Saturday, April 30, 2011

"I" and "me" and "mine"

I once had an internet friend who declined to use the words "I" or "me" or "mine" in his communications. As you can imagine, this led to some linguistic gymnastics that bordered on the unintelligible.

In one sense, from an outsider's point of view, it was a good exercise. In another sense, the exercise was ludicrous since the effort itself spelled out in letters eight feet high the "I" and "me" and "mine" or the situation. In still another sense, this ludicrousness sharpened the focus on what was a worthwhile object of focus.

From his efforts I deduced that a focus and effort that centers on "I" and "me" and "mine" has nothing to do with what others might believe or conceive or advise. It has everything to do with the credibility the user might bring to bear when opening his or her mind or mouth to use words like "I" and "me" and "mine."

If you believe it, there is trouble. If you disbelieve it, there is trouble. But if you simply pay attention, a once-bright balloon loses its air all by itself.

enough is enough

A bright and sparkly day after several grey and soggy ones. The trees have adorned themselves with the delicate green of birthing leaves. Daffodils and tulips are everywhere. The birds are making a lively racket. And I look forward to standing in the sunshine on the peace picket line. Isn't that enough?

Skimming the news offered by the BBC, Al Jazeera, The Washington Post, and a couple of other media outlets, I await the story that will grab my attention, that will arouse a sense of importance, that will be, for the moment, "enough." Not so much the stories that 'should' excite me, but the ones that actually do.

There is something delicious about getting excited and the excitement that infuses a life which, of itself, is strangely not quite "enough." It's such a long-standing habit -- seeking out the Ketchup of excitement -- that questioning it is like questioning the ground beneath your feet ... the gravity and proof of existence. A part of the human compact seems to be don't-ask-don't-tell when it comes to excitement. Perhaps this accounts for the silences of the elderly. Raining on someone else's (or even your own) parade seems pretty Grinchy. Without finding excitement, wouldn't you be dead? And the answer is, of course not ... or anyway not yet.

But what is enough? What is complete? What is edgeless and smiling? Certainly it's available -- anyone who has ever sneezed one sneeze knows that. But the contentment of enough-ness is elusive, continually nagged by the habit of excitement, importance, meaning. There is no out-flanking the question of what might be enough, no high-falutin' reasoning or emoting that will fill the bill. Asking what might be enough is to suggest that we have somehow gotten things backwards, put some greater sanity on hold ... and now it's time to straighten things out. There is nothing wrong, per se, with excitement; it's just that we have denied the responsibilities that are, bit by bit, more apparent.

Out the window, it's still bright. A small breeze has kicked up. It is time for breakfast.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Superman's ruminations

Politicians may be unable or unwilling to represent those who have not paid handsomely, but Superman, a comic book character, is considering giving up his U.S. citizenship in his pursuit of justice.

"'Truth, justice and the American way' - it's not enough anymore," Superman says in the latest issue. "The world is too small, too connected."

Given a society whose news media have spent a nauseating and unconscionable amount of energy in probing President Barack Obama's origins, the symbolism of Superman's decision may arouse some 'patriotic' fervor.

Comic book enthusiasts may find it less compelling (at the moment) that the new government in Egypt has announced it would open its Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip permanently.

This crossing, the only one not controlled by Israel, was choked off in the past under the administration of now-ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a man who upheld Israel's interests ... no doubt with a little nudging from the United States. The Egyptian foreign minister said Egypt's past support for a blockade of Gaza was disgraceful and the International Red Cross called it a clear violation of international humanitarian law. Israel has claimed that free access to Gaza implies the arming of its enemies ... and paid little heed to the suffering imposed by a blockade that may have stopped arms shipments, but also denied nourishment and employment to ordinary citizens.

Who knows -- maybe Superman will take a trip to Gaza.


On this side of the pond, the sun has seen fit to show its face after several days of moist gloom. In London, where Prince William and Kate Middleton were scheduled to marry, the forecast included a possibility of rain, but the panoply and splendor and excusably contrived delight shone through. Newscasters were left inept by the fact that, however wonderfully grand, this was just two people getting married and there wasn't a hell of a lot to report. But all I had to do was hear that the wedding playbill included the singing of "Jerusalem" and I too fell victim to the event.The hymn, which rivals "The Star Spangled Banner" for un-sing-ability, makes my heart soar and my eyes water every time.

On this side of the pond, there is no royalty of the sort that the U.K., Japan, and a variety of other countries can boast ... the figure-head monarchies that serve very little viable purpose, and yet remain ... remain what? Objects of veneration? Objects of stinging and apt criticism ... vapid, self-aggrandizing, smug? Reminders of history? Chacun à son goût. Each picks a perspective, I suspect.

The perspective that crosses my mind is this: Who in this lifetime does not choose a royalty -- some intangible aspect that reaches beyond daily concerns of wealth or poverty or family and friends ... some brightness that is as untouched as it is untouchable, that stands beyond the mundane or profound, that is blithely unconcerned with mere religion or philosophy or savvy description ... that is ... well, simply bright. It has no earthly use and yet without this royal realm we all become, somehow, useless. Speaking of it is like piss in a snowbank -- paltry and small.

Churches make vast sums based on this individual sense of royalty, but there is something apostate in their gain. This is wider than the arms of a child that runs to greet its mother. It is wider than "love." It simply is and it is nourishing. It whispers and yet is shy as a unicorn, retreating to the shadows before those who speak of God or enlightenment or the wonders of mercantile wealth. It lacks all contrast and casts no shadow.

It is regal without desire.

It enfolds and infuses.

It defies the title of "dream."

It leaves newscasters like me wallowing in nonsense.

This ... royal ... moment.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

a frozen Niagara Falls

Received in email ... click pic to enlarge:


a bit of evidence

After writing a blog post the other day, I looked at it and thought I would send it to the local newspaper for consideration as a "guest column" or something similar.

It has been some time since I thought of getting something published or found the willingness to try. It was like re-entering a game I hadn't played in a long time. And more, it felt somehow "correct" according to my attributes. Writing a blog does not count in my head as being part of the game, though I suppose it is.

Acceptance or rejection was not so much the point. It was the action that warmed the cockles of some part of my heart. Like it or lump it, writing is something I have spent a lot of time on in my life. It's too late to change horses now.

Yesterday I got a note from the newspaper editor saying he would reread it today and see if he could "find a home" for it. "Thanks for sharing," he wrote, using a word that always makes me cringe. But his words seemed somehow fitting and "correct" as well. It would have been the same if he had said, "this is not for us," but he didn't and I was pleased at the reaction. It was as if some small part of me spoke up, saying, "What the hell did you expect -- it's just what you do."

It was a pleasant feeling. A small matter, a bit of evidence, and informative.

grinding the ax

I have to admit that I admire those who have an ax to grind, but grind it quietly ... because, after all, it is just their ax. They do not say that they are right. They do not say that you are wrong. They simply tell you what they think and, if you like, what they do. They are pleasantly and unsurpisingly naked.

Stephen Colbert's television show, "The Colbert Report," is premised on humorous and sometimes pointed observations of the society in which we live. Yesterday, I watched an interview with A.C. Grayling, a philosophy professor at the University of London and author of "The Good Book: A Humanist Bible." The book is a  treatise, as far as I could determine from the quasi-conversation with Colbert, on how to approach this life we live.

Colbert, of course, is in the humor/commentary business, so he poked and prodded and fairly begged Grayling to come out and fight about God or to posit a philosophy that dismissed God. Lord knows there are enough humanists out there who might have bitten down on this bait. Loud-mouthed humanists are about as available as loud-mouthed, card-carrying religion advocates. It makes for a pretty good shouting match: My views are important-er than your views.

For all I know, Grayling can be as vitriolic and outraged as any other humanist when it comes to the God premise. But sitting across from Colbert, he seemed willing to allow his interviewer all the noise he wanted to make. Grayling didn't say yes and he didn't say no. He didn't say he was right and he didn't say Colbert was wrong. He didn't defend and he didn't exalt. Occasionally he smiled pleasantly at Colbert's showman gyrations.

It was as if he were saying, "Look. You do/think/believe your thing and I'll do mine. What's wrong with that?" And the answer in my mind was, "Nothing whatsoever." We can learn from each other and perhaps do something about our mistakes, but working to assure our own peace and clarity is the only thing that makes very good sense. You drive a Toyota and I drive a Buick ... is transportation something that requires a debate or oratory?

Of course it's not as easy as it sounds -- doing your own thing -- because it requires reflection and effort. And it does seem to fly in the face of social connections. But that's what it is to be alive, isn't it -- doing your own thing and clarifying who, precisely, is doing it?

PS. I did wonder anew why it was that philosophy teachers were granted the title of "philosopher," when philosophy as a topic can hardly be seen as the same as philosophy on the hoof.

out of the office

Massive storms have pummeled the southern United States. Tuscaloosa, Alabama, was badly hit by one of many tornadoes to wrack several states. Death tolls are rising. Devastation is widespread. Pockets of hope are surrounded by acres of despairing uncertainty. The land is a mess and with it, the minds of those forced to face an upended array of facts.

"All the stuff you need to be a hospital are fine: just not necessarily all the things you need to run an office," spokesman Brad Fisher  told the Tuscaloosa News.
My father once told me of a time when he was working for a homesteader in, I think it was, Oklahoma. He was hired on as someone to help plant peach trees. And one evening, as he sat on the porch of the house, looking out over the fields where he helped with the back-breaking work, he saw a tornado funnel bearing down on the field. The tornado seemed to have a specific and malevolent intent in mind as it passed over the field and ripped up every damned peach tree he had planted. Since his father had been a Presbyterian minister, my father had a whopping distaste for God, but he did admit to feeling that there was something devilish about that tornado.

Disasters offer such easy times in which to reassess and reshape assumptions -- basically because events of one kind or another have ripped those assumptions to shreds. The hospital still works, but the office has been decimated. And everyone has an office, a place in which to shape and adorn assumptions that grow out of sweat-of-your-brow experience ... the real work; the productive work; the hospital work; the no-screwing-around important stuff. Offices are places for fine clothes and favorite jewelry and social status and a car that is shinier than your neighbor's and ... well, all the stuff that you figured would assure your standing.

Disasters are easy times to reassess office assumptions. It is harder in good times -- times when the office is running smoothly, a paycheck is assured and the worry of the day is whether to plant pansies or tulips in the garden outside the front door. And yet the assumptions are everywhere and always ... of course I will wake up tomorrow with my right pinkie.

All of the office assumptions could lead some to a convenient social whine ... oh the arrogance of the rich; oh the sorrows of the poor; oh the unfairness .... but what is more interesting than social commentary is the assumptions anyone might make ... about anything. What are things like when the office is no more and yet, somehow, the hospital is still operating? Despite the trappings, here I am ... but who am I? Take away the trappings, if only for a moment, and what is left? If you say nothing is left, well, that's not quite right. And if you say something is left, how is that not just another attempt to refurbish the office?

Gautama, the man frequently called "the Buddha," left his palace life behind. He walked away from the assumptions and comforts of his youthful office in search of something more credible. His office assumptions had been challenged and he accepted the challenge, spending six years seeking out his hospital, seeking that which did not expand or contract in the face of life's blandishments and tornadoes. And with considerable effort, he was able to send an email to his constituency ... "out of the office."

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

changes in Tibetan hierarchy

The Dalai Lama's withdrawal as political leader of the Tibetan people has led to the election of a new political front-man -- Harvard Law School senior fellow Lobsang Sangay. The Dalai Lama will retain his responsibilities as spiritual leader.

the apt perfection of the unknown

-- Once upon a time, a long time ago, in a story I do not exactly remember, the New York Times ran a front-page article about archaeologists in Japan who unearthed an old wooden box. Inside the box was another box together with a note. The note, which I believe included some indication that it was of imperial (a princess?) origin, said in essence, "Don't open this box." And the archaeologists didn't.

-- In an art gallery in New York, I was ambling around looking at the paintings when one of them brought me up short. It fairly blew me away. It was a painting of a mountain, but something about it absolutely absorbed me. It was like listening to a wonderful piece of music -- a gob-stopper. And as I stood stock still being enveloped by the painting, a gallery salesman walked up behind me and began to explain the painting, pointing out its characteristics and meaning and ... suddenly I was filled with rage. I was within an inch of literally punching him in the face.

-- In the movie "Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter ... and Spring," one of the beckoning peculiarities was the fact that in the temple that formed the focal point of the action and in the nearby woods as well, there were doors that had no walls to the left or right. The actors took great care to walk through the doors, although they might have gotten where they were going more quickly by walking through the space where walls might ordinarily have stood. It was an evocative bit of silence ... opening doors that didn't lead in ordinary terms from one space to another. I didn't know why things were configured in this way ... but if someone tried to explain it to me, I think I might have been as enraged as I was with the art-gallery salesman.

There is a deliciousness and an aptness to not-knowing. Things become clearer somehow when they are not at all clear. It is a time of preciousness that cannot be defined or dissected. It is like God without the intermediaries of temple or text. It makes your heart soar and a soaring heart is worth your literal life to protect ... if only you could figure out what you were protecting.

kindred spirits

Something like a half a million people were said to have turned out in Puttaparthi, India, for the burial of the guru Sai Baba, a revered Hindu holy man whom some considered a god and others called a fraud who indulged in sexual excesses and dubious financial maneuvers -- another spiritual hooligan. Even the Indian prime minister paid his respects.

Who could fault the all-too-human desire to gather and be warmed? Whether in spiritual endeavor or any other, there are gatherings in which the uncertainties and sorrows of the individual are given hope and relief. Who could fault it? It is human and suffering is no joke. The agreements found in a group anneal the sense of floundering or loss or confusion or sorrow. In the company of others, the slings and arrows of outrageous individualized fortune are in many ways warded off. And it is a ... blessing. Would you not comfort a sorrowing friend? I know I would.

But the comfort and relief of gatherings -- the solemnizing of rite and ritual and philosophy -- are not without their inherent difficulties.

I am trying to find a nice way to say this -- a way that will not seem disdainful of the very-human longing for comfort and release. Gatherings are a wonderful starting point, a situation in which the confusions and tears can be gently stemmed. But as a long-term diet, I'm afraid they lack what it takes to go the distance. People don't join groups in order to find the blessing of others. They join groups in order to find their own blessing, their own assured home, their clear and compassionate understanding that is content even in the loneliest of times. Simply put, the comfort of a gathering or a gathered philosophy or religion cannot bless anyone who finds himself staring at the bedroom ceiling at 3 a.m. You cannot talk yourself out of yourself and no warming solemnity can change that.

So, for my money, the gathering is a means of inspiring individual courage to address what is an individual matter -- your life, your blessing. Someone else's life or blessing will not do ... or perhaps it will do, but it is bound to fall short of the blessing anyone might rightly think they deserve.

The Zen teacher Rinzai once built a fire under his monks -- goading them, prodding them, begging them, lashing them. Rinzai said, "You do not understand. Your whole problem is that you do not trust yourselves enough." Outsiders might hear such encouragement as an invitation to ego tripping. Insiders might quibble and dither about a self that has no abiding reality. But I think Rinzai was right on target. Find your blessing come hell or high water.Go the distance. Be grateful for gatherings but know them for what they are -- a tentative expression, not a nesting place.

Isn't it one of the central human discomforts -- knowing that we cannot share experience? That is one of the messages conveyed by the bedroom ceiling at 3 a.m. We cannot share experience and yet we gather in groups, sharing experience and hearing others extol that "sharing." It takes some daring to investigate what is already perfectly clear -- the bedroom ceiling... very God of very Gods.

In summertime, there are suburban pool parties for those lucky enough to afford a pool. Friends gather in the sunshine to eat and talk and swim. One by one, they take a turn on the diving board. All may see the fun others derive from the bounce-bounce-bounce-leap and yet there is no comparison between the delight of others and the bounce-bounce-bounce-leap that is your own. This is sui generis -- comparable to all that has gone before and yet utterly incomparable. A blessing as wide open as the sky. It belongs to no (wo)man. It belongs to you.

Do a cannon ball!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Q & A

Maybe it is easier to find the answer when we stop imagining there is an answer.

Is that true? :)


In the local newspaper this morning, a small article, with photo, alerted the public to a Level 3 sex offender living in the community. Level 3 sex offenders are those who have been judged as highly likely to commit further offenses of the same nature. They have done jail time and now, by statute, must do their time out-of-jail ... publicly cited as a potential pariah in the community.

Yesterday, various news organizations scrutinized the paperwork that allowed "terrorist" detainees to be held for years at Guantanamo in Cuba. Many of the detainees had been held with little or no concrete evidence. They were not granted trials.

In the furor that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, destruction of the World Trade Center and the American invasion of Afghanistan, all kinds of people were swept up, sometimes tortured, and then just left in a limbo it is hard to imagine. Some were no doubt bad guys. Some were not. Sorting out one from the other was apparently not on the agenda of a country that can elevate its hopes to be "just." The country was encouraged to be afraid and in that fear to overlook one of its own best potentialities.

In the wake of the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, then-President Franklin Roosevelt, with the concurrence of the Supreme Court, set up internment camps for Japanese-descent people living in the United States. These people were classified as "enemy aliens" and were given 10 days to close up shop and leave the homes they had lived in for years. Germans and Italians faced a similar fate. It was a time of fear and in times of fear, especially state-sanctioned fear, justice took a beating.

After some discussion, the Greek philosopher Plato described justice as "each man doing his own work." His reasoning was better than anything I could make up, but his conclusion still leaves the question hanging -- what is justice where the rubber hits the road, where human frailty and desire and fear run off in 40 different directions at once? People can wax pretty serious about justice, the need for it, the common good that it may bolster ... but what the hell is it? Without it, barbarism gains an unassailable footing. But with it ... with it, its lack of free-standing, agreed-upon meaning whittles away at its core.

As far as I can see, justice is a hope. It is not an achievement. It is a goal, but it is unattainable because the very people it might serve are alive and cannot be subjected to labels, whether lofty or base. What is alive is limitless, segueing without effort from aspect to aspect. Trying to nail down what is alive is like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall. It doesn't work and yet without making the effort, how could anyone know that? Justice is a serious matter and yet the seriousness does not mean that it can be held in place. Perhaps it is like the Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's observation about pornography in which he said that although he might not be able to define it, still, "I know it when I see it."

It is galling and cruel to see injustices visited on the very people who might long for the comforts of justice. It is galling and cruel to see justice twisted for personal gain. It is like swimming in a pool of chocolate milk -- so delicious on the one hand, so capable of drowning its adherents on the other.

A dictionary definition of "justice" strikes me as posing more questions than it answers:

-- the fact that something is reasonable and fair
-- treatment of people that is fair and morally right
-- the legal process of judging and punishing people
-- a fair result or punishment from a law courta judge in a law court in the U.S.
-- used as a title before the name of a judge in the U.K.
Maybe the best anyone can do is to find what justice there may be in their own hearts and then nourish it in the sure and certain knowledge that any conclusion would be premature.

Just noodling.

fire ants

I wrote my first story in the fourth grade -- a story that had come to me the night before as I lay in bed waiting for sleep. I forget the details, but it concerned a mouse to which I attributed human characteristics. No doubt the format was taken from the comic books I read at the time -- lots of mice and cats and other animals that could talk and connive and have adventures and display other human qualities. I was quite pleased with the story, but my mother, a writer, pointed out a bit too sharply that animals are not people. It was a grown-up assessment offered to a child and I was dashed: Writing a story was quite an accomplishment.

This morning, skimming the news wires, the stories about human activities were predictably predictable ... wars and frictions and disasters and hard times and political maneuvering and winning and losing and ... well human stuff that I simply could not find any profound interest in. Perhaps it was too repetitive or too depressing or too something-else, but for the moment it simply didn't grab my interest. Maybe it should have in some way, but the plain fact was, it didn't.

And then I came to a Washington Post story about fire ants and found myself reading it from one end to the other. Faced with the dangers that water (as in flooding) can pose, fire ants bond together, keep each other afloat, and live to sting another day. The story mentioned -- but did not bludgeon the reader with it -- that human beings might take a lesson from the fire ant. I was grateful to the writer for not waxing lyrical with the metaphors that could have been brought to bear. Fire ants, as my mother might have noted, are not people and anthropomorphisms really are better suited to religions and comic books.

Still, the surviving of threats is a characteristic of the animal kingdom and human beings are animals, so the wisdom of the ants (even if they aren't technically "animals") did arouse a mutual interest in me.

Monday, April 25, 2011

getting older

Two of the nice things about getting older (there are myriad negatives that could equally be cited) are these:

1. The fear of death dwindles. Not that it disappears or that anyone might not still be quite afraid, but the preceding and long-standing and unspoken notion that "I will not die -- dying is for people in graveyards" dissipates. At first, this can be spooky, but then, perhaps, the spookiness is slowly accompanied by a small almost-pleasure, as if it was quite nice to be part of an actual-factual flow...not to mention all the negatives that could be dispensed with.

2. The willingness to believe my own opinions and judgments loses its savor. Where once life was filled with the Miracle Glue of strong beliefs, opinions, and judgments that showed off who I was (in the same way a peacock can fan his tail feathers), now what was a miraculous glue begins to unbind. Aside from anything else, opinions and judgments require too much energy.

Maybe it's just having been around long enough to see righteousness devolve or wretchedness be uplifted, but what was once strong tea  seems to become weak. When someone speaks of the wrath of God, all you can wonder is, why in heaven's name is He so pissed off?

It's sort of disconcerting, being unable to find a home in some soaring or reeking realm. Oh for a good wrathful, righteous toot! Oh for a melting away in some blissful bayou. Anything to make the blood grow hot and assured and self-confident without remorse or second thought. Occasionally it comes calling, that firebrand certainty, but the occasions become fewer and less credible. Now it's just do-what-you-do-because you-do-it or think-what-you-think-because-you-think-it.

Old age. One thing's for sure -- we ain't in Kansas any more.

exhaustion's usefulness


Sometimes it feels great to have put heart and soul into something and then to bask in what results. Where body and mind were just spent to the utmost -- running a race, good sex, working out a complex problem -- there is a floating sensation when the time of effort has passed. We say, perhaps, "nothing is left," but of course there is something ... otherwise we could not say "nothing is left."

But sometimes the fruits of our labors are spooky. Three, four, five days of meditation retreat and the mind with its ditherings has often worn out its welcome. We are returned to some ground zero and ... we can feel lost. "Nothing is left." Eek.

I've told it before but will tell it again: Once upon a time, after a sesshin or Zen retreat, I was walking home with a young woman who had also been at the retreat. We were just ambling along a New York sidewalk -- she towards her home, I towards mine. Suddenly, she burst into tears. "What's wrong?" I asked. "I don't have anybody to thank," she almost wailed. "Thank me," I said. "Thank you," she said. "You're welcome," I said. And the tears stopped.

Where "nothing is left," still there is something. And that something is something worth making friends with -- examining and making friends. When all the commotion is burned away, when all the something-else's are still, when exhaustion erases the mind's blackboard, what is it like? Who is this?

When we make friends, we do not make a lot of noise or express a lot of surprise about it. We are just friends over coffee, friends at the movies, friends on a walk ... we are do-ing our friendship and it is as natural as salt. It is important that we are friends, but in friendship it is unimportant ... it just is ... important to know, but not important enough to separate.

Who is this one who can express itself in a time of exhaustion, of spent-ness? Is s/he ever missing? Do we need to run a marathon every time we wish to feel his/her presence? Is s/he someone else? If s/he were someone else, why am I weeping?

Bit by bit, I think, we invite our clarity, out lightness, our easy-ness in. Exhaustion can be a useful tool. Not something to make a fetish or a religion out of ... just a good pointer to what was never missing in the first place. Separation can be both a horror and a consolation. Lack of separation can be spooky and a delight.

When the campfire burns out, isn't it just time to get a little sleep ... something ordinary and delicious?

Just noodling.

without bloodshed

Not that it solves everything or even that it solves anything, but there was something heartening today about seeing two news stories that addressed situations of friction and yet did not immediately involve killing somebody as a means of asserting a point of view.

In Afghanistan, a country where the United States has been unsuccessfully trying to assert its will for almost 10 years at a cost of close to $400 billion, an estimated 450 Taliban/insurgent prisoners escaped from prison in Kandahar after cohorts dug a 1,000-foot-plus tunnel into their compound. The tunnel bypassed security checkpoints and somehow the beefed-up security at the jail failed to detect that its population was roughly halved last night.

Elsewhere, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter said that he and three other retired statesmen/women very much hoped to meet with the reclusive and iron-fisted North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to discuss both food aid and nuclear disarmament. North Korea, which is desperately poor and relies for cohesion on pointing out the threats posed by others, has a huge army, nuclear weapons and a propensity to create armed conflict as a means of assuring its legitimacy. Meanwhile, its people starve. Imagining that Carter and kin could talk North Korea into another frame of mind is probably imagining too much, but the effort is better than nothing.

Funny how nations resort to violence or the threat of violence as a means of holding their own. If the same amount of energy and money were put to constructive uses, I wonder what the results would be. It's pipe-dreaming, I know, but sometimes pipe dreams gather momentum.

In the meantime, of course, there are North Korea and the United States.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

"Pachelbel Rant"

The Pachelbel Rant crossed my mind again today after a long hiatus.

Good for a smile.

"Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring"

Finally got to watch the movie today. My older son watched about half with me before I gave him an out and he pronounced it "pretty boring." I watched the rest.

Beautiful photography, a bit studied in its silences, but redolent and quietly touching. It's nice to see a movie once in a while which allows less to be more and when simplicities can be enough. I sort of wondered what anyone who allowed less to be more and simplicity to be enough would think of it. Maybe, like my son, s/he might find it "pretty boring."

I'll never know.

an explanation

It's sort of laughable saying so, but explaining Buddhism or explaining life is like explaining a joke. The explanation may be very good, very piercing, very compelling, very consoling, very true, very important, very cogent and a lot of other very-very things.

But what is the important part of a joke?

Isn't it the laughter?

No one can explain laughter but it sure as hell is wonderful.

same ol' Sunday stuff

The sun seems to be making an effort to burn through the morning mist and clouds. That's nice.

But whether it does or doesn't, still, I want to eat breakfast, clean up, and do a bit of zazen.

track meet

It was a really crappy day yesterday and the pictures I took turned out lousy, but my older son stood with others in the cold wet rain and threw first the shot put and then the discus.

Everyone was rained on -- a cold, persistent, solid rain that created puddles everywhere. There was no escape and complaining was redundant -- everyone was stuck in the same shit.

The events I came to watch were separated by several hours. Later my son would say things were poorly organized. Whatever the case, I got there at noon and we didn't leave until after six.

There were places that needed to be walked to and walking is not my strong suit any more. By the end of the day, I was whipped and my son had done very well. It was worth being whipped to enjoy his enjoyment. I slept for 10 hours last night, a thing I haven't done in 30 or 40 years. Getting old is not for sissies. I felt lucky to wake up this morning with a body that didn't hurt as much as when I went to sleep ... and it was my son who had been doing the pointed exercising.

Everywhere, there were people in uniforms representing their schools. They looked healthy and, for the most part, fit. But even the tubbies looked content. There is something satisfying, when you are a certain age, about simply doing something instead of being stuck trying to figure things out. There is no philosophy or psychology or religion or righteousness in doing ... that shit is too expensive and too diverting and too mistaken. Running the race or throwing shot put or discus is right-now and all-there. Nothing is dubious or mixed or sending conflicting signals. And a nanosecond of "this" is worth a hundred years of the other stuff. It's enough to make an understandable excuse for the American adulation of sports... an adulation that can leave people floundering helplessly later in life. Or maybe not.

It was a good day. I got wrecked and my son did well and ... it was a good day.


Easter morning and the thought left me laughing out loud:

Don't do what you can do. Do what you can't.

For example, no one can be enlightened.

Do it anyway.

Once upon a time, I was stronger than things. Nowadays, they are stronger than I am. And some smiling, gently-ridiculing voice asks, "And your point is...?" Woven into the question, as a good friend might weave a joshing sarcasm, is an easy but emphatic, "d'oh!" with the implication that there are more interesting topics to pursue ... admiring beautiful women or skinny-dipping in summer or, well, damn near anything.

Academics discuss music. The rest of us merely bask and delight and 'become' and ARE.

Don't do what you can do. Do what you can't.

Do it anyway.

Any asshole can be resurrected.

Do what you can't.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

promises, promises

As promised by the weather forecast, it's raining.

Is it the rain or the promise that counts?

trust and distrust

A number of years ago the Los Angles Times ran an article that speculated about what Jesus might have looked like. I always admired the imaginative willingness of the effort. The writer consulted with various scientists and archaeologists who were likely to come up with a best-guess scenario. As I recall, the upshot was that Jesus was about five feet, six inches, sinewy and brown. There may have been other details, but I have forgotten them.

Two things stick out in my mind about all this as the Christian celebration of Easter approaches. The first is that Jesus is seldom depicted in my neck of the woods as being anything other than pink. Even in churches with a majority of brown people...still he is pink by depiction. Wouldn't you think the Vatican, one of the most powerful Christian religious institutions, would hold a meeting and point out that the odds of Jesus' being pink were slim to none? Of course most of the men running the Vatican are themselves pink, so maybe that plays a role. Or maybe the fact that pink-dom is where the money that sustains the Vatican is most plentiful plays a role.

Seriously -- think of it: If Jesus had actually been a pink man instead of a brown one, wouldn't he have been like an albino or something ... pretty noticeable in a sea of otherwise brown faces ... noticeable and worth mentioning in one noble text or another?

I don't care much what all the sociological or psychological reasons are for saying or suggesting that a brown man was pink. It's just that if you are going to propagate a fib, wouldn't you be better off telling a less-obviously blatant one? Save your fabrications for the big stuff?

The second thing this brings to mind is what I guess I think is the human leaning to trust. Trust is restful. It is secure. It requires no effort. Children, for example, love their parents no matter how outlandish parental behavior. I remember reading the story of a very young girl who had been beaten to death. News accounts said that even as she was beaten savagely, she cried out, "Mommy, I love you!" ... perhaps as a way of pleading in the most honest terms for the lunacy to stop.

Trust is delicious and makes a visceral and indubitable sort of sense.

On the other hand, distrust, skepticism and the like, require effort. Distrust arouses a willingness to slow down and ask questions. Distrust takes time away from a comfortable and comforting existence -- or even one filled with pressing and depressing events. To distrust means that you might be late to a doctor's appointment or a school play.

This morning, for example, I read an article about Chinese police raiding a Tibetan Buddhist monastery and arresting 300 monks. Several elderly people standing outside the monastery were badly beaten. Two were killed. The BBC, which reported the story, made it plain that it had no way of verifying the statements made by a rights organization. Frictions between the Chinese government and the Tibetan Buddhist community are well-known, so perhaps the story makes a kind of contextual sense. In my country, there are bumper stickers that attest to the trust people put in the wickedness of the Chinese Goliath twisting the arm of the comparatively weak Tibetan peoples, especially Buddhists. For all the polish the Chinese put on their economic and social shoes, there is evidence that they can crack the whip in pretty unpleasant ways when leadership is aroused. They too, like other governments, have been wont to assert their version of Jesus-was-a-pink-man.

Back when news organizations actually gathered news, I can remember reading with surprise a story (also from the L.A. Times) about Tibetan reactions to the 1959 takeover by the Chinese. But this was no knee-jerk article ... not just some oy-vey whine. It asked, at some later date, how the people felt about the Chinese actions. And one farmer -- contrary to the usual delicate but insistent bias of many news stories about Tibet (or perhaps Israel) -- said it wasn't all that bad. "At least we aren't slaves any more."

Trust is restful. God, flag, country, family, employment, success, failure ... the list goes on and on when anyone examines the inner landscape. I simply haven't got the time to doubt every nook and cranny of the world I have created, the world around me, so I choose to trust one thing or another and then, basically, put the matter aside ... until something comes along that challenges my resting place.

Distrust is constantly on the go, exercising its skepticisms like some furious little troll. There is no end to the things that can be distrusted. The skeptic may long for his skepticisms to break out into a field of trust and relief, but the training simply leads him further and further into a well of distrust. And he trusts it.

I'm not so interested in putting a period on this topic -- in making some grand pronouncement that will sooth the lazy or raging beast. What does interest me is what I consider the need to get to the bottom of trust and distrust. Personally ... get to the bottom of it. And this is not something anyone can do for you. It takes some effort and it takes some attention. Is trust necessary? Is distrust necessary? How and why do you trust them? Would it be possible to set both aside and go about your business, using the tools at your command when they were called for?

Stuff happens...check it without limitation is trustworthy, acceding neither to trust nor distrust. Life without limitation is trustworthy. Is there any reason why I shouldn't be the same?

Friday, April 22, 2011

100% chance

Tomorrow, my older son has a track meet in nearby Springfield. He will throw the discus and I plan to watch.

The weather report says there is a 100% chance of rain.

When the chances of anything are 100%, what's the point of complaining?

On the other hand, if it doesn't rain, whom do I complain to?

biting the hand that fed you

Beginning in July, those police, fire, construction and other personnel who responded to the Sept. 11, 2001, destruction of the World Trade Towers in New York and contracted medical conditions related to the event will have to be checked off against an FBI known-terrorist list in order to receive continued treatment. It's the law.

I think if I had been in the World Trade Center on 9/11 and Osama Bin Laden came to help me and as a result suffered injuries requiring continuing attention -- well, I'd say thank you very much and offer him whatever aid he might require.

It's some explanation and some satisfaction -- though not much -- that a Republican came up with this idea. Where do we get these nitwits? I've got $5 that says this guy wears an American flag lapel pin without any shame whatsoever. Talk about terrorists!

in the opium den

I once read that the Chinese described people who frequented opium dens as those who were "biting the clouds." It is a description I find compelling in its artful accuracy -- seeking nourishment in that which has no substance.

Outside of cigarettes, I have never had a physical addiction of that sort, though I have known those who did. My mother was an alcoholic and a pill-popper and I grew up in a realm where someone was "biting the clouds."

But I have had my own addictions -- to thought, emotion, yearning, attachment -- and so, from time to time, I feel lucky to have discovered a discipline that puts more meat on the bone. I am not recommending Zen Buddhism as a cure-all for life's addictions (people find their own healing realms if that's what they want), but just saying I feel fortunate.

How incredibly difficult it is to break the stranglehold of addiction. Even the second-hand tales I hear and have heard of those who were physically addicted is enough to make me wince at the amount of courage and effort it must have taken. How incredibly difficult. Basically, as far as I can understand it, there is a single inspiration that makes it possible -- the recognition that you will either break the addiction and live or fail to break it and die. Very simple -- decide to live or decide to die -- and yet thundering in its complexity.

But the addictions that require no liquids or pills or powders are every bit as potent, every bit as tragic, every bit as capable of arousing that single conclusion -- decide to live or decide to die. Addictions lick their chops at the insistence of the addict. They are like ethereal and malevolent dragons. The claws, the scales, the teeth, the fury. They are so big ... and I am so small. Right and wrong, good and bad, happy and sad, important and unimportant, clothed and naked, praised and damned. They gnaw and claw and insist on having their way. Their joys are paramount and our flesh is their sustenance. "Feed me!" they scream.

The slick and savvy will say, "you have to eat the dragon before the dragon eats you" or "you have to love your dragons" or "don't worry, be happy" but all that's too savvy by half, another round of biting the clouds.

Mostly, perhaps, our dragons slumber. No one wants to dwell too much on the confusions and furies of a quietly addicted life. But there are brick walls that spring up -- times when the dragons are roused and breathing fire and forcing us to see. Some stuff hurts like hell and there is no way around it -- we have to enter the flames.

Courage and patience and doubt are not just dime-store nostrums or self-help pats on the head. They are real and necessary tools and they are not tools that anyone lacks. True, it may take courage to arouse courage and patience to arouse patience and doubt to arouse doubt, but maybe the time has come to decide ... live or die -- take your pick. Maybe the effort is called for -- the effort to stop biting the clouds.

finding The Answer

God bless the children we love! They serve up the questions that cannot be answered -- honest-to-goodness koans that make me wonder why Zen Buddhists trouble themselves by concocting the 1,700 koans that can form a part of Zen training. I guess formal koans have their place, but who's got time for that when they have or pay attention to the children and events around them?

The question my younger son asked me the other day was this: "Papa, would you be happy if I went into the Air Force?"

The events leading up to this question went something like this: My son, at 17, is wondering what the future may hold for him. What sort of life lay ahead? Is there life after high school? Seventeen is, as I recall it, a time of confusion mixed with fear and hope. It is a time when you can sense that there is a place where the rubber hits the road, but the road itself and the rubber that hits it are not at all clear.

Up until this time, my son has lived at home -- been fed, clothed, supported in his enthusiasms and loved in easy ways. Life has come to him without much effort. He has been safe. And perhaps he has been spoiled in the sense that all kids are spoiled ... defended without being asked to do much more than school or sports or bowling dates. He has lived under a bell jar whose limitations were whispering more insistently as graduation beckoned a year or so out. His bell jar was safe, controlled, understood, and not too hard. (Not much different from the bell jar adults can live under; just somewhat smaller).

One of the dreams he had expressed in the past was a possible military career. He knew I had been in the army. He watched TV shows filled with military macho and can-do. As a possibility, it had the ring of something that might be "right" or worthy or OK ... and possibly heroic.

So it was a dream. And as part of his dreaming, I took him to an Air Force recruiting office to listen to the spiel a young sergeant was there to dispense. I took him because I wanted him to get a sense of something that was real. Not "right" or "wrong," just real. I wanted him to be able to make a choice not based on dreaming alone. Maybe it would turn out to be wonderfully attractive. Maybe it would turn out to be something utterly repulsive. More likely, it would turn out to be some mixture -- raising as many questions as it answered, but at least its reality quotient might rise and his decision would be less the decision of an airhead who can salute the flag but has no idea what that flag stands for.

The recruiter did his thing. My son asked some questions. And then we got into the car and headed back home. And it was in the car that he asked the question: "Papa, would you be happy if I went into the Air Force?" The question came from the only bell jar he knew -- his own life that depended in part on the reactions of those who inhabited the bell jar he lived under.

And I was stymied. The closest answer I could come up with was that I would be happy if he was happy and that such happiness depended on his making his own decisions, right, wrong or indifferent... and then owning those decisions. He wanted me to say "right" or "wrong" so he could rest on it. The trip to the recruiter, in my mind, was a way of researching the fine print of the dreams anyone might have. Investigate, probe, snoop ... and then move forward based on whatever best guess you could make.

I didn't want my son to fall victim to what a critic once described as President George Bush's problem: "He was born on third base and imagines that he hit a triple."

On the one hand, I don't like the military much. Its function is a fatal use of force that I don't find very convincing. On the other hand, a man or woman who does not face up to the capacity for the use of fatal force is a fool and self-deception is a poor companion. My experience of the military was, among other things, a way to learn that there is a wider world, one filled with wonderful and horrific and boring stuff ... people who don't think as I think, do as I do, rely on what I rely on. And from my point of view, wider is better; wider is closer to reality and the closer to reality anyone can come, the happier they'll be.

But the same lessons can be learned elsewhere as well. You don't have to put on a military uniform to find out the same facts. So ... investigate the particulars of the possibilities that exist. The object of the investigation is not to be "right" or "wrong," but to be happy. No amount of investigation can provide The Answer, but a lack of investigation just provides endless stupidity and repeated error. Standing on your own feet is no mean task, but it's worth the effort since there is no other choice.

But how could anyone tell anyone else these things? I did my best to reassure my son. Put one foot in front of the other. Investigate as best you can. Don't worry too much about being "right" -- we all go "wrong" and then try to correct our mistakes. I love you and will be happy if you are happy.

I probably talked too much and said too little. I guess every parent would like to have the perfect Band-Aid to apply to the wounds and confusions that life lays at their children's doorstep. And therein lies the koan, I guess -- I would give just about anything to have The Answer to give my son ... and it simply isn't possible... just like any other koan.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

"Song of Zazen"

 Received in email: For those inclined, here is a video of Shodo Harada Roshi chanting Hakuin's "Song of Zazen" (Zazen Wasan) in Japanese. Hakuin Ekaku Zenji was a reviver of modern Zen, especially Rinzai Zen.


All beings by nature are Buddha,
As ice by nature is water.
Apart from water there is no ice;
Apart from beings, no Buddha.
How sad that people ignore the near
And search for truth afar:
Like someone in the midst of water
Crying out in thirst,
Like a child of a wealthy home
Wandering among the poor.
Lost on dark paths of ignorance,
We wander through the Six Worlds,
From dark path to dark path--
When shall we be freed from birth and death?
Oh, the zazen of the Mahayana!
To this the highest praise!
Devotion, repentance, training,
The many paramitas--
All have their source in zazen.
Those who try zazen even once
Wipe away beginning-less crimes.
Where are all the dark paths then?
The Pure Land itself is near.
Those who hear this truth even once
And listen with a grateful heart,
Treasuring it, revering it,
Gain blessings without end.
Much more, those who turn about
And bear witness to self-nature,
Self-nature that is no-nature,
Go far beyond mere doctrine.
Here effect and cause are the same,
The Way is neither two nor three.
With form that is no-form,
Going and coming, we are never astray,
With thought that is no-thought,
Singing and dancing are the voice of the Law.
Boundless and free is the sky of Samádhi!
Bright the full moon of wisdom!
Truly, is anything missing now?
Nirvana is right here, before our eyes,
This very place is the Lotus Land,
This very body, the Buddha
-- Translated by Norman Waddell

blood lines

There is the old saying, "Blood is thicker than water." The saying is meant to sum up the closeness and devotion of kin. People would do for kin or suffer for kin in ways they might not do or suffer for others.

And in Buddhism, there is talk of "lineage" -- connections that, according to a much-hammered cliche, "reach all the way back to Shakyamuni Buddha." In Zen, there is "mind to mind" transmission from teacher to student and on and on until this very moment. Zen Buddhists might not do for others what kin might, but the closeness that "lineage" supposes is pretty deep or deeply felt or deeply revered or ... well, you get the gist.

And I would not fault "blood" or "lineage" ... but that doesn't mean I can't be curious. After all the wondrous connections are cited, all of the respect is paid, all of the sacrifices are made ... gawd! it can seem closer than close! -- what precisely constitutes "blood" or "lineage?"

Lord knows there is some truth in them somewhere, but it seems to me that the minute anyone speaks of it, "blood" and "lineage" fade like a rose in the fall. In the speaking, the elevating, the praising, the dissecting, or the advertising, what is true about "blood" and "lineage" scampers like a unicorn into the recesses of a forest where all dear things find refuge.

I emailed a Zen monk chum once and asked him what lineage was. He didn't respond and I don't blame him for a second. I know other Buddhist folks who can twist your knickers from now until Christmas on the topic. I guess it's all right as a mild advertising gambit. But I wonder sometimes if they are not vaguely ashamed...speaking of the truth as if it were true.

the land of the golden calves

If I were drinking beer, I think I would argue that the human constitution contains a gene for adoration -- that human beings are programmed to adore one thing or another. As I say, this is a beer-drinking proposal, one not based on much more than a hunch hatched in mildly boozy circumstances. In vino veritas, on the one hand, and in vino idiocy on the other.

The Christians advise their followers to beware of worshiping golden idols. Initially, of course, the warning referred to literal stuff -- a golden calf in the temple which later turned metaphorical and cast a critical eye on various physical acquisitions: No, dimwit, you do not need another Lexus and what's more it's bad for you; get it straight and get straight with God.

OK. So far, so simplistically good. Acquisitiveness and imagining that possessions make the (wo)man is off the mark. So let's put all that in the 'bad' column and make an effort not to buy designer-label toilet brushes.

Let's refocus the adoration for golden calves and extra-special toilet brushes for ... well, something more noble and ennobling. Let's call it God, for the sake of brevity.

So far so good ...

Oh waitress -- would you bring us another pitcher and some more of those little pretzels?

So through prayer and devotion and serial acts of socially-anointed decency, there is some attempt to refocus and get ... well, "good" I suppose. Or maybe "better." The authority of acquisitiveness is replaced (or at least seriously questioned) by the authority of God.

A kindly, far-reaching, just and touching God. Which is then, in one way or another, adored.

When I was little, I looked like this. :)
I do hope no one thinks I'm picking on Christians here. The same framework fits pretty much any religion or spiritual exercise, I imagine. Golden calves turn into God calves. But where others might quibble and analyze and debate the objects of veneration and adoration -- the calves, the Lexus, the God, etc. -- I think it is important to get down to brass tacks and just admit it ... I've got an "adore" gene. And it's about like having a nose. No one criticizes or extols a nose. It just sits on your face and mine, doing its job.

And what is the foundation of the Adore gene that is no more remarkable than a nose? Well, my guess is this: Adoration just means I adore myself in one way or another ... and it's no more remarkable than having a nose.

My persuasions, my love, my worries, my sorrows, my greed, my altruism, my wisdom, my stupidity, my bias, my fill-in-the-blank. Where adoration and its more moderate minions raises its head, I can be assured that it is nothing but me-me-me. And I repeat -- it is no more remarkable than having a nose. It is what is. Leaping on the topic with hob-nailed boots and trying to change or improve things ... no, no, no -- that's just more of the same. Leave the virtue to those in calf palaces.

All of this may seem confounding to the person who longs to be good-better-best -- to improve a life that may be riven with sorrow or shot through with delight. But I would argue (remember the venue, please) that the simple recognition that the Adore Gene is part of the human (read my) landscape is a very good (imperative, you might say) starting point for anyone serious in spiritual endeavor. Remember -- it's not good and it's not bad ... it's just a nose.

Christ, how I love what I love! Christ, how I love to hate what I hate! Christ, how I love to criticize and castigate the wrong-headedness of one thing or another! Christ, how I rely on my worries and delights! Christ, what a wonderful, adorable person Christ (or Mohammad or Buddha or Yahweh or whatever) is! Honest to goodness, I really can get up quite a head of steam when it comes to ...

The Adore Gene.

The me of this world.

Without some willingness to simply watch the stuff that comes and goes -- the golden calves of thought and emotion, of gain and loss -- how could anyone hope to get his or her head screwed on straight. Worshiping golden calves doesn't work. It doesn't make anyone happy in a deep way. And watching is the only course I can think of that makes sense, that's practical, that offers empirical results. Watching builds the ability to adore what is adorable ... but only in its time. It's nothing fancy, but it is an important shift. Things come and go. In the moment of adoration, anyone might be consumed ... but when the fire burns out, the phoenix arises.

And who, precisely, this phoenix is is worth knowing. No need for adoration that defines and elevates something or someone who cannot survive and yet survives.

Anyway, I think acknowledging the Adore Gene is a good first step.

The second step may be as simple as ordering another pitcher of beer.

If there is a second step.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

warriors and artists

An imperfect metaphor, perhaps, but it is whispering in my mind:

Perhaps the artist can be likened to the soldier in a war zone. Each steps forward unknowing into the limitless darkness of the moment and there weaves webs of shadow and light, sound and fury. Each goes armed as well as possible ... and yet never well enough to assure with certainty that the outcome will not rip him limb from limb.

And on returning from the unknown that now is woven into the known, he may be greeted with applause or indifference for his courage. But it is all for naught. Those who have exercised courage show themselves as fools if they attend to other men's appreciations. They have been and returned ... alone. It may be confounding, but taking the counsel of praise for the courage it took to step forward into the unknown is the pastime of a pauper.

Aren't we all the warriors and artists of our lives?

nightmare spiders

It hardly compares with the imaginative monsters of Hollywood, but a fossil of the "biggest" spider on record has been unearthed in Mongolia and probably qualifies for nightmare status to those so inclined. At 15cm (a little short of six inches), the leg span of the female arachnid is one for the record books.

Reading the news story this morning seemed to sound a less-depressing news note in my mind than, say, the British and French initiative to send military advisers into Libya.

Mr Hague stressed the officers being sent to the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi would not be involved in any fighting. -- Complete story

Advisers, as I recall, provided the planting soil for any number of protracted, painful and unsuccessful wars in the past -- Vietnam and Afghanistan come to mind. How long can anyone listen to the same explanations and expect a different outcome. Isn't that the definition of "insanity?"

Maybe if they sent in the spiders, both sides would get the message more quickly and keep the nightmares to a minimum.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

a little economics

Of possible interest -- the conclusion as stated struck me as a bit weak, but the building blocks were clearly presented.


in your head

The Boston Marathon was run yesterday. Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya won in a record-setting time about which he commented:

You don't look at world records. You just go. If you are strong, you push it. But if you put it in your head, you can't make it.
Now there's a bit of advice someone with a spiritual practice might heed: If you put it in your head, you can't make it.


A fierce devotion. A fierce attention. A fierce willingness to sacrifice.

Fierceness is interesting.

A delight in its time, fierceness wears away like a camp fire that runs out of roaring brightness when the campers decide to get some sleep. As it dies, there are occasional jets of flame that spring up, but they are a shadow of the conflagration that came before.

Love, hate, anger, confusion, delight, belief, devotion, the wonders of chocolate, and the vileness of anchovies -- all have brightened and warmed the woodland of this life. But it takes energy to maintain fierceness -- new twigs and branches of flammable stuff. And when it comes time for anything as natural and sensible as sleep, expending energy dwindles and is the last thing from anyone's mind.

Reflecting on the flames of fierceness that have touched my life, I have to admit to an interest in spiritual endeavor. Sometimes it was very fierce and I look back on that fierceness with approval -- it was what I needed to do at that time. It wasn't necessary, but it was what I needed at the time. Something to kick my listless ass into action. Spiritual sissies -- those satisfied with half measures and smarmy belief -- are a dime a dozen ... and I didn't want to get caught in that trap.

And I was lucky. Zen practice (and for all I know, a lot of others) defies the nesting instinct, the willingness to say things are this way or that. Lucky.

But nowadays, as the campfire dwindles, one of the jets of fierce flame that can pop up here or there and reassert a fierceness of old, is this: What good is any spiritual endeavor if you cannot surrender that too? No need to force it -- campfires go out all by themselves. It is when they don't go out that the promise of spiritual endeavor is not yet realized. What the hell did anyone invent Buddhism (or whatever) for? Was it to elevate something called "Buddhism?" Seriously, what they hell did anyone invent it for? What was its honest promise and why did it make that promise? Was that promise just some snake-oil shill looking to burnish its image?

A million minds may burnish the scene. "Buddhism is good," they may proclaim. Or if not good, well, "it sure beats kicking baby robins." Walking in the Buddhist (or whatever) door that is marked "entrance," the fierceness arose and lighted the night skies. It suckled its adherents as the wolf suckled Romulus and Remus -- an origin myth that, although mythological, told a tale worth heeding. But at some point of practice, of fierceness, of suckling, the way becomes clear ... back to the door marked "entrance" on one side and, with an equal clarity, "exit" on the other. How could the promise of any spiritual endeavor ever be realized without the sine qua non imperative of stepping into the light ... of drifting into a soft and sensible sleep as the fiercest of fires burned out without a whimper?

And of course as soon as you mention sleep, some fierce view will caterwaul, "Sleep! Ha! You're just dozing in delusion!" Dimwits! No one can sleep "fiercely" or "virtuously" or "with great determination." Just get a good sleep. You can be a Buddhist (or whatever) later if you insist.


I guess it's not surprising, but every once in a while there a bits of light that shine through the foggy picture that Americans are given about Israel, its virtues, and its depredations. A Washington Post article scans US maneuvering and manipulation at the U.N. in behalf of Israel, a client state whose sacrosanct actions in the Middle East are woven and rewoven in US agitprop news coverage ... and can be cited as a factor in the prolonging ad nauseam the suffering and death in that part of the world.

At a personal level, it puts me in mind of the street-savvy observation that if a thing is too good to be true, it's simply not true. And the mirror-image is also worth the price of admission -- if a thing is too evil to be believed, it's not worth the energy to believe it.

In one way or another, I suppose we all have our Israels.

Both points of view, to the extent that they hold water, point back to an investigation by the person doing the observing. Who is willing to investigate their own judgments and opinions and beliefs? It takes energy and courage. Everyone might like to think they had courage, but, well ... look at the results ... in the lives of others ... and in the mirror. The price for failing to investigate is war of one kind or another.

Monday, April 18, 2011


In a pinch, I could probably still do it -- clamp down on the emotions that might arise in some human tragedy with an eye to aiding or assessing those in need. This is one of the tools a reporter might use and I have been a reporter. It is also one of the tools anyone might use -- in the midst of a situation that requires assistance, emotional outbursts are a fair hindrance. Save the hand-wringing and horror for later; keep things in perspective, just the facts, ma'am.

This technique is useful in its time (writing a story, finding and applying necessary aid), and it is also a great way of keeping a studied distance from life -- a way of staying in an imagined control. Applied without limit, it shuts down a piece of the human scene. In the same way that hand-wringing doesn't do much good, sidestepping that out-of-control hand-wringing is deadening.

I got to thinking about this while watching one of those gimpy World War II documentaries on TV yesterday. Sometimes I think that those tasked with doing history shows take the easiest possible route -- "Hey, Harry -- let's do World War II again ... focus on the Nazis, get in the obligatory Holocaust footage and bombs dropping from Lancasters and ... well, you know, the usual stuff." And it works. Cut and paste and, voila, another hour-long slot is filled and a certain audience is guaranteed. How horrible! Over and over again. But the good guys won, so it's OK.

But watching the show yesterday, I could not distance myself from it. Where once it was a rootin'-tootin'-shootin' tableau of effort and success, now all I could think was that without a cause, without the flags whipping in the breeze, without patriotism force-fed to those who were asked to do the fighting ... where would any of it be? These were people, for Christ's sake! Their beliefs swayed them this way and that, but they had smiles and children and ... well, they were human. Greed was a possibility, self-importance was a possibility ... but they were just human and no one ever told them in convincing terms that the study of the self is the only sensible course. Ignorance is expensive stuff. Heart-rending and stupid and sadder than sad. Winning and losing is for losers, I thought, but how in heaven's name can you tell anyone that? I don't know.

Well, it was just interesting to notice that what once had been a cool and collected approach, now I was touched by the humanity of it all. Maybe that's the price you pay for being an old fart ... although there seem to be a lot of old farts still running around with American-flag lapel pins.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

'royal wedding' advertisement

With thanks to Adrian, who sent it along:

Maybe a ripoff of this 2009 real McCoy:


connection and separation

A woman walked up to me on the peace picket line yesterday and asked what I was. She was referring to the fact that I wore robe and rakusu and, well, she couldn't quite get her bearings and "I am a curious person." She had come from the 'other' picket line, the one down the sidewalk from the peace picket, the one dedicated to 'patriotism' and flag and protecting ourselves from suggested enemies and supporting the troops and military adventures in which the U.S. is engaged. She had a very pleasant face.

I told her I was a student of Zen Buddhism and I wore my robe as much as anything because people wonder a bit at a guy in a dress and, perhaps, that might lead them to think about their beliefs and hopes. The woman was sympathetic to the tactic. She had a lot of friends who were Buddhists, she said. She herself was into Native American activities and she could imagine, if she wore her regalia, she might get a similar reaction to the one I suggested. We chatted this way and that. Finally, she wrapped things up with the statement that sounds as if it might bank the furious fires of division and disagreement: "I think there is more that connects than separates us."

Yum, yum, yum. It feels so good. Sounds so tolerant. Makes friends where enemies might try to tear out each other's throats. Let's be friends. Let's "agree to disagree." And yes, it is better than beating the shit out of each other.

But I couldn't quite get on board. It's like people in spiritual endeavor who run around talking about oneness in the face of a fragmented and separated world view. It reminds me of the old beer commercial, "Tastes good. Less filling." Sounds-good and is-good are not precisely the same thing.

"I think there is more that connects than separates us" posits a separation in which I rely on you and you rely on me. If we make nice, the world will be a better place. And maybe it will. But relying on others -- whether by applause or disdain -- does not promote a reliable ease or an honest peace. Not-relying on others feels lonely and arid -- come, let's be friends.

But my view is that each must reflect on his or her own honest judgments, beliefs, loves, hatreds, wisdoms and ignorance. What is the source of all this stuff -- all these separations? If agreement were the yardstick of peace, well, hell, we could all turn out for some latter-day love-in. But peace is not simply the absence of war. And agreements have a way of coming apart at the imagined seams.

What is the source of this stuff? Who is the creator? Is the loving one loving or not? It takes some reflection that goes beyond making nice or making nasty. I like being friendly as well as the next fellow, but the basis of that friendship requires my effort, my reflection, my honesty, my laughter.

As Rumi put it,

Out beyond the world of right and wrong,
There is a field.
I'll meet you there.
If we square away the world of right and wrong that fills our hearts, who could help but be a friend to the world?

rain, pain, gain

Last night, lying in bed before sleep, I could hear the rain plop-plopping on the window sill outside a window that was slightly open. There was a rawness in the air, but under the covers I was six again, wallowing in protective, wonderful comfort and safety. The rain touched the slowly waning moments with delight.

Waking up five or six hours later, the rain was still plop-plopping and the air was still raw. The day lay ahead and the rain had taken a new mantle -- a burden in the upcoming future, a part of the stone being rolled uphill in a time that was right around the corner.

Going to sleep last night, I felt gratitude that I would no longer have to pay attention or be nagged by various aches and pains and the allergies camped in my nose and sinuses.

Waking up, I saw those same aspects in a different light -- a part of some knapsack to be lugged and overcome during the day. Something to whine about or (same thing, different day) not to whine about. A burden which I had looked forward to losing was now a burden I did not look forward to shouldering.

Rain, pain, gain.

Someone once said that perhaps "suffering" was nothing more than the resistance to pain. I don't know. I do know that all the words in the world will not stop the rain or the pain or the gain. And I do think that the opiate that sleep can seem to represent has lessons to teach. Escape is the easiest. But recognition of the pure evenness of things whispers as well.

Like the man said, "Sun-faced Buddha, moon-faced Buddha."

Saturday, April 16, 2011

"I don't try to outguess God"

Storms walloped the Midwest and South beginning Thursday and left 17 people dead in four states. By Saturday, tragedies little and large emerged in the storms' wake.

Back in Boone's Chapel in Alabama, Henley Hollon talked about his family with Gov. Robert Bentley, who visited to comfort victims. The two looked at Hollon family photos that neighbors had pulled from debris scattered over a quarter-mile, as Hollon told Bentley he and his wife didn't have time to get into a hallway when they realized the tornado was hitting.
"If God wanted us, we was in the big room, where He could have got us," Hollon said. "I don't try to outguess God."
I don't try to outguess God. What a nice idea. But what would it be like if people didn't try to outguess God? Aside from anything else, churches would lose their meaning and disappear, I imagine. Such institutions are in the business of outguessing God, I think.

Does such a sentiment betoken a kind of stunned fatalism or warming determinism or does it betoken something else?

I don't know. I just thought it was an interesting comment.

the "dearest heart"

It was a phrase I used almost casually when writing to a friend recently. But when he wrote back asking me what I meant by "the dearest heart," I was hoisted by my own petard. Yes, the phrase had a lyrical and enticing ring to it, but what the fuck was I talking about?

I really do take the phrase seriously, but when I try to get my hands or head around it in ordinary terms, I flounder. Maybe it means what is left when all the kool and convincing constructs of this life simply fail to be convincing any more ... when things drop away ... when nothing is left, still there is this "dearest heart."

The Zen teacher Ummon once said, "When you can't say it, it's there. When you don't say it, it's missing." But I don't really like couching it in Buddhist terms. This is something true and what is true isn't "Buddhist." On the other hand, it's not not-Buddhist either.

Open your mouth and, honest to God, it's a lie. Open your mouth and, honest to God, it's the truth. Speech doesn't work and silence doesn't work either. So what works?

During one of my first visits to the first Zen center I ever visited, I remember sitting at a post-meditation tea and listening to all the people talking. They were using language and references with which I wasn't familiar. On and on the conversation went until I could feel a wrathful voice rise up in my mind: "Will someone just tell me what I want to know so I can get the fuck out of here?!"

What I wanted to know was amorphous in my mind, but it was serious as a blow to the solar plexis. I wanted to be happy, at peace, not uncertain, not confused. Just tell me how to do that and I can get the fuck out of here. Really, it made me irritable as a wet cat.

In my own defense, I had not better tools at the time. I thought that if something were explained clearly enough, that would actually be an explanation. If the emotions were dissected and addressed, that would be the end of unruly emotions. Oh well, intellect and emotion were what had convinced me up until then and so ... they were the things I found convincing. "Empirical" dontcha know. It was within their framework that I demanded my explanations.

It didn't work, of course. And I feel lucky as a leprechaun not to have chucked the whole business in favor of some more 'comprehensible' sphere of endeavor. Something made me summon up a willingness to find out. I suppose it was "suffering" or something similar. Anyway I feel lucky not to have run for the hills.

But none of this explains the "dearest heart," does it? It talks around the edges, just like those people at tea. The dearest heart is at home with a whole life, but a whole life can be full of messes and missteps. How can anything as lyrical and enticing be so sour and confusing? A dearest heart knows no boundaries and yet I am bounded on all sides.

Can you be serious about what cannot be named or bounded. Serious means at a bone-marrow, fresh-blood level. Beyond whining. Beyond explanations. Before identity. Without bullshit. Minus virtue. Never-mind-religion. No more lyrics. Skip the thin-tea praises. Damnation be damned.

Can you be serious about something that is not serious ... or frivolous either? I don't know. I mean I really don't. But sometimes I do feel serious about it.

I should be laughing, I suppose.

Friday, April 15, 2011

the stuff that sticks with you

In faded hues of pink and grey, an old woman pushing a shopping cart approached me as I approached her in my search for the "Liquid Nails" I was hunting for at Walmart. She was in her 80's, I guessed.

A younger woman -- perhaps in her 60's -- walked beside the cart the old woman (in what might once have been white socks and slip-on slippers) was pushing. The younger woman walked with the studied pace a mother can employ when accompanying a growing child who wants to do the pushing. I assumed the younger woman was the old woman's daughter.

From a distance of six or seven feet the old woman and I found each other's eyes and smiled an acknowledgment that meant something more than a tacit I-see-you-and-I-see-your-cart-and-I-won't-run-into you. She had a nice smile -- one that accentuated the fact that she had left her false teeth at home.

She smiled.

I smiled.

And then, although we were within touching distance, she raised a right hand sheathed in what once might have been a white glove and waved one small wave, a perfect complement to her smile. Hello-goodbye-happy-to-see you. Or, as Bedouins are said to greet each other in the desert, "I salute you and I thank you for your life."

And then we passed each other.

Later I found the "Liquid Nails" with which I hope to shore up a wiggly baluster.

If the glue holds as well as the old woman's smile did, I will be pleased.

common sense ... aaarrrgh!

WASHINGTON (AP) - The best solution to the problem of sleepy air traffic controllers is more sleeping on the job, scientists say.
But that would be a radical change for the Federal Aviation Administration. Current regulations forbid sleeping at work, even during breaks. Controllers who are caught can be suspended or fired. -- Complete story

Funny how what makes perfectly good and obvious sense so often faces an uphill battle, whether personally or more generally.

Good, sensible advice. How easy it is to come by. How hard it may be to put into action. Everyone is full of good advice and is usually eager and willing to 'share' it. But follow it? -- that's another matter.

Yesterday, I went to my younger son's field meet. He was participating in the shot put and discus. He is pretty good at shot put. But on his first of three throws yesterday, he threw the ball out of bounds. It infuriated and disappointed him and I could hear him cussing a blue streak as he went to retrieve his misguided effort. He was talking himself into self-castigation. It took energy ... and simultaneously seemed to forgive his mistake: If he could cuss himself out, no one else could tell him he fucked up. He was his own worst critic ... and that criticism may have seemed to ameliorate the mistake. If he whipped himself hard enough, maybe someone would come along and say, "There, there -- it's not all that bad" and pat him on the head...and he could forgive his mistake instead of owning it.

All of this is as human as it is misguided. So this morning (everyone's got advice to give, if not follow) I told him that every time he felt a hissy fit coming on, every time he felt like whipping himself as a means of finding some sort of forgiveness, every time he wanted someone else to live his life ... whether in math or shot put or with some new girlfriend ... every time he felt a self-flagellation exercise looming ... before anything else ... before he got up a head of self-satisfied self-castigation ... I wanted him to smile. Just once, smile. Practice smiling ... and then going into the self-castigation schtick if need be. Practice and practice and practice some more.

Practice shot put. Practice math. Practice the wily realms of boys and girls. Practice smiling first. Own it. Responsible people are happy people. Irresponsible people are a dime a dozen.

Anyway, I was eager and willing to offer my advice -- advice I can follow sometimes and sometimes not. I'm as irresponsible as the next person. Sometimes it makes me smile.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

just say 'no'

Last night, while I was eating dinner, I got a call from a nearby neighbor and longtime activist who said there would be a meeting of those who had and/or still did stand on the peace picket line that gathers on Main Street on Saturdays -- the one I always try to join. The meeting would occur on the same day something (I didn't quite get what) would change about the sanctions in Iraq. There would be discussion of the history of the peace picket over its years and years of existence. Did I have any interest in attending, she asked.

And I said, "No."

I think the directness and simplicity of the response took her by surprise. It took me a bit by surprise as well. No explanations -- just "no." She hastened to wrap up the phone call, which suited me fine since my food was getting cold.

And then I felt the gentle lapping of guilt. There are ways in which I admire those who can convene and organize and put things in motion. But, without putting myself forward as some sort of laureate, I can't help but remember the words of physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman when he was asked what winning the Nobel prize meant to him. He replied, "It means I don't have to go to meetings."

There really are causes I admire and will lend my energies to. However confounding, the peace picket on Saturdays is one of them.

The other day, a friend sent me an online petition to sign as an indication of how I felt about Medicare and Medicaid and (between the lines) how the Republicans hope the screw the more vulnerable ... again. I signed the petition and then rushed back to the initial page of the online effort where there was a way to "unsubscribe" from future notifications.

My guilty feelings about various activist efforts stem from what I perceive as the group-hug enthusiasms of others. Such hugs are valuable -- perhaps invaluable -- to causes. They are warming and ... well, I wish I could find the wherewithal to believe them and throw myself into them. But something in me just plain balks.

I wonder if it is arrogance. I wonder if it is a character flaw. I wonder ... and feel vaguely guilty. The excesses of collective virtue whisper in my mind, as if that might provide an excuse for my balkiness. Am I above or incapable of such excesses? Hardly. Do I find solace in LaRochefoucauld's maxim, "The intelligence of the throng is inversely proportionate to its number?" Not really ... the observation may be true, but carries with it an elevated smugness I dislike. Is my balkiness based on some vast and penetrating experience? I doubt it.

So why then do I hold back from the thunderous and comforting applause that can accompany group efforts that sometimes accomplish quite good things? I really don't know, but seeing the faces and hearing the voices of a collective drive, I sometimes wish I too could be like that ... snuggly and snuggled. It is human and comforting and inspiring and ... well, I just can't do it. I can't do it any more than I can be an astronaut.

My Zen teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, was once asked by a student what he thought of spending some time at a particular monastery. The monastery had some quite negative circumstances in its being and history and Kyudo was aware of them. But he didn't mention those aspects. He just told the student, "If you want to do it, just do it."

Do it or don't do it -- same story, different day. Just don't try to weasel out of things. Make a mistake, correct it. Don't make a mistake, correct it. Just don't weasel and whine as some part of me weasels and whines. Take responsibility.  Arrogant or humble is not so important. Responsibility is important. "If you want to do it, just do it."

I said "no" to the activist who called. The cleanliness of the word surprised me as it probably should not have. It was just "no."

"If you want to do it, just do it."

I was rewarded with a dinner plate that had not grown completely cold.


Received in email:


Wednesday, April 13, 2011


Helping is a strange and instructive commodity. It is a realm that seems to come naturally to people and yet when examined with an eye to finding a definition or limit, it is like nailing Jell-O to the wall. In spiritual endeavors, you will hear people speaking of "kindness" and "compassion," but this is just encouraging, superficial, feel-good stuff.

The example that brought this to mind was Michael's visit last week -- a very pleasant get-together with someone I had not previously known. On the surface, he dropped by because he had made contact with a veteran's writing project at a local college. I had made a similar contact, offering to help. So there we were, sitting on the couch, sipping coffee and ostensibly headed towards a writing collaboration, but really, I think, sizing each other up, finding out if either of us thought the connection would actually work. On the surface, it was pleasant and easy. But below the surface it was touching and, in some ways, raw.

Michael told me a little of his background and I reciprocated. And then he told me some of his experience as a Special Forces medic in the highlands of Vietnam. A recent incident had brought things flooding back like the carpet bombing of Cambodia. When Michael got out of the service, he spent 30 years as a physician's assistant at a hospital. So he had helped in the field and he had helped back at home. His wife pointed this out to him and suggested he had not really found or taken the time to care for himself as he had cared for others.

When I find myself in the presence of someone who is hurting or confused -- or perhaps even shredded by circumstances past or present, I have a knee-jerk reaction: To help. Maybe it's just a guy thing, but not only do I want to help, but also a part of me wants that help to have an expected outcome. I'm going to fix it or help fix it or make it better or lighten the load or something. If a pipe is leaking, I grab a pipe wrench, tighten things up and, voila! -- problem solved to my satisfaction.

As a medic and later a physician's assistant, I wouldn't be surprised if Michael had lived through a similar phase -- thinking you could help, doing your best to help and then, like it or not, finding that the expected outcome was not the outcome at all. Perhaps it was better. Perhaps worse. Perhaps it was a success. Perhaps it was an abject failure. Yes, I imagine Michael watched comrades die while he did his absolute best to help, to sustain and prolong life. The experience might shred any man or woman, but in war, there is no time to be shredded. Succeed or fail -- fuck that! get to work! do your best! forget you!

Forget you! Easier said than done. The more you push the cork into that bottle, the more the bottle refuses to stay corked. The only way to forget you is to remember you -- remember the carpet bombings of experience and investigate, be shredded in new and improved ways, to gain control by losing control. There is no analyzing the matter into silence, there is only looking and looking and looking some more ... and being swallowed by what threatens to uproot every building block ever mortared into place. The whole thing is like a scream.

War -- the literal, physical kind -- is relatively easy to approach. Most have not been to war, so there is a comic-book-y distance even when there is heart-felt despair. It's academic. But I think maybe the issue of helping in war and helping during peacetime is not so different. War may be more in-your-face, but a lot of people find the same issue when peace is in-your-face. Carefully-mortared stones shudder when you come to realize that life is saying in little ways and large, "Succeed or fail -- fuck that! get to work! do your best! forget you!" All those carefully-mortared stones of "kindness" and "compassion" -- all those lyrical ways of elevating and labeling your own efforts ... poof! It can provoke that same scream that the filth and blood of war may ignite.

I want to think well of myself. I want to fix it. I want to help. I want to succeed. I want to be noticed and applauded and included in the fraternity and sorority of man.

But the applause is extra and more than that, confounding. Imagining I could help is not accurate ... and the sooner I learn it, the better off I'll be.

There really is help, there really is assistance, there really is compassion and kindness. But how it works is (as much as I dislike the word) mysterious and ineffable.

And it all reminds me of a line my mind once manufactured: "Just because you are indispensable to the universe does not mean the universe needs your help."