Category Archives: Books

The Compass of Zen

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The Compass of Zen by Zen Master Seung Sahn

After Alan Watts, if I have liked someone’s explanations on Zen, it has to be Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn. The Compass of Zen is one of my favorite books because it explains the whole thought process of all the major schools of Buddhism – Hinayana, Mahayana and Zen. Seung Sahn very succinctly explains the key points of some of the major sutras of Buddhism – the Lotus Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, the Lankavatara Sutra, the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Avatamsaka Sutra, the Heart Sutra and others.

The story of Kwan Seum Bosal is really funny and unforgettable and is the quintessence of a Zen teaching

Not depending on speech and words, a special transmission outside the Sutras: pointing directly to mind, see your true nature and become Buddha.

One of the most important teaching of Zen Master Seung Sahn is the Zen Circle.

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Quotes from The Compass of Zen

I brought just one teaching to America: Don’t know mind. That’s all you need to know – Don’t know


Human beings suffer from speech and thinking sickness


Your karma makes your body and your body makes your karma


Everything in this universe that we experience arises, remains for some period, decays and disappears again. But there is one thing that never appears and never disappears. Can you find it?


That view. That view – the perception itself, the perceiving – is your true nature. What kind of view are we talking about? Seeing all appearance as non-appearance is itself your true nature. Perceiving is your true nature. You can see this world. You can hear this world. You can smell this world. Just seeing, just hearing, just smelling, just tasting, just touching is your true nature. That view is your true self. We sometimes call this “just seeing” or “just perceiving”. It has no subject or object. This is a very important point.


You must attain that there is actually nothing to attain. Everything is already truth, exactly as it is. You are already complete.


So if you want to take away suffering, you must take away mind, which means cutting your attachment to thinking. When you practice hard and keep a great don’t know, you see that you already have no mind. Already having no mind, why would you possibly need sutras? Why would you need Dharma speeches and explanations? If you are not sick, why eat medicine? If you have no mind, then sutras are not necessary, everything is not necessary. But human beings constantly delude themselves. Everybody thinks they have mind, and then they hold their mind, and get suffering. So then sutras are necessary, dharma speeches are necessary, Buddha’s teachings are necessary, and everything is necessary. This is already a big mistake!

 

What Are We Living For?

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What Are We Living For by J G Bennett

This is a small book of around 100 pages yet it is packed with a sweeping criticism of the current state of affairs of humanity. Although the book was first published in 1949, most of the observations are relevant even today and I believe they will remain relevant for centuries to come.

Bennett was deeply influenced by the ideas of Gurdjieff in writing this book. He highlights the manner in which humanity is sleeping by presenting an incisive criticism of three areas of human endeavor – education, science and religion. Finally he also suggests a way for individuals to wake up from this horror we call life.

He observes rightly that while there are innumerable efforts made by people through the ages to change the human condition, only a very few have focused on the root cause of all human suffering – the basic human nature. People simply hope for the best in this case, which really means ignoring the problem. He challenges the notion that man is truly more than a mere thinking animal.

On education, he says

In our modern civilization (as it is called), people are subject to political propaganda or the suggestions of advertising agents… No free individuals exist; everywhere people’s lives are determined and governed by a series of stereotyped external stimuli against which they have no resistance at all. The direct cause of all this is our so-called education. By the process of this education, men and women are produced who are perfectly adapted to a mechanized existence.


When children are born, they are subjected almost from birth to influences that will inevitably produce in them such characteristics as vanity, self-will, self-importance, distrust, deceitfulness, suggestibility, dependence upon other people, and at the very root and center of their being, egoism… Children are made to think and to feel by influences that are brought to bear on them almost from birth that it is only their external manifestations seen by other people that determine their value.


An influence present in almost every educational system is the stimulus to effort, not through inner decision, but through competition and reward… No effective steps are taken to develop in children the realization that one’s own impartial judgment of oneself, made inwardly, without reference to the good and bad opinions of other people, should be the basis of one’s own actions.


Apart from the absurdity of learning by heart “facts”, with no reference to their significance or interpretation, there are many kinds of so called intellectual disciplines that are taught in a way that has very serious after consequences – that is they are taught without reference to any concrete reality. The result is that into the very mechanism of thought there enters an inability to distinguish between words and the meaning for which they stand.


A man who does not know his own mind, who cannot make decisions valid for all his moods and all external circumstances, cannot be said to possess an “I”. … to have an aim in life chosen by oneself on the basis of one’s own self judgement, and not as a result of accidental influences or deliberate suggestion from without is one mark of a real I. to be able to make self-imposed efforts for the attainment of such an aim without the stimulus of anything either feared or hoped for from other people is another mark.

On science, Bennett says

A remarkable feature of the history of science is that in spite of the obvious impermanence of all scientific theory, there is always a tendency to draw final conclusions, affecting our attitude toward man and his place in the universe, from the particular theories that happen to be fashionable at a given moment. Although scientists who think seriously about these matters know very well that a theory is only a convenient method of description and not a statement about fact, they are no less prone than others to condemn as unscientific any views that do not conform to the theories in vogue.


Many people consider it quite legitimate, whenever any views about God and the universe are expressed, to ask the question – How do you know about this? Can it be scientifically proven? Implying that scientific proof is a well-established and proven procedure… it fails to allow for one indispensable element in scientific activity, and that is the ‘leap in the dark’ by which a new hypothesis is formulated.


My purpose in making the distinction between science and technology is to draw attention to one point often overlooked – the assumption that technological achievements presuppose the prior existence of valid knowledge. If this were true, it would follow that the achievement of certain results would be evidence of an understanding of the process by which results are achieved. … a very simple, obvious case – we all eat and more or less successfully digest our food, but this does not mean that we understand the process of digestion, or that any pronouncements we may choose to make about the energy that is needed for the life of man and the nature of this energy must be valid.


We take for granted that we are better than our ancestors and that our modes of life are superior to theirs… With all progress of biological science, we have scarcely succeeded in domesticating a single animal or a single plant not known to our early ancestors.

On religion, he says

Among the many strange things taught to children in their geography lessons are statistics of the world’s population distributed into various racial, economic and cultural groups…. We only know too well that these divisions mean very little in regard to the inner conventions and beliefs, the way of life and the dominating motives of the people concerned.


The concern of the founders of the great religions was not to offer man something external to himself, a body of doctrine, an institution, a ‘something’ to occupy a certain place in his life to safeguard him from particular dangers and to assure him particular benefits… it is an invariable characteristic of the authentic teaching of the founders that they rejected all theological speculation and ethical theory and emphasized the fundamental principle of self-perfecting through conscious labor and intentional suffering.


Bennett challenges us to think whether man is really better than animals. When it comes to raising a family and caring for and protecting the young, there is not much difference between man and animal. However, man has the possibility to be different when it comes to how he uses his free time and energy. Unfortunately, man devotes such time to activities of enjoyment and leisure and not working on becoming a free human being. The reason, as Bennett points out, is that man already thinks he is complete in all respects and nothing more needs to be done.

Man suffers from a tendency to self-deception and illusion for which he cannot be blamed except in so far as he fails to struggle against it. … there is a cosmic purpose that can be served only by free beings. In each one of us, the seed of free individuality is planted from above. The choice before us is slavery to that which is below or service to that which is above.

Being Dharma

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Being Dharma – The Essence of the Buddha’s Teaching by Ajahn Chah

Buddhism as we know branched out into 3 main followings, depending upon the inclination of the followers. The Theravada or the path of the elders is considered to be the original teachings of the Buddha, probably because the monks who follow it stick to the same rules as set during the time of the Buddha. They live in the forest, go to the town to beg for food and spend the day and night in solitary meditation. Other major branches include the Tibetan Buddhism, which takes Buddhism even beyond the teachings of the Buddha and Zen Buddhism, which makes no bones about its intention of pointing to the reality directly and nothing else.

Ajahn Chah was a renowned teacher of the Theravada school. He lived in the forests of Thailand and is the teacher of many western Buddhist monks. The hallmark of a good teacher is his ability to make complex theory into simple ideas and Ajahn Chah is one of the best teachers in this.

The book Being Dharma is a succinct exposition of the whole teaching of the Buddha. It covers just enough for any sincere seeker to grasp the insights. Ajahn Chah does not spend time in metaphysical discussions but directly addresses the heart of the matter. In this regard, he resembles a zen master.

The book is organized in the following chapters – hearing dharma, understanding dharma, practicing dharma, seeing dharma and being dharma. The contents are also as easy as the chapter titles.

Just like in the meditation practice, you are told to return to the breath whenever the mind is distracted, this is one book, I return to whenever I get lost in multiple other books. It always helps me to regain my center.

Quotes from Being Dharma

First one learns Dharma, but does not yet understand it; then one understands it, but has not yet practiced. One practices, but has not seen the truth of Dharma; then one sees Dharma, but one’s being has not yet become Dharma.


When there is no person, there are no problems. There is no need for solutions, because there are no problems to solve anymore and no one to solve them.


No matter where you are, no matter what your situation, it is possible for you to be practicing Dharma well


We are called Joe or Alice or perhaps Prince so-and-so, but if we realize the Dharma then we too are Buddha, no different from him.


That which we are talking about does not arise and does not cease. It abides as it is. Or to put it simply, it is not born and does not die.


People are born with physical form and mind. In the beginning these things are born, in the middle they change, and in the end they are extinguished. This is their nature. We can’t do much to alter these facts.

 

In Search of the Miraculous

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In Search of the Miraculous by P D Ouspensky

When I first came across this book, the title “In Search of the Miraculous” had a strange impression on me. It made a permanent home in my mind and would not leave. It seemed as if the search for the miraculous was my own search and I had at last found what I was looking for though I could not really articulate what I felt.

Among all the books I have read, this book stands out as one of the most intriguing, fascinating and challenging. The ideas of Gurdjieff, explained so lucidly by Ouspensky in this book, can make a life changing impression on someone really seeking the meaning of life.

Most books are just re-telling of the same thoughts again and again in slightly modified words. The concepts of awakening are also the same whether you read buddhism, hinduism or any other ism. This book really makes you sit up and take notice. If you have watched a movie many times and then suddenly someone writes a review which explains the movie in a radically new way, you pay attention. You start wondering if that is true. That’s the effect of this book. It wakes up the mind’s capacity to wonder.

Quotes from In Search of the Miraculous

Everything happens. All that befalls a man, all that is done by him, all that comes from him—all this happens. And it happens in exactly the same way as rain falls as a result of a change in the temperature in the higher regions of the atmosphere or the surrounding clouds, as snow melts under the rays of the sun, as dust rises with the wind. Man is a machine. All his deeds, actions, words, thoughts, feelings, convictions, opinions, and habits are the results of external influences, external impressions. Out of himself a man cannot produce a single thought, a single action. Everything he says, does, thinks, feels—all this happens. Man cannot discover anything, invent anything. It all happens.


Immortality is not a property with which man is born. But man can acquire immortality. All existing and generally known ways to immortality can be divided into three categories:

  1. The way of the fakir.
  2. The way of the monk.
  3. The way of the yogi.

But all the ways, the way of the fakir as well as the way of the monk and the way of the yogi, have one thing in common. They all begin with the most difficult thing, with a complete change of life, with a renunciation of all worldly things. A man must give up his home, his family if he has one, renounce all the pleasures, attachments, and duties of life, and go out into the desert, or into a monastery or a yogi school. From the very first day, from the very first step on his way, he must die to the world; only thus can he hope to attain anything on one of these ways. The fourth way requires no retirement into the desert, does not require a man to give up and renounce everything by which he formerly lived.


Man has no permanent and unchangeable I. Every thought, every mood, every desire, every sensation, says ‘I.’


A man must begin observing himself as though he did not know himself at all, as though he had never observed himself

Language in Thought and Action

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Language in Thought and Action by S I Hayakawa

This is a book that must be made compulsory reading for every human being who communicates. Now that means pretty much everybody.

All of us communicate throughout the day. The ability to talk and communicate is what has made human beings the reigning species on the planet. Yet how little we understand about how we communicate!

Even though we have been communicating for centuries and millenia, we still cannot be certain that what we speak is understood by the other person as we intended. This is a rare book which I picked up in an obscure bookshop in Singapore.

I have been making photocopies of this book and have gifted it to many people. This book makes so much sense that I have also prepared a presentation on its contents and make it point to teach it to others whenever I get the opportunity.

Quotes from Language in Thought and Action

The habitual confusion of symbols with things symbolized, whether on the part of individuals or societies, is serious enough at all levels of culture to provide a perennial human problem… The symbol is not the thing symbolized; the word is not the thing; the map is not the territory it stands for.


Many situations in life as well as in literature demand that we pay no attention to what the words say, since the meaning may often be a great deal more intelligent and intelligible than the surface sense of the words themselves.


What we call society is a vast network of mutual agreements.


Having defined a word, people often believe that some kind of understanding has been established.


What we call things and where we draw the line between one class of things and another depend upon the interests we have and the purposes of the classification.


It has been said that knowledge is power, but effective knowledge is that which includes knowledge of the limitations of one’s knowledge.

The Outsider

 

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The Outsider by Colin Wilson

The Outsider is a unique composition. Although, it is prose, it is almost poetry to all those who are “Outsiders”.

Colin Wilson has defined a category of people called Outsiders who are psychological misfits in this world. He has given examples of real people and through their life story has shown, how for outsiders, living life is a deep psychological struggle against the norms of the world.

I read this book on the recommendation of Prof. Anil Gupta of IIM-Ahmedabad and founder of SRISTI and National Innovation Foundation – India.

I have liked the lucid and precise way in which the author has made a case for the Outsider so much that I have underlined sentences in almost every page throughout the book.

While reading this book, I have constantly felt that I am definitely an Outsider. The society does not recognize the presence of outsiders, therefore there is immense pressure to conform to societal “madness”.

The author has struggled throughout the book to come to a solution to the outsider problem but without much success. Wilson has taken examples of real life ‘outsiders’ and has shown how they have tried to solve the problem without succeeding.

I am pretty sure there are many outsiders in the world who either try to solve the problem without realizing clearly what they are trying to solve or those who simply give up and become mediocre as the rest.

The Outsiders are ‘psychological mutants’ and they need to be understood and accepted and allowed to be themselves… Who am I asking!?

Quotes from The Outsider

The Outsider’s case against society is very clear. All men and women have these dangerous, unnameable impulses, yet they keep up a pretense, to themselves, to others; their respectability, their philosophy, their religion, are all attempts to gloss over, to make look civilized and rational something that is savage, unorganized, irrational. He is an Outsider because he stands for Truth.


Broadbent: …I find the world quite good enough for me – rather a jolly place in fact.
Keegan (looking at him with quite wonder): You are satisfied?
Broadbent: As a reasonable man, yes. I see no evils in the world – except of course – natural evils, that cannot be remedied by freedom, self-government and english institutions. I think so not because I am an Englishman, but as a matter of common sense.
Keegan: You feel at home in the world then?
Broadbent: Of course, dont you?
Keegan (from the very depths of his nature): No.
– From – Bernard Shaw: John Bull’s Other Island, Act IV


The Outsider sees too deep and too much
The Outsider is a man who has awakened to chaos.


The cinema sheet stares us in the face. That sheet is the actual fabric of our being. Our loves, our hates, our wars and battles, are no more than phantasmagoria dancing on that fabric, themselves as insubstantial as a dream…These men (outsiders) who had been projecting their hopes and desires into what was passing on the screen suddenly realize they are in a cinema. They ask: Who are we? What are we doing here?


Art is thought, and thought only gives the world an appearance of order to anyone weak enough to be convinced by its show.


Exhaustion limits him more and more to the present, the here-now. The work of memory, which gives events sequence and coherence, is failing, leaving him more and more dependent for meaning on what he can see and touch.


‘God has some work for everyone to do. There can be no idle hands in his kingdom.’ – This sort of thing is notoriously meaningless to the Outsider


There is an appetite for ‘progress’ in all Outsiders; and yet…not primarily for social progress…Man is as much a slave to his immediate surroundings now as he was when he lived in tree-huts. Give him the highest, the most exciting thoughts about man’s place in the universe, the meaning of history; they can all be snuffed out in a moment if he wants his dinner, or feels irritated by a child squalling on a bus. He is bound by pettiness.
It is not enough to accept a concept of order and live by it; that is cowardice, and such cowardice cannot result in freedom. Chaos must be faced. Real order must be preceded by a descent into chaos.


Steppenwolf knows well enough why he is unhappy and drifting, bored and tired; it is because he will not recognize his purpose and follow it with his whole being.


The man who is interested to know how he should live instead of merely taking life as it comes, is automatically an Outsider… his wretchedness is the result of his incorrigible tendency to compromise, to prefer temperate, civilized, bourgeoise regions. His salvation lies in extremes – of heat or cold, spirit or nature.


When we dream that we dream we are beginning to wake up.


Beyond a certain point, the Outsider’s problems will not submit to mere thought; they must be lived.


The Outsider’s first business is self-knowledge.


He feels that the universe and himself are of the same nature; then all life seems purposive, and his own miseries purposive. The rest of the time is a struggle to regain that insight. If there is an order in the universe, if he can sometimes perceive that order and feel himself completely in accord with it, then it must be seeable, touchable, so that it could be regained by some discipline…Unfortunately, the problem is complicated by quite irrelevant human needs that claim the attention: for companionship and understanding, for a feeling of participation in the social life of humanity. And of course, for a roof over one’s head, and food and drink. The artist tries to give attention to these, but it is difficult when there are so much more important things to think about; and it is all made more difficult by the hostility of other people who everyday arouse the question, Could it be that I’m wrong?


A man becomes an Outsider when he begins to chafe under the recognition that he is not free.


Unknowable. My glimpses of it caused me nothing but trouble because they ruined me for everyday triviality without telling me where I could find another way of living. After it, my life became a meaningless farce.


For the Outsider, the world into which he has been born is always a world without values. Compared to his own appetite for a purpose and a direction, the way most men live is not living at all; it is drifting. This is the Outsider’s wretchedness, for all men have a herd instinct that leads them to believe that what the majority does must be right. Unless he can evolve a set of values that will correspond to his own higher intensity of purpose, he may as well throw himself under a bus, for he will always be an outcast and a misfit.
What is life for? To die? To kill myself at once? No, I am afraid. To wait for death till it comes? I fear that even more. Then I must live. But what for? In order to die? And I could not escape from that circle.


He is a dissatisfied man and therefore a dangerous man. There is human misery, and he asks himself the question: What can be done about it? His healthy minded answer is: ‘You can do nothing as you are.’ And why? Because as he is he suffers from all the Outsider’s disabilities; he is aware of his strength, but has no idea how to use it; he thinks instead of acting.


…for freedom is the greatest burden of all: to tell every man to think for himself, to solve the problem of good and evil and then act according to his solution: to live for truth and not for his country, or society or his family.

The Fifth Discipline

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The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge

This is a seminal book on the topic of systems thinking. Peter Senge has brought together various concepts from the field into a single book. Reading the book feels almost like listening to the Buddha if he would have preached to organizations today.

The key premise of systems thinking is that you cannot understand one thing in isolation. It can only be understood as part of the whole. And the whole has its own movement. If we are able to understand these patterns, then we can know where our leverage lies in dealing with the situation. Without a systemic understanding, we will continue to exert in the wrong direction constantly perplexed why we are not seeing results for our efforts.

The book introduces systems archetypes like limits to growth, shifting the burden, growth and under-investment, explains them with real life examples from various organizations. The systems archetypes are equally valid in the realm of personal growth and that is what makes them very powerful.

The five disciplines of a learning organization as put forward in the book are

  1. Personal Mastery
  2. Mental Models
  3. Shared Vision
  4. Team Learning
  5. Systems Thinking

Quotes from The Fifth Discipline

Seeing that our actions create the problems we experience is at the core of a learning organization


When placed in the same system, people, however different, tend to produce similar results.


The Laws of the Fifth Discipline

  1. Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions
  2. The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back
  3. Behavior grows better before it grows worse
  4. The easy way out usually leads back in
  5. The cure can be worse than the disease
  6. Faster is slower
  7. Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space
  8. Small changes can produce big results but the areas of leverage are often the least obvious
  9. You can have your cake and eat it too but not at once
  10. Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants
  11. There is no blame

The best ideas fail because they conflict with mental models of people involved. Mental models, when tacit, are the most dangerous.