wisdom and compassion

I recently spent ten days at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Kathmandu. It was a very rewarding experience that I probably would not have encountered without Lisa. When we were “planning” our trip, this was one of the few things that she had mentioned wanting to do, and while it wasn’t something I would have thought to select on my own, I was excited about the idea of learning and experiencing something new, even if I had very little idea what I was getting myself into.

The ten-day retreat included silence from 9pm to noon every day and two full days of silence at the end.

The course kept silence from 9pm to noon every day and two full days at the end.

In the weeks immediately prior to the monastery stay, I had been very excited and consumed with coding (that’s what we call writing computer software) on a new project. So much so, I had even backpacked the Annapurna circuit carrying my own laptop after I failed to convince Lisa to split a porter with me. Almost every day after hiking (usually until well after Lisa was sleeping) and for a week straight in Pokhara and Kathmandu after the trek, I spent almost all free time obsessed with the code. When I get into that mindset, it’s a very focused concentration and even time not spent at my computer is often spent daydreaming about ways in which to solve some problem or enhance some feature within the software. At the same time, we had spent almost six months together, and my communication skills and compassion were not at their peak, even if we were approaching 5,400 meters in altitude. I know I wasn’t an extremely fun and engaging travel partner during this time, to put it mildly. As Lisa mentioned to a fellow trekker when he inquired whether I had to be working while on the trail, it was the first time I had done any real time-consuming work in six months, so maybe she could understand or forgive me.

With my brain in the coding flow, I also realized the monastery stay would involve half days of silence and a request to turn in all electronic and communication devices. I’m not always into following rules that don’t suit me, unless I can grasp the significance of them or they can be justified to me logically. I set out fully intending to keep my electronics — I bought a power adapter to use in the room (or any outlet I could find) and went over scenarios in my head about how I was going to manage to hold onto the computer and cell phone. I imagined saying to the monk at check-in: “Your website says you will *ask* us to turn in devices. Well, I hear you asking, but the answer is ‘no’ unless this is a requirement and if that is the case, you should probably update that web page.” Being “technically correct,” of course, is my favorite kind of correct, and I can be very into arguing semantics. I have found that people love when you do that! I had also emailed reception and asked if they had any single rooms still available that I could pay extra for. That would give me the solitude not to disturb others with my breaking of the “rules.” Unfortunately, single rooms were already all booked up. I’m on to you rule-breakers! Or maybe they knew they wouldn’t be able to handle the inevitable snorer in a dorm of four. Surprisingly, I wasn’t the culprit this time, but our Russian roommate who caused my other two roommates to switch rooms at one point. I guess I’ve conditioned myself after six months of travel, and my own snoring, not to be too bothered. Shout out to Lisa for not killing me in my sleep at any point during this trip!!!

IMG_7825-001The day of our arrival came and at check in, Lisa went first. I was pretty excited when they didn’t even ask her if she had any electronics or phone. They just gave her a number for a locker should she wish to place any valuables there. YES! This was going to be easy to hang onto my laptop. With so much potential downtime and quiet, I would be happy to have it. As a programmer, you must hold a large amount of information in your mind at once, all of the variables and data you have defined in your code, the name of smaller functions (bits of code), the overall architecture, and more. One thing that non-programmers can fail to grasp is that to interrupt a programmer with even a one-minute question can set them back fifteen minutes. To return to code you had written in a previous year, it can seem unintelligible without a large amount of time spent revisiting it. Taking a ten day break in my project would mean not only to risk losing all motivation to work (something that is very easy even after a short vacation) but also potentially cause a large ramp up time when I finally did resume work.

It was around 2pm when we were checked in and I headed to my room. Our first item on the schedule was tea time at 5pm so I cracked open the book they had given me — The Essence of Tibetan Buddhism by Lama Yeshe. Part of me already felt unsure about keeping the electronics — what was the point of coming to a Buddhist retreat if I wasn’t going to fully immerse myself in the situation and see what it had to offer. As I began reading, the book laid out the three essential paths to enlightenment, the first of which was renunciation: the goal of having less craving for and grasping at sense objects and pleasures. At some point during the first chapter, it became clear to me that I should definitely get rid of my computer and the Internet. I know how hard it is for me to have any internal awareness and deep thought, and if I kept these items around I would remain constantly distracted. Plus, now that it wasn’t a requirement, and I could get it back any day if I changed my mind, my strong rebellion was no longer present and I enjoyed the challenge of proving to myself that I wasn’t so attached to these objects after all. Just last year, I had managed seven days on the West Coast Trail without the Internet, so this wouldn’t be much longer. The worry is always that something catastrophic will happen with my web servers that thousands of customers depend on, so I did make the decision that I would check in once at the halfway mark to make sure everything was still ok.

Not killing

We started the session with a basic introduction to the course, the monastery, as well as the rules and etiquette. Ani Karin, the nun who would lead most of our sessions, explained that the goal of practitioners of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition is to alleviate the suffering of all sentient beings and bring them peace and happiness. The only way forward is to hold a strong sense of compassion for all beings and develop wisdom to support that compassion. You would think among the list of rules at a monastery, ‘not killing’ is a no-brainer and do you really need to tell us not to do so while we are here?

However, Buddhists believe in reincarnation and also that our minds have been around since beginningless time, cycling through various realms of existence. Included in this, is the animal realm and they believe that every living being has countless times been your mother, friend, enemy and so on. They use this as a tool to develop compassion towards all living beings, including animals. The necessity of telling us not to kill suddenly becomes obvious when I realize that I’ve been swatting mosquitos anytime they buzz near me for the last six months. Ani Karin told us she will leave her arm out of the sheet at night so the mosquitos can feed. I was up until 2:00am that first night getting bit left and right, as I didn’t have any mosquito repellant left. Good thing there isn’t a risk for malaria in Kathmandu.

The stupa garden at sunset

The stupa garden at sunset

For my brain that operates in a very logic-based mode almost non-stop, wrapping my head around their beliefs in reincarnation and karma proved a bit too much for me to accept. It’s not that I reject it either, but tend to take an unknowing view on it all. I don’t get too hung up on things that can’t be proven or disproven in any religion, whether it’s in Christian stories that I was brought up with, or the Buddhist teachings I was encountering now. For me, it is the philosophy that is most directly applicable to my life and I get the most benefit from. And in these areas, both Jesus and Buddha seem to have been some pretty insightful beings.

That said, I think the practice of developing compassion towards all beings is useful, and for some animals such as dogs, it is easy to feel immediately. But if you can find that compassion for even a mosquito that is sucking your blood, compassion for the person who slighted you in your own life may come easier as well. I think I will really think twice and avoid stepping on that ant or swatting at mosquitos, even if I have a hard time believing it was my mother in another life or that I might be reincarnated as such in the future. Spiders: no promises. We all have limits to our compassion until we reach the level of enlightenment.


080818-A-1497L-067Speaking of compassion, I was having trouble really holding onto that lesson with a couple of celebrity course participants: the secretary from office space and Guy Fieri. OK, it wasn’t really them, but those are the characters they became in my mind.

I started to develop conspiracy theories like these people must be plants to train our patience and compassion, because can you really be thirty to forty years old and still not recognize the inconsiderateness of hijacking another person’s question, interrupting your teacher mid-sentence and telling us about the example of your aunt giving a homeless shelter $100? Not just once, but day after day. At this point, I was the one with the fiery Fieri attitude wishing to send him on the first bus to Flavortown. At the same time, I was trying my best to keep it mostly inside while darting my eyes around the room like, is anyone else witnessing this bullshit?!

Or the secretary from office space who would string together question after question… I know she’s the one who said “now Milton, don’t be greedy, let’s pass it along and make sure everyone gets a piece [of cake],” but now I was the one thinking “now lady, let’s make sure everyone gets to ask a question” I began wishing for all of the hand signals and communication systems developed or used in the Occupy movement for ensuring fairer and more representative discussions and debates. Can I get a progressive stack taker and some up twinkles? No? Ok… You know, Occupy was far from perfect and there was plenty to criticize, but it certainly had someone, and often a committee, concerned about fixing almost everything and a lot of wisdom did seem to get developed.

I tried to figure out how to solve this issue. I thought about just confronting him and asking why he thought this was ok. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to frame it well and would likely have a more confrontational, rather than friendly, nature when doing so. So then I thought about asking our teacher for her advice. One-on-one opportunities rarely arose — one of the drawbacks of the course — so that never happened. A few days later, I almost raised my hand in class to inquire that this was my first Buddhist retreat and I was curious: “If I had a question or idea to contribute, should I just blurt it out, even if you are mid-sentence or raise my hand and wait to be called on?” After examining my own motives, I decided I would also need to follow that question up with “what is the Buddhist teaching on passive aggressiveness?”

In my small group, one of our participants described him as “the guy with no reservations” when speaking of Fieri. I laughed out loud because it was a much more compassionate way than I would ever have been able to describe his behavior. In the end, I decided that I lacked the wisdom on this situation and Karin must have clearly dealt with this in countless lectures before, so who am I to insist on my particular notions of etiquette. She probably used it as her own opportunity to develop patience. I do think it wore on her, and at least once she cracked and snapped at another student in a somewhat passive aggressive manner — to the extent that it is possible for a gentle Buddhist nun of 60ish years of age to do. The monks and nuns will be the first to tell you they aren’t perfect, struggle with all this material themselves, and have a very long way to go.

By the end of the course, these other students barely even registered as an annoyance anymore, and it went a long way towards our lecturers’ point that so much of the suffering we put ourselves through is entirely a state of mind. Working through meditations I focused on the ideas that they were asking some good questions, only trying to further their understanding, it didn’t seem to be bothering the teacher, and in the end, no one was left with their hand raised so anyone who wanted to ask a question was able. All of my frustrations boiled down to my own opinions on etiquette and how a discussion should be run, but it wasn’t my course to run.

Attachment to food

this is a joke, right? :)

this is a joke, right? :)

My other theory is that the food at this retreat must be intentionally cooked to be bland so that we would not form attachment to it — one of the goals with all sense pleasures including taste. We are in Nepal, right next to India, and these countries are no strangers to delicious vegan and vegetarian food. If you are trying to convince a room of omnivores that giving up meat is a more compassionate path that will ultimately lead to greater happiness, at least remind us that tasty alternatives exist! And when I say tasty, I mean actually having any taste whatsoever. Knowing that Lisa had some of the best food of the trip at her last vegan monastery stay meant it was certainly possible to create something other than bland gruel and soup. They actually had a whole pot for those on a “simple boiled veg” diet, but I’m not sure how that differed from what I was eating… Ok, I’m slightly exaggerating.

Look, I had already given up my attachments to a lot of things on this trip — clean rooms, sheets that fit on your bed, soap at the bathroom sink, seatbelts, bathrooms where the shower doesn’t soak the entire room, power outlets that work for more than 12 hours a day, western toilets, toilet paper that doesn’t shred in your hands, internet you can watch video on — you know, things just working — but we have been eating very well this trip. Don’t take that away from me!!! I know ten buffalo mo:mo dumplings are sixty cents and thirty minutes away in Kathmandu. I ate delicious apple crumble while trekking through mountain villages in this country! Help me out…

Attachment to objects

I’ve made it sound like a frustrating or unenjoyable experience, but even one of the several insights I feel I gained at this retreat would have been worth a stay of twice as long — although I was very ready to leave after ten days. Some of the topics were very easy for me to identify and agree with. One of these is that a strong desire for and attachment to objects can lead to unhappiness.

“The nature of attachment is suffering.” — Lama Yeshe

Before leaving on this trip, I sold or gave away almost everything and it was a very liberating experience. I don’t think this means you can’t have nice things or that those who are driving around a brand new car must be attached to it. Only that in my case, I certainly became attached to the BMW I won in a contest at university and recognizing that, and that it led to more stress than happiness, was useful in learning it wasn’t worth having. Far better for me to have a car I can throw my dog into and not care when a rubber tire fragment splits off a piece of plastic on the side of my car.

These are pictures of my last three cars. Yes, I drove around college in the 90s with a website address on the back window of my car. The 90s, people!

car_small-sample bmw_09 06-2007_Hyundai_Sonata

When I got rid of the BMW, it doesn’t mean I went for the shittiest car, either. But a level where the enjoyment can outweigh the attachment and mental stress that an object creates. And I think that level is different for everyone, but important to recognize in oneself. Are we acquiring more material possessions because they will really enhance our life and happiness or have we developed attachment and desire that has inflated their appeal and sense of importance in our lives beyond what is realistic.


It was in the middle of one of the teachings at our Buddhist monastery, probably on wisdom and compassion, that a thought popped into my head. Fuck MIT for what they did to Aaron Swartz. Now, the middle of a lecture on wisdom and compassion is maybe not the place I would have expected this thought to occur. Do you have that kind of spontaneous, compassion-motivated anger towards an organization that aided a federal prosecution of its own student for access to public domain educational material? If not, I can give you some of mine. Pick almost any issue and I’ll deliver it free of charge. It might not be coherent, or attractive, though. I would learn, anger never is.

owsI’ve been pretty angry about most things politics for several years now. Wars, health care, civil liberties, and on and on. There’s a reason Occupy wasn’t able to focus on any one issue — shit is fucked up and bullshit when it comes to politics in this country, and often the world. I’ve generally attempted to avoid talking too much about it outside of activist circles because it’s hard to be rational and coherent with the level of outrage I feel is warranted.

The lecture the very next day would be on:

Abandoning harsh words

Hard to remain calm when you see a fellow peaceful protestor, in this case a homeless woman in Denver, treated in this way.

Avoiding harsh words is rather difficult when you see a peaceful protestor treated this way — in this case a homeless woman in Denver.

One of the ten non-virtuous actions in Buddhism is avoiding harsh or insulting words. At first, this was a hard one for me to fully agree with, as I’ve seen so many politicians and commentators support terrible policies with nice speeches and language. A tactic you can find in debates often by people who supported aggressive wars and torture, is a call for civility if you get fired up when pointing this out. Or they mask policies that are just as bad as those of the Bush-era in flowery words and laudable speeches that are never backed up by action. I think there can be a big difference between civility and decency.

“They put a gun in your face, and tell you to be non-violent.” -sole

However, the more I meditated on this issue, I came to see that it is likely very ineffective at accomplishing the real-world change I want to see. Some of the key points that Ani Karin made about anger and harsh words were:

  • cant communicate well from a place of anger
  • people gravitate towards tolerance, kindness and peacefulness
  • anger spreads distrust and people are turned off by harsh words
  • anger makes us blind and unreasonable, often leading us to things we regret
  • real anger always hurts, and often hurts the person who is expressing it the most

After looking back at my own experiences with anger and harsh words, I do find it to be true for me. I think it is a valuable lesson going forward that anger can be useful when it initially sparks outrage about injustice, but at some point, I must stop being angry and figure out what can be accomplished and the best ways to do so.

Love and attachment

A light offering in the stupa garden -- dedicated to those who have passed away or are suffering

A light offering in the stupa garden — dedicated to those who have passed away or are suffering

Another of the most useful teachings for me was on the topic of love and attachment and understanding the difference between the two. As our teachers explained it, love is the unselfish condition of wanting to make another person happy, be there for them and provide what they need the most. Attachment comes when we begin to think about what we can get out of the relationship. It can lead to unrealistic expectations, which in turn leads to disappointment and dissatisfaction. Further, this attachment can breed fear and jealously if left unchecked. It can lead to an expectation that my partner will provide for my happiness, when true and long lasting happiness can only come from within.

“It’s unhealthy to have overestimated expectations of each other.” — Lama Yeshe

Monk Tinggel, who helped steer our discussion group, acknowledged it is probably not possible to have a romantic relationship without attachment, but that he had heard a good idea from another lama that maybe we can aim for 70% love, 30% attachment.

I think these teachings were very applicable to not only romantic relationships, but in strong friendships and with family members as well. I still have a good amount of thinking to do about this topic as I move forward in life.

Motivations and introspection

The ultimate realizations of the course, the things I will take with me, are that I need to develop more wisdom that can support my compassion — often manifesting initially as anger when confronted with social-injustice. For me, that will mean thinking more deeply about what kind of goals that anger should motivate, what can be accomplished and seeking out the advice of others who maybe know more or have better ideas. When we sat to meditate, we folded our hands in a way where our left hand, representing wisdom, supported our right, representing compassion. Ani Karen was asked why it can’t be the other way, and explained that we all have compassion in our lives and, in general, what we need to develop more of is wisdom to support that. Endless compassion without the wisdom to know how to apply it for the benefit of others will be of little use.

I will also strive to be even more compassionate in my daily life, with strangers, friends and in intimate relationships. It was a reaffirming of my experience that true happiness comes from within, being honest with others and by doing the right thing.

A view from the dining room

A view from the dining room

Complicated questions in Buddhism almost always boiled down to one answer — motivation. It is important to examines one’s true motives for any action, especially one that involves lying or harming others, as these are very rarely (but not never) done for the benefit of others.

The challenge will be that I’m re-entering the world of constant connectivity. Introspection has never come naturally to me, and without focus I can go months without critical internal examination. I have been improving in the last year, but it is still a struggle and it’s always easier to distract myself with a random Internet article, tweet or Facebook update. Speaking of which, I think I have some code to write and a video to edit…

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