A Mahayana Buddhist Analysis of the Themes of Outer Wilds

A Mahayana Buddhist Analysis of the Themes of Outer Wilds

Original article published on my blog here (it’s a bit out of date compared to this post now though): https://justonky.wordpress.com/2021/08/03/a-mahayana-buddhist-analysis-of-the-themes-of-outer-wilds/

This article analyze and contrasts various themes and ideas presented in Outer Wilds through a Mahayana Buddhist lens. My opinions and theological analysis are my own, and do not necessarily reflect any specific schools of Buddhism.

UPDATED to add thoughts on Subjective Idealism vs Quantum Mechanics

Process vs Substance (; or Dynamic Processes vs Static Building Blocks in game design and metaphysics)

In the game design of Outer Wilds, the developers focused on a philosophy of movement and change (both spatially and temporally). The planets of the solar system rotate and orbit, sand flows between the Hourglass Twins, Brittle Hollow breaks apart, and Giant’s Deep toss islands into outer space.

And of course, the stars go supernova one by one and your own Sun explodes.

In philosophy, there is a thing known as Process Metaphysics which is contrasted with Substance Metaphysics.

In Process Metaphysics, phenomena are understood as inherently “empty” of substance. There is no “material” substance or element, no mind element, no essentialist nature or essence to things.

There is no bird-ness that makes a bird a bird, and no men-ness that makes men like men.

It’s tempting for a substantialist to argue that of course the DNA of a bird makes a bird and the Y chromosome makes men like men.

But we know this is not true. Genetics are malleable things, birds are a taxonomic category invented by humans, and gender is a social construct. In truth what makes a bird different from a human, we’re evolving every generation, how can we say what is a bird and what is a cat and what is human except that we’re different phases of changes.

Right now we’re homo sapien, right now that bird is a bird. But millions of years ago, birds and humans had a common ancestor in the Sarcopterygii (the lobe-finned fishes). All tetrapods (mammals, reptiles, birds, and amphibians) did. From a certain point of view, we’re still considered a kind of lobe-finned fish! Anthropocentric constructs do not mean that it is representative of reality. The words we made up to categorize phenomena does not confer upon them a substantial reality. Your average human tends to grasp reality as substances, because it is easy. Be it material (“things are made of atoms”) or religious (“we have souls”) or psycho-social (“men and women have male and female natures”). This kind of thing is strongly rejected by process philosophies.

The things which can be said to be Substance Metaphysics:

  • Greek Elements
  • Newtonian Physics
  • Chemistry
  • Substance Dualism (Christian metaphysics)
  • Substance Monism (Materialism or Idealism)
  • Classical Monotheism
  • Classical Polytheism
  • Essentialism (people who believe in concepts like “true essences”)

The things which can be said to be Process Metaphysics:

  • The Chinese Elements (The Five Processes)
  • Taoism
  • Quantum Mechanics
  • Natural Selection and Evolution
  • Marxism
  • Hegelian Dialectics
  • Process Philosophy
  • Process Theology
  • Aztec Metaphysics

Of course, Buddhism is a process philosophy. It’s core metaphysical ideas are Anatman (no self/soul), Anatta (impermanence), and Dukkha (dissatisfaction due to clinging onto changing reality). These three marks of existence complements the central idea of interdependent origination (that all phenomena are codependent with each other as processes, not as substances).

Several fundamental building blocks of Outer Wilds design jives so well with this particular system of religion. The Outer Wilds forces you to acknowledge the dynamism and movement of phenomena, be it spatially or temporally.

Is the Eye sentient?

Perhaps the Eye wanted to be found (could it be sentient?). Maybe it chose us.

— Ember Twin Eye Shrine district

Yes and no. It depends on which ontological stance is correct. If the materialists are right, then the Universe has no awareness. Even our seeming consciousness is not really real. If the idealists are correct, then the Universe is all mind, even supposedly material things like matter.

The key argument of ontological materialists is that experiential phenomena arises from non experiential phenomena. We have no idea how this is possible. This is known as the Hard Problem of Consciousness.

An argument that attempts to solve the consciousness problem is that all matter has awareness. The extrinsic “material” of the intrinsic “awareness”. This idea is panpsychism, the theory that reality is inherently self-aware, and that our human and animal sentience are derived from the intrinsic consciousnesses of our material building blocks.

What do Buddhists say? First of all, sentience is a quality only sentient beings have. Sentient beings are aggregated (or compounded phenomena), meaning sentience is not normal for phenomena to have unless they’re arranged a certain way. Sentience does not come from souls (souls don’t exist in Buddhist metaphysics).

However, sentience is not the same as awareness. Buddhism would argue that all phenomena have awareness, but not all phenomena have sentience (not without the right conditions).

Basically, all things are alive (in the sense they have awareness), but not all things are equally alive. Some things are more alive than others (humans are generally more alive than rocks).

We should also carefully note that sentience (experience through senses) and sapience (human-like experience) are totally different concepts, and are frequently confused together in popular works of science fiction and fantasy.

Ship of Theseus and Non-Self (; or is the You from a previous Time Loop still you? Is a past life still you? Are the travellers at the end of the game real selves or figments of my imagination?

“Wait, then it’s just our memories being sent back in time to us, right? Then… are we really experiencing multiple time loops, or not? That’s pretty deep… Like, maybe our consciousnesses have been through all these loops, but maybe our bodies haven’t, because technically the loops never happened. Meaning we’re receiving memories of things that will never happen to us. Cool, huh?”— Gabbro

“I learned a lot, by the end of everything. The past is past, now, but that’s… you know, that’s okay! It’s never really gone completely. The future is always built on the past, even if we won’t get to see it. Still, it’s um, time for something new, now.”

— Rieback

Questions like this presupposes that “you” is some kind of substance or soul that exists and can magically continue to be who you are despite changing bodies and even timelines. Buddhism rejects the very self as substantial. The self is a sequence of events, existing interdependently with other aggregates (including the bodily processes). In fact, a sentient being is called a “namarupa” which means “psycho-physio organism”. The mind and the body are a codependent whole.

Taking just your memories and flinging it into the past is basically a new life, but one whose foundations are built on what came before. You inherit the conditions of your previous self, just as we inherit the conditions of our parents and ancestors and the conditions of our culture and economy.

This is how Buddhist Rebirth works. We are continuities of causal events, NOT a soul which magically moves from vessel to vessel. For this reason, Buddhists do not actually believe in reincarnation. We are heirs of our inherited conditions, and that is the case each and every moment. I inherit whatever it was I did a second ago, as I inherit from my own parents.

Of course, what makes me, me? Let’s talk about the Ship Theseus.

In the ancient Greek thought experiment, the Ship of Theseus, a ship has its components slowly changed over time until nothing of the original ship was left. Is that ship still the same ship?For Buddhists, who don’t believe in souls and substances, the answer is, it doesn’t matter.

And yes, this does mean that Solanum and all the Travelers at the Campfire at the end are not figments of your imagination. They might be only parts or echoes of their full persons, but they are still heirs of their own actions and are legitimate continuities of their previous selves.

“I tell you what, this has been really fun. And I got to help make something pretty cool, so I’ve got no complaints. I mean, not me, exactly, but close enough. It’s the kind of thing that makes you glad you stopped and smelled the pine trees along the way, you know?”

— Gabbro

AN 5.57: ‘I am not the only one who is owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator; who — whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir. To the extent that there are beings — past and future, passing away and re-arising — all beings are the owner of their actions, heir to their actions, born of their actions, related through their actions, and live dependent on their actions. Whatever they do, for good or for evil, to that will they fall heir.’

Subjective Idealism vs Quantum Mechanics

The Quantum Moon probably exhibits macroscopic quantum behavior

— Solanum

But, say you, surely there is nothing easier than for me to imagine trees, for instance, in a park, or books existing in a closet, and nobody by to perceive them. The objects of sense exist only when they are perceived; the trees therefore are in the garden… no longer than while there is somebody by to perceive them.

— George Berkeley (the primary developer of contemporary Subjective Idealism)

Outer Wilds proposes that some things are macroscopic quantum phenomena, notably the Quantum Moon, the Quantum Moon Shards, and of course the Eye. Presumably the Hearthians and the Nomai are both aware of the normal, microscopic quantum mechanics as well.

The question is, is Quantum phenomena limited to the Quantum Moon and the Eye?

What we’re really asking here is, to what extent does our subjective experiences shape the Universe we experience? This is really about the interpretation of the Observer Effect and of Quantum Superposition as presented in Outer Wilds.

Buddhists don’t really have a conception of Quantum Mechanics (except perhaps their theories about the Dharma-dhatu and the nature of Buddhas, which are known as Tathagathas, or “thus come, thus gone”). Buddhists do have a lively tradition of Buddhist Atomism, though it rejects classical atomism in various ways, notably that it denies substances exists. Buddhist Atomism describe matter as dynamic flashes of energy, not as substance materials.

The Buddhist Yogachara School (one of the early schools of Mahayana) developed a complex model of how human sensation and cognition is interdependent with the world. It is one of the first theories of subjective idealism to be developed in philosophy.

Subjective Idealism argues that the only world we know is the one we experience through our sense faculties. That outside of our sense faculties the world basically doesn’t exist. It doesn’t matter if there really is a “reality” out there, but what matters is this is the Universe we understand, contextualize, and experience. And that, even though it appears we have shared experiences, each of us basically experience our own version of reality. It is closely related to the concept of representationalism (that our experienced reality is a representation of the real world, a cognitive virtual reality basically).

The Yogachara School posits a model of “Eight Consciousnesses”, the eye, nose, ear, mouth, and body consciousnesses, which are born from the sense organs’ contact with ‘sense objects’ (colour, light, scent, etc), which interacts with the ideational consciousness (cognition), which itself shapes its biases according to subconsciousness (the obscuration consciousness), which derives from the non-sentient matrix of causal energies known as the Alaya Consciousness. This dynamic system is basically what forms our subjective experience of the world.

Buddhism also argues that our subjective experiences is what creates our world. The world is the world we experience (and you and your dog would not experience the same world, because you both have different psychologies and physiologies). Whether there is a “real” world or not is irrelevant.

For example, to a tremendous extent, our human reality is shaped by natural selection and evolution. There is no way to know what reality is really like outside the human sense faculties and our intepretation of the information we receive from those faculties.

Causality, neither determinism nor non-determinism, and Uncertainty (; or did the Eye plan for things to happen, or do things just happen because random things happen?)

Did the Eye deliberately call out to us by sending the signal, or did we hear the signal by coincidence?

We could be seeing meaning where there is none. Suppose the signal was produced incidentally.

Does that mean the Eye is any less important, though?

Perhaps the Eye wanted to be found (could it be sentient?). Maybe it chose us.

Does the Eye desire something from us? Could it need us in some way?

Maybe it doesn’t have to be us.

— Sunless City Eyeshrine District

“Many in my clan have believed the Eye called to us for a particular purpose. When I was a child, I used to believe the Eye was malevolent, to have lured my clan to this star system only to then vanish from them so completely.

— Solanum

In Buddhist metaphysics, neither determinism nor non-determinism is true. Rather some things are conditioned, but some things are completely random. We can’t choose our circumstances, but we can choose what we do in those circumstances (though whether free will exists in Buddhism is an ongoing debate. From our perspective, we have conditional free will. But whether in reality we have free will, or if we’re just the product of complex aggregated systems is impossible to determine for humans).

Anyway, far from the stereotypical notion of karma, in Buddhism, causality is governed by the Five Niyamas (the causal forces of dharma, physics, genetics, psychology, and karma experienced as retribution), an analysis proposed by the Buddhist Saint Vasubandhu, based on close readings of the original Buddhist sutras.

In the words of the Venerable Kobutsu Malone: In Buddhist cosmology, “Karma Niyama” is only one of five categories, known collectively as “The Five Niyamas,” that define causality. The other four are Dharma Niyama (the laws of nature) [the mechanism by which Buddhahood is possible from aggregated phenomena], Irthu Niyama (seasonal changes and climate) [physics], Biija Niyama (genetic inheritance) [genetics], and Chitta Niyama (the will of the mind) [psychology]. If we are to clarify our understanding of causality, we are required to pay attention to socio-political, economic, and ecological sciences. A sixth “Niyama” could even be brought into the picture to account for the social structures that have spontaneously or deliberately formed in all communities of sentient beings. While the modern “chaos theory” was not delineated in the Buddha’s time, as such, elements of its structure can be found in the Five Niyamas. Despite the prevalent misperception in the Buddhist community, even in so-called “orthodox” circles comprising clergy and teachers, that “karma” is the sole force active in the universe, “chaotic” forces are also present but rarely, if ever, mentioned, let alone taught, studied, or comprehended.”

Super Novas, Big Bounce, and the Oscillating Universe Model (or; death is inevitable, but so is life)

Star has reached end of natural life cycle. Now approaching red giant stage.

— Sun Station evacuation notice

“Oh, hello… Come, sit with me, my fellow traveler. Let’s sit together and watch the stars die.”

— Chert

In the sermon of the Seven Suns, the Buddha described how our Sun would get progressively larger and more hot until it burns the worlds.

Aňguttara-Nikăya, 7.66: Again after a vast period of time a sixth sun will appear, and it will bake the Earth even as a pot is baked by a potter. All the mountains will reek and send up clouds of smoke. After another great interval a seventh sun will appear and the Earth will blaze with fire until it becomes one mass of flame. The mountains will be consumed, a spark will be carried on the wind and go to the worlds of God….Thus, monks, all things will burn, perish and exist no more except those who have seen the path.

In Buddhist cosmology, worlds are arranged in a system of vertical (planes of reality), horizontal (worlds in each plane), and temporal cosmology (expansion and contraction of space).

In the Vertical Cosmology and Horizontal Cosmologies, you have different planes of sets of worlds stacked on top of each other, organized into small world systems (a thousand worlds), mid-world systems (1 million worlds), and large world systems (1 billion worlds) known as trichiliocosm (which are infinite in number). Not unlike how in a Universe you have clusters of galaxies tied by fibres of matter, galaxies, and solar systems. All arising, all changing over time, and all eventually becoming something else.

There is life in all of these infinite worlds of various kinds, including in the darkness of space, where each being believes itself to be the sole creature in the universe being unable to see other creatures.

In the Temporal Cosmology, the universe expands, forming sentient beings who form subjective worlds (via their subjective experiencing of the Universe), until the Universe reaches its zenith. This usually means that the Narakas (hell worlds) have been formed. After a vast length of time, sentient beings stop experiencing certain worlds, those worlds cease to exist, and thus the Universe becomes smaller. The Universe eventually begins to contracts, destroying the lowest worlds first before contracting backwards until the worlds of the devas (the non-human sentient beings of greater power) are destroyed. In different cycles, the extent of the destruction is different. Sometimes only most worlds but the highest are destroyed, sometimes it’s all destroyed. The Universe then enters a period of rest before the winds of karma begin blowing and it expands again.

This kind of cosmology, of eternal expansion and contraction, is known as an Oscillating Universe model.

The Eye and the Dharma-dhatu (; or reality is experienced as modalities, not as it really is. Our understanding of truth is a reflection. The truth itself is the capacity to reflect and encompass all phenomena, Buddhahood is veridical awareness)

“From this, we can hypothesize that the Eye represents extreme changeability.”

— Solanum

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, p. 157: You can also think of the nature of mind like a mirror, with five different powers or ‘wisdoms.’ Its openness and vastness is the wisdom of all-encompassing space [or dharmadhatu], the womb of compassion. Its capacity to reflect in precise detail whatever comes before it is the mirror-like wisdom. Its fundamental lack of any bias toward any impression is the equalizing wisdom [or wisdom of equality]. Its ability to distinguish clearly, without confusing in any way the various different phenomena that arise, is the wisdom of discernment. And its potential of having everything already accomplished, perfected, and spontaneously present is the all-accomplishing wisdom.

The Dharma-dhatu is the ‘dimension’, ‘realm’ or ‘sphere’ of the Dharma. It can be said to be an ultimate reality, but this an ontological distinction only. The dharma-dhatu is not separate from this same reality we experience everyday. It can be described as an interdependent whole. The process of all processes. Or the unified processes of all processes of its constituent processes.

The Dharma-dhatu is translated in a Dzogchen text as the “field of all events and meanings”. It is the closest to the Mahayana Buddhist conception of God.

The Dharma-dhatu forms modalities through which sentient beings interface with it. These interfaces are what we call Buddhas, or Purelands.

In the Trikaya theory, a Buddha has three Bodies. Two of these bodies are what sentient beings perceive of the Dharma-dhatu (like the Eye reflecting what is in our head or what is around it)

The Nirmanakaya (the Emanation Body) are what we might call the historical Buddha. They are Buddhas which appear in space and time, often as flesh and blood beings.

The Saṃbhogakāya (the body of communal enjoyment) are what appears as visions (as found in meditation or theophanic experiences) or as Purelands (spheres of space that fulfill certain needs of sentient beings).

The Dharmakaya (The Truth Body). The unified body of the “real” Buddha, the rest are modalities or subjective experiences sentient beings have of this body. The Dharmakaya is merely the personal appellation of the Dharma-dhatu (which is the total process, not just a particular part of it).

An important thing to reiterate is that none of these bodies, excepting perhaps the Dharmakaya, really exist at all, they exist only in our experience of reality. Without the subjective experiences of sentient beings, Buddhas don’t exist, let alone Purelands.

It is a well worn notion that Bodhisattvas and Buddhas only exist because Sentient Beings exist. Without sentient beings, there would be no Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and no worlds either (as “worlds” are defined in Buddhism as a nexus of the experiences of sentient beings; their subjective reality giving rise to different subjective worlds. For example, for Nagas, water is grottos, for Devas, water is azure stone, for Pretas, water is fire, and for humans, water is water).

Eternal Recurrence, Ecosystems, and Teleology (;or is there meaning to life, the universe, and everything?)

“Well, what are any of us doing here, really?…Nah, I’m just kidding. I’m out here exploring our solar system, same as you.But I tell you what, outer space really gives you room to think. It’s quiet and peaceful out here.I mean, it’s usually quiet and peaceful. Sometimes a cyclone comes by and lifts my little island paradise clean out of the water. Then: less peaceful.”

— Gabbro

It’s undeniable that Buddhism rejects a Creator God, Creationism, Beginnings, Souls, Substances, and even Reincarnation.

But does Buddhism reject teleology (that things have meaning and purpose)?

It’s something of an Eurocentric holdover that Buddhism has been terribly misunderstood ever since the West came into contact with it. The Catholic Encyclopedia labels Buddhism a Nihilistic philosophy, but this isn’t quite right.

It is scary for a philosophical system to reject substances, because we’re deeply attached to the idea that we really exist as substantial things and that our reality is made of neat orderly building blocks, and is designed. But rejecting all of these doesn’t make one a nihilist. In fact, it is life affirming and no-self is the same as realizing we’re part of a greater whole. An ecosystem of events and meanings which extends beyond our self-processes.

Buddhist metaphysics describes causes, but do not really describe purpose, let alone ultimate purpose (in a given context, obviously religion has purposes, techniques have purposes, and sutras have purposes, even life has purpose; but ultimately, life just is).

Life just is. At least, the Buddhists argue that we’re destined to go on this endless journey towards full Buddhahood, but doing so is not some kind of “salvation”, but simply realizing the potential of sentient beings (their natural ability to attain Buddhahood under the right conditions). We do not stop existing and do not go somewhere else. It is often said that Samsara is Nirvana. We’re here to stay forever, one way or another. This is the opposite of nihilism, it reaffirms that life is the ultimate meaning (though Buddhists will continue to debate this one and different schools have different end goals).

Though this continued existence and Buddhahood itself has nothing to do with a “self” (which by nature is “static” and unchanging, and thus contrary to reality). There is no immortality, no continuation of a personality, no Heaven. Only the awareness of one’s part in the ecosystem of things, only the continual change.

Even Buddhas exist under conditions, and are reliant on sentient beings to give them form, meaning and purpose.

Sūtra of Mahā-Prajñā-Pāramitā Pronounced by Mañjuśrī Bodhisattva: All Buddhas pronounce the Dharma to teach and transform sentient beings, each delivering as many sentient beings as the innumerable sands of the Ganges [river], enabling them to enter nirvāṇa.

Yet the realm of sentient beings neither increases nor decreases.

Why not? Because the definite appearances of sentient beings can never be captured. Hence, the realm of sentient beings neither increases nor decreases.”

“Śāriputra then asked Mañjuśrī, “Given that the realm of sentient beings neither increases nor decreases, why do Bodhisattvas always pronounce the Dharma to sentient beings, as they seek anuttara-samyak-saṁbodhi?”

Mañjuśrī replied, “Because the appearances of sentient beings are empty, there are neither Bodhisattvas seeking anuttara-samyak-saṁbodhi nor sentient beings to whom they pronounce the Dharma. Why not? Because I say that, in all dharmas, not a single dharma can be captured.”

The Buddha asked Mañjuśrī, “If sentient beings do not truly exist, why do you speak of sentient beings and their realm?”

Mañjuśrī replied, “The appearance of the realm of sentient beings is just like that of the realm of Buddhas.”

The Buddha next asked, “Is there a place for the measure of the realm of sentient beings?”

He replied, “The measure of the realm of sentient beings is inconceivable.”

The Buddha next asked, “Does the appearance of the realm of sentient beings abide in something?”

He replied, “Open sky does not abide, nor do sentient beings.”

Time to give Webcomic a try yet again?

Once upon a time, some years ago, I started a webcomic and then I stopped. There was many reasons, but chief amongst them was that I was not happy with the artistic direction as well as the rather broad nature and strange humour.

I realized now, that the funniest things to me are stuff about my own life and beliefs, the stuff I write about on facebook or joke about with friends in Whatsapp or Discord.

That’s where my humour shines.

So it’s perhaps time to restart. To once again, give webcomics a try. After all, I have lot to say, lots has been happening in my life, and my abilities have never been sharper. And if not now, when? Lockdown, Covid-19— all these things keeping me indoors and in front of a computer. When else would I have the chance to really just focus on pumping out some consistent work?

It might even give me content for my Youtube Channel. Maybe.

There’s another reason though. I am getting fairly serious about studying anatomy to improve my figure drawing. That’s not for webcomics or anything like that, but I recognize the need to express myself in alternative ways, ways that has nothing to do with my attempts to learn how to draw realistic anatomy.

Generosity and 仁

How do I find a meaningful field that can fulfill my objectives whilst being generous? What is generosity? According to Seth Godin, it is the kindness of authentic and meaningful work.

It doesn’t mean free, but it has to contribute in some way. In one sense, this means that making average work is not meaningful. What is creative?

Good design is generous. Authentic work is generous. Work that helps other is generous. Kindness and empathy is generous.

It reminds me, to an extent, of the Confucian virtue of Ren (仁), which is commonly translated as Benevolence, but should be best understood as mutuality or empathy.

“So, a man of Ren helps others become established if he desires to establish himself, and helps others reach their goals if he desires to reach his. Being able to make analogies between his own situations and those of others around him could be called the approach to Ren.”

— Confucius

Narrowing down my interests

I am no longer certain of what it is I should be doing. I have wide ranging interests, but a deep dissatisfaction with my present mastery (or complete lack of skill) in many many disciplines.

Ironically, the disciplines in which I am most adept (such as graphic design or marketing) are more of a means to an end, then an end unto themselves.

What is that end? What is it that I truly wish to pursue?

I want to grow my youtube channel, in fact, I started one, in secret. It was terrible, it focused on the arts, or at least, on the random things I create, but was very broad.

I have to really question whether documenting (vlogging) my hobbies and drawing practices really mean anything. Whether anyone really cared for that.

I don’t think they do.

When creating something, we need to ask whether that product serves a purpose. Whether my content serves anyone.

I was also nervous talking to the mic, being nervous when talking is uncharacteristic of me. Yet I was nervous nonetheless.

Regardless, I felt I needed to return to the drawing board and figure out what it was that I really wanted to do, and why.

Here are my interests. I need to cut some of these off as mere hobbies (because that’s what it is when you can’t muster the discipline to do them everyday), and which ones are what I really want to do. The things I actually need to make happen.

  • Humanities (Religion, Philosophy, History)
  • The Visual Arts (Drawing, Painting, Sculpting)
  • Board Game Design
  • Writing
  • Graphic Design
  • Marketing & Advertising
  • Business
  • Dancing
  • Music
  • Film Studies and Literature
  • Education
  • Politics
  • Science.

Right away, we cut away the things I don’t actually know enough or would ever know enough to be able to master. Those would probably be hobbies at best. So that list now look something like:

  • Humanities (Religion, Philosophy, History)
  • The Visual Arts (Drawing, Painting, Sculpting)
  • Board Game Design
  • Writing
  • Graphic Design
  • Marketing & Advertising
  • Business
  • Education

That’s still not good enough. Or rather at this point, I need to ask myself what I can combine together to make them into a single field I can practice with. I realized that Graphic Design, Marketing & Advertising, Business, and Education are all byproducts of the jobs I do, or supports for my own personal goals and projects. There’s no need to “master” them, until they become relevant to what it is I’m doing.

So now we’re left with the four things I probably truly want to do.

  • Humanities (Religion, Philosophy, History)
  • The Visual Arts (Drawing, Painting, Sculpting)
  • Board Game Design
  • Writing

But it is wise to focus on only one thing. So how do I make all of this relevant and practicable at the same time? And if not done together, what is it that is holding me back right now on each of these fields?

Humanities = I am always learning new things, through podcasts, books, other people, and personal spiritual cultivation.

Visual Arts = I am always learning about this. But I need to practice more, on a daily basis. Right now, I am trying to figure out anatomy. And I hope to get better at sculpting because of it, and making better art, fan-art, and even webcomics.

Boardgame Design = I am always working on one prototype or another. But I need to finish, instead of always second guessing myself.

Writing = I need to write everyday. I need to, as Seth Godin says, ship something everyday. Make something happen everyday. So this blog, I will try to post a blog post every single day, just as Seth Godin does. Now to be clear, I also write a lot on facebook and Discord. Perhaps I need cut down on what I write in those spaces, and focus on writing here on my blog. Perhaps I should consider whether I should migrate to Medium or some other platform to better serve my needs.

And of course, this hasn’t really helped me figure out what to do about my Youtube Channel. Perhaps I can combine my passion for the humanities with my art and storytelling. God knows it’s already part of my writing. Maybe it can become part of my boardgame designs too.

I need to think about it. But before I even know what I want to do, I need to start doing it. Start before you’re ready. Because you’ll never be ready. I am never ready, I never will be. So I just start.

Reflecting on my near lost of faith.

If you grew up like me, you hear all kinds of wild claims.

But after you actually studied basic philosophy, religion and history (originally because I wanted to defend these claims), you start to realize religious and institutional mythology aren’t always literally true; nor are they even compatible with each other and that’s not a problem, as long as one accepts religious diversity. Unfortunately, this is not always acceptable. Instead, there’s the tendency for cheap syncreticism, which is just sloppy and lazy. If you don’t know, just accept the mystery of it. Mystery is okay. But materialists always want to be certain.

What kind of claims do I find problematic? Many.

I am sorry, I am supposed to believe that this sutra’s claims are true, whilst also simultaneously accepting that this sutra’s AUTHOR is not a member of the true faith? That doesn’t even make any sense.

I am supposed to accept this children’s educational material from 17th century China is an infallible reflection of the teachings of Confucius? That this commentary on the Mahayana Sutras is infallible? That this frankly fictional hagiography is literally true, word for word? Don’t make me laugh.

I am suppose to accept that these foreign religious figures, whose teachings were conveniently propagated to China are somehow true, but that hundreds of other religious figures and their teachings, whose teachings were coincidentally not propagated to China at that time (or was historically destroyed), is therefore not true?

I am suppose to ignore the taint of ethno-nationalism and colonializing tendencies in religion? I really hate nationalism.

How about to so grossly misread and misinterpret Paul (not that he’s someone you should read as infallible either, since he was just a normal man too). My God. I couldn’t translate any of this with a straight face. Fortunately, it’s labeled as commentary. Thankfully. I would have huge problems if anyone claimed this was true.

How can I claim to have true faith if I ignore all of these heresies and lapse of discernment?

Don’t get me started on having to accept some heretical American Evangelical revisionism of Jesus and biblical history, just because that’s the only form of Christianity you have ever been exposed to. But you know, it’s okay. All of that I can accept, it doesn’t make a religion not true or unworthy of practice.

The hard part is getting the religious fanatics to leave you alone. They seem very invested in forcing you to be a literalist, or forcing you to accept infallibility (contrary to the teachings clearly making it clear infallibility is possible) but that doesn’t jive with their mistaken assumption about what they think religion is, nor what spiritual cultivation is. Fortunately, these days, I have divest myself of the influence of severely misguided people, and keep to myself.

This is for the best, engaging with people like that only makes me unfairly hate religion. It’s the people that are the problem.

I have little faith, but I am deeply invested in keeping that little faith as true as possible. 99% of “faith” is actually just constructs you can toss out if necessary. But that 1% that is true is worth cultivating.

The horrific realization you were actually influenced by borderline fundamentalists while growing up is truly terrifying (and I have this tendency to take their words seriously or with obedience, and that has lead to very dark times in my life), but the saving grace was that actual teachings are the opposite of fundamentalism (that’s the case for any religion, really).

That has saved me, along with close friends who have encouraged me to keep faith— ironically, none of them are members of my faith, or even religious. The people my religious communities would claim are “inferior” or sinful, are the ones who helped me, but I can’t even voice my own doubts to my so-called peers because literalists are incapable of critical thinking, and tends to react with smug condescension or outright hostility (especially because they believe they are more elderly, they are magically wiser. A typical Chinese fallacy). How funny is that.

Scepticism is a great tool of self-understanding, it is no wonder that the Buddha preached it so much. Unfortunately for fundamentalists, skepticism and insight destroys blind faith and malpractice; and they would react with hostility or try to gas-light you.

Toy Story 4, Initial Thoughts

The Theology of Toy Story 4 is a fascinating one, and easily more mature than the previous entries. I will wrote an entire article about all four films at some point.

Minor spoilers ahead!

My hot take that will require more refinement: I can immediately see how your typical monotheistic exclusivist types might have trouble reconciling the theology depicted in this 4th entry with the rest, and indeed, I read an essay just now by a religious person who feels that the 4th film compromised the foundation of the previous films’ themes.

It seems the exclusivist monotheists feel that Toy Story 4 renounces God! Ha! Well, they’re not wrong, Toy Story 4 does renounce God. But this is not a problem.

The first 3 films shows Woody’s evolution from blind faith to eventual true faith, this 4th film show his evolution into a greater spirituality that dissolves the need for an “image” of a Kid (of a single religion and all the psychosomatic accessories— the mythology— that implies) altogether.

The theology makes sense to me, more than that, it is exactly how I see the natural evolution of religiosity and spirituality. It shows a dawning insight into the nature of the relationship between Toys and the World that defies the simple mythology of a Creator and Creation, or any other metaphors we can choose to base our life on.

Far from a metaphor for atheism, it destroys both theism and atheism as the anthropological constructs that they both rightly are. Realizing religion and all doctrines as construct is a cornerstone moment of true faith.

Woody’s embarkment upon the transcendental path of a saviour instead of merely another toy that needed to be loved by a kid, is the logical conclusion of his tendencies to save others shown in the previous films.

A Toy does not need to be loved by a Kid construct in order to have faith. A Toy does not even need a Kid construct in order to have faith.

A Toy with Faith serves the same moral purpose that Kids exist for; a Toy’s purpose is NOT “to make a kid happy” as the first 3 Toy Story films would have us believe.

The Toys have evolved spiritually, though not all viewers will appreciate their abandonment of religious construct.

Toy Story 4 is the esoteric path, however, just like the Toys required a hierarchal construct as a foundation to their cultivation, so do we. You can’t just jump into the path of a “Lost Toy” without any grounding, or you will truly be lost.

The phenomenological and experiential reality of magic.

“[Magic is] a category of exclusion, used to define an unacceptable way of thinking as either the opposite of religion or of science”.
— Karen Louise Jolly

Justin in 2019: Magic is mostly nonsense, but if it existed, it’s because some people have woo powers beyond my understanding.

Justin in 2020-2021: I am forced to accept that the phenomenological and experiential reality of magic is true, even if this doesn’t prove its objective existence.

The reason I am forced to accept this is because I reject that an objective existence is possible at all, therefore, all subjective experiences takes priority as the primary reality.

Since all modern magic deals with enacting experiential change (ie, of the mind in a world which is mind only), magic is therefore a real phenomena experienced by some peoples.

If Ontological Idealism is true, then the implications are more profound.

Magic is difficult to prove, because it is not a standardized experience, but is an experience everyone experiences for themselves as unique and true, even if other people cannot experience it.

It is much like a religious experience, or even a scientific one. Suppose you don’t take a mathematical equation on faith, not everyone have the ability to go and verify its veracity (to experience it for themselves), but if they did, they would be utterly convinced it really is true (despite the fact that math as a discipline is of course, a construct, and could be very wrong on several axioms).

Likewise, someone who has personally talked to Jesus would be unlikely to consider another cause for why they had (to them) an authentic theophanic experience.

God, all influence, but no power.

Some accuse God of negligence regarding creation. It’s not that God doesn’t care, but His power of unilateral intervention is limited or non-existent.

God has the supreme power of influence (divine inspiration), but His nature as the ontological whole also locks him into a nature which is necessarily “immutable” and thus not all-powerful (omnipotence is not an attribute of God).

God has no free will, and never created anything literally, rather, his “creation” is what was already emerging out of chaos as a natural process (continuous creation; or creation-evolution 造化). Whatever is the limitations of nature is the limitations of God. Whatever is the limitations of God is the limitations of nature. But note that “nature” is an abstraction of human conceptual origin. When we say nature, we mean the phenomena we consider as occurring by themselves without human agency or divine agency.

But what if both human agency and divine agency are natural processes and thus not wholly in human nor divine control? Did you choose to be born? Did you choose to control your evolutionary history? Did you choose to be a conscious being?

Neither did God. This is really putting a new spin on “made in God’s image”— that we are alike due to our naturalness, rather than due to a supposed divine origin.
God is not equivalent to nature (not pantheism). He is not the world, but he is co-eternal to its processes.

But that being said, where is God though? What even is God?

He is not separate from nature, but is also not equivalent to it. If the world is the “body”, than God is the “spirit”— that is to say, there is an ontological distinction that distinguishes God from World, but they are mutual processes in all other respects.

Pantheism (god is world) is wrong. But Panentheism (god pervades world) might be correct.

Now, since you are part of nature, and God is part of nature; whatever we experience as good or evil is no more God’s fault than it is our own.

If there is any negligence, it is plainly mostly our own, since unlike God, we have much greater agency (conditional free will) due to our position in the world as a changing “part”, but not the “whole” (which would be unceasing change, and thus static, and thus God).

“Why do God not stop evil?”, should really be “why won’t you?”If the Mind wants to treat an illness, the Mind influences the Body to do so by taking medicine or performing surgery. The Mind cannot “will” miraculous healing. In this allegory, Mind is God, and Body is Mankind— and by extension, the entire Universe of human experience.

We have all experienced the truth of “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” in our personal lives; but that is also how God is related to us. He cannot move us, because we are unwilling to be moved— but moving us is the only thing God can do. By nature, he cannot do anything else.

Flat Earth, Skepticism, and Religion.

The Buddhists of early-modern to modern times, in Japan and Thailand, had difficulty accepting that the world was round. They were astonished at the Western claims of a round Earth, because it contradicted their interpretation of scripture. One Buddhist in Japan built an elaborate 3D model of a Small-World system to “prove” to the Westerners that a Flat Earth was true, and that the Devas of Trayamstrimsa lived on the Sun.

Ironically, a Buddhist in Tibet in the 1930’s argued that it was foolish to believed that the Earth was flat just because the Buddha seemed to have said so, he argued that because global scholarship accepted that the Earth was round, Tibetans should do so as well.

The Indians of the Buddha’s time had models of a spherical Earth (though one where the Earth was at the centre of the Universe— a geocentric model), however this contradicts the Buddha’s own cosmological model, which instead lay out the Universe in flat tiers of realities, which also organized them into systems great and small. In this schema, the Earth, and the human realm in general, is a small part of a larger cosmic system, not the centre of anything.

Did the Buddha believed in a flat earth though? Why would the Buddha not have been aware of the spherical Earth theory, when the Indians at the time already knew this?

But none of the Dharmic religions (Jainism, Buddhism, Hinduism) ever explained a spherical Earth even though it should have been obvious to their astronomers and mathematicians that the Earth was round.Because religion is not specifically about the sciences (though in many time periods, they were the same), and it is not necessarily explaining phenomena in a context we would consider scientific today.

If religion was about science, why bother having religion? If the Buddha wanted to teach science, why did he become a monk, he could have a full time tenure Nalanda University instead (incidentally, he did teach a term there).

Even if the Buddha was aware the world was round, and bothered teaching about a round earth, who would have listened? No doubt to the masses of the Indian sub-continent, almost everyone believed in a flat Earth— it is intuitive to believe so after all. It would have been a meaningless distraction to the main thrust of his philosophy.

That’s a big if, of course. It’s entirely possible that the Buddha was himself a flat-earther. This would be no fault of his really, since the vast population of the world all believed fervently that the Earth was flat (it’s funny though, the model of the Universe today is usually portrayed as a flat shape, so if one were to believe that there was no true division between Earth and the cosmos, a flat world model isn’t even entirely unreasonable, even though the planet Earth is certainly spherical in the context of the sciences).

My point is, scripture is not about objective reality, and it is foolish to waste time conflating scientific disciplines with religion and vice versa. They are different kinds of philosophical schemas, dealing with different kinds of problems.

However, historical and scientific claims that are related to religion need to be historically and scientifically accurate. This is not a matter of faith, but of extraordinary claims.

We know that Noah was a mythological figure, even if there was a possibility that his story was inspired by one or more ancient Iranian whose farm animals was saved on a coracle, and later adopted by the Israelites in exile in Babylon.

We know that Moses was a legendary figure, and was likely a Levite Chieftain from Egypt. We know that creationism is obviously untrue for myriad reasons. This is true enough from critical studies of the Bible.

We know that there was no Dragons who gave Nargajuna sutras, we know that Maitreya likely never revealed anything to Asanga— since we know all of their philosophies developed over time and was contextualized to the Buddhist philosophical development of the day.

Development and evolution of doctrines and stories are not attributes of divine revelation; if it was truly divinely revealed out of nowhere, then it would be a completed whole, and wouldn’t have such obvious human elements and histories in the text. Related to this is of course my view that the Qur’an could have been divinely inspired, but limited by Muhammad’s personal scope of knowledge (which are limited to the languages and religions he could have known only in the vicinity of Arabia).

Popular stories and claims are about spiritual matters (and sometimes political or folkloric matters, in the events where religious stories are tied to founding mythologies of certain countries and peoples and their customs), but the moment a believer claim these are objectively true events, we must deny them and use the proper tools to analyze this claim.

Hells should not exist in the Minds of Bodhisattvas.

Namo great compassionate Avalokitesvara, May I soon unite with the Dharma-Nature Body.
If I go towards the mountain of knives, the mountain of knives of itself breaks up;
If I go towards the boiling oil, the boiling oil of itself dries up;
If I go towards the hells, the hells of themselves disappear;
If I go towards the hungry ghosts, the hungry ghosts of themselves become full.
If I go towards the demons, their evil thoughts of themselves are tamed.
If I go towards the animals, they themselves attain great wisdom.

— Excerpt from the Maha Karuna Dharani,  the Great Compassion Mantra of Avalokitesvara 

Although the so-called Hell-worlds irrevocably exist as a natural result of the cosmic ecosystems’ bodily permutations (re-becoming, or punabbhava), as a Bodhisattva aspirant, acknowledging the Hells is a betrayal of our fundamental compassion.


Our mind cannot be pure if we believe in Hells, or that anyone could enter them. It is impossible. Consider that there is no abiding self (anatman), for we are all one ecosystem— how can any part of this ecosystem be allowed to transform into the realm of pain? How can this separation be possible so long as any one of us clings to the path of liberation?


Worlds are clusters of sentient beings, they are not space-times of their own. They do not really exist, just as sentient beings do not really exist. They abide in nowhere, within the sphere of experience of a single veridical awareness (a Buddha).


As such, categorically, the Hellworlds cannot exist for me. It hasn’t, for a long time. And all beings who die in my sphere of experience (which is itself, the sphere of experience of the Dharmakaya), I often imagine and visualize that I keep them aloft in a Pure Realm. I have a hazy, barely cognizant and unspoken vow, that our Buddha-field (for I cannot do it alone) will prevent all beings in my sphere of experience from ever transforming into Hell-worlds. And that the very concept of Hell should be abolished from our minds. For the Hells should be as valid an existence and as happy as the rest of the innumerable worlds. That from my point of view, that my awareness of the cosmos is luminous from world to world.


This is the rightful Bodhisattva mentality. This is the only mentality that is correct. For we can acknowledge that Hell is a real phenomena, but we refuse to entertain the notion that anyone “deserves” or “has entered” such a state; for in YOUR mind, the deceased are kept safe and rises together with you through Anumodana (the sympathetic joy of spectators witnessing the holy qualities practiced by you, thus attaining for themselves the same holy quality).

I have not yet uttered this vow, because it is too vast for me to do so. But the desire grows stronger day by day.

We are sown a natural body, and raised a spiritual one.

My thesis: The Kingdom of Heaven is the extrinsic manifestation of the intrinsic Resurrection. For we are sown “a natural body” and we are “raised a spiritual body.” For the Kingdom is a mustard seed, small and invisible, and grows into a mighty tree that birds come and perch in its branches. The Kingdom and the Resurrection are one. We will not enter the Kingdom until we die. For what you sow does not come to life until it dies. If a child becomes a man, that child is dead. If a seed becomes a tree, that seed has died. If you have become a spiritual body, the natural body has died. If the Kingdom has come, this world is dead.

The Kingdom is not a place, but a Nation. And a Nation is it’s people. A resurrected people. This is why they are the same.

Now, please note I do not take a stance here on whether the resurrection is bodily or not (that’s an ontological problem in my opinion. What does being alive even mean?).

Supporting argument 1: He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” (Matthew 13:31-32 NIV)

Supporting argument 2: But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. (1 Corinthians 15: 35-37 NIV)

Supporting argument 3: It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man (1 Corinthians 15:44-49 NIV)

Conclusion: Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22 NIV)

Note: Yes, this is, I realized later, similar to Orthodox theology, and also to the positions of preterism. Though I was initially inspired by Buddhist theology.

Intrinsically Pure

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. If I practice experiencing the world as intrinsically pure, I have saved myself. If others experience the world as intrinsically pure, we will have saved the world.Philosophy, precepts, and creed are just expedient means (like gestures, wireframes, and blueprints). They don’t mean anything by themselves, and can’t help people see intrinsic purity.

Gestures, wireframes, and blueprints* are not a means unto themselves, we have to see beyond and acknowledge that they are merely the fundamentals to establishing the Pure Mind. When we practice the fundamentals, we see that there is no such thing as “practice makes perfect”. Rather, “perfect practice makes perfect” is the mentality we should have. Which is why, that those who establish the Pure Mind have established it, and that those who don’t never will no matter how hard they work**.

It is a matter of self-will, and our cognizance of it; the awareness of what it is that we seek to transform in ourselves (which is everything we experience).What causes change is in turn changed. If we see them purely, they learn to see themselves purely. And when they see us purely, we see ourselves purely too***.

Our awareness of purity itself makes us pure. And thus by mutual arising, peace is established in the minds of mankind, and thus the world.

*I’ve been doing a lot of art lately, it colours my analogies.

**Not because they never could, just that only at the moment of establishing a pure mind is it established, and wrong practice is that which doesn’t lead to it (which is almost all practice, because it lacks a clear direction; a clear cognizance of the essence of mind. Without implicit faith in the Buddha-nature within oneself and the Intrinsic purity of the world, you cannot realize it).

***I think I was also hinting at Agape here, which is a tripartite codependent love; that of the love of God towards Man, Man towards God, and Man towards Man.