Tag Archives: Tibetan Buddhism

Book: Cultivating Compassion

Experiment 8: Mr. Einstein is on a railroad car moving to the left with velocity v, and on his car are two light bulbs that, from his perspective, come on simultaneously. To confirm this, he could also rig some sort of detector that would go off only if both beams of light arrive at his position simultaneously.

Question: What will Mrs. Einstein see?

Answer: She will agree that both beams of light reach Mr. Einstein at the same time. However, since from her point of view the light on the right has greater distance to travel, she will see the light on the right come on first!

Conclusion: From the above experiments we see that events which may be simultaneous for one observer can happen in a different sequence for another observer. This leads us to the startling conclusion that there is no such thing as a universal “now” for which everyone will agree on what happens “now”. That is, I can see two events as happening “now” while another observer will see one event happening “now” with the other event yet to occur!

Source: http://aether.lbl.gov/www/classes/p139/exp/experiment8.html


I enjoy these bewildering thought experiments in special relativity. They stretch the mind for its own sake, like riddles, quizzes or a work of art. The more I think about the implications of Mr and Mrs Einstein on moving trains, the more I realise the triviality of our human senses. Our senses and feelings, as beguiling as they are, hardly represent the real world at all.

Recently, the number of books I’ve been reading has inflated my ego. This January, I read 21 books—that’s more than I read between the ages of 0 and 23. I’m also way ahead in this year’s Mad Reviewer Reading Challenge.

Thought experiments brought my ego back to normal again. Not special relativity, this time, but something much more useful…

Cultivating Compassion
When lost in the library, “red” and “Buddhist” are usually safe book choices. They usually get 4 or 5 of my stars.

Guided meditation. Thought experiments that sharpen your worldview.
190 pages, ★★★★

Two thought experiments from this mid-level Buddhist book stood out for me.

First, everyone on earth is either your friend, neutral, or an enemy. Given that Buddhists believe in infinite reincarnation, everyone on earth has, at different points in the past, been your friend, neutral, and enemy. The author gives a political example:

“China was a close friend of the U.S. during the Second World War, then became an enemy during the Korean War, and now is supposedly a political friend again” — page 69

People also make up, make friends, and fall out within lifetimes. Given that all enemies can become friends, and that all friends can all become enemies, in this lifetime or the next, we can choose to mould the kinds of relationships we want in life.

The book phrases this much better (and longer) than I did, but the concluding ‘meditation’ is this:

“Just as I want happiness and don’t want suffering, so this friend wants happiness and doesn’t want suffering. And equally, this neutral person wants happiness and doesn’t want suffering. And equally, this enemy wants happiness and doesn’t want suffering.” — page 81

Irrefutable logic here cultivates your compassion for enemies, friends and strangers alike. So why not all get along?

Next, the ‘moon-ripples’ analogy, as I’ll call it, reminds us that our perception is just a mirage, a vague approximation of reality. The world behaves like the reflection of the moon in a rippled ocean:

“In the blink of an eye, everything is changing. Or, even more subtly, in each three-hundred-and-sixtieth of a blinking of an eye or of a snapping of the fingers, everything is disintegrating. For a Buddha, the realisation of this is still more subtle, but at our level, this measurement affords a glimpse of subtle change. It is said that all impermanent phenomena possess a nature of such subtle disintegration” — page 171

We fixate on false ideals and try to solidify the future. This is an impossible goal, since the world is unpredictably complex; elusive and in constant flux. The future is never certain, nor should it be. When you encounter something you will never understand or see clearly, just think about the ‘moon-ripples’ analogy.

This interactive book is written for people already familiar with Buddhism. Author Jeffrey Hopkins uses his experience from the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center in the United States to formulate these exercises. There are dozens of meditations, and pages of prose provide the supporting logic behind each one. Everyone will find something they need in this book—I recommend Cultivating Compassion for all Buddhists. ★★★★

Book: Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill

Healthful soul tonic that everyone needs. Read it with Orchid-Scented Phoenix Tea.
272 pages, ★★★★★

Happiness is an extroverted book with nothing to hide. You’ll notice this from the moment you open it. The friction coefficient of the paperback cover is equal to that of the pages inside, so the fingerfeel of the inside and outside seem to be ‘one’ (very Buddhist). The paper is grippable, not polished, and the pages are slightly imperfectly-cut, which helps author Mattieu Ricard emanate his soothing modesty and humour onto paper. Watch him speak here at TED.com, again, with nothing to hide.

Happiness covers Buddhist teachings of the ego, karma and inner happiness. First, a true Buddhist is egoless. Second, karma (or 因果, “cause-and-effect”) rules the universe: “If we sow the seeds of poisonous weeds, we cannot expect to reap crops”. Third, happiness is independent of external circumstances, particularly material abundance. This is illustrated with numerous examples and meditation exercises. The classic anecdote of a lottery winner becoming ecstatic, then indifferent, then increasingly depressed over time (sometimes suicidal) is used. However, metaphors that relate to nature will dominate this book (in a very Tibetan way), for example, “sating desire is like drinking seawater—it only makes you more thirsty”. The best anecdote of how happiness differs from pleasure comes in the form of the lab-rat who, in control of an electrode that stimulates the ‘pleasure’ parts of its brain, will continue to stimulate itself until it dies of hunger or exhaustion. Happiness uses science and Buddhism, East and West, modern and traditional in tandem.

Science is used throughout Happiness. Compassionate people can withstand pain for longer. Optimistic people live 19% longer. Experienced meditators exhibit significantly-higher gamma-wave activity in the left pre-frontal lobe (associated with happiness) when meditating. Despite knowing that we should never take the pop-sci genre for face-value, the author’s biochemistry background leaves me questioning not the credibility of his research (which has been submitted to Nature), but the credibility of a slightly-conflicting book, A Whole New Mind (read my review here). Both books discuss brain-waves and happiness.

There was an apparent contradiction in this book. The author writes that enlightenment needn’t be preceded by suffering or wrongdoing; that benevolence is not merely practiced to counteract previous crimes. But at the same time, the author writes in the first chapter, that “the first step to ‘happiness’ [in the book’s sense] is to acknowledge that our way of acting and feeling has been wrong”. Whether suffering is to alleviate our own pain or that of others, it does seem that experiencing pain and focussing on it does seem to be a prerequisite to enlightenment. Fight Club‘s chemical burn scene was right.

Another thing that surprised me were his repeated references to China. Being a compassionate monk, he showed no anger in writing (8 times) about the plight of the Tibetans during the Chinese Liberation period. But as a Sinophile, I’m tempted to now go and read more books by Tibetans in exile, and the Communist Party’s official view of this slice of Tibet’s history. Did Tibetans suffer any more than the Han suffered during Liberation and the Cultural Revolution? Possibly not…

I should have read this book years ago (it was published in English in 2006). The section labelled “Why blame the world?” would have been particularly educational for me when struggling a few years ago. I found guidance in Marxism and Maoism, but would have been infinitely better-off with Buddhism (and happiness). I recommend this book for anyone caught up in the superficialities of democracy, the “captivity of negativity” or the trivialities of daily life. ★★★★★