Category Archives: Language

Half Knowledge is Dangerous

There is a saying that half knowledge is dangerous.

If you have read the stories of Suppandi in the children’s magazine Tinkle, you will know what I mean. Once Suppandi’s master instructed him not to let anyone in the house while he was gone. Suppandi diligently followed the instructions and when his master returned, he did not allow even him to enter the house. Another time, some guests had come over to the house and Suppandi was asked to bring some Samosas. He brought them in his hand and was reprimanded by his master to bring everything in a plate. Next day his master asked him to bring his shoes and Suppandi brought them in a plate.

Image Credit: Tinkle

These stories illustrate in a funny way how half knowledge is dangerous. However, it is true in real life also. Cooking a new dish without knowing the nuances may affect the taste of your preparation. Writing a complex piece of code without knowing the entire context of the customer’s requirements will lead to unintentional bugs. Travelling to a distant city without accurate maps will lose you hours in getting on the right track. In the simplest case, if your knowledge is less than complete, you will get less marks in the exam. We can recognize innumerable such examples in our daily life.

If we really think about this, then whatever we know is always incomplete, always half. In fact the more we know the more we feel we know less about something. So at all times, our knowledge is half knowledge. We don’t know the entire story.

Just to clarify, when we say half, it is not exactly 50%. It means not knowing different facets of the subject. Whether you know 25% or 75%, it is still less than complete, therefore it is called half. You cannot say that someone who knows 25% is more ignorant than someone who knows 75% or the other way round.

So now the question begs itself. Is there a state of complete knowledge? If you keep on gaining knowledge, will you ever know everything? I doubt that.

New knowledge is always getting created and therefore it is an endless journey to gather complete knowledge. In the lifetime of an individual, it is not possible to acquire all the knowledge of all the things.

Since we all are in the state of half knowledge and we take action based on that, so we are all ‘dangerous’ people. Whatever action we take based on our half knowledge is less than optimum and will may create more harm than good in the long run. But that seems like a controversial statement. Obviously, we can do good for others and not all our actions are harmful.

At this stage, we reach a point where our understanding is limited by the collective understanding. It is possible that even though when the world says something is good, it may be harmful but you will know only when you get some more knowledge of the cause and effect of that action.

This discussion is taking us deeper into the meaning of knowledge, good and harm. It is not possible to conclude this at this level.

They say the Buddha had complete knowledge. In one of the suttas, the Buddha said to his monks that he knew far more than what he revealed to them, taking the analogy that he taught only a handful of leaves compared to all the leaves in the forest. According to the Buddha, we must focus only on the alleviation of suffering and not bother about who created the universe and whether it is eternal or not.

According to the Buddha, knowledge that helps in alleviation of suffering is superior to knowledge that may lead to increase in suffering or have no impact on suffering.

Vedanta philosophy points seekers to go beyond knowledge. It speaks of the ending of knowledge. Ved + Anta = Vedanta. The Vedas were considered to be the repository of all knowledge till then. But it was found by the wise that that knowledge was not conducive to emancipation or awakening. It merely was leading people on the path of rituals and worship.

Could it be that the clue to solving this conundrum is to get an insight into knowledge i.e. understanding the very nature and structure of knowledge.

That which we call knowledge is a consensus, a provisional conclusion, not ultimately real. It is something that helps you to get along in life, work with others and do things but none of that fundamentally is true, it’s not the substance of the universe.

Mathematicians will argue otherwise and speak of the perennial constants and universal ratios which are at the root of the laws of nature. But such laws are just the result of our universe being the way it is and mathematics a way to understand that through symbols. They are the truth only of our observable universe dependent on the way we have designed our science.

Knowledge, if we understand it as a description of the world whether in language of English or Mathematics, has inherent limitations, which cannot be overcome by gathering more knowledge.

Knowledge is the description of the world and description = words and words are symbols to represent what is. But ‘what is’ cannot be captured as symbols or in words and descriptions. Knowledge by its very nature is a representation of ‘what is’ and a re-presentation is not the real deal.

To know ‘what is’, knowledge must be dropped and only bare awareness must be retained. When you are able to look and hear what is with bare awareness without creating knowledge of that, then there comes a time when you can directly experience ‘what is’ and know directly, not through any representation of words and formulas.

Direct knowing is complete at all times. This is not gathered knowledge or applied knowledge. This direct knowing is new and fresh every moment. And action based on this direct knowing is the right action that is good, not harmful.

So it is not a question of half or complete knowledge, it is a question of direct knowing or indirect knowledge.

Two Sides of a Coin?

What if I fall?

Oh, but my darling what if you fly! 

Erin Hanson

Essentially this line spells one thing, that there are two sides to a coin. One is the dark one, the negative and scary side, while the other, is the bright one, the positive one that is so encouraging and reassuring. 

Life throws a million chances and opportunities at us just like this one, where we either fly or end up falling. So what is it that life is trying to teach? Is it sheer luck or is there something more to it? The answer probably lies in the way we try to perceive each incident. Every situation can be seen from two sides – the positive as well as the negative. 

For instance when we experience happiness on winning a game or gaining a promotion do we really think of the flip side of it? Probably not, because we are too immersed in the happy moment. The flip side of a win can be that we may have to double the efforts to make sure that we keep winning the game which means more hard work. The flip side of a promotion can be that we must handle greater responsibility and work more at proving ourselves as a worthy choice. We might fail at these things can’t we. On the other side when we suddenly lose someone dear to us, we fall into a grief so deep that we hardly realise that it is strengthening us from the inside and making us resilient to stand up again even when we are hurt. That is a powerful positive side to a bad incident. 

So in effect, what we must learn and appreciate about each experience is that every time it happens, it teaches us something. What use is anything that happens in life, if we do not rise up higher in our understanding and realisation through the experience? Just like a coin even life has two sides and we must accept each with grace. 

We must always remember that the good times come for a price that must be paid and the bad times come with lessons that must be learnt. 

#nehaismNeha Joshi

One fine day, I explained about the two sides of a coin to Neha and asked her to write about it. While, what she has written above summarizes what I explained to her, she did not think about it deeply and thus missed the essence. The two sides of a coin is an oft-used analogy to help people understand that life is not one-sided. It is used especially to advise people who are habituated to look at life from a single viewpoint or who are caught in a specific life situation. The fact that reminding people of this analogy gives them relief is the proof they need that they were stuck in one sided views.

However, the point that this analogy misses is that a coin does not have two sides (surprised!?). It just appears to have two sides. It actually has more than 2 sides. Consider the thickness at the circumference. That’s the third side. Further, if you observe the coin under a microscope, you will see infinitely more surfaces and sides.

So the point is not to jump to the conclusion that life is colorful and not black and white, which is fine to a certain extent. But what is more difficult to do, and what is needed, is to stop counting the colors or the sides.

Now, one might quickly jump to another conclusion (a conclusion is a kind of a solidified hardened view and most people like to jump to it) that we should take life as it comes. Unfortunately, that too is a view that can be countered by its opposite (two sides of the coin view – take control of your life) or the multi-color view of life (experience everything that life has to offer).

While these views can help us in many ways, ultimately, they are mere views. Is it possible to be free of all views? Because only when you can be free of all views, can you see life in all its pristine beauty and know you are ‘that which views’ and ‘that which is viewed’.

Seeking For The Truth

Where Can I Find Truth

Lot of people seek for the truth.

But truth is not something that can be seen as some image.

It is not something that can be heard as some sound.

It is not something that can be smelled or tasted.

It is not something that can be touched.

So in what way do people expect to find the truth?

Is it an idea?

Is it some thought that is considered as the truth?

Is it an experience?

Note that in order to be sure that one has found the truth, one must be in a position to recognize it.

How can one recognize the truth if one has never had an experience of it before, when one does not know what it is?

Some say that truth is to be found within

True we can search for it within but what does one expect to find.

When the search begins one does not know what one is searching for & there are many falsities masquerading as the truth. So how does one differentiate ?

What if truth is right there in front of us but we miss it & go on seeking somewhere else ?

These are some questions that every sincere seeker of truth must investigate.  He or she must not accept or discard anything without proper investigation.


Two Realities

There are two realities going on simultaneously. One is the reality of which we cannot speak and EVERYTHING happens in THAT reality. Actually it is the only reality. However, there is the second reality which is the superimposed reality – the one created by thought, name, concept and description. It attempts to describe and understand the first underlying reality. However, the second reality is made of the same substance as the first one. It is the second reality only from the perspective of the second reality. From the perspective of the first reality, the second superimposed reality does not exist.


For example, a chair or a tree exists in the first reality as atoms, molecules and process. This cannot be described. It is a mystery, just nameless BEING. In the second reality, we call it the tree, the mango tree, the wooden chair and so on.

Now we must understand the overlap between the two realities. The tools used by the second reality – sounds, letters, names, images – are all expressions of the first reality. That means that the second reality cannot exist independently of the first one. It is made of the first reality.

Here is the funny thing. The first reality can only be known through the medium of the second. It is not right to say that the first and the second do not intermingle. From the very beginning, it is only the first reality and will always be. The second exists only to know the first.

People do not realize that the second reality, the superimposed reality, is nothing but the original source reality. They think the superimposition is a separate reality and by constantly forgetting that, they only live in the second reality R2.

Sometimes, R2 is in sync with R1. It can describe it well and goes together with it. At other times, it is not in sync, does not overlap and is incapable of describing whats going on. At this time, for a person, who is only living in R2, there is stress, conflict, anguish and suffering.

The nature of R1 is impermanence, change, dynamic while the nature of R2 is permanence, static, same. Again, this distinction is only from the perspective of R2, not from R1.

Remember R2 is nothing but R1 and has always been so. If a person realizes that, he comes back in sync. In other words, he accepts R2 … whatever description he has of R1 … and stays with it. The effort to modify R1 to meet R2 or R2 to meet R1 causes suffering.

A wise man, or one with this insight, knows both R1 and R2 and can distinguish R2 from R1 or know the limitations of R2 to describe R1 and at the same time accept that R2 fully as R1 itself and not run away from R2.

What Are You Saying?

Today is a great day for a long drive.

What does that sentence mean? Is it a fact? Or an inference or a judgment? Do we understand the difference between these three characteristics of our day to day communication? When we communicate, do we realize how these things affect our moods and our clarity of understanding? Understanding what is a fact, what is an inference and what is a judgment is easy in a classroom setting but in daily life, it demands acute attention from the person who is listening or reading. Without being aware of these distinctions, it is easy to get swayed by what people say. So please pay attention to how you encounter these qualities in everyday communication.

Let us start with some definitions

  • A fact is a piece of information that one has seen, read, heard, which is open to discovery or verification.
  • An inference is a conclusion about the unknown based on the known.
  • A judgment is an opinion that implies approval or disapproval of a person, object, situation or occurrence.


Example 1: Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella has warned that embracing Artificial Intelligence without reskilling people will have an impact on jobs.

Now this sentence is not a fact because you cannot go and verify it at least now. So it is a conclusion about the unknown based on the known. So it is an inference. It may turn out that way or it may not turn out that way. It is an educated expert inference coming from Microsoft chief so it is likely that it may turn out that way in the future.

However, someone might comment – I’m afraid AI will end all traditional jobs. This is not a fact, neither an inference. It is a judgment, an opinion. If you happen to hear this statement first, what would be your reaction? Will you be scared of losing your job? If you are listening carefully and notice that the statement seems like an opinion, you might want to inquire further why that person feels that way.

Example 2: One of our most unfortunate national traits is to adore a few visible successes, and ignore the unglamorous need to improve the fundamentals.

What is this if not a judgment? Is it a fact that can be verified? Can you go and measure a national trait? You cannot. Is it an inference about anything unknown? No. It is clearly a judgment. It is very easy to get influenced by a judgment if one does not attempt to verify the underlying facts or inferences.

Let’s say we list the facts. We sent 100+ satellites in orbit in a single rocket. We still have school children in the 5th standard in a few schools who cannot add or subtract. Now both these facts are true. They can be verified. What inference can you draw from them?

All I am asking you is to listen carefully when you listen to others or read anything – whether it is a fact or an inference or a judgment.

A doctor checks that your body temperature is 102 degree Fahrenheit. This is a fact. He may arrive at an inference that you have a viral infection based on his experience. But if he says – you do not take care of your health, then it is a judgment. It is his personal opinion on the matter. There is no compulsion for you or others to accept another person’s judgment.

All this while we looked at some examples which were maybe not relevant. But now let’s come closer home.

Example 3: When asked to submit a status report on a project, we usually comment, it is going well, client is happy.

Can you see what’s wrong in this? A report was asked for but a judgment was expressed. Judgments are most of the time useless. You cannot take a decision based on a judgment. What is important is facts and the expert inferences we can draw from those facts. Would it be better to state – We brought down the number of bugs from 300 to 25 over the last 2 months and client sent an appreciation email. But he wants to get the final delivery by month end and we are short of 1 resource. All this information can be verified. Now, an inference can be drawn about the unknown from this known that it would be possible to meet the deadline if 2 resources work on the weekend. There is no need for any judgment anywhere.

Many times we do not share facts because we are afraid that other people will judge us from them. But if we realize that judgements do not follow a logic, they are personal opinions which need not be taken seriously, then we will have the freedom to share facts. It is possible one person can draw a different inference from the same data set as compared to another. It happens all the time. Seeing the symptoms, one doctor might diagnose viral infection and another bacterial infection. Further tests would clarify that.

I can give many more examples but I believe the above would have succeeded in conveying my core message about keeping to facts as much as possible, developing your ability to draw right inferences and avoiding judgments at all costs. Watch for these in your speech and in other’s speech.

Now a quick quiz. What do you think about the starting sentence of this article? Is it a fact or an inference or a judgment?

Please share your views in the comments

Half Full or Half Empty


The example of the glass which is half full or half empty is often used to show how people view the same situation differently.

​However, instead of giving equal importance to both the views, we tend to prefer the view that the glass is half full. Those who see the glass as half empty are advised to be more optimistic and see the glass as half full. Nonetheless, the statement that the glass is half empty is equally true.

The half full glass has no more space while the half empty glass has scope to take up more liquid. From this perspective, the half empty view seems to be more positive and optimistic than the half full view.

Yet again, the half full glass of water has the capacity to dissolve salt so it definitely has space within and we cannot say that the space is occupied fully by water. And similarly, the half empty glass is already filled with air so it was never empty, right from the beginning.

Now lets say, we pour out the water and suck out the air from the glass. What is remaining is called vacuum, which is supposed to be empty, really empty. But scientists say that even a vacuum is not empty – it consists of micro particles which are in some sort of flux.

So what does this tell us. That in this universe, there is nothing really empty. The notion of emptiness must always be qualified – empty of what? Like in the case of the half full glass, we can rightly say that it is half empty of water.

Similarly in the Buddhist concept of emptiness, the emptiness is the absence of an enduring self. However, that does not negate phenomena and therefore, emptiness is only in relation to fullness and in itself, it cannot be. Therefore, this is also known as the emptiness of emptiness.

The Sutra Parrots


Recently I attended the engagement ceremony of a cousin. It was a Buddhist ritual. The monk recited the sutras & both the prospective bride & groom repeated those sutras.

All Buddhist sutras are recited in the Pali language. And in the repetition, the meaning is usually lost.

Wouldn’t it be better to say what the sutras mean rather than repeating them like a parrot?

Firstly it seems as if you are signing a document written in Chinese i.e. without understanding the content.

Going beyond the specific instance, this is a common problem while reciting sutras. If you understand the Pali language naturally then it makes sense but Pali is not anyone’s mother tongue.

​The Buddha chose to spread his message in the Pali language only because it was the common dialect & lay people did not understand the prevalent language of sutras – Sanskrit. So why can’t we speak the sutras in English or Hindi?

Wouldn’t it be better, instead of saying – Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami; to say – “I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.”?

I remember once I had been to a house warming ceremony. Again it was a Buddhist ritual & everyone recited the five precepts including this one – Suramerayamajja pamadatthana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami. It means “I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.”

To my utter disgust I saw the people, after the Puja got over, get into a party mode with alcohol & meat.

So what the people said a while back in Pali language had no effect on them. If they had spoken the sutra in English or Hindi, it would have caused a contradiction in their minds.

You can repeat a sutra in an unknown language for a hundred thousand times without any benefit. but if you repeat it in a language you understand, it may sink in.

The Word is Not The Thing


Our language can be considered to be a mutual agreement between all people to use certain symbols and associated sounds to represent various things found in nature or to represent various abstract notions developed by the mind. The invention of language gives tremendous power to human beings. All advances in science and technology, engineering and medicine would not have been possible without the foundation of language.

As much as language helps in changing our environment, it is also the source of much misery, misunderstanding and suffering. Words can deceive and words can hurt. Words can influence masses of people and words can make people fight with each other. The root cause of all the problems caused by our language can be traced to Alfred Korzybski’s famous statement – The Word is not the Thing.

Let me explain with an example. The word “bulb” stands for the physical object, which is spherical in form made out of glass and contains a filament made of tungsten. When connected to an electrical outlet, it glows and gives off light. You, me and everyone else has agreed to call it a bulb. We could have agreed to call it by any other name but for some historical reason we have called it the bulb.

The physical bulb is not a static object because it is undergoing change all the time. The filament is wearing off and the glass is getting weaker. But the name remains the same. The word “bulb” does not change. Now most people when shown a bulb will say that it is a bulb whereas in reality there is only the agreement to call it a bulb. The physical object can break when dropped on the floor but the word “bulb” does not break.

In the case of the bulb, there is no problem. Most people would agree wholeheartedly that the word, which is the symbol, is not the real thing. But in many other instances, all of us confuse the two. We fuse the word and the thing together as if they were never separate. And this confusion leads to all the troubles.

Let me explain with another example. The word “communist” stands for a person who believes in a certain way of thinking, who has a certain ideology and has certain political convictions. Communism is generally associated with negative connotations. Now, suppose you come to know that Mr. X, your friendly neighbor, is a communist. You will automatically forget all the excellent qualities of Mr. X and starting being cautious in interacting with him.

This reaction is common in many other cases where the symbol is confused to be the thing. We salute the flag (a symbol) to show our respect to our country. We offer flowers to a statue (a symbol) in order to pray to God. We give a birthday card (a symbol) to express our love. We attach a lot of emotion to our symbols. So if someone burns the flag, we consider it as an attack on the country and if someone throws away the card, we consider it as an insult.

If we think about our reactions with a calm mind, we will discover that they are not warranted. However because of our habit, we continue to confuse the word for the thing.

It is X Only Because it is Not X

X is a name. It can be a name of a person or thing or event or process. We all use names to identify things and people. But in the process we forget that they are simply names, not the things themselves.

There are different shades of identification. Some identification is stronger than others. One’s own name is the strongest identification. My name is Y but I start believing that I AM Y. Similarly I believe that my friend is A, my wife is B and my dog is D.

Other strong identification is with time. We actually believe that today is 9th of AUgust 2015, Sunday. The fact is that a date is only a convenient means to have order in our activities and planning.

The fact is that the name is not the person or the name is not the thing. We might say Hurricane Katrina, but that is just a name. The hurricane did not have a name. It was nameless all the time. Therefore, the truth is that it was not Hurricane Katrina. In other words, it was Hurricane Katrina only because it was NOT Hurricane Katrina.

This statement must be understood carefully. X is X only because it is NOT X. A name can be given to something which is nameless. If it already had a name, why give it one?

The Hurricane does not say that its name is Katrina. Similarly the dog does not say that its name is D. In the same spirit, even if I say that I am Y, you should not believe me because I am fundamentally nameless. So are you. That is why your name is P or S or K.

So look around you. In actual fact, nothing has a name. Everything is nameless from the beginning – all the chairs, tables, walls, people, are chairs, tables, walls and people only because they are NOT chairs, tables, walls, and people.

It is more true to say that it is not a chair than it is to say that it is a chair. Both statements are true but one is really true and the other is only conventionally true.

So if you can look at things and people as nameless which is not recognizing anything by its name – whether it is a tree, a bird, a flower, the sun and so on, you will attain the original mind, untainted and pure. After all, isn’t this what you want?

Does it Matter?

There are two outlooks that one can get attached to. One outlook says “It matters” & the other says “It does not matter”. But let’s look more closely.

When “it does not matter”… the ‘it’ can stand for “It matters”
Therefore, “It matters” does not matter.
Similarly, “It does not matter” matters.

Rephrasing the same
It does not matter even if it matters & it matters even if it does not matter.

So does it matter?