Thursday, May 31, 2012

the 'public good?'

New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, age 70 and a man old enough to have some passing recollection of  Prohibition, plans to propose a municipal ban on the sale of large-size sugary soft drinks.

Prohibition (1920-1933) outlawed the sale of alcoholic beverages in the U.S. The law enriched criminals like Al Capone and the less-overtly criminal Joseph Kennedy and made scofflaws of enormous segments of the population that demanded a drink and went to illegal speakeasies in order to get one.

The point is, Prohibition didn't work. Its high-minded premises ran headlong into hard-shell facts. And if I had to guess, I'd say Bloomberg's virtuous and intrusive proposal will suffer the same fate.

People demand the right to their pleasures and to kill themselves as they see fit.

of course it's bullshit ... what did you expect?

Yesterday, I was emailing with Janet, a retired psychiatrist who really, really doesn't like religion and seems to enjoy telling me so because she knows I won't take her quite reasonable assertions lying down. Anyway, we were emailing yesterday. And I was writing whatever I was writing without much attention. But one of her missives reconfigured my somewhat blase approach.

She wrote: "Thanks, Adam.  Loved your comments on bullshit.  I think I’ll steal them." It really hadn't occurred to me that what I was saying was particularly novel or worth stealing. In fact, most of it struck me as having the savor of day-old bubble gum. But she seemed to find what I was saying useful or juicy or something and so I thought I'd copy the comments here and override my own sense of prosaic d'oh:

I have a bright friend, Stuart Lachs, who has made a pretty good cottage industry out of debunking the hagiography rampant in Zen Buddhism. He takes things apart both historically and as a means of saying what Zen Buddhism is not. He's quite good at it and I enjoy writing to tell him how much I have liked something he wrote. This fan mail often provokes a batting back and forth of one of the few bones I have to pick with him: His argument is, roughly, cut the bullshit. My question is, what format, of whatever sort, is not bullshit in the end? Don't we all use limited means (bullshit in one sense) to access a wider understanding? Does the bullshit anyone chooses guarantee a wider understanding? Not necessarily ... not everyone who walks out of a shrink's office is necessarily saner or more at peace. Ditto spiritual endeavor. And perhaps the person making the effort is actually worse off. It's a crap shoot, but as long as there is a sense that life is somehow painful or unsatisfactory, I can imagine human beings giving one thing or another a shot ... some bullshit that will, with luck, get them out of the bullshit.

get serious!

The front page of the local newspaper reports today that the Independence Day parade in Amherst, a well-heeled nearby community, has been canceled. July 4 celebrations, including parades and fireworks, are a national tradition that mark America's breaking away from its previous sovereign, Great Britain.

The Revolutionary War, like all wars, was a serious business and remembering its efforts and successes is also -- from a variety of perspectives -- serious. But the exigencies of uncertain economic times has redefined this bit of seriousness. Money to support the parade is not currently available and even if it were, organizing the parade in a month would be difficult if not impossible, according to the front-page story.

A lengthy and somewhat childish Internet definition of the word "serious" suggests that it is not always easy to define:

-- bad or dangerous enough to make you worried
-- important and deserving attention
-- meaning what you say or do, and not making a joke
-- careful and detailed
-- someone who is serious thinks carefully about things and does not laugh much
-- appearing worried or upset
-- dealing with important, complicated, or difficult ideas or subjects
-- if you are in a serious romantic relationship with someone, you intend to stay together for a long time
-- involved in an activity in a way that shows you like it a lot and think it is important
-- extreme, or large in amount
This morning I got one of those out-of-the-blue emails saying that the writer's Type 1 diabetes was now relatively under control but he needed "to get my mind in better health." Mike wrote that he was interested in Buddhism but was uncertain about where to start.

I took the note seriously, though not, I suspect, as seriously as Mike. I wrote back suggesting he do some reading, listen to a few lectures, visit a few temples. Later, if there seemed to be some affinity, he might try a little meditation as a means of putting some experience on the bone of credulity.

It was not a very difficult response to write, but I meant it, however often I have said the same thing to others in the past. If nothing else, Type 1 diabetes forces a reconsideration of what has been taken seriously in the past. The body and its functions may have been taken for granted, but now that assumption is being challenged. It's serious.

War is serious, love is serious, birth is serious, death is serious, eating is serious, shitting is serious, and, depending on circumstances, finding a pink Crayon is desperately serious. I may intone my seriousness as you may intone yours, but I think it might be a good idea to examine the seriousness that rises up with Revolutionary Wars and falls away with Independence Day parades.

I could adduce endless examples of seriousness, but I think one of the central points of interest -- one worth taking seriously -- is the fly in the seriousness ointment: When a person takes something seriously, one of the first (and perhaps endless) things they do is to look around for someone who agrees with them: If you take seriously what I take seriously, the seriousness of what I take seriously seems to be enhanced and I, like the item I take seriously, am given a stamp of approval in my mind. This longing to hitch my wagon to another's horse (or vice versa) doesn't work very well. It may feel good for a while, but over the long haul, it simply doesn't work.

It is good to be serious about whatever anyone might take seriously ... good to open the mind and heart and give attention and effort to the situation at hand. Half-hearted efforts produce half-hearted results. But just because I am hip-deep in the Big Muddy of one seriousness or another does not mean you are or should be.

Seriousness comes and seriousness goes, much as the breath comes and goes. It's serious -- as it damned well should be -- but it's not that serious. To be open-handed and pedal-to-the-metal about this inescapable moment ... it makes some sense. But to try to enshrine or bolster that seriousness with the apparent seriousness of others is asking for trouble. Yes, we both go to the same meditation hall and sit still and silent with focused minds. Yes, we imply a certain seriousness simply by showing up. Yes, we support and encourage each other.

This ... is ... serious.

But I'm not convinced it is that serious.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

the venom of belief

I can imagine others assuming a somewhat contemptuous view of religious Christians who handle venomous snakes. On the face of it, handling venomous snakes is stupid. Snakes are snakes, people are people. The harmony between the two is best expressed by respect, not by religious credulity.

Randy "Mack" Wolford and rattlesnake
But Christian snake handlers believe "that the Bible mandates that Christians handle serpents to test their faith in God -- and that, if they are bitten, they trust in God alone to heal them." Mack Wolford, a snake-handling Pentecostal pastor of 44, was bitten by a rattlesnake Sunday and subsequently died.

The contemptuous may snicker, "See -- I toldja so!"

But I wonder how many will look in the bathroom mirror and consider what snakes of credulous goodness they themselves are willing to toy with ... and perhaps suffer egregious results.

Snakes are snakes. People are people. And the venom of belief is no joke, no matter how virtuous the belief.

panther barf

This morning, my mind is like a caged and confused and still-wild panther ... unable to escape, yet trying, trying, trying. Fragments and shards of thought whiz like shrapnel. I don't want sympathy. I don't want agreement. I don't want to get involved in some white-whine pity party ("Ain't it awful and ain't it grand that we all agree with eachother?!"), but I do want to barf. Since this blog is my location for barfing, I will give my panther some leave to roar.

-- In nature, when the undergrowth and brambles and cast-off limbs become too many -- when strong and healthy trees are threatened by mounting detritus the trees have cast off ... then nature takes its course and burns the forest back to a charred and empty plain. The inferno is vast and consuming. Death is grim and certain. Burn it all down ... and watch the new shoots poke tentatively and gaily through the blackened char.

-- In the long ago, a shrink I visited weekly for seven years once observed, "If a man punches you in the stomach, you do not ask if he lives in a rat-infested apartment."

-- Last night I watched "Deliver Us From Evil," a very quiet, very thorough, documentary about sexual abuse by Roman Catholicism and its priests. This was not some two-bit, Pulitzer-Prize-winning newspaper expose. This was just a description and therefore the horror and rage it evinced in me went deeper ... it was inescapable and yet I longed to escape, longed to sum up the issue in some sound bite of logic or psychological observation or equally controllable and distancing Tinker Toy. But the movie's bars were too wonderfully, horrifically strong and I was left, like a raging panther, to rage and rage, try and try. I could not put the shards of this exploded grenade back together again.


-- It was not until the fourth century that the Roman Catholic Church instituted celibacy. Up until that time, popes had married and had families and children. But in the fourth century someone recognized that a pope with a family was likely to leave his possessions and wealth to that family after his death. As with all institutions, income was a consideration and papal wealth was a rich vein that had not yet been tapped. Celibacy solved the matter ... if the pope didn't have kith and kin, he would be forced to leave his wealth to the church. So the church swathed the issue in legitimacy (Jesus was not married, but the majority of his ace disciples were), and raked in the the proceeds.

-- Written into canonical law was a view of the church hierarchy as more exalted. The congregation's role was to pray, pay and obey. The hierarchy held the keys to heaven and the human longing for heaven ... well, it was a sweet bit of leverage.

-- When the church abuse scandals made their Pulitizer-Prize-winning debut in 2002, the church tried numerous tactics to blur and avert and save itself from the issue. One of the tactics was to lay the issue off on homosexuality. It was the queers who queered the religious waters and, although Jesus never specifically condemned homosexuality, homosexuality was culturally abhorrent enough to divert the focus from things like a priest who inserted his penis into the vagina of a nine-month-old baby.

-- In the movie, a psychologist noted that priests preyed on children in part because they viewed children as their sexual equals. Having entered the seminary as early as 14, 15, or 16, priests were denied the sexual flowering that generally occurs around such an age. They were, in many cases, stalled and stunted in a juvenile world. Priestly predations were thus, in some gruesome sense, understandable.

-- In the movie, a priest willing to talk about his own abuses is both attractive and horrific. He admits his wrong-doings and claims to seek resolution to the lifelong hurts he inflicted. He seems to confess in a way that his mother church will not ... to come clean. He has a kindly face and delivery. He is someone you would probably like to meet. His humanness is palpable... as is the humanness of the victims and their families who also fill the movie. But besides moving this priest from parish to unsuspecting parish as his abuses became known and besides, in the end paying him a monthly stipend and shipping him off to Ireland, the church -- the same church whose tale made use of the human need for loving kindness -- did nothing to actually help their priest. The heart-breaking hypocrisy doled out to those who prayed, paid and obeyed was likewise lavished on a church man living in a church-inspiried hell. If a church cannot enter and still the flames of the hell that it envisions or creates ... what substantive value can it possibly have? It is heinousness heaped on heinousness.

-- The church elders who are deposed in the movie are ... well, they are who they are. Like all corporate elders who find themselves in trouble, they seek ways to 'solve' the problem while preserving the institution that created the problem. There is something worth saving. There is some good that deserves to be protected and furthered. It's just a little accumulated underbrush, after all. In the movie, the church elders are abundantly evasive and suave. They are exalted and assured. They lounge behind their goodness in the sure and certain knowledge that those who pray, pay and obey will forget or be forgotten. Honesty and contrition may be a rule of the church, but the rule is laid down for those who pray, pay and obey. The church elders shown in the movie partake of the same powerful assurance shown by corporate, banking and religious institutions everywhere. Of course some will be hurt, but you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs. Broken eggs are not our concern. The greater good (money and power) are the important part ... and the church elders, and those of a lower rung ladder-climbing inclination want a bite of the omelet. Others may have faltered, but I will speak for the goodness, for what deserves to be preserved; I will be truthful and true; but let's not throw the baby out with the bath water. It's all as slimy as it is common. Broken eggs are not our business.

-- Step by step, quietly and without the self-serving rage the movie evoked in me, the film connects the dots. It does not weep as the parents of one victim wept and I wept with them. It does not insist that its good vision is 'good' vision. It does not fall down and have a well-deserved tantrum. It reaches no idealist conclusions. It offers no wall against which to line up the perpetrators and hypocrites prior to an execution.

It was a hell of a good movie and it moved me.

My panther paces and snarls and claws the bars.

It enrages my panther to think that some circle-jerk of agreement might convene and weep. It enrages my panther to think that sweet reason or spiritual nostrums might litter the heavens... asserting 'peace' without making it. The bars of a humanity I decline to paper over or release enrage the panther within me. I am content to be enraged and enraged that I cannot stop being enraged. How I hate what I love! How I love what I hate! I refuse to overlook humanity as a means of laying claim to that humanity. Fuck 'meaning' and 'explanation!' Just keep that shit away from me. I will stick with what facts I can see ... and roar ... and cope, if that's the right word, with the roaring.

He's a good panther.

Why in the wide, wide world of sports would I deny him?!

PS: A little panther music.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

"Deliver Us From Evil"

A friend pointed me in the direction of this quietly-made, well-reported and powerful documentary about child abuse in the Roman Catholic Church.

"Deliver Us From Evil" is not just a description of Roman Catholic miscues and maliciousness, it is also a reminder of the ravages of self-serving power in whatever venue.

A beautiful, enraging, human and humane movie.

24/7 spiritual profession ....

I have heard it said that Shunryu Suzuki, author of "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" and an expositor of Zen Buddhism in America, once complained to his friend, Trungpa Rinpoche, an expositor of Tibetan Buddhism in America and author of a number of first-class books, about the loneliness he felt in his role as a 'teacher.'

I can't claim to know what Suzuki was speaking about specifically, but that doesn't stop my imaginative juices from bubbling and boiling.

Everyone is stuck with whatever farm they are living on, but the idea of donning the mantle of spiritual advisor, and, by superficial implication, being on call 24/7 to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear seems a particularly hard lot.

Goody-two-shoes spiritual adherents will suggest perhaps that Zen practice has no heft or weight or that the successful student is content wherever he finds himself. The arena of no-abiding-self is its own reward. Well, pedal that bullshit elsewhere! "Forget the self" and the best you can expect is self. Such an unimaginative vision leaves out the honest reality of being discontent in one situation or another, although those with do-good agendas may have delicate explanations of how and why that is NOT so. As I say, it's a narrow and bright-light version of spiritual life ... everything hunky-dory all the time and the teacher expected to stand tall with confounding paradoxes or hugs and kisses. L-o-n-e-l-y in a poor cause.

Imagine it ... on call 24/7 ... encouraging, supporting, correcting, and even, perhaps, 'helping.' Making a silk purse out of a sow's ear. What...a...fucking...hell...hole!

Or so my imaginative sympathies say.

Well everyone is stuck with the farm, but I for one am grateful not to have aligned myself with a spiritual profession, not become some 24/7 teacher. True, I stepped into my own version of enriching shit, but that particular version feels like fingernails on a blackboard to me.

Zen practice was good to me -- good coming and good leaving, but I am so grateful not to have believed my own monk-leaning public relations. Zen practice ... use it and then go about your business. Aside from anything else, there won't be so much loneliness and the living room won't be littered with pig ears. Trying to be good doesn't leave a lot of room for being good.

I am grateful to the monks who keep up the good work.

And I will do what I can to lighten their load ... notably by not wishing to become or becoming one of their number.

where hyperbole loses its savor

Trickles and hints?

-- In California, the cash-strapped government has raided a fund initially envisioned as a way to "channel patriotic fervor and use it to help victims' families and law enforcement" in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, 'terrorist' attacks in the United States. After 9/11, for a price, California license plates could be emblazoned with the words, "We Will Never Forget." The 2001 attacks all but created the amorphous use of the word "terrorism," spawned the multi-million-dollar Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration, and acted as host to a hundred small and large incursions into the world of individual rights. But now, perhaps, the word "terrorism" is losing its savor as the reality of pot holes and schools and unemployment gain traction. Terrifying the public is a tried and true political tool, but it's tiring to live in unsubstantiated fear that costs so much money. Sure, the government will start another war (it's easier than thinking), but in the meantime it would be nice to eat.

-- Wary Japanese investors, who once stood tall and displayed a strong certainty about the sanctity of the homeland and its often-successful traditions, are starting to hedge their bets. Not many, but some, have begun putting their money into Malaysia, Singapore and New Zealand, places where, if the roof falls in at home, if "doomsday" arrives, there may be a more assured, and less expensive, place in which to hang their hats. Seppuku is no longer the only option.

"Zombie Apocalypse"

In Zen Buddhism, there is a saying: "The hard stuff is easy. The easy stuff is hard."

Illuminating that saying from yet another angle, there is the on-going, cringing interest in the tale of a naked man who was shot dead in Miami as he ate the facial flesh of another naked man along a heavily-traveled highway on Saturday. The second man is said to be in critical condition in a hospital. Details are so sparse that the mind races to fill in the blanks ... why did this happen? why were both men naked? why did no one think to report a naked man along a highway before he leaped on his repast? Police are trying to piece the incident together and, I suspect, trying to iron out any wrinkles in the story about a police shooting of an unarmed (but apparently crazed) man. With so few facts, the mind races hither and thither ... it's all so awful, so weird, so delicious....

One Internet site summed up the deliciousness of curiosity and speculation this way:

Many across the nation continue to speculate that there is much more to the story. For example, why were BOTH men naked? How was the attacker able to take shots and still keep eating? Is this actually a Zombie Attack and thus possibly the beginning of the much feared/anticipated Zombie Apocalypse?

The "Zombie Apocalypse?" Whoa Mama! This is better than the TV programs that intone speculations about biblical prophecies or alien-oriented end-times! Ain't it (yum, yum, yum) awful?!

And woven into this mental tapestry is a thread that proclaims, "Things could be worse." Things could be worse and 'worse' is better -- more interesting, more consoling, more exciting -- than the daily grind ... the inescapable hard economic times, the wars that never seem to end, the dandelions that won't die, the job that provides income and saps the soul, the politicians' endless promises, the delights that turn to sorrow and back again, the intellectual and emotional Fiddle Faddle, the encroachments of old age and illness ... the drumbeat of the ordinary, expectable and easy stuff, the stuff that really can eat your face off.

Across the black and indifferent skies, a meteor of brilliant, magnetic horror streaks ....

Two naked men on a highway, one eating the other! Horrific! Unbelievable! Magnetic! It's ... it's... well (why not?), it's sign of the Zombie Apocalypse!

Sorta makes life worth living.

The hard stuff is easy. The easy stuff is hard.

as wise as skunk weed

Skunk weed takes various forms, but as I encountered it, the plants grew in fetid, marshy waters where the summer heat and humidity battled each other for supremacy. Skunk weed waxed and stank with wild abandon. It thrived in conditions that left me limp as old lettuce.

Yesterday was one such lettuce day -- thick with heat and humidity, sapping in its languorous and inescapable presence... it was like some damp angora cat that sat down idly on a passing ant and I was conquered ... struggling, but conquered. Struggling, I took a shower to wash away the sweat that slimed my body. I dried off only to begin sweating again. The damp cat had not moved.

If I were as profound as skunk weed, wise and holy men from the Himalayas to the Andes would beat a path to my door, bowing and scraping and offering incense, making an unnecessary racket. But I am not as wise as skunk weed, much as I might wish to be. Instead, I am dumb as a box of rocks.

Yet a box of rocks is another goal that remains out of reach.

Skunk weed doesn't thrive or stink. Rocks aren't dumb.

When I grow up, I will be wise as the skunk weed that leaves wise and holy men to their own devices.

And to those who cried out piteously for relief and release I would be as factual and loving as the mother offering a breast to her babe:

Smell my armpit.

Monday, May 28, 2012

"I am responsible"

Yesterday, in keeping with the TV habit of showing a lot of war movies on Memorial Day weekend, some channel was showing "Hart's War," a 2002 WWII POW camp drama centered on the trial of a black man charged with the murder of another prisoner. In the punchline scene, an American colonel -- the highest ranking prisoner of war -- stands before the camp commandant and assumes responsibility for both the murder and various other POW infractions. The German commandant, with some reluctance, shoots the colonel dead.

"I am responsible." Whether I die or live, still I am responsible.

The normal course of events seems to support the generalization that if good stuff happens, I am willing to claim credit. But if bad things happen, I will bust my butt to blur or escape any association. Many leaders in many venues are like this, but it is also true in less august, more workaday settings. Friends, associates, lovers, enemies ... who is willing to assume responsibility after the responsibility has already been assigned?

Assuming a thin-lipped moralist's stance on responsibility is no good. People work pretty hard to sort things out for themselves, even if it is just to claim the credit or evade the blame. And neither an assertion of credit nor some glum assumption of overarching blame (the kind of blame that some savior god can extract us from) is especially useful.

But I think it's worth some investigating. "I am responsible."

For example, I dislike the wars my country insists on and yet there is no escaping the fact that because I am a part of that country, I am responsible for the wars I abhor. This is a high-octane example, but there are lesser examples everywhere and always: I am responsible and neither assuming the credit nor eluding the blame is factual.

What is factual?

I think that what is factual is that people are happier when they are honest. Not giddy or morose ... just honest. Honesty makes life lighter and, perhaps, a bit more humble... and I don't just mean the icky-humble of the professionally humble.

It's all a work in progress, day after day, week after week, year after year. There is no summit or pinnacle of honesty or responsibility, no tight-collared Calvinist who lays out right and wrong, no shining philosopher or philosophy ....

"I am responsible" -- it's enough for any (wo)man in a lifetime that longs for a lightness of being.

Never forget the old refrigerator magnet that suggests, "Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly."

"I am responsible."

manipulative excuses

Memorial Day -- a time to remember wars and their fallout, both heroic and horrific ... a time to remember.

-- On the peace picket line Saturday, Bill, a fellow picket, said softly but firmly, "The best way to honor our veterans is to stop making them." As if to underscore his observation, the Associated Press provides a news story today about the fact that record numbers of veterans are applying for disability payments. Simultaneously, the president of the United States, Barack Obama, was preparing to honor and extol those who died in battle. Was there ever a time when what was insanely vile did not find good reasons to praise and continue what was insanely vile?

-- And, in other news of self-serving manipulation, politicians running for U.S. president have found ways to mine and employ the Internet information of those who visit their web sites. This seems to be a growing trend not just among politicians (whose manipulations have long since overshadowed the substance they might have addressed) but also news outlets which appear to mine similar data and then provide visitors to news sites with "what you like." I can forgive the politicians, whose self-serving, buy-'em-off disrespect for their constituencies is more or less obvious, but I find it revolting -- and self-defeating -- among news outlets that once reported the news ... not 'my' news, just news. Specifically, from where I sit, I suspect this trend at The Washington Post web site. It's bad enough that the site is a floundering mess, but the pandering by a source I once considered good is infuriating. Bit by bit, I learn my lesson ... just don't read The Washington Post.

certificates of accomplishment

The western part of Massachusetts, where I live, is peppered with colleges and universities. Top-drawer to lower-shelf, there are a lot of "institutions of higher learning." And here, as elsewhere in the United States, the waning days of May and the early days of June are when graduates receive degrees attesting to their efforts and accomplishments.

I pity the poor bastards -- the main speakers -- invited to address such gatherings. Their words, whether heart-felt or knee-jerk are squeezed by circumstance into a very narrow bandwidth ... follow your dreams, do some social good, don't be a self-centered twit, you are certified "college graduates" -- use your certification well. This is not a venue for dirty jokes.

Woven into graduation ceremonies, whispering below the surface of certification and relief and release, there is always a kind of frisson -- a thrill or chill: On the one hand, there is a stamp of approval and on the other there is a curious sense that the person who is certified simply cannot be certified. "I'm the same person I was before anyone handed me a diploma."

A college degree, as anyone who has got one can attest, is no good unless you haven't got one. Like the rest of the laundry list anyone might put on a resume, certifications of accomplishment are meant for other people -- employers for example, or friends and acquaintances who depend on such certifications as a means of knowing "who" you are. It's a yardstick, of course, but it is the kind of yardstick that can throttle the individual being measured: It's bad enough that others might think certifications were a true measure of an individual, but it can be a sad day when those individuals credit their own certifications as a true measure of their lives.

I am a housewife, a plumber, a race car driver, a stock broker, a scientist, a drunk, a writer, a cowboy, a hunter, a man, a woman, a bullshit artist, a ... the certifications go on and on. People receive certification according to appreciations, whether of others or the self.

And yet, and yet....

There is nothing wrong with certification according to deeds, but I wonder if there will ever be a graduation ceremony in which graduates will be encouraged to nourish and recall that within that cannot be certified, the core that shudders a little or dies a little when stamps of approval or disapproval are the only measures by which a person might live.

It's nothing special and there is no need to run around turning it into a gang-bang philosophy or religion. All that is required is to notice what anyone might notice anyway ... that certificates just don't quite cover the topic. "I'm still the same person I was before anyone started applauding or throwing rotten eggs." This is a good observation, a good starting point. So ... who is this "same person?"

Somehow it is important to make peace with that which is not yet peaceful -- the place or person that has no certificates. Would certificates have any meaning or impact without the realm in which certification does not compute?

No need to exclude the certificates. No need to rely on them either.

It's just a mistake to ignore that for which no certificate can be given.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Kobutsu Malone interview

Kobutsu Malone
For those interested in getting a whiff of his steam or possibly taking a bite out of his ass, the Rev. Kobutsu Malone (longtime creator/maintainer of the Shimano Archive and a prison rights advocate) is scheduled to give a live interview this afternoon at 3 p.m. EST. Apparently callers can submit queries and criticisms to the moderator.

Since Kobutsu is a friend of mine, I will refrain from praising him.

dwindling faith

What is it like where faith and trust no longer apply?

Money, for example, is a matter of faith and trust ... without the faith and trust, a $50 bill is just a piece of paper.

Belief holds social systems together. Intellect and emotion are less reliable adhesives.

In Greece, withdrawals from banks are not yet exactly a "run," but they do speak to a dwindling sense of faith and trust.

peculiar stuff

Because the television offered little more than the cardboard war movies of John Wayne or Clint Eastwood yesterday and because I wanted some story or other to excite some alpha waves of relaxation, I scanned Netflix, a movie library that offers freebies, and settled on the 1998 movie "Pi." I didn't know what to expect, but, even to a mathematical illiterate like me, the numerical designator pi is more interesting than flag-waving, set-piece war movies.

The movie -- a low-budget, black-and-white creation -- concerns a young man who is smitten by numbers. Everything can be explained and described in numbers ... and protagonist Max pushes the envelope of this thesis. I can't recommend the movie to anyone, but I watched it from end to end (unusual) and felt the kinship that it offered. The ending was a bit pat, but ... what the hell ... in the world of courage, pablum is as acceptable and apt as any other sun fading into the west and the rolling of the credits.

The movie was gratifying in the sense that, to me, it tried to depict a difficult world that anyone might enter ... a world in which the particulars of life lead naturally and without effort into the realms of what might be called the peculiar.

The movie stirred my own associations and among those associations was the "peculiar" ... that drifting into a new and revised perspective that anyone, with any background, might easily enjoy or fear or perhaps fear and enjoy in a flickering, on-off sequence ....

Suddenly, the meaning and import and essence of the coffee cup is no longer found in the portion that contains the coffee. Suddenly the handle stands out in stark obviousness, containing and describing the whole scene and meaning ... touching an essence that was always there yet only lately noticed ... and it feels peculiar.

And the same might be true of employment or love or money or marriage or automobiles or tool boxes whose well-established limits aroused nothing so much as comforting, comfortable assumptions ... until suddenly, for one reason or another, the limits no longer work because ... because ... the coffee cup has a handle; the Mozart piano concerto contains a C-sharp; the enormous landscape painting of a summer field contains a single, unremarkable dot of alizaron crimson; the shoes have laces ....

What was secondary leaps into first-place relief. What was part is now the whole. What was understood becomes curious. What filled out the middle is now some sine-qua-non beginning. It is not that anything is "new." It's just that its inescapable newness becomes apparent.

Is this genius? Is this insanity? It hardly matters that others may see it all as peculiar or even that the individual himself finds it peculiar. Everyone is a genius, always, and no matter how peculiar the journey may seem, still it is a journey that no one else can judge or assess or praise or blame. On the up side, what is peculiar is fresh and revised. On the downside, who knows where this revision will lead?

In my mind, my neighbor's Japanese maple tree presents itself. The tree, which I can see from my chair on the porch, is perhaps fifty feet tall. It is rich and ruddy, a healthy critter peopled with squirrels and birds as time passes. Its lower branches are sturdy hard wood -- like the places of assumption in any genius life. Politics and education, profession and bias, marital status and bank account, philosophy and religion ... it's all sturdy in the lower branches of a genius life, a place to rest and perhaps spend a whole life.

But as the tree reaches towards the sky, the limbs get thinner and thinner. They are new. Their perspectives are not yet as formed and sturdy. Higher and higher and thinner and thinner until the climber of the tree and the tree itself reaches some gossamer thread of a branch -- a branch on which the climber edges out gingerly ... will this branch sustain me? One thing's for sure: On the tip of that single, gossamer branch there is no room for so much as an atom of extra weight. A single mention of philosophy or theology would be too much ... too much weight and the climber would fall and fall and fall to his doom.  Here, the oneness of art and science is a threateningly-freighted overstatement and what is "peculiar" can no longer be allowed.

Born a genius, I guess most spend their lifetimes asserting and assuring that genius. And when the "peculiar" asserts itself, when the revised ways of seeing come calling, there is always the invitation to turn back to the sturdy limbs below, the hard-wood places where people use words like "peculiar" or "genius" or "lunatic" ... the places where everyone sips coffee from coffee cups and things are settled and cozy and "God" is reassuringly not to be asserted. What the hell ... a coffee cup is just a coffee cup, shoes have shoe laces, and Mozart employed a C-sharp.

The genius is perfectly equipped for genius. No life lacks anything, least of all genius. From sturdy lower branches -- from "two plus two equals four" or the configuration of a coffee cup -- each is perfectly endowed and capable of the peculiarities of intellect or emotion or circumstance. Attempts to describe it or to find a happy ending -- such things live among the sturdy lower branches, among what is not peculiar or gossamer or imperative. The atoms of extra weight -- the things that are sturdy and yet promise a long, long fall -- cannot fit or find purchase in this world that our "peculiarities" have brought us to.

Anyway ... I liked the movie enough to watch it through. I liked its willingness to try. I liked it as I liked "Apocalypse Now," a movie I think of as being as close as anyone might come to depicting the hilarious and horrific environment of a nightmare. I liked it for its gutsy-ness. I liked it for its quirky humanity ... as when the sturdy branches of greed and religion are turned away in favor of this very peculiar peculiarity... in this case, numbers theory... MY numbers theory or YOURS.

It was a movie that stirred my pot in ways I am obviously not equipped to describe. I was grateful.

How could genius be something as mundane or peculiar as Albert Einstein?
How peculiar that anyone's peculiarity might be thought peculiar.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

habit ... a strange and vacillating companion

With a stealthy, smirking demeanor, my daughter (home for the weekend with her fiance), climbed the stairs carrying a metal sauce pan in one hand and a wooden spoon in the other. "Time to wake Angus," she whispered to me on her way up.

Her brother Angus, who is home from college, seemed to be dead asleep by the time Olivia reached his door and began a relentless drumming on the sauce pan. The sound filled the house and probably spilled onto the street. It was as perfectly malicious and effective as she had planned.

The house is full of people, full of children, full of the cross-currents of laughter and conversation and banged pots and boisterousness that once drifted away and left an empty silence in their wake. It was hard to have them leave ... the empty nest syndrome.

And yet now, having accustomed myself to the silence they once left in their wake, it is also hard to have them back. "What happened to the noise?" has found a counterpart in "What happened to the silence?"

I am happy to have everyone under the same roof once again. These are good people in my eyes -- people I love. My younger son has a western Massachusetts track meet today -- a thing for which he qualified at the last minute. So today is a big day for him. Wife, daughter, older son, and fiance will all be rooting for him, as will I, although I will not be on the scene. Too tiring.

The flow flows.

Habit is such a strange and vacillating companion.

the butler did it

Tried and true evasions are tried and true ... why spoil a good thing?

Vatican officials confirmed today that the pope's butler, a layman, had been arrested for leaking sensitive documents to the press. Suddenly, the substance and systemic issues of those leaks is no longer the focus: Attention is redirected on the leak and patching the hole.

Beginning at an early age ("the dog ate my homework"), evasiveness seems to mature like good wine. "I didn't know" or "I was following orders" filled the courtrooms dedicated post-facto to the systematic slaughter of Jews and other 'undesirables' during World War II. Systematic torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq led to a blaming of several underlings but few executives or, more important, the culture that spawned the torture. Bradley Manning's crime -- passing classified documents to Wikileaks -- is the focus his accusers would prefer to keep on the front burner ... not the systemic issues that those leaks pointed to. Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange have been the target of a focus similar to Manning's -- patch the leak, reprove the leaker, but sidestep the substance. The Vatican has been masterful in skirting top-echelon responsibility for the pedophiles in its midst ... though it once did manage to blame the situation on Jews and homosexuality rather than confront the issue of celibacy among priests and acknowledge that the infallible pope ... well ... the dog ate my homework. And the Wall Street and banking depredations that brought down the world economy ... how many of its perpetrators "didn't know" or "didn't mean to" or do their unexamined best to help the White House out of the morass?

The list goes on and on and on and on ... the butler did it, the master was unwitting ... forgive and forget. It's hard not to think -- it's not what's wrong that counts; it's getting caught that's wrong ... don't let it happen again.

The dog ate my homework.

The butler did it.

Crime solved.

Why spoil a good thing?

feather-merchant lifestyle

Among the critical expressions that seem to hit the nail on the head for me, "feather merchant" stands near the front of the line. If I were a good Buddhist, of course I would not run around judging this and judging that, but I leave being a 'good Buddhist' to others. "Feather merchant" is just plain too tasty and descriptive and bang-on to surrender.

A "feather merchant" is variously described on Internet dictionaries. One synonym that seems to pop up frequently is "asshole," but "asshole" does not transmit the disdain that accompanies "feather merchant" in my mind. Assholes are a dime a dozen. Feather merchants are more wily.

Not quite complete, but making a good swing at a definition of "feather merchant" was this:
a person who rarely exhibits effort and/or responsibility and lets others do all the work; a loafer, slacker, dope-off, weasel; shirker, screw off, malingerer
Right -- feather merchants let others do the work and, more insidiously, credit themselves and expect others to credit them for having done some heavy lifting. They are visible in office settings, often rising through the chain of command smoothly. Their mediocrity can be infuriating to anyone doing the actual work.

But offices are not the only venue in which feather merchants make their mark. "A good Buddhist" or a "good Christian" can likewise shine. Clothed perfectly and using resplendent verbiage, the style is present and the substance goes begging.

Beyond this obvious stuff, I sometimes wonder about the feather merchants of my own mind. And what, as my mental tongue drips with venom when issuing my facile feather-merchant dictum, is the opposite of a "feather merchant?" The best I can think of as an antonym is "serious" -- a word that is equally slippery when trying to nail it down.

My "feather merchant" mind is clothed in self. It claims to love something and claims to be making an effort, but the pivotal fact is that it mixes self with what is allegedly beloved. My feather merchant mind does not love what it claims to love enough to be serious about it. Seriousness requires a willingness to fail, really fail, and then keep on going.

I suppose all of this is a bit airy-fairy, but it occurred to me today that it is important to keep an eye on my feather merchants. Living a feather-merchant life -- in little and large ways -- may assure applause from others, but the satisfaction within is curdled and lost. Always relying on others, life proves elusive and weak. It is a sad state of affairs.

My feather merchant mind whines like a teenager ... "but what about meeeeeee? Where's MY gold star? Why don't others love me as I love myself?" A feather merchant mind may serve as a springboard to seriousness, but equally possible, it may turn out to be a springboard for a feather merchant life. It's deceitful and icky.

Fortune cookie nostrums suggest, "Love is not what you get. Love is what you give." Sounds good, but I have my suspicions: What if love were simply what is ... no assistance needed, no equations necessary, no separations implied? What if the only real requirement for seriousness were simply to get the hell out of the way?

Love what you love and stop looking over your feather merchant shoulder.

Hate what you hate and stop looking over your feather merchant shoulder.

On behalf of a life that has some metaphorical substance and sand, just correct what needs correcting and in the meantime, sing in the shower ... loud!

Just noodling and getting nowhere in this feather merchant mind.

Friday, May 25, 2012

"Frontline" depicts financial turmoil and impact

If you want a sense of the connection between the machinations of wealth and the impact on those who are not wealthy, this is a pretty good (and thankfully not 'outraged') two-part description:

Watch Six Billion Dollar Bet on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

The second segment is currently unavailable for posting here with a start-up picture. It does seem to be available here, (scroll down) however.

hearsay evidence

With some 38 exceptions, "hearsay evidence" is not allowed in U.S. courts of law. Hearsay evidence is evidence of which the person offering it has no direct knowledge.

Anyone charged with a crime and facing a fine or incarceration or even execution might be grateful that "Tom told me Peter was speeding" should not be taken as a matter of direct knowledge ... direct knowledge that might be considered as 'fact.'

"Everyone knows..." is simply not enough.

How much of anyone's life relies on hearsay evidence? How much of their outlook or certainty or comfort derives from second-hand supposition? Far from suggesting that a little humility might be in order, such hearsay evidence can frequently lead to maelstroms of virtuous assertion or gouts of vicious blood-letting. Not always, of course: Usually, hearsay-evidence is more wily and subtle and subdued ... if "everyone knows" and I am a part of "everyone," then I know too.

All tables have four legs.
My dog has four legs.
My dog is a table.

Hearsay is socially comforting and, I would say, also has a positive potential in the sense that it might encourage anyone to find out if what "everyone knows" is actually true... true in the sense that they might go out and see if Peter is actually speeding.

But whether hearsay evidence leads to a nourishing and informative effort or produces a pernicious laziness (and hence prolonged uncertainty under a banner of certainty) of mind is entirely up to the individual.

Yesterday, I looked up "I am a Buddhist" on Google. Among the gazillions of entries offered, one offered an apparently-benevolent Christian comparison of Buddhism and Christianity. "... While both Christianity and Buddhism each have an historical central figure, namely Jesus and Buddha, only Jesus is shown to have risen from the dead," the comparison said in its introductory paragraph. And from that point forward, the analysis/encouragement/sales pitch referenced the Bible as the foundation for its assertions.

Tom told me Peter was speeding. Tom is an impeccable source, ergo Peter must, in fact, have been speeding.

The Vedanta Hindu Sri Ramakrishna once addressed the hearsay lifestyle by suggesting to a disciple that he take the holiest scripture he could find, place it in a room, lock all the windows and doors in that room, and then come back in a couple of days and see if anything had happened. Any natural intelligence knows without locking away holy scripture that this construct is ludicrous on the face of it. (I always admired the down-to-earth sense of humor Hindus were capable of.)

OK ... it's ludicrous. It's dumber than a box of rocks. Anyone can see it ... hearsay ain't fact. And I am not just talking about spiritual endeavor: Spiritual endeavor is just a realm that interests me ... there are gobs and gobs of other hearsay venues.

How many are willing to take their nearest and dearest hearsay evidence and using it as what may be a wonderful hypothesis, set out to discover if the Peters of the mind are actually-factually speeding?

Atheists and other immoderate intellectuals may leap up and down with a sometimes savage glee when the empirical, investigative spotlight is focused on what can be the hearsay lifestyle of believers. And it's perfectly true ... nitwits are legion.

Faced with the rapier of criticism, believers may cower and lash back, citing their golden bits of hearsay evidence. They can be so busy defending themselves that the positive invitations of what is presently just hearsay evidence go begging. The trouble with hearsay evidence is not so much that it is secondary as it is that it leaves the true believer in a quicksand of implicit doubt. Simply stated, a true believer will never be happy, never be at peace, until s/he investigates and finds out if Peter is speeding.

Belief is wholly reliant on the past and yet human beings live in the present: This quandary, far from providing peace, can be the source for unending efforts to patch up and buttress the true belief that is asserted. It's miles too energetic and miles too wasteful as a way of life ... pretending things are satisfactory when in fact they are merely confusing.

I prefer to think that people would use their most cherished hearsay as a springboard to finding the facts -- the facts that will honestly assure some peace of mind.

Of course, my preferences and fifty cents will get me a bus ride. As the Anglican Charles Williams asserted in one of his metaphysical thrillers, "People believe what they want to believe." The question that quotation raises in my mind is, "Is what you want really what you want?"

A hearsay lifestyle is too uncertain, too shaky, too long on promise and short on delivery. As a starting point, it may be OK. As a place to remain and nest and find honest peace, it simply doesn't work. That strikes me as unnecessarily stupid and vastly unkind ... but what do I know?

A hearsay lifestyle.

Guilty as charged.

Now what?

saints and sinners

For heavens sake!!!

No one with a lick of common sense wants to be a sinner.

No one with a lick of common sense wants to be a saint.

No one with a lick of common sense yearns for the middle way.

But perhaps it takes a while for common sense to kick in...

Nothing beats a good laugh.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

prom night


All the boys seemed intent on re-identifying the friends they saw swathed in tuxedos. All the girls seemed intent on making sure that what their strapless dresses showed off didn't get completely revealed.

They all gathered in a local park before departing for the senior prom. The kids were giddy and pretty. The parents smiled and wished them well.

Time to par-tay!


greater than yourself

There was a time when I offered the morning incense with utmost care, placing the stick in the bowl with the most perfect harmony I could muster ... harmony with statue and water bowl and flowers ... a balanced and soothing and peaceful array. Attention! Attention! Attention!

These days, I have grown careless by comparison. The offering is made but its perfection and utter attention has been lost.

The incense smells as sweet.

Is there something greater than yourself in life -- some God or ineffable tingling that promises some promising promise ... something greater and on high that makes you weep with yearning and for which the beads of sweat pop out along a furrowed brow? Some peace or clarity or enfolding love?

Is there something greater than yourself in life?

And the answer is yes there is ... the very thing that careful, attentive, sweaty Buddhists refer to without daring to smile at the utter redundancy as "your true self."

Smell the incense?

old tears, new day


Sabra Begum, a relative of a victim of an explosion, weeps in a slum area in the north Indian city of Allahabad May 23, 2012. Six people are feared to be dead and a dozen injured in an explosion in a slum area on Wednesday as the nature of the explosion is still unknown, local media reported. REUTERS/Jitendra Prakash

An Afghan boy pushes a wheelbarrow next to U.S. Army soldiers of the Battle company, 1-508 Parachute Infantry battalion, 4th Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division who are securing an area during a joint patrol with the Afghan Army in the town of Senjaray, Zahri district of Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan May 23, 2012.
REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov 


the last dance... always

Tonight, my younger son will go to the prom -- a last dance for those graduating from high school. Everyone will get dressed to the nines in tuxedos and ball gowns.

There will even be some limousines.

Skittering parents will click pictures and smile uncertain smiles and the kids will feel quite grown-up in their finery, though the question may linger and nag, "is there life after high school?" Their now-drooping parents will remember in whispers their own rites of passage, the passage of time, and delight in the outcome their kids represent ... a delight tinged with desolation: How the hell did that happen?

The desolation of delight. The end that is the beginning. The effect for which a cause may be sought, pounced upon, and then dribble a way like a fistful of water.

Is there such a thing as cause? I doubt it. More likely, everything is an effect ... but even then ...

Perhaps cause and effect are overrated by quite a lot.

Always the last dance.


Funny, wonderful, upsetting ... maybe that's some of what it's like to have a well-seated assumption called out and seen in a new light. It does make you wonder a bit why assumption was a requirement in the first place, but I guess everyone copes the best they can.

Yesterday, it was a small matter, perhaps, but in its small way, it caught me with my pants down:

In some recess of my mind, the Battle of Thermopylae had rested as a nugget of military heroism -- a band of 300 Spartans who had remained as a rearguard while their Greek companions escaped a sure defeat at the hands of something like 100,000 to 300,000 Persians in 480 BC. The Spartans perished to a man, but the heroic tale began almost immediately after the battle ... a small band of men sacrificed themselves so that others might live... a touchstone for anyone ... sacrifice and valor despite sure defeat. Some things are more important than our own lives and yet our own lives (and the fear of death) are vastly important.

Anyway, there it sat in my mind, an abbreviated version of an event -- summed up in my mind as an example to be referred to. It was an assumption of no enormous import and yet careless as some latter-day high school student who asserts without fear of contradiction that "the American Civil War was fought in order to abolish slavery."

Yesterday, on TV, there was some historian talking about Thermopylae and saying that, yes, the Battle of Thermopylae had very important ramifications for the history of democracy, but let's get it straight: The valor and sacrifice of the 300 Spartans was not just a matter of 300 men taking on the vastly superior horde ... besides the 300 Spartans, there were 700 Thespians, 400 Thebans and perhaps a few hundred others. So ... although the Spartans got the good press (in my mind as elsewhere), they were far from being alone in valorous effort. True, the story does not lose its David-and-Goliath tenor -- even 1,500 men against 100,000 to 300,000 is pretty impressive -- but giving the Spartans front-row billing is a bit over the top.

No one, perhaps, gives a shit about an event in the dark recesses of time. That was then, this is now ... and I've got better things to think about. But that event calls up in my mind the function and usefulness of my assumptions, my shortcut references whose applicability reduces the clutter and allows me to rest and avoid mistakes and, perhaps, gain social status. It's stuff I "know" and am content to know ... hell, I can't know everything about everything, right?

But if I can't know everything about everything, where do I get off knowing something about anything? How accurate are the assumptions that feather 'my' nest?

This train of thought does not incline me to lie down in a passive goo of submissiveness. Assumptions are OK ... but it does strike me as sensible to be a little humble: What I don't know is vastly larger than what I do and even when I do know something, the likelihood that I've got it right -- accurate and complete -- is pretty damned small.

Assumption: Spiritual life is about finding the "better angels of our nature," some peace. Nice work if you can get it, but beware of the assumption that it's true ... or even a very peaceful endeavor.

Assumption: Gravity glues us all to this earth, death is the end, the sun comes up in the East, chocolate is to die for, killing is a damnation, wisdom is wise, intelligence is a blessing, ignorance is a curse ....

Nothing wrong with assumptions -- they may be entirely, empirically true. But calling them true is extra. Don't people just use what is true and leave 'the truth' to fools? If there's a mistake, correct it ... what other choice is there?

What would things be like without assumptions? Or with them either, for that matter?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

out on a limb

-- A movie-maker has made a movie that others before him longed to but did not make -- an adaptation of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road." The 1957 novel tells the anti-establishment tale of criss-crossing an America that was hip-deep in the conformities that followed naturally from the heart-break of World War II. Kerouac and his writing were part and parcel of what came to be known as "The Beat Generation," a group known for its iconoclasm. The book was turned down, if I remember correctly, by something like eleven publishers before hitting the bookshelves. "Stream of consciousness" writing found a voice. I thought (but didn't quite dare to say at the time) that it was a mediocre bit of writing ... though it did inspire me to hitchhike across the country twice. How anyone could make a successful movie of it ... I don't know.

-- A British/Swiss research team will run DNA analysis on the remains of what are alleged to be yeti bone and hair. The 'myth' of the yeti or big foot or the Sasquatch has never been satisfactorily put to bed. Is it true? Is it a mistake? Is it false? Even the researchers are getting some skeptical looks.

inspirational idiocy

Sometimes I wonder if life would be so inspiring without the idiots.


Ready! Set! Fail!

Every year, year after year in its heyday, the cartoon strip "Peanuts" would depict a situation in which a crafty little girl, Lucy, would invite the good-natured Charlie Brown to punt the football. Based on past experience in which Lucy had pulled the ball away at the last moment, Charlie Brown would be reluctant. Yet in the end, after some cajoling, he always tried again ... and Lucy always pulled the ball away again.

Yesterday, I received a series of questions about (Zen) Buddhism. The writer, a high school senior with a homework project, is an intelligent young woman. Her thesis as stated for her paper was this:

According to anthropological theory of religion, Buddhist meditation serves Buddhists psychologically by fortifying will power, increasing self-confidence, providing mental tranquility, freeing the mind from worry, and promoting virtuous qualities like compassion, wisdom, and tolerance. Meditation also serves Buddhists intellectually by increasing awareness of inner potential, helping with concentration and organization in daily activities, and developing the mind so that it can work at its full potential.
Following this mission statement, there were a series of questions -- things like, "when did you get involved," "what did your teachers teach you," "how does your religion differ from other religions" and so forth. The last question and the one for which I gave a very high mark was, "do you agree with my thesis."

It was all very reasonable, very credible, very thoughtful and alert. I could see that and I know any number of people who could give reasonable, credible, thoughtful and alert responses. Questions have answers, right? No reason not to provide those reasonable, credible, thoughtful and alert answers.

I tried. Honestly, I tried. But the plain fact is, I failed. I am too embarrassed to reprise my answers here, but I knew I failed ... though it wasn't for lack of trying. The thoughtful summation the thesis offered was perfectly acceptable and perhaps commendable in academic terms. But I simply could not turn back the clock, fall into the socially-pleasant realm of question-and-answer ... I felt as if I were being asked to walk on water when, except for the world of marvel and credulity, such a thing is not possible.

There was a certain sadness to it all. I wanted to help someone with her homework ... and I just plain couldn't. I am no teacher of learning, though I know plenty who are more skilful than I. Let them do it. Reasonable answers strike me as weak-kneed and off the mark, not that unreasonable ones are much better.

An example: "When did you first become involved in your religion?" This is a perfectly reasonable question, one that relies on recognizable chronology that any reasoning person can get his or her head around. So ... tell me when something began. And in one sense, I could probably say, "It began in 1970" and the interviewer would walk away content. Questions have answers, answers answer questions. All very neat and complete. The fly in the ointment is that, with practice, it became perfectly apparent that the answer was neither complete nor accurate. Experience taught that without 1969 or 1968 or 1967 or 1966 or whenever, beginning in 1970 would not answer the question at all. Experience taught that I became a Buddhist because I had a blue tricycle when I was little ... and even that doesn't really wrap up the case.

So I tried to answer the question as honestly as I could ... and failed to assist the person doing the homework. The truth, or whatever version of it I could muster, was too vague, too unresponsive to a reasonable question. The football got pulled away and Charlie Brown went sprawling not because of any wicked intent, but because ...

Well, because there was no other choice. Or, no other choice for me ... I recognize that others may be capable of reasonable and coherent and apparently-responsive answers.

I can remember sitting at an informal in the Zen center I once attended and thinking to myself, "Will someone please just tell me what I want to know so I can get the fuck out of here?!" A reasonable, if cranky, request ... to which, of course, there was no reasonable answer that meant much.

It really was embarrassing, trying in vain to be responsive yesterday. I like to think of myself as a fairly reasonable person, someone given to reasoning and yet...

Year after year the Lucy of reason convinces me to try to kick the football ... and year after year, I end up on my ass.

The old British comedian Benny Hill once did a send-up of Edgar Guest that seems to state the case wonderfully:

                   Benny Hill

They said that it could not be done,
He said, "Just let me try."
They said, "Other men have tried and failed,"
He answered, "But not I."
They said, "It is impossible,"
He said, "There's no such word."
He closed his mind, he closed his heart...
To everything he heard.

He said, "Within the heart of man,
There is a tiny seed.
It grows until it blossoms,
It's called the will to succeed.
Its roots are strength, its stem is hope,
Its petals inspiration,
Its thorns protect its strong green leaves,
With grim determination.

"Its stamens are its skills
Which help to shape each plan,
For there's nothing in the universe
Beyond the scope of man."
They thought that it could not be done,
Some even said they knew it,
But he faced up to what could not be done...
And he couldn't bloody do it! 

no hot-air balloon ride

The sun is straining to break through the clouds this morning, but the weather map for the day shows rain, rain and more rain for the area.

Maybe the attempt to predict the future will turn out to be wrong. I doubt it, but still ... maybe.

I doubt it.

No hot-air balloon ride today.

a wider mind

Relying on a vast store of ignorance and self-serving bias, I have to admit that my admiration goes out to men and women who are capable -- in word at least, in deed, where possible -- of entertaining positions that do not agree with their own. And this is true both for individuals and for political entities.

What brought this to mind was a TV show I was watching last night... something thoughtful about the rise and demise of nation states. During the show, there was a passing reference to the fact that Frederick the Great of Prussia (1712-1786), a brilliant warrior, probable homosexual and self-professed atheist, was instrumental in the construction of what looked like a very grand Roman Catholic church. It was just a passing reference, so the political inspiration for this action was not mentioned and I was left to marvel at the apparent paradox (atheist builds church). On the TV program, Frederick was credited with acting first and foremost on behalf of the nation and only secondarily for his own benefit. Whether this observation holds up to scrutiny, I don't know.

And then there was (Mustafa) Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938), founder of modern-day Turkey and a great soldier. It seems probable that he professed a Muslim faith and yet strove mightily to set aside the narrow confines that had and to some extent continue to be placed on the interpretation of Islam. For a long time, printed books were outlawed in favor of calligraphic renderings of information. As a result, the broad scope of scientific and literary inquiry and advancement was held at bay. Poverty was enshrined. Ignorance is not bliss as the poverty and rigidness of individuals and nation states demonstrates. Beware the ascendancy of virtue.

After the Chinese incorporation of Tibet in 1959, the news media here in the United States were almost as biased as they were about the righteous sanctity of Israel. The tenor of the outcries were so insistent and so one-sided that it was hard not to wonder what the other side of the story was. And then I read an article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times -- one of the rare accounts that actually went to visit Tibet and tried to assess the changes since the Chinese made their move. And the words of a single farmer pierced my mind and helped deflate the Shangri-La-like representations of an independent state ruled by a benevolent Dalai Lama. When asked how he felt things had changed since the Chinese 'invasion,' the farmer was quoted as saying, "At least we're not slaves any more."

Narrowness of vision is so debilitating and yet the courage and capacity to think and act wide seems so rare. It is probably silly to hope for such vision in politicians and perhaps equally silly to hope for it in individuals, but the nourishing qualities of spreading the mind's arms -- extending them over both atheism and credulity, both goodness and the wracking narrowness it can engender ... well, from my narrowed perspective, it is clearly nourishing and admirable into the bargain.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

am I a Buddhist?

Elsewhere on the Internet, someone asked how to know if s/he were a Buddhist. I recognize that this question can honestly mean something to some people, but I couldn't restrain myself....

Here are the ten incontrovertible qualifications for really being a real Buddhist really:

1. Adopt a wise and wizened demeanor -- someplace between George Clooney and Mahatma Gandhi.

2. Memorize the 108 holiest and most convoluted of all possible paradoxes. Dispense as necessary.

3. Clothes ... don't forget the clothes!

4. Walk slowly as if permeated with some weighty liquid.

5. If you're a lay person, yearn for ordination. If you're an ordained person, yearn for laicization.

6. Chant softly but audibly in public rest rooms.

7. If you visit a temple or monastery, make sure to bring home some small tourist treasure to indicate you visited. Hang it prominently, but with humble discretion, in your living to all those books, perhaps.

8. Offer a small, carefully-crafted smile when someone tells you a first-class joke.

9. If someone asks you if you are a Buddhist, consider the question in a dour and somewhat quizzical silence.

10. Treat all beings with equanimity and kindness ... right up until the moment when you can't stand it any more and simply kick the cat. Repent as necessary.

And if all of this strikes you as utterly ludicrous, find a Buddhist practice, practice it and never mind who's a Buddhist and who's not.

Everyone suffers ... nuff said

slicing through my defenses

There are things that melt me like butter on a hot griddle -- things that just get through whatever emotional or intellectual nets I may lay out. A smile can do it. Or, as this morning, a brief out-of-the-blue note from someone interested in Buddhism, a topic on which I can be pretty wary.

The note said:

Hi, I was looking up Buddhist sanctuaries and meeting places online and I came across your website. I have just currently began reading and practicing the Buddhist philosophies including Zazen. I was looking for some guidance in the mind training, suggested books to look into, or monks who meet one on one with you to talk about your personal experience. I was also interested in your class on Sundays. I would just like a little bit more knowledge on the subject and some personal advice on certain negative things in my life. Thank you.

Very simple and pretty ordinary all in all. And yet the implications seemed to sift through my nets ... a human being, sniffing the winds around her like some dog with its head out the front window of a passing car, open, uncertain and aching in some large or small way... looking for relief or release or peace or something like that.

I sent a note in return -- nothing spectacular, just friendly.

As much as I may see and know the flaws of something I have been involved with for some years, still I cannot withhold my willingness and even desire to lend a hand to straight-forward (as distinct from manipulative) requests such as I imagined the note to represent.

It is a distinction I would probably do well to release, but for the moment, there it is: People really do hurt and really don't quite know which way to turn and I am willing to lay out what I know of the Buddhist option ... not for Buddhism or for holiness or for the head-swelling virtue that may arise later in Buddhist practice ... but just because people hurt and hurting is no fun. Later on, once the practice has gained some traction, there can be just as many hurts ... but by that time, they are dutifully swathed in what sounds good from a Buddhist perspective.

But the lines between straight-forward, manipulative and insane are sometimes gossamer-thin.

Oh well, I'm not quite sure what I am saying here ... probably just that some things strike me as credible and compelling and others don't.


the magic gene

I don't care how damned smart I may think I am, I still cringe and shriek inwardly when the magician saws the lady in half.

Of course it's an illusion.

Of course it's not happening.

Of course this is nothing more than entertainment.

Of course ... and still the electrical circuits in my mind go bonkers ... someone is being fatally and brutally attacked!!!

It's magic ... no matter how often the 'magician' tells me it is mere illusion, a snare and a delusion, a delight or a horror that simply does not exist.

I seem to have a 'magic' gene. Magic is what is outside my control, outside my understanding, outside my capacities and there is ample evidence in life that such things are true. Whether benevolent or horrific, there really are things that I cannot control and are therefore, in some sense, magical. The lady being cut in two is just the latest example.

And when someone tells me it is not magic, I rebel. I refuse to disbelieve what I viscerally do believe.

In the 18th century, a French doctor whose name I have forgotten, did a very precise autopsy on a body and then announced gleefully that he had found no soul. This was during the "Age of Reason," a time when empiricism announced its supremacy over a credulous past. Did it work? Of course not. Did the Age of Reason question its own credulity? Of course not.

Don't fuck with my magic!

The magic gene.

It's worth keeping an eye on ... assuming anyone might muster the magic to open an eye.

bar-coded at birth

... And in the 'unsettling ideas' column, there is a suggestion, put forward as a speculative, world-changing idea, that every individual be bar-coded at birth.

A part of me shudders at the number of people who might think this was a good idea.

stayin' alive

In Chicago on Sunday, veterans of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were joined by thousands as they marched and attempted to return their war medals to NATO leaders. One of the veterans' hopes seemed to be to educate a younger generation about the chasm between the hoorah's of what passes for patriotism and the realities that those hoorah's create.

In April 1971, Vietnam war veterans were shown on television throwing away their medals in Washington. Same stuff, different day. Most of the protesters in Chicago were probably too young to remember Vietnam as anything other than an 11th-grade history quiz and most of the politicians who promulgated the latest wars are no doubt exercising their God-given right to selective amnesia under the moth-eaten banner of patriotism or protecting the country or some other sloppy-but-compelling camouflage.

The rule now as the rule then is the same: Follow the money. Set aside the distaste or approbation ... just follow the money.

In 1917, the Mexican constitution turned up the heat on Roman Catholics in an attempt, among other things, to tap into the wealth (represented by land and allegiance) the church possessed.

The 1917 Constitution outlawed teaching by the Church, gave control over Church matters to the state, put all Church property at the disposal of the state, outlawed religious orders, outlawed foreign born priests, gave states the power to limit or eliminate priests in their territory, deprived priests of the right to vote or hold office, prohibited Catholic organizations which advocated public policy, prohibited religious publications from commenting on public policy, prohibited clergy from religious celebrations and from wearing clerical garb outside of a church and deprived citizens of the right to a trial for violations of these provisions.

Cristeros lynched
This clamp-down helped to inspire the "Cristero War" from 1926 to 1929. A little like the Chicago protesters who may have had no familiarity with their Vietnam forbears, I had never heard of this war until last night when there was a TV discussion about an upcoming movie on the topic. A war I had never heard of ... ever ... and yet people died in their thousands as ordinary Mexicans resisted the crackdown on their faith. 

Initially, the U.S. sided with the Mexican government in the Cristero War, going so far as to send American planes to attack the guerrillas. But as time passed and the 'insurgents' refused to give up, the U.S. involved itself in peace talks. Stability was in the U.S. interest, not least because of the oil Mexico might provide.

That was then and this is now.

Oil in Mexico. Oil in Iraq. Siding with dictatorial policies until it becomes no longer tenable because the rag-tags refuse to knuckle under ... until it becomes impossible to simply suppress little men in sandals and shorts (Vietnam), tribesmen in the hills (Afghanistan) or campesinos with lackluster wardrobes (Mexico). And it is possible with more than a cursory investigation, to find ringing reasons to stand for one position or the other. Was there ever a cause so good that it did not partake in truly vile depredations? Really, really vile ... the U.S. government, the Mexican government, the protesters and their fallout activities, the Roman Catholic Church, the fighters in the hills ... speaking of the relative horrors of one vileness or another is a love potion for more villainy, whether by saints or sinners. I wouldn't advocate a moral relativism that sees things from a blase and self-serving distance. But I would advocate some willingness to investigate ... to take a look and consider what Abraham Lincoln called the "better angels of our nature."

Life is unstintingly generous. It gives freely to one and all. Before the words "free" or "love" or "hate" or "God" or "enlightenment" passes the lips, life is already there ... living. It is the same for pontiff or peon, maple leaf or dandelion.

Man is more grudging in his life. "Grudging" means that man is more often searching for "something else." Life does not seek something else. Life is alive. "Something else" -- no matter how virtuous or heinous -- is dead.

It is rare to meet with a man or woman who accords with life ... who is simply alive. And even when that rare event seems to present itself, it is bound to forecast a disappointment or disaster.

But just because it is impossible to meet with a man or woman who accords with life does not mean that individuals cannot, themselves, be alive. What the hell else could they possibly be? Grudging or not, they are already alive because that is the nature of life.

In the grudging search for "something else," I think it is worth the price of admission to seek out that which is not "something else," which is freely, gaily and unstintingly alive. This is not a responsibility that anyone can foist off on anyone else. Why? Because anyone else is just another version of "something else" and "something else" is far too narrow for the life anyone actually leads.

Before the diatribes, before the laughter, before the tears, before the money and holiness, before this grudging existence ....

How about them apples?

Monday, May 21, 2012


Strange to note, perhaps, that when doubt arises, there is never any doubt about it.

What further reassurance is necessary?

smile just one smile

Katie and Zachary
My sister Revan sent me a photo today of her daughter Katie with her son Zachary. It's not a great photo by clarity, but before I could have any such thought, I looked at the picture and, without any effort or love, a smile jumped onto my lips. I have no clue where it came from but it seemed to be ordinary and easy and true and without extras.

And it reminded me of the old Zen teacher Ummon who once said, approximately, "When you can't say it, it's there. When you don't say it, it's missing."

Or, using words that popped up in my mind so long ago, "Smile just one smile."


In spiritual endeavor there is often a lot of lamentation when it comes to "sectarianism." Spiritual effort is held up as be sweet and consoling and to a certain extent above the human fray, so "sectarianism" -- one group or individual slitting another group or individual's throat -- excites all kinds of efforts to "heal" and "soothe" and "bring together."

The fallout from gross forms of sectarianism are not pretty, as for example the report during one of the Christian crusades that "the streets of Baghdad ran ankle-deep in blood." And the Holocaust gave the wider world a sense of what Hitler's hard-ass sectarianism could nourish.

On a lesser stage, individuals too can fall victim to sectarianism, a word defined in an Internet dictionary as, "a narrow-minded adherence to a particular sect or party or denomination." What is true in so-called spiritual endeavor is likewise true on Main Street and in the marketplace: My pecker's longer than your pecker and I will beat you to a pulp if you don't agree.

"Fall victim to sectarianism ..." the phrase carries with it the disapprobation that goes with literal or metaphorical bloodbaths: If I spend all my time trying to slit your throat and you spend all your time trying to slit mine, how in the world can the corn grow? The answer is, it can't, and since eating is more serious than pissing contests, there are some pretty heart-felt efforts to heal the jagged and angry wounds of sectarianism. 

In spiritual life, people often go to extreme and convoluted lengths to escape (through 'healing' or 'ecumenism' or something similar) the lash of "sectarianism." Whether as a group or as an individual, everyone can lay claim to the greater good of growing nourishing corn. Activists can make a profession out of stilling the "sectarian" waves.

It's nice to be nice, but the results of making "nice" as a profession or a goal can be pretty nasty, pretty dishonest, and largely convoluted in self-serving ways. Like the old beer commercial, the whole exercise provides "more taste" at the same time that it is "less filling."

All this chitchat this morning is in aid of suggesting that those who fear sectarianism, whether little or large, are headed in the wrong direction. The premise that sectarianism is wrong or bad or heinous or contrary to some anointed teacher or teaching ... well, think about it.

My own thought is that the premise should be rerouted. It's not so much that sectarianism is wrong and empirically bloody, and something to tame or quell. Rather, I think, a more fruitful premise is that -- you bet! -- we are all sectarians. No escape ... we, as individuals, are nothing but a bundle of sectarianism as defined by our individual lives. Not only are we sectarians when it comes to our enemies, we are also sectarians when it comes to our friends. 

As once, I may attend some Zen center and practice zazen with others who have done the same. This may seem to depict a wider agreement, a deeper agreement, and a great and soothing consolation, a good thing. "We" agree in one sense or another ... and yet, beyond all doubt, each of us is completely sectarian in life experience, mind, heart and whatever all else. We may flee into metaphors like "we are all like snowflakes falling from the sky" or console the lonely heart with words like "we," but inescapably, the facets of your life and the facets of mine are minutely and perfectly sectarian. 

And that strikes me as a better starting point in spiritual endeavor. I am one sectarian son-of-a-bitch ... no big deal, no need to flee into a "religion" whose Latin roots suggest that something needs to be bound up or reconnected. Just adjust the focus a bit. 

I am a sectarian through and through and the reason I 'practice' is so that I can readjust the notion that somehow I might do some good and therefore run my shit on somebody else. 

Like Popeye, "I yam who I yam" and the only effort worth more than a fart in a windstorm is to investigate my "yam" and try not to run my "yam" errors on others.

It is lonely, perhaps, to be responsible and simply admit that my inescapable sectarianism is not something to paper over with sorrow or healing. It is scary to be responsible. It is not the ordinary way. But it is the only way I can think of that is likely to have a fruitful outcome.

Be the sectarian you are: Just do your best not to run your delight or despair on anybody else.

We now return you to your regularly-scheduled, wise and witty, ecumenical programming.