Tuesday, November 29, 2011

All I ask for is 62 billion dollars to buy Disney

Not too long ago, I met with a bunch of nice people from Merrill Lynch.  They said if I hired them as financial advisors, I'd get preferred treatment if I ever needed a loan. So I asked for a loan of $62 billion to buy Disney. They didn't even bother to process my application.

Don't ever trust the bankers who tell you that you are their preferred customer. Sure, they promise the sky, but when you actually ask to borrow $62 billion to buy Disney, they'll just ignore you.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

One moment of insight into impermanence

The Buddha said to Anathapindika:

“In the past, householder, there was a brahmin named Velama. He gave such a great alms offering as this: eighty-four thousand bowls of gold filled with silver; eighty-four thousand bowls of silver filled with gold; eighty-four thousand bronze bowls filled with bullion; eighty-four thousand elephants, chariots, milch cows, maidens, and couches, many millions of fine cloths, and indescribable amounts of food, drink, ointment, and bedding.


“As great as all this might be, it would be even more fruitful if one would develop a mind of loving-kindness even for the time it takes to pull a cow’s udder.

"And as great as all this might be, it would be even more fruitful still if one would develop the perception of impermanence just for the time it takes to snap one’s fingers.”

Bodhi, Bhikkhu (2005-08-10). In the Buddha's Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon (pp. 178-180). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Resource allocation fail at a Japanese restaurant

I remember going to a ridiculously expensive Japanese restaurant in Las Vegas.  Usually, I only want to eat sushi at Japanese restaurants but we ended up also ordering noodles because the sushi was insanely expensive while the noodles dishes were merely ridiculously expensive.

After we ordered, the sushi arrived almost immediately, but the noodles took forever to arrive.  Long after we'd finished our sushi, there was still no sign of noodles.  That was especially strange since the 3 sushi chefs were just hanging around not doing anything.  I joked that it must be one of those comic situations where 3 sushi chefs were just hanging around while 1 noodles guy was feverishly working at the back.

Of course, like most things I joke about, this one turned out to be true.  As we were leaving the restaurant, we peeked into the kitchen and there was literally one guy feverishly cooking noodles while the 3 chefs outside were still idling.

It was obvious to me what the boss should have done.  Obviously, he should have made the noodle guy work harder.

Monday, October 24, 2011

At this moment, I am not suffering

(Image from liquidsculpture.com)
A couple of days ago, while I was drinking a glass of water in my kitchen, a powerful thought suddenly arose in my mind and refused to go away.  That thought was:
"At this moment, right here, right now, I am not suffering."
The thought that immediately preceded it was remembering my first meditation teacher, the late Godwin Samararatne, one of the great lay meditation teachers in the world during his lifetime, but mostly unknown to the world. 

A number of us suspected that Godwin was not just an "ordinary" great teacher, we suspected that he may be enlightened, in the Buddhist sense of the word.  Every time that topic came up, though, he would brush it aside with humorous humility.  For example, he would say that, "I don't know what an enlightened being looks like, but I know he doesn't look like this", then pointing to himself.  And then everybody would laugh.

One time, in private, my friend who was hosting Godwin kept pushing that question.  As usual, Godwin kept brushing it aside humbly, but my friend would have none of that humility BS, he just kept asking.  Finally, Godwin paused, and then with a serious expression, he said, "Let's put it this way, I have no more suffering."

I remembered that, and then a thought occurred to me that even though I was not free from suffering, I had the next best thing, which was that at that very moment, I was not suffering.

That thought was so powerful it kept reoccurring in my mind.  Every now and then, the thought would re-arise that says, "At this moment, I am not suffering."  Every time that happened, I returned to peace.

We may be able to frame a practice around this powerful idea.  After all, maybe freedom from suffering is simply not suffering at this moment at every moment indefinitely.  This suggests the practice that begins with recognizing when I am not suffering right now, understanding the conditions that enabled it, and then cultivating those same conditions for the future.  Allow me to write my suggestion in verse:
Temporarily free from greed,
Temporarily free from hatred,
Temporarily free from grasping and aversion,
At this moment, I am not suffering.

Cultivating generosity, to be free from greed in the future,
Cultivating kindness and compassion, to be free from hatred in the future,
Cultivating wisdom, to be free from grasping and aversion in the future,
I create the conditions for non-suffering in the future.

In giving, in loving and in meditating,
I free myself.

Nothing the Buddha hasn't already said, but slightly reframed in a new context.

Monday, October 17, 2011

How to Chase away your customers

I recently opened my first account with Chase Bank.  As part of opening that account, I made an initial check deposit.  Today, I received a letter saying that deposit is on hold because "the deposited check is not consistent with the account's normal deposit activity."

This is an initial deposit in a brand new account, it is 100% (1 out of 1) of the account's "normal deposit activity".  Duh!

It gets worse, the letter includes nonsensical statements such as this (referring to the deposit): "If the item is returned to us unpaid, your account will be charged for the amount of this item."  Huh?

And the comedy continues.  The signature area of their credit card seems to be coated with some chemical that makes it impossible for pen ink to stick, so I could not sign the card with any of my pens.  Ironically, the credit card is branded as "Ink".  It should have been "No Ink".

I'm now seriously concerned I let this institution handle my money.  This bank seems to have trouble even with foundational probabilistic reasoning (such as 1/1 = 100%).  I probably should have known better than to hand my money to folks who brand their credit cards "Ink".  Jeez.  Then again, you would think that if their branding was this bad, they must be good at something else.  Besides,  I'm too lazy to change banks or move my money out.  My laziness is Chase Bank's friend.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

How am I? I am happy and at peace

Whenever people asked me, "How are you?" I used to have one of two frequent responses:
- "I am fine."
- "Busy, busy."

I found both responses to be unsatisfactory.  So recently, I decided to change my response to, "I am happy and at peace" whenever it is true.  And since I am happy and at peace a lot, thanks to my years of mindfulness training, even when I'm busy and feeling overwhelmed (which also happens a lot), it is fast becoming my default response.

To my surprise, I found that response to have a big impact on others.  Some people tell me that when they hear that response, they immediately also feel happy and at peace.  Wow.  The simple act of articulating your own inner well-being can inspire others.  Very cost-effective.

I also discovered that responding that way has an impact on me.  When I stop saying, "I'm busy, busy" and start saying "I'm happy and at peace", my frame of reference changes.  I stopped seeing my being as an island of peace surrounded by a sea of busy-ness, and started seeing it as an island of busy-ness surrounded by a sea of peace.  The circumstantial situation is unchanged, but the mind frames it differently, and that change in framing alone changes the mental and emotional state.  It makes the mind perceive the peace more easily than it usually does, and what the mind can perceive easily, it can indulge in easily.  So mind changes its indulgence from busy-ness to peace.

I hope you too are happy and at peace, my friend.

Friday, October 7, 2011

I'm Still Thinking Different, Steve

I have always thought different.  I have always been different.  I am the crazy one, the misfit, the rebel, even by Google standards.  Eric Schmidt half-jokingly wagged his finger at me and called me a "troublemaker".

In retrospect, I think I have been so successful in my life because I thought so differently.  It has not been easy, however.  Thinking different means you never really fit in.  It means nobody can really understand you, ever.  It is very lonely here.  Once you are here, there are only two paths.  One is a slow, lonely path towards some form of self-destruction.  The other is to let go of your ego and dedicate whatever talents you may think you have towards the service of greater good.  I chose the second path.  I thank the Buddha everyday because his teachings gave me the capacity to make that choice.

Given this context, many years ago, I watched a "Think Different" TV ad commissioned by Steve Jobs which obviously reflected his own personality.  It touched and inspired me like no 60-second video ever did.

Here is the video and the text:

"Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify and vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as crazy, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do."

Thank you, Steve.  I'm sorry I missed the chance to meet you.  You will always be an inspiration and a hero, and this world will miss you very much.

Monday, September 12, 2011

A Jolly Good Mantra in the Heart Sutra

The Heart Sutra is one of the most popular scriptures in all of Mahayana Buddhism.  I have a theory that the secret of the Mantra in the Heart Sutra is jolly goodness.

My morning alarm ringtone is a Chinese-language recitation of the Heart Sutra.  Hence, I wake up most weekday mornings meditating on the Heart Sutra.  That way, I can at least claim to be a Buddhist on (most) weekdays.  More importantly, though, it gives me a chance to get into a good meditative state right before I begin my day.

I find the Heart Sutra ideally suited for accompanying my first morning meditation, mostly because it is so short (at only 260 Chinese characters).  More importantly, though, the Heart Sutra is a literature of the prajna paramita group of Buddhist scriptures, which for the uninitiated, means that everything in it is simultaneously the most absurd nonsense and the most exalted truth at the same time.  For example, it says things like, "Form is Emptiness, and Emptiness is Form", and "There is no suffering, no wisdom, no attainment whatsoever."

It is all utter nonsense.  It begins to make sense, however, when the mind enters the state of "no self".  "Self" is a mental construct that the mind continuously creates in reaction to thoughts and sensations.  When the mind reaches a certain threshold of calmness, however, the formation of "self" becomes weak, sometimes the sense of "self" is not formed at all.  Even in the weak version of "no self", prajna paramita begins to make perfect sense.

That is why I like to do this meditation as the very first thing in the morning, when the mind is clear from being freshly awake and well rested, but is still subtle enough that self-formation is weak.  This mind is most receptive to the prajna paramita.  The highest wisdom.  Or whatever nonsense it's called.

The final phrases in the Heart Sutra is a mantra.  In the Chinese version, that mantra is left untranslated, it is merely transliterated from its original Sanskrit.  Why?  Because according to the Chinese translators, the mantra is so profound that it cannot be translated and that the mere sound of the mantra is sufficient to bring the mind into a deep samadhi followed by awakening.

Probably true, but I'm an engineer, so a thousand years of Chinese wisdom is not enough to stop me from at least trying.  Call me a fool.  Anyway, here is the mantra in its original Sanskrit:
Gate gate.
Bodhi svāhā!
And here is my own translation of it:
Let’s go, vamonos.
Beyond the limited mind.
Everybody let’s go.
Welcome to enlightenment!

One morning, while sitting in my bed in stillness meditating on the mantra, I figured something out.  My mind was in a lighter mood than usual, and in that mode of extra jolliness, I realized that this is a jolly good mantra.  It does not work if the mind approaches the mantra in seriousness, it only works if the mind approaches it with jolliness and humor.  If you approach thinking the mantra is funny, then upon contemplating the words, the mind suddenly opens up to awakening and compassion.

I suspect this was the original intention of the wise person who wrote that mantra, but nobody got the joke.