Perspectives

I recently came across this essay on the slave-trade of Irish bodies in the New World. (I am trying to track down the reference, and will update this post with it when I locate it.) I hope it is not some revisionist point of view, though it does jibe very well with things my mother (a proud McCarthy from Cork) would say from time to time. The trade of human souls, black or white, is one of the worst stains of human existence. I was just so astounded to read this account, so recently, and it gave greater perspective on my own mother’s profound heart-sadness for the history of the Irish people under British rule.

The Irish slave trade began when 30,000 Irish prisoners were sold as slaves to the New World. The King James I Proclamation of 1625 required Irish political prisoners be sent overseas and sold to English settlers in the West Indies. By the mid 1600s, the Irish were the main slaves sold to Antigua and Montserrat. At that time, 70% of the total population of Montserrat were Irish slaves.

Ireland quickly became the biggest source of human livestock for English merchants. The majority of the early slaves to the New World were actually white.

From 1641 to 1652, over 500,000 Irish were killed by the English and another 300,000 were sold as slaves. Ireland’s population fell from about 1,500,000 to 600,000 in one single decade. Families were ripped apart as the British did not allow Irish dads to take their wives and children with them across the Atlantic. This led to a helpless population of homeless women and children. Britain’s solution was to auction them off as well.

During the 1650s, over 100,000 Irish children between the ages of 10 and 14 were taken from their parents and sold as slaves in the West Indies, Virginia and New England. In this decade, 52,000 Irish (mostly women and children) were sold to Barbados and Virginia. Another 30,000 Irish men and women were also transported and sold to the highest bidder. In 1656, Cromwell ordered that 2000 Irish children be taken to Jamaica and sold as slaves to English settlers.

Many people today will avoid calling the Irish slaves what they truly were: Slaves. They’ll come up with terms like “Indentured Servants” to describe what occurred to the Irish. However, in most cases from the 17th and 18th centuries, Irish slaves were nothing more than human cattle.

As an example, the African slave trade was just beginning during this same period. It is well recorded that African slaves, not tainted with the stain of the hated Catholic theology and more expensive to purchase, were often treated far better than their Irish counterparts.

African slaves were very expensive during the late 1600s (50 Sterling). Irish slaves came cheap (no more than 5 Sterling). If a planter whipped or branded or beat an Irish slave to death, it was never a crime. A death was a monetary setback, but far cheaper than killing a more expensive African. The English masters quickly began breeding the Irish women for both their own personal pleasure and for greater profit. Children of slaves were themselves slaves, which increased the size of the master’s free workforce. Even if an Irish woman somehow obtained her freedom, her kids would remain slaves of her master. Thus, Irish moms, even with this new found emancipation, would seldom abandon their kids and would remain in servitude.

In time, the English thought of a better way to use these women (in many cases, girls as young as 12) to increase their market share: The settlers began to breed Irish women and girls with African men to produce slaves with a distinct complexion. These new “mulatto” slaves brought a higher price than Irish livestock and, likewise, enabled the settlers to save money rather than purchase new African slaves. This practice of interbreeding Irish females with African men went on for several decades and was so widespread that, in 1681, legislation was passed “forbidding the practice of mating Irish slave women to African slave men for the purpose of producing slaves for sale.” In short, it was stopped only because it interfered with the profits of a large slave transport company.

England continued to ship tens of thousands of Irish slaves for more than a century. Records state that, after the 1798 Irish Rebellion, thousands of Irish slaves were sold to both America and Australia. There were horrible abuses of both African and Irish captives. One British ship even dumped 1,302 slaves into the Atlantic Ocean so that the crew would have plenty of food to eat.

There is little question that the Irish experienced the horrors of slavery as much (if not more in the 17th Century) as the Africans did. There is, also, very little question that those brown, tanned faces you witness in your travels to the West Indies are very likely a combination of African and Irish ancestry. In 1839, Britain finally decided on its own to end its participation in Satan’s highway to hell and stopped transporting slaves. While their decision did not stop pirates from doing what they desired, the new law slowly concluded THIS chapter of nightmarish Irish misery.

Irish slavery is a subject worth remembering, not erasing from our memories.

ZCR Team, Summer 2020

It is such an honor to practice in these strange quarantine days with two such stalwart practitioners: Ah Gong (Nico R.), our Director; and Doh Ahn (Ioannis), our Housemaster. Every day, every day, no-days-off full-on don’t-know temple-life with such excellent younger brothers. (Missing from the photo is Do Tzong (Y.), our Head Dharma Teacher; the photographer, Leila, is reflected in the glass door behind)

Memento Mori (2)



Dogen instructed, “Impermanence is swift; life-and-death is a vital matter. For the short while you are alive, if you wish to study or practice some activity, just practice the Buddha-Way and study the buddha-dharma. Since literature and poetry are useless, you should give them up. Even when you study the buddha-dharma and practice the Buddha-Way, do not study extensively. Needless to say, refrain from learning the Exoteric and Esoteric scriptures of the teaching-schools. Do not be fond of learning on a large scale, even the sayings of the buddhas and patriarchs. It is difficult for us untalented and inferior people to concentrate on and complete even one thing. It is no good at all to do many things at the same time and lose steadiness of mind.”

Eihei Dogen Zenji (1200–1253), Shobogenzo Zuimonki

The Way Zen Teaches

Two days ago, in the Zen Center Regensburg’s Facebook page Inbox, appeared this question from someone. The letter-writer first cites a poem by the Japanese haiku master, Bashō. Then she asks her question. (My reply is in blue.)

More Great Sam Harris: On Existential Risk, etc.

Sam Harris speaking with the Future of Life Institute, in May 2020. This entire talk is definitely well worth listening to.

Lucas Perry: One thing that I wanted to throw in here in terms of the kinetics of long-termism and emotional saliency, it would be stupidly optimistic I think, to think that everyone could become selfless bodhisattvas. In terms of your interest, the way in which you promote meditation and mindfulness, and your arguments against the conventional, experiential and conceptual notion of the self, for me at least, has dissolved much of the barriers which would hold me from being emotionally motivated from long-termism.

Now, that itself I think, is another long conversation. When your sense of “self” is becoming nudged, disentangled and dissolved in new ways, the idea that it won’t be you in the future, or the idea that the beautiful dreams that Dyson-spheres will be having in a billion years are not you, that begins to relax a bit. That’s probably not something that is helpful for most people, but I do think that it’s possible for people to adopt and for meditation, mindfulness and introspection to lead to this weakening of sense of “self,” which then also opens one’s optimism, and compassion, and mind towards the long-termist view.

Sam Harris: That’s something that you get from reading Derek Parfit’s work. The paradoxes of identity that he so brilliantly framed and tried to reason through yield something like what you’re talking about. It’s not so important whether it’s “you”, because this notion of you is in fact, paradoxical to the point of being impossible to pin down. Whether the you that woke up in your bed this morning is the same person who went to sleep in it the night before, that is problematic. Yet there’s this fact of some degree of psychological continuity.

The basic fact experientially is just, there is consciousness and its contents. The only place for feelings, and perceptions, and moods, and expectations, and experience to show up is in consciousness, whatever it is and whatever its connection to the physics of things actually turns out to be. There’s just consciousness. The question of where it appears is a genuinely interesting one philosophically, and intellectually, and scientifically, and ultimately morally.

Because if we build conscious robots or conscious computers and build them in a way that causes them to suffer, we’ve just done something terrible. We might do that inadvertently if we don’t know how consciousness arises based on information processing, or whether it does. It’s all interesting terrain to think about. If the lights are still on a billion years from now, and the view of the universe is unimaginably bright, and interesting and beautiful, and all kinds of creative things are possible by virtue of the kinds of minds involved, that will be much better than any alternative. That’s certainly how it seems to me.

Lucas Perry: I agree. Some things here that ring true seem to be, you always talk about how there’s only consciousness and its contents. I really like the phrase, “Seeing from nowhere.” That usually is quite motivating for me, in terms of the arguments against the conventional conceptual and experiential notions of self. There just seems to be instantiations of consciousness intrinsically free of identity.

Sam Harris: Two things to distinguish here. There’s the philosophical, conceptual side of the conversation, which can show you that things like your concept of a “self”, or certainly your concept of a “self” that could have free will that, that doesn’t make a lot of sense. It doesn’t make sense when mapped onto physics. It doesn’t make sense when looked for neurologically. Any way you look at it, it begins to fall apart. That’s interesting, but again, it doesn’t necessarily change anyone’s experience.

It’s just a riddle that can’t be solved. Then there’s the experiential side which you encounter more in things like meditation, or psychedelics, or sheer good luck where you can experience consciousness without the sense that there’s a subject or a self in the center of it appropriating experiences. Just a continuum of experience that doesn’t have structure in the normal way. What’s more, that’s not a problem. In fact, it’s the solution to many problems.

A lot of the discomfort you have felt psychologically goes away when you punch through to a recognition that consciousness is just the space in which thoughts, sensations and emotions continually appear, change and vanish. There’s no thinker authoring the thoughts. There’s no experiencer in the middle of the experience. It’s not to say you don’t have a body. There’s every sign that you have a body is still appearing. There’s sensations of tension, warmth, pressure and movement.

There are sights, there are sounds but again, everything is simply an appearance in this condition, which I’m calling consciousness for lack of a better word. There’s no subject to whom it all refers. That can be immensely freeing to recognize, and that’s a matter of a direct change in one’s experience. It’s not a matter of banging your head against the riddles of Derek Parfit or any other way of undermining one’s belief in personal identity or the reification of a self.

Your Eyes Cannot See Your Eyes

Dae Soen Sa Nim used to teach us, “Your eyes cannot see your own eyes. To try to see your own eyes is delusion. And yet you see. In the same way, mind cannot be understand through mind, through thinking and concepts. To try to understand your mind through thinking and concepts is a delusion. But you have mind! Only experience can teach you the nature of mind — not books or words and speech. Even my own explanation is a big mistake!”

Here, in the following dialogue, is perhaps his greatest employment of this teaching tool for opening our minds to the possibilities of attaining true insight into the nature of reality. It is the opening chapter for the book, Wanting Enlightenment is a Big Mistake. In this, we see his truly Socratic method, birthing the “answer” or the insight right out of the student, and if the student could not seem to be made fully aware of what they were “looking” for, in that instant, at least the assembly of fellow listeners could (or we could, reading it, years later).