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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POEM: Blake’s Virtue

by Thomas Phillips, oil on canvas, 1807

box of virtue, or box of sin
which one does this act go in?
and why put each one in a box?
to sell the sins down by the docks?

Blake the madman, Blake the pious
the difference reflects your bias
wedging each act into a crate
dilutes the evil and the great
all so the vain can extricate
themselves above the ones they hate

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?)

The Tongue-Cut Sparrow: A Japanese Folktale

800px-Tree_Sparrow_Japan_Flip[This is a well-known Japanese folk tale. There are many versions and translations of it, but the gist of the story remains the same from one to the next.]

Once upon a time, an old man was married to a shrew. The couple lived in the countryside on the edge of a mountain forest. They had no children, but the man befriended one of the sparrows that resided in the adjacent forest. The old man fed the sparrow, offering whatever he had to the small bird.

Over time, the man and the sparrow grew almost inseparable. However, one day the man had to go into town to buy provisions. It may have been that the man chose that particular day for his errand because his horrid wife was most ill-tempered on laundry days, and that was a laundry day.

While the husband was away, the sparrow came around. Seeing a pile of starch, the sparrow pecked at it. Infuriated, the old woman snatched up the bird in one hand and a scissors in the other, and she snipped part of the bird’s tongue out. Then as she tossed the sparrow free, she said, “Away with you. That’ll teach you to get into my starch.”

The bird flew deep into the mountains.

When the husband returned, he inquired as to whether his wife had seen the bird. The sparrow was usually around the homestead at that time of day.

The hag proudly told the husband of her actions and how she’d punished the insolent bird.

The old man lost no time in trudging out into the forest to try to make sure his friend was alright. He called out to the sparrow, but there was no response. He feared his wife had wounded the bird even more than she’d boasted. Eventually, exhaustion forced the old man to give up his search. He prayed that the little bird would be alright, but he couldn’t keep looking for it.

 

A couple of years later, the  man was foraging for mushrooms in the forest when he ran into the sparrow. The sparrow invited the man back to his home.

The sparrow offered the man food, refreshments, and even accommodations as they took several days to catch up on the events of each other’s lives. The sparrow now had a family and was doing well.

After a few days of catching up, the old man decided that he must get back, but he promised to come back around to visit occasionally. (The sparrow was reasonably reluctant to visit the man at his home with the vile woman around.) The sparrow family offered the old man a choice of parting gift, they presented two woven baskets. The baskets appeared identical, but one was light and the other was heavy. The old man didn’t feel deserving of a gift, but he took the lighter basket. He had to take one to avoid offending his host, but he didn’t wish to be greedy.

When the man got home, he was berated by the shrew for being away so long. She then interrogated him about the new basket. The man told his wife the entire story, including about how the sparrows offered him two baskets, and how he’d taken the lighter one.

His wife snatched the lid off of the basket and investigated its contents. She found that the reason the basket was so light was that it contained just a few precious jewels and several gold coins. By weight it wasn’t much, but its value was considerable.

The wife thought, Hm. I’ll go visit the sparrows. I’ll make a little apology for snipping at the bird’s tongue, and when they offer me my parting gift, I’ll be smart enough to take the heavy basket. Just imagine the riches it must contain.

The wife tricked her husband into giving her directions, saying she wanted to make a heartfelt apology. She then went to visit the sparrow family. She made a half-hearted apology for injuring the sparrow, claiming she’d only meant to scare him but the scissors had gotten away from her. The meeting was awkward and the sparrows were relieved to have the woman going on her way.

They offered the woman a choice of parting gifts as well. The woman lifted both baskets. Just as her husband had said, one basket was light and the other was heavy. She lugged the heavy basket up on her back, and without even saying her good-byes she sped toward her home as quickly as her legs would carry her. She had fantasies  about what she would do with her new-found wealth.

It wasn’t long before she needed a break because the basket was heavy and her legs weren’t used to such a burden. Standing on the forest trail, the couldn’t resist peaking at her riches.  The woman tugged the lid off and dove her head into the mouth of the basket to see what precious jewels, gold, and silver would greet her. However, what lurched out was an evil ogre, enveloped in a mist of demon spirits.

Clutching her chest, the old woman had a heart attack in the face of the horrific contents of her basket, dying where she had stood.

The Science of Wisdom & The Wisdom of Science

Shrine_nearRoppongi_statues

For the purposes of this post, wisdom is neither a collection of trite adages, nor is it an accumulation of arcane or esoteric scripture. Wisdom is:

1.) the ability to quiet the mind

2.) the ability to suppress inclinations to be petty in a healthy way

3.) the ability to override instinct with conscious thought when it’s beneficial to do so

4.) the ability to know when it’s beneficial to do so (see #3)

5.) mastery of (rather than being mastered by) one’s emotions

The objective of these activities is to increase happiness, reduce strife, and exercise better and healthier decision-making.

 

While these are secular objectives, the pursuit of this form of wisdom has to a large extent become entwined with certain breeds of religion or spiritualism. Mystical religious traditions are the style of spiritualism that are most commonly associated with these pursuits. (Here I use mysticism in its scholarly sense, i.e. traditions that believe in a god or gods and who believe that the space in they can interact with said god is to be found inwardly. This is as opposed to the ill-defined colloquial meaning of mysticism that has a negative connotation and is infused with judgement about hippy-dippiness.) One sees the pursuit of this form of wisdom in yogic philosophy, in most branches of Buddhism, in Taoism, etc.

 

I’m not sure why this connection should be so entrenched. Why should agnostics and atheists forfeit the pursuit of such forms of personal improvement? Maybe the scientifically-minded think that they are knowledgeable and knowledge is wisdom, and so they think they are already on the path. I can tell you that knowledge isn’t wisdom. I base this on the experience of knowing intellectually brilliant people who couldn’t get along with anyone, who perpetually said the wrong things, and whose personal lives were a wreck. Skeptics and geeks are as subject to strained relationships, stress, and unhappiness as their pious neighbors.

 

Another possible explanation is that many scientifically-minded people just don’t think that such goals are achievable because the routes to them have too often been couched in supernatural terms.   However, there’s a growing literature on how these objectives can be pursued that is rooted in neuroscience and neuroplasticity, and for which the presence or absence of a deity is irrelevant.  I’ve been reading a book called Zen and the Brain lately that offers an understanding of the effects of meditation that is firmly rooted in the science of the brain. I also recently purchased a book entitled Buddha’s Brain that takes a look at how neuroplasticity allows for a “rewiring” the brain to a healthier state. (Yes, I realize the irony of citing two books that have religious references in their titles in this post. I’d argue that this is how inexorably tangled these pursuits have become with religion. However, both of the scientist/authors of the aforementioned books, James H. Austin and Rick Hanson, have books with more secular titles if you’d prefer.)

BuddhaBrain Zen&Brain

 

I was once eating in a university cafeteria when I heard a religious man make the argument to a fellow he was trying to “educate” that went like this:  “If there’s not a God, why should I be nice to my wife–why shouldn’t I kick the hell out of my dog?” My first thought was that this man desperately needed therapy. If the only reason he wasn’t being a violent asshole is because he feared the wrath of an invisible, omnipotent entity who–by they way–would have to be showing a complete indifference to what people do to each other in real-time, then he’s an accident waiting to happen. If he either: a.) loses his fear of said deity, or b.) begins to think that the deity is telling him to go another way (since whatever the deity is “telling” him is almost certainly just his mind telling him), then his wife and dog are in great peril.

 

My second thought was, “this is the cafeteria in an institution for higher learning, how’d this guy get in without at least the rudimentary training in logic to imagine a basis of moral behavior that’s not rooted in the supernatural smiting ability of a deity [who–I might add–sees a helluva lot of smite-worthy activity on a daily basis.]”

 

If you’re considering an action that seems questionable, you don’t need to ask what Jesus would do? You can start by asking the question: Would my life (or those of my loved ones) be adversely impacted by living in a world in which everybody did what I’m about to do in the manner I intend to do it? (Implied is the idea that, if the action in question involves doing something to someone, you would be subject to being on the receiving end of same action sooner or later.)   If the answer is “yes,” don’t do it. If the answer is “no” there still may be reasons not to do the activity that have to do with what is good for you personally. (We’ll get into that a little further down.)

 

I realize that the above standard isn’t perfect, but it’s far less subject to user error than WWJD and it explains why the fellow from above shouldn’t beat his wife or his dog unless he likes rigorous and regular beatings himself. Some people might say that they don’t think they or their loved one’s would be adversely in the slightest if everyone went about walking around naked. Others might believe that they would be stressed out (or overstimulated) in such a world. However, the above approach has already gotten us to the fringe of questionable activity. Yes, some people might be traumatized if their neighbors walked around in the nude. But I suspect if everybody did it (as per the question) it would become not weird (definitely not harmful) in short order. There are those people who are so fragile that they can’t sleep knowing that a couple engaging in intercourse in privacy of a room three doors down are probably not using a missionary-approved posture. Said people need the kind of wisdom I’m talking about more than any because part of it is accepting that there may be more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in their philosophy. Now that we know how to kill stray asteroids, if humanity ever dies out it will be at the hands of people who can’t bear anyone living by rules not those that they took for themselves.

 

At any rate, I think there are two reasons why the above approach is difficult for homo religiosis (religious human.) First, there are many activities that homo religiosis wants to see universally abolished because their religion considers forbidden, but which don’t adversely impact others. (e.g. Jains are pretty easy-come-easy-go, but imagine you were told you’d have to forgo onions because of that religion’s moral belief that no food should come from a plant that’s killed by harvesting. [FYI: Let me laugh now at the religious people who say “but there’s nothing crazy like that in my religion?” That just means you are so untraveled and uneducated that you can’t fathom how completely wacky some of your “moral” beliefs / practices are. e.g. How about eating salmon on Fridays as a sacrifice in lieu of eating a hamburger? That’s just nutty on all sorts of levels.])

 

Second, many believers really do believe that they have a special place in god’s heart and, therefore, aren’t subject to the same limitations as those poor, god unloved people. The idea that said person shouldn’t commit rape because they wouldn’t like it if someone else raped them or their sister or their mother is non-sense, because their god would never let someone else get away with shit like that with them. (Yes, there are people who’ve lived sheltered enough lives to believe that god punishes others but–at most–“tries” them.)

 

Most of us must accept that when it comes to being a person, we are the same as all the other people. While one may be stronger, faster, smarter, or in some dimension more talented than others, this doesn’t endow one with a different set of rights and responsibilities. On a genetic level there are no chosen people.

 

Earlier I mentioned that the “if everyone else did it” standard might leave one on the horns of a dilemma as to how to behave or what decision to make. Here’s where we’ve got to use our brains because the hard and fast rules go out the window. Evolution has programmed us with some guidelines that were beneficial given the constraints of the world our ancestors lived in. However, this programming of pleasure and pain may or may not be great advice given the ways in which humans have changed our own world.

 

Let me give some examples. Our nervous system suggests we eat foods that are sweet and fatty. We crave chocolate and bacon, and pleasure centers in the brain light up when we consume these foods. In our hunter / gatherer existence, this was excellent guidance because a.) these foods were relatively rare, b.) these foods had dense caloric content, c.) sweet foods are less likely to be poison, and d.) we worked our asses off in physical labor (i.e. high caloric demands.) However, today these high caloric foods are mass-produced, we require almost no caloric expenditure to obtain them (or to do most anything else in our cubicle-dwelling work lives), and in some cases people are literally (I don’t use “literally” lightly) killing themselves with such foods.  So part of the wisdom I’m talking about is developing the capacity to exercise conscious control over decisions about whether to eat such foods, how much of such foods to consume, and what activities to do to counter act the flood of empty calories. Our biology is a harsh mistress, and it can require intense efforts to keep such impulses under control.

 

We are also programmed with love, a trait which has served us well over all. I know some of you are cringing about the idea of “evolutionarily programmed love”–so unromantic. It’s simple. Those who could build connections with others disproportionately survived to pass their genes on. This further fed into our species’ rise because, while we think of ourselves as the planet’s dominant species, we produce the most vulnerable 1 year olds (or 8 year olds for that matter) of any species on the planet. A human three-year-old is good for two things–learning and food. It takes a lot of love to make sure its the former and not the latter. An extremely intense experience of love is essential to our species’ ability to not just wander off and let our pain-in-the-ass children get eaten. This gives us plenty of time to teach kids more than just how to elude a saber-tooth tiger. We have time to teach kids language, social niceties, and trigonometry.

 

We can, therefore, use our gigantic brains to noodle out whether a given action is best for us,  in addition to whether it does no harm to those around us. The complexity of our brains allows us to rewrite our rule book in unprecedented ways. Some of the religious “morality” that seems vacuous (e.g. don’t eat shellfish, but feel free to own as many people as you can afford) probably had a logic in that time (e.g. people were getting sick from eating shellfish because they didn’t yet know how to prepare it.) The problem is that one has to be ready to jettison obsolete advice, and that’s hard to do once it’s entrenched as dogma. This is where being Homo sapiens, the thinking human, comes into play.

 

 

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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