Friday, December 19, 2014

don't be me; learn from me

I guess everyone has his or her touchstones for learning. They are not the same from one to the next, necessarily, but the learning is enriched.

Once upon a time, for example, I used to read swaths of books about spiritual life -- first Hinduism and later Buddhism. The books formed a warming coal under my ass and inspired me to practice what I claimed to believe.

Nowadays, inspiration seems to come from anywhere -- including a recent episode of "NCIS" -- a police series on TV here in America. In the snippet that caught my attention, the central character is instructing one of his investigative team members. The younger man is uncertain and expresses his desire to be like his boss. The boss' tone of voice grows sharp as he metaphorically bitch-slaps the younger man: "Don't be me," he fairly snarls. "Learn from me."

How many would like to be Jesus or Buddha or Mohammed or whatever other expositor of an adopted faith? "What would Jesus do?" or "What would Buddha think?" or "What did Mohammed prescribe?" The idea behind such questions is often to be as much like the teacher as possible.

It's a phase, I think, but it is a phase worth outgrowing.

Every (wo)man is a church of one. Spiritual life demands that its adherents outgrow the understandable desire to be as good or strong or compassionate as what is imputed to the hero of the current scene.

But there is a difference between trying to be something else and learning from something else. Practice builds the muscles that allow the wishful thinking to disperse and the practical learning to take root.

Individuals are individuals ... how scrumptious is that?! They weave in and out of similar realms. They goof and find success in ways that may seem similar. But the preachments of similarity, like the preachments of difference, are just preachments.

Don't be me.

Learn from me.

And I will try to do the same.

freedom of imagination ... what imagination?

A variety of high-dudgeon critiques have been leveled against Sony for pulling "The Interview" from release before it was even released. The alleged send-up of a fictitious assassination of North Korean President Kim Jong-Un seems to have inspired Internet hackers to assault Sony's private files and out the company in various ways. At the moment, North Korea is getting blamed for the hacking.

Actors, directors and other imaginative types has spoken up loudly for the importance of freedom of expression and imagination. The lamentations can be heard right around the globe ... it's the principle that counts, right?

And yes it is.

But also, does anyone wonder at the uses to which the 'imaginative types' put freedom of expression into action? Insiders seem to feel that "The Interview" was a flop before it ever got out of the starting gate. It has now ascended to a laureled height -- not because it was shown, but because it was not. Can anyone name five recent movies that showed an imaginative bent that pushed the boundaries of freedom of expression?

OK -- the right to express stupid shit is part and parcel and the panorama of freedom of expression. But it is interesting that those who yowl most loudly have hardly proven their substance where the right to freedom of expression went unchallenged. Given the freedom they now claim to champion, what have these defenders of the faith produced? Money-makers, no doubt, but exemplars of freedom of expression? I doubt it.

The current situation reminds me of Mark Twain when he wrote to the Boston Public Library and thanked the institution for banning one of his books: The author was sure the ban would produce another 5,000 copies in sales.

In a certain sense, it is not the freedom that puts a burr under anyone's saddle. Rather it is the suggestion that someone might remove or truncate a freedom that is seldom if ever exercised. Without the assault on such an imagined freedom, there is a tendency to produce 'imaginative' products that have all the freedom of the Flat Earth Society, the creationist cartel, or the Department of Homeland Security.

I too will stand up for freedom of expression. But that doesn't mean I have to be convinced by what others depict that freedom as being. Whining isn't substance and bullshit is bullshit, no matter how free.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

blue sky and the maw of mediocrity

Skitter-skattering mind lays out a tray of hors oeuvres:

-- In spiritual life, there is always one more thing to forget. It may sound cruel or difficult or frightening, but I have a hunch it is pretty simple: There is just one more thing to forget.

-- The longing to be good and kind and understanding, especially when collected together with a similar longing in others, requires a bit of steel. Without personal responsibility, mediocrity and cruelty are bound to have their say and make a mockery of goodness, kindness, and understanding. This is no fucking joke.
A New Zealander and two Burmese men have gone on trial in Myanmar on charges of insulting Buddhism.
The trio, who run a bar in Yangon, are accused over a flyer promoting a drinks event depicting Buddha with headphones.
The image triggered an angry response online shortly after it appeared on the bar's Facebook page.
Burmese law makes it illegal to insult or damage any religion. Myanmar, also known as Burma, has also seen growing Buddhist nationalism.

In the United States and elsewhere,
(Reuters) - Sony Pictures has canceled the release of a comedy on the fictional assassination of North Korea's leader, in what appears to be an unprecedented victory for Pyongyang and its abilities to wage cyber-warfare.
Hackers who said they were incensed by the film attacked Sony Corp (6758.T) last month, leaking documents that drew global headlines and distributing unreleased films on the Internet.
No one gets to insult the great leader, Gautama (the Buddha)! No one gets to laugh at the celestial heights imagined for North Korean president Kim Jong-Un. The beneficence and decency of these men and what they represent to some is beyond reproach and deserves to be observed by all.

It is comforting to be part of a group that has its ducks lined up, its philosophies chiseled out, its deviations decried. And what is true socially is likewise true in the mind. The goodness is extolled and the potential for corruption is dismissed or worse. How many times has any Buddhist heard someone say they must "defend the Dharma?"

This hard-headed appreciation of what is loved is par for the course as far as I can see. With luck, the blood-letting of goodness will be minimized. But what interests me is the personal willingness to shoulder the responsibility that goes with what is praised. What is praised is often wide as the sky and yet treated as if it were narrow as the eye of a needle.

Who will take the responsibility for the very simple observation that people (and this assuredly includes me) fuck up. They may do so on behalf of goodness and they may do so on behalf of evil. Either way, they fuck up.

Without taking responsibility for the errors that arise, how is anyone to sift out the miraculousness of any personal or social goodness? Where the arms might spread wide, how fruitful is living within the confines of narrowed definitions and rules?

It may be tricky and it may be hard, but I simply cannot think of another more appropriate encouragement than that from Gautama: "It is not what others do and do not do that is my concern. It is what I do and do not do -- that is my concern." This is not a call for mindless, mediocre self-centeredness. It points to what anyone can actually do anything about when it comes to the feeling that mediocrity is not enough.

Agreements with others are pleasant.

But when will a (wo)man see fit to agree with her- or himself?

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

the Cheney-Taliban approach

Hurrah for former U.S. Vice-president Dick Cheney, who has parried suggestions that American torture of suspected 'terrorists' (even when innocent) was warranted.

In a bit of irony that is as toxic as it is apostate, this beacon of American exceptionalism has taken a stance that is almost perfectly aligned with the Pakistani Taliban Cheney might claim to abhor ... you know, the group that attacked a school on Tuesday and killed 148 people, most of them children.

Both Cheney and the Taliban, of course, proclaim a true vision which, when it is not shared, deserves to be reiterated through cruelty. It's the principle, dontcha know. If you can't or don't or won't share the Cheney/Taliban true-truth, you are not only stupid and unrealistic, you deserve to be punished. This confection of philosophy is wrapped up in patriotic bows and relies on creating a climate of fear among the populace. And it is in this arena that Cheney, if not the Taliban, is winning. People are willing to be afraid and blame someone else for their fears and torture them out of existence.

Cheney and the Taliban are winning. America loves a winner.


PS. One small example of the inexorable march towards a mediocre lifestyle may be seen in the unwillingness of movie theaters to show Sony's send-up of a plot to assassinate North Korean President Kim Jong- Un. Hackers broke into Sony's computer info and threatened to wreak havoc on the company if the movie were shown. Imagination is not appreciated by dictatorships like North Korea's, from which other countries (U.S., eg?) can learn ever so much..

the end of the Dalai Lama

In a wide-ranging interview with the BBC's Newsnight programme, the 79-year-old spiritual leader conceded that he may not have a successor....
"The Dalai Lama institution will cease one day. These man-made institutions will cease," the Dalai Lama told the BBC.
"There is no guarantee that some stupid Dalai Lama won't come next, who will disgrace himself or herself. That would be very sad. So, much better that a centuries-old tradition should cease at the time of a quite popular Dalai Lama."
I wonder how many will hear such words and dismiss them as mere posturing and immodest modesty. I am inclined to take him at his word ... institutions, however good, have no real staying power. How many spiritual institutions would have the kindness to express such a truth? What good is spiritual life if the best anyone can do is "spiritual life?"

At the same time that I think he is speaking to a real truth, I can't deny that I would miss his playful, honest and no-doubt-manipulative spirit. A kind man is a wonderful thing.

Palestinian dissent ... Israeli/U.S. echoes?

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Two-thirds of Palestinians say they are afraid to criticize Mahmoud Abbas, according to a poll, and some of the Palestinian president's recent actions only seem to confirm claims that dissent comes at a price....
Critics say that after a decade in power, Abbas is overseeing a largely authoritarian system with shrinking room for dissent — a claim denied by Abbas supporters who say Palestinians enjoy more political freedoms than most in the Arab world.
I wonder if and whether a similarly-themed story could/would ever be written about Israel (or possibly the United States) and appear in the American press.

December newspaper column

A bit gaudy and conformist, but it's what I could muster for a monthly column.


Tuesday, December 16, 2014 
(Published in print: Wednesday, December 17, 2014)
The traditions, like the lights, eddy and swirl, but among them is a recollection that makes me wince almost 50 years after the fact.

In 1967, I signed on to a three-week tour of the Soviet Union. After reading something like 200 books about the Russian Revolution, the adventure had a certain logic. Russia, in 1967, was anathema to the United States, much as the Islamic State is today: Without an enemy, America would be somehow diminished, somehow less mighty and good. Enemies nourished a sense of self-esteem. Russia was the enemy du jour. I wanted to meet my much-maligned enemy.

Even before the tour group boarded our plane for the 17-hour flight, tour participants were treated to a class in Russian history and culture — a kind of quickie cheat sheet of do’s and don’t’s for first-time visitors. The factoid that stuck with me was the depiction of Russians as people who had a DNA-deep revulsion about giving any sort of gift that was not given in complete openness and love: The Russians, we were told, did not give gifts the way many Americans celebrated Christmas — giving because they ought to.

Eleven days of the tour were given over to sailing down the Volga River on the Prince Yuri Dolgoruki. The ship would dock periodically so that we might get off and sight-see some historical or cultural landmark. 

But one morning, I came on deck to find the ship tied up to a rickety dock surrounded by nothing but green grass leading off into nearby hills. This was, it seemed, to be a day of tourist respite — doing nothing but a bit of hiking and swimming.

I walked into the hills, inspected a small village composed of Lincoln-log houses, and was on my way back when I ran into five boys, aged about 10 to 12. They looked as playful and full of sass as any boys of that age. We approached each other with an equal curiosity and said some awkward hello’s since neither of us was much good at the other’s language.

And after a bit of distant but friendly silence, I motioned for them to sit on the grass. From my pocket, I withdrew a handful of change — a mixture of American and Russian coins. One by one, I placed coins of about equal value side by side — an American 50-cent piece and a 50-kopek coin; a 25-cent and 25-kopek piece; and so on down to a penny and a one-kopek coin. When I was finished and I could see that they had absorbed what I was saying, I gave each of the boys one American coin.
They looked pleased and I got up to return to the boat.

But about halfway to my destination, I heard a voice calling me from behind. One of the boys came forward shyly and held out his two hands, across which lay a 16-inch bit of twisted black and white twine. Each end was adorned with a black and white tassel.

It was clear he wanted me to take it.

It was equally clear that it was one of his prize possessions — a possession that reached down into his heart. He loved it, but more than loving it, something in him knew that giving what he loved was the way of the world. My gift was 91 cents. His was priceless ... and he didn’t have to think twice before parting with it.

I didn’t want to take the string. I didn’t want to deprive him. I didn’t want to be ashamed of the carelessness with which I had given my gift. And...
I could not refuse his gift. I could not not take it.

I took the string and said thank you. I tried to look calm, but inside I was seething with a desire to take back my past, to reshape it and infuse my gift with more honesty. I wanted to honor my heart as he had honored his own. At the time, I wasn’t up to the task. 

Having given his gift, the boy smiled with delight and scampered away to be with his friends: He had not lost anything; he had not gained anything. He had given and that was the way of the world and a joy. He knew it without any starch-collar instruction — as surely as a mosquito bite itches.

Tradition is nice but common sense is better: The gift is the giving, not the gift.

For years, I kept that string. In the midst of my accumulating of stuff, I always knew just where it was. But I never solved the loss of an opportunity to do as well as what that small boy had done without effort.

And then one day the string was lost. How and where I really don’t know. But it lingers in my mind at times like Christmas, stinging gently, its pedestrian message ever fresh: Give and be happy; receive and be happy.

Be happy.

There’s no time like the present.

Adam Fisher lives in Northampton. His column appears on the third Wednesday of the month. He can be reached at

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

time-lapse at Yosemite

Passed along in email: A 200+ mile backpacking experience through Yosemite National Park captured by Colin Delehanty and Sheldon Neill. This project was filmed over the course of 10 months. We spent a combined 45 days in the park capturing the images in this video. Published on Feb 27, 2014.

governed by laws

The best that can be said for a country 'governed' by laws is that it is an improvement on the alternative.

I first got some sense of this when, as a young reporter, I covered police and courts ... the starting point that a lot of reporters used to begin with.

Police was and remains an easy sell: "If it bleeds, it leads" expressed the yearnings of the civilized to seek out an often-uncivilized underbelly of their own human nature. Being naughty has a lot of allure.

But it was in the court that I began to sense what I think is true: Any social attempt to codify and guide human behavior is bound to fail: Human nature is more interesting than anything that could be found in a book.

Perhaps "fail" is too strong a word. Laws can really be quite good. But they cannot be "complete," cannot cover all the permutations of, say, a murder or robbery. Circumstances eddy and swirl in any given situation and so the crime invariably offers differing dollops of delight or distaste.

The crimes of the judicial system are not difficult to find: Just ask anyone in the business. But the alternative of anarchic and tribal decision-making happens to be less introspective and more capricious. And my guess is it is this compromised and compromising attitude that leads people to applaud a "country governed by laws."

And the same is true for individuals trying to guide and make sense of their own lives: Some applause may be warranted, but not as much as is sometimes applied.

Russia ... too big to fail?

Too big to fail?
OK -- I understand the English words, but I don't honestly understand the links between action taken and ends desired:
Russia's rouble has slipped back near its all-time low despite a dramatic interest rate rise by its central bank.
It increased rates to 17% from 10.5% in an attempt to boost the currency's value against the dollar.
The rouble has lost almost 50% against the US dollar this year as falling oil prices and Western sanctions continue to weigh on the country's economy.
I know that American neocon princelings like Dick Cheney love to chortle and preen when the enemies of the country that prints money and morality at their behest suffer a setback.

But I also wonder at what point our enemies' difficulties have the same effect as those experienced by our friends. In this instance, for example, at what point, if any, does Russia's financial plight have the same effect as the past difficulties of a Goldman Sachs and the U.S. is forced to address the 'fact' that Russia is "too big to fail?"

Wallowing in victory can only suffice for so long before the negative effects become apparent.