The Tathagata on “It’s the small stuff, stupid”

By and large, I am coming around to the conclusion that Indians must be amongst the most hardworking people on the planet. They are not lazy. At least they are not physically lazy. If there is an easy and simple way of doing something, that is not for Indians. Find a process that is tedious, complicated, involved, and pointless — Indians apparently will not only design such a process, but for the most part accept it without a complaint.

Thus have I heard that the Tathagata once said while sitting under the bodhi tree:

Hard work and hard thinking are substitutes, O Bhikshus. The harder you think, the less hard you have to work. Conversely, O Bhikshus, the less you think, the harder you have to work. Therefore, if you find someone working very hard at some trivial task, you will find that that person has not bothered to put any thought into whatever the **ck he or she is doing. Thus the Tathagata asks you to examine whatever the **ck you design very carefully so that all sentient creatures that are involved in the process will not have to work hard and can have some spare time to contemplate the universe and attain Buddhahood just like the Tathagata did.

So there you have it. Straight from the Tathagata’s mouth. You may ask why he keeps referring to himself in the third person. Atanu doesn’t know. Must have something to do with the fact that when you are a Buddha, you are allowed to refer to yourself in the third person. Atanu always says that. And then you ask what is with that “**ck”. Well, Atanu thought that he would clean up the Tathagata’s language a bit and replace the “heck” with “**ck”.

Thus have I heard that the Tathagata continued:

The Tathagata would urge you to examine, by way of illustration, you phone bill and your gas bill. Scan your bank statement. Notice how astonishingly brainless the whole shebang is. You will note that the more brainless it is, the harder you will have to work to pay your bills or to contact your bank. Surely, O Bhikshus, enlightenment will miss those people by a mile, if not more.

I take the Tathagata seriously. I examined my MTNL phone bill and my Citibank account statement. The Citibank statement was brainless as pointed out by the Buddha. It said on the back, “Reach us 24 hours a day, 7 days a week” and below that it showed an icon representing a phone with the legend “Call Citiphone”. No phone number was mentioned. Lots of fine print followed. I desperately scanned it for a phone number. Finally, right at the bottom of the page, after lots of totally pointless text, in very very fine print, it noted the number for Mumbai as “(022) 9628962890”. I called that number and was promptly told that it was not accessible.

I examined the MTNL phone bill. It was crammed full of strange information in big bold print such as:

Mudrank 0415/745/CR143/M1 dated 20-02-2004″

On the back, it listed the names of five suburbs you could pay your bill by cash or check. It did not give any addresses; just the names of the suburbs. Thankfully, it did mention the times: between “10:00 hours and 16:00 hours.” It is the customer’s job to find out where their offices are. Included with the bill were a couple of glossy inserts.

One of the glossies said:
easy payments
Convenience is now closer to home!

What was the great convenience, you may ask. They had machines at some locations in Mumbai where you can go and enter your phone number, scan the barcode on your bill, stick in your check, and get a receipt. High tech solution to a trivial problem but one that involves traveling by car, train, or bus. I expect that it would take a person about two hours on average to pay the phone bill. It has not occured to the designers of this sainted system to allow people to put their checks into an old-fashioned envelope, stick a stamp on it, and mail it to then.

I examined my Mahanagar Gas bill. Same story. You have to travel somewhere to pay the bill in person. You cannot mail in a payment. Cost of mailing a payment: Rs 2. Cost of having to pay in person: Rs 30 for tranportation plus 2 hours of time. I estimate that there are at least half a million gas customers, 5 million MTNL customers, and a few odd million other customers of various services that require payment in person. Let’s round the total number of bill payment per month in the city of Mumbai to 10 million. In a year, about 120 million bill payment transactions have to take place. Let’s do the numbers.

Transportation costs: 30 times 120 million is Rs 3.6 billion, or Rs 36 crores. Time cost: 240 million hours, or 30 million 8-hour working days. Or about 2 full working days for every man, woman, and child living in Mumbai paying utility bills. An estimate of the money cost of the time: assume that working adults spend time in paying bills and that the average productivity of Mumbai adults is Rs 50 an hour. So 50 time 240 million hours works out to Rs 120 billion or Rs 1,200 crores.

Here is the punch line: it is a numbers game. It may appear that I am going on about a trivial thing: the ability to pay utility bills by check instead of in person. But because of the numbers of people involved, it adds up rather quickly. That represents economic waste — waste that a poor country such as India cannot afford. Mumbai’s transportation systems are overloaded beyond imagination. Requiring people to travel to pay bills is asinine to put it mildly. No doubt the idiots who design the system don’t have to travel and stand in line to pay the bills perhaps. But why don’t the millions of customers complain? Because, I suspect, that they are hard working people. Unthinking certaintly but they are not lazy.

Two things keep getting reinforced in my head the more I observe India. First, the economy is not focused on how to get things done with the least effort. Maximizing effort is another side to the whole issue about employment. The focus is not on production, it is on employment. Because so much of the effort is totally pointless and wasteful, we don’t have sufficient production. Another way of stating “less production” is “more poverty”. We are poor because we don’t produce enough because we are busy doing things which could easily be avoided.

The second, the people in India have not paid sufficient attention to what the Buddha said. The Tathagata was a very sharp guy. He did not become enlightened for nothing. (This ‘nothing’ is not to be confused with the concept of shunyata or emptiness which is central to Hinduism and Buddhism.) We should heed what the man said. For instance, check out Einstein & Buddha: THE PARALLEL SAYINGS which “is an inspired effort to meet the 21st-century challenge of developing a synthetic world view” according to a reviewer. I close this one with a favorite quote from the Buddha.

Multitudinousness of objects have no reality in themselves but are only seen of the mind and, therefore, are of the nature of maya and a dream.
— Buddha

10 thoughts on “The Tathagata on “It’s the small stuff, stupid”

  1. Hi Atanu,
    Wonderful Article! clearly exposes the problems that we face in India, “lack of focus”. we don’t know what will do what and end up doing something else. “chaltha hai” attitude still remains in our people’s mind. not only MTNL or Gas bill is confusing, but everything around the corner. people give a damn for traffic rules, signals, phone bills, law, etc. criminals contest elections and get voted too! It happens only in India..! A drastic mindset change is needed which could happen only when all the brains of people are replaced with functionable ones… sorry if i am sounding too harsh, but i wish we come up someday in the future….


  2. Hi, only OK thinking here, in my view. Related to mistakes about democracy & market process in prior post.
    Yes, to be productive hard work has to be oriented at useful/ valuable outcomes.
    This happens best when: productive workers get more money… productive managers get more money … productive companies get more profit. Measure profit, reward the better with more and improve; measure workers, reward the better with more; measure, reward, improve managers. That’s the power of both the market and democracy.

    If one’s wasting time, another should not be, and be getting more money — or else the reward system is not in place.

    Biggest market failure is usually lack of formal, legal, title to land/ property, for the poor people. (See Hernando DeSoto). Also a general lack of enforcement of contract for the poor; and prohibition of fraud against the poor. These rights to property & contract, which must be guaranteed by the gov’t, are usually subverted by corrupt gov’t.

    But corrupt people all too often vote for lying politicians who promise them benefits that others will pay for. That’s a feature AND a bug, in democracy.
    (first time here; looks good!)


  3. You may ask why he keeps referring to himself in the third person.

    Maybe because all the written texts came into existence after his mahaparinibanna? All his teachings and words were not written down during his lifetime, but in a council meeting after he passed away by someone else.


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