Science, philosophy, Buddhism, society

Essays on topics of science, philosophy, society and Buddhism. All essays are offered as PDF or inline.

       Published philosophy articles.

Short dharma essays. Including Halifax Shambhala Banner articles

Book reviews

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Published philosophy articles

Moving, Moved and Will be Moving: Zeno and Nāgārjuna on Motion from Mahāmudrā, Koan and Mathematical Physics Perspectives


Index to Short Essays 1: From the Halifax Banner

Here are one- or two-page essays I wrote for the Halifax Shambhala Banner newsletter 2015-2016 in a regular column entitled ‘From the Nerd Corner‘ They have general interest, and the hook is something relating to science, science fiction, philosophy, or some other nerdy topic.

  1. Who, me? Dr. Who was confronted with a moment when he realized he was the problem, not the solution. Have you experienced that situation? I certainly have.
  2. Do you have anything better to do? This was my email tag line, taken from Hillel the Elder. Is it aggressive to ask this, or inspiring? Aggression can be quite subtle.
  3. Politics I wrote this during the 2016 campaign. Was Bernie a good choice for Buddhists to support? Do religion and politics play together well, or should we avoid getting involved?
  4. Buddhism and Western philosophy Buddhism came to Europe in the late 1700s from the Indian Raj, went to England and Germany, and influenced Western philosophy forever.
  5. Religion, Buddhism and science How do we distinguish these three? Do they have anything in common? Is Buddhism a religion? Can science and religion, or science and Buddhism co-exist?
  6. Buddhism, science and emptiness presentation summary I presented the results of my studies to the Halifax Shambhala Centre from these notes.
  7. Pigeon Religion Pigeon’s will believe past occurrences that random coincidences that correspond with receiving food will bring food in the future. Where do our beliefs come from?
  8. Buddhism, Christianity and quantum mechanics I listened to a discussion of Christianity and QM, and wondered if it was relevant to my path. I realized that it is. Quite an insight, actually.

Not published in the Banner:

  1. World political economy What are the relationships between business, international trade, governments and liberty?
  2. Space, non-existence and emptiness What does it mean when we read that ultimately, everything is like space, and does not exist?



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Index to Book reviews

  1. Taming Untamable Beings by Jim Lowrey. About the early days with Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche.


Short Essays 1: Shambhala Nerd

May 2015

Who, me?

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Copyright © 2016 Robert Alan Paul, All rights reserved 

One scene from Dr. Who made a particularly lasting impression on me. Dr. Who spent an enormous amount of his time defending the galaxy from evil creatures out to exterminate humanity. In one episode, all of his enemies unite and confront him. They tell him that he was the enemy of the universe, not them. I forget how the episode resolved, but I recall that he was shocked. This was a transformation of his worldview from seeing aggression all around him to seeing his own—or so I recall the scene. It was a shunyata moment.

We can relate to this on several levels. On a personal level, when we take stock of our own lives, we may have similar moments of clarity that can transform our own worldview. Sure, we occasionally send out expressions of passion, aggression, ignorance, jealousy or pride. Yet, generally, we are the good guy. When the world sends its responses back in our face, we may think twice. These events can be shocking. It may be time to take stock.

These are moments of clarity, where we see our world and ourselves without the guise of conditioned goodness. They are shunyata moments—without reliance on any familiar concept. We were comfy and cozy in our cocoon, and now we realize that all is not completely right in the world. There is a gap, an openness, beyond our established patterns.

We may not want to face what we see in those moments. We may run back to our cozy way of seeing how other people are all screwed up, while we are okay. Maybe that is true. Or, we may feel really bad, that we are undeserving of anything good. No wonder everyone hates us, why nothing goes right. Maybe that is true. We might respond with renunciation by vowing never to do those nasty things again. We could even find an Ego Anonymous meeting to attend. Of course, we may keep acting out, and then have to renew our vows over and over. Maybe this is a good response.

While each of these responses may reflect an element of truth, they are simply more cocoon habits. They are all based on concepts of who we think others are, who we think we are, or who we think we should be. We are trying to fit our habits into an open space. Rather, we could try something new: we could just sit and look, without judgment or regret. When we refrain from knee-jerk responses, and give our situation space and openness, we may start to see clearly.

We can have many such moments of clarity, although we may frequently fall back into established habits. We peel our ego-onion layer by layer and find more and more. It is truly a journey. Actually, as we become more and more aware, we may see more and more problems that we couldn’t even have imagined before. This is not always an easy path—we actually have to look at ourselves.

Eventually we may relax into our own humanity and look at our unconditioned, basic goodness. Our true humanity is without flaw or fault. At each moment, we face a decision. When we remember, we could touch our fundamental, timeless, compassionate awareness before we choose which way to go. We could respond with courage. Then we can straighten our back with dignity in our perfect humanity, soften our front in openness to whatever may come our way, and walk forward, towards the Great Eastern Sun.

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July 2015

Do you have anything better to do?

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Copyright © 2016 Robert Alan Paul, All rights reserved

I have tried a few different taglines for my emails over the years. For a while I had “If not you, who? If not now, when?” That was commonly attributed to Hillel, a Hebrew ‘sage and scholar’ from about 100 BCE (however, I could never find the actual citation from his works). I had heard those questions from my father when I was very young, and they have occasionally guided my choices on my various journeys. They seem to strike to a core of transforming hesitation into confidence, at least for me.

On a similar note, I more recently came up with my current tagline “Do you have anything better to do?” While some people said they liked the question, a couple others—my son and a good friend—thought it aggressive. My friend said he thought it played into a pervasive nihilism, the idea that there is nothing better to do, nothing ‘good’ to do. This response was unimagined by me, although once he pointed it out I could see how that could be an interpretation. It is hard to convey what we really mean when we write things down in words. I am generally careful about how I compose with the written word, like this article or emails, since it is hard to convey thoughts clearly without dialog, hence without knowing the emotional state of the person with whom we communicate. Yet, I sometimes get it wrong. Hence, we should err on the side of caution, with as much clarity and kindness we can muster, in emails as well as in person.

What I mean by this tagline is that whatever we are doing with our life should be the actual best that we can possibly be doing. ‘Best’ is self-described: only you can know what the best thing is for you. Each person should be living their life to the fullest, in the best possible way for themselves to fulfill their own lives, and to fill them with love and kindness for self and others. It is always possible to do this, even though sometimes we lose faith in that simple idea. As the Sakyong has pointed out, sometimes we get caught up in gadgets and entertainment, yet we need not. We could be contributing to our lives and those of others in a positive way—our own unique way.

Clearly, my question is a challenge. I designed it to provoke. If you have nothing better to do, then you must be doing the best you can, which is great. If you think there cannot be anything great to do, then think again—there always is. When you have something better to do, then please do it.

Whatever we do, when we do it with kindness, that is better. Erring on the side of kindness cannot be wrong, and it seems always better to be kind. The Sakyong has repeatedly told us to be kind. Kindness—he told us—is an innate characteristic that simply needs to shine through our habitual crap. His kindness to us can radiate throughout our world with our kindness to others.

Do you have anything better to do?

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October 2015


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Copyright © 2016 Robert Alan Paul, All rights reserved

I am thoroughly opposed to promoting a particular political party or agenda and associating it with being a Buddhist in our Sangha, as if a good Shambhalian must agree with such things. In Canada that means a good Shambhalian must be aligned with the NDP or Green party. We must be extremely liberal, socialist or libertarian because Conservatives are evil and hate people, while we (and the NDP, etc.) love them. It extends to the sustainability movement and global climate change. These things, some people seem to think, aren’t even political, but are merely the sane Shambhalian thing to do.

Of course, if you look behind the veil we can see that they are quite political. Politics is the art of balancing the needs of all stakeholders in figuring out how to plan and act. In discussions of sustainability and climate change issues it is frequently ignored how some groups of people will suffer if the ‘only sane’ directions are chosen. For instance, the rich countries who became rich with abundant and cheap oil are now telling the developing countries that they must tighten their belts. Thus, trying to avoid increased greenhouse warming by not using abundant cheap energy sources comes down to the rich telling the poor that they must remain poor. This is, of course, an oversimplification. These are just not simple, cut-and-dry, clear decisions that any sane citizen of any country must recognize as being the way to go.

In Canada we are in the midst of an election campaign. Many Shambhalians think there are the bad conservatives and the other good people, and the choice is clear. I see twiddle dee and twiddle dum dum. Most of the system will continue as it has in the past, since there are no good proposals to significantly change things that have any chance of being instituted. While I have been out of country for two weeks, hence may have missed some things, I have not heard proposals to have a really long election campaign so all the issues can be discussed fully— Canadians get tired of discussing such boring things as how our lives are controlled by government. I have not heard proposals for open primaries so that all citizens can directly choose their party candidates—Canadians like old white men to choose such things in the back room. I have not heard proposals to allow our MPs to vote as they wish, on their conscience or on the wishes of the constituencies that elected them, without getting kicked out of the party.

The latter is called Leninist party politics, by the way. I have not heard proposals to bring the tax rates back to those of the preReagan era or earlier when those with significantly higher incomes actually were in significantly higher incremental tax brackets.

In the US we are in the early stages of a very long election campaign. There is, however, a significant choice between twiddle dee-dum and a semblance of sanity. I think Bernie Sanders is worth looking at and listening to. He is actually telling the difficult truth that is resonating with what we already know. He is mobilizing large numbers with small contributions, rather than its reverse. I personally think he is the Franklin Roosevelt of our time and the only chance the USA has of avoiding violent revolt of the increasingly oppressed and growing population of poor and working poor who live without hope.

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December 2015

Buddhism and Western philosophy

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Copyright © 2016 Robert Alan Paul, All rights reserved

There is a long history of interaction between Western philosophy and Buddhism. The Silk Road facilitated this from ancient times, yet the first major documented interaction with lasting repercussions came with Alexander’s attempt to conquer Bactria near what is now Eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan. He died (323 BCE), and his successors were defeated by Chandragupta, the first emperor of the Indian Maurya Dynasty. Chandragupta converted to Jainism and Ashoka—the third Maurya emperor—converted to Buddhism, facilitating its spread throughout India. The Greeks that came with Alexander settled the entire region and founded first the Greco-Bactrian and then the Indo-Greek Kingdoms during the Hellenistic period from Alexander to the first century CE.

           It is hard to document what elements of Greek philosophy influenced Buddhism and how Buddhism influenced Greek and Roman philosophy in the following centuries. For example, since explicit images of the Buddha in human form were not found in India until the 1st or 2nd centuries BCE, it has been proposed that they were due to Greek influence. Similarly, the concept of zero was not explicitly represented in numbers in India until around 500 CE, yet the concept was represented around 200 BCE using the Sanskrit word śūnya. However, Zeno in the 5th century BCE examined the concept in his famous paradoxes: ‘How can nothing be something?’; and ‘The arrow never moves since at any one moment it is in only one location, and its full flight would be merely the sum of all its moments.’ Did Nāgārjuna formalize Madhyamaka inspired by the interaction between Buddhism and Greek philosophy?

Greek culture and philosophy followed Alexander, who was a student of Aristotle. Pyrrho and several other philosophers came with Alexander, stayed in India for 18 months, and conversed with various Indian philosophers and religious figures. Pyrrho returned to Greece and founded the school known now as Pyrrhonian skepticism, documented by Sextus Empiricus. Pyrrhonian skepticism includes questioning whether the senses provide knowledge, whether any knowledge is possible altogether, and how reason is influenced by desire. These Greco-Roman-Indian philosophies were developed by Arabs during the European middle ages and rediscovered in Europe during the Renaissance in the 14th – 16th centuries. They strongly influenced development of empiricism—one of the two major streams of early modern Western philosophy in the 18th centuries at the hands of John Locke in England, David Hume in Scotland and Immanuel Kant in Germany. The other stream of early modern philosophy is idealism, similar to Cittamatra, mind-only Buddhist philosophy.

Empiricism is the idea that our knowledge must be based either entirely or at least foundationally on what is observed directly by our senses, yet we question whether our senses fool us. Descartes initiated modern Western philosophy by asking how we could determine whether we were dreaming, deceived by an evil demon, or in modern terms whether we are in The Matrix. Empiricism evolved into philosophy of science in the 19th and 20th centuries as a view that science must be based on sense observations, while we must be quite skeptical about what was called metaphysical speculation. The latter was determined to be anathema to science. The question remains how to balance theoretical concepts referring to things that we infer to exist in the world with direct observations of the world, and what ‘direct’ entails in this description. This question is as much of interest to Western philosophers, scientists and Buddhists.

The links between Buddhist and Western thought beginning in ancient times is difficult to document, since there are so many gaps, branches, influences, and evolutions. It is easier, however, to document how Hindu and Buddhist thought came into Europe in the late 18th and 19th centuries and where it went thereafter. Sir William Jones was a royal pain in the butt to the court of King George III due to his opposition to Britain’s conduct of the war with colonial America. He was shipped off to India 1783 as a judge in the British Raj that ruled there, which is where he wanted to go anyway. He began The Asiatic Society from like-minded Indiophiles, and with his successors proceeded to send back 15 large volumes of Indian ethnography, philosophy, literature, music, geography, etc. over the next 25 years. One of the society members reported on his trip to Tibet where he had his mind blown by the genuine presence of a 5 year old tulku.

These volumes were well received in Great Britain, and became popular objects of parlor discussions among the educated elite. They were also nearly immediately translated into German and devoured by several German Idealist philosophers, including Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer is explicit in how basic Buddhist ideas of the noble truths, prajnaparamita Mahayana Buddhism and śūnyatā influenced his thinking. Schopenhauer was very influential himself, through Nietsche (who in my estimation formed his philosophy largely from a misunderstanding of Schopenhauer’s references to śūnyatā) and to Kierkegaard and all of existentialism, which has serious similarities to some Buddhist thinking. Existentialism was and is a major ingredient of Western popular culture in 20th and 21st century.

Next issue I will talk about the more recent interactions between science and Buddhism.

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April 2016

Religion, Buddhism and Science

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Copyright © 2016 Robert Alan Paul, All rights reserved

There have been many attempts to distinguish religion and science. Some say that religion seeks the higher, ultimate, ‘transcendent’ truth, while science addresses the mundane, apparent—what is called the relative. My view is that both seek the same ultimate truth by different methods. The method of religion is personal experience and teachings that explain it, the method of science is experiment and theory that explains it. These may sound similar, yet they are importantly different. The former is very personal, individual and subjective, the latter is shared, communal and objective.

We must therefore immediately ask whether we can compare these—can science and religion generally, and Buddhism specifically, play nicely together? There are two intimately related fundamental principles of science that basically cannot be violated without grave damage to the entire enterprise: evidence and lack of authority. Hence, we do not believe the words of Einstein or Hawking without confirming evidence, and evidence trumps authority, theory, logical argument, intuition, etc., every time. Can religion generally and Buddhism in particular accept this requirement?

            For those who take the words of the Torah, the New Testament, the Koran, Sutras, high Tibetan lamas, or even our own guru as dogmatic gospel to be believed without question, then yes, there is a severe conflict. However, our teachers have told us not to do this. To my mind, the Buddha was clear that we should not trust his words without testing and analysis:

my word should be accepted by the wise only after investigation, not out of respect (for me)—just as gold (is accepted) only after heating, cutting and rubbing. (From the Kālāmas Sutra)

Chogyam Trungpa wrote in Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (p187-188) in his chapter on shunyata and description of the Heart Sutra:

Then Avalokiteshvara spoke with Shariputra, who represents the scientific-minded person or precise knowledge. The teachings of the Buddha were put under Shariputra’s microscope, which is to say that these teachings were not accepted on blind faith but were examined, practiced, tried and proved.

More explicitly, the Dalai Lama has recently written that

My confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that as in science so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation: if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.

All of us should be seriously questioning, examining, testing and being critically open to what we hear and read. We should not become religious about it all. If we do, we can easily fall prey to dominance by the unscrupulous, and also become vulnerable to debate because we are not rationally convinced of the truth of the teachings, but simply believe. That is dangerous. Criticism, discussion and debate are vital to the life of our teachings, just as it is in science and free society generally. Hence, as long as we are open to such critical examination, there should be no conflict between science and Buddhism.

However, some people seem to think that science is scientism, and physics is physicalism. I argue that neither of these are either science or true. Physicalism is the belief that every phenomena can be reduced to its physical components. This is also called reductionism. Physicists have determined that reductionism is not accurate for many phenomena; there is an emergent holism that cannot be reduce

Scientism is the belief that science is the only source of knowledge. I addressed that initially to state that I don’t believe this to be the case. Science—at least to date—cannot comprehensively understand personal experience. Try coming up with a description of the taste of a strawberry. All concepts fall short. There is—I would argue—non-conceptual knowledge, and science is restricted to a conceptual expression of the results of experimentation. Scientists are really good at drawing maps, but should not forget that it is not the territory. That goes with Buddhists as well—the words of teachings are mere pointing out the nature of reality, not the actual reality.

But, we all know that, eh?

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April 2016

Science and Buddhism; Physics and Emptiness

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  1. There exists a world independent of our personal experience.
  2. Science acquires, discovers knowledge about that world.
  3. Since science is objective, it is hard to imagine a science of experience, a science of mind.
  4. Science does not respect authority, but rather respects evidence and reason.
  5. Religion doesn’t discover truth; it is revealed by authority and is dependent on faith above reason.
  6. The Buddha and teachers tell us that we should not rely on their authority without evidence and reason.
  7. Hence Buddhism is not a religion
  8. Shunyata is that nothing has inherent nature, but are rather relational.
  9. Physics identifies those things that have inherent nature
  • Hence, universal śūnyatā is false.
  • However, there is a pluralism of different objective contexts or domains discovered by physics.
  • Some phenomena has inherent nature in some domains, in some they are relational. It is context dependent.
  • That is the core meaning of śūnyatā: things are different in different contexts.

Science, Religion, Buddhism, Shunyata, Physics

Science Religion Buddhism Shunyata Physics
Acquires new knowledge about shared but objective experience As way of life =culture, philosophy


As revealed truth belief system=religion

About personal subjective experience. Nature of world? Lack of inherent nature 2-fold shunyata Self and phenomena Fundamentalism


Evidence, Observation, Testing, Replicable, Confirmable, Falsifiable

Skeptical Challenge

Platos Cave, Descartes

Revealed knowledge Truth already known

Beyond question

Revealed or acquired knowledge, philosophy?


Not Svabhava

Independence or interdependence

·       Causal

·       Compositional

·       Temporal


Truth in a domain




Theory, Explanation, Mechanism Faith and belief trumps evidence and reason



Evidence and Faith, belief, argument

Faith is informed by evidence and reason

Faith is reason?

Appearance (relative) illusion

2.projection of svabhava

There is inherent nature—in many domains
Ultimate Phenomena, Applied Appearance Personal experience, subjective, individual Not a religion True Phenomena (ultimate, absolute)

1.      only seen by Buddhas

2.      interdependent, relational

Causal—conserved q


Rock, atoms, binding



No Biases, No authority Vajra master said test, alone, Blind faith, allegories
Falsifiability Objectivity
Is there a science of mind? Buddhism? Dualism—external world independent of mind

From the Kālāmas Sutra, Discourse to the Kālāmas

my word should be accepted by the wise only after investigation, not out of respect (for me)—just as gold (is accepted) only after heating, cutting and rubbing. (From the Kālāmas Sutra)

Chogyam Trungpa Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (p187-188) chapter on shunyata and description of the Heart Sutra:

Then Avalokiteshvara spoke with Shariputra, who represents the scientific-minded person or precise knowledge. The teachings of the Buddha were put under Shariputra’s microscope, which is to say that these teachings were not accepted on blind faith but were examined, practiced, tried and proved.

More explicitly, the Dalai Lama has recently written that

My confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that as in science so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation: if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.

Hence, Buddhism is not a religion by my definition

Set up dichotomy between religion and Buddhism that allows comparisons between Buddhism and science

What is science?

  • Mode of knowledge acquisition about anything in the world
  • Relies on observation of how things appear, on their own and in experiment
    • Basic/theoretical science seeks understanding of ultimate nature of nature of underlying phenomena
    • Applied science uses theoretical science to understand and control appearance
  • Does not rely on authority
  • Requires evidence (appearance)
    • Replicable
    • Identify and control for biases
  • Requires explanation of evidence (phenomena)
    • Theory with falsifiable hypotheses
    • Mechanism for producing evidence
  • Evidence trumps theory every time.

What is religion?

  • Mode of knowledge already acquired
  • About the ultimate nature of the world and how it can be applied
  • Relies on revealed authority.
    • Truth is already known.
    • Faith and belief trump evidence.

What is Buddhism?

  • Mode of knowledge acquisition about anything in the world
  • Relies on observation of how things appear
    • Seek knowledge of ultimate nature of nature of underlying phenomena
    • Seek knowledge of relative appearance to live in the world
  • Does not rely on authority
    • Truth must be personally discovered
    • Evidence trumps faith, belief and argument
      • From the Kālāmas Sutra, Discourse to the Kālāmas

my word should be accepted by the wise only after investigation, not out of respect (for me)—just as gold (is accepted) only after heating, cutting and rubbing. (From the Kālāmas Sutra)

  • Chogyam Trungpa wrote in Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (p187-188) in his chapter on shunyata and description of the Heart Sutra:

Then Avalokiteshvara spoke with Shariputra, who represents the scientific-minded person or precise knowledge. The teachings of the Buddha were put under Shariputra’s microscope, which is to say that these teachings were not accepted on blind faith but were examined, practiced, tried and proved.

  • More explicitly, the Dalai Lama has recently written that

My confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that as in science so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation: if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.

  • Hence, Buddhism is not a religion by my definition
  • What about instructions by the vajra master?
    • My first vajra master insisted that I was alone on my own path
    • Many others insisted that I must walk it alone
    • We must become convinced in order to have faith
    • Blind faith is useless on our path
    • We must be scientists about our path to determine what is right for us—which of the thousands of skillful means addresses our needs—if any
  • Question
    • Objectivity, dualism—external world independent of mind


  • Everything lacks essential essences
    • Essential essences are independent
    • Independent things cannot be known; knowledge requires interaction
      • Independent of causal relationship with other things
      • Independent of causal relationship with parts (no parts; unity)
      • Independent of flow of time—permanent (persistent)
    • We know phenomena in the world because they are shunya—they interact
      • Things interact causally
      • Things have parts that relate to the whole causally
      • Things are impermanent
    • Two Truths
      • Appearance (relative truth)
        • View 1: everything that appears is an illusion, hallucination, fiction, falsehood. Appearance is unreal; things that appear are unreal; it is all a dream.
        • View 2: we typically project essential essences into what we observe. To the degree that we do this, what we project is illusory. It is our projections that are illusory and false, not appearances
      • Ultimate reality (ultimate truth)
        • View 1: ultimate reality is perceived only by enlightened Buddhas in meditation. It is ineffable, indescribable by language or concept. It is non-conceptual.
        • View 2: ultimate reality is the phenomena of interactive things that underlay the appearance of independent essences. Ultimately, all things are mutually interdependent

View 1 and View 2 are shared among all the lineages, yet historically View 1 is from Gorampa and shared by many Kagyu-Nyingma; View 2 is from Tsongkhapa and shared by many Gelug. I have heard/read both views espoused by my teachers at different times and contexts.

Physics and shunyata

Physics provides a conceptual map

  • purged of the projections of our personal views as much as humanly possible
  • in order to explain ultimate and relative reality

My research

  • I took as hypotheses the views of shunyata and their conceptual justifications found through the traditional Madhyamaka arguments
  • I found the arguments generally illogical and/or factually fallacious
  • I found better arguments that were internally logical and had higher correspondence with the facts of modern physics:
    • Physics fundamentalism (ontological reductionism) is not universally true
    • Pluralism is required
    • Some things are unities
    • Some things are persistent to the point of essential permanence
    • Causality is best described by a movement of conserved quantities that expresses mutual interdependence
    • Sevenfold/Neither one nor many as an example

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May 2016

Pigeon Religion

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Copyright © 2016 Robert Alan Paul, All rights reserved

I recently saw a documentary describing an experiment with pigeons. Smart birds. They were caged, and easily trained to tap a button to open a small door to access food. Then the experimenters changed conditions. They started opening the door at regular intervals, regardless of what the pigeon was doing. The pigeon adapted and expected food at those pre-set times. Then the sly experimenters changed the situation further: They made the times for food delivery random, and slightly longer than usual. As intervals between feedings extended, the poor hungry bird tried various things to get the door to open. When she flapped her wings in a certain way, the door opened. The pigeon didn’t know it was random coincidence, so when she wanted food, she flapped her wings in that certain way. Sometimes she got food, sometimes not.

The experimenters called this Pigeon Religion. We may call it primitive or mistaken beliefs about reality. With conflicting emotions, those are the two obscurations that keep us chasing our tail (and flapping our wings) in samsara. We may also call them habits, things we do that seem to make sense in our life, yet may be irrelevant or even worse. When we brush our teeth 21 times per tooth, then we will be safe. When we eat this but not that, our digestion will be safe. When we pray to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of yore, our life will be safe. When we practice and exercise daily, our minds and body will be safe. Some of these may be helpful. Some may be spiritual materialism. Some may be Pigeon Religion. Only we can tell, but we have to look.

Recently, I had the privilege of seeing my life through another’s eyes, complete with a large and crystal clear mirror that enabled me to see a large quantity of habits, customs, rationalizations, excuses, laziness and other behavior that justified actions which were at least unhelpful, if not destructive. I didn’t blame the mirror, and thanked the one who held it. But I didn’t like everything I saw.

I saw a lot of Pigeon Religion.

I started to clean up my act. My, my, what a cluttered act! I started with my house. Nearly two years ago I spent months doing little else but cleaning my house: Literally 150 large garbage bags of recycling and garbage went out the door. The house seemed much better. But I was burnt out, so I receded into ‘someday I am going to finish cleaning that…’ corner, area, basement, attic, shed, living room, office, etc. So now, I started again. No more delays, as if my life were endless.

I started with the house, my environment as a reflection of my mind. Scores of more bags out the door. But it doesn’t stop there. Since my friend continued to make comments, graciously given and gratefully received, I continue to see more about my behavior that is just not right. So I look at all my habits, excuses, etc. that do not fit, that I know do not fit yet allow to be part of me, that form the heavy thread of my tightly bound cocoon. They are weighed and measured, examined with mental microscope. Everything is being reevaluated, assessed and is eligible for keeping, for gentle dissection and discard, or for swift action by my vajra vorpal sword: snicker-snack!

That is how each moment can become fresh. O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!

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November 2016

Buddhism, Christianity and quantum mechanics

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Copyright © Robert Alan Paul, All rights reserved

I recently attended a talk delivered by a physicist who is also a Christian. He is a member of a Canadian association of scientist Christians (distinct from Christian Scientists), which sponsored a series of such talks. The presentation was about physics and Christianity, with a focus on quantum mechanics.

I attended with my usual ulterior motives, with arrogance at the base – thinking that I know things others don’t. Hence, I would ‘listen’ with the idea of ‘correcting’ the errors that are typical when people talk about physics and religion. They have either too little understanding of physics, or of the history and philosophy of science in general. Most talks I attend, or papers I read in this context concern the association between physics and Buddhism, hence there is also frequently a lapse in their understanding of the latter – at least compared with what I think I know.

I rarely get involved with discussions of science and Christianity, although I have investigated Dawkins and his analysis of the incompatibility of evolutionary science and ‘religion.’ (It’s interesting to have discovered someone even more arrogant than I am, based on significant gaps in knowledge about the nature of religion beyond Bible-thumping Christianity. But that is another story, and another article.) I generally have little patience for conventional theists or people who ‘believe’ and have ‘faith’ as their guiding framework rather than meaning, understanding, knowledge and reason based on empirical evidence. This has been the case in relation to my Buddhist Sangha nearly as much as in relation to Christians.

My arrogance and lack of patience have been challenged with new insight into the ways belief and faith permeate my own Buddhist practice. How much do I truly ‘know’ about my own practice, and how much do I take on faith? This is a puzzlement for someone who prides himself on reason and reliance on evidence.

However, pride goeth before the fall. I was surprised to find myself in the midst of this talk, listening with an open mind, with none of my typical cynical skepticism about all things Christian. Since he was a physicist with a decent knowledge of quantum physics, although lacking in relevant knowledge of history and philosophy, I was able to focus on a question that has become important to me personally: How do I respond to the apparent inconsistency between the evidential requirements of science and the evidential requirements of my own religion and personal journey?

This journey in recent times has required a completely devastating destruction of my pride and arrogance, and I have realized just how important it is to give up my reliance on reason, understanding and thoughts in general, and rather relate to attention and awareness of my physical body moving in space and time.

After introducing my own issues regarding my personal path as a Buddhist, philosopher and physicist, I posed my question to the speaker: ‘How do you, as a Christian with beliefs acquired from your personal journey and application of the method of prayer, informed by faith in the Bible and Christ, respond to the apparent discrepancies in evidential requirements between those forms of knowledge and the forms of knowledge gained from empirical sciences?’ He acknowledged my question in a response informed by his own relationship to his own faith. I have to respond informed by my own. To date, the question is still out there, unanswered. Maybe that is where it should be.

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Not published in the Banner

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January 2017

World political economy

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© Robert Alan Paul, 2016, All rights reserved

The recent political events in the US have inspired me to take a long term view. Karl Marx, who published the first volume of his major work Das Kapital 150 years ago this year, described the nature of economics and its relation to psychology and sociology. He proposed that **in general** the central, most important factor in the way societies are organized and people think—their ideology—is their relation to how they make a living. If the society is mainly agrarian, the people have a rural, farmer’s worldview and corresponding social structure. If they are nomad herders, they have different views and social organization. Similarly for feudal structures, mercantilism and industrial capitalism. In the latter three, class becomes determinative of worldview. Hence, **in general** workers have different opinions from owners; service workers view the world differently from factory workers, educated elites and shareholders think differently, etc.

If you think about it, this makes sense. We generally view the world in relation to how we relate to the earth, or fail to have a relation with the earth and rather relate to an office, how we earn our living, spend our time to make money in order to support ourselves and our families.

He also described the evolution of capitalism. In a nutshell, small companies are more subject to the fluctuations of market demand and supply chain disruptions, hence are more likely to become weak, or even to fail. Larger companies have reserves to buffer against these variations. Hence, the larger companies buy the smaller ones, and get larger. Recessions and depressions accelerate this consolidation. The consolidation crosses national boundaries.

Question: are their countries? If yes, how long will they last?

Proposed answer: Yes, but not for long.

Today, multinational corporations (MNCs) control around 30% of the world’s economy. There are around 75,000 MNCs, but the top 500 control most of that amount, and the top 50 control a third of that. The top 50 employ 20 million, which is still only 1% of the global workforce.

That snapshot should be informed with the enormous and steady growth of MNCs over the past century, and the huge growth in international trade as a percent of world gross domestic product (GDP). GDP is the sum of all goods and services. International trade is estimated to be 22% of world GDP. World GDP is around $80 Trillion. And it has been growing drastically. Even in just the first 12 years of this century world merchandise exports nearly doubled; though they dropped significantly during the financial crises, they returned within a year.

About a third of international trade is intrafirm transactions, which are flows of material, goods or partly finished parts, e.g. cars and machinery, between subsidiaries of the same parent firm.

Hypotheses: Other things being equal (e.g., no major catastraphies),

  • trade will continue to grow as a percent of GDP;
  • GDP will continue to grow; and
  • corporate conglomeration will continue to grow.

There are objective conditions that determine this evolution. Eventually, there will be many fewer MNCs controlling the great majority of the world’s economy.

Where do governments—the defining control structure of countries—come into this picture? Governments have always been at the beck and call of business, since they would not have any money to govern with if there were no businesses or workers to tax. As fewer and fewer companies control more and more of the world’s economies, governments will be further responsive to fewer people and more defined influences. Business needs order, hence as this situation evolves the chance of wars will decrease.

Where do us normal, downhome folks come into this picture? What about liberty, equality and fraternity?

There has always been a tension between governments and the governed, and between the owners of capital and labor, although the relationships are complex. The bottom line, as shown repeatedly throughout history, is that no one will ever give people their rights. Rights are not offered; they are taken. That is the function of labor unions and similar organizations, political pressure groups representing us normal folk, civil disobedience, voting (apparently a radical idea for some), and, when all else fails, revolution. Revolution, however, is always worse than imagined, hence is to be shunned. Peaceful, grassroots work is how we will protect ourselves from the possibilities of radical conservatism that we are currently witnessing. This turn to the right—which is an international movement—is a suggested distortion of the evolution of capitalism, a slight diversion in the progress of conglomeration. However, I suggest that such progress cannot be stopped, and international trade will continue to grow and become more and more concentrated as governments become less relevant.

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Space and emptiness

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by Robert Alan Paul, Ph.D.

Copyright © 2016 Robert Alan Paul, All rights reserved

Space and Emptiness

November 1, 2017

Robert Alan Paul


We frequently find references to space and emptiness in our texts and liturgical practices. ‘Space’ is a metaphor for emptiness, which in Sanskrit is ‘śūnyatā’ (shunyata). Emptiness indicates the lack of inherent nature (svabhāva) in all things. Thus, this view states that there is no inherent nature or essential substance—the ‘essence’ or ‘self’ of several Western and Indian non-Buddhist philosophies (although Buddhists are not the only ones arguing against the existence of such things). The view includes anything: rocks, minds, teacups. Essential natures are permanent, independent and singular (or unitary). Hence, the view we are taught is that when we ‘look’ with prajna we find that nothing is permanent, nothing is independent, and nothing is singular or unitary.

We also frequently find statements that nothing ultimately exists, e.g. “The notion of space indicates the ultimate nonexistence of things and therefore emptiness” (P******d, SMR, 2011, xxxiv). This kind of statement indicates a view that is foundational to much of Shambhala and Buddhist philosophy and practice. I think it is vitally important that we understand the meaning of this statement.

I suggest that this use of the term ‘ultimate nonexistence’ is problematic for an understanding of emptiness. We have to unpack it to understand it. And understand it we should: it is all too common in our Sangha to hear about such things, perhaps read or study madhyamaka, then shake heads in mystification, and without understanding simply give up on trying to figure it out. Some people even invoke the idea that it is a koan, that we should just let the question sit and not worry about an answer. I hate such advice, but I have done it anyway. I sit and meditate on the question. But no wisdom arose. I did that for 20 years before I started studying to find the answer. If wisdom arose for you, then stop reading and go back to your cushion.

But that advice ignores the extensive texts, commentaries and words of vajra masters within our lineages who wrote and said that it is centrally important to understand emptiness both intellectually as well as experientially. I have directly heard it said by several Vajra masters that if we don’t fully understand the meaning of emptiness, then it is unlikely that we can fully understand our philosophy and practice vajrayana, and it is questionable whether we can achieve liberation in any lifetime.

And it also ignores what I think is a very simple way to understand it. It’s really not that complex an idea. Let’s look more closely at ‘ultimate nonexistence’.

On the surface of things, it’s clear that if we have any trust in our senses, then the world of rocks and teacups—and the chair you are sitting on and computer you are probably reading this on—‘exists’, in any reasonable definition of that word. This begs the questions: Can we trust our senses; How do we define that word ‘existence’; What about minds?; and What is the significance of the predicate ‘ultimate’?

First, the view comes from Mādhyamaka, first discussed by the Buddha, written down as the prajnaparamita sutras, formulated by Nagarjuna around the 1st century CE[1], and discussed, contemplated and meditatively practiced by Indian, Tibetan, Chinese and other commentators, philosophers and practitioners to the present time. Hence, this simple reference, ‘emptiness’, hides a huge literature involving an interaction between philosophy and practice. No simple explication can possibly do justice to this tradition.


So, can we trust our senses? We certainly believe that what we generally experience through them in the mere existence of rocks and teacups, furniture and floors, trees and sky, is by and large ‘approximately true’. By this, I mean that in many respects, what we sensually experience is indeed what is. A rock is hard, has a particular shape, and color, and other characteristics. But wait: here is our first opportunity to compare these characteristics with the predicate ‘ultimate’. This is in contrast to ‘relative’. Those characteristics seem to be relative: there is no ultimate hardness, shape or color, but they only exist in some kind of conventional relationship to other measures of hardness, etc. Here is the first kind of ‘relative’ or ‘non-ultimate’ reality. However, while those particular characteristics are relative to conventions, the rock still has some level of hardness, some shape and some color. Our labels for the particulars are conventional, and its not as hard as diamond but its harder than a sponge. But ultimately there is a rock of certain properties that we can sense through all of our senses (smell? Whoops!) and even measure with instruments. Hence, those characteristics are legitimate properties of the rock, even while there is a convention as to what particular measures we use to label them compared with other things.

I say ‘we certainly believe’ in our senses, because we go about our day as if those things of our world do, in fact, exist.  Those ‘things’ are called in contemporary Western philosophy ‘medium-sized dry goods’, or what I like to say ‘the furniture of our world’. There is good evolutionary justification for this belief. Putting it simply, if our senses were completely fallacious, then we could not survive. We would not find food; we would fall off cliffs or get eaten by tigers. We avoid those fates due to our senses.

Of course, we also know that our senses can be illusory. Here is another possible invocation of the difference between ultimate and relative: Is what we see ultimately the way things are? We know it’s possible that we could have eye diseases that cause things to appear that do not exist. Other illusions are possible, or even hallucinations. We look into the hazy distance and see a car—but no, its really a cow! For some illusions, we can determine that those things we think we see do not exist. That’s why we react to them as illusions or hallucinations. If we see something odd, we look from another angle. We look again, or we go up and touch it, smell it, taste it. We combine the results of other sensual experiences and find confirmation through help of other people. We may use scientific instruments to verify that it is not our imagination, but that it is a strange optical illusion that the moon rising in the east is so huge. The moon really didn’t just double in size from the day before, and its not really shrinking as we watch—something else is going on, and we can find out what it is. We can find out what is real and what is not. There is a confluence of evidence from all our senses, unaided and enhanced by scientific investigations, that verify that indeed the world of medium-sized dry goods exist approximately just as we experience it; it is ‘real’.

But how do we define that word more carefully? First, we have to understand how our values affect our senses—they really are very much different things. When we see a chocolate cake, it is not yummy, it is just a chocolate cake—okay, maybe a bad example, since a chocolate cake is inherently yummy. Okay, take a sunny, warm day in Halifax—hard to find, and treasured. A lovely, wonderful, beautiful day! But really, the day does not have the characteristic of being beautiful when sunny and warm and ugly when cold and wet. The day can be warm, cold, sunny or rainy, but it is our own mind that imposes upon it some judgment of beauty or lack. The day has no such thing. But the day has those other characteristics, and many more. So first we must distinguish our value-impositions and judgments from what is really in the object of our senses. Once we do that, we can start to look deeper at essences or their lack.

As suggested, what is meant when we say things do not exist is that they are not permanent, independent, nor unitary, the three characteristics of essential, inherent nature. There are many rational Madhyamaka arguments designed to show how nothing with those characteristics exist. I find many of those arguments contrary to contemporary science, although the conclusions may still be true, but discussing that would take us beyond the scope of this short essay, and now I get to plug my book: (see Paul, 2016). The relevant Cliff note on my finding is that those rational Madhyamaka arguments cannot warrant a belief that is contrary to empirical verification. If their conclusions are contrary, then all they warrant is that those are not good rational arguments. Thus, for example, when Zeno (in his paradox of the arrow) and Nagarjuna (in Chapter 2 of the MMK[2]) argue that the arrow is not moving, they are only saying that there is no good explanation of motion, not that there is no motion. For to deny motion would be both absurdly contrary to experience and also to invite attendance as the main course at a tiger’s dinner party.[3]

For now, let’s simply take ‘ultimate existence’ or ‘true existence’ to indicate those three characteristics. To say that nothing ultimately exists therefore means that nothing with those characteristics exist. However, we know that things exist. So, how do they exist? My answer is that everything exists relationally. This is codependent origination (pratityasamutpada). This conclusion is not (necessarily) contrary to contemporary science. Therefore, when we hear or read such statements, e.g. “The notion of space indicates the ultimate nonexistence of things and therefore emptiness”, I think it important to immediately unpack this statement to allow meaning by a simple substitution of ‘nonexistence’ by ‘relational existence’, or ‘relationality’: “The notion of space indicates the ultimate relationality of things and therefore emptiness”.

Now we have a statement that suggests space as a metaphor for emptiness indicating no obstacles, thus allowing all interactions to occur. In the case of people and minds (going to our last begged question) it means that we have nothing to defend that is ‘me’—immovable, permanent, essential, stubbornly defended Popeye style: I yam what I yam and that’s all that I yam’. Hence, we can relate with awareness and compassion interactively with whoever and whatever arises. This, I believe, is the proper understanding of emptiness, and one that cuts through the confusion that I perceive around that concept.



The Kongma Sakyong II Jampal Trinley Dradul, 2011, P******d: ***. Kalapa Court: Halifax and Cologne

Paul, Robert Alan 2016. Buddhism and Modern Physics: From Individuals to Relations, Volume 1: Non-technical Summary. Amazon

Paul, Robert Alan 2017. (Found in this website) “Moving, moved and will be moving: Zeno and Nagarjuna on motion from Mahamudra, koan and mathematical physics perspectives”. Comparative Philosophy Volume 8, No. 2 (2017): 65-89

Salmon, W. C. (ed.) (1970). Zeno’s Paradoxes (Indianapolis and New York: BobbsMerrill).

[1] Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (Mūlamādhyamakakārikā, MMK)

[2] See previous footnote.

[3] See Shimony’s tongue in cheek essay in Salmon (1970), also described in Paul (2017).

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Book Reviews

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Taming Untameable Beings, by Jim Lowrey

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Review by Robert Alan Paul, Ph.D.

Copyright © 2016 Robert Alan Paul, All rights reserved

“There’s a Tibetan lama coming to town, would you like to see him?”

Zanto barely knew what a lama was, but he said “Sure, why not?”

Remember—or imagine—a time before Buddhism and Buddhist monks were commonplace in our Western world. Now they are in the news, on TV, at universities, giving talks, meditation programs. Remember—or imagine—a time when meditation was weird, when yogi referred to a bear or a Berra. Now it is being taught in elementary schools under the name of mindfulness. Or a time when you might be lucky to see one or two books on Buddhism at the bookstore, perhaps an Alan Watts or D.T. Suzuki. Now there are dozens, or more.

Recall a time when it was unusual to see bearded, long-haired and drugged-out hippies roaming the earth—confused, neurotic, seeking spirituality, making free love, living in communes. A time when off the grid was easy—unless it was winter in Colorado.

This is the story about the author—Jim Lowrey—his friends, acquaintances and their lama—their guru Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche. Rinpoche was one of the first Tibetan lamas to arrive in America. He was renowned as a mahasidda—a great accomplished one—by his Tibetan teachers and lineage holders, including the Dalai Lama. He was also known as an alcoholic womanizer—somewhat bizarre for our understanding of what a great accomplished Buddhist guru might be. He wore no robes and didn’t look the part of a monk that we expected. That is a central part of the story.

It starts with background on the author’s life in 1968, and focuses mostly on the time from then until 1973, with occasional flash-forwards. The first part of the book—up until my opening quote—is Lowrey’s life of running away—away from his southern ‘normalcy’, away from his university ROTC, and away from the first draft lottery in 1969. I remember my number was 327, so I was safe. Jim’s was 87 so he decided to run. Karma. And where did he go? Why, San Francisco, of course!

There he connected with several people, and with others from his past and future they formed a commune that became ‘the pygmies’. It was so-named when one of them was high on dope or LSD and thought that everything and everybody was really small. The name stuck. The pygmies became the first to live on ‘the land’ in Colorado that started as the Rocky Mountain Dharma Centre (RMDC) and later became Shambhala Mountain Centre. It is a couple hours into the mountains outside Boulder, Colorado where Rinpoche had his central headquarters for most of the first years, before moving to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The book is a good read. It is short, 233 pages of 30 short chapters, each with a somewhat self-contained story within the context of this autobiography-history. There is the usual sex and drugs, but it is not glorified. Rather, it is seen for what it was (as far as I remember, at least)—a symptom and manifestation of confusion, openness, spiritual seeking and psychological angst. Rinpoche spent a considerable amount of his time and teachings trying to get his male students to clean up their act—to get a shave, haircut and three-piece suit—and all his students to stop smoking dope and dropping acid. He tried to transform the neuroses of his students to a semblance of sanity and awakeness. It worked for many of us.

But the book is not a rambling autobiography of the author’s hippie days. It is a meticulously researched journalistic triumph that recreates the conversations, stories, personal perspectives, and very personal experiences of Rinpoche’s first American students—including his first personal meditation instructions to them. Many of the first interviews were felt by the students as lightning bolts from the blue. Their minds stopped. They experienced the first glimpse of open space in their previously claustrophobic lives. This is their very intimate story, told by them to the author, who culled and edited hundreds of hours of recorded recollections.

The first half of the book is largely without extensive and explicit Buddhist dharma teachings, but there is much more in the second half, and implicit teachings throughout the book. As the book progresses, the opening chapter quotes get longer, and selections from talks and readings are integrated into the storyline. But first, we must become familiar with the students, the settings, and Rinpoche. There is tragedy, disappointment, joy, love, sadness. And always seeking. That is something that apparently Rinpoche thoroughly appreciated in these early students: no matter how messed up they were, no matter how they underappreciated decorum and personal hygiene, they were always curious about anything that could help them clean their minds—even as they clung to their hippie, counterculture identities.

According to Buddhism, we need to know what the world is really like so that we can adapt our attitude to accept it. In that way, we can avoid psychological suffering that comes over and above any real pain that may happen. Thus, truth sets us free. The Buddhist three marks of existence—what things are like—is impermanence, pain and egolessness. The first two of these are self-descriptive, while the last indicates that our cranked-up identity, our storyline of who we think we are or want to be, has no substance. Freedom comes from recognizing that and allowing ourselves to be who we really are. One of the major themes of the book, as far as I can see, is a demonstration of the three marks in the lives of the pygmies and other early students of Rinpoche during this time, as Rinpoche teaches those and other basic views.

At some point, after the pygmies and others connected with Rinpoche as their teacher, their devotion to him expanded. He was seen as someone who exemplified sanity in all his actions—no matter how bizarre they may seem. He cut through their own trips with his own simple, ordinary being. The last part of the book oozes devotion.

There are several books about Rinpoche, who also wrote many, but this has a unique perspective. This is not a book only for those who knew him—although I certainly recommend it for them. It is not a book about the drug culture of the late 60s and early 70s—although it has some of that. It is not a Buddhist dharma book—although it has many significant teachings, both direct from the teacher and as experiences by his students. I would not recommend it for someone who knows nothing about Buddhism and wants to find out. Its not that kind of book.

I also imagine that responses to this book might vary—it may be very personal, because the book is a very personal, heartfelt and endearing self-examination of the author’s and other students’ states of mind over a very tumultuous period and journey. It is somewhat of a coming of age story for a generation, with all the heartache and cleansing that entails. I wholeheartedly recommend it.

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