Author Archives: ericgerlach79

About ericgerlach79

Gerlach is German and rhymes with bear-lock, like a bear that has you in a bearhug or a headlock. I was born and raised in the Haight Ashbury of San Francisco, moved to Berkeley for college and grad school, and now teach Philosophy and the history of human thought at Berkeley City College. I have taught Intro Philosophy, Ethics, Logic, Asian Philosophy, Greek Philosophy, Modern European Philosophy and Social & Political Philosophy there for the past 9 years, and it has been the joy of my life.

Itsy & The Infinite Web 5: Life Is Like A Tool & Toy

As Itsy continued on and on again, the clouds began to clear and a tower appeared in the distance, the first thing other than jungle and fog on the horizon.  “If the apes aren’t there, I just might sight them from the top tier”, Itsy said to herself. “Hopefully they invite observations up there.”

As she slid above the treetops towards the tower a road began snaking beneath her, and further up the road she could see someone leading a small child by the hand in the same direction.  Itsy slid up alongside them, an old swan wrapped in a thick coat and glasses leading a very small and very happy duckling by the hand.

“Hi,” said Itsy yet again.  “Are you both going to that tower by chance?”

“Do you mean to say the laboratory?” suggested the swan.  “If so, then yes we are, but also if so no, we’re going there deliberately, by choice, not mere chance.”

SPIDER!” cried the duckling with delight as she tried to clasp Itsy between her two out and up-stretched hands.  Itsy slid upward and out of the child’s reach, as she did not feel much like being held or worse. “The Sha Mom was right,” Itsy thought to herself silently.  “Between things isn’t always fitting.”

JOY!” scolded the swan, pushing her round glasses up her bill.  “We do not hold strangers we just met in our hands!”  She pulled a toy boat from under her coat and handed it to the hand of the child she wasn’t holding.  “Here.  This should keep you busy until we reach our proper destination.  Life is much like a sailing ship, you know.”

The small duck studied the toy on all sides, turning it over and around with some interest, then she smiled and held it over her tiny head.  “I can BREAK IT!

“Yes, you can…” cautioned the swan, pulling a small hammer from under her coat, “but IF you break it, THEN you have to fix it,” and she let go of the duckling’s wing and handed her the hammer.  “What breaks up in the morning must be hammered down by nightfall.”

The child studied the tool and toy in wide-eyed silence.  Then her face lit up, and she held the hammer over her head.  “We could use the TOOL to BREAK IT!

The swan snatched the hammer back.  “JOY!  This is not a toy!  It is a serious tool.”  She put the hammer back in her coat and turned to Itsy.  “She’s always breaking things, and I’m always fixing them for her.  She learns, but not the things she’s taught. By the way, I am pleased to meet acquaintances, so we should be properly acquainted.  I myself am Prudence, pleased to meet you in appropriate measure, and this little one here is Joy, still a bit rough around the edges but not entirely unpleasant.”

“I’m Itsy, and pleased to meet you both.”  Itsy bowed. “So what do they do in that laboratory?”

“What don’t they do?” asked Prudence.  “It’s the largest thing in sight, and I hear they give free tours.  It is both important and imperative to show the young and undisciplined what detail and dedication can do.”

“Seeing things getting done would be a pleasant change of pace,” admitted Itsy.  “ I think I will freely join you on this tour.”

YAY!  We’re going with a SPIDER!” cried Joy.

“I’m glad you approve,” said Itsy.

Prudence eyed Joy with clear disapproval.  “Oh, don’t mind her. Everything makes her happy.  It can be quite infuriating at times.”

O__________________________________________O

Itsy & The Infinite Web 4: Too True & The Standing Consensus

Itsy dove over the cliff and down through the fog, into the valley below.  Yet again she saw more, not a pile and two but a circle of four. A small flock of sheep, if four makes a flock, stood out in a field enwrapped in a passionate conversation.  The grass was finely trimmed around them, which was odd as Itsy couldn’t see any trimmers.

“Hello there, small spider!” said the first sheep with a friendly smile.  “We are attempting to form a standing consensus. We’ve never accomplished it, in spite of all our efforts.”

“Of course, we’ve never really tried,” said the second, smugly.

TOO TRUE!” cried the third with unqualified joy.

“We’ve been trying for a long time now,” said the fourth with great frustration, glaring at the second.  The second simply continued to smug, as if he didn’t notice.

Ignoring the others completely, the first continued.  “To form a consistent consensus, we must figure out who is a fool, who is a liar, and exclude them from the group.  Then we will not only possess a consensus, but one that includes neither fools nor liars. That’s very important for a content consensus, no matter the form or content of consent.”

The second scoffed.  “Well, we all know that I could never lie, myself.”

TOO TRUE!” cried the third.

Any of us could be a liar, just as any of us could be a fool,” declared the fourth.  “Perhaps more than one of us, each.”

“Certainly,” agreed the first.  “That sounds civil.”

The second bared his teeth at the fourth.  “ONLY A LIAR WOULD SAY THAT!” he bleated, pulled a pistol from his wool, and shot the fourth dead.  There was swift silence as the first stared in horror and the gunsmoke drifted off into the wind.

TOO TRUE!” cried the third a third time.

The first nervously stared at the perforated fourth.  “Well, I guess he was the liar, and that would make me the fool!  Ha! Heh.” He did a silly little dance as best he could.  “Please don’t shoot me.”

The second raised the gun happily skyward, and put his arm around the third.  “You’re perfectly safe! Just as long as we have our consensus to stand in!”

TOO…” began the third.

“That’s quite enough,” the second interrupted.  “We heard you the first few times.”

Itsy began to slide away.  “Well, I’d better be going again.”

The first looked tearfully at Itsy.  “Oh… Don’t go!  You’ve said nothing so far, which is entirely my fault, and if you stay, I’ll agree with anything you say, I swear!”

“No, I’ve seen this all before, countless times by my count, and I have further fools to find, I fear,” said Itsy over her shoulder as she slid away once again.

The second beamed at Itsy, waving goodbye with the smoking gun.  “Remember, we’ve never really tried!”

“Yes, we’ve all heard you before,” said Itsy.  “It’s an often and popular heard mentality.”

As Itsy left she could hear the second say, “Now look, we three can do this one of two ways.  The easy way is hard, but its over really quick.  The hard way is easy, but it never really ends.  Unfortunately, we’ll have to kill a lot of folks.  Fortunately, none of them will be us.”

O_______________O

Itsy & The Infinite Web 3: Anywhere To Any There

As Itsy crested over a tree-covered hill, she saw a fox in a hat and another in his fur both perched beside a pile of supplies overlooking a chasm filled with thick fog.

 

“Greetings!” said the hatted.  “I wonder if you might assist us.  We are building a bridge from here to THERE.”  He pointed off into the fog, towards nothing Itsy could see.

“Yeah, and we could knock it over, but we’ve made other finer, fancier plans!” said the other, beaming at his hatted brother.

“Yes, as amusing as that might be,” said the hatted, “we’ve decided the bridge should stand properly, at least for some decent length of time.”

“Yeah, at least until we get to THERE,” said the unhatted with a confident nod of his head.

“Where?” asked Itsy, shading her eight eyes with her favored leg and scanning the horizon, seeing nothing beyond the jungle and fog.

THERE!” they cried and pointed, together in the same direction.

“And what will you do when you get to this “there”?” asked Itsy.

The two looked at each other, confused, then together at Itsy, then off into the fog in widely and wildly different directions.

“We’ll build another bridge… back to HERE!” the unhatted triumphantly volunteered.

“No, certainly not,” said the hatted.  “We’ll already have done that!”

“Oh… yeah…” the unhatted admitted.

The hatted looked at the other annoyed, then at Itsy.  “Look here!  We’re not going to get this bridge built if we all just stand around speculating.”

“I’m not building anything anymore,” said Itsy, “not with anyone, two or three even.  I built my web, by myself, over an over-long time, and now I go wherever I please, letting others build whatever they want.  It’s plenty for me to go on.”

“Must be nice!” said the unhatted.  “Going THERE whenever you please, and back HERE again whenever you don’t!”

“It certainly sounds divine,” agreed the hatted.  “Perhaps when we two get over to THERE, you’ll be THERE with us too!”

 

Itsy looked at them both, quite confused.  “I don’t go merely HERE and THERE, but anywhere, to any there!”

“Wait, where?” said the unhatted, clearly puzzled.  “There’s no wheres other than THERE and HERE!

“Actually, there are many wheres,” said Itsy.  “I’m doubtless they’re countless.”

Really!” said the hatted, clearly intrigued, stroking his trimmed whiskers with interest.  “Then if we build our bridge… over-long,” he looked over to Itsy to check his correctness, “we will not only get THERE, but another THERE beyond THAT!

“Now, hold on for one fine and fancy minute!” said the unhatted, panicked. “I’m not so sure and certain I want to leave HERE now!”

“Well, we certainly have to get somewhere,” reasoned the hatted.

WHY?!?” screamed the other, clutching his hatless head with both hands in sheer terror.

“Now, now, and here, here,” said the fox in said hat.  “Everyone knows the world works a particular way, therefore we work a particular way.  It’s common logic.”

“Does the world really work?” asked the other.  “It just sits around, really.”

“The world works because it has purpose!” insisted the hatted.  “Rocks have purposes! Pillars have purposes! It’s only up, or THERE, from HERE!  There’s no need for downtime!  A bit of work will cheer you up!  Let’s start with a pillar, a fine and firm foundation!”

The other fox thought this over in silence, then turned to the pile, dragged out a pillar and placed it squarely in the direction of THERE.  “Pillar in place,” he affirmed.

“And, let’s add a beam!” said the hatted fox with a renewed confidence in their common project.

The other sulked back to the pile, found a beam, dragged it and lifted it onto the pillar, though slowly.  “Beam, balanced,” he said in a lower voice than before.

“And, to ceremoniously complete the first section of what I am sure will be a monumental bridge, we must have a slab!” the hatted cried with delight.  “Something to support our walking weight.”

The other turned and stared at pile, then shuffled over to drag out a slab, but instead of balancing it on top of the beam, he laid down on the slab looking hopelessness, and said nothing.

 

The hatted looked mad.  “What, do you gather, is the problem?”

“I don’t think I’m going to gather anymore,” said the fox without coverage.  “Why should I bring you a slab? What’s my motivation?  Why should a slab determine my existence?”

“Because without work there is no purpose, and without purpose there is no sustenance, and without sustenance there is no existence,” said the fox from the shade of his hat.

“Well, if I keel over and die, at least there’s this slab,” said the other.

“This is serious!” said the hatted.  “We must proceed with the series!”

“I don’t see why,” said the other from the comfort of his slab.

“If we’ve already begun, we must somehow agree!” said the hatted.

“I don’t recall us agreeing to anything, other than getting to THERE,” said the other.

“It is imperially imperative,” the hatted growled, “that we build one bridge to SOMEWHERE!

“Why a bridge?” asked the other.  “Why not a tower, or a tunnel, or a shallow trench to die in?”

“Because there is a serious and proper way to do things!” said the orderer.

The orderly stroked his whiskers, then shook his head.  “That doesn’t seem entirely clear.”

The hatted clenched his teeth.  “There’s only one way to do one and two: One and one are two,” he said, pointing first to himself with one paw, then to the other with the other, then bringing the two together like a little bridge that illustrated his point quite nicely.  “At least we agree with that!”

“I’ve heard one and one can be three, if you’re not careful,” said the fox on the slab.  “Sometimes one and nothing are one, and other times one and nothing are ten, and sometimes they’re even nothing at all, if you stack ‘em right.”

ARE YOU GOING TO BUILD THIS WAY WITH ME OR NOT?” the hatted shot back.

The reclined crossed his arms on his chest and declined.  “Convince me.”

“Well, isn’t this a kick in the two on all fours!” spat the hatted, unhatting himself in frustration.  He twisted his hat back and forth in his hands as if he didn’t know what to do with it, then slowly put it back on his head and gathered himself.  “Let’s start again, as we haven’t started much yet. Let us agree that one and two are three.”

Maybe,” said the other at rest.

“Oh, come on,” said the rehatted.  “If I have one thing, and you have two, then we certainly and unquestionably have three between us!”

“What if one gets lost or broken?” said the other, sitting up, who eyed his own other with narrowing suspicion. “Even worse, what if something is stolen?”

“If we both work together, that shouldn’t happen,” said the fox with both hands on his hat.

PROVE IT!” said the fox who stood up from his slab.

“Well, I suppose I should get going,” said Itsy.  She figured this back and forth would last a very long time or a terribly short one.  “I have things to find and do once I find them, but I’ll be happy to see your bridge, tower or trench if you reach an agreement.”

Itsy slid onward into the fog beyond, leaving the two and the hat and the slab behind, unsure if she would ever see any again.  “I have no more time to give an opposed pair of fox and must be on my way and my web.”

O_______________O

Itsy & The Infinite Web 2: The Welcoming Jungle

2: The Welcoming Jungle

As Itsy squinted through all of her eyes she saw someone sitting in a clearing next to a faded tent and a roaring fire.  She decided it was a good place to start what could be, in her mind, an endless investigation. Itsy dropped into the clearing between the trees and lowered herself from above in front of the unknown individual who huddled beneath a patchwork blanket.

“Hi,” said Itsy again, for the first time.  “I’m wondering if you could help me, stranger.”

The stranger looked up and saw Itsy, and Itsy saw that the stranger was a platypus, which was stranger than Itsy’s expectations.

“That depends on what kind of help you’re asking,” offered the platypus.  “I’d imagine spiders don’t need more eyes, but I’m happy to lend an ear or two.”

Suddenly from the tent there arose such a sound, like an unending number of babies crying.

“Excuse me for a few millennia,” the platypus said, and quickly ducked into the tent.  The crying stopped just as suddenly as it had started, and she returned covered head to toe in eggs and babies carried in slings of all sorts, colors and patterns.  “Sorry,” she apologized. “They are being so fussy today.  I’ve heard you spiders carry babies on your backs.  As you can see, my babies have my back, my front, and every other side of me.  I have forward, rear and side mounted children. They go off in all directions,” she said with a tired smile, then narrowed her eyes and frowned.  “Hold on,” she said, and shook herself, twisting slowly from side to side. “I think I’m missing one or two.”

The multiple mother whirled around, and behind her Itsy could see a baby platypus making its way on all four flat feet as fast as it could, which wasn’t very fast at all, towards the welcoming jungle.  “Oh no, you don’t!” she said, sliding her own flat foot under the infant, flipping the soon-to-be ex-escapee up into the air and catching it in one of her colorful slings alongside the others, “and no, you didn’t!”  She shook herself slowly again. “I’m pretty sure that’s all of them. My babies are all very smart, so I have to keep a good lookout. You have to watch the smart babies. They crawl with extra efficiency towards their intended target.”  She looked up at Itsy, as if she had been talking to herself. “By the way, I didn’t catch your name.”

“I’m Itsy,” said the spider.

“Hey, Itsy.  How is it?” asked the platypus.  “I’m the Sha Mom.”

Itsy looked around the vast jungle surrounding them. “So, what do you do out here all together?”

“I tell them stories,” said the Sha Mom.  “Then I tell them stories about the stories.  That takes up most of our time when I’m not foraging and they’re not feeding.  I just finished telling the story about the lizard that hatched from an egg and was all alone in the wide, dangerous world.  I was about to start the story of the mouse that led the mice against the cat. Sometimes I tell them stories that sound true, and sometimes taller tales that don’t sound true but are good to tell anyways.  Sometimes fakelore makes the best folklore.”

“I don’t really have time for stories, fake or otherwise,” said Itsy.  “I’ve heard that there’s an itch in the area, and I might need to deal with apes.”

“An itch and apes somewhere?  That could be a good story!” said the Sha Mom.  “It seems like you have to deal with apes everywhere you go, right?  I’ll have to add your story to the oral tradition if you meet a decent ending.  

I haven’t had to deal with a serious itch for a bit now myself.  I wouldn’t know where to find one, but I’ve heard someone is doing something and going somewhere over there,” she said and pointed past Itsy into the jungle.  “A hearing isn’t as good as a seeing though, you know?  I prefer to see things… all kinds of things. I have visions, prophecies, ideas, and theories.  Most of the time, I see the ways that things work or don’t between things.”

“I’m typically between things myself, on my web,” said Itsy.  “That’s where I’m most comfortable.”

“Sometimes, between things is fine.  Other times, it is not,” said the Sha Mom, shaking her head slowly and sadly.  “You really have to wait and see. It reminds me of a funny story about what seems like nothing turning out to be something, but that story reminds me of a sadder story about what seems like something turning out to be nothing.”  She squinted up at the sun, then shielded her eyes and checked the perimeter.

“So, you believe half of what you see,” asked Itsy, “but some, or even none, of what you hear?”

The Sha Mom looked Itsy in all her eyes, and said, “As long as my eggs hatch and my babies survive, I’ll believe in anything.  I’ll believe in anything or anybody I see, until I see otherwise. Understand, spider?”

“Completely understandable,” said Itsy.  “I think I’ll be on my way. Thanks for everything.”

“Everything?” said the Sha Mom with a duck-billed grin.  “You haven’t seen anything yet.  Not any of the things around here, anyways.”

Itsy waved goodbye to the Sha Mom and slid off into the jungle on her web in the direction she was given, having little else to go on.  Sometimes, Itsy figured, when we or others have little else to go on, it makes sense to divide things into different parts and sift between the pieces.

Itsy & The Infinite Web 1: Seeing The Elephant

1: Seeing the Elephant

Several times upon a time, upon a time, upon another, not this time here, or the time you’re probably thinking of, but the other time, two times over, where everything interesting is, Itsy B. Spider lived on a web between things, much like the times.  To the untrained independent observer, Itsy slid through the air on invisible connections between between each and all of the very visible things.  Sometimes she was between good and great, and other times she was between a rock and a hard place, but most of the time she was between these two and other interesting ends.  Because everything is similar to but different from every-other-thing in endless ways, Itsy could go anywhere and meet anybody, which she often did for little to no reason at all.

As it happened, Itsy was between bored and tears when she came across an enormous elephant, larger than some but perhaps not the largest, who was floating in space without any apparent support.  Itsy slid slowly up to the elephant’s giant silent eye and said, “Hi”.

The eye slowly opened, and found Itsy.

“Hey there, tiny spider!” bellowed the elephant with a voice that shook the empty space surrounding them.  “It’s good to see you, or anybody really, as I’ve been floating here by myself for awhile and could really use someone’s support.  Someone, I can’t recall who, said that elephants never forget.  I don’t remember you, so I can safely conclude we’ve never met before, but I wonder if you would assist me in something.  Would you, a complete and perfect stranger, assist me in something?”

“I’m far from complete, and nowhere near perfect, but what seems to be the problem?” inquired Itsy.  “I’ve got all kinds of this time.”

“I have an itch, but I can’t seem to reach it.  It feels a lot like apes, which I’ve had before and never forgot.  Did I mention to you that elephants never forget?  I’m not sure if elephants can get apes more than once!  You are teeny, tiny and small, so you can get places I can’t, places that are mine even.  Would you kindly check out this place on my back that I can’t quite reach?” asked the elephant, stretching his trunk over his head and as far up his back as he could.

“Sure!” said Itsy.  “I’ll have a look or two.  I’ve been almost everywhere and seen almost everything, except Antarctica.  I’ll analyze your problem rationally and logically, then synthesize it irrationally and illogically, and then come to a conclusion somewhere in between.”

“Whatever works,” yawned the elephant.  “Whatever sails your ship and saves it from sinking.”

Itsy slid down and down a strand of her web along the ever-widening elephant’s back until she could no longer see the elephant at all.  As she approached the vast surface beneath her, the clouds thickened and the air became hot and humid.  After a long, declining and dampening slide, Itsy broke through the cloud cover to find a vast jungle spread out before her.

“There’s a whole world down here”, said Itsy silently to herself as we sometimes do before saying the same things to others.

The welcoming jungle did not respond, but it certainly awaited.

 

O_______________O

The Long Buddha Shortened: The Supreme Net

This is the first in a series of my distillations of the Long Discourses of the Buddha (the Digha Nikaya), the Buddha’s original teachings shortened for easy reading.

In the first of the Long Discourses, the Brahmajala Sutta (The Supreme Net), the Buddha is traveling with 500 monks from town to town, and unwittingly followed by Suppiya, a teacher who criticizes the Buddha, and Brahmadatta, Suppiya’s student who praises the Buddha.  It seems that positive and negative opinions and arguments about the Buddha follow him and his followers wherever they go.  They all stop for a night at a park with shade and water provided by royalty and guarded with  a wall for travelers to rest along their way.  In the morning, followers of the Buddha were talking about how wonderful it is for the Buddha to be aware of the varied opinions that follow him.

The Buddha hears them and says that they should not be angry with anyone who criticizes him, his teachings or his followers, as this will hold them back and prevent them from seeing if the criticism is right or wrong.  Rather, they should explain what is wrong with the criticism.  Similarly, they should not be pleased by those who give praise, as that will also hold them back.  Rather, they should explain what is right with the praise.  The Buddha says that only foolish, worldly people praise him for abandoning violence, sex, lies, entertainment, luxury, property, and servants, for doing the right thing and saying the right thing at the right time and to the right extent.  Only foolish, worldly people criticize his opponents, such as the Hindu Brahmins, for acting in ways that lead to addiction and destruction, speaking about useless things, claiming to know what others do not in debate, running errands for those in power or misleading others with expert advice and fortune telling.  

Rather, there are other things that are hard to see and beyond ordinary thought that the wise can know that do deserve praise.  Neither discipline nor reason can reveal these things.  The particular knowledge that these practices reveal leads to further birth and death, but being unattached to this itself is to know true peace and freedom.  Each time the world is reborn, God (Brahma) becomes lonely and creates the other gods and beings.  Later, those who seek wisdom beyond the home discover that things are impermanent, pleasure is addictive and logical reasoning gives stability to the ideas of the mind, and they split into those who believe that the self and world are permanent and those who do not (“Eternalists and Non-Eternalists”, also the “Infinitists and Finitists”).

Some argue that things are permanent, others that things are impermanent, others that things are both permanent one way but impermanent another, and others that things are neither in any particular way.  (These are the Catuskoti of Nagarjuna.)  Similarly there are those who debate whether we know what is good or bad, those who debate whether or not there is life after death in another world beyond this one, those who debate whether things happen by chance or necessity, and those who debate whether enlightenment and freedom are here now or somewhere else.

These “wriggly eels” on each side evade questions in debate that they can’t answer.  Those who take one side against the other do not see the fear and chaos that makes them and the other cling to one side, nor do they see that clinging to one side will not bring them peace or safety, but merely trap them in a vast, intricate net, like a fish too large to swim between the knots.  When anyone sees what is beyond all these sides, they see what only the wise can see, the supreme net of all possibly viewpoints and the superior victory over all battles.