Monthly Archives: June 2014


A friend of mine recently posted to Facebook what I interpreted as a slightly new-agey version of the serenity prayer: “One of the happiest moments in life is when you find the courage to let go of what you can’t change.” As I wrote in that post, I’m not a big fan of that kind of sentiment, because it could be construed as a way of avoiding responsibility. Of course I don’t have to worry about the botched execution in Oklahoma, because there’s nothing I can do about it. What does it matter that two girls were raped and hung from a tree in India? What was I supposed to do about it? I’m a yogi; I sit in my meditation posture practicing contentment every day.

Those are extreme examples of course; you can insert more reasonable ones for yourself. “I don’t need to help my brother; he’s always getting in trouble. I’ve tried to help him before; it doesn’t work. I’m content to watch him suffer.” So I posited this as an addendum to our new-agey slogan to make it more palatable; if we add a time element it becomes, “One of the happiest moments in life is when you find the courage to let go of what you can’t change in the present moment.” This I’m okay with, because making substantive change takes time. We can’t end poverty today; racism and persecution are unlikely to end tomorrow. But we can end them. The Buddha said there is an end to old age, sickness, and death. The logic of it is simple: if you accept cause and effect, then there are causes for suffering. Remove the cause, you must remove the result. What can we change? Everything, given time.

Consider suffering,
It can end,
Because it has causes.

True or false? Run the tests. Does suffering have a cause? If suffering has a cause, can it end? If something cannot end, must it not have a cause (is it unchanging)?

And this is not an exclusively Buddhist concept. If you’re Christian, or Muslim, or of any belief system that accepts the existence of heaven, then in principle you accept the possibility of living in a world without suffering. So the question then is, how do we create such a world?

My dictionary defines contentment as “satisfied with what one is or has; not wanting more or anything else.” I want lots of things; I want suffering to end, for example. This is a common debate, “Does a Buddha want anything?” Yes, they want an end to suffering. But how they “want” things is different from how we want things. If I want something, I would fight you for it. If a Buddha wants something, they figure out how to give it to others.

Of course, contentment (santosha) as an aspect of the eight limbs of yoga, has a part to play in this discussion. What’s important is to understand where and how it fits in. To start with, not as a way of avoiding responsibility. The brief Wikipedia article on santosha gives two definitions from different sources of discussions on the Yoga Sutra: “not requiring more than you have” and “renunciation of the need to acquire, and thereby [the] elimination of want as an obstacle to moksha [liberation].” So let’s take a look at these.

Consider contentment,
It is an obstacle to enlightenment,
Because enlightenment is something I don’t have.

True or false? Run the tests. Is there a relationship between contentment and things I don’t have? Yes, that’s part of the definition Wikipedia gave me. If enlightenment is something I don’t have, must not wanting it be an obstacle? Maybe it’s some kind of Zen koan, but I would argue overcoming the lack of desire to get enlightened or to get to heaven is the goal of any spiritual practice. Otherwise it’s what you see everyone around you doing; go to work, get old, get sick, die. This is exactly what the Buddha was trying to discover the way out of.

So how do we fix it? Contentment is not “not requiring more than you have” or the “elimination of want.” As we discussed above, Buddhas want things (for you to also get enlightened). Instead, we could define contentment as “not wanting more than what I have created the causes for.” Do I want to get enlightened? Yes, but I haven’t created the causes yet, so I don’t get upset that I’m not there yet. Does that mean I’m not working towards it? No, of course I am. Am I happy that this world is full of poverty and violence? No. But have I created the causes for it to end? No, so I am content. Does that mean I’m not working towards creating those causes? No, I better be doing that, or nothing will change. But I am also content, that creating those causes, I will see that result.

Consider a perfect world,
I will eventually see such a place,
Because I have created the causes for it.

True or false. Run the tests. Then I am content.

“To infinity… and beyond!”

I was teaching a logic class yesterday and the subject of infinity came up. It’s a problem, whenever this happens, because I still don’t have a good definition for infinity. And this is a problem because you can’t debate something if you can’t define it. If we’re debating how many pieces of fruit are on a plate, and you don’t think tomatoes are a fruit, but I do, who is right? Well, we’re both wrong until we agree on a definition for “fruit” (whether to use the scientific or culinary one).

In the same way then, to discuss infinite logically, we have to agree on a definition. Sometimes infinity is just thought to mean a really big number–like a googolplex, but bigger. Mathematically, it is handled as an abstraction (not representative of a real number) and can be divided in different ways. For example, infinity can be either countable or uncountable. Infinity is uncountable if its cardinal number is larger than that of the set of all natural numbers (if it includes negative integers, for example).

This is a useful concept, because in Tibetan Buddhism infinity seems to have different meanings. It is said for example, that living beings are infinite. But living peoples are things, and things can be counted, which would mean that we are talking about a real number (just very big). However, time is also infinite, but can be thought of in discrete (moments) or indiscrete (a non-broken line made up of infinitesimally small points) terms. Time can also be thought of in non-natural terms (the past as negative moments in time going backwards). So what are we to make of the seven step cause and effect method, which tells us that everyone has been our mother, because we have all been reborn over and over through infinite time? Because theoretically, if there are an infinite number of beings, and in each life you have one mother, then infinity minus one still equals infinity. No amount of infinite time will allow you to have been born of an infinite number of beings; in each life into which you have been born there will still be an infinity of beings who have not been your mother.

Mathematics doesn’t give us much help here, the solution to infinity (beings) minus infinity (time) is indeterminate: it could be infinity, zero, or negative infinity (here’s an equation proving the answer is -2), because infinity is defined as a concept and not a number. (I found a nice analogy: what is the value of an apple divided by a cat?)

This is also a problem with regard to getting out of sansara (suffering life). We’re told that everyone gets out of sansara eventually, given infinite time. But logically, this doesn’t make sense: there are an infinite number of sansaric results (rebirth as a hell being, hungry ghost, animal, human, or in a god realm) so again and infinite number of possible results means you could keep spinning in sansara infinitely (one possible result of infinity minus infinity is still infinity).

So let’s look at the first problem as a syllogism:

Consider every living being,
They have been my mother,
Because I have had infinite lives in the past.

True or false? Run the tests. Test #1: is it true that I have had infinite lives in the past in which to experience every living being? Buddhism would say yes. Test #2: if I have had infinite past lives, does that mean that I must have been everyone’s mother?

So I would argue no here, for the reasons above. An infinite amount of past lives would still leave an infinite amount of living beings who have not been your mother. Unless “infinite” here just means a really big number, in which case infinite time could be an infinitely larger number than the infinite number of living beings. In which case all living beings have been your mother an infinite number of times. But the converse could also be true: if there are infinitely more living beings than the infinite amount of your past lives then there will always be an infinite number of people who have not been your mother.

So I’m going to say this syllogism is false. What do you think?