Monday, January 31, 2011

the Pierian spring

The 18th century poet Alexander Pope, a great adherent of the intellect, once wrote:

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again.

But I wonder if, besides the choruses attending on intellectual endeavors might not likewise be sung in spiritual life. Dilettantes in any field are joyful in their shallows and yet others may pay dearly for those joys. And that is not to mention the suffering of one peddling such thin-tea ambrosia.

In spiritual life one practitioner may choose to join some established sect or school and learn a very great deal. Another, convinced of the corruption of establishments, may raise the banner of individual effort ... back to the land! power to the people! ... and likewise learn a very great deal.

But no matter what the route, the invitation -- or proclamation or sine qua non -- remains the same: "Drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring." Anyone can splash gaily in the shallows. Anyone can read the books or ingest beliefs or swoon with bliss or indulge in some massive group hug. It feeeeeeels so good. Its meeeeeaning is so profound.

The "Pierian spring" is defined this way:

  1. Greek Mythology. A spring in Macedonia, sacred to the Muses.
  2. A source of inspiration.
A source of inspiration.The fires of delight rise up. The banner is raised. And the heart is taken.

Again I return, since I know of no other metaphor so easily recognized, to Jesus' walking into the desert. The "Spirit" was said to have directed his steps into that arid land where he fasted for 40 nights and 40 days. There he was said to have been tempted in many ways. And after he refused all devilish blandishments, there were angels who appeared and sustained him.

I don't much care what the tale's particulars might be. What I care about was that Jesus went alone. He went alone into deep waters. No establishment came with him. No group-hug accompanied him. Establishments and group hugs fare poorly in the land where men and women walk alone and drink deep. Jesus had left the land of meaning behind. Shakyamuni did much the same beneath the bo tree. And doubtless Mohammad and others who remained nameless throughout all of history. The austere desert or the cold and lonely caves may be dramatic in the telling, but each man and each woman, to the extent s/he does not wish to be nothing more than a loose cannon, finds the deep waters and dives.

There is no cookie-cutter explanation of where the shallows end and the deep water begins. Each creates his or her own. But it is certain that such a sobering experience, whether in the supermarket or the monastery, is a
 a requirement for those who would savor the depths of the Pierian springs. 

How long can anyone live in the dangerous shallows? Pretty damned long, as far as I can figure out. Whole lifetimes have been spent in praise of others ... and yet praise is as shallow as blame. But for some, the risk of death is preferable to a shallow existence.

trying to get stupid

I have heard it said of others that "they devoted themselves to a life of wisdom."

But I have never heard it said, except, perhaps by stupid people, that someone "devoted himself to a life of ignorance."

It is possible to be stupid or ignorant, but can anyone direct their studies and efforts towards being stupid-er or ignorant-er?

And if not, what does this say about the wonders of wisdom?

a little animal magnetism

Received in email: The Orangutan and the Hound.

Al Jazeera

As American news media sink to lower and lower denominators, there is a certain irony to the fact that Al Jazeera offers up-to-date, on-the-ground coverage of, among other things, the protests in Egypt ... and yet Al Jazeera faces a de facto ban on most commercial outlets in the U.S.

Anybody willing to join me in saying, "Thank God for Al Jazeera!?"


The icicles hanging from neighborhood eaves are brilliant in the morning sun...daggers of shimmering light.

They have a dangerous cast in their pointed brightness and yet, like all bright things, they will melt at some point and produce a nourishing cup of water or a daisy in the middle of the lawn.

How far apart in actuality are danger and delight?

orphans in another time

There's something to be said for putting a dearly-held belief in another context.

This morning, I wondered playfully about the number 666 whose definition on the Wikipedia web site includes:

In modern popular culture, 666 has become one of the most widely recognized symbols for the Antichrist or, alternately, the Devil. Earnest references to 666 occur both among apocalypticist Christian groups and in explicitly anti-Christian subcultures. An appearance of the number 666 in contemporary Western art or literature is, more likely than not, an intentional reference to this number of the Beast symbolism. Such popular references to 666 are too numerous to list.

I did read an LATimes article once that suggested this bit of biblical extraction was mistaken. It just happened to be a wrong translation and the number was actually something else ... something like 616. But let's not let facts cloud or revise widely-held beliefs. If popular references are "too numerous to list," think of all the hard work that would be entailed in revising that belief.

Anyway, my goofing-off thought pattern went like this: What happens to the deeeeep meaning and importance of 666 in a culture that has not yet made friends with numbers? The strong, or even absolute, sway of the belief collapses of its own weight. If a belief is utterly correct and no one believes it, what happens?

Or take the example of the people in (was it? I can't really remember) Nepal or someplace landlocked and similar who placed an enormous value on a certain kind of shells. The shells acted as a means of trade and as a matter of status (I've got 100 shells, you've only got 10). How would that play out along the ocean's edge, where shells were as common as salt water?

I once knew a Roman Catholic priest who had spent 15 years living with a jungle tribe of Indians in Brazil. Tony loved living there (until his church sold the Indians out), but he did have to make some adjustments. He was forced, for example, to make friends with local shamans who had their own way of solving a difficult pregnancy/birth. The shaman would beat the woman's belly with a stick as a means of getting the baby out. Even if Tony had had the medical experience, how could he convince those who were convinced, en masse,  of the shaman's methods?

In Egypt, lately, there are thousands of people in Cairo's streets calling for the removal of Hosni Mubarak, the long-time ruler. The United States, which funneled billions of dollars into maintaining Mr. Mubarrak's stable, if repressive, regime has shifted course and now urge the man they propped up to listen to the will of the people. What was once a solemn and praised relationship seems to be losing its belief-based (money, power, location) savor.

And the list goes on and on. In this country, there are evangelicals and stock brokers and college professors and Buddhists and motorcycle fans and ... the list goes on an on. Many, perhaps most, use their own belief systems to counter or set aside or criticize the belief system of another.

But what I find interesting in all this is not so much how alliances and enmities are created by firmly-held beliefs, but rather the unwillingness the individual might feel when taking a 'given' in their lives and placing it elsewhere ... in a place or thought-mode that simply does not believe or hasn't the tools to comprehend the serious nature of what the individual has decided is serious. Surely beliefs have a way of encouraging wonderful accomplishments and wonderful horrors, but the willingness to use beliefs as the tentative mind-sets they actually are seems hard to come by. And this unwillingness leads invariably to sorrow and confusion because, of course, there is no perfectly-accepted belief, no absolute, sure-as-shootin' framework.

Popularity simply cannot assure peace, so it is worthwhile to investigate these soaring spires that in another time and place might simply be a pile of rocks or less. Just because we are surrounded by orphans doesn't mean we can't learn something from them. I don't mean that embracing a listless, preening relativism is likely to still the scene. I just mean that releasing our grip, bit by bit, on what seems like family but actually proves itself over and over to be a lonely orphan is worth the price of admission..

Sunday, January 30, 2011


Yesterday, the peace picket line was swollen with participants. Where eight or ten had stood on previous Saturdays, yesterday there were perhaps 50 people. The uptick probably had something to do with the fact that Tea Party and other activists with a different point of view had invaded in recent weeks with flags saying "Don't Tread on Me" and signs saying things like, "Dead Terrorists Don't Kill People." There were no confrontations, but the peace folks added troops wearing arm bands saying, "Peace Keeper," which struck me as a bit bold.

I found myself next to Nau, a young Japanese woman who smiles a lot. She and Andy, another picket, talked about an apartment (condo) for sale -- something Nau might like to take advantage of since her current digs have sloping floors and poor insulation. But Nau said she really didn't like to own things or owe money. Cars, homes, and other acquisitions ran against her grain, she said. "I don't like the responsibility," she said in what I thought was a nicely-candid admission ... one that deserved some examination.

She then segued into the fact that the Dalai Lama was scheduled to talk in Washington at some point in the near future. She wanted to go (sort of), but was worried about how expensive it was and the fact that she wondered how much she could learn from a forum that she couldn't learn from a book or internet speech. She bounced back and forth between wanting to and not-wanting to go. She would be in some nose-bleed section, she imagined, and, it seemed to me, she was wondering if the Dalai Lama would notice her ... which is a wispy dream of anyone going to such events, I guess.

Without making a federal case out of it, I suggested that monks and talks and temples and robes and books and other paraphernalia of spiritual life were aimed at one thing, and one thing alone: They are directed at you personally (no one else) and how much you might be willing to ACT based on the information provided.

As I say, I didn't make a federal case out of it: People either find this out or they don't. And the longing for a consoling, loving deus ex machina who will make things all better is profound. If it weren't profound, religions around the world would disintegrate in a nanosecond.

Responsibility is a hard thing where the mind longs for what might be called the Tooth Fairy. But as with owning a condo or a car or other acquisitions, it is impossible to escape responsibility, even when the desire is strong. Who is responsible for the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the music we listen to, the friends we keep. If we were irresponsible about such things, we would go naked and hungry and friendless.

I guess we'd all like to have it both ways -- be responsible for what is easy and still maintain a foothold in a world where life cares for us without the expending of any effort ... a kind of loving parent whose job it is to make sure we are safe and secure.

How is it possible not to be responsible?

On the other hand, how is it possible to be responsible?

It's worth a look, I think.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

calm down

Scientists are using a new technique for freeing whales snagged in fishing line: Sedatives.

People aren't whales, of course, although the use of downers probably feathers a lot of pharmaceutical-company nests, but the principle strikes me as applicable. Panic, fear, sorrow, worry, thrashing within the conditions that life dishes up ... and the harder anyone fights, the worse the conditions can become. Who hasn't been there, one way or another?

Doctors may be willing to dispense pills that drug companies produce, but that's not what interests me just now. What interests me is the principle of slowing down ... however great or small the problem, it really is necessary to slow down in order to find a solution to what may be an overwhelming helplessness. How can the help necessary assert itself when I am flailing around like a fish on a pier?

It's easier said than done, obviously, but still I think the principle is on target: Slow down and look at it. And keep looking at it. And keep looking at it.

I once heard a pretty good definition of what Buddhists call "suffering." "Suffering is the resistance to pain." No one likes to feel pain and yet pain arises unbidden -- literally and emotionally and intellectually. It's in your face and all over you like fishing lines hog-tying a whale. And sometimes the escape skills of the past simply don't work. Now what?

Well, my guess is that when something is inescapable, the best thing to do is to stop trying to escape.

Just a small thought.

Friday, January 28, 2011

untold stories

A BBC magazine report tells the tale of a letter created at Bletchley Park, England's hotbed of cryptanalysts who broke Germany's Enigma codes and were able to plant false information at the highest levels of the Nazi regime. The letter led the Germans to believe that the invasion of Normandy was a ruse intended to distract attention from the main attack point after D-Day, the Pas de Calais. The letter led the Germans to hold troops that might otherwise have joined in the Normandy defense in readiness elsewhere. The ruse was a ruse.

One of the mathematicians who helped break the German codes was a man named Alan Turing, a co-creator of the Bombe machine that allowed the British to crack the German codes. The magazine article does not focus on Turing, but rather on the exploits of Bletchley Park, the ruse letter and the heroism of the intellectuals who helped fight the war from behind a desk.

For those who don't know when World War II was, this is all probably pretty boring. But one comment on the article caught my eye ... something that told a wider story. The comment:

Turing was a hero of this country. His name should be as famous as Churchill, Montgomery, Dowding and Harris and yet we treated him despicably. Reporting a casual lover to the police for theft, rather than receive justice, was prosecuted for the, then, crime of homosexuality, offered imprisonment or chemical castration, took the latter and that led to his suicide. His memory needs to be honoured.

I have no way of knowing how true the facts of this comment are, but they sent a chill up my spine ... and reminded me again that every story told is invariably and inevitably a story untold. Every flowering story is simply a seed packet for a hundred, a thousand, a million other stories, other flowers, all blooming at the same time.

It's enough to keep a wise man humble.

half-baked Buddhist

Funny, in spiritual life there can be this drive to improve -- to get better, to become, in my environment, a "better Buddhist." Buddhist or Christian or Jew or Muslim or... well, pick your poison.

Nagging gently or with overt insistence is the notion that "I am a half-assed Buddhist," someone who has not done or achieved what needed to be done or achieved. Whatever meanings I have found are half-baked and not at all as profound or wide-ranging as they should be. I can strike a pose and make it look as if I had a handle on things, but the fact is, I haven't got a handle at all. In the world of Buddhism, students can chortle as if they knew something, "There is no handle." But this handle too fails and disintegrates... a nice pose, but just more bullshit.

What a half-baked Buddhist! If I were a full-fledged Buddhist, people would listen to me or write prayers around me or build temples in my behalf or I would be serene and firm as the Buddha or Jesus or Mohammad or something, right?

But did you ever stop to think: Knowing you are a half-baked Buddhist or Christian or Jew or Jain means that some aspect of your being already knows what a fully-baked Buddhist might be. How could you know that if it were not true? And if it is true, why are you fuss-budgeting about being a half-baked Buddhist? Just because things are OK and you are likewise OK doesn't require applause or halos or light exploding from your forehead or some kind of agreement from elsewhere. Wouldn't it be wiser just to sit back and enjoy the ride? Sure, correct what requires correction, but lay off the endless 'half-baked' chatter.

Hang out with good friends, recognize fools ... just enjoy the ride. Aside from anything else, it will save money on self-help books and profound lectures.


When I was a kid, my mother owned a house in New City, N.Y., a town within driving distance of New York and populated -- back then -- by quite a few artists of one kind or another. The house had a small, untended apple orchard and a barn. In the winter, deer could be seen delicately tiptoeing around the orchard, digging for fallen, rotted apples.

The barn, like the apple orchard was untended and sagging. Though still serviceable, a forest of honeysuckle grew up and around two sides of it like Peruvian jungle vines. The honeysuckle was so thick that on days when there was little to do, I might take a run at its billowing creepers and then leap into it without mishap: The stuff was so lush that it completely cushioned my fall, even as it filled my nostrils with a dusty dust that rose up like water around a cannon-balling kid in summer.

The honeysuckle was eating the barn -- nature was reclaiming what had once been someone's 'civilizing' effort. Even then, I knew there was something "not right" about the advancing honeysuckle. Someone should have cleared it away and saved the barn, but no one ever did. The honeysuckle just grew and grew. Like some encroaching tsunami, it began about 12 feet from the side of the barn, covered the ground thickly, and then rose up along the barn face, higher and higher as the years passed. Occasionally, I would rip some of its advancing vines down from the purchase points where they reached for the eaves, but my efforts never accomplished much. The tsunami just keep on coming, swelling, rising.

In spring, its small white trumpet-shaped flowers could be plucked one by one and, by nipping off the narrow throat and sucking, a small moment-taste of honey-like sweetness would touch the tongue. The rich, roiling, untamed insistence of nature was eating the barn, reclaiming its own ... the straight lines that civilization drew were being slowly erased.

Once upon a time, in an obituary I read, a peppery 90-plus-year-old woman was quoted as saying to a group of elderly people she was addressing, "If, after the age of 65, you wake up in the morning without any aches or pains, you will know you are dead."

When I wake up in the morning, I think of the honeysuckle reclaiming its natural place. The aches and pains inch higher and higher around the straight, civilized lines that once claimed the space called "me." Yes, there was shelter and storage and definition; there was kindness and cruelty, doubt and certainty, clarity and dis-ease, accomplishment and failure and all the other straight edges of civilization and definition and meaning. And each morning suggests that somehow I should reassert those straight lines and definitions -- get things done, think and believe, join in the human endeavor of creating straight lines.

But it becomes harder and harder as the light reaches up out of the East. A sense of been-there-done-that whispers, and straight lines no longer hold the force they once did. It's not especially sad. It's the same feeling a person might have when recollecting a love of dolls or cap pistols. Yes, that was part of the picture and it was rich in its time. But now, it is a bit stale, this straight-line "me" business.

Fighting with honey suckle ... in what way does that make sense? In what way is that necessary? After all, every now and then, there is a natural moment-taste of sweetness without any effort at all.

a silly

Received in email ... nothing like a little sound-bite sociology to begin the day:


1. The  sport of choice for the urban poor is  BASKETBALL.

2 The  sport of choice for maintenance level employees is  BOWLING.

3 The  sport of choice for front-line workers is  FOOTBALL.

4 The  sport of choice for supervisors is  BASEBALL.

5 The  sport of choice for middle management is  TENNIS.

6 The  sport of choice for professionals, corporate executives and officers is  GOLF.

The  higher you go in the  corporate structure, the smaller your balls  get.

Thursday, January 27, 2011


Snow, snow, and more snow. It cuddles in heaps around neighborhood dwellings.

It slips and slides and giggles under foot.

It defeats airline and railroads. It shuts off electricity. It is cold and yet inspires a warmth of shared-difficulty among people.

People complain, but snow doesn't.

It's a game-changer.

Little, white flakes.

praise and blame

Yesterday I got a note from my older son who has had some difficulty finding his direction as a freshman in college. A couple of weeks ago, he shifted his course load to computer science and yesterday he reported he was very glad he had: He was interested, he was doing the homework, and he looked forward to going to class.

As a parent, I couldn't have been happier for him. I sent him some encouraging accolades and settled down into my own contentment, however temporary.

Not just because he is my son and I love him, it feels good to be glad for someone else and to praise them for their accomplishments. I like doing it -- joining some enthusiastic throng and applauding for anyone. Like music, it seems to open the heart, assert connection, and bring a sky-wide smile. How different from the constrictions of blame -- the closing of the heart and mind to one situation or person or another. Or, more subtle, the effort to withhold praise because of the vulnerability it can seem to imply: If I praise, then I lessen my own standing somehow.

It feels good to praise, but the average conversation is often salted with blame. Ain't it awful?!

As someone prone to lean towards praise, I think praise and blame both deserve examination. Who is praised? Who is blamed? And to what extent is it just a matter of elevating my own stock? I don't think anyone needs to fall into some thin-lipped unwillingness either to praise or to blame, but I do think both deserve examination.

"too big to fail"

So woven into the American economy were a variety of big businesses that, when the 'recession' hit, the government deemed them "too big to fail" and provided them with gobs of taxpayer money to keep them afloat. The bailout money that the government claimed to hope would trickle down to the under- and unemployed did no such thing. Instead, the businesses used the money to shore up their own bookkeeping and no one looked at the fundamental model that had precipitated the crisis in the first place.

Now the drug kingpin Walid Makled has likewise caught a break. Designated a drug lord by the U.S., Makled was picked up in a Colombian border town after having enjoyed a meteoric rise in Venezuela. Colombian and U.S. authorities were delighted: Makled would be shipped to the United States and the full extent of his drug connections and activities would come to light. But Makled's highly-placed enablers in Venezuela felt the potential for catastrophe and, since Colombia and Venezuela had recently gone through a rough political patch, Bolivia decided to ship Makled to Venezuela for trial. It was a good-will gesture that won the lifting of some very expensive sanctions Venezuela had imposed on Bolivia.

"It's a shame he's coming here," Mildred Camero, Venezuela's top anti-drug official until her 2005 falling out with Chavez, told the AP. "Absolutely nothing is going to happen here. He will arrive. They will sentence him. They will isolate him, but we won't find out anything" about the extent of drug corruption in Chavez's inner circle.

How lucky U.S. bankers and stock brokers are: They don't even suffer the collusive inconvenience of having to go to jail. They are "too big to fail" and are allowed to keep peddling their drugs.

In Egypt and Tunisia, people have taken to the streets in an effort to reform their governments, root out corruption, and spread the wealth. I wonder if Americans have the same energy. I don't imagine it would change much, but it might put the drug lords on notice...for a little while.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

old friends

I probably 'shouldn't' be embarrassed, but yesterday, there I was ... strangely embarrassed.

The focus of my embarrassment was a book, of all goddamned things. The book, "Dialogues in a Dream: Muchu Mondo" is translated and annotated by Thomas Yuho Kirchner with Fukazawa Yukio. The book presents the words and thoughts of Zen master Muso Soseki (1275-1351). Tom, who is an American Zen monk in Japan had had a review copy sent along since we have come to be e-mail chums over time. And I was delighted to receive such a beautiful present when it arrived.

But yesterday, I sat down and tried to read it. The book is popular in Japan because, according to Tom, it offers an accessible and down-to-earth presentation of Zen ... much less forbidding and paradoxical than other texts can be. I like an accessible approach to Zen and had been looking forward to reading it. But then I picked it up, admiring the care that had obviously been taken in the making of the physical volume and the care that was obvious in the words. And ... and ... it simply did not interest me.

I wanted to be interested. That's what friends do for each other, right? And that's what I had done for myself in the past -- be interested in Buddhist compilations and recitations. Twenty or thirty years ago, I might have been really interested. But not yesterday. I read twenty pages and then skipped forward in hopes that my interest might spring up. It didn't and I was somehow embarrassed.

It felt like eating leftovers. Very good leftovers, perhaps, but leftovers. What was the matter with me? Was I too old and fat and lazy to be interested? Was I merely arrogant, assuming that I somehow 'knew more' or 'knew better?' Zen was something I had muddled around with for a long time ... where was the interest? Where had it gone? It wasn't that I couldn't recognize the value these words and pages might have for someone else. Certainly, if asked, I would recommend the book. But I couldn't recommend it to me.

I felt vaguely as if I had become irresponsible -- irresponsible to a friend; irresponsible to some segment of myself. Zen was important in my life ... but the importance had somehow shape-shifted while I wasn't looking. The leftovers really were tasty, but they weren't fresh food. And what might have constituted fresh food? Well, like it or not, it occurred to me that getting crabby about the laugh track on some dimwit TV sitcom might have filled the bill. That, god knows, is something alive for me.

I wanted the devotion and excitement and interest in "Zen" back. I wanted an old friend. I wanted ... something more concerned. I missed it as I might miss a friend who had moved to Omaha.

And the best I could console myself with was Shunryu Suzuki's approximate words about the seriousness of Zen: "It's serious, but it's not that serious."

And Dylan Thomas' words in "Under Milkwood:" ... "Time passes. Listen! Time passes."

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

"Enlightenment Therapy"

It's a couple of years old, but I thought it was a very interesting piece then and still do -- "Enlightenment Therapy," the tale of a Zen teacher who acknowledged and then attempted to deal with the demons he had once so cunningly disguised.

I always thought Lou Nordstrom was a nice guy when I met him first at Dai Bosatsu monastery. I quit the place, but he didn't, at least not while I was there. The article made me think that not only was he a nice guy -- he was also a guy with honest-to-goodness balls.

I never did find an e-mail address that would allow me to thank him and I looked pretty hard. Anyway, Lou has my thanks.


I haven't seen Herschel in a while. Herschel lives across the street, has one bum leg, fought in the Korean War, and has been known to go off his meds from time to time ... once to such an extent that he took an ax to the front doors of various neighbors he thought were assholes. I always felt somehow gratified that he didn't take an ax to my door while the doors to the left and right of my house were trashed.

Anyway, I haven't seen Herschel in a while. I think age may be catching up with him and he is waiting, as many old people wait, in the silences of his own house. It's snowing today and I doubt that Herschel will be out with his snow blower as he has been in so many years past ... limp or no limp, age or no age, pushing the snow blower. Crusty old bastard!

Gloria, an aging short woman from down the block, seems to have taken Herschel under her wing. She comes and goes on errands whose intent I cannot guess. Helping Herschel ... helping ... helping... helping. And for all I know, she is helping. But there is something about Gloria that makes me feel that she is not so much helping Herschel as she is helping herself, raising her own stock of goodness at the expense of someone else. A Christian kindness, perhaps or maybe it's Jewish. Anyway it's goodness of a kind others might recognize as goodness ... goodness that might be praised.

All of this may be my imagination based on flimsy evidence, but it makes me realize how irritable I can get when being around people who are determined to be 'good.' 'Good' people always have an excuse -- they are doing what is socially profitable, what is beamed upon ... no one can fault them as thinly-veiled egotists because, after all, they are doing 'good' works. The tendency -- whether true or untrue in the current instance -- makes me recognize how irritable I can become about show-offs.

Everyone plays let's-pretend before they actually get the knack of something. Buddhists take precepts. Christians praise kindness. News articles encourage volunteer-ism. Let's pretend we are better than we are before we are actually better ... which is to say, in no need of halos or smug satisfaction. It's a phase which, with luck, we can outgrow. Imagine how much less Mother Theresa might have accomplished if, after each good effort, she had wondered whether it was good or not.

With luck, the phony-baloney inspires true baloney. But in the meantime, it can be a titty-twister ... butter-wouldn't melt-in-his/her-mouth kind of stuff.

Goodness, my ass!

Monday, January 24, 2011

and you thought you knew music



narrow and wide

Sometimes people think that it is the narrowness of spiritual practice that makes it hard. It looks so austere. It squeezes the individual where s/he would prefer not to be squeezed ... no sex, maybe, or lousy food or not enough sleep or no TV or no talking or a rigorous schedule. From the outside, those who are curious can marvel or perhaps scoff.

And the narrowness can put them off -- that's not for me!

But the narrow passages of spiritual endeavor are not the hard part at all. The hard part -- the really hard part -- is not its narrow passages. It is its limitless widths. Now that is enough to scare the pee down the pope's leg. The depth of that fear can be gauged by the fact that the limitless is given names or proposed as a matter that can only be actualized after death. "Heaven," "hell," "Nirvana," "enlightenment" ... name it and tame it. Squeeze it into a book. Glorify it with soaring towers....

This ... is ... scary ... shit!

You can sort of understand why the limitless is so relentlessly limited, unremittingly narrowed. How else to conquer our fears? How else to keep control? How else to woo those in need of wooing? There are a million million reasons and meanings and buffers against what is so fearful. But eventually you've got to ask, do they work? Really -- do they work? And there is no asking someone else in order to find a peaceful answer. No one else knows. Only you know.

Talk about spooky!


It was a (U.S.) football orgy yesterday -- my son and I watching the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears and then segueing into the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New York Jets. The Packers and the Steelers won and will meet in the Super Bowl in a couple of weeks.

It was fun to watch, but a little hard to get as excited as some of the fans shown on television. I like the skill of athletes ... the effort they have put into being pretty good at what they do, the expertise in execution, the inevitable failures ... and I acknowledge the sense of a strangely-shared human satisfaction or disappointment I feel as an on-looker. But the impassioned sense of definition that many fans seem to ingest ... well, it loses me.

Maybe if I drank more beer, it would work better.

ask and answer


"It's someone about Black Moon Zendo," my wife said, handing me the phone last night.

And there, on the other end of the line was a pleasant male voice asking to verify contact information. The info was to be, as it had been in the past, included in some kind of local meditation newsletter ... vipassana, I think he said. I wasn't against it, but I said that if the newsletter needed a bit of extra space, he should feel free to drop the reference to the small place in the backyard here.

Funny how what is new a novel to others no longer puts pepper in this pot. A lot of effort went into building the zendo, and I certainly do enjoy sitting there from time to time, but the flags I once flew for the place -- the ads, the web site, etc. -- seem a bit excessive now.

Voices of a certain experience level might say it was "compassionate" to make the building available to others, but that just makes me hope people might examine what they are wont to call compassionate. Feel-good fluff is more likely than compassion ... and even that probably doesn't warrant advertising. Everybody fucks up at their own speed. Everyone finds their way out of their fuck-ups at their own speed. If someone asks, answer ... that strikes me as enough ... and it's less weighted-down by advertising.

In this country, there is a saying, "Never speak ill of the dead." And many, if not most, hear that encouragement as meaning they should somehow speak well of the dead. Lord knows they do it enough: Anyone seeking the comforts of praise should drop dead -- it's almost a sure-fire winner. But I think it would be better never to speak well of the dead either. Good deeds and bad deeds cling and cloy with about the same adhesive confusion. As bad deeds are remembered with a gnawing regret so good deeds are recollected with sympathy and joy. As they say in Zen, the hard stuff is easy -- it's the easy stuff that's hard.

Ask and answer, answer and ask ... isn't that enough?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

bit by bit

Give or take, it's minus-six degrees Fahrenheit this morning. The snow drifts seem to take on an additional, more-forbidding cold. The protection offered by house and furnace feel both kindly and fruitless. Some old Zen teacher observed, "When it is hot, sweat. When it is cold, shiver." Despite the electric radiator I turned on last evening, the zendo will probably be cold today. I will wrap up and shiver anyway.

Yesterday, on the peace picket line, there was a crowd of Tea Party types who took advantage of the years-long tradition the peace picket had set on its particular corner and joined in. I'm not sure exactly what the Tea Party feels it stands for, but it is popular in hard times. The movement seems to be filled with righteousness and poorly supplied with thoughtfulness: What they don't like is apparent; but what they would propose in its stead -- what platform would they not simply state, but also live out the implications and particulars? -- is hard to see. They are loud and have flags and as I left the scene after an hour-plus, they were singing "God Bless America" ... even the woman smoking the cigar -- the one who had been walking around with the United Nations flag with a superimposed red circle with a red line through it (a roadside prohibition) -- was singing. Dissolve the United Nations! Repeal health care! Support the American-sponsored wars! Don't tread on (never mind the other guy) ME!

During the 1960's, the Vietnam war protests were filled with sometimes raucous but frequently intelligent dissent. Nowadays, there is dissent, but it seems to lack much intelligence. It feels to me like an assent of Mediocrity and Cowardice. It takes courage to think things through. It takes determination not to be swept up in the aimless egotism of what was once arrogantly anointed as "the rabble," the masses in which there might be a soaring sense of agreement and yet the fallout from that agreement was not open to discussion or investigation.

Last night on TV, there was a documentary about the rise of Hitler's Third Reich. A woman who had been among those singled out for sterilization wrote that she had decided not to be sterilized. She was sterilized anyway. Bit by bit, the Jews were singled out. Bit by bit, the concentration camps arose. Bit by bit, books were burned. Bit by bit, the doubts that people (the old-guard German military, for example) expressed about Adolf Hitler were suppressed. Bit by bit, people became afraid that their neighbors might report them ... for not greeting others with the "Heil Hitler!" salute, for example. Bit by bit the Propaganda Ministry put out the news until no one knew what the news was because news outlets had been shut down.

It's so easy to say "no" to some situation or proposal that someone else has made. But it is hard to find a "yes" and then implement it with determination and flexibility.

It will be cold in the zendo this morning, but I figure the shivering is worth it.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

historic parade

Searching around for a little televised, before-bed soporific, I found myself faced with "Kill Bill," which I've seen often enough to know some of the dialogue, "Swordfish," whose intricacies had been pretty much worn out by repetition, several channels of laugh-track 'comedy,' and several other channels peopled by sportscasters whose speculations were better suited to bar room banter. Finally, faut de mieux, I stopped at a Christian channel telling the tale of the Franciscans in Mexico. It had history and was light on overt proselytizing.

There were interesting little nuggets ... a nun in Europe who claimed to 'bilocate' as a means of educating the Indians in Mexico; the impact of the Jesuits' being outlawed; the friction between politics and religion -- each seeking a more powerful position. And, as a seeming after-thought, there were the Mexican people themselves -- a group described as simple and musical and agricultural and warm.

And as I thought about it, I realized that I could not think of a single spiritual persuasion that did not tell its tale according to its high-profile leaders. I suppose that's what constitutes what passes for history -- the bright and dark lights, the efforts that succeeded and those that were thwarted ... and all the time, the followers who brought critical mass to the effort were somehow relegated to the shadows.

Of course it would require an enormous effort to plumb the depths of why individuals should sign on and press the cause, whatever it was. Messy, amorphous, contradictory, ill-advised, vibrant, biased. Who could possibly collect all of the information from all of the people who were, as in Mexico, simple and musical and agricultural and warm? Biff-bam-boom stuff is easier to get a handle on. Biff-bam-boom religion and politics and personalities... sort of a Fox-channel appreciation over-laid with furrowed and sincere brows.

I'm not faulting it. I just don't much care for its narrowness. Easy answers are just too often easy. And the interesting part always lies in the mess, the contradictions, the longings, the bliss, the horror ... of individuals who have espoused a particular way or belief or salvation. What would the biff-bam-boom crowd be without that swirling, unpredictable, devoted, and dumber-than-a-box-of-rocks support? Invariably, the biff-bam-boomers of history claim to have nothing but the best interests of the musical masses at heart. And equally invariably, they slip into forgetfulness and posture.

I would have liked to know what any particular warm, agricultural, simple and musical participant thought ... one or two or twenty of those who made such wonderful beliefs and temples spring to life. What did they think and why did they think it; what did they love and why did they love it?

I know, I know ... it's too much to ask. The biff-bam-boomers stand at the head of the parade. But I asked anyway -- who would the biff-bam-boomers be if there were no parade in their wake? And how can anyone presume to know much if their cannot plumb the sometimes confusing cornerstone of this parade?

Leadership is nice for a while -- someone or something to point the way. But in the end, based on experience, does it make much sense?

Isn't the music enough?

Friday, January 21, 2011


One of the hardest lessons I ever failed to learn was this: Just because I espouse what I consider a principled point of view does NOT mean that others will be likewise inclined. Disappointment is no way to measure a good principle ... but it sure is disappointing.

For example, I grew up with the idea that you never ratted your friends out. Even if it meant discomfort to me, ratting others out was not an option. I did my best, which was probably never as good as it might have been. But I never did get my head around my not relying on others for validation. What a sap.

For example: In the army, I belonged to a top-secret unit in Berlin. One of the rules of the unit was that we were not allowed to use the U-bahn or S-bahn -- the subway services that offered quick transportation from one point to another. Berlin, at the time, was a city that the allies had divided into four sectors after World War II -- Russian, French, British and American. The Russians, at the time, were the cold war enemies, but the U-bahn and S-bahn had been created before the war and served all parts of the city. The fear in our unit was that members of our top secret group might take the subway, fall asleep, end up in the Russian sector, and tell all our secrets.

In principle, this was fine. But in practice, the U-bahn and S-bahn were a quick, cheap way to get around and members of the unit routinely took one or the other for a night out on the town. I learned all this very quickly when I joined the unit. I was too new to do the same, but I nevertheless heard the stories ... going out to dinner, a trip to the opera, or an adventure for some stage play.

And that was when our unit suffered what I later called "The Purge." One day, we were informed that each man would be questioned individually about riding the U-bahn or S-bahn. It was a frightening prospect. Who was doing the questioning was never made entirely clear (probably the Criminal Investigation Division), but we all knew the shit was about to hit the fan.

I was led into a very large room with green linoleum floors. Two chairs facing each other were the only furniture. It was a bit like a stage set. The man who questioned me, a Mr. Beauchamp, was wearing polyester slacks and a herring-bone jacket. He had one of those little wallets that he flashed in front of me to show his credentials ... just like the movies. And then we sat down in the two chairs ... facing each other. And he began to ask questions. Had I ridden the U-bahn or S-bahn? And I could honestly say I had not. Did I know of anyone who had ridden either? And I dishonestly said I did not. The questions got to be more a more probing and as they did, the sweat began to dribble out of my armpit and down the inside of my upper arm. I hoped it would not show through the fatigues I was wearing. I was scared. Finally, the last question arrived, "And would you be willing to take a lie detector test about this subject?" And I replied, because I seemed to recall that lie-detectors were not admissible in court (though what made me imagine the army would provide anything as democratic as a court setting I don't know) ... of course I would. The whole interview probably took fifteen minutes and felt like five hours.

By the time I left that room, I was drained. My step grew lighter as I realized I had not ratted anyone out, but it had cost me. And I still wasn't sure I wouldn't be caught out in my lies and cover-ups. Still ... I hadn't ratted anyone out or caved in and I was satisfied.

That satisfaction was short-lived. When I got back to my room and talked to my roommates, it became clear that although I had not ratted anyone out, everyone else had. One or two had admitted taking the U-bahn and also admitted others had been with them. When the others were confronted by the admission made earlier, they too implicated others ... and the floodgates were open. As it turned out, so many people had ridden the U-bahn that there was nothing that could be done by way of punishment.

But I ... was ... furious! I felt betrayed and bitter that my friends and colleagues (we were all in our early 20's at the time) had given each other up. What kind of scum-bag behavior was that?! It was unspeakable! Inexcusable!!!!!

It took me a long time and plenty of subsequent practice to realize -- even just intellectually -- that if I was prepared to espouse some principle, I had best do it because I thought it was fitting or right and not because anyone else either agreed or disagreed. Group-think was not enough. Social nods of assent really didn't matter much. Age had nothing to do with it: I have seen plenty of people in the 40's, 50's, 60's and beyond who were willing to espouse and then relinquish their keenly-held principles, the stuff on which they rested whatever they imagined their integrity to be.

At the time of The Purge, I was angry with the others on whom I relied for validation. And at the time, I was prepared to think that relying on others was a total crock of shit. But these days, I do try -- not always with success -- to pick my own way and recognize it as simply being my choice, despite what anyone else praises or blames. These days, I recognize a little that finding the truth of a principle is my business, my effort ... and that's all.

It still ain't easy. I still get cranky when people dumb-down or sell-for-a-pittance the principles of Zen Buddhism, for example.

It ain't easy to live with myself.

But I try. :)

the smile exercise

Awoke this morning thinking it might be a pretty good exercise -- just for one minute or five:

Every time you catch yourself thinking "I" (or any of its corollaries ... "me," "mine," "right," "wrong" etc.), smile.

Just for one minute.

Best I can figure, if this were a well-nourished habit, you'd be smiling all the time. And so would I. And so, even if the world continued on its sometimes-horrific courses, at least there would be some laughter.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

surprise, surprise

One day, a lot of years ago, I was walking around near the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin when a couple approached me and asked politely, "Parlez-vous Français?" My mind immediately segued back to college where I had taken a lot of French classes. But that same mind neglected the fact that since college, I had joined the army, gone to what was then called the Army Language School, undergone a pretty rigorous six months of learning German, and been shipped to Berlin where, on a daily basis, I listened to and translated East German (the bad guys') telephone calls... not to mention beer-y nights on the town trying to get the attention of pretty women.

And so, when the polite couple asked me, "Parlez-vous Français?" I felt confident in my college education, but the first word out of my mouth was, "Ja," the German word for "yes." And whatever directions I offered to those tourists was halting at best. I had forgotten French. It was gone, though I had a recollection of being fairly fluent at another time.

This morning, I had an email asking if I would be willing to take a look at and tweak-if-necessary a German translation of an English article. In another time, a time whose expertise I could recall, I would have done it in a New York minute. But now, as with the college French, I had to admit to facts that outweigh the memories: The German is all but gone. Since I was pretty good at it, the recognition of loss brought some twinging surprise and sorrow with it: Really, how could I lose something I had once been so good at?

And that put me on a reflective course: How much stuff could I once do that I cannot do any longer? What have I lost in fact, if not in memory? These were facets that made me recognizable as a fellow human being, a member of one community or another ... skiing, perhaps, or tennis or French or German or news reporting or thinking or having a political stance or Buddhism or ... well, the list went on and on, stuff I once relied on for definition and took pleasure in had dissolved like Alka Seltzer tablet in a glass of water ... the remembered fizz was there, but the concreteness of the tablet was gone.

Who was I without these attributes? How much had these attributes supported my vision of my place and satisfaction in society or alone? How realistic was that? What was left when the tablets dissolved and only the fizz of memory remained?

I suppose that sometimes it can be rather sad-making and lonely, faced with more and more fizz and fewer and fewer tablets, but there is a nice quality as well...a realism that is more grounded in fact and less reliant on p.r. This is this and there really isn't any particular need to make it into something else -- some 'that' that tries to make things stand still in the midst of a chestful of defining medals.

A little at a time, the places and events that were credibly defined by medals and definitions slip away. Accomplishments so surely alluded to no longer hold sway. Accomplishments are things that are completed -- they are "done." But is anything ever truly "done?" The done flows into the undone and the undone into the done ... it's really quite a pleasant surprise. And it's a bit of surprise that I didn't recognize and get on board with it sooner.

I am a surprise.

You are a surprise.

Is it any surprise?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

safety first

Received in email:

Year to date statistics on Airport Screening from the Department of Homeland Security:

Terrorist Plots Discovered             0
Transvestites                        133
Hernias                            1,485
Hemorrhoid Cases                   3,172
Enlarged Prostates                 8,249
Breast Implants                   59,350
Natural Blondes                        3.


When I was a teenager, my girlfriend's mother once asked me conversationally who I thought was more imaginative and who more practical -- men or women. I said I thought women were more imaginative and men more practical. "That's funny," she said without any insisting investment, "I think the opposite." These days, in a beer-drinking or intellectual forum, I think I would have to agree with her.

Not that it matters much or provides much insight, but it is an interesting bias or generalization. In fact, I think, men and women are imaginative and practical as the need arises. But for broad-brush purposes, I wonder where anyone ever got the notion that women were somehow 'weaker' or more kindly. Perhaps it comes from the experience of nurturing: Women nurture the young in direct ways (food) that men cannot. And from that premise, the notion of non-judgmental love arises (mind you this is all speculative bs). Men romp and imagine and make fortunes and wars and then, when times get tough, remember fondly the safety and warmth they once experienced in a mothering home.

Men are from Mars in a sense wider than simply war and women are from Venus in a sense wider than caring and nourishing. Imagination moves things forward but requires an element of stupidity. Practicality is more settled and serene, but lacks poetry. Together, these two dance with each other in wonderful and horrifying ways and neither is absent in any man or woman. To say that men are men and women are women is true in one sense and utterly false in another.

My mother used to wonder, with a practical wit, why, if women newspaper reporters were called "news hens," why male reporters were not referred to as "news cocks." Yin and yang -- a hen without a cock loses its meaning; a cock without a hen loses its meaning. Cocks are cocks, hens are hens and yet there is a dancing that goes on within every cock and hen.

Male and female. Imaginative and practical. Wise and idiotic. Isn't everyone like this? Or not?


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

keys to the kingdom

I suppose everyone has his or her own encouragement, his or her own skeleton key when it comes to spiritual endeavor. I've always liked, "Pay attention and take responsibility."

But another one that crossed my mind tonight may be a seemingly bitter pill. It's very simple, but requires what is sometimes some complex work. That key is this: "There is no escape."

No escape -- ever.

No escape -- anywhere.

The horrors of this life can be truly horrible. And what may seem as clear and clean as a springtime brook swollen with pure, icy runoff from the mountains above becomes muddy and toxic in its ranging effects.

There is no escape. Life can be horrific and it can put corruption in a very bright light. "Life sucks," the teenager wails. And yes. Sometimes life sucks and the air is filled with lies. But there is no escape, any more than their is any escape from holy and blissful moments.

But in Hindu Vedanta, there is the metaphor of the mythical swan that floats serenely on a lake. And the swan has the capacity to extract a single drop of milk from a vast body of water.

When there is no escape, where the skies rain down bullshit and horror and bliss ... this is our ground, our very home.

And our effort is none other than to sip the milk.

living without the computer

        Jan 18, 12:45 PM (ET)

NEW YORK (AP) - Susan Maushart lived out every parent's fantasy: She unplugged her teenagers.
For six months, she took away the Internet, TV, iPods, cell phones and video games. The eerie glow of screens stopped lighting up the family room. Electronic devices no longer chirped through the night like "evil crickets." And she stopped carrying her iPhone into the bathroom. -- Complete story

Vatican cover-up

Meanwhile, back at the Vatican ...

Jan 18, 3:24 PM (ET)

DUBLIN (AP) - A 1997 letter from the Vatican warned Ireland's Catholic bishops not to report all suspected child-abuse cases to police - a disclosure that victims' groups described as "the smoking gun" needed to show that the church enforced a worldwide culture of covering up crimes by pedophile priests.
The newly revealed letter, obtained by Irish broadcasters RTE and provided to The Associated Press, documents the Vatican's rejection of a 1996 Irish church initiative to begin helping police identify pedophile priests following Ireland's first wave of publicly disclosed lawsuits.
-- Complete story


It's snowing here today -- all white and bright and swirly beneath the early-morning street lamps. Later, the weatherman promises, it will turn to freezing rain and make travel a tricky business. My younger son's school declared a snow day. I have an appointment at 9 with a financial adviser. Who knows if I will make it? Appointments with financial people ranks right up there with trips to the dentist in my book, so an excuse might be welcome.

Snow is interesting. It's so white and lovely and pure. A purity from the heavens -- how delightful is that? Later of course, I will cuss like a trooper because I don't care much for shoveling. That's what purity does for people -- give them an occasion to cuss and shovel.

Purity ... we long for it before it arrives and then marvel that it wasn't as delicious and soothing as envisioned. I wonder how many people are willing to examine their own templates for purity. Examination is a pretty messy, pretty impure, business so there may be some tendency to say "the hell with purity" when the shoveling begins. Purity is supposed to be yummy ... why fuck it up?

Pure texts. Pure teachers. Pure locations.

A couple of the dictionary definitions for the word "pure" read like this:

  -- a pure substance or material has nothing mixed with it that might spoil its quality or effect
  -- a pure person or pure behavior is free from wrong, especially in sexual matters

 "Unalloyed" springs to my mind. Something or someone which/who is completely sui generis. What a delicious thought in a thoroughly alloyed world. Pure -- it simply is what is. Wow. The thought or hope is so compelling that any suggestion that some shoveling might be in order can be dismissed out of hand.

But what is pure has no meaning outside of the world of the impure. It simply does not compute.

Or does it?

Savvy intellectuals may find solace in a slick oxymoron -- the purity of impurity -- but that only holds a marginal satisfaction. As long as there is an insistence on purity, there is a concomitant insistence on impurity ... and that sucks, right?

Shoveling. I guess everyone does it in their own time and their own way, but when the pure snow falls, no one can escape the work. Who is the pure one, the one without blemish or alloy?

Find out.

And please don't be satisfied with anything as pure as "god."

Monday, January 17, 2011

Martin Luther King Jr.

Being Martin Luther King Day here in the U.S., someone saw fit elsewhere to quote the civil rights leader and I thought I would steal the quote:

Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.
-- Martin Luther King Jr

In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. -- MLK


the warrior's way

There comes a time for those seriously involved in spiritual endeavor when intensity and fervor rise up. No more religion-lite. This is serious. This is war. This is no-more-bullshit. This is to-the-death. No more holding back or maintaining a safety net. If not here, where? If not now, when? If not me, who?

I'm not saying the phenomenon has to  happen or that a person might count themselves as less of a student if they too do not feel as if their hair were on fire. But it does seem to happen naturally for those who vow to "break the lacquer bucket" and get beyond their own delusions and confusions and uncertainties and fears.

Perhaps, from a slick-analysis point of view, this intensity arises based on the degree of suffering anyone might be suffering from... great sorrow and great doubt kindling a great effort. I don't know -- maybe it's so. And I do know that various teachings and teachers encourage such intensity: Stop fucking around! Do it no matter what!

Yes, OK, for those who find themselves backed into a corner of their own making. Go for the gold and let nothing dissuade you. Don sword and breastplate and enter the fray.

Go for the gold, but don't be surprised if the old saying comes true in your life and "all that glitters is not gold." If you cannot avoid a time of intensity, don't try to avoid it. If you cannot embrace it, don't try to embrace it. And ...

Please don't listen to me.


the winning loser

In an unsurprising turn of events, "The Social Network," a movie about the creation of the internet's Facebook phenomenon, won top honors at the Golden Globe ceremony last night:

Sure, all the winners you expected won all the awards you figured they would. Besides best drama, "The Social Network," about the founding of Facebook, won for David Fincher's direction, Aaron Sorkin's script and the score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. After receiving top honors from critics groups coast to coast, this resounding victory positions the film as the front-runner at the Academy Awards. -- Complete story
I am happy when someone makes a go of it in business. Ideas are risky and putting ideas into practice is no easy matter. But the implications and actuality of Facebook continue to turn me off, no matter how popular it may be.

If I've got it right (I only tried it for a little while before ending my participation), Facebook allows people to leave little notes for each other. It is, if you believe the publicity, a way of allowing people to "connect" and "share" and "communicate" and perhaps "broaden their horizons."

But to me Facebook is like looking at pornography and imagining you are having sex. It takes people away from the connections they might like to make -- up-close, personal, complicated and sometimes messy ... but at least human. Sure, writing notes to people is one way of maintaining communication, but it is one way that once supplemented, rather than replaced, human contact.

And perhaps that is the way some people use Facebook -- as a supplement. But I sense that more and more the Facebook means of communications is a way of avoiding or shunning actual human contact. It enhances the loneliness and disconnect anyone might seek to reduce.

Obviously, Facebook is enormously popular (about a gazillion people belong), but I see it as a good social phenomenon against which to measure actual-factual human needs. It's not what I think that counts. It's not what other Facebook enthusiasts consider good. It's what you think and feel. Is this really fulfilling or is it cotton candy.

I know what I think, but I just hope others will be a little less sanguine about what they think. Is Facebook a winner or is it a loser masquerading as a winner?

Sunday, January 16, 2011


Interesting human phenomenon, the notion that because I have learned some hard lessons, cut my way through one thicket or another, somehow others should not be required to do the same. All I have to do, for example, is tell someone my conclusions, they will listen and hear ... and they won't have to raise a sweat on that subject.

Parents, if they're anything like me, do this all the time -- hoping against hope that their accrued wisdom can somehow be passed into their children. No parent wants his or her kids to be lonely or sad or too cocky ... so there is the effort to point out the hard lessons the parent has learned. No one who has been to war (short of psychotics) would wish such a thing on anyone else. The experience is just too horrific, too compelling, too wounding even when you set aside the physical wounds. And in spiritual endeavor the wish is the same -- that all those tears and all that sweat will have some meaning and that that meaning can be transmitted.

But there is one more hard lesson that goes with all the other hard lessons. It cannot be transmitted, no matter how ornate or intricate or sensible the explanations. Kids have to go through their own thickets; the wounds of war serve little or no wider understanding; and the mounds of wisdom collated in books or minds will not suffice in spiritual endeavor.

The hard lesson is -- experience cannot be shared. And that can feel pretty lonely right up until the moment that its factual nature is accepted. The fact that experience cannot be shared does not mean we cannot converse or point out the particulars of a problem. We don't have to be stupid or heartless. But that pointing out is not the same as the experience of a particular thicket -- a thicket that may rip the skin off your heart or fill you with an unspeakable peace.

I guess the bottom line of the fact that experience cannot be shared is something like, "Patience!" and "Get over yourself!"

Why anyone invented koans when there are living situations like this ... well, it beats the hell out of me.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

saving medical costs

Received in email. Too good not to save:

If you can't afford a doctor, go to an airport...
you'll get a free X-ray and a pat-down...
and if you mention Al Qaida, you'll get a colonoscopy.


It's minus-eleven Fahrenheit this morning. The coffee I leave on the porch for sipping purposes has frozen solid. My wife and younger son will leave shortly for a trip to somewhere outside Boston for a track meet.

Yesterday evening, my son's face suffused with joy as he crossed a line in the shot-put, throwing 38 feet and entering a more exclusive pool of throwers who can compete in "Western Massachusetts" events. He had hoped and hoped to accomplish that feat, and, now that he has....

Interesting how we all set out sights on something and then work to achieve it, to enter the realm of success, to be a winner in things little and large.  And when success comes knocking, suddenly there is no place to go but forward ... towards some new goal perhaps. Success makes the previous goal moot and we are, so to speak, empty-handed again.

We begin empty-handed and end up empty-handed. Wouldn't you think that, since empty-handedness is our lot, we might take a look at the desire to hold something, to be successful at something, to be a winner who now has to win something else?

Who are we when we are empty-handed?

Friday, January 14, 2011

George Carlin ... again

I know I have posted this before, but I had the occasion to look it up again today and listened and was delighted all over again. This has to be one of the finest teishos I have ever heard:


forgetting a bodhisattva ...

Today, I have to get over to the car-repair place to have a blinking air-bag light attended to. I took the car to get its yearly inspection yesterday and the blinking air-bag light meant that the car was rejected for a new, yearlong sticker.

When I said to the inspector that I had been driving around for years with that blinking light and no one had complained, he said the state had changed the laws ... now any blinking light was cause for rejection and failure. He asked if I'd like his mechanics to take a look and, by implication, fix the problem: "It'll cost a minimum of $85," he said with a straight face. I said I would take it to my mechanic, which is what I plan to do this morning. $85 sounds like highway robbery to me.

But besides wanting to save some money, I also like going to my mechanic. He is a guy I honestly admire and respect. As I get older and what were once "heros" slip off my mental radar, my mechanic remains someone I might aspire to be or be like. I have a serious place in my heart for this guy.

And yet, for reasons I cannot fathom, I really have a hell of a time remembering his name. Each time I go to him, I have to take minutes finding the past experience that will allow me to say his name with certainty and comfort. It's utterly ludicrous since he has one of the simplest names in the world ... why the hell do I keep forgetting it?! His name is Jose Gonzales, a veritable John Doe of a Hispanic name. Easy-peasy ... and yet I forget and forget and forget. It truly symies me.

Jose is friendly and honest and hard-working and the two of us share an opinion of those qualities. I enjoy being in his company. It feels good ... sort of like being "at home." If I had to pick a bodhisattva on my horizon, Jose would be front and center. And yet I forget his name. What the fuck?!

But maybe if I write this blog entry, I'll remember more quickly. Who in the world forgets their bodhisattvas?!

following the -path

"Sociopath," "psychopath," "homeopath," "osteopath:" An online etymological dictionary describes the suffix "-path" this way:

Suffix used in modern formations to mean "one suffering from" (a disease or condition), also "one versed in" (a certain type of treatment), from Gk. -pathes, from pathos "suffering" (see pathos).
Using this definition, the one who is "well-versed in" might equally just be "suffering from."

Buddhists follow the path. I'll concede it's not used as a suffix, but the definitions of that suffix strike me as information Buddhists might want to include as they follow the path...

Well-versed in and ...

Suffering from.

Thursday, January 13, 2011


Charles Williams, the Anglican theologian and author of a number of metaphysical thrillers, once created a character who spoke a line that has stuck to me ever since I read it.

That line was: "People believe what they want to believe."

I suppose there are a number of ways to freight that line, to see or feel what it might mean. I always took it as a simple -- if sometimes unfortunate -- observation of fact. People believe what they want to believe and are therefore solely responsible ... a fact that most believers might like to think they are in synch with, but in fact flee like the plague as they rely on the support, accolades or derision of others.

A similar observation was made in other words in the movie "Secondhand Lions," a movie about a boy growing up with two eccentric and formerly adventurous uncles. One of the uncles tells the boy in no uncertain terms, "It doesn't matter whether it's (your belief) is true or not. You just believe it." More often than not, of course, there is a tendency to get sidetracked into worrying whether one belief or another is true and then, having decided it's true, forcing it down others' throats. This is nonsense, but unfortunately it is very human nonsense and sometimes it is downright terrorist in its applications.

If it is true that people believe what they want to believe -- and I believe it is -- then their beliefs rest on what they want and the question that might be asked is, to what extent has what you want ever provided you with the peace and satisfaction you expected? Stories abound of lottery winners who sink into a deep pit of confusion and sorrow after winning what they (and a lot of other people) thought was a ticket to Easy Street ... milk and honey, no worries, everything happy. And the same thing is true with jobs and marriage and religion and ... well, pick a topic: To believe and to rejoice in that belief is simply a matter of choice. If it is other than a matter of choice or responsibility, then it is bound to create sorrow and confusion.

It seems to me that there are two choices when dealing with the beliefs for which we are responsible. 1. We can use enormous amounts of time an energy buttressing and patching those beliefs when the vagaries of life poke holes in them or 2. We can summon up the courage and determination to take the responsibility which a sober man cannot evade and then enter into an investigation. A gentle, but firm investigation. This is not an investigation of what anyone else believes or thinks. It is an investigation of what I think or believe. If people believe what they want to believe, then what is it precisely that I want and how sensible is it ... how sensible in experience. It doesn't matter if it is true, as the movie uncle said. It matters that I believe it and then am willing to follow the Yellow Brick Road implied by that recognition.

Did you ever notice in conversation ... people who already know what they think (and might be assumed to be content with those thoughts) are at pains to express what they think instead of soaking up the thoughts of those whose beliefs they don't yet know. If you were content with your own thoughts or beliefs, why in heaven's name would you have to force them on anyone else? Wouldn't the most sensible course be to listen and learn? I'm not talking about some dimwit CEO who shares nothing because everything is power in his eyes. It's not some screw-the-other-guy-to-the-wall game. It's just called learning.

Well, all of this is scary stuff -- taking responsibility and then investigating the wants that may be enormously convincing. Doubting what you claim not to doubt can be a daunting process, but if you look at the track record of wants, it may begin to make some sense.

Belief and hope nudge us along and light the way, in the beginning. But their rays peter out in the darkness for anyone willing to take responsibility. Still, they nudge us along, lending fuel to our gentle but firm investigation. It's not easy and sometimes we wish dreadfully to go back to a world of television sitcoms and group-hug agreements ... everyone looks so happy and sure and I am wobbly as a child taking its first steps. Wobble, wobble, wobble ... investigate, investigate, investigate ... responsible, responsible, responsible.

And what is the payoff for all this effort?
Well, people believe what they want to believe, but a field of golden daffodils really is a field of golden daffodils.

your name and mine

What's in a name? The Roman Catholic pope seems to think there may be important implications:

The Pope says children should be given truly Christian names. But why have some saints and biblical figures inspired baby names, but not others?
Our playgrounds are blessed with a multitude of Daniels, Sarahs and Adams, but not quite so many Amminadabs, Zipporahs or Habakkuks.
-- Complete story

The part that always interested me was that we all come out of the womb having no name at all ... and really, things worked perfectly without it.


The roughly two feet of snow that fell yesterday remains white beneath the street lights. Neatly-gouged trails mark the places where shovels and snowblowers plied their trade. My neighbor, a guy whose self-centered behavior has marveled me over the years, ran his snow blower down the sidewalk in front of my house and then cleared a space where the cars have to get out of the driveway ... the place where city plows had left alpine heapings of street snow. It was a real kindness. The street itself is narrowed by three or four feet because municipal plows simply don't have anywhere to put the accumulation. It's still outstanding weather for ski-joering or cross-country adventures. Strangely and wonderfully, both yesterday and today, the newspaper came on time, a no-joke success story with such a lot of snow.

Yesterday, during the winter lockdown, there was an invitation to speak at some spiritually-inclined center. The writer suggested it was nice to have talks from other traditions. It was flattering to be asked, of course, but the center is some distance away and, more compelling, I really don't have the energy for 'tradition' any more. I admire it and think it is a good thing and am grateful that others have the energy to encourage and support such directions, but I don't want to skew anyone's course by saying I haven't got the energy for 'tradition.'

That sounds uppity or sage, depending on your point of view, and it takes effort and discipline to run a tradition ... who needs to hear that someone ran out of steam? What you need is the Norman Vincent Peale (positive thinking) approach -- up-beat and serious and encouraging. As I have delighted in cap pistols to enhance a game of cowboys-and-Indians, so I have delighted in spiritual tradition. But as I cannot find a single cap pistol around the house, so I have a difficult time finding a tradition I want to play with.

Sit zazen? Sure.
Count the breaths? Sure.
Light a little incense? Sure.
Do some good? Sure.
Refrain from evil? Sure.
Etc, etc, etc? Sure.

Is that a tradition? Well, I suppose if you are making a living doing it, then it is. I know that there are those who find it desperately important, who defend and elevate and spread the good word. And it's probably better than kicking baby robins. So ... go ahead and do that. I once heard that my teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, abbot of Ryutaku-ji monastery in Japan, started skipping morning chanting as his years advanced. Was it age or cap pistols that inspired him? I don't know.

In a day or two, perhaps, the weather will turn warm enough to make snowballs possible. Kids will square off as they always have to battle and laugh and get black eyes. Their faces will be ruddy with effort.

I can't throw worth a damn any more.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

saluting the flag

 Received an emailed article this morning from a friend: "Do Medications Really Expire?" by Richard Altschuler addresses the question that the title asks. The answer, in a vast majority of cases, is no, according to Altschuler's research.

What the article made me think of was the force a majority opinion can have -- how we believe something because so many others do or because the entity issuing the opinion is one we might prefer to trust. Even in the face of facts, there is a hardened denial that refuses to budge. I believe any of us might see this phenomenon in our lives and thoughts ... it must be true so it is true ... everyone says so... don't mess with my beliefs, don't talk to me about facts. Think George W. Bush standing on an aircraft carrier deck in 2003 beneath a banner announcing "mission accomplished" and addressing the assembly on the war in Iraq... a war in which the majority of all casualties -- American, coalition and Iraqi -- occurred after the speech.

The emperor has no clothes. I guess there are always little children pointing out the obvious, pointing out the facts and changing very few minds. A mind made up is a wonderful thing to lose. Or perhaps better, a mind made up that relies on other minds is a wonderful thing to lose.

The so-called Christmas Truce of 1914 drove both German and British generals berserk. There, on the front line, in the trenches, amid shredded trees and shredded bodies, troops on both sides began singing Christmas carols in the night. Slowly and gingerly, soldiers left their trenches, met in no-man's land, shook hands, swapped food, showed family pictures and actually played a game of soccer. Think of it: Entire countries declare that killing others is the only option, wave flags, give speeches, encourage hurrahs and yet the very instruments of their blood-letting simply decline, for however short a period of time, to believe the beliefs, go with the flow, knuckle under to the majority opinion. In an anomaly of human behavior, they speak what is true and not just what others might wish were "true."

Yet another such anomaly in the world of war was Marine Corps General Smedley Butler, a man who won two Medals of Honor and went on to campaign vigorously against the greed and mindlessness that had brought him those medals.

But it's not just war I am interested in. I am interested in the general willingness -- most especially my willingness -- to credit and believe without much thinking. Yes, there may be emotion and yes, there may be agreement with others and yes, I am as guilty as the next person of wanting to feel comfortable and comforted by my beliefs ... but an unwillingness to take responsibility for the facts that make themselves known is truly a second-rate way to lead life. Human, yes. But unwise and unhappy-making as well.

Sure, salute the flag of your choice... religious, cultural, political, philosophical, whatever. But do not fail to reflect on the implications that flag carries with it ... all of the implications.

snow storm

The phone rang at 5 this morning -- a single ring which was enough to wake me up and remind me to stir my stumps: Snow had been forecast and I needed to help shovel my wife's car out. The call, however, was from her work, telling her that the doctor's consortium would be closed. Not delayed ... closed. I wonder where the people who need medical help go when no one can get anywhere.

The snow is still swirling. What is probably only 6-8 inches is being whipped like cream -- drifting in smooth, white waves over cars and roof tops and the decorative bushes around neighborhood houses. It is beautiful and it is pristine and, when I allow my mind to consider it, it will all need to be shoveled.

The wonderful thing about snow or a black-out or some other natural disruption is that it brings people together. Bickering and philosophy take a back seat -- who's got time for that bullshit? Really, it's better than the self-serving blandishments of Face Book for bringing people together. This is like death or birth or sleep ... a no-nonsense fact.

If only for a little while, it is as life were saying, "Serious up!" It is simultaneously soothing and frightening. Soothing because it is easy and natural and there is no need to DO something about something that defies any sort of doing. Frightening, perhaps, because the perspective it lends to what is ordinarily 'important' ... all those thoughts and worries and plans for which life displays no care. It's not fun being called an idjit.

And that sense of relaxing, of being at the whim of circumstances, is a good thing, I think -- a good place from which to evaluate and investigate and review: What is serious in my life and what is merely solemn? As if some ancient central American civilization had been swallowed by the jungle, there is the opportunity to consider the jungle that swallowed it ... and continues to swallow hopes, dreams and horrors without so much as a by-your-leave.

Well, it's white out there. White -- the color of purity. White -- the color of Japanese mourning. White -- the color that laughs at the notion of "color."

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


What can be said for ambition? Probably a lot. One part of the dictionary definition of "ambition" goes like this:

a : an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power
b : desire to achieve a particular end

 I also thought the derivation info was interesting:

Middle English, from Middle French or Latin; Middle French, from Latin ambition-, ambitio, literally, act of soliciting for votes, from ambire
First Known Use: 14th century

 To solicit votes. Is that because in order to achieve the goal of an ambition, support and accolades from others is necessary? I think so.

Little and large, ambition is quite a well-established habit, I think. But when applied to spiritual endeavor, ambition takes on a wobbly quality. Spiritual poohbahs often have to beat the financial bushes to get the church or temple built. And once it's built, they need to cast a wide net in order to get the votes and approbation that will continue the good works the temple is alleged to be founded on. And in the midst of all this laudable ambition, how much of the message is lost and how much of the guiding truth is gilded with lackluster pablum?

My teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, once said, "Without ego, nothing gets done." A good observation, but it's only as good as the willingness to investigate if anything -- ever -- gets done. Without such an investigation, spiritual endeavor becomes just another pastime for merchants and other hucksters.

Ambition -- it's a ticklish one. But no one ever said spiritual endeavor would be easy ... of if they did, my money says it was just another huckster soliciting votes.



Today I caught myself disliking the fact that I couldn't find an 'original thought' to think -- that I was reduced to picking out someone else's thought and then relying on it to create something 'original.' It struck me as a cheap date and weak ... what a wuss, letting someone else do the leg work and then, by sneaky implication,  claiming some sort of credit.

Today, for example, the idea that caught my attention was this:

Jan 10, 9:22 PM (ET)
WASHINGTON (AP) - The Hubble Space Telescope got its first peek at a mysterious giant green blob in outer space and found that it's strangely alive. The bizarre glowing blob is giving birth to new stars, some only a couple million years old, in remote areas of the universe where stars don't normally form. -- Complete article

A "green blob" and it was "mysterious." That's pretty nifty. But hitching my own star to this celestial mystery? It's like plagiarism somehow -- common enough but second-rate. It's like people who use wise texts to proclaim their spiritual interests and expertise ... ick.

But then I got to thinking about 'original thinking.' Is such a thing actually possible? One thing flows into the next into the next into the next: A toad stool and a Maserati are closer than kissing cousins so in one sense original thought is simply not possible. But assuming ownership based on someone else's hard work is strangely offensive. Lazy. Dead.

Dead and yet in the very expression of lazy thinking ... alive... and therefore, in spite of itself, original. For all the talk of "enlightenment" or "compassion," for example, there really is enlightenment and compassion. This is reliable and yet only a jackass would rely on it.

Oh well -- I have to go to the supermarket today. That should help to blow out my pipes -- doing something I have done a thousand times before ... for the first and most utterly original time.