Is There A Similarity Between Systems Thinking And Buddhist Thinking?


Saturday, 8.53pm

Sheffield, U.K.

However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do you if you do not act on upon them? – Buddha

I’m reading Natalie Goldberg’s Writing down the bones for the umpteenth time and stopped at the bit where she talks about her Zen Buddhist practice.

Ego is that thing in people, she writes, that tries to see the world as permanent, solid, enduring and logical. But it’s not, instead it is impermanent, ever changing and “full of human suffering.”

Full of human suffering? Yes, but there are some good bits too, aren’t there?

I haven’t looked this up but the word I remember being used that’s translated to mean suffering is dukh, or dukha – something that I understand as sorrow. Perhaps actually closer to regret. Are there many people out there filled with regret? It seems pedantic but when you think about regret rather than suffering the ideas appear much closer to other ways of thinking out there.

Real suffering is often out of one’s hands – and we shouldn’t even try and minimise that. Regret, on the other hand, is part of everyday life. Studies show that we hate regret, so much so that we will give up a chance of winning something big if there is also a possibility of losing out.

For example, if you played a game where you and another person could get a some of money – say $10. The rule is that the other person gets given the money and then they have to give you some. But they can only keep the money if you both agree on the division. If you walk away you both lose the money. How much are you willing to take?

Now, logically, you should be willing to take anything over zero dollars. But the chances are you won’t – one will seem insulting, you might want two or three, perhaps even five. The reason you don’t take the one and walk away is driven not by logic but by emotion – the fear of losing out, the regret that comes from being taken advantage of.

Time after time you will find that decision making is less about a prize and more about minimising risk – which is another way of saying don’t do anything you’ll regret later. Yes there are some people that take big bets – usually with other people’s money – but the vast majority of us would prefer a secure outcome to one that has a chance of going wrong.

This is where the permanent, solid, enduring and logical branch of thinking only works with simple things, like stones and elements and machines. That’s the positivist school that deals with physical things, things that are non-living, things that are predictable.

Life, by definition, is not permanent. It ends, is ever changing and what you want to do is get through another night without feeling like you did something wrong. The idea of structuring your situation so that it minimises the chances of things going wrong – minimises the potential for regret – while allowing for the possibility of growth and development is much closer to the holistic approach that is aimed for in Systems Thinking. That’s how the real world operates, in the relationship between parts creating a whole rather than in the parts themselves.

Goldberg reminds us of this earlier in her book. It’s about the practice – whether it’s sitting meditation or writing or business or anything else you do – the challenge you will have is dealing with the real world out there and the people you meet. And it will all come down to the actions you take and how they make you feel.


Karthik Suresh

Why Do People Move To A New Place?


Friday, 8.34pm

Sheffield, U.K.

History in its broadest aspect is a record of man’s migrations from one environment to another. – Ellsworth Huntington

I’m reading Violet Moller’s The map of knowledge: How classical ideas were lost and found and it’s introduced me to a few ideas that explain questions that have been lurking around for a while.

There’s a good chance you have a view on migration – and immigration. If you’ve lived in a country for a while, especially one that is relatively prosperous, you might see people coming and staying in the country as a story of economic migration.

You could see that in one of two ways. Either they’re travelling in search of a better life or they’re coming to take advantage of the benefits your society offers.

Maybe you recognise that some people move because they have to – because of war or because they are no longer safe. They move to save their lives.

Maybe you see that there are changes to the economic fundamentals of where they live. Some villages have only old people left, the young have moved to the cities in search of opportunity.

Moller’s book shines a light on when people move in search of knowledge – and that is relevant to the history of the community I come from. It turns out that throughout history there have been epochs when particularly enlightened rulers supported scholarship. In the West ancient Greek knowledge was preserved in private libraries and in institutions like the great library at Alexandria in the first millennium. The light of knowledge in the West was nearly snuffed out by religion but was preserved in the Middle East where a new generation of rulers established institutions for learning. In more recent history we see the renaissance and the birth of early modern science and the growth of the educational institutions we see today.

People who care about knowledge don’t move for the money – as Moller describes, what they need is a place to work and a place to sleep. Cities and governments that provide access to scholarly resources will attract scholars. Those that don’t will lose them. The world is now full of students who aren’t moving because they want a better life – they’re moving to places that will give them the knowledge they need to be successful at doing something.

What Moller’s history shows is that any nation that wants to grow has to have ways to attract scholars – bright people who can do things. A city can have everything – Athens did, Rome did, Alexandria did, Baghdad did. Baghdad in 800 AD was a global centre of learning, attracting scholars from East and West.

But wealth and power do not last – and when they turn on learning, scholars move to new locations that recognise the transformative power of knowledge.

It would see that people move for work, for knowledge and because they have to. If people try and come to where you are – it’s perhaps not because they want to take what you have but because your government recognises that they bring something valuable that will help your community grow. The day you put up barriers and keep them out is also the day from which your community will get weaker and weaker until one day, perhaps, it will be your turn to leave and find somewhere new to go.


Karthik Suresh

What Can Indian Or Eastern Thinking Do For Us?


Thursday, 8.50pm

Sheffield, U.K.

A monk asked Zhaozhou Congshen, a Chinese Zen master (known as Jōshū in Japanese), “Has a dog Buddha-nature or not?” Zhaozhou answered, “Wú” (in Japanese, Mu) – Aitken, Robert, ed. and trans. (1991). The Gateless Barrier: The Wu-men Kuan (Mumonkan).

When I was young my grandmother would tell me stories. We’d sit in the darkness and I would hear takes of gods and demons, of warriors and families. Stories that I barely remember now, but that once were all around me.

We grow up and learn different stories – ones that involve maths and English and we start to read Western literature because that’s what is in libraries and bookshops. And it’s good reading and fun and well written and we leave the myths and legends and the old stuff behind as something that’s no longer relevant to the way we live now.

Is that a mistake?

I was reminded that there are other ways of thinking when I saw a paper by Francis Laleman, Vijay Pereira & Ashish Malik titled Understanding cultural singularities of ‘Indianness’ in an intercultural business setting shared on social media. In this paper we’re introduced to the concept of tetralemmic logical operators. But what are those?

Western thinking is highly influenced by Greek logic, in particular bipolar logic structures that go back to Aristotle. A Problem Structuring Method in Operations Research called Strategic Options Development and Analysis (SODA) explicitly uses bipolar operators to think about choices. A bipolar approach is about two extremes, about Yes and No, This or That, Black or White A or B. Choices that are one or the other.

A tetralemmic or quarternary division is a little weird because it has four options. I see this as Yes, No, both Yes and No, and neither Yes nor No. Confusing? Not if you think about any conversation in real life where one person says yes but you know they really mean no or if they say no but you know they’re trying to get to yes. Real life is full of situations that are non-binary. Laleman et al’s paper suggests that “Indianness seems to indicate a natural preference for logical arguments” of the form seen above – very different to traditional Western thinking. So is that helpful?

The quote that starts this post is a famous Zen koan – a question that makes you think. Where did it come from?

There is a story from the Mahabharata, the old Indian epic, about five brothers and a war between family. One of the brothers, Yudhishtira, always spoke the truth but one occasion, to win the war, he said an untruth. The brothers won the war, lived long lives and when they died took a path to heaven.

They walked up a mountain, a steep pathway, the five brothers and a dog. The other four brothers slipped and fell as the path wound its way higher and higher until only Yudhishtira and the dog were left. He reached the top but had to go through a cave and there he saw his brothers in hell, being tormented and punished. He went through the cave, accompanied by the dog, and came out the other end and then ascended to heaven. He reached heaven and saw the vanquished members of his family, the ones who had caused him harm and stolen their kingdom – happy in heaven – while his brothers were in hell.

This story is from memory, from the fragments of narrative from my grandmother and from story books, perhaps mixed up in my mind, and you be asking yourself now, what is the point? What is the punchline? What’s the moral of the story?

Well, for starters, the dog goes to heaven.

But does it have Buddha nature – a soul? Yes – because it’s in heaven – and No – because it’s a dog.

But what this story also gives you is an insight into a world that is not bipolar. In this world, it’s not just that the good people go to heaven and the bad people go to hell and that’s the end of that forever and ever.

It’s that even the really good people, the ones who tell just one lie in their lives, pass through hell, even for a moment, because of the bad they have done. And the ones that have done really bad things, the greedy and the vindictive, get to heaven after serving their time. The other brothers eventually make it to heaven and everyone is reunited. So it’s not about heaven or hell, but heaven and hell and we all experience a bit of both.

So this got me wondering – what else is there that I’ve missed by looking at a purely Western approach to my area of interest – the art of making better decisions. Laleman et al’s paper points to a few more concepts such as that of Karma Yoga or right action – something that perhaps explains why I am interested in this subject although I had never considered it before. So is there value in looking at my research area through this “other” lens, is there value in Indian or Eastern approaches to thinking about areas long dominated by prevailing systems of thought?

How would one go about doing this?

Well, in a collection of essays called Rethink : leading voices on life after crisis and how we can make a better world edited by Amol Rajan, the Dalai Lama writes about how he’d quite like to bring this kind of thinking into focus. So if he thinks it’s worth doing… maybe it is.

Let me think about that some more.


Karthik Suresh

How To Learn From Theory And Practice


Monday, 8.26pm

Sheffield, U.K.

He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast. – Leonardo da Vinci

The real world is complicated and one lifetime is not enough to learn anything about it. We’re lucky we live in an age where we can learn from others, and all we need to do is pick up a book and read.

Reading is important because people can talk a lot without saying very much. Writing is harder, it takes effort to construct sentences that make sense. And it’s much easier to parse them and decide whether they’re useful or plausible or probably wrong.

Of course people can write a lot of rubbish too, spinning a single idea into a 300 page epic but good writing, peer-reviewed academic writing, tries to avoid doing that. Each sentence in a paper has value, or should have value. It should be useful to the reader – explaining context, explaining what’s new and novel and explaining why the reader should care. Perhaps that’s why it’s so hard to write a good paper. And why you should be receptive if you come across a good one.

In some disciplines ideas are enough – pure mathematics does not have to concern itself with the real world in order to do its thing. In the real world, however, theory and practice are inextricably intertwined. Your ideas about how people behave will affect the ways in which you treat them. If you believe people are fundamentally lazy you’ll create high-control organisations. If you think they are creative, you’ll allow latitude and space for exploration. If you think they can be trusted you’ll be happier with flexible working. What you think – the theories you hold – have a direct connection with the systems you construct.

And even an simple word like “system” will bring out the theory pedants. For some people a “system” is something that exists, like a computer system or a healthcare system. For others a “system” is a mental construct, they don’t exist in the real world but are instead mental models that people use to make it easier to think about the world out there.

The point of theory, however, is not to fight over the meaning of words but to help you do something useful. So what is theory anyway. Peter Checkland talks about it as a framework of ideas – related, connected thoughts that seem to explain why things work the way they do and can help guide action. Everyone has a framework of ideas that underpins how they act even if they’re not aware that it exists.

Once you take action you can reflect on your framework of ideas – first becoming aware of their existence and then critically evaluating the elements of the framework. It’s like a ball bouncing back and forth, first theory or maybe first practice – then to the other and back again. Theory guiding practice and practice informing theory. It’s a gradual process of awakening, becoming aware, questioning, seeking, developing, critiquing, arguing and explaining. In a nutshell, learning.

Life is about learning, learning about yourself, learning about the world and the people in it, and learning how you can make a difference.


Karthik Suresh

Should You Get Angry At The System?


Saturday, 7.52pm

Sheffield, U.K.

I am not a politician. I am just a simple person who has come to break down this system. – Volodymyr Zelensky

There are three strands of thought that are bothering me right now, so what’s the best way to disentangle these ideas?

First, let’s start with the food of my past. I was searching for “stuff” on the kind of cooking that I grew up with and came across Sharadha Kalyanam’s “Radical Culinary Love: Cooking as healing praxis in the time of COVID-19” – in the Journal of Global Indigeneity. It’s about food, yes, but it’s about more than that – it’s about food as “a strategy for resistance against the systems of power” – against white supremacist, racist, capitalist and cis-heteropatriarchal systems of oppression.

Most of those words are familiar but Cis-Heteropatriarchy I had to look up – and it’s “a system of power and control that positions cis-straight white makes as superior and normative in their expression of gender and sexuality.”

Another strand – reading a paper on the history of Operations Research by Kirby (2000) called “Paradigm change in operations research: Thirty years of debate” I learn that OR can be seen as a tool of management, an approach that seeks “to control the workplace to control the response” and enable the “means by which the work-force is more efficiently exploited.” This line of thinking has its basis in Marxist ideas, the division between owners and workers.

In these first two strands there is this element of violence being done by one group to another, the enforcing of dominant ideas over minority communities – something that is not related to just the West but is an inextricable part of the culture and practices of my cultural history as well.

The third strand also has to do with food – Dr Michael Greger’s work on the research into nutrition. Greger shows how the benefits of a plant-based diet are definitely proved in the literature – so why is it not the default diet around the world? It’s about the money, of course, the food business is big business and there are powerful lobbies for sectors that try and keep their revenues flowing in – using the same tactics that the tobacco industry used a generation ago.

There is a difference between this last strand and the first two – and it has to do with how personal the whole thing is. The ideas in the first two papers include exploitation, dispossession, erasure – concepts that suggest an intentional programme by a dominant group against all others. Greger, on the other hand, talks about the system and in particular the money – and how it drives behaviour. It’s not that the bosses of these companies are evil and hatching plans to target you – it’s just the way things are set up and they use the system to make money and get an advantage.

Now, I’d like to step away from the specific ideas in these papers as I’m not really talking about feminist theory, operations research or nutrition science. It’s the idea of the system that’s interesting here.

One approach to thinking of the system is as a big collection of interests, relationships and assets that are maintained through the exercise of power. Is this power something external – aimed at keeping others down? Or is it internal – aimed at protecting one’s own position, even at the expense of others?

There is always inertia in a system – it’s travelling in a particular direction and takes time to change course, even longer to reverse. It’s not personal, some might argue, it’s the system. And it’s definitely not the fault of those affected by the system. The only people who must take responsibility are the ones with the power to change the system. In an organisation that’s the management and in a country it’s the politicians. What you see at an individual and personal level are the effects of the incentives structured and maintained by those that have power. The aim of any group that wants to change things, then, is to influence those in power and get them to do the right thing.

It’s harder to do that, of course, if your government or company leadership are up for sale. And it doesn’t help if people who could do something but who also benefit from the system just go along with it because that’s the easy thing to do – you could argue they’re complicit with the violence if they don’t say anything.

I suppose it all really comes down to just one question.

What are you willing to do?


Karthik Suresh

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