Thursday, March 31, 2011


How angry he must have been! How positively enraged!

A former South African rugby star was brought into court and charged with ax-murdering three men he believed had raped his daughter and infected her with HIV, according to the BBC.

At least one of the bodies was decapitated and the head found in a dustbin almost 2km (1 mile) away.

No one can talk their emotions into submission. All the goody-two-shoes blather in the world cannot still the restless and sometimes volcanic heart. But there is the possibility of watching -- of paying close attention to the anger or love that can sweep up like a tsunami and leave us gasping for air.

courage and cowardice

Cowardice and courage trip lightly off the tongue. But when you get up-close-and-personal, when you look closely, it's like imagining you could grab the ocean with your hand. Or perhaps it's like the ever-popular "love" -- so easy to say, so silly to define.

I was thinking, I guess, about the fact that I too take the easy, assured and vaguely idiotic route of knowing what I thought is courageous or cowardly. Some segment of my brain actually believes this shit. Yes, I can make the argument that language is a liar and that people are social beings and use language as a way of reinforcing social ties. It's OK as far as it goes, but without the investigation ... well, I have been known to call that cowardly.

And as an adjunct, I honestly do admire as courageous those who make some effort to reflect, to pay attention and to take responsibility in their lives. I simply don't know a greater courage. Linguistically, to set up such a framework means that there are cowards who do not make some effort to reflect, to pay attention or to take responsibility. So there is a separation, a distinction, a this and a that. And sometimes it's all accompanied by a dollop of aggrieved righteousness.

But it's all a fool's errand, however cozy it may feel. Some people reflect. Some don't. Some people reflect deeply. Others do not. Some people have courage. Others do not. Some people are more courage than cowardice. Others are more cowardly than courageous. The further you take any of this line of thought, the harder it gets to draw the lines. It's not that things drift off into some smarmy relativism ... it's just hard to draw the lines.

I think it's lucky when the lines get harder to draw. Separation feels wrong because it, like oneness, is mistaken. But I also think we can take a lesson from the U.S. Supreme Court justice who observed about pornography, "I may not know what it is, but I know it when I see it."

Or, when times of confusion rise up, perhaps we can take a temporary break in the old serenity prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
Of course there is something to be said for setting aside the differences.

the screw turns

It's almost comical how the screw turns and what once was derided becomes the fact in your are now what once you shunned.

After writing a letter yesterday that took exception to a local rabbi's newspaper column about a local effort to boycott Israeli goods, I got into a small email discussion with Frank, a longtime friend and fellow Zen Buddhist, about a trip we had once made to a Ch'an (Chinese Zen) temple in Queens, N.Y. I said I remembered the trip because I never did find out what the small towel placed on each meditation cushion was supposed to be for. Was it to be placed over the hands, to keep them warm? I didn't know. Frank said he thought perhaps it had something to do with preserving spiritual energy ... and besides, how could anyone get cold hands during zazen (seated meditation practice)? I said that the older I got, the colder it got and there were quite a few times when, during nippy winter mornings, my hands did in fact get cold. I conceded that this was probably a reflection of a weak and wobbly practice, but that didn't stop my hands from getting cold. The to-and-fro was not one of those solemn conversations that meditation students can indulge in ... we were pretty much just shooting the breeze.

But my cold hands inspired Frank to mention that he no longer laughed at older people who could be slow when getting up from the meditation cushion. Both of us had been go-getter Zen students at one time, but now I was 71 and Frank was, I think, somewhere in his 60's. Frank said his feet still got numb when sitting and I said that getting up required the judicious placement of hands on the floor for leverage. In the once-upon-a-time of the past, each of us might have bounded up like a yo-yo on a string, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and anxious to do Zen 'right' -- with a vim and vigor that would attest to our 'serious' commitment. Now, to differing degrees, we were both victims of time, consigned to the old song lyrics that observed, "my get-up-and-go has got up and went."

The screw turns. What was once on the far side of youthful rambunctiousness was now on the very near side indeed. But it was a good lesson indeed. Yes, we could whine with the best of them about the "ravages of age" and associated whines, but with meditation practice as a background or upbringing, it was a good time to reflect: Zen is not so much a matter of vim and vigor -- though a lazy approach isn't likely to accomplish much. It's about mind. And even that may be subject to revision. :)

I see nothing special about whining. It's like talking about the weather -- a way to fill a conversational lull or assert my importance. But these days I don't take it quite so seriously.

I do think it's a good idea to try on the clothes of the thoughts and beliefs that stand in contrast to our own. And not just as an oh-so-tolerant assertion of self. Is there really so much contrast? Is the one point of view really disconnected or distinctly different from the other. Don't get me wrong, I still think anchovies suck, but I can recognize them as a food that might nourish others.

When the joke's on me, I like to laugh.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

this is it

Funny how, the longer you do something or think about something, the walls of the world seem to close in -- everything reducing itself and reducing itself until finally there is just one thing -- just this. And this this contains within it all of the colors and contraptions you worked so hard to understand or collect or portray or control.

I once went to the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The Guggenheim is a spiraling four- or five-story structure where the visitor walks up or down a spiraling ramp to view the paintings on display. It's a nifty building in which I used to imagine what it might be like to skateboard from top to bottom and survive the adventure.

On the one particular day I went, the paintings at the top of the building seemed to come from the late 1800's. They were beautiful and colorful and recognizable as people or places or fruits or flowers. It was like being in your grandmother's house. Various artists were shown, but I never cared much who had done a painting. I cared what the painting did to me. I wanted to be touched. And many of the paintings touched me.

But as I continued down the spiral, the works became more and more modern. I remember cubism and other abstractions gaining a foothold as I descended. Finally, at the bottom of the exhibit, there was a large room in which a series of paintings were entitled "Stations of the Cross" or something similar. The paintings were large. Each was in black and white -- rectangular shapes of black and white. Very neat. Very clean. You knew the artist was thinking of something, that he had reached his own version of "this," but it was incomprehensible to me. I could not see his "this" and it made me irritable. I wanted him to touch me. I imagine he thought he might touch me. But it came off as arrogant bullshit. It was like reading James Joyce -- a perfected world that didn't love people.

But for all that, it was interesting. Narrower and narrower the way until this one, single "this" stands as a testament and complete revelation of the entire universe... trying to share experience in a world where experience cannot be "shared."

In Zen there is the story of  Gutei, a teacher who, when asked any question at all, would respond by raising one finger. One day, when Gutei was away, another monk took charge of Gutei's temple and as it happened, a visitor appeared. This visitor asked the monk a question and by way of response, the monk raised one finger in the manner of his teacher. The visitor left, but when Gutei returned, the monk retailed the to-and-fro that had occurred earlier. When the monk reached the part where he showed how he had raised one finger, Gutei whipped out a knife and cut the monk's finger off. And as the monk ran yowling towards the exit, Gutei called out to him. When the monk turned to look, Gutei raised just one finger.

A Vietnam grunt once told me the story of walking thigh deep in swamp water. He and his comrades were advancing on an enemy they could not see. They were exposed and vulnerable in the swamp that would surely slow them down if the enemy opened up. Step by uncertain step -- who knew what the swamp floor might trip them up with? Danger everywhere and no where. It made me want to piss in my pants just listening to his tale. Step, step, step. Focus, focus, focus. Danger, danger, danger. Death, death, death. Every swamp tree might conceal an enemy and thus every tree was the enemy. And then, in the midst of all the searing attention, with his life on the line, he stepped around an enormous swamp tree and there, in front of him, growing up out of the filthy swamp water, was a single, perfect lotus. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

It all sounds a bit esoteric when told in terms of art or Zen Buddhism, but I think the principle is true for everyone. Things boil down to ... this. A divorce is consummated based on a toothpaste tube that has not been rolled up. A marriage goes forward based on a single smile. A car is purchased because of its color. A sunset or a single note of  music says it all. A hundred thousand million bits of information coalesce in this one, perfectly obvious aspect. This is it!

I think everyone has experienced such moments of clarity, moments without doubt, moments that say it all and there is no doubt about it, moments not open to discussion or improvement. Such moments may carry with them a good feeling or a bad one. But the fact is, they are clear beyond all debate. This is it!

The usefulness of such moments, I sometimes think, is that they pose the question ... if this is it, what is not it?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

at the center

This morning I sent a get-well note to Frances Crowe, a 90-something peace activist of long standing. I had heard that she had had a brush with pneumonia and wanted to wish her well.

This afternoon, she wrote back saying that she was convinced the pneumonia got at her because of the tumult in the world -- Japan and the outbursts of war in north Africa and the Middle East. But after meeting with Malalai Joya, an Afghan peace activist, she said she had found her "center" again and guessed that I would know how important that was.

The center. To be centered.

It reminded me of an old give-and-take in Zen:

Student: What is the Middle Way?
Teacher: It means the extremes.
And I think it is the same with the center and being centered. No one could search out the center of their lives, however consoling it is or might sound or be. The center could only refer to the perimeter or the circumference or the off-center points. As an encouragement, maybe it's OK. But it sounds off-center to me to put too much stock in it.

Here we are, at the beginning and the end of every moment ... you know, the moment that has no beginning and no end. It's not as if we could escape and it's not as if we could get a handle on it. Perhaps we can speak of "the center," but that's just tentative conversation.

The center is better than that, don't you think? 

what the fuck did you expect?!

 Well, they finally made it to the internet. You knew they would be available at some point, but there had to be a dance of pro-forma disgust and horror before they arrived ... photos of American soldiers apparently delighting in their kill trophies in Afghanistan. Der Spiegel had them first. Now Rolling Stone has printed some of them.

The U.S. Army issued an apology:

Responding to their publication, the US Army said it would "relentlessly" pursue the truth, no matter how difficult or lengthy the investigation.
"The photos published by Rolling Stone are disturbing and in striking contrast to the standards and values of the US Army," it said in a statement. BBC article.

Something within me is enraged by the photos. They leave me screaming incoherently like some drunken nitwit at a football match. I am not enraged by the soldiers who committed these acts. I am not horrified by what they have done. I am not even angry at the military establishment that may have been complicit, but were not in the end responsible for what their civilian handlers decided. I am left speechless and yowling by the cruelty and thoughtlessness of the men and women who donned a self-important righteousness, who wore and wear American flag lapel pins, who raise the banners of war and do not send their own children into the fray, and who claim there are "standards" of behavior in unspeakable conditions. "What the fuck did you expect?!" I want to scream at these self-centered assholes. Of course human beings are capable of ignorance and cruelty. It's simply true. Nothing fancy about it. But for those in a position to address that ignorance and cruelty to make excuses for what they have wrought -- to ask that we be horrified and evade our own responsibility for electing them in the first place ... this is vile and cowardly. Those who ask us to "support our troops" are asking us to support their actions, to put icing on their concocted dog shit ... all so that they will not be held accountable in the mirror. It is lower than pond scum.

"'Relentlessly'" pursue the truth? Give me a break!

I cannot imagine being in a place where someone is trying to kill me, 24/7. I cannot imagine the twisting of the human spirit that a war zone implies. I can imagine finding joy in what is joyless. But I cannot imagine sending my children into such a place at the behest of someone whose moral and intellectual compass is so clearly skewed. By asking young men to do battle with the bad guys is to kill these young men bit by bit. Ask anyone who has been to war, and, if they are honest, they will tell you that they died, bit by bit, as they achieved what men in lapel pins called "honor" or "standards" or "courage" or "heroism." Their humanity was not lifted up. It was stripped away. What the fuck do these assholes expect?!

The self-important and those unable to reflect will say that people must defend themselves. And I agree. They will tell us that the price of freedom is sacrifice. And that's true too. But they will also try to evade the responsibilities of so-called "rogue" soldiers. In an unspeakable realm, still these dimwits expect "standards" and "patriotism" and ... oh, who the hell knows what self-serving language they will find? They will speak the language of human decency while sidestepping the indecencies they perpetrate.

My Lai, 1968
As I say, it makes me angry in ways I cannot adequately express. This isn't patriotism -- it's more like treason. It is My Lai writ large ... or perhaps another version of the Vietnamese village Bien Tre: "It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it." Our soliders and theirs -- all of them Bien Tre.

Christ I hate the excuses! I hope the Spiegel/Rolling Stone pictures that cause so much "dishonor" and "shock" and "horror" are plastered on every billboard from East coast to West. Under the caption, perhaps, of "What the fuck did you expect?!"

When it comes to the courage and honor of soldiers in the field -- the sons and fathers of those left behind -- it is impossible not to think of the Christmas Truce of 1914 in which allies and Germans, without orders, set aside their weapons and came together in no-man's land where they traded cigarettes, played soccer and sang Christmas carols. They had been trying to kill each other and they simply stopped. Not everywhere and not everyone, but enough so that the time was remembered.
The truce is seen as a symbolic moment of peace and humanity amidst one of the most violent events of modern history. It was not ubiquitous, however; in some regions of the front, fighting continued throughout the day, whilst in others, little more than an arrangement to recover bodies was made. The following year, a few units again arranged ceasefires with their opponents over Christmas, but to nothing like the widespread extent seen in 1914; this was, in part, due to strongly worded orders from the high commands of both sides prohibiting such fraternisation. -- Wikipedia
"Strongly worded orders from the high command of both sides." Those commanders and their political handlers must have gone ape shit. For men to take their humanity into their own hands and simply decline the blandishments of horror and glory -- I find it incredibly touching and incredibly courageous. Peace and decency take real guts. Underlining the decency of human beings, especially in a time of unspeakable horror and cruelty ... how incredibly ordinary. How incredibly brave.

Of course after the truce, everyone went back to war.

What the fuck did you expect?

Monday, March 28, 2011

speechless speech

Some things leave me speechless.

This is a 1963 video of the Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Duc, who burned himself to death on June 11, 1963, to protest the harsh treatment of Buddhists by the Catholic-leaning regime of Vietnamese president Diem.

After his death, his body was re-cremated, but his heart remained intact. This was interpreted as a symbol of compassion and led Buddhists to revere him as a bodhisattva, heightening the impact of his death on the public psyche.  -- Wikipedia entry.

my DNA can beat up your DNA

As if labels and logos on shirts, shoes, jackets, gloves, pocket books and on and on ad nauseam weren't enough to make you wonder about people who have difficulty finding an identity, now comes word that it is possible to insert bits of wisdom (and idiocy no doubt) into the DNA.

People get tattoos, so why not spiff up the DNA with wise quotations from Buddhism or baseball or, I suppose, the Ku Klux Klan? The experiment was done as a means of identifying synthetic DNA, but I can well imagine trend-prone parents slipping in a little biblical or other 'everlasting' oomph if they had a chance.

The trouble with tattoos, of course, is that their beauty and importance wear out. What was kool and sleek and wise and with-it yesterday is sagging both literally and metaphorically today.

I'm not entirely sure if inserting bits of 'wise' DNA would create a person who then became a slave to his or her own synthetic wisdom, but even the idea strikes me as somewhere between ludicrous and horrific.

once is not enough

He's not exactly pig-headed about it, but he sure is insistent. The cardinal living in the bushes across the street has begun his springtime ritual -- calling, calling, calling. He is bell-clear and sometimes I feel like telling him, "Yes, I get it. Once is enough." But once is not enough. It is spring and there is no "once."

The cardinal is lucky. He has no agenda. He is the agenda. While I sit around noticing and finding meaning and imputing one depth or another, he just does his thing, over and over and over again.

Stop and start. It's spring...always spring. Never mind the meaning!

the outer/inner limits

People with two brain cells to rub together can sometimes concede that there was a limit to what they knew or could know. They are smart enough to see that no matter how diligent or devoted anyone might be, there simply was no way to know everything. A certain modesty -- contrived and otherwise -- kicks in: There is a limit to what you can know.

When I worked as an apartment-painter in New York, I bought most of my paint from a particular paint store. Janovic, at the time, gave me less of a contractor's discount than I might have received elsewhere, but all of their sales people were former painters -- people who had often spent years on the job. As a one-man operation, I wanted to give my customers the best I could by way of work and by way of information and when I didn't know something, I wanted to be able to ask someone who could do more than read a label or spout philosophy or make a sale.

The most useful thing about the salesmen at Janovic was that they were capable of saying the three words that meant most to me as someone looking to build some integrity into his work. The words were, "I don't know." Those words were a short-circuiter of bullshit. They meant I could look elsewhere for answers without having to waste time coddling someone else's desire to look good ... and not delivering. The Janovic salesmen were knowledgeable and straight-forward and I appreciated it. They often had more experience than I had. But they were smart enough and confident enough to know that their street-smarts had limits. They were also smart enough to know that the truth brings repeat customers through the door.  People who know everything are a pain in the ass. And more than that, they were bad for my business which relied on customers' trust.

I imagine that the same principle pretty much applies anywhere. Knowing there are limits to what you know is not just some false-humility, tugging the forelock, toe-in-the-sand, looks-good veneer. It's just a simple truth. It is not something to be ashamed of or proud of. It requires no emotional gyrations. It's just a simple truth. There is a limit to what you can know.

But what occurred to me this morning is that if there is a limit to what you know, there must likewise be a limit to what you don't know. And I think it is as important to investigate the one as it is to investigate the other. No one can know everything. But likewise, no one can not-know everything. Not-knowing, by definition, means you know something -- so you can't not-know everything. There are limits.

The Korean Zen teacher, Soen Sa Nim, used to drum it into his students: "Just keep a don't know mind."  I think it was a pretty good encouragement and probably an even better experience, but it certainly wouldn't be a place anyone would want to get stuck.

What I know has limits.

What I don't know has limits.

Nothing fancy. Nothing to get worked up about. Isn't it just plain old stuff?

But if these ground rules are more or less accurate, don't you think a dollop of curiosity is warranted? Not philosophical, not religious ... just plain old curiosity? If what I know has limits and what I don't know has limits, is the one who knows such limitations limited or not? And, whether limited or unlimited, is the one who recognizes or creates limitations really all that unusual or weird or elevated or blissful or compassionate or enlightened?

Intellectually and emotionally, such a question is a ball-buster. It's nonsensically impenetrable. It's like asking "What is the difference between a duck?" And of course people have enough concerns without concerning themselves with what may be pretty worthy of their concern. But for those who can muster a dollop of curiosity, I think it's worth the price of admission.

Wouldn't it be nice to tell the truth just once?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Quaker meeting

Well, I finally stirred my stumps and went. Did my zazen, geared up, and went down to the local Quaker meeting.

There were blond wood benches on a blond wood floor. The benches were situated, three-deep, roughly in a circle. The walls were a spotless cream. There was a lot of light. And there was the usual pleasing quality of a group of people (maybe 40 of them) who got together and didn't talk. Ages seemed to range from about 25 to 80. There were a couple of black faces. During the sixty minutes or so of silence, only one man rose to speak and he spoke briefly. Otherwise there was some shifting and scratching and coughing, but not much. My ass got a bit bench-weary.

Afterwards, there was a potluck lunch at which I got to eat more health food than I have in a while. There was pleasant conversation at long tables.

I can think of a time when I might have drawn or imputed some deep meaning to it all, but basically I was neither moved nor not-moved. Sunny day, good food, friendly gathering doing something I would call sensible. I'm glad I went -- I hate thinking I would like to do something without actually doing it -- but I doubt if I will return, though I'd be happy to recommend it.

I think maybe I'm not terribly interested in spiritual efforts, although hearing people speak of their efforts interests me.

the bullshit factor

Plausible deniability is the sleight of hand used in the world of politics to avoid unpleasant consequences. "I didn't know," "I wasn't involved," "it's not my fault" ... that sort of thing.

At a more personal level, often gussied up by adults, is the childhood version: "The dog ate my homework."

My view is this: The fault I see is my own fault. I am responsible.

Some take this to mean that because they can see the fault, they should therefore be wary of "casting the first stone." We're all at fault, the argument runs, so let's go easy on each other.

But I think that if you see your fault and work your ass off to correct it or to try not to repeat it, then there is no reason for not calling out the same fault seen in others. A mistake is a mistake ... make it and try to correct it ... that is our practice. When someone gets stuck repeating over and over again that "the dog ate my homework," I see no fault in calling bullshit what it is.

Work to correct. And then work to correct what you have failed to correct. But don't imagine that bullshit is any the less bullshit because we all step in it.

the spiritual poobah

Something else I don't know: Did the Roman Catholic church ever name a saint from among those who were not Roman Catholics? I don't mean to pick on Catholics -- they are simply the most obvious closely-held religious corporation I can think of. It's the principle, not the persuasion, that interests me.

Maybe it's just part of the human exercise ... to have a stated and sometimes lofty goal (heaven, enlightenment, peace, etc.), to create a framework that appears to make that goal attainable, and then, because the goal is not yet attained, to put a lot of effort into the institution or framework chosen. The goal is not the framework, but the framework is what is shored up and fenced in as (initially) the means of attaining the goal. Sometimes, of course, the goal gets buried and the framework gets elevated ... it's human, I think.

If the goal had been attained by those expounding the framework, what reason would there be for picking and choosing exclusively from among your own those who deserve recognition and praise? "Some pigs are more equal than others" -- something like that?

I guess it's just something to keep an eye on. Framework is necessary to goal and without a whole-hearted effort, the goal is unlikely to be attained. But whole-hearted is not the same as attainment, any more than the framework is.

In Buddhism, there is the metaphor that suggests Buddhism is a raft that carries people across the raging torrent that life can be. On arrival at the far shore, the traveler leaves the raft behind ... who the hell keeps dragging a raft when the ground is firm beneath the feet? What sort of fool would ....

And yet the raft is so intimate and supportive. You can understand why someone might drag it along with them ... a beloved raft. So much effort went into the building. So much effort went into the use. So much effort and so much life bound this raft together that it may become 'unthinkable' to leave it behind and just continue your travels.

If the framework pins a medal on your chest or on the chest of another, keep on paddling. If the framework suggests there is no grandeur at all, keep on paddling. Keep on paddling -- that's the framework. Paddle until there is no more paddling and there is just paddling and the one who created this framework is revealed and laughs in some wide-open field.

Saints or sinners, I think it's worth considering.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Middle East disruptions

It's a little hard to keep up with the unfolding events in what is roughly described as the Middle East these days. Protests and in some cases war seem to be everywhere. American news outlets, which have largely surrendered their willingness and ability to cover the news outside their own borders and own concerns, make it difficult to understand in sound bites what is going on. Al-Jazeera, the Arabic news network, is one of the few with reporters on the ground ... reporters who know their beat and speak the language.

Still, the BBC offers an interesting and informative map of the region. It tells in brief what's going on, what the corruption level is and -- what I found interesting -- the median age and percentage of literacy in each of the different countries.The median ages strike me as young and the literacy rates surprisingly high, assuming they are true. Also, I find it interesting that, although there are no demonstrations as yet, Israel, a frequent irritant in the region, is not included.

The map doesn't cross every T or dot every I, but it does give a pretty good glance at the totality of the disruptions in northern Africa and what used to be referred to as the Middle East.

And I wonder what my own country would look like if its corruptions were measured. How many of the weapons currently employed in the north-African/Middle Eastern disruptions are American-made, for example?

it boils down to....

Strange somehow, to notice how in someone's life, a hundred strands of human story can boil down to a single point of eruption ... perhaps the unrolled toothpaste tube becomes "the last straw," or the single unwashed coffee cup on the arm of the couch brings a laser-like focus to previous pleas or resentments. "That's it!" the mind roars. "I've had it!"

In Mississippi, a couple of men got into a gun fight over dog shit:

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) -- An argument between two armed neighbors over a dog and its feces escalated to a shootout in rural Mississippi, sending one neighbor to the hospital with injuries from shotgun pellets and the other neighbor to jail. Complete story.
Once upon a time in New York, a couple of residents at a Zen center I attended were like oil and water. One took his responsibilities seriously -- kept the place neat, washed the floors, cleaned the altars, vacuumed the stairs. The other could only be described as lackadaisical -- sidestepping chores, leaving the work to others, etc. He didn't wear a watch, he explained, "because John Wayne never wore one." And one day, after morning service, the two young men got into a fist fight. Their battle spilled onto the sidewalk outside the zendo ... two guys in Zen robes, beating the hell out of each other as New Yorkers hurried off to work. Both of them appeared that evening for zazen or meditation practice ... each sporting a brand new shiner.

Things boil down to a single moment -- a time when the pent-up experiences and thoughts and feelings coalesce into a single, blazing now. It's easy thing to see when people/I get cranky, but less easy to get your head around when things are good-better-best. Still, it is the same thing in other raiments ... THIS is it! Pow! Right now! Clear as a bell, whether sweet as bliss or sour as a lemon.

There is something important about such moments, I think. THIS is it, utterly clear and clean and without doubt. A roar of anger, a melting swoon. No more diplomacy, no more explanation, no more meaning. THIS is it ... followed inevitably by a time when that THIS is no longer THIS. And when it is no longer this, there is a longing to return to that moment of pure, unvarnished being. But all that is left is hope and belief and yearning and scrambling to reassert that gorgeous clarity. It never works, but it isn't for lack of trying.

The memories cling, beliefs and biases spring up in an effort to categorize and capture the past ... but it doesn't work. The past is past no matter how important it is. And the past clarity just becomes a way of collecting and collating the stuff that will finally POP again in a new laser-like singularity of experience ... some new coffee cup or tooth paste tube or dog shitting on the lawn or warming kiss.

Clear times are a delight. Wondrous. Exceptional. Beyond beautiful. Magnetic to the point of tears. And yet I think that the more extraordinary they are, the more wondrous, the more delicious, the more pure -- well, that just points out how confused things have become up until that point. Sometimes I think spiritual endeavor is just a matter of getting our heads screwed on straight. The laser focus of this moment is precisely the same all the time, only, of course, there is no one focusing...that's why it's so delightfully clear. Practice is just a matter of nudging ourselves towards what we could not escape if we tried ... POW! Right now! Somehow we have to get over the notion that this is extraordinary or elevated. In point of fact, it is just ordinary ... and we have busied ourselves elsewhere. Ordinary after ordinary after ordinary ... and really quite exceptional... and yet to call it exceptional is to miss the boat and set off on some improved adventure into stuff that blows our socks off ... again.

Beyond the palaver of good and evil ... how about that coffee cup? How about that dog shit? How about that kiss? How about ... well, how about relaxation and enjoyment?

Friday, March 25, 2011


I live in a predominantly-Christian culture. This, among other things, may account for the overt and covert sense among some Americans who interest themselves in Buddhism that they should spread the good word. Christians, like Muslims, live under a mandate to spread the one true faith, the 'good' news.

But it's probably not entirely fair to lay off on culture the desire to have others see the light. See-things-my-way is hardly limited to religious institutions or the cultures they infuse.

I think Buddhists are about like anyone else: They latch onto or involve themselves in a particular path and then seek out others who are like-minded. It's supportive and lends credibility to the given path. The more of us there are, the true-r the path must be. This is human, I'd say, and it's not a bad starting point. But over the long haul, it is a crippling and inept point of view. If relying on others were the sum total of any religion, what kind of substance could that religion hold?

It's a sticky wicket, but it still needs to be addressed. Each of us is alone ... together. Our cohesiveness is real, but selling it as real is a false prophet.

I once asked my Zen teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, why he didn't beat the bushes more and try to bring new members into the Zen center fold. He was horrified at the suggestion: The center was available; people came and went as they chose; that was enough. But didn't he try to convince people of the value Buddhism offered -- didn't he, in a sense, seek out converts? No, no, no! he said. "If people come here I encourage them. I encourage them to do zazen (seated meditation)."

Both institutionally and personally, I think this is a pretty important point. Encouraging people to seek out the truth in their own experience is quite a different kettle of fish when compared to a mandated program of converting the infidels or non-believers. Buddhism may be a very good thing, but it is up to individuals to find that out and to express that goodness. Without that, Buddhism becomes another tin-pan religion and a cause for subtle and gross wars.

True, Buddhism offers a format within which to study and actualize what is important. But it is not the format, in the end, that matters -- it is the actualization. Some people use this observation as a means of excusing themselves from group activities -- from the Sangha that is one aspect of Buddhism's "triple gem" -- Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Some say, "What the hell -- group-think just screws the pooch. I can do this on my own." And perhaps they can. But equally important, perhaps they can't. In fact, without being able to take any actualization into the marketplace, into the throng, into the hurly-burly that Sangha exemplifies ... well, Buddhism becomes another feel-good, self-serving, tin-pan religion.

On the other side of the coin, there are the stick-up-my-ass Buddhists who claim the inability to actualize on your own is proof-positive that Buddhism with its Buddha-Dharma-Sangha has got a clear bead on things. Look at this authentic text, they may crow in one way or another. If you want what we have to offer -- enlightenment, compassion, emptiness, deeeeeep meaning, etc. -- then you have to toe the Buddhist mark. There is no way but the 'Buddhist' way.

OK. On the one hand. On the other hand. Blah, blah, blah.

But the interesting part of this boring disquisition, I think, is how individuals address and see through their own desire for applause and company -- how they may continue to rely on the good graces of others, asserting, in essence, "If we're all together in this, we must be right. The greater the number, the greater the truth." And this approach is, for anyone who has taken a look, clearly horseshit. Each of us brings a very specific patience and courage and doubt and determination to practice. It may be comforting or consoling that others do the same thing, but this is not the same as actualization. The point isn't look-how-many-people-agree-with-me ... the point is, do I agree with myself? And this is a question that no amount of proselytizing, no 'authenticity,' and no institution can ever answer.

In an earlier and less politically-correct era, young men awash in hormones might be heard chanting,
Hubba, hubba!
Ding, ding!
Baby you've got
 But even in a more innocent era, no young man would confuse chanting -- even group chanting -- with getting laid.

texting for those of a certain age

Received in email:
Text talk for the older generation.
ATD.............At The Doctors.
BFF.............Best Friend Fell.
BTW.............Bring the Wheelchair.
BYOT............Bring Your Own Teeth.
FWIW........... Forgot Where I Was.
GGPBL.......... Gotta Go Pacemaker Battery Low.
GHA.............Got Heartburn Again.
IMHAO...........Is My Hearing Aid On.
LMDO........... Laughing My Dentures Out.
OMMR..........  On My Massage Recliner.
OMSG .........  Oh My! Sorry, Gas.
ROFLACGU......  Rolling On Floor Laughing And Can't Get Up.
TTYL............Talk To You Louder.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

public and private

A Russian computer hacker who put a porn video on an electronic Moscow billboard (20x30 feet) and created a traffic jam has been sentenced to 18 months in the slammer.

It made me wonder whether there would be enough jail space if everyone who privately viewed what was considered pornographic in public were likewise sentenced.

No word on whether those stuck in the traffic jam enjoyed themselves.

your answers and mine

This morning, as a means of finding out if it were still hot, I stuck my finger in the cup of coffee I had poured. The warmth came up softly around my finger. Nothing held back. Completely informative. No trickery or camouflage. No ulterior motive. No correction or agreement. Ask and answer -- easy as pie.

And as much as I dislike sweeping and smarmy metaphors and similes, I could not help but think it: Isn't this a bit like spiritual life, answering precisely the question asked, irrespective of whose finger, whose question, goes to work? Gentle and direct and no fine print.

In Hinduism, there is the story of the tinker who came into a small village and set up his vat in the town square. There he invited one and all to bring their cloth and he would dye it for them. The first woman in line offered her cloth and asked that it be dyed red. Into the vat the cloth went and out it came -- red. The next man wanted green. Into the same vat that had produced a beautiful red went the cloth ... and came out green. And so it went -- villager after villager, color after color, each wish perfectly granted. Finally, there was just one man remaining. He handed over his cloth and said, "I would like mine to be the color of what is in the vat."

Questions and answers, questions and answers ... time after time out of time immemorial. But what is the answer where there is no question? At first, spiritual endeavor seems to answer myriad questions. It responds to the purest of heart and it responds to the dimwit Kansas church members standing outside the funeral of some recently-killed soldier with placards saying things like, "God Hates Fags" (their argument seems to be that wars are God's punishment for the abandoning of 'moral' values). Red cloth, green cloth, pure heart, conflicted heart -- the answers are there for the finding. But when the answers are found or imposed? Well, duck and cover!

But plumbing the depths a little, investigating the answers that come along and reassure, where does it lead? Deeper and deeper into someone else's answers. Deeper and deeper into your own answers. Deeper and deeper and deeper because answers do not achieve the assured footing anyone might rightly hope for. They simply do not hold water. Yes, answers assuage and provide comfort and encourage but what happens when a determined effort leads to a place without footing, a place without answers?

I'm not trying to upend anyone's apple cart here. Temples and texts and soaring spires ... raucous and distasteful rallies outside the graveyard. Who doesn't long for answers along the way -- pointers and consolations and warmth where the cold is fierce? But ALSO ... what is the color in the vat? What is the time where questions and answers slip away? What is it like to be here? Is it really all that scary since being here is inescapable in the first place? You've survived before, why not now?

Yesterday, I got an email filled with pictures and nostrums -- the cartoon "Peanuts" philosophy of life. And its punchline read, "Be yourself. Everyone else is taken." Sounds like good advice to me.

The coffee was warm.

Any questions?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

do it once, do it right

Passed along in email today, the following video which was allegedly shot in a single take on the set:



Being the age I am, I have been to the hospital a number of times. Part of getting older is an increased experience in what is sometimes called "the organ recital," conversations that center around one ailment or another, one infirmity or another, one loss of ability or another. I see nothing wrong with discussing what concerns you most, although some people do seem to make a veritable cottage industry out of "the organ recital."

At the times I have been to the hospital, I have been in rooms that are decorated with what I think of as medical art -- colorful renderings of a heart or kidneys or lungs or other organs that may be up for discussion. Personally, I would rather look at some hotel/motel art ... some cheap reproduction of a field of daffodils or sailboats in a harbor. Generally, I go to a doctor to get something fixed, not receive an anatomy lesson. Some people may find such things useful and doctors may be consoled, but I find them irritating and mildly idiotic.

But on the idiocy scale, the one that gets my goat the most is the "pain chart" -- a rendering of several line-drawing faces depicting everything from smiles to tears. "Looking at the pictures, which one would you say describes your pain level best?" the nurse or doctor may say in a professionally-caring tone. Perhaps this approach has some function when dealing with children, but even with children, it strikes me as self-serving and, well, idiotic.

First of all, outside a hypochondriac, who goes to a hospital or for a doctor visit because they just feel so damned good? Second and more important, who could ever adequately or usefully quantify pain? The whole exercise strikes me as a way for doctors and nurses to deflect from themselves the responsibility they have taken on ... to assist those in need ... an assistance that requires attention and assessment. Diagnosis derived from a patient's reaction to a wall chart strikes me as being only a small step up (if that) from a witch doctor who never heard of medical school.

Pain is not quantifiable, least of all some dimwit chart. It is not "like" anything at all. Things that are "like" something else rely on past experience and if past experience were any guide, no woman in her right mind would ever have another child. Pain, like pleasure, is right now. It is sui generis... always. People may do their futile best to repeat pleasurable experiences and to avoid painful ones, but it never works. There simply are no comparisons. Pain is right now.

In Buddhism, I have heard it said that "suffering" (the realm of both literal and psychological uncertainty and discomfort) is simply the resistance to pain. And the training of Buddhism is partly aimed not so much at reducing or eradicating discomfort as it is to see through the resistance to it. No one can escape what is right now. No one can define what is right now. But there is the ability to look into it and to check out the resistance.

In the medical profession these days, pills are frequently the solution of choice. Show me the smiley face and I will show you a pill. I see nothing wrong with pills, but I see no reason to deny idiocy either. If a doctor has the knowledge and skill to ameliorate existing conditions, well, thank you very much. But I see no reason to pretend that a chart can portray or explain what is right now. And if a doctor or nurse, with all of his or her training and skill, cannot adequately nail down the right-now, why should I pretend that I can?

Just because a pastime is popularly accepted is no reason to excuse or deny your own experience. My sense is that most of us are idiotic enough without adding more fuel to the flames. Aside from anything else, it's just too painful.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


A study suggests religion may become extinct in nine countries. Although the data strike me as a bit wobbly, still the suggestion is an interesting one. What would it be like if your religion -- atheism included -- were simply to wither and blow away in some autumnal wind?

It's a hard question to ask without sounding like some cranky gadfly like Christopher Hitchens or some ueber-intellectual like Richard Dawkins. But I think it is a question a person of faith -- any faith, any belief, any dearly-held position -- would benefit from asking and investigating. What would it be like if it all went poof? Gently asked, gently answered ... in front of your own mirror.

Beyond the heart-rending yowls of resistance -- what would it be like?

I guess it might boil down to an examination of conclusions and how accurate they might be. Intellectual conclusions, emotional conclusions, political conclusions, religious conclusions, employment conclusions, marital conclusions, ignoramus conclusions, lofty conclusions ... how accurate are conclusions when, after a good night's sleep, anyone might need to take a leak in the morning?

And if those conclusions were found wanting -- if their reliability crumbled and blew away -- what conclusion could anyone draw about conclusions? Would such a conclusion be warranted? And if anyone insisted on getting depressed in this arena -- if they concluded that nihilism were the only reasonable conclusion, well how sensible would that be?

Extinct? What could possibly be extinct?

"sunshine" on a grey day

Yesterday, the first day of spring, it snowed.

Today, an inch or two remains here and there and the skies are a wintry grey. But the sodden and down-trodden silence that filled the wintry air just two weeks ago is now alive with the lively chatter of springtime birds. Really, they make the kind of racket you might hear in a high school classroom before the teacher arrives.

To the ear, it is like looking at a painting in the making -- a painting once dulled with shades of grey and then all of a sudden a brilliant dash of alizarin crimson entered with a flourish. Are the birds arguing with what went before? Or are they simply announcing their arrival ... and the party can begin? I suppose the birds are just doing their thing while I sit here making up stories.

Whatever ... their noises are like sunshine on an overcast morning.

everything at once

Science has never been my strong suit. In fact, if someone commented that I "sucked" at science, I wouldn't put up much resistance. Nevertheless, there is sometimes a delight in finding something that piques my interest and yet I have no goddamned clue as to what it might mean.

From a journalistic point of view, I suppose I could criticize a BBC article I read this morning about "quantum computing." I read the article twice in order to gain some perspective. It didn't work and as a former news writer, my rule of thumb is that if someone with average intelligence can't get a handle on the topic, then the writer himself is under-informed and thus ill-equipped. People who really know their shit can always make the connection between lofty lingo and concepts and those like me who haven't got a clue. It's the mediocrities who insist on specialized language that sounds smart and, they imagine, makes them look informed.

But just because I didn't understand the article very well didn't mean I wasn't tantalized. The line that tickled my fancy was this:

Rather than the ones and zeroes of digital computing, quantum computers deal in what are known as superpositions - states of matter that can be thought of as both one and zero at once.

 "Both at once" -- science creeping up on reality, bit by bit ... the simultaneity that offends the intellectual mind and yet whispers in the world around us. "Paradox!" the intellectual mind whines and writhes. "Read 'em and weep!" life responds with a smile.

Not on my best day could I explain it all. But I could suggest that others open their eyes and pay attention...just see if what is tentatively called "simultaneity" makes any down-to-earth sense. True or untrue? -- everything at once.

Monday, March 21, 2011

"not religious"

A story from the BBC says that two-thirds of Britons do not consider themselves religious. The assertion is drawn from census data that asked a couple -- but not more -- of questions. Naturally, the assertion drew catcalls and accolades from various quarters.

Aside from the ridiculousness of the queries, I sort of wish someone would ask similar questions in my country ... no point in giving the Brits the biggest slice of the ridiculousness pie. Sometimes ridiculousness -- the willingness to make assertions based on hopelessly under-researched information -- can bring with it some useful pointers. Is "religion" based on institution? On personal preference? What is religion and what, precisely, constitutes religiousness? If beer-drinking were to measure the answers to such questions, the world would be hopelessly alcoholic.

It's an idiotically-humongous realm, but that doesn't mean it can't teach something ... if only to do our best not to ask idiotic questions that form the basis for equally-idiotic answers.

Moose Turd Pie

This morning I woke up remembering that out in the shed, there was a rusted, six-foot, steel bar I had once bought at a tag sale for $2. At one end of the bar, there is a claw that resembles a blunted version of the claw used to pull nails on a claw hammer. The other end is thinner and smoothed to a fare-thee-well -- evidence of a time when a man or men used it over and over again to straighten railroad tracks ... Gandy dancers ... a thing of the past: Hard work performed by Irish, Italian, Chinese and other immigrants and by blacks who may have been responsible for the chants used to unify the efforts of many men doing a job in unison.

Gandy dancers. The combination of words was somehow delightful in my mind, though the work itself was as mundane and hard as a blazing summer sun. Every time a train went around a curve, the centripetal force would drive the rails slightly out of alignment. If this were allowed to continue without correction, the minuscule changes would spell train wreck. Enter the Gandy dancers, who were paid in a range of about $5 per week.

The steel bar in the shed is evidence of straight-forward hard work, the kind of evidence I find attractive...not doing something else, doing this. Of course there were improvements as time went by -- more efficient ways to accomplish the same thing, but I find something encouraging about that 'inefficient' bar smoothed by human hands and mixed with a dollop of delicious sound -- Gandy dancers.

The thought of that bar in the shed led me to look up Gandy dancers. If Wikipedia is any guide, no one is entirely sure where the word "Gandy" originated. Maybe it was the company that made some of the Gand dancers' tools. Maybe it was a spin-off of a Gaelic word, "cinnte," meaning "constant." And there are other theories for the origins of something no internet-savvy, information-age person would probably give a shit about.

But, speaking of shit, I did run across a tale that seemed to fit well in a time when iron bars were smoothed by working hands ... a time of Gandy dancers ... a time of hard, rhythmic work ... but also a time of good laughter: Moose Turd Pie ... a tale told with the pace of a time when people were open to a good tale and willing to listen to the narrator, in this case, someone named Utah Phillips.

I guess everyone is, or likes to think of himself, as a Gandy dancer one way or another. Hard, hard work ... what was once rough steel is now smoothed by an intimate, blister-raising, callous-growing grasp. Self-congratulation plays no role where the sun blazes and people chant in unison and at day's end, there is some moose shit to make a (wo)man smile.

It's honest effort, Gandy dancing. Isn't it nice to find an effort in which there is no room for pretending to be honest? An effort in which nothing is held back. An effort in which analysis or philosophy simply impedes the effort. Hard work ... a little chanting ... all together now! ... a little Moose Turd Pie and ...

Fewer train wrecks.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


I wouldn't insist, but I do think that everyone deserves to find a way into their own garden. I use the word "garden" not just in some lyrical, self-help-y sense, but rather as a tentative word to describe the place within that requires no guile or energy, a place where things are complete and at ease. It is a serious place that lacks ordinary solemnities. Maybe it's like going to some weekend spa where the things supplied are enough and "more" and "less" have no relevance.

I was fortunate in my life to hook up with Zen practice. It suited me as a road map to a garden. A road map is not a garden, but it is a map... a map in which I wouldn't insist anyone else indulge. It's the garden that's important -- the place in which things are utterly OK.

I do think there is a lot of searching for the correct map, the map that anyone might be willing to follow, the unsharable map, but I do think that, in the end, any map will do. The willingness to follow it, come hell or high water, come heaven or hell, come hypocrisy or wisdom, come birth or death ... to open the garden gate is a good idea.

None of this is something anyone can convey to anyone else except, perhaps, in shared uncertainties, shared doubts, a shared sense that something is somehow missing. Institutions and exercises abound when it comes to what is missing. Some are more insistent than others...promising, promising, promising.

But of course whether institutions or exercises keep their promises is not up to the institutions or exercises. Some of them are pretty good. Some are more full of shit than a Christmas goose. But keeping promises -- opening the garden gate and entering -- depends on those who decide to follow a particular map.

A garden is a nice place. Who could argue with a carrot or a cucumber? Who could dispute sun and rain? Who could improve or disapprove of anything whatsoever? A place to relax and stop trying. Just to know it is there and to visit now and then strikes me as good nourishment. Big or small -- good nourishment.

beautiful day

A stunningly blue-sky day following a night filled with a stunning full moon.

Cool and crisp and bright. Time to stir my stumps for zazen.

if it looks to good to be true....

As usual, my daughter was smarter than I was. When I asked her if she, as a business major, had ever tried the online auction houses, places like SaveBig where people bid on particular items and the savings seemed worth the effort, she snorted and said she would never do that. And she's a shopper.

But did I listen? Noooooo.

It cost me $45 to buy the bids necessary to join the fray. And I did join the fray. Twice. Each time I bid on an iPad I thought it might be fun to have, though I don't actually need it. Bids go up in one-penny increments, but each time anyone bids, they are paying 60 cents to do so. The bidding gets pretty fiery as the clock ticks down to the "sold" point. Each time someone made a last-second bid, the clock would be reset to 20 seconds. This could go on for hours.

But there was a function (Bid Buddy) that allowed you to pick a bid-range ($90-$125 for example) and the number of bids you would like to make within that range ... and then forget about it. The site promised that your bids would be made within the last 10 seconds. It never happened and both times the iPads I bid on sold for less than the range I had put in.

When I asked about the proper function of Bid Buddy, I was informed laconically, "Sometimes the item sells at a lower price despite a higher bid is the clock runs out." In other words, the company would disregard a higher bid once they had made enough money with bids offered by others at 60 cents a pop.

None of this was mentioned in the Washington Post article I read -- the one that steered me to the site. So much for "journalism."

It cost me $45 to discover what my daughter knew from the get-go ... if it looks too good to be true, it probably isn't true. As P.T. Barnum observed, "There's a sucker born every minute." And I'm one of them.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

the end of the world

By some reckonings, the world is scheduled to end on May 21. These reckonings suggest that everyone make their peace with the Christian God or risk ... well, you know the story. I'm not sure how these reckonings factor in 2012 -- the year in which others suggest the world will end. Is this competing apocalypses!? What about all the other predictions I know nothing about? Or, come to think of it, did the world end and I completely missed it?

Who doesn't like a horror movie or a good disaster to perk up a future that does not currently perk up the present? No place to hide, no place to run, no place to escape and it's not only awful but it will all occur in living color and 3-D ... no special glasses required. Of course (nod, wink), you could be saved all this agony with a fill-in-the-blank, get-out-of-jail-free card.

Whether factual or fabricated, there is no story about the end that does not include some reference to the beginning. What ends begins. What begins ends. These are the ingredients of all fact and fiction. What happens in between is juicy or juiceless depending on both the observer and the teller of tales. Will it be "lawsy! lawsy!" or "hallelujah!" or simply y-a-w-n?

My Zen teacher's teacher, Soen Nakagawa Roshi, once said, "There is birth and there is death. In between there is enlightenment." "Between" always struck me as an interesting word ... "between a rock and a hard place," "between heaven and hell," "between happy and sad," "between beginning and end." On the one hand, wherever you go, there you are. On the other hand, you are always "between" something and something else.

Well, I guess we'd all be well advised to line up our ducks before May 21 ... assuming we last that long. Between now and then's lions and tigers and bears -- oh my! But be of good cheer, between now and then, between birth and death, between the beginning and the end, there is still time to conjure up soaring heavens and searing hells.

We've been doing it a long time ... why stop now? :)

the new old habit

Free-associating based on the "anonymous" comments in the post below, I remembered a beloved punch line from an old joke. I can't remember the joke itself except that it concerned a small bird flying in every-diminishing circles around a mountain peak. "Finally," the punch line went, "he flew up his own asshole and disappeared."

Maybe the punch line needs to be reworked a little. Instead of, "he flew up his own asshole and disappeared," the life-relevance to the punch line would be more along the lines of, "he flew up his own asshole and reappeared."

Stupid-er and stupid-er and stupid-er, smug-er and smug-er and smug-er, certain-er and certain-er and certain-er, important-er and important-er and important-er ... until finally you fly into the very center of the universe you have created and realize that the universe was never really necessary at all. Or, put another way, of course it was necessary, but, outside of being the medium through which it was created, you didn't need to fidget and fret about your part in things.

Which brought to mind my old line, "Just because you are indispensable to the universe does not mean the universe needs your help."

To the extent that any of this makes reasonable sense, I do hope I will be forgiven for my aging irritability. Flying up your own asshole is an old and trusted habit. Reappearing is an old and trusted habit.

Don't expect me to get over it any time soon.

Friday, March 18, 2011

another spring

In the cool of an almost spring morning, the sun promises another day the will help to melt the lingering and soiled piles of snow. The boy and girl cardinals that live across the street flit here and there, gathering bits and twigs. Occasionally they call out. Spring is en route, but the last snow storm of the season is probably waiting in the wings.

All this, though I've seen and heard it before, interests me. Its freshness never ceases, somehow. It is like some old friend or piece of music ... new at every turn, although anyone might hum along.

On a Buddhist bulletin board I read words like "enlightenment" and "compassion" and "rebirth" and "wisdom" and ... well, the litany goes on and on. All good encouragements, for sure. And yet my interest-animal lies curled at my feet like some snoozing cat. I don't really care ... I don't mind, but I don't care. If some breath-to-breath person were to exercise his or her tongue and spit out such words, I guess I would rouse myself a little ... if only to notice the pretty plumage and the advent of yet another spring.

sharks clean up

If human beings take showers and baths to cleanse themselves, why shouldn't sharks do the same thing?

"Stranger than Fiction"

Stumbled across and was sucked into a 2006 movie called "Stranger than Fiction" last night. It tells the quirky tale of a fellow who becomes aware that his life is being shaped by a frazzled female author who hasn't written a novel in 10 years. The voice in his head is mirrored by her words on the page. It was less stick-figure than "The Truman Show."

The plot is summed up by others better than I could, but I found "Stranger than Fiction" touching, profound without the prating, and strangely delicious. Most of all, it had what a lot of movies relied on 50 years ago and seldom display today: Character development. Character development and the movie wasn't needlessly and predictably dumb. If the happy ending was a bit abrupt, still it was a happy ending that made human and humane sense and made sense according to what had preceded it. The movie isn't going to win any awards, but it was a good movie in a small, compelling way.

It's nice to run across something that tints the skyline pleasantly.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


Watching a TV history program about "barbarians," there they were, re-enacted -- Romans and Huns and Saxons and Vikings and everywhere a call to arms, to victory, to plunder, and, yes, to glory. And although the program did not include any musical depictions of those ancient battles, still it put me in mind of a song we used to sing in grade school, an energetic and heroic song that referred to the the seven-year-long siege of Harlech Castle in Wales between 1461 and 1468. Men of Harlech remains a marching song with a lot of different lyrics so many years later.

Was there ever a conflict in which someone did not apply music, whether as advocate or opponent? Music, the stuff that opens the heart that longs to soar, then invites it to soar ... onto the battlefield where its singers lie mangled and buried? As I watched the program, although there was no music, still it made me think that music was a horrific bait-and-switch ... hum the tunes that bring smiles to the face only to find that face later, mangled beyond all recognition.

More recently, the Germans, the English, the French, the Americans ... who does not have a rousing chorus?

Here, for example are a couple of songs remembering the Spanish Civil War (17 July 1936 to 1 April 1939). The war was the darling of those who opposed fascism ... a battleground littered with fighters from many nations ... and a place where the Nazis practiced bombing and bombarding prior to the outbreak of World War II. 1. John McCutcheon's "Abraham Lincoln Brigade"
 and 2, the closer to the time rendition of La Quince Brigada  by Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers.

Rousing, haunting, critical, full of piss and vinegar ... who doesn't have such songs? Who could do without such uplifting and obscuring and melodic smoke?

Since I love music, I find something utterly human and utterly obscene about the connections -- the glory, the bait-and-switch offered to the human heart. I find it utterly revolting and simultaneously cannot condemn it or find it unusual. Covering up or elevating or misdirecting ... in what way is any of this unusual? But also ... how can the heart be peaceful when camouflage is the diet of choice?

I don't mean to pick on U.S. forces when adding an American song from the Vietnam War -- The Ballad of the Green Berets.
Not for a minute do I imagine that other countries can't sing similar songs with similar encouragements, similar pride, similar swelling hearts. Friends, enemies, allies ... all have their music.

I just wish, somehow, that they didn't.

Indian time

Yesterday, Scott, a fellow who does home improvement work, came by to estimate a couple of projects here. When we shook hands, I could feel both his hard work and his callouses. Scott was straight-forward and attentive. I had no way of knowing what the quality of his actual work might be, but I had a sense of someone who not only could but also would do what he said.

This morning, Frank, an old Zen buddy, sent me an essay by a former news reporter who had gone into teaching and was disgusted. He wasn't so much disgusted by all the knee-jerk aspects that receive a lot of ink and talk -- lethargic administrations, coddled teachers, money-making, cookie-cutter tests that really didn't help or inspire students, etc. What really disgusted him was the fact that at some point along the way, those in the teaching business had instructed the politicians and policy makers who were currently gutting the educational arena ... opting for the dumb and dumber policies and yet wailing about the failure of schools to adequately educate the coming generation. Hard-working teachers had failed and the politicians and policy-makers were the proof.

In good times, everyone wants to be a chief. Chiefs are the ones who direct and demand the productivity of the Indians. Chiefs are the ones who formulate intentions that others are expected to execute. They envision and philosophize and sometimes get lost imagining that their activities constitute the callouses on Scott's hands. Without a vision, how could there be an accomplishment? Ergo, by having a vision, the chiefs accomplish something grand and important and tangible.

I guess everyone has got a chief and and Indian within. The chief talks and imagines and analyzes and corrects and encourages and ... and then the Indian does the heavy lifting... the patient, callous-creating, try-and-fail work? But how often does anyone fall prey to his or her own chief and neglect his or her own Indian? How often does talk-the-talk suffice and walk-the-walk go begging?

It's always nice to work for someone who can direct the scene based on a history of actual-factual heavy-lifting. And it's a pain in the ass working for someone who has all the credentials and none of the on-the-ground savvy. It's like a West Point graduate who takes command of a combat company ... anyone with any smarts is skeptical of someone who has nothing more than brains. Nice clothes, intricate concepts and perfect posture only go so far ... there needs to be some skill when the bullets fly.

One of the nicest compliments I ever received in my working career came one summer when I was working on a state construction crew. There were other such crews who spent time leaning on their shovels, but this crew was not like that. It was flat-out hard work and I loved it -- loved learning how to do things correctly and then putting that information into my own sweat and blood blisters. About half-way through the summer, a regional foreman pulled me aside. He wasn't a lavish man. He simply asked me if I would like a full-time job working for the state. He was disappointed -- and I was too -- when he found out I was only 18. Job offers were for those 21 and older. But his asking let me know ... my Indian had earned his spurs.

Isn't all of this the same in spiritual adventures? The chief imagines and philosophizes and sometimes spends a lifetime simply being the brainy chief -- the wise West Point grad who cannot yet grab his own ass with both hands. The chief formulates a Yellow Brick Road of direction and intention and hope and belief and soaring visions and then ... and then ... and then....

Light as a feather ...
And then, with luck, it's time to get dirty, time to fuck up a hundred wet dreams, time to try and fail, time to become impatient and learn patience, time to weep that the envisioned goal remains out of reach, time to see progress only to realize you've been going backwards, time to play humble only to be called out for such arrogance, time to find a holy determination challenged by an unholy array of facts, time to long to be a chief but face off against what any real chief must do ... be an Indian.

What a balancing act, trying to find the way between dream and fact ... something useful and productive instead of just imaginative and wishful. And yet the only thing anyone can do is what they are doing. There is no going back. Likewise, there is no going forward except among feather-merchant Chiefs. There is just this Indian learning what it is to have callouses and a firm handshake -- straight as a string and never concocting chief-ly dreams.

It's Indian time...light as a feather.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

the 'ultimate sacrifice'

One of the threads that creates the tapestry of any religion or spiritual pursuit is the thread of sacrifice. From the onlooker's point of view, a lot of what might be attained rests on the surrendering of what the social order holds dear -- home, wealth, possessions, position, power. To attain understanding -- or even to get on god's good side -- sacrifice is required.

And when it comes to sacrifice, the social matrix seems fond of referring to "the ultimate sacrifice" -- the willingness to die. Soldiers in battle are sometimes forced to make "the ultimate sacrifice," which fellow human beings then acknowledge through mourning or accolades. The spiritual realm is sometimes referred to as a battleground as well ... "onward Christian soldiers," etc. And suicide bombers make an incredible sacrifice, however insane it may seem to their enemies.

But I have a feeling that death, however confounding or consoling or threatening it may seem, is not really the hardest of all sacrifices in the realm of spiritual endeavor. The dirty little secret, so to speak, when it comes to spiritual sacrifice, is the imperative willingness to surrender the beliefs that have shaped and inspired any spiritual practice. Is it any wonder that institutionalized religions can go ape-shit when a spiritual (wo)man appears?

Of course the more mature religions make room for their mystics, but the puppies can go berserk ... to sacrifice belief is not part of the the established program because the establishment would dissolve without the belief that upholds it. Better the woo-hoo of sacrificing your life, making death the "ultimate sacrifice," diverting the attention from the sacrifice that would scare the pants off anyone inclined towards spiritual life.

 It doesn't interest me much what institutions do or suggest in the realm of sacrifice. Institutions have their good points and bad. What does interest me is the individual willingness to consider the honest nature of sacrifice... and which sacrifice might be the most difficult. No one can believe that surrendering belief is the most difficult sacrifice ... that would just be heaping belief on top of belief and compound the difficulty. But what individuals can do is to investigate within the world of belief ... paying close-closer-closest attention to that which seems to demand an unremitting attention.

"Sacrifice" is a believer's word. There is nothing wrong with it. An active imagination can promote some wonderful (and horrific) actions. "Getting closer to God," "entering this moment," "finding a sound and abiding peace," "do this," "don't do that," etc.

But I have a feeling that at some point, in order for spiritual endeavor to fulfill its promise, the 'ultimate sacrifice' will be required.

Take a leak in the morning.

Wash the dishes.

And kiss your child good night.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

the merchant's paradise

There was a time when I was purely peeing in my pants to become a spiritual teacher of some sort. Since Zen practice was what I chose, a Zen teacher would have been nice. Think of it -- waving words like "compassion" around, veneration from left and right, and a sure handle on what it was I assumed I would be teaching. Gimme some of that! Kool clothes, too!

But today, I feel vaguely sorry for those who are cast in a life of Zen (or any other practical-type) teacher. Talk about a load to carry. Theoretically, such a (wo)man will have actualized the teaching at hand. (I said "theoretically" so don't jump my bones!) And having entered into and to some extent tested the directions of such a bright place, the job is to lend others a hand.

But lending others a hand involves merchandising because those who are investigating the imagined merchandise demand it. Straight talk is, at the moment, beyond them, so the merchant's world is the only tentative option.

But when, day after day, week after week, year after year the teacher enters this market place to ply his trade, how hard it must be not to rest on the laurels of a mere merchant. What the hell -- lots of other people are content to be merchants, to rest easy and pass out requisite and easily obtainable bits of wisdom ... why fight it ... why not go with the flow ... why not cite the texts and revere the relics of old? It puts spaghetti on the table and it might be easy to forgive if spiritual life was just an Arab bazaar.

And so, perhaps, the honest teacher is forced to be constantly on guard ... doing his or her best not to be snared by the merchandising of the trade.

Ta Hui once said, approximately, "I have always taken a great vow that I would rather burn in hell for all eternity than to portray the Dharma as a human emotion." Now he may have been doing some sexy merchandising, but I choose to believe he may have meant it exactly ... and in so doing took another stab at parrying a merchant's paradise.

Merchant teachers will defend themselves, of course, with "skillful means" and "compassion" and other tinsel-town explanations, but I'm not so worried about them: Every excellent realm is bound to excite its merchants and mediocrities. But for those who have actually touched the ground ... I do feel sorry for them and admire their wielding of the sword.

And who would know the difference between the money-changers and the bright lights? Don't ask me -- I gave up wet-dreaming about being a 'teacher' a long time ago.

catastrophe or blessing?

According to the BBC, Warner Bros., an American movie company, has removed a film that contains imaginative scenes of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed 250,000 from Japanese theaters. "Warner Bros official Satoru Otani said 'Hereafter's' terrifying tsunami scenes were "not appropriate" at this time.""

Japan's death toll from the March 11, 8.9 earthquake currently stands at an improbable 2,400, with equally-improbable estimates ranging upward of 10,000. The mind-boggling devastation photographers have attempted without success to capture suggests a death toll beyond what a sane mind can compass.

Isn't it wonderful how the mind dances and toys with things and then is left speechless and agog at its own childishness when the event that tickled the imagination descends? Wouldn't it be nice to simply remove a too-close-to-the-bone bit of imagination ...?

And not just horrific events. What about the events put forward by the imagination as delightful or wondrous?

How many would speak glowingly of their spiritual persuasions -- the intricacies, the halos, the blessings, the hope, the golden glow, the promises ...?

When the promises come true, all of the preceding dalliance and adoring chit-chat seems inappropriate. In deference to experience, who wouldn't pull this religion or that from their local cinemas?

What would it be like to wake up in the morning and read on the BBC, "In deference to current events, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, atheism and other imaginative pursuits have been recalled from local theaters. They are not appropriate at this time?"

Catastrophe or blessing ... which, if either, is it?

Monday, March 14, 2011


Go lightly to the heart of things.
Do not be surprised
When the telephone rings.

before and after in Japan

 From the BBC:

Before and after photos in Japan.

Pi Day

An email nudge informed me that...

For those who may have forgotten, today (3/14) is Pi Day.

email Triscuits

Email snacks provided by others this morning included:

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi said, “Being a Zen master means coping with one’s mistakes.” Indeed, and it’s a pretty lonely position. If you confess to your errors, some of the good students will go away. If you don’t, you yourself will go away. I don’t wonder at the alcoholism found occasionally in sacred halls."
And then, in response to the 'perfect country song' I sent to a Jewish friend, there was a version (tender hearts may wish to skip this one) of “They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore”

I had half expected a second tongue-lashing from my old economics-prof friend Barney after I sent him a graphic liberal wail  about "what class war looks like." Last night Barney wrote back at some length describing the sloppy and inflammatory nature of the graph. Funny how, liberal or conservative, things look different when examined closely. I responded by saying I had sent it to him a bit tongue in cheek, knowing it would get a rise out of someone versed in economics, but also wondering why, when economics involves someone creating something that someone else finds valuable, we don't have more wars. War is such a profitable business. I thought perhaps Barney might treat me to another tongue-lashing, but this morning, there was nothing. 

Anyway, those were my email Triscuits for the morning.

the Cornerstone

If I had to choose the single most-necessary recognition in spiritual endeavor, I guess it would be, "I am important." Without it, any religion I can think of would become like a sand castle on the beach -- subject to decimation by an in-coming tide.

What's interesting is that you don't even need to go the spiritual route to feel the supportive qualities of what might be called The Cornerstone: I am important... atheists, true believers, it's the same ... same stuff, different day. The cornerstone is the single most vital support structure in any building. It is the starting point for any serious piece of architecture ... something that will last and soar and be beautiful and provide assured shelter.

At about this point, I can almost hear the Buddhists ("there is no abiding self") and the Christians ("do unto others as you would have done unto you") ... and the Muslims and Jews and Hindus and Jains and atheists rising up in a controlled fury. "I am important" is most emphatically NOT their teaching; they're in business for the good stuff, the kindly stuff, the over-arching stuff, the pure stuff, the virtuous stuff the charitable stuff, the empty stuff, the righteous stuff. Caveats and riders and explanations rain down on the proposal that the Cornerstone could be anything so icky as "I am important." "Others may be like that," the explanations go, "but not me." They might do anything -- anything -- to escape the lash.

But I think that trying to escape is the wrong approach, one that only intensifies the fallout from "I am important." A better approach is not to flee, not to duck and cover, but to embrace and then investigate. Yes, I am important and my spiritual (or non-spiritual) endeavor builds miraculous support structures above this Cornerstone.

Given the tenderness of human longing -- the desire to revise the self-centered uncertainties of this life -- it would be cruel to try to shove the Cornerstone down anyone's throat, let alone your own. Like an archaeologist, it's important to go carefully, brushing away the accumulated sands bit by bit. Belief and hope encourage the way, deeper and deeper into this ancient site. Still, without unearthing the Cornerstone, what can anyone know of this delightful dig? True, some will remain in a world of belief and hope, but the uncertainties will continue to nag. Belief is just another way of asserting doubt, and no one wants to live in doubt. Hope is just another way of underscoring uncertainty and no one wants to live a life of quivering uncertainty.

Deeper and deeper until at last there it is -- the Cornerstone, the piece of architecture without which the rest would dissolve. "I am important." I may have muttered and memorized and dissected my importance in the past, laying on more and more and more spiritual appreciations as a means of assuring my peace, but here at last is the Cornerstone that upholds the entire effort: "I am important."

And it's OK ... or anyway I think so. To my way of thinking, it's not just OK, it's really very good. Now the honest work can begin. Spiritual discipline may have created the skills necessary to this work, but the work itself is beyond anything with a spiritual label. It is plain as salt: "I am important." Nothing fancy about that.

And at this point, I think, the dime begins to drop. You made a mistake in thinking or trying to escape from "I am important." Hell, anyone can make a mistake, especially when not enough information is available. Yup, you goofed. You screwed the pooch. But for those who practice what they preach, screwing the pooch is par for the course. Another day, another goof. But goofs are what put meat on the bone of understanding and actualization.

When the dime begins to drop, I think it drops sort of like this: Yes, I am important -- it's just that I didn't know how important I was. Inescapably important, vastly important, important to the far ends of the universe. Integral to what was, what is and what will be. And it has nothing to do with me.

It's important -- the Cornerstone that makes every other stone shimmer in the sun. It's important, but it's not that important.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

the "green" thing

Another email:

In the line at the store, the cashier told the older woman that plastic bags weren't good for the environment. The woman apologized to her and explained, "We didn't have the green thing back in my day."

That's right, they didn't have the green thing in her day. Back then, they returned their milk bottles, Coke bottles and beer bottles to the store. The store sent them back to the plant to be washed and sterilized and refilled, using the same bottles over and over. So they really were recycled. 

But they didn't have the green thing back in her day.

In her day, they walked up stairs, because they didn't have an escalator in every store and office building. They walked to the grocery store and didn't climb into a 300-horsepower machine every time they had to go two blocks.

But she's right. They didn't have the green thing in her day. Back then, they washed the baby's diapers because they didn't have the throw-away kind. They dried clothes on a line, not in an energy gobbling machine burning up 220 volts – wind and solar power really did dry the clothes. Kids got hand-me-down clothes from their brothers or sisters, not always brand-new clothing. 

But that old lady is right, they didn't have the green thing back in her day.

Back then, they had one TV, or radio, in the house – not a TV in every room. And the TV had a small screen the size of a pizza dish, not a screen the size of the state of Montana. In the kitchen, they blended and stirred by hand because they didn't have electric machines to do everything for you. When they packaged a fragile item to send in the mail, they used wadded up newspaper to cushion it, not Styrofoam or plastic bubble wrap.

Back then, they didn't fire up an engine and burn gasoline just to cut the lawn. They used a push mower that ran on human power. They exercised by working so they didn't need to go to a health club to run on treadmills that operate on electricity.

But she's right, they didn't have the green thing back then.

They drank from a fountain when they were thirsty, instead of using a cup or a plastic bottle every time they had a drink of water. They refilled pens with ink, instead of buying a new pen, and they replaced the razor blades in a razor instead of throwing away the whole razor just because the blade got dull.

But they didn't have the green thing back then.

Back then, people took the streetcar and kids rode their bikes to school or rode the school bus, instead of turning their moms into a 24-hour taxi service. They had one electrical outlet in a room, not an entire bank of sockets to power a dozen appliances. And they didn't need a computerized gadget to receive a signal beamed from satellites 2,000 miles out in space in order to find the nearest pizza joint.

But they didn't have the green thing back then!