Tuesday, 13 January 2009


My walk to get water:

Happy new year. Hope you had an enjoyable festive season. Mine was ok. The weather has been terrible for weeks (see above) so life has been a bit more of a challenge, and I have been having to ration my electricity due to lack of sun, but I am settling into being here and continue to enjoy myself. I have noticed that I am beginning to stop comparing this life with living in a flat, so I think I must be finally arriving here. For example, the time it takes to boil the kettle, or brush your teeth here is just becoming how long it takes. I have stopped thinking of it as slower than my previous life.

Next week I shall be hitting the UK for a few days. I’m going to be doing a session for a Radio 3 show called ‘The Verb’. I’ll also be doing a free gig in Brighton (see my website for details on both of these). I’m planning to take the camcorder, so you can see what I look like standing on tarmac (not quite as dashing, but still damn sexy).

This week’s blog is full of quotes from wise gurus from many traditions. Enjoy…


“I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded and interpreted in his favour in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost, that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
Thoreau, Walden

“And though we didn’t have much money, I was rich as I could be, in my coat of many colours, my momma made for me”
Dolly Parton

I’ve been reading Seven Ages of Britain by Justin Pollard over the last month or so. Sadly, the industrial revolution has begun and the book has ended. I am now left with a head filled with 10,000 years of British history, a million opinions, and Britain is still 150 years away from putting cars on its streets.

One pattern that I noticed is that although technology, from the Stone Age onwards, has made life easier and allowed people to generate more wealth, what seems to have happened is that the wealth has consistently fallen into the pockets of the few, not the many. When society became more complicated, it did not benefit the vast majority of the people.

Further, it seems to have fallen into the pockets of those who were prepared to use force in order to acquire and protect it.

As well as using physical force (as can be seen today in the West’s attempts to secure a plentiful supply of cheap oil) there has also been a long history of manipulating culture and religion for economic ends (i.e. propaganda – as can be seen in the West’s attempts to secure plentiful supply of cheap oil). For example, the idea will tend to be floated that the monarchy and aristocracy of a country is either divine, or has been placed in that position because they communicate with gods, or because gods want them to be there. There is a ‘natural order’. The gods have spoken. Kings (and occasionally queens) are supposed to be at the top, and you, Sonny Jim, are supposed to be at the bottom. So shut up and get on with it. The caste system in India was/is an example of this (this was technically outlawed some years ago, but still endures).

But we’ve got science haven’t we. We don’t believe in God anymore, so we don’t have these kinds of psychological problems. We’ve got democracy. Right? Well…

What about the religion of celebrity? That these people are somehow special and different. They must be because they are all shiny, thin and apparently rich. Or the religion of capitalism? You are where you are because you are failing in some way. You just don’t have what it takes. There is nothing wrong with the system, there must therefore be something wrong with you. Or even the religion of Science for that matter. Most of us are a good few decades behind in terms of what we believe to be scientific 'truth' and we tend to be a lot more certain than the scientists themselves, because we only understand the broad brushstrokes of these outdated theories which we cling to, like previous generations clung to the 'good book'.

And this ‘democracy’ that the US and UK are trying to inflict on places like Afghanistan and Iraq is not exactly being installed in a democratic fashion is it? “We come in peace. Shoot to kill!”. And Guantanamo Bay. And the anti-terrorism legislation etc, etc, etc. Do they really expect us to swallow this stuff and believe we live in a democracy? Yep! And what’s really messed up, is we do believe it!

These kinds of beliefs help to maintain the status quo, and that helps to keep the incredible wealth that we all generate, and the wealth that is just lying around all over the place on this beautiful Earth, in the hands of the few. And it really is only a few. If this ever becomes a book I will dig out the research and give you lots of lovely statistics to prove my point. But as it is, I have only a certain amount of battery left on my computer and it has been either foggy or cloudy for the last few weeks so the solar panels aren’t generating much juice. Plus I am quite a lazy person and am a lover of big, general ideas rather than specific details.

One of the things I have been reflecting on over the last few days is whether or not poverty is a virtue. Certainly in Buddhism, the monks who technically own nothing (though sometimes live in very nice monasteries), beg for a living and in some traditions can’t even handle money, are held in high regard. The same goes for the Christians. Not sure about the other major religions of the world. But anyway, I have this idea buried in my psyche that there is something wholesome about poverty and something ugly about wealth.

At the same time, as a child of capitalism, I believe that money equals success, and the more you have, the better you are doing. Money can buy lots of things and I have a long list of the things that I would like to buy with it (e.g. a nice big, shiny, well-equipped recording studio. Oh yes and maybe a house).

So which shall I choose? Shall I feel bad for being poor or feel bad for being rich? As it says in that country song, “I been rich and I been poor and being rich is better”. There must be some other way.

There seems to be a ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ element to this. That is, there is how this plays out in your life, and then there’s the big picture.

Micro economics:

The Government has a specific money figure, below which a person is officially living in poverty. They also include whether or not a person has certain amenities in their calculations. But I don’t see it like that. When I talk about poverty I mean having so little that life is a struggle. That you feel like you’ve got a weight on your shoulders and you can’t see any way you can ever put it down. Poverty is a feeling, first and foremost. It is a state of mind – though external conditions (e.g. hungry belly, chattering teeth, no furniture) can certainly help to back that feeling up.

For myself I have no central heating, no water on tap (let alone hot water on tap), no double glazing (or even single glazing come to that). No kitchen, no bathroom, no connection to the national grid. It’s currently well below freezing outside and between me and the cold are a couple of pieces of canvas. For many people this would be abject poverty. Me, I love it. I feel rich and surrounded by the abundance of this beautiful world.

But for me, this is a choice. When you have no choice, that’s when you’re poor. I could go and rent a three-bedroom house somewhere within the week if I wanted. But I’m fine here for now, thanks.

Although I could rent, I couldn’t afford to buy a house without changing my working circumstances significantly (suit up, clock in, zone out has never been my style), and I couldn’t get a long lease on a council place because they were all sold off by the Demon Thatcher. I am far from one of the country’s trustafarians – play at being poor for a couple of years then settle into a nice pad in Chelsea when the lack of fine wine at parties becomes a bore. ‘I want to live like common people, I want to do whatever common people do’ etc. So, like many others in England, I am in a bit of a fix. Which leads me to macro economics.

Macro economics:

On a macro level, poverty is most definitely not a virtue. I used to work in regeneration and I know that if you live in one area of Sheffield (the poor bit) you are statistically likely to die ten years earlier than if you were born in another area (the posh bit). You have to deal with drugs, crime and racism on your doorstep. Violence is a very real threat. Most people around you are depressed. The schools have low expectations of the kids, and the kids meet those expectations. The stuff that other people read about in the news is the stuff that you live in. And so do your kids.

If, as a society, we wanted to sort this out, we could. And it wouldn’t necessarily cost a whole pile of money. Much of it is about changing attitudes and rebuilding community. The places where the local people have done this off their own bat are incredible, fantastic, amazing examples of this triumph of the human spirit over adversity. I am truly humbled by these people – they are the real heroes of our society. If we gave them some proper power and resources, the UK would be a much better place. They shouldn’t be wasting their time and energy lobbying a blinkered Government, they should be the Government.

But the Government has big business to think of. It is not really in the interests of the Government or big business to have an educated, cohesive, aware working class. They might start demanding things! They might refuse to work in those shitty jobs that are needed to be filled if the rich are to stay rich! They might stop taking drugs, so we’d have nothing to have a ‘war’ on in the hope of getting re-elected without actually solving any real problems. (By the way, the rich gobble drugs too, but they don’t really feature in the adverts. We don’t really want to have a war on those drugs. After all, the City and the entertainment industries would immediately grind to a halt.)

Although it is not in the interests of the powers that be to effectively tackle poverty, it is in their interest to pay lip service to tackling poverty. That way people don’t get so irritated or desperate that they actually make demands. No, we can’t have that.

Divide and rule. Ghetto-ise the problems, then direct people’s attention towards the people who live in the ghetto and blame them for those problems (and therefore away from the gigantic injustices that are taking place in our name and under our noses at a systemic level).

That kind of poverty is certainly not a virtue, and I won’t even mention the poverty experienced in the so-called ‘developing’ countries.

Poverty is shit. It is not a virtue.

But that is not to say that simplicity is something to shy away from – wealth and ‘stuff’ are not necessarily the same thing. Just ask the great sage Dolly Parton.

It is simplicity that is the virtue – simplicity and contentment with simplicity. We shoot around, endlessly trying to create external conditions that will bring us contentment. We think if only we had enough stuff, we would be happy. Nope, happiness is NOW. You can cultivate it right now. This is what Buddhist simplicity is about. And if you aren’t happy, it’s not because you don’t have enough stuff, it’s because you haven’t got your head and heart around Reality.

We need to find ways to simplify our lives – for our own peace of mind, but also for the benefit of this tired world – a world that is groaning under the weight of our desires.

Ideally, we should have a general approach of simplifying our lives. Looking for beauty and joy in simple things. Reduce, re-use, recycle, as it says on Bob the Builder (on which there is a guy who lives in a yurt).

BUT, renunciation is a process, not a thing. We need to factor in our own happiness. A sustainable future is not a grim future – if it is perceived in that way it will certainly not arrive. Personally I would heartily recommend some kind of spiritual practice as an aid to developing happiness and contentment (yoga, meditation, qi gong, etc NB the shopping ritual doesn’t count). I would also recommend conscious thought and reflection about life.

In the words of those other great sages, the Spice Girls “Tell me what you want, what you really really want”. And that’s the thing. If you get deep enough into yourself to work out what you really really want, it is usually not ‘stuff’. The stuff symbolises a feeling that you think you would have if you owned it. Why not just look for ways to cultivate the emotion directly? Cut out the middle man?

E.g. You feel that if you had a few million pounds that you would not feel anxious about money. So you are looking to reduce your anxiety. Do you really have to get hold of a mountain on cash in order to develop fearlessness? (And by the way, you would still have the anxiety – imagine, one wrong move and you could lose millions of pounds!!!) Or you think that if you had that money you could do whatever you wanted. Is that true? Surely it is equally true to say that if you don’t spend your time getting into a position where you can pull in that kind of wonga, you can spend more of your time doing whatever you want?

Of course, I could write a whole self-help book about this, so for now I will leave it there.

Stillness, simplicity and contentment. The road to sustainability sounds great to me!



Mike said...

Hi Padma

Keep it going ... I love this vids in the same way I love watching expeditions to Everest on the box ... one subpersonality can vicariously enjoy the experience whilst another stays snug and warm and turns the central heating up :-D

To pick a random item "There is a ‘natural order’" ... well surely old bean from a Buddhist perspective there is ... we all keep wandering the realms in samsara the levels of which have really "different" kinds of trips in terms of pain:pleasure ratios... So also "naturally" (using your word) within realms there are different pain:pleasure ratios. But according to karmic view it aint luck...

So all those envious and agressive folks who smash things up on "eat the rich" riots might well be in a bum place due to having practiced envy and agression in prior lives, and be re-practicing it on the way down. Equally the guy in the porsche presumably did great deads in his prior life and might be off to higher realms next time [providing he uses this life not to burn old good fortune but to make fresh new stuff].

So boundless compassion for all sentient beings and as much as possible we should give all beings maximum opportunities (and practice dana to those less fortunate than ourselves (free mp3 downloads for the poor? ;-))) ... but returning to the starting point ... from a Buddhist point of view isnt everything the way it is precisely due to karma ... and the state of the world and where it is going a reflection purely of the average state of consciousness of mankind right now?

From the non-dual traditions (eg Dzogchen especially) one gets comments like "there is not a hair out of place" ... "everything cannot be any other way". From which perspective its only our falling into 20thC materialism and ignorant vision that perceives the system otherwise?



ps more vids please :-)

jason palmer said...

Have you read 'off grid' by nick rosen ? He visits people who live away from electricity, or in motorhomes, canal boats, yurts etc.

Povery is very very bad, which is why poor people should not have children.

My divorced friend Alan lives in a motorhome and says he prefers it to a house now.

You should learn about John Ruskin, he wrote that industrialisation was evil and wicked to the spirit !

Padma said...

Hi Mike

Thanks for your comment. Good point!

However... ;-)

From a Theravadin Buddhist perspective (ie the oldest surviving Buddhist tradition) there are 5 factors (niyamas) which affect phenomena. Only one of these is karma.

In a sense all things are caused by karma because, due to one's previous karma, one has been reborn as a human and is therefore open to such difficulties as material poverty and exploitation (and open to driving around in a Porche). But whether the actual poverty or riches was caused by karma, only a Buddha can say.

Secondly, as you say, boundless compassion, and giving all beings maximum opportunities as far as possible. The trouble with karma theory is that, although on a personal level it can allow one to develop acceptance, patience, contentment, etc, on a societal level it can lead to people closing their hearts. Certainly it would be terrible to be in a situation where people stopped demanding things, and governments stopped giving them, because of 'karma'.

I am totally into the 'not a hair out of place' approach *to the past*. Right up until this moment, nothing can be another way. But the future is unwritten and who knows whether it is my path to shout about things, or just stop whining and go out for curry or something. I guess we will see!

I like that Sufi saying: 'Trust in Allah, but tie up your camel'.

Anyway, thanks very much for your comment. Hopefully it will stimulate some debate!

jason palmer said...

JJ Cale lived in an airstream trailer and wrote great music in it :)

jason palmer said...

Mahler had huts :)


jason palmer said...

You need a campervan, not a yurt, then you can drive until it is warm. :)

Mike said...

Hi Dude

I'd forgotten this academic table-tennis ... you know the old philsophers playing quote against quote :-D

So niyamas eh? Ok so there are 5 rules rather than 1 but many (most) of them relate to things like how an apple grows and why it falls down off a tree... but anyway the basic point stands ... the world runs to a set of rules and its our ignorance that leads us to radically misunderstanding things. Emphasis on the word radically ... and i mean that radicals radically misunderstand too :-)

Back to dhamma ping-pong - did the Buddha ever mention niyamas in the suttas? Is it even mentioned in the Abhidhamma? Its become more obvious to me that "the oldest", "the best", "the fastest", "the most direct" are ALL bullsh1t ancient propaganda memes that we continue to invest in ... all of the "traditions" rely on later material (traditional Theravada relying more on the commentaries etc).

The way I see folks misusing karma most is in fatalistic terms which of course the Buddha clearly rejected.

Anyway back to Dhamma - the way it is - I thought your wind blog was real dhamma ... it reminded me of AjChah talking about annicca as "not for sure", "not safe" ... so unpleasant as it is to be shaken up by ones material security being torn asumder (tho' good yurt building m8!), unpleasant as it is to hear of so many deaths ... this is surely a devaduta...

WHO is the one who was feeling insecure? WHO is the one rebuilding?

"Its me, Padma" ... "who is me, Padma"?

me Mike :-)

jason palmer said...

A yurt is cheaper than a house but may blow away, but the freedom you gain from the cheapness, and the fresh air, being at one with nature, surely compensates, somewhat.

Padma said...

Hi Mike

I totally agree with the basic thrust of your post - concerning (a profound, mystic) ignorance leading to misunderstanding and suffering.

Good question re niyamas. The answer is 'I dunno'. It's certainly been a part of the Buddhist tradition from before the emergence of the Mahayana, but as to whether it is cited in a sutta, not sure. My gut tells me that it is not in a sutta but is in the abhidhamma. Not sure that testimonies from guts stand up in court though...

Here is an interesting presentation I found on the subject of karma (kamma): bgf.buddhism.org/graphics/bgf/transcript/DhammaCourse/L1-Kamma.ppt



jason palmer said...

I think karm may be linked to what george soros calls 'reflexivity'

jason palmer said...


I saw that ppt file, interesting,but,think you should read a book called 'the black swan', it explains the random chaotic nature of reality and how we try explain with stories,when actually,it is pretty random.

Mike said...

Hi Jason - yes nice book tho' he overstates somewhat ... sure there is a lot of randomness and humans over-interpret patterns - whether its financial markets (his examples) or constellations in the sky. However there are also stable patterns ... house prices rise measured over decades, there is less war in europe now than in the past, as you get older your body gets stiffer (and hopefully the mind a little wiser ;-)).. etc etc. Most importantly at every moment in ones life one has choices ... one needs some way of deciding [tho' most of the time we just go with habit (turn up the central heating) or impulse (build a yurt)... (and if required come up with nice ex post rationalisations ;-)]. Its complete freedom from both habit and impulse that the Buddha is really pointing to with kamma theory.

Padma - nice powerpoint tho' it misses one important angle ... namely that present action is a function BOTH of past action (kamma-vipakka) AND current intention - THIS is the key bit that is sooooo often left out that turns it into fatalism. In Tibetan terms its primary kamma and secondary supportive conditions (or some such).

Coming back to your poverty blog [I better not say poor blog :-P :-D] (real poverty by the way is of course not having the option to be "suited and booted"/escape) ... quote from http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/karma.html (my emboldening):

"For the early Buddhists, karma was non-linear and complex. Other Indian schools believed that karma operated in a simple straight line, with actions from the past influencing the present, and present actions influencing the future. As a result, they saw little room for free will. Buddhists, however, saw that karma acts in multiple feedback loops, with the present moment being shaped both by past and by present actions; present actions shape not only the future but also the present. Furthermore, present actions need not be determined by past actions. In other words, there is free will, although its range is somewhat dictated by the past. The nature of this freedom is symbolized in an image used by the early Buddhists: flowing water. Sometimes the flow from the past is so strong that little can be done except to stand fast, but there are also times when the flow is gentle enough to be diverted in almost any direction.

So, instead of promoting resigned powerlessness, the early Buddhist notion of karma focused on the liberating potential of what the mind is doing with every moment. Who you are — what you come from — is not anywhere near as important as the mind's motives for what it is doing right now. Even though the past may account for many of the inequalities we see in life, our measure as human beings is not the hand we've been dealt, for that hand can change at any moment. We take our own measure by how well we play the hand we've got. If you're suffering, you try not to continue the unskillful mental habits that would keep that particular karmic feedback going. If you see that other people are suffering, and you're in a position to help, you focus not on their karmic past but your karmic opportunity in the present: Someday you may find yourself in the same predicament that they're in now, so here's your opportunity to act in the way you'd like them to act toward you when that day comes."



jason palmer said...

"the present moment being shaped both by past and by present actions; present actions shape not only the future but also the present. Furthermore, present actions need not be determined by past actions. "

sounds VERY like what soros calls 'reflexivity'.

Padma is obviously a born philosopher, such people need to live a low cost lifestyle to ensure they have time to think.

From reading off-grid by nick rosen and speaking to people who live alternate lifestyles I can tell you that some people are very happy living like that, we are all different so all end up in different lifestyles.

"He is richest who is content with the least, for content is the wealth of nature." Socrates.

Some people are happy working in an office 60 hours a week to buy a property,others want to do other things, we are all different, or as darwin put it 'variety under nature is the norm' :)