Friday, April 30, 2010

books are dead

Talking yesterday to a literary agent about the direction of one of my mother's books, I asked her casually about her take on electronic books. Claudia admitted she didn't know a lot about them and was a bit grumpy about their incursion into the actual-factual-touch-'em-and-smell-'em book markets, but then she said, based on a lot of years in the industry, "Books are dead. It's inevitable."

Since both of us are of an age that grew up with books that became like friends along our book shelves, welcoming us into one room or another, we whined a little about the inevitability of the demise of books and whether it implied an increase in the lack of knowledge that seems to beset a lot of young people. We were just two old farts, whining.

When something is inevitable, can it be sad or happy?

Not that I plan to stop whining about the fate of books. But I also mourn the reduced availability of the potato ricer -- a tool that used to sell for a couple of bucks but now sells for $20-$40 and seems to be offered primarily in stores that specialize in things like monogrammed toilet plungers.

Sic transit gloria mundi (thus passes the glory of this world) has a dirge-like solemnity to it. But doesn't it really mean, as it has always meant, "thus passes the glory of me?"

wonderful teaching

The other day, my younger son, 16, was lounging around on the couch, half-watching TV, but also holding up his right hand and looking at it as he opened and closed his fist slowly.

Thinking he might have hurt himself somehow, I asked him what he was doing. He wasn't hurt, as it turned out -- he was just marveling that his hand could open and close ... how did that happen? It was utterly plain and yet beyond his comprehension.

It was not something a dad could explain, assuming dad wasn't a complete ditz. But it was something in which a dad might delight ... a good discovery, probably more informative than the Rosetta Stone.

Funny how little bolts of lightning like that can strike ... what was ordinary as salt becomes a 14-course meal, all in a nanosecond.

finding the fizz

This morning, I was reading -- skimming, actually -- an interview with Michael Elliston, a Zen teacher in Atlanta, Ga. The interview seemed to center on the Zen teachers and environment he had, so to speak, grown up in.

And, truth to tell, I was a bit disappointed. I was curious about his own views and life and not so much about his lineage and credentials. I can see where others might find such information useful or supportive, but I just don't care much how someone dresses or whether they run a Zen center ... I want to know something about the woman or man, what their views are, whether they like chocolate, and what wisdom they have come up with in an effort-riddled life.

In earlier times, times gone by, I imagine I cared about such things as the interview seemed to focus on. Who anointed whom, who knows whom ... it probably felt pretty wowsers. But these days it tastes a bit like stale beer ... not enough fizz. (This is just me noticing my own propensities. It is not a criticism of the interview.)

As Dylan Thomas wrote, "Time passes. Listen! Time passes."

I prefer the personal nitty-gritty when it comes to Zen teachings ... something that integrates more clearly the teachings and the stuff on some unscrubbed sidewalk.

Oh well, taste is taste and one man's lack of fizz is another man's fireworks.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

holy and virtuous

I don't know -- what do you think? --

Only the unholy and those lacking in virtue stand any chance in the realm of holiness and virtue.

The holy and virtuous have no time for such things.


In the well-woven world of spiritual endeavor, descriptive times are sometimes devoted to renunciation. In Buddhism, for example, monks are occasionally described in technicolor as being people "with one robe and one bowl" -- meaning, on behalf of laymen who may have quite an accumulation of stuff, that that stuff is not going to get them into whatever heaven is on their to-do list. Sex, food, clothing, acquisitiveness, housing, chocolate -- all this and a lot more like it may be on the imagined renunciate's list.

The word "renounce" is defined by an Internet dictionary this way:

▸ verb: cast off or disown ("She renounced her husband")
▸ verb: turn away from; give up
▸ verb: give up, such as power, as of monarchs and emperors, or duties and obligations
▸ verb: leave (a job, post, post, or position) voluntarily

And sure enough, for anyone expressing a bit of determination in the world of spiritual endeavor, there are habits and acquisitions that need to be investigated and, in one sense, cast off. In Zen Buddhism, for example, the thought may cross a student's mind to get to a monastery where things will be less diverting, more serene, and in line with a renunciate spirit. It's a common enough thought and some people actually try it and succeed. I tried it and failed ... and thank my lucky stars that I did.

As a starting point -- a point of encouragement -- I think renunciation is a pretty good thing. By trying to renounce one thing or another, students bring their attention to bear and inspire an investigation of what previously had gone unexamined. Making a virtue out of it is not so much the point. Attention and what actually works are the point.

And in the course of investigating, in the course of some actual-factual practice, a strange thing happens. Bit by bit the dime drops -- no person described as a renunciate could ever afford to renounce anything. To do so would defeat the hopes and dreams of anyone pursuing a spiritual path.

Renunciation creates the very thing it hopes to defeat, which, in the end, just amounts to ego. If there were truly something to renounce, you would first have to create it in order to renounce it. This lesson is not learned from a book or in the lecture hall of the mind, but it is learned in actual-factual practice. How could the early invitations to something called "renunciation" ever hope to "save all sentient beings" or even just live a sane a peaceful life if the best anyone could do would be to separate this from that?

Renunciation, so-called, is a good place to start but, as in horse racing, a poor place to finish. Practice tells this tale whereas all the caterwauling in the world about "renunciation" remains little more than a (perhaps fine) encouragement. The question that practice asks and answers is, "encouragement for what?" And no honest(wo)man can answer that question.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


I Googled the word "beautiful" under images and one of the pictures that appeared was this "beautiful mummy:"

"The photograph is genuine and shows the remains of little Rosalia Lombardo who died around 1920. Rosalia's body lies in the Capuchins' Catacombs at Palermo in Italy." More details here -- scroll down Apparently, the picture made the email circuits as a good-luck talisman (send this picture to 20 people, or some similar good-luck invitation)

I just thought it was strange and wonderful.



You'll never know what others know until you ask them.

Today, at the supermarket, I got a hankering for butterscotch brownies and since there were no box-mixes in the cake aisle, I asked a woman who was shopping nearby if she knew how to cook and if so, did she know how to make the brownies I wanted. She filled me in with more information than I had and I was grateful.

Not all of her information -- which she was reciting off the top of her head -- was perfectly accurate, but the direction was good and useful and now the brownies are cooking.

Isn't it amazing the things people know -- and I don't mean just brownies -- that we never suspected either by looking at them or by hearing them speak?

Humility is not a bad characteristic.

nickels and dimes

In Buddhism, you will hear people saying that a particular school's lineage can be traced all the way back to Shakyamuni Buddha.

That's 2,500 years or so. It sounds pretty impressive and perhaps lends a certain authority to the one making the claim ... and perhaps inspires credulity in the one hearing that claim.

And yet, for anyone who involves themselves in Buddhism in a serious way, if something can only be traced back to Shakyamuni Buddha, what kind of Buddhism would that be?

And further, if anyone could name a single thing -- anything at all -- that could not be traced back to Shakyamuni Buddha, I'd be more than willing to give them a nickel.

OK, I can see the point of tracing this and tracing that. It's helpful in a small way. But I do get tired of hearing people say that a school or teacher or true teaching goes all the way back -- but no further -- to Shakyamuni Buddha.

It strikes me as a kind of nickel-and-dime, Tupperware kind of Buddhism.

you've got to own it

One of the best lines I ever saw on a Buddhist bulletin board came in response to some hand-wringing, ain't-it-awful observation that had preceded it. I can't remember what the initial comment was, but it was one of those pseudo-sincere observations about how the Dharma was going to die out or how hypocrisy dimmed the brightness of practice or why-oh-why-is-this-so-hard ... some kind of slick-willy way of arousing sympathy and concern and attention in others. It sounded good. It sounded sincere. It sounded meaningful. But, coming from a person who had a habit of creating such scenes, it was deceitful.

And the good response I read was this: "You've got to own it."

Five very simple words. And yet the implications were, perhaps, staggering. Your views are your views; they are not someone else's views, no matter how much attention of sympathy you can arouse. Your shit is your shit and you can elicit sympathy from now until breakfast, but if you don't own it, if all you can do is make case after case for its objective difficulties ... how can you ever expect to get anywhere? Your religion or spiritual persuasion is just your religion or spiritual persuasion ... you own it as surely as you own the socks in your sock drawer.

Five simple words and yet the implications upend a whole host of underlying longings and fears and confusions.

What I own is my responsibility. It is my hell or my heaven. It is my garden waiting to be tended. My neighbor, who may also has a garden, cannot tend my garden, though the two of us can compare notes about the damned weeds or the beauty of the flowers. To the extent that I own the garden, to that extent exactly the flowers can grow. To the extent that I think some god or airy-fairy mystical situation will salve the scene, well it's nothing but weeds and hand-wringing.

You've got to own it. What a frightening prospect.

I own the religion I choose. It does not own me. I own the circumstances of this moment or this life. They do not own me. As frightening as I may find this prospect -- and it can be pretty frightening -- still, with practice, it can be quite enjoyable.

I own Buddhism. It does not own me. I own God. He/she/it does not own me.

The average soul may hasten to point out the dangers of such a circumstance -- egomaniacs unite! -- but the careful and caring soul will see the fitness of it, the fact that it accords with life. You've got to own it. Not flaunt it, not dissolve into a pool of helplessness, just own it.

If you feel like being a Buddhist, fine. If you feel like being a Christian, fine. If you feel like reading a hundred books and imagining they can set you free, fine. If you simply must have some new gadget or gizmo, fine. If you imagine a relationship or having possessions will make you happy, fine. If you just know you were Queen Nefertiti in your last incarnation, fine. But when you don't own these things and if they own you, it's a case of the blind leading the blind and you can't even find the right-colored socks in your own sock drawer.

Yes, it can be very spooky at first, owning what you can't escape owning. Yes, it can feel like an enormous and endless and confusing weight. But when you really do own it, and when you exercise a little patience and courage ... well, a bit at a time you can learn to relax.

You've got to own it.

After that, it's a free ride.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

spiral within spiral

When I was in college, various things interested me. Among them were billiards and writing. My addiction to the former included not only playing an average of something like three hours a day but also lying in bed at night before sleep and imagining I could play three-dimensional billiards off the walls, ceiling and floor of the room ... a billards game in some weightless environment.

And in that same bed, before sleep, I would also concoct and embellish and wonder about things I wanted to write. In the darkness, just before sleep descended, the ideas seemed to spring up or fall from the heavens with a weightless ease that never proved so easy the next day when I put pen to paper.

In one such period of feather-light conjuring, I imagined creating a story -- any story at all, fiction or non-fiction -- in a spiral. It would begin at the center and the words would curl around on themselves in ever widening circles. And once finished, another story might begin, at some nearby point -- beginning at its center and moving steadily outwards until, at some point, its words began to intersect with the first spiral-story ... and the same word that was appropriate and descriptive in spiral-one would dovetail and inform and be at home in story/spiral two. And then there would be spiral three, story three, moving outwards from its center and then intersecting effortlessly with both story-one and story-two ... and on and on it would go, each story, each spiral finding a home in every other spiral and yet quite distinctly its own tale. To say one story overlapped or superseded the other would be a mistake. Each and every tale was complete and shining on its own terms and yet each partook of its environment ... and environment the inevitably stretched to the ends of the universe. So, was it one story or many stories ... I never did find out.

This imaginative meandering seldom got very far as I lay in bed. Usually, sleep got the upper hand before I could somehow understand the rug and meaning I was weaving. Sleep claimed all tales.

I rethought of this the other day in a very concrete way when I took pictures of the zendo altar. Here is the altar, much as your comb or toothbrush might confront you on the bathroom sink: The altar had a tale to tell, depending on who was looking at it. But as I looked, I realized that each item on the altar had a tale I could remember in some detail ... a story unknown to others and perhaps even badly remembered by myself. Still each item had its spiral:

The Buddha statue is made of African Wonderstone, which I imagine, but don't know, came from Africa and was carved by a friend's mother and given to me as a gift I still consider miraculous in its rich implications and helpfulness. In front of it sits a had-made tea bowl that was also a gift, this time from a fellow Zen student. It contains water. The candle holder to the right with the long candle came from a wonderful flea market in New York, a place whose scents I can still smell ... it is intricately carved of what may be ebony and has a chip missing. Below the upper deck of the altar is an incense burner I commissioned from an excitable potter given to fits of anger in which he would smash everything he had created lately. The Kuan Yin statue to the left came from my teacher when I said to him during a visit that my younger son would love to have the word "buddha" as a brush-stroked calligraphy. My teacher really didn't want to get out the brush and ink, I don't think, so he trotted off the to the zendo hall and returned with the statue of Kuan Yin. The Jizo statue to the right of the incense burner came right off the Internet ... a fellow I never met making an open offer to anyone who chanted the Jizo dharani a statue for free. Since I did and do chant that dharani, I asked for one and it came ... from someplace far away like Singapore. In front of the Jizo is a red-tailed hawk feather -- a gift from a fellow Zen student and beautiful to this day. The enso (circle) above the altar was created when I was taking a break as I built the zendo itself ... just sitting around idly in the midst of scrap lumber when a piece of wood caught my eye ... and I grabbed some black paint and drew it and then hung it. The altar itself was constructed grudgingly after I realized that no store-bought structure was going to suit or complement the room. And all of these things, all of these spiraling, interconnected stories rest on a wide-board wood floor, which I laid down and has its own stories to tell, much as the pilings under the building do and the earth in which they rest, and the pine needles that fall gently over the whole structure and the neighbor's yappy dachshund which always seems to sound off during zazen and the squirrels the skitter across the roof and the warm air the filters in during warm weather and the cold that grips the place in winter ... and on and on and on the spirals go.

Only of course they're not spirals at all. Each and every tale is connected so intimately with every other tale that the word "intimate" is ridiculous in its smarmy tones. Woven, kind of, is about as close as anyone could come...water within water, blue sky heaped on blue sky. Everything is unalterably everything else. There is no separate story any more than there is a complete one. Best to get some sleep ... say thank you for the interlocking richness that is not interlocking at all. It is just what is ... a wonderful story, all the time, everywhere, without edges and word-smithing to capture or leash it.

It really is one story, always. But if you say so or I say so, we both deserve a powerful punch in the nose. I'm serious. The story is so much more interesting than our mewling imaginations and didactic pomposities.

Sometimes I just think we get our stories backwards -- imagining that things could somehow be separate and allow us to say things like "wondrous" or "booooring" or "beautiful" or "ugly" or "mystical" or "mundane." How stupid is that when the altar already touches the sky and your feet are planted firmly in Zanzibar? And beware the asshole who insists on the interlocking oneness of all things ... it's enough to make any sane person puke.

Delicious, delicious, delicious... isn't that enough? Spiral within spiral within spiral ... floating in and out of eachother effortlessly and always. Like a potato chip that accepts neither praise nor blame but touches the tongue -- spiral touching spiral -- and is so damned good that no one could just eat one.


The local newspaper announces on the front page this morning that the 29th annual gay pride march will be held on Saturday. My son tells me that there are weeklong gay pride events scheduled at the high school ... a fact that doesn't bother him much since the various assemblies will get him out of regularly-scheduled classes.

Marches may assert solidarity in the face of what can be opposition. They may also assert agreement of thought or belief when there is no opposition.

I suppose there may be some pride involved -- a sense of righteous empowerment or snuggling warmth. But I do think that pride is an iffy business, even at the best of times and with the best intentions.

Still, the tentative warmth can be pretty enticing. No point in asking someone to think things through where they imagine they have thought things through.

Pride ... what an odd duck.

Monday, April 26, 2010

as circumstances warrant

Did it ever strike you as strange? --

On the one hand, anyone can feel a bit put out when they hear themselves described in simple terms -- a father, a mother, a soccer mom, a college student, a Democrat, a stock broker, a ... well any single thing. Each person may in fact fit the description given, but there is so much more besides.

On the other hand, anyone might be quick to do the same simple-minded thing to themselves: "I am a liberal," "I am a conservative," "I am a mechanic," "I am a college professor." Somehow it's OK and affirming and consoling to stick by your guns ... even when, in other circumstances, we are irritated at being stuck by our guns.

I thought about this in regard to the following little interchange:

"Are you a Buddhist?"

"Yes, I am."

Yessiree -- stick by your guns, your beliefs, your identity, your desire for meaning a direction, and perhaps your good efforts.

But lately, I think it might be more useful, appropriate and correct to revise the answers we give to such questions.

"Are you a Buddhist?"

"Yes ... as circumstances warrant."

Sometimes a Buddhist, sometimes a Christian, sometimes a stock broker, sometimes a soccer mom, sometimes a husband, sometimes a wife, sometimes a mechanic, sometimes a mountain climber ... sometimes ... as circumstances warrant.

Sometimes ... as circumstances warrant ... isn't that more like Buddhism ... or, if you prefer, life?

the have's and the have-not's

-- In July of 1863, there were draft riots in the United States, the most notable in New York. Those among the less affluent who could not afford to find a replacement or pay $300 were to be conscripted in a 'lottery' to fight for the North in the Civil War under a law signed by President Abraham Lincoln. An estimated 1,000 people died and of the some 400 arrested, few had Irish names, although sentiment of the time was often biased against the immigrant Irish.

-- In the early and middle 1900's, American workers fought literal and political battles in an attempt to improve working conditions that evolved in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. The agricultural workers who moved to cities in search of employment were subjected to long hours and low pay, a kind of slavery that extended to women and children as well and men. The local and federal governments often sided with the factory managers who were not anxious to see unions become a reality. It was often a bloody business.

-- During the Depression of the 1930's, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was heard to marvel that those so beaten down by the economic juggernaut did not revolt. During that same period, when my mother was growing up, the only way she knew there was a Depression was that "we lost the upstairs maid."

-- In the 1960's, young people in their thousands took to the streets to protest the 'police action' in Vietnam, and adventure that meant among other things, that as before, those with less fought the battles of those with more. Simultaneously, the Civil Rights movement gathered strength ... "why must schools and lunch counters and drinking fountains be different for blacks and whites?" might be one way to oversimplify the anguished questions.

-- And not long ago, I read somewhere that today's U.S. government has in place contingency plans for what to do in the event that the populace should rise up in the face of a new, grinding adversity ... still referred to euphemistically as a "recession."

All of these instances have a multitude of explanation and meaning. Certainly they are oversimplified here. But I cannot help but look at such things and see them as largely conflicts and frictions between the "have's and the have-not's."

"Some pigs," George Orwell observed, "are more equal than others."

And Marine Corps General Smedley Butler (July 30, 1881 - June 21, 1940), a man who won TWO medals of honor and became known as "The Fighting Quaker," took a good deal of trouble trying to point out to Americans that war was a matter of economics ... as in his "War is a Racket" ... a racket perpetrated by the haves at the expense of the have-not's.

I cannot pretend that the linking of the roughly-described incidents above is warranted or even necessarily logical, but I cannot help but feel that the egregiousness of greed, whether personal or political, is truly sad and something that no one should overlook. Roughly speaking, for those who have, based on the labor of those who have-not to then disdain the very people who have assured their ascendancy is excessively stupid and cruel.

History asserts such stupidity and cruelty from a time before America was a twinkling in its daddy's eye, but that doesn't make it any more palatable or responsible. And white-whining about it is hardly an answer. The have's and have-not's are unlikely to find any peaceful ground.

But I do think, that greed is no philosophical Tinker Toy and that the best lesson anyone can take from the mistakes that appear before their eyes is this: Just don't you do that. Be as activist all you like -- sign petitions, join a movement, cuss up a storm ... but don't you do that.

Gautama the Buddha was not just whistling Dixie when he said, "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." Even when the irresponsibility or cruelty or avarice of others enrages or makes you incredibly sad, keep your eye on the ball, don't be irresponsible ... don't you do that.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

I give up


OK, I give up.

Zen teachings come from a book.
They are virtuous.
They are wise.
They are authentic.
They are truly true.
They are impressively old.
They can be discussed in such a way as to assure a useful and indubitable outcome.
Temples are the holy ground.
Teachers are indispensable men and women, often in wonderful clothes.

... and so on and so forth.

If it makes you happy, I am happy for you ... and if need be, I will nod my head as if in agreement.

Can I go home now?

picture time.

Got a couple of photos of the zendo altar after zazen this morning, but the real surprise came later ....

I also wanted to get a photo of the sparrow -- or its offspring -- that nests just outside the porch door each year. (A birdwatching friend informed me that the bird is a finch... my bad.) Often when I stand in the doorway, he/she flies away, but this morning she sat still and....

I had been so intent on getting a picture of the bird that I completely missed what apparently is an egg. What ever made me think I could be a Zen student, I don't know.

a pointed observation about the press

Column on Pat Tillman

old age and death

One of the nice things about age is that you get more realistic. True, there are some hard facts that go with that new-found realism, but facts that cannot be escaped might as well be enjoyed.

Yesterday, on the peace picket line, I was chatting with Bill, a man in his late 60's or early 70's. I asked him how his tennis was going and he said he played three times a week -- not as much as earlier in his life, but still, something. I asked him if he had gone on a peace march held last Monday and he said he hadn't -- "I can't walk that far any more." "Me too," I replied.

And then we chuckled a little about the various ailments we had been assailed by. The Organ Recital -- but recited with an it's-inescapable-and-not-all-that-bad tenor. And then we went on to chat about other things.

No one's going to die when they are 25 or even 40. But when you acknowledge that you are going to die, the various points of focus in life change ... and are both more sensible and more enjoyable, I'd say.

I never have liked persuasions that threaten people with death -- whether it's sitting in a graveyard imagining your own body decomposing or promising some wondrous afterlife if you just play the game right. I prefer persuasions that point out the way to live well rather than to badger others with things they don't and can't know.

From within the current framework, be it 25 or 40 or 70 ... how does anyone live well? Let old age and death do their thing. You do yours.

earthly goods

One of the things that can wow others when assessing monks, nuns and others seriously involved in spiritual exercises is their apparent willingness to forsake their earthly goods.

In Buddhism, for example, you can hear the expression, "with one robe and one bowl" used to describe the earthly possessions with which monks ply daily trade.

And for those sniffing the edges of spiritual endeavor, there can be a sense that accumulating and/or flaunting material goods is no way to go about a happy life. There can even be a certain virtue-prone scorn heaped on those whose wealth exceeds any known need: "Not having is good; having is bad" ... that sort of thing.

What brought this to mind was -- as it seemed to me -- the impossibility of imparting to anyone else the fact that it is not the possessions that need revising (anyone who doubts this should try running away to a monastery), it is the mind that relies on and perhaps adores those possessions.

For example: When we assess the properties of money, what is its central requirement, the cornerstone from which all other assessments flow? I would say that the cornerstone is simply belief: We believe that a twenty-dollar bill is worth so-and-so-many groceries. And since others share that belief, we can put supermarket food on the dinner table.

But suppose you were in the middle of the Sahara desert and ran into a shambling tribe of Bedouins from whom you wished to purchase some water or a sheltering tent? Would the $20 bill have much meaning? If the nomads agreed with your belief system, perhaps it would. But if what they say in your hand was a greenish piece of paper ... well, you'd be screwed.

And the business of belief imbues everything around us. It is the sine qua non of whatever "value" we care to conjure. Without our belief or the belief of others, earthly goods seem to have no other option than to somehow evaporate.

Love affairs, business matters, a mansion on the hill, a Big Mac in times of perhaps desperate hunger, cars in the driveway, grand philosophies and even grander religions ... all such acquisitions, all such earthly goods relate solely to mind.

It is nothing fancy or erudite or virtuous ... it's just the way things age. There are many churches and other establishments that lead successful lives according to these beliefs.

And it's not a bad starting point. It can inspire investigation when pursuing a peaceful life.

But that investigation needs to go forward -- to step beyond the earthly-goods of belief. Belief may console in the same way a Ferrari or house on the hill may console, but is consolation ever really the consolation anyone seeks? Is agreement with others really any cornerstone for a happy life?

Perhaps the first step in investigating the earthly goods of belief is to ask, whose beliefs are these? It's an easy question to state, but it is not so easy to pursue. If it is I who hold the belief in $20 bills or religious persuasions, then it is I who am responsible. Not God, not Donald Trump, not Mahatma Ghandi ... it is I. And if these earthly goods do not console with the indubitable consolation I seek, what does? Will another one-night stand or another religion do the trick? Maybe so ... lord knows most of us have gone that route before ... seeking out something better, something more believable, something more delightful.

Earthly goods depend on my mind, so if there is some hope of relinquishing that which does not bring surcease, well ... I'd better make some effort to revise or reform that mind.

But then comes another question -- what the hell is this mind that believes in the earthly goods I have surrounded myself with ... the $20 bills, the religious persuasions, the cheering crowds, the sharing-is-caring advisories?

All of this and a lot more like it requires effort and patience and courage. It accounts, I would guess, for why it is impossible to transmit to the earthly-goods mind the mind that is unwilling to settle for earthly goods, the mind that is determined to settle matters.

You can't make it sound good or sexy or even very satisfying ... all that hard work with no very concrete result to be described ... and therefore believed. All you can do is make suggestions and rely on the suffering and uncertainty of others to inspire some effort.

Yes, I know, there are wonderful and inspiring tales to tell and I have been as guilty as the next person of telling them. But what transmission is that? Something that builds a fire under your ass still requires you to make the moves that will alleviate a hot ass.

I always liked Zen Buddhism as an approach to all this -- something to believe in and then make the effort that will clarify that belief. Thought, word and deed -- Zen, that minuscule sliver in the spiritual firmament, encourages some understanding that such things are not separate any more than they are conjoined. But there is no capacity to transmit the usefulness or even truth of experience ... there's just the willingness to expend the effort, to summon the determination, to get your own ass out of the fire.

And as I read somewhere -- or perhaps wrote, I can't remember -- "Where I am going, you cannot go. Where you are going I cannot go. But we can go together."

This is more than earthly-goods belief. There is no virtue in it. The sun comes up in the East and not only is it enough, it is also enough to make anyone smile.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

TUI perhaps

Anyone who has sat in silence for a few days -- as for example in a Zen retreat -- gathers a lot of information, much, if not all, of it, Totally Useless Information.

Sure, there are the soaring nanoseconds and the visitations by the hounds of hell, but there is other, simpler stuff as well.

For some reason, I remembered today the discovery (as I thought of it) that it is natural (the farmers got it right) for human beings who eat three meals a day to eat a medium meal at breakfast, a big meal at lunch and a small meal at supper. It is natural to the body -- or anyway that's how it occurred to me at the time.

It's not that anyone needs to turn this information around and make some kind of rules-for-sensible-living, watch-me-play-Henry-David=Thoreau manifesto out of it, but it is information that interested me -- the me who was utterly American about having a big meal for supper.

OK, OK ... so it's just more TUI. But it occurred to me today as another of those interesting discoveries that may crop up when things are quiet enough.

without notes

On Zen Forum International, PeterB wrote that Ajahn Chah forced (the Forest Monks training with him) "to find their own voices by making them extemporise at length without notes."

What a great thing to do!

What a great thing to do for ourselves!

To stop relying on or referring to others as a means of saying what we have to say. Of course, there are plenty of people who spout bits of wisdom and ignorance without ever being aware of or crediting the source.

But to look over what it is we take seriously and then speak from the heart without reference to anything other than our hearts ... well, you could be wrong or might be castigated, but at least it would be honest.

Honesty counts.

friendly conversation

A fun conversation, for me, is one that segues easily from one thing to the next -- from the most profoundly touching to the most mundane -- without feeling that anything has been lost. This happens, I suppose, between friends more easily than it does between acquaintances, but then, I wonder ... who is not a friend in the human experience?

It occurred to me this morning that this point of view -- or bias, if you like -- is one of the reasons I am less interested in internet discussions of spiritual life than I once was. It is not a criticism, but something more like a fear ... that if all topics are open and compelling and yet one topic is transformed into a drumbeat of solemnity ... well, who am I to suggest, even by indirection, that anyone loosen the reins and stop attaching "importance" or "meaning" to something that cannot be limited by the imposition of "importance" or "meaning?"

I guess I just like it when the sky is the limit and one thing flows without barrier into the next ... not just sorrow and dread and virtue but also joy and love and laughter. No need to stop and hold on unless stopping and holding on is the stuff of this moment.

Holy roller stuff just doesn't grab me as much as it once did.

Well, I'm just thinking.

to do and not to do

It's not often on TV that people name names and do so with strong evidence as to why those names apply. William K. Black referred last night to the "fraud" in the financial industry during an interview on Bill Moyers Journal. He also described the perpetrators of the latest financial meltdown as "sociopaths."

Words may lose their meaning as time passes -- the power shape-shifting into some convenient insult or bit of praise -- but some will remember the power they once held. A "fraud" is something that was against the law and subject to judicial punishment. And a sociopathic personality is defined by an on-line dictionary as:

▸ noun: a personality disorder characterized by amorality and lack of affect; capable of violent acts without guilt feelings (`psychopathic personality' was once widely used but was superseded by `sociopathic personality' to indicate the social aspects of the disorder, but now `antisocial personality disorder' is the preferred term)

A sociopath is a seriously dangerous person ... and increasingly common in the world of business.

In Zen Buddhism, there is less emphasis on the kind of 'moral outrage' that is most often exercised in conversation and more emphasis on "things to do and things not to do." It is a good distinction, but it takes some practice to wean ourselves from the "moral outrage" that is satisfying and popular and recognize what is "to do" and what is "not to do."

Moyers-Black interview

Friday, April 23, 2010

Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer

The depth of displeasure and scorn intended in the poster below is unfortunately counterbalanced by the fact that A. Most people don't speak German; B. Even those who do may have only a cursory understanding of what happened during World War II and C. Many have little or no backdrop against which to gauge the likes of a Fox News or a Sarah Palin.


a necessary lie?

On the radio yesterday, a former Benedictine monk who quit and now acts as an advocate in the sex abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic church, gave a very informative look at the ways in which the church covered the tracks of its offending priests.

I can't find the NPR interview to cite the man's name or his interview, but the thing that interested me was his statement that although the Catholic church and its minions espouse a non-sexual position, the church itself is thoroughly sexual in its people and particulars. In essence he said, everybody's doin' it, doin' it, doin' it ... and the church has no mechanism for facing its own sexual proclivities. He wasn't rowdy or outraged in his assertions. It was as if he were casually pointing out that the sky was blue.

The lie is too big to undo. If canon law says, "don't screw around" and everyone in fact is screwing around ... well, that would imply a necessity for changing the law ... or being content to live as a hypocrite.

How many other things are there in life where the enormity of the problem overwhelms the capacity for any real solution ... and so the lie is left alone in favor of a patchwork quilt of non-answers? Banks were "too big to fail" comes to mind. Going to the heart of the problem would be a massive undertaking, one going all the way back to the beginning of the banking business or the Catholic church.

Banks, of course, don't lay claim to any but the most thinly-veiled virtues. But the Catholic church -- like Toyota -- needs a credulous customer base and virtue is one of its very serious sales mechanisms.

Oh well ... back to the emperor and his outstanding clothes. As with all outrageous and egregious errors, the only message worth learning is ... don't you do that!

living on leftovers

With no compelling interest on the front burner, I turned away from a Zen Buddhist bulletin board this morning in order to get a bead on lasagna.

There is some spaghetti sauce I made a while back in the fridge and I really don't want to waste it, so I thought lasagna might be a good disguise. It was the balance of cheeses that I wanted to scope out: Ricotta, Parmesan, Mozzarella, Provolone ... how to make a meal of leftovers taste good.

Leftovers. I'd love to cook in a way that was right on the gnat's ass for amount -- something that would leave nothing to put back in the refrigerator. But because my children have varying schedules that are hard to keep up with, I usually cook in such a way that there are leftovers. What is enough turns out to be too much.

Leftovers are what most of us dine on, I imagine ... the lingering bits and pieces of thoughts and actions of the past concocted into some new dish, which in turn has its own leftovers. How nice it would be to live a life free from leftovers, the stuff from the past that fills the mind-fridge and threatens to overwhelm anything fresh and new and original.

Maybe a happy and peaceful life does not require the frills and furbelows of spiritual accumulation and training. Instead, perhaps it's just a life lived without leftovers.

Still, there's no reason why the lasagna shouldn't taste good.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


My son's baseball team won their game today, 2-0.

It was a good, close game, so I can't imagine anyone was too disappointed.

I got to holler like a bandit and my son, at first base, did not chastise me as he usually does.

Going outside is one of the delicious things in life.

how do you spell relief?

Given the sadness and uncertainty that human beings can and do experience, I think it is understandable that they might look to religion for relief ... something that will "make things better." The ravages of war, the unrelenting purr of illness or poverty, the bright hopes turned to bitter tea, the crops that failed, the relationships cemented by horror or coming unstuck from delight ... the laundry list of things that can singe the soul is long and is not just some sissified philosophical view from afar ... this stuff is real and personal and painful and confusing and no goddamned joke.

What's wrong with relief? What's wrong with improvement? What's wrong with a brighter vision or hope or belief? What's wrong with religion as a bastion against cold winds and colder nights? Would anyone begrudge a warm blanket or a little soup? I certainly wouldn't.

Seeking relief and being lifted up ... yes, indeed, why not? Isn't that how anyone begins a spiritual interest or adventure? This is no time for rhetorical play things or convenient 'objectivity' ... seriously, why not?




People need something. But the question is, what?

Have you ever noticed that many of the spiritual relief agencies available have a way of leading the customer back to the address where those agencies reside? If religion is relief and if religious institutions define what spiritual life might be, then those seeking relief end up going in some endless circle ... out the front door on a Sunday morning and back to the same location next Sunday if not sooner ... if you want to keep on being relieved. There is no period on the sentence ... religious life turns into an endless series of ellipsis marks ... like bubblegum sticking to the sole of your shoe on a hot summer day ... trailing tendrils of sweet goo annoying anyone's progress.

Relief is OK. Some people do it for their whole lives, propping up the relief factor over and over and over again. But I think that there is another approach as well, a road less traveled perhaps because it takes more effort and is not for the faint of heart.

The trouble with relief is that it is addictive. There is no relief in the relief industry. Today's relief high turns into tomorrow's depths of despair, which must then be inoculated anew with a relief fix.

And it's OK for a while, but it hardly builds a solid foundation, a place in which to find an honest peace with things as they are instead of things as anyone might wish they were. The victim of an accident at sea is grateful for a life preserver. But once on land, s/he does not freight this life with what is unnecessary.

How is anyone to accord with life as it is -- sometimes happy, sometimes sad -- and not enter into some endless, addictive search for improvement or revision?

I think the best tools are courage and patience and doubt -- plus the willingness to pay attention and take responsibility. Relief is a limited commodity, but life as it actually occurs is not limited in this way. And as life is not limited, so too, those who are alive cannot be limited.

It is the unlimited component of this life that needs some understanding, some actualization. Understanding and actualization does not mean adoration ... does this life run around patting itself on the back for how deliciously unlimited it is? Does it kowtow or raise things up? Does it threaten or protect? No, I think life just comes and goes and since human beings are alive, they too just come and go, moment after moment, day after day, week after week, year after year. It's nothing special and yet it is worth enjoying -- this unimproved peace that life has to offer.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


For those interested in Zen Buddhism, the Zen priest Ikkyū Sōjun (1394-1481) is remembered fondly as an iconoclast, poet, womanizer, painter and devoted consort to the blind singer Mori among other things. (Eg. Here is the Wikipedia article)

The fondness for Ikkyu stems in part from his feet-on-the-ground, everyman approach to things. His activities allowed others to say, "He's like me" or "I'm like him" and thereby find encouragement. Ikkyu was no stiff stick in the religious firmament. He glowed with life ... or so fond memory says. It is wonderful to find some dancing in a place where music is too often missing.

After so many years, it is easy and delightful and encouraging to reduce Ikkyu to a kind of Bad-Boy Buddhist. Which student has not felt rebellion rise up in his or her heart when following the way? I doubt if there is a serious student alive who hasn't at one time or another, in one way or another, said with explosive sincerity, "Fuck this!!!!"

But without getting all revisionist, goody-two-shoes about it, I think it would be well to remember that Ikkyu, this bright light in what may seem to be a dark tunnel, was also someone who trained his ass off. We may see and remember the results that please and delight us ... but how did Ikkyu get there, how did he arrive at a place where he seemed to walk and act freely and without the limitations that can drive any of us nuts?

He worked hard ... just as any of us might work hard.


Lately, I have been involved in my mother's writing, specifically, the purchase of rights to her book published in 1947 called "The Horizontal Man." The mystery won an Edgar as a best first novel and excited attention because it seemed to be set at Smith College -- an institution my mother attended and the place where my father taught. The book was seen as a roman a clef ... fictional characters relating closely to those who actually did exist. The corpse in the book seemed pretty clearly to be my father. But there were plenty of other characters who resembled real-life people.

It was all long ago and far away and yet it is quite flattering to think that something written 50 years ago might still excite some interest. Not long ago, a Smith College student came here to interview me because she was writing a paper on "The Horizontal Man." The paper, which I cannot figure out how to upload, was a pretty well-written depiction of people I once knew or continue to know.

But I knew them in life and so reading a paper about them has a strangely juiceless feel to it, however well-written the paper may be. When flesh and blood is put down on paper, it may be OK as far as it goes, but it never goes far enough. The limitations of words and the hand that writes those words mean that we are getting hints that are bordered ... and no actual-factual human being lives and breathes within borders.

Thinking about all this made me think that if what we know from the page is bordered and limited ... well, what makes me think that because I actually knew or know these people that I actually know the whole story? And yet there is a tendency to think that I do know some true story when I actually knew or know someone and that my knowing is more whole than the descriptions that rise up off the page.

It has a laziness and an arrogance ... I know so-and-so. Do I really? I doubt it. It may be more scary than anyone wants to consider, but the tentative nature of what one person might know about another is really something of a relief and makes life more interesting ... no need to make up stories that simply guess or express bias. It's all tentative. Tomorrow is another story ... or maybe the same story differently written. The story is always changing ... just like the people... even in this moment. No borders necessary.

Just noodling.

from a greater distance

On the radio, there was an interesting story about plastic surgery. I gather there is a popular TV show called "Nip/Tuck" that combines the insatiable desire for doctor shows with the insatiable desire to remain youthful ... or if not youthful, at least looking youthful. Apparently, the TV show was part of the impetus for the radio examination.

Mostly plastic surgery is thought of as dealing with the skin -- how to make it smoother or fuller or something. But according to the radio show, a study showed that after 40, there is a natural wearing away of bone and that without addressing that issue, the results of plastic surgery leave individuals looking strange -- sort of like androids who are trying to look human. A concocted look ... odd to the on-looker. So plastic surgeons are forced, when they are any good, to deal with matters of the bone -- as for example the sunken look that can attack the eye sockets.

In one of his didactic novels, the French writer Albert Camus once observed that people are willing to climb onto the cross ... in order to be seen from a greater distance. And plastic surgery may be one version of that cross ... a revising that allows people to be seen from a greater distance.

But no matter what success anyone might choose, from plastic surgery to the accumulation of wealth to the improving of intellectual skills to the weaving of spiritual litanies ... still there is a loss of bone that cannot be reversed forever. And this indisputable fact infuses or undermines all the efforts anyone might make to be seen from a greater distance. Distances tend to disappear over time and it is then that the question can rise up like a great tsunami -- after you have done everything you could do ... well, now what?

Embalmers and plastic surgeons may make their best effort to make their subjects look "natural," but without addressing the question of what "natural" might consist in, how could anyone be at ease?

And don't we often find ourselves sucked into the realm of embalmers and plastic surgeons when it comes to our own lives? We nip here and tuck there -- mentally, emotionally, spiritually -- and what is the result? Yes, perhaps we can be seen from a greater distance, but the uncertainty implicit in our efforts nags and gnaws ... what's wrong with the natural that occurs before we imagine or elevate something called "natural?"

It's spring around here. Across the street, my neighbor's daffodils and a few tulips are in their full glory. Beautiful, alluring, playing their role in nature's production. They have no need to be seen from a greater distance and what do they know of crosses or crucifixions? The earth from which they grow knows no distances.

Beautiful today. Beautiful tomorrow.

Just beautiful ... how could that be unnatural?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

penance at a price

Automated Catholic confessional

exclamation points

I once worked at a publishing house in New York. This was a long time ago, before the Internet and at a time when more people read books. Anyway, one of the books I was assigned to edit was a compendium of American Civil War battles. It was nothing but a laundry list of every battle ever fought -- from skirmishes to the blood-bath encounters. It was a very good idea for a book, considering the interest there was and is in the Civil War. Historians and Civil War buffs can really get into things, so a book with every battle ... well, it was like creating a book about all the baseball players who ever lived.

But I ran into one problem with editing the book. While there was no requirement that the book should be anything other than a straight description (no arty metaphors needed), the author insisted on putting in exclamation points when he found something particularly moving or important.

I must have run up hundreds of dollars in phone bills trying to explain to him that exclamation points were not part of history. When quoting someone, an exclamation point might be appropriate ("Come here!"), but in indirect discourse, when just describing the facts, exclamation points did not work and were not appropriate.

The author refused to take them out. I tried and tried and tried to tell him ... and he simply refused to change the copy or to be dissuaded. I don't know what ever happened to the book. It had been through several editors before it got to me and I never could get the thing in shape for publication.

Exclamation points belong to human beings. They do not belong to history, no matter how horrific or miraculous that history may be.

Each of us has our exclamation points, I imagine. And there is nothing wrong with it ... until we try to impose our exclamation points on something called life ... you know, the stuff of history.

nesting in spring

Once again, as seems to be their wont, the sparrows have created a nest on top of a wooden Christmas-tree-like thingie I tacked to the outside of the house, under an eave. The Christmas tree is about four feet from the porch door and is isosceles-triangular, with lights adorning the peak. That bunch of lights gives the sparrows a base on which to build their nest.

While they are building, they are skittish when I stand in the porch door, soaking up the sun or just enjoying the morning air. They will fly to some nearby tree and wait for me to go away. But this morning I noticed that one of the mates did not move. She (as I thought of the sparrow) just sat still as salt, head peeking over the edge of the nest.

The eggs I imagine she is sitting on are far more important than the danger I represent. She is still and determined and does not move.

I do my best not to frighten her.

scaaary stuff

An Iranian cleric has suggested that immodestly dressed women are the cause for the earthquakes in his quake-prone country and perhaps beyond.

Sharon Osbourne wife of celebrity Ozzie Osbourne, says that, at 57, she will have her breast implants removed and give them to her husband ... they would look better as paper weights on his desk than they do on her chest, she said.

It's all good gossip, but in my mind there is something nightmarish about the thought of living in a world where people all around you are willing to credit what seems to be dangerously mistaken or downright ludicrous. Nightmarish ....

And yet sometimes the nightmares are all that is left -- the only refuge available. If the world around you is somehow insane, then isn't it time to stop questioning the insanity or ignorance of others and look in the mirror? What is the nature of sanity and insanity ... isn't it, in the end, just you?

It really can scare the shit out of me -- large crowds in substantial agreement ... cheering, asserting, rooting out the heretics ... it makes me feel that the world is flat and I'd better get with the program. Scaaaarey!

But then it occurs to me in order to be scared or certain depends on my own fitness and correctness and opinion and logic and understanding. And after a while, being right about the round world or the relationship between women and earthquakes or the world in which breast implants are part of a larger mind-set is no longer all that interesting. Being right is just too tiring, not to mention a mug's game.

It's a mug's game in the sense that either right or wrong does not honestly say much about the world around me, a world which seems pretty indifferent to my being right or wrong. Right or wrong, spring leaves appear; right or wrong, there is foolishness available and always has been. Right and wrong have to do with me and, where I am no longer all that convincing or fascinating or important, the question can be asked, if it's not right and not wrong, what is it? What's the principle operating here?

I'm not suggesting anyone lie down in abject subservience to the world of idiocy. But I do wonder if there is much difference between that approach and lying down in abject subservience to wisdoms and their counsel. It just seems to me that at some point, the nightmares become as compelling as the wet dreams...same stuff, different day. What principle is this? And is there some reason to lift the weights of fear or delight? Doesn't the nightmare carry the same message as the wet dream?

It's all just noodling, of course, but I think it's worth considering. Madmen and saviors abound ... which is which? I mean, when you look in the mirror, which is which?

It reminds me of the old graffito I once saw and continue to love: "Man without God is like a fish without a bicycle." Irresponsibility is not enough.

Monday, April 19, 2010

the new normal

Yesterday, because the old computer refused to work any longer, I went with one of my sons to Best Buy and bit the financial bullet. Today, there is a new computer tower and various differences from the show-and-tell of the other machine. It takes some getting used to. It is the "new normal.

What a good phrase -- the "new normal." Break a leg and walking with a cast is the new normal. Change jobs and there is a new normal. Get married or divorced -- the new normal. One belief, opinion, emotion, bit of logic is replaced with another -- the new normal.

It's easy to see the change when anyone breaks a leg. Galumphing is not the 'normal' state of affairs. But when, after some reflection, each moment is nothing BUT the new normal ... well, it does make you wonder what's normal. :)

old age and death

Over the weekend, my wife took off to New Jersey to be with her mother, who is in her mid-80's and getting frail. When I asked my daughter how "grandma" had looked the last time she saw her, my daughter said, "Everyone (my wife's siblings) is convinced she is dying. If you treat someone as if they were dying, then they will die." It was just idle conversation, but her words stuck in my head.

Her line sounded good -- as if encouraging an elderly person to get out and about was a kindness that visitors and kin might exercise to altruistic effect. Get some exercise. Get interested in something. Do something -- you'll feel better.

But another facet on that gem is this: Kin and friends don't want to see a part of their own fabric ripped, as when someone they love dies. And yet people are dying all the time, with or without good advice. And so, in one sense, good advice is little more than an unwillingness or inability to face one's own death and understanding of it.

I'm not criticizing, but I do think that it might be better to wish the elderly what they wish and to try to accord with those wishes. Sitting around saying -- implicitly or explicitly -- "you're not going to die" seems to me to sound hopeful and altruistic and kind (full of altar-boy good will), when in fact it simply adds a burden to the one who is being addressed ... please don't die, it will make me so sad. And so, instead of having their burdens eased, the elderly are sometimes forced to console those who are consoling them... more weight in what may be a weighty, novel, confusing and perhaps scary time.

Wish them what they wish -- which may, in fact, be death. Suggesting that an expenditure of energy will improve matters, revise facts, or otherwise reshape the moment ... well, it sounds a bit unkind to me. But it probably takes some discipline in a society that is pretty secretive about death ... to listen, to speak your piece as you might to anyone else, to cry when crying is called for, to remember a time of laughter and smile anew ... wish them what they wish ... not something that denies facts but accords with them.

Secretive ... people will tell you that death is a 'great unknown' and therefore is spooky. But I have a feeling that what is spooky is that it is a 'great known' (and perhaps not so 'great' at all). Who wants to run around in life trying to hide from what they already acquainted with. I guess the answer is, "lots of people."

In Zen, there is the tale of the master who was dying. A student asked if he had any last words. "Yes," said the master, "I am afraid of dying." The student was flabbergasted that a man who had spent 50 or 60 years in plumbing the depths of birth and death could say such a thing. The student's face radiated confusion and disbelief. Seeing this, the old master looked at his student sadly: "You don't understand," he said. "I am afraid of dying, really. I am afraid of dying really."

Sunday, April 18, 2010

wants and wont

Wanting is our wont. And where it is not, there is often a scurrying effort to find some new wont -- which is something we want.

▸ noun: an established custom
▸ noun: a pattern of behavior acquired through frequent repetition

Some definitions of "Want:"

▸ noun: anything that is necessary but lacking ("I tried to supply his wants")
▸ noun: a specific feeling of desire
▸ noun: the state of needing something that is absent or unavailable ("For want of a nail the shoe was lost")

Find a want, create a wont ... that seems to be the direction ... and more than a direction, a hard-wiring of the human psyche. And if it is, in fact, a hard-wired habit, and if the subsequent uncertainty becomes apparent, then there is nothing for it but to find the wont that will address the wants completely ... not reject or disdain the wants or wont, but simply find a wont that will settle matters beyond simple wants and wont.

give away your earthly goods

Why is it that when, in one form or another, spiritual persuasions seem to suggest the relinquishing of earthly goods, there is little or no recognition that among those goods is the very spiritual persuasion that suggests it?

This is not a trick question and it is not a question that is aimed solely at the Bible-thumping, hallelujah crowd. I think the same question could be asked of any spiritual endeavor, from serious to subservient.

Isn't such a surrender a sine qua non of the very spiritual persuasion that encourages the relinquishing of everything from stocks and bonds to designer-label spatulas? Who has the courage and patience and doubt and determination to give up heaven and hell, incense and holy text, Rolls Royce and Victoria's Secret?

Money is easy ... mind-set is hard.

grey Sunday

A grey dawn around here after a grey and rainy day yesterday. The spring trees, some in leaf, some just budding, stand out -- delicate as a single strand of spider web -- against the grey background. It's a great day for taking nature pictures -- a time when colors come center stage against their backdrop.

Yesterday I noticed that what I imagine were squirrels had dug up and consumed the bulbs I planted a while back. Squirrels have to eat too, but I did wish they would go somewhere else for dinner.

I'm having a hard time writing this morning. Nothing really comes to mind as interesting or confounding or delicious or upsetting in the ways that things need to be upsetting in order to write. I'm sure some idea or other will be along shortly, but for the moment the ideas seem to be playing outside somewhere ... perhaps with the squirrels.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


Today's newspaper has a prominent page-1 story headlined, "Church in Crisis: Area Catholics deeply divided over pope's stance on sex abuse scandal."

I don't have to read the story. I know what it says.

But it did make me wonder about infallibility. Is there anyone anywhere who hasn't at one time or another dearly wished, implicitly or explicitly, to be infallible ... and offered a lot of evidence (if only in a loud and emotionally-vibrant tone of voice) to prove the point?

Building infallibility into a hard-wired human framework is as foolish for individuals as it is for the Catholic church. Simply stated, it's cruisin' for a bruisin'. Why? Obviously because it simply does not square up with the facts.

I don't care much one way or another about the Catholic church's desires and argumentation and self-esteem, but I do think that infallibility is interesting on a human (rather than institutional) level:

What if you actually were infallible? Would you be a fool ... which is the easiest conclusion to draw? Or would you be on to something that was worth investigating?

Infallible ... never wrong. Except when you were wrong. Which would not be wrong.

Worth investigating? I think so.

right for the wrong reasons

Looking back with a somewhat rueful smile, I find myself glad that I set out to seek "the truth." Leaving aside whatever neurotic foundations such a quest might have, I think there are at least two closely-linked benefits that come with such a quest: 1. There is some excellent education that can accrue and 2. seeking something that might be called "the truth" can lead to an honest search for the truth.

In my life, the most noticeable example of such a quest may have been in my five years as a newspaper reporter. Like a lot of reporters, I began my newspaper work full of ideals and aspirations -- to dig out the facts that constituted "the truth" of whatever story I was working on. Naturally, the more juicy the story, the more heinous the skulduggery involved, and the more I uncovered the facts ... the happier I was. I was finding the story behind the story, the facts that would help people to see the connivers and liars and self-deceivers for what they were ... not just in the political arena (which didn't interest me much) but in public attitudes and mores.

I was helping. I was working for the public good. I was digging out the facts that readers had no time or interest in digging out. I was looking for the truth and the truth consisted in adducing enough evidence, enough facts, so that matters became clear and "true."

But as I look back, the most important aspect of all this bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed outlook was that I was serious about it. I believed my own rhetoric and was willing to put my own beliefs to the test; I was willing to be wrong because "the truth" was more important than my beliefs or facts or anything else. Why this should be so, I can only guess. But it was so ... and it led me in ways that I now see as useful and productive. It led me to seek the truth after having imagined I was seeking the truth.

News stories, for example, are composed of facts as best they can be gathered. But no matter how many facts anyone -- inside a news-gathering organization or keeping an eye on the spaghetti water -- could bring to bear, there is always something left out. To follow a story wherever it leads means that it leads to a place where "wherever" does not exist. There is no such thing as "the whole story" in ordinary terms.

For example, I once took it into my head to actually dig into a story about a kid who was brought up on drug charges -- the kind of tale that ordinarily occupied a three-paragraph synopsis in the police-log section of the paper. Those three paragraphs contained the name of the accused, the how and where of the arrest, the plea, the hearing and the sentence.

But it struck me that such three-paragraph summations, while gossip-worthy, hardly touched what touched the people involved ... the accused, his parents, the cops, the court ... and I began to dig in. But the story went on and on and on and on in every-widening ripples of fact and understanding and emotion. It was the kind of endlessness that I and others might console themselves about: "You have to gather the relevant facts and make a judgment."

And that's what people do -- gather the facts and make a judgment ... based on their own laziness or self-satisfaction. Stories do not have edges ... they go on and out in all directions, each fact touching the next and the next and the next. It is only a kind of human smugness that allows anyone to believe they have "the whole story" on which to base their well-modulated or over-enthusiastic judgments. It was a frustrating recognition for someone whose agitprop department sent out endless press releases about the facts and the truth and the worthiness of seeking "the truth."

If there was no way to get "the whole story," if everything invariably spread its wings in all directions ... what then was the truth? I was flummoxed within. My own search for the truth had fallen on its undeniable face. And within that framework, I might do one of two things -- forgive my own noble-sounding aspirations and go along with the well-groomed crowd or find something that more adequately addressed the truth I claimed to want.

I chose the latter course and became involved in spiritual endeavor ... approaching it as a vehicle for the truth ... approaching it with the same idealism and verve I had once brought to newspapering. This was a world that was going to reveal the truth, that was going to make me good, that was going to crack some nut I seemed hell-bent on cracking.

And as with newspapering, I worked pretty hard at it. This is not so say I was ever much good at the Zen Buddhism I ended up with, but it is to say that I could be earnest and sincere and compliant and rebellious by turns. The good thing about Zne was that it didn't sit still for any nonsense about "the whole story" or "the truth."

And I would not recommend Zen Buddhism to anyone, but I would say I feel lucky to have put myself on a path that offered the tools that would go beyond bias and virtue and truth and falsehood. I was lucky to have found a way to seek out the truth after having chosen a way "to seek out the truth."

The goofs I made, both in newspapering and in spiritual endeavor, have been excellent educators -- real, no-bullshit educators... the kind that don't rely on anyone else's profound or shallow observations ... the kind that are much less afraid of criticisms ... the kind that acknowledge intellect and emotion, but refuse to see them as "the whole story"... except in the sense that they are the whole story.

I was right ... for the wrong reasons, but these days, the wrong reasons strike me as pretty damned right and I say thank you very much.

a pact with devilish implications

Posted at Fox News:

A computer game retailer revealed that it legally owns the souls of thousands of online shoppers, thanks to a clause in the terms and conditions agreed to by online shoppers.

The retailer, British firm GameStation, added the "immortal soul clause" to the contract signed before making any online purchases earlier this month. It states that customers grant the company the right to claim their soul.

"By placing an order via this Web site on the first day of the fourth month of the year 2010 Anno Domini, you agree to grant Us a non transferable option to claim, for now and for ever more, your immortal soul. Should We wish to exercise this option, you agree to surrender your immortal soul, and any claim you may have on it, within 5 (five) working days of receiving written notification from or one of its duly authorised minions."

GameStation's form also points out that "we reserve the right to serve such notice in 6 (six) foot high letters of fire, however we can accept no liability for any loss or damage caused by such an act. If you a) do not believe you have an immortal soul, b) have already given it to another party
, or c) do not wish to grant Us such a license, please click the link below to nullify this sub-clause and proceed with your transaction."

The terms of service were updated on April Fool's Day as a gag, but the retailer did so to make a very real point: No one reads the online terms and conditions of shopping, and companies are free to insert whatever language they want into the documents.

While all shoppers during the test were given a simple tick box option to opt out, very few did this, which would have also rewarded them with a £5 voucher, according to news:lite. Due to the number of people who ticked the box, GameStation claims believes as many as 88 percent of people do not read the terms and conditions of a Web site
before they make a purchase.

The company noted that it would not be enforcing the ownership rights, and planned to e-mail customers nullifying any claim on their soul.

Friday, April 16, 2010

lest we forget

I was just now idly skimming an Internet site called "beliefnet," which I think is one of the biggest, most popular or perhaps most publicized sites for spiritual and religious get-togethers.

The site, which is visually spattered with more tchotchkes than a Dollar Store, has links to all sorts of religious leanings and longings.

But as I puttered up and down the aisles, occasionally stopping to examine one trinket or another, there was a growing recognition of something I tend to forget: Not surprisingly, the site was largely geared, in whatever faith or persuasion, to answering the hopes and needs and sorrows of visitors in heart-felt (and lucrative) ways.

Longing for relief is just a fact of life along the spiritual highways and byways. The human heart can be wracked. A sense of drowning whispers or screams for whatever life-preserver is most handy. Even the most well-camouflaged, intellectually-couched, or protectively-phrased questions have a sense of weeping in them.

Hope and belief ... but perhaps hope most of all springs from the spiritual soil like a dandelion in spring. Except among heartless idiots, there is no bad-mouthing or disdaining the weeds as we speak of the flowers of faith. The Tooth Fairy is no joke and I think many, if not most, people who interest themselves in the world of the spirit, do so in the same way a Las Vegas gambler might yank the arm of a slot machine ... in hopes of a wonderful payoff for which only a nickel or a dime is required.

One of my favorite Zen-teachers of the past, Ta Hui, once wrote to a student and encouraged him sternly to "stop seeking for relief." While true and apt in every respect, such an encouragement flies in the face of what actually happens. Or at least I think so. Relief ... yes, a prayer for relief! That is what spiritual adventure amounts to. Which of us has not done the same?

But for myself, I would like to remember as best I can: Relief is not found in seeking relief, but the prayers for relief are no less heart-felt and important. If the world is weeping, then I hope to do what I can ... not so much to provide relief as to staunch the tears.

Portraying spiritual life as an emotional matter is a dangerous and ill-advised business, but that doesn't mean that it is somehow devoid of emotion.

caught with your pants on

Sometimes I think the slang phrase, "caught with your pants down" just means "caught with your pants on." Imagine: There anybody might be, cozy within some long-standing habit or point of view, when suddenly something happens that revises things in a way not desired or expected ... caught with your pants down.

But is the problem the fact that we were caught with our pants down or the fact that we had those pants on in the first place?

Is it possible to live a sane and safe life without one pair of pants or another, one framework or another, one habit mode or another, one expectation or another, one explanation or another, one meaning or another?

I don't know, but I think it would be worthwhile to find out.

Here is a wide-ranging, current example, but I imagine individuals could find more intimate and compelling applications when looking in the mirror.

Apr 16, 3:48 AM (ET)

LONDON (AP) - British civil aviation authorities say there will be no flights over England until Saturday morning at the earliest, as a huge ash cloud from Iceland's erupting volcano disrupts air traffic around the world.

The National Air Traffic Services says some flights could start leaving and arriving at airports in Scotland and Northern Ireland later Friday. Another agency update is expected at 1230GMT (8:30 a.m. EDT).

Flights around the world have been canceled and passengers stranded as the ash cloud affected operations at some of the world's busiest airports, including London's Heathrow.

The ash is spewing from a volcano beneath Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull (ay-yah-FYAH'-plah-yer-kuh-duhl) glacier that began erupting Wednesday for the second time in less than a month.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

BRUSSELS (AP) - The European air navigation agency says air traffic disruptions from the volcanic ash cloud will last at least another day.

Eurocontrol says the cloud's impact "will continue for at least the next 24 hours."


Thursday, April 15, 2010

back in the crap

This morning the blog wouldn't allow me to sign in. I tried to clean up the computer a little yesterday -- try to make things a little faster by getting rid of a lot of what I thought was useless stuff -- and apparently went too far, thus blocking access to the blog sign-in.

So I had to retrace my steps -- go to "system restore," something that would take me back to a point where I had started to clean up the crap ... and take all the crap back. That worked and now I can sign in.

But I'm back in the same old crap.

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

military suicides

By MARK THOMPSON / WASHINGTON Mark Thompson / Washington – Tue Apr 13, 4:45 pm ET

From the invasion of Afghanistan until last summer, the U.S. military had lost 761 soldiers in combat there. But a higher number in the service - 817 - had taken their own lives over the same period. The surge in suicides, which have risen five years in a row, has become a vexing problem for which the Army's highest levels of command have yet to find a solution despite deploying hundreds of mental-health experts and investing millions of dollars. And the elephant in the room in much of the formal discussion of the problem is the burden of repeated tours of combat duty on a soldier's battered psyche.
Full article

I can't help but think it: If you kill someone else, for whatever reason, you kill a bit of yourself. It is unavoidable and has little or nothing to do with hand-wringing or religious posturing. And I can imagine, but don't know, that the same effect is achieved, though to a lesser extent, when serving in combat conditions -- whether as a combatant or as one threatened as a potential bit of 'collateral damage.'

And I can imagine soldiers who have been wounded in this way facing a grating mental scenario in which one of the viable options might be stated as "Why not just finish the job?"

How politicians or anyone else manages to elude the directly-linked responsibility for this situation is, in my mind, insanely unbalanced.

why do we exist?

Why do we exist? The question takes on a different ferocity in different hearts. But at some point, I imagine, everyone asks in one way or another -- what's the point? Where is the meaning? An illness strikes, a death occurs, the world is going to hell in a hand basket, and the car just got a flat... and, well, what's the importance and why-oh-why?

Naturally, the question keeps philosophers and other prognosticators in business ... and perhaps that is the only true meaning ... to keep philosophers and prognosticators in business.

My question is: If you knew the answer, what, precisely, would you know and what good would it do you? Would illness strike less often; would death cease to occur; would the world stop going to hell in a hand basket; would cars no longer get flats?

Would the peace of mind you acquired on account of the answer be any less tentative than the peace of mind you have right now? Would anyone be any more or less certain or uncertain?

It's interesting -- Canada geese fly south in the fall and north in the spring. If it means something, I'm pretty sure the geese don't know or even care. I wonder if all their honking is just their way of laughing at the mortals below who are squirming to find the meaning of their existence.

Anchovie Questions

I'm not quite sure why I dislike Facebook as a way of communicating. It may be that I figure if someone has something to say to me, they'll send an email. Or maybe it's that how much anyone says is limited, so it's a venue of sound bites. Or it may be sheer laziness. Somehow, I just don't care for it much. This is not a criticism of what anyone else might like.

This morning, for example, I got a notification that someone had posted on my "wall." Jack wanted to know why I no longer posted on a Buddhist site called "Dhammawheel." It was what I think of as an Anchovie Question -- something I don't really want to get into or am reluctant to or uncertain about answering ... you know, an ego-nudging query. I always do my best to answer the Anchovie Questions.

But even at a distance -- on a blog where I have unlimited space to blab ... still I have no sure or assured answer. Taste is taste is the short answer.

But there is also the matter of being somehow afraid of upsetting someone else's apple cart. Buddhism is a wonderful way of approaching the difficulties of this life, but there are different tastes and schools, none of them in any way "wrong," but each of them serious to the followers involved.

Suggesting that people don't have apple carts to upset is a nice hope or a factual truth, but what are the schools of Buddhism if not apple carts -- tentative ways of finding a way home?

So my apple cart is "a teaching outside the scriptures," and someone else's is a "teaching within the scriptures." Both carry with them a promise and a lot of dangers. But whatever the apple cart, spiritual endeavor is not just some philosophy or religion ... it concerns actual-factual human beings whose tender places deserve respect and kindness. True, their tender places are sometimes armored with a granite-hard bias, but it is up to the individual to wear away the rock. A religio-philosophical tussle is unlikely to do much more than harden the rock.

Sometimes people will say, "S/he convinced me." But this is not true. I convince me. You convince you. There is no getting around the responsibility. It's not "right" or "wrong," it's just a factual responsibility. But for all that, we can discuss one aspect or another, one problem or another, one teaching or another. And that's what Internet bulletin boards help with.

Still, I do not belong to bulletin boards devoted to motorcycles or Trixie's fail-safe suggestions for a Saturday night. I don't join such sites and then play the nay-sayer. It's too fruitless and tiring and needlessly wounding. Maybe motorcycles and their intricacies are a truly useful tool when seeking a little happiness. And maybe Trixie and her devotees have a true-blue understanding. For all I know, the riders of motorcycles or the riders of the Trixies of this life are on track.

A teaching outside the scriptures seems to suit my taste. A teaching inside the scriptures is also fine, but does not fit me as well. My apple cart is just my apple cart ... no need for me to run over your toes with it.

Oh well, I'm not answering the Facebook query well at all. I guess it will just have to remain as an Anchovie Question. I will try to answer questions anyone might ask ... but that doesn't mean I will be much good at it.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

just a nice photo



the risk

For my second try at cranberry muffins, I took a risk. No one in my family besides me seems to like nuts, so I left those out, using them as a topping for several but not all the muffins ... the several I'll eat.

Instead of nuts in the batter, I added apricots and raisins. Halved the white sugar and added brown sugar instead, and sprinkled the tops of some muffins with cinnamon sugar. I have my doubts about the apricots, but we'll see what happens.

It's a crapshoot. Since the ingredients are all pretty good, I don't imagine the muffins will be bad ... but I really don't know. They're cooking as I type and the cinnamon is filling the house with good smells.

Funny how many bowls and cups and utensils I used in the process of making something I think will be pretty good. The sink filled up and by the time I stuck the first batch in the oven, there was quite a lot of dishwashing to do and is done. Lots of care separating this from that before adding it all together in one big, stirred-up glop.

And it reminded me of spiritual stuff, though that wasn't what I was thinking about when separating, mixing, putting in cups and sticking it in the oven. Spiritual life is a risk as well -- a crapshoot of an experiment. If you follow someone else's recipe exactly, it's unlikely to turn out exactly right. If you experiment too much, it's also likely to fail. But without the risk, without trying the apricots in the batter, without risking what had been held in reserve, how can anyone find out?

I just tried one of the first batch ... tasty, although the apricots were a bit weird. I've tried a lot of apricots over the years, so it's no longer really disappointing. It's more like informative when it comes to getting things exactly right.

Onward and upward.


In one of my favorite movies, "Jeremiah Johnson," the central character played by a too-pretty Robert Redford is a mountain man -- one of the people who were the first white people to know the wilderness of the American West. Since there are few reliable records of mountain men, the movie is largely speculation ... but it's a good tale for my taste.

Early on in the movie, Johnson runs into another mountain man, Del Gue -- a fellow who has shaved his head as a means of warding off any indians who might want to scalp him. "It's not the first time I have protected my scalp in such a way," Del Gue explains.

But towards the end of the movie, Johnson runs into Del Gue again, only this time Del has a full head of hair. "Ain't that hair I see on your head?" Johnson asks. And Del Gue explains that he decided that when he dies, he would like to be remembered for something, if only as a scalp "on some man's lodge pole."

All this came back to me this morning as I thought about the comments on this blog -- and elsewhere on the Internet -- that are written by "anonymous." I suppose there are all sorts of wriggles and squirms that can be used as an explanation for why anyone on the Internet might want to protect their scalp... all the perks of commenting without any of the responsibility.

I'm not criticizing. Everyone protects their scalp for a while, but there is something to be said for the question -- what are you protecting? What's wrong with owning up to the hair on your head?

It may be more dangerous to speak your truth as best you may, receive and implement whatever corrections are necessary, and remain carefully camouflaged as circumstances dictate. But camouflage has a way of blinding the one who is hidden from him- or herself. The camouflage becomes the reality when the fact is there is hair on your head. And whose hair is this?

I think Del Gue had it right: Even if it's only as a clump of hair on a lodge pole, at least it would be the truth as completely as you know or knew it. And things are a lot lighter where the hair simply grows. How can you expect to find out who you are if you can't even allow yourself to be who you are?

Monday, April 12, 2010

the breath

About a week ago, I got a call from the company where I have purchased incense for a number of years. The woman was obviously looking to drum up a little business and, since I was running low, I ordered some. It came today.

I didn't order as much as in the past -- four boxes instead of eight. It is good incense, but it's also a bit pricey. When I gave three sticks of it to my teacher long ago and asked to be his student, he took the sticks and sniffed them and then said, "Good incense" ... and that was that

Somehow that square, neatly-taped box on the porch reminded me of a fellow Zen student who was once giving a small talk at the zendo we both attended. She was talking about focusing on the breath and the sharpness of that focus. "You have to realize that this exhalation is the last time you will exhale it. In the same way, the day will come when this exhalation is indeed the last ever. This is the kind of focus you want to bring to bear."

But which of us is strong enough for that? Breathing is so ordinary and there are so many other things to do in life. Everything else we do requires this breath, but this breath itself seldom gets the kudos or the focus it deserves. Not that we need to threaten ourselves with the death each of us will die (go sit in a graveyard or imagine your body being eaten by worms), but the breath is such a wonder; it fits so perfectly; it carries us all without complaint.

So maybe this is that last box of incense I will ever order or see. Maybe one of those sticks will be the last I ever light. Maybe this exhalation will be not just the last of itself, but the last of all.

It is nice to smell the incense with such a fine companion as the breath.

a nice little story

Received in email:

> It had been some time since Jack had seen the old man. College, girls, career, and life itself got in the way. In fact, Jack moved clear across the country in pursuit of his dreams. There, in the rush of his busy life, Jack had little time to think about the past and often no time to spend with his wife and son. He was working on his future, and nothing could stop him.
> Over the phone, his mother told him, "Mr. Belser died last night. The funeral is Wednesday." Memories flashed through his mind like an old newsreel as he sat quietly remembering his childhood days.
> "Jack, did you hear me?"
> "Oh, sorry, Mom. Yes, I heard you. It's been so long since I thought of him. I'm sorry, but I honestly thought he died years ago," Jack said..
> "Well, he didn't forget you. Every time I saw him he'd ask how you were doing. He'd reminisce about the many days you spent over 'his side of the fence' as he put it," Mom told him.
> "I loved that old house he lived in," Jack said.
> "You know, Jack, after your father died, Mr. Belser stepped in to make sure you had a man's influence in your life," she said
> "He's the one who taught me carpentry," he said. "I wouldn't be in this business if it weren't for him. He spent a lot of time teaching me things he thought were important...Mom, I'll be there for the funeral," Jack said.
> As busy as he was, he kept his word. Jack caught the next flight to his hometown.. Mr. Belser's funeral was small and uneventful. He had no children of his own, and most of his relatives had passed away.
> The night before he had to return home, Jack and his Mom stopped by to see the old house next door one more time.
> Standing in the doorway, Jack paused for a moment. It was like crossing over into another dimension, a leap through space and time The house was exactly as he remembered. Every step held memories. Every picture, every piece of furniture....Jack stopped suddenly..
> "What's wrong, Jack?" his Mom asked.
> "The box is gone," he said
> "What box?" Mom asked..
> "There was a small gold box that he kept locked on top of his desk. I must have asked him a thousand times what was inside. All he'd ever tell me was 'the thing I value most,'" Jack said.
> It was gone. Everything about the house was exactly how Jack remembered it, except for the box. He figured someone from the Belser family had taken it.
> "Now I'll never know what was so valuable to him," Jack said. "I better get some sleep. I have an early flight home, Mom."
> It had been about two weeks since Mr. Belser died Returning home from work one day Jack discovered a note in his mailbox. "Signature required on a package. No one at home. Please stop by the main post office within the next three days," the note read.
> Early the next day Jack retrieved the package. The small box was old and looked like it had been mailed a hundred years ago. The handwriting was difficult to read, but the return address caught his attention. "Mr. Harold Belser" it read. Jack took the box out to his car and ripped open the package. There inside was the gold box and an envelope. Jack's hands shook as he read the note inside.
> "Upon my death, please forward this box and its contents to Jack Bennett. It's the thing I valued most in my life." A small key was taped to the letter.. His heart racing, as tears filling his eyes, Jack carefully unlocked the box. There inside he found a beautiful gold pocket watch.
> Running his fingers slowly over the finely etched casing, he unlatched the cover. Inside he found these words engraved:
> "Jack, Thanks for your time! -Harold Belser."
> "The thing he valued most time"
> Jack held the watch for a few minutes, then called his office and cleared his appointments for the next two days. "Why?" Janet, his assistant asked.
> "I need some time to spend with my son," he said.
> "Oh, by the way, Janet, thanks for your time!"