Monday, July 6, 2009


A dominant feature of modern life is that actions and consequences get channelled through extensive networks. It becomes very difficult to observe the effects of one's actions. For example, an engineer might be given the task of designing some small component of a complex system. That one engineer likely did not participate in defining the system objectives, or even the function to be performed by the component they're designing.

While most of the people in a large manufactuing enterprise may never see their products in use, they do get powerful signals back from the enterprise that steer their behavior - wages, raises, promotions, status, power. In a simple world, a farmer who wanted to drain a field might build a pump and observe directly how well the pump works. In our complex modern world, a pumping system is assembled from purchased manufactured components, each of which is in turn similarly assembled. The person repairing a valve at the chemical plant that produced the plastic from which the pump intake gasket was made - that person has no communication with the farmer. The repair person is likely working to meet corporate objectives for cost control, valve reliability, etc. The stock holders of the corporation have even less communication with the farmer and are just looking for a good return on their investment.

Science and Buddhism share the basic system control paradigm, where system parameters are tuned by observing the system outputs, to the system can be steering to optimum behavior. The crucial issue is system scope. The modern bureaucratic system tends to narrow the scope of any individual's concern. The approach in Buddhism is to broaden one's scope. Tune your behavior not just to fatten your next pay check, not even just to make your family more comfortable next year, but to benefit all beings for countless generations into the future.

We can choose how we interpret our experience as a gradient, steering our behavior one way or another. In fact we are always choosing an interpretation, however unconsciously or driven by habits. The path to freedom is to bring those choices to awareness and courageously to risk interpretations that at least stretch the molds of habit and convention.

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