The Monk, the Butcher and the Incredible Origins of Deep Counting

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“Count as if your life depends on it!” said no one in particular. I wish we all did, for our life unfolds based on what we count and how we count it. What would we change about how we engage with counting, both metaphorically and literally, if we wanted to lead meaningful lives? It turns out that this is one of the most ancient questions that humanity has asked.

Sorry, No Merit

Time Jump: Emperor Wu’s Court 
520 AD, China

Emperor Wu and Bodhidharma

The Emperor Wu looked at his strange visitor. A bearded monk with big 
bulging eyes stood in front of him. He had come all the way from India and was regarded as a great teacher of Buddhism. The Emperor, eager to get an affirmation of his divine merits, asked, “How much merit have I earned for my support of Buddhism?” He was a great patron and had done a lot of public service in the name of Buddhism. The monk replied bluntly, “None. Deeds that expect worldly return may bring good karma but produce no merit whatsoever.” Emperor Wu was shocked. He asked, “Then, what is the meaning of noble truth?” The monk replied, “There is no noble truth, only emptiness.” Now annoyed, the emperor thought he’d trap this monk with sophistry, and asked, “Then who is standing before me?” The monk replied, “I don’t know, your majesty,” and turned around and left.

This monk was the great teacher, Bodhidharma, now regarded as the one who established Zen Buddhism, and this peculiar conversation raises the question, “what is meritorious work?” To find the answer, we will have to travel to an unknown time and place, where the monk Kaushika is meditating.


The Butcher’s Merit

Time Jump: Forest in India
The Mahabharata Epoch

Kaushika and the crane

“Splat!” came the sound of the crane’s poop landing on his body. As awareness slowly set in, the monk Kaushika looked up in rage. The offending crane was up there, perched on a branch. The next moment, the crane fell dead on the ground, scorched by Kaushika’s anger. By allowing his anger and harmful intention against the crane to go unchecked, he had killed the bird with his thought power. Full of regret, he left the forest and, as ascetics have done from time immemorial, went begging for alms to a householder’s home. The lady of the house asked him to wait.

At that moment, her husband walked in hungry. She immediately attended to his needs and fed him, forgetting about Kaushika. After a while, she suddenly remembered the ascetic, and ran back to serve him. But it was too late — she found Kaushika fuming. She tried to placate him but he would not be pacified, and started scolding her for putting her husband above a learned ascetic, such as himself. At this point, the lady spoke firmly, “I am no crane, o ascetic. Please cast off this anger. Your anger will do nothing to me.”

As Kaushika stood stunned, she softened and explained, “I have dedicated my life to serving my husband selflessly, and through service that feels sacred to me, my mind has become purified. Thus it is that I know of the crane incident in the forest.” She then gave him a remarkable discourse, reminding him of the values that went with his title and vocation, namely, total renunciation of anger and passion and total adherence to truth and nonviolence. She closed with, “Understanding virtue is subtle, and although you have studied it academically, I don’t think you know what virtue really looks like. To find out, go to the city called Mithila, and inquire about a virtuous butcher there.”

The ring of truth in her words touched Kaushika’s heart and he thanked the lady profusely. As his curiosity about the butcher was deeply aroused, he proceeded promptly to find this butcher in Mithila. He arrived after traveling quite a distance, and with help from the locals, found this virtuous butcher in his shop, selling deer and buffalo meat. As there were many buyers thronging his shop, Kaushika stood at a distance. But the butcher had noticed him, and he got up and walked over to the ascetic, saying, “Greetings! I am the butcher you are looking for. I know that the lady sent you here.” A stunned Kaushika tried to make sense of this. The butcher continued, “It is not proper for you to be seen here. Let’s go to my home.” The butcher took him home, offered him a seat and water. What followed was a remarkable conversation on action.

Kaushika said, “It seems to me that this profession does not befit you. I deeply regret that you should follow such a cruel trade.” The butcher responded, “I have been born into this profession and didn’t have a choice in it due to my circumstances. However, I bring all the virtues of renunciation, self-control and love to my work. Even though the behavior of a profession may be bad, a person in that profession may still be of good behavior. So also a person may become virtuous, even though he is a slayer of animals by profession.”

Kaushika further inquired, “How shall I know what is virtuous conduct?”

The butcher replied, in essence, “That which takes you closer to knowing your true nature.” Kaushika praised the butcher’s wisdom. Almost as if to show Kaushika how this wisdom had been developed, the butcher invited him into his home’s inner chambers where his parents resided. Upon entering, the butcher prostrated before his parents, who blessed him. The butcher explained to Kaushika, “I take care of my parents the same way as a devotee worships God. That sense of sacred service is what has helped my inner wisdom to develop.”

And then, in the grand finale of this utterly counterculture story, the butcher counseled Kaushika, “Your aged parents have been suffering greatly since you left them to pursue monastic life without their voluntary consent. They are now blind with grief and have no one to take care of them. Meritorious action for you would be to renounce monastic life and go back to take care of them as long as they are alive. Your monastic studies will not bear fruit in the face of the great suffering you have caused in them.” Kaushika saw the truth in these words, thanked the butcher for guiding him and hastened home.

While Bodhidharma’s conversation shows us that what outwardly seems like service may not be meritorious upon examination, the virtuous butcher’s conversation shows the opposite, where, what outwardly appears to lack merit may in fact hold the possibility of deep and authentic service. The virtuous butcher has given us a wonderful test — is our work deepening our own understanding of what our true nature is? If so, that is virtuous work and the service performed is sacred service for us. Sometimes, that may mean putting our grand ambitions to serve humanity on hold in order to serve those in greatest need of our attention.

From Beans to Being

These two viewpoints have a fundamental contribution to what we count. Bodhidharma’s viewpoint nudges us to renounce our obsession with bean-counting (a.k.a. measuring value) and instead focus on our being. It is a valuation mistake to even attempt to reduce something so intrinsic like being to a bean-count. This mistake is contained in every “how much” question we can think of around being (like “how much do you love me?”). A “how much” question cannot be rationally framed for something that is intrinsically valuable.

The virtuous butcher gives us a similar teaching from the opposite direction — by showing us that action that is judged solely by black-and-white rules (e.g. was there loss of animal life due to our profession?) can miss the being behind the action altogether and thereby become a superficial judgment. When we are blind to the being behind the action, we also become blind to how that being expresses its nature through its action. The virtuous butcher encourages us not to reject action, but to hold space for an inquiry of values within the limitations of black-and-white action. If we were to hold such space, we might find that there is no action in our universe that we can blindly reject.

Bodhidharma and the virtuous butcher appear to be two sides of the same coin. While Bodhidharma’s teaching helps us embrace nothing, the virtuous butcher’s teaching helps us embrace everything. The teacher Nisargadatta Maharaj summarized this dual reality we find ourselves in as follows:

Wisdom is knowing I am nothing,
Love is knowing I am everything,
and between the two my life moves.

Can this huge insight be expressed in mathematics?

From Being, Back to Beans: The Story of Deep Counting

It actually has. For thousands of years. In fact, this sentiment is the foundation of the mathematics you have learned as a child. Have you wondered how it is that the concepts of zero and infinity came to be? Have you wondered why it is that Euro-centric tales of the history of mathematics have never shone a philosophical light on how humanity evolved these concepts? Perhaps it is because these inventions did not come from Europe. They came from a much earlier time from the fertile plains of India in a society that had discovered agriculture and did not have to be hunter-gatherers.

What do people do when they have granaries that are full and the next meal is not a cause of concern? They think about meaning and purpose. They become poets and philosophers. The poet-philosophers of the Indian civilization also had to become mathematicians in order to handle the large volume of trade that results from agriculture at scale. Pondering over the meaning of it all, they composed a couplet that forms the foundation of counting. This couplet, to be found all over the Upanishads, reads:

पूर्णमदः पूर्णमिदं पूर्णात पूर्णमुदच्यते| पूर्णस्य पूर्णमादाय पूर्णमेवावशिश्यते|

Purnamadaha Purnamidam Purnaat Purnamudachyate. 
Purnasya Purnamadaya Purnameva Vashishyate.

That is whole. This is whole. From (that) wholeness comes (this) wholeness. When (this) wholeness is taken away from (that) wholeness, what remains is wholeness.

This couplet can, at one level, be seen as a paean to the intrinsic value of life itself, recognizing the interconnected whole that makes life possible. To a curious ancient, the question must have arisen — how does one represent wholeness? What is naturally complete, with no beginning or end? In almost every culture this world has seen, the circle has largely arisen as a symbol for wholeness for it has no beginning or end. It also turns out that this poem is a stunning representation of the number “zero,” for the ancient Indians considered wholeness and nothingness to be two sides of the same coin. When you flip zero, or nothing, on its head, what you get in our present mathematics is infinity, or a notion of wholeness that leaves nothing out. Can zero, or nothing, truly contain everything?

A little thought on zero reveals that zero is the sum of all positive and negative numbers — it is what you get only when you embrace everything!
Everything and nothing are two sides of the same coin

Every child in school is taught this connection between everything and nothing through mathematics. Let’s try replacing every occurrence of “wholeness” with “nothing,” and what we get from the last line is:

When nothing is taken away from nothing, what remains is nothing.

Replacing nothing with its mathematical representation, we get:

When zero is taken away from zero, what remains is zero.

That was perhaps the first time in world philosophy that the mathematical axiom of zero minus zero equals zero was laid out in poetic fashion. The ironical origin of our mundane counting system, and therefore, all metrics, is no less than heartfelt thoughts of wholeness and nothingness! Such are the magical beginnings of counting, and when this is remembered, mundane counting becomes deep counting.

The question arises — how did we miss this magic in school? Why didn’t we either laugh out loud or tell our teachers, “What!? This makes no sense. What do you mean by zero and infinity?” Why didn’t we trouble them until they made us feel the reality of these concepts? Well, yes, no one likes corporeal chastisement, but that aside, why didn’t we trouble those who loved us to explain this?

It may be time to take the help of the Sufis and the Old Testament to recognize an ancient bias in our own minds.

Label and Knowledge Bias

Language is an artificial construction where constructs are placed on top of vibrations emitted from our throats. When we share those constructs, we are able to communicate knowledge, and even the vibration becomes unnecessary — just as you are reading this without me having to speak it. If we dig deeper and examine the atomic unit of language and all knowledge — it is a collection of distinctions. Each distinction is actually a fundamental example of counting, and referred to with a label. When you label a mound of clay a pot, you are counting just that shape as a pot, and you are also reducing all other experiences in the universe to “not pots.”

Distinctions and their labels are very helpful and make us efficient, but they also disconnect us from the very reality we are trying to communicate. The Sufi poet from Pakistan, Zaheen Shah Taji, expresses this beautifully in Urdu verse.

Sufi couplet by Zaheen Shah Taji

The one who confuses the label water for water is naïve indeed. 
 Repeating “water, water,” such a person is destined to die of thirst.
 
Repeating “fire, fire” produces not a scratch on the lip.
A single spark on your lip is enough to burn it.

When repeating words over and over again, we often become disconnected with the reality that those words represent. We will call this Label Bias: conflating an experience with its label.

Thus it is that we spend most of our lives thinking zero and infinity are abstract concepts. And yet, for those of us who have momentary glimpses of connection to all humanity, or a momentary connection to their own nothingness, those tend to be the most meaningful experiences of their lives. Such experiences help us appreciate poetry that uses words to help us go far beyond words.

Instead of being intangible, unconditional love is the most tangible thing we feel, whether we are feeling it toward our parents or toward those we do not even know. Conversely, numbers are the most intangible things in our lives — we rarely feel them.

Even if we are able to keep our thinking straight and avoid Label Bias, there is a bigger danger we face. Distinctions are the vehicle of our knowledge. They help us be efficient and creative, and yet, by making distinctions on an indivisible reality, we become blind to that indivisible reality. This is a much greater bias, which we will call Knowledge Bias: conflating a division of reality with reality.

The Hebrew Bible is so attuned to Knowledge Bias that it calls out this bias front and center with the story of Adam and Eve. The biblical thinkers tried to explain to a community of shepherds that knowledge was problematic because knowledge is based on distinctions, and distinctions divide a reality which itself knows no distinctions. Therefore, when one becomes knowledgeable, one is really seeing separation from a unifying reality.

What a profound philosophy! But how does one share this with shepherds? They chose the story of Adam and Eve having an idyllic, carefree life in the Garden of Eden, which contained two special trees: the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge. In the story, God told them not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. After Adam and Eve disobeyed and bit into the fruit, they were expelled from the Garden. They and their children for all generations were condemned to a life that included hardship, toil, and suffering.

Kabbalists and other Jewish mystics interpret this as follows: the Tree of Life is reality without distinctions, felt as the Oneness of all being; the Tree of Knowledge is duality which rests on distinctions that create separation from reality. This story points to our universal story as humans. Our source is an underlying reality that unites all of us — or simply, Oneness. But in order to become fully human, we need to plunge into the world of Duality. Just staying in Duality can obscure our underlying unifying reality, and when that happens, we humans experience suffering. What happens when we are able to transcend Knowledge Bias and be connected to reality as it is through a sense of Oneness, while at the same time, fully embracing our Duality that gives us uniqueness? According to the metaphor, that is the Garden of Eden! You cannot have the garden with just one tree. You need both!

Perhaps the essence of this teaching is what the ancient Vedantic poets were pointing to in one of the most profound verses of the Isha Upanishad:

अन्धं तम: प्रविशन्ति येऽविद्यामुपासते|ततो भूय इव ते तमो य उ विद्यायां रता:||९||
The worshippers of ignorance enter a blind darkness. Into an even greater darkness enter those who pursue knowledge alone.

How could knowledge lead us toward greater darkness than ignorance? Our ancient ancestors across different cultures seem to be warning us that, conceptual knowledge, by its nature, requires separation from reality, and one has to overcome that separation to return back to reality.

So, what is the meaning of all this? Should we stop making distinctions and just be? Should we give up the pursuit of knowledge? Wouldn’t life as we know it cease to be if we were to give up on knowledge? One rebel poet shows us why, inspite of label bias and knowledge bias, we should continue to make distinctions.

Creation requires Distinctions

The poet Rabindranath Tagore

If we stopped making distinctions, we would stop creating. Creation requires a limitation of reality through distinctions, for only when something is NOT everything, that something has unique meaning. Only when a pot is not indivisible clay does it stand out as a creation. Only when we claim the distinction “this pot” do we make it stand out from all the other pots in existence that are not “this pot.” No freedom comes to us by refusing to make distinctions; on the contrary, the poet Tagore tells us that making distinctions is the highest expression of our freedom.

Of all the infinite ways in which you were free to limit reality, you chose a specific one. That choice is the greatest expression of your freedom and aliveness.

Seen this way, the individual ego becomes a canvas on which a painting of creation becomes possible. This is a point of departure from all those philosophies which tell us that nothing but misery arises from the ego. Such philosophies, though wonderful and important in our lives, can sometimes get us trapped in monastic bias: conflating distinction avoidance with freedom.

In some shape or form, such philosophies get us to practice breaking through distinctions and seeing beyond them. This is essential in order to touch a deeper reality. It can also have the unfortunate side-effect of distinction avoidance, where we start thinking that distinctions create bondage, and are therefore to be avoided or not taken seriously. After all, they are a product of our minds, right? When trapped in the monastic bias, we can miss the basic essence of freedom — that it can only find expression through the ‘bonds’ we create for ourselves. To transcend monastic bias, we must allow for distinctions to hold the possibility of the impossible — to take us beyond their limitations.

When we stumble onto wholeness or nothingness through our distinctions, that is when we find beauty and meaning.

Tagore takes on monastic bias through his powerful poem, “I” (or “Ami” in Bengali).

“I”

The color of my consciousness made the emerald green, and the ruby red.
I gazed at the sky, and the light dazzled in the east and the west.
I turned to the rose and exclaimed — ‘it’s beautiful!’ and beautiful it became.

You say, ‘it’s philosophy, not a poetic composition.’ I say, ‘it’s truth, and that makes it poetry.’

This is my proud claim — pride on behalf of the whole of humanity, that only on the canvas of the human ego is drawn the artistic masterpiece of the universe.

The philosophers are negating existence in every breath — muttering ‘No, no, no. Not emerald, not ruby, not light, not rose. Nor I, nor you.’

The infinite, on the other hand, is yearning to perceive its limitless existence within the limits of humanity. That’s called ‘I’.

The act of making distinctions and biting into the fruit of knowledge, fraught as it is with danger, is a tremendous act of creation. When that act of limiting reality directly helps us remember the nature of our own reality, we have evolved from shallow counting to deep counting in a new way. Metaphorically speaking, being rooted only in the tree of life gets us stuck with monastic bias. Being rooted only in the tree of knowledge gets us stuck with label and knowledge bias. The magic happens only when the two trees integrate. It may be the same end point since time immemorial, but the story is always new and we are here for that story. Your story. My story. Our story.

There is an example of such a story of deep counting that all of us know.

The Evolution of Science

Science now bears out that we are all made of the same stuff as stardust, reminding us of our unity in nothingness. This conclusion is tremendous not just because of what it is, but also because of how we got there. In order to reach this conclusion, science had to create strong distinctions that divided an indivisible reality. Every scientific concept you have ever engaged with is a distinction! And through all of those distinctions, created by individual egos and accepted by a community of scientists, we have suddenly arrived at what used to be a mystical conclusion —that we are all made of the same stuff! Even different atoms are really the same stuff vibrating a little differently.

Our ecological understanding shows us how organisms are no longer limited to their apparent boundaries. A tree is not just an independent distinction. When seen in the context of a forest, it is a limb that supports the overall health of the forest organism. Other limbs like fungi interconnect entirely different plant species, and are now known to be essential to old-growth forests.

Life itself is now being understood as an ecosystem of which we are one tiny part. When our own life ends, our own unique identity dissolves, and in that sense, we become nothing. And yet, the material that comprises us gets recycled to support other life — in that sense we truly become everything without distinction. Noted evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins expresses this feeling of being deeply connected to everything and at the same time being aware of our nothingness,

The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living is quite finite.

Science now shows us how, when we pass on, we will either be fish food if our ashes are scattered in a river, or worm food if our body is interred. Either way, it is our destiny to be recycled as food for other life to continue, just as other life forms have turned into our food. All of the million distinctions that helped us see differences so precisely suddenly seem to click in an instant and show us a much greater picture than our own lives — and we are a part of that picture. We couldn’t have put that picture of truth together if those pieces weren’t available to us. What could be more magical than that?


We are now finally ready to define deep counting. Deep counting is that counting which facilitates meaningful experiences for us. An experience is meaningful when it helps us feel the truth about our own nature. You have engaged with zero and infinity in high school. However, that probably didn’t feel like deep counting as the way it was taught may not have revealed a deep truth about your own nature. On the other hand, if the presentation of zero and infinity has struck a chord with you, it is because you must have connected to the truth about your own nature through these concepts. Science’s building blocks have been around for some centuries now. It is only in the latter half of the twentieth century that those building blocks started revealing a holistic picture of the universe with ourselves in it. It was finally possible to start touching deeper truths about our own nature through materialistic science — that is when we started to find science not just purposeful but also meaningful.

This book shares magical stories of deep counting that serve as an antidote to label, knowledge and monastic bias. These stories are stories of integration, where we root ourselves metaphorically in both the tree of life and the tree of knowledge. At these points of integration, distinctions that divide reality can help us transcend those very divisions and touch reality itself. The purpose of those distinctions, and of all counting, is just one:

To take complexity off the table so that we can focus on who we want to be.

The chapters that follow are:

  1. Counting Self
  2. Counting Purpose
  3. Counting Life
  4. Counting Equanimity
  5. Counting Truth

Questions for Reflection

  1. What does meritorious work mean to you?
  2. Where does label bias and knowledge bias come up for you? How does that affect your decision-making?
  3. Where does monastic bias come up for you? How does that affect your decision-making?
  4. How do you relate to deep counting? How did you relate to the idea of zero being the sum of everything when you first learned it in school? How do you relate to it now?
  5. What personal experiences do you have of distinctions that gave you the artistic canvas to touch a truth about your own nature?

Somik Raha holds a PhD in Decision Analysis from Stanford University and is Head of Product at SmartOrg, Inc. From his teenage years, Somik has been fascinated by martial arts and especially Bodhidharma. He first came across the Mahabharata story of the virtuous butcher (Dharmavyadha) through a lecture by Swami Vivekananda on Karma Yoga (the Yoga of Action). The Sufi poetry quoted here was a wonderful gift that the world received from the work of Shabnam Virmani (and Linda Hess) in her album Kabir in Pakistan (CD 1 Track 4), where the couplets were performed by Qawwali singer Farid Ayaz. Thanks to Aryae Coopersmith, author of Holy Beggars, for providing guidance on Jewish mysticism. Thanks to the Awakin Dialog group for discussing this chapter and providing great feedback. This excerpt is from a book on counting that Somik is working on. To be notified of future chapters, please click on Follow. Other chapters are here.

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