A New Dystopia

I have just finished reading And Still the Earth by Brazilian writer Ignácio de Loyola Brandão.


If you thought 1984 and Brave New World was scary, here’s a dystopia that updates all of that. Interesting since it was written in 1981. The book summary:

Welcome to Sao Paulo, Brazil, in the not too distant future. Water is scarce, garbage clogs the city, movement is restricted, and the System–sinister, omnipotent, secret–rules its subjects’ every moment and thought. Here, middle-aged Souza lives a meaningless life in a world where the future is doomed and all memory of the past is forbidden. A classic novel of "dystopia," looking back to Orwell’s 1984 and forward to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, And Still the Earth stands with Loyola Brandao’s Zero as one of the author’s greatest, and darkest, achievements.

Brandao’s work Zero was banned in Brazil and his subsequent works have caused a great deal of stir.

Here are some of the summaries and comments provided by Goodreads reviewers:

…this dystopia seems all too credible in many countries. the bleakness, the environmental hell, the meaningless routine life gradually becoming more and more restricted by ‘the system’, the loss of anything like a civic society, the corruption, the endless propaganda, the removal of any sense of history- it is not an error the protagonist is a former history prof- and the way this oppressive and unquestioned, nameless, authoritarian ‘system’, comes to take over even the least freedom of what parts of the city you can visit, what days you must consume (even if you do not want to), what time what bus you take, what side of the sidewalk you walk…this is a portrait from sidewalk level of an ordinary man who has the misfortune of knowing of a better past… [thegift]

The world, as usual in a dystopia, has gone to shit. What is surprising is that this book, which was written in the early ’80s, imagines a total environmental collapse. Brazil has cut down it’s rain forest and now has "one of the wonders of the world," The Great Amazon Desert. Heat pockets are so intense that people burn to ashes if caught in one. Pharmaceuticals and multinationals have poisoned generations, and The System (and governments that proceeded it) have created blunder upon blunder. The Rich hide in massively walled cities, while everyone literally dies of lack of water and food. [Troy]

Plagued by water shortages and rationing, constant heat waves and unnatural heat pockets (where if you get pushed into, you’re incinerated) that develop wherever they please, overflowing debris and garbage, and synthetic food, this São Paulo is definitely not the place to be. Stuck in the overpopulated state of hyper-surveillance is a disgruntled and apathetic former history teacher named Souza, who gave up the resistance a long time to slum it like everyone else, trudging back and forth between his stuffy apartment and his mindless job, waiting for certain death. One day however, he finds a hole in his hand that makes him more like the people stuck in the danger zones outside of the city than his partially sedated neighbours, and all hell breaks loose….And Still The Earth is definitely an extreme example of what blatant apathy towards what the government is doing can be come, but it is still an example….The planet is warming up and the forests in Brasil are being cut down. Now we have synthetic meat, a project that is supposedly geared towards alleviating the meat shortage. [leslie nikole]

I devoured this book, even reading some parts twice because they were eerily familiar. Prescient, as overused as that word is, describes it so well.

One doesn’t need a qualification in sociology or anything else to appreciate the novel or to identify with the characters in it nor to recognize the strands of oppression that were beginning in the 1980s under Thatcher-Reagan and are starting to reach fruition now.

It’s also a psychological study of a man who, because of the circumstances of his society, finds himself, formerly comfortable and bourgeois, pushed to the margins before he begins to realize what has been happening. The undoing of society is also his undoing. This juxtaposition of the individual and the collective and their mutual influence is superbly demonstrated in the novel.

Perhaps why I find this book so compelling is because of the non-fiction and academic stuff that has my attention now. I’ve put some of that at the end of this piece.

Material that discusses the topics in the novel.

Here are some resources (videos, texts) that discuss some of the sociological things going on in the novel from a real world perspective.

The Logics of Expulsion: Permanent Crisis, Land Grabbing and Surveillance Saskia Sassen, professor of sociology at Columbia University, New York, visiting professor at the London School of Economics, author of "The Global City" is interviewed in the video. She discusses the global trends of people not only being dispossessed but actively expelled from the economic system and ownership such as the mortgage crisis, the financialization of the global economy which allows the finance paradigm to invade every area of life, the appearance of tent cities in developed nations as a social sign of the development of predatory formations and assemblages, the superstructure of surveillance mechanisms to oversee these advanced capitalist processes, the monoculture of globalization, loss of local community and financialization as a form of economic violence. Well worth the 35 minutes it takes to view the video.

That same professor, Saskia Sassen, has another longer video, Expulsions: The Fifth Circle of Hell, on the same topics. Here is an overview [via Synthetic Zero blog]:

“In the last two decades there has been a sharp growth in the numbers of people that have been ‘expelled’, numbers far larger than the newly ‘incorporated’ middle classes of countries such as India and China. She uses the term ‘expulsion’ to describe a diversity of conditions: the growing numbers of the abjectly poor, of the displaced in poor countries who are warehoused in formal and informal refugee camps, of the minoritized and persecuted in rich countries who are warehoused in prisons, of workers whose bodies are destroyed on the job and rendered useless at far too young an age, able-bodied surplus populations warehoused in ghettoes and slums. One major trend is the repositioning of what had been framed as sovereign territory, a complex conditions, into land for sale on the global market — land in Sub-Saharan Africa, in Central Asia and in Latin America to be bought by rich investors and rich governments to grow food, to access underground water tables, and to access minerals and metals. Prof Sassen’s argument is that these diverse and many other kindred developments amount to a logic of expulsion, signalling a deeper systemic transformation in advanced capitalism, one documented in bits and pieces but not quite narrated as an overarching dynamic that is taking us into a new phase of global capitalism.”

Here is the video:


There is too much in professor Sassen’s work, the effects of which are presented and presaged in the novel, to ennumerate here.

Whistle While You Work (For Nothing): Positive Affect as Coercive Strategy – The Case of Workfarethe role of  psychological coercion, notably through the imposition of positive affect, in UK Government workfare programmes. There has been little or no debate about the recruitment of psychology/psychologists into monitoring,  modifying and/or punishing  people who claim social security benefits. This silence raises important ethical questions, including about the relationship of psychology to the medical humanities.” This is a scary development. Not only are people supposed to work for no wages while they’re on earned benefits they are supposed to enjoy it. It reminds me of the parts in the novel where people go to “Alleviation Centers” for psychological and emotional relief from the stress The System is putting on them. [I want to do a blog post about this aspect of advanced capitalism because it ties into much Zizek has written about current practices of Buddhism and of McMindfulness as collaboration with capitalism that merely seeks to make people comfortable in their oppression and doesn’t challenge the context in which they are being practiced. That’s one upcoming thesis I’m developing.

Communique from the Committee for the Liberation of Autonomous Amusement: on the question of labor The Deterritorial Investigations Unit blog contains interesting commentary on a lot of current topics. In this particular “Communique”, which is one of a series of “Communiques”, discusses the necessity of labor as we know it.

Brad Warner’s “There is no God and He is Always With You”–an incomplete review, notes and rambling

I started writing this a few months ago. Then I had other things to do. It’s too much work for me to complete it as the book is OK but not great and I’ve got a lot of work to do right now.

I likely wouldn’t have read it if the publisher hadn’t sent it to me. Probably wouldn’t have bought it either because I don’t give much of a fuck about God concepts. I think they’re crutches at best and obstacles in general. But it was interesting enough to merit +4K words. So fathom that paradox.

The Review Part of This Post. Also Called The First Part of This Post.

This part is to satisfy the requirement of the email “contract” with the publisher to review this book in exchange for a copy of it.

There is no God and he is Always With You is Brad Warner’s latest book. The reviews so far, some of which are listed at the bottom of this post, are pretty good. Having read them it leaves me wondering what is left to say that has not already been said review-wise. (Plenty actually) So I’ve decided to give the book the “close read” treatment and this post will be mostly to respond to some of the matters brought up within the book.

There’s stuff I liked about the book and stuff I didn’t like.

In short form, I’m taking this from some of his blog posts about the book because they are summaries of some of the positions presented in the book. Note that emphasis. I’ll get to some of the specifics of the actual book in the second part of this post. [OK no I won’t but will discuss the concepts broadly in the third part of this post]

Who the book is for? Brad writes in this blog post, NE Tour Summary & Who I Wrote My New Book For:

So maybe I wrote the book for people who wondered if there might be another way to look at this idea of God apart from True Believers who insist their view of God is the only one and True Non-believers who insist that anyone who believes in God is stupid. After going away from the book I’d like my hypothetical reader to know that there is another way and to understand that she can experience God for herself outside of belief or non-belief….

OK that’s not me. But even though it isn’t a book for me, sometimes it’s good to read such things because it forces one to clarify one’s own viewpoint and objections. That’s often a useful exercise.  I personally don’t care about God-concepts in any form because they tend to get in the way of dealing with life. I do find them interesting in terms of their power, like any ideological construction, to influence people and societies however.

From the same blog post.

I feel like Zen Buddhism has allowed me a way to approach the subject of spirituality without having to view it through the lens of religious dogma and belief. Zazen offers a chance to quietly experience for oneself the deeper layers of human experience both spiritual and not-so-spiritual.

This is the ideology of “no religion”. There is no ideology (religion) here. God-concepts are ideology, non-god concepts are ideology, modified God-concepts are ideology. For ideology we might also use the word “imaginaries”, that is the specific contents of consciousness, collectively or individually. We all have imaginaries. Some of them include God concepts and some of them don’t.

[I’m referencing the word imaginaries in two ways. First in the sense that philosopher Charles Taylor used it in On Social Imaginary [full text] which derives it from Habermas as it pertains to society but also in the Lacanian sense, as it pertains to an individual, not as a fiction but as an ideal construction that has real effects and therefore is very much is or is a part of or at least impinging upon the “real” in Baudrillardian terms or rather like virtuality in Deleuzean terms. I dedicate that sentence to obscuritanist aficionados everywhere. :-D]

Too often in works about God and religion, religion is never defined. I couldn’t find any sort of definition for religion in this book so I don’t know what the author is referring to. It’s some taken-for-granted thing that floats about like a balloon and everybody thinks they know what it means but few ever define it. If they do it’s usually from a reductive perspective that projects a narrow version drawn from a limited experience or exposure on to the entire subject.  It’s like saying “I hate fruit” having only eaten raspberries in childhood. I will write about definitions of religion and the “special case” of Buddhism in the next part.

From the blog post What Do Most People Believe About God?

I was kind of excited when I saw Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion. Because I thought it was going to be a scientific look at why human beings believe in God. I thought he’d go into the evolution of religious thought or the neurological research into how and why human beings started creating religions in the first place. I though it might talk about why religion was apparently selected by evolution as a useful trait in human beings. It seems to have been strongly favored by evolution. All societies have some kind of religion. Why? Evolution only selects what helps an organism survive and reproduce. How does religion do that? That is interesting to me.

All that stuff is the realm of Religious Studies and/or sociology and/or anthropology, not Dawkins field of expertise which is biology. Also neurology is not biology. There’s no reason for a biologist to know anything about socio-cultural structures that are based on shared ideologies. Religion is not an evolutionary trait. Eye color is an evolutionary trait.

The publisher’s material sent with the book included a quote from Publishers’ Weekly:

Buddhism has long enjoyed baffling ‘crazy wisdom’ teachers and paradoxical koans, and Warner’s punk iconoclasm fits in nicely.”

That’s a fairly common viewpoint about Brad it seems, and it is to some extent true regarding his reported lifestyle, him not being an uber-capitalist type etc [which I will address near the end of this post], but in terms of teachings and the doctrine/commentary he presents to the public in his books, on his blog, on social media and in video talks [I have read/seen ALL of them] it’s pretty conservative stuff. Not much deviation from the official line. Dogen, for example, is presented at face value. It’s not really anything like ‘crazy wisdom’ but pretty straightforward Shobogenzo based Soto Zen Buddhism.

In this book he compares and contrasts various Christian motifs to Buddhist ideas to demonstrate their similarities and more importantly their differences. It’s a recounting of sorts of the development of his own Buddhist education. That could be useful for some people.

One thing I did enjoy a lot was the travel stories throughout the book. He writes very vivid portraits of the places he’s been and the people he’s met. There’s a lot of detail and it’s quite lively writing. The writing about Dogen is pretty interesting and it’s clear Brad has done a lot of study of Dogen. The writing about Christianity seems a little forced sometimes. The discussions of the New Atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris) cover what is common knowledge about them (Harris meditates for example) and the criticisms of them are the usual ones they are often subject to.

The ideas are not that well organized and some of it is repetitive because of that, but the majority of it is interesting reading.

That is my review.

Now the rest of the response to Brad’s argument as contained in the book.

The Close Reading of the Book Part of This Post. Also Called The Second Part of This Post.

These are notes I started to take as I read the book. They are impressions, points of interest, things that made me raise my eyebrows, things I disagree with and things I liked. Take it as you will. Once I’ve completed these, I will discuss the main point of the book, the God and Religion part. It will be comprehensive. There is another small issue regarding transcendence and immanence which I’m tempted to discuss here but I already have another post in the works on it, so will incorporate some comments about Brad’s book in that one on that particular subject.

[The notes will not be comprehensible to most people so I’m excluding them]

The God and Religion Part of This Post. Also Called the Third Part of This Post.

Definitions for the God and Religion Part

Maybe I should have phrased that subtitle the other way since I’m going to start with the religion part and then tackle God. [I’ll probably hurt him when I do.]

I’m putting a bunch of quotes of other people and only a little commentary because they’ve said it better than I could.

Here’s a bunch of stuff about ideology and religion and philosophy. It’s a soup. Terms need to be defined. Brad doesn’t do much of that in the book but for taking a run at the term god and even then it’s either transcendental or immanent or something in between or both. Reads like a rendering of Nagarjuna’s methodology.


  1. A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader
  2. A specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices 
  3. A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion


  1. A set of ideas or beliefs relating to a particular field or activity; an underlying theory
  2. Any system of belief, values, or tenets
  3. A system of values by which one lives


  1. A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena
  2. A belief or principle that guides action or assists comprehension or judgment
  3. An assumption based on limited information or knowledge; a conjecture.



  1. The body of ideas reflecting the social needs and aspirations of an individual, group, class, or culture.
  2.  A set of doctrines or beliefs that form the basis of a political, economic, or other system.

A definition of ideology which is pretty close to what I go with:

– a set of explicit and implicit, even unspoken, ethico-political and other positions, decision, choices, etc., which predetermine our perception of facts, what we tend to emphasize or to ignore, how we organize facts into a consistent whole of a narrative or a theory.

~Slavoj Žižek in Some Bewildered Clarifications

Also important to the discussion of ideology is values. Here’s a take I agree with.

Values have a history.  It is this history which produces them as values.  One of the effects of ideology is to mask the fact that abstract values are born out of immanent historical and material conditions.

~Value, Genealogy, and the Task of Philosophy on Fuck Theory blog.

In the second lecture, Circumscription of the Topic, of the series of lectures that makes up his The Varieties of Religious Experience [free, multiple formats], William James writes:

Religion, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us THE FEELINGS, ACTS, AND EXPERIENCES OF INDIVIDUAL MEN IN THEIR SOLITUDE, SO FAR AS THEY APPREHEND THEMSELVES TO STAND IN RELATION TO WHATEVER THEY MAY CONSIDER THE DIVINE. Since the relation may be either moral, physical, or ritual, it is evident that out of religion in the sense in which we take it, theologies, philosophies, and ecclesiastical organizations may secondarily grow…

~ p. 42-43 (pagination is from a print edition)

As far as definitions of religion go that one is broader than most. The concept of divine though is pretty loaded and something of a value judgment.

We escape much controversial matter by this arbitrary definition of our field. But, still, a chance of controversy comes up over the word "divine," if we take the definition in too narrow a sense. There are systems of thought which the world usually calls religious, and yet which do not positively assume a God. Buddhism is in this case. Popularly, of course, the Buddha himself stands in place of a God; but in strictness the Buddhistic system is atheistic. Modern transcendental idealism, Emersonianism, for instance, also seems to let God evaporate into abstract Ideality. Not a deity in concreto, not a superhuman person, but the immanent divinity in things, the essentially spiritual structure of the universe, is the object of the transcendentalist cult. In that address to the graduating class at Divinity College in 1838 which made Emerson famous, the frank expression of this worship of mere abstract laws was what made the scandal of the performance.

~ p. 42-43 (pagination is from a print edition)

That he mentions Buddhism as well as both the transcendental and the immanent perspectives is useful. I will touch on this briefly now but discuss the whole dichotomy in another post.

Brad rejects the religious label for Buddhism yet accepts the god label. My viewpoint is the opposite in that I accept the religious label for Buddhism [religion somewhat defined above] and reject the god label.

This is the same kind of argument people use when they talk about “culture”. “Those people over there have culture but we don’t.” The spiritual but not religious thing has been discussed to death so I don’t want to take it up. The rejection is either one of rejection of superstition, rejection of alien cultural form (with all it’s implicit racism), rejection of alternate values, rejection of institution, rejection of personal historical trauma by projecting that elsewhere, and a bunch of other things. More often it’s a knee-jerk reaction to one’s own received knowledge concept of what religion is done without investigation or necessary critique to make it a rational choice. The statement “spiritual but not religious” is irrational in the extreme in that way.

Here’s a good point that I agree with.

From sociologist Robert Bellah in an interview in Tricycle magazine (HT Rev. Danny Fisher for posting the pointer on FB):

"The way ‘spirituality’ is often used suggests that we exist solely as a collection of individuals, not as members of a religious community, and that religious life is merely a private journey. It is the religious expression of the ideology of free-market economics and of the radical ‘disencumbered’ individualism that idolizes the choice-making individual as the prime reality in the world."

~The Future of Religion

Yeah that.

Whatever then were most primal and enveloping and deeply true might at this rate be treated as godlike, and a man’s religion might thus be identified with his attitude, whatever it might be, toward what he felt to be the primal truth. Such a definition as this would in a way be defensible. Religion, whatever it is, is a man’s total reaction upon life, so why not say that any total reaction upon life is a religion? Total reactions are different from casual reactions, and total attitudes are different from usual or professional attitudes. To get at them you must go behind the foreground of existence and reach down to that curious sense of the whole residual cosmos as an everlasting presence, intimate or alien, terrible or amusing, lovable or odious, which in some degree everyone possesses. This sense of the world’s presence, appealing as it does to our peculiar individual temperament, makes us either strenuous or careless, devout or blasphemous, gloomy or exultant, about life at large; and our reaction, involuntary and inarticulate and often half unconscious as it is, is the completest of all our answers to the question, "What is the character of this universe in which we dwell?" It expresses our individual sense of it in the most definite way.

~p. 45 James

Primal truth=numinous.

Numinous, taken from the Latin Numen, and used by some to describe the power or presence of a divinity. The word was popularised in the early twentieth century by the German theologian Rudolf Otto in his influential book Das Heilige(1917; translated into English as The Idea of the Holy, 1923). According to Otto, the numinous experience has in addition to the tremendum, which is the tendency to invoke fear and trembling, a quality of fascinans, the tendency to attract, fascinate and compel. The numinous experience also has a personal quality, in that the person feels to be in communion with a wholly other. The numinous experience can lead in different cases to belief in deities, the supernatural, the sacred, the holy and/or the transcendent.

~abridged from the Wikipedia entry for Numinous

Rudolph Otto was one of the guys who did a lot of writing about the numinous. 

Otto was one of the most influential thinkers about religion in the first half of the twentieth century. He is best known for his analysis of the experience that, in his view, underlies all religion. He calls this experience "numinous," and says it has three components. These are often designated with a Latin phrase: mysterium tremendum et fascinans. As mysterium, the numinous is "wholly other"– entirely different from anything we experience in ordinary life. It evokes a reaction of silence. But the numinous is also a mysterium tremendum. It provokes terror because it presents itself as overwhelming power. Finally, the numinous presents itself as fascinans, as merciful and gracious.

Outline of Otto’s concept of the numinous

"Mysterium tremendum et fascinans" (fearful and fascinating mystery):

  • "Mysterium": Wholly Other, experienced with blank wonder, stupor
  • "tremendum":
    • awefulness, terror, demonic dread, awe, absolute unapproachability, "wrath" of God
    • overpoweringness, majesty, might, sense of one’s own nothingness in contrast to its power
    • creature-feeling, sense of objective presence, dependence
    • energy, urgency, will, vitality
  • "fascinans": potent charm, attractiveness in spite of fear, terror, etc.

~from Rudolf Otto’s Concept of the "Numinous"

Even the New Atheists give credence to the idea of the numenous. The numenous is to be distinguished from the supernatural. See video here:


I don’t care for any of these guys because they all became so infatuated with themselves they became insufferable, but in the discussion here, from 6 years ago they’re not so bad. I agree with a lot of what is said in the first 5 minutes, but a lot of the rest is bullshit [another post I don’t have time for].

Calling the numenous “god” isn’t necessary and I don’t think it’s even helpful. I think it obscures more than clarifies.

I was reading quite an analysis of some poetry not long ago and came upon some terms that seemed to me helpful in delineating the numinous experience from the ordinary experience.

Shifting experience from Erlebnis, to Erfahrung

… German, which distinguishes between Erlebnis – or experience as the undergoing of events, one’s mere capacity to register what happens – and Erfahrung – or experience in the emphatic sense, experience from which it is possible to learn and perhaps gain wisdom.It is the latter that Benjamin thinks is destroyed in modernity – and it is no doubt this that Agamben has in mind when he claims that modern man [sic!] is wearied by a jumble of events that cannot be translated into experience.

~Matthew Abbot, The Poetry of Destroyed Experience in 3AM magazine

The first instance is what a lot of Buddhism has become in the context of dominant global culture. Meaningless. It leads to special case Buddhism or Buddhist exceptionalism. Rev. Danny Fisher has a superb post that deals with this.  Rejecting Scientistic and Post-Religious Buddhism

Try to think of the Kalama Sutra as a plea for rational thought rather than either rejection of anything other than the personal phenomenology or an anti-fundamentalist critique of blind faith. I don’t think it’s either of those. 

Or in other words:

credere est cum assensu cogitare
“to believe is to think with assent”

~Thomas Aquinas

Some other reviews online:

Book Review: ‘There is No God and he is Always With You’ by Brad Warner by Tanya McGinnity on Full Contact Enlightenment blog

Review: There Is No God and He Is Always With You by Barbara O’Brien on buddhism.about.com

A Review of Brad Warner’s There is No God by James Ford on Monkey Mind

Brad Warner’s book by Adam Fisher on Genkaku Again

Reviews and discussion from the Treeleaf Forum

Reviews of There is No God and He is Always With You on Goodreads


Statement of Disclosure and Some Comments About Publishers:

The publisher sent me this book for free to review. They asked me to review it. I did not request a review copy. I agreed because I find Brad’s perspective interesting in general even if I don’t agree with portions of it.

Brad doesn’t have a big organization with a publicity department and a cadre of volunteers to raise funds and he makes a living from what he writes, unlike many other Buddhist teachers who have other, often lucrative professions such as being psychologists or college professors or doctors or magazine editors (yes lucrative compared to waiting tables at a truck stop for example), or well heeled friends in Silicon Valley or at the Oprah show or Davos, nor does he have a spouse (as far as I know, haven’t inquired about that, not my business really, though I think he’d make it known if that were the case) who works to help supplement his income and share expenses so he can write books and make music and art, etc.

Also I appreciate Brad’s anti-capitalist approach to his work, and his dharma practice, even if he has not characterized it in that political kind of way. He does what he does, and if people like it they support it. What he makes goes back into doing what he does rather than buying himself a gilded temple, a couple of Harley motorcycles, a tropical “retreat" spa and meditation center and cultivating a bunch of slathering sycophantic followers. That’s pretty fucking hard to do anywhere and that he does it in Los Angeles is both humorous and makes quite a point if people bother to pay attention to that. It is the same kind of ethic that Henry Rollins uses for his work. He’s not stepping on anyone smaller to make his way in the world, not using people by proffering unrealistic dreams to fill his bank account, not setting himself up as somebody else’s authority. It’s trying to conduct one’s economic affairs symbiotically rather than parasitically. It’s an ethic that goes back to the DIY punk days (and much further back really). So I’ve got some respect for that.

Publishers. Well. I’ve had enough of them.

This is the last book I’m going to review at a publisher’s behest. I’m tired of publishers and their representatives (not only this one but many others) thinking bloggers are their own personal army of free labor just sitting around waiting to do free advertising for them. We’re not. Ease off on the demanding emails.

Some publishers give locked down, time limited, access to un-proof-read books and demand a review be written in the 2 week timeslot they allot. You can’t even copy/paste from these if you want to include a quote of your choice. Some fill your inbox with pages and pages of copy, complete with interviews and talking points to cut and paste into a blog like you’re just supposed to copy it all and stamp “Good” on it. Sorry I’m not your stenographer (unlike the mainstream press). If you just want people to write what you say when you say and mostly regurgitate your copy, pay them. If bloggers have got an audience it is because we have taken the time to develop that. If bloggers have any integrity or believability it is because we don’t simply regurgitate other’s talking points but write original works with original thoughts and often a fair bit of research. So no, you are not doing us a favor by offering books for review. We are doing you a favor if we agree to review one of your books. In this case I consider that I’m doing Brad, not the publisher, a favor.

And no, a free book is not the same as pay. A $15 (retail—wholesale is considerably less) book doesn’t even cover the cost of the time it takes to read the book. If it’s a book you don’t particularly like it’s even worse. Some I’ve been sent I could barely even get through as they were tripe. Didn’t bother doing a review after those and declined works from those particular publishers. Now I’m declining solicited reviews from all publishers. Not a member of your personal PR corps.

I’ll still do reviews when the mood strikes, on books I choose, whether I get them from the library or buy them or receive them as gifts or whatever, just not at the behest of publishers any more.

2010: The Best Buddhist Book I Read This Year


imageUnlimiting Mind: The Radically Experiential Psychology of Buddhism by Andrew Olendzki

I bought this one myself-no review copy because I’m interested in what the interface of Buddhism and psychology looks like.  Too often it is a great deal of ego wanking reassurances about fitting in or attaining happiness in that self-help kind of way with a dusting of dharma language. Not the case here.

The book does require some background in Buddhist study or at least more than a passing familiarity with central concepts.  Some people have not found much to appreciate about this book including whoever wrote the review on the Amazon site. But writing reviews about stuff you have no interest in will do that.

The Publisher’s Weekly blurb on the Amazon site:

This is not for the nightstand Buddhist; readers will require some knowledge of the Buddhist understanding of how the mind works, and they will also need some patience with highly abstract prose.

I think that’s a little overstated but by the sounds of it the reviewer didn’t have much of a Buddhist background and seems fairly critical of anything written with some amount of intelligence. Another reviewer for hire who skims a dozen books a week. But I’m not here to review the reviewers.

The prose is not all that abstract if you are familiar with the subject matter in general.

The book is comprised of a bunch of informal essays loosely grouped into categories such as “Constructing Reality” , “Karma” and “Self and Non-self”. Each of the sections revolves around a central concept of Buddhist teaching and the essays within explore different aspects of that concept.

I really enjoyed the writing style here is it’s neither academically stuffy nor is it lacking in thoughtful rigor. For example in the “Constructing Reality” section there is an essay called “Making the Best of It”. The author describes the continuum between delusion and wisdom there. It’s only 3 pages long but packs quite a punch. Here’s his description of the delusion side of things and how we make up what we consider to be reality.

The brain freezes the world into discrete mind moments, each capturing a barely adequate morsel of information, then processes these one by one in a rapid linear sequence. The result is a compiled virtual world of experience, more or less patterned on what’s “out there”, but mostly organized around the needs and limitations of the apparatus constructing it. It is like the brain and the senses are hastily taking a series of snapshots, then stringing them together into a movie we call “the stream of consciousness”.

The Buddhists have a pretty good word to describe this system: delusion. It doesn’t mean we are stupid, only that the mind and body are designed (so to speak) to distort reality into some very fundamental ways… (p.69)

Now that is pretty succinct yet provides a fairly complete description of the Buddhist approach to perceptual psychology. His way of explaining is so straightforward that one has to take some time to realize that upon first read.

What is often cloaked in huge volumes of convoluted and specialized language elsewhere, is written here with a remarkable clarity and a real deep understanding of the Buddhadharma. This is not some “scholar’s” take on the subject but the product of someone who, while being a scholar, is also a long time practitioner.

He doesn’t give a bunch of platitudes and then a set of meditation instructions (like half the books out there) nor does he suggest how knowing this information will improve your marriage or your golf game. It’s not that kind of book.

The book progresses from basics and gets into a bit of Abhidhamma theory at the end. It is a build up of how the concepts all relate to one another. A bit like climbing a mountain-the approach is relatively relaxed and then things get continually more intense. That’s one of the things I liked about it. The pacing requires one to, as they move on, slow down and consider things more deeply, to re-examine the text and what it represents in light of the distance gone thus far. The whole thing in this way reminds me of the progression of practice.

Briefly it is about the theory and construction and workings of “you” and your experience of being “you”. Which is what all psychology is about.

Some have complained that there is no “psychology” in the book. If one defines psychology using only the theories and terms of western psychology then there isn’t a lot of that. This is similar to those who define religion only according to a specific religion with which they are familiar. Buddhist psychology is a psychology, if we define psychology in terms similar to what I have just above. An apple isn’t a fruit if we only define fruit as oranges. You get my drift I’m sure.

Those who are in counseling type professions might find this work either enjoyable or challenging depending on your level of attachment to your own school of thought. And for the general reader who would like to know the “Buddhist theory of you” if I can put it that way there is also something here worthwhile.

At this point I’ve read it twice and will probably read it again as I am getting a lot out of it. Certainly my money’s worth.

[I have to say it was real close this year between this book and Rodney Smith’s “Stepping Out of Self Deception”. Similar subject matter. I reviewed that one here. So I have to give honorable mention to that one also. This one edged out due to it’s somewhat increased breadth and writing style which I preferred.]

Past Year’s Bests


Best Of Inquiring Mind: 25 Years Of Dharma, Drama, and Uncommon Insight  — My Review


An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the WorldMy Review

Is a Movie Just a Movie…?

There was an interesting discussion of the movie Inception taking place on a Facebook page recently.  As a status the question was asked:

so… you saw Inception. what did you think of it ?

Quite a number of people responded with the usual short blurbs. I wrote a mini-movie review-not entirely favorable (at the bottom of this post). Some folks added further comments later which included:

  • wow. it was just a movie……. [implying that some folks were spending too much time and effort thinking about the question]
  • Yeah like just a painting or just a book or just who cares. That just is the reason that not much good art is happening these days.
  • I liked it for what it was – popular entertainment.
  • I think there is an explosion of good art these days, though not evidenced so much via “commercial” channels
  • yes, i think word, (difference) is “commercial”…
  • There isn’t much of a line left-only a continuum of more or less commercial.

There are obvious parallels between the discussion of the “value” of art and the “value” of some popular spirituality. That value, specifically the economics of “just a movie” is what I’m interested in examining.

When we invest our money and time into something what comprises the value which we receive? And is the investment more than we realize? Here’s an abbreviated analysis.

Movie investment=approximately 4-6 hours of one’s life. Sounds like one of Andy Warhol’s avant garde movies. But I’m referring to a regular theater movie. Here’s the breakdown. Actual movie time + going to and from movie theater  + time to discover movie schedule + time to read reviews/watch advertisements or trailers + babysitting fees + parking fee + gasoline + depreciation on vehicle + food purchases + working the hours to make the money to pay all the related costs.

So the 90 minute movie directly affects more than triple that amount of time in terms of life time investment.  Economists and accountants often talk about hidden costs. They are usually referring to money but I am adding to that definition by including time as well.

This approach applies to just about anything we do. The listed cost of an item is not it’s actual cost in terms of time and money. At a minimum we can double or triple our initial estimate. Here’s a few more examples:

1 hour cable or satellite television serial program (ie Lost) = 2 or more hours of life time.  Breakdown. 1 hour to watch + time to find the program + arrangements to clear schedule to watch program + time to watch preceding episodes to keep up with the story + work time to pay for program provider service, television, TiVo on which it is recorded, appropriate furniture (the Lay-Z-Boy?), air conditioning or fan or other environmental adjustment devices, electricity. Consider how much the Superbowl or other special event costs in these kinds of terms. Days of preparation for some folks.

Here’s one that is a little more complicated.  Not all of the costs apply to all people but there are definitely extras that we don’t consider.

Working 8 hours per day=10 or more hours of life time. 8 hours of work + 1 hour of lunch during which we are not always or often free to escape the work environment (Who eats at their desk? I used to often.) + time to make or purchase lunch + commute + costs of means of transport + work time to pay for means of transport, work clothes, dry cleaning and laundry, hair cuts and styling, grooming products such as deodorant, shaving devices, make up,  lunch, child care, home security monitoring such as an alarm. Profit margin is rather slim when we deduct many of these material items from wages.

In any of these we could also factor in credit or debit card costs, bank fees, time to pay the related bills, time to schedule our time, time to arrange relationships to accommodate our schedule, time to plan wardrobe, grooming time and so forth.

There are quite a few questions and conundrums that arise from this little phrase “just a movie”

Commercial things are not supposed to or expected to have quality.

Throw away culture. Buy it, don’t take it seriously, don’t think about it, throw it away.

We are not allowed to criticize something we’ve paid for.

Some people will never send a restaurant meal back even if it’s burnt. Some will never send defective products back to the manufacturer for repair or replacement. Some will never mention that the video game they bought was crappy.

I suppose there is a modicum of ego involved here. One might feel foolish for having made a substandard choice, even if they had no way to know that before the purchase. One might feel foolish for falling for the advertising (no the slap-chop doesn’t work as well as advertised).

We are not allowed to criticize something that is free either.

Not looking that gift horse in the mouth. There’s even a trite epigram for it. Remember when Google Buzz let out everybody’s contact information? Some people invoked this little platitude. Consider that Google doesn’t exist without it’s users, its Google Ads and the revenue stream that brings in. People who use their service are both getting paid as well as contributing to the value of the company.  There’s all kinds of profit/loss to be evaluated in circumstances that are labeled as “free”.  Hidden costs.

Free things are supposed to have a greater value? Independent “art for art’s sake” is more valuable than what is commissioned and paid for?

Quite a contradiction.

Do we even know what is of value anymore when the principle criteria of measurement within capitalist society is often irrelevant?

These are some of the many contradictions of capitalism, commercial culture and profit driven motives.  So the bill you finally pay is a lot higher than the number in the total column.

What is the cost of money?

Depends on the derivative value. In many more ways than one.

Musical Interlude

Busta Rhymes-Arab Money

Is money just money? Are some kinds better than others?


The Mini Review of Inception

Interesting ideas, some cool effects. Seemed for the most part to be a rerun of Mission Impossible or a James Bond film. Action genre scenes seemed misplaced and way too long. Lots of cultural cliches and stereotypes. It was like a mashup of a lot of stuff gone before. Not much originality. Editing was rather jarring. Don’t remember any of the music-it was that banal. I agree with Donna that the dialogue was often trite and not very insightful. Actors really had to work hard with what they’d been given. Nolan can be a very interesting director (Memento for example) but this seems to have been rushed into production way too fast.

Travels of Unreal and Real Monks

Travels of Unreal Monks

Recently a blog and a twitter account @themonkblog sprung up that purported to belong to a monk who was traveling in North India and Nepal. Within two weeks there were over 1200 followers.  The About page of the blog reads as follows:

Hello Friend!

My name is Tenzin. I am a 23-year old theravada buddhist monk. I currently travel Nepal by foot, figuring out what to do in the future. When my old monastery was turned into a tourist location, my grandmaster Xi returned to his home monastery and said that I could not go with him. He said I needed to find my own way in life.

My interests are people, and their stories. I am also interested in english language and the computer. Of course I study much buddhism and how to live in harmony with my surroundings.

I am happy you want to read about me. Comment, so I can get to know you also!

In the past couple of days this person has revealed via further blog posts (here and here) that they are actually a young psychology student named Mikael who lives in a suburban city and “Tenzin” is a character he has created.

There was discussion on Twitter about it (check my timeline @NellaLou for Aug.12 for some of it) and some folks were surprised and disappointed. That is the reason I am posting about it here. So that others aren’t taken up by the ruse.

Upon reading that little bio the contradictions are rather stunning. A Tibetan name for a Theravada monk, who travels in Nepal after training with a Chinese named teacher. It is basically a set up for a Kung Fu, Kwai Chang Caine retelling. Which basically it is, as the author admits.

Grasshopper there are more than enough fake monks, teachers, priests, sociopaths and con artists with alleged dharma on their lips running around already.  So please give it a rest.

Travels of Real Monks

Bhante Kovida has studied in Asia for much of his life. Here is a little from his biography:

Bhante Kovida grew up on the tropical island of Jamaica, West Indies, of Chinese descent. He immigrated to Canada… then traveled overland from Europe to India and Nepal (via Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan) during 1974-1975, where he began the study of Indian history and culture, Hatha Yoga and meditation, classical Indian music, and Buddhism…

…in Sri Lanka, Bhante Kovida took ordination with Venerable Balangoda Anandamaitreya, a noted scholar, teacher and meditation practitioner, in January, 1991.

Bhante Kovida left Sri Lanka towards the end of 1993 and began traveling and sharing the Dharma in the Toronto area with occasional visits to Hamilton, Ottawa, Halifax and Vancouver. He has also visited inmates at Warkworth Correctional Center near Campbelford, Ontario, AIDS patients at the Casey House hospice in Toronto for a period.

He continues to give teachings in Canada as well as in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

His approach is unique in that he discusses the dharma with a solid eye on the reality of today and contemporary viewpoints, both East and West.

He has produced a couple of e-books that are available for download and free non-commercial distribution on his website.

The first is titled An Inquiring Mind’s Journey:a book about a life with Buddhism. In the first chapter he discusses his early life in Jamaica, his burgeoning interest in science and discovery of his questioning nature.  Taking university studies in North America led to more questioning particularly with regard to the materialistic nature of the culture there. He then discusses his early journey to India and embarking on learning from gurus and others there. Like so many other seekers he moved from place to place and met people from all over the world.

And during this time his sense of himself in the world and the universe changed. Perspective broadened and viewpoints were altered.

When I returned to Canada, I experienced horrendous reverse culture shock. I was so
open and childlike, and profoundly affected and transformed by my experiences in India and Nepal that I felt very vulnerable to the realities and superficialities of modern, materialistic society. After being in a culture where communication in public was easy and effortless, I found people quite self-centered, isolated and lonely, and shopping in supermarkets terribly cold and impersonal. It seemed really amazing that one could buy a lot of groceries, go through the checkout counter, pay your money, and not have to utter a single word. In Asia, it is the human contact that is important, the product that you are purchasing is secondary; in modern society it is the product and its cost that are important, human contact is secondary, seemingly unimportant. I found the environment very sterile, uninteresting, superficial and isolating. (p.13)

Having shared a similar feeling upon occasion I understand where this kind of statement comes from. At times though I do find some of Bhante’s descriptions somewhat idealized and even slightly romanticized. Now that may just be the writing style or a function of memory or my own distrust and questioning attitude towards idealism in general.  However this point, about social relations and human contact is one of the main reasons I stay in India as much as I do-and that has changed my perspective and practice of Buddhism tremendously.  So in some ways there is an impulse to credit the environment but I feel not at the expense of the reality of the place, which can be as harsh, even brutal, as it can be enveloping. He does touch upon that harshness occasionally though.

He goes on to discuss the first thoughts he had about becoming a monk while he was in Sri Lanka and the process of making such a decision and the meetings with the man who became his teacher.

Succeeding chapters include a question and answer portion about Buddhism that is very comprehensive and suitable for beginners. Further chapters include the texts of two talks given at the University of Toronto entitled Self-knowledge and Freedom and The Nature and Ending of Fear. This is followed by a section on travels and commentary on South-east Asia particularly Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore and Hong Kong. He spent considerable time in these places within both English speaking and Chinese speaking sanghas and groups so the contrasts are quite interesting.

The second book is called The World is Myself:a monk’s travel journal part 1 It covers his travels from Thailand, Malaysia and India.

I’ve really enjoyed reading this journal. It’s written in a conversational style that gives the reader the sense that they are sitting sharing tea and stories with the author.

If you want to know what the day to day life of a monk is like, this book gives a detailed view. He describes how it feels to go on an alms round, the camaraderie of the monastic sangha, what life is like in these parts of Asia both the joys and frustrations, as well as his critical viewpoint on certain of the practices such as merit accumulation. The latter is not too favorable. In that regard his viewpoint is somewhat similar to Bhante Dhammika‘s, whose book, The Broken Buddha,  I reviewed previously.

He gives more of his history prior to becoming a monk, in which he was a development worker for the Canadian government in Sri Lanka as well as other details of his life before that time.

He is very well read and discusses the philosophies of Krishnamurti, as well as the series of lectures by Krishnamurti himself that he attended, and Ramana Maharshi with ease equal to his discussions of Buddhist Suttas. He tells of his meetings with interesting people including during the time he volunteered at the hospital set up by Mother Theresa in Calcutta, throughout his journeys and it gives an almost documentary feel to the writing.

The descriptions of locations, people and events are scintillating. I felt like I was right there as I read. Bhante Kovida has an exceptional memory for details as well as a very sharp observational ability. And this is complemented by his honesty and humor in documenting his reactions, both positive and negative to every situation. He doesn’t make himself out to be either a hero or a victim of any situation, only a participant and experiencer. Here is an example when he helped guide a group of Americans in northern Thailand.

The rising sun is warming up the awakening landscape and slowly burning away the night mist and fog. The roosters and hens are stretching and flapping their wings and for the first time I recognize some guinea fowls with their unique grey and black
colouring and tiny white spots. It’s a peaceful village setting. After breakfast, tea and chitchat about the night spent in mud-walled huts, we gather up our gear, bid farewell to the villagers with thanks, and start walking down a lane towards the main road. We walk about one kilometer along this road admiring the surrounding bamboo-covered hills, corn and vegetable fields, already harvested paddy fields, and then we begin to ascend on the other side of the road along a footpath. Up and up through bamboo forests, up and around the hill side, using bamboo poles for support, as we head to the next village which they say will take around 4-5 hours to reach. It is hard going at times and we stop occasionally to rest, drink water, catch
our breath and admire the view of the surrounding hills and river valleys below. It is an amazing and vigorous hike in Thailand’s northern hill region even though wearing Theravada robes for this adventure isn’t quite suitable; I long for a more practical dress with two sleeves, but at least I can wear running shoes in these remote parts. The green hills turn to shades of blue the further away they are. The high mountains in the distance are so awesome and majestic that they seem as if they’re holding some ancient, mysterious secret which present- day man cannot possibly comprehend; one can only gaze at them in wonder at their beauty, aloofness and unreachable distance.


His cross-cultural observations are anthropological in description sometimes, in that he doesn’t judge but observes, analyzes and compares. Here’s a portion from his visit to a Karen (hill tribe people in Northern Thailand) village.

The Karens, who also live across the border in Burma, are very friendly, hospitable
people, rice and vegetable cultivators, part Buddhist, part animist, and very much in harmony with the jungle environment, using the abundant and fast-growing bamboo for everything imaginable including food, building material and disposable cooking pots. Formerly, they grew opium poppy but they’re now growing soya beans, sweet and Irish potatoes, and other foreign crops thanks to an anti-drug campaign funded by the U.S. Government. At times we can smell opium being smoked by some village elders who are addicted to the habit; they get
it from villagers elsewhere. It’s an old crop in these parts of SE Asia and smoking opium is an old relaxing pastime which also helps to alleviate the aches and pains of old age, physical labour and mental worry. Ingested, opium is medicine for stomach troubles including diarrhea, and for pain, in general. These people cannot understand and relate to the drug abuse and money-making, crime-related culture in America and Europe, although they’ve become more aware of the demand for raw opium to be used in heroin production and that, because of this, opium poppy cultivation has become increasingly profitable which is very tempting
indeed. Now the American-backed Government in far away Kreung Thep [Bangkok] is telling them to stop this old [and now lucrative] crop and its traditional uses and they cannot really comprehend what the fuss is all about. If the Americans and Europeans want to kill themselves with heroin injections that’s their stupid business, they muse. Why don’t they just leave us alone in peace? In these parts, habitual opium smoking is seen as no more harmful than smoking and chewing tobacco, chewing betel nuts, and drinking tea.

(p. 22)

This is very similar to the attitude of people in the high Himalaya as well. These things are not demonized but dealt with according to their usefulness. And as there is not much by way of excess, in terms of crops, money or goods, chronic overuse of such things is not generally an issue. And the view that many Western countries should be more concerned with the health and control of their own populations rather than what people in remote villages are doing is also common in India.

Throughout the book there are discussions and musings on the Dhamma as part of every day life and situations.

I’m in Kwan’s village, somewhere outside of Chiang Rai, and we have some Americans to deal with. I’ve slept quite well considering. I recognize the smoky,
musty smell of the mud-walled hut and the noise of pigs and chickens come to mind. It got chilly during the night and I had to put on a sweater. I use our host’s toilet and it’s not as bad as I’d expected; and I reflect on how our mental projections are often worse than reality itself. Once I was an intrepid world traveller, now I’m behaving like a spoilt, pampered westerner from suburbia. I smile at the change in myself; no permanent, concrete self or personality to be found in this mind-body process, only a constantly changing and rapid sequence of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, thinking and imagining. (p.24)

The quoted sections above are all from the first section of the book on Thailand.

In the section on Malaysia we have such delicious descriptions as this:

A waiter brings us two pieces of banana leaf recently cut from the tree which we wipe with a little water then shake off onto the floor. It’s a cheap, organic and plentiful material that is easily disposable; there’s no need to wash plates and sometimes utensils, you only have to wash your hands before and after eating. I can still recall my first banana leaf rice meal during my earlier travels in. S. India towards the end of 1978 – it was such a novel and unique experience! The waiter puts a heap of rice on each of our leaves, then places three small portions of different vegetable curry next to the rice with some hot lime and mango pickle plus papadam chips made from legume flour. Then he pours dahl, a spiced split pea soup, on top of the rice together with another kind of spiced soup-like mixture, and he brings us small stainless steel cups of liquid yoghurt and a spiced liquid concoction called rasam to be consumed at the end of the meal to aid digestion. I dig in with the fingers of my right hand and start mixing wet rice with small amounts of vegetable curry, adding a bit of hot pickle and broken pieces of papadam chips, forming small balls of the mixture and popping them expertly into my mouth.

I got hungry reading that.

There are often a number of parallel narratives going on throughout this book. Situations bring up recollections of other situations, people or experiences. Isn’t this just the way our being in the world operates? The connections, memories, apparent continuations and social settings combine to create this appearance of personhood and solidity of existence. Yet it is interesting how unique each of these combinations are, rather like recipes.

Additionally Bhante Kovida has some critical thoughts on many schools of Theravada practice, as well as Vipassana and other techniques. The very devout might be a little uncomfortable with that. However sometimes well considered critical reflections, particularly of those intimately involved, contain valid points that need addressing.

He is equally concerned with some of the trends that occur in the North American context.

If you care to examine more closely this sectarian attitude in people and Dharma practitioners in general, you’ll see that in essence they’re all clinging to their egos, their self-centered “spiritual trip,” their personal preferences, desires, ambitions and attachments. And behind it all is fear and insecurity, isn’t it? (p.52)

As well he examines, equally openly, his own motivations and reasoning regarding the Buddhist path and practices.

I also remember that when I first began to give talks in Malaysia I had this immature desire to give the “perfect” Dharma talk; I would jot down all the important pointers that I wanted to include on a piece of paper but I would keep forgetting to look and check my list as I tend to be more of a spontaneous rambler than an organized speaker. And after each talk I would go over it in my mind recalling in vivid detail what I’d said and only to realize that I’d once again left out a few things because I’d forgotten to look at the piece of paper and check my list. And I could see the suffering and disappointment in my mind: that I was again unable to deliver the “perfect” talk; I took these talks so seriously. Talk about craving and clinging!…

…I would discover to my surprise during discussions that not only did people not understand what I’d said during the previous talk but that they had totally misunderstood what I had been trying to convey. This was indeed a good lesson for me! So much for trying to give the “perfect” talk! (p.54)

His travel tales are wide ranging and interesting. The focus is generally on the interrelationships and dynamics between people, groups, Buddhist and other viewpoints, practices, nationalities, languages, cultures, geography and so many other aspects. The fluidity with which these intermingle, influence, exchange and flow is very well captured by Bhante Kovida’s writing.


If you want to know what a monk’s life is really like Bhante Kovida has provided a thorough and honest assessment. His frankness is one of many compelling features of the book.

He is knowledgeable, sincere, well-traveled, open minded as well as discerning and occasionally critical  in this account of the events of his life. It’s kind of a refreshing change from some of the sugary frosting that coats many bookstore shelves. And these fascinating books are available for free without a trip to the store. That in itself makes a statement.

Musical Accompaniment

If you are suffering from the vertigo of what’s real and what’s not…