Saturday, March 31, 2012

living with jackals

I forget who said it (Hui Neng? Ta Hui? one of the old timers), but it came to mind again today:

Having some attainment is the jackal's yelp.
Having no attainment is the lion's roar.

I am grateful to those who hold the banner without apology.

the jaywalker

I like being kind to others, but I dislike being told, by me or anyone else, that I should be nice to others.

Where the traffic lights go up, I invariably jaywalk, wrestling and resisting the strictures that find no actual-factual purchase in the heart.

Yes, there are explanations aplenty, beliefs aplenty, philosophies aplenty, but in the end corralling the wind is a mug's game. Fences have their uses, but are tentative ... sensible, perhaps, but tentative.

Of course, saying "I'm free" is a sure sign of bondage, but being free is not.

I like being kind to others.

It's the jaywalker in me.

bring me my binky!

Narrowly, a "binky" may refer to a baby pacifier; but more widely it can just be anything that brings comfort in needy and upsetting times. A binky reasserts sanity and safety in an insane and dangerous world. It is a home and home is where the heart can rest easy.

Grown-ups can refer with condescending smiles to the security blankets and pacifiers of children, but their condescension seems to be nowhere in sight when a pint of Ben & Jerry's ice cream or three fingers of bourbon top off a particularly hectic day.

Binkies spell comfort and relief and who doesn't yearn for a little of that from time to time? Religion, philosophy, new shoes, a good friend, a tail-wagging dog, a favored chair ... pick your comfort, pick your relief, pick your binky.

Since imagining I might go through life without relying on my binkies strikes me as just another binky, I guess that, when it comes to those binkies, the best I can hope for is some willingness to turn around and embrace what is inescapable. Embrace and investigate. Other people's binkies may strike me as foolish and immature, but what other people do is not something I can do much about.

In Buddhism, I once heard "suffering" -- a Buddhist touchstone that refers to the unsatisfactoriness that can tinge any human life -- defined as "the resistance to pain." I think that's a pretty good definition. Pain is inevitable but resistance to it is optional. Mental pain, physical pain ... head for the hills! Toss me my binky! Comfort me! Give me some relief! Masochism is not my gig ... get me outta here!

If everyone has more or less the same binky-prone reaction to pain, then that reaction must be warranted and true... perhaps that's the axiom in play. If everyone does it and I do it too, then I can't be wrong. I like being right -- it comforts me.

But without making a federal case out of it, I wonder if some suspicion is not warranted ... a little suspicion and a little investigation. Pain is inevitable. There is always some insanity that is bound to upset the sanity apple cart, some shadow accompanying the light, some horror attendant on bliss. This is true for those who rely on downcast views and those who rely on shimmering light as well. Apple carts are made for upsetting. Limitlessness simply cannot be contained or constrained by limits.

As a dog sniffs carefully around a piss-worthy fire hydrant, so I think it's a good idea, however upsetting, to sniff around the world of binkies, the world of safety, the world of meaning and explanations and belief, the Shangri-La's, whether little or large. No need to be nasty about it ... just sniff a little.

Taking an unencumbered piss is such a wonderful thing.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Andrew Bacevich

I really do love getting my presumptions and assumptions blown out. It's like getting into a bed with fresh sheets. The comfortable wrinkles of the past are ironed out ... it's crisp and delicious. What a bore I have been.

Last night, I turned on a Bill Moyers interview with a fellow named Andrew Bacevich. Bacevich is a West Point grad, served in Vietnam, lost a son to an IED in Iraq, and currently teaches at Boston University. The proximate cause for the interview seemed to be the latest of his many books.

I suppose, at first blush, Bacevich might be written off as just another policy wonk ... someone who sees world events, assesses their interlocking nature, and issues pronouncements. But I found his thoughtful thinking compelling. And what really seemed to blow my pipes out was not so much what he thought but that he could think. It made me realize how much I missed people who took the trouble to dig into things and think about them instead of simply using their thinking as a means of advancing their own cause.

What the issues are is important. What I think about them is merely a sidelight. That's how I heard this man. And I was grateful for it. Grateful that my sneaking suspicion that self-promotion was the only sort of thinking available had been given a kick in the ass.

I was grateful to be refreshed -- given hope, perhaps -- that the world was other than my lazy-perception of it.

But I was further gratified to notice that when Bacevich made a statement I found unusual to the point of ludicrousness, a willingness to listen and wonder if perhaps I had missed something cropped up. Usually that tolerance is not so obvious. As I said, I am lazy.

What Bacevich said that ran off my chalk board was this:

"Soldiers don't get to choose the wars that they fight. They are sent to serve. They are sent with an understanding that they may be called upon to sacrifice. And the value of the sacrifice is inherent in the act of sacrifice and is independent, I think, of questions about the merit of the policies that sent the soldier into harm's way in the first place."

This was a statement coming from a thoughtful person -- a person who had lost a son to war and no doubt had experience of losing comrades in Vietnam. This was a person whose views warranted an ear. Was his solipsistic argument the product of some long and careful ruminating or was it the product of someone whose experience screamed out for 'meaning' -- some balm to heal a gaping and very real wound?

I honestly didn't know, but I was doubly grateful for the willingness Bacevich instilled in me to consider the possibilities ... not least, the possibility that my laziness was not really enough.

Ah well ... it was a refreshing experience and 'refreshing' is nice at my age.

Thursday, March 29, 2012


A bit of brightness on a grey day.



Spiritual adventures, especially meditative practices, are often aptly labeled by critics as exercises in high-falutin' dissociation... a navel-gazer's jamboree.

An internet dictionary defines "dissociation" in part as "a state in which some integrated part of a person's life becomes separated from the rest of the personality and functions independently." So, if I get it right, the day-to-day affairs might be separated from some supra-mundane light; bad stuff might be deluded and good stuff receive accolades; my stumble-bum activities might be locked down in favor of some shining "Buddhism" ... something like that.

Lord knows the effort is sometimes made and sometimes made for whole lifetimes ... light and dark, God and man, praise and blame, up and down. Get thee behind me, Satan!

But notice the definition: "A state in which some integrated part...." How could any part of anyone's life be "integrated" ... or "separated" either, for that matter? How many lives does anyone lead, assuming they aren't certifiably nuts?

Who separates him- or herself from what? With two arms, two legs and one life, how is such dissociation (which I am probably using badly) possible? Popular? Sure. But possible?

The good thing about meditative processes, for my money is that they can lead anyone in one side of the dissociative hobby and out the other.

Of course, I could just be dissociating.

It all reminds me of the old joke-laced conundrum: "What's the difference between a duck?"

rebirth and the big fish

On a Buddhist bulletin board, the interminably repeated question arose again -- does a card-carrying Buddhist have to believe in rebirth?

Usually, I can keep my mouth shut, but today, my fingers got the better of me:

Belief or disbelief in rebirth is a bit like the old graffito, "Man without God is like a fish without a bicycle."

Buddhists have bigger fish to fry than belief and disbelief.
Maybe next time I'll know better than to trust my fingers.

an empty loom

Sometimes it comes as something of a shock to realize that wise wisdoms, so easily adhered to with emotion and intellect, are nothing more than the truth -- the very personal truth.

The tapestries of this lifetime, woven by skilful and strangely inattentive hands, come bit by bit unraveled. No one notices this so much when they have the energy and credulity to weave those tapestries, but over time, the unraveling reveals itself.

Buddhism asserts that "everything changes" and philosophically, this is a delightful and common-sensical observation, one that appeals to the realistic observer in all of us. Soen Nakagawa Roshi, a Zen teacher, used different words to express the same thing: "Everything breaks." This stuff is true -- no need to make it up or believe it.

What brought this to mind was the news story announcing the death of Earl Scruggs, an American banjo player of some renown and a man woven into my tapestry of blue-grass loving delight. Scruggs was 88, so my oh-so-reasonable, reasoning mind says it was probably time to go.

The Emperor's new clothes
But besides the reasoning and the reason, Scruggs was a thread in my tapestry, a thread that was bound to be pulled out and yet ... well, I feel the loss of tapestry threads. Thread by thread, what was done comes undone until ...

Until nothing is left but some empty loom.

And as easy as I may find it to mouth the words "empty loom," still I wonder and sniffle at the loss. Without my well-woven threads, without the tapestries I wove, what is it that is left? When there is no place to hold on, what can I hold on to?

Is this really sad? Well, sometimes it is.

But sometimes I wonder if it's not pointing to something worth enjoying. Who built this loom in the first place?

relying on "goodness"

Among other things, perhaps this is true:

God and goodness are just matters for which individuals decline to take responsibility.

If this is true, the ramifications are enormous and frequently painful.

What brought this to mind was an article passed along yesterday in email -- a link to the National Catholic Reporter's story about retired Australian Roman Catholic bishop Geoffrey Robinson and an address he gave in Chicago. Robinson's topic was the sexual abuse scandal within his church and the "culture of obsessive secrecy" that allowed it to flourish. I do hope that Robinson owns and wears a sturdy flak jacket.

I will admit up front that the topic of abuse of children -- past, present or future, in any context -- is one that can set my hair on fire. And further that the abuse of institutional power ... well, I'm an old leftie, as prone to whining as anyone else. But I also think that Robinson's powerful message to the Catholic hierarchy -- tear down the walls, 'fess up and get right with God -- is worth heeding in wider ways.

In the specific instance -- abuse within the Catholic church -- one of the most infuriating things is a line of exculpatory reasoning that seems to go like this: Because God handed down a rule book of which we, the church, approve (The Ten Commandments), there is no need for us to shoulder very personal guidelines -- guidelines for each and every church or other organization under our aegis. Let God do the heavy lifting -- we are committed to doing something good ... that is all you need to know and that is all we need to tell you.

This transference of responsibility to some higher, greater, gooder amorphous entity is used to absolve individual clerics, individual churches, individual Vaticans of any heinous behavior: God'll take care of it; we are doing good and to attack us is to attack that goodness. Let's not throw the baby of goodness out with the scuzzy bathwater.

Naturally, the Vatican and its minions are not alone in employing this tactic or line of thinking. I don't know of a spiritual persuasion that doesn't A. point to some higher good and B. lay out some ethical guidelines. Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism ... same stuff, different day... each has its bright lights and its rules for walking into that light.

But the issue arises: Having institutionalized -- mentally or literally -- this world of goodness, participants start to believe their own press releases. "We are good people," the press releases read, but the emphasis and congratualations shifts from "people" to "good" and that much-beloved "goodness" needs not only to be nourished and praised, it needs to be defended at all costs.

Men and women around the world are the ones who have repeatedly paid those costs ... the same men and women who made the "good" institution viable in the first place. Sexual abuse may be abhorrent in God's eyes, but the good church fathers have refused, like other organization men before them, to open their own, to exercise the very tenets in which the "good" institution is grounded. Shifting the responsibility to a benevolent goodness ... well, it's as infuriating as it is common.

The format of power extends worlds other than the spiritual -- think banking industry, think politics, think industry ... "we are good people nourishing the good" and we really don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water, so there should be forgiveness for our various transgressions. Think ... think ... think...

Of the bathroom mirror.

How many press releases have been written in that mirror? The press releases draw us all forward, but how many of the press releases are written as an excuse, as a means of sidestepping responsibility: "I am a good person, nourishing the good," but the emphasis shifts to "good" to "God" and turns a blind eye to the "person" in "good person." And the excuse goes further: "It's all part of being human," which, of course it is. But another part of being human is to assume the very personal responsibility for being human. What does that mean? How much of what I say it means is true ... and how much is simply press release? If I fail to correct my mistakes under a banner of "goodness," what sort of human being do I become? I think it's OK to be an asshole, but I think it is better to own it than evade it.

Sometimes I think that every church and temple and other spiritually-inclined center should be required to hand out a sheet to its adherents. On it would be written the very specific measures in place that will address the times when institutional -- which is to say, personal -- asshole-dom rears its head. "Everyone makes mistakes" is not enough by itself any more than "God is good" or "the unconditional realm is beyond asshole-dom" is enough.

It is heinous to abuse and manipulate little children. Why should it be any less heinous when we manipulate and abuse ourselves?

I am a good person. We are good people. Never mind the "good" -- find out who, in fact, this person or these people are. Then there is some chance for honest goodness to grow.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

and when an eagle is hungry....

No amount of energy is too much.

In this link (turn down the sound if you want to avoid the oooo's and ahhh's), an eagle swoops over a duck that has been shot dead and is lying in a river. Luckless on the first several passes, the eagle lands on the water, grabs its prey and then -- no kidding -- breast strokes to the nearest patch of land.

news of note?

-- In what is believed to be a 'first,' health insurance has been extended to a same-sex spouse. That should rattle the cage of the one-man-one-woman marriage crowd.

-- In Syria, where some 9,000 protesters have allegedly been killed and the number is probably higher, a cease-fire peace plan was announced yesterday. Shooting continues today. The peace proposal does not address the fact that the 9,000 and more like them find the government of Bashar al-Assad rigid and vile and uncaring. So, as with the banking industry that brought down world economies but saw no structural changes as those economies struggled to rebound, a Syrian peace plan is a mask and a deception ... something to mollify other governments that feel guilty they are doing so little while so many are slaughtered. 

--  A 37-year-old man is said to be recovering well after a 36-hour face-transplant operation. Richard Lee Norris had lived for 15 years as a recluse after a gunshot wound. He often wore a mask when going out. And ... well, one picture worth ten thousand words:


dysfunctional family life

Sitting on the porch, greeting the morning air as I smoked a cigarette, I was enjoying the falsifications of this mind as it flitted and darted like some hummingbird from thought-flower to thought-flower. And one flower that caused me to linger and savor was the term "dysfunctional family."

Like some teenager (or is that 30-something these days?) who is delighted and shocked to discover that the word "sane" really loses its meaning on examination, I wondered if there really were any such thing as a "functional family" that would bring meaning to a dysfunctional one.

The hummingbird lingered over the thought, but not too long. All such ruminations are invariably excused by the compromises that language imposes. It's like the old Supreme Court justice's approximate observation about pornography -- "I may not know what it is, but I know it when I see it."

Dysfunctional family? You bet your ass there are such things. Terribly (or subtly) painful, terribly (or subtly) confused, terribly (or subtly) fucked-up ... and the kids bear the brunt in the mind because kids have little or no capacity for seeing their way out of the horror. The adults who might rightly be charged with nurturing what they have spawned choose not to provide that nurture. They choose some self-serving direction that leaves their spawn gasping and begging for nurture. And yet they too were children, as were the adults who might rightly have been charged with nurturing what they spawned.

The pains and delights are compellingly real. They are no-philosophical-bullshit in-your-face. They demand and deserve attention. But so too does the Yellow Brick Road of anyone's life.

At what point does sanity turn into insanity?

At what point does insanity turn into sanity?

At what point does nurture turn into toxin?

At what point does toxin turn into nurture?

I may not know the answers, but I know it when I see it.

And having sipped at this honeyed thought, the hummingbird mind zipped away down other, yet somehow connected avenues of flight....

There are no explanations. There are no excuses. There are no compromises. There is no balm or escape hatch or relief.

In the end, it just works ... and saying there's an end doesn't work at all.

It works.

That's all.

So much for the falsifications of this mind.

ghost ship research

Once upon a time, a long time ago, an acquaintance from the past called me up and offered a research assignment. He worked for a magazine called "The Star" -- a glitzy, gossipy, four-color production that included off-beat and occasionally well-researched weirdo stuff.

My assignment was to check out a lingering rumor about a World War II-era ship that had been docked (Baltimore? Philadelphia?) when in some magical moment it had been transported, together with all on board, to New Orleans. I can't remember if, according to the rumor, the ship was then transported/teleported back or not. I think it was.

As with all such stories, part of the magnet was the allegation that 'the government knew all about it but was keeping it under wraps.' Shades of Roswell! The rumor did not name the ship, but said that the sailors had been severely discombobulated -- perhaps went crazy -- as a result of the event ... and the government knew all about it!

Since the job paid pretty well and since I was not, at the time, exactly rolling in dough, I told my former acquaintance that I thought the whole thing was more full of shit than a Christmas turkey, but that if he was handing out checks, I'd go do the work.

There was no Internet at the time, so I headed to the library where I spent hours going through newspaper microfilm files. If any substantial evidence turned up there, I think there was some hypothetical plan to visit naval records or seek out 'survivors' or make some more profound dig. Anyway, I read a lot of newspapers from the time, around 1943 or 1944 as I recall. I was pretty diligent.

But as I read more and more of the newspapers from the time, I couldn't help notice other stories that seemed to crop up. And as the possibility of a disappearing and reappearing ship slipped from credibility in my mind, I noticed recurring two- and three-inch stories about people who had committed suicide by sticking their heads in the oven. Why they had done so was not mentioned. That they had done so was.

The fact that newspapers of the time would print such small tales was curious to me since I lived in an age that was unwilling to print such information. It was as if death were important -- culturally important -- and the cause, whether natural or deliberate, was irrelevant. There seemed to be no prissy excuse for standing at a distance (suicide is wrong or shameful, perhaps) ... death was worth reporting.

I never did substantiate the rumor of the disappearing ship and I wrote that up and got paid for it.

But this morning there was a sense of déjà vu when reading about a Taiwanese woman who killed herself with noxious fumes while chatting with friends on the Internet network, Facebook. Her last words: "Too late. My room is filled with fumes. I just posted another picture. Even while I'm dying, I still want FB (Facebook). Must be FB poison. Haha." 

Strange to think that the desperation and need that is often woven into suicide -- the desire to be noticed and perhaps loved for something -- results in what Soen Roshi called "joining the majority" -- a majority in which no one gets noticed.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

the living Moebius strip

The straight untarnished way.
Walking to the very edge of things.

Loving beyond all recognition.

Move away with great effort from the burning house,
From hot negative to cool positive and back.
Find 'The End' again and wonder,
Beginning what?

eat chocolate, lose weight

-- If you live that long, it seems likely that your bad habits will have some good results. Research suggests that the old fat-nourishing addiction, chocolate, may help to keep people slimmer. I look forward to a case of full-blown anorexia.

-- In Mexico, Pope Benedict was expected to pay homage today to a venerated Christian icon, the Virgin of Charity. As an uneducated person, this makes me wonder what ever happened to the "golden calf" we learned about during Bible class in high school. No doubt there is a well-founded explanation for the pope's action, but I wonder if that explanation is significantly different from the explanation used for worshiping a golden calf.

-- A relatively new drug of addict-choice is infiltrating rural America. Methamphetamine, among others, is illegal in America, but the latest powerful drug, Opana, is a prescription pain killer and it is the prescription market that is gaining popularity among those who wish to make their lives less painful. Sometimes I wonder if the difference between legal and illegal drugs doesn't pretty much rest on whether the pharmaceutical companies are making a profit.

Trayvon Martin -- the fury

Visceral horror is so compelling that it is hard to call it into question. And yet, to the extent that it really is compelling -- that anyone takes it seriously -- doesn't that horror deserve some willingness to slow down and take a look at what is so important? The alternative is a mob mentality that asserts, "I am right because I am horrified."

The tsunami of emotional reaction can create so much collateral damage ... well, it takes courage to slow down, take a look and see what's what... careful courage since those in the business of perpetrating horrors often count on the fact that serious people will be too slow to put a stop to their depredations ... and the perpetrators will walk away and never be called to account.

Take the case of Trayvon Martin, a black 17-year-old male shot to death by George Zimmerman, 28, in Sanford, Fla. on Feb. 26. The case -- which black people recognize as far from unusual in American culture -- has aroused a hue and cry. After the shooting, Zimmerman and the weapon he used to shoot Martin with walked scot-free away from the scene. Though remorseful, Zimmerman is apparently claiming he shot the hooded teenager under the Stand Your Ground law in force in Florida ... a law that allows deadly force when individuals feel themselves to be in imminent danger.

The death of a young person arouses a terrible sense of injustice and outrage and sorrow. "Death" is selectively chosen as something to avoid and protect against in a lot of cultures. Death forms a bond of horror. I don't want to die, you don't want to die, he, she or it does not want to die. To deliberately rain down death is -- selectively -- a very upsetting thing on which 'we' can all agree pretty much. So there is currently a welling up of despair and horror and anger about the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Viscerally, the situation speaks to an understanding that racism is not dead in America. Viscerally, it speaks to the horror of -- selectively -- death.

Me too. I get sick to death of namby-pamby excuses that allow one person to kill another because they imagine they are 'right.' I won't deny my own tsunami -- fuck the excuses and explanations! hang the perpetrators!

And yet, in the midst of this convincing tsunami, I also have to admit that I don't yet know the facts and that without those facts my horror is pretty much a self-serving circle-jerk... a singular, orgasmic and utterly clear bit of horror. And I am not alone. The collective circle-jerk can be seen in the media which has surrounded the Trayvon Martin killing with ever-widening circles of unrestrained, unexamined and poorly-balanced examination. Here is one example, sent along in email this morning. That clip made me want to puke in much the same way that the notion of Trayvon Martin's death made me want to puke... shameless and horrific and wrong!

What I feel and what I know are two very different things. Unwillingness to examine with serious care means that I really am not serious about my own horrors. Instead, I am in a state of being delighted by them. The horrified reaction may be true enough -- whether it's the horror I feel about Trayvon Martin or the sweeping cri de coeur that can come up when I think of Catholic priests abusing little boys and girls or the slaughter of 17 Afghan civilians in a rampage laid at the doorstep of S.Sgt. Robert Bales. But the result of not examining my own reactions -- of slowing down and observing the factual particulars -- is an invitation to a stupidity that is dangerous ... dangerous personally, dangerous socially.

Fury is true. Fury is delightful. Fury is consuming. Fury is warranted. Fury is ... so many things, all woven together so tightly that the notion of disentangling fact from fiction is ... infuriating. Fury is so sincere that it steps beyond the boundaries of sincerity. It is right.

And maybe it is. But is it? Gouts of emotional outburst may have their basis in something that is true. But what is it that is true? At some point, after all the fireworks have run their course, isn't it necessary to seek out the particulars, assuming anyone wanted to take seriously what they claim to take seriously ... from horror to delight? In the midst of the firestorm, there is nothing but firestorm. And like the bombing of Dresden during World War II, one fire leaps to the next: If I feel fury and you feel fury, the righteousness of the fury is redoubled ... and then redoubled again as the sycophant media seeks to reverse their dwindling ad revenues.

It's all pretty messy, whether personally or socially. But I think anyone might like, when the sorrow or fury or star-spangled, orgasmic delight has cooled a bit, to examine all of this. What are the actual-factual particulars? The media might ask, as once, "what's the other side of the story ... and what's the other side of the other side?" Unraveling the whole thing doesn't happen overnight, whether personally or socially, but here is a pretty good attempt to bring seriousness to the serious conversation about Trayvon Martin. Not perfect, not utterly complete, just a pretty good attempt.

High-octane emotions are not the stuff of social cohesion, perhaps, but they are the stuff of actual-factual humanity. High-octane emotions are not the stuff of day-to-day personal raiment, perhaps (I would prefer to have a handle on my life, stay in a self-serving control, be well thought of, etc.), but they are real enough in whispering shadowed corners of the mind. High-octane emotions are real enough and have some basis, but the question anyone might ask for the purposes of seriousness is, "what is that basis?" Shall I live my life based on what others say, even if I agree with them?

I'm as pissed as a lot of others are about the apparent implications of shooting this black young man. Some part of me screeches for 'justice' and an honest reckoning. But I can't say that I entirely trust my delight and outrage.

Probably just another old fart talking... if you find yourself among those with whom you agree, it's probably time to revisit your agreements. Or, more simply put, you're probably in the wrong place.


Like some loving, playful puppy, the small teeth of cold revisit the morning after several days of unseemly warmth. But it's too late: The buds are pulsing on the trees and crocuses have shot their wad, licking our faces with springtime abandon. Soon, everything will be house-broken and only the small scars of loving nips will remain.

Monday, March 26, 2012


Sometimes I think that one of the most reliably disappointing bits of belief is the grammatical belief in the lowly period.

There, I made a period at the end of that sentence.

And that one too.


And what is true in grammar can be applied elsewhere. A car rolls down the assembly line and comes out complete ... period. A marriage ends in divorce... period. Spiritual endeavor results in heaven or hell or enlightenment ... period. I brushed my teeth ... period.

It's a self-perpetuating stream: If so many things have periods or conclusions then, well, it's bound to be true for other things as well. The past projects itself into future endeavors and the hunt is on for an imagined period.

The only trouble with this self-perpetuating construct is, of course, that it is not true. Except it is true. But it's not. I double-dare you to find the end to anything. Oh hell ... it's all too confusing ... period!

But whatever the confusion, I think this is an interesting habit. an interesting belief system, an interesting hope, an interesting fantasy....

triage of the mind

On page 1 of the local paper today (Daily Hampshire Gazette), there is a story about the University of Massachusetts/Amherst spending $1.4 million to protect laboratory mice from the racket created by nearby construction.

Meanwhile, on page 6, a fund drive (bottles and cans; a walk) are advertised for Kate Cook Scott, a circulation employee at the paper whose husband and children are having difficulty making ends meet after Scott suffered a brain aneurism last month. (Can't provide a link)

American author John Steinbeck's title, "Of Mice and Men," comes to mind.

Triage -- pick your patient
It can and will be argued that there is room in this world both for the sensibilities of laboratory mice and the difficulties suffered by young mothers. But it is also hard not to wonder whether all that money expended on mice could not better have been spent on Kate Cook Scott.

Strange and curious is the ability to perform triage in the mind. The billions spent on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq ... how many schools, hospitals, clean housing projects, soup kitchens, etc. might have been created with all that money?

Little and large, some things are more important in the mind and some things less. The argument that it's apples and oranges doesn't quite tell the whole satisfactory story because (with money for example) it's all of a piece ... money is just money and it's all in one big, hypothetical kitty.

One big, undifferentiated mind, performing endless triage and then seeking agreement -- this is more important than that... heaven is more important than hell; kindness is better than cruelty; a brain aneurism beats mouse comfort....


Zen and death

Corresponding this morning with a friend who has also had a longtime interest in Zen Buddhist practice, it crossed my mind mildly....

That perhaps the whole vast canon and sometimes wracking concern with Zen or any other spiritual tale boils down to little more than getting over a fear of death; that once the fear of a personal demise or revision of the current lifestyle is in place, all the pieces of the puzzle fit together and a pretty picture is revealed. It's usually nothing very interesting ... a scenic lake, a field of flowers, an old church in Normandy, a farmhouse with horses ... some Hallmark-y something or other.

I do like the story of the Zen teacher who, on his deathbed, was asked by a student if he had any last words, and the the 'master' replied that he had. He said, "I am afraid of dying." The student was aghast that a man who had spent so much time and effort in addressing the matters of birth and death could have failed so miserably. The student expressed his horror. And the old 'teacher' looked at him sadly, as if he had failed in his task, and said, "You do not understand. I am afraid of dying, really. I am afraid of dying...really."

Telling such stories is often a means of expressing or gathering to oneself the wisdom and understanding of the story itself. 'Teachers' do this all the time while all the time holding in reserve the excuse that they never claimed to have attained any such thing. And maybe it's true ... but more important, maybe it's not.

I note this because I was about to say that I would not lay claim to such an understanding as the story points to. I am no 'teacher' ... except, of course, this too is bullshit. Everyone is the 'teacher' all the time. Really ... no kidding. It's nothing to be proud of or put at the top of the "success list." It's just inescapable... and what is inescapable deserves our attention, however boring it may seem.

I figure there is no compelling need to worry about the impact or honesty of the story in my own life. Could I express such a sentiment honestly ... be at ease with my fear of death by surrendering to it and shining within its preamble fears?

Who cares?!

I guess I'll find out when I get there.

Sunday, March 25, 2012


Just keep shooting, straight and true, till the ammo runs out.

And when there's no more ammo to be found,


the Hollywood factor in spiritual (so to speak) endeavor

Bless his rapier intellect and witty perception, it was Voltaire who once observed, "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him."

And when it comes to spiritual (or any other) life, I am inclined to agree, though perhaps it would be more appropriate to substitute the word "Hollywood" for "God."

Is there a person alive who does not harbor a dazzling realm of one kind or another ... something better, something brighter, something more in tune with the dream of dreams? Something that inspires a much-praised-but-dubiously-useful hope or longing and occasionally a more-useful tool, intent? How nice it is to imagine a choir of angels or 77 virgins or a peace that is not the peace of this current way of life. Or perhaps lots of money or fine cars or ... something that lights up the heart and mind.

The Hollywood factor can be applied in almost any setting ... and often is, by my reckoning. Wowsers. But sticking to the spiritual Hollywood for a moment ....

There are Zen Buddhist teachers, by mythology, dying with poetic brush in hand or upright in a meditation practice that has guided their lives. Or an unbroken lineage stretching from Gautama Buddha (he's the one credited with getting "Buddhism" off the ground) to present day teachers. It's Hollywood and it's delicious and, upon examination, it holds little or no water. But just because Hollywood is a myth does not mean that Hollywood is unnecessary or that men and women will not swoon in its shadow.

The 520,000-square-foot (plus or minus) Palace at Versailles was the meeting place of thousands of well-turned-out courtiers and nobles. In its time, it probably put Hollywood to shame ... and perhaps God and his heavens as well. Imagine that ... 520,000 square feet of glamor and luxury and ... not a single bathroom on the premises.

In spiritual life, it can be the same, I think. Much attention to soaring, mythically-adorned and delicious particulars ... and no place to take a shit.

The Hollywood effect.

I'm not interested in tearing down the Hollywoods of the mind, whether in spiritual life or any other. They are as human as they are demonstrably unfounded.

But when it comes to spiritual life, to "God," to the honest yearnings of a sometimes confused and dishonest heart, I do think that after noticing that not everyone is cut out to be a monk or nun or ascetic or Henry David Thoreau or Gandhi or some other superstar ... well, is it all Hollywood or is there honestly some benefit to that part of ourselves that clearly needs to take a shit?

It's a question for individuals, not for some philosophical or theological circle-jerk. OK ... you create God or lie down for Hollywood's blandishments, or construct an intricate chain of spiritually-oriented links ... but having done all that and having recognized that life doesn't really get much sweeter just by calling it sweeter ... where is the (wo)men's room? Is there any honest usefulness in this persuasion that is overlaid with mythology or Hollywood?

Criticism is not the point. Honesty is the point. Is there any room in this world for my honesty and confusion? Seriously. Never mind the icing on the cake ... is there any cake there at all? Maybe yes, maybe no ... the discoveries are all utterly intimate and utterly honest ... just about as honest as things get when you honestly need a bathroom... this is real-life, no Hollywood-need-apply situation. Your life, your heaven, your hell, your glamor, your shit.

Soen Nakagawa, the Zen teacher of some eccentric renown, once asked a student, "Which is more important -- to sit [in meditation] or to shit?" And his answer was, "To shit. There wouldn't be any sitting without shitting." This is not Hollywood Zen or Hollywood life or Godly life or swoon-for life. This is just life... you know, the life that, with any luck, will never make it to Hollywood.

surprise, surprise

This morning I woke up at 9:30. I haven't done that in 30 or more years, so it was something of a surprise.

The apparent cause was the fact that I was watching a pretty-good B thriller on TV last night and I wanted to know how it turned out. That too hasn't happened in a long time -- mostly, I can smell the endings from a mile off. But the ending on this thing -- my wife tells me it was called "The International" -- was more delicately balanced if somewhat lacking in affect and care ... it could go a number of ways -- so I stayed up to 11:30 or 12 waiting to see. I was pleased that it was not a 'happy ending.' It wasn't "The Parallax View," but it was OK. It was worth waiting for. But 12 is way past my bedtime ... leading to...

9:30 ... holy shit!

Which made me remember a passing remark by the Dalai Lama -- "It can't be helped." 9:30 is just 9:30, however much of a 'surprise' I may find it. There is no undoing what is done, no praising or blaming or revising or improving or making it spiritually noteworthy. It can't be helped, that's all.

Things can't be helped and yet one of the cornerstone aspects of human beings is to help. I don't just mean the earthy-crunchy ways of helping, the altruistic 'compassion' that is good, but never quite good enough. I mean a deeper inclination to involve oneself, to improve, to revise ... to make it mine.

Not good, not bad ... just ... it can't be helped. And yet helping is woven deep, deeper, deepest. It can't be helped that I may wish to help, however that helping is defined.

9:30 ... holy shit!

It can't be helped. The hour, the surprise, the can't-be-helped-ness ... can't be helped.

Who can help this moment in which I may set about helping? It's ludicrous; I am ludicrous; and still, for the moment, it can't be helped.

It can't be helped ... what a good reminder.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

an expression of extreme fatigue

I don't know what it means but that doesn't mean I'm not delighted to know it -- a southern expression (heard on TV) to indicate exhaustion:

"I feel like a cat turd wrapped in cracker crumbs."

In my book, that's a keeper.


I probably should know better, but on the peace picket line this morning I got to chatting with a man who had been a Trappist monk. He maintained his spiritual interests, he said, but had moved away from a monkish format.

And after a while of chatting, he said to me, "You are very evasive. You don't address the question. Don't you ever think of others?" And of course I hadn't thought I was being evasive at all. I thought I had been addressing his questions. And what I thought I had been saying was very much on behalf of what he called "others."

Oh well ... it didn't work. But it did make me think: Kindness is good, but honesty is better. Real kindness grows out of honesty like crab grass in the lawn. Kindness to others is good, but the likelihood is that if employed as a constant diet, kindness will create a never-ending hell ... which is OK if you learn how to love hell, but otherwise is confusing and painful and unending.

It will be better to curb my chattering tongue and reserve my nutball noodlings to a space like this.


-- In his interview with the website Sweeping Zen, Harvey Daiho Hilbert (roshi) observes that one of the assumptions infuses the American (and who knows how many others) culture is that the world is fair, safe and predictable. How else would anyone complain so volubly if his observation were not largely true?

But having an alcoholic father, having served in Vietnam, having been shot in the head, and having shot one of his comrades to a lingering death in the heat of a firefight ... Hilbert's assumption compass was radically altered and suddenly the world was not fair, safe and predictable but unfair, dangerous and unpredictable.

I don't know Hilbert -- though I enjoyed the interview -- but I wouldn't be surprised if his Zen practice had also taught him that assuming the world was unfair, dangerous and unpredictable was every bit as dubious as assuming it was fair, safe and predictable.

Fair, safe and predictable. Unfair, dangerous and unpredictable. Whether anyone suffers a highly-traumatic set of experiences or not, still, I think it is important to investigate and clarify the assumption ground on which anyone might stand. Both the Pollyanna and the vast cynic do not fare well when closely observed and if they don't fare well, what does fare well? You don't have to be a Buddhist to find the issue staring you in the face.

-- In hard economic times, how many people are tweaking their resumes as they search for work? I don't know. And even if they have got a job, how many people are constantly tweaking their resumes, refining and buffing the images that are presented to friends, family, enemies and the world at large? Again I don't know. But however many it is, one of the cornerstones of the literal or metaphorical resume is how many things I got right -- how I succeeded and achieved and proved I wasn't an abject fuck-up.

It's a quizzical business, I think -- strange in one sense. True, the bosses doing the hiring don't sit around nodding their approval at a resume that lists the mistakes and failures anyone might have chalked up. And yet, when viewing a personal terrain, which events and efforts taught anyone more -- the one's that they got 'right' or the ones they got 'wrong?' You can get a job by having done things right, by chalking up successes, but if you want riches, I think the willingness to be wrong, to fall flat on your face after a pedal-to-the-metal effort is a very good -- perhaps even the best -- teacher.

As with fairness and safety and predictability that pushes unfairness, danger and unpredictability onto the stage, it won't do over the long haul to elevate failure over well-tweaked success. But if getting it right and being a success don't hold up very well and being a failure doesn't really hold up either ... well, again, what does hold up, what does fare well?

-- In the American legal system, there a premise that goes approximately, "Ignorance of the law is no excuse." You can't run around killing people and then hide behind the fact that you didn't realize homicide was a crime. Thievery, assault and the rest of the illegal laundry list is also guided by the principle that ignorance is no excuse.

And yet, and yet ... how many are prone to offer up their sincerity and good intention as an excuse? I know I've done it: I thought one action or another would create a nourishing, peaceful result and, well, it didn't work. I thought Zen Buddhism was a pure and noble course and followed its guidance only to find that pure and noble aspirations don't always produce a pure and noble result. And I imagine others can find a host of other situations in which to yowl, "but I didn't know" or "I wanted nothing but the best." Anyone can quote the wry and apt, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions," but that doesn't mitigate the sting.

So if sincerity is required in accomplishing anything serious and yet sincerity is no excuse ... what does work? Is there a better basis, a more clear-headed one, on which to ground our activities? A willingness to find out is worth cultivating, I think.

On the obvious side of things, I think its fair to say that everyone has assumptions are what anyone might use when setting off in this direction or that. Assumptions cannot be escaped as anyone might escape a rattlesnake lying on the path. Assumptions are par for the course. No need to run and hide in some ivory tower.

But the willingness to greet and examine those assumptions is part and parcel of the happy life anyone might hope for. Just look. Just examine. Where do they come from? Where do they go? Who is their author and what kind of fairy tale is s/he writing?

Just something to think about.

Friday, March 23, 2012

"I can only speak from my experience"

What an idiotic and self-aggrandizing line: "I can only speak from my experience."

It suggests, in its pseudo-humility and feigned understanding, that anyone might speak from something other than his or her own experience.

How in the wide world of sports could that be possible?

But I too have used the line.

Still, I never claimed I wasn't a self-absorbed idiot... speaking from my own experience.


Sitting on the enclosed porch, with the door open, I can hear the thwupeta-thwupeta-thwupeta of the sparrows' wings, beating against the air as they come in for a landing below the porch eave and construct this year's nest. There is a wood-frame Christmas tree representation I affixed to the side of the house and it is at the pinnacle, where any Yuletide angel might stand, that they build.

Year after year, generation after generation -- each generation as intent and purposeful as the last. Do sparrows have a shared memory, some internal gyroscope that tells them the pinnacle of the Christmas tree is a safe haven or a good foundation on which to build their springtime lives and the lives of generations to follow?

Now and then, though the open door, about eight feet away in a small arborvitae tree, the sparrows catch sight of me sitting and listening and watching. They seem to be aware that I might pose some danger. They look skittish and, as I imagine it, somewhat irritable: What the hell is this interloper doing around here?! I am not about to try to calm their fears -- go inside so they can build at peace, perhaps. Birds are birds. People are people. Danger is danger. It's the way of the world.

But I do enjoy the companionship of an occasional thwupeta-thwupeta-thwupeta.

not enough!

Frances Crowe, 93, and Anneke Corbett under arrest.
Frances Crowe, the longtime peace activist who stands and perhaps defines the Saturday morning peace picket line here in Northampton, was arrested briefly Thursday in Brattleboro, Vt., home of the corporate headquarters for Vermont Yankee nuclear operations. Hundreds marched with the 93-year-old to protest the perceived nuclear threat. Dozens were arrested in a peacefully choreographed event.

And when asked how many times she had been arrested, the Associated Press story quoted Frances as saying, "Not enough."

Bless her hide! It really is nice to get up in the morning and find something to be delighted with. Frances believes whatever she believes but does not rest on convenient or much-applauded or much-disdained laurels. She can speak her mind and act on her own behalf and encourage others in ways she finds appropriate and yet, hovering and whispering, there is always a voice saying, "not enough."

As a quite personal matter, is anyone any different? Social causes, money, athletic ability, one-night stands, hopes, fears, intentions, heavenly realms and who knows what else ... shaping the personal scene and yet invariably it is "not enough." Work longer hours, strive ever harder in spiritual endeavor, find a perfect mate, travel to distant and beckoning lands ... none of it is enough to assuage the longing for what, at last, will be enough.

The question "what is enough?" seldom enters or is heard. The heart's desire is clear and piercing ... and yet it cannot be adequately enunciated except to say that whatever exists right now is "not enough." I may pretend for a while that x, y, or z is enough, that I have reached a Shangri-La where at last I can get a decent and deserved respite and release, but ... wait a while. The old habit is strong ... it's not enough.

It takes courage and patience and doubt to slow down enough and honestly examine this old and trusted not-enough companion. Whining and striving are as comfortable and reassuring as an old angora sweater. What is it that, enfin, that would be or honestly is enough?

The Zen Buddhist teacher Shunryu Suzuki once observed, "Being alive is enough." It is not necessary to be a Buddhist or a Hindu or a Christian or a race car driver or an insurance salesman to come to this conclusion. Not everyone expresses their answers the same way. But, in a more convincing and basic way, everyone asks the question and everyone is led to the same understanding. Only this is enough. Pleasant or unpleasant are secondary matters. By the time the word "enough" has left the lips, our old habits are back in play, whispering about what is not enough. It's savory bullshit, perhaps, but it is still bullshit. Maundering about "living in the moment" ... well, it's not enough.

Given this powerful and seductive love for our old, not-enough companion, I guess some kind of discipline is needed to yank on the reins. When the bullshit piles up high enough, the willingness to exercise patience and courage and doubt gains a bit of traction. The format -- Buddhist, Christian, ping-pong player, lover of beautiful women or handsome men ... -- doesn't matter.

What is enough?

Check it out.

And when "enough" is enough, we can all know it's time to return to the drawing board.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

NSA bugging operations

Those who remember how to read may want to bite down on this article about the gigantic new eavesdropping center the National Security Agency is building.

When I was in the army, my unit came under the NSA umbrella and my section was engaged in listening to (then) East German administration phone calls. Since the U.S. was allegedly afraid of Russia at the time and since any Russian ground war was expected to come through East Germany among other places, our nosiness seemed to have some validity.

The site being built in Bluffdale, Utah, is not collecting data on foreign countries alone. The enormous computers will sift phone calls and other forms of communication by citizens of the United States as well. Although there is the capacity to block interception on benign institutions, organizations or individuals, NSA seems disinclined to exercise that option.

There are reasons. There is 'patriotism.' There is a well-nourished fear. And, predictably, there is arrogance and greed.

I think there is good reason for television stations to replay and replay and replay -- as they have recently  -- the movie, "V for Vendetta."

economic disconnect

In tight times, times when people are out of work and losing their homes and the rich keep getting richer, grasping at straws seems inevitable. There's got to be some good news out there somewhere, right? The stock market is only slightly lower than it was before the 2008 crash (the Dow was then at 14 thousand and change, now is at 13 thousand and change) so things must be getting 'better' ... right?

But for all the brightly-scrubbed faces assuring everyone that things are on the mend, the disconnect between hopes and realities can't be kept at bay.

On the one hand, for example, jobless claims have fallen to a four-year low. This is taken as evidence not that despairing people have given up looking for work after years of banging their heads against the economic wall, but rather that the "jobs market recovery" is gaining traction.

Simultaneously, surveys of China and the euro zone depict, respectively, an ongoing slump in manufacturing and a wilting economy -- both of which point to a weakening global demand.

Have I reached an unduly-pessimistic conclusion that things that are getting 'better' are more realistically getting worse?

I don't mind optimism with some basis, but I do get tired of brightly-scrubbed (and often well-heeled) faces.

unexplainable proof positive

Informatively, how discombobulating it can be to know something for sure and yet, simultaneously, be aware that you don't know at all. I think of this in terms of spiritual endeavor, but today, a story out of Wisconsin put new meat on the bone.

In Clintonville, Wisconsin, unexplained booms have disrupted sleep patterns and assumptions. It's not earthquakes. It's not mining. It's not military exercises. And it's not a bunch of other speculative searches for the cause ... including aliens. But people in Clintonville know a boom when they hear it and they've been hearing it for at least three nights running.

Concrete evidence with no clue as to what that evidence is evidence of.

That'll upset your apple cart.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Soen Nakagawa Roshi

In the course of working on the Remembering Nakagawa Soen Roshi  book (now on the Internet), these pictures surfaced and I thought I would save them here. Soen was the teacher of my teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi (no relation) and both men acted (at different times) as abbot at Ryutaku Monastery in Japan. Here, Soen is in America. The color pictures are from his going-away party in 1982 in New York City. He never returned to the United States.

At Beecher Lake   ©Denis Lund

At 1982 party NYC  ©Adam Fisher

At 1982 party NYC  ©Adam Fisher

At 1982 party NYC  ©Adam Fisher

At 1982 party NYC  ©Adam Fisher

spiritual secrets

Once upon a time, a long time ago, when I was not so dumb as I became, I was assigned to instruct newcomers to the Zen center I attended. The object was to go through the drills of ritual -- chanting, bowls, walking, sitting, etc. The classes were held once a week for about six months. Afterwards, newcomers could decide whether to become zendo members or not. Most did not.

I instructed such classes three or four times and hardly realized that what I was most learning was how little I knew. I worked hard at the classes and as a result, they were probably not much good. Live and learn.

At any rate, there came a time when I asked the zendo teacher, Eido Shimano, what the best way to offer instruction was. He replied, "Tell them 80% and let them find out 20% for themselves." I pondered this for a while and then found I was not suited to his instruction. My view, even as a wet-behind-the-ears beginner with three or four years of practice under my belt, was, "Tell them 100% and let them find out 100% for themselves." I simply could not fathom the meaning of holding anything back. Right, wrong, or indifferent ... still, 100%!

Today I look back on earlier times and find that I really do agree with myself.

In spiritual life -- Hinduism and perhaps others -- there seems to be room for secret teachings, stuff that is held back because the student is not ready or because the teacher is reluctant. Better to hold things back.

I disagree. A teacher who imagines s/he could hold something back is as deluded as one who imagines there is something to give. I'm sorry -- this simply is not true. And those who parry and dodge under cover of 'compassion' or 'wisdom' or any other cozy camouflage ... well, we all do ego trips and, as well, do what we can to clarify those ego trips.

Students who can not yet ingest and digest what is offered are already protected by their inabilities. Will they be harmed by misinterpreting one secret or another? Of course they will ... just as they are battered and bruised by what is no secret at all. That's the nature of spiritual practice. Praise, blame, elevation, disapproval and on and on ... it's just practice.

Looking back on my own efforts, I want to encourage that oh-so-serious-and-devoted young man: Go ahead, make an ass of yourself. Really and truly make an ass of yourself. Be solemn and serious and wracked by a need to succeed and do well and control things ... go ahead. Do it. If you tell an untruth, there will be harm. If you tell the truth, there will be harm. Just don't hold anything back ... saving it for some ludicrous 'special occasion.'

Of course spiritual endeavor is secret.

Of course spiritual life is not secret.

But none of that means anyone should try to keep secrets.

100% all the time.

Penetrate that secret.

the wisdom of water

Water does not respond well to speed.

The man who jumps from a very high place and looks for a soft landing in water is in for a rude awakening. The greater the speed, the harder and more unforgiving water becomes. From a great height, the man might as well land on a concrete pavement. Water does not compress very well.

And yet, when not badgered by high speeds and suicidal men, water is a forgiving and nourishing god. It fits everything, welcomes everything, and is softer than angora. It waits without waiting for whatever function may be called for. Anthropomorphically, its patience is endless. Calling water "patient" is idiotic, but words only reach so far.

Like zero, water fits with any other number, any other guest, and gives it enhanced meaning ... and yet alone, its nature is purely bupkus.

Bupkus ... just like everything else. Waiting, patient, according with circumstances, peaceful and yet wily from the point of view of 'others' who praise or blame or attempt to manipulate it, snuggle with it, explain or embrace it. Water does not play the 'other' game... nor does anything else. Meaning is a pastime for second-graders and water does not indulge in silly games. Second-graders are welcome to play in its shallows ... welcome, welcome!

But water, like everything else, is sui generis.

Which is to say no generis.

And yet some generis.

The generis is up to you.

Water doesn't mind.

Why should you?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

"this" and "it"

I'm not much of a fan of verbal hi-jinx in Buddhism, but every now and then ....

I prefer the word "this" to "it" when it comes to referring to something like enlightenment or satori or kensho or peace or whatever moniker is chosen for the dream-come-true hopefulness.

"It" lies at a distance, between covers, up ahead, out there. "It" is safely tucked in the next room, glowing through the doorway, but not close enough to burn. "It" is poets writing about love yet never being consumed. "It" speaks of a past that is safely past. "It" may inform the present but the information can be indexed for some future use. "It" is not too scary or demanding.

"This" offers no escape. More intimate than an inhalation, "this" fills a stage that has no wings. "This" is not past ... "this" is the past and future and snickers at the description. "This" boils the blood with an intimacy that leaves you out of breath. "This" is alive and permits no death.

Yes, sometimes I think "this" is better than "it."

Not "what is it?" but more directly and inescapably, "what is this?"

Or, without the silly frills, "this."

So to speak.

the politics of despair

The American political system is now so corrupted and impotent and enraged that a group called Americans Elect is trying -- apparently NOT tongue-in-cheek -- to put together a consortium that will feature one Democrat and one Republican on the same presidential ticket.

The effort, whose particulars are a bit vague in my mind, strikes me as icing on an already depressing and shameful cake. It reminds me of the slovenly kindness that asks with a whine, "Can't we all just get along?" And by trying to bring things together, it manages to underscore how far apart everything has become ... intractably become.

Is this effort better or worse than doing nothing? I'm not sure. But it reminds me of a bunch of high-school rejects banding together and applauding their own outsider status. We stand tall, we are strong, we are righteous and caring, we deserve to be counted ....


I suppose it all serves some purpose, but I cannot help but think about tits on a bull.

without question

Chuck Crawford loved money. He didn't love money as a means of asserting his being or showing off. He loved the chess game that went with making it. Chuck once managed to purchase a brownstone in Brooklyn -- to hand over a down payment check at the same time that he had only $13.50 in his checking account. Years after I first met him in New York, he wrote to me from the Bahamas and offered to make me a millionaire if I would come down to the Caribbean and work with him on real estate deals. People who knew how to work were hard to find, he said. I could be rich. I was flattered, but I didn't go.

I met Chuck through his pretty and vivacious English wife, Dixie. I was working at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, selling expensive men's clothing. Dixie was working a couple of floors down selling women's something-or-other. I knew I would like Dixie after I asked her why she was working at a job that paid less than what it cost her to have someone look after her two small children. She said it was worth it to her ... just to get out of the house and away from the incarceration of parenthood. She loved her kids dearly, but she wasn't about to lie. It was the kind of truth I could admire.

I visited Chuck and Dixie a couple of times. They lived in a Brooklyn brownstone next to the mother of a Mafia kingpin. The Mafia mom owned a large German shepherd for protection and the dog was very edgy, barking at everything and anything that moved. Chuck put up with the yappy dog for as long as he could but then, because the barking kept his kids awake, he ignored his neighbors' warnings that this woman was Mafia-connected, went next door, and asked politely but firmly if the woman would please put a cork in her dog. Instead of being arrogant, the woman was very embarrassed about disturbing her neighbors. She apologized and quieted the dog. And Chuck evaded another bullet.

At least part of the connection that existed between Chuck and Dixie seemed to rest on the admiration of opposites. Dixie was very intelligent and very well-read. Chuck never read anything, but he had a photographic memory and concentrated his efforts on wheeling and dealing in a wheeling-and-dealing world. At gliterati parties they sometimes attended -- gatherings where people talked about the latest in culture and books -- Dixie would delight and shine. Chuck would amble here and there, sipping whatever there was to drink. And if by chance Chuck came across two men doing their best to remember the name of a particular, seminal work as a means of burnishing their conversation, Chuck could always supply the name. He might have seen the book spine once on this shelf or that and his photographic memory would file it for all eternity. He knew the name and impressed the conversing literati ... but Chuck was not about to actually read the book or worry about its impact and meaning. He'd solve a conversational riddle and then slip quietly back into the literate crowd that imagined he was very well read ... another culture vulture, just like them.

This whole recollection arose this morning because, for some reason, a single incident in Chuck's life came floating back. Chuck was walking down the street with his then-young son, a boy full of questions. And at one point the boy looked up to his father and asked seriously, "Daddy, why is the sky blue?" Chuck didn't miss a beat. With lightning-like swiftness and certainty he replied, "Because the smog lifted."

A Buddhist acquaintance of mine once commented, "There are no answers to 'why' questions." This observation may be greeted with the skepticism any broad-brush generalization warrants, but ... well, when you're right, you're right.

And that made me wonder: What would the world be like if anyone stopped asking questions ... if the question function simply ceased to exist? No...more...questions.

I am an admirer of curiosity and can put up the socially-respectable arguments for questioning and snooping and investigating and parsing and exploring. Question everything. Find out everything... only of course there is no way to find out everything: "There are no answers to 'why' questions." Invariably, the answers simply posit new questions. Nothing wrong with that. It's human. But what would it be like if the question-function were set aside ... just as an experiment?

And if the question function simply took a break, the answer function would likewise be given a rest. Not forever, perhaps ... but just for a moment or two, just to see what it's like. No... more...questions. No...more...answers.

If it got too scary, there could always be a return to self and striving. But perhaps just knowing that questions and answers are useful without being necessary would be an interesting adventure.

"Because the smog lifted."

Wish I'd said that.

Monday, March 19, 2012

too tall

Just for fun....

Is it true or am I imagining it ... that the good Zen teachers I have known were all short? Pip-squeaks, in fact. Sasaki is knee-high to a grasshopper. Kyudo was not a big man. And Soen was another short guy. Idly, I wonder if short guys -- like Marines -- are aware of their small stature and make an extra effort to excel? And perhaps do excel where their taller brethren do not?

Huang Po was a tall guy, but you need an exception every now and then in order to prove the rule... the monster midget rule. No medium-sized or tall guys or gals need apply ... except where an exception is needed.

One thing's for sure -- I'll never make it.

pedal-to-the-metal effort

A friend of mine is busting his chops -- really working his ass off -- on preparing the book, "Remembering Nakagawa Soen Roshi," for a presentation on the Internet.

Like all chores, the project has its grinding, infuriating, saturating, sapping, patience-demanding particulars.

Page after page after page after page after page. And each accomplished page brings to light the next page that has yet to be accomplished.

There is no time for back-slapping unless the project itself is to be forsaken. Woo-hoo is for slackers.

And when at last it is done ... then comes the $64 million question: Who gives a shit? Few, if any, will find the project useful in their lives and yet someone put heart and soul into that project.

I guess it's the same for anyone -- facing up to the fact that for all the hard work of this life, in all the projects and accomplishments, many/most/all will not notice or acknowledge all that hard work. How can anyone ignore my life when I have put so much effort into it?! It's so unfair!!!! My most heart-felt efforts are greeted by nothing more than an impartial shrug from the universe.

The Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki once asked a pretty good (approximate) question: "Which is more important -- to make a million dollars or to enjoy yourself while making it?" Which is more important -- to enjoy your life or to round up others to enjoy it for you?

'important' and 'unimportant'

Which is more compelling, more important -- that which is or that which is not?

The question rises up in my mind not so much as a means of giving a philosophy quiz or an excuse for shaping a religion, but rather as a question that might infuse or just whisper in anyone's perfectly mundane, walking-around life.

In the morning, when things are clear and have not yet quite shaped themselves to meet the day, a husband or wife rises into consciousness and considers with seriousness the bounds and fetters of marital commitment ... if I were single, I might be in Tanzania. A soy bean farmer overhears an acquaintance in a bar saying without malice, "Oh him -- he's just a soy bean farmer." A nun putting out the last of the day's candles catches herself by surprise: "What if God really did exist?" A hospital patient is sick ... but is that all s/he is ... is that the important part ... the unimportant part ... and which is which?

In a hundred, hundred ways in a hundred, hundred lives, there is no escaping what is and there is no escaping what is not. Sometimes the chafing is worse than rug burn. Sometimes it's a matter of recognizable inconsequence. Philosophers and theologians distance themselves from what is important and what is compelling, but individuals find no peace on that luxuriating plain. What is and what is not is personal and sometimes it can be a pisscutter.

In Zen Buddhism, the old men of the past once held out an olive branch to those engaged in such wars. It was like one carpenter holding out a hammer to a fellow carpenter in need. Whether the one in need actually used the hammer was entirely his or her business ... s/he could admire its shape and heft ... or s/he might put it to use. Nevertheless, the old men offered an olive branch sometimes referred to as "The Four Propositions:"

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

The Four Propositions may sound a little airy-fairy to a soy bean farmer and may invite nothing more than an intellectual beard-stroking on the part of the savant, but an olive branch is just and olive branch and a hammer is just a hammer. Winkling out whether what is or what is not is more important ... it's only as personal and compelling as an individual chooses to make it. For some, there is blood in the veins. For others, a corpse will do.

But as a matter of peace, as a matter of getting things straightened out ... well, I think some tools are pretty good. What is can seem endlessly limited. What is not can seem endlessly unlimited. This ain't rocket science. No one needs to know the four propositions in order to feel the limits of limits or the unlimitedness of unlimitedness. How to reconcile these two, how to make peace where there may be war ... no, it's not rocket science, but it sure can feel messy. And where the limits of intellect and emotion, belief and hope, fail to achieve a peace accord, somehow a yearning that goes beyond facile compromise can rise up, whether for rocket scientists or anyone else.

What is.

What is not.

What is important.

What is unimportant.

What is compelling.

What is inconsequential.

What is limited.

What is limitless.

Each such pair and more like them gambols or wages war in a very personal heart. No matter how tightly anyone closes his or her eyes, still the sun shines and sometimes it is blinding. There is no escaping the importance of what is considered important -- in-your-face important. The limits demand and open-hearted, full-bore attention. If you cannot be anywhere else, where are you? What-is is limited ... endlessly limited. What-is is important ... endlessly important. But what-is-not is unlimited ... endlessly unlimited. It too demands an open-hearted, full-bore attention. What-is-not is important as well, if only because it nags so effectively.

None of this is rocket science. The seen and the unseen, the important and the unimportant, the possible and the impossible ... is any of this more obscure than tying a shoe?

I dunno ... just prattling along here. I guess I was thinking that "important" is a peculiar word with peculiar implications. Is "important" really relevant? Is what-is and what-is-not really the question anyone would like answered?

I dunno. You tell me.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

promises, promises

The woman who said she was coming to the zendo at 10 did not show up.

I got my zazen in.

But it beats the hell out of me how anyone who cannot keep a promise to others could imagine they are nevertheless capable of fulfilling promises to themselves.

the special-ists

Elsewhere I read the suggestion that it might be nice if "Western Buddhists" dispensed with the robes and names of their Eastern forbears. What's the matter with your own name and your own clothes?

It's certainly a possibility and who knows, maybe it will come true.

But no matter what the clothing and no matter what the name, what is the cornerstone of Buddhism? I'd guess that cornerstone would be "suffering," or, less dramatically, the "unsatisfactoriness" found in a given life. And that unsatisfactoriness is founded on what? Without drama or disdain, isn't it just "me?"

And this "me" seems to have some pretty clear characteristics, one of which is the subtle or not so subtle need to be special. "My" case is a special case ... and in a certain sense this is absolutely true. As the old refrigerator magnet put it, "Your life is so difficult that it has never been tried before."

Yup ... we are all special-ists.

And in order to revise or refine or wake up from our specialness of being -- in order to get over ourselves -- it seems to me that there will always be a need for glitz and glamor, some specialness that will outshine the current specialness that is not really satisfactory.

So whether it is a rich ritual, unusual names, or robes and amulets ... still I think there will be a need for something alluring. Special-ists will pick their own special poison, but for starters, special-ness is especially useful. As Ramakrishna used to say, anyone might use a thorn as a means of extracting a painful thorn.

Pick your special thorn ... your Buddhism, your Christianity, your God, your compassion, your enlightenment, your wisdom, your name, your ritual, your robe, your hierarchy ... your come-hither whatever-it-is.

It's just a special something for a special someone.

For the moment.

the end of names?

Does everyone long to be someone or something else? Even if everything is more or less OK, is there still some nudge or nag of incompleteness, of I-wish-I-had or wish-I-could? I sort of imagine that it's part of the human tapestry, but where once I might have suggested the whole notion was subtly or profoundly wrong-headed -- and gone off onto some Buddhist schtick, perhaps -- now I haven't got the energy to be 'right' or 'better.'

Yesterday a woman called -- her name was "Yasmin" or "Jasmine," I didn't quite get it -- and asked to come to the zendo. She was in a 'confused' time and had had some contact with therapy and yoga and breathing meditations and thought she would look a little further into Zen. OK. We set a time this morning (no more "9 a.m. sharp" stuff) and I cleaned the zendo and I guess she'll show up, unless, of course, she doesn't. What can I tell her that she doesn't know? Not much, I'm afraid ... but we can wag our tails and meet each other like a couple of molecules in deep space.

Yesterday, as well, after the Saturday peace vigil was over, I ran into Carl, a trim, neatly-dressed seventy-something guy I had met during several meetings of something called the "Wisdom Project" ... a conversation group with an important and somewhat embarrassing name. As a teenager, Carl received a full-boat scholarship to some college, but instead of going, his stepfather (who had four other daughters to support) got him an internship as a bricklayer. The stepfather took his earnings and put them towards the household. Carl was a bricklayer for many many years. A good living, but not expressing his full potential. His salvation -- that which took the place of the education he might have gotten -- came with music. Fiddle, banjo, guitar, bass. He knows how to play the instruments and he knows how to fix and even make them. Music -- the magic of the stars in my eyes -- probably saved his soaring ass ... or anyway that's the story I confect.

We talked amiably on the street and he half hoped I would come back to join "The Wisdom Project." And who knows, maybe I'll try it again ... a conversation with four or five people, each with a story to tell, an opinion to express. I like stories. I like the deep-space dance of molecules. But I get reluctant and testy with monikers like "The Wisdom Project" or "the zendo." That's probably just my version of being someone or something else.

Maybe the good thing about aging is that you get too tired to bite down on succulent bits of ardor. It's hard enough to get out of bed and re-greet whatever aches and pains insist. Like some old Chevy parked outside during the winter cold, the oil has settled and grown viscous overnight. The slick lubrications of being hot to trot take time an patience to coax back to life. The engine growls and strains. Eventually, the car kicks into life, but let's face it, it's an old car and this is not summer. Caring and hoping to achieve some other status takes energy and imagination and ... well, what's the matter with this? This is it, isn't it? And if this is it, then this is it. Lubrications of "wisdom" and "zendo" and "justice" and "freedom" ... well, that's for younger, newer, more 'concerned' vehicles.

I like and admire Carl for his music and his grit ... what a magical blessing! And Carl may like me because I once worked for a newspaper and am less prone to "wisdom," a thing he may admire, but also suspects is worthy of suspicion -- an 'extra' in an already wise world.

The end of names. Maybe that's a way to say it. Like an old pair of underpants, the elastic around the waist and legs gives out after repeated washing. Naming things is to make them something else ... and in so doing makes me someone else. How can something be something else when it is already what it is ... something else?

It's a curious matter.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

'proof positive'

A check arrived from Safety Insurance yesterday for $588.99, an amount that implicitly conceded my son was in no way negligent in a Dec. 15, 2011, fender-bender accident. The amount is probably trivial from the insurance company's point of view. From my point of view, relying on Social Security income, it was significant.

But I do not feel the exultation that generally accompanies "a W" -- a "win." I am glad my son and I went to small claims court to contest the insurance company's judgment that my son was at least 20% negligent. I am glad that I worked up 25 pages of argument to contest that judgment. I am proud of the way my son acquitted himself in the courtroom. And I am happy there was some opportunity to introduce my son to a world peopled by alleged adults ... a world wider than his own high-school-aged bell jar. It was all-in-all a good experience and would have been even if we had lost.

Naturally, I am happy to have the money. I need to buy fire wood for next season and the payment should pretty much cover that. But the ecstatic gloat that goes with 'a W' ...

I'm glad I don't feel that.

I am happy ... but not that happy.

ordinary atrocities

The trouble with atrocities is not their extraordinary footing. It is their utter banality. The essence of atrocity is not the vain explications of who and why they happened. The essence is ... I am the atrocity. This is not just some religio-philosophical piece of hyperbole -- oh how nifty and wise! It is simply a requirement that anyone wishing to live their lives wisely and well must meet and digest head-on if they want to stop the atrocities.

Buddhism, among other approaches, offers a precept ... do not kill or cause to be killed. Precepts are not so much what anyone actually keeps. Precepts are what anyone can and does break again and again. It is the willingness to pay attention that is tested and deserves nourishment. Atrocities are not some joke. They are soul-searing. They are beyond words. Atrocities are who I am, and this Failure to recognize and attend to such capacities is just another atrocity ... vast, insane and ... ordinary.

S.Sgt Robert Bales smiling
In the news of late, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, a veteran of three tours of duty in Afghanistan who was serving a reluctant fourth, is accused of walking off base and indiscriminately killing 16 Afghans before turning himself in. Afghans claim Bales did not act alone, that other soldiers were involved, but at the moment Bales is the only one accused of murdering men, women and children who posed no military threat. Staff Sgt. Bales is accused of an atrocity ... a deed that crosses some unwritten line in a world whose lines are fabricated at best and illusory at worst. Bales has been transferred to a prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

And it's not my fault. It's not my country's fault. It's not the fault of the paunchy and well-manicured and perhaps even well-intentioned men and women who shaped and supplied the environment in which Sgt. Bales operated ... an arena where the Stars and Stripes snaps gaily in the breeze. Bales will take the heat for the unspeakable, ordinary stuff, the stuff that has happened before and will happen again, the stuff that is OK as long as it isn't my fault.

Bales will take the heat, much as Lt. William Calley did during the March 16, 1968, massacre at My Lai, Vietnam. Men, women and children ... indiscriminate ... after raping the women, some soldiers stabbed their victims in the vagina. Wild, vile ... ordinary. And it's not my fault.

Although he may not have realized it, Calley was operating on precedent ... a precedent that reached back through history, but had lately been reinforced the month before My Lai when, on Feb. 7, 1968, American forces attacked Bien Tre and all but destroyed its buildings and inhabitants...indiscriminately. An unnamed major at the time was quoted as saying, "It became necessary to destroy the town to save it." Wild, vile, atrocious ... ordinary. And it's not my fault.

Calley took the heat and was later pardoned because of a vast public perception that he had been scapegoated. The public seemed to be aware that there was something vastly too easy and too ordinary  about blaming Lt. Calley.

Lt. William Calley...then
Listen, if you dare, to this MP3 from the BBC. It is a nine-minute report on My Lai. Witnesses were people who were there. They were there much as we are here. But of course it is not my fault.

After World War II, there was a massive revulsion at the concentration camp evidence that surfaced in the wake of the Nazi war. It became known as the Holocaust ... a grand name for an ordinary atrocity. Jews became most vocal since something like half of all those exterminated in the camps were Jews. The rallying cry became "never again!" But for all its heart-felt anguish, "never again" seemed a weak and somehow self-defeating banner for something that was so ordinary and, were the secret to get out, we all know damned well will occur again.

I once heard that a priest, after being released from a Nazi concentration camp, was asked what he thought of his guards and tormentors. And the priest said simply, "I might have done the same."

I might have done the same.

Thank goodness for such exemplars of honesty and steadfastness. I may be grateful that I did not do the same, but not for a nanosecond does that mean I could not have done the same.

Atrocities literally blow the mind. They are beyond screaming and beyond tears and beyond whatever is beyond that. But beyond the beyond there is a time in which it is necessary to breathe and acknowledge. Being depressed and run over is child's play. Horror, like joy, requires reflection. Hell, like heaven, requires responsibility. Atrocities may grab attention and anguish, but atrocities are most atrocious in their ordinary essence.

Perhaps it takes an atrocity to make wise men and women pay attention to the ordinary ... not in some philosophical or religious bloviation, but honest-to-goodness. What's wrong with the ordinary? What's wrong with a kiss or a walk in the sun, or the coming and going of the breath? It's ordinary and my vote goes to those who summon the courage and determination to address what is ordinary....

It's not my fault.

It is my fault.

It's not a matter of fault or lack of fault.

Life is smiling. I might as well serious up and get with the program.