Monday, February 28, 2011

unintended selfishness

Unintended selfishness. What a knotty koan -- one that brings to mind the brisk and perhaps too-facile observation that "the road to hell is paved with good intentions."

My Zen teacher once observed, "Without ego, nothing gets done." Which raises the question, is there really such a thing as selfless accomplishment?

All I can think is that in order to be selfish, there must be a self and that this proposition is the proper venue for investigation.

Unintended selfishness: In attempting to do something good and selfless, the selfishness is as apparent as in regular old, me-first selfishness... it just doesn't attract as many critics.

education reduces blood pressure?

A BBC article points to a study that suggests education can play a role in reducing blood pressure/cardiac difficultites.

Over beer and chips, I can imagine arguing the opposite.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

a day at the beach

My daughter and her boyfriend agreed to drive me south to New York today after I talked to my 94-year-old mother who was feeling fragile yesterday. Apart from anything else, Rich, Olivia's boyfriend, has never been to New York. Not only had he never been, he also wasn't that keen on going. "It's all too much," he said, expressing sentiments I could sympathize with. Anyway, today is likely to be a tiring day -- drive down, visit with my mother whose hearing and attention span make it hard to communicate, and drive back.

The decisions were pretty much made on the fly yesterday. And one of the loose ends created by those decisions is a fellow who said he would show up at the zendo for zazen this morning. Twice in the past he said he would show up and then didn't. On Friday, I sent him an email asking him to reconfirm his intention on Saturday. He did not. Today, if he does show up, I will not be here. I have a sense, but don't know, that he would like to think well of himself and his intentions without taking either responsibility or action... either come and sit zazen as stated or take responsibility for not coming.

What a strange and common habit -- filling up on a burning sincerity and then wanting others to acknowledge and perhaps applaud the sincerity. Oh how I really, really, really love God. Oh how I really, really, really believe this or disbelieve that. Oh how I really, really, really want to be accepted in the brother- or sisterhood of those whose activities and demeanor I admire. I would like others to accept and admire me as I accept and admire them ... but ...

But the patience and determination it might take to attain my dearly and sincerely-held hope or belief is lacking at the moment. It is as if some deep-down understanding knows that signing the contract is far easier than reading the fine print; sincerity is no substitute for patient, plodding and sometimes disappointing action. If I act, the dream becomes less shiny ... it becomes common ... and at the moment, I am goddamned if I will give up my shining star, my blaze-of-glory god, my move-me-to-tears vision. I want to or perhaps even need to believe in this shining star: If it shines then I can shine too ... look, everybody! How do you like my threads?!

None of this is unusual or worth criticizing. It is like the person who stands at the ocean's edge, summoning the courage to brave the cold water. Put a toe in. Touch it with a finger. See the others frolicking in the waves. Gather your willingness. Draw back and approach over and over again. I sincerely want to go swimming -- why else go to the beach? -- but, but, but ... heartfelt dream and actual factuality remain unfulfilled. I want others to accept me as a swimmer, but .... eek!

And it's not as if this syndrome were any easier for those who take the plunge. They too have to contend with the sincerity of swimming. I am a swimmer. I am a Buddhist. I am ... something ... some dream, some inspiration, some hope. Again and again the shining dream reshapes itself. The depths become deeper. The sincerity respeaks its shining, shining, shining. If it shines, I shine. And if I shine, perhaps I can find some shining company, some solace, some release.

With practice, I imagine, the need to shine and the need to keep polishing that shine, wears out. Who could possibly shine? Isn't this enough ... all shiny and new? Who needs to be sincere or heart-felt about cold water? Cold water is just cold water ... maybe refreshing ... maybe too damned cold. Does it require all that neurotic nagging? Isn't the shining enough without all that propping and polishing? Aren't the ups and downs of the waves delicious? And isn't it true, "Just because you are indispensable to the universe does not mean the universe needs your help?"

Isn't a day at the beach a day at the beach?

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Hells Angels

My younger son was watching a TV show about the Hells Angels yesterday and I sat down to watch too. Hells Angels is a gathering of motorcyclists whose violence sustains their interests in guns, drugs and turf. The show was ostensibly about an undercover cop who infiltrated Hells Angels ranks. There was a solemn voice-over that stitched the show together. The voice was filled with a view that lawlessness was bad. But the show itself -- the fact that it had been created and appealed to some viewing constituency -- had something inviting and 'good' about it.

As far as I could figure out, what was compelling and alluring about it was composed of 1. good and bad were depicted in simple-to-understand terms and 2. there was something nice about belonging to something that enforced its brotherhood and unity is clear-cut terms: Betray us and we will kill you; stick with us and we will care for you in no uncertain terms.

How forceful loneliness and social connection are. How compelling the world of uncertainty is. How wonderful to have found a home that does not wobble or waffle or shift like some restless ocean. How peaceful to have defied and defended yourself against the changing landscapes that life insists upon.

Of course many people choose a Hells Angels prism that does not involve doing overt harm to others. Religion, perhaps, or philosophy, or a suburban lifestyle or a cause that promises a happy outcome. But a part of the object of such choices seems to rest on the fear of living alone, dying alone, and having no companion to talk to.

The visceral knowledge that we cannot share experience seems to encourage the effort to do just that. Everything changes -- always. We cannot share experience. It is too lonely a landscape. Where is my Hells Angels heaven -- my home in which I can rely and relax?

It takes a bit of effort to think this through. Even approaching the topic may be more spooky than we have courage for. No one else seems to be doing it, why should I? Let me rely on my boon companions and feel the warmth ... even as I know we cannot share experience and everything changes.

But a question that crossed my mind this morning was this: What ever made us suppose we were alone in the first place? What ever made us suppose that because we cannot share experience we could possibly not share experience? What presumption makes any of this true?

And I guess the answer is just "me." Me in my Hells Angels clothing. Me with my elevated or debased choices. Me looking for happiness and home among all the others doing the same.

Me ... I wonder who that might be. Me who has hopes and fears and longings and loneliness. Who might this "me" be? Who is this "me" who asserts, "I gotta be me" or "I yam what I yam?" Who is this "me" who finds meaning and explanation and home?

It's not an easy question, perhaps, but it may ease the burden to know everyone else is asking exactly the same thing.

As the old refrigerator magnet used to proclaim, "Your life is so difficult that it has never been tried before."

Friday, February 25, 2011


On the TV this evening, an intelligence officer assessing the growing business of piracy off the coast of Somalia, suggested that the practice grew up partly because industrial fishing vessels depleted the stock with which fishermen once supported themselves. The lack of government control in Somalia made such industrial efforts possible. An average wage in Somalia is about $700 per year.

Over time, the pirates' ransom demands have grown and grown. From something under $100,000, it grew to $3,000,000 and up. The results ashore were good for those who ransomed passengers and ships, but it drove up prices for staple goods ... which put the non-pirates in even more impoverished and desperate straits.

The intelligence officer observed all of this with the reserved tone you might expect from any well-dressed analyst. But as a parting shot, he observed, approximately, "If you do not share your wealth with the poor, then the poor will share their poverty with you."

I wonder if Wall Street and Washington -- or perhaps any of us -- can take a hint from such apt words.

brain food

My son sent me this link this morning. Talk about kicking your brain cells into high gear!

Take a look.

Aitken interview

I don't read much any more and I particularly don't read regurgitations of Zen Buddhist entrees, but this morning I received a Tricycle article that took me from top to bottom and reminded me of the nourishing purposes of Zen practice ... why it's on target and why anyone might find Zen useful in the pursuit of peace.

The article is billed as the last interview with Robert Aitken Roshi before he died.

Of course, the article was just to my taste but, as much as I dislike relying on words that don't come out of my own mouth, I'll let the article itself do the heavy lifting in this post:

Give it a whirl.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

shadow box

I listened to a part of an interview with Wendy Egyoku Nakao yesterday and, given the Swiss cheese nature of my mind, I probably am remembering it badly -- and am too damned lazy to go back and listen all over again -- but one of the things that struck me was her comments on the shadow nature of things. She was talking about the Buddhist precepts, but I imagine the same shadows touch anything we'd care to address.

What I recall (perhaps badly) her saying about the precepts was that there were three simultaneous aspects to them. 1. There was the literal interpretation -- whose shadow world was a kind of authoritarian rigidity. 2. There was an interpretation that flowed out of immediate circumstances (sometimes it may be correct to lie or cheat or steal) and its shadow was a kind of everything-I-do-is-OK slovenliness. 3. There was an absolute truth interpretation that really cannot be approached intellectually since it flows from an actual seeing into the nature of things. The shadows here are, once again, the conviction that I live in some perfected world in which I can afford to ignore the other two approaches and ... well, I am god -- eat my dust.

It was the simultaneous nature of these aspects that interested me. Wendy described them much better than I am here, but nevertheless, I think she hit an important nail on the head. The simultaneity of what happens means that any discussion, by its very nature, leaves things out. The authoritarians leave out the limitless freedoms. The limitless freedom leaves out the fine print. The particular circumstances leave out the uncompromised freedoms.

Emotion and intellect aren't very happy with the shadows, but emotion and intellect rely on the past while in the present, there is nothing but light. There's no talking yourself into or out of it -- that's just moralizing nonsense. But there is the simultaneity.

Shadows and light. We ignore either at our peril, just as when we embrace and elevate them.

Something to keep an eye on, I'd say.

With apologies to Wendy Egyoku Nakao....

don't be a fuck-up

I suppose there are more delicate and orotund ways of putting it, but this morning it crosses my mind with the directness of a biker's "Mom" tattoo: Is there any way -- any way at all -- of getting through life without fucking up?

Beads of metaphorical and literal sweat pop out on our foreheads as we try to do something right and yet, like some quiz show buzzer announcing the results, invariably we screw the pooch at one time or another. And from there, we scurry and hustle and race to get it right ... again ... only to find some new and improved way to screw the pooch.

It doesn't help matters that we do get things right. That only compounds the weight of getting things wrong...which elevates the station of getting things right ... which elevates the station of getting things wrong. Whether we dissolve into a pool of helplessness or race like a roadrunner to make things right ... still there's no getting around it: We fuck up. Love, hate, employment, travel, religion, tattoos ... pick your poison and right and wrong assert themselves.

If this broadbrush assertion is anywhere near to being true, then I think it would behoove anyone to slow down a bit and take a look. Fucking up is like the hair on our heads or the toes on our feet, isn't it? The hair grows and there are five toes on each extremity. What else is new? It is what it is, isn't it?

We can't evade our mistakes and we can't evade our successes, but we can take a look and relax a little. Is what someone else thinks really close to the truth? Is what we ourselves think close to the truth? Whether praying devoutly or cussing up a storm or wallowing in self-pity ... well, still we do what we do and the best we can do is to keep an eye on it, correct our errors, try not to self-congratulate too much and fuck up as usual.

Just don't be a fuck-up.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

paying for what's free

In Zen practice, it is sometimes said and less-frequently acknowledged: The hard stuff is easy; it's the easy stuff that's hard. Greed, anger and ignorance are really very hard. Suffering is hard. Old age, sickness and death are hard. Dualism is hard. Anyone who has practiced Zen even a little finds rich and sometimes horrendous meaning in the myth of Sisyphus -- the king who was compelled to roll a boulder up a hill, only to see it roll down again and again.

Over and over again -- the hard stuff.

And what is the easy stuff? Well, laughter is easy. Love is easy. Breathing is easy. Hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting and touching are easy. All the stuff about which the mind, like some bored teenager, says "d'oh!" is pretty easy. What the hell, it's all free and what's free is not as interesting as what costs.

I once heard it said that when Yasutani Roshi, a pretty well-known Zen teacher, heard complaints about the price tag placed on sesshins, or Zen retreats, he laughed: "Oh yes!" he was said to have said. "Charge them a lot. That way they will think the Dharma is worth something."

More recently, Genpo, a Zen teacher who disrobed after several sexual indiscretions, carried Yasutani's observation to what may strike many as breath-taking heights. In disrobing, Genpo said he would no longer teach Zen. He would however continue with his business-model teaching of quickie enlightenment under the umbrella of something called "Big Mind." And a recent announcement invited a "select" 20 people to a four-day retreat in November aimed at turning their lives around...clearing up the hard stuff that anyone might feel. For $15,000. Assuming they had it, who wouldn't pay $15,000 to stop rolling this boulder up the hillside? But the figure does seem greedy.

Greed is part of the hard stuff that any Sisyphus might recognize in a heartbeat.

My nearby neighbor, Giles, has studied and teaches martial arts. Serious martial arts. And he once told me that it took him a while to recognize that by charging little or nothing for his teaching, the students stayed away in droves. Other, less serious but more money-minded teachers were up to their elbows in students. What is free is easy ... which is to say, it's the hard stuff.

No one likes getting taken to the cleaners by charlatans who are laughing all the way to the bank. It is important to recognize the buzz saws that life offers up and not keep walking into them. It is important to call the charlatans out ... not to imagine there will ever be any fewer of them, but to call them out as we roll our boulders up the hill.

But I also think it is important, a little at a time, to come to terms with our own greed -- the greed to find meaning and explanation, the greed to find wholeness in a life that may feel fragmented. I'm not criticizing this greed. I am saying it is worth noticing and coming to terms with. If I pay a lot of money or put my ass on the line for some practice or situation or hoped-for healing -- if I amass meanings and explanations and soothing beliefs -- then what precisely defines this important effort? It's just me, isn't it? Me, the boulder. Me, the hard stuff. Me, the $15,000.

Slick Willy statements like, "the me is a myth" are not really enough to bring peace to a life that is currently hip-deep in myth. But there is attention and responsibility. Just attention and responsibility -- not judgment and criticism. Watch and watch and watch some more. Be as greedy as you like, but watch and see what actually happens. Where does it come from? Where does it go? Nothing happens overnight, so a little patience and determination are required ... rolling the stone, rolling the stone, rolling the stone. In this way, the hard stuff becomes easy ... at which point things tend to get really hard.

How can you pay for what is free?

Hard to say.

But I just wasted a lot of words saying it.


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

size matters?



how's your Mideast geography?

My ignorance was a real object lesson.


what is a Buddhist?

What is a Buddhist? Does anyone have a clue?

Yes, I can do the lock-step "Well, a Buddhist is someone who embraces the observations of the Four Noble Truths and exercises the suggestions of the Eightfold Path," but once those aspects are more or less in place, does this insure that someone is now a "Buddhist?"

I think it was Christmas Humphreys who once observed, "begin and continue" as regards to a Buddhist practice. Certainly that's sensible, but does it bring us any closer to what a "Buddhist" might be?

Shall we then surrender in frustration and say simply that it's a tentative description of students and teachers who ... well, who what? Who say so? Who have a wardrobe? Who write or read books about Buddhism? Who defend or attack Buddhism? Who can perform marvelous rituals? Who are "enlightened?" Who are "not enlightened?" Who pretend they can attain a good understanding without being beholden to any name or form? Whose serene demeanor reeks of serenity? Who make it up as they go along? Who ... who ... who what?

Don't you just love it when people can answer the most abstruse questions with the most ornate answers and yet have serious difficulty tying their shoes ... or addressing the assured words that issue from their mouths. Yessir, I am a Buddhist.

But what is a Buddhist and, if you knew, would you really be better off? Alternatively, if you didn't know, would that have some hidden usefulness?

I mean no disrespect. I don't want to take anyone's toys. But I figure a little curiosity never hurt anyone.

What is a Buddhist?


The email box greeted me this morning with: 1. A bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed rendition of how fucked up the world is and how sheep-like the rest of us are; 2. A short link telling me about the open-armed benevolence of Allah; and 3. A promotion for a book that exposes the machinations of cults that promise they are not cults and then suck the life out of people's lives.

I could see/hear the points, was sympathetic to the people who sent them and yet had a hard time getting my knickers in a twist. I know, I know ... it's vastly important, whatever it is. I can't fault that but that doesn't mean I can't wish someone had sent me a good dirty joke or a description of some whirligig that had zero practical application and yet was fascinating or a picture of something, somewhere or a piece of music.

Something bright and shiny.

When I was young, my father told me the most difficult tongue-twister he knew:

The Leith police
Dismisseth us.

A tongue-twister won't solve the foolishness and sorrow and it won't answer anything, but it does offer one small practice. For the smallest amount of time, it is bright and new. And then, like all practices, it segues into the damnable fine print -- the difficulty of practicing this one small practice. And having mastered this one small practice, what have you accomplished? If the practice is any good, you haven't accomplished anything at all ... except perhaps a smile. All that effort, all that time, all those frustrated tears for a smile you smiled without any difficulty in the first place.

Yesterday, I looked up the local Quaker meeting schedule. I looked it up because a woman on Saturday's peace picket line told me she was a Quaker and, more compelling to me, she had a wonderful smile. Maybe I will give it a whirl, go to a meeting and see what it's like. I'm too old to be a "Buddhist" or a "Quaker," but I'm not too old to smile. Maybe if I practice ...


Monday, February 21, 2011

heavenly stuff

For playful purposes:

Heaven is a time and place without excuses. There is the question of whether a time a place would be possible if there were no excuses, but let's set that aside.

A time and place without excuses.

Excuses are explanations with a self-serving twist. They are so common and so various in their incarnations that it's probably best to write them off with a shrug and a bit of what-sounds-like-benevolent murmuring: "It's only human after all..." a pretty good excuse.

Some excuses are acceptable. Some are hugely ornate. Some are twisted bits of horror. Some are minor bits of humor: "The dog ate my homework." Some excuses create warming nests (the 'human' bit) and some do not. Some excuses get a bad rap. Others do not.

But what crossed my mind this morning was the heavenly moments people actually experience -- the times without any excuse whatsoever ... and how delicious and encouraging and gimme-more-of-that they can be. The time and place where excuses cannot enter.

It's the stuff that, if only for a nanosecond, can blow fresh air into a stale life. A sunset, perhaps. Or a piece of music. Or a kiss. Or a deer outlined at the top of the knoll. Or (if you're inclined as I am) a single spoonful of good chocolate mousse. What a relief, what a lightening of the load, what a clear and unalloyed truth. No more excuses: This ... is ... it -- right up until the moment you say so.

Is it possible that these nanoseconds or perhaps a few minutes of living without excuses are so magnetic, so convincing, that they inspire people to do things like create religion? What a blessing not to have to carry this weight. "Is" just is and it's as obvious as blue sky. It is not something to "share," it is just something that is shared: A life without excuses.

It's not anything extraordinary. In fact it's just too ordinary. Sometimes horrific. Sometimes blissful ... the heaven for which there is no excuse... simultaneously elusive and inescapable ... a time and place without excuses. Heavenly.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

who are you?

No doubt there is a ready answer given whatever the circumstances are but then again, here are some cues:

Residence ... city/town, state, nation
Marital status
Preferred food
Preferred drink
Preferred company
Who/what makes you happy
Who/what makes you sad
Have you ever climbed a tree
Fallen out of a tree
Kissed a pig
Found money in the street
Followed a religion
Dispensed with a religion
Killed anyone
Been damn near killed by anyone
Raised a child
Were afraid of something irrational
Were afraid of something rational
Driven a large truck
Ridden a horse
Lassoed a cow
Said hello to someone famous
Said hello to someone infamous
Gone to a psychologist
Analyzed someone else
Watched a sunset
Watched a sunrise
Eaten stale pizza
Felt a smile clear through
Cried until dried
Thought of a whole lot of questions and left out a lot of others that could never define who you were?

Please use a No. 2 pencil. Put your pencil down when the monitor says to. You may now begin.

during zazen ....

"I apologize for my sorrows and thank you for this family."


"You're only as wise as your last fortune cookie ... which is pretty stale by now."

looking forward

Today, after zazen, I will ride along with my daughter and younger son for a visit to my older son, who attends a New Hampshire College. It is my younger son's birthday -- he's 17 today -- and my older son said he had bought his brother a present, so come and collect it.

I am looking forward to an adventure. It is nice to look forward to something.

hell and heaven

It is hard to remember that in times of economic want, there are always well-to-do people, people whose ox has not been gored, people whose comforts remain more less in tact and people who hope to keep those comforts in place. These are people who deserve what they have without thinking very clearly about what others may have or deserve: Generally what they deserve and those on whose labor those comforts arise are ... well ... the way things are supposed to be.

In Wisconsin, where demonstrations against the union-busting budget of a hard-pressed governor inspired counter-demonstrations Saturday, "Joe the Plumber" was in the crowd supporting the governor's efforts, according to the BBC:

Among (Governor) Walker supporters was "Joe the Plumber", real name Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, who figured in the 2008 Republican presidential campaign.

"Unions don't deserve anything, you don't deserve anything, you work for it yourself!"

This is the kind of language that those who deserve long to hear. It has the ring of truth at the same time that it declines to investigate why others should question the conditions imposed by the 'deserving.'

Anti-Walker protester Jim Schneider, 69, waved a sign with "Hosni Mubarak?" written next to a picture of the governor, who has refused to negotiate with the unions.
"The Egyptians have been a great example to us," the retired teacher said. "What happens here is going to be very important to what happens in a lot of other states, just like the thing that happened in Egypt had an effect on a lot of other countries in the Middle East." (Complete BBC story)

[For the second day running, I can find no reference to the Wisconsin protests in My Way News' "top," "national" or "business" offerings. The American Associated Press seems to think Wisconsin does not exist.]

Meanwhile, in China:

BEIJING (AP) - Jittery Chinese authorities staged a show of force Sunday to squelch a mysterious online call for a "Jasmine Revolution" apparently modeled after pro-democracy demonstrations sweeping the Middle East.

Authorities detained activists, increased the number of police on the streets and censored online calls to stage protests in Beijing, Shanghai and 11 other major cities. Citizens were urged to shout "We want food, we want work, we want housing, we want fairness" - a slogan that highlights common complaints among ordinary Chinese. (Complete AP story)

"Ordinary Chinese." "Ordinary" Wisconsin residents. "Ordinary" Egyptians, Tunisians, Bahrainis, Yemenis.

Not all of them agree with each other, but a great many of them are in the streets seeking ... what? ... something not quite so ordinary, perhaps. They seem to be saying that they deserve in a way similar to those who, in gross and subtle ways, assert that they are deserving.

"Get a job, for Christ's sake!" But what job?

"Be responsible, for Christ's sake!" But responsible on whose behalf?

"No one owes you anything!" But is this true if those who lay claim to deserving receive what they deserve based on the labor of those who deserve less?

I don't much care for waving the we-are-all-connected flag. It's too often used by smarmy white-whiners. But, setting aside the kissy-face stuff, we really are all connected and as such need to think things through. Business is based on greed -- OK. But greed is that which goes beyond the needs of shelter, food and some sense of security. It is the bottled water crowd.

I once read that happiness was only partly based on wealth -- that beyond the basics of food, shelter and some sense of security, wealth provided no measurable assurance of happiness. I think I would argue that people want to be happy. Happiness cannot arise from depending on someone else's unhappiness. That's just greed.

Sometimes you have to raise some very concrete hell before anything resembling heaven can appear.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

old age

"It's hard," the elderly Quaker Nancy told me on the peace picket line this morning. "There are no younger people coming in -- people in their 70's. It's hard to be constantly in the midst of failing health and death." She was speaking of the retirement community she and her husband Bob live in.

Nancy had a beautiful smile and Bob excused himself because he had ear flaps covering his ears in the biting wind. "The hearing aids don't work well with the flaps," he said.

Constantly living among those who are frail and failing, no longer among a mixture of ages and energies ... I don't know, but I can imagine that an infirm environment would increase infirmity ... sort of like catching someone else's cold. How long could anyone hold out ... or want to?

Nancy held a red-and-white striped flag with a peace symbol against a blue background where the stars might have been on an American flag. She was bundled and toasty and flashed her beautiful smile generously. She and Bob had gone to a Quaker meeting at the suggestion of Bob's boss many years ago. "He told Bob he might like it, so we went and we stayed," Nancy said.

Nancy waved to the passing cars and didn't join in when the conversation around her segued into the kind of liberal plaints that can be heard among those who dislike war, want health care for all, and are against cutting social services. Her quiet was not disapproving. It was just quiet. Bob said he was never quite sure what anyone was doing on a peace picket line in the first place, but he supposed it didn't do any harm. He seemed pleased when I told him my own feeling -- that if it got people to think (not agree, just think), then it was probably worth something.

We all stayed until noon, an icy wind bustling around our bright red noses, and then disbanded. It was a lively and enlivening morning and I hope I see Nancy and Bob again.

wind and rain

A blustery, whoosh-windy day today ... which puts me in mind of a Chinese farmer's saying I can never remember exactly and maybe someone else will:

Is it, "One day in ten, wind. One day in five, rain?" or "One day in ten, rain. One day in five, wind?"

I have always meant to track it and find out for myself, but every time I begin, I stall out somewhere in the midst of the research and thus remain ignorant.

slip-slidin' away

The Middle East is awash in popular dissent. Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, Bahrain -- the list is long. Presidents are being forced out and armies are being called up to quell demonstrations. Unemployment and underemployment breed unrest of the kind that those who perpetrated the creation of economic bubbles can ill afford if they want to keep amassing their profits.

And it's no longer just "over there" or "their difficulty:" In Wisconsin here in the United States, thousands have turned out and schools have been shut down in the face of a Republican attempt to vitiate union rights. A group of Democrats fled the state so as not to vote on the Republican governor's budget plan. I believe I read somewhere that the governor was considering calling out the national guard to fill in where necessary. And searching for the latest Wisconsin story this morning on My Way News, there was not a peep either on the front page or under the "national" listings. It is hard not to think ... if you don't report it, then it doesn't exist.

But it does exist and, again, it is hard not to think of all those Middle Eastern countries that called out the army in the face of popular dissent. It is hard not to remember that when unions were gaining a footing in this country, the police, at the behest of established governments, bloodied a lot of protesters. It was no ... fucking... joke.

Around the U.S., salivating Republicans are said to be watching what happens in Wisconsin carefully. Business is no friend to labor and if the country could go back to the status quo ante (unions), think how much more money business and its Republican stalwarts might make.

It is hard not to think that the United States is devolving, bit by bit, into a third-world status in which the rich become richer, the poor become poorer, and whatever was the so-called middle class is squeezed out of existence. I once read that the U.S. government has contingency plans in place in case the great unwashed rises up. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was once quoted as marveling that those affected by the Great Depression did not rise up.

Unions, of course, brought some of the disdain down on their own heads -- growing fat and smug and powerful in the extreme. But union power has eroded over time. I think that only about 16% of the American workforce is unionized, so although Wisconsin is locked in a battle with public employee "unions," the unions appear to represent a much wider constituency. Wisconsin it seems is in a battle with the working electorate, the very peasants who provide taxes for the barons of today. Republicans wait with baited breath, I imagine, nudging the robber barons out of their graves. In their own mirrors, they have nothing to be ashamed of.

OK -- it ain't new in an historical sense. But it does make you sad to see a great nation dissolve into a third-tier culture. A little shame never hurt anybody.

OMG! WTF! Ain't it awful?

An "anonymous" commentator posted the following below. It's a bit labored, but makes a good point:

OMG! WTF! Ain't it awful?

Friday, February 18, 2011

U.S. veto at U.N.

Feb 18, 4:30 PM (ET)

UNITED NATIONS (AP) - The United States vetoed a U.N. resolution that would have condemned Israeli settlements as "illegal" and called for an immediate halt to all settlement building.
The 14 other Security Council members voted in favor of the resolution in Friday's vote.
The Obama administration's veto is certain to anger Arab countries and Palestinian supporters around the world.
The U.S. opposes new settlements but says taking the issue to the U.N. will only complicate efforts to resume stalled negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians on a two-state solution.
The Palestinians say they will not resume peace talks until Israel halts settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which it wants as its capital.

H.L. Mencken

Just read a nice Guardian piece  remembering H.L  Mencken,  the rambunctious Baltimore Sun columnist.

Mencken, who wrote, "The worst government is the most moral … when fanatics are on top there is no limit to oppression" and "No one has ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the masses."

The column argues that there was plenty of opinion to fill in once Mencken dropped off the map. Blogs, tweets, and everyone's got an opinion. The only problem is, most of that of opinion lacks the saucy thoughtfulness and occasional bigotry that Mencken brought to bear.

my own confusions

Amorphously, and with a nod to the Tooth Fairy, I wonder in wispy sorrow about the directions of Zen Buddhism in America. It's another version of white whining -- oh how I wish people would just see things my way -- but I can't deny the wisps and tendrils. It feels like watching a candle that gutters in the darkness, getting smaller and smaller until, somehow, it goes out. Whine, whine ... as if it could actually go out and it's serious. Shit, solemnity is such an intrusive habit.

Feeding this nose-picking are things like the Eido Shimano miscues, the disrobing of the Soto monk Genpo after a relatively open admission of sexual straying, and the letter posted below suggesting that the magazine, Shambhala Sun, was less than forthright in a piece recollecting Aitken Roshi. There are also the weak-tea defensive bulwarks being erected by 'authentic' teachers who demand respect even if they have a hard time commanding it. To imagine that these specific adventures do not affect Zen Buddhism as a whole -- that it is "not my problem" -- is a ridiculous sort of blindness to my eye.

It occurred to me, white-whine fashion, that perhaps the temples that Eido Shimano had helped to construct (Sho Bo Ji in New York City and Dai Bosatsu Zendo in upstate New York) would simply implode ... go bankrupt and simply disappear in the wake of unpleasant revelations. Just disappear, while remaining as an object lesson to those who followed in its wake. Sho Bo Ji is beautiful and I for one would miss that beauty and the effort I once expended within its walls.

But the beauty of Sho Bo Ji, like the beauty of Zen practice in general, seems to me lately to be defended and upheld by -- I can't help myself -- stumble bums. I can't nail it down better than that and realize that my finger pointing invariably puts me in front of my own mirror ... just another stumble bum.

 The bright light that I once lit is dimming in wispy, sputtering complaint. Where are the bright lights? Where are the ones who do not connive in such pretty voices? Where are the ones who will speak out and speak up, and air out what is currently dirty laundry but, for my money, just needs a good, open-air washing? Who are these cretins who dolefully defend and assert and have perfect creases in their perfect robes?

Today, I had a note from an old friend who is anguished about a dwindling relationship with a woman. He spelled it out for me, though, given his reticent temperament, I doubt that spelling it out was easy for him. How I admired him -- his effort to speak whatever truth he could find, baring himself, not trying to conceal his complicity or failure in the matter. Now that takes balls and my guess is that arousing the courage and confusion and tears has a good chance of planting a smile on his face in the future.

Sputter, sputter, sputter. I sound like some aroused and illiterate teenager railing at the stars. I'll fess up, but I need to get over the notion that others might fess up as well. For them, there is too much at stake, too much suffering that deserves their nostrums, too much True Way that needs to be kept on track.  No one smells their own rancid body odor, I guess.

I'll fess up. My wispy, Tooth Fairy whispers are my problem. And I cannot lay claim to anything like the wisdom Lao Tse exhibited when he fled what he saw as the corrupted social order and left behind his vision of what might be better ... a superlative rant called the Tao Te Ching.

What would be better in my white-whine mind? What would clear away the stumble bums of my imagination? I guess I think it would be better to simply lay things out -- openly. Let them breathe and be nourished by their own honesty. Start from the beginning like some gazillionaire on Nantucket who tears down an existing house that might bring millions and builds a new multi-million-dollar home. Go bankrupt, if that's what you are, and get on with it using the cautionary tales of the past to guide you.

Ah well ... it's just a bit of barfing here. Not specific enough to be quite credible, but I have no energy for the specifics that whirl and whisper. It's just my own confusion and sense of sadness ... with a dollop of crankiness for flavor. Nothing will be lost, but I feel the loss.

everything changes ... again

Some Buddhists believe that all things are transient, that everything changes.

But since all things do, in fact, change, why would anyone waste time believing it?

The answer, for my money, is that belief is a bulwark and a defense and an encouragement. It implies doubt. The firmer the belief, the greater the doubt. Belief relies on and resides in the past but we all exist in the present: Isn't that enough to fire up uncertainty and doubt?

Some say that we should pursue our spiritual endeavors without doubt, but I think that this is just whistling past the graveyard, trying to deny or cover up what is palpably true. And the difficulty with denying doubt is that its rich potential is cast into the shadows where in fact that doubt is more deserving of a warm embrace ... it puts a fire under your ass ... to find out for sure whether something is true or not.

My teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, once told me that "for the first four or five years (of practice), belief and hope are necessary. After that, they are not so necessary." He didn't bad-mouth belief or hope. He just recognized them as tentative means -- things that, where experience took root, were no longer so necessary. Why bother doubting (or believing either) that you can ride a bike when the plain fact is that you can ride a bike?

Everyone chooses a practice that they imagine (and simultaneously doubt) will make them happy. I chose Zen Buddhism and, given half a chance, would call the practice a good one, an effective one ... a practice that allays the doubt that hides within belief and hope. But there are probably a zillion other practices which are equally effective ... assuming anyone was determined to get to the bottom of things.

Pick your poison and never give up -- that's about my take. No one wants to live a life that is filled with doubt and uncertainty. Everyone wants to be happy. So which tool is the most useful tool? Belief and hope and doubt are very nice for a while, but then it is time to let the practice do the talking.

Ride your bike. Everything changes. And it's OK.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

integrity in Buddhist reporting

Received in email and reposted here because I think that, even without knowing all of the details, it is a wonderful and informative letter for anyone interested in Buddhism. A link to the article in question is both here and at the bottom.

Dear Dharma friends,
You might be interested in the following, forwarded from Diamond Sangha colleagues... Feel free to forward it.

David Loy

 An Open Letter on Journalistic Integrity and the Shambhala Sun

We adopt this means, as a last resort, to air a concern about a gross failure of journalistic ethics on the part of the Shambhala Sun. The world of American Buddhist publishing has been relatively small and honorable to date, so such a failure is conspicuous and, we feel, warrants public notice and remedy. Unfortunately, as we'll report in detail below, our efforts to obtain an appropriate correction directly from the Sun came to naught. Thus our recourse to this posting.

Before proceeding to specifics, we need to make clear that, by its actions, the Sun besmirched the memory of a man we hold very dear, our late teacher, friend, and collaborator, Robert Aitken Roshi. We've pursued the matter in part out of loyalty to him, feeling an obligation to correct the worst errors of fact in the Sun article. But Aitken Roshi's reputation is probably as secure as anything in this 'burning house' can be, and what's at stake here -- integrity in Buddhist journalism -- is both larger and more imminently perishable.

The problem began with the Sun commissioning an article about Aitken Roshi from a writer who had an axe to grind, a long-alienated Dharma successor named John Tarrant. When the article was published last year in its November issue, we expressed our concerns to Sun editor-in-chief Melvin McLeod, who responded, "Of course we were aware that we were treading into dangerous territory in asking John to do this homage, and we did sound out some people to ask whether they felt it would be resented by current students of Aitken Roshi's." We have no idea whom Mr. McLeod and his staff consulted or how seriously they took the process of consultation, but we do know that they didn't speak with the people most likely to be offended and also best positioned to gauge potential negative reactions -- those of us who remained close to Aitken Roshi at the end of his life and who represent the tradition that he and his wife established, the Diamond Sangha. 

Despite awareness of the risk involved, the Sun commissioned the article from Dr. Tarrant and published it without any indication of concern and without disclosing the author's estrangement from Aitken Roshi. This is the error that troubles us most. While Mr. McLeod is certainly free to choose who writes for his magazine, journalistic ethics require that periodicals disclose personal history that might compromise their writers' fairness. Lacking such information, unsuspecting readers are ill-equipped to assess the reliability of what they read.

If the Sun maintained these professional standards, it would have needed to acknowledge that Dr. Tarrant's relationship with Aitken Roshi ruptured in the late 1990s and never recovered. Concerned that Dr. Tarrant's approach to Zen had gone seriously awry, for a year Aitken Roshi discreetly pressed him to pull his group out of the Diamond Sangha. This unhappy separation finally took place in 1999 but turned out to be a prelude to an even more painful break: when repeated and persuasive allegations of misconduct on Dr. Tarrant's part -- professional (in his work as a psychotherapist), sexual, and organizational -- came to light, after private efforts to encourage resolution proved unsuccessful, Aitken Roshi and ten other Diamond Sangha teachers issued an open letter, urging their former colleague to mend his ways. Dr. Tarrant reacted angrily. Communication between the two men came to an end.

Dr. Tarrant's desire to gloss over these facts in his article is understandable, but in agreeing to write about Aitken Roshi for the Buddhist public, he forfeited the option of concealing them. Since he chose not to disclose them himself, it was incumbent on the Sun to do so, and the resulting article makes the reason for this apparent. Although the Sun advertised the story on its cover as an "homage" to Aitken Roshi and Dr. Tarrant termed it a "tribute," it bore abundant signs that its author was still hurt and angry and had seized the opportunity to take revenge on his old teacher. 

It's certainly peculiar for a tribute to a Zen master to feature the assertion that he "never stopped wondering if he had indeed ever had an enlightenment experience. . . . Sometimes he was quite sure he hadn't." Even more unusual is to couple a disparaging assessment of the master's realization with a triumphant rehearsal of one's own. How could the Sun serve this up as neutral and trustworthy reporting? Dr. Tarrant tells its readers Aitken Roshi "put down other teachers, out of a kind of embarrassed competitiveness," but somehow neither he nor the Sun seems to have noticed that he was trashing his own dead teacher -- not in private conversation but publicly, in print.

Just for the record, Aitken Roshi was appropriately humble about his awakening, but he spoke of it candidly as occasion required and wrote about it openly, too. Rather than relying on Dr. Tarrant's account, we suggest that readers look up "Willy-Nilly Zen," an autobiographical piece that Aitken Roshi prepared at his teacher's behest in 1971 and later published as an appendix to his well-known book Taking the Path of Zen. As his own telling makes clear, it wasn't a big-bang experience of the sort Dr. Tarrant trumpets, but it began a process of widening insight that ultimately made him a wise, compassionate, skillful, and upright teacher. Unfortunately, a big-bang realization doesn't ensure such a result.

The Sun story is as peculiar for what it omits as for its belittlement of Aitken Roshi's awakening. An homage can ordinarily be expected to stress its subject's strengths, but Dr. Tarrant and his editor managed to overlook a characteristic absolutely central to Aitken Roshi's nature and to his teaching and writing: his emphasis on the precepts and on living out the Dharma in all its ethical dimensions. This is the contribution to Western Buddhism for which he surely was best known and will be best remembered. How Dr. Tarrant and the Sun could neglect it we can't fathom.

Altogether, the Sun "homage" bears only intermittent resemblance to the person we knew. When Mr. McLeod received our letter-to-the-editor objecting to the article's inaccuracies and taking the Sun to task for not disclosing Dr. Tarrant's broken relationship with his subject, he promptly engaged us in revising our letter for publication in the Sun. This entailed tempering the "tone" of our comments and finding adequate ways to make our point while respecting the magazine's "pretty strong policy . . . not to get into detailed public discussions of possible misconduct." (Note: the text of our original letter is attached, below.)

We tolerated this extraordinary intrusion in the content of our letter, feeling it would be worthwhile to place even a watered-down critique before Sun subscribers. Accepting as sincere Mr. McLeod's assurance, "I think you're doing the right thing in writing this, and if there's fault it's mine for putting you in this spot," we went back and forth with him by phone and e-mail, working out a text he'd be willing to print. After we acceded to his final suggestion, Mr. McLeod volunteered his satisfaction with both our collaboration and its result, so we were astounded when he wrote again, five days later, declaring that he wouldn't use our letter after all.

Instead, he proposed that we start over, taking a different tack -- "to focus the letter exclusively on how you feel John [Tarrant]'s portrayal of Aitken Roshi was not accurate, and to offer your own view of him." In this fashion, he suggested, the letter could "become a completely positive contribution, in itself an homage to and celebration of Aitken Roshi." Maybe so, but it wouldn't be our letter anymore and, in its complete positivity, would let the Sun off the hook on the point we consider most crucial: its failure to adhere to a basic principle of fairness in journalism.

In making a case for this change of direction, Mr. McLeod advanced an argument that we find untenable, to put it mildly: "we have tried not to wash the Buddhist world's dirty laundry in public -- to avoid getting into detail about difficulties and divisions within Buddhist sanghas. This is particularly important in the Sun, with a substantial non-Buddhist or beginning Buddhist audience." To the degree that this policy represents refusal to indulge in back-biting and gossip-mongering, we enthusiastically applaud it; otherwise, it seems to us that it infantilizes readers and may protect them from information that beginners actually need to be attuned to in exploring the profusion of Buddhist paths, organizations, and teachers on offer in North America today. How he applied the policy in the present instance seems utterly indefensible, for while it has shielded his readers from awareness of Dr. Tarrant's misconduct and removal from the Diamond Sangha, it hasn't spared them his biased "tribute" impugning the wisdom and character of a widely respected teacher.

Needless to say, perhaps, we declined Mr. McLeod's request, and we counterproposed that he, as editor-in-chief, publish a statement acknowledging the error of printing Dr. Tarrant's article without divulging the fact and the causes of his bitter, ten-year alienation from Aitken Roshi. Mr. McLeod subsequently negotiated and ran (in the March issue) a letter from the Honolulu Diamond Sangha board of directors that politely laments his choice of author and corrects a few of the piece's numerous misstatements. Nowhere, however, has the Sun publicly acknowledged, and taken responsibility for, the editorial failures outlined above.

We feel that these failures are serious enough to cast doubt on the journalistic integrity of the Sun, and we urge other members of the American Buddhist community to register any concerns they may have on this subject, in the hope that Mr. McLeod and his staff will remember their mishandling of this story and exercise increased care when ethical questions arise in the future. If that were to happen, in the long run this sad incident might actually have beneficial results.

Nelson Foster
Ring of Bone Zendo and East Rock Sangha
Dharma heir of Aitken Roshi 

Jack Shoemaker
Editorial director, Counterpoint Press
Literary Executor for Robert Aitken 

Original letter, e-mailed to Melvin McLeod on October 20, 2010:

To the Editor:

In publishing John Tarrant's demeaning "tribute" to Robert Aitken Roshi, the Shambhala Sun has done a disservice not only to our late friend and teacher but also to its readers and the author himself. He professes surprise at discovering he had "any strong reaction" to Aitken Roshi's death, but his feelings have a long history, and anyone familiar with that history can understand how his deep-seated hurt and anger might have lingered. Sadly, they also have twisted an ostensibly warm reminiscence of his "Old Man" into a covert or perhaps unconscious score-settling. We wish Sun editors had spared everyone this beautifully crafted but badly distorted account.

Now that it's in print, readers deserve information that enables them to put it in context. Although Dr. Tarrant did enjoy a close and trusting relationship with his teacher for some time, by 1998 his approach to Zen had departed so seriously from that of the Diamond Sangha as a whole that, for the better part of a year, Aitken Roshi pressed him and his group to withdraw. After their withdrawal, in response to convincing reports of misconduct on Dr. Tarrant's part -- professional (as a psychotherapist), sexual, and organizational -- Aitken Roshi and ten other Diamond Sangha teachers issued an open letter calling on him to mend his ways. Communication between the two men ceased at that time, more than a decade ago.

Dr. Tarrant's reluctance to publicize these unhappy facts is understandable, and we take no pleasure in mentioning them, but journalistic ethics require that they be disclosed, if not by the writer himself then by the Sun. It's apparent to us that hard feelings significantly affected his portrait of his former teacher, for it bears a dim resemblance to the man we knew, each of us for longer than Dr. Tarrant did.

While faulting Aitken Roshi for "put[ting] down other teachers, out of a kind of embarrassed competitiveness," Dr. Tarrant has indulged in that vice himself, though seemingly without embarrassment. He manages to combine a glowing account of his own awakening with a disparaging account of his teacher's, even claiming that "Bob never stopped wondering if he had ever had" one. Horsefeathers. Aitken Roshi was appropriately modest about his experience, but he spoke about it publicly when circumstances warranted and wrote about it, too. Any reader who cares to look it up will find his own description of the experience and its subsequent unfolding in "Willy-Nilly Zen," an autobiographical piece he prepared in 1971 and published as an appendix to Taking the Path of Zen. Twenty-four years later, he repeated the tale at the request of a reporter in Bangkok! 

We find it galling to see Aitken Roshi's humility and candor turned against him, not only in this matter but also with respect to his early uncertainties as a Zen teacher. These predate Dr. Tarrant's arrival from Australia, so he, like many others, heard about them after the fact, precisely because Aitken Roshi spoke openly about them, expressing profound gratitude for the guidance and encouragement he received from Maezumi Roshi. Anne Aitken used to lament that her husband had "no carapace," no protective covering, a trait that left him vulnerable to misrepresentation and mockery in life, as in death. It also made him approachable and inspiring, however, a man who showed by example how insight and character may mature over decades of practice. Dr. Tarrant's characterization of him as "timid and anxious" will astonish people who saw him teach confidently before large audiences in the 1980s and '90s.

Other errors of fact and interpretation we will set aside here, but we cannot close without noting a curious omission from this remembrance: it leaves utterly unmentioned the contribution to Western Buddhism for which Aitken Roshi is most widely known -- his attention to the ethical implications of practice and realization and his stress on embodying them in the social, economic, political, and environmental conditions of our day. He certainly had his share of failings, but he had greater and more important virtues than this account admits. We hope Sun readers will seek out less jaundiced appraisals of his life and work.

Nelson Foster
Ring of Bone Zendo
Dharma heir of Aitken Roshi 

Jack Shoemaker
Editorial director, Counterpoint Press
Literary Executor for Robert Aitken

The Shambhala Sun article by John Tarrant is here.



Expectation skews power of pills.

George Lewith, professor of health research at the University of Southampton, said: "It's another piece of evidence that we get what we expect in life.
"It completely blows cold randomised clinical trials, which don't take into account expectation."



On Nov. 11, 2010, 26-year-old Staff Sgt. Salvatore A. Giunta became the latest recipient of the Medal of Honor, the U.S. military's highest award for valor. Giunta won the medal as a result of actions taken in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, in 2007. Those who presented the medal referred to him as a "hero." Giunta, in his remarks at the time, was clearly uncomfortable with the moniker.

What a conflict: On the one hand, anyone might wish to be recognized for what they have done. On the other hand, prolonged applause (whether from within or without) can make the recipient anxious ... hell, what happened is just what s/he would have done anyway -- what anyone might have done. Circumstances presented themselves and there was action irrespective of how anyone might regard that action. There was no time to think -- there was only time to act.

Not all of us find ourselves in the extreme danger that Giunta faced as a soldier. But he was a soldier and faced the circumstances of his life from within that context. We are largely otherwise -- no bullets or bombs or people trying to kill us -- and yet the circumstances of this life can feel like swarming enemies ... thoughts, words and deeds that need to be vanquished. Some act as a means of gaining and sustaining applause, but the rest of us do what we can with the tools we have in the moment that presents itself. Only later can we assess our heroisms and our cowardice.

Moment after moment, we act. We then assess and act anew. Moment after moment. Sure, we'd appreciate a pat on the back, but I guess the only question that makes much sense is, "Would I have done that where no one else could notice?" In action, nobody notices. And if nobody notices, who would I be?

It's pretty heroic.


In a past so distant I am not sure if I actually remember it, I once read that at Hindu ashrams, newcomers were assigned light, easy chores whereas the most experienced monks were given the dirtiest ... cleaning outhouses and the like.

Besides giving arrogance an obvious lesson, the format strikes me as a good exercise for anyone ... finding the ability to begin again with the difficulties that began one quest or another -- the ones we may now feel, because of age and experience, we are beyond.

Resting on our "accomplishments" is a thorny bed -- common enough, I grant, and perhaps widely accepted, but probably foolish and sometimes painful. Why? Because those accomplishments rely on the good will or acknowledgment or obeisance of others... and the notion, however subtle, of "others" misses the mark.

I'm not suggesting that everyone ought to devolve into a puddle of forelock-tugging humility -- so virtuous and self-effacing that butter wouldn't melt in their mouths. I am suggesting that accomplishment, like failure, is a tentative matter and its tentative nature needs to be addressed if peace of mind is to be nourished.

Everything, so to speak, is always beginning. Or perhaps it just is ... brand new as a penny. The sun that rises this morning is ... well, what is it? Is it the same or different from the sun that rose yesterday? The accomplishment that swelled the heart with satisfaction ... seriously, is it the same today as it was yesterday? What ever happened to that gold star you got on a third-grade math quiz or the applause that followed some public talk or the raise that showed up in your paycheck?

As I say, this is not some philosophical or religious matter. It's not something to force, like putting on a hair shirt. Some people never get past their accomplishments or their failures, but maybe revisiting the scene or investigating the outhouse, or setting aside the respect that is "my due" makes some sense if a settled peace is on the agenda.

The sun rises in the East. How kool is that? It sets in the West. How kool is that? A gold star on a math quiz. How kool is that? A round of applause for accomplishing this job. How kool is that? Making use of the outhouse. How kool is that?

Pretty damned kool, don't you think? Brand new, bright as a penny ... no need to ask a penny to be a dollar. No need to ask the sun to be the moon. No need to polish old medals. Things are light as a feather and twice as kool.

Let's stick with what's kool.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

doing the leg work

In a world of liars, you might think there would be some embarrassment about believing a lie. But there they were -- the American, British and German intelligence services -- with egg on their prevaricating faces. "Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, [an Iraqi defector] codenamed Curveball, said he had to do something to bring democracy to Iraq." So he lied about biological and other weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and, largely as a result of his assertions, the Americans invaded Iraq in 2003, toppled Saddam Hussein, and have killed untold numbers of people in the quagmire that resulted.

The first question is, why did those Mr. Al-Janabi informed not vet and confirm his assertions? You might think that war was a relatively serious business. But perhaps in the age of Twitter and Facebook and Wikipedia, even human life, and the thinking on which it is sometimes premised, is not all that important.

On the other hand, maybe Mr. Al-Janabi is lying now and was telling the truth then. Millions of tax dollars are funneled into intelligence services. Does anyone in those agencies have the intelligence to seek out the truth even as they rely on lies for their existence? What kind of bang for the buck are taxpayers getting? Self-congratulation only goes so far: At some point, someone's got to break a sweat and do the leg work.

And isn't it the same in spiritual life? Reports flow in from near and far. Some of the sources seem credible. Some sound like charlatans. Human beings file and collate the information with a mixture of skepticism and hope. But what is the actual-factual truth? How long can anyone con themselves by filing and collating other people's words and analyses? Belief heaps on belief, longing heaps on longing. Lies are exposed and truths revealed, but hell...

At some point, someone's got to break a sweat and do the leg work.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

a little Buddhist nacht musik

In December, 2007, my Zen Buddhist teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, died at the age of 80.

There -- I said something about Zen Buddhism, a fire I seem to be drifting up and away from like wood smoke. Looking back through the trees, I can see it burning brightly and recall my gratitude for its light and warmth. Thank you very much, you who light my distances. Thank you.

Not long ago, I sent an email to a chum in Japan, an American who has been a Zen monk for 35 or more years. Tom has a nice quiet way about him in emails and I try not to pester him with too much Zen chit-chat. But because I was curious, I wrote and asked him what he thought of lineage ... the line of teachers and students and teachers and students sometimes said to stretch "all the way back" to Shakyamuni Buddha. I didn't ask the question with any particular answer in mind, but I was curious to hear from someone whose words I can listen to. Tom hasn't written back, and I wouldn't be surprised if he didn't respond at all. Except in insistent hands, the topic is so viscous and faceted and, finally, probably useless.

I hear people who tout lineage and I hear people who pooh-pooh it: It's authoritative, says the one, while the other scowls and calls it manipulative bullshit. The real and the relative gambol like young male mountain goats, butting heads, building strength, learning skills ... and all so that later, when they find the right girl, the species will be continued and lineage assured.

I'm not against lineage in any knee-jerk sense. Even the kind that only reaches back to Shakyamuni Buddha seems OK to me when balanced against the uncertainties and sorrows that living, breathing human beings can bring to Buddhism's doorstep. Wouldn't you lie a little to ease a child's sobs? Gautama did (holding out a closed fist, pretending there was gold within until the child's tears ebbed), so wouldn't you too?

But one lie can lead to another and yet another, until the raucous cries of "fraud! fraud!" are not far from the mark ... even when they issue from rebellious, but untutored, mouths. "Stop lying! Be transparent! Tell the truth!" The accusations carry merit, but leave out the sorrows and uncertainties that purely beg to be told some succulent lie ... something that will reassure me in my longing to set sorrow and uncertainty aside. If someone answered such cries with a straightforward truth, would the sorrowing and uncertain have ears to hear it? I doubt it. Listening is easy. Hearing is hard.

On the other side of the equation, teachers with lineages that reach all the way back to Shakyamuni Buddha, learn to address the needs of the sorrowing and the uncertain. It's just a little fib at first ... one that may be excused, sort of, but one that underpins their elevation and post: The gold that is not in Gautama's fist. Are they strong enough and clear enough to laugh? I don't know, but I do know that there are many palaces in which teachers -- the authentic ones, dontcha know -- hold court. I'm not criticizing. I am curious.

OK ... I said something Buddhist, something I somehow felt I ought to do. I don't know about lineage and, from among the mountain pines, I look back at what warmed me and am grateful. The truth is good. Lies are good. And neither one of them has much to do with lineage, I imagine. Maybe Tom will write and set me straight. Or maybe my stiletto-wielding friend Stuart Lachs will straighten me out.

How do you straighten out wood smoke? I suppose I could  build a palace or a chimney, but I'm too old and weak for that stuff.


a little white whine

A part of an article about trade between Colombia and China seems to be stuck in my mind. The article begins like this:

Colombia has announced it is negotiating with China to build an alternative to the Panama Canal.
The proposed transport route is intended to promote the flow of goods between Asia and Latin America.
The plan is to create a "dry canal" where the Pacific port of Buenaventura would be linked by rail, across Colombia, to the Atlantic Coast. Complete story.

But what sticks in my mind is way down towards the bottom of the story:

Mr Uribe's Democratic Security Policy, backed by US military aid, is credited with halving the numbers of Marxist rebels and pushing them into the more remote jungles and mountains.
Mr Santos is concentrating on what he calls "democratic prosperity", our correspondent says.
He hopes that economic development will address some of the root issues of the 46-year civil conflict, such as poverty and the lack of opportunities, which have pushed people into being rebels or into the lucrative drug trade, our correspondent says. (emphasis added)

Of course it's all wishful thinking at the moment, but it's the kind of wishful thinking that makes me wonder if the Israelis might put it to work with the Palestinians or the United States might employ it in the quest to, uh, pacify Iraq or Afghanistan or Iran.

"Terrorism" is such a politically-convenient enemy. In Fiscal Year 2010, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was allocated $42.7 billion and spent $56.4 billion, according to Wikipedia. That's quite a lot of money and it is hard not to wonder what would happen if even half the amount were spent on the "root issues" rather than drones and body armor and maimed Americans. It would require patience and, worse, thinking, but pushing people around hasn't seemed to accomplish much and manipulating an electorate through fear only assures re-election for so long, so maybe schools and jobs and trade opportunities could accomplish something positive for the 'Homeland' and undermine the bases on which "terrorists" make their stand. True, like suckers, there is an asshole born every minute and greed is a terrific motivator, but just as a possibility ... how about spending for what might build instead of just for what destroys ineffectively?

some days are out of synch

The next time you're feeling out of sorts, consider how much more confusing things might be.



Holding to beliefs is so self-serving. Strangely, however, it is also self-defeating, so over the long haul, perhaps there is something good to be said for greed. But in the medium haul, a lot of anguish rises up... personally, politically, spiritually....

In the news this morning, for example:

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) - An Ecuadorean judge ruled Monday in an epic environmental case that Chevron Corp. was responsible for oil drilling contamination in a wide swath of Ecuador's northern jungle and ordered the oil giant to pay $9.5 billion in damages and cleanup costs.
The amount - $8.6 billion plus a legally mandated 10 percent reparations fee - was far below the $27.3 billion award recommended by a court-appointed expert but appeared to be the highest damage award ever issued in an environmental lawsuit.
But whether the plaintiffs - including indigenous groups who say their hunting and fishing grounds in Amazon River headwaters were decimated by toxic wastewater that also raised the cancer rate - can collect remains to be seen. Complete story.

 Perhaps I am too pessimistic, but I doubt that those whose land was demolished will ever see more than baubles by way of reparation for those decimated lands. The big corporation is unlikely to say simply, "Yes, we screwed up and hope to correct the errors we made." The money and power amassed, and, worst of all, the belief that such things confer a social decency ... well, no point in holding your breath on that one. Facts are not the best tool for revising beliefs and desires. Mirrors are better, but even then, there is no guarantee.

A good friend wrote to me saying he was going through a painful break-up with his girlfriend. He has a background in Zen and she is hip-deep in yoga practice. One of the points of annoyance and dissent was what my friend calls "her religiosity." He is older and she is younger so the enveloping throes of virtue may be, from her point of view, compelling and insistent, and from his point of view, exhausting and immature.

My mother once told me about growing apart from a woman friend who was wildly intelligent. When visiting each other over some weekend, the woman was prone to arriving at the breakfast table and launching into a discussion of Dostoevsky before the first cup of coffee was drained. It was just too much. People deserve to drink their coffee in peace.

There is no talking people out of their beliefs. Facts don't count and "I gotta be me." Greed accomplishes sometimes fruitful stuff ... but the subsequent defense mechanisms, the explanations and the excuses ... well, only the mirror can set things straight, assuming anyone is willing to use it for something other than laying on makeup. 

I too have ruined what was not mine to ruin. I too have been egregiously virtuous. I too have probably discussed Dostoevsky while the coffee went cold. I too, to borrow from the Christians, have "done those things which should not be done and left undone those things that should be done." I too have found excuses and explanations and failed miserably at looking in the mirror. And I too have indulged in a self-flagellation that feels so good because it hurts so bad. These are my responsibilities.

But what is interesting about a mirror is that mirrors don't care. They are unconcerned with virtue or explanations or meaning. Mirrors only reflect and in this, they encourage anyone willing to look to gather their courage and do likewise ....

Reflect and do not be afraid. When has belief or explanation or meaning ever settled things? When has this self ever assured peace ... or even really enjoyed a good cup of coffee?

Reflect ... it is a good exercise.

Monday, February 14, 2011

routine cussing

Out of the corner of my ear, I caught it this morning -- a newscaster saying laconically that it was a "hell of a situation." I like cuss words as much or perhaps more than the next person, but I enjoy them as an art more than as a common-place. And I remembered a time when it was considered bad manners to cuss in public and teachers would scowl and say that those who used cuss words were simply displaying an ignorance of their native tongue.

Ignorant, sure, but because there was a time when cuss words were naughty, every kid I ever hung out with brought a due diligence to the snap, crackle and pop of a "shit" or "damn" or "fuck." The first time my mother heard me use the word "fuck," she sat me down and went through each of the seven or eight basic cuss words. She explained what each one meant literally and what the slang usage was. She was very patient and I was grossed out and embarrassed: In the second grade, it was hard to imagine boys and girls doing that stuff. My mother ended her lecture by saying I could use those words with my friends and I could use them with her. But woe betide me if I used them in front of her friends.

When I was growing up, boys cussed, but girls did not. And then, a little at a time, girls cussed too. It took some getting used to, hearing a girl say "fuck." But time passed and pretty soon that was not so unusual either.

And now the cuss words that were once banned in the media creep in and make their stand. There is still some bleeping on the television, but not as much as once. "Damn" and "asshole" have gone unbleeped and I imagine that one day the others will claim their birthright as well.

Interesting to think -- what are things like when nothing is naughty? Easy answers like "anarchy" or "mediocrity" strike me as a little too easy. Really, what are things like when nothing is naughty?

the four propositions

Like small, smooth, rounded waves rolling up some bay-side beach, they shushed into my mind this morning, the four propositions:

It exists.
It does not exist.
It both exists and does not exist.
It neither exists nor does not exist.

But they came softly today ... not at all the religious or philosophical examples that someone in their prime might explain or dissect until all the flavor was gone. This was like a puff of warm wind against the cheek, an intimate caress that made me wonder how I might ever have imagined it had some "meaning."

How loving.

How lovely.

Later, I have a dentist's appointment.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


Strange how the faith that once chattered and rushed like some high-mountain freshet now turns quiet along the advancing plain ... widened so wide as to be still to the eye, yet moving and relaxed as a cat on a sunny window sill.

Somehow, the greater the faith, the less faith there is. Or perhaps, only as faith dwindles does faith grow.

Be still and ... move.

Valentine's Day

Happy Valentine's Day, one and all:


koan du jour

Why aren't you smiling?


On an internet bulletin board, someone asked about money and Buddhism and I found myself writing:

Money is just like any other belief system ... best not to put too much faith in it.

salty tales

Dennis, a fellow who has taken an interest in Zen Buddhism, dropped me a note early this morning, saying he was on an unexpected trip in Vermont. Earlier in the week, he said he would come to sit on Sunday. It is the second time he said he would come and then didn't. But the first time, he didn't drop me a note, so I have to think that he is moving forward with his honest Zen practice: Taking responsibility for the various aspects of life -- whether doing or not doing -- can be pretty tough.

From my perspective, it's something of a relief. I will go out to the zendo and sit. That's enough. No need for discussion.

In the news, underwater explorers discovered the sunken ship of the captain who inspired Herman Melville's "Moby Dick," a viscous tome about an obsessed captain in search of a white whale. It was Capt. George Pollard's second whaling command. It was during Pollard's first that his ship was rammed and sunk by a whale ... and inspired Melville. During that earlier adventure in 1821, he and his men had drifted for three months and resorted to cannibalism before being rescued.

Uncovering the facts that nourished the myth ... sailing back in history to discover the artifacts that lend substance to a current tale ... back and back and back ... stripping away the glamor and poesie and symbolism until things become plain as salt. It was, after all, just a man, just a ship, just a search for sustenance and wealth. As plain as salt -- sailing back into our own lives, our own myths, our own wonders and horrors until we've assembled ALL of the facts, ALL of the artifacts, until, guess what -- it's still as mysterious and inexplicable as salt. Can salt be explained or made more credible in our investigative efforts? I doubt it.

Salt is salt.

Take a taste and you've solved the puzzle ...

Unless, of course, you still need to write "Moby Dick."

Saturday, February 12, 2011

lingering scents

I stayed up past my bedtime last night and woke up feeling a bit foggy and glum. As I skimmed the news, I found myself looking for something that made me laugh or delight -- some sugar to put on my morning-mood cereal. But news, as CBS journalist icon Walter Cronkite once observed, "is not about how many cats did not get up on the garage roof."

There was jubilation in Egypt because, after a couple of weeks of massive street demonstrations, the president, Hosni Mubarak, had left his post ... and the demonstrators were confronted with the question of what to do now that their dream had come true. There was a 6.8 earthquake in Chile; a maize crop in Mexico struck by freezing weather; and one-time movie beauty Elizabeth Taylor was being treated for congestive heart failure. The cats that did not get up on the garage roof were no where in evidence.

About the best pick-me-up came from an old friend to whom I had forwarded some silly poems about farts. Jonathan teaches English and writes poetry at a college in Boston and I was happy that he got a smile out of things like:

A fart is a pleasant thing,
It gives the belly ease,
It warms the bed in winter,
And suffocates the fleas.
 It's nice to run into light topics -- things anyone might be forgiven for forgetting in a nanosecond. But on the world stage as in life, things seem to linger and cloy. If I were a Zen Buddhist, all of this would be moot, I suppose ... but, well, I never was much good at that.

The reason I stayed up beyond my bedtime was that a thread I had started on this blog -- Eido Tai Shimano -- had run out of comment room. Five thousand posts was all the blog seemed willing to allow. A friend sent me an email saying no more comments were allowed. Since I was the one who started the thread as a way of allowing people to have their say about the sexual and fiduciary manipulations of this longtime Zen teacher, I felt bound to keeping the space available. So I created a new thread ... but not with much gusto. Like the demonstrators in Cairo, perhaps, I kind of hoped everything would turn out well and the struggle would be as easily forgotten as a poem about a fart. But however it turned out, it was my responsibility and ... OK, but I wasn't entirely happy about it.

Simultaneously, in the midst of this beyond-my-bedtime activity, it occurred to me to present the whole matter to a chum who had been a Los Angeles Times reporter. The New York Times had done a soft-soapy report on Mr. Shimano's sexual predations, but here was a chance to get some added coverage perhaps. So I wrote a letter to Elizabeth and added appropriate useful links. It took some time and the hope that it would result in much was pretty dim ... but still, don't point the pistol if you can't pull the trigger: It was my responsibility. Bleah.

The past, like some lingering fart, comes up and reasserts itself. One thing leads to the next and simply forgetting about the farts you have laid is not really an option. But that doesn't mean you can't hope it would be an option. About the most consoling line I can think of as the threads of one activity or another linger and insist and take on new roles is this: "In a hundred years, who'd know?"

Or, more blithely stated:

A fart can occur
In a number of places,
And leave everyone there,
With strange looks on their faces .
From wide-open prairie,
To small elevators,
A fart will find all of
Us sooner or later.