Tuesday, November 30, 2010

hazing the media joke

Received in email:

A Harley biker is visiting the zoo in  Sydney when he sees a little girl leaning into the bars of the lion's cage. Suddenly, the lion grabs her by the cuff of her jacket and tries to pull her inside to slaughter her, under the eyes of her screaming parents.

The biker without hesitation runs to the cage and hits the lion square on the nose with a powerful punch.

Whimpering from the pain the lion jumps back letting go of the girl, and the biker brings her to her terrified parents, who thank him endlessly. A Nine Network reporter has watched the whole event.

The reporter addressing the biker says, 'Sir, this was the most gallant and brave thing I've seen a man do in my whole life.'

The Harley rider replies, 'Why, it was nothing, really, the lion was behind bars. I just saw this little kid in danger and acted as I felt right.'

The reporter says, 'Well, I'll make sure this won't go unnoticed. I'm a journalist, you know, and tomorrow's paper will have this story on the front page... So, what do you do for a living and what political affiliation do you have?'

The biker replies, 'I'm a soldier in the Australian Army and a Liberal voter' The journalist leaves.

The following morning the biker buys the paper to see if it indeed brings news of his actions, and reads, on the front page:



ginger snaps

Funny to think how gingerly anyone might approach the uncertainty of their own lives. It does seem to have a pattern, though I suppose generalizations are too facile. First there is a great deal of training about how to do things right, how to keep them under control, how to keep secrets, how to make a good impression, how to appear sane and competent. And with all that training, who would be exempt from believing such things were possible? It's as if we molded our own Joseph Goebbels, the WWII Nazi propaganda minister and a man who recognized that if you say anything long enough and loud enough, people will actually believe it. Goebbels, of course, told a lot of lies, but a lot of people believed them and our own interior propaganda minister does the same. I don't mean to criticize this function ... just notice it.

Yes, everything is under control and then one day, somehow, the well-trained panorama seems to slip its leash. There are facts that defy our coddling and codifying efforts. Suddenly, in little or large ways, everything is not all right, everything is not under control, everything is not under our command. The initial reaction, given past training, is to try to rein in this new panorama ... find a box in which to place it, a philosophy with which to explain it, a leash that will assert a continued control. What the hell, that's what we have trained for.

But life doesn't buy in to our training. Death, disease, drugs, divorce, delight (to cite an alliterative list of examples) seem to smash our neatly-tended suburban gardens.

Last Saturday on the peace picket line, an over-educated doctor chum told me that during the summer, when he and his wife went to Europe, he had lent his house to his 37-year-old daughter. By the time he returned, she had sold off many of his possessions in aid of a drug habit. He is well-enough off so that the possessions were not his main concern. But the revised dynamic of the relationship was explosive. At first, he want to have her committed, but a forced commitment is easier said than done. Finally, he told his daughter to steer clear of him until she got straightened out. This angered the rest of the family, which thought he was being cruel. He told me he had read a book about Al-anon and I told him that books were not really enough.

This example is of course dramatic... and allows people to feel safe because the incident "is not like me." But I think there are a hundred-hundred other small, eye-opening events that bombard the well-coiffed mind-set ... the liberal who discovers his/her own conservatisms; the lawyer who recognizes the law is not enough; the psychologist who runs into his or her bits of consuming craziness ... the surprise when a friend who never swore in the past explodes with a resounding "shit!"

Gingerly, gingerly we acknowledge because we have to ... all that training may have been very good, but training just doesn't cut it. Ginger ... snap!

Trying to get the genie back in the bottle once it has escaped is ... well, difficult is putting it mildy since it is impossible. But isn't it luckier to acknowledge the loss of kool, the ineffectiveness of our propaganda minister, and seek out some more clear-headed approach? Bit by bit, moment by moment, as gingerly as seems necessary ... acknowledge and watch?

Of course there is no cookie-cutter answer to the ginger-flavored events that come along. But one thing's for sure, the propaganda minister is not the (wo)man for the job when things go


Monday, November 29, 2010

seizing opportunities

The sun this morning is bright-white and low out of the East. Yesterday I had an email from a cousin who said how much she looked forward to the solstice (Dec. 21-22) -- the time when the ever-shorter days of winter started to get longer again. There is something consoling about light and she looked forward to that consolation.

What an opportunity ... a time when one things turns into another and yet because it is impossible to know personally when the change occurs, the possibility of separating "one thing" and "another" is thrown into question. Where is the line between short days and long? Where is the line between night and day? Where is the line between fish and fowl? Where is the line between you and me?

Does one thing really turn into another?

I doubt it, but it's the kind of thing everyone checks out as a result of seizing his or her own opportunities.

noblesse oblige


From Wikipedia:

Noblesse oblige is a French phrase literally meaning "nobility obliges".
The Dictionnaire de l’Académie française defines it thus:
  1. Whoever claims to be noble must conduct himself nobly.
  2. (Figuratively) One must act in a fashion that conforms to one's position, and with the reputation that one has earned.
The phrase itself is as redolent as a Christmas kitchen. "Noblesse oblige" suggests class differences, wealth differences. It hints and suggests at both arrogance and white-whiny-ness. It echoes with the reasons that "old money" once disdained the up-and-coming bourgeoisie which had lots of money but no class ... the mediocrities that could overwhelm whatever honor and decency that aristocracies imagined they had ... and sometimes actually did have.

Who knows -- perhaps the phrase even inspired Karl Marx with his "from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs."

Nobility suggests a separation from what is ignoble and crass and vain and base, and yet in ordinary hands nobility displays all of those characteristics. For many, if not most, being noble basically means being "right."

This morning it occurs to me that everyone has a desire and a capacity for nobility that goes beyond the acquiescence and applause of others... that there is some seed within. True, that seed may fall on rocky soil and never flower but still ... even in Chrisitanity, the devil comes from angelic stock.

Perhaps this is all idealistic hogwash, but I guess I hold on to the notion that everyone would like to find their peace in a place that required no applause, no elevation, no school-tie gatherings, no tattoos and beer in a Tennessee roadhouse, no muttering mullahs, no Washington or Wall Street finagling. More than a flimsy, vaunted altruism, this is a nobility that no religion can claim. One man shakes another man's hand; one passerby picks up a piece of wandering litter; one stalk of celery blooms in early summer.

As a social matter, nobility is dubious.

As a personal matter, it goes beyond even obligation.

It is obligatory without the obligation.

And it is happy.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


An email out of nowhere tells me of a woman, 33, who has had cancer, been divorced and would like to slip into the soft shoes of "some kind of peace." Her father has practiced Buddhism for ten years and she views him as an exceptionally peaceful man ... though it wasn't always so. The woman wanted to come here and learn how to practice Zen Buddhism.

Between the lines of her email, I thought I sensed some desperation, some clawing uncertainty and sadness. Why is anguish so mundane? I'm not quite sure. Of course my anguish is not mundane and your anguish is not mundane, but anguish is pretty mundane. Touching, tearing, weeping, wailing, incomprehensible, unfathomable, unfair ... and mundane.

Bring me salvation! A solution! A resolution! Relief! Comfort!

The mundane is unimpressed. Like the legalese at the bottom of some home loan, it is immune and immutable. No one wants to read the fine print and yet the fine print has got us in a choke hold ... we must read it ... or succumb to an existence full of wailing or trying not to wail. No one escapes unscathed.

In Buddhism, the fine print begins like this:

There is suffering.
There is a cause of suffering.
There is an end to suffering.
There is a way to end suffering.
I once read that Gautama was asked for the meaning of it all ... life, its bruises, its delights, its wailing. He paused before answering. And then, "summoning all of his powers" (imagine that! summoning ALL of his powers) he replied, "It's not intellectual."

There is more fine print, of course, but a person has to begin somewhere. Begin somewhere and then continue. It's pretty mundane.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

bring me your koan

In Zen Buddhism, sometimes the study and penetration of koans is advised. Koans are those intellectually-insoluble riddles like "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" or "What did you look like before your parents were born?" or "What is this?"

The usual format or formality of koans is that the "teacher" presents the koan to the "student" and the student then goes to work, returning to the teacher again and again with his or her answer, his or her understanding, his or her difficulties. In some Zen schools, there are 1,700 formal koans.

This morning I wonder if a "teacher" might not sum things up for a koan-inclined "student" by simply suggesting, "Bring me your koan."

Would that help? Or would it be too hard?

I don't know.


There is frost along the west side of the houses on this street and, where they are still in shadow, the cars too are rimed with white. It will be nippy on the peace picket line this morning, but it looks as if there will be sunshine to mollify the nip.

An email from a college student who once visited here in an academic effort to "decode" Zen Buddhism said yesterday that he would like to come tomorrow to try a little practice. I gave him my knee-jerk response -- sure, come ahead; you're welcome. And then I wondered about my knee-jerk habit: At about the time when my interest in Zen Buddhism is waning, people seem to show up ... or maybe I am just noticing it more and hoping they will go somewhere else. But then, that's a bit knee-jerk as well.

It's nice to make nice, but having practiced that a bit, I have seen its allure subside. Making nice is not the reason for making nice in spiritual matters. There seems to be some imperative ... and I hope no one will start flonging their "compassion" dongs. It just seems to be the way things work. Or, as someone put it aptly, "It can't be helped."

Maybe some good counsel can be found in the Zen teacher Rinazi when he was quoted as saying, "Grasp and use, but never name." Things are knee-jerk right up until they are no longer knee-jerk. "Nice" is not a very nice name. When did ego-tripping ever work very well?

And as for knee-jerk ... well, in the time it took to type these words, the skies have clouded over and the nip in the air seems to have gathered intensity. Looks as if there will be no sunshine on the peace picket ... but of course that could all change in the time between now and the actual gathering.

Time for breakfast.

Friday, November 26, 2010

a new school initiative


shop till you drop

Here in the U.S.A., there seems to be (or am I just imagining it) an elevated desperation in the advertising for Christmas gifts. Today is called "Black Friday," the day after Thanksgiving when people begin to shop in earnest for Christmas items. And the advertising blitz has begun -- everything marked down, everything on sale, everything so much cheaper than it might have been in other years. The ads on TV and in the newspapers purely beg for business.

Originally, I gather, "Black Friday" referred to the economic plunge of 1869. These days, any day of the week might be called "black:" What is demurely referred to as the latest "recession" gnaws on the bones of the economy. Of course not everyone is poor or scrambling or wracked with uncertainty -- it takes rich people to create poor people. But this year's acquisitive mind is filled with giving and getting that is no longer so jolly. Retailers are scrambling for whatever disposable income people still have.

The U.S. is far better off than other countries, but you can only be in one place at a time and comparisons don't hold much water when the Christmas gimme's arrive. Republicans have vowed not to be so spendthrift, which means those who are worse off will become worser off ... but Tiffany's and Exxon Mobile will be in the pink.

Shop till you drop -- as if having one new thing or another could ease the mind, create joy, ease what is uncertain.

It's enough to drive a sober man to drink.

roadkill religion

"Roadkill" refers to an animal left dead on a road after being hit by a passing vehicle. As such, it is a plain-spoken word, direct and clear.

And yet its richness spreads outward like ripples in a still pond. Roadkill can denote poverty when it comes to what's on the dinner table. Or ineptness when it comes to successful hunting. Roadkill is an accident one man might take advantage of while another might look down his nose on such a prize... what comes out of the road is not as sanitary as what comes out of the supermarket...who eats burgers with tire marks?

Today the phrase came to mind: Roadkill religion. Aside from the pleasant alliteration, the phrase felt as if it did mean something, but what was not entirely clear. Somehow it meant something dead, an accident elevated to a feast, a delight that lacked intention or effort, an unexamined meal surrounded by accolades, a bit of nourishment that relied on the praise of others: Someone else ran over the possum and now it appeared on my dinner table and I took the credit and extolled the find as if I had done something miraculous.

Roadkill religion -- I can't quite get my hands on it and yet seem determined to hold on. Full of dumb, unexamined insistence and delight ... finding agreement with others and yet lacking the kind of agreement anyone might want to find in themselves. It reminds me of a report I once heard that Soen Nakagawa Roshi, a Zen teacher, assessed the self-serving misdeeds of one of his students and said, "Now it comes -- dead rock!"

Dead rock -- roadkill religion.

Second-hand authenticity. Like waxing a used car to a fare-thee-well.

What is interesting in all of this -- at least to me -- is not the criticism or analysis I might heap on someone else's behavior or beliefs. What interests me is the ease with which I too might nourish myself on roadkill religion. Dumb, dead stuff buffed to a high sheen. "Authentic" without ever having been authenticated. It's impoverished horseshit, but my barn too is full of scents.

I guess it's just something to keep an eye on. Everyone lives on one kind of golden rubbish or another, but that doesn't mean they have to.

Maybe I just like the phrase: Roadkill religion.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


Because I hadn't called in a while, my mother, at 94, had decided I was dead and that those who look after her had been keeping it from her. She told me this when I called today. She did not seem especially surprised that I was alive. Nor did it seem to have crossed her mind to call me and check things out for herself by calling me -- call me or the place where I lived before I died. Sometimes the effort involved in small matters overwhelms the will to accomplish them ... I've got sympathy for that.

Anyway, the resurrected son spoke to his increasingly deaf and increasingly forgetful mother. Words that once might have tripped off her high-IQ tongue now seemed lost in some foggy abyss. Sentences refused to complete themselves. The effort was too much. The why-bother took command and the command sequences were lost.

As much as it did not surprise her that I was alive, so too it did not surprise me that I might be dead. Mark Twain's "the report of my death was an exaggeration" crossed my mind, but seemed less a matter of wit than of simple exposition. When I think of the people I have known who, like me, are aging and whom I have not have contact with ... well, death is certainly a possibility. It's about on a par with resurrection, I imagine.

Anyway, it's kind of fun to think that I was dead and now am alive, though I was not yet dead in the first place. It reminds me of the old ditty my mother taught me when I was little:

Oh, McGinty is dead and McCarty don't know it!
McCarty is dead and McGinty don't know it!
They're both together upon the bed
And neither one knows if the other is dead.
In The Dhammapada, Gautama Buddha is said to have said, "All fear dying. All fear death." I am willing to credit his wisdom for the moment, but the truth is I don't really know. For those who are younger and who still harbor the notion that they will live forever, I guess Gautama has a point. But for those who are older -- who have lost touch or simply examine their own lives -- I'm not sure if fear is the only emotion at play and it becomes harder to answer a simple question like, "What's wrong with death anyhow?"

Well, I suppose I should shut up. Someone will think I am waxing morbid when in fact I am curious and slightly amused. Not everyone has a chance to get resurrected, right?


Well, the house has emptied out as the rest of the family makes a trek to New Jersey and a gathering for Thanksgiving. It's a cold, raw, grey day, but the wood stove is kicking out a heat worth being thankful for. With age, I am less inclined to make energetic trips. I've laid in some good food for later and have a copy of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" which I would like to watch again ... all 228 minutes of it, assuming I can find the energy. Also, "The Godfather" is on television, so I am not short of enjoyable entertainment.

And I do wish those who are celebrating Thanksgiving, a happy and over-stuffed holiday.

It's nice to have a holiday that draws attention -- however thinly -- to thanks.



There is nothing like a secret to get someone's attention. It is like whispering only better. Whispering has some sound, some obviousness, but secrets, while asserted, live beyond the furthest hill, the deepest deep. Secrets are as smooth and impenetrable as an unshelled hazel nut held in the palm of the hand: There you have it, but what is it you have?

Posit a secret and the children gather around, smiling and laughing and longing to know. Adults furrow their brows in the face of secrets. Think of a secret you long to penetrate and you'll see what I mean.

Deep secrets.

I think of spiritual life with its profound mysteries and secrets: A little practice seems to make it obvious -- there is a secret here, something that defies even as it tantalizes. Who is God, really? What is enlightenment, really? In what realm does the deepest secret lie? Peace is not the absence of war, but what, precisely, is it?  For those who take spiritual endeavor seriously, this is a serious realm, not something to be taken lightly. Others may encourage us with the 'mysteries' and 'secrets,' and such encouragements may push us onward with practice, but then, suddenly, the dime may drop: This really is a secret ... my secret ... it is not someone else's secret ... and what is it?

Once upon a time, when I was in the army, I worked for a unit that dealt with secrets. My section -- Violet Section -- was charged with listening to tape recordings of telephone calls between East German government functionaries. We would sit in front of reel-to-reel tape recorders and make sometimes detailed notes on pieces of paper that were marked "Top Secret" and then a code word to indicate that the notes that followed were even more secret than "Top Secret." Drip by drop, this information made its way up the food chain to the State Department, our guiding authority.

On one particular graveyard (midnight to 8 a.m.) shift, I caught a long call about production figures -- a sure indicator of one aspect of a communist regime's success or failure. Sugar beets, coal, steel, potatoes, apples ... a laundry list of nourishing products. The call went on and on and on (boooorrrring) and I busted my chops trying to get it all right. The taped calls were not always clear. There was static and voices faded in an out. So I had to work. By morning, I had it pretty much straightened out. The top-secret stuff was rendered in some kind of orderly English. Simultaneously cranky and satisfied -- the call was less juicy than I might have wanted, but I had done the work -- I got onto the bus back to the barracks when the shift ended.

Over breakfast, I thumbed idly through a copy of the New York Times. And there -- on page 13 -- was the entire litany I had worked so hard to decipher and translate. Page ... fucking ... 13!!!!! Without knowing it, I had been working on a press release and had imagined because the sheet I was writing on said so that it was  Top Secret. And it hadn't even made page one! I had made what I considered a page-one effort and been rewarded with ... well, hell, it was hardly secret if the New York Times reported it. What a bummer!

Enlightenment, compassion, peace, emptiness, Mind, mysterious activity, realm beyond realms, limitlessness ... all that work and it ends up on page 13, in front of our noses, easy as a hazel nut. Sure, it was stamped Top-Secret-code-word, but those are just the secrets of others. How secret could anything be if it is your secret?

Turn to page 13 and find out.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

taking what is not given

On his way out the door to school, my younger son encouraged me to lock the porch door, "even when you are at home." Around this small city, there has been a rash of pretty-dumb break-ins and thefts -- some of them while the occupants were at home.

Down the block, a couple with two girls left their door unlocked while the girls were home and they went out. Someone broke in and left with a purse, a wallet and a computer. Next door to that couple, Joan, a feisty woman in her 80's, had her son-in-law install motion-detecting lights outside the house.

My son's admonition comes from the fact that I generally leave doors unlocked and from his mother's insistence that doors be locked. He's scared of the unseen threat ... sort of like the desired reactions to the government with its terrorist incantations.

I have been robbed in this way in the past and know the reactions well ... somewhere between fear and rage, between wanting to hide under the bed and longing to beat the perpetrator to a pulp. When someone breaks into your house, a host of assumptions and hopes are directly challenged -- "home," safety, possessiveness ... the list is long and interlocking.

But I was thinking about my son's admonition and I imagine I'll put it in  his ear when he comes home from school: For all the damage, whether real or imagined, anyone might concoct on their own behalf, what damage do you suppose the perpetrator does to him- or herself? I'm not talking about a smarmy, turn-the-other-cheek approach. Just literally ... what is the effect of taking what is not given?

Sure, I'll lock the doors on behalf of those who think it is necessary. But I will also do it on behalf of whatever intruder may be sizing up the house in which I live with my assumptions and hopes.

praise gets a pass, blame takes the blame

In the course of wondering why, in Zen practice, praise and blame were equally pointed out as barriers and freight, still it seemed that blame came in for an extra dollop of effort and yet students did not seem shy about praising one thing or another ... I tried looking up what various teachers had to say.

In the course of that search, I did not find anything that seemed to respond to my question, but there were some nice other quotes:

To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand dharmas. To be enlightened by the ten thousand dharmas is to free one's body and mind and those of others. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.
 -- Dogen-zenji (1200-53)
 "No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly" ... I thought that was very nice.

And then:

The Buddhas and all sentient beings are only one mind; there is nothing else. This mind, since beginningless past, has never been born, never perished; it is not green, not yellow; it has no shape or form. It is not subject to existence or non-existence, and is not to be considered new or old... This very substance is it; stir your thoughts and you miss it. It is like empty space; it has no bounds and cannot be measured. Just this one mind itself is Buddha. Buddha and sentient beings are no different; it's just that sentient beings grasp appearances- seeking outwardly, they become more and more lost. If you employ Buddha to seek Buddha, use mind to grasp mind, you may go on all your life until the end of time, but will never succeed. Don't you realize that if you cease thinking and forget thought, Buddha will spontaneously appear?
 -- Obaku [Huang-po Hsi-yun] (?-849)

 My mind dances like kids on a Florida beach during spring break to read such words. I am delighted. I feel the praise rising up unbidden ... sort of a wordless "yummy!"

This morning I am reduced to second-hand pablum, relying on others because I can find no point of interest in my own mind. I dislike using others to pull my cart. I dislike the inference that because you can quote, you therefore are. I dislike it in others and I dislike it in myself. I dislike it ...

And yet this morning, it is yummy.

PS: The quotes come from this site.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

interview techniques

Crossed my mind:

Seriousness is the willingness to put your own ass on the line.

Solemnity is the desire to have someone else put their ass on the line.

And maybe you can't seriously serious up without finding out that solemnity does not fill the bill, does not answer the questions that seriously get asked. When has solemnity ever answered questions about death, disease, drugs, divorce or delight, just to name a few alliterative queries?

This morning, a college student who called me on the phone is coming over to do an interview. Josh said something about Buddhism and asked if he could come. I said sure. He probably has to write a paper ... I don't know. And if that's the case, perhaps he will don his solemnity outfit ... god knows I did that more than once when doing news stories about spiritual life. Gotta be polite, respectful, humble ... you don't want to piss off the minions of the gods ... unless of course it's a full-fledged attack which would be miles more fun.

Anyway, I've got to get off the machine now and make some brownies. My older son is coming home from college today and he likes brownies. But it occurs to me that Josh might like one too. Nothing like a little chocolate to bank the fires of solemnity.

Chocolate is serious stuff.

Monday, November 22, 2010


Most mornings, it is dark when I get up. The light comes later.

By ritual, I go to the bathroom, take a leak, ingest prescribed meds, grab a cup of coffee, do some mild exercising on the porch, and then come in to see what the computer coughed up overnight. Email, a Zen Buddhist bulletin board, a blog or two, and a news site.

Every day the email box seems to be equally weighted -- some jokes, some connections, some spam that has sneaked through and then five-six-seven-fifteen comments on the Eido Tai Shimano blog topic that will not die. Endless. The topic is filled with expressions of thoughtfulness, love, rage, incoherence, megalomania, elucidation, suggestions, investigation, debate, crankiness, connection, hope, despair, belief, frustration, illustration ... and I read the additions each morning: Like some child whose conception I took part in, I am responsible for starting the topic so it is up to me to sleep in the bed I made, or anyway that's how I feel about it.

Endlessness is not so unusual, but it's interesting how the mind nags and natters, looking to put a period on sentences that have no end. Intellectually, it would be nice to find a solution, a the-end, but watching things happen in this life means facing up to the endlessness of everything. An odd juxtaposition, an endless debate ... and still things are just endless ... might as well relax and take responsibility.

Last night, I watched a TV show about leopards. The focal point was a female with two cubs. As the story unfolded, one cub was killed, perhaps by a baboon, perhaps by another leopard, perhaps ... well, there was no knowing. The mother leopard found the body of her cub, dragged the body to a certain place, licked it a couple of times and then moved on with her remaining offspring. The death of one cub meant the dynamic between the mother and her remaining offspring shifted, grew seemingly more affectionate. And then it was time for the second cub to take care of himself and for the mother to find a new mate and a chance for more cubs.

Except for the patience and effort of the movie makers, who would have known the cub died? Who would have known the other cub moved out? Who would have known the mother would move on in her mating ways? A small matter writ large by being on television. But otherwise?

It made me think that everyone picks a concern or two and is truly devoted to it ... but in the wider scheme of things, the importance falls away. Not that the universe is morbidly indifferent and we should wail at the uncaring nature of that universe. But there is just movement which we invest with importance ... it's small and perhaps entirely unknown and yet it is integral and in that integrated moment, the mind calls it essential ... which it is ... and yet there is no need for our minds to call it that.

Happiness is endless. Might as well get on the bandwagon.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

sayonara Facebook

After receiving a number of notifications in the email box this morning, I found out how to delete my presence on Facebook. It's not that some of the people involved in these notifications are bad or boring. Some of them I enjoy hearing from or corresponding with. But doing so in a Facebook setting is just too trivial, however popular.

Some of the people live right across the street from me. Some of the people live at great distances. It's nice to make contact, but Facebook strikes me as a poor medium ... all saddle and no horse ... pretending to 'connect' people when in fact it merely asserts superficiality and distance. If Facebook is the best anyone can do, well, I don't think it's the best anyone can do.

I've never made a secret of my email address and my name is in the phone book. That strikes me as enough.

with a little help from our friends

After some months of absence, I returned to Saturday's peace picket line yesterday. Various ailments had kept me away from a simple matter of standing on a sidewalk for an hour. I remembered and greeted those from my earlier participation, several of whom responded to my brief descriptions (sometimes referred to as "the organ recital") with good-natured comments like, "Oh yeah, I've done that one." It was a camaraderie of the aging. The diminutive Frances Crowe, 90-plus-year-old organizer of the picket, greeted me and accepted my kiss on her cheek. How long has she been doing this? Forty or fifty years ... maybe longer.

But somehow the most consoling participant was a fellow who stood apart from the anti-war, pro-health-care pickets and their signs. I hadn't ever seen him. He stood quietly about 12 feet from the main gathering and had a couple of large, neatly printed placards that were opposed to the peace pickets, referring to them as "deluded" and employing the word "safe" to describe what the nation needed.

I can't remember the precise wording of his signs, but the bottom line was that we, the peace pickets, were full of shit.

He didn't interfere with or try to shout anyone down. He just stood there with his signs and I found I was somehow more grateful to him than I was to those I had joined. Somehow he brought dimension to the peace pickets, much as the peace pickets brought dimension to him. There was no arguing or debate or self-important shouting from either side. We were all in this together, expressing ourselves in the briskness of a Saturday morning as pedestrians and traffic passed us by.

I hope he's there next Saturday.

Saturday, November 20, 2010


It is an interesting habit to insist or assume that questions need or have answers. Isn't it OK just to let them be questions and not impose upon them?

War is the answer.

Peace is the answer.

God is the answer.

Money is the answer.

Love is the answer.

Drugs are the answer.

Singing is the answer.

Sorrow is the answer.

Joy is the answer.

Sometimes I think answers are little more than the cause of all tribulations. But is this so?

I don't know.

Friday, November 19, 2010

9/11 agreements

Nov 19, 3:41 PM (ET)


NEW YORK (AP) - More than 10,000 workers exposed to the tons of toxic dust that blanketed ground zero after the World Trade Center fell have ended their bruising legal fight with New York City and joined a settlement worth at least $625 million, officials said Friday.
The deal will resolve an overwhelming majority of the lawsuits over the city's failure to provide protective equipment to the army of construction workers, police officers and firefighters who spent months clearing and sifting rubble after Sept. 11.
Among the thousands who sued, claiming that soot at the site got into their lungs and made them sick, more than 95 percent eligible for the settlement agreed to take the offer. Only 520 said no or failed to respond.
 Complete story

I believe the insurance on the two World Trade Towers -- both facing massive asbestos refurbishing before their demolition -- was about $7.2 billion. A fund paid for by the American people will foot the bill for the latest legal agreement.

Still, not a bad financial packet for the insured party and his assumed chums ... give or take a few deaths.

For those with patience, here's an interesting video:

And, also requiring a bit of patience ....

Doubting Thomas reprise of 9/11 demolitions

"participatory democracy"

Once upon a time, when flower power was having its say, when LSD was in vogue, and when young men wore their hair long, the politically concerned came up with the phrase "participatory democracy." No one questioned the phrase, I guess because it was so meaningful to them. I had always thought democracy was participatory by definition, but I have been wrong before. I guess it was a little like the current tendency to use the phrase "end result."

Anyway, I was a reporter back then (late 1960's, early 1970's) and one day I decided to ask various power brokers what they thought of the term "participatory democracy." One of the people I called was the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee in Massachusetts. Anthony Scibelli was arguably the most powerful politician in the state. He could make things happen ... find the funding for anything. But one of the ways I gauged his power was by the fact that he was willing to speak plain, direct English to the reporters who called him from time to time.

So I put the case to him -- that some people felt that his power to appoint friends or relatives or political allies to various important posts could hardly be termed "participatory democracy." He listened politely at the other end of the phone and then responded:

"Really, I couldn't agree more," he said affably. "But if they feel so strongly about it, let them get elected."

A reporter lives for responses like that.

eye on the ball

Anyone who watches a (U.S.) football game has seen it happen:

The quarterback throws a pass towards a receiver down-field.
The receiver, who knows there are nearby opponents stalking him, watches the ball coming and rushes to an appropriate point at which to catch it.
But at the last moment before the ball enters his arms, he takes his eye off the ball and plots an escape from those who would bring him down.
As a result, he misses the ball and there is no gain on the play.

If escaping from the bumps and bruises of life is the best anyone can muster, how in heaven's name can they expect to catch the ball and advance their cause?
I wonder if there is anyone who has not suffered a tragedy -- some moment when their whole world is turned upside down, when things are blown apart and what had been a pretty mundane life become raw and clawing and endlessly uncertain.

This morning I read these words on a Zen Buddhist bulletin board:

3-1/2 years ago we lost our teenage son. He was struck by a car while riding his bicycle in front of our home.
Living with the grief and anguish has been difficult, to say the least.
The loss of my beautiful son has forced me to ask myself very direct questions about the nature of existence.
  As a parent, I could feel my stomach lurch and my foundations shudder. But a sympathetic/empathetic reaction cannot compare with the experiences of tragedy ... or joy either, for that matter. The world comes unglued in an endless array of glass shards -- bright, brilliant, and eviscerating. Outsiders may wring their hands (or, in the case of joy, applaud and write self-help books), but within the event there is only ... the event.

There is no escaping the explosion that explodes are your feet. It is like being a suicide bomber who presses the button -- where could you possibly run? You thought you had a contract with life -- worked hard to be in control and perhaps decent in your doings -- and somehow life betrayed you in a nanosecond: BOOM! And then there is what follows ... moment after moment of remembrance and reliving and re-feeling the pain. Who would not weep?

And yet, without demeaning any tragedy with smarm talk, there is a time when tears simply run out. Facts are facts, however harsh. And the fact is that such facts are our constant companions: This moment is relinquished -- is blown apart -- as the next moment arrives. Sometimes it is easy to imagine that there is a continuity -- that things are under control and 'normal'... job, marriage, relationships, income, exercise-- and sometimes the BOOM is magnified beyond all comprehension.

 Letting go of what is already gone is not possible. Holding on to what is already gone is not possible. In Zen Buddhism, such a situation might be called a koan, but no one needs Zen Buddhism to face the realities that life offers them -- realities that do not evaporate in the face of hope or belief. There is this ... and that's it ... now what?

I do not know how I would feel if a child of mine were to die. I do know that even the thought knots my innards. Such a BOOM is inconceivable ... and let's face it, I am habituated to conceiving things.

To bring some resolution to the BOOM's of life is hard and yet everyone finds their own way. Some ways are more satisfactory than others, but everyone works on the issue, whether consciously or subconsciously, seeking a way to break some invisible barrier. Forget about it, turn to god about it, take drugs about it, wax philosophical about it ... pick your salvation, pick your poison.

The moment-to-moment BOOM's throw thought, word and deed into a cocked hat. When thought, word and deed are gone ... what is left? What works? Is there any reprieve or peace to be had?

I am grateful to have run into Zen Buddhism. I don't recommend it, but I am grateful to have run into it. Zen Buddhism itself goes BOOM in the hands of anyone trying to hold onto it. BOOM ... and again BOOM ... and again BOOM. Denigrate it? BOOM. Elevate it? BOOM. But the BOOM-ING voice of Zen Buddhism is clear and appropriate when experiencing the BOOM's, little or large.

Sit down, erect the spine, shut up, focus the mind ... and go BOOM.

No more evasions.

It's a relief of sorts ... BOOM, BOOM, BOOM!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Economic woes -- A suggestion

Received in email:

The Patriotic Retirement Plan -- A Real Solution for the U.S. Economy

There recently was an article in the St. Petersburg , Fl. Times. The Business Section asked readers for ideas on: "How Would You Fix the Economy?" I think this guy nailed it!
Dear Mr. President,
Please find below my suggestion for fixing America 's economy. Instead of giving billions of dollars to companies that will squander the money on lavish parties and unearned bonuses, use the following plan.

You can call it the "Patriotic Retirement Plan":

There are about 40 million people over 50 in the work force. Pay them $1 million apiece severance for early retirement with the following stipulations:
1) They MUST retire. Forty million job openings - Unemployment fixed.
2) They MUST buy a new AMERICAN Car. Forty million cars ordered - Auto Industry fixed.
3) They MUST either buy a house or pay off their mortgage - Housing Crisis fixed.

It can't get any easier than this!!

P.S. If more money is needed, have all members in Congress pay their taxes..

Mr. President, while you're at it, make Congress retire on Social Security and Medicare. I'll bet both programs would be fixed pronto!
If you think this would work, please forward to everyone you know.

a closet full of halos

"An even sameness among all things."

Somewhere I read or concocted that notion and attributed it to people who seemed much more adept at a spiritual practice. They seemed serene ... or anyway serene-r than I was, and I too wanted a peace of mind that exhibited itself in that sort of serenity ... an even sameness among all things.

But it's a funny thing: If you run around trying to fit all times, places and events into one saintly box or another -- kind of arm-wrestling the mind into a perceived virtue -- life won't sit still for it and anger or love or beauty or ugliness will bite you on the ass ... hard. All that virtuous, sweaty effort might be better used making a nice pan of brownies or mowing the lawn.

Wanting to see all things with a serene eye and perhaps touting that point of view as best and most comely is just that ... wanting. My mother said, "Don't get too holy by next Thursday." And she was right. Using the very tool that led to doubt and uncertainty in the first place (i.e. wanting) is hardly likely to do much more than impress your friends. But friends cannot assure peace. Only you can do that.

"An even sameness." Words are just words, but they sure can foul the works.

So there is practice -- attention and responsibility -- day after day, year after year, anger after anger, love after love, brownie after brownie. Halos and hopes and beliefs ... how could any of them really tell the tale? Inspire? Sure. Encourage? Sure. Point the way? Sure. Does anyone need a closet full of halos? Maybe yes, maybe no, but there is no room in over-stuffed closets. Spring cleaning is required.

Practice is experience and experience beats arm-twisting virtues any day of the week. So let's practice.

Practice and see what actually happens.

marriage in the U.S.

Nov 18, 6:20 AM (ET)
WASHINGTON (AP) - Is marriage becoming obsolete?

As families gather for Thanksgiving this year, nearly one in three American children is living with a parent who is divorced, separated or never-married. More people are accepting the view that wedding bells aren't needed to have a family.

A study by the Pew Research Center, in association with Time magazine, highlights rapidly changing notions of the American family. And the Census Bureau, too, is planning to incorporate broader definitions of family when measuring poverty, a shift caused partly by recent jumps in unmarried couples living together.
Complete story

Sometimes I think that what is/was so volubly praised is just bound to run out of steam. As with long-term avid distaste, the energy wanes.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

candied carrots

The donkey dons the carrot, the carrot entices the donkey:

"It is wise to..."

"It would be better to ..."

"Compassion is necessary ..."

"Emptiness is the nature of all things..."

"Evil and good are not the same thing ...."

"Enlightenment is just around the corner ..."

"Choirs of angels sing ..."

"Love and oneness prevail...."

"Heaven is up, hell is down ...."

"Wisdom resides in ...."

"Ignorance and attachment -- a fool's errand ..."

Delicious carrots.

Take care of the jackass who straps on such carrots.

Beware and take care.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Forever 21

In the supermarket check-out line, a woman who, naturally, couldn't find what she wanted in her pocketbook slowed things down and I was stuck scanning the women's magazines and other tchotchke inviting a last-minute purchase.

And among the offerings was some kind of credit card thingie that boasted a skinny young woman with blond hair and a come-hither look. The largest label on the small, flat packet said, "Forever 21."

Since the item was for sale and since someone thought someone else might actually buy it, I assumed it was purveying some sort of blessing, some kind of improvement, some something-or-other that was good ... instead of the sense of curse that leaped in my mind.

As an old person, I am willing to be patient with those who are significantly younger. What the hell, I was once the same. But I am not willing to overlook the lack of substance or understanding that generally pervades (as it pervaded my) youth. "Forever 21" sounds like a voodoo curse to me. Give me wrinkles and bulges and sags and grey hair, assuming they imply a world of experience that shaped an interesting person. The curvaceous and washboard-ab-ed too often strike me as airheads.

Forever 21 ... it sounds like some ancient biblical curse... as if the laughter of life had been extinguished.

Looking it up on the web, Forever 21 seems to be a fashion store for men and women.

I refuse to post the directions. :)

goddamned attention!

What a pain in the ass -- just like Zen practice!

Yesterday, around 8:30, a young woman rigged me up with a portable heart monitor as part of the latest heart shenanigans. A small box is strapped on the torso with several suction-cup leads snaking out to points on the chest and rib cage. It's a 24-hour deal, after which I turn the box back in to the office and someone 'reads' how the heart is doing or has done.

The kicker part is that I have had to keep a log of what I do during various time frames of the day. The young woman said to do a general log-keeping ... not every single moment of the 24 hours. But it is hard not to focus in smaller and smaller increments and get irritated. So, for example, I get up in the morning and note that. But getting up involves walking to the bathroom, taking a leak, then walking downstairs, then taking meds, then doing some mild exercise, then sitting at the computer and writing ... and some of the writing can stir things up, so do I note the topics under consideration ... whether I am bored or excited?

Start somewhere and suddenly it's like one of those fancy lab microscopes with lenses that bring you in closer and closer and closer and you're never entirely sure what's close enough. No one, I'm convinced, wants to pay attention to their lives and they certainly don't want to waste time focusing on every nanosecond, every flake of dandruff, every word ... like the word "word." To pay attention is to call into question the assumptions made when you're just plain doing, just plain enjoying yourself, just plain being sad: Breathing and body and shelter and errands to run ... all that stuff is assumed in the pursuit of whatever pursuit comes along. And something within rebels like a childish tantrum: I don't want to pay attention; I want to do what I want to do without being called to account or somehow limiting the scene of being alive.

Yesterday, on the radio, there was a report about a new autobiography by Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain, the wry and sometimes acid American writer. It took him years to find his voice, to find an appropriate way to write an autobiography. And one of his problems -- a problem he had to overcome -- was the notion of time. At first he thought he had to write things consecutively ... first one thing, then another, then another ... day by consecutive day, year by consecutive year. But it flummoxed him, constrained his voice, shackled his honesty. Finally he settled on this: Start anywhere and let the rest flow. Anywhere in your life is your life -- perfectly connected and unconstrained and unlimited.

But without trying to limit things, how could you find out how foolish trying to limit or separate things is? So, as I understood it, Twain started with the slick and socially-acceptable sounds of chronology and ran into a brick wall: It didn't ring true because it wasn't true ... it was limited.

And perhaps that's what meditation or logging activities shows... pointing towards the whole story but not yet content with being the whole story. If you're not willing to do something that irritates the piss out of your deepest honesty (limitlessness), how likely is it that you can settle down to what doesn't irritate you at all?

Well, a little noodling. I can say that I will be relieved to turn in the heart monitor and its dratted log. I just hope the interpreter of the data won't call my bluff with all of my caring entries.

Monday, November 15, 2010

eat your dinner!

Funny how when friends go into a restaurant together, no one is surprised or outraged or concerned or upset or corrective about what the others order. But when it comes to spiritual life, whether subtle or gross, all sorts of heels can dig in.

When people tell me that their Buddhist adventure began with the television series "Kung Fu" or that Alan Watts and the Beats pressed their buzzers, I can sometimes feel my mental eyelids tightening with protective doubt. "Kung Fu" struck me as a magnetic (kick-ass) presentation of Buddhism, but utterly smarmy -- a Stepin Fetchit Buddhism. And Alan Watts and the Beats sometimes strike me as deliciously, socially rebellious without much serious flavor or nourishment.

So, it's not my taste and more than that, I may even feel my own taste rising up protectively: Stick with the heavy hitters, with Huang Po and Hui Hai and Huineng and Dogen and Rinzai and Ta Hui and ... my laundry list goes on and on and on. I may not enunciate my tastes -- such a good Zen Buddhist, dontcha know -- but they can be there on the inside, upright and combative and -- god save me -- virtuous.

What a lot of energy it takes to be "right." What a lot of training it takes to let things alone. When I let things alone, my importance and sense of self is somehow diminished and I become just another daisy in a daisy chain. It's a come-down and yet over and over again, life whispers, "That's right. You're just another daisy -- indispensable, but not indispensable."

Imagine how much energy there would be for more important things if you stopped stipulating what was important. Sure, you like chicken and the other person enjoys spaghetti. State your taste and enjoy your food -- isn't that enough? It takes a tremendous weight off your shoulders and more, it lines up with life's whispering.

Buddhism-lite, OK. I prefer the Buddhism with the Marsala sauce. You came in your door and I came in mine ... now let's chow down! True, there is a right way and an wrong way to go about things, but what's wrong with being wrong? What's right about being right?

Just thinking it lightens the load to be a daisy when you are a daisy. It's more than a relativist matter of taste. It's just the way things are. And hell, you don't even have to think about it... which leaves more energy for hop-scotch and laughter.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


When it comes to practice, I have always thought highly of the breath ... counting exhalations from one to ten and begin again, for one.

But this morning in the zendo, it occurred to me that in 35-40 years I have never managed (when I was honest) to count to 10 without interruption.

This morning, I counted to one.

That didn't work either.

So much for a Zen Buddhist practice. :)


Ducklings are so soft and noisy and full of life. They are assured as they follow in a parent's footsteps. I wonder: When do they become full-fledged ducks? They follow and follow and follow and mimic and mimic and mimic and then, somehow, they are no longer mimics.

When do the thoughts and deeds of others become thoughts and deeds of their own? I never have seen a full-fledged duck following dutifully in the wake of another adult duck so there seems to be a point at which they relinquish their copy-cat behavior and are known as ducks rather than ducklings.

If it were otherwise, if they could do no better than to follow and mimic, they would become quacks, wouldn't they?

I imagine the same is true for academics and carpenters and doctors and spiritual seekers: Follow and mimic and parade your abilities noisily and with confidence. It's convincing in its own way, but it is not yet a duck. If a full-grown duck performed in this way, it would be a strange, perverted quackery. How can you pretend to be a duck when you already are a duck? Other ducks would give an understandable wide berth to a duck pretending to be a duck, always mimicking another's wisdom.

In Zen Buddhism, there is an ever-present encouragement: Rely on nothing whatsoever.

Don't be a quack. It annoys others and it lets you down in the deepest possible way. Don't be a quack ... be a duck.

It's ducky.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

playing with dolls

Once upon a time, there was a doll named Poor Pitiful Pearl. She was homely as a hedgerow. As distinct from the chic and well-endowed Barbie doll before whom children (and some adults) might stand in drooling awe, Pearl's allure seemed to lie in the fact that no child could be that homely, that bland, that, well, pitiful.

"Buck up!" Pearl seemed to say. "Things could be a lot worse." There was something reassuring about Poor Pitiful Pearl: "There is hope for me yet."

Pearl and Barbie and the reactions they may induce remind me a little of those seeking some peace through spiritual endeavor.

The twin sisters -- one spotlessly endowed, the other galumphy as an old shoe -- seem to be part of the terrain: Over there is the Barbie Buddha, shiny as a new penny. Meanwhaile, here I stand, a poor pitiful putz, up to my neck in mistakes, dull as dishwater ... and there is no crisp and perfect outcome on my horizon.

Hope and whine, hope and whine, hope and whine ... which one of us has not done it? 
Longing for enlightenment, for compassion, mindfulness and other fine attributes without really investigating. Praying to win some miraculous reprieve from ignorance and anger and attachment and other habits that have reliably tripped us up in the past and left an indelible stamp of "ugly sister" on our foreheads ... without ever really investigating.

I thought of this doll-house metaphor while reading an internet thread in which someone suggested that if he did or thought a particular way, then of course he was not enlightened. Poor Pitiful Pearl. And yet if he did not do or think in this particular way, then, of course, he would gain enlightenment. And turn into some Barbie babe.

Well, hope, however mangled and undefined, has the capacity to inspire action, but sometimes I think people become entranced by being the ugly sister. The Buddha is compassionate, so if I just do my groveling best, surely a light will descend from on high and everything will be all better. Sometimes I think the whine is just too delicious and Poor Pitiful Pearl becomes the stand-alone goddess, the safe haven, the one in which to put my faith. No need to pay attention and take responsibility ... all I need to do is wallow.

Sometimes kids play with dolls. Adults aren't much different. And I see nothing wrong with playing with dolls for a while. But after that while -- please god, in this lifetime -- then I think it is time to get to work. Of what does this doll-house universe consist? What does it mean, all this shiny Barbie talk I can utter? How does it differ from the down-in-the-dumps Poor Pitiful Pearl fairy tale? Is there some honest difference between "ain't it awful" and "ain't life grand?"

Doesn't there come a time when it's imperative to call your own bluff ... lay your cards down and lay your dolls aside and take up some attentive investigating that requires no dolls or cards? It's hard to say which stinks worse, a Barbie-bright or a Pearl-dumb garrulousness (the two are, after all, twin sisters), but wouldn't it be better to find the air-freshener that will actually refresh the air?

You want big boobs and hour-glass figures? Pick a church or a porn site.

You want humble-pie groveling ... check out self-flagellation or hit yourself with an Ugly Stick.

But when it's time, when the games lose their savor ... just get to work.



Ran across this small, nifty film anew and figured it was worth a reprise:

Ten Questions


BBC Nov. 12, 2010
People spend nearly half of their waking hours not thinking about what they are actually doing, according to a US study conducted via the iPhone.
More than 2,200 volunteers downloaded an app which then surveyed them about their thoughts and mood at random times of day and night.
"This study shows that our mental lives are pervaded, to a remarkable degree, by the non-present."
Reports of happiness were most likely among those exercising, having a conversation or making love, whereas unhappiness was reported most while people were resting, working, or using computers.

Dr Killingsworth said: "Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people's happiness."
However, whether mind-wandering is the cause, or the result of unhappiness is still not proven by the research.
 Complete story

bishops seek exorcists


If enough people believe in evil, I wonder to what extent that belief nourishes the very evil they believe in.

Calling all exorcists!


Yesterday, my older son came home for a visit from college bearing a suitcase full of laundry for his mother to attend to. It was the same day on which my daughter suited up in crisply-creased clothes to go to an interview for a college internship. Meanwhile, my younger son borrowed my car because I had dropped his off at the mechanic for repairs ... he was off to pizza and a movie as part of the "best buddies" program in high school.

Now and then, it sweeps over me: How did all this happen? Where was I while these children went from tricycle-riders and spinach-haters to being tall and strong and self-involved in more-adult ways? Almost simultaneously, I can remember older people pinching my cheek affectionately and saying what sounded ridiculous ... "You're getting so big!" I can now see where they were coming from. Now I pinch my own cheek wryly and think, "You're getting so small!"

Things may be as they are, but I can't muster the energy to fault marveling at them and wishing, wishing, wishing.

Friday, November 12, 2010

out of the past

The past can be so wondrous or so horrific and yet it is past and only the present can it find a viable peace. This is not just some spiritual-lite mumbo jumbo. It is a fact and I think anyone who reflects a little will know it is true.

Today there is the story of a 42-year-old man who is who is due in court because, 35 years after the alleged facts,  he beat a 65-year-old retired priest bloody for sexual assaults when the younger man was a child:

"He took my faith, he took my innocence, he took my sense of self," Lynch said of Lindner. "He raped me, he tortured me, he violated me in every single way, and he completely changed who I was supposed to be forever."
Yesterday was Veterans Day, a day when those who survived their service and perhaps combat were honored. It was also a day, I imagine, when some of those veterans faced off again against some truly awful memories and the fact that no one in a civilized setting could possibly envision or suffer from such memories. They were alone and haunted and there was no one to tell.

How much might anyone give to be free of such a past? How much might anyone give to revive and relive a wonderful or wondrous time in their lives? It has a heartless feeling -- the past is past and no memory, good or bad, really remembers accurately. But that doesn't mean the past cannot be as searing or uplifting as memory.

I don't much like the smarmy nitwits who address such edgeless memories with spiritual nostrums -- texts and teachers and "you've got to let it go." First, I think, the facts in all their horror or all their splendor need to be acknowledged: How can what is past be past when it infuses the present so fully? Intellectually, the past is past. Viscerally, it's anything but past. It claws and bites or fills you like a kiss. And one of the aspects of the past is that you are alone ... and that aloneness runs counter to every social nicety...which makes everything worse. What was relied on in social and intellectual settings cannot be relied on.

Now what? We cannot share experience ... so where's the joy? Where's the peace? Where's the relief?

It's hard work, peace. It's not like some group-think rally at which someone makes peace out to be the absence of war. Peace is a personal -- really intimate -- business and it requires hard work, close attention, the patience of Job, the courage of a redwood. There is no fortune-cookie, one-size-fits-all nostrum.

There is the work ... the same work everyone does in one way or another, the same work Jesus did when he walked alone into the desert. Some accept the challenge. Some do not. And still experience demands the effort if there is to be any credible peace.

The past is past.

What does that mean? What does that mean really?

What is peace?

Who am I?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Veterans Day

My younger son gets a day off from high school today.

It's Veterans Day.

Veterans Day or Remembrance Day is observed Nov. 11. "Major hostilities of World War I were formally ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 with the German signing of the Armistice" according to Wikipedia. And other wars are remembered today as well.

On the one hand, my son gets a day off because others fought and died. On the other hand, I would rather he didn't get a day off if it meant the slaughter and loss would be erased.

World War I was sometimes referred to as "the war to end all wars."

It didn't work.

And neither will this one.


I don't know about anyone else, but when I first got hooked on the spiritual adventure, there was a lot of yearning. No joke, I was like a teenager trying to figure out how to get the girl of my dreams to notice me.

From a novice standpoint, the dream was perfect: Temples and texts were delicious; monks and nuns left me puddling within; the great trek from here to there might seem impossibly long and outside my grasp, but that didn't mean I couldn't moon and swoon.

Of course once in a while I would catch myself swooning and give myself a Dutch Uncle talk: This wasn't just some abject surrender realm, some fall-into-someone-else's-arms adventure, some do-it-their-way arena ... shape up and get to work! But the longing to swoon and puddle and love and be loved was there in the corner, waiting to be fulfilled. I'd turn the page of some book or scripture and it would jump off the page and into my soft and yearning places.

If I could just dissect enough, analyze enough, explain enough, find meaning enough ... well then my yearning would be fulfilled somehow. And I look back on this all with fondness. I was going to wrong way to the right places. But whatever the wrong-ness of the approach -- the only approach I was capable of at first -- still it was full of energy and hope and oomph.

Yearning. Weaving thoughtful, hopeful tapestries that might requite that yearning. Thinking. Cuddling. Pocketing.

I was lucky to run into Zen practice, if only because it put my feet to the fire. The literal, physical, sit-down-cross-your-legs-erect-your-spine-shut-up-and-focus exercise didn't diminish the yearning. It simply put the yearning to the test. Sweet anthems found a worthy comrade in a right knee that burned like fire or an irritation with some of the goody-two-shoes fellow practitioners ... people who no doubt yearned as I did but didn't express that yearning in a way I felt comfortable with. They could really piss me off, and being pissed off is a good exercise when yearning is involved.

My mother once said, "Don't get too holy by next Thursday." She was right, but what does yearning care for right and wrong. Yearning wants its satisfaction ... yesterday if not sooner. And not just a tale-telling, belief-oozing satisfaction, but a real, down-to-earth satisfaction ... sort of like your right knee burning like fire: No doubt about it!

It's funny about yearning and an actual-factual practice. In order to practice, yearning has to be put on the back burner. No one can be "good" when they are being good. No one can say what they believe or hope in the middle of a sneeze.

Yet yearning inspires and builds a fire under your butt. You may be going the wrong way to the right places, but you are going. And that puts a warm place in my heart for those willing to go. Despite all the mistakes ... going.




Wednesday, November 10, 2010

science and faith

If it's not too far off-topic I gnawed a bit this morning on which might be a more fruitful approach to spiritual life -- scientific inquiry or flowering belief.

It's probably a false dichotomy, but I always found scientific inquiry to be more compelling... not necessarily better or more lofty or exclusive, but, for me, convincing.

Scientists of course have their sometimes unrecognized beliefs, but they do dwell in the empirical, the provable and the right-in-front-of-your-nose. Science is what guides our day from gravity to starlight to the crunch of a potato chip. If you can't incorporate the obvious into spiritual life, what use would spiritual life have?

And the answer is that belief, when pushed and prodded far enough, can tell wondrous tales that can be more enthralling than television or Victoria's Secret. Beliefs have a format and if you work hard, you can fit anything into a belief ... allowing the belief to be the arbiter of what is right in front of your nose. The beautiful flowers bloom and God did it ... that sort of thing.

The trouble with beliefs is the same as the trouble with science ... both have edges and limits and spiritual life has no such edges.

But as a means of actualizing or realizing the edgeless, you have to start somewhere. Science or faith -- is there really so much difference, assuming anyone would consent to keep on investigating, keep on knocking down conveniently cozy walls? Conclusions are tentative, answers are tentative, certainty is tentative.

A false dichotomy, yes. But I prefer the false safety of science to the false safety of belief ... assuming I had to choose one over the other.

Which, obviously, I do not.

Sisyphus revisited

Feel the fun, feel the energy, feel the effort, feel the laughter, feel the desire, feel the intensity, feel the frustration, feel the failure, feel the certainty, feel the ambition, feel the anger, feel the kindness, feel the entitlement .... I'm positive if I keep trying, I will ...


Tuesday, November 9, 2010


After nine months or better of taking an increasing number of pills, some of which had physiological effects worse than the psychological downer they could create, today I will go to the hospital for a cardiac ablation, a one-day procedure that hopes to realign the electrical current in the heart and, as a side effect, get me off some of the medication I can't help but think of as "those damned pills."

I am trying to suppress the kid-before-Christmas anticipation that goes with this medical effort, but it still rises up, irrespective of down-side possibilities. Some part of me dances with the Tooth Fairy who will make things all better ... the perfect gift inside an as-yet-unwrapped present under the tree. The whole thing glows, I imagine, because it has a pro-active feel to it ... "get 'er done!" But what, precisely, will get done, what the actual results might be, how I will feel and be able to act post-facto I have no real idea. At 70 years old, I can't expect e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g to get fixed, but even few small steps would be very welcome... not, for example, spending periodic nights in the emergency room only to turn around and come home, waiting for the next event.

Who knows, maybe I could even gain some weight. Over the 9 months of being a pharmacological experiment, I lost 40 pounds, some of it muscle mass, and I would be grateful to eat something other than bunny food and to stop looking like a poster-child for Bergen-Belsen.

It's an adventure all right.

Monday, November 8, 2010


I've posted this before, but ran across it this morning and felt like posting it again:


pick up your garbage

Today is garbage-pickup day for those in my neighborhood who choose to have a truck swing by and collect their trash. Barrels and boxes dot the sidewalk in front of some houses. There are no such containers in front of my house -- I take the garbage to the dump myself.

This morning, as I looked out front, I noticed a variety of trash bits in front of my house ... a tin-foil container, some balled-up newspaper, and a few odd chunks of cardboard. Apparently they had blown into my world from someone else's world and I decided to collect them after the rain let up.

But twenty minutes later, when I returned to the porch, my across-the-street neighbor was out in front of my house, red umbrella in hand, dog in tow, picking up the trash she evidently recognized as her own. She returned them to the trash barrels in front of her house.

Now that's what I call a sensible person -- someone who takes responsibility for and makes the effort on behalf of their own leavings. Everyone leaves a trail in one way or another, but I see no reason not to do your best.

rainy day

Today is a grueling example of why those who are employed may hate getting up on a Monday morning.

A cold and cutting rain falls in the early light -- a pelting, break-out-the-umbrella rain -- and because of the time change yesterday, everyone is operating an hour earlier than they might have last week. The clocks may say one thing, but eating and sleeping habits say another.

As if trying to put on a chipper face weren't enough, there is THIS!

Yesterday, during a football between the Eagles and the Colts, Colts wide receiver Austin Collie was left immobile after being tackled during a particular play. He did not get up, as many players do, and hobble away. He just lay there, inert. After a minute or so, six or eight medical personnel gathered around and finally took the player off the field on a gurney. A telephoto shot showed his face with his eyes open ... open and his lids blinking. He was alive in a way his initial inertness suggested he might not be.

Everything had been full of cheering delight and wonderful athleticism and then ... there was the potential for death. Suddenly, the whole scenario and mind set were brought into a new perspective. The babbling commentators were quick to increase their babble, as if babbling could change or explain what had happened: It's just part of the game, one of the risks anyone takes when colliding with someone else on purpose ... blah, blah, blah. And still the hit and the inertness remained in the mind, unexplained and unassuaged. It turned out that Collie had suffered a concussion... but before that was known, there was the inertness in the midst of an an athletic festivity.

Last night I dreamed a dream in which there was no more water. Like all dreams, it was convincing and potent. And even in the dream, the babbling went to work -- how to escape from what was inescapable; the certainty that death would result papered over with explanations and a search for exculpations: "I have been good. Why is this happening to me?!" "If I talk and think enough, maybe it won't be so."

The dream was edgeless and powerful ... incorrigibly factual.

And yet this morning, the water pours down as if it would never stop.

Sunday, November 7, 2010


Here in the United States today, many clocks were set back an hour and there was a return to standard -- as opposed to daylight savings -- time.

We 'gained' an hour that we 'lost' in the spring.

I once read a longish story about how such time changes made railroad schedules difficult. Maybe it makes personal scheduling difficult as well.

But the sky is just as blue at 7:44 a.m. around here as it might be at 8:44.

Time passes, but it's hard to say what passes or doesn't pass at all.

spiritual desperation

How desperate spiritual persuasions can be.

How desperate spiritual persuasions need to be.

Desperation -- a realm of intimate intensity and fear and woe and longing.

Is it something other than desperation that leads Christianity to threaten its constituents with hell? Is it something other than desperation that leads Zen Buddhists to practice as if "your hair were on fire?"

Without desperation, spiritual persuasions become a thin and manipulative gruel, dressed in pink tutus, waving wands, and rife with hugs. Consenting to be desperate seems to be the only cure for superficiality: Once anyone steps off the desperation diving board, there is no alternative but to dive deep and diving deep is the only way that spiritual persuasions make any real or useful sense.

Maybe it's so -- desperation is the only cure for desperation.

Desperation is serious and wracking and in-your-face. It has nothing to do with molding or convincing others. It is like standing in a room without walls ... being walled in by no walls.

People are desperate not to be desperate. They are willing to work hard not to be desperate. And this hard work pays off.

As Suzuki Roshi once said of Zen Buddhist practice: "It's serious, but it's not that serious."

Saturday, November 6, 2010

refreshing what is stale

When I worked in book publishing, I was once assigned to go to an author's house and read all of his previous magazine articles with an eye to creating a book -- something that would provide some exposure and income while he worked on his big book about a former presidential contender, Adlai Stevenson.

John Bartlow Martin was a gracious host, as I recall. He gave me the materials I needed and space in which to read them. I stayed the weekend.

At one point, over a meal, I asked him why he had given up writing magazine articles. His were so good, I just couldn't imagine giving up that fertile field. And he gave me an answer I never forgot:

"I started to write like John Bartlow Martin."

Not AS John Bartlow Martin, but LIKE John Bartlow Martin.

What a good description of skills and convictions held so long that suddenly they become stale and repetitive and imitative and rote. Loving not because you love but because you once loved. Hating not because you hate but because you once hated. Doubting not because you doubt but because you once doubted.

It can be a jolt, finding yourself reprising something that no longer quite fits, that lacks whole-heartedness, that is held onto because the alternative is unknown and, well, maybe scary. Like a computer, you may need a "refresh" function, but touching the key takes more energy or courage than you possess.

Such doubts can drive anyone further down the rabbit hole, re-emphasizing the very habit that doesn't quite hold water any more. If you re-emphasize it, perhaps what was once true will become true again.

Better than re-emphasis, I think, is to let the genie that is already out of the bag out of the bag. Just let it be confused and uncertain ... and see what happens. Just care for this new and uncertain world ... and see what happens.

What the hell -- you are who you are even when you don't know who you are.

compassion and clarity

Compassion and clarity ... maybe these two are the baseline requirements of a spiritual practice ... a life practice ... a life.

I don't know about anyone else, but for me, the effort to be at home with these two aspects is not always easy: I can grow suspicious and downright cranky in the face of my own efforts ... and the efforts of others.

Did you ever find yourself in the company of someone who positively oozed 'compassion?' Butter wouldn't melt in their mouths. So goody-two-shoes it makes you want to puke? Everything is just 'oneness,' so there's no need to differentiate this from that or take offense or speak out boldly.


And then there's the other end of the spectrum -- everything has a deeeeep meaning, is profound, is solemnly in need of a severe haircut, is crystalline and factual and as-it-is. Ramrod straight and never heard a good dirty joke they couldn't refrain from laughing at. No duality. Emptiness. Rigid as Viagra. Spiritual life is important.


The ick's, for me, just seem to refer to my own unwillingness to relax; to let life unfold without my imagined help; to pay attention but not grasp; to stop imagining I could possibly be good or better ... or, in some secret place, best.

As inescapable imperatives, clarity and compassion are not two things. Each is the other, though of course time passes. To know what they are escapes me.

But it does seem that they work a lot better when I stop interrupting.

Friday, November 5, 2010

a soft spot

An email note earlier this week informed me that a man and his wife wanted to come to the zendo on Sunday. They had read books about Zen, the note said, and now they were interested in actually practicing the practice.

I'm not sure why, but I always have a soft spot for those who step across -- or even consider stepping across -- some imaginary line between intellectual consumption and finding the wherewithal to act. On the face of it, it's the next logical step. But putting out the energy to act seems vastly different. It is like a horse galloping at full tilt when suddenly the reins are pulled tight.

Acting requires us all to slow down or even stop dead in our tracks. We have to go back to the very beginning, to review every shred of experience in this life. It's not much different from learning anything new: There has to be a willingness to practice bit by bit something about which we know nothing despite all the intellectual touchstones that may have been gathered. Somehow, it takes real balls, real courage ... it's so vast when we consent to begin. Every ounce of patience and courage is required because the zippy intellect knows everything ... and yet, for the moment, we know nothing.

Every blind date, every job application, every moment of growing up, every aspect of everything -- it all comes into play. It's huge ... and yet here we sit, learning to cross the legs, straighten the spine, breathe attentively, shut up, and focus the mind. How can this activity have anything to do with the vast reaches of prior experience, prior emotion, prior thought? Really, it would be so much more comfortable and perhaps comforting to be a believer or a philosopher or something: "Enlightenment," "compassion," "emptiness," "peace," "living in the present moment" -- it really is easier to say these things and find others who will agree and we can all sit around telling each other pleasant fairy tales.

But then something, some common-sensical intent mutters, "oh really?" or "bullshit!" and the house of cards is threatened. And ... well ... it's as scary as it is challenging and refreshing.

I guess I will never figure it out -- how it is that someone becomes willing to take that step. I guess I'll just have to be content with my soft spot for people who do.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

"Music is God"

"Music is God ...."

Worth a look.


the kindness of strangers

The car was a bit poky this morning when I first started it up, but I chalked it up to the cold and rainy weather. I made it to one appointment then stopped off at Walmart for some staples.

But when I came out of the store, the car refused to start. It clicked ineffectually when I turned the key. I lifted the hood and toyed with the battery wires, hoping there was just a loose connection. No such luck.

It was raining, it was raw and then, when I tried to call AAA, my cell phone didn't work. The albatross represented by a car that didn't work gained another albatross in a cell phone that didn't work.

And as I sat there addressing the helpless sense that rises up in such instances, a fellow pulled up in the next parking space and asked if I needed some jumper cables. We tried unsuccessfully to try the gadget he had. And then he said we might try pushing it and jump-starting the car.

And even in the rain and cold, he helped me to push.

It didn't work and I had to walk to a nearby garage to use the phone ... and everybody there was sympathetic and helpful.

And while I sat in the car waiting for the tow truck, I found that the sense of helplessness and frustration had been blown away by people whose names I did not know. They didn't ask for recognition or accolades, they just did what they thought needed to be done.

When the car got towed to the garage I use, I had to beg for a ride home. Wife, daughter and son were all out of the house and I had to say please once more.

Sure thing. No problem, said Jose.

To me, it all seemed like incredibly good fortune.

To all of these strangers, I think it was as natural as the unforgiving rain that was falling.

Their assistance made me want to act with an equally undemanding kindness when circumstances arose.

Or, as the Dalai Lama once put it, "My religion is kindness."

The difference seemed to be that these people skipped the religion and went straight for the kindness.

just the facts, ma'am

In Indonesia, a powerful volcano has been spewing lava and ash sporadically during the last week or so. Each time it subsides, evacuated residents try to return to their homes, only to be ousted anew.

A news story this morning began like this:

Nov 4, 5:11 AM (ET)

MOUNT MERAPI, Indonesia (AP) - Towering clouds of hot ash gushed from the mouth of Indonesia's deadly volcano Thursday, hours after its most explosive eruption in a deadly week sent screaming women and children fleeing mountainside villages and emergency shelters.

Scientists - shaking their heads as they watched the wide, fast sweeps of a needle on a seismograph - worried that the worst might be yet to come.

Some things seem to be like that -- explosive, disrupting and somehow endless. Each new hope of reprieve is dashed as another gush, another explosion fills the universe. Memory and hope entreat the universe ... this is unbearable! ... and yet events require still further endurance. Hope and belief are useless. Numbness doesn't work. Kindness is shredded. Intellect is stupid.

Death, disease, drugs, divorce and other situations: Make it stop! But there is no stopping....

Once, at a sesshin or Zen meditation retreat, I was experiencing a lot of pain in my legs. At sesshin, everyone sits still and silent for periods of 30 or 40 or 50 or 60 minutes at a time. The periods are interspersed with walking meditation (kinhin), but invariably each student returns to his or her cushion to sit some more. Over and over again.

I was sitting and my mind was full of whimpering and screams and anger and a half-baked defeat and then some more screaming. Explosion after explosion, moment after moment of being forced from my home -- a home in which the agony of my legs was absent. Seconds were like hours. And there was no reprieve, no the-end, no return to sanity, no roof over my head or walls to protect me. I was angry at and envious of the others who sat so still and uncomplaining in the room -- how could they not see the pain I was in? How could they be so still and composed? How come they were so much better than I was? Why wouldn't they share their serenity with me? Where was their compassion? It's their fault! ... aaarrrghhhh!

And still the volcano exploded ... hips, knees ... agony in waves and spasms and endlessly.

And then, towards the end of one particular sitting, as my mind squirmed and screamed, "I can't do this!!!!!" a small conversion appeared. That conversion didn't change anything in my legs, but it did clarify the scenery. The thought that arose like pure water was that at the same time I was wailing, "I can't do this!!!!" -- at precisely the same moment -- I was, in fact, doing it. There was no consolation in the fact, but there was a sense of release.

Naturally, the release didn't last long. I was so habituated to my aches and pains and complaints that I really didn't want the facts to interfere. Somehow I didn't have the strength for them ... just the facts. But that one small moment did instill some of what I think of as fruitful doubt. It was a seed.

The inescapable was just the inescapable. Isn't that the case in every moment? I think it is, but I also think it takes some practice to be able to stick with the facts...be the facts... as if there were any other choice. :)