Is everything going well for you? I sure hope it is, and that you are all not taking it for granted.
Amid everything else happening in the world, it is important to remember that we are living in a pandemic. The actions we take necessarily impact the lives of others. Please try your best.
In this letter, I want to share with you some precious jewels I have come across during my life. I sincerely believe it would be unfortunate for you to have travelled from the cradle to the grave without having encountered them.
I will save you from this fate!
My all-time favourite poem
It has only been a few years since I first encountered it. The secret to happiness laid out explicitly in a poem.
The poem comes from the Dzogchen tradition in Tibetan Buddhism, believed to be the fastest of all the vehicles to enlightenment. A means to bypass all the paths and stages with a single realisation — and reach the end of the spiritual path.
I will not try to analyse nor explain the poem and its profundity here, but I will repeat a certain stanza.
Nothing to do or undo,
nothing to force,
nothing to want
and nothing missing
Dzogchen is a literal Tibetan translation of "great perfection". In this tradition, this perfection is not a matter of becoming something you are not, or experiencing that which have not but rather, simply seeing more clearly what really is.
The Dzogchen master points out this Great Perfection, known as the the nature of mind to a capable student. The rest of the student's practice is only a matter of resting in that realisation.
A Dzogchen yogin lives free of the strain involved with both worldly affairs and the spiritual search to escape them — they have finally learned how to rest free and easy.
The Work of Carl Sagan
After my first ten-day meditation retreat, my mind was clearer and more lucid than it had ever been. My attention span soared to peaks not known before. It was in the week afterwards that I first watched through Carl Sagan's historic documentary series Cosmos. It was a glorious experience that nourished a lot of my curiosity and expanded my view of the world. Then and there I considered it the greatest thing I had ever watched. I honestly recommend it to anyone and everyone. This isn't something you want to go through life without having seen.
On paper, Carl was an Astrophysicist and much-beloved communicator of science, but I hold no reservations in describing the man as a poet and a philosopher as well.
To give you an idea of why I love him so much I will leave with you a speech of his entitled: We humans are capable of greatness. For convenience, I will both embed a YouTube video and paste the transcript.
I believe we, as a civilisation, have progressed time and time again. By almost every metric we can conceive of we are improving. We have a long way to go, but as Carl as put it, we are capable of greatness.
I actually cannot rule out the various existential risks we face]; Nuclear Winter. Climate catastrophe. A more powerful global pandemic. A meteor strike similar to the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. Whatever increasingly clever Artificial Intelligences will do to us. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?
On top of existential risks, we humans deal unimaginable levels of suffering to our fellow humans and even our animal brethren whom we share this planet with. Even with all the positive trends, it is understandable — even though not reasonable — why so many have fallen cynical.
We have solved many problems once believed to be intractable, and I am sure we can do it again — but imagine for a moment if I was wrong.
Even if the world were going to end tomorrow, even if we fail to learn to live peacefully with one another, I would still find reason for deep happiness living in this world.
The same laws of nature that have brought forth all of our ills have also brought us all of our gifts, wonders and blessings — including the jewels that have enriched my life beyond measure.
Take Carl Sagan's speech, for example.
That under certain conditions, a mind capable of conceiving these words comes into existence is incredible! How amazing to live in such a reality.
There are indeed many things like this. Not just one or two. Beyond whether the world is good or bad, it is undoubtedly beautiful.
Shantideva's wishes for the denizens of hell also spark this feeling.
May fiery coals turn into heaps of jewels,
The burning ground become and even crystal floor,
May crushing hills become sublime abodes
Offering temples, dwellings of the Buddhas.
May the hail of weapons, lava fiery stones
Become henceforth a rain of flowers,
And all mutual woundings with sharp blades
Be now a rain of flowers thrown in play.
The Bodhicharyavatara, Chapter 10
That in the fifth century in an ancient university, there was an individual who wrote down these words — who saw the merits of unbounded compassion — and realised moral clarity centuries ahead of his time never ceases to amaze me.
The reality that has spawned all the chaos, conflict and apparent ills has also spawned beauty beyond measure. From it has arisen the minds of Carl Sagan, Shantideva and so many others who have proven to be constellations of the greatness that we humans can achieve — and living proof of the potential that we can reach if we can overcome our small-mindedness.
"The sky calls to us — if we do not destroy ourselves — we will one day, venture to the stars."
Carl Sagan, here
There have been so many precious jewels like this that I have encountered in my life. When I take one in my hand and marvel at it, I am filled with relief. That in the right conditions, the laws of physics are compatible with such beauty coming into existence, is enough for me to forgive reality for all of its apparent flaws.
I can't stay angry, I can't stay frustrated at it for very long, you know?
Thank you for reaching the end of another letter. If it weren't for you, I would merely be typing into the void — it is because of you that writing these words is worth it.
I hope I haven't given you the impression that Dzogchen Yogis are lazy. Resting in the nature of mind has nothing to do with being physically or intellectually inactive. Sam Harris is a practitioner of Dzogchen. ↩︎
A friend commented that I tended to generalise what other people like based on what I enjoy, this is true, there is a chance that at this point Cosmos will not be your cup of tea. Please use the speech included in this letter to judge as to whether you will like it. ↩︎
Well, to be more honest, I traced it by pressing an A3 piece of paper up against an old laptop with a picture of him... ↩︎
We are, in fact, now in a better position to face these risks than we have ever been. We have a tremendous wealth of knowledge, and we are now in a place where we can tackle challenges that would have crippled us more severely in the past. How we as a species have been able to coordinate our behaviour and spread information about the coronavirus is an example. We can also now see meteors years in advance before they pose a threat - we have abilities the dinosaurs do not. ↩︎
Hell is not believed as being a real, physical place - Shantideva is invoking it metaphorically ↩︎