Can Buddhist philosophy give birth to a modern political theory?

As a student of Buddhist philosophy and practice for the last 15 years, I like to think that I have a relatively firm grasp on the topic. In that 15 years, I got to spend years in intensive study but I also had space to wander away and back into the Buddhist world, giving me a unique perspective. For that reason, I don’t describe myself as a Buddhist outright, but I do admire or respect Buddhist practices. I think Buddhist ideas around awakening are particularly compelling and the mediation systems that Buddhism contains are its greatest gift to humanity, something not found in any other scientific or religious system.

Having said all that, I do have what I believe to be serious criticisms of Buddhism. One I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is its inability to create a modern political philosophy, and for that reason cannot be a powerful political actor unlike the Judeo-Christian religions. Because Buddhism blames the individual for their own misery, it has a hard time looking outwards at what problems lie in institutions and larger society. It is handicapped in offering systemic criticisms and novel approaches to society.

So let’s get into what I mean by this.

Fundamental to the 4 noble truths is the idea that one can overcome the inherent suffering of life by living well and doing personal practices that change one’s mind permanently. The seed here is that life and the architecture around life causes suffering and the solution is to change oneself. It’s a powerful model. But it therefore does not have a sophisticated view of the architecture of life, namely the organizations and institutions that create its circumstances. The main cause and effect is laid on shoulders of the individual. It is up to you to remove your suffering and it not anyone else’s problem. This is why, rather than attempting to augment the society’s and worlds it encounters, historically Buddhism tends to retreat to its own private societies. Like monastic life and the lay life that encircles it.

In other words, the fundamental DNA of Buddhism is unable to propose a new society, but merely to propose a way to retreat from it (and the group of people that support that retreat).

You could argue that there are examples of Buddhism actually having a significant impact on a society. In the case of India, Ashoka converted to Buddhism and enacted major reforms to his empire. With Japan, the first constitution it ever had contained plenty of Buddhist ideas. With China, it was many times a state religion that dominated the lives of the majority of citizens. But with Ashoka, the structure of the society did not change. In Japan, Buddhism merely became the soul of a Confucian structure. And in China, ultimately Buddhism became either sidelined or subservient to larger neo-Confucian trends, despite being a state religion and leaving a deep imprint on its intellectual development. To round this off, in India, the origin place of Buddhism, it ultimately got reabsorbed by Hinduism, effectively nulling its original criticism of its original tenets, ultimately ineffective at tearing down the very framework it was born to disrupt.

With the case of Christianity, in stark contrast, its proselytizing nature has wreaked havoc on institutions and societies, creating major political institutions like the Catholic church and movements like the Crusades and the Inquisition. This eventually leads down the path to the inevitable separation of church and state, a response to the pervasive political threat of the church, and the eventual birth of secularism as counterpoint. Islam almost anticipates this, creating a philosophy that requires a weaving between state and religion. Both these major religions start from a position where the world is flawed and there is evil in the world, and it is upon those true believers to carry the torch in this world to bring more people to the side of light. Sin is my fault, but it is also the fault of the devil and the world full of temptations. The world must therefore be changed.

I think these things, in essence, are things that Buddhism could learn from. Despite Buddhism having massive appeal to the sciences and secularism, it really has nothing to contribute to politics and economics.

But maybe this isn’t Buddhism’s problem really. After all, its gift to humanity is the systematic approach to the mind via meditative practices, an expressly internal endeavor. It did not spend the last several millennia exploring external endeavors. That’s why it has nothing significant to add to our political world.

My question is, will something unique come out of a genuine encounter between Buddhism and modern economic and political theory? It would require quite a mind to do so since the fundamental assumption in how our society operates (especially reflected in the legal system) is that a person is fully accountable for their actions, after a certain age and mental state. In Buddhism, there is certainly a similar assumption, in that a person has agency to change themselves, but it also picks apart even the idea of a self. How do you build a societal infrastructure based on the lack of a self? It’s a tall order.

Finding your home in the maelstrom

A few days ago, I wrote about the power of unfinished thoughts, and I thought I’d elaborate on this idea. In that article, I talked about why it’s powerful to entertain such ideas, because eventually they lead somewhere fascinating.

But what kind of mind does it take to be at that edge? It’s hard to say. The edge of certain ideas is not a safe place. There is a certain apprehension and if I’m being honest, there is anxiety.

Let’s think about one case. When a team is faced with a problem to solve, prior to solving the problem, there is an open space where a brainstorm ensues. For some people, that brainstorm is alien. Even culturally, some people cannot stand that open space, it intimidates their minds or freezes them in their tracks like deers in headlights. For these types of people, they require a closed space to make progress, a space where they are fully aware of the limitations and rules, and can only build with the sand you give them to play with. Ultimately, they don’t allow themselves to have an imagination.

If the above sense is a framework that you buy into, then I think it’s worth considering my central idea: that it takes a subtle bravery and comfortableness to exist in an unknown space. You have to be willing to entertain mostly dumb and crazy thoughts. And you have to be able to allow them to see the light of scrutiny and risk looking like a fool in the process. The bravery is whether or not you are okay with it, whether or not you find your home in it.

I don’t think this practice comes naturally. This is something that is trained over years of work or upbringing. And the paradox is that it is hard to measure whether or not a person is “good” at this. You could be comfortable with chaos but still come up with shit ideas. Vice versa, you could hate the hazy space but still manage brilliant ideas. It depends on the personality and culture, but I find the people who are most interesting are the ones that are able to inhabit that space, indeed, they seek it out, and wade through and into great conversations.

The sheer power of unfinished thoughts

I think one of the most difficult things, as far as thinking goes, is giving oneself the license to think one’s most powerful and impactful thoughts. We tend towards obsessing too much over what everybody else is thinking and understanding that thinking than striking out on our own, unfettered by the limitations of our fellow beings.

This is why I love unfinished thoughts or half-assed thoughts. There is a certain power in letting oneself go and swimming through ideas rather than attempting to piece them together. I think it’s at the edge of one’s own thoughts and logical frameworks that we get a chance to surf on ideas. And at this edge, at the tip of those waves, ideas look messy, stupid and certainly unrefined. And this is where I want to broadcast my thoughts and ideas, sometimes, because there is a space here to be wrong or innovative or stupid. A comedian has to try a million jokes before he finds a few hundred that he can turn into a Netflix Special.

That Netflix Special is a distillation of a comedian’s best jokes after a long period of trial and error. Some jokes are seeds, which eventually become full on trees, a full 5-minute bit. Other jokes are dead on arrival, never able to see the light of day again. This is part and parcel of the journey of a comedian.

The same is true for thinkers. Great thinking teeters precariously at the edge. It seems weird, it seems offbeat. Sometimes it even comes off as offensive. Indeed, sometimes it isn’t taken seriously for decades or centuries. And there are times when these half-baked ideas are only the beginning of great thoughts, lighting a candle that goes out before it casts any shadows. And once in awhile, you have that wild thought that strikes out and grasps the heart of a matter by the balls. And all that surfing, turned out to be worth it.

Why I love the reMarkable tablet

Several of my friends recently asked me about why I liked the reMarkable tablet. At over US$600 it’s worth taking a step back and checking if you really want to put your money into that kinda device. Especially since any ol’ Chromebook costs a third of that.

So let’s do a quick breakdown of tablet prices before we get into the nitty gritty.

Remember that the very popular Kindle Paperwhite costs $120, the much better (imho) Kindle Voyage costs almost $200, and the funny looking Kindle Oasis costs $350. The plus is the obvious connection to the bookstore that is Amazon.

For iPads, the cost goes from $399 for an iPad Mini (I own one and I love it) to a Wifi and Cellular 12.9 inch iPad Pro for $1,279. And there are plenty of arguments that the app ecosystem and operating system are best in class. I tend to agree. iOS is superior in my book, especially as concerns tablets.

So that’s the range of pricing from $120 to $1,279. Obviously, the range of features is incomparable. iPad has exponentially more features, apps, and abilities than Kindle. But reMarkable sits in between the two of the ranges in terms of price and features. Let’s get into the features then.

The ultimate reason why I got the Kindle and now the reMarkable is because I spend all day looking at my phone and my laptop. And as you should know, the blue light emitted from those screens isn’t good for your sleep or your eyes in general.After awhile, staring at a normal Apple-made screen just strains my eyes. With the phone, it’s worse, since it’s so much closer to my face. No matter how many f.lux-like apps I download to prevent that, the strain still happens. Normal screens just have no “true black”, there’s always light being emitted directly into my face. So when I don’t have to, I’d rather look at real paper or e-ink, reMarkable is the kind of device I’ve been waiting years for: essentially, a larger e-ink device where I can read PDF’s and articles on.

For the above need, it’s perfect. I load my PDF’s, found ebooks, and slides into the reMarkable app, and I peruse them like I’d read paper documents. It saves on the paper. And since it’s e-ink, the battery life can last for weeks with minimal usage. Of course, it’s black and white, but I don’t mind that since the gradients are very clear.

In terms of size, the reMarkable is also ideal. It’s very light (much lighter than the iPad Mini even) so it holds very easily in one hand. The screen is perfect for reading PDF’s and larger ebooks. I’ve even read comic books on it. So even without the feature of writing, I already prefer it to the Kindle, which is too small to read PDF’s and articles, and sometimes straining to read a book.

The big bonus on all of this is that reMarkable’s writing utility is excellent. I’d even argue that it’s the best of any tablet on earth. The main reason is that it’s extremely fast (almost instant) and the feeling of writing is very natural, like a pencil or pen on actual paper. You can take notes on blank sheets, templates, and your PDF’s and ebooks. The result is I no longer use a normal paper notebook. I carry my laptop and my reMarkable tablet around for work and meetings. Most of the time, no laptop.

Now, we have to note that the device is a first generation. It’s therefore not an all-rounder. It doesn’t have text recognition like Evernote, so it can’t transcribe your handwriting to text a computer can read. And it can’t view a host of other file formats. But my sense is that they’ll eventually get there in the next generations and software updates. That is, assuming more people by the tablet to support them. I have an obvious bias to want more people to buy it so that support continues.

Overall, I think the price tag makes it worth it if you have the kinds of needs I have like reading PDF’s, reading slides, taking notes, drawing diagrams, and reading ebooks. That’s why I think Amazon should really consider acquiring reMarkable’s team and technology to revamp and expand their Kindle user base. It makes so much sense. The technology is great and aligned with what they already have.

If you’re worried about the lack of certain features, you can wait for the next generation, but since they shipped out all their pre-order tablets in December 2017, I bet the next one won’t come until 2019. So until then, happy writing on normal old paper and reading on your tiny Kindle.

The law of diminishing returns of network effects

As a16z’s Anu Hariharan summarizes in her All About Network Effects deck, a “network effect occurs when a product or a service becomes more valuable to its users as more people use it.” The deck goes on, in brilliant fashion, to show us how the economics of network effects play out in social networks and two-sided marketplaces from Facebook to Airbnb.

I think in 2017, were witnessing two phenomenon with respect to network effects: 1) platforms are subject to a law of diminishing returns, 2) this has lead to noise. The result of these two phenomenon is obvious: 3) people want to retreat to smaller communities over time and 4) its harder to find new signals, aka its harder to become famous.

Diminishing Returns for Users

On Investopedia, the law of diminishing returns states that “an increasing number of new employees causes the marginal product of another employee to be smaller than the marginal product of the previous employee at some point.” With more employees, the output of the group becomes less per employee. Let’s extrapolate this to the a16z thesis and user platforms.

With network effects, the platform becomes more valuable (to users) as more users come to the platform. But with diminishing returns the output becomes less when the platform cannot appropriately utilize the producers (or employees). This is interesting when you consider that in social networks like Facebook, all of the users are also producers of content. Therefore, the user who benefits from network effects is also subject to the law of diminishing returns. In sum, Facebook users will all eventually hit a saturation point in their usage where the amount of friends (and updates) they get experience diminishing returns for them.

I can personally feel this in my usage of social media. As I added more people to my friend circle and followed more people in the timeline, the usefulness of Facebook diminished. As more people came onto my timeline, even though Facebook was algorithmically surfacing the appropriate people to me, it still felt noisy. What am I getting from my friends? Their updates and pictures all blur together into a collage of memories and thoughts that my two hundred thousand year old brain infrastructure can barely keep up with. It’s no wonder that young adults using social media are more likely to experience depression.

Users have too many friends and they get less out of Facebook than they give to it. Their experience results in a net negative experience.

Signal, Noise, Fame, Chatter

With more crowds, and more noise, we now have an environment where it’s harder than ever to get a coherent message across or even to just be famous. Its an odd paradox. Weve reached a saturation point for noise, where now if you want to be famous you have to have a brand or brand association as a jumping off point. With too much noise, people now want curation and expertise. Gone is that brief era where people could pierce through the chatter. And even if you have, the chatter will instantaneously augment it to its own emergent ends. It is so noisy that its hard to even hear signals, let alone ones own signal.

(Dis)Connecting on Social Media

The above is interesting when you think about the unprecedented amount of connection that we experience today via social media and the internet. We are more aware of each other than ever before. We can react at fiber-optic speeds to events happening across the world. Yet we, via the plethora of potential cognitive biases from our post-primate brain, are more than ever beholden to our own ideas and prejudices. In the late 90s and early 2000s, it would have been difficult to predict that humans would enter a new polarized era in the late 2010s. With the biggest connections weve ever had, were also more disconnected than ever in other ways.

This calls into question what do we mean by a platform that becomes more useful to a user as more users enter it. What is “useful”? How do we measure the human value of a social media network? What is the difference between good information and bad information? Or too much information and too little information? What kinds of human beings is social media facilitating into being?

In this sense, the definition of useful, appears to be quite basic. Its about information moving faster from one spot in the world to another. And to be fair, politically speaking, that service should, according to certain human standards, be neutral. If the rulers of our internet world, from Mark Zuckerberg to Larry Page to Jeff Bezos, took an overt active role in politicizing their platforms to be “useful” in other ways, the long-term repurcussions of that would be potentially dictatorial in the long term. So we cant have that. But this leaves us with a platform of paradoxes.

It is no wonder then that people feel lonely when they use Facebook. Its ironic.

Intimacy in a Post-Social World

Many of us likely have a friend who has either deleted their Facebook account or gone off of it for deliberate extended periods of time. The diminishing returns are palpable. The oversaturation of social media noise makes (some of) us want to turn off completely. With social media as the dominant form, with its notification-checking and dopamine-inducing effects, it is harder for people to have intimate authentic exchanges. The world is not real unless its documented and uploaded to the cloud. It is the era of clouds. The clouds you upload to and the clouds you wade through.

The rise in offline groups, one-on-one messaging, private clubs (or networks) for millennials, etc. is only the beginning of a backlash to the cloudy world we live in. In a stressed out, overly-connected world, people dont want real connection and sometimes were unable to know what that is or even give ourselves those moments of quiet and boredom to find them. We can only react in conversation or tweet in frustration. But I think we’re seeing the beginnings of a movement in the opposite direction. People are fatigued as they hit their personal saturation point with the diminishing returns of their social networks.

The Service We Do for Future Humanity

Despite the diminishing returns, the paradoxical isolation, and how beholden we are to devices and internet accounts, there seems to be a small saving grace to all of this internet activity. History repeats itself, as we know. And as we manifest and project our old and new values into this technological ecosystem, it becomes a mirror for us. And it also becomes a mirror for the future humans. In 50 to 100 years and onwards, if we preserve all of our data, it will be the most rich picture of humanity we’ve ever created as an aggregate. And that set of rich data only gets better as the technology to record and preserve it gets better, while the need to record it exponentially increases.

The recording of every moment of every human, privacy notwithstanding, will redefine history as we know it. Think about it. When you read history books that cover events that happened just 100 years ago, we barely have any pictures of the people of that time, and only some recordings of what they thought. You go even further back and historical recordings are dominated by only the most significant voices of their times. Today, we have an unprecedented democratization of history. It’s possible that in the next 100 years, we will have a picture of every living human on the planet. I envy the humans of the future for the data we are giving them.

Are we trapped in the solar system? Feeling out the lightyear

Before you start reading this, scroll down to the bottom of the page and check out the picture from NASA.

Space intrigues me. The stars are so far away that it dwarfs the imagination to think about what that distance really means for humans. What really is a lightyear?

Are we confined to our little part of the galaxy for the next million years? Or will we eventually unlock technologies that will allow us to travel across the galaxy with ease and encounter new aliens and planets? Will the universe become smaller for us as our technology evolves? Or will the physics of the universe forever put constraints on us? Will humanity be forever confined to this solar system?

Stars

Everything travels at most at the speed of light. That means getting to the nearest star to us, Alpha Centauri, will take 4.2 lightyears traveling at the speed of light. And don’t forget, that also means you must have no mass in order to do that! Such a task alone would require significant upgrades to our current technology, and it would still take 4.2 years to arrive. If you go to the bottom of this list, The 53rd star is 16 light years away. Just think for a second, if everything goes right for humanity, one day, some little boy would grow up on a spaceship headed to a star 16 years away from us, traveling at the speed of light. And think about it, this is the most optimistic scenario so far.

Galaxies

But let’s look at this list now. That’s a list of the nearest galaxies. The closest one, Canis Major Dwarf, a kinda crappy galaxy, is 25,000 light years away. That’s right. If we wanted to travel there, it would be close to the amount of time homo sapiens have spent recording their history. That’s the length of time it takes for you to get to be a great great great great great great great great great great (x 20) grandparent. Of course, we existed for even longer prior to that and homonid life does starts millions of years before. Well, it’s funny you should mention millions of years, because Andromeda Galaxy, the largest full-fledged galaxy near us is approximately 2.5 million light years away. In other words, it would take 2.5 million years for us to get there by lightspeed. It’s just staggering. 2.5 million years! Well, at least that’s not 6 million years, that’s how long ago it was when the first hominid arose from earth, Ardipithecus Kadabba (they used to look like this). So there’s a silver lining.

The Universe

Okay, so then let’s make a big assumption that one day it really is possible for us to travel millions of lightyears in a heartbeat. Note that the known observable universe contains one hundred billion galaxies. That’s trillions upon quadrillions upon googols of potential planets. What kinds of technologies would we need to discover to get to explore the entire universe? Is it even physically possible for us to travel and populate across such distances? Given the numbers above, and the many things we likely still don’t know, even in the best case scenario, it’s not possible for humans to grow across the entire universe. It is far more likely for humans to eventually disappear in the next few thousand years and life would form again or elsewhere in the universe. The fate of yourself and of the entire of humanity seems bleak. It’s a bleakness that is challenging and provocative. It’s relatively easy to realize how small we are in the world and the universe, but the sheer number and scale of the universe challenges us to think about what is the best case scenario of all of humanity.

I think given the above picture, you can either take two major lines of thinking. The first is to consider the bleakness and the vastness and live a good life within that, coming to terms with the harsh impermanence of life and the universe. This is taken to certain extremes or logical conclusions in philosophies from existentialism to Buddhism. The alternate extreme mode is to consider that it is possible for us to keep improving our technologies until we can travel across the billions of galaxies and quadrillions of planets, believing in some faith that humanity will ascend to a god-like status, able to manipulate time and space at ease, traveling and populating the universe with life everywhere. I’m game for either one.

Why I love writing

My love of writing dates back to the times when I was a child and my mother forced me to keep a journal. To this day, I still have these notebooks, tomes of the 90’s, that have inscribed within them a curiosity I can still feel in my being today. I don’t remember why I loved writing. But I know why I love it today.

I love to daydream about premises and worlds when I’m idle or bored. In some ways, this is my mind’s natural state. When boredom creeps up on a moment, be it waiting in line or stuck without the internet, my mind will sink into a relaxed state and ideas will float up into view. Other times, a conversation or a speech, especially one I’m fully engaged in, will inspire a sudden flash of an idea, where two (or more) configurations merge in my mind. It could be one simple idea coming into contact with a complex world that is being discussed. Within that sudden merging, a fresh idea is born, and I must follow it. I have to write it down.

I get similar such flashes when I’m reading books, watching movies, or even during mundane activities like eating or staring out a car. The quest then is to have a mind that is constantly engaged yet sufficiently bored to stumble upon flashes that can turn into stories or articles like this. Simultaneously, to have a mind that is alert and aware enough to remember these flashes as they pass through me.

Sometimes ideas come to me while I’m writing and they make it to the page. Other times, the ideas float through my mind just enough for me to be mildly excited about them but not enough to remember them. The difficulty then is writing a piece that truly speaks to the moment while also being true to the thrust of the central idea. I must capture the essence. Although I am now writing about writing, am I really touching on what is most important about it for myself and for everyone? Does it not only capture this moment but all moments? Does the writing speak to universals? If the answer is yes, the writing becomes accessible to more people.

Another reason why I love writing is that it’s a vehicle for learning. As studies have shown, writing is a way for a person to master a subject. Just like teaching allows you to learn a subject better, so too does writing. No wonder school is full of essay writing, the perfect way for someone to communicate their understanding. I have an unquenchable thirst for learning. From philosophy to history to technology to the arts, I want to learn how all of these things work and there isn’t enough time in the day to tackle them. But the temporary configuration of neurons that these ideas and knowledge create in my mind is delightful. Transmuting that configuration into creation and reflection via writing is ultimately satisfying. Oftentimes, it’s the practice of taking an idea from this abstract world of neurons and hazy images and imprinting into reality. In a sense, writing makes ideas real.

I discover myself when I write. I find out who I am as words distill my thoughts into solid form. In a vivid sense, writing is about self-discovery and ultimately about self-actualization.

Writing for me is also about legacy. It is like an epitaph. The majority of written material created by humans is done by people long dead. But their writing breaths on into the imperceptible grand flow of human knowledge and the human experience. Writing from great people, or the accounts of them, add contours to how we experience our days and nights. It is an expression that comes out of that mysterious configuration. I do hope one day my writing can be significant enough or true enough that it can touch someone and even many people.

Sometimes I have this problem when I write where I don’t write that flash idea with enough precision and completeness that when I return to my notes later, I can’t quite make out what I meant. A conversation with my memories and my old self ensues. Sometimes, tragically, I must abandon that idea altogether and move on. As a result, I attempt to be as complete as possible going forward. But as you can see from this, my ideas are very precious to me. They distill and capture a moment of inspiration. For I see new fresh ideas as gifts that come to me from an unknown place. It gives me an intimate vision of the zeitgeist of neurons as they fire in formation in my brain, a configuration I know not where it comes from. Therefore, precision is central.

This speaks to a paradox of writing. The flashes and configurations that happen in my mind, no matter how I struggle to encapsulate them to you, dear reader, I cannot have one hundred percent certitude that you will grok my ideas. It’s not you, it’s not me, it’s the process. It’s impossible for my configuration of neurons to appear in similar formation in your brain. It doesn’t matter how precise or eloquent I am.

An interesting future issue for writing is whether it will continue to be a medium for creation and transference of ideas in the years and centuries to come. It has enabled the writers of the past to communicate with readers of the future. But if new mediums and technologies come that can pierce through the barrier of reader and writer, between past and present, between here and there, than writing as a medium might finally lose its power. If I can create a device that transfers my entire configuration mapped perfectly onto your brain, with its ideas and images, why do I need to go through the intermediary of pen and paper or keyboard?

But this begs the question, do I write to create a complete transference? I write everyday, but .00001% of all humans read my writing. I don’t write for you or for the future, ultimately, I write for myself. Writing, no matter the mediums of the future, will remain resilient for humans because of the interplay between self, abstraction, and reality. It’s the process. That is the metaphysics of writing.  As my ideas make it to the page, they achieve a particular solidity. They are trapped in language. Before that, they are a jumble of images, non-linear coda, and dream-like phantoms. As the ideas become real, they take on a life of their own. In that sense, writing thus becomes an allegory for the universe and creation. It is an act that is a microcosm, a little universe. It is divine.