The Ephemeral Cyborg


The Szpilman Award is awarded to works that exist only for a moment or a short period of time.
The purpose of the award is to promote such works whose forms consist of ephemeral situations.  Szpilman Award

I first became aware of the Szpilman Award a couple of years ago. I found the concept interesting but up until now haven’t been able to organize myself to execute a project for it, and to then submit an application.  First prize includes a 10 day trip to Cimochowizna, Poland, a village in a Polish national park.

Saturday, I sent in my application based on my recent Post #74.

The selection of past winners of the Award have shown the jury to be every bit the quirky bunch one might expect in such a project.  So any application constitutes an improbability at the outset.

Adding to this for me and my poor damaged brain, making such a trip would entail managing a sensory assault and overload I can barely imagine. It could only result from the realization of a set of cascading improbabilities that in itself would result in an example of the ephemeral sublime.

This element of sublimity is missing from the Szpliman description, yet it is implicit as the defining feature of art that is eligible for the award.

After all, to the extent that anything exists, it exists ephemerally.  In past posts, I’ve discussed the Buddhist presentation of Emptiness.  The causes and conditions supporting an object or process are all always changing, are ephemeral, as is their result – the object or process.

The view-point and the time scale one uses in considering something determines whether it seems to exist for a long or short time.  Seen from the perspective of cosmic time, all of human existence is ephemeral.

The implicit presence of this kind of time scale as backdrop is what makes the “short time” of the ordinary sense of ephemeral mean something worth mentioning at all.

I wonder, for example how much of the experience of the users of ephemeral social media includes some sense of the sublime.  Does a cyborg using Snapchat experience a glimpse of cosmic time hitting Send?

The Legal Cyborg

The recent unanimous US Supreme Court decision, Riley v California, ruled that police need a  warrant to search the cell phones of those they arrest.  At issue was whether or not searches of the cell phone of an arrested person was a search incident to the arrest.  Such searches are allowable because they can find objects harmful to the safety of the arresting officer, and prevent the destruction of evidence.  The Court found that neither concern applied to information accessible by cell phones and that police should obtain warrants to authorize such searches.

This is of course an important finding, but my purpose here is to look at some of the ideas about communication technology embedded in the decision.  The most obvious example and widely quoted is the following.

mmw_newspaper[1]These cases require us to decide how the search incident to arrest doctrine applies to modern cell phones, which are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.

While undoubtedly an attempt at humor, the “visitor from Mars” mistaking a cell phone for a body part also introduces the concept of the cyborg, the hybrid of human and machine.  Is it too much to speculate that our Supreme Court Justices are Anxious Cyborgs too?

Cell phones differ in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense from other objects that might be kept on an arrestee’s person. The term “cell phone” is itself misleading shorthand; … One of the most notable distinguishing features of modern cell phones is their immense storage capacity. Before cell phones, a search of a person was limited by physical realities and tended as a general matter to constitute only a narrow intrusion on privacy.

I read “physical realities” here as shorthand as “non-digitally coded” realities.  The decision goes onto to discuss the file cabinets etc that one would have to cart around to have at immediate disposal the information accessible with a cell phone.

Finally, there is an element of pervasiveness that characterizes cell phones but not physical records. Prior to the digital age, people did not typically carry a cache of sensitive personal information with them as they went about their day. Now it is the person who is not carrying a cellphone, with all that it contains, who is the exception. According to one poll, nearly three-quarters of smart phone users report being within five feet of their phones most of the time, with 12% admitting that they even use their phones in the shower.

I find identifying the pervasiveness and intimacy of cell phone use especially significant.  It may begin to begin to recognize “cyborg” as a legal meaning of “person”.

Alexis Dyschkant writes about the legal importance of establishing the boundary of a person when determining if one has been wrongfully contacted.

 Historically, “one’s person” has been limited to “one’s natural body” and some, but not all, artificial attachments to one’s natural body.  The cyborg, a creature composed of artificial and natural parts, challenges this conception of a “person” because it tests the distinction between the natural body and an artificial part.  Artificial objects, such as prosthetics, are so closely attached to bodies as to be considered a part of one’s person.  However, claiming that personhood extends to things attached to our natural bodies oversimplifies the complicated interrelation between natural objects and artificial objects in the cyborg.  If our person is no longer limited to our natural body, then we must understand personhood in a way that includes the cyborg.  I argue that the composition of a body does not determine the composition of a person.  One’s person consists to the extent of one’s agency.  Cyborgs: Natural Bodies, Unnatural Parts, and the Legal Person

I doubt the Justices intended Riley to redefine the boundaries of a person as the boundaries of one’s agency.  However, their arguments based on pervasiveness and intimacy do, I argue, move in that direction.

In a Buddhist context, I have argued in the past that many people experience their communication devices as a part of the illusion of an inherently existing self.  There  I suggested extending traditional mediations on establishing the boundaries of this illusion to include cell phones for example.

For the cyborg, this meditation could be expanded to include the artifacts of technology that she has aggregated into his experience of self.  For instance, many people might experience the theft or malicious destruction of their cell phone as an assault.  Some may relate to the field of information their communication technology produces as a part of their inherently existing self. The Negated Cyborg

Dyschkant echoes and extends this meditation, creating a vision of personhood eventually eliminating the idea of mediation and consisting entirely of agency.

What the cyborg shows us is that the body can be composed of any kind of part but the person is necessarily the agent which controls, benefits from, and depends upon these parts.  Human tissue, animal tissue, or mechanical “tissue” all allow a person to exercise their agency and interact with the world.  The type of body which a person controls need not be relevant.  Hence, determining when one has made contact with “the person of another” does not necessarily depend on the naturalness or composition of one’s body, but on the relationship between the object contacted and the person’s agency.  We can imagine a technologically advanced future in which people retain control over parts detached entirely from their body or in which one’s person is dispersed across great spaces.

Perhaps at some point the concept of a legal person begins to break down.  Perhaps then the Buddhist idea of non-self, of the negation of an inherently existing self, becomes codified into law.

The Emptiness of Wang Wei

Karen recently gave me 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei.  This small book is a compilation of 19 translations of Wang Wei’s (7th century Chinese poet) poem, Deer Park,  alongside an essay by Eliot Weinberger, and a concluding essay by Octavio Paz.  This helped deepen my appreciation for Wang, and motivated me to attempt to transduce the poem myself.

Transduce seems a better word than translation for what I’m doing. It is an attempt to transform a distant literary energy to a local one. It follows in the footsteps of Ezra Pound’s Cathay poems.  As Paz points out, referring to a TS Eliot remark, Ezra Pound invented Chinese poetry in English.  He did this without in fact knowing any Chinese, but working from, as I am here, literal translations.

Here are the literal and poetic translations from Chinese Poems.

Deer Enclosure

Empty hill not see person
Yet hear person voice sound
Return scene enter deep forest
Duplicate light green moss on

Hills are empty, no man is seen,
Yet the sound of people’s voices is  heard.
Light is cast into the deep forest,
And shines again on green moss.

The literal translation of the title’s second word is fence or enclosure, which Chinese Poems uses. The title is most often rendered in English as Deer Park.  Weinberger says this is probably a reference to the site of Buddha’s enlightenment.   Robert Okaji titles his version of the poem Deer Sanctuary, which I think is the best version if one decides the poem is not primarily a Buddhist one.

However, I think it clearly is.  As I noted in a previous post, Wang closely associated himself with the Vimalakirti Sutra, which discusses Emptiness with the bodhisattva Manjushri .  Wang also studied Buddhism for 10 years with the Chan master Daoguang.

Chinese symbol for “empty”
Then we get to the first line.  How are we to understand empty?  It seems an odd word choice on its own.  Do we retain it?  Most trans(lators)(ducers) do keep it or render it as some version of lonely, or uninhabited.  I have to wonder if Wang meant something like either of those why didn’t he just say so?

This suggests to me that Wang’s emptiness might be just what I mean when discussing Buddhist Emptiness.  On the other hand, contemporary use of emptiness for sunyata may just be an artifact of translation choices of early translators of Buddhist texts to English.

Without too much effort I found these passages.

The word kong is among Wang Wei’s favorite descriptive word and frequently occurs in his nature poems.  It is also the standard Chinese translation for one of the key concepts of Mahayana Buddhism -” emptiness” (Skt. sunyata).

The Chan Interpretation of Wang Wei’s Poetry: A Critical Review by Jingqing Yang


What is an empty mountain?  Clearly it is not barren as we are informed there  is a “deep forest” there. Kong is the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit term sunyata.  Primarily the term is a negation – a denial that phenomenon have self existence – that is permanence independent of causes and conditions.

How To Read Chinese Poetry: A Guided Anthology edited by Zong-qi Cai  (C10.6 Recent Style Shi Poetry. The Deer Fence Wang Wei) by Charles Egan

So in my transduction, I sought to covey a sense of this Buddhist Emptiness in the first line.  To do so in the economical style of the poem is quite a challenge.  I don’t think I quite succeeded but it’s a start.

The other part of the poem that trans(lators)(ducers) have difficultly with is the last line.  Weinberger’s literal translation provides more nuance than the Chinese Poetry’s bare bones approach.

To return/Again  to shine/to reflect  green/blue/black  moss/lichen above/on (top of)/top

As I see the scene, sunlight re-illuminates the forest floor generally, and the moss specifically, which reflects in a figurative sense the brightly lit forest canopy above.  I have not encountered quite this interpretation of the last line in my reading so far.

I plan to keep at this.  I’m take the following as my first version, the start of a path, a variation on my ongoing practice of Emptiness Yoga.

Deer Park

Contingent mountain, unseen people,
Voices like an echo.
Again sun lights the forest floor,
The green moss, the canopy above.


Code has provided the informational matrix for space in my recent code/space posts.  While I still have a lot of ground to cover there, I thought it would be interesting to approach the question of space from the matrix of a Buddha.

In Buddhist literature, the Matrix-Of-The-One-Gone-Thus is frequently intertwined with space.  I touched on this in a  previous post discussing Buddhist space. As with just about everything, different flavors of Buddhism treat space in somewhat different ways.  As I have in my previous Buddhist posts, I will be mainly talking about the Gelugpa school’s interpretation.

The Verse Summary of the Perfection of Wisdom is one of the oldest of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras.  In this passage, one who has in effect, directly perceived Emptiness, sees the dharma (in this context, sees the way things are) as if she were seeing space itself.

The One-Gone-Thus teaches that one who does not see forms,
Does not see feelings, does not see discriminations,
Does not see intentions, does not see
Consciousness, mind, or sentience sees the dharma.
Analyze how space is seen as in the expression
By sentient beings in words, “Space is seen.”
The One-Gone-Thus teaches that seeing the dharma is also like that.
The seeing cannot be expressed by another example.

Verse Summary of the Perfection of Wisdom translated by Jeffrey Hopkins in Final Exposition of Wisdom works by  Tsong-Ka-Pa edited and translated by Hopkins

Emptiness is a non-affirming negation.  It establishes the inherently existing self as the object to be negated, but does not explicitly affirm anything in its place.

This approach negates inherent existence without inadvertently positing some kind of essential entity, or ground of existence.  Extending this, space then becomes a metaphor for the Mind perceiving Emptiness.  In Emptiness Yoga, Jeffrey Hopkins writes “space [is] the non-affirming negative that is the mere elimination of any obstructive tangibility”. (371)

Common usage certainly includes this alternate sense of “space”.  We could reformulate “I need my space” as “I am experiencing you as an obstruction to my optimal functioning.  Get lost.”  Buddha/space takes this non-obstructiveness as the defining characteristic of space, not as an intellectual exercise, but rather as the felt experience of the way things are.

If the mind that has voidness as its object thinks intellectually, “This is ‘noninherent existence.’ I have found ‘noninherent existence.’ This absence that is the nullification of what is to be refuted is ‘voidness,’” this is referred to as “setting voidness out at a distance.” This will not do. The mind that has voidness properly as its object is a decisive piercing of the mere nullification itself. In other words, with the understanding, from the depths of our heart, that things do not exist at all like they appeared a while back, the mind taking voidness as its object completely pierces the sphere of this mere nullification like a spear piercing a target. A mind that does that is totally absorbed on voidness which is like space.

H. H. the Dalai Lama and Berzin, Alexander. The Gelug/Kagyü Tradition of Mahamudra.   Online excerpt.

This lack of obstacles, space, becomes a metaphor for the spacious awareness that encounters no obstacles in its efforts to bring all sentient beings to enlightenment which is itself, spacious awareness.

See also The Whole Is Greater Than the Part (Part 1)

The Whole Is Grater Than the Part (Part 2)

Cyborg Sky Burial

Two years ago I wrote briefly about the Tibetan funerary custom of sky burial.  Now, the vultures again circle my neighborhood, swooping within a few feet of my bedroom window before taking their perches in the Norway pines next door.

So I wonder, what hybrid  being can take their place for the Buddhist cyborg? What chimera  has the appetite not only for blood and tissue and organs, but plastic, wire, silicon and rare earth metals?

How can we collect the cyborg’s data, dispersed in sky obscuring clouds, and place it in the cyborg charnel ground with our animal bodies?

Machik Labdron developed the Buddhist practices of Chod in the 11th Century.  Chod is a set of Vajrayana practices that use the visualization of one’s own death, dismemberment, and the feeding of the parts to demons.  Chod is then, the spiritual equivalent to watching one’s own sky burial.  The point of the exercise was explained by Jamon Kautrul in the 19th Century:

It [Chod] is a radical method for cutting through the inflation of ego-fixation through the willingness to accept what is undesirable, the disregard of difficult circumstances, the realization that gods and demons are one’s own mind, and the understanding that oneself and others are utterly equal.

Jamon Kontrol quoted in the Introduction to  Machic’s Complete Understanding translated and edited by Sarah Harding

Machik combined shamanic practices prevalent at the time with Buddhism.  What cyborg practices do we combine with Buddhism now to give us the opportunity to develop the radical compassion Machik sought to teach us?

The Unfindable Cyborg

Identifying an object, person or process requires some kind of framework, classification system, however intuitive or basic.   In The Findable Cyborg , I suggested that this, in the context of a pervasively coded world, means that everything is findable.  At the same time, this radical findability depends on dynamic, permeable, evolving classification systems.  While the objects, persons and processes become pervasively findable, they also manifest a lack of essential identity.

That is to say, what makes the Cyborg (the aggregation of object, person and process) findable as a functional commodity, part of the Heidegger’s Standing Reserve, also makes the Cyborg unfindable as a specific, essentially determined phenomena.

The Seventh Century Buddhist scholar and reputed bodhisattva, Chandrakirti*, deconstructed a chariot in various ways in his Sevenfold Reasoning..  He showed that no matter how one regards the relationship of parts to the whole, in the end, no inherently existing thing “chariot” is to be found.  He summaries his extensive analysis with the following and extends it past a critique of technology to how the self exists.

A chariot is neither asserted to be other than its parts
Nor non-other; it is not asserted to possess them.
It is not in the parts nor are the parts in it.
It is not the mere collection [of the parts] nor is it [their] shape.

Just so [should a yogi understand a person and its aggregates].
It is like a cart, which is not other than its parts,
Not non-other, and does not possess them.
It is not within its parts, and its parts are not within it
It is not the mere collection, and it is not the shape..

For Chandrakirti, the unfindability of the essentially determined chariot  is the same as the unfindability of the essentially determined self-aware self.  For my purposes, this is the same as the unfindability of technology, of the self-aware self and of the Cyborg (the combination of the two), as anything other than objects, persons and processes defined by their function.

This is at the heart, dare I say, the essence, of my continued use of the word Cyborg.  It is to stress the functional nature of an always changing collection of techno-bio aggregates experienced as wholeness.

*Chandrakirti (600-650 CE) was Indian Buddhist scholar whose works are central to the development of the  Prāsaṅgika Madhyamaka view of Emptiness.  Hagiographies of Chandrakirti relate instances of him walking thorough walls to “demonstrate in a concrete and dramatic form the Madhyamaka position that things have no immutable nature of their own.”   Four Illusions Karen C. Lang

The Negated Cyborg

While emptiness’ object of negation is inherent existence, the mere idea of it does little to move one along the Buddhist path.  Traditionally, the process to develop one’s experiential understanding starts with distinguishing two kinds of objects: the self and phenomena.  Of course the self is a phenomenon, but it is one that we are likely to be especially attached to.

Most people experience the phenomenon of the self as inherently existing more vividly than any other.  Even the most ardent deconstructionist or social constructionist, when push comes to shove is likely to exhibit behavior indicating she experiences his self as inherently existing.

Indeed, mapping one’s responses to different negative and positive situations would provide a kind of geography of the self imputed as truly and inherently existent.  The Fifth Dalai Lama wrote an account of this that I find especially compelling.

A tight, firm mind thinking “I” exists in our mental continuums on all occasions of sleep and waking.  However, like a mirror and an image of your face,… when you encounter conditions of happiness and suffering, the mind [misconceiving “I”] manifests very strongly, but on occasions when such conditions are not encountered it is a little unclear…

Therefore, you need a clear notion of pleasure or pain that someone else actually caused you.  If not [occurring now], you should recall a former occurrence of such to the point where it appears clearly to you mind.  For example, if someone [falsely] accused of being a theif…you could have strong hated for this person….At that time, this “I” which is the object of the accusation of theft and which is held tightly and firmly in the center of the heart, seems even as if it can be seen with the eye and grasped with the hand.

Similarly, if another person caused you to achieve a desired aim and you reflect that such and such help was rendered, the “I” that is the object helped appears vibrantly from the center of the heart.  In reliance on you cultivating either of these two modes, the manifest mind thinking “I” causes other coarse thoughts to become dormant.  You should allow the consciousness innately conceiving “I” to increase in strength, then analyze the way the mind conceives the “I”.  – Fifth Dalai Lama [1]

For the cyborg, this meditation could be expanded to include the artifacts of technology that she has aggregated into his experience of self.  For instance, many people might experience the theft or malicious destruction of their cell phone as an assault.  Some may relate to the field of information their communication technology produces as a part of their inherently existing self.  So the cyborg may experience data mining and the Boundless Informant program as a personal assault as well.

Indeed this negated inherently existing cyborg is one of the best proofs of the existence of the contingent, functional cyborg.

[1] Fifth Dalai Lama, Sacred Word of Manjushri. Tanslated by Jeffrey Hopkins, Practice of Emptiness. quoted from Jeffrey Hopkins Tantra Techniques

Related post: Negating Emptiness