There is No Milk

By Jerome Yi

“If you bring me to that holy mountain in India, sitting on the top of that mountain – in the lotus position with our eyes closed – will be no more holy then having a beer at the bar of a local hotel nearby. It’s so obvious and still a lot of seekers seem to refuse the idea. Oneness is everywhere. Is that clear? Everywhere is everywhere.”

—Jan Kersschot

“[N]early 40 years’ experience has shown me that a taste for beer and cowboy-stories is entirely consistent with a taste for perfect art and the highest intellectual exercises.”

—Joseph McCabe

“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’ … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’”

—Friedrich Nietzsche

Bertrand Russell once said, “The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.” I submit a more radical proposition: that there is no such thing as wasted time.

That something (or someone) is a waste of time is a ubiquitous refrain. I should know. Even as a nihilist who doesn’t believe that there is inherent meaning or purpose to life, I always make a distinction between time that is wisely spent and time that is ill-spent, and I find myself constantly complaining about the latter.

This is explained by the fact that I am obsessed with making the most of my life, which for me means achieving as many of my goals as I possibly can.

In spite of this, I consistently fail to reach a level of productivity that I can be satisfied with. I attribute this to external distractions, poor planning, and, above all, a lack of self-discipline.

And yet, there are times when, almost mysteriously, the desperation to accomplish diminishes, and the accompanying urgency falls away.

Some months ago, I was sitting in my room late at night, playing Super Mario World. It was a world that I’d conquered long ago. I’d completed all of the stages and found all of the secrets. Other than perfecting my mechanics and attempting to set new records, there was hardly anything in that linear, static, 16-bit 2D world that I hadn’t done before. There were a hundred other things I could’ve done with my time, things that would’ve actually translated into something substantial outside of the television screen. Games are a dead end.

But life itself is a game.

More accurately, it’s a combination of games: activities that consist of man-made rules superimposed over natural laws–or, perhaps more accurately, natural laws disguised as man-made rules. You have the career game, which entails the acquisition of experience and connections, the building up reputation, and the accumulation of various items, mostly cash. You have the social game, which entails the acquisition of friends and the fulfillment of various obligations. The difference between “real life” games and virtual reality games is that the former cannot ever be completed, because there is no inherent goal, let alone an ultimate goal. Like Tetris and Pac-Man, life is a game that you are bound to lose sooner or later. The world is like a vast casino–at the end of the day, the house always wins.

All roads lead to Hades. You can’t save the world. You can’t even save individual people. Medicine, no matter how advanced, never saves lives–at best it delays the arrival of the Grim Reaper by a few decades. To truly save a life would mean to preserve it for all eternity.

Civilization is one gigantic, circular goal. Think about it: what could possibly be the end of all of that art, music, literature, and technology? Well, there’s otherworldly transcendence, but if you’re a naturalist, that’s pretty much off the table. None of this had to exist–the universe did just fine without any of this for billions of years. As far as I’m concerned, everything is a form of entertainment. Movies are entertainment. Books, essays, poetry, blog posts, and news articles are entertainment. Video games are entertainment. These things didn’t have to exist, yet they are here. We don’t have to enjoy them, but neither do we need to take them seriously.

This is not to spit on the efforts of idealists and physicians, and announce that the only thing worth doing in life is shopping and watching television. Neither is this meant to justify indolence and pretend that idlers are just as valuable to a society as active contributors. As moral philosopher Shelly Kagan once said, the fact that it’s going to be all the same in the far future doesn’t mean that it’s all the same in the present. The thing is that there is nothing to justify, nothing that needs to be justified. If the “purpose” of the universe is simply to be as it is, then, well, it’s a success–there is nothing wrong with it. As in a flawless painting, nothing in the world is out of place. As in a flawless play, nothing in life happens in vain.

As Jeff Foster says:

“How wonderful to see that life needs no purpose. That its purpose is its purposeless present appearance. Does music have a purpose? Does a sunset have a purpose? Does dancing have a purpose? Its purpose is in the listening, in the seeing, in the dancing. Life is at once meaningful and meaningless. It’s both and it’s neither.”

An Extraordinary Absence

At the end of the day, there’s no such thing as “wasting” time. Life takes care of itself. It always has and always will. No activity is done in vain, whether it is doing tedious work at the office, balancing the checkbook, filling up the car at the gas station, sitting in a church or a temple, sitting in traffic, pursuing an education, writing a book, exploring a library or a bookstore, cleaning the room, washing the dishes, taking out the trash, rearranging the books in the bookshelves, reading poetry, drawing a picture, learning a language, practicing a musical instrument, listening to a favorite record for the thousandth time, watching a movie or a TV show, playing a video game, drinking a beer, arguing with family members, chatting with friends, shopping at malls and supermarkets, taking a walk around the neighborhood, eating dinner at a fast food restaurant, or lying awake in bed late at night. Perhaps we can learn to appreciate these things for what they are, not merely as means to some nebulous (and perhaps non-existent) end.

The world is but a glorified train station. Life is but a wait for the arrival of the train of death. There’s no need to worry about anything, including making the “most” of life.

Because it doesn’t matter how we pass the time. It is enough that it passes. No need to cry over spilt milk, because no milk is ever spilt.

Because there is no milk.

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God’s in His Heaven–All’s Right with the World

By Jin-yeong Yi

“What is the best consolation in sorrow and in misfortune? … It is for a man to accept everything as if he had wished for it and had asked for it; for you would have wished for it, if you had known that everything happens by God’s will, with his will and in his will.”

—Seneca

“For I am already that which I seek. Whatever I seek or think I want, however long the shopping list may be, all of my desires are only a reflection of my longing to come home. And home is oneness, home is my original nature. It is right here, simply in what is. There is nowhere else I have to go, and nothing else I have to become.”

—Tony Parsons

“A man who moves with the earth will necessarily experience days and nights. He who stays with the sun will know no darkness. My world is not yours. As I see it, you all are on a stage performing. There is no reality about your comings and goings. And your problems are so unreal!”

—Nisargadatta Maharaj

“The Lord is everywhere /And always perfect: / What does He care for man’s sin / Or the righteousness of man?”

—The Bhagavad-Gita

As the world comes to an end–of another year, that is–most of us probably have our heads full with anticipation and apprehension of what lies ahead.

I’m still a pessimistic atheistic nihilist, but I like to indulge in possibilities, so please humor me by considering some ideas that I’ve been turning over in my head.

Since you are here, I invite you to take a moment to look back on the past year. Did you make any decisions you regret? Embarrassing behavior, poorly executed plans, wasted opportunities? Would you go back and change anything if you could? Now take a longer moment to look back on your life up this point as a whole, and ask yourself the same questions.

I’m probably not wrong in guessing that there were a lot of things that didn’t go your way, and that even if things went your way for the most part, you’re still not completely content–you want more of this and less of that.

Some of you may be deeply depressed–to the point where you wish to die or at least depersonalize so you can comfortably observe your life in third person.

Many commentators on Neon Genesis Evangelion complain about Shinji’s constant whining about his woes, but I’m sure most of us can sympathize to some degree: how many of us never find themselves in circumstances and situations they would rather not be in–mundane, tedious, frustrating, arduous, painful, pointless?

Doesn’t the world look awful right now? Doesn’t it look downright hopeless at times? Wars, economic depression, poverty, pollution, overpopulation, ethnic-religious-political strife, concentration camps, environmental destruction, natural disasters, child abuse, breakdown in human relationships…how many libraries can be filled with volumes on what we consider to be wrong with this world? And worst of all, doesn’t it all look meaningless? And even worse…ultimately beyond our control?

As Joseph Conrad lamented in a 1897 letter to Cunninghame Graham:

“It evolved itself (I am severely scientific) out of a chaos of scraps of iron and behold! — it knits. I am horrified at the horrible work and stand appalled. I feel it ought to embroider — but it goes on knitting. You come and say: ‘this is all right; it’s only a question of the right kind of oil. Let us use this — for instance — celestial oil and the machine shall embroider a most beautiful design in purple and gold.’ Will it? Alas no. You cannot by any special lubrication make embroidery with a knitting machine. And the most withering thought is that the infamous thing has made itself; made itself without thought, without conscience, without foresight, without eyes, without heart. It is a tragic accident — and it has happened. You can’t interfere with it. The last drop of bitterness is in the suspicion that you can’t even smash it. In virtue of that truth one and immortal which lurks in the force that made it spring into existence it is what it is — and it is indestructible!

It knits us in and it knits us out. It has knitted time space, pain, death, corruption, despair and all the illusions — and nothing matters.”

Now put such judgments aside for a moment and consider this possibility: that life is a movie written and directed by a cosmic Director–call It God, or Brahman, or Consciousness, or whatever suits your fancy. Suppose that this Director is perfect–It knows exactly what each scene calls for. All of the details are impeccably balanced together. A perfect movie is in the making as we speak–and we are starring in it.

As most of us would agree, a good movie does not necessarily mean a good life for the characters. A director getting his or her way often entails a character not getting his or her way. If movie characters were capable of thinking independently, not a few of them would probably question the decisions made by a director, unable to see how all the pieces fit. If a good director knows what’s best for his or her movie, think how much truer this would be of a perfect Director.

You may not be satisfied with what you are, but as far as the Director is concerned, you are perfect for Its purposes. Your hair color is perfect. Your skin color is perfect. Your height is perfect. Your weight is perfect. Your IQ is perfect. Your knowledge is perfect. Your ignorance is perfect. Your beliefs are perfect. Your likes and dislikes are perfect. Your joys and sorrows are perfect. Your pleasures and problems are perfect. Your thought process is perfect. You are exactly where you are supposed to be, doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing. Every single decision you’ve made hitherto is perfect, and every single decision you will make hereafter will be perfect.

If your role is to succeed, you will succeed. If your role is to fail, you will fail. If your role is to die a peaceful death after a long and happy life, you will die a peaceful death (in your sleep, perhaps) after a long and happy life. If your role is to die a violent death after a short and troubled life, you will die a violent death (by your own hand, perhaps) after a short and troubled life. Either way, you will have fulfilled your role–there’s no way you cannot fulfill your role. Your every move, your every line–all of it is without flaw. No matter how insignificant you may be, you complete the picture–that is why you are here.

What you were yesterday was perfect. What you are today is perfect. What you will be tomorrow will be perfect.

If you are uncomfortable with this idea, then allow me to ask you another question: what are you, really? Are you a character in this movie? Or are you the One Who is running the show?

This blog post, written by someone whose writing skills clearly leave much to be desired, is perfect. Your opinion of this blog post, dear reader, whether it is positive or negative, in agreement or disagreement, is perfect.

I am perfect. You are perfect. The world is perfect. Life is perfect. Everything is for the best.

Whether or not we know this. Whether or not we accept this. Whether or not we are at peace with this. God’s in His heaven–all’s right with the world.

It may be so. It may not be so.

It’s possible, isn’t it?

See also:

Ramesh S. Balsekar – A Duet of One: The Ashtavakra Gita Dialogue

The Bhagavad-Gita

Meister Eckhart – Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense

I am That: Talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

Eckhart Tolle – The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment 

Dennis Waite – How to Meet Yourself…and find true happiness

Paramahansa Yogananda – Why God Permits Evil and How to Rise Above It 

Of Solitude (or, The Universal Citizen)

By Jin-yeong Yi

During my childhood and adolescence, I would spend time with friends just about every chance I would get, dividing our time together in each other’s homes. When I was a kid, I once threw a tantrum in front of my mother because I couldn’t meet my friends. But at some point, companionship no longer seemed as essential as it once had been. I noticed that I felt a sense of relief once friends had returned to their homes; I then had some peace and quiet and I was free to straighten out my room, and go my own way without any external distractions. And as time went by, I saw my friends less and less, finding that I was acquiring a taste for this stillness, this solitude that allowed me to think, to explore.

I was never one of the popular kids in school. It didn’t help that for years I was a mischievous little bastard who delighted in playing pranks on my classmates and generally just annoying the hell out of them.

Then I found myself hanging out with other misfits, who weren’t total pariahs but were for the most part ignored.

Then I found myself alone. Not completely, as I was still very much a part of society in that I was either in education or in employment. I was a secular atheist instead of a Christian, listened to heavy metal instead of hip hop, and spoke with a somewhat idiosyncratic American accent and style that incorporated a number of distinctly British and even Southern U.S. phrases.

An individual needs other people not only to survive, but also to thrive. That is undeniable. Even as a loner who meets his few remaining friends only a few times a year, I recognize my dependence on others for my needs and wants, whether they be the books I read, the movies I watch, the music I listen to, the clothes I wear, the food I eat, or the tools I use to write and draw. Were I truly on my own, there would be very, very little I could do, and I wouldn’t last long, unless I were to learn how to survive in the wilderness. True independence is an illusion, as that entails complete self-sufficiency.

But that doesn’t mean that I can’t keep people at arm’s length, that I can’t have my own corner. Being forgetful, I sometimes fancy that I am a loner mainly because there’s something about me that rubs people the wrong way, causing them to shun me. Then I remember that the loneliness has been mostly self-imposed. I have had quite a few opportunities in my life to reach out and strike up friendships. But I chose the silent freedom of solitude, of marching to the beat of my own drum.

It was because I was a loner that I was able to grow and become my own person. It may not be possible to escape the fate of being a product of one’s time, but at least I can say that I managed to rise above stereotypes to no small degree, and separate myself from the herd.

I do not intend the word “herd” in an entirely derogatory sense. A herd of sheep is not inherently “inferior” to a lone wolf–one is simply a collection of individuals that have a place among one another, and the other is simply a single individual that does not quite fit into any group. The two are merely different, and whether one is superior to the other is a question of preference. And I find that I prefer to go my own way. (This is likely why I almost never watch TV. I don’t have much beef with the tube; it’s just that I favor choosing what I want to watch, when I want to watch it.)

I’ve never been in a band, but I think the analogy works well enough. A real band works as a team on the creative process (a band in which only one member is calling all the shots is not really a band but a solo artist with supporting musicians), and this naturally entails disagreements and compromise. A one-man band does not suffer from such drawbacks, and one-man bands like Burzum, Havohej, Ildjarn, and Mütiilation are decisive proof that it is possible to produce albums that are not merely good, but superlative. An individual who chooses to write the music of his life on his own has more control over the range of options that he has. Like the lone artist, he can skip the groupthink and focus on doing what he feels is best for his greatest masterpiece, which is none other than the life he is living one moment at a time.

I gained a deeper understanding and appreciation of my relationship with myself during one Christmas morning, when it was time for everyone in the family to exchange presents. It was mostly a disaster because we got each other the wrong gifts–things that were either superfluous, unnecessary, or unwanted. What I realized was the simple truth that no one knew me better than I knew myself. Others could make deductions and get me something I would like, but only I knew what I wanted. Only I knew what I desired in life. And if I didn’t know, no one knew. No one could know.

There is a lonely side to being a loner, of course. At times you might find yourself wishing that others can understand you, and that others will accept you for what you are. You might find yourself wishing that you can share your joys and sorrows with someone who can fully appreciate them.

I think this longing for acceptance and companionship goes hand in hand with something deeper: a longing for a place one can, without any reservations, call home. And what is home? We could use the definition “where the heart is,” but we could also try something more fundamental: the place where one has always belonged and will always belong. Based on this definition, can you, dear reader, say that you have a home on this earth? For my part, I must say that I do not. I was born and raised in America, but I certainly do not think of this place as home, not because I dislike it but because my roots here do not extend past two generations, to say nothing of infinity. Well, then, it would make more sense for me to live in Korea, where all of my known forebears had lived. Needless to say, however, that chunk of land called “Korea” was not always populated by Koreans, and the time will come, whether in 100 years or 10,000 years, when the last Korean leaves this world and the geographic location he once thought of as his eternal home is renamed by its new inhabitants. Whether a country, a house, a car, or a planet, everything is borrowed in this world; nothing is truly for keeps.

In my view, the closest we have to a true home is the universe of the mind, because our minds have always belonged to us and always will until we die. To be a universal citizen is to be a citizen in the universe of your own mind. Nowhere is home in this world, but everywhere is home in the mind.

Which brings me back to the main subject of this post. The only person who is guaranteed to be with you to the end is yourself. There’s nothing wrong with seeking companionship, with surrounding yourself with people. But if you don’t feel compelled to do so, and are somehow content with being alone, well, what’s the problem? Solitude is no sin.

I know you’re out there somewhere, fellow loners. There could well be a fair number of you among my readers, including regular visitors that are so heavily introverted that they don’t even subscribe, let alone speak up, content to lurk. Here’s me waving a friendly hello. Like me, you might be having a fine evening, enjoying your own company, passing the time by reading a good book, watching a good movie, or relaxing with a cold one. And there is nothing wrong with that! Tonight I raise my metaphorical shot glass to you, and wish you many more years of blessed solitude.

The Nihilistic Art

By Jin-yeong Yi

In discussing the marketability of nihilism, philosopher Vijay Prozak wrote, “In theory, nihilism could even be used to sell products, but only of the entertainment type. ‘This is the most nihilistic vacuum cleaner on the market!’ somehow fails a basic test of credibility.”[1]

Some weeks ago, it was my turn to clean one of the restrooms at the company I work at. Armed with a can of Scrubbing Bubbles, a mop doused in watered-down Lysol, and a ream of paper towels, I set to work, clearing the filth that had been accumulating on the sink, floor, and toilet.

As my rubber glove protected hands moved back and forth, carefully scraping away the dust, dirt, and dried urine, at some point it occurred to me that cleaning was not only an art, but also the most nihilistic of arts. In the same way that nihilism is about stripping away that which is unreal, cleaning is about stripping away that which is unnecessary. A cleaning tool, whether it be a broom, a mop, or a vacuum cleaner, is the artistic equivalent of a philosophical hammer. Ultimately, nothing is added to the thing that is cleaned–it’s all about subtracting, eradicating, erasing the unessential. Whereas most arts entail putting a picture on a canvas, cleaning entails removing superfluous and undesirable bits from an already-completed picture. To clean something means to restore it to its original state, nothing more.

In conclusion, I daresay that, pace Mr. Prozak, “This is the most nihilistic vacuum cleaner on the market!” can not only be a credible promo, but also a most fitting one.

Notes

[1] “Reality is Nihilism”

The Dream Called Reality: Some Scattered (and Unoriginal) Musings on Metaphysics and Hope

By Jin-yeong Yi

“I am not a human. This is only a dream, and soon I will awake. It was too cold and the blood froze all the time”

—Per Yngve Ohlin

“What were those deathly creatures that flew out of the golden box? They were the ills that beset mankind: the spites, disease in its thousand shapes, old age, famine, insanity, and all their foul kin. After they flew out of the box they scattered–flew into every home, and swung from the rafters–waiting. And when their time comes they fly and sting–and bring pain and sorrow and death.

“At that, things could have been much worse. For the creature that Pandora shut into the box was the most dangerous of all. It was foreboding, the final spite. If it had flown free, everyone in the world would have been told exactly what misfortune was to happen every day of his life. No hope would have been possible. And so there would have been an end to man. For, though he can bear endless trouble, he cannot live with no hope at all.”

—Evslin, Evslin, and Hoopes, The Greek Gods 

Some months ago, I had a rather interesting experience. It wasn’t supernatural, but it was rather surreal. Early in the morning, at around 5:15 AM or so, I started walking downstairs for breakfast before I heard a noise. It was the sound of someone walking into the kitchen and switching on the light. Figuring it was probably my sister or her husband, I thought of returning to my room, since I preferred to eat by myself (I generally don’t like to talk during meals unless the subject matter interests me). But I decided to wait just in case the person downstairs was just going for a quick refrigerator raid before heading back to their room.

So I stood there in the middle of the staircase, and waited. You might say that it felt as if my life had temporarily stopped. The whole thing felt mysterious somehow. A collocation of atoms that had coincidentally come into being, the collocation of atoms that was me, was standing still in the darkness at a particular time and place, waiting for another collocation of atoms to exit a particular location. And this collocation of atoms was asking itself whether meaning really existed in a meaningless universe! I felt strange as I observed what was otherwise a very ordinary and mundane event.

If memory serves, at this point my thought process went something like this: is my life and this universe truly meaningless? They appear to be meaningless, objectively, but what if that meaninglessness was actually part of a massive illusion? What if the world in front of my eyes, as well as the events that occur around me, were products of God’s dream, as the Advaitins claimed? Gazing at the walls around me and the ceiling above me, I wondered if I really was existing inside the mental emanation of a Grand Architect.

Depending on how you look at it, imagination is either a blessing or a curse, or both. Imagination enables us to peer beyond the world we have, but it also prevents us from being content with the world we have. Imagination is the reason why life is such a tease. With the mind’s eye, we can look at anything we desire, but rarely are our deepest desires granted. Immortality may not exist, but we can imagine being immortal. True freedom certainly does not exist, but we can imagine being free. We may not be Gods, but we can imagine ourselves as Gods.

The ability to dream, along with skepticism, is the reason why I am able to cling onto sanity and hope in the prison of the real. Reality may be absolute, but my perception of it isn’t, because there is no way for me to know for sure whether or not it’s accurate (as far as I can tell). It may look like this world is real and that my life in it is real, but I am basing that on my own empirical observations; if everything around me were an illusion being fed into my mind, my observations would be rendered moot.

The word “dream” not infrequently enters daily speech. “This is like a dream,” “This is a dream come true,” and “The man/woman of my dreams” are some of the most common examples. It is often used to describe a superlative experience, like a joyous marriage or winning a championship. It’s as if we instinctively know that things usually don’t go our way in the real world, and that it is almost like a miracle when a cherished wish comes true.

Which leads me to the following question: Which is more real, our lives in the waking world or our lives in the dream world? Are dreams a parody of waking life, or is it the other way around? I’m using the word “real” in two senses here: real as in being a part of reality, and real as in being the opposite of counterfeit.

Most of us have had nightmares. Many of us know what it’s like to fall off a cliff or to run away from a shadowy entity, only to end up rooted to the spot.

Sometimes we wake up in our dreams. We notice that something is off, and that leads to the realization that we’re not in reality. If only there was a way to wake up from reality! For reality is a nightmare, a nightmare with moments of calm and sweetness, but a nightmare nonetheless. Depending on who we are and where the currents of causality take us, the nightmare takes on different forms. For some, it may take the form of something overt, like domestic violence or war. For others, it might take the form of something subtle, like a soul-killing job or a decaying marriage.

Apocalypse, that is, an ascent into heaven or a descent into hell (metaphorical or literal), is, needless to say, a ubiquitous theme in not only religion, but also in philosophy and the arts. There is no shortage of dramatic structure that describes an absolute beginning, middle, and end.

On one side, this view is challenged by those who take a cyclical view of history, represented by the likes of Oswald Spengler and Arnold J. Toynbee, on one side, and those who take a Darwinian view of history, represented by the likes of Alexander Rosenberg.

Even if we are to assume that these thinkers are right about there being no straight narrative to history as a whole, it seems to me that the concept of there being such a “narrative” to individuals lives, remains unshaken. If there is no reincarnation, then birth, life, and death comprise not so much a cycle as a sequence. Each and every individual undergoes his or her own Apocalypse.

A possibility that possesses me is the possibility that life is an actual story, with a real plot. A story written by whom, you might ask? Maybe a cosmic playwright, or each individual’s “higher Self.” With this possibility in mind, I can continue to have hope in the face of the darkness I see–for the simple reason that the darkness is followed by dawn.

As far as I know, no one better represented this outlook than Per Yngve Ohlin, to the extent that he could be seen as a symbol for it. I suspect that he saw his whole life as a nightmare; that would explain why he surrounded himself with ugliness, decay, and pain, routinely mutilating and starving himself, using paint and soil to make himself look like a corpse. Perhaps he did such things so that he would never lapse into a dull acceptance of the nightmare as being all there is.  

Which leads me to the next question, which is a question that has probably been asked the day humankind discovered philosophy: What lies on the other side of life?

According to the worldview that I hold, the answer is quite simply–nothing. For if atheism is true, nihilism is true, evolution by natural selection is true, the mind is a function of the brain, etc., I have no reason to believe that my existence will somehow continue after the cessation of the electro-chemical activity in my brain.

The rub lies at the level of assumptions. As a skeptic, I recognize that all of the positions I hold are provisional and tentative. For all I know, I can be a brain in a vat–or, better yet, a spirit tricked into thinking he is a body, much in the same way that one might be fooled into thinking that one is a dog/cat/hamster/etc. during a particularly peculiar dream.

So that is the trillion dollar question: is this–all of this I see in front of me–real? I do not think this question can be brushed aside lightly, because the metaphysical question is the fundamental question, which must be answered accurately before proceeding any further. Unfortunately, I doubt that the means to do so are accessible to us. The metaphysical question is a complex and confusing mathematics problem with no answer key. As far as I can see, we are stuck with what seems and not what is. But that can be encouraging, because it is ignorance, not knowledge, in which room for hope lies.

In Defense of…the Real?

By Jin-yeong Yi

Lin Kristensen - Timeless Books

One might wonder why I, who prefers fantasy to reality, would write an article like this one. Well, I haven’t changed my fundamental position. I still prefer dreams over waking reality. But as long as I’m going to be in waking reality, I will continue to prefer, strictly within the context of waking reality proper, the real thing over its substitutes. This includes physical media as opposed to their electronic counterparts, which is the subject of this article.

I’ll start off with the issues of security that are inherent to the computer and the Internet. I’m not speaking of government conspiracies, but rather stability. Think of all the roles that your computer takes today. If you’re like me, you use your computer not only for research, communication, shopping, etc. on the Internet and creating and editing documents, but also for listening to music, watching movies and TV shows, and playing video games. That sleek, glowing box in front of you fulfills the functions that were, at various points in history, the exclusive or near-exclusive domain of other devices: CD players, television sets, typewriters, pen and paper. In other words, things have become centralized, meaning that most if not all of your eggs are in one of two baskets: your hard drive or the Internet itself. Never mind the occasional power outage or system failure: what will you do if computers and the Internet become things of the past, and nothing will be there to replace them? It is tempting to assume that technological progress will continue ad infinitum, but a long descent (to use John Michael Greer’s term) into a post-technoindustrial future doesn’t seem all that implausible, either. But that’s a topic for another discussion.

For the time being, it can be said that something resembling the transhumanist dream of immortality (via “mind uploading”) has already been realized for music and the printed word. Unlike paper books, CDs, and letters; e-books, MP3s, and e-mail do not fall apart because they do not possess physical vessels of their own. For all intents and purposes, they are eternal. The only question is whether the same thing can be said for the foundations upon which their existence depends.

The electronic medium has a lot going for it. I think few would deny that. It never gets dirty or worn, and, in theory, could last forever. Unlike its counterparts in bookshelves and cabinets, it takes up zero physical space and generally entails minimum hassle to retrieve, making it possible to fit an entire library’s worth of texts, music, etc. into a device that is no bigger than your average paperback. And let’s not forget all the natural resources that could be saved. And yet, under all that convenience, efficiency, and practicality, something is missing: tangibility.

Whether the idealists among us acknowledge it or not, it would seem that the material (notice that I’m using the word here in a loose sense) is every bit as valuable for us humans as the immaterial. How many people would, for example, be content with photographs, videos, audio recordings, or holograms of their loved ones rather than those people themselves in the flesh?

I feel that the same principle applies to inanimate objects. You can hold an e-book reader or an MP3 player in your hands, and even insert your own notes into the data, but the medium as a whole cannot respond or change to your touch. It’s almost like holding a miniature museum in your hands: you can see the book or the record and X-ray it and examine the contents, but you can’t actually feel the piece because it’s safely ensconced behind a wall of glass, forever beyond your reach.

But real books and real records? They’re capable of having a real history under your possession: fingerprints, notes, marks, and yes, wear and tear. Given enough time, a new–or, for that matter, used–book or record will have been shaped by your touch, bearing the unique marks of your ownership. These facts give collection a meaning apart from and beyond mere accumulation.

Those of us who, in the age of advanced modern technology, choose the physical over the electronic lose much, but in return gain (or retain) something that is arguably indispensable. In exchange for convenience, they get character. In exchange for practicality, they get personality. Not a bad trade-off, if you ask me.

This is not to say that I disdain or despise the electronic medium. In the contrary, I think it provides an invaluable contrast–it can help us to appreciate and rediscover that which it was meant to replace.

Albert Einstein and Advaita Vedanta

By Jin-yeong Yi

In “Atheism, Autism, and the Abstract Mind,” I mentioned Einstein and the ambiguity of his viewpoint on metaphysics. He has been called an atheist, an agnostic, an agnostic theist, a deist, a pantheist, and a panentheist. Given the persisting controversy, it could well be that his views were simply too nebulous to determine.

I have wondered about Einstein’s beliefs for a while now, though my research has not gotten any further than reading some quotations on the Internet. But I think my studies in general have finally yielded the beginnings of a possible and plausible answer to the mystery. It is this: that Einstein was an Advaitin.

I will use Einstein’s remarks on the Bhagavad Gita as a starting point for this brief, bullet-point style discussion:

“When I read the Bhagavad-Gita and reflect about how God created this universe everything else seems so superfluous.”[1]

Traditional Advaita denies that we have free will. Einstein took the same position, being a hardcore determinist. Citing Schopenhauer (who was heavily influenced by both Hinduism and Buddhism), he repeatedly expressed the view that all events were directed by a rigorous chain of cause and effect.

“[The] knowledge of the non-freedom of the will protects me from losing my good humor and taking much too seriously myself and my fellow humans as acting and judging individuals.”

*

“Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control. It is determined for the insect as well as the star. Human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust, we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible piper.”

*

“If the moon, in the act of completing its eternal way around the earth, were gifted with self-consciousness, it would feel thoroughly convinced that it was traveling its way of its own accord….So would a Being, endowed with higher insight and more perfect intelligence, watching man and his doings, smile about man’s illusion that he was acting according to his own free will.”

The quintessence of Advaita is nonduality, the notion that everything is fundamentally and ultimately a single, unified whole, and that only ignorance and illusion, trapping us in delusions of egoism and individualism, prevents us from perceiving this.

“I feel myself so much a part of everything living that I am not the least concerned with the beginning or ending of the concrete existence of any one person in this eternal flow.”

The following quote fits in quite nicely with Karma Yoga:

“Strange is our situation here on Earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: that man is here for the sake of other men—above all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness depends.”

Here he comes close to echoing Swami Vivekananda, who believed in serving humankind as one’s “larger Self.”

Perhaps the most suggestive pronouncement of all is the following:

“I’m not an atheist and I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many different languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see a universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws, but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations.”

Here, Einstein appears to be one with the Advaitin philosophers in that he implies that the existence of order in the universe suggests the existence of an intelligent, creative force (though not necessarily a personal one–Einstein made it quite clear that he did not believe in the traditional theistic concepts of deity), i.e., God/Brahman, and that he proclaims the unknowability of this entity/force.

Supposing that Einstein really was an Advaitin, was he himself aware of the fact? It seems unlikely that he was ignorant of Advaita, because he was arguably as much of a philosopher as he was a scientist. But since he never actually used the label “Advaitin” or “Hindu” to describe his beliefs, it seems reasonable to infer that his thinking just happened to culminate in that Weltanschauung.

These are really only sketchy speculations, and are not intended to be taken too seriously. Hopefully a scholar who is equally familiar with Albert Einstein and Advaita Vedanta will give us his or her own opinion on the subject.

Notes

[1] http://hinduism.about.com/od/thegita/a/famousquotes.htm

Further Reading

Arthur Schopenhauer – Essay on the Freedom of the Will 

Dennis Waite – Back to the Truth: 5000 Years of Advaita