Richard Eskow is a writer, consultant, and musician, who is a senior fellow with a public policy group. In this episode, Richard discusses with host Vincent Horn a recent article he wrote for Tricycle Magazine called DNA Sutra. For the piece he had his DNA analyzed to have his ancestry traced all the way back to the “first mother”. He describes how the process has led him to a greater understanding of karma, the conditions that connect himself with his adversaries, and his greater connection to all of humanity.
Vincent: Hello, Buddhist Geeks. This is Vincent Horn back again for another episode. And this week, very excited to be speaking with Richard Eskow. Richard, it’s awesome to finally have you on the show.
Richard: It’s equally awesome to be here. I love the show and I’m really happy to be here talking with you.
Vincent: Okay. Awesome. I just want to mention a little bit of your background. You’re a writer first and foremost, contributing editor at Tricycle Magazine which I’m sure everyone who listens to Buddhist Geeks has to be aware of Tricycle. And you also contribute regularly to the Huffington Post. You were a professional musician for many years singer/songwriter. And you were doing that gig, and then did you become a writer after your songwriting career or did you kind of do both in parallel.
Richard: Well, I did both in parallel and then I had about a 20-year break where I worked in the corporate world. I started out an IT and then I wound up on Wall Street. Then from there went to Washington and wound up doing a lot of policy work internationally. And then from there that turned into writing about politics and economics and the fields I’ve been working in, and eventually open that up to writing about Buddhism and everything that’s been on my mind and heart lately so.
Vincent: And during the time that you’re pursuing your kind of professional careers at what point where you starting to get into Buddhist practice.
Richard: Well I got into Buddhist practice a long, long time ago. I would say probably 25 to 28 years ago when I started to become absolutely miserable with the corporate life. And I was trying to do it in a self-taught way. You know as a writer I’m just an addictive reader, so I read all these books on D.T. Suzuki about everything I could find, read hundreds of books.
But then there were certain basic principles I didn’t grasp. So I’d come home from a tough work day and I’ve had a couple of beers and sit cross legged in the backyard. But I really wasn’t meditating. I had a beer buzz on in the lotus position. And so I wasn’t grasping some of the essential concepts. And then I thought this doesn’t work.
So it wasn’t till years later that I really started seeking out teachers and a little bit more discipline and beginning to understand that, one, face to face present is important, and two, that community sangha or the fellowship of others working on the same thing was an essential part.
Vincent: Okay. Cool. So one thing that we wanted to talk about today is a piece of writing that you recently did for Tricycle and it’s an article entitled DNA Sutra. And I should just mention that you’re doing a lot of writing that is exploring many of the convergence points that here in Buddhist Geeks are really interested in particular a lot of stuff around technology given your kind of geek background and interest in that field.
So when you told me that you’re writing this article I thought, oh man, this would be such a cool thing to have to talk about on Buddhist Geeks. And I wonder if you could just start by telling us about this genetic experiment that you did on yourself and how that gave rise to this piece that you wrote for Tricycle on the DNA Sutra.
Richard: Well really it began with just a contemplation. You know Buddhism has a lot of fascinating exploration of how we come to be. And obviously a lot of western Buddhist either do or don’t accept the somewhat supernatural aspect of it. But they’re you know fascinating dependent origination and this process where the skandhas or the senses begin to form or so on. But we haven’t really tried as a community to say well how does that reconcile with what we know about modern science.
But what I found myself even less intellectual just more viscerally saying that you know I was always, you know, this idea that there is no discreet self where an aggregation of events and time and space. I always think of that story of I forget who it was who I think it was an early Buddhist nun supposedly Mara comes to her room to..you know, the Tempte of Buddhist methodology comes to her room.
She says there is no being here. There is no creature here to be tempted. And I thought. Okay. That kind of has resonated with me as a kind of illumination of self. But then if you start going down that road in the context of both Buddhist history and literature and just personal exploration in modern science it’s like well okay who is this person who thinks he’s exploring all this stuff. Where did all these aggregation of thoughts and impulses and feeling and flash really come from? How did it arise?
So I started to, first I went to my birthplace which I hadn’t seen in many years and wrote about it for Tricycle. This kind of revisiting of my childhood and how that might have formed the person I am now. And that’s like okay let’s go deeper. I mean who is thinking this, to what extent is this being, this Richard Eskow the product of forces that are one: biological and inherited, two: greater than strictly human, in other words the greater forces that created the different species and on the earth and so on. And then three: the historical forces and who gets to marry and who doesn’t and who meets whom along the way and then the culture that we carry with us. So I know that was a lot to try to compress in 2200 words for Tricycle Magazine. But I took my best shot at it just to say okay I’ll have my DNA tested. I’ll go through that experiment and see, and I’ll also read the literature of my ancestors and I’ll do those two in parallel and see what comes out.
Vincent: Okay. Cool. And then in terms of the specifics you use the service which I’ve heard of before called 23andMe. Could you say a little bit about what that is.
Richard: Yeah. I came across 23andMe because of my other writings. I sometimes corresponded with Esther Dyson who’s an investment expert, a kind of tech whiz. And she was one of the original investors in 23andMe which is how I heard of it. That’s one of the services that will for a fairly modest fee analyze your genes and tell you to the best of their ability where your ancestors came from. And that can be traced all the way back to the one common ancestor, male ancestor of all human beings and the one common female ancestor of all human beings.
So they’ll do that and then based on your genes, your predisposition for or against certain types of diseases or certain types of habits. And I guess I should say there’s kind of a controversy in genetic science right now because there are people who go very deep into this and say there’s a gene that suggests that you will be a bad driver for example which if there is I have it by the way. They’ll say there’s a gene that gives you predisposition to violence, a gene that gives a predisposition to be gay or straight or whatever.
But the more conservative approach and the less expensive approach, which is the one like services like 23andMe takes, is let’s keep higher level. Where your ancestors come from and then base on our knowledge what are you at risk for or less at risk for when compare to the average from a disease point of view. So I started there and I sent them my spit which is how you do it.
Vincent: Okay. Cool. And one of the things that I thought was so interesting while I was reading through article what came to mind was the sort of classical teaching in Buddhism on karma. I know in many ways this is going to be an over simplification of karma. But the way I’ve always understood it is sort of an explanatory framework that came out of this Indian tradition to kind of describe the mechanics of how our deeds particularly the things that we’ve done in the past will potentially lead to some future results that impact us.
And you know in the west there’s that common understanding of karma like what goes around comes around. So in essence, I mean when you boil it down, it’s sort of a description of how cause and effect function in the world. And in some ways our understanding of DNA, in some ways I have the thought before. This is some ways a contemporary description of what the Buddhists were trying to get at with karma.
And you wrote in your article quoting the great Zen master Dogen “To study the self is to know the self. Our genome is like an ancient sutra. Like a sutra the genome carries a series of brief coded instructions from the past. Genes guide our growth and bear program instructions.”
So it’s clear there’s some relationship there between the contemporary descriptions of DNA and kind of what this programming that we carry in our genes that comes from the past and bears fruit in our lives now.
And clearly though if you study the Buddhist notion of karma, it’s also very different of how the Buddhist are talking about this. So I’m curios how you’re looking at this connection between these contemporary theories from science, from biological theory on causes and conditions and these ancient Buddhist ideas since there’s clearly an overlap and then also a lot of difference. How do you deal with these differences and these similarities?
Richard: Yeah. I mean that’s a great question. And no. 1 in terms of similarity the other piece of it is that our genes are not our destiny but they’re a series, if you talk to the scientist, they are a series of possible we can think of them of programs software that may or may not be triggered at any given point. So there’s this constant interplay between our genetics, our environment, and our own action.
So I may have a gene that you know. Two of us may have the same gene for the same disease for example. But if I’m exposed to something in my environment, you aren’t, I may suffer from the disease and you don’t. So just as the Buddhist tradition were learn what to do with the karma you brought, modern science in a sense can say well learn what to do with the genetic you have to prevent triggering that disease. And there’s an element of choice and decision.
So yes, you know, I think the big differences of course is that you get into the naughtiest of the all the Buddhist problems which is the nonexistent self and therefore what is it that inherits this karma from lifetime to lifetime if there’s no self and I heard it describe as momentum almost in physical terms. But however you think of it there’s not, you know, one big difference is I bear as a genetic creature a community of karma.
It’s not a single beings or series of beings but no. 1 they come from my mother and my father and all the people who preceded them. And no. 2 they come from the environments they lived in. You know because my primary writing work involves politics, economics and even war and how these forces affect our lives. The genes that you and I carry are affected by ancient wars and who won and who lost and who lived and who died.
They’re affected by who get access to good food supplies and good water supplies and who got healthy and who is stunted. Who reproduced enough to create a linage and such? If they did reproduce enough, whose children were strong and healthy? So it gets very complex. So the biggest difference is it’s not a singular karma that goes down through time. It’s kind of a collective matrix of human forces and external forces that led to and continued to lead to us arising moment by moment.
Vincent: That’s cool. And do you feel like that perspective adds something to the Buddhist take which is mostly around the individual and their actions.
Richard: Well I do. Because I think that we all struggle. I shouldn’t say we all. Many of us struggle with reconciling a Buddhist practice and Buddhist tradition with the modern world. And yes I’m a Buddhist geek and I love the intersection of science and technology and spirituality. As you know Vince sometimes I’ve been a radical Buddhist Geek because I also worship and revered the mysterious, the luminous, the indescribable.
But however you go at it, many of us are exploring these issues constantly and I think for me what it does is it helps me toward that path of non-self and toward that path of non-attachment to my own personality, my own ego, my own drives, my own needs to realize that I’m this confluence of genes and time and environment.
In a sense that achieves for me something of what I think perhaps, you know, dependent origination in its classic or traditional form has done for others. It’s like hey don’t take yourself so personally. You know one of the examples I used in the piece is I’m a writer to this extent of possibly being a compulsively a writer and I single out a well-known ancestor, well-known in historical terms from a 16th century who not only wrote but wrote in a very kind of modern and blogger kind of. I had to do a lot of blogging. He wrote like a blogger you know. He was very stream or like Jack Kerouac you know very stream consciousness, very flow, almost bipolar.
And in fact I am at higher risk than average by bipolar disorder according to the genes. And there’s some of that in my general family cloud. And here you have a guy who writes in a bipolar way 500 years ago and reacts to events like I do. Obviously there’s no answer to any of this. But to explore okay if I get on a jag or a tear of I should be going to bed because I got to get up at 5:30 and meditate among other things. But it’s midnight and this stuff is falling out.
Well I can look at my no. 1 my genes and no. 2 this guy 500 years ago who is doing the same thing and even complaining about it and saying I should be going to bed. But these words are coming like he says like monster children just half formed that they keep appearing. So if I see that then I can say you know what, I can step back from this and say this is an ancient process unfolding in the first person with me right now.
So no. 1, I don’t have to feel trapped in it, I don’t have to panic about it. I don’t have to feel attach to it either and say well I’m staying up because this is who I am. You know in an ideal world I can breathe, pause, be mindful of what’s happening. This informs my mindfulness even more to say okay time to go to bed. Now if you ask my wife she’s going to say I don’t do that enough but it’s a tool to help me move in that direction. So in that sense, yes, I do think it informs a modern Buddhist practice for me.
Vincent: That’s really cool. And just while you’re talking I’m just reflecting on part of what’s been so interesting to me about this whole Buddhist practice experience is that on the one hand there’s a recognition of this dimension of our being that’s sort of unconditioned and is sort of not influenced by conditioning or not touched by conditioning and that’s something we can wake up to.
And then on the other hand there’s a clear recognition and yet even if you wake up to that unconditioned nature you’re still conditioned. And so on the personal level we still have this conditioning and what I love about what you’re saying is that it sort of it broadens it.
So it’s not like I’m not just working with my personal conditioning but I’m sort of working with like the past conditioning of humanity itself like through my genes and through my environment and through my experience. It somehow feels like it very much connects me with the past. And I love how you wrote about that so clearly in the article. It’s a really beautiful reflection on interdependence and conditioning.
Richard: Well thank you and that is I think that is where it takes you. It certainly where it took me, you know, this kind of meta-conditioning that goes back to, you know I trace it all the way back to the original living thing which was the size of the ocean according to scientist and then divided off and began to fractionate into different life forms coming all the way down to you and me.
So this was a kind of okay this is my conditioning but then going all the way back to Eve they sometimes call or the mother of mothers who when she was alive 200,000 years ago give or take probably take, more like 180 whatever it was when she was alive, we are all descendant from her first of all.
Scientist says there were maybe 2000 human beings on the entire planet and she was short and full growth. Would have been about 4 feet tall, closest thing we would have in our lives today she probably physically resemble the aboriginal people that used to be called Bushmen you know short in that sense.
Pre-language, had no speech as we understand it today according to the scientists but clearly fully human and fully ourselves. And she has since been traced maternal line through the mother, paternal line through the father. She was the mother of a woman who was a mother of a woman multiply X many times who is my mother’s mother.
So whatever was inherited from my mother’s care of me came from her. And she lived in a larger environment where she was descended from pre human life forms and going all the way back to that original life form. All along the way back we’ve learned to compete, contend for resources, seek contentment, want to reproduce. All of that stuff.
So yes we have that meta-conditioning, a word we can just make up now, that goes along with our human conditioning and our individual conditioning so here we are.
Vincent: Nice. And you know that was something I actually had never heard before that we come from a common ancestor in this mother of mother and you mentioned also a common ancestor on the paternal side like genetically we can trace ourselves back to an original father as well.
Richard: Yes. And that is a more recent, that was a more recent life. And I should have the figures in front of me but I don’t. I think he was more like maybe 100,000-80,000 years ago. So we can all be traced back to a single father. They never met each other of course. They lived at different times but their lineages interacted and intermingled. So there is a, I think that we’re all eighth cousins something like that. I’m pretty sure it’s eighth cousins. I didn’t put it in the book. I used it for another piece years ago.
But that every human being who has ever lived is our eighth cousin. I think I wrote it trying to get over some religious complex. I think I wrote it for Christmas time and called it Cousin Jesus or something. And said Jesus was your eighth cousin. Mohammad was your eighth cousin. Richard Dawkins is probably my eighth. You know everybody is your eighth cousin. So it’s a family affair. So yeah we’re all descended from same man, same woman. So there is a common bloodline in all of us.
Vincent: I was curious in your research like what kinds of reflections that recognition was leading you to?
Richard: Well I’ll tell you, you know two things. One is it really helped me see other people. A lot of my work is political writing, political advocacy, political research which is inherently conflict based. So one of the things that really helped me was, and you and I have talked by the way about how it’s very hard for me to address the conflict oriented inner self with that kind of voice we hear sometimes in the western community of, Richard, why don’t you see what you and vice-president Cheney have in common.
You know that just wasn’t working for me. But this voice, this really helps me to say okay I am impelled by many of the same drives that would drive a Dick Cheney to become who he is. So I guess one of the ways that helped me was to say if we are driven by common impulses that are just manifesting themselves differently according to our own programming, knowledge, understanding, range of experience that really helps me when it’s appropriate identify with the person that is supposed to be “my enemy.”
And it really helps me get beyond this thinking that says left versus right, Democrat versus Republican, you know Buddhist versus Christian whatever it might be and to see that there is an inherited tendency to think that way. You know Mel Brooks used to do this routine the 2000-year-old man. Do you remember that routine, the 2000-year-old man?
Richard: He was very funny. And he would just be this old man who had lived since the time of Adam and he would talk like that. And somebody asked the 2000-year-old man. They asked him, what was the first national anthem, do you remember? And he said, the first national anthem was let them all go to hell except cave 76. And I always love that. It really fits in with my piece that cave 76 that’s part of our programming.
And it led to a great discovery as part of this piece which was I’m Jewish on my father side, Ukrainian-Jewish and my mother was half-British, that’s where the Sir William Temple this ancestor comes from, and half French or Swiss-French. Both sides of my family, I had a grandmother who is an immigrant from France, my grandparents were refugees from Ukraine. The one thing they had in common across the great divides was hatred of Germans.
They just hated the Germans. The Jewish grandparents easy to understand as the Germans had tormented and slaughtered their people in the most horrific crime in the human history. And on my grandmother side the Germans had seized her family’s house and all their money and left them in poverty in World War I. And she just couldn’t stand those guys. She used to curse them out in French. So I was raised with this kind of loathing of Germans. And one of the big discoveries when my genetic analysis came back is that I’m primarily German.
Vincent: Wow. That’s incredible. I mean that’s just incredible to see. And you didn’t know that before then.
Richard: I had no idea. Afterward it made a certain sense because first of all what they can tell you is that on all four grandparents side the genome matches people who are 100% from that part of the world. So, on the grandparent side some of that would be probably Jews who had settled in Germany. That’s how they had someway intermingled with ethnic Germans. And on the grandparent side, you know, the Germans were all over Switzerland and France and their Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain.
So I’m more than 50% German and once you look at the history, it makes sense. But it was a great way of saying okay I was raised to hate, really the one bias. I would say I had a very liberal progressive open family. But the one bias that, and more so from my non-Jewish mother, interesting, but from my grandparents and for my mother, is just detesting of Germans. Detesting their culture, detesting what they have done, detesting the sound of their language, detesting their literature. Some of which is incredibly beautiful.
But you know just this one bias was Germans. You know we hate Germans in this family. So of course talk about karma, karmically it would figure that we’re German. It was very interesting. I was also raised because of my age in the time period where the holocaust was really fresh in memory. I went to Hebrew school and I had a couple of Hebrew school teachers who were survivors of the concentration camps who had the blue numbers on the wrist and so on. So I was raised with a very immediate perception of the horror of German actions. And yet here we are. I am that which I perceived as my enemy.