10 tenets of global citizenship

As a social scientist, here are 10 things that I think should be basic tenets of global citizenship:

  1. Physical requisites: either a universal income stipend or a safe-enough job, on which one is periodically tested and found to be capable of performing, which provides enough income for access to the following: clean air and water, adequate and medically appropriate food, adequate shelter for one’s geographical location, basic privacy and security in one’s home, basic hygiene products (soap, toothpaste, etc.), basic healthcare services, and a basic portable computer or smartphone with unlimited (but possibly slow) Internet service
  2. Mental requisites: universal access to the following basic mental requisites: a high school-level education, free online higher education courses, and merit-based scholarships for in-person higher education
  3. Freedom of identity, with respect: the freedom of all people to affiliate themselves with and/or to practice any identity (cultural, ethnic, gender, religious, etc.) and/or language, as long as their behaviors are respectful of others, including of the majority culture in a given region
  4. Preservation and sustainability: preserving and protecting adequate natural habitats for the world’s non-human species, and seeking to counteract every environmentally destructive thing that one does, in order to live with no overall environmental footprint
  5. Affordable global transit: the ability to travel between any major city on Earth using only low-cost (possibly slow) public transit systems
  6. Sex and/or marriage by consent: that sex and/or marriage should involve mutual, written consent; that any two people over 18 years old can legally have sex or marry; and that any person who is in a sexual or marriage relationship can end their participation in the relationship for any reason
  7. One lingua franca: online collaboration in producing a single, international auxiliary language by and for all of humanity, and a working knowledge of its use
  8. Generosity: individuals with assets or savings worth more than USD $1 million, or corporations with assets or savings worth more than USD $1 billion, should donate the excess to underfunded social or environmental causes of their choosing.
  9. Universal arbitration: any dispute between people in any nation may be settled through low-cost, legally binding arbitration by an international consortium of arbitrators who follow common guidelines.
  10. Standards based on international consensus, in order to foster communication and ease travel: measurements, date and time formats, telephone number formats, electricity plugs and voltages, driving conventions and rules, college entrance exams, what to include (and how things are presented) in high school textbooks, business and financial conventions, etc. should be determined through national participation in international consensus organizations, like the ISO.

Scientific questions about mindstreams

As a Western scientist, here are the questions that I would ask the most accomplished Buddhists (i.e., Arahants, Bodhisattvas, or Buddhas) about mindstreams and self-other mental construction:

  • Can we identify substances that act as substrates/support for mental phenomena, as well as their properties, how they nourish/support minds, and the ways in which certain mental phenomena can emerge from, or be encoded/preserved upon, certain substrates?
  • Is nirvana a more stable substrate for the mind?
  • Why is the mind radiant? Are mental phenomena encoded on some kind of light?
  • How cohesive and stable is a mindstream? Does it degrade, when the body is old or unhealthy? Between lives, can mindstreams split (like light) or fade/degrade (like radio waves), if they are not reborn quickly enough?
  • Could we develop signatures/fingerprints (like a hash function) for specific mental phenomena or for an individual’s mindstream, and track those phenomena’s movement through and between different substrates/lives?
  • Can the karmic seed-to-fruit metaphor be demonstrated under well-controlled (i.e., laboratory) conditions? How exact/one-for-one/fair is karmic retribution, and do any other forces intervene (e.g., the natural environment, genetics, the actions of other beings, etc.)?
  • Can we compare the mental and substrate phenomena of different species with our own?
  • If everything we see and think is a construct, are there methods of consciously controlling the constructions? For example, could I consciously construct the perception/vision of an apple sitting on a table, or of another person in the room with me, when there is not really one there (i.e., a waking lucid dream)?

Changing (how) the world (works)

People don’t really want the world to change; the world changes on its own incessantly, which is the cause of most/all suffering in the world (i.e., whatever one builds or gets attached-to in this world is inevitably destroyed). People want to change *how* the natural, psychological, and social worlds work. For example, the human body and mind are frail, susceptible to disease, and short-lived, so people want to find ways of overcoming those problems. Walking, running, or using carts are too slow/weak and painful, so people invent transportation technologies. Crop yields are too low, so people do genetic and other agricultural engineering. Certain social structures/regimes that are currently in power are destroying the natural environment, causing wars, or allowing prejudiced or unequal treatment of people, so people want to change those regimes. And so forth. Humans rarely want to live in their natural state.

Questioning STEM funding priorities

How does finding distant solar system objects or subtle gravity waves, studying distant supernovae, determining the geologic compositions and distant pasts of uninhabitable planets in our solar system, theorizing about the ultimate fate of the universe trillions of years from now, creating super-intelligent AI that could replace or kill us all, etc. solve humanity’s most pressing problems (i.e., old age, disease, death, poverty, ignorance, over-population / resource shortages / environmental destruction, natural disasters, etc.)?

Why isn’t the above research money being spent on healthcare research, poverty elimination programs, giant solar and wind farms in the Earth’s deserts, giant solar panels or shades in space, giant CO2 scrubbers for Earth’s atmosphere, propulsion systems and ships capable of taking many humans to other habitable worlds (or at least large-scale space stations and Mars colonies, so that not all of humanity is on one fragile planet), etc.?

Q&A on karma

Q: As you understand it, from an early/Theravada Buddhist perspective, what is karma (Pali: kamma) and how does it work?
A: First, some history and definitions.
The Buddha’s apparent innovation on the Vedic concept of karma was that it is not only physical action/deeds, but it begins with the most basic mental action possible. “Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, & intellect” (AN, 6.63). This is in line with Buddhism’s very phenomenological character. “Phenomena [i.e., everything one experiences] are preceded by the heart, ruled by the heart, made of the heart” (Dhammapada 1, Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation). “Heart,” in that famous sentence, is the Pali word “mano,” which is “the intellectual functioning of consciousness, while viñnāṇa represents the field of sense and sense — reaction (“perception”), and citta the subjective aspect of consciousness … it [mano] ranges as the 6th sense in the classification of the senses and their respective spheres (the āyatanāni or relations of subject and object…). These are: (1) cakkhu (eye) which deals with the sight of form (rūpa); (2) sota (ear) … (6) mano, with the sensing (viññāya) of rational objects or cognisables (dhamma). Thus it is the sensus communis (Mrs. Rh. D. Buddh. Psych. 140, 163) which recognises the world as a “mundus sensibilis” (dhamma). Both sides are an inseparable unity: the mind fits the world as the eye fits the light, or in other words: mano is the counterpart of dhammā, the subjective dh. Dhamma in this sense is the rationality or lawfulness of the Universe (see dhamma B. 1), Cosmic Order, Natural Law. It may even be taken quite generally as the “empirical. world” … i. e. the material world), as the world of “things,” of phenomena in general without specification as regards sound, sight, smell, etc. — Dhamma as counterpart of mano is rather an abstract (pluralistic) representation of the world, i. e. the phenomena as such with a certain inherent rationality; manas is the receiver of these phenomena in their abstract meaning, it is the abstract sense, so to speak. … As regards the relation of manas to citta, it may be stated, that citta is more substantial (as indicated by translation “heart”), more elemental as the seat of emotion, whereas manas is the finer element, a subtler feeling or thinking as such. … In the more popular opinion and general phraseology however manas is almost synonymous with citta as opposed to body…. So in the triad “thought (i. e. intention) speech and action” manas interchanges with citta” (from the Pali Text Society’s Pali dictionary’s definition of mano/manas).

In the centuries following the Second Buddhist Council in approximately 334 BCE, the Sarvāstivāda and Sautrāntika early Buddhist schools tried to reconcile the idea of karma with the idea that people’s minds and bodies are a continuum of momentary particles/atoms/energies (for more on humans’ so-called “mindstreams,” see my 2016-06-12 post), specifically how an intention in one moment could lead to an effect in another moment. “Sarvastivadins argued that there exists a dharma of “possession” (prapti), which functions with all karmic acts, so that each act or thought, though immediately passing away, creates the “possession” of that act in the continuum of instants we experience as a person. This possession itself is momentary, but continually reproduces a similar possession in the succeeding instant, even though the original act lies in the past. Through such continual regeneration, the act is “possessed” until the actualization of the result” (Hirota, 2004; p. 5100). The Sautrāntika school developed the metaphor of karmic seeds (bija) and fruits (phala), or perfuming, to indicate that intentions in one moment leave some kind of impression on future moments, so that the seed eventually comes to fruition. Later Mahayana schools developed yet more elaborate ideas, such as the Yogācāra school’s concept of a store-house consciousness (Sanskrit: ālayavijñāna).

However it happens, the idea is that, in each moment, the self-other world we experience is an automatic/unconscious result of karmic seeds that our more-or-less conscious intentions planted in the past. In every moment, we are presented with these fruits, and we plant new seeds for future becoming. It is a one-to-one process; one intention plants one seed, which leads to one fruit, but people continuously plant karmic seeds. Hence, what we experience in the present is heavily biased by the intentions we have made in the past. For example, those who often cultivated anger in the past might now perceive a more hostile world than really exists.

There also is a debate about to what degree a person’s feelings about their body and surroundings are karmic fruits, and to what degree there might be other forces (Pali: niyama) at play, such as a natural environment, genetics, etc. Even if there are other forces at play, there also is an argument that the contents of one’s mindstream cause one automatically to seek rebirth in a certain place, with certain parents, etc. And there are arguments that mindstreams might be limited in how far they can (or are likely to) travel between lives, which might constrain their options, and that it is unclear how the process of unconsciously or automatically matching minds with bodies occurs (e.g., does it happen according to physical laws, or can the mind between lives (called a gandhabba) see/know something about its options?). This leads some Buddhists to avoid traveling to places where they would not want to be reborn.

Q: Must one always only have faith in karma, or can one ever see it directly?
A: Supposedly one can see it directly, beginning at the fourth level of jhana. As I understand, the Buddha asked people to have provisional faith/trust in only two things, before they attain enlightenment or a high level of meditation: that karma exists, and that the Buddha’s teachings and techniques can/might lead one to liberation.

Q: To what degree might the universe have a kind of built-in criminal justice system? What might that mean for police officers, court judges, soldiers, etc.? What about merit?
A: As a part of nature, karma is instantaneous and automatic, and the outcome is causally connected to the action that prompted it. How fair, or proportionate to the action, that outcome is seems unclear. Karmic fruits arise as they can, given the sensory input that the mind receives. It is hard to say whether the heavenly or hellish world that someone might perceive as a result of some intention/action would be as vivid or affecting as the original action. It might be possible that a karmic seed lays dormant for a very long time, such that, when it comes to fruition, the circumstances hardly resemble the original circumstances.

Karma probably is specific to individuals; it probably can’t be deferred up a chain of command. If one person even wishes to harm or punish another, that individual must live with the karmic fruit of that intention/action. In this way, a soldier who kills to defend their country, or a judge who punishes people in order to protect society, might make a kind of personal karmic sacrifice — accepting an unpleasant future for themselves, in order to serve what they think is a greater good.

The concept of merit — that positive karma can be accumulated, can counteract negative karma, or that positive karma can be transferred to other people — is popular in Asia. Like with empty vs. emptiness, there appears to have been a noun-ification of its meaning from earlier to later Buddhism, where it initially seems to have meant just the positive effects on a person of living a virtuous life, but it came to mean a kind of spiritual/karmic currency. My understanding of the early Buddhist notion of karma is that it is momentary, it is tied to an individual’s mind, and it just is what it is (i.e., it itself is not good or bad, positive or negative). For example, a soldier who is willing to kill because they love their country can plant karmic seeds of both the willingness to kill and the love for their country in two separate, but perhaps closely combined, moments. It is unclear to me whether one seed can affect another seed, and it seems unlikely to me that people could share seeds.

Q: If karma is intention, what might that imply about the entertainments (music, TV, movies, etc.) that people watch? For example, would Buddhism say that listening to violent music, or playing violent video games, can cause physical violence?
A: The Buddha warned people about becoming too involved in the strong emotions one often finds in entertainments. “Any beings who are not devoid of passion [or aversion or delusion] to begin with, who are bound by the bond of passion [or aversion or delusion], focus with even more passion [or aversion or delusion] on things inspiring passion [or aversion or delusion] presented by an actor on stage in the midst of a festival. … Thus the actor — himself intoxicated & heedless, having made others intoxicated & heedless — with the breakup of the body, after death, is reborn in what is called the hell of laughter. But if he holds such a view as this: ‘When an actor on the stage, in the midst of a festival, makes people laugh & gives them delight with his imitation of reality, then with the breakup of the body, after death, he is reborn in the company of the laughing devas,’ that is his wrong view. Now, there are two destinations for a person with wrong view, I tell you: either hell or the animal womb” (SN 42.2).

One’s intentions set the stage for how one will experience the future. Listening to a lot of violent music may not actually cause one to use harsh language, to join a gang, or to do physical violence, but it sets the tone of one’s future states of mind, so that using harsh language and making violent choices will seem more natural, correct, necessary, not so bad, etc. in the future. Similar things are true for any kind of media, from greedy, lustful, or fearful media to loving, peaceful, etc. media. As I understand the Buddhist notion of karma, how one keeps one’s mind in the present sets the stage for how one will experience the future.

Q: Can karmic seeds be destroyed before they come to fruition?
A: Enlightened people supposedly can see how to destroy karmic seeds, and can choose not to make any new seeds, so that they will not be reborn again into samsara. They supposedly can do this either suddenly or gradually: they can choose to cut their karmic/mental stream completely and immediately stop existing in samsara (i.e., through force of will, stop their hearts from beating, their brains from even unconsciously thinking, etc.), or they taper off the stream slowly, perhaps in order to stay around awhile to teach or to say goodbye to people in samsara. Supposedly, only fully enlightened people can commit suicide without negative consequences, because only they can completely stop their karma/mindstream.

Q: Is it fair that enlightened people can destroy their karma? Does that mean that they are not held accountable for negative intentions/actions they did in the past?
A: Only a very pure mind — free of anger/hatred, greed/lust, selfishness, etc. — can attain the meditative states necessary to attain enlightenment. The karma that is left in such a mind probably is quite minimal and harmless, such as attachment to the body and to family and friends.

Q: Might the orderliness, fairness, morality, etc. of the law/system of karma suggest that it was designed by some being outside of samsara (e.g., a non-interactive God)?
A: Maybe. The beginnings and boundaries of space, time, and life as we know them are among the 14 unanswered questions. Whether the Buddha did not know the answers to those questions (e.g., how could even a very old mind that arose in this universe know what came before this universe?), or whether he merely thought they were not worth spending one’s short human life pondering (e.g., see the Parable of the Poisoned Arrow), is unclear to me.

What distinguishes and unifies the US?

My family came to North America about 350 years ago, before the US existed; we were among the early British settlers/invaders of the continent (for which I am not proud); and we have participated in most of the milestones of the US’s history (for some of which, such as slavery, I also am not proud). I am nearly middle-aged now, and have spent most of my life in various places around the US. Though I have met a few political refugees here, and there are small enclaves of foreign diaspora communities mostly around large cities, still it seems to me that the only thing that really unifies most Americans is overworking to fund indulgent materialism and the world’s largest military expenditure. When I meet people from/in other countries, their impression of the US is usually that it’s where people go to make money. So, on this Independence Day weekend, I ask: what else distinguishes and unifies the US?

  • Economic hub? Though the NYSE is the world’s largest exchange by market capitalization, if foreign companies are going to be listed on a stock exchange outside their home country, they usually use the London or Luxembourg exchanges. The US’s high tax rates also often motivate US companies to keep large sums of money elsewhere.
  • Equality? Billionaires and large corporations, dynastic or life-long politicians, mass media, and the electoral college form an almost untouchable oligarchy / class system. The US is still struggling with age-old issues like gender, ethnic, and religious equality, as well as, after hundreds of years, what to do with the conquered indigenous peoples who it still grants only pitifully small reservations on undesirable lands (I’ve visited a few in the western US). US TV and film are still mostly dominated by people of northern European descent.
  • Freedoms? In terms of freedoms and “development,” the US consistently ranks 10-15th, or lower, in the world. The US military-intelligence establishment has created an immense police/surveillance state, the US has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, and people often note that every little thing in the US is becoming more bureaucratic and litigious. The US TV and film industries are saturated with endless cop, courtroom, forensics, and spy shows. Even street cops these days often look like paramilitary commandos.
  • Healthcare? Other than the way that very poor people sometimes can go to emergency rooms for free, the US is one of the few wealthy countries that doesn’t provide any form of universal healthcare.
  • Infrastructure? The US is so large, its state, county, and city governments so numerous, and its large corporations so powerful that its mass-adoption of new technologies (e.g., fast/ubiquitous trains, broadband, etc.) often falls behind smaller countries.
  • Inventions? Most of the US’s inventions are either business-related or militaristic. The US’s main cultural inventions include: the materialistic “American Dream,” a fall harvest festival that often presents a false unity between Native Americans and European invaders as well as excludes vegetarians and non-theists (Thanksgiving), sports that either resemble cricket (baseball) or emphasize genetically unusual (large or tall) people (American football and basketball), deep-fried or refined-sugary foods that cause obesity and heart attacks, blues and rock music inspired by the oppression/legacy of slavery, arrogant/violent cowboys, and small and rather arbitrary modifications of British English words (e.g., travelled to traveled, colonisation to colonization, theatre to theater, etc.).
  • Language? The US’s official language came from England, it is slowly losing ground to Spanish, and many immigrant communities around big US cities avoid English if they can.
  • Laws? The US’s legal system has Roman and European roots.
  • Political leadership? US politics are so ideologically oppositional that most of the legislative time seems to be spent in stalemates or passing useless bills. There also are always quite large political parties (libertarians, environmentalists, etc.) with agendas that are poorly represented by the main two parties. For decades, the US public has gone back and forth about whether the president should be a functional statesman or a ceremonial celebrity (functions which countries with monarchies usually separate), and the president has gained such an incredible amount of power that the entire world nervously watches a year-long election pageant every four years. One of the current presidential candidates is a billionaire playboy reality TV show star, and the US has a history of electing to high offices celebrities who lack much political experience (e.g., Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenneger). During the Cold War, US and Russian leaders had the power to mostly destroy humanity within a few hours or days, among similarly vast telecommunication and economic powers. Yet, though the president’s power is much more immense than when the US was created in 1776, a single person still can hold office for a lengthy eight years.
  • Religion? The US’s main religions and holidays came from the Middle East and Europe, membership in them is steadily falling, and many immigrants from places other than the Middle East or Europe have different religions. In many US workplaces, saying anything about cultural, ethnic, gender, philosophical, political, religious, etc. things has become taboo, because somebody might take offence, and few Americans are broadly educated or acculturated enough to have intelligent discussions about such things. This adds to the general sense that Americans’ public lives must be purely secular and materialistic. The most notable American religious inventions that come to my mind are radical off-shoots of foreign mainstream religions, for example: Southern Baptists, Christian cults (the KKK, Charles Manson, Heaven’s Gate, etc.), and the Nation of Islam (Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, before they changed to mainstream Sunni Islam).
  • Responsible living? People in the US are highly materialistic/indulgent, wasteful, and apparently in denial about both life’s impermanence and the effects of their actions on the rest of the planet or on future generations. For example: they surround themselves with young people and new things, throw things away that are barely broken or simply out of style, live in giant houses and drive giant cars, eat mostly imported food and waste about 30-40% of their food, eat food and medications containing many synthetic chemicals which might cause cancer and environmental harm in the long-term, embalm their dead bodies with hazardous chemicals that can leach into the ground(water) after death, use electricity/fossil-fuels and non-recyclable plastics with reckless abandon, rely on heavy industry and nuclear fission power that release mercury and other toxins into the environment which accumulate over time and take thousands or millions of years to decay, make their appearances look more unnatural with every passing year, and on and on. Even many of the chemicals (e.g., heavy metals) used in 4th of July fireworks can be toxic to the environment, and often are released into lakes or rivers during municipal fireworks displays.
  • Standardization? The US is so isolated that it is often among the last to adopt international standards. For example, only the US, Liberia, and Myanmar (a closed anocracy) continue to use non-metric measurement systems; the US has idiosyncratic electricity voltages and frequencies; non-Unicode or non-ISO character encodings are still common in many US people’s computers; and, until 2009, the US had an unusual analog TV encoding system (NTSC).
  • Virtue and tolerance? The US’s love of graphic sex, intoxicants, and violence in media, sports, and sometimes life, as well as its habit of trying to influence and police the world, are highly reminiscent of ancient kingdoms or European colonialists.