Interviewsand Articles


Interview with Prof. Ronald Howard: The Best Game There Is

by Somik Raha, Dec 8, 2013



Prof. Ronald Howard, the founder of Decision Analysis at Stanford, often shares stories and teachings from Buddhism with his students. These have influenced many generations of students. In this deeply stirring interview, Prof. Howard shares some of these stories and teachings. Toward the end of the interview, he also gives a remarkably accessible explanation of non-dualism.
Somik Raha:  When did you first encounter the teachings of the Buddha?

Prof. Howard:  It was around 1977 when I started looking into these matters. I had a weekend where other people thought I was going crazy and I thought I was going sane. That's a long story ( see Conversations/Waking Up ). But then, after that happened, I got back to my ordinary life, and started looking. I thought, surely, I'm not the first one this has happened to. I looked into a whole bunch of books. One was The Religions of Man, by Huston Smith now called The World Religions for political correctness reasons.

He went through all the religions a chapter at a time. And given my experience, there were a couple of criteria I wanted; one, there had to be the possibility of humor in this religion. Because I knew that was part of what's wonderful about life, so there had to be humor in it. And also it had to have the possibility of anyone attaining it without a special blessing of some kind. So what he (Smith) did was go through all the major religions of the world very sympathetically: Christianity, Judaism… It wasn't that he was praising some and not praising others. In each chapter he said that's a good religion. The Sufis had some humor in them, so they passed the humor test. The Christians and the Jews, they didn't have much humor. As far as I know, there were no jokes in either the Old or New Testament—pretty serious stuff. Whereas the Sufis had a humorous aspect.

And in Buddhism, there was a lot of humor in just appreciating the human experience. The chapter on Buddhism was titled, "The Man who Woke up." That's the idea. You could wake up. The story of the Buddha—whether it's apocryphal or not didn't make any difference—is that he had lived in great luxury as a prince. When he was born his father had consulted soothsayers who said he would be a great prince or a great king. The father said, well, “great king” suits me, so he tried to isolate him from all the problems of life.

The story is that when he (the young prince) went out through the town, the father would arrange that soldiers or guardians would go with him, to make sure he didn't see anything that might trouble him. But one day they screwed up and he found an old person. People get old? Wow, look at them, they get old. Another day, the same thing happened, only this time he found a sick person. Now, that wasn't too good, either. It was a big surprise for him—old age, sickness, and then a dead person on another day. Oh man, dead. That's terrible! On the fourth day they screwed up and he met a priest, a holy man. When he asked, “Who's that guy?” his charioteer replied, “Well, that's someone who helps people with these other things you've seen.” Then the young prince said, well that's what I want to do, and he resolved to do that. He was married and had a child at the time.

So he wanted to become someone who could help people with suffering. Before we get to that, just think about that story. Each of us at some point learned about getting old, getting sick and dying. A two-month old kid doesn't know that but a couple of years old, they may get the message—they've been sick, perhaps. But we don't even remember when we first got this wake-up call to the nature of existence. We suppressed it, probably more than any other memory that I've heard about. Anyway, when he decided to go off, he said, well, I've got to live. I've lived in luxury; now I'm going to live the life of an ascetic. He was an ascetic for seven years or something like that. He lived on practically nothing. It's said that he said he could see his backbone through his stomach. He was so thin living on a few grains of rice a day, seeking enlightenment. But he didn't get it.

Luxury didn't give it to him, asceticism didn't give it to him, so finally he gave up, sat down and became enlightened. The story is that the last temptation that he faced was, “Now that you've seen the possibilities, why do you want to go back to all these other people who will be ignorant and haven't gotten there yet? They won’t understand.” And he said: “Well, there will be some who understand.” And that is the maxim of anyone who wants to be a teacher. Just think about that. Whenever you teach a class, you can't presume that everybody's getting what you think you're saying. But in any class, from the lowest grade onward, there will be some who get the message, maybe all—who knows?—but at least some. It’s a great maxim for a teacher.

That's how I got interested in Buddhism, and then I followed it further. My second wife, my late wife, also got into Tibetan Buddhism, particularly Chögyam Trungpa. He was someone who came out of Tibet to escape the invasion from China. He went to India and then he went to England, and got a great education and he wrote several books on the nature of Buddhism, which are fascinating and still well worth reading. So that was probably my modern day introduction to some of these ideas: the Eight-Fold Path, all of the teachings of Buddhism, the suffering coming from attachment; these notions are very clear. I think it was Bob Dylan who said, freedom is a word for nothing left to lose. Yeah, when you've given up your attachments, then you're free. So that's Buddhism.

Somik:  When was the first time that you experimented with some of these ideas on yourself?

Prof. Howard:  After this weekend in 1977, I started doing this. Before that I taught my technical courses. Everything was going fine but I never concerned myself about the nature of society or ethics, particularly, except in a general way. At that time I realized that because what I was teaching could be misused as well as used, I had to get into the ethical dimension. By exactly that time, I also saw the necessity for people to be free, and so we started another course on what it would take to be free in society.

Now, it's interesting. Buddhism has a couple of sayings that are very significant. One is; "If you see a Buddha on the road, kill him." Which really means you've made a mistake, because everybody has Buddha possibilities. The other one is, "You can't put Buddha in jail." Now, that doesn't mean you couldn't put his body in jail, but his mind is always free. But his mind doesn't mean his thoughts. We saw that in the concentration camps where some people, in spite of the horrible things that were going on, managed to live a compassionate life. So even in those circumstances, they were helping others, and so forth. Yet they knew that they were headed for their own deaths. So that’s the idea that the Buddha-nature can exist in everyone and that it can't be imprisoned. It's not that people can't put you in jail, but it's about your freedom. Or as someone else said, "Your ultimate freedom is your ability to choose how to respond to any situation."

So if the Gestapo is coming to arrest you, well, you could spit in their faces, and so forth. You could go humbly, you could cry and beg—those are all choices that you've got. They can't make you behave in a certain way. They can just do things to your body. Then I realized that it's freedom, the idea of being responsible for your actions and being able to choose them is exactly the best way to learn things. An analogy would be, if you learn to ride a bicycle with training wheels, then you may never want to take the training wheels off because you're always going to be supported, you never have to learn the nature of balance the way you should. So anything that constrains is going to lower your level of learning, the speed at which you learn and what you learn.

If you live in a very compulsive society, one that makes you do things, you don't see what it would be like if you tried different things and learned from them as opposed to just following the rules of that society. So that started these other two courses on ethics and the notion of a free society where peaceful, honest people have the right to be left alone.

Somik:  You've often shared the story of your experience in the Zen workshop. Could you share that?

Prof. Howard:  Let me make sure I know which one you're talking about.

Somik:  This is the one where you stare at the same object three times with three different beliefs.

Prof. Howard:  Oh, yes. I had a weekend workshop and the idea of that one, and it's certainly consistent with Buddhism, is that a lot of your life is governed by your beliefs. So the notion of this training was to make you realize that you could manage your beliefs; that your beliefs are your creations. The importance of this was if you ask somebody what they would like to do, they might say, "Well, I'd like to be a great novelist and write the great American novel." Then the next statement might be, "But I couldn't because I got a D in English and I couldn't spell,” and so forth. In other words, when you look at the creativity of people, it's a belief that they have about something they could do. It's also often accompanied by another belief that kind of makes the first one not possible for them.

Now, when you think about it, we know that you could be a great writer and you needn't spell; you could have editors patch up your grammar and all that and you could still be a great writer. So that belief is not serving you. What this training is showing you is how to manage your beliefs. Which means how to create the beliefs that will serve you and to dis-create the beliefs that are not serving you. That's an amazing level of education; that's extremely powerful. When I went through this, I spent several weeks at the different courses. When I realized this, the next question is, what beliefs am I going to create? Because I can have anything that I want, now what am I going to do?

But let's get back to this notion of how your beliefs affect you. The experience you were mentioning was one of the exercises in this training. The exercise was to go and find some object, and they didn't say what, anything you liked, then experience it with the belief that it's beautiful. So you've got to go out there and imagine that it's beautiful. This was in a well-landscaped home. I went outside and found a stone lion. I noticed all these things, like the curve of the back, etc., with the belief that it was beautiful. After you've done that, you come back in. They say, okay, now go out and experience the same thing with the belief that it's ugly. And you go out, and now you notice all the little pit marks and discoloration, all kinds of things that you didn't really notice before. You think this is a really ugly stone lion. Then you come back and the third time you go take a look at it, this time with the belief that you're going to see it as it is. In other words, as it really is without the judgment of “it's beautiful” or “it's ugly.” This is kind of transforming, because you realize that you go through your whole life filtered by your beliefs.

Anything you've seen, you're going to interpret according to what beliefs you have. Psychology has demonstrated this. If you introduce a person to another as “this is a really brilliant friend of mine,” they'll see the brilliance. If you say, don't trust this guy, he's a sneak--they'll probably see that. There are many stories in folklore about how people's beliefs affect what their experiences are. The ideal would be to see things as they are, unfiltered by some belief system. That's something we can learn to do. What I then faced, having had this training, was the question “what beliefs was I going to create?” They don't tell you in this training what beliefs you should have, it's not like here are the good things to create. So it's a challenge--if you can create a belief, what would you create?

Now, the fundamental notion of this training is that you experience what you believe, rather than that you believe what you experience. That's what the training is all about, because we all think--well our beliefs are formed by what we've seen, but you can see because of these filters that that's not so. But once you get rid of that, and say, "Okay, what beliefs am I going to have?" Some people might think, well I'm going to have a lot of money or something like that. I realized that any beliefs that I created (and I have a list of them. I actually carry it around in my cell phone among other places) had to be beliefs that I would want everyone else to have. That's like Kant's idea, in morally legislating any ethic, that you should choose an ethic that you could have everybody follow if only you could. Like not stealing, not harming, not lying and so on. But this is the same thing, only at the level of belief. The belief is something that I wish everybody had, not just me.

I'll give you one example; we can spend quite a bit of time on this one. One belief I created was I have plenty of time. That was a surprise because I was big on to-do lists and get this thing done and what not. But I noticed that there was a big change once I created this belief, because before, I'd had my to-do list and it would be ordered, this is number one, this is number two and I better get that number one done. So I might be hurrying to my office to get the first one done and say hi to some people. Then soon as I created this belief, I would still be going to the office but now I would see somebody and say, "Hey, you remember that meeting, can we do it at 2? Great." In other words, there were things on the list that I could get rid of without any effort, just from the belief that I had plenty of time. I didn't have to focus and have telescopic vision, I could have broad vision and see how my life was offering to me many opportunities to get what I wanted to get done.

Another belief was I have plenty of help. You're an example of that. It's not some contract we made, that I want you to help me in all these different ways and here's what I'll do for you. You were just yourself. I was just myself, and you’ve been a wonderful help to me in so many ways--from the smallest things to the biggest. In the past, before I formed this belief, I'd say, "I can do it myself. Stay back, I don't need it. I'm independent, and all that.” I realized after I formed this belief that people really do want to help you. You're not imposing on them by getting their help. You're, in some ways, making both of you better off. So these are just a couple of the beliefs I formed at the time, and it helped. Maybe there's ten or so that can't hurt anybody else and certainly serve me and I think would serve others if they had those beliefs, too.

Somik:  What are some of the other ones?

Prof. Howard:  Well, I love. Not some people, or some time. I love. I mean, why not? And I'm lovable! That sounds simple but there are people who go through life thinking that they're not lovable or not worthy of love. They'll push people away and give reasons why those people shouldn't have anything to do with them. So these sound very simple, but they're very powerful, very powerful. Another one was (laughs), I have everything I need. Isn't that great? I have everything I need, and it's always been true. Sometimes it's been demonstrated over and over again. Sometimes before I could form a need, somebody's there with it. They don't even know that I have this need and they turn up. There's no striving to get the things I need. I have what I need. I have more than I need, actually. Which means, I am generous, and so forth. I just wanted to have things that would work for me, and for everybody in my life. It's something that’s within everyone's power.

Somik:  Do you have another one? Like every outcome is the right outcome?

Prof. Howard: [Laughs] I should really look at them. I have great people in my lifeand there's so many. Some of the beliefs are like corollaries; once you love, you're going to have great people in your life. It's sort of like one follows from the other. You might as well throw it in there, it doesn't hurt. As long as it doesn't hurt anybody, right? Who wouldn't want to have great people in their life? It's very freeing. This evolution has been over, let's see, this started about 30 years ago with that weekend, experiencing and getting into Buddhism. Then in some of these other trainings and now my life just works that way.

One of the things I realized was there's nothing I have to do, nothing I have to. After all, if you have everything you need, and you're loved and all those kinds of things, what do you need? So when you don't have to do anything; then you can choose to do anything. And possibility is out there for you. So what should I choose to do? For me, it's really going back to teaching. But teaching can't be separated from learning. We really need a new word, which is the complex of teaching and learning. The things that I'm about in my life are learning and teaching. If I stopped doing the first, then I'm going to stop doing the second. But I see it's a continual growth spiral. The more I learn, the more I can teach, and the more I'll learn. Because sometimes the people you teach are the ones from whom you learn the most. This operates at every level. If I find a good joke, and I tell someone, then even if I forget it, they'll remind me of it.

This happens sometimes with people in class. There'll be some exercise that I used to do, but I've forgotten. They’ll remind me, “Remember that one? That was really great.” Oh yeah, I should do that again. It's wonderful. Yeah, life is good.

Somik:  Do you also meditate?

Prof. Howard:  No. I'm a diamond kind of person. I've done it and I appreciate it and I think it's a great thing to do. But I was on to something else there, it'll come back.

Somik:  Oh, sorry.

Prof. Howard:  No, no. It's okay. Everything is perfect. Everything that happens to you, in my life, has been essential to my life. Even the stuff that I thought at the time was just terrible. I've had two wives die, who I loved greatly—and still do, in a sense. I remember somebody saying about one, "Don't you miss her?" and I said, "Well, to me, it's not that she's disappeared. It's that if somebody said, how would you like this new Ferrari to drive for a month, free?" Oh boy, I'd enjoy that and I'd drive it around and really experience Ferrari-ness, whatever that is. And then they took it back again, would I say, “Now I'm really unhappy because I had a Ferrari and now I don't”? Or would I say, "It was really great to have that Ferrari for a month. That was a great experience!" That's the way I looked at the people in my life, even if they've died. Part of life's experience.

At the simplest level, whenever you take a trip and your baggage is lost or something like that—at the time, you're really not happy with it. Maybe because you don't have this realization that everything is perfect. But you're moaning about it. You couldn't change your clothes for three days and stuff like that. But when you get home, that's going to be one of the best stories you tell about your trip. Who wants to hear the story about “we checked into the hotel, we had a great room, we had a great dinner?” Who cares? But it's the changes in life that are unexpected; they are more likely to teach you. So for me this means not getting upset. Now, I'm not saying I don't, but that's my goal and I'm getting pretty good at it. Not to be upset by whatever happens, but just to choose what’s so.

Somik:  What are three stories of the Buddha that have most inspired you?

Prof. Howard:  Three stories of the Buddha ... I'm certainly no Buddhist scholar, but one that really inspired me was that after preaching for 40 years—preaching isn't exactly the word—he went through life with a begging bowl. He didn't have any attachments at all, and of course he did just fine and awakened a lot of people, I'm sure. But finally, he had a meeting with some of his disciples, as I understand it, in the home of a simple person, a carpenter or something like that, who prepared the meals. It turned out that what the Buddha ate was a poisoned mushroom or something that was going to kill him. The first thing he did was to go speak to the carpenter and tell him, "Thank you for releasing me from this life." You can imagine that he wouldn't have done it himself. But he was ready to go on and this was just a simple way of passing for him. Which I thought was pretty good.

Another story I liked about the Buddha was the one where he was asked a question about life after death. He said, "Which way does the fire go when it goes out? North, south, east or west?" Which just shows the level of understanding that you have to deal with. You’d better focus on living this life and not which way the fire goes when it goes out. Tend the fire now, in a sense, don't worry about what happens to it in this other realm, if it exists. Which is everything because many of the cultures in which he preached had a belief in successive lives, karma and so forth. But my understanding is that the Buddha did not preach that in 600 B.C., or whatever year he was here.

A lot of stories may be apocryphal. Because you see, the Buddha was just Siddhartha Gautama. He was not the first and not the last. I remember in Tibetan Buddhism, there was another of his disciples, many hundred years ago, who preached non-attachment. At one point his son died, and his disciples said, "Well, are you not attached? You look sad." He said, "Sometimes it's very hard." Which is about the nature of human existence. Those are stories that made a big difference to me.

Another one was when he was dealing with some of his disciples about who should take Buddhism to China. They all would like to go and the story is that one of them picked up a flower and looked at it, and he was the one who was chosen to go to China. It's not like he had a test, he just knew that this was the person who could bear the message clearly to another group.

Somik:  What would the Buddha say if he were to see people struggling and trying to get out of their misery? Do you believe that he would say you should meditate, or you should take one particular path? Or would he approach each person differently?

Prof. Howard:  His teaching was based on this idea that misery comes from attachment. I've applied that many times in my own life. I once had a student who was very upset about having to take a particular course in order to get her degree and was saying things like, "The faculty is not fair." She was very unhappy down to the point of crying. I remembered the teachings of the Buddha and I said that there's something that can free you from this right away. And she said "what?", and I said, "Give up your attachment to getting the degree." And then she realized that this pain was coming from the attachment and it wasn't a requirement. Anyone looking at it would see it's quite reasonable for getting this degree. But she was so attached to it being an unfair requirement that she didn't realize the real source of her pain. Then she straightened up and understood and took the course, and got what she wanted.

This is very difficult for people, this attachment. It's also true with the meditative level. You can see that one point of meditation is to realize that you're not your thoughts, as we think in the West. The mind is a drunken monkey. We have all these things in our head; I'm late, what am I getting for dinner today. We think that's us, but it's just a kind of noise in the background. Look at things that people do that they later regret, like road rage. They get carried away; they have this anger and desire to strike back at someone who's cut them off in their car or something like that. But when you really look at it—if you go through this three-step process—the first thing you say is, “I'm angry,” because you are. Then you say, “Wait a second, I'm having the thought angry,” which is also true, but now there's a little separation. Then you step back further and say, “The thought angry is having me.” Now you've got choices and can ask, “Do I like this thought?” You could change your thoughts in an instant. So change that thought and all of a sudden the problem goes away.

Sometimes in class I tell the students, because I don't give out a grade, I say, "Look, you can embarrass me, you can insult me, anything you'd like—that's fine." Because no one can embarrass you or insult you, unless you agree to it. They can say things that are vile. Like someone says, "You're a vile, ignorant person." You say, "Ooh, boy, that was like a cannon ball, it went right by me. What did I do or say that made you say that?" All of a sudden, you're not, "Oh, yeah? Well, I'm not and you can't say that to me."

They tried to insult the Buddha. You're too fat, big joke, right? (laughs) You have people go through life taking umbrage at others for different actions. It just shortens the fun you get, shortens the time you'll be having fun by having those thoughts.

Somik:  Is there a particular story of the Buddha you think most people have not heard of? Or are not as familiar with, but which you think is pretty important.

Prof. Howard:  You see, it's more the teachings than the stories—although he certainly did things that were evidence of his great teachings. I remember going to a talk once by a Buddhist, a teacher. At the end of the talk, there were questions and answers. One of the women said, “I was raised as a Christian, and doing charitable work has always been part of my life from when I was a child and I don't hear that in Buddhism.” The teacher said to her, “Do you care about these people that you're helping?” She was taken aback. She'd never thought about that, and then in a little voice she said, “No. This is more a habit.” He said, “When you care, then you'll know what to do.” It's so simple.

Buddhism has also this notion of idiot compassion. In other words, if someone wants something from you, but you think it will not serve them to have it, then giving that to them would be idiot compassion. The person says, I'm out of whiskey (and he's really drunk), can you get me some more whiskey? I really want it. Well, idiot compassion would say, well of course you want more, here it is. But his attachment to the whiskey is what's causing his trouble. So you have to raise it to another level; what does he really need? How could you really help this person, without contributing to his misery? And that's a challenge. That's what the great teachers of the world have found a way to do. To not deal with the system at the lowest level, but raise it a level or two till it becomes a caring, really compassionate.

Somik:  I know you've told me this before, about the Buddha being a tremendous debater before enlightenment.

Prof. Howard:  That’s in Huston Smith's book. He said, to be confused or embarrassed in disputation, that I cannot imagine. In other words, that sounds very arrogant. But it's not arrogant if it's true. If you knew that you could solve any math problem, and you really could, well then, you could be falsely humble, “maybe I could do it,” or “I'm very sure I could do it.” That was his attitude; in matters of debate he was very sure and very capable. So there was no notion that his compassion made him kind of wishy-washy in his thinking. I could think of him as one of the most cool-headed and warm-hearted people that I've ever heard of. Sometimes we think if you've got to have a warm heart, you have to be kind of mushy in your thinking. Or if you're very clear in your thinking, then you can't be warm hearted—no. See, the Buddhists, as I understand, also think that emotions are other thoughts. We mentioned that with angry and so forth. So we control our thoughts.

So when it comes to these kinds of conversations that you have with people, it's important to get to what is the fundamental belief that you're having about them in order to know how to deal with them. In my own life, I remember, there's one thing I wanted to mention there. The same Buddhist teacher (who dealt with the woman), when I asked him a question about dealing with a place where you might hurt a person's feelings—should you be less than completely honest with them? I thought he was going to say what he did. But he put it in a good way; he said, "Keep it crisp." Which to me meant, tell what's so. Not with any embellishments on it and not leaving anything out but the best representation of what's so that you can. Because then you could never improve on that; it's exactly right.

For example, with the woman who was having trouble with this prerequisite course that she had to take, it would have been wrong for me to say, "Oh, I feel so sorry for you because you have to take this. I'm sure the faculty doesn't realize how much pain..." See that would have been a very mushy conversation. In fact, there was no good argument for her not taking it. It was essential to what she wanted to do. It was not easy for her, and it might not be easy for other people. But if she wants to get this thing that she's attached to, then that's on the path, and that's keeping it crisp.

Somik:  Speaking of keeping it crisp, you've sometimes said that the Buddha had some views on taxation.

Prof. Howard:  Yeah. Well that goes to the Eight Fold Path, which has to do with right understanding, right thought, right words, right speech and it gets down to right action, all of these things being lined up completely. But then part of right action is what kind of employment you're going to take. What's right employment? He was asked what kind of professions might make it easier and harder to become enlightened. One of them was being a butcher. See, because to be a butcher you have to kill. Buddha did not come down on whether it was bad to eat meat or something like that, to my understanding. What he did know was that killing things was not conducive to living a life seeking enlightenment. So he's not saying a butcher couldn't do that, he's just saying it's kind of an impediment on the path to enlightenment.

Another one was tax collector. Because if you think about it, the tax collector cannot be swayed by poverty or illness, or anything like that, of the people he's trying to get money from. In that sense he's just like a thief. A thief doesn't care whether he's taking—maybe some thieves would not rob people who are sick or something—but the fact of the matter is that the tax collector has agreed to take this money, period. It's not “if they can afford it,” or something. It's, you're going to get that money out of them and if it leaves them in a worse situation, well that's the rules of the game and now I'm just going to enforce them. So that was another profession he also said wouldn't make enlightenment impossible, but would certainly make it more difficult. Indeed, if you think about it, any kind of coercion, where you’re forcing other people to do things as opposed to doing it willingly is going to be an impediment to your becoming enlightened. Probably also to theirs, because of the resentment they will have of what you are doing to them.

Notice the difference between that and situations of exchange, where people go to buy bread, for instance—they're happy to give the money to the baker for the bread and the baker is happy to get the money for the bread. So they're both smiling. There's nothing about being an honest merchant or consumer that's in any way an impediment to enlightenment. As a matter of fact, you're probably adding to the welfare of everyone by doing both of those things.

Somik:  What would you say about the current rhetoric around consumerist culture, a transaction mentality and people who rain down on non-coercive exchanges as taking us in a wrong direction?
Prof. Howard: Non-coercive exchanges?

Somik:  As in what they call the market putting us into a transaction mentality.

Prof. Howard:  The market doesn't put you into any kind of mentality. You put yourself into that mentality. Now, I know in my own life, I want to have as many relationships instead of transactions as possible. In other words, I want to deal with a person and I would like to continue dealing with that person if I possibly can. Now sometimes, if you go to the supermarket, it's not so easy to form a relationship with the person, but you can. You can usually just exchange a few words with the checkout person and recognize that they are doing you a service.

I know my second wife, Joyce, when we went to a place in our camper, there was only one supermarket around, sort of a country store. Although it was like any other supermarket, she knew the stories behind everybody working there and when we came back many months later, she would ask them “Did so and so go to college; did they join the Army?” and so forth. Why not? You don't have to treat the person who's letting your foods through the scanner as if they're a machine. That's an alternative open to all of us and I know that throughout my life, many times, that where I started out to buy a good or service I met people who were great teachers of mine. I can get into endless detail on that. So you're making a big mistake if you decide that you're going to treat life as a bunch of transactions.

Even on the Internet. Last Friday I was on the Internet with a person who is designing a desktop computer for me, putting it together. We had a great conversation. His name was William and I know that if I had a problem, I could call him and say, "William, this isn't working the way you said it would." And he wouldn't say, "I'm sorry, you bought it." You get that feeling when you deal with people, that they want you to be pleased with what you're getting from them, just as you want to be pleased in knowing that you've got something you liked that people will stand behind. It’s kind of a strange zero-sum game of transactions if a purchase is where you have to treat everybody out there as a machine; that's up to you. You want to deal with machines, nothing wrong with machines, I like them, but they're a means to an end; people are a lot warmer than machines.

Somik:  You've also shared with us from time to time, stories from the Bible and in particular the one about Jesus and the adulterer and the bet you had.

Prof. Howard:  Oh, yeah. This was a bet I had with my mother because the way we were told about this was that this woman—I think she was a prostitute or something, I'm not exactly sure that's the way the story went—anyway Jesus washed her feet, with loving-ness toward her. The story that I heard was, "Go and sin no more." This is what my mother said it was. I said, “I can't believe that. That's so out of character; it's judgmental, why would Jesus say it?” So we bet ten dollars; this is many years ago. How are we going to resolve it because Jesus isn't around to tell us what he really said. But my aunt was a Jehovah's Witness and the Jehovah's witnesses are great believers in getting as accurate a translation of the Bible as they possibly can.

They have a whole place in Brooklyn that does nothing but make sure it's up to date, going back to the Greek and the Aramaic. So when you read something in that Bible, there are all kinds of footnotes saying this is what it was in Greek but really the original was Aramaic and this is what it meant. So we agreed that whatever it said would determine whether I was going to win or she was. If he said go and sin no more, then she would win and if he said something much gentler than that, I would win. So we looked in the Jehovah's Witness' Bible and there it was. What he said, according to the translation was "Go in peace." So I got my ten dollars.

Just think about that. I just heard today about a book I would like to read. It's about someone who is not a believer in formal religions and he's written a book about Jesus Christ. The two characters are Jesus and Christ, where Jesus is the teacher, the person that you love, and Christ is the one who's sort of being influenced in forming a religion. Now of course, it's a novel. But from what I've heard of it, it's kind of interesting because you can see there are almost two different views of that whole story that's come down to us from reporters over 2,000 years. It was a heresy, as you probably know—actually a heresy at the time of Thomas Bayes—to believe that Christ was only a great teacher. So this book is a heretical notion for some people, if they took it as not a novel but a real thing. But what's wrong with being a great teacher? (laughs)

Somik:  I'd like to end by asking you to talk about your views on non-dualism, or how you understand it.

Prof. Howard:  Well, it's kind of interesting that one of the things I experienced during my weekend 30-odd years ago was that—this is just the way it seemed to me—that everyone was God; only they didn't know it. What I realized was, suppose you were God, what would life look like? What would your existence look like? Well, you say, “I want the universe”— and boom, there it is. You can create anything you want. So why would you do anything? You can't have a joke, by the way, if you're God because you know the punch line at the same time you know the joke. You'd never do an experiment because you know how it's going to come out. You've got two choices, either do absolutely nothing, absolutely nothing or you play a game. And what game would you play? Well, I think you'd play the best game there is. That would be teaching and learning in my view, as we've said before.

But how can you learn when you're God? You know it all. So what you'd have to do would be to say, "Okay, I'm going to give up some of my powers of creating and knowing what's going to happen and so forth, in order to have the joy of teaching and learning.” If you think about it, that means you’re going to play a game. The essence of any game is that it has to have rules. In checkers you can only move on the black squares. If a person says, I can move off, I could move all over the table—no, no, no. That's not the rules of the game. You actually could do that, but that wouldn't be a good game. The good game comes with constraints. You get three strikes in baseball; every game you ever thought of would become nothing if you eliminated the constraints. So if you want to play a game, you've got to have constraints.

So God said, or the supreme being—you figure out your name for it—the infinity sign. God said, okay, to play this game, I have to impose constraints on myself. So I'm going to have a life that has a finite duration. That's what it will seem like. Of course, it's all a joke because that's all part of me anyway. But it will seem to the people there that they have only this life to live and this kind of thing. Okay, now the trick is, if they knew that this was only a game, then they wouldn't learn or teach anything because they know they're going to meet God. Think about it like people watching a movie in a movie theater. They're watching this movie and all of a sudden the screen goes dark and the manager comes out and says, I want you to know what you're seeing is not really happening, this is just life projected through a film and these people are not alive as they're depicted here. In fact they're appearing in other movies right now. So this is a complete illusion that you have. Would people say, “Oh thank you for telling us,” or would they say “You're ruining my enjoyment of the film.” You will enjoy life more if you don't know you're God. And sometimes there are little breakthroughs.

One of the things the Buddha said, which I thought was amazing, when he was dealing with his disciples, he forbade them to perform miracles before the multitudes, before lay people. Now notice that he didn't say, “I know you can't.” He said, “I forbid you to.” So to me, this is we're all God and we don't know it. We talk about world peace or something, right now, it seems like a really dumb idea to cut your arm off because it's a part of you. But when people have this realization that they're all God, then killing someone would be like cutting your arm off. It wouldn't be sinful, it would be dumb, a useless thing to do. But right now it's easy to have the thoughts of rage, anger, revenge and all of it. So that's my view of life, I'm God. So are you. So is everybody else and they don't know it. And that's okay.


About the Author

Somik Raha works on software and processes that bring dignity to the work of business development. His experiments and interests are around designing for our deepest values. He holds a PhD in Decision Analysis from Stanford University, with a dissertation on aligning our decisions with our core values. You can reach him at


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