Sunday, July 31, 2011

stop praying for relief

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Saved in this mind, like a box of crucifixion nails, are hundreds of shards of spiritual encouragement. Their context is mostly lost, but their bright, effective sharpness remains. Once I saved them as a means of creating support and 'wisdom,' stuff to 'understand' and find 'meaning' in ... cozy buttressing systems like those found in temples or august texts.

But now there are only remnants -- sharp as scalpels floating lazily in some balloon that lacks gravity ... floating, floating, floating. Should any one of them touch the edges of this universe, the entire universe would explode in the subsequent crucifixion.

This morning, for example, two encouragements (or was it one?) written centuries apart floated up out of the box of crucifixion nails. One appeared in the 20th century in a book called "The Lazy Man's Guide to Enlightenment" by Thaddeus Golas.

"When you learn to love hell, you will be in heaven."

A nifty fortune cookie. "Sage" and so forth. A book-seller. A belief-maker. And as such, about as useful as a fart in a wind storm. But when taken as a personal matter ... the nail is sharp.

The other -- a mere fragment -- was written in the 12th century by the Zen teacher Ta Hui. The phrase was part of a letter to a lay student: "... Stop praying for relief."

Stop praying for relief? Which among us has ever come to spiritual endeavor without a fervent, sometimes blood-curdling, prayer for relief? Buddhism, Christianity, Islam ... is any one of them exempt? Everyone wants heaven. No one wants hell. Everyone wants relief.

Of course it is easy to write off Ta Hui's observation as more tough-guy Zen wisdom. You know ... all those Zen teachers were hard as nails, unremitting, never giving an inch ... they were tougher than I'll ever be so I can store their nails in the back room and put 'understanding' and 'meaning' out front like Teddy bears.

And then one day the willingness evolves ... bring on the crucifixion nails because it's the only thing that makes any honest sense. This isn't masochism. This is something like determination -- a recognition that there is no escape.

"Stop praying for relief."

Get over yourself with your heavens and hells.

Really -- stop praying for relief and see what happens.
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suffocation

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One man's prudence is another man's suffocation. What was security and peace becomes a cause for dissatisfaction and war ... which leads in turn to a newly-shaped sense of prudent peace and a revised sense of choked-off limitation. Is it wise to inflict this on others? Is it wise to inflict it on ourselves? I don't know, but it certainly strikes me as common enough.

In Delhi, a rally similar to the "slutwalk" rallies in other parts of the world was held to "challenge the notion that the way a woman looks can excuse sexual abuse or taunting - "Eve teasing" as it is known in India."

In the mind, there is an insistent sense of freedom: I can do anything I want. The exercise of this freedom is not without consequences, good and bad. What I sometimes think of as the rise of Ho Couture in the United States speaks of a prudent and repressive past. Its implicit challenge to the prurience of the culture I live in is delicious and warranted from one point of view. Simultaneously it has a sad-making aspect in the sense that by wearing revealing clothing, there is an invitation to view the wearer as predominantly a tantalizing body ... and set aside the person who may inhabit that body. Of course none of this is just one thing or just another: It's all mashed together in a multi-faceted blob.

I can do anything I want.

I am free.

Oh really? Is someone who is honestly free at pains to assert that freedom as it relates to others?  And to what extent do expressions of such a freedom only help the nourish the walls behind which that freedom has been caged? Does a daisy roam the field of flowers, asserting its daisy-ness because roses and dandelions might not understand or agree?

I am not a fan of a sloppy, suffocating prudence. I am not a fan of sloppy, suffocating freedom.

I am a fan of investigating what it is that asserts its freedom or repression, its prudence or imprudence. As far as I can figure out, such an investigation is the only thing that stands a chance of finding out what it is to breathe freely.
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Saturday, July 30, 2011

the longest awkward age

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An email query yesterday led me down into the cellar, through the Indiana-Jones-movie cobwebs, and over to where the old mold-gathering boxes sat. Notebook after notebook stood testimony to an earlier time, a time when I 'kept a journal.'

I was looking for 1975-1976 and it took some doing. Neatniks might have stored their history in a chronological perfection, but these boxes were full of higglety-pigglety disarray. They smelled of the disuse they had been subjected to. Finally, I grabbed three spiral notebooks that seemed to fit the time frame I was after. I did not look forward to rereading ancient history -- dead runes, stale crackers, old observations whose impact on the present was suspect at best and ludicrous at worst.

But I was pleasantly surprised, somehow. Because the information I was looking for would probably have been spliced into the page-after-page of sometimes-neat, sometimes-scruffy handwriting, I was forced to give everything a close skim.

The question in question was: When had my Zen teacher's teacher, Soen Nakagawa Roshi, gone into seclusion and where, precisely, had he done it. The seclusion was widely interpreted as a reproof and rebuff to one of Soen's students, Eido Shimano (roshi), whose destructive behavior with women students had shattered much of the tranquility that can be useful in the group-practice of Zen. Soen tried to help, tried (though how hard is open to question) to get Shimano's attention and excite a willingness to repent and revise. All these years later, it is clear he did not succeed ... but the question was not whether he succeeded, but when did he go into seclusion and where.

I opened the first notebook and found myself in the midst of Rohatsu sesshin, probably the single most intensive formal seven-day retreat on the Rinzai Zen Buddhist calendar. The 35-year-old writer was working eight hours a day painting an apartment in New York and doing zazen (seated) meditation at the beginning and end of each work day ... for a total of another eight or so hours. He was not surprised by what he was doing or the lengths to which he was willing to go in order to do it. He was only three or four years into practice and as such, full of as much zeal as clumsiness ... still relying on his writing as a means of asserting that this business was within his control.

Reading his words so many years later, I was not, as I thought I might be, embarrassed or disgusted by his efforts. I was somehow touched. It was all so common, so ordinary, so human. Trying, trying, trying; failing, failing, failing: He wasn't much different from other spiritual-life aspirants -- by turns arrogant and foolish, knowing and utterly without the foundation to know ... with a 35-year hindsight, I liked this man quite a lot. He was doing something I admired.

And as I skimmed the pages, I came to a carbon copy of a letter I had sent to Soen Roshi about what some referred to then as "The Fuck Follies" -- Eido Shimano's coercive and egotistical behavior, his subtle and self-serving abusive treatment of women students and his consequent disruption of the sangha or Zen community ... a disruption that, for good reason, is considered a serious no-no in Buddhist practice.

And as part of that letter, the writer had included a quote from Thornton Wilder, a wonderful American writer whose early works were often neglected in favor of his later, more famous confections.

The quote said:

Of all the forms of genius, goodness has the longest awkward age.
The quote reached out of the past and hit some present nail squarely on the head. "Awkward age" is perhaps the best description I ever heard of spiritual endeavor as a whole. Anyone who has been a kid knows what it is to be awkward. Anyone who has been a teenager knows what it is to be awkward. Anyone who has been an adult knows what it is to be awkward. "Awkward" describes behavior that is not yet sure of its footing, that longs for understanding (and may as a result assert 'understanding' quite forcefully) but really is just play-acting in an effort to be at home with what seems to be at a distance.

"Awkward" is a gentle word in my book. It is descriptive, not critical. "Awkward" is a state that anyone might wish to surpass. Awkward is not anything to thumb your nose at. It's just awkward for the moment. And what is the entire panorama of spiritual endeavor if not an expression of awkwardness? As delightful and delicious and enticing and fulfilling as it may be, still the question must eventually be asked, "Who makes this shit up?"

"Awkward" strengthens the muscles that long not to be awkward. It goes on for years and years and years and years. And awkwardness is a good thing -- a true inspiration ... even if those who are inspired can sometimes be a royal pain in the ass, even to themselves.

On the page, there I was, a 35-year-old toddler, someone who used the imagined competence of words as a support, tipping and swaying and trying and failing and ... who does not feel sympathy for a toddler? Who does not wish him or her well in some heartfelt way? Who will not silently cheer, "Come on! You can do it!" Go ahead and make your mistakes ... fall flat on your ass ... but keep on going. Never stop.

Spiritual endeavor -- who makes this shit up? Goodness -- who makes this shit up? No one can stop being awkward just by hearing some words. No one can stop being awkward until they plumb the depths of awkwardness. And no one can be good without embracing whatever it is that is somehow considered to be not-good.

On the old and moldy pages, I was touched by the awkwardness I read. I was touched not because I had somehow left it in some imagined past, but because I am touched by awkward things, courageous things, patient things, dubious things.

It is worth it to be awkward about goodness ... shy and arrogant and uncertain and full of an effort that fails a million times. Since there is no escaping the awkwardness of our lives, it is best to enter with a firm and gentle spirit, I'd say.

What a klutz!

How perfectly delightful!
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Friday, July 29, 2011

an old (clean) joke

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A guy is driving down a back road, looks over into a field and sees a pig with a wooden leg. Unable to contain his curiosity, he drives up to the farmhouse where he sees a fellow sitting on the porch. "Excuse me," says the driver, "but I couldn't help but notice you have a pig with a wooden leg." "Yes," the farmer replies, "and I want to tell you he's some kind of pig. One time, one of the kids was trapped under a log down in the creek and the pig ran all the way here and led us back. If he hadn't, the kid would have drowned. Another time, my wife and I were asleep in our bedroom when a fire broke out. Pig knocked in the front door, ran up the stairs and pounded on our door until we got up and escaped. Yessir, I could tell you some other stories as well ... he's some kind of pig." The driver looks at the farmer perplexed. "I can see he is some kind of pig, but that doesn't explain why he has a wooden leg." "Oh that's simple," says the farmer: "A pig like that, you don't eat him all at once."

happily ever after

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fiscal responsibility in the U.S.

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A 2005 essay from The Century Foundation includes:

... Every Democratic president (Kennedy-Johnson, Carter, and Clinton) left office with the ratio of national debt to income below where it was at the beginning of his administration, while the last three Republican administrations (Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush) have presided over explosive growth of the national debt relative to national income. Since 1960, Republican administrations have added 38 percentage points to the national debt/GDP ratio, while Democratic administrations have subtracted 23 percentage points from that ratio. This record stands on its head all the clich├ęs about who is fiscally responsible.
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hit in the head

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The grass was the deep green of summer, the opposing players loped across it in etched uniforms of red and blue, and the baseball game advanced within a format that provided the expected high points of action and lethargic moments of waiting for that action to occur. Onlookers' minds, if they were anything like mine, were at ease in their presumptions.

And then the pitcher threw a ball that hit the batter in the head. An umpire told me later that the ball clipped the kid at the point where the back of the helmet met the neck.

You could hear the contact with the helmet that all batters are required to wear -- a protection against exactly such incidents -- but the contact brought the mind out of its easy comforts and assumptions and excited a sympathetic "ouch!" And then the kid was down, lying next to home plate, legs outstretched as coaches gathered around. I could see his legs. The most frightening part was that, for a while, the kid's legs were still. Precisely still. Unmoving. Eventually, he got up and walked away towards a trip to the doctor, just to make sure.

I suppose that, somewhere in my mind, I was aware that that kid might have been my kid, who was also playing in the game. But the concern I was aware of was that any kid should get hurt while in the midst of playing a 'harmless' game. Some knee-jerk reaction rose up: No! No! No!

In Buddhism, there is a latter-day saying: "Understanding is knowing to get out of the way of an on-coming bus. Practice is for the bus you didn't see coming." Practice does not mean that Buddhists run around hardening their hearts to the misfortunes of life or that they snicker at the fact that there is no good thing that does not contain the seeds of catastrophe. If that were the case, Buddhism would be nothing more than another two-bit religion or another smug philosophy or another slick-willy bolt hole for lazy cynics.

Practice builds strength and willingness, not to constrain or revise what is, but to acknowledge and embrace without regret... to act with as much care as possible, not with any particular expectation, but because responsible caring works out better in the end.

Bright moments and dark ... which highway, which choices in life, is not jam-packed with on-coming buses? Naturally, bright moments are more inviting and dark moments assure tears. But with practice, there is more honest care and more clarity.

There is no especial virtue in it.

But there is some common sense.
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conclusions

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Reading an essay on prime numbers this morning, it occurred to me how hard-wired human beings seem to be when it comes to conclusions, explanations, and meanings. Little and large, selfish or selfless, scientific or resting on belief ... there are conclusions that inform intention and subsequent action. It's nothing fancy, though its examples may be endlessly complex.

If I want to make dinner tonight, there is a conclusive need to go to the supermarket.
If I want to defeat an enemy, there are imperative scenarios to create and consider.
If I want a job, I must consider stirring my stumps and factor in what job makes sense according to my skills.
If I want to be happy, I need to consider various proposed formats -- whether personal or philosophical or religious -- and then act according to my conclusions.

Because the search for meaning and explanation and the formulation of conclusions is so salt-common, it's not a very interesting topic.

But it crossed my mind (conclusion-fashion?) when reading about prime numbers that any conclusion the does not rest in kindness and clarity is a conclusion worthy of deep skepticism ... and probably worthy of dismissing. This conclusion is not a Boy-Scout nostrum, something to encourage others to make nice. It's just the only outcome I can see that can assure some peace and happiness.

This conclusion too is pretty boring since it's not something one person can transmit to another or teach another. It's a conclusion that everyone has to come up with all by themselves ... or not.

Kindness and clarity is the only possibility ... possibly. Can I prove it? No. Do I want to? No. Could I be wrong? Yes. Do I care? No.

Kindness and clarity make like-it-or-lump-it sense to me. Any other conclusion falls on its face.

But that's just my conclusion and conclusions are a dime a dozen.
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Thursday, July 28, 2011

baseball bats

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The debt-ceiling debacle-debate in Washington tick-tocks along. There is death in Afghanistan and profound hunger in Somalia has led to fighting in an effort to assure some relief to the hungry and dying. And there are other compelling news stories with serious ramifications worth attention today. Why Russia, a country that trimmed its number of time zones from 11 to 9 in 2010, receives no daily attention is a marvel of modern news reporting in my book.

But for all that, one of the few stories that took me from start to finish today was the tale of baseball bats and the debate over aluminum and wood as a medium for expressing the game. I don't care much about baseball (though my son plays), but somehow the story was important in my mind.

Probably a sign of advancing senility.
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mired in what is "good enough"

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I could hardly believe my eyes this morning when, sitting on the porch, I noticed a mail truck down at the end of the block. It was about 7 a.m. and our neighborhood seldom sees mail before 4:30 or 5:00 in the afternoon. We are the last on the list of social services like snow-plowing a mail delivery. But there the truck was -- no doubt about it.

I waited for the mailman to arrive and expressed my surprise. What in the wide, wide world of sports was going on ... we never got mail this early.

His explanation was simple: "I'm delivering yesterday's mail."

The postal service is suffering the same cut-backs as other businesses ... cut the staff while pretending to deliver the same service as always. Only, of course, it's not true. Hospitals that trim nurses do not provide the same level of service. Newspapers that cut editorial staff do not provide the same level or depth of coverage. Everywhere, quality or excellence is reduced but the desire to be well-regarded promotes liars and spin doctors.

Quality is reduced, but ... well, it's "good enough."

As a social matter, I can piss and moan with the best of them when it comes to this sort of devolution. It's as tasty as potato chips and beer ... "I remember when..." or "Ain't it awful?" ... or "No wonder America is becoming a third-world country...." Tasty, tasty, tasty.

But more interesting, I think, are the compromises people make with themselves -- the "good enough's" that ooze into a life like some oil spill ... killing the darting, silvery excellence of fish or the ability of soaring shore birds to fly. Globs of "good enough" easing in on the tide until somehow the pristine beaches of the mind -- the excellence imagined or longed for -- is hobbled with goo.

Is "good enough" good enough? I don't think so, but it is an individual matter to sort out what is "good enough" and what is "not good enough." Everyone, young and old, makes compromises -- cuts their losses, sacrifices one thing for another, trims back their expectations, revises their dream. The alternative to doing this is probably suicide.

But in the midst of all this reality-check behavior, this 'adult' activity ... still there is the need or longing or perhaps even requirement for some no-holds-barred excellence ... something that is not just good enough, but rather -- dare I say it? -- perfect.

Eyewash specialists chalk such a yearning up to "hope" and then extol the hell out of "hope." But I think there really is a need to actualize something that is less "good enough" than hope or belief.

And what excellence, what perfection, constitutes such an actualization? What time or place or event or person  dares to experience the pure easiness of un-gooed waters lapping on the bright sand? Who has the power to relinquish hope and experience perfection?

I haven't got a clue.

But given the freight and weight and blinding capacities of what is "good enough," I imagine the longing for a nanosecond's worth of excellence is worth heeding and pursuing.
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God's voice

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My younger son and I were watching "The Shawshank Redemption" for the umpteenth time on TV last night. Here and there, we spliced in comments about what we liked and knew about the movie, which we had seen often enough so that idle chatter was not really much of an interruption or indignity.

"After I die," my son commented idly, "and when I stand at the pearly gates, I want God's voice to sound just like Morgan Freeman." Morgan Freeman is an American actor with a voice as mellow as taffy. In the movie, he plays a joint-lead with Tim Robbins in the tale of an escape from the fictional Shawshank Prison.

My son's comment was pretty much off-the-cuff. It wasn't a hardcore come-to-Jesus profession of his belief in God or heaven, but rather a half-social, half-hopeful remark.

And suddenly I felt as if I were sitting in the presence of a five-year-old who is not sure he believes in Santa Claus, but wouldn't it be nice -- and comforting -- if Santa Claus existed? It was a passing remark, not a profession of faith ... and yet the profession of faith lurked in the background... a social given of sorts, acceptable because, well, so many other people believed the same thing. God, heaven, hell, a post-mortem promise, an over-arching, benevolence salted with some tangy threats.

I was not about to interrupt the movie or our casual enjoyment of it with one of the 'serious' moments I sometimes inflict on my kids. But I could feel myself holding back what I wanted to say, which was ...

It takes courage to be alive. The kind of courage depicted in such cardboard blockbusters as "Pearl Harbor," which my son is partial to, is small potatoes compared to the courage it really takes to be alive. It is not entirely easy to describe that courage, but perhaps one of the easiest ways is to suggest that every man and woman needs to find the place within where there is precisely zero reliance on what anyone else says. Finding such courage and making up your own mind is nothing special ... unless you haven't found it yet. Without laying claim to your own garden, you are leading a shadow life -- always eating supermarket frozen produce.

And how do you go about finding your own place and clarity? I guess you pick something you take seriously or love dearly ... and, for the first time, really investigate it. The object is not to come out with someone else's conclusion, but to come out with your own. How about God? How about the pearly gates? How about Morgan Freeman?

In The Washington Post today, there is an article about a summer camp for the offspring of atheists, agnostics and other 'free'-thinkers. The camp is portrayed as a counterbalance to Bible camps, Christian camps and other God-fearing camps. The camp encourages imagination and thinking. And the first thought into my head was, "They have found their God."

I didn't mean this in some sly or snide or from-an-analytical-distance way. I meant that, for my money, everyone finds or creates the gods they love. And that's OK as far as it goes. Love what you like. Embrace it. Go for broke ... and then ... really go for broke! Really dig in. Really investigate it. Suck the juice out of every nook and cranny. Yes, you can think about it and believe it and love it deeply ... AND never stop investigating it unless you want to live a shadow-life, a life eating the leftovers of others.

Peace and happiness does not come out of somebody else's pantry. It comes out of your own courage to stand under the sky and smile your own smile, walk at your own pace, and breathe without regret. Peace and happiness may be expressed in a million-million limited ways as it rolls off the tongue. But no one can limit peace and happiness.

It takes courage to be alive. It's nothing special, except, as I say, if you decline to muster that courage.
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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

going for a walk

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My doctor has advised me in dutifully avuncular style to watch my diet and get more exercise. Given my lack of disciplined lifestyle, I try to do both, but succeed only intermittently.

I walk around the block. Once upon a time, I could have accomplished this without a second thought. Now, given an aging body, it requires determination and a slowed pace.

But one of the benefits of walking I really enjoy -- aside from the do-good aspects my doctor might applaud -- is the fact that going for a walk, even a small one, allows me to walk off my philosophies.

Walking requires my full attention and within that attention there really is no room for spiritual or philosophical cotton candy. Far from feeling diminished in this accomplishment, I feel lighter and more clear-headed ... both of them elements promised by philosophical and spiritual encouragements. The stink and weight abates, the sky accompanies me even when I don't notice, and any swirling doubts or certainties take a well-deserved break.

OK ... time for a walk.
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beyond the ramparts

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I believe it was the 19th-century political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville who observed in his "Democracy in America" that the United States was protected/defended by two great oceans. Others might invade, but there were a couple of mighty obstacles in their path.

From the 3rd century BC until the 17th century, the Chinese erected the Great Wall of China as a means of keeping Mongol, Turkic and other nomadic tribes at bay. By any estimate, the wall is a monument to the desire for stability and peace.

And in a human life span, there is ample evidence that individuals erect their own ramparts and moats in an effort to keep bad fortune -- or disruption of good fortune -- at arm's length.

An interesting aspect of the defenses of this life is that at the same time they may keep enemies at bay, they also restrain and confine those who have built them. And those confines and restraints and limitations can become galling, if not horrifying, over time.

Just thinking that a little careful investigation of a sense of safety and certainty is worth the price of admission. To what extent do the chosen limitations express the limitless ease -- or happiness, if you prefer -- that each is capable of? If keeping things at bay is the price of peace, how nourishing could such a peace possibly be?

Just something to consider, I think.
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not good enough

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It's true in any field of endeavor, I suppose, but since I am interested in spiritual life, I find myself touched by the expressions of inadequacy that can be read between the lines of those attempting to scale those heights.

Not good enough, not holy enough, too weak, too scattered, too frail, too sinful, too stupid, too smart, too impatient, too doubtful, too young, too old, too scared, too arrogant ... the laundry list goes on and on and that list is sometimes used to advantage by those who want no more than to turn a buck in the spiritual realms.

It is all pretty touching because it is so utterly human. Anyone with any sort of goal becomes immediately cognizant of the barriers that litter the road leading to that goal. Spiritual endeavor is no different. Goals of any sort imply the barriers that stand in the way.

I would love to hug the spiritually uncertain and unsure into an easier frame of mind ... much as I might hug my children in an attempt to bolster their confidence and willingness. More especially, I would love to know the appropriate times to apply a hug ... and when to offer a kick in the ass. Both are important encouragements, but when to apply which can be a delicate matter.

In either event, the struggles of the spiritually-inclined impress and sometimes touch me. I am most impressed by those unwilling to settle for "answers" and "meanings." And the sometimes heart-rending efforts to crack the case, to find a heart and mind that are at peace, are touching.

I want to help and yet know simultaneously that helping is impossible. I want to ease the fears and diminish the sense of inadequacy ... but in the end, there is no one else who can do such things. Only the aspirant -- the one whose inadequacies shine like a beacon -- can consent to do it.

All I can think to say is, "Everyone is inadequate in this matter -- no one is good enough -- so, for the moment, let's find some consolation in good company."
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to hunt without harming the prey

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Duck hunting with paintball guns.
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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

what is put together is bound to come apart

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Don't move, don't breathe, just watch.
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find out for yourself

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One of the apparently nifty components of Buddhism is the admonition to "find out for yourself." What a relief after having been involved in persuasions that demanded a lock-step loyalty and a threatened punishment for those whose step was not locked-in enough.

Woo-hoo ... you are the arbiter of your fate! Find out for yourself! Don't take the word of another! How liberating such advice and such a premise can be. As when once the expertise of riding a bike was attained, there can be a wide-open sense of delight: "Look, Ma -- no hands!"

But then, a little at a time, it's "lions and tigers and bears, oh my!" To find out for yourself may be liberating in the intellectual and emotional first place, but then the dime begins to drop: Finding out for yourself means exactly that. It means you've got to work in order to find out -- work, and perhaps work harder than you have ever worked before. No one is cheering you on. No one is agreeing with you. No one is tending solicitously to the bumps and bruises. No one can use your eyes to see the light at the end of the tunnel. No one else ... just you.

And as the ripples of understanding move out and out and out, "find out for yourself" is no longer quite the easy satisfaction it once was. In fact, it can be a dictum you might give quite a lot to escape. Whispering at the edges of mind and heart may be a desire to return to the good old days when someone else set the parameters of your life -- offering some heaven or hell that represented a satisfactory conclusion to all this work; a place to rest; a place to nest; a place in which all this find-out-for-yourself effort might be set aside.

But of course there is no going back. You can't not think of a purple cow. Once the find-out-for-yourself cat is out of the bag, there is no recourse but to go forward. Deliciously forward. Fearfully forward. Lovingly forward. Angrily forward. Forward into ... into ... into the complete unknown posited by "find out for yourself."

And is there a pot of gold at the end of this find-out-for-yourself rainbow -- some payoff that makes the effort worthwhile?

There's no knowing unless you find out for yourself.

How infuriating!
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ha!

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On public radio yesterday, there was yet another in the conversations about raising the U.S. debt ceiling. Two men who had some understanding of the situation were fielding questions from callers...answering as best they might.

In the last month or so, the airwaves have been filled with debt-ceiling discussions ... the implications, the projected disasters if the ceiling is not raised, the recriminations of politicians jockeying for favor, the media in a feeding frenzy about the situation. In a time when people don't have jobs and are unlikely to find them, when the American sell-offs of the past have come home to roost, and when the financial institutions responsible for the latest great depression go forward without any punishment or revision of their power to create and profit from such events ... well, the American public seems to be worn down and pissed off simultaneously.

And one caller to the radio show posed three questions. Two I forgot. One I remember. The one I remember and the one those answering failed to address was -- how realistic might it be to simply throw out the Rebublican and Democrat politicians currently posing too much and creating too little and form some sort of 'common sense' party, something with the national good in mind, something less endlessly contentious and do-nothing and egotistical?

There was a kind of bold relief inherent in the suggestion. There was also something obviously juvenile in it ... too simplistic and undefined and inviting of dictatorship. But the expression of reform, however dubious, was a reminder that sea changes often start with a simple, uncharted question. Perhaps the current self-centered cat fight could be wiped clean if those living in a so-called democracy started living up to the democratic standards they have effortlessly enjoyed.

Of course revolutions seldom live up to their bright promise. The revolutionaries sound good during the storming of the barricades, but once those barricades are breached and a victory assured, there are new manacles and bars to apply. Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Francisco Franco ... one-party systems that offered stability ... at a price. Socialism and Christianity held out bright promises ... until the fine print of practical application was written.

Once, during a sesshin, or extended Zen retreat, I can remember returning to my seat after meeting with Soen Nakagawa Roshi, a pretty well-known teacher. I was fired up after the meeting. The effort to resee and revise a lifetime full of habits that hemmed me in like tightly-woven chicken wire had been rekindled. Charge! And as I sat down on the cushion, a firm voice rose up in my mind: "I really do have to get rid of this body." I wasn't even entirely sure then what I meant, but I really meant it. How anyone would get rid of 'this body' I wasn't sure; the only thing I was sure of was that it was necessary. It was a time of revolution ... a revolution that relied entirely on the ascendancy of the ruling clique of habits and thoughts and beliefs.


Luckily for me, Zen practice doesn't sit still for dictatorships AND it doesn't sit still for revolutions. Getting rid of one thing and adding another is the pastime of a believer. Zen doesn't deny believers their cheering agreements. But neither does it take part in the torch-light parades that require the cheering of a reliable multitude.

Get rid of the scoundrels ... ha! Get rid of your body ... ha! A pox on both your houses ... ha! Acceptance of all things... ha! Peace and tranquility, war and horror ... ha!

Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! -- that's Zen practice and I, for one, am grateful for it.

Ha!
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Monday, July 25, 2011

slobs of the world, unite!

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In his later years, my Zen teacher once groused to me that his students did not clean the zendo and left the chores to him. He was getting on in years and the disciplines of his past might be fresh in his mind, but his body was no longer so fresh. As much as anything, I imagine, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi was pissed off at himself for having been party to the training of such irresponsible, loll-about students.

Nevertheless, he cleaned the New York zendo ... which, from my point of view, gave him the right to sound off. Not sounding off would have been too vain and too fatuous.

In India, I once heard, it is common for the senior monks at some ashrams to do the dirty chores. Newcomers get the easy stuff, but those with seniority, those more likely to become settled and serene, are the ones saddled with latrine duty, carrying water and whatever else qualifies as dirty work. It may not keep them alert, but it probably helps them to fend off some of the dullness.

I thought of all of this because yesterday in the zendo I realized I would have to stir my stumps. There are no students about whom to complain. Like a lot of other people, I imagine, I am chief cook and bottle wash -- the teacher and the student ... and which is which is hard to say. It was enough to notice that the spiders were gaining a foothold in the zendo, a reminder of how lazy I have been about doing the dirty work. I need to bring out the vacuum cleaner; break out the ammonia and water and wash the altar and statues; change the greenery; swab out the water bowl; clean the cushions; dust everywhere ... and generally clean up behind this loll-about student.

The good thing about being chief cook and bottle wash is that I can, reluctantly and with some aches and pains, do the work AND grouse about it too. On the one hand, "What a slob!" and on the other, "What a not-slob!"

Teacher and student in one tidy package ... I imagine it's that way for everyone.
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politics

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A neighbor who lives three or four houses from the one I live in stopped by last evening to hand out some papers supporting a local candidate for City Council and invite me to a get-together Thursday. The candidate's signs have been popping up like toadstools on lawns all over the ward he hopes to represent. His picture shows a clean-cut young man with a smile displaying straight teeth.

The neighbor showed off her get-along-with-everyone skills as we chatted about this and that. I suggested that it might be nice to know what, precisely, the candidate stood for ... and she agreed that that was a good suggestion ... but offered no concrete positions. I have a feeling that Thursday's get-together will be more of the same ... stuff like "transparency in government," which is one of those ancient promises that resembles the latest Republican descriptions of business as "the job creators." It all sounds good until you look for the jobs created or recognize that the charter of this small city favors a strong mayor and a lack of transparency. No candidate runs on the proposition that the charter needs to be changed ... people zone out when they hear stuff like that.

I'm of two minds whether to attend the Thursday night get-together. On the one hand, I have a large sum I would be willing to bet that the people in the room will be noticeably lacking in callouses -- the callouses whose taxes maintain quality-of-life facets of this city every bit as much as those whose idea of shoveling is pretty much limited to looking through the yellow pages. Much as I find them idiotic, I would like to think that Glenn Beck enthusiasts and those who knew what it was to sweat would be on hand.

But I have to admit that, like a lot of other people, I suspect, when it comes to politics, I can whip out a boatload of skepticism and anger, but cannot put forth a creative platform of my own. I can react, but not summon a paradigm for action. Some may forgive themselves glibly with the notion that taking a positive stand is "not my job." I don't find that reassuring or really much more than a righteous laziness.

When it comes to politics, I suspect the crabbiness that arises is based on a longing to trust ... and the experience of imagining that trust was betrayed. A pox on all political houses! But since a society without format is just an invitation to brutality, I think it is important to consider or seek out the format that seems to promise the least betrayal ... the candidate who will, count on it, screw your pooch ... but maybe not as often or as forcibly as some others. I think I might be inclined to vote for someone who did me the courtesy of not asking me to trust him/her.

Oh well ... never discuss religion or politics at the dinner table...

And perhaps on a blog.
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Sunday, July 24, 2011

forgetting the basics

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Yesterday, on the peace picket line, I was approached by one of the sometimes-odd-duck participants in the vigil. Without preamble, he began to tell me about a 93-year-old man he had been talking with -- a man who could no longer remember if he was hungry or thirsty or why, with an erection, he was hot for his wife. I replied that I thought he would either discover that he was hungry or he would drop dead.

Today in the zendo, the tale re-echoed in my mind. There I was, sitting half-lotus, incense burning, butt firmly placed on the zafu ... and I honest-to-goodness could not remember why I was there. I knew without effort that zazen was a seriously sensible thing to do, but for the life of me, I couldn't remember why.

The best I could do was rest in the effortless conviction that it was sensible ... until someone or something proved things were otherwise.
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a question about butts

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Do women's butts shimmy and wag more than men's or is it just that I tend to look at women's butts and not men's?

If so, is there a physiological reason for it -- some difference in body structure?

I don't know.
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on tiptoes

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Standing on my tiptoes, tiptoes, tip-top tiptoes.

Oh, if only I were taller!

If only I could reach!

It's beckoning and smiling but somehow it -- whatever it is -- is too tall.

It's taller and even my tip-top tiptoes do not, can not, never could suffice.

I must be taller ... just a little taller ... and all would be as it should be... everything would be better ... everything would be ahhhhhh.

Reaching, hoping, praying, begging ... just a little bit taller, just a teeny-tiny bit.

Standing on my tiptoes, tiptoes, tip-top tiptoes.
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spiraling stories

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In college a long time ago, I used to lie in bed at night and imagine a poster-sized creation on which someone might write a story. Any story would do. The story would be written in a spiral, beginning at the center and flowing into ever widening circles until it was complete.

Once it was complete, the writer would begin again, using the first word to begin an entirely new, spiraling story. Once that story was complete, s/he would return to the second word and write a new, spiraling story. Third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth ....

Starting anywhere, with any word or any moment or any place or any time, everything is included ... or anyway that was the intellectual conclusion I came to.

And, looking back on that fanciful time, I don't think I was wrong. Start anywhere and everything is included.

I wasn't wrong. I just missed one essential ingredient:

It's not intellectual.
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stardom

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Does it strike anyone else as odd -- the longing to become, in one way or another, a star, when the overwhelming evidence points to the fact that stars have a way of devolving into a hellish realm of self-aggrandizement and disregard for others?

The star-dom isn't just Hollywood or political ascendancy. It seems to rest on the notion that things as they are deserve to be better. "I am nobody now, but I want desperately to not-be a nobody." Top of the heap in a social group; enlightened Buddhist teacher; big-money stock broker; most powerful mobster ever ... I want others to acknowledge my light as I do ... with awe and respect and accolades. How come no one notices me?! Just give me Andy Warhol's "15 minutes of fame" and I will die content. Only, of course, 15 minutes is never enough. If I won the lottery, I could handle it despite all the human tales to the contrary.

In London, singing phenom Amy Winehouse, 27, was found dead July 23. No one imagines the cause was something other than the drugs she abused, but autopsy results are not expected before tomorrow.
Music ... what a bright light. But the thin line between the brightness of music and the desire to lay claim to that light because you are the delivery system ... it's hard, sometimes fatally hard.

In Washington, the politicians who were elected not in order that they might be re-elected but rather to serve as a thoughtful conduit for their constituencies and the nation are grappling unsuccessfully with the issue of raising the nation's debt ceiling. It takes courage to serve. It takes care. And it takes a reflection that may be impossible to enact. The light is bright in Washington. Who has the careful willingness to acknowledge the light without trying to imprison it in the "me" who got elected?

In spiritual endeavor, there probably never was a novice who didn't long to be pope, who didn't imagine how bright s/he might shine with enlightenment or attainment or serenity or some monastic castle. The light is bright in spiritual endeavor. Luckily, in some traditions, there is an effort that goes beyond the hopes and beliefs of novices.

It's a tricky business, getting over the desire to be a star. Subsisting on a diet of pseudo-humble pie doesn't work any better than cranking up the applause meter. The light is the light and it shines on all comers.

Who has the courage and patience for the light?

I don't know, but however difficult the effort may be, it strikes me as more sensible than the empirically disastrous longing to be a star. If you want stardom, just sign up for the Demolition Derby. Crash and burn. Hear the applause. Review the results. Get over yourself ...

And keep it that way.
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Saturday, July 23, 2011

finding comfort

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The thundering punishment of the day's heat had not quite descended this morning as I prepared to stand on the peace picket line. Beneath my robe, I could feel my sweat glands preparing to break into song, but they were only humming as yet. I was the first person to arrive outside the courthouse on Main Street and I wondered, given the series of hot days lately, if anyone else would show up. Most of the people on the line are, like me, older ... and the heat takes its toll. One by one, quite a few of them did.

And as I stood there, a neighbor who lives not far from my house passed by with two teenaged girls in tow. Kim and her family are not people I hang out with, but they are people I say hi to from time to time, people with whom I share a smile or perhaps a little gossip. For the past several Saturdays, Kim has passed by the peace picket line, saying good morning each time.

This morning she stopped for a more studied greeting. "I am always so happy to see you here," she said. "It comforts and reassures me." The statement caught me flat-footed. All I could think to say was the truth: "It makes me happy if you are happy."

I really do enjoy it when people are happy, but Kim's assertion also underlined what I often forget ... how the seemingly meaningless littlest things can serve a wider and more profound purpose. Some people like to make spiritual hay out of such an observation, but since it is impossible to know the full impact of any action or gesture ... well, leave it alone. Was Kim referring to my robe and the whispers of a spiritual life she imagined but had not fulfilled? Was she referring to the fact that I'm fairly constant about my attendance on the line and that constancy inspired her in some way? Did she like my haircut?

Comforting and reassuring ... I cannot deny that I like thinking I am capable of that. But the moment I think I am capable of that, it's probably no longer true. Kim was comforting and reassuring herself and I was just fortunate enough to be in the neighborhood.

I too have been comforted and reassured by sights and sounds and smells and hugs. It wouldn't be true to say I hadn't. Seeing a monk or nun, entering a temple, hearing a kind word or glimpsing a mother touching her child. It fills the heart in the moment it occurs, but then, in the hurly-burly, its soft sweetness and utter clarity disappears.

You can never tell. It is impossible to know. What affects whom how? I'd like to say there was a formula and perhaps there is: Just be yourself and be kind. Kindness works better than the other choices available. Even if the kindness is rebuffed or misconstrued, even if you are faking it, still, be kind: What you see in the mirror will be less embarrassing that way. :)
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virtues

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Keep your virtues to yourself.

It may seem lonely and austere, but things work out better that way.

Misleading others could hardly be called a virtue.
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tending to fragilities

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What a strange thing it is to presume others do not have fragilities -- points at which the wound is too deep, the inability too compelling, the weakness too strong. And strange as well, the willingness to hide such fragilities from others and, more important, from ourselves.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh and an aviatrix in her own right, was once asked on television what it felt like to have a child kidnapped. The question, which had a certain idiotic and yet imperative quality, arose because in 1932, Charles Lindbergh Jr., 18-months-old, was kidnapped and found over two months later, dead of a massive skull fracture. The kidnapping was very big news at the time.

On hearing the interviewer's question so many years after the fact, Mrs. Lindbergh sat very still for several moments ... a straight, strong-looking woman with a strand of pearls. And when she finally did respond, the first words out of her mouth were, "I think everybody has suffered a tragedy...."

Whether posturing or camouflaging or defending her own fragility, I thought it was a wonderfully apt vision, one that offers everyone and anyone a soft landing in rough terrain. A tragedy, a fragility ... it's common rather than uncommon. It's human. It deserves care not because it is out of the ordinary but because it is so ordinary, not least from the person whose fragility and tragedy is so insistent.

Rather than imagine a fragility can be erased or hidden, how much better to gently but firmly embrace the thorns, to tend and watch after them.

It is a kindness we owe ourselves, I'd say. No one else can cure or eradicate a tragedy, so the kindness must be found at home.

At home, where the tragedy began.
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a world of art

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The old sports reporter, Red Smith, once wrote, approximately, "Writing is easy. You sit down at a typewriter and open a vein."

When it comes to art -- any sort of art -- maybe blood is the common denominator. Blood is intimate. Blood is that without which no one could soar. Your blood is your blood and mine is mine and yet everyone bleeds the same color. In blood, we are the same and different.

Yesterday, I hit the roof. I was infuriated enough to sound off in an email to Julia, a painter whose work I really like. I didn't know where else to turn. I was enraged. Everyone has buttons, I imagine, and one of mine -- together with war and, occasionally, spiritual life -- is art. I'm too old to try reining it in. Being infuriated is quite satisfying -- an ego trip, but still, somehow, delicious.

The springboard for my towering fury was an obituary of the painter Lucian Freud, a painter I had never heard of and knew precisely nothing about. Freud, the grandson of psychoanalytical obelisk Sigmund, died in London on July 20 at the age of 88. There were no photos of any of his paintings accompanying the obituary so I did the reporter/editor might have done and looked up examples available on Google.

Although there were no pictures accompanying the article, there was plenty of praise. I had an unkind hunch that putting pictures where readers might actually see them would have eviscerated the lavish flounderings of the art-critic appreciations: After all, if you can see for yourself what is praised, the praise itself collapses like some unused condom.

Here is an example of the praises accorded to Freud's paintings:

“They stop you where you stand,” Washington Post critic Paul Richard wrote at the time. “It is as if gravity itself had somehow been increased. . . . Freud’s pictures have a sense of time expanded, not easily explained. Anchored to the present, they seem to preexist the photograph.

Time magazine critic Robert Hughes called Mr. Freud “the greatest living realist painter.”

Sit down at the typewriter and open a vein. Sit down at the canvas and open a vein. Sit down at the keyboard and open a vein. Art offers a transfusion, blood with blood. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. But one thing's for sure -- trying to explain it, trying to enhance its impact and meaning is pure and infuriating twaddle.

Julia, as someone in the transfusion business, wrote back soothingly:

I too am not too fond of those art critics. You do have to admire their capacity to put forth such BS and make it sound important. But some of the stupid rich that buy art based only on what the critics say are part of the problem as well. .... I'll just keep painting what I like painting if you just keep enjoying what you enjoy in art.
And of course Julia hit the nail on the head. Everyone's got to make a living -- con artists, artists, art critics, gas station attendants, spiritual teachers ... the lot. Somehow, everyone's got to put spaghetti on the table. I guess what I find infuriating is the immodesty and lack of giggling that seems to infuse such appreciations ... finding "meaning" and "explanation" where the heart either soars or it doesn't, where the transfusion takes or it doesn't. Which tastes better, a sip of tea or an analysis of tea-drinking? The trouble with "meaning" and explanation" is that all too often it sucks the life blood out of the art or event in question.

Open a vein and share the blood. Blood is important. Blood is life. Without blood, we'd all be reduced to some idiotic zombie show on television. I like some of Lucian Freud's paintings, but even when I don't like them, I am grateful that he sat down and opened a vein. Opening a vein takes balls. But that's just my take.

Perhaps being an art critic takes balls as well. I don't know. But I do know it can still infuriate me, plodding through life with "explanations" and "meanings," when soaring -- a real blood transfusion from Beethoven or enlightenment or a sunset or a glass of water -- is a wordless possibility.

My Zen teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa, once described the relationship between teacher and student this way (more or less): "It's like the tea in that cup between us. If you ask me what it tastes like, I can say this or I can say that. But then you take a sip. Then we both know the taste of tea."

Can anyone improve the taste of tea or the mingling of transfused blood? Can anyone talk anyone else into "great art?"

I guess it's the lack of modesty -- of pure sniggering -- that so often infuses "explanations" and "meanings" that frosts my cookies. It's as if someone threw sand in your eyes and you thought that was an adequate way of seeing, of hearing, of tasting or touching.

Well, if I keep writing, I suppose I will, if I have not already, turn into one of those art critics I claim to abhor.

What an idiot!
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Friday, July 22, 2011

terrorism from within

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... Meanwhile, on the keep-'em-scared-keep-'em-compliant front, I received in email this appreciation of the public relations effort employed by the Department of Homeland Security ... an agency that can use the word "terrorist" without noticeable reflection. Together with a video, it suggests among other things  that white Americans are the most likely terrorists. The Department of Homeland Security budget request for fiscal year 2011 was $56.3 billion.

The terror this organization deserves to inspire in thinking Americans is truly awesome. It is hard not to think of Monty Python actor Terry Gilliam's black, black comedy, "Brazil."

Speechless is the best I can muster.
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hot and cold weather

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Once upon a time, I lay down in a stall next to a horse. It was a frigid night in upstate New York. Winter temperatures routinely dipped to 20, 30 and even 40 degrees below zero.

A friend and I had volunteered to do all of the barn chores the next morning (feeding a dozen or more  horses, milking the cow, mucking out the stalls and gathering eggs) if the school we attended would allow us to sleep out in the barn. Since getting up early was no one's idea of a good time, I think the school saw our offer as a godsend. But we hadn't counted on the cold.

At first we buried our sleeping bags in the hay mound. But hay is a poor insulator and so, deep in the night, we both decided that bunking in with a horse would ease the freeze. My friend trusted horses and he seemed to fall asleep immediately. I, on the other hand, lay next to a breathing behemoth and could think of nothing but the fact that if the horse inadvertently rolled over, I would be squashed beyond all recognition. I was between a rock and a hard place: I didn't want to freeze to death and I didn't want to be smothered to death either.

I solved the problem eventually by going out to the manure pile, digging a shallow trench, putting my sleeping bag in it, covering all the but the bag's entry point, and crawling in. Whatever else anyone might think, manure is very warm and I slept like a baby.

But the fear of being smothered by that horse lingers even to this day ... especially in the hot weather that has descended here. The dense inescapability of the heat reminds me of what it might actually have been like to have a horse lolling on my body. No where to run.

The Associated Press, which, like other news outlets, has trimmed away its quotient of competence in an effort to bolster the bottom line, announced today in a news story that "residents are bracing themselves for temperatures near and above boiling point." There are plenty of other indicators of slovenly reporting practices these days, but that one small bit of uncorrected hyperbole gets under my skin ... reporters so excitable and inept that they are willing, together with their editors, to throw physics into a cocked hat. Give or take a little, the boiling point of water (which is over 50% of the human body), is 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures around here have been several points shy of  100 and are predicted to continue in that range.

No doubt my own hyperbole -- imagining that hot weather is like being smothered by a horse -- is also off the mark by a fair bit, but at least my imagination doesn't run around pretending to report or embellish the news.
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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Lord Acton

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Looking up the quotation "All power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely," I got sucked into Wikipedia's etching of Lord Acton (1834-1902), a British thinker.  And there was a laundry list of quotations to go with the Wikipedia entry ... I have highlighted the ones that caught my eye:

  • "Great men are almost always bad men."
  • “There is no worse heresy than the fact that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”
  • “The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds, by force or fraud, in carrying elections.”
  • “Be not content with the best book; seek sidelights from the others; have no favourites.”
  • "The issue which has swept down the centuries and which will have to be fought sooner or later is the people versus the banks."
  • "Every thing secret degenerates, even the administration of justice; nothing is safe that does not show how it can bear discussion and publicity."
  • "The danger is not that a particular class is unfit to govern. Every class is unfit to govern."
  • "There is no error so monstrous that it fails to find defenders among the ablest men."
  • "At all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare, and its triumphs have been due to minorities, that have prevailed by associating themselves with auxiliaries whose objects differed from their own; and this association, which is always dangerous, has been sometimes disastrous, by giving to opponents just grounds of opposition."
  • “Universal History is . . . not a burden on the memory but an illumination of the soul.”
  • "There is not a more perilous or immoral habit of mind than the sanctifying of success." (said of Oliver Cromwell)
  • “The strong man with the dagger is followed by the weak man with the sponge.”
  • "The science of politics is the one science that is deposited by the streams of history, like the grains of gold in the sand of a river; and the knowledge of the past, the record of truths revealed by experience, is eminently practical, as an instrument of action and a power that goes to making the future."
  • “And remember, where you have a concentration of power in a few hands, all too frequently men with the mentality of gangsters get control. History has proven that. All power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
  • "Save for the wild force of Nature, nothing moves in this world that is not Greek in its origin."
  • "Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought."
  • "Property is not the sacred right. When a rich man becomes poor it is a misfortune, it is not a moral evil. When a poor man becomes destitute, it is a moral evil, teeming with consequences and injurious to society and morality."
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a nuts-and-bolts Christian prayer

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Without any help from Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists or any other faiths, here is a pretty interesting invitation to those professing Christianity... what they actually could do instead of just what they might hope to do.
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don't do the crime if you can't do the time

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Reading an article today about the Americanisms that can set British teeth on edge, I remembered a time when I was a newspaper reporter. Newspaper reporters used to cultivate sources -- people they could call when a particular story-topic came up. There were police sources, political sources, medical sources, business sources, etc. And one of the sources I cultivated was the top gun at Merriam Webster, the creator of dictionaries.

I forget his name, but I do remember how, every once in a while, the two of us would get on the phone and bemoan the dissolution of language.

Give or take a little, there are two over-arching approaches to words and language. One sees words as having very specific meanings and those specific meanings allow people to communicate more clearly and with less confusion. The other sees language and the words that make it possible as a living organism -- something that flows and eddies and is affected and revised by the people who use it. Once upon a time, for example, the made-up word "alienation" had a very specific psychological and sociological definition. But the word grabbed the popular imagination and soon came to mean a variously-defined dis-ease. How "nauseous" came to mean "nauseated" I'm not sure, but it certainly is a common enough occurrence.

Anyway, I would get one the phone with my source and the two of us would piss and moan like a couple of liberals at a white-whine party: Language might be an approximation of fact, but it deserved to be as close and approximation as possible. The anything-can-mean-anything crowd was leading us to hell in a hand basket.

I suppose our conversations were more heady and reserved and refined than that, but that's what they boiled down to: Without an effort to do as well as anyone might in a given (if imperfect) field, the field itself rotted from within and its usefulness was lost.

In the fourth grade, I wrote my first story. As time passed, I wrote more and more. And along every step where she had some interest and offered some input, my mother, a good writer, drummed it into me: If you don't know the building blocks, you'll never build a good house. Spelling, grammar, sentence structure, vocabulary ... you've got to learn that if you want to write. Like every youthful, budding writer, I didn't want to bother with the building blocks: This was ART and I wanted to bask in a sea of imagination and deliciousness. Never mind changing flat tires: I just wanted to drive the car! My mother, sometimes gently and sometimes not, would point out the inescapable news: Without knowing the particulars, I would continue to be more full of shit than a Christmas turkey -- a half-baked writer and a phony.

Isn't it the same in every desirable endeavor ... there's the dream and there are the particulars. Without reading the fine print, without knuckling down, a wimpy, weak and meaningless structure is bound to evolve.

Spiritual effort is the same: There's the dream that positively glows in the dark and then there are the particulars, the very real difficulties that anyone might long to evade. Yes, there is the bright light at the end of some spiritual tunnel, but more often than not that bright light betokens an on-coming freight train. Heaven, enlightenment, compassion ... woo-hoo! And then there is the very compelling fact that anger rises up, sadness comes calling, and the dog pisses on the living room rug.

Don't do the crime if you can't do the time. Heart-felt dreams are wonderful inspirations. But anyone who cares about that dream -- anyone who really, really cares -- is going to have to learn the nouns and verbs and adjectives, the day-to-day, inglorious particulars from which that dream arises.

Just because the gritty particulars cannot be avoided by anyone with a star-struck dream does not mean that that dream is somehow wrong. It just means that anyone unwilling to break a sweat would be better off forgetting about the dream ... either that, or become some kind of wooly-minded fanatic who is willing to make others suffer for his or her own laziness.

Nouns, verbs, adjectives and the dog still pisses on the living room rug. There is a wonderful light that can shine in anyone's life, but each of us has to flip the switch.
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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

show, don't tell

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Watching Akira Kurosawa's "Dreams" yesterday at my son's suggestion, I was reminded again of the old writing axiom, "show, don't tell."

How hard it is, once a body of experience is under anyone's belt, not to get lazy and tell somebody something. And it is made harder still by the fact that, like children, many people long to be told.

Kurosawa's anti-war sentiments and appreciation of nature in "Dreams" came perilously close to mounting the bully pulpit and announcing, "Hey, you assholes, you've got it wrong. Do it this way!" Still, it was a generally pretty movie -- a kind of short story collection on film -- and I watched pretty much all of it.

It did remind me, however, of how lazy I can be.
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the trip wires of virtue

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After more than 40 years of devoting myself to what others might see as a virtuous pastime, I am no longer much of a fan of virtue. Instead, give or take a little, I prefer responsibility.

A quick-hit internet definition of the word "virtue" offers several descriptions. Three that catch my eye are these: 1. A good quality or habit that a person has, especially a moral one such as honesty or loyalty 2. A quality that is useful in a particular activity, and 3. An advantage or a good feature that something has that makes it better than something else.

Every definition carries with it the potential to exercise the notion that problems and solutions can be categorized according to their good-better-best factors. So, for example, the fact that I have stood on Northampton's Saturday-morning peace picket line for several years might be seen as either a praise- or blame-worthy activity.  Onlookers might congratulate or despair of the effort that can be seen as either morally virtuous or unpatriotically wimpy. In either case, the opinion expressed tends to carry with it a sense of self-congratulation.

For 40 years or more, I have devoted some effort to the practice of Zen Buddhism and if there is one thing Zen Buddhism acknowledges, it is the recognition of the difficulties that arise with self-congratulation: Self-congratulation for being a Zen Buddhist, for example; self-congratulation for being a Democrat or a Republican; self-congratulation for supporting or decrying the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq; self-congratulation for having a particular job or marital status; self-congratulation for doing a good deed or sidestepping a bad one; self-congratulation according to the size of a bank account. The list can be pretty long. Each element can carry with it a sense of virtue: I am OK because I am right and I am right because others agree with me.

Before this argument spirals into airy-fairy realms of religiosity or philosophy, it needs to be said that the practical applications of what passes for virtue have their uses. Hitting someone else may have a quite satisfying quality, but as a means of leading a happy life, it doesn't work very well ... not least because others are likely to smack you in return. So trying to lead a life without punching others makes pretty good sense. Good sense is good sense ... until the virtue is added on.

A sense of virtue may inspire, but it can also hobble and debilitate. Which is which is a dicey matter and, more important, a personal one. Is a personal action enhanced by virtue or blinded by it? The answer I prefer is, "Your life. Your choice. Your responsibility."

How much friction and confusion might be eased if choices and actions taken were just that -- actions and choices? Virtue separates one thing from the next, makes things good-better-best. But is this an accurate portrayal? Does self-congratulation or the imposition of some "virtue" do much more than elevate the fiery rhetoric of a situation? Does is solve a problem or merely complicate it? Is it better not to lie, cheat, steal or kill because it is virtuous and the social wheels turn more smoothly or is it because it simply works better?

For anyone who takes such questions seriously, answers cannot be dictated or proven by the agreement of others. Those answers lie in the fall-down-seven-times-get-up-eight existence that most of us lead. Expecting others to find the same answers that I do is a fool's errand. The only answers that make much sense in the end do not lie in virtue or self-congratulation. They lie in a responsibility that is tested on a daily basis. Virtue and self-congratulation are beside the point.

Personally, I think anyone who seeks out such answers deserves congratulations.

But that's my problem.
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a million years without sex

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Snarky females may rejoice and wand-waving males despair, but a million years of asexual reproduction appears to be a fact. In an evolutionary world that relies heavily on what might be called vive-la-difference survival rates, stick insects have managed to thrive without the urge to merge. Given the adaptations required over such a long period of time, scientists seem to be flummoxed by the ability of stick insects not to self-destruct.

How can anything remain "the same" and hope to survive?

I imagine the definition of "the same" will have to be nailed down before an answer appears.
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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

in a hundred years ....

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Stories that caught my eye this morning:

-- The Philadelphia archbishop, Cardinal Justin Rigali, resigned Tuesday in the face of accusations that the archdiocese covered up sexual depredations by its priests. The church said the cardinal retired for reasons of age.

-- Mortgage industry employees are still signing documents they haven't read -- the same shenanigans that led to the mortgage melt down. Again, as elsewhere, the nation confronts the problem of people caught with their hand in the cookie jar ... who apologized, promised to be good, and then went back to stealing cookies.

--  Borders book chain is preparing to slip, Titanic-like, beneath the waves of economic hard times and a public that reads less and less.

-- On Tuesday, the voters of Wisconsin will have their say in the recall of a state senator who is closely linked to the governor's successful gutting of collective bargaining rights.

In a hundred years, who'll know?
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favorite surprise

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Yesterday, Keith, a guy I haven't talked to in more than 50 years, called up. We had gone to college together and although my mind does not delight in most school-related memories or chums, still I was delighted. Imagine that -- fifty years and suddenly, voila! Things had happened to me that he didn't know. And things had happened to him ... all of them utterly unbeknownst to me.

Keith said he would be up from his current home in North Carolina come October and perhaps we could get together. I said I would like that. I love hearing people's stories -- where they have been, what they have learned, what satisfactions and dissatisfactions they have encountered ... it's like watching a particularly delicious movie ... riveting.

It's fun having something happen out of the blue, with no apparent connection to the other things that are going on. A surprise.

At the moment, I have few and wispy memories of Keith. There was the fact that I unexpectedly beat him in a billiards competition and won the only trophy I ever received in college. There was the day -- a snow day -- at the college when we went into the pool-table room at 8 a.m. and didn't leave until midnight. The was his college sweetheart whom he had married and with whom he had had two children. And there was the unexpected statement that I was the "best natural athlete I ever saw." Me? Athlete? I wasn't clumsy athletically, but the 'best' kind of left me floundering. And there was the observation that I had been Keith's best friend. Boy, there is a lot of stuff I don't know about what others think or thought of me.

Anyway ... a surprise. One I look forward to filling in with particulars.

Former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins once observed that meeting your favorite author "is one of life's most reliable disappointments." A pointedly accurate observation for my money, and yet I look forward to the disappointments that the particulars of any individual might offer. It's like any good story ... turn the page and you don't know where you might end up. Isn't that the part that deserves the designation as "favorite?"
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expertise

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Maybe it's not true, but I think it is: Everyone gets their wisdom from everywhere. This is particularly useful to anyone who is 'one-pointedly' devoted to anything. Baseball, chemistry, business, art, spiritual life ... very useful.

What brought this to mind was an observation made by either Yogi Berra or Casey Stengel -- two baseball greats. The line, only approximately remembered, is this: "If people won't come out to the ballpark, you can't stop them."

I really don't care much who said it or whether the quote is 100% accurate. As with the various wisdoms of Buddhism or other spiritual concerns, what I really care about is whether, in practice, this fractured-English observation stands up to scrutiny ... whether it is true in fact and not just some sugar-plum, safe-sex belief.

Spiritual life -- to which I have devoted some time and interest and often half-assed effort -- is a fine example of the usefulness of a horizon that widens by necessity. I am only using spiritual life as an example with which I am familiar ... not in some effort to arm-twist others into 'goodness.' If I knew more about baseball or business or art, I would use that as an example.

In spiritual practice, everyone begins with belief and hope. Belief and hope are OK as far as they go, but, with practice, they simply don't go far enough. No criticism intended -- it's just a fact. At first, practice is exercised as a means of gaining expertise, of learning the ropes, of finding the hand holds that will allow the student to climb the spiritual-life mountain. There is nothing easy about it. It is very hard work and it is littered with failures. Determination is brought to bear -- win, lose or draw, I will do this! Other activities are set aside in a one-pointed effort. Bit by bit, the expertise grows.

My teacher once said, "For the first four or five years (of practice), belief and hope are necessary. After that, they are not so necessary." Why? Because experience trumps belief and experience trumps hope. What someone knows is simply more compelling than what they believe or hope. Baseball, business, art, chemistry ... I imagine they are much the same.

But as an actual-factual expertise begins to assert itself, what has been set aside in the past also starts to become more apparent. Some are willing to rest on their accomplishments and just be a very good baseball player or businessman or artist or chemist or Buddhist. They are willing to take their place within a pecking order created by others. They stop ... and as a result fall into an unnerving pit. Things are settled and because they are settled, there is a sense of uneasiness and doubt. In quiet moment the old song asserts its question: "Is that all there is?"

And of course it's not. All the expertise in the world cannot limit or compass the life anyone leads. Life is bigger, more various, more interesting and, possibly, more scary, than that. And for those who have the courage or the common sense, the willingness grows to take their hard-won expertise and try to apply it in a wider context. All that hard-won expertise has a way of falling on its face when relationships fall apart or come together, when instead of sun there is rain, when joy turns to sorrow or vice versa.

My guess is that what creates uncertainty is the deep understanding that the deepest expertise is only as good as the person who is experienced. There is no pecking order. There is no relying on the perceptions of others. There is, at least in the initial willingness to address uncertainty, a profound sorrow at the loneliness. Experience cannot be shared, no matter how wise or experienced it may be. There is a shapelessness to the very world I have sought to shape. The handholds of expertise are fine ... but they don't work. Yoiks!

Out of expertise springs a profound inexpertise. But, assuming there is some determination, this is a good, rather than a bad or scary, thing. Expertise brings with it a wonderful focus. But it also brings a realization that life cannot be narrowed to focus. Life is relaxed and limitless. I, by contrast, have run around focusing, shaping, limiting. All the expertise in the world cannot eradicate the dog shit on the sidewalk ... the stuff I invariably step into. I have seen the tree, but missed, in that seeing, the forest inherent in that tree. Those who contrast the "tree" and the "forest" have missed the point: The tree IS the forest and the forest IS the tree. This is true in fact ... not just in some religious or philosophical fortune-cookie sense. Relax. Blue sky is blue. No need to be an expert.

If the people won't come out to the ballpark, you can't stop them. No one can stop anyone from doing what they don't want to do. The question that needs to be answered is, why am I trying? What new expertise do I hope to create ... another round of expertise greeted by another round of inexpertise and pretty soon you end up dead anyway.

Everyone learns everything from everywhere. The tools of attentiveness and responsibility are worth nourishing. But after that? Well, relax ... dogs gotta shit, right?

As my teacher once observed, "Except for me, everything is the teacher."
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Monday, July 18, 2011

"original thinking" -- ha!

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Generally, I despise those who use the ideas of others to elevate their own stock. You know the type -- full of wisdom that they have filched from authors or pundits or wise men and women and yet have never tested or really investigated in their own lives.  They seldom cite their sources and are content to let others believe what leaves their lips or pens is newly minted.

"Pimps and whores!" my petulant mind explodes.

I prefer original thinking -- thinking that springs from honest reflection based on experience.

And yet, as my own store of original thinking dwindles, as I find myself relying more and more on other sources for a provocative springboard, I see my own arrogance as hardly better than those pimps and whores. True, I am not quite so keen to impress those in my surroundings, but I can filch with the best of them.

And it makes me wonder: Isn't the notion of "original thinking" simultaneously a myth and a truth? Is there such a thing as "original thinking," or is every thought, of whatever kind, simply a reference to the thinking, known or unknown, that came before it? No one wants to be called a pimp or a whore and yet everyone pimps and whores. Some bask in such an observation, forgiving themselves too readily for the pimping and whoring of their lives. If everyone does it, how bad could it be?

And the answer to that is, "pretty goddamned bad." It's like living on a diet of stale bread: Sure, you can survive, but what sort of survival is it?

What constitutes "original" thinking -- the fresh and clean and unindebted moment in which the experience looks neither back nor forward but simply flashes out in a place no pimp or whore could possibly enter?

I despise pimps and whores.

I am a pimp and a whore.

I guess it's something to work on.
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Vishnus of the Internet

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From deathless prose to insipid or salacious musings -- it's all part of the Internet. And generally, it disappears almost as fast as it appears.

"The Internet now is the main communication and publication medium,” (Professor Joseph) JaJa said. “If we don’t preserve it, we lose a good part of our cultural heritage.”
An article in The Washington Post today details some of the efforts being made to store today's data for tomorrow's historians and others who might be curious.

“We’re sort of stuck in this perpetual now,” (Professor Michael) Nelson said. “Figuring out what was on the Web an hour ago, a day ago, a week ago, we’re really bad at that.”

Saving the "now" for then. Preserving the "was" for the "is." The Vishnus (preservers) of the Internet are hard at work. A cultural heritage leans on an electronic crutch.

And as far as I can figure out, no one is examining one of the underlying assumptions of the whole effort: What happens when electricity is no longer available? Will the cripples be able to walk?
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beloved by bees

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Slideshow depicts who can wear the most bees.
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Sunday, July 17, 2011

samurai horse opera

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As usual, I am a bumpkin when it comes to using the 'conveniences' of the internet, but since my wife subscribed to Netflix, I thought I would try to give some old Akira Kurosawa film a look. I picked one I hadn't seen, "Samurai Rebellion."

And as I watched, it occurred to me that it was similar in some ways to the old American westerns. True it was richer, but there were similar simplicities hiding complexities. Kurosawa's infatuation with the samurai era, always a delight by costume and formalities and swash-buckling sword play, struck me as similar to director John Ford's westerns ... a bit studied, but hinting at a rich underpinning of humanity and culture.

I wouldn't want to try to write an essay comparing Kurosawa to the American westerns. Kurosawa is darker and more directly human. But the hints and whispers of another time are sometimes better in either venue than the venue itself. Good, if sometimes predictable, stories, with other stories lurking beneath, going unspoken.

Or maybe I am just a sucker for costumes.
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like the dawn

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Perhaps spiritual effort is like the dawn. Meditation, rituals, high notes and low, hard work ....

And things get brighter while you're busy not-looking.
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blessings

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The peace picket gathers on Saturday mornings outside a downtown courthouse on Main Street. People congregate at about 11 and knock off at 12. The 'peaceniks' gather at a point up the Main Street incline. Their signs and banners span the spectrum of war, economics, health care ... the stuff you might expect. Another group, roughly dubbed 'Tea Partiers,' gathers down the incline, nearer to a main intersection. They wave American flags and flags bearing the image of a snake and the words "Don't Tread on Me." They sing "The Star Spangled Banner" and recite "The Pledge of Allegiance." Sometimes they play country-western music on a boombox. They are 'patriotic' is many of the easy ways.

Yesterday, I happened to be the first person to show up for the peace contingent. I stood along the fence in my robe and rakusu and felt the sunshine getting hot. Suddenly, from my left, a medium-sized fellow with tattoos and bearing a "Don't Tread on Me" flag said good morning with the words, "You look a little lonely today." I said pleasantly that the others would be along shortly. And we chatted amiably about the nice weather. We shook hands as he headed back towards his contingent down the block. "Have a blessed weekend," he said with a smile. "And you too," I replied.

He had taken the trouble to walk the fifty or so feet to say good morning and seek out ... what exactly, I don't know. Perhaps some affirmation that there were things that were just as or perhaps more important than political or moral posturings. My robe, somehow, seemed to give him leave to approach and talk and seek my smile. And that made me happy. Why shouldn't people greet each other with a smile, with blessings? And if a bit of clothing helped make that possible ... well, wasn't that nice? ... a kind of let's-get-serious nod to important stuff inspired by some silly robes.

I think the man came for my attire-based blessing. But I suspect he missed the fact that I had received his.
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carelessness

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I'm not sure why, but carelessness seems to be woven into human DNA ... mine in particular. I don't mean to criticize carelessness, but since carelessness leads to regret, I think it's probably worth a little attention, a little care.

The immediate example that crossed my mind this morning was the use of the word "spiritual" as in "spiritual endeavor," "spiritual effort," or "spiritual life." What, for heaven's sake, does "spiritual" mean?

In asking this rhetorical question, I do not mean to launch into some orotund critique of the carelessness of others. The only carelessness I can do anything about is my own.

A quickie internet dictionary definition of "spiritual" reads:

-- related to your spirit instead of the physical world
-- religious, or related to religious issues
That definition begs the question since it fails to define what "spirit" might be.

The same dictionary takes a swing at "spirit" in part with:

-- your attitude to life or to other people
-- the attitude of people in a group
-- your mood, or your attitude
-- an enthusiastic or determined attitude
-- the general or real meaning of something
-- the part of a person that many people believe continues to exist after death

I could probably write about my own "spiritual" carelessness all day long and have plenty left over. About the only conclusion I can come to is old (but compelling) hat indeed: Language is forever an approximation of some reality. It is useful to know that approximations cannot replace or limit or even define very well the realities to which they refer. It's not so important to critique the approximations that fill our communication, but it is probably worth the price of admission to know what you're talking about. Not "know the meaning" -- just know the facts ... facts which, when written about, are nothing but a well-meaning carelessness of approximation.

The airy-fairy land in which all of this exists takes on an in-your-face concreteness when the regrets inspired by carelessness come calling. Approximations are OK ... but they do point out the value of finding the realities of which they are approximations.

Everyone may agree in one form or another to the importance of what cannot be seen or touched or smelled or thought. There is 'something' and that 'something' is sometimes called spiritual. But the agreement of others, while warming, cannot still the cold night of regret. It's no good being careless about this.

This is a boring blog entry. I will try to come up with something with more sex appeal in future.

Maybe I'll be more careful in future. Notice, please, I did say "maybe" ... I am, after all, hard-wired for carelessness.
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top five deathbed regrets

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A nice, non-smarmy list of regrets expressed by the dying: Top five deathbed regrets.
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Saturday, July 16, 2011

tales that linger

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At birth, Shakyamuni Buddha was said to have taken seven steps in each of the cardinal directions -- East, West, North and South -- and then, with one hand (usually right) raised to the heavens and his other pointing to the earth, he said, "Above the heavens and below the earth, I alone am the world-honored one."

From the first time I heard the line, I was captured. Who would include such a bit of mythology in their world vision? On the face of it, the line is either hopelessly egotistical or it has some other challenge in mind. I couldn't get my head around it, I couldn't get my heart around it. I was, somehow, captured with no way out.

I guess everyone has one spiritual or wise snippet or another, one observation or another, one fortune cookie or another that seems to stick like bubblegum on the sole of a shoe. How irritating! How infuriating! How inviting! How mind-boggling! How languorously insoluble!

Imagine that: "Above the heavens and below the earth, I alone am the world-honored one."

The line came to revisit with the return of a Zen teacher who had been on vacation and brought back small gifts to several of us who had cared for the zendo in his absence. We sat around a low table and showed us the gifts he had brought. I don't remember what the others were, but when I saw the fan with a reproduction of the Zen teacher Torei's calligraphy accompanied by an enso or circle (another piece of spiritual bubblegum in my mind) ... I really wanted that fan. The Zen teacher decided to do a sort of lottery -- putting the presents out of sight and then asking each of us to choose a hand or something similar. I was reluctant to put something I wanted so much into a gambler's context, but there wasn't much choice. I waited as others chose. Then I chose ... and there it was, as if waiting for me, the fan with Torei's rendition of "Above the heavens and below the earth, I alone am the world-honored one."

I've kept the fan for years, using it rarely but grateful for it still. How can anyone outgrow the wonders of "Above the heavens and below the earth, I alone am the world-honored one?" What a good friend it has become ... tasty and enfolding and cooling as ever.
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