Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Like Water, Like Light — A Contemplation on Freedom

I'd like to share a lovely thought I had this Christmas morning. Merry Christmas all!

There is an economic idea, wonderful in theory, that the free movement of money and people and goods and ideas is in the best interests of everyone. But in practice human beings and the things they want are not like water. When we enter a cup, we do not "become the cup" as Bruce Lee wisely recommends us. We have culture, and home, and it's impossible to ask for freedom from others when we are not ourselves free. And even in cases where we would like to be free, we are discrete units and we have a natural resistance to movement and change. A good image to have is of a traffic jam. Even if the road ahead of the first car is empty, it takes a while until the last car can get going. How to adjust for this? Is it possible to "be like water" and so regain our freedom?

The solution to the traffic jam problem would be if cars could hold on to each other like carriages in a train. Paradoxically, it is through a lack of freedom that discrete units can best realise their freedom. The important thing is to be able to bind ourselves in the direction we wish to be going. The freedom to bind to a future intention actually gives freedom of movement instead of taking it away. Connections to family, friends and society as a whole makes us continuous beings. The traffic jam is a product of modernity and discreteness. But of course we are both.

It's fascinating to think that even at the smallest scale, light particles/waves are both discrete and continuous simultaneously. Perhaps when light is behaving like a wave in the twin-slit experiment, the interference pattern it creates is in some sense caused by interferences of intention? When the intention is observed, light behaves like a particle and the interference resolves itself one way or the other. If light is a symbol of absolute freedom, then what can we learn from it?

... One would imagine light to be forgetful of where it's been or where it's going. But there is a phenomenon called quantum entanglement which means two photons can be at opposite ends of a galaxy, but they still maintain the other within themselves.

A friend of mine posted today "a free spirit is someone who lives by their own wishes and is unconstrained by society". I would like to be a free spirit, but would define it differently (inspired by Nietzsche): "A free spirit is one who has the resilience of an ass, the courage of a lion, the innocence of a child, yet doesn't fight the world but flies in the tailwind of eternity."

Does a free spirit ever think they are free? I know that I'm not free, very far from it, but I have the aspiration nonetheless. In order to realise freedom, I think we need to acknowledge that we are not free, how in a limited sense we are the result of our whole life up to now, but also we are completely free in this moment to change a tiny bit, and bit by bit to become more free. To be like light, to be like water.

And that means to be willing to surrender to the universe, to let go of conflicting intentions within ourselves, to let those conflicts resolve themselves by themselves. And when we have clarity of intention and the way becomes clear, to bring the future into the present and hold firm to that intention to take us where we want to go. And wherever we go, like light, to remember our friends, even on the opposite side of the universe.

Photo: 'Waves in the Sunrise' (2009) by —okei

Monday, 23 December 2013

Emmanuel Pahud & Christian Rivet

I have been dreaming a lot of the sea recently, of my father, of old friends, of long conversations and good company.

It was good to make those dreams real and (apart from the sea) to meet many of them once again these past few days, and perhaps some more in coming days.

Below is an 11 second video I took at Wigmore Hall by the virtuoso flute player Emmanuel Pahud accompanied by Christian Rivet on guitar. They were excellent! I went with my father and one of my earliest friends from schooldays.

It was an eclectic performance varying from the excitement of Piazzolla's tango music to the very modern as if a baby were playing with the instruments, along the way the dulcet tones of Handel and the slavonic dances of Bartok.

This is a full version of the above from a different recording which was played as an encore:
Ibert — Entr'Acte

Finally, a live recording from Pahud's YouTube channel which he also played tonight.
Bartok — Pe Loc

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Disenchantment: Weber's Postscript to Modernity

Weber is a great proponent of the importance of beliefs and ideas, and more generally of culture, in shaping our history. What is the culture of modernity? It is impersonal and utilitarian: the pursuit of pre-given ends which are taken to be self-evident. Reason, instead of founding our values, is used instrumentally to maximize, accumulate and attain pre-given values. That is to say that reason is not allowed to ask the right questions, but is devoted solely to actions and answers. This process, legitimized by a philosophy of progress, is increasingly specialized and institutionalized, but the ideal never seems to live up to its imagined promise and the results never satisfy. In the face of existential crisis of “what is the purpose of success?”, the advice is “check your bank account!”. Money becomes the substitute that man has created for his unattainable desire.

The fruition of this ideal of efficiency in politics is the bureaucratic state whose perfection is order. In the name of order, the state imposes a whole tapestry of rights, rules, duties, and in short expert knowledge, so as to make itself militarily strong and financially wealthy whilst also theoretically proffering the aim of maximizing health, wealth, education and well-being of those whom it regards as its citizens. The result of this seemingly admirable pursuit of excellence is that ultimate meanings are lost. Values are reduced to calculation and become disenchanted, or to use Nietzsche’s term devalued. Weber agrees with Nietzsche that the highest values devalue themselves. His response is resigned resistance: “what can we oppose to this machinery in order to keep a portion of mankind free from this parcelling-out of the soul, from this supreme mastery of the bureaucratic way of life?” The bureaucratic way of life is supreme because it is disciplined and reliable, and so predictable and efficient. It saves time and money, but it can never answer the question: “How best to use the time and money that we save?”

While the founding premise of capitalism is that greed is an irresistible facet of human nature, the capitalist promise is basically enjoyment. The imperative is to enjoy the surplus and so sustain the system, or at least to take satisfaction from the expectation of enjoyment. This expectation continues to circulate freely as our investment in the financial system, as well as in the legal system that founds it, whilst always susceptible to the risk of withering away through calamity, taxes or simply inflation. But this enjoyment is not an ultimate value! It can only be cashed in by consumption, and the socially acceptable forms of consumption, while incredibly diverse, are also highly regulated. Our ends, like society’s values, have become pre-given. Capitalist man has been tricked into being a consumer instead of a creator, and even when he creates, he creates to consume.

By calling this phenomenon disenchantment, Weber expresses the loss in ultimate values as a loss of magic. Prehistoric religion involved a magical and direct manipulation of forces of nature. In stark contrast to the logical formal rationality of modern bureaucracy, Weber characterizes the forms of leadership of earlier ages as either charismatic (based on the ruler’s exceptional qualities) or traditional (based on the sanctity of custom). These become supplanted by a universal ethic, an impersonal manipulation of economic, political and intellectual concepts. It is a paradox that it is the systematic methodical character of worldly asceticism (the Calvinist belief of work as a way to God, the Protestant calling to engage in the world) which propel industrialization, rule of law and scientific progress. It is the same practice of instrumental-rationality that necessitates all three, leaving no room for value-rationality that asks why. Ironically, these processes also create institutions which destabilize the religious ethic that birthed them. Religion in response becomes other-worldly, and increasingly irrational. It is no longer the holistic source of our ultimate values.

Capitalism, like democracy and science, obeys its own formal logic of production, accumulation and exchange and no longer requires any form of spiritual legitimation. It disenchants the ultimate values that once founded it and engenders their demise. But not only is religion disenchanted, but so are the proliferation of new values created: such as efficiency, discipline and truth, all to be pursued now for their own sake. They bring about bad conscience because of the impossibility of attaining their perfection, and also because of an inevitable and irresolvable conflict between them. It is no longer a polytheistic charismatic or traditional struggle between gods, as in ancient Greece, but an impersonal struggle of concepts. Caught in the cross-fire of ideologies, man has become a means to an end, and Mother Earth also, when of course she should be end within ourselves.

A good example of one such struggle is Polanyi’s dichotomy between traditional morality and free-market capitalism. Not only is it impossible to commit to both, but commitment to one leads to the decadence or decline of the other which will ultimately undermine both. But perhaps this need not be cause for pessimism if we can find an appropriate balance between the two, and one way of achieving this, suggested by Nancy Fraser, is by mediation through a third: the value sphere of emancipation. While historically emancipation has been allied with free-market capitalism in breaking down class structures, there may also be times when emancipation must ally itself with traditional morality to ward off the anti-liberal effects of consumerism. But perhaps Weber's main point is that no value sphere can sit in judgment on all the rest, as religion once did.

Could reason not replace religion? Weber writes: “The intellect like all cultural values has created an aristocracy based on the possession of rational culture and independent of all personal ethical qualities of man. The aristocracy of intellect is hence an unbrotherly aristocracy.” It is without hate, but also without love. Nevertheless, unlike postmodernism which reacts against the rational ideal, Weber still stands by it. He sees man as facing a tragic responsibility to make a stand between competing value spheres needing to take individual initiative out of an inner conviction. As in Plato’s Phaedrus, reason for Weber is a pharmakon: both a poison and a cure. Unlike Durkheim, he does not go so far as to accept the idea that science can be used to found our values, for example by measures of health and well-being; these can only ever be relative to our current understanding of what it means for man to be healthy and fulfilled. Many of the greatest artists, poets and scientists in history were imperfect examples of what we might imagine as human well-being. To use the metaphor of evolution as a spiralling walk up a mountain path, there will be times at a peak when we may see a higher peak in view, but whether we realize it or not, a stepping-down is necessary for us to ever reach it. Though science cannot found our values, it can nevertheless help us analyse, clarify and understand them. But as in our aesthetics or our jurisprudence, what we lack is an outside view. This is because aesthetics, like jurisprudence represses at the outset its own presuppositions: the question of whether there should be works of art, or law.

How to reconcile man’s inner conviction with his tragic responsibility? Weber’s answer is that we must ground ultimate values in our own person: with passion, responsibility, and sincere and proportionate perspective. It is true that reason which was supposed to set us free from personality and prejudice paradoxically works counter to individual autonomy and freedom. But this is only because the individual has been robbed of the self-legislative authority to found values in himself. Whereas once there was a single holistic value sphere in spiritual authority, now there is a separation into the separate often competing value spheres of the religious, economic, political, intellectual, aesthetic and erotic. Moreover, each of these spheres has become increasingly normative, making man the object of rational calculation. In asking the right questions (Foucault), or in the play of puzzling over things (Baudrillard), or in the seemingly irrational spheres of art and eros, or in mystical self-knowledge, perhaps we may find the magical enchantment which can set us free. The critical, puzzling mind, the beauteous eye, the passionate heart, the dancing spirit — all serve to re-enchant the world, to free ourselves from old spells and let us cast our own magic.
The mathematician’s patterns, like the painter’s or the poet’s must be beautiful; the ideas like the colours or the words, must fit together in a harmonious way. Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics. 
—G. H. Hardy

We are not meant to be perfect; we are meant to be whole. 
Jane Fonda

The possible is often reached only by striving to attain the impossible that lies beyond it. 
Max Weber

Photo: 'Maths Department at Dusk' —okei

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Earthly Love

Love Song (—Henry Dumas)

I have to adore the earth:

The wind must have heard
your voice once.
It echoes and sings like you.

The soil must have tasted
you once.
It is laden with your scent.

The trees honor you
in gold
and blush when you pass.

I know why the north country
is frozen.
It has been trying to preserve
your memory.

I know why the desert
burns with fever.
It has wept too long without you.

On hands and knees,
the ocean begs up the beach,
and falls at your feet.

I have to adore
the mirror of the earth.
You have taught her well
how to be beautiful.

I want to sleep with you (—Joyce Mansour, 1955)

I want to sleep with you side by side 
Our hair intertwined 
Our sexes joined 
With your mouth for a pillow. 
I want to sleep with you back to back 
With no breath to part us 
No words to distract us 
No eyes to lie to us 
With no clothes on. 
To sleep with you breast to breast 
Tense and sweating 
Shining with a thousand quivers 
Consumed by ecstatic mad inertia 
Stretched out on your shadow 
Hammered by your tongue 
To die in a rabbit’s rotting teeth 

The Great Fisherman of the Sea (—okei)

Carry me slowly, life!
Slowly down your stream.
In a mountain pool 
With salmon let me dream.
Save me from net and hook,
Treachery unwound.
Let me read your book
Whose truth is love unbound.
Carry me gently, life!
Gently to your sea…
If I thrash and quiver,
Know it’s only me.

Painting: The Dust Weavers (Margarita Georgiadis, 2009)

Monday, 21 October 2013

About Time (UK, 2013)

Genre: Romance

About Time is such an ordinary film and yet its message is extraordinary: to see wonder and find fulfilment in ordinariness, to live lighter (as if for the first time), and to live fuller (as if for the last time). Reminiscent of Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence, the mechanics of time-travel within this film are slightly different: the potential to re-live the past differently, though the further back you go, any historical change you make risks unexpected changes in the present. However poor the film might be at science-fiction, that is not its purpose. Its greatness lies in its exploration of happiness in ordinary life. The lesson from the protagonist’s father is that life is beautiful, even with its little misfortunes, if we re-live each night the beautiful moments forgotten in the worries of the day. The lesson from the protagonist goes a step further: even this would be unnecessary if we are fully present to life in the first place, mindful, awake to the little things. Life is a prayer to be the best we can be, to do and to be, to cherish and to grow, to live — for love — in its deepest expression.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Buddha-Dhamma for Students - Buddhadasa

Genre: Spiritual
Tagline:Emptiness from Me & Mine

This book is an introduction to Buddha's teachings in question-and-answer format based on two lectures given to Western students in Thailand by the 20th century Thai monk Bhikku Buddhadasa. Below is a summary:

The Buddha-Dhamma or teachings of the Buddha concern the existence of suffering and the way to the end of suffering. Questions such as “who am I?” or “how was the universe created?” or “is there life after death” do not pertain to suffering and so are outside this core scope of Buddha’s teachings. 

More precisely, Buddha taught (1) the middle way (that lies neither in self-mortification nor in giving oneself up to pleasure), (2) to recognize and understand the causes and conditions of our experience, (3) to avoid evil, to do good and to purify the heart (to purify of all attachments, even good ones) and (4) the transitoriness of worldly things.

The basic lesson is thus not to grasp, not to cling, and to be mindful in every moment, that is single-minded: “when seeing, just see”, without like or dislike, attraction or aversion.

Books, scriptures and teachings are like a raft across a river, that is to say they have a purpose, and once that purpose is fulfilled, they have no value in themselves.

Study the suttantas, especially those on suññata: the emptiness of self, the emptiness of the world, the emptiness of mind. Emptiness is not material: it means that all five aggregates are impermanent, and nothing belongs to me or mine.

As Buddha advised in the Kalama Sutta, your faith is based not on tradition or belief in what you’ve been told, but on your own mind. If you hear a new teaching, see if it accords with the Suttas and Vinaya and your own experience, and accept it accordingly. Your heart-mind is your temple.

The eightfold path will arise naturally from not grasping and not clinging: right view, right understanding, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness & right concentration. Not clinging and not grasping will arise naturally from seeing the inherent emptiness of all things.

Nibbana is the perfection of emptiness, the epitome of coolness, to die before dying. It is the realization of no-self, not in death, but in this life.

Avoid the four woeful states of hell, beasts, ghosts & demons in this moment, and you will avoid them in death also.

There is good karma, bad karma, but also a third, most important yet often forgotten: the karma that ends all karma.

Is it difficult? Buddha’s truth is based on causality, so it depends. If we act according to right understanding, then it is not difficult.

Whatever you do in life, recognize (i) its qualities, (ii) its origins, (iii) its attractiveness, (iv) its hidden dangers & (v) how to benefit from it whilst avoiding its hidden dangers.

Buddha’s final teaching was that all conditioned things decay, so tread the path with care!

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Žižek's Guide to Ideology through Film

Genre: Documentary
The pervert’s guide to ideology is the Slovenian psychoanalyst-philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s sequel to his earlier pervert’s guide to cinema, both directed by Sophie Fiennes who does a superb job in collating Žižek’s musings into a coherent and entertaining whole. Like the previous movie which unfortunately I’ve not yet seen, the philosophical insights are told through the analysis of a sequence of films, but while the erotic symbolism of desire’s object or “petit a” was the subject of the first movie, the focus of this one is on ideology, that is to say the big Other. What is the big Other?

Žižek begins his guide with the film They Live (1988) in which the protagonist discovers a pair of ideology sunglasses that transform the world around him. The adverts he sees around the city become slogans like “Stay Asleep”, “Obey” and “Consume”. A picture of a girl sunbathing in the Caribbean becomes the slogan “Marry & Reproduce”. More disturbingly, he sees that many of the successful people in the country he loves are not human but alien, and so begins his quest to save humanity from this covert invasion. Though this makes it sound like science fiction, the aliens could easily be seen to represent the faithful believers or high priests of an underlying ideology. They figure prominently in media, law enforcement and business. Fighting a pervasive ideology is difficult even if we had magic sunglasses to recognize it, firstly because many fear the lie being exposed and would rather live in the comfort and hope of illusion than face the helplessness and uncertainty of truth. False ideology acts as a big Other that gives life meaning, and people would rather that than nothing. The protagonist goes through a protracted fight scene with his best friend just to convince him to try on the glasses. Secondly, and more confusingly for our protagonist, some humans know what’s up but they side with the ideology to reap the personal benefits of playing the game. Resistance seems futile, words are unconvincing to the general populace, and the visual image holds sway. But the image also holds the key to ideology’s unravelling. An illusion based on false appearances is fragile to the grotesqueness of its veil being ripped away. Saving humanity through truth’s unmasking is then an event more powerful and requiring more commitment than even life or love.

Žižek goes on to talk about The Sound of Music (1965), and in particular the superior nun’s instruction to climb every mountain, symbolically to face every desire, but to do it in the name of religion, revealing a sacred permissiveness in religion which it must have in order to play the role of the big Other and keep account. He goes on to say how in an earlier age, people would go to the psychoanalyst with the guilt of the wrongs they had done, whereas now his psychoanalyst friends tell him the more common complaint is the guilt of not enjoying enough. In the modern age, we are seeking transcendence not through God, but through enjoyment. The big Other has changed! A wonderful example of this transcendent position of enjoyment can be seen in the advertisements for Coca-Cola with advertisements like “Coca-Cola, the real thing” or “Coca-Cola, that’s it”. If we take Coca-Cola with us on a warm day and it gets warm in the sunshine and loses its fizz, then it’s no longer “it”, but there’s no positive quality which the “it” alludes to, which makes “it” transcendent. Another example is the kinder-egg, a chocolate egg within which is hidden a plastic toy. The toy is a seemingly worthless item, but it takes on a transcendent value, and do we not enjoy and consume the chocolate more for containing the toy? Žižek thinks so! One final example is Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ which in its universal appeal has been used by every kind of ideology from the Nazis to the Soviets, and now the EU, acting as an empty container to whatever meaning we choose to give it. In its use as an image of unity of people, it is worth asking “what is excluded?” Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, from which the ode is derived, is more honest in Žižek’s opinion because it goes on to challenge the ideology of the ode through the music that follows it.

This only touches on the beginning of this movie, but the hour is late so let me finish by briefly summarizing the rest. Ideology unites men’s fears and it unites their dreams. It includes and it accepts, but in so doing it takes away man’s subjectivity and denies his power. It gives man pleasure in empty purposes and pursuits. And paradoxically, in those moments when man’s dream seems crushed, such as the love affair in the Titanic cruelly ended by its sinking, it is in this destruction that the dream never has a chance to betray itself and so lives on for eternity. In this sense, Žižek is a strange kind of optimist.

The truth unmasked is that there is no big Other, but that it is precisely in the crucifixion of ideology, like the crucifixion of Christ, that we gain our freedom and save the dream.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Erdős Centennial Conference

Three months ago today, I was in Budapest at a conference celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős. It was also my first proper conference in a decade since I started my PhD. Erdős was surely the most prolific mathematician in history with over 1600 papers to his name, a great collaborator because the majority of those papers were joint with other people, a great pollinator of ideas because he never held a full-term position at any university but travelled ceaselessly from conference to conference spreading news and ideas and open problems, a great problem-solver without question, but also a great conjecturer with an uncanny knack of asking the right questions and knowing the right people to whom to give them to.

Most strikingly, over half of his mathematical output was in the last twenty years of his life (though admittedly under the influence of amphetamines). This puts him alongside the likes of Kant as a great man who didn’t fizzle out but grew and ripened and even accelerated with age. In the face of the ever-advancing sands of time, it serves as a wonderful inspiration and disproves the myth expounded in G. H. Hardy’s Apology that maths is a young person’s game. It also disproves a second myth that mathematics is a form of competition. For if it were really so, as sport is, then fellow mathematicians would have begrudged Erdős’s use of “performance-enhancing drugs”, instead of which we are grateful for what he did for the advancement of mathematics and his mentoring of young mathematicians all over the world. The pursuit of knowledge is a collective endeavour, and while there is a sense of urgency to solve a problem before another does so, mathematicians would agree with Erdős that while we would dearly like to be the one who makes a beautiful discovery or finds a beautiful proof, we would rather the discovery were made by someone than for our desired prize to be left undisturbed. This is because whatever discoveries we make, these always open up new horizons, new problems, and there is never any sense or fear that our knowledge could ever be complete. The mathematician’s task is never done, and always interesting.

The twentieth century has seen such a fragmentation of new areas of mathematics with underlying profound connections between them that even Erdős himself, whose interests were so broad, was bemused by their complexity and never able to research into them. These are the specialisms of what are sometimes called the theory-builders, who open up new frontiers of abstractness. Erdős by contrast was always alert to what theory was for, what purpose it could be put to, what problems it could solve, and perhaps his crowning achievement was a theory as beautiful as any, incredibly powerful but also incredibly simple in its conception, and certainly fitting Hardy’s criterion of beauty as the measure of all things mathematical. It was the use of probabilistic ideas to solve problems in combinatorics. But despite the wealth of his research in probability, combinatorics, analysis, and logic, at heart Erdős always felt drawn back to number theory: the queen of mathematics as Gauss called it. Indeed, numbers, that is the stuff that mathematics is made of. In the words of Kronecker, God made the natural numbers; all else is the work of man.
Erdős had always been my childhood inspiration, as well as the British cricket-lover G. H. Hardy (pictured right) and Sierpinski (after whom the fractal Sierpinski triangle is named). I would mention Ramanujan also but I am more in awe of Ramanujan than inspired by him because though overshadowed by the achievements of Hardy and Littlewood, mathematicians to this day cannot conceive how his mind worked, and he himself claimed direction from his goddess in dreams, so to my knowledge he is the only genius that mathematics has ever known  (in the true sense of the word - that is to say, unexplainable, as if inspired by a genie). Erdős at least left footsteps one could follow after.

This was my first visit to central Europe. I had never travelled within Europe beyond Graz, where the Journées Arithmétiques was held exactly ten summers ago. Indeed, Graz was the origin of my user-name "okei": the name of a fast-food joint where I had lunch the morning I left. In preparation, I learnt some Hungarian on a wonderful user-created site called I have a sense my mathematical proficiency as a child was symbiotic with my learning of languages. Though almost all of what I learnt of German, Latin or Greek is now forgotten, the quality of mind these languages left on me was a receptiveness to new terminology which is essential to mathematics whose terminology is always adapting and changing through history as theories are laid down and perfected. I hope to use this website more in the future and hopefully learn Chinese, though in the last months I’ve done little to keep up that promise, and even my few words of Hungarian are mostly forgotten. But the sounds of the letters and words remain.

For example, sz = soft s, s = sh, c = ts, j = y, etc. so for example utca (pronounced utsa) means a road, jó napot (pronounced yo napot) means good day, and most important of all, the only expression you really absolutely must learn when going to a foreign country, köszönöm (pronounced kesenem) means thank you. This was the only expression I actually got to use in practice. (I had a great time, so lots to thank!)

It was wonderful also to see the names of the mathematicians I knew take on meanings: Fejér means white, Fekete means black, Katona means soldier, Bárány means sheep. I also discovered that erdő means forest, and eső means rain, while esős means rainy, so by extrapolation perhaps erdős means forested? I never thought to ask if this were in fact so. In Zen, there is a very old tradition of travelling forest monks unlike the monks who meditate alone in mountain caves. The name seems particularly apt, the image of Erdős as a forest monk spreading the mathematical dharma. How I would love to be like him!

It was a two and a half hour flight from London. As always in such moments, one expects the plane to be full of fellow travellers flocking to the same event. And yet always the reality turns out rather different. There was in fact one other who took the same flight from Stansted, but I only met him later. Then there was a blue bus to the end of the metro, and within another hour I was in the centre of Budapest, facing the Cathedral of St. Stephen (Szent István Basilika, or just Basilika for short), and eventually found my room and deposited my rucksack.
I spent the rest of Sunday wandering around town, hoping to find a nice spot to get something to eat, but in the end I just kept wandering. I first passed through the Jewish quarter with its two impressive synagogues. The great (Dohany Street) synagogue is the largest in Europe and built in the 19th century. Jewish architecture was inspired in those days by Islamic architecture from North Africa and Granada. It made me think how the Jews and Muslims were much closer then, both expelled from parts of Europe like Spain, so there was a kind of brotherhood of faith between them. I then passed the famous Renyi Institute where many famous Hungarian mathematicians have research-only jobs, sometimes combined with teaching jobs in America or elsewhere. Finally, still hungry, and tired by all the walking, I went on to the registration and reception being organized for us at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and sure enough they provided plenty of cold refreshments. The Hungarian Academy is a very grand building on the banks of the river Danube. There are plenty of grand buildings on the river, but these are mostly expensive hotels! You can tell something of the nature of a place from its finest buildings, and for Budapest it is tourism, but also the Academy. The Academy of Sciences was built in the 19th century, funded entirely by donations from private individuals, not by government as one would expect such projects would be. It was the Victorian age of philanthropism. A wealthy Hungarian politician dedicated his whole income from one calendar year towards this project, and in doing so convinced others to pledge their money also. This beautiful hall was the site of the lectures with a capacity of 400, statues standing along the walls, and a painted ceiling and backdrop. Since there were 700 participants at the lectures, there was a second room where the lectures were broadcast via a tele-link.

My overall first impression of Budapest was how 19th century and grand it felt, like old London, in need of constant renovation which is expensive for Hungary, not being a wealthy nation. There is a sense of hard-working efficiency and pride in great organisation as in Germany, of zebra crossings meaning something for pedestrians unlike in France, of being central European and not wanting to be regarded as eastern European, of entitlement as a people and directness in their manners which could be misinterpreted by some as unfriendliness, and of course heritage and history, but also a feeling of vulnerability to crippling debts and poverty within and to bullying from bigger European neighbours without. They have done a lot of work in recent decades in restoring their heritage, and this is important for tourism, but it also creates resentment among those who feel the money could be better spent on local needs and creating jobs. There is a noticeable nationalistic strain to Hungarian politics, an irrational fear that Hungarians are leaving and others will take their place, the Jew and the Romani bearing the brunt of this racism, one for buying the country up, the other for bringing it down. Why the underlying fear? The other side of fear is a healthy pride. A charming blonde girl with Hungarian origins gushed that her boyfriend was completely Hungarian. What does this even mean? For her, this was a way of expressing that her love was the real thing, and seeing in her boyfriend a quality of transcendence. She was just idealizing her love. But when this takes on a political character among parties and politicians in a nationalistic love, then the imagined ideal of this love is usually something in the past, a particular past, which carries the danger of excluding people in the present. History tells how the magyar (Hungarian) people invaded the land in 896 A.D. (in celebration of which the St. Stephen Basilika is exactly 96m high). It is funny how any nationalism has a point of beginning, a point of conquest in which others were no doubt displaced. In the UK, the nationalist parties talk about white Britain, but the indigenous people of England were in fact the Welsh of darker complexion, driven back by Viking and Norman conquests into what is now Wales. Nationalistic identity is an essentially imagined concept, an imagined beginning that ignores the fluid character of peoples and even boundaries. Ultimately identity comes to rest in language, and Hungarian being notoriously difficult, they should have less to fear in the first place, confident that their language provides an adequate test of commitment.
Budapest is actually a combination of two older cities Buda and Pest, separated by the river. It was only in the 19th century that the first permanent bridges were built uniting them. I spent most of the time in Pest. Buda is named after an old ruler of Hungary of Turkish origin, while Pest means cave, so together Budapest sounds a lot like "Buddha's cave". Most of the caves though seem to be on the Buda side, but I sadly never got the chance to explore them, nor the many grand Turkish baths, a legacy left from 150 years of Turkish rule. The Turks were much disliked then, yet Hungarians are grateful for this positive effect they had on the city. The hot waters are rich in sulfur and supposed to be very healing. Other first impressions were the July heat, like in Spain, and also the really wide roads running through the heart of the city, perhaps a Soviet influence. Hungary was under communist occupation for much of the second half of the last century. They tried to revolt in the 1950s hoping the West would intervene and help them, but the revolt was brutally put down by the Soviets.

The first night, after the registration-reception, I went to the operahaz (haz=house) for my first ever experience of opera (the cheapest tickets were just over a pound (300 forint) and I was hoping to get a 1000 forint ticket on the second floor, but as I was queuing, we were told that the performance was sold out. I was quite disappointed, as were some Chinese girls in the queue in front of me, and I was asking the lady in charge if I could come back in the interval or something. Then a Chinese girl handed her back the ticket she'd already bought because her friends couldn't join her, and she passed the spare ticket on to me, and it was a better ticket too, on the first floor. So I ended up getting a 4000 forint ticket to the opera for free! “Lucky you!” as the woman on the blue bus said on the way back to the airport. I was even luckier than I thought, because I later discovered that this was the very last performance before the traditional summer break in July and August.
Hungary was not the easiest place to be vegetarian, so I started eating chicken again. But I also went off a couple of times to try a raw vegan café near the parliament building, and a really lovely vegetarian place called Napfenyes, hidden away in the basement and on the way towards Hero’s Square. Unfortunately, I couldn't convince others to join me though. As for raw vegan fair, I must admit I didn't like it much and only ate half of it, but I did feel like superman afterwards, plus the black sesame based drink was absolutely delicious. I didn't even feel hungry for breakfast the following day, so my body must have been really satisfied even if my taste buds weren't. Towards the end of the week, I discovered a nice bakery on the walk to the Academy, and enjoying sleep too much to have a proper breakfast, I’d satisfy myself with their delicious custard pastries en route to the 9a.m. lectures.

Monday to Friday we had talks from 09:00 till 18:30 with only a 90 minute break to wander and find lunch somewhere, so not much chance really to explore the city. On the final evening, the conference organized a banquet on the river. I spent most of it with a clever mathematician called Bob H. who had just solved a long-standing unsolved problem of Erdős. On the plane back, I enjoyed the company of Alex P. whose seminar in Cambridge I once attended, and coincidentally the only seminar I blogged about in my aborted attempt at blogging mathematics.
In summary, the lectures were mostly good and the choice of parallel afternoon sessions was overwhelmingly brilliant. It was great to go to talks by people I'd heard of and read, but never got the chance to see or listen to before.
Budapest itself was very beautiful and I wrote soon after returning, "I could almost imagine living here", not quite ready to let it go. If you talk to Hungarians abroad, they sometimes have a very negative view of their own country citing low wages, petty crime and a lack of friendly community, but personally I didn’t experience any of this.
One final thing: the windows in the shared dining or common room where I stayed were always flung open, giving a lovely feeling of cool wind after a warm day. The room was spacious and tall-ceilinged with a chandelier and a couple of posters of London and its red buses on the walls reminding me of home. And then these open windows, as if the wind itself had thrown them open, brought to mind some line of a poem I couldn’t quite remember. I looked it up ­— it is a poem by Shinji Moon, an 18-year old student in New York when she wrote it. She is already really famous on Tumblr (where I first read it), and indeed this is her most famous poem:

Here’s what our parents never taught us
(Shinji Moon) 
You will stay up on your rooftop until sunlight peels away the husk of the moon
chain-smoking cigarettes and reading Baudelaire,
and you will learn that you only ever want to fall in love with someone
who will stay up to watch the sun rise with you.
You will fall in love with train rides, and sooner or later you will
realize that nowhere seems like home anymore.
A woman will kiss you and you’ll think her lips are two petals
rubbing against your mouth.
You will not tell anyone that you liked it.
It’s okay.
It is beautiful to love humans in a world where love is a metaphor for lust.
You can leave if you want, with only your skin as a carry-on.
All you need is a twenty in your pocket and a bus ticket.
All you need is someone on the other end of the map, thinking about the supple curves of your body,
to guide you to a home that stretches out for miles
and miles on end.
You will lie to everyone you love.
They will love you anyways.
One day you’ll wake up and realize that you are too big for your own skin.
Don’t be afraid.
Your body is
a house where the shutters blow in and out
against the windowpane.

You are a hurricane-prone area.
The glass will break through often.
But it’s okay. I promise.
a stranger once told you that the breeze
here is something worth writing poems about.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Kubla Kahn (Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

Kubla Kahn                    Or, a vision in a dream. A Fragment. 
By Samuel Taylor Coleridge   
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
   Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery. 
But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;
And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
   The shadow of the dome of pleasure
   Floated midway on the waves;
   Where was heard the mingled measure
   From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice! 
   A damsel with a dulcimer
   In a vision once I saw:
   It was an Abyssinian maid
   And on her dulcimer she played,
   Singing of Mount Abora.
   Could I revive within me
   Her symphony and song,
   To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
Painting: ‘A Sea Spell’ by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Breaking Free of Addictions


Clawing for another light
is a capital offence
a never-ending sentence
Of orange punctuation.

Drawing out this final puff
into the infinite abyss,
Alone on some rocky crag,
night beckons like an empress,
and softly cries, “Enough!”


Waking up each morn,
What outer light distracts you
Robbing you of dreams?

Centred in chaos,
Forget & keep forgetting!
Smiling you forgot.


Painting: 'Stars' (1926) by Maxfield Parrish
Photo: 'Two Ducks on Castle Hill' by —okei

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Three Zen Stories & A Practice

Why did Tanusan want the rice cakes?

There is a story about the Zen monk Tanusan who in his travels met an old woman and asked if he could buy rice cakes from her. The old woman fetched the food for him and asked him what the scrolls were that he was carrying. Tokusan replied that they were commentaries on the Diamond Sutra and that she would not understand. But she surprised him, "It is written somewhere among them," she said, "that the heart of the past can't be caught; the heart of the present can't be caught; the heart of the future can't be caught. If none of these hearts are possible to grasp, then with which of these hearts do you want to eat the rice cakes?" Tokusan was stunned into silence. He had no answer to why he wanted to satisfy his hunger. If as the sutra said none of the three hearts could be grasped, where then was the heart which could be satisfied? In embarrassment, he asked the old woman if she knew a teacher in those parts who could enlighten him. 

The old woman thereupon mentioned the name Ryūtan, telling Tokusan to visit him. Tokusan went to Ryūtan’s temple as he was told, performed the proper salutations, and then left. That evening he went to the master’s room and stood there awaiting counsel until night set in. Ryūtan then turned to him and said: “Why don’t you leave?" Tokusan was about to leave when he noticed that it was dark outside. He returned to the master’s room and said: “It is dark outside.” Ryūtan took a paper torch and offered it to him. Tokusan was about to take it when Ryūtan blew out the flame. Tokusan suddenly experienced great enlightenment.

This expresses the idea of enlightenment as a "special transmission, not dependent on words and phrases" as Bodhidharma put it. Words and phrases are inadequate and cannot convey lived experience. And yet they can point the way, as this Zen story tries to do.

Fear & Desire that Take us Away from our Heart

A Tibetan story tells of a monk who, while meditating in his room, believed he saw a spider descending in front of him, growing larger and larger over time. When he ran scared to his master, the master gave him a piece of chalk, calmed him down and said, next time it happens draw a cross on the spider's abdomen and come to me. With trepidation, he went back to meditation and the spider came again, and he watched it grow huge before him, then did as the master instructed and ran to him again. The master lifted the monk's shirt, and there was the cross on his belly.

Another story tells of a monk who saw a golden ball before him in meditation. As he reached for it, it drew back. He got off the meditation cushion, and it moved away from him. He chased it up a tree, and in the smallest branches it vanished, leaving him stranded up the tree suddenly aware of his fear of falling, the fear only arising with the disappearance of the desire. 

Fears and desires that lead us away from ourselves both originate in the mind. “No mind, no problem” as Zen Master Seung Sahn liked to say.

When Zen came to China...

When Zen came to China, an eighty-year old Confucian scholar undertook a long and difficult journey to meet the master of Zen. After he had arrived and rested, the two met. The Confucian scholar began the discussion with a several-hour exposition of Confucianism and its subsequent commentaries to see if the Confucian and Zen wisdom could find common ground and learn from each other. Once he had finished, the Zen master told him about Zen, "to cause as little harm as possible, to do good, and to purify the heart". He then stopped. These are in fact words from the Dhammapada, or sayings of the Buddha. "Is that it?" the Confucian fumed, "Have I come all this way, risking my life for some kind of jingle that any child could come up with?" "What more is there?" said the Zen monk. 

We would like to think that the Confucian saw the nature of his predicament, but there the story ends. The fact he undertook the journey shows that despite all his wisdom, he still had a nagging doubt, that perhaps there was something in Zen that could complete his wisdom and satisfy him. We'd like to think he found it: the truth is very simple.

Watching the Witness

Zen is epitomised by the practice of zazen, literally "just sitting", which is then carried into daily life, "just walking", "just eating", whatever it is we are doing, doing that fully. Zazen is thus a mindfulness training to help us stay mindful within the busy world. So, let us conclude with an experiment which can be tried in meditation and then practiced throughout the day. 

Stop and as you watch your thoughts, ask yourself, "who is the thinker?". This takes us out of the immediate sense of reaction, of cause-and-effect, to a sense of being a witness. Can you even go a deeper level again, and watch this one who watches? This practice is supposed to open up the light of pure consciousness: "By watching the mind, the mind disappears. By watching the witness, the witness expands and becomes universal." 

Whether we experience this or not, the more practical point is that whenever we are attracted to things we like, or repelled by things we do not like, the one who watches can detach and see this impartially. 

Even suffering and annoyances become lessons, and we need not try to avoid them: like Tanusan's shame in the first story which he did not try to bluff his way out of, but also the meditator's feelings of fear and desire in the second story, or the Confucian scholar's disappointment after his long trip! In all three stories, the uncomfortable experiences carried seeds for possible enlightenment — if we look with the right perspective.


This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

—Jelaluddin Rumi
trans. Coleman Barks

Photo: "Watching the Self who Watches" —okei (17th Sept.)

Source: This is adapted from a dhamma talk given by Martin Goodson.