order, but also in order of increasing length, i.e. Saigyō’s piece is a short excerpt, while Kenkō’s essay makes up the bulk of the book.


An excerpt from Saigyō’s Senjūshō tells the story of the monk’s meeting with a wise reclusive meditator on Mt. Utsu. Saigyō tries to talk his way into living / meditating with the hermit, but the sage convinces him that that wouldn’t be good for either of them. The monk goes away, planning on visiting the hermit on his return, but he wistfully tells us that he took another route.


“The Ten-Foot Hut” is about the benefits of a simple, minimalist existence. It discusses Impermanence, and takes the view that having more just means one has more to lose. A quote that offers insight into the monk’s thoughts is, “If you live in a cramped city area, you cannot escape disaster when a fire springs up nearby. If you live in some remote place, commuting to and fro is filled with problems, and you are in constant danger from thieves.” The author’s solution? Build a tiny cabin in the woods and – in the unlikely event it burns or gets robbed while one is away – what has one really lost?


The Kenkō essay makes up about eighty percent of the book. Its rambling discussion of life’s impermanence delves into morality, aesthetics, and Buddhist psychology. There are many profound bits of wisdom in this piece. Though it’s also a bit of a mixed bag in that some of the advice feels relevant and insightful, while some of it hasn’t aged / traveled well.


I enjoyed this book and found it thought-provoking. Some may be disappointed by finding how little of Saigyō’s writing is included (he being the author of greatest renown,) but I found each author had something valuable to offer.


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BOOK REVIEW: Stoicism: A Very Short Introduction by Brad Inwood

Stoicism: A Very Short IntroductionStoicism: A Very Short Introduction by Brad Inwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Inwood provides an overview Stoic philosophy as it’s discussed in a scholarly context. To distinguish Stoicism as scholars see it from how it’s viewed by those who practice it as a lifestyle, the author differentiates “large Stoicism” from “minimal stoicism.” The vast majority of books today deal only with minimal stoicism – in other words; they exclusively explore how to lead a good and virtuous life, i.e. ethics-centric Stoicism. Scholars, however, are also interested in the physics (/ metaphysics) and the logic of Stoicism.


There are several reasons for this difference in scope. First, Stoic ethics has aged much better than its other philosophical branches. Much of Stoic logic has been improved upon or superseded, and Stoic physics is [arguably] obsolete. This means that scholars studying Stoic physics and logic are more interested in those subjects as a stage of development or a piece of philosophical history than they are as contenders for understanding those subjects. Second, prominent Stoic philosophers with surviving writings (i.e. Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca) have inspired many people by discussing Stoicism as a way of life – not so much as a navel-gazing endeavor.


After discussing the origins of Stoicism, the major Stoic authors, and how Stoicism relates to other philosophical schools of the ancient world, the book presents a chapter each on physics, ethics, and logic. The last chapter investigates how Stoicism is viewed today and how it might maintain relevance despite challenges to some of its metaphysical and logical underpinnings.


Having read a number of books on Stoicism, I didn’t know whether this concise book would be of much benefit. However, by describing Stoicism’s broader context and how the deterioration of much of that context influences the philosophy’s relevance, the book offered plenty of food-for-thought. If you’re interested in this broader context, you may want to give this book a look.


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BOOK REVIEW: Meno by Plato

MenoMeno by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Online: MIT Classics

The central question of this dialogue is the teachability of virtue. The dialogue called Protagoras also delved into this question. Lest one think there’s no benefit to be had from reading a second take on the subject, the ultimate answer in this dialogue is the opposite of that seen in “Protagoras.” Socrates agreed with Protagoras that virtue was teachable. However, here Socrates concludes that it isn’t, citing the fact that there are no viable teachers of virtue (ever the anti-Sophist,) and yet there are people who consistently behave virtuously.

[If one wonders how two of Plato’s Socratic dialogues could feature completely different answers on the same question, the mid- and late dialogues are often thought to reflect Plato’s personal views more than his teacher’s. “Protagoras” is an early dialogue, while “Meno” is a middle dialogue. (It’s also possible they weren’t written by the same author as a number of dialogues attributed to Plato are in doubt.)]

I don’t find Socrates’s arguments on the subject at hand compelling. Socrates proposes that there are certain concepts that come pre-loaded into humans. He questions one of Meno’s slaves on geometry to show that the slave seems to have a grasp of geometry without having ever been taught. Ultimately, Socrates concludes that a grasp of virtue is divinely installed in many people.

Still, there’s lots of beneficial food-for-thought, particularly when Socrates differentiates knowledge and true beliefs / right opinions.

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BOOK REVIEW: Gorgias by Plato

GorgiasGorgias by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Project Gutenberg

This Socratic dialogue explores what rhetoric is, and whether rhetorician is a real job, like plumber or secretary, or whether it’s more like “bottled water sommelier” or “social media influencer” – i.e. an undertaking by which one can make loads of money without contributing society one iota. It starts out (as usual) with Socrates questioning someone, in this case the rhetorician Gorgias. This exchange can be summed up by the ideas that: 1.) rhetoric is persuasion; 2.) the ignorant are more persuasive to the ignorant than are those with knowledge. [Gorgias boasts that he has been able to convince patients to take actions that their physicians couldn’t. Because Gorgias had to admit he didn’t know as much about facilitating health as a physician, he was forced to agree to the sad absurdity that people will often comply with slick talkers who know nothing (a plight which may prove to be the downfall of our species.)] There’s a fine epistemological discussion of the difference between belief and knowledge that is used by Socrates to show that rhetoricians aren’t concerned with knowledge so much as beliefs.

Then Polus and Callicles (young rhetoricians) take up the questioning role, turning the tables and asking Socrates what is the art of rhetoric. [And we know they’re not going to like the answer.] Socrates denies rhetoric is an art, and calls it the counterfeit part of politics. Socrates compares rhetoric to cookery, where cooks pretend to be experts in what food should be eaten but, while people often love the cook’s meals, it’s the physician who actually knows what food is best. Socrates doesn’t consider rhetoric an art because it isn’t rooted in knowledge or virtue, but rather in momentary preferences. Much of the argument hinges on the fact that the young men believe it is worse to suffer injustice than to do injustice and that being able to exert control (be it for good or ill) equates to power and happiness. Socrates accepts neither premise, and systematically refutes both. Callicles’ tack is along lines of natural justice — the strongest do as they please and pursuit of pleasure is noble. [The truth is that while Socrates may have the more sound and supportable position, the rhetoricians describe the way the world operates more accurately.]

This is a sharp and insightful dialogue, and given its surprising relevance to the present day, I’d highly recommend reading it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Hipparchus by Plato

HipparchusHipparchus by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On-line

In this Socratic dialogue about “lovers of gain,” Socrates and an unnamed friend debate whether pursuing gains can be wicked. Usually, the title of a dialogue is the name of Socrates’ philosophical sparring partner, but, herein, Hipparchus is a historical figure who Socrates cites as the reason he wouldn’t hornswoggle his friend, quoting “Walk with just intent” and “Deceive not a friend” as credos that he, Socrates, lives by.

The friend tries a number of approaches to argue the loathsomeness of lovers of gain. Recognizing the starting premise will be that a gain is a good, the friend argues that such people (presumably greedy / materialistic types) purse valueless gains. Socrates attacks that as an oxymoron. Next, the friend argues that lovers of gain seek gains that no honorable man would pursue. Again, Socrates argues that a gain is a good and all humans seek good. Since the friend doesn’t want to call the lovers of gain fools (i.e. unable to recognize a gain when they see it,) the friend is stuck. The third approach is to argue that a wicked gain could be considered a loss. This is also swiftly rebutted. The last tack is to argue that some gains are good, while some are evil, which runs afoul of the same argument.

This isn’t one of the best dialogues – in fact, many question whether it was written by Plato. That said, it brings up a few ideas that are worthy of consideration. It felt very much like a conversation I once heard in which a young woman argued, “No one should have that much more than they need.” Which drew the response, “You realize that 90% of the world would say you have tons more than you need?” Which resulted in the instigator walking off in a huff. If you want to engage in debates about the virtue (or vice) of wealth acquisition, this might be a good place to begin your reflection.

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BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Ethics: A Graphic Guide by Dave Robinson [Ill. by Chris Garratt]

Introducing Ethics: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Ethics: A Graphic Guide by Dave Robinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

 

This is one title in the “A Graphic Guide” series of books, many of which (including this one) are available on Amazon Prime. The books in the series explain fundamentals for a wide range of academic subjects, using simple descriptions supported by graphics. This particular book examines the philosophy of ethics and morality.

The book consists of a large number (almost 130) short topical sections, each with supporting graphics. Each section is just a page or two in length. The book has a chronological flow, moving from Socrates through the Postmodern philosophers. The nature of the topics varies, sometimes it is the view of a particular philosopher or school of philosophy, sometimes it’s a fundamental question or point of contention, and sometimes it’s a specific ethical issue. The last twenty-ish statements elaborate on two specific cases that the book addresses in detail: animal rights and euthanasia.

I felt the author did a good job of laying out a number of fault lines, controversies at the heart of differing views of ethics. The controversy that gets the most attention is that between absolutists and relativists. (Absolutists claim there are a set of core moral rules that are universally applicable, while relativists say one can’t make such rules because the morality of every action is relative, be it: situationally, culturally, or individually. An extreme view from either perspective is inconsistent with what one tends to sees in the real world.) A second point of contention regards whether ethical constraints are determined at the individual level or the societal / tribal / group level? A third controversy consists of a subjectivity versus objectivity divide – i.e. is morality just about what feels right or is there an objective way of defining moral knowledge? A significant portion of the book deals with the rivalries about these points, and – to a lesser degree – others (e.g. is biology the root of ethics or is it a domain devoid of ethics?)

There are cartoon drawings with most of the sections that illustrate key points, and / or depict interactions between rival philosophers. There is a “further reading” section in the back that suggests books to expand one’s grasp of the subject beyond the bare fundamentals that are addressed in this book.

I thought this book did a good job of laying out the issues. The cases (animal rights and euthanasia) helped show how different schools of thought apply their ideas to specific questions. I particularly enjoyed how the book clarified the subject through discussion of key questions of contention. If you have Amazon Prime, it’s definitely worth checking this one out. If not, you may want to see how it compares to the “A Very Short Introduction” guide for Oxford University Press, which is a similar series that explains the basics of a subject in a concise fashion.

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POEM: Good & Evil

Good & Evil —
Mankind’s most devastating invention.

Good & Evil
don’t feature in nature.

The rule of nature is:

SHIT HAPPENS!

Sometimes it’s nourishing shit that grows big ears of corn.
Sometimes it’s infected shit that cripples the village with E. coli,

but it’s all just days playing out.
-a big, indifferent system burning energy.

Nature doesn’t care that your worldview requires everything be the result of a reason.
Nature’s reason is that something must happen,
and anytime something happens it has effects —
it’s just that humans have to go sticking their labels
onto those effects: good / bad, naughty / nice, tall / grande.

Good & Evil
are cultural constructs,

but — oh my! —
what we haven’t done with them:

-global wars
-holocaust
-genocide
-hellscapes scraped into the world’s sensitive bits.

This may all sound unfair to GOOD.
Sure, EVIL is… well, evil,
“But why you gonna go crap on GOOD?”
one might ask.

Because GOOD is a line that can be hatefully drawn.

Or, if you prefer,
a box that can be hatefully placed
to separate what’s loved and hated —

or who is loved and who is hated.

BOOK REVIEW: Panchatantra [trans. / ed. by Arthur W. Ryder]

PanchatantraPanchatantra by Arthur W. Ryder
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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“Panchatantra” is “Aesop’s Fables” meets Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” but with an Indian flavor. [I realize that the Panchatantra is much older than “The Prince” (though not as old as Aesop’s Fables — at least not when comparing written editions) but I’d argue it’s still a useful tagline for general readers who aren’t particularly acquainted with Indian literature.] Like Aesop’s Fables, anthropomorphized animals make up the bulk of the cast in this set of stories within a story. Like “The Prince,” a lot of the the advice offers insight into how to lead (as opposed to just how to lead a moral life.) The topics addressed include: building sound alliances, avoiding deception, and making decisions regarding war and peace.

As the Sanskrit title — Panchatantra [“Five Treatises”] — suggests, this work is arranged into five books. Of the over eighty fables of the original, more than fifty are collected in this edition. [I suspect this was done to eliminate or consolidate stories that were essentially the same.] The first book is “The Loss of Friends” and it focuses on how alliances are broken up by enemies. The second is “The Winning of Friends” and it gives particular attention to alliance building. The third book is “On Crows and Owls,” and it’s about how to decide whether to go to war, choose peace, or seek some alternative. The penultimate book is “Loss of Gains” and it discusses ways in which people forfeit (or have stolen from them) what they have gained. The last book is “Ill-Considered Action,” and it advises against being hasty. The stories are skillfully written and translated, and they are thought-provoking. That said, they can be a tad hackneyed and simplistic as well. For example, a large number of these tales convey the same simple lesson that one should take advice from individuals who are wise and virtuous, and that lesson’s inverse (that one should ignore those who are foolish and / or immoral.)

I’d highly recommend giving the Panchatantra a read. It both conveys wisdom and offers good stories. It’s true that the stories can become a bit repetitive and also frequently have less than profound morals, but overall, it’s a smart and entertaining collection of fables.

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5 Bizarre Moral Dilemmas for Your Kids to Worry Over

5.) Can “innocent until proven guilty” survive the next generation of predictive models?

I started thinking about this post as I was reading Dean Haycock’s book Murderous Minds, which is a book about the neuroscience of psychopathy. In that book, the author evokes The Minority Report, a Philip K. Dick story turned into a Tom Cruise movie about a police agency that uses three individuals who can see the future in order to prevent violent crimes before they happen. Haycock isn’t suggesting that precognition will ever be a tool to predict crime, but what if a combination of genetics, epigenetics, brain imaging, and other technology reached the point where the tendency toward violent psychopathy (not redundant, most psychopaths function fine in society and don’t commit crimes) could be predicted with a high degree of accuracy. [Note: unlike the Tom Cruise movie, no one is suggesting all violent crime could be anticipated because a lot of it is committed by people with no risk factors whatsoever.] One is likely to first go to the old refrain (Blackstone’s Formulation) that it’s better that 10 guilty men escape justice than one innocent man be punished. Now, imagine a loved one was killed by a person who was known to have a 99% likelihood of committing a violent crime?

Of course, one doesn’t have to lock the high-risk individuals away in prison. What about laws forcing one to take either non-invasive or invasive actions (from meditation retreats to genetic editing) to reduce one’s risk factors? That’s still a presumption of guilt based on a model that  — given the vagaries of the human condition — could never be perfectly accurate.

 

4.) What does “trusted news source” mean in a world in which media outlets tailor their messages to support confirmation bias and avoid ugly cognitive dissonance? (i.e. to give viewers the warm-fuzzy [re: superior] feeling that keeps them watching rather than the messy, uneasy feelings that makes them prefer to bury their heads in sand and ignore any realities that conflict with their beliefs.) Arguably, this isn’t so much a problem for the next generation as for the present one. The aforementioned sci-fi legend, Philip K. Dick, addressed the idea of media manipulation in his stories as far back as the 1950’s. However, it’s a problem that could get much worse as computers get more sophisticated at targeting individuals with messages tailored to their personal beliefs and past experiences. What about if it goes past tweaking the message to encourage readership to manipulating the reader for more nefarious ends? I started to think about this when I got the i-Phone news feed which is full of provocative headlines designed to make one click, and — if one doesn’t click — one will probably come away with a completely false understanding of the realities of the story. As an example, I recently saw a headline to the effect of “AI can predict your death with 95% accuracy.” It turns out that it can only make this prediction after one has shown up in an emergency room and had one’s vital statistics taken and recorded. [Not to mention “95% accuracy” being completely meaningless — e.g. in what time frame — minute of death, day, year, decade? I can come up with the century of death with 95% accuracy, myself, given a large enough group.]

 

3.) When is it acceptable to shut down a self-aware Artificial Intelligence (AI), and — more importantly — will it let you?  This is the most obvious and straightforward of the issues in this post. When is something that not only thinks but is aware of its thoughts considered equivalent to a human being for moral purposes, if ever?

 

2.) When is invisible surveillance acceptable / preferable? This idea came from a talk I heard by a Department of Homeland Security employee, back when I worked for Georgia Tech. He told us that the goal is eventually to get rid of the security screening checkpoints at the airport and have technology that would screen one as one walked down a corridor toward one’s gate. At first this sounds cool and awesome. No taking belts and shoes off. No running bags through metal detectors. No having to pitch your water bottle. No lines. No dropping your laptop because you’re precariously balancing multiple plastic bins and your carry-on luggage. [I don’t know if they would tackle one to the ground for having a toenail clipper in one’s bag or not, but — on the whole — this scheme seems awesome.] But then you realize that you’re being scanned to the most minute detail without your awareness.

One also has to consider the apathy effect. If one can make an activity painless, people stop being cognizant of it. Consider the realm of taxation. If you’re pulling a well-defined chunk of pay out of people’s income, they keep their eye on how much you’re taking. If you can bury that tax — e.g. in the price of goods or services, then people become far less likely to recognize rate changes or the like.

 

1.) If society can reduce pedophilic sexual abuse by allowing the production and dissemination of virtual reality child pornography (computer generated imagery only, no live models used, think computer games), should we? This idea is discussed in Jesse Bering’s book, Perv. It’s not a completely hypothetical question. There is some scholarly evidence that such computer-made pornography can assuage some pedophiles’ urges. However, the gut reaction of many [probably, most] people is “hell no!” It’s a prime example of emotion trumping reason. If you can reduce the amount of abuse by even a marginal amount, shouldn’t you do so given a lack of real costs / cons (i.e. presuming the cost of the material would be paid by the viewer, the only real cost to the public would be the icky feeling of knowing that such material exists in the world?)

BOOK REVIEW: Living Your Yoga by Judith Hanson Lasater

Living Your Yoga: Finding the Spiritual in Everyday LifeLiving Your Yoga: Finding the Spiritual in Everyday Life by Judith Hanson Lasater

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

If you’re the average joe, you probably think of yoga as a series of stretchy postures–many or most of which seem physically impossible for a run-of-the-mill human. If you’re a little more sophisticated on the subject–perhaps you’ve even done a few yoga classes–you realize that breathing exercises (pranayama) and meditation (dhyana) are also an essential part of the practice. However, if you’re hardcore, you realize that there is an entire moral, ethical, spiritual, and philosophical approach to life embodied in yoga.

Lasater’s book is aimed at the latter group or people who plan to one day be in that group. You will not find out how to do a single posture (asana), and you won’t learn how to do breathing exercises or meditation. So, the book might sound like one of those navel-gazing, pie-in-the-sky, philosophical tomes. But it’s not. On the contrary, the chapters are short and readable, and each one ends with exercises to put that chapter’s lesson into practice. Now, it probably sounds more like a how-to workbook. It is, but the exercises can only be carried out in everyday life.

Admittedly, I don’t know that much about yoga, but I suspect such a book is much-needed. I do know that in the martial arts there is also a rich and well-defined moral, philosophical, and–for lack of a better term–spiritual component, and that it gets lost much of the time by a large percentage of students as soon as they step out the door of the dōjō. I suspect this is true of yoga practitioners as well. I imagine that as yoga has spread globally many of the less visible and tangible aspects of the system get left behind. I know this happens in the realm of martial arts–sometimes these elements even get lost in the homeland. It’s a natural side-effect of busy lives; people take on what they can grasp and don’t go looking for the rest.

Living Your Yoga is divided into three parts of seven chapters each (21 chapters in total.) The social circle widens as one goes through the parts. Part I deals with the yoga practitioner as an individual. Part II considers the practitioner’s relationships with others in their immediate domain–family, friends, co-workers, etc. The final part looks at the practitioner in the global context.

Each chapter focuses on a particular virtue or vice and how to cultivate it or mitigate against it, respectively. All of the chapters begin with a quote, most from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali or the Bhagavad Gita, then there is the body of the chapter, followed by a practice on that particular theme, supplementary practices, and a few mantras.

The chapters in the first part are: spiritual seeking, discipline, letting go, self-judgment, faith, perspective, and courage. The second part deals with compassion, control, fear, patience, attachment / aversion, suffering, and impermanence. And the final part considers greed, service, connection, truth, success, nonviolence, and love.

While I suggested this book is for the hardcore yogi/yogini, it has value for a more general readership than that. It’s really for anybody interested in working on self-improvement on a daily basis, as opposed to those who restrict their development pursuits to inside the yoga studio (or dōjō or ashram.) The advice is sound, regardless of whether one ever practices an asana or not.

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