Tuesday, May 31, 2011

bless the Aussies!

This is likely to warm the cockles of every American school teacher's heart:


shirt problems

An old Zen friend of mine once sent me an email in which he mentioned casually that of all of his friends, I best exemplified the saying, "He'd give you the shirt off his back."

"What's the matter with you?" he asked jokingly. "Don't you like your shirt?"

Dave's observation caught me flat-footed for several reasons. First of all, it had never occurred to me...was it true? Second, if it were true and if he meant it as praise, I was forced again to recognize that I am not used to and don't cope well with praise...what's that about? ... a definite 'shirt' problem, isn't it? And third, as an addendum to number two, I have a naive inability and sometimes-crankiness when it comes to fathoming the need others have to hold their cards oh-so-close to their chests.

I felt the crankiness rising this morning when I got an email from an acquaintance who wrote a note soliciting my opinions/state of mind while carefully hiding his own behind a veil of brevity. It's something that people who amass power like to do... get the other guy to open up and show his frailties, but reveal little or nothing of your own. Shrinks, priests, CEO's ... that realm.

As a professional matter, sometimes secrecy is warranted, but sometimes 'professionalism' seeps into a personal life and fouls the waters. My own view is that everyone is dying to go naked in the world -- just let 'er rip. Serial killers and other ill-intentioned types need to be restrained, but most people's nakedness is so mundane -- so perfectly OK -- that not-granting one a deepest wish seems churlish and small. The world is not going to fall apart if someone picks their nose on Thursdays or uses the Kama Sutra as a biblical revelation.

I think I read once that it was the mongols who rode into battle wearing silk shirts. The tight weave and strength of the material meant that when they were struck by arrows, the material did not break and the arrow pushed the silk into any subsequent wound. This meant that pulling the arrow out was that much easier. Yes, where there is battle, it is nice to have a shirt -- nice to be defended. But there is a difference between being defended and imagining there might be some escape from wounds.

I suppose it's pretty much the dealer's choice. Button up your shirt or shed it. But I think it's a mistake to neglect the longing to get naked ... the state no one can escape no matter how many shirts they put on. Play dress-up as long as you like, but don't overlook or disdain the plain facts ... those facts that really are never much different from anybody 'else's' facts.

lanterns on the water

At a gathering estimated at 40,000, a woman in Hawaii was quoted as saying

"I wrote a message of thanks for the people who made me who I am."

The lantern-floating ceremony organized by a Buddhist sect was and remains a testimonial to the fact that everyone has memories. Of those who gathered Monday,

Many of them wrote the names of loved ones who have passed, and personal messages to them, on the sides of lanterns. Some wrote prayers and others wrote poems. At sunset, they waded into the ocean just off the beach, set their candlelit lanterns in the ocean, and watched them drift off into the horizon. 

I took part in a similar ceremony once. It was touching and evocative ... small lanterns imprinted with names from the past, lit by a single candle, each bobbing on the water's soft, relentless movement ... drifting away and yet never lost. Good memories, bad memories -- all of them somehow adding to and molding "who I am." Memories are distant and bobbing and ungraspable, like lanterns on the water. To praise them or thank them or damn them doesn't quite work. A lantern-floating ceremony is just a lovely compromise with the facts: Gone-yet-not-gone ... over the horizon.

What a nice invitation ... to make a credible peace with who you are and what, in fact, simply is.

To see the horizon is to miss the point.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Zen/spiritual endeavor books

If anyone reading this is interested in some Zen books, I am doing some housecleaning. Blue Cliff Record, Lin Chi, Huang Po, Hui Neng, Hui Hai and a bunch of others I can't really remember. Sorry, I already gave away Shobogenzo. The books are dusty, but readable ... and often too damned expensive when new.

Anyway, no, I will not ship them, collect or otherwise. No, I won't give them to your friend to ship. You want 'em, you come and get them. The only other condition is that you agree to give them away to someone else when the time comes.

I assume....

Sometimes I laugh at the assumptions of the spam email I receive:

Perhaps they assume I want a longer, wider, more profound pecker.
Perhaps they assume I'm dying for a windfall from Nigeria.
Perhaps they assume a Buddhist get-together is right up my alley.
Perhaps they assume I really would like to be one of "God's elect."
Perhaps they assume that buying a penny stock guaranteed to soar is my cup of tea.

Sometimes I laugh. Sometimes I despair of the fact that somehow someone somewhere has found a way to link me to these annoying topics.

But even as I smile or grimace ... it makes me consider my own assumptions ... even if I do my best not to turn them into spam.

For all that, while we're on the topic, if you send me a buck or the pin number to your bank account, I might put it to some use. :) The best scam I ever saw was once printed in the classified advertisements of the Village Voice. It said, simply, "Last chance! Send one dollar! (And a PO box number)."

smell the roses

People with busy -- sometimes harried -- lives are sometimes encouraged, "You gotta stop and smell the roses."

Slow down, sort things out, find out what is important and put the high-voltage lifestyle in perspective.

It's a good thing to slow down, get over the 'important' stuff, winkle out what is really important.

Smell the roses.

But for all the crafty and sage wisdom that smelling-the-roses implies, it's a funny thing about roses: They may be important today, but are they important tomorrow? What wisdom can be imparted to the (wo)man who is already smelling the suggested roses? Roses bloom. Roses die. Isn't that the way of things?

I guess if someone is smelling the roses the only advice worth heeding is ... stop and smell the roses.

interest aroused

How pleasant it is these days to pick up the newspaper or view internet news sites that say something that catches my attention. Bit by bit, the stuff that used to be 'important' just seems repetitive and incapable of salting my eggs.

Today, there were a couple of things that tickled my willingness to engage.

The first was a front-page article in the Hampshire Gazette, our local newspaper. The hard-copy headline read, "WFCR newsman Bob Paquette dies unexpectedly." The internet version read, "Respected longtime WFCR newsman Bob Paquette dies unexpectedly." The story was the same, but the exegencies of hard-copy and internet headline writing are different.

"Dies unexpectedly" was the first thing that caught my attention. How can anyone die unexpectedly? How reasonable is a 'reasonable expectation?' As a social convenience, I can understand the wording, but as a matter of fact, it just struck me as odd and probably a catalyst for sorrow ... unexpectedly -- imagine that! Expectations have a way of running into facts and looking into such train wrecks is probably worth the price of admission, I think. It was a small munchie of interest.

But within the story itself were these words:

Martin Miller, CEO and general manager of WFCR and its sister AM station WNNZ, said in a statement released Sunday that "There are no words to express our shock and grief over the loss of our colleague and friend Bob Paquette. Our heartfelt condolences and sympathies go out to Bob's husband, Michael Packard, and to their families, friends and colleagues."
Homosexual marriages are legal here in Massachusetts, but I have never quite nailed down the etiquette of who is the "husband" and who is the "wife" in same-sex marriages. Are both men the "husband," are both women the "wife?" Or do the designations accord with the socially-popular definitions of "masculine" or "feminine" behavior -- i.e. if one party is more "masculine," s/he is the "husband" and if the other party is more "feminine," s/he is the "wife?"

But more interesting than my personal ineptness, I liked the fact that the article acknowledged a same-sex relationship without pussyfooting or aggrandizement. Sorrow, like love, is an equal-opportunity employer. Sex, color, political affiliation or the car anyone drives is secondary stuff.

The other article that ignited a jet of interest was a story from The Washington Post, something headlined  "Wikipedia Goes to Class." The story, as I get it, is that students studying a particular topics are being encouraged to submit their findings to Wikipedia, the internet encyclopedia that is increasingly a source for research information. Students and non-students find a lot of the data they want on Wikipedia. It is a kind of 7-11 for research.

But the question Wikipedia raises, no matter how many checks and balances the site may profess, is, "Who's minding the store? Is this really the best information anyone could get on the subject?" In the days when people used encyclopedias, individuals who had studied topics for years were invited to submit articles. Their observations were checked and rechecked and the result, while not claiming to be exhaustive, had a kind of heft and substance. But now high school research will be submitted as a means of informing the less informed? It all strikes me as another example of the kind of diaphanous and widening net of acceptable mediocrity.

Oh well ... I guess everyone has to do the dumbed-down before they decide to smarten up. Or, as American observer and humorist Will Rogers put it,"There are three kinds of men. The one that learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves."

Isn't spiritual endeavor like this too? I think it is. Scriptures and temples and rituals and beliefs and eventually ... well, you just have to pee on the fence and find out.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

the can't-do spirit

The forecast says it will be cloudy and hot. This makes me think I ought to drag out the air conditioner and put it in the window ... the older I get, the more the heat takes its toll.

The air conditioner is old and heavy and where once I could lift it with ease, now the muscles rebel. This sets up a conflict: I can remember a time when things were easy. The memory is as clear as stepping on a thumb tack... of course I can do that! Ride a bike, paint a bedroom, lift an air conditioner -- of course I can. It is galling to realize that no-I-can't ... or if I can, the cost is prohibitive by subsequent aches and pains.

What's the matter with no-I-can't?

Well, I could once -- that's what's the matter. If the memory did not insist, things would be easy-peasy. It doesn't irritate me that I can't be an astronaut or run a four-minute mile or pole vault, but where the memory of past accomplishment insists, I can flounder in a crankiness that has no relief. This...is...it. Tough titty.

Oh well, in my next lifetime, I will become a Buddhist. Look out serenity, here I come!


Perhaps the allure of immodesty lies as much as anything in the fact that there is little or no imperative to think things through -- to pay close and investitgative attention. It's cozy and quick. Truthfulness goes begging, but who, in their right mind, ever wanted to tell the truth? If everyone is a winner or a hero, everyone gets dragged down, but it is comforting ... the matter is settled. Whoever or whatever they may be, the gods are enthroned ... until the immodesty that seated them cracks and our laziness and mediocrity is revealed.

I guess I got to thinking about this because of the glut of war movies on TV. Monday is Memorial Day and the weekend here in the U.S. is devoted to remembering those who made great sacrifices ... and to tag sales and family barbecues. On the TV, those who served in battle are remembered as heroes. Suddenly, everyone who was there is a hero -- World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. Military personnel are lumped together under the enthroning moniker, "hero." It feels a little like the touchy-feely 'kindness' of grade-school administrations that hand out awards to everyone because, dontcha know, "every child is special." Of course the kids and the military personnel know otherwise, but the immodesty of those who don't know from experience is so comforting and kind and ... stupid.

What's wrong with honoring those who are heroes and special? Nothing ... as long as we take into account the fact that heroes rely for the definition on those who are or were not heroic, are or were not special.

How curious it is that in creating heroes, we long to bring ourselves closer to that which is honored, but the creation only re-emphasizes the separation from it. For this reason, perhaps, people turn up the volume -- volume of praise, volume of appreciation, volume of adoration. If I talk loud enough, maybe I can convince myself of my nearness to the latest god. It doesn't work, but it's not for a lack of trying. Joseph Goebbels, Glenn Beck, the Ku Klux Klan, politicians and all manner of pugnacious 'news' casters raise their modest gifts to immodest heights: "I know who the heros are. I know who the special ones are. I can make you feel comfortable and assured with my volume."

Immodesty sails blithely by the facts. Spiritual endeavor can frequently do the same. Gautama was "enlightened," "Jesus died for our sins," etc. These and others like them may be comforting assertions, but they is immodest in the sense that by elevating what is special -- those rare, rare individuals and beliefs and philosophies and religions -- we abdicate the responsibility that would make the truth come true.

Ah well ... more tilting a windmills. The social tapestry that immodesty infests is an easy target. But it is more important to assess and challenge the immodest one within -- the one who insists that if I say it often enough or loud enough or sincerely enough, it -- whatever heroic it it may be -- will come true. Every alleged hero who ever took to the stage for a round of applause was modest in his or her accomplishments. Why? Because if you had been there, if you had engaged in the action or thought you praise, it would have been just that -- an action taken within the circumstances provided.

I see nothing wrong with pinpointing things that are special or heroic. But without the willingness to investigate what is adored, without asking who enthroned this god, what chance is there for any honest excellence?

It's hot and sticky today and I am a bit cranky. Perhaps, or perhaps not, that is an excuse for my immodest prattling.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

walled compound

Strange how, no matter how well-mortared and high, the barriers anyone may construct are bound to lose their effectiveness and savor. Yesterday's heart-felt opinion or conclusion is today's bit of dust. What protects and preserves also hems in and constricts. Gautama's father built his son a fine palace filled with luxuries. He wanted to protect his son. And what did the kid do? He left his protections behind, decimating, in effect, the walls and turrets intended to keep invaders at bay.

Today, the Egyptians permanently opened the Rafah border crossing into the Gaza Strip. With its borders closed, Gaza was suffocated economically and socially. Israel was happy to see a source of its sometimes-enemy curtailed, but the residents of Gaza were not. Today, a breach was created in long-standing walls.

And I don't imagine people are much different -- gathering up their beliefs and judgments and mortaring the walls of self. Castle after castle, wall after wall -- if this one doesn't work, maybe that one will...creating enemies, creating friends, defending against, asserting the truth ... on and on.

Without the walls, what would be left, who would I be?

Well, there is the present which, since no one can escape it anyway, is enough.

a peaceful jerk

Sometimes I wonder if the whole of human existence doesn't boil down to the willingness to be a jerk -- to taking a risky or foolish course and stop looking over your shoulder.

Of course there is the risk that you too may end up believing the world is flat and then run around insisting others agree, but the willingness to be a jerk combined with a subsequent willingness to correct what errors become apparent ... well, isn't this the way of peace?

No one can outfox the jerk they have the potential to become. Planning for the future makes some sense -- right up to the moment in which you believe it is possible or reliable. Plan, foresee, analyze, plot your best course and then step off into action ... and the distinct possibility that the result will be "ohhh shit!" No matter how virtuous or disciplined or filled with good intentions ... "ohhh shit!"

Being willing to be the jerk you are is clouded by the fact that sometimes the best laid plans actually turn out the way you hoped ... at which point there is the tendency to believe that your planning and care and attention to detail made your wish come true... and therefore, if I plan hard enough, I can outfox the future. Alternatively, a recognition of how jerk-y anyone might become may lead to a willingness to stand very, very still and somehow sidestep being a jerk.

If you can't be a jerk, you certainly can't be a Buddha. The trick is, perhaps, to relax a little and not make a federal case out of it all. Yes, I can be a jerk. Yes, I can be a Buddha. These potentialities, taken as a whole, are sometimes referred to as "Buddha," though of course names never solved anything... jerk-faced Buddha, Buddha-faced Buddha -- what principle is this?

But before things get out of hand, before we segue into la-la land, I think it is important if not vital to work with the jerk at hand. Isn't being a jerk a matter of relying on others, of my longing to be approved and loved and, well, being on everyone else's A list? And isn't the same often true for spiritual endeavor ... accolades and applause from without assuring accolades and applause within? It's jerky, perhaps, but if this is the jerk you've got then this is the jerk you've got.

No one wants to be a jerk. Everyone wants to be a wise (wo)man. Perhaps this sort of jerky behavior is just a matter of time ... time to learn how to relax, time to watch the distinction evaporate, time to name enough names so that names lose their savor or credibility. If something doesn't work and we keep doing it over and over and expect a different result -- isn't that the definition of insanity? But calling it insanity is just another name.

Relax and observe and correct what needs correcting. The world may be flat or the world may be round. In either case, here you are.

Friday, May 27, 2011

illegal drugs

The Washington Post reports that a U.S. effort to help curb drug activity -- and its attendant violence -- in Mexico is superficial at best and ineffective at worst. Americans buy the drugs. It is a profitable business. The body count, to judge by the occasional American news report, is bad and getting worse. The sense of instability and fear must be enormous among ordinary Mexicans.

I realize the idea sets off a firestorm of debate -- with good arguments abounding -- but I wonder idly what would happen if illegal drugs were made legal. Profits would probably drop among the drug cartels (and equally probably rise among the pharmaceutical cartels), but I wonder if erasing the illegality aspect wouldn't ease the body count in Mexico, even as it raised the body count in the U.S. Alcohol, the single biggest addiction problem in the U.S., was legal, became illegal (and violent) and then became legal again.

As I say ... it's just a passing thought. I wouldn't stand on a soap box about it.

bullet shells

Memorial Day, the day on which the sorrows and sacrifices and victories of war veterans are remembered here in the United States, is right around the corner. Already a wash of flags hangs along nearby public thoroughfares in anticipation of the observance on Monday.

When I was 11, in 1951, my mother took me with her on a trip to Italy. At a small port town where I could swim in the Mediterranean Sea, the beautiful waters I could see through with my diving mask revealed fish and corral and octopus and ... and littered all over the sea floor were shell casings from a war that had ended six years earlier. There were so many of them that I hardly bothered to dive for and save more than five or six ... hell, anything that plentiful could hardly qualify as a "treasure." I made no connections, saw no implications, foresaw no horrors. War was ... well, war was powerful and manly and it let people know what was what -- who the good guys were and who were the bad. In the John Wayne movies I saw at the time, no one screamed and the American flag was ... well, it was the winner.

I don't know because I have not had the experience, but I find it hard to imagine that the men who fired the bullets whose shell casings remained on the sea floor had any idea that they were fighting for or against something. In the midst of a fight, there is only fighting. Philosophy and religion are for children and chairwarmers -- people content to dwell in the past. To find glory and sorrow and soaring rhetoric ... well, I find it hard to imagine that plays much of a role where you are trying to kill me and I am trying to kill you.

General Douglas MacArthur, who commanded American troops in the Pacific version of World War II, was once quoted as saying, "The soldier, above all other people, prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war." But prayer relies on the past, in a time poorly remembered. Prayer is a rich man's game, a game for those who are not writhing and poverty-stricken in battle.

This morning I wonder what those who were constrained to leave bullet casings on the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea might think of a government that passes an extension of the Patriot Act, the legislation that allows the government to "search records and conduct roving wiretaps in pursuit of terrorists." What would they think of the easy-peasy linguistic foothold that a word like "terrorist" has achieved? Is this what they were fighting for? Is this the American flag? Are all those bullet shells on the ocean floor capable of no better than a television orgy of latter-day John Wayne movies -- exciting, vapid, glorious -- promised for this weekend? Is a country that goes to war with those who might prove a threat what they were fighting for at a time when the threat was empirically present? Is a government that insists on spending billions to assure that the electorate is held in thrall to fears of the latest "enemy" what they put their lives on the line for? Is the ignorance of an 11-year-old child who sees no connections, sees no implications, foresees no horrors a definition of peace? Is the laconic "it's human nature" the best excuse anyone can find for the screams of the past?

I don't know what their answers might be, but I cannot believe they are content. A flag is a bright banner and deserves better treatment than the evidence of the present extends. It is a human apostasy to praise and pray for the men who left those bullet shells on the sea floor without expending every effort, every dollar, every thought to release the pressure on the trigger finger.

Let us all honor the dead ... and recalibrate our own actions. Talk is cheap. Religion is cheap. Philosophy is cheap. Living in the past is a mug's game.

Now is the time.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

a brand new world ... and all the old stuff

The kitchen is now spiffed up and the workmen have retreated. Kitchen and anteway sparkle with new paint on new sheet rock. Neat as a pin ... so neat that it's almost as if nothing at all had changed much. Now all that remains is to comb through the stuff that was moved out of the kitchen in order to make way for this up-to-date and neat-as-a-pin result ... all that stuff that has turned other parts of the house into boxes and piles of ... old stuff.

Maybe spiritual endeavor is like that ... a spiffy new arena calling into question all the old stuff that is piled here and there and cannot be avoided. No matter how much I might wish that some Tooth Fairy would arrive with a dump truck and just get rid of it all, the old stuff just leers and insists.

Tough titty! -- there ain't no Tooth Fairy.


As a means of entertainment and a way to gauge my dwindling ability to be up-to-date, I watch a TV quiz show called "Jeopardy." Contestants choose individual questions from five or six categories and then phrase their answers in the form of a question.

Last night, one of the questions came in the form of a video clip of former U.S. President Bill Clinton referring to the reflections of an unnamed Roman emperor. The answer was, "Who is Marcus Aurelius?"

I always liked the "Meditations of Marcus Aurelius."

And the not-terribly-novel thought crossed my mind that anyone can read a book and become educated about philosophy or religion or some other subject that they find attractive ... something that speaks to the places within them that they may not speak much about. It's a starting point for what may become a serious interest or it may remain an after-thought and a side show to the activities that fill up a busy life.

At what point does a touching side-show turn into a willingness to really dig in? I don't know, but I do know that the put-up-or-shut-up aspect is always present in the dreams that anyone dreams. And perhaps the reason that people decline -- or bring only a half-hearted effort -- to their secret loves is the knowledge that once you start digging into a dream or hope or belief, the dreamy deliciousness of the dream is forced to retreat. The more you dig, the plainer it becomes; the more you act, the less delicious or marvelous the dream is.

Get thee behind me, Satan! Deliciousness is just too delicious! I'd rather be entertained than honestly informed. Bring on the eye candy, the ear candy, the mind candy, the heart candy!

Get thee behind me, Satan! Today, I will believe in the deliciousness of God.

something to crow about

A plump crow walked slowly down the middle of the street outside the house this morning. It was not graceful and I wondered at first if it were somehow hurt: Crows don't generally walk down our street.

At some point, I realized that the crow was being carefully herded by three or four smaller birds -- a couple black, one black/grey shot with white -- that would swoop in to a distance of five or six feet from the crow, dance a little and move away. The crow was too far from any greenery to threaten any nest, but the smaller birds seemed to insist ... "Get the fuck out of here!" It was as if they knew that crows deserved, by their scavenging nature, to be excluded and run off. The smaller birds were like kids in school, bullying the fat kid because, well, he could be bullied.

But birds aren't as self-centered as kids. These guys knew what they knew and acted on it. Acting otherwise was not an option. Clear as a bell: "Get the fuck out of here!"

After ten or twenty feet of walking, the crow lifted off, unimpeded by any injury I had imagined. And as soon as it left the ground, the smaller birds swooped in in its wake, nipping at its heels so to speak, pushing the crow further and further away from some unseen territorial arena. "Git and stay gone!" they seemed to be saying. And pretty soon both bullies and the bullied disappeared in the distance.

How attractive it is to be in the presence of assurance. Bullies, among others, seem to act with a clarity that anyone might admire ... "maybe" is not part of their vocabulary. Politicians and generals, among others, often speak as if they were capable and assured as they seek to win others to their banner. They have a vision and are willing to push their cause, urging others to see things their way and, by extension, to gain an assured clarity, certainty and, by the look of it, peace.

It is all very seductive for those who try to weigh and balance and think things through. Uncertainty and possibility swarm and natter and nag. The action of inaction is intolerable. How much easier just to surrender to some one-true-vision, one-clear-act. Right, wrong or indifferent, action speaks an unfreighted language. There may be a mess to clean up later, but right now ... ahhhhh!

I guess it all boils down to the old conundrum -- "Strike while the iron is hot!" but "Look before you leap!" "Action speaks louder than words," but the language it speaks is not always the language of peace or understanding.

Boring, boring, boring. Booooring, but true.

Not much to crow about.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

"Essays in Idleness"

Happened upon a mention of the 14th-century Zen priest Kenko's "Essays in Idleness" while waiting for my son to get his eyes examined today.

Here's a link to some excerpts.

just get a new one...

My older son took on the sullen, scoffing tone that teenagers are so adept at when I said I wanted to get the old bike fixed. It had a couple of shot tires, a kick stand out of alignment and various other minor ailments. "Who cares about it?" he asked. And the implication was that it was old and hardly ever got any use and, if anyone wanted a decent bike, all they had to do was go out and buy another one.

Kind of like mine.
This is the kind of attitude that can infuriate parents ... especially ones who remember when the sort of bike getting fixed was a real Cadillac among bikes. The bike man told me, when I dropped it off this morning, that even today, cleaned up, the bike would bring a couple of hundred bucks. An old Raleigh, built in England. "It cost $89 at the time when other bikes cost $39," the bike man said. It has a three-speed gear shift in an age when other bikes have more speeds than anyone could possibly use. When it came off the assembly line, no-gears and fat tires were the norm and climbing hills was no mean feat. But you blessed it anyway because it got you from here to there more quickly.

Just go get a new one.

But of course new ones turn into old ones and endless expenditures on the "new ones" of life can get pretty old. I doubt that my attitude was much different from my son's when I was his age. And I don't begrudge him an ignorance he will have to grow out of ... though, like all parents, I do wish I could save him the trouble of learning that piling up "new ones" lacks the kind of relaxed satisfaction that anyone might wish for. I would like him not to be as dumb as I was. But telling doesn't work. Learning works.

New ideas, new friends, new jobs, new circumstances, new clothes, new loves, new shoes ... all of it shiny and quite an addition. New stuff ... woo-hoo. New stuff that becomes old.

I don't have any new answers for old questions. But I do think that paying a bit of attention pays dividends.


Kidding around on the internet yesterday, I teased a long-distance chum about becoming "famous." He played along and after a few postings and an email or two, the joke had run its course. Because of his involvement in a discussion dealing with Buddhist malfeasance, another writer had accused him of becoming "famous" because of that involvement. There was something juvenile and ludicrous about the accusation, but it did make me think about fame.

Lots of people latch onto Andy Warhol's suggestion that "in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes." It has a silly cast to it, but it also has a thread of longed-for truth. I too would like to be the focus of much attention, to be raised up, to be applauded and adored... if only for 15 minutes. To be appreciated for something only I could do; to be applauded on some big or small screen; to have others pay attention to me with something like the attention I somehow, wistfully, deserve. Mostly, nobody notices, and I am, as a result, a nobody. It's a pleasant idea to be enveloped in some wider "yay!"

Recognizing this longing -- "fame is fleeting" -- there are those who dive into a contrived,  forelock-tugging humility. But I think it may be better just to recognize it and think it over.

The most obvious thing about fame in all of its subtle and gross incarnations is the bedrock reliance on others. I cannot be famous unless you say so. And since you often have more important fish to fry, my continued  fame requires ever greater infusions of noise or accomplishment in order to attract your attention.

This is a wobbly world since any quiet walk through the woods or along the beach will let me know that when no one else is around to cheer, fame and a couple of bucks will get you a bus ride. Without others, how do I go about being at peace? How can I be content if the only way I am content is by relying on others? And not just other people ... other scenes, other assumptions, other judgments and distinctions. A daisy is not famous, but it doesn't seem to mind ... and in the meanwhile, it is beautiful.

Well, I imagine others can do the cogitating or meditating on the subject. Fame points towards something pretty useful, I think. But its importance is greater than whether you applaud me or I applaud you. It's even more important than whether I applaud myself.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

going "green"

For those addicted to all things "green," here is something I received from a friend in email today:

In the line at the store, the cashier told the older woman that she
should bring her own grocery bag because plastic bags weren't good
for the environment.
The woman apologized to him and explained, "We didn't have the
green thing back in my day."
The clerk responded, "That's our problem today. The former
generation did not care enough to save our environment."
He was right, that generation didn't have the green thing in its

Back then, they returned their milk bottles, soda bottles and beer
bottles to the store. The store sent them back to the plant to
be washed and sterilized and refilled, so it could use the same
bottles over and over. So they really were recycled.

But they didn't have the green thing back in that customer's 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 was 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
handkerchief, 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 a
wadded up old 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 their writing 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 or a bus 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 isn't it sad the current generation laments how wasteful the
old folks were just because they didn't have the green thing back


Last night, I watched part of a TV show about J. Robert Oppenheimer, a man sometimes referred to as "the father of the atomic bomb." And as I watched, I could feel a whispering delight rise up -- to hear, even from a distance, about someone who charted a course and stayed the course. Oppenheimer was socially inept, egotistical, divorced from much of life. But he was a genius, with all the accolades and damnation that that can imply.

I guess a part of what I liked was to hear the tale of someone who grew up in his mind, loved his mind, believed in his mind, doubted his mind, but also had the courage or craziness to use his mind. Perhaps, given my upbringing and inevitable imprinting, I like to see the results the mind/intellect created for others. Given my experience, I think the victims of the intellect are everywhere as apparent as its beneficiaries.

And all this reminded me of a small news story I once read about a Kentucky (I think) town whose council rejected the notion of spending money to build and maintain a library. One councilman summed things up (approximately) this way: "I own one book and that's all I need." This egregious elevating of a narrowed mind was astounding in one sense. But it carried with it a clarity that I sometimes think is not that far away from the narrowness and cruelty of a well-versed intellect.

Oppenheimer was the beneficiary of both comfortable circumstances and a gifted mind. He prodded and pressed his own genius with a fierce determination. Not everyone has a similar set a gifts, but everyone has a mind. I'm not entirely sure where the courage comes from to start anywhere -- even with a single book in Kentucky -- and then follow the Yellow Brick Road.

Everyone begins in their own particular narrows and then rows towards the open ocean. The effort and determination to keep rowing is too much for many -- even those blessed with exceptional gifts -- and the desire to rest and nest is powerful and almost convincing. I'm a genius -- let me rest on those laurels. I have a single book and that is enough. I will rest on those laurels. I have a good job, a fine family, a bank account and a clothes closet... enough with this rowing shit! But it is all "almost convincing" because life does not stop or obey just because I decide to tie up at this dock or that. "Almost" is never quite satisfying because "almost" isn't "it," the ocean or goal or peace that beckons.

I guess everyone works out their own stuff in their own way ... rowing in the narrows, catching a brief glimpse of open ocean, rocked by the waves, warmed by the sun ... rowing, rowing, rowing.

Watching the show about Oppenheimer, one other thought asserted itself like an arrow in my associative mind: Be kind. It's the only thing that makes any useful sense, whatever the gifts or the lack thereof. Fake it if you have to (annoy the hell out of others with your oozing, imagined kindness), but while rowing with determination and skill and the inevitable laundry list of fuck-ups, learn to be kind.

Learn ... and never stop learning.

This, for my money, is genius.

The Rapture ... addendum

Because I dislike people -- from mediocre CEO's to General George Patton and his ilk --who use fear (however it is camouflaged) as a way of advancing their causes, I return to The Rapture that was predicted by Harold Camping earlier this year. When it didn't occur on May 21, Camping reconfigured his scenario on Monday at a press conference.

Camping seemed somewhat contrite about his error. He was not, however, about to publicly revise his own baseline thinking. In the meantime, I understand the donations to his radio empire have increased and some of his followers have been left in the lurch after quitting their jobs, selling their houses and doing whatever else anyone does when The Rapture is at hand.

Funny how what is shameful seldom occurs to those who might rightfully feel ashamed.

Monday, May 23, 2011

good, better, best

In spiritual endeavor, everyone would like a little reassurance. As a result, bookshelves fill up, public talks abound, rituals gain a footing and teachers grow up like weeds.

What made me think about the need for reassurance was a discussion on a Buddhist bulletin board about "mundane" and "supramundane" understandings. I haven't got the energy to look up what precisely this means, but I can remember that it means something in the long tradition of reassurance.

Reassurance -- the kind and articulate expositions that encourage students to press the issue, to keep up a firm, but gentle, effort ... to keep on keepin' on despite the obstacles and fears and delights that swirl like stinging grains in a Saharan sandstorm. Reassurance about what? Reassurance as regards to the question that always arises and sticks its tongue out like some sassy child: Yes, I have made a commitment to spiritual life in one form or another. Yes, it makes some sense as regards my longing for some peace, for something to ease the confusions. Yes, I have done what I could to gather information or practice meditation ... but (and here comes the daunting question), for what?

Oh yes, I can give the snappy answers and cite the relevant texts and quote the teachers who seem so assured. But, but, but ... but peace is not an intellectual or emotional commodity. It is intimate and assured and profoundly personal. It is all-by-myself. What if I follow this course and fall off a cliff? What if I end up in some eternal rubber room? What if there is no company, are no friends, where I am headed? What if it is all an artful scam and, at the end, whatever the end is, all I have is ... nothing? This is scary shit -- this path that I take all by myself, naked as a jay bird and ... and ... what if it doesn't work out?! What if the place I am headed is utterly without reassurance or love? I'm dying for a happy ending but I am not willing to die for it.

Good, better, best. The bookshelves and temples fill up. Reassurance is heaped on reassurance -- from a kind word to a slap in the face. Years pass. Practice progresses. But the sassy child is unimpressed. For what? If libraries and temples assured peace, we'd all be in the pink.

Someone needs reassurance and that someone is me. It is reassuring to kiss one Blarney Stone or another. It is reassuring to munch on the pretzels of the mundane and the supramundane. It is reassuring to be a Buddhist or a Christian or a Muslim or an atheist or a car mechanic. There are hands to hold and god knows I could use the help.

It may be good to start with the good; better to persevere despite all doubts and delights; but what is best? I would like the best and simultaneously it scares me witless ... so I pretend with renewed vigor that I haven't got a clue as to what the best might be. The sky may be blue, the birds may be chirping, the breakfast dishes may need washing ... but I haven't got a clue as to what's best. So I retreat into reassurances that do not and can not answer the sassy question, for what? I retreat into nostrums that sound like, "If there is no abiding ego, who could possibly be reassured?"

And when the edge of the cliff appears, when the door to the rubber room beckons, I turn back to see who might soothe me and encourage me and love me enough to care.

When Ramakrishna put his thumb nail on Swami Vivekanada's forehead and Vivekananda saw the edge of the cliff, he cried out, "Not yet! Not yet!" Not yet. How strange to think we all might recoil at the notion of jumping off a cliff when, in fact, we have already jumped.

after the Rapture

As a kind of post script to the much-publicized Rapture that was to have occurred on May 21, a friend sent along this video in email:

After the Rapture.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

outsourcing to the United States

If anyone had any doubt about the United States devolving into the Third World country, there is the story about outsourcing menial jobs previously done in India to America.

Interesting that in economic down times, "jobs" become so important that the quality of the product is hardly ever mentioned. A job means income and if inferior-quality products bring home the bacon, who's to quibble about something as unimportant as quality?

There is also the fact that many of those sacrosanct "jobs" pay significantly less than what they might have when there was an occasional interest in the quality of the product. Economic statistics pat the economy on the back for its uptick in jobs without examining what those jobs produce or the excellence they imply.

A Third World country is sad. But sadder still is a Third World mind.

graduation day

The house is full of flowers -- gifts from those who wished to congratulate my daughter on her college graduation. Flowers here, flowers there ... bouquets in the midst of the dusty mayhem created by the upgrade work in the kitchen. Will the house ever be neat and clean again? I may doubt it, but the flowers make the mess a little less oppressive.

It was a long and pleasant and tiring day, yesterday. I felt a bit sorry for the men and women who took to the podium to encourage and congratulate the graduates in an enormous gymnasium. The speakers were cut off from originality. They droned out platitudes because there was no other recourse. At my age, I couldn't help remembering Shakespeare after a while: "Brevity is the soul of wit." Or, journalistically, "Stand up. Speak up. And shut up." I wasn't cranky about it, though I did feel that if I sat on that chair much longer, there would be hemorrhoids growing on any incipient hemorrhoids. It was a pleasant enough ritual and if you can sit through a Zen retreat, you can probably manage any ritual. My daughter was, in one sense, stepping into a new phase of life and I was happy for her, but the fine print of all ritual is the same ... it goes on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on ... and just about the time you think you might be able to come up for air, it goes on some more.

In that gigantic room full of ritual, I did have two nice experiences. One came in the form of a toddler standing in his mothers lap one row ahead of me. The boy was staring at me. He kept staring at me. His mother held him upright and he stared over her shoulder. At me. Usually kids stare a little and then change their point of interest. Not this guy. He stared at me, so I stared back. His expression didn't change. I tried a couple of smiles, but he wasn't playing that game, so I stopped. We just stared at each other. There was something quite pleasant and relaxing about it. Just seeing each other. Or just seeing.

And then, when I stepped outside for some air and then sat on a bench, a former probate court judge sat on the bench next to me. He had had ten kids, eight of them still living, so he pretty much went to a graduation every year. It was just a slice of conversation we had in the midst of the ritual at hand, but it always pleases me to hear people's stories, however truncated. Everyone's got some story to tell, and assuming they just tell it, I love hearing them. Ten kids ... holy mackerel! Eight living ... so there was sorrow with the joy.

After the graduation, there was a good dinner with our family and the family of Olivia's boyfriend, Rich. I passed my beer to my sons so they could have some too. The restaurant provided a deck of Trivia cards, so everyone took turns guessing the answers as we waited for our food. What a smart move on the part of the restaurant. And the food was pretty good too. There was plenty of socializing and laughter and, then, towards the end, I realized I hadn't had my afternoon nap ... came home and collapsed pleasantly into bed. Olivia had graduated. Rich had graduated. All the parents and kith and kin had graduated. Graduated to what? Well, telling that tale would require me to go on and on and on and on and on and on .....

Saturday, May 21, 2011

what is treasured

A California woman is in custody in connection with the alleged attempt to sell a moon rock.

Moon rocks are considered national treasure in the United States and their sale is illegal.

A moon rock is a national treasure?

Oh well ... it is sort of interesting to take an inventory of what is treasured in our lives. The list can range from a family heirloom to something that cost a lot of money to an intellectual or emotional persuasion. Sometimes what is treasured is treasured for what it is. Sometimes it is treasured based on what it might mean to lose the item. We all seem to have our own national treasures.

Who or what would we be without our treasures? Would we be better or worse off without them?

I don't know the answer and I wouldn't presume to pass judgment on what is treasured. But I do think that examining what is treasured is worth the price of admission. Perhaps it's even a real treasure. :)

a puff of wind

Awoke this morning to find that, contrary to hopes, fears and predictions, the world had not ended. If it had ended, imagine the funeral costs that might have been saved, not to mention the Christian believers.

I'm sure there will be an explanation, but in the meantime there is the disappointment and scoffing. What is it in the human spirit that longs for some big fireworks display -- some enormous delight or incalculable disaster? I guess it would make me feel better, more elevated, more important, more ... well, something more than just a puff of passing wind.

With the importance and elevation brought to bear by all poets, T.S. Eliot once wrote:

This is the way the world will end
This is the way the world will end
This is the way the world will end
Not with a bang, but a whimper.
Well, there was neither bang nor whimper, neither beginning nor end, this morning.

Instead, the front page of the local newspaper announced that gas prices, at all but $4.00 per gallon, was twisting the lives of an increasing number of Americans. In Europe, I believe, residents have been paying more than that per litre for years. Instead, Megan, the daughter of one of my wife's sisters, had a baby boy in Florida. Instead, my daughter will graduate from college today. Instead, my younger son Ives will compete in the shot put in hopes of attaining a standing in the ranks of "Western Massachusetts" throwers. He has to throw the steel ball 41-plus feet in order to do it; his mind is racing with conflicting thoughts that reduce his chances of doing his pedal-to-the-metal best. "Fuck disappointment!" I have tried to tell him. "Fuck success and failure! Exercise your gut-level courage and just throw." But I guess people have to find that sort of information out for themselves ... that in the end, there is no bang and there is no whimper (ever) ... there is just this moment and the sometimes-scary willingness to lose what you could never hold or improve in the first place ... everything ... right...fucking...now! I cuss for emphasis like some dumb American in a foreign land ... if I just speak louder, these foreigners are bound to understand! But of course a puff of wind knows no emphasis.

Perhaps a man is made great by the enemies and fears he harbors. On the TV recently, as I flip around the channels looking for something that does not include canned laughter or salesmen, it has seemed that there are a lot of shows that include aliens who require a great battle. Or maybe zombies. Or vampires. In economic hard times, it is pleasant to imagine some wand-waving catastrophe or solution -- a winner over great adversity. I guess only the fortunate are lucky enough to reflect on the source of all this neediness, all these solutions, all these passing catastrophes and delights. Not criticize or wax wise ... just reflect.

Bang and whimper, bang and whimper, bang and whimper ... maybe it is just the fortunate who get tired enough to consider and reflect before the world ends and they save a little money on caskets.

And the winner is....

Well, who is the winner?

PS. Whatever the heart and whatever the mind, Ives did it -- threw the required distance and joined the ranks of Western Massachusetts shot put-ers. My vote: Woo-hoo!!!!! ... now do it again. :)

Friday, May 20, 2011

death penalty petition

I received the following email from someone named "Rev. Joriki Dat Baker, Zenji." It is not complete since trying to cut and paste is more than the computer can stand. Nevertheless, here is what seems to be the central issue and request:

Dear Friends,
We send this e-mail to you as someone with a religious affiliation or as someone who may know many people who do have such an affiliation.  If you can look closely at the e-mail appeal below you will see that AI is  trying to reach the people who will decide whether Troy Davis should be executed.  You will also see that there is a special appeal to religious leaders to sign a statement urging that Troy Davis not be executed.  (See green below under “key leaders”.)  We hope you can consider doing this.
Thank you for your consideration of this request and please pass it on to others who you think should be made aware of this important effort.

Peace, Nancy Tate
LEPOCO Peace Center


Too much doubt! Don't let Georgia execute Troy Davis. 

(Information and petition at:)

love quandary?

One of life's hovering questions, I think, is this: "Why doesn't anyone love me the way that I do?"

But with a little living under your belt, maybe a better question would be, "Why don't I love me the way that I do?"

what came before

I don't mean to set off a relativistic firestorm, but it strikes me as interesting:

No one who ever took up a spiritual practice or even just a belief system did so because they were so damned happy.

Because they were so damned assured and pure.
Because things were so damned clear to them.
Because the tears had stopped.
Because they were indubitably at peace.

Their efforts -- even if they expressed themselves with the starter kit of a belief system -- were aimed at some improvement ... even if the improvement were only a matter of income and accolades. Something needed changing and spiritual life seemed like a reasonable tool to use. What came before was not as good as it might be.

But no one can escape what came before. They can bury it, hide from it, rationalize it, beatify it ... but there is no escaping it. And bringing an honesty to what came before is clearly one of the tenets of all but the huckster versions of spiritual endeavor.

For all that, I do think that the best anyone can do in a world full of hucksters is ... make every effort not to become yet another huckster. Hucksters are the ones who try to evade or embrace what came before. They are notable by their multitude and there is nothing saying we can't note them. But there is no need to join their ranks with our praise or criticism. Say "no" or say "yes." Call a spade a spade. That is enough.

The malapropism that Yankees manager Casey Stengel once uttered cannot be overrated. He said, "If the people won't come out to the ballpark, you can't stop them." You can't stop them. You can only choose to go out to the ballpark or stay home. Your life. Your choice. Your peace.

What came before is neither different nor the same as the aims of spiritual endeavor, that whole-life effort that cannot escape and therefore does not try to. As Gautama allegedly said, "It is not what others do and do not do that is my concern. It is what I do and do not do -- that is my concern." Activists can go apeshit when they hear such words, but I would argue that that is just because they aren't listening or can't yet hear.

heaven and hell

When I was a 19-year-old and working at a lumbering camp in Oregon, I heard that the winters in that part of the world consisted largely of rain, fog, drizzle and grey. I also heard that the population had one of the highest per capita rates of alcoholism in the country... a little imaginary sunshine in a sodden life, perhaps.

Here, it has been raining for five days straight -- maybe longer. Today is no different. The moist infinities of a life without shadows seems to add to the discombobulation implied by having the kitchen spiffed up a little. The kitchen is one of the hubs of the household, a fact that is neglected when there are no workmen in the space, when the stuff stored in the kitchen isn't stored higglety-pigglety in other parts of the house, and when the dust from sanded joint compound doesn't seep and creep and insist on dusting everything in a fine white grit.

I have heard other Zen Buddhist students say -- and perhaps I have said it myself -- that the first three days of sesshin or Zen retreat are a ball-busting time. All the bright intentions that preceded the retreat run headlong into the reality of sitting still and silent for eight or nine or ten or more hours a day. Whatever notions there were that "I can do this" devolve into a sometimes yowling recognition that "I can't do this!" or "This is insane!"

Spiff up the kitchen ... won't that look nice? Clarify my life ... won't that look nice? What a good thought, a good hope, a good belief. And then ... and then ... get me the fuck out of here!!! I created this hell I was more than willing to conceive of as some haloed heaven. The circumstances I swathed in a bright new light become a hangman's noose and one of the hardest parts of it all is the fact that I have no one to blame but myself. Of course I will be happy later, but I want to be happy NOW.

The rain doesn't mind and the kitchen doesn't mind and the zendo doesn't mind, but I mind.

Minding is one of the things I do best.

The only problem is, what I do best is not really good enough ... except, of course, when it is.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

conversion experience

Sometimes I really do wish I had a more retentive memory. I know that William James, in "The Varieties of Religious Experience" has a fairly long and closely reasoned description of "conversion" experiences. And when I read the book, I can remember thinking he was a good and unflinching thinker. But I can't remember his outlines of "conversions."

What made me wish I could remember was reading a post on a Buddhist bulletin board in which there was a reference to "converting to Buddhism." Without disparaging anyone, I really could not imagine what that might mean. How would anyone go about it? Do you get a certificate or a tattoo? Does it imply that you're a Buddhist now, so you're expected to defend the one true faith against all comers? What the hell does it mean?

The only reasonable answer I could come up with was that anyone imagining they could "convert" to Buddhism must likewise imagine that Buddhism is just another belief-and-ritual-laden exercise ... another "religion" that could be diced and sliced in some world religions course or clung to with the power of Miracle Glue. Perhaps a "conversion" to Buddhism says more about what anyone might be converting from than it does about what they are converting to.

Honest to goodness, I have a hard time imagining what it might mean even if I can understand the need or desire to assert the fact that some change has taken place. How the hell does anyone "convert" to Buddhism?

If you take up Buddhist practices, then, after a while, you may admit somewhat shyly that you are a "Buddhist." But since the whole matter centers on what you do, it hardly seems fair to limit your doings to something called Buddhism. It's just what you do, isn't it -- meditation practice, retreats, perhaps, going to the movies, ballroom dancing, replacing the spark plugs, hiking, loving, cheering for the home team. How do you convert from living your life to living your life?

Of course Buddhism is as good as any other persuasion for handing out encouraging names -- things that will move the practices and skillfulness along. But it's just tentative stuff, isn't it ... a little nudge in this direction or that? Once upon a time you were a Boy Scout or a Girl Scout. And now, although you no longer wear the appropriate scout garb, you remember the skills and employ them as the need arises ... building a camp fire, filling a backpack, making sure you have enough water. Yesterday, you were at a one-day Buddhist retreat. Today the dishes need washing or the baby needs new diapers. Did you "convert" between yesterday and today? Did you make some conscious effort to change yesterday into today? Did it work? Is it possible to be a Buddhist one day and a not-Buddhist the next? Or vice-versa?

It's all pretty weird stuff in my mind -- "converting." I've tried it a number of times and my experience is ... it doesn't work. Every time I tried to "convert," life came up, tapped me on the shoulder and offered me a smile that said, "Don't be ridiculous!"

I'm sure William James had a wiser take than mine. But I can't remember it, so I'm stuck with this farm.


To say "all things are interconnected" or, more simply and with less freight, "all things are connected" comes as a surprise to some people. Those saying it can make money saying it to people who are surprised. The surprise may lead to an investigation, which, in turn, may lead to a belief. Joy becomes sorrow, night becomes day, yesterday becomes today and the line between self and other cannot be found. Each thing leads to or is interwoven in the next. I believe all things are interconnected. Ahhhh!

Repeated often enough, "all things are interconnected" becomes a part of the self-song anyone might sing. This is who I am, who I believe myself to be. And it's a pleasant notion -- consoling and confounding by turns.

Repetition, repetition, repetition ... and stuff starts to sink in. Spiritual endeavor is like this, I think. It's a kind of benevolent version of the malevolent Joseph Goebbels, propaganda minister for the Nazis: Repetition, repetition, repetition -- and pretty soon a lot of people believe it.

The problem is that belief, by its nature, survives only based on the past and only with the assistance of a baseline doubt. Without the past, belief would be sunk. And yet there is a conundrum: We believe things as a means of allaying doubt and yet belief itself is founded in doubt. No matter how we may wail or praise or quote scripture, doubt follows belief the way a tail follows a cat... inseparable.

The past gives rise to our repetitions, our beliefs, and yet where the past may be informative, we, ourselves, cannot live in the past. We can only live in the present -- a present that becomes the past before the word "present" has passed our lips.

Our repetitions may urge us forward toward a newly-revised and hopefully better way of seeing things. With luck, good habits replace bad ones. But in order to set aside the doubt that attends our beliefs and judgments and attitudes and prognostications there is one imperative and unavoidable test.

You or I might believe that "all things are interconnected," but life is not concerned with our beliefs, our willingness to rely on one thing or another. Life stands before us like a bully in the school yard and says, quietly, "prove it." Believing never proved anything. Living in the past never proved anything. Relying on others never proved anything or truly eased our doubts.

So how do we go about proving it?  My guess is that the first step is not to run away from life's challenge. "Prove it." When intellect won't do and emotion won't do and grand philosophies fall flat on their faces, "prove it!"

And by acknowledging, I think that a little at a time, the dime drops. Repeat and repeat and repeat as long as it is necessary and then .... "All things are interconnected" -- d'oh! Compassion works better -- d'oh. Emptiness is the nature of all things -- d'oh! Get over yourself! Do something useful ... brush your utterly present teeth.

gathering in the name of....

A 42-year-old Texas mother was arrested Wednesday in connection with the murder of her six-year-old son whose body was discovered last Saturday along a dirt road in Maine. For several days, authorities were frustrated as they tried to identify the body: No one came forward, no one had reported him missing, there was no hue and cry for Camden ... for several days he was simply a kid dumped by the side of the road, nameless.

But in Maine, before Camden's identity surfaced, there was a candlelight vigil Tuesday for this nameless child, and several crosses, flowers and candles marked the spot where the body was found.

"The whole community has come together and has feelings for this boy, who nobody seems to know who he is," Laurie Ralph said Wednesday as she and her husband visited the site. "You hear of missing children all the time, but when it happens in your hometown - and on your own street - it's scarier."
Perhaps it was media interest and ballyhoo that inspired such mourning, but I wouldn't be surprised if there were something more as well. Somehow, it is off the human charts that a child's death should inspire no notice, no caring, no grief ... and no name. There is something visceral in it -- beyond grief, beyond religion, beyond fear: Somehow, this death is mine and it calls out.

The activist mind may speak up boldly and say things like, "Why do you mourn this one unknown and pass blithely by where so many other deaths go unnoticed?" But I think this is just another way of skirting the issue, this very particular and present situation...this situation which asserts what feel-gooders may call "connection" and yet really is connection.

We gather in the name of what cannot be named. We gather because we are human. We gather for reasons that cannot be named and meanings that cannot be found. We gather because it is who we are and yet who we are remains as nameless as Camden. We heap up names and meanings and explanations and when we get exhausted enough with our names and meanings and explanations, we set it aside, forget about it, and move on. It's the best we can manage and yet somehow it falls short of the meaning we know for a certainty. We know and yet what we know cannot be known.

It is worth noticing, I'd say -- honoring the unknown with our caring attention.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

our betters

The yearning of spiritual endeavor is sometimes expressed in the devotion and sometimes awe with which students view their "betters." The men, the women, the temples, the texts ... the seemingly endless examples of the setting and solution anyone might long to achieve. As children grow up, they too galumph around in the shoes that currently fit only their mothers and fathers.

But with practice, there seems to be an almost imperceptible shift as regards to our "betters." Yes, we are grateful to the friends and enemies who supply pointers in spiritual life. But a bit at a time, it is our very own willingness and determination that put meat on the spiritual bone. Some recognition rises up that we cannot rely on those wondrous figures. It is our own two arms, two legs, emotion and intellect ... how could spiritual endeavor feel blood in its veins without our own, sometimes floundering, efforts?

There is no leaping over a sense of bright lights and enticing heights. These are the lights and heights that inspire us and beckon us forward. Some never outgrow the soothing sense of our "betters." But perhaps it is like turning the ignition key in a car -- once the motor is running, there is nothing left to do but drive. What could be "better" than that?

a period on the sentence

Strange how the mind cries out for explanations of all things wondrous and heinous. Huge sums and long hours are devoted to the effort. Libraries fill up. Putting a period on the sentence seems to be part of our hard-wiring. Mountainous concrete evidence to the contrary convinces no one: If anyone could actually put a period on one sentence or another -- actually come up with The Explanation -- why would libraries continue to accumulate still more books; why would the internet not grow still?

What brought this to mind was a large study done by John Jay College that investigated the why's and wherefore's of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. The molesting of mostly young boys by priests is such a heinous notion that the average on-looker is left speechless and enraged. This ... is ... beyond... the...pale.

But there must be an explanation, right? -- something that will define the problem and in so doing offer credible solutions. And the same reflex search for explanations and meaning goes for other situations as well -- even the ones that are less explosive and vile, even the ones that are a pure delight. If we corral and explain it, things will be settled.


Anyway, here are a couple of news stories about the John Jay College report, one by The Associated Press and the other by The Washington Post.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

exploding watermelons

Overdosed watermelons have been exploding in China.

I find this more interesting than the fact that billionaire Donald Trump is no longer planning to run for president in the United States.

Watermelons, at least, are serious.

daily mayhem

There are construction people in the house, spiffing up the kitchen a bit. Their activities mean that other activities, once mindlessly enjoyed, are out the window. There are stacks of this and stacks of that in rooms that are not the kitchen and its adjoining ante-way. Strolling to the refrigerator for a belt of orange juice has to be thought through and requires a request for admittance.

There's always something to upset the apple cart I guess.

My daughter graduates from college on Saturday and shortly thereafter will move to Pa. with her boyfriend who got a job there. The fabric of the household will change and I will miss her sometimes-imperious certainties ... usually leveled at her brothers.

It's raining ... a steady-since-yesterday exemplification of the grey skies above. The rain (who knows if it's true) seems to exacerbate the aches and pains that greet me gaily in the morning and make me wonder why getting up is a sensible idea: Maybe if I stay still enough, the universe will straighten out ... which of course is pure wet dream material, but I have never been one to turn away a good wet dream.

It's always something, right?

If it weren't something, what would it be?

in the land of the nerds

There is something nice about knowing that (Washington Post article) there is a world in which designer labels, shades of lipstick, the latest electronic gadget and the quest for popularity takes a back seat. Being smart in high school may not be kool, but being stupid has a way of losing its luster ... aside from other more bloody fallout.

It's nice to see that the United States -- mimicking, for a moment, perhaps, what Asian countries regularly do -- -- can occasionally elevate those who may never make the football team but know and connect a whole lot of stuff..

Swami Vivekananda wrote, "The mind (he meant intellect) is a good servant and a poor master." He was right on target, but I sometimes think it takes a bit of mental willingness and effort to see his point.


As far as I can figure out, everyone strives and sweats, enjoys successes and suffers setbacks, in pursuit of one goal or another. It may be nanoseconds or years in the making, but there is the effort. But there comes a point where the effort runs its course and there is -- good, bad or indifferent -- a conclusion that is reached, a point at which the willingness to sweat runs out and the willingness to relax takes over.

Whatever it is, it'll have to do. It may not be a perfect conclusion or the conclusion expected, but "it'll have to do" and I am willing to live with it. Spiritual endeavor, political affiliation, employment, religion, philosophy, grief, rapture, marital status, financial accumulations ... it'll have to do and I do what I can to feather the nest of conclusion. Belief takes over ... this is who I am.

And I see nothing unusual about any of this, except ....

Except to the extent that hard-wiring ourselves to our conclusions is bound to lead to sorrow. There is nothing wrong with reaching a conclusion as long as there is some acknowledgment that conclusions are never really conclusions. This is not meant as a criticism of conclusions. No need to wallow in a puddle of floundering relativism. It is just meant to suggest that the clutch and grasp that can accompany conclusions is a mistake.

Anyone can make a mistake.

And likewise anyone can correct one.

Sometimes I wonder why I write all this shit when there are perfectly good bumper stickers available ... as for example, "Don't believe everything you think."

Monday, May 16, 2011

Julia Reynolds

My long-distance friend, Julia Reynolds, is having an art exhibition and sent along this internet version of one of her works. Even with the distortions of the internet, I like the hell out of it.

American tag sale

Conservative economists have suggested selling off America's bric-a-brac -- a kind of tag sale that might ease the debt burden. Sell the gold in Fort Knox, sell the interstate road system, sell the utilities, Grand Canyon ... sell the stuff that's just sitting there, not doing much. One critic called the suggestion "a conservative's wet dream."

Even assuming the plan got off the ground, I have a hard time imagining who might or might be able to buy such assets. Somehow I imagine that the same people who brought us the latest Depression would be standing in line and salivating.

The idea of selling the gold at Fort Knox does serve as a kind of reminder in my mind ... money is a belief system whose beliefs we ignore at our peril.

screaming for meaning

Screaming for meaning.

This morning an email arrived from a Muslim fellow who is hospitalized in Norway. We have corresponded in the past -- I forget how we got in touch in the first place. As far as I can figure out, he is being treated for mental problems ... and which of us doesn't have those, however well-clothed they may be?

His emails almost always retail a desperate longing for meaning -- for a keel that will right an otherwise foundering ship. He uses words like "honor" and "Allah" and "strength" and who am I to fault others for a bit of buoyant flotsam or jetsam in a sea that can seem so uncaring and cruel? Those satisfied with their own meanings may croon and throw out their versions of life preservers, but the sea is vast and cold and full of waves that can obscure what floats and offers a chance of safety.

How desperate and human and touching it is. I have to say I am sick of philosophies and observations that do not reach back and make the obvious link to actual-factual human beings. World War II, for example, involved PEOPLE who were more and less responsible, more and less wounded, more and less vain, more and less frightened. To forget those people, to trump them with policy or philosophy or historical panoramas, to treat them as mere abstracts, may be cozy and satisfying, but it lacks balls and it lacks accuracy... all in the name of some greater or more in-control 'meaning.'

Meaning is desperately important, but however great the desperation, still I think it is desperately important to investigate it all ... all that screaming for meaning. Meaning is not something to pooh-pooh or dismiss. Meaning is where people begin, where they nest, where they imagine happiness to be found. And it is important to begin at the beginning -- right here. Right here is the time and place to investigate -- just take a look, see what is going on and who is making it happen. No criticism, no analysis -- just look.

The easiest story I know about meaning concerns Gotami, a woman in Buddhist lore whose baby had died. Gotami was desperate with grief. How could this be?! What had been part and parcel of her body and mind was now ripped from her arms. In her grief, Gotami approached Gautama the Buddha and begged him to restore he lifeless child to life. She begged and begged. She begged despite the fact that Gautama told her that what she asked was not possible. Her heart was shredded, she was floundering in a vast ocean of grief ... and it was WRONG. Finally, Gautama took Gotami under his wing and instructed her to bring him some mustard seed from the first house she came to in which no one had died. Gotami set off full of hope, begging from one house to the next. The residents were willing to give her a few mustard seeds, but each time she asked if someone had died in their homes, the answer was the same ... of course someone had died here. Nevertheless Gotami persisted ... begging and begging and begging and begging.

But finally, she was spent. There was kindness in the world, but there was no abode in which death was not a companion ... not a philosophy or a religion or a belief system or a meaning ... an honest, painful, real-people death. And so Gotami returned to Gautama with a new request: "Enough with the mustard seed," she said. "Give me the teachings." Which, of course, Gautama already had.

No more hiding meaning with meaning.

What was desperately important had become desperately important.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

the Chinese menu

Once upon a time, when I was hip-deep in Zen Buddhism and its practices, a woman acquaintance asked me about it -- what was it like, what did you do, etc. In trying to explain some kind of simplified view, I mentioned that there was sometimes chanting.

"Really?" she said. "What does it sound like?"

And the first thing that popped into my head was "The Heart Sutra," one of the most-chanted and much-liked short pieces in Mahayana Buddhism. It popped into my head and I began to chant it for her. I hadn't gotten half-way through when I saw she was fidgeting in her seat -- fidgeting, I realized, in an effort not to laugh.

I stopped chanting and looked at her. She couldn't contain herself: "It sounds like a Chinese restaurant menu" she exploded merrily. And when I thought about it a minute -- allowed my mind to stop solemnizing about Zen Buddhism -- I realized she was absolutely right and I was forced to laugh too.

I was always grateful for that small turn-about, that shift from seeing something one way when really there were all sorts of ways in which to see it.

Sometimes I wonder if laughter isn't a pretty good yardstick for spiritual endeavor. I don't want to laugh at anyone else's endeavor, but it feels healthy and sane to be able to laugh a little about the seriousness, the determination, the whole-hearted effort I can bring to bear. "Who died and left you in charge?" some puckish voice demands. "How could you be on the right track if you weren't laughing?"

Naturally, a good laugh depends in part on the preceding seriousness, so seriousness is a definite requirement ... serious seriousness ... right up to the moment when life yanks my chain and the Chinese menu comes into clear focus.

chanting in the zendo

With the zendo door open, the grey of the day tiptoed in, softly seeking out darkened corners. Outdoors, it was pouring. Inside, the incense rose as if to meet what was falling down elsewhere. The small candle shed small light.

The rain on the roof seemed to chant in words not-quite recognized. There was no unison in it but its lack of unison was unified ... sort of like the rumble and hum of voices on the New York Stock Exchange floor.

Now and then, there was strange thunder -- not a crashing peal but some long, flat-line growl that seemed to go on and on as it moved across the sky.

I was dry inside.

I got wet when I went out.

the juicy bits

I was thinking yesterday about the why's and wherefore's of liking or loving people and along comes the Washington Post this morning with its "Spring Cleaning List" of habits/rituals that might be discarded. And within that list was the suggestion that we could all do with a little less "small talk."

One man's prattle is another man's wisdom, I guess, but since I have never been very good at extended conversations about things whose savor has been chewed to death, I read the small-talk proposal and looked for a kindred spirit -- a point of view that agreed with my point of view and salved my somewhat guilty conscience. The problem arose when I tried to find clear lines between prattle and the juicy bits.

Small talk might roughly be defined as discussions about the weather or sports or any other impersonal topic about which the speaker puts forward his or her opinions, but lacks palpable and active personal commitment. It is risk-free conversation. More, it is conversation that outstays its welcome. But when you get down to it, what conversation is not largely devoted to the beliefs and perceptions of the speaker? It is not so much the topic that's important, it's the opinions that are on parade.

As a newspaper reporter a long time ago, I went to several office parties. My perception of news people was that they were often repositories of weird and fascinating and frequently useless information. Their jobs meant they had to dig into subjects and deconstruct the particulars. How long is the average adult foot step? Can a parrot sing opera? What constitutes a "happy" animal? What codes or ciphers had been found in Shakespeare's works? News was a world in which everything was fair game -- any topic, any opinion, any activity. It was a tool for tentatively plucking out details of life and examining them in particular. This is how I saw it when I headed out to the parties -- a way to plumb and enjoy whatever weird shit anyone might have come up with.

But the parties did not live up to my expectations and after a while I stopped going. The parties were places where people drank a lot and talked about ... the office. Since I spent eight or more hours a day, five days a week, in the office, I found little or no enjoyment in chewing that cud in my free time. But I felt as if I must have missed out on some human gene, not being able to discuss endlessly what others seemed content to munch and regurgitate ... endlessly. It's not that I felt above it all or superior to the practice of small talk. It's just that I couldn't do it with much pleasure. As a social connection, I could see it and even long for it, but it simply didn't strike me as a satisfying way to connect.

It's nice to have a common denominator as a starting point in relationships. Buddhists get to know Buddhists; lawyers get to know lawyers; baseball enthusiasts get to know baseball enthusiasts. It's a starting point for warmth and reassurance. But the broad brush strokes of connection become stale if that is all there is to a particular connection. What was profound and touching ... well, maybe it's profound and touching, but what about the other stuff, the little foibles and attachments and passions? What about changing the subject from time to time? Isn't this the stuff that keeps things fresh? -- a Buddhist who had always wanted to be a pole vaulter; a lawyer who longs to sing; a construction worker who breaks down in tears at the opera; a soldier who is brought up short on the battlefield because, for a split second, everything is simply  beautiful. One thing leads to the next because, well, one thing leads to the next ... endlessly. It's all alive and trying to hold it in some vice-like, comforting, small-talk grip ... well, it doesn't work, it's not true and, most of all, it's pretty boring.

Trying to draw a line between prattle and profundity is a fool's errand, but as far as words go, I guess we are all fools. Small talk is something each (wo)man recognizes, just like profundity. Silence doesn't resolve the issue any more than small talk does.

Taste is taste. I guess we would all be wise to make a careful peace with our own tastes.

So much for this morning's small talk.