The Map is Not the Territory

My friend Inge Riebe is an anthropologist who has long grappled with one of the main challenges of her discipline.  How do you get to understand a very different culture to your own from its own side, and escape the trap of seeing everything through the lens of your own cultural assumptions?  It is not easy to do. Anthropology is plagued with the failure of Western scholars to do this, which is why it is such an object of post-colonial critical analysis.  Our ways of thinking are schooled for looking for points of connection. It is how we build our knowledge and understanding.  We easily forget that ‘the map is not the territory’. That words are merely designations pointing to something—words that can reveal and obscure or mislead us. All translators between languages and cultures know this. it is why language has become one of the new contested territories in the feminist and post-colonial reckoning.

It is also why it is so very hard to escape the stranglehold of the familiar, the prison of ‘the real’, the unconscious assumptions that shape our worldview. As we grapple with the challenges of AI.  Randolph Grace (The Conversation 4 January 2024) suggests it is our new Promethean Fire,

My Buddhist teacher, Sogyal Rinpoche would always admonish us to not confuse Buddhist ways of understanding things with Western psychology. He would say, ‘Don’t mix things up. Listen with a clear mind’. And he would remind us, the more and more you listen, the more and more you will hear. I know it took me a long time to ‘hear’ what he was trying to impart, so that I didn’t ‘mix things up’.  Another Buddhist teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche really helped with this, as magically he was really able to build a bridge between Buddhist ways of thinking and Western psychology—for our English language ‘words’ to reveal as much as obscured. Books such as ‘The Myth of Freedom’ were such eye-openers for me and so many others.

Sogyal Rinpoche would also say – visualise, don’t conceptualise: see everything in one glance, see all the interdependencies.  These admonitions became known as Sogyal Rinpoche’s Activity Teachings— putting Buddhist meditation into practice in daily life.  What is known as the post-meditation state. Where you see what you’ve actually been able to accomplish in the hurly burly of life, rather than in a quiet place on the cushion.

So instead of our habitual pattern of chasing new information to satisfy our intellectual curiosity, we were introduced to the idea of experiential contemplation, combined with the meditative discipline of not chasing thoughts and emotions. Instead, we would discover that behind mind’s busyness, there is a quiet still awareness in which we can learn to rest the mind. And in this way, we can learn how to ‘come home to ourselves’.  Because, he would challenge us, ‘You are always out there, chasing thoughts and emotions. You are never at home.’

Perhaps this is why the Aboriginal Elder, Miriam Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann says that ‘dadirri’, inner deep listening and quiet still awareness, is perhaps the greatest gift her culture can give to modern Australia.


As much as I love podcasts and online music streaming, it saddens me to see so many people constantly plugged in via their headphones, as they jog or walk in nature, or work in the garden.  In this way, more and more we miss this opportunity for ‘quiet still awareness’.

What is interesting is that Olga Mecking’s book on ‘niksen’, the Dutch concept of the ‘art of doing nothing’ has achieved global viral status, mirroring people’s yearning to disconnect from the relentless ‘pressure’ to achieve—job success, money success, status success, wellbeing success, health success, relationship success, parenting success. On and on it goes. As she says: “We always have in mind some kind of outcome. When we prepare meals, we think, ‘This meal will help me lose weight or will make me healthier.’ If we go for a walk, it has to be part of our 10,000 steps. So we lose that fun of just eating or just walking. So niksen is about letting go of the outcome.” And this letting go of expectations, of purpose, is also the art of meditation, of coming home to ourselves in a state of inner, quiet still, awareness.


Sogyal Rinpoche would also challenge us. ‘Understanding is not realisation’. Understanding is conceptual, whereas realisation is non-conceptual wisdom, directly ‘seeing’. It is this ‘directly seeing’ that is the foundation of the Buddhist path revealed by Prince Siddhartha, from his own meditative insights, which were revealed in his first teachings 500 years before the birth of Christ—the teaching on the Four Noble Truths.  Where he revealed not only the causes of pervasive human suffering (mental and physical), but also the possibility of overcoming this. Not only by removing the causes but by the direct realisation that the nature of reality is shunyata—limitless open dimensionality, free of subject-object duality, free of our inherent tendency to grasp onto things, to reify our experience in frozen concepts and memories, which is the basis of suffering. The wanting and not wanting, the hopes and fears that drive our world experience.

When I first encountered the Buddhist teachings of the Tibetan Vajrayana tradition back in the mid 1980s, they were a revelation. Instead of an all-knowing transcendent God of simultaneous judgement and mercy, these qualities attributed to such a patriarchal God could be found within my own being as my own ‘true nature’ of the timeless wisdom of all pervasive, non-dual clarity and compassion. That behind the mask of tumultuous conceptual thought and turbulent emotions, another dimension of being could be discovered and brought forth.

That this very troubled self that I sought to understand through psychology and psychotherapy was not a ‘thing’ in itself.  But a process of continuously coming into being and dissolving through the dance of thoughts and emotions that passed through the mind, obscuring its inherent clarity and crippling its capacity for compassion. That discovering this was the path of wisdom and inner freedom. We cannot always change our physical circumstances, but we CAN change our attitude towards them, and thus our experience of them.

The Blindness of Western Culture

I was university educated, majoring in sociology and history. I’d even studied the Cultural History of India, dating back to 3000 BCE, and the history of China and Japan from 1500 to the second world war resulting in the triumph of Mao Zedong’s communist campaign against the western-oriented nationalist forces of Chiang Kai Shek against the backdrop of the Japanese invasion of China, to establish the People’s Republic of China. Much to the chagrin of the US and the Western Alliance.

I’d studied the history of slavery and racism in the Americas, and as a student campaigned against apartheid in South Africa and enduring racism against Aboriginal people in Australia. I even met my future husband, a student from the Trobriand Islands of PNG, this way. We met on a student march in support of the famous Gurindji walk-off at Wave Hill cattle station, which began the land rights movement that eventually led to the High Court Mabo decision that overturned the colonial doctrine of terra nullius. The dubious legal claim by British settlers that Australia’s Indigenous people had no legal claim to the land they’d lived on for what we now know is more than 65,000 years, what we now celebrate as the oldest continuous living culture in the world, was finally exposed for what it was. 

A genocidal land grab in the name of law, civilisation, and the moral certitude of Christianity that ‘God’  as the only ‘real’ source of spirituality and was on the side of the ‘white man’.  These twin ideas are the basis of the epistemic violence visited upon Australia’s First Nations people, which continues to this day through the criminal justice system and the Western academy. Although it must be acknowledged that Institutes of Indigenous Knowledge Systems are now challenging this in many of our universities.

However, not once in my university education did I ever encounter the idea of wisdom as a form of knowledge. The idea of wisdom existed only faintly in fables, mixed up in ideas of sorcery and witchcraft, of ancient wise women with knowledge of herbal cures who were deemed witches. Today it survives in fantasy literature, films and video games, serving as cultural antidotes to the domination of the prosaic rationalism and technology of mainstream culture.

When Randolph Grace discusses how AI is the promethean challenge of the 21s century, he calls on the idea of collective wisdom, but there is no hyperlink here to take us to western ideas about the nature of such wisdom and how to develop it.

He suggests: As a global civilisation, we are likely at a turning point. AI will not become sentient and decide to kill us all. But we are very capable of “apocalypsing” ourselves with it – expectation can create reality. Efforts to ensure AI alignment, safety and security are vitally important, but may not be enough if we lack awareness and collective wisdom. Like Alice, we need to wake up from the dream and recognise the reality and power of our minds.

It is this recognition of the reality and power of our minds that has been the focus of Indian and Buddhist Philosophy for over 2500 years, taking us into understandings that lie well beyond Western philosophical and scientific discourses.

Nothing in my university education alerted me to the unexamined hegemony of Western thought and its claim to represent the most advanced form of human civilisation, drawing on the brilliance of Greek philosophy, the European Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. This birthed the technological marvels of the Industrial Revolution, which then underpinned European colonial dominance of the world. Especially the British, who would loudly proclaim that ‘the sun never sets on the British Empire’. Of course, in true Western tradition, I learned ‘critical thinking’, but this was entirely wrapped within the hegemony of Western thought.

After the devastation of WWII, an empire in new clothes was passed on to the United States of America, with its claims to being the champion of democracy, freedom, and a rules-based new world order, and finally the victor at the end of the Cold War with the collapse of the communist inspired Soviet Union with its own empire of soviets—now independent states.

China survived by morphing from communism to state-run capitalism, a so-called ‘communism with Chinese characteristics’. Russia now rattles its cage in frustration at the loss of its empire, building its network of alliances to counter the West, while at the same time evolving into its own version of oligarchic capitalism as a ‘mafia-like state’.

Meanwhile a vengeful Israel seeks the total destruction of Gaza and Palestinian culture and statehood, in the name of fighting terrorism, so that the children of the holocaust are fast becoming a pariah state with few friends and allies.

So serious has this situation become, that a group of eminent and prominent Israeli intellectuals and scientists have published an open letter to the Israeli Attorney General, accusing the country’s judicial authorities of ignoring “extensive and blatant” incitement to genocide and ethnic cleansing in Gaza by influential public figures. In a letter to the attorney general and state prosecutors, they demand action to stop the normalisation of language that breaks both Israeli and international law. The same group who back in 2018 tried to draw international attention to the official and openly stated ideological policy of the elected Israeli government that has it that this land, from the Mediterranean to the Jordan river, belongs in its entirety to the Jewish people, wherever they may be. A similar claim is heard by the displaced Palestinians. The reality calls for a multicultural ‘nation’ of different faiths and cultures, echoing what Australia has tried to develop as an ‘immigrant’ nation.

A New Year Message 2024

The Buddhist teacher, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche said recently in his New Year message from the Khyentse Foundation, reflecting on the failure of global culture to escape the hegemony of the West, and draw inspiration from the ancient insights of Taoism, Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, into the nature of wisdom and the human predicament:

My dear fellow beings:

. . . I have come to realize that the only reason why people like Gautama, Lao Tzu, and Mahavira are not widely known today is because of colonial and neocolonial might that has convinced itself that its own modernity is “the end of history,” and convinced the rest of the world that westernization and modernization are one and the same.

That is why Obama quotes Kant and not Mahavira, why Deng Xiaoping quotes Karl Marx and not Gautama, and why people in the larger world only know about Kama Sutra not Arthashastra. I have read philosophers like Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, and Marx, though of course not thoroughly. But I have also not read the Buddha’s teachings thoroughly. Still, I’ve so far not found any insight into so-called reality that these western writers have said that the Buddha has not said, and I’ve found so much that the Buddha said that those writers have not even begun to say.

It’s one thing for traditions to die out if they are archaic, useless, or harmful like female infanticide, genital mutilation, or forced enslavement. But the degeneration of genuine wisdom traditions into nothing more than objects of anthropological interest is a grave and even dangerous loss to humanity. . .

Rediscovering Wisdom

It is this loss to humanity that we now struggle with in the face of climate change, ecological devastation and a rising tide of pervasive anxiety and depression that grips the affluent world, while others struggle for mere survival.

In its rapacious capacity for consumerism, modernity has reduced the wisdom insights of Hindu philosophy to yoga for physical exercise and wellbeing; the wisdom insights of Buddhism to mindfulness therapy and meditation apps for relaxation; and the ancient insights of the Dao to the ‘art of war’ and the martial arts.  It is why First Nations people guard their ancient eco-spirituality, encoded in their songlines, only too well aware of the cultural appropriation methods of consumerist modernity. It is why in these cultures the transmission of such knowledge was not ‘open and transparent’, but held by senior law men and law women as knowledge holders, to be passed through carefully crafted ceremonies and judgements about the ‘readiness’ of the receiver of such knowledge.

It is why we should all read Kim Mahood’s book ‘Wandering with Intent’ (2022) alongside Vanessa de Oliveira’s ‘Hospicing Modernity’ (2021).

These are the insights I take with me into my work with the Greater Blue Mountains Creative Arts Network. How to find ways for non-Indigenous Australians, the 74% of us who are of European cultural background, and the 22% of us from elsewhere—Asia, the Middle East, Africa, the Americas and the Pacific—who now make up multicultural Australia? How can we somehow break free from the stranglehold of Western ways of thinking and find a way to connect with Country in the spirit of ‘dadirri’, to be truly Australian, honouring the ancient eco-spiritual cultural legacy of this land?

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche ends his New Year message to his fellow beings with:

May this year bring you wakefulness and cheerfulness. And in doing so, may that bring us confidence and free us from panic and anxiety.

 For in the face of the catastrophic events of our daily news feeds, and the endless pressures of consumerism and our housing crises, may we turn to the ancient wisdom traditions to ‘come home to ourselves’ and nurture our inner spirits and connections with one another, including the more than human world around us.