Saturday, 20 September 2014

HATSUNE MIKU: JAPAN'S FIRST HOLOGRAM POPSTAR





When I first saw this video (back in 2010) and saw Hatsune Miku appear on stage from her little black box I felt the world shifting its parameters. And then the song started and i heard a 4 minute description of the next 200 years, a song of straight prophesy and teasing ambiguity, of playfulness and arrogance and love, in lyrics that got stranger and stranger ..."Someday, on the hundred-thousandth birthday of my children, when you see them, for celebrating it, I thank you..."  Imagine "Terminator 12" as a kid's anime movie written by Julia Kristeva...

It is well known that photography is no longer considered a reliable source of evidence in a court of law, but soon reality itself may be considered unreliable.  We are not only moving into 'the robotic moment' (as Sherry Turkle calls it in her consistently engaging book entitled "Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology And Less From Each Other") but into a generalised post-human mish mash of technologies, platforms, protocols and speeds.

But reality doesn't have to be believable - it just has to be imaginable.  Reality is a reference point not a destination. A map, not the territory.

A lot fell into place for me recently when I dropped the burden of 'believing' in Buddhism and decided to simply imagine it instead.  Belief tends to have an agonistic dimension to it: "do I or do I not believe in ... karma?... rebirth?...my lama as a buddha?..."  We feel compelled to decide one way or another on a question that is actually outside our capacity to answer.  And we always believe too soon - we come to a 'conclusion' we haven't earned, and our world subtly closes down a little as a result.  Instead of remaining in the space of not-knowing (which is a beautiful, sacred place to be) we turn not-knowing into a fake knowing and the resulting turbulence affects everyone around us.

These days I simply 'imagine' Buddhism. I do my practices as naturally as I brush my teeth or watch the football.  I have faith in these practices, in the teachers who gave them to me and in the tradition that carried them to me through the centuries.  It is faith based on 30 years quiet engagement with the world of Buddhism.  It is not certain knowledge - it is faith, trust.  A kind of perfume radiating out of consistent experience.

After all, Buddhism isn't about the agonistics of belief as dogma, nor is it a collection of truth statements in an abstract world of philosophy.  It is about engaging with practices whose 'reality' is judged on a pragmatic quality: their ability to end suffering.  Of course, I am presenting this somewhat simplistically.  There is always an element of belief in our experience.  But so long as belief is recognised as belief and not as fact then the integrity of one's experience is protected.

I look forward to meeting Hatsune Miku's 'children' and celebrating their hundred-thousandth birthday with them.  I will arrive there - you try too.

Friday, 19 September 2014

THE ERA OF OVERPRODUCTION



We were talking in her studio, about living in The Era Of Overproduction.  I tell her about a guy who had been working on a computer program that would write 'new' Bach pieces. He'd finally got the program to a point where he was personally satisfied with it, so he hit 'start' before going to lunch one afternoon.  When he came back there were 4000 new Bach pieces on his laptop.  At CERN (the centre for nuclear research in Switzerland) there are experiments which generate 5000 encyclopedias of data per second.  It's said that every minute there's 32 hours of new footage uploaded to Youtube...

We talked about the impossibility of having anything remotely resembling an 'overview' of world literature or world cinema these days.  We sensed the presence of unbelievably perfect books in distant languages that would never be translated and which we would never read. Of beautiful articles on topics we had never consciously formulated even in our wildest reveries, in magazines that would go bust after a few issues without us ever hearing even their names.

We liked living in this world.  We liked the poverty and the richness of it.  But mainly the richness.  And at the same time we felt some strange tremor in our conscience urging us to .. to live in it more accurately ...

She's reading James Gleick's "Chaos". I see her highlights on the pages. I've just got time to share a few of  them with you but then I have to go...

At the national laboratory some physicists learned that their newest colleague was experimenting with 26 hour days, which meant that his waking schedule would slowly roll in and out of phase with theirs.  This bordered on strange, even in the Theoretical Division.

These scientists had experience with brilliance and with eccentricity.  They were hard to surprise.  But MItchell Feigenbaum was an unusual case.  He had exactly one published article to his name, and he was working on nothing that seemed to have any particular promise.  His hair was a ragged mane,

When he worked, he worked obsessively.  When he could not work, he walked and thought, day or night, and night was best of all.  The twenty four hour day seemed too constraining.  Nevertheless, his experiment in quasiperiodicity came to an end when he decided he could no longer bear waking to the setting sun, as had to happen every few days.

He thought about clouds, watching them from airplane windows (until his scientific travel privileges were officially suspended on grounds of overuse) or from the hiking trails of his laboratory.

Of course, the entire effort is to put oneself
Outside the ordinary range
Of what is called statistics.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

THE SEVEN INGREDIENTS - A TIBETAN PRELIMINARY PRACTICE




Many people are beginning to practice mindfulness in the West, but it is being presented to them stripped bare of its Buddhist roots in order to fit with the dominant secular, scientific-materialist worldview.  Of course, Buddhism doesn't own the copyright on mindfulness, and if a secular presentation of mindfulness helps people with their problems that's good. But from a Buddhist point of view the true power of the teachings require the total existential context of life and practice to be acknowledged.  The practice outlined here is an example of this.

In Buddhism, to progress on the path we need teachings to help us understand reality clearly and to practice accordingly.  But from our side we also need a store of positive energy - ‘merit’ in Buddhist language - to make us capable of understanding the teachings, capable of having faith in them, and to water the seeds of wisdom inside us.

The seven ingredients is a classic preliminary practice in Tibetan Buddhism, a way of purifying the mind of negativity and increasing one's store of virtuous energy in the mind.  With each ingredient we switch on a positive state of mind and nurture the roots of these virtuous states.

The following seven elements are all performed while sitting quietly in our meditation space. They are performed by the imagination.  Interestingly, modern brain research suggests that an imagined act performed with a concentrated mind triggers exactly the same neural pathways as when performing the act in reality.  So, for example, visualising making infinite offerings to the buddhas is internally resonant with actually making infinite offerings!

As we go through the seven ingredients in an actual practice session, don’t get hung up on doing it perfectly or ‘including everything’. Just trust your mind’s response in the moment and perform each element in a relaxed and engaged way, allowing the practice to flow naturally.

The seven ingredients are as follows:

Prostration: Visualising a special teacher (or teachers) in the space in front of us we imagine ourselves prostrating to them, purifying pride and rigidity of mind and expressing and deepening gratitude.  This makes us receptive to the power of the teachings and opens us up to the blessing-powers of the awakened ones.  Although the traditional language of the seven ingredients mentions 'prostrations' this first ingredient can be taken to mean any kind of expression of gratitude and re-establishing of commitment to our chosen path. If the image of prostrating feels alien to you simply imagine a heartfelt thank you for your chosen teacher having made the efforts to practice and realise the teachings themselves and pass them on to others.

Offerings: We imagine ourselves making offerings in whatever way feels right.  We may use a traditional Tibetan cosmology, lavish, spectacular and miraculous, with ourselves multiplied into millions of forms to make millions of offerings, accompanied by many other beings, both human and divine, a whole shining mandala-universe of beings scattering flower petals, offering incense, chanting praises, etc.  Or it may be more restrained and quiet - a single flower to a single buddha.   it may focus on contemporary elements from our world: art galleries, music, landscapes, technology - things that we are personally excited about or attached to.  It may be invisible and psychological - offering one's recent efforts to study and practice the spiritual path, or some other good action we have performed. We can even offer some good action that deeply attracts us but which we feel we aren’t able to perform at the present.  For example many people feel some archetypal wish to become a monk or nun while acknowledging that its not going to happen in this life.  And they experience this as a ‘failure’ of some sort.  But in buddhism, the genuine wish to perform an action is just as much a virtuous action as actually performing the action.  So we can visualise our perfect response to the world and offer this.

Confession: Making what has been hidden an open disclosure (within the symbolic space of visualised Buddhas, not out there in the real world!) fundamentally weakens the power of latent negative karma to grow, releases psychological blockages and turns the pent-up negative energy into a positive force.  Again, there are many ways this can be done.  We can make a specific confession of some unskillful action that is weighing upon one's conscience, or we can make 'general confessions' such as confessing one's lack of faith and practice before the Buddhas. Confession practice purifies the mind of feelings of guilt and the feeling of being unable to let go of - of being defined by - one’s past negative actions. It also strengthens the mind that would refrain from such actions in the future.

Rejoicing: We call to mind all the wonderful things that people have done in this world, including ourselves, and re-affirm our appreciation of and commitment towards such behaviour.  This particular ingredient is called the lazy person’s path to buddhahood because it can be done quite effectively and pleasantly lying in bed or on the beach etc!  Rejoicing in the good actions and qualities of others purifies our mind of envy, and rejoicing in one’s own good actions strengthens the mind that would perform similar actions in the future.

Requesting teachings: The only way to transform ourselves from suffering beings into awakened ones is to hear accurate teachings that present a correct and complete path. Symbolically requesting teachings in this way nurtures one's store of virtue in this area.  It creates the karma to have teachings manifest in our lives in the future. We can ask for teachings to manifest in traditional and contemporary forms.  For example, I often ask for teachings to manifest in the form of contemporary art.

Requesting teachers to remain in this world and to manifest again and again in all our future lives: There are no teachings without teachers, and realised teachers can benefit us in many other ways too.  Just being around them, without anything being said, can have a transformative effect on our minds and hearts..  Requesting teachers and teachings to manifest in our world also directly purifies lifetimes of negative acts towards spiritual teachings, whether acts of negligence and laziness or active rejection and denial.

Offering the merit of our practice to all beings unconditionally: By sharing the merit of our practice with all beings we are acknowledging that we are all interdependent.  All beings support me in this life of mine.  The practice of generosity is the first step on the bodhisattva path (the path of a being who resolves to reach enlightenment in order to best help all other beings) and sharing one's merit with all beings is a powerful expression of this. As such, it helps to purify negative karma accrued towards other beings.


The seven ingredients also resonates as a purificatory practice of the three times.  The first two - prostrations and offerings - purifies the present moment by placing us imaginatively in the presence of awakened beings and behaving skillfully towards them.  Numbers three and four - confession and rejoicing - begin to purify past negative actions and to magnify past positive actions respectively.  And five and six create the karma to have teachers and teachings to manifest in the future.

Preliminary practices can often become the mainstay of a meditation session for tibetan practitioners.  In the tibetan tradition the need to increase our store of merit is quite keenly felt and such practices are considered more important than developing concentration etc.  But even if your practice is conducted within the secular mindfulness model there are times when one feels too tired and unfocused for the quiet purity of mindfulness sitting and a little time spent engaging the emotional and existential dimensions of practice - whether within or beyond the present limits of one’s imagination and rationale! - can re-energise one's session.

(NB the picture at the top of this post is of my first Tibetan teacher, Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche. I only met him a few times but he gave me my first initiations and not a day go by now without me mentioning his name within my practice sessions.  The picture is from Bruce Farley's article  "Blessing The World's Waterways" which you can read here.)