Tuesday, July 31, 2012

reaching conclusions

Yesterday, when I found out the column I had written was going to appear in print, I told my younger son about it and said I felt a bit as he might have felt in the past when passing in a written assignment ... that I had done what I could, that I felt that it said what I wanted ... but I wasn't entirely sure what kind of grade I was going to get.

He listened patiently, as children are wont to do when they know they cannot escape a parental outpouring of one kind or another.

But when I mentioned the subject of the column -- Vatican sex abuse -- his face closed and he waved his hand dismissively. "I don't want to hear about that," he said. I didn't begrudge him his conclusions, whatever they might be, and I wasn't going to try to browbeat him into seeing things my way, but the dismissiveness disturbed me.

Later, when I had chewed my cud about it a little bit, I went back to him and said, "You know, a man who cannot examine his own conclusions is doomed to remain a boy. There is nothing saying you have to agree with anyone else, but for your own happiness it makes sense to find out if you agree with yourself." And I went on a bit in this vein.

It's a funny thing about conclusions. They can be so comforting, so defining, so home-is-where-the-heart is. Sometimes they rely on similarly held conclusions that others espouse: I'm right because a lot of other people think so too. Sometimes they are just flat-out reactions: I hate anchovies. And sometimes they are examined to a fare-the-well, picked over, dissected, rebutted and reaffirmed until, voila! -- Republicans are fear-mongering, pusillanimous, war-prone nitwits; or Democrats are comsymp sissies intent on driving the republic into a spineless and impoverished future.

If your conclusion does not accord with mine, I may dismiss it as "bias." If your conclusion agrees with mine, I may fawn over your "wisdom."

But it's like nailing Jell-O to a wall. No matter how much or how little anyone thinks something through, still there is a conclusion, a point at which the nose-picking ends because ... well, there just don't seem to be any more boogers. Of course there are more boogers -- always -- but the exhaustion factor kicks in and it's time to take a rest within the warmth of this conclusion or that.

So what I told my son was probably not entirely accurate. We are all boys and all men, all girls and all women. The stupidity attending on conclusions is probably inescapable and human.

And despite all that, I don't think I'll take back what I said to my son: Rolling a subject around in the mind, examining the bad qualities of what is called good and the good qualities of what is called bad, really is important. If you can't make peace with the downside of what you call "up" or the "upside" of what you call "down," how can your conclusion hold any credit-worthy water in your own heart?

Boy or man, no one ever gets it right.

But my conclusion is the same: Do it anyway.

ooops ... deprivation reassessed

When the slaves and indentured servants are deprived of the tools that will assure their masters' wealth and comfort, how long will it be before those masters feel the pinch?

In India, half of the 1.2-billion population went without power on two succeeding days. Traffic lights, transportation, computers, sewing machines ... the list of affected agencies and abilities is enormous as the hands of the serving workers are stilled.

Outsourcing moguls everywhere may have to forgo the various humming-bird tongues they have grown accustomed to. If the land of milk and honey can curdle on one day or two, what does that say about days to come?

In the richer-is-better realm, deprivation is acceptable up to a point, but after that point, aren't those doing the depriving likewise deprived?

Vatican sex abuse opinion

The opinion piece I wrote about Vatican sex abuse appeared in the local (small) newspaper today. The lead is a bit lump-ier than the original and the headline is somewhat misleading, but that's what editors are for, right?

Adam Fisher: An abuse case's aftershocks

Monday, July 30, 2012

visitor on the porch door



the let-down of success

The let-down of success.

On Saturday, I worked pretty hard putting together an opinion piece about the Vatican's priest-sex-abuse vortex. Like a high school student writing a term paper on a topic s/he actually cared about, I finished it, had it looked over by a couple of people more knowledgeable than I am, and, when they gave it a passing grade, shipped it out to the teacher ... in this case, the local newspaper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette. It ain't The New York Times and it ain't The Washington Post, but it is print and I really wanted to get it published, much as a teenager might want to get an A.

But like any writer, I felt vulnerable and naked ... somehow stripped: This was something I really cared about. I had done what I could, but would anyone else give a shit? I waited through Sunday, when the paper was closed. Occasional jets of hopefulness played ping-pong with swirling doubts ... maybe I should have done things differently, maybe I should have been more passive-voice cautious, maybe ... maybe, maybe, maybe no one would give a shit.

But this morning, the knots in my expectant belly were released. A note from the executive editor said the paper would run the piece tomorrow.  He also made a gently-couched suggestion about something I might want to add. I added it because it was relevant enough to be worth adding.

And now ... now nothing. It's all over, so to speak. All over and yet the space I had reserved for hopefulness and doubt can no longer find a purchase point.

It's a success ... and I feel a bit like what I imagine a birth-mom to feel: Postpartum depression.

heaping shame on the United States

Money as the yardstick for human accomplishment ... how grotesque is that?!

In Israel, U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney told an assembly of would-be donors:

As you come here and you see the GDP per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000 dollars, and compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality.
Palestinians, whose lot has been largely shaped by Israeli dicta backed by American arms, were understandably outraged.

But for a would-be American president to take such a position heaps shame on an America that is already losing its balance by leaps and bounds. Sure, the moneyed may win the day, but the terrain they will now rule is as charred and sere as any hit by a wildfire in Arizona.

building a cabin

Once upon a time, I owned some land up in the hills. It was an L-shaped bit of property -- 30 acres, give or take a little. The short side of the 'L' sat next to a dirt road and had a large, weathered barn for adornment. Once, the short side of the 'L' had been a hay field, but by the time I acquired it, it was overgrown and untended. There were milkweed plants and brambles and a small patch of wild and delicious strawberries.

The long side of the 'L' also touched the dirt road, but reached back into the woods 1,000 feet or more. Deep in those woods was a clutch of really, really big maples that somehow had eluded the saws of man or the dissolutions of nature. To stand among those maples was to marvel and feel strangely blessed. It was like being in a cathedral. How much they must have seen and known. How had they managed to escape the 'improvements' that are part and parcel of an insistent Man? I didn't know and didn't care ... their sturdy silence was enough for me.

I had bought the land in a youthful burst of enthusiasm linked to the 'simplicities' I found lurking in the spiritual books I was reading at the time. A quiet place seemed to rise up off the pages together with whatever other inspirations there might have been. I hadn't read Thoreau and so the terminology wasn't precisely American-bred, but Hinduism and Buddhism and whatever all else I was reading seemed to posit the same stuff ... simplicity, quietude, reflection, a retreat from the material acquisitions that seemed to stack up in both the society I inhabited and in the life I led -- stuff, piling up like horse shit on a rising manure pile.

I wanted to build a cabin, but when the notion took root, I was faced with an inescapable fact: I didn't have clue-one as to how anyone built a cabin. Since I only had days off from my newspaper reporting job on which to make the effort, I knew this cabin would be a patient and long-ish project. But still, long or short, I was dumber than a box of rocks when it came to the particulars: The land rested beneath my feet; the timber existed in the woods ... but I didn't have a clue about how to actualize my intention.

So I started to read up on building cabins. Article after article started to fill in the blanks in my mind.

The spot I chose for my imaginary cabin was on top of a low hill whose underpinnings were solid rock. In order to reach the spot, I needed a road and so I began using my off days to chop trees, clear brush and approach the summit. It was a job a bulldozer might have done in a day or two, but I didn't have the income to hire one and besides, a bulldozer ran afoul or my 'simplicity' dreams. So I chopped and sweat and swore ... and then read articles about how to build a cabin.

The cabin articles filled my mind, but they also were miles ahead of my expertise. I wanted someone or something to hold my hand in the simplest and dumbest possible way, but the articles all seemed to assume I knew things about foundations and roofs and windows that I simply didn't quite get. I began to feel overwhelmed ... too much information telling me too little and leaving me gasping for a practical, very simple approach.

And then I found it -- an article from the Washington Post about building cabins. "The first thing to know about building a cabin," the article advised, "is that you are not building a cabin. You are digging a hole. Anyone can dig a hole." This was the kind of hand-holding I needed. It spoke to my expectant mind all awash with Thoreau-like dreams (ah, peace, serenity and a refuge from an acquisitive society ... my own included). Digging a hole was what I needed to hear. Clear, simple, direct ... never mind all the smarmy and confused dreams ... start sweating!

The cabin never did get built, but I spent hours and hours in the woods, chasing the notion that it might and that my spiritual adventure, whatever it turned out to be, would turn out better, more wholesome and more in line with the heights I imagined spiritual endeavor might attain.

The cabin never got built in part because I quit my job at the newspaper, moved back to New York, joined a Zen center and started digging a hole there. I was clumsy, I was klutzy, I read a lot of dream-inspiring books, but the very simple, hole-digging pastime called zazen, or seated meditation, was my kind of simplicity ... extremely complicated on the one hand, but utterly simple on the other: Get your ass on the cushion, focus the mind, sweat, and keep on digging.

"The first thing to know about enlightenment is that it has nothing to do with enlightenment. It has to do (in one sense) with sitting on a cushion. Anyone can sit on a cushion." Dig. Sweat. Swear.

Like some half-baked, spiritual-book-shelf guru, I could say that the doing is the completion, but I hate shit like that. Everyone needs their dreams, however befuddled or delightful they may be. Dream Thoreau, dream enlightenment, dream whatever dream appeals and beckons. Knock yourself out. And simultaneously, if the shovel presents itself, pick it up and get to work.

The cabin never did get built, either in the woods or in Zen practice.

But just because it didn't get built doesn't mean it's not there, cozy as a down comforter on a winter night.

I got my cabin. It's there as surely as the sun rises in the East. I just don't have to look for it.

I got my cabin.

I just haven't found it yet.

Nor do I expect to.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Moyers, Hedges and morality

Bill Moyers interviews Chris Hedges


the teachings

In spiritual persuasions there are the "teachings."

Intellectually, these teachings detail the parameters of the persuasion, depict the goal, and outline the means to attain that goal. As the level of credulity surrounding these teachings rises, so too can a willingness to set them in stone ... leading to such things as sharia law or the carrot-and-stick promises and threats ... my-way-or-the-highway or if-you-don't-see-it-my-way-you're-going-to-hell-in-a-hand-basket.

Intellectually, the teachings shape the scene, call forth belief, require action and offer peace of one kind or another. All this can be useful. It can inspire belief and hope and, occasionally, some serious effort.

But eventually the question has to arise, what is not the teaching? While it's all well and good if a gazillion people believe in or applaud the 'authentic' teachings, still the matter of inauthenticity whispers its insistent questions.

Such good questions.

Once, when I asked him who the teacher was, my teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, replied, "Except for me, everything is the teacher." The intellectually-quick-witted or belief-stricken may find this observation delicious and credible ... a good teaching.

And it is.

But talk is cheap.

a little political logic

As the numbing days pass and the presidential election here in the U.S. approaches, a little humor is welcome. The following was passed on in email ... old, but still worth a smile, perhaps.

    1.  The sport of choice for the urban poor is  BASKETBALL. 
    2.  The sport of choice for  maintenance level employees is    BOWLING. 
    3.  The sport of choice for front-line workers is FOOTBALL.
    4.  The sport of choice for supervisors is  BASEBALL. 
    5.  The sport of choice for  middle management is TENNIS. 
    6.  The sport  of choice for corporate executives and officers is  GOLF. 

                          The higher you go in the corporate structure, the smaller your balls become.     
                          Therefore, there must be a ton of people in Washington playing  marbles.

2,000 ukulele players


A record number of ukulele players (2,000+) gathered in Yokohama, Japan, during "Ukulele Picnic Week." It seems there were only individual performances rather than a collective effort. Here's one example.

the blessing of boredom

Duck and cover! Here comes aunt Sally and her endless tales of her wonder dog, Fifi! Or perhaps it's Uncle Phil, a converted Baptist and ... well, we all know what converts can be like. Or Veronica and her beauty products. Or Sam with his heart-felt positions on global warming or nuclear energy or political chicanery. Duck and cover!

Booorrrrring! There is something within that screams, "Give it a rest, will you?!" Over and over and over again ... same shit, different day.

But worse than Sally or Phil or Veronica or Sam, there can be a recognition within that I am capable of boring myself deaf, dumb and blind. Republican, Democrat, skier or stock broker, spiritual enthusiast or drunkard ... the over-and-over-and-over-ness can assert itself and, with luck, be noticed.

On the one hand, a sense of boredom can send a person scurrying to find something else to be interested in ... something which, in its turn, will probably turn boring. This is the addict's route. Something new, something more consequential ... if one shot of bourbon is good, just think how great two might be.

But I think boredom may be quite a good friend.

Take the precepts in spiritual life. Don't lie, cheat, steal, kill, etc. These are really quite important efforts and yet as attentive time passes, what becomes apparent is that, in fact, I am precisely what I try not to be... a liar, a cheat, a thief, a killer, etc. No matter how refined my effort ... still. And running out of energy about something I may have attempted for years, running smack-dab into boredom about my sweaty efforts ... well, isn't that worth the price of admission? I think it is. I am what I claim to dislike ... and what does that say about what I like?

The off-beat Zen monk Ikkyu, whose antics endeared him to a public that often ignored his long years of practice, once encouraged others by saying, more or less, "stop running around pestering all the Buddhas." Sally and Phil and Veronica and Sam are such pests! I am such a pest. Stop selling ice to Eskimos. Within and without -- stop being booooorrrrring.

Fifi the wonder dog.

Spiritual endeavor.

If it gets boring ... that's something to know. And if it doesn't get boring, that may be even more important to know.


I guess everyone's got a way or ways to check in with their own bedrock nature -- the je-ne-sais-quoi realm in which benevolence and heinousness, improvement and conformity, activism and laziness simply slide into the sky and what remains is just edgeless and true.

There's something to be said for touching base with what is true. I'm not talking about spiritual salesmanship or philosophical anointing ... just what's true. What is true demands nothing, deflects all attempts to file it under 'T' for "true," and carries with it neither danger nor delight.

An example? Well, perhaps silence is an example. Everyone knows about silence, but the race to fill it with sound sometimes obscures its unwavering presence. Silence isn't good or bad, holy or unholy, tall or short, worthy or unworthy, imperative or lacking in imperative force. It's just a fact, and individual, two-armed, two-legged human beings know it.

Zen Buddhists, Taoists, Carthusians and others whose spiritual formats include a well-shaped dose of silence may clap each other on the back for being a part of a practice that incorporates apparent silence, but however useful such enforced exercises may be, still ... silence doesn't mind. Facts don't mind when 'profound practices' are brought to bear any more than they mind when such practices are not brought to bear.

Personally, I feel lucky to have gotten a whiff of a practice (Zen Buddhism) that asserts and formats silence, even when that practice can be pretty noisy about it. Somehow, for reasons I really don't know, it is useful and important to check in with the facts of life. It feels better, it is more sensible, it ... hell, I don't know 'why' it is important and I shy away from those who do.

What about silence? Sure, it's got some scary potential, but coming to terms with the scaries in life is part of a peaceful relaxation, I imagine. And silence can send folks into paroxysms of delight as well. Still, silence, the silence that is a bread-and-butter fact in anyone's life ... well, there it is, here it is ... and 'is' overstates the case by quite a lot.

With or without a format that points the way, still I think it is useful to check in and check out the facts of life. If a fact infuses a life, if it cannot be escaped, if it, in some sense, 'owns you,' isn't there a time to 'own' it right back?

Maybe, now and then, it's a good idea to 'get real.'

Or 'unreal' if you prefer.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

happy for the grass

A plump, steady rain accompanied by some full-throated thunder is, as I imagine it, making the lawn as jolly as a bunch of Aussies downing an evening's pints.

"Down the hatch, lads and lassies! It's been a long, dry spell."

It may sound stupid, but I am really happy for the grass.

apologies to my blog

Blew the end out of this morning while constructing a column to submit to the local paper. Passed over a time generally reserved for blog barf. Skipped breakfast. Missed the weekly convocation of the peace picket line. Sat glued to the computer screen shaping and refining arguments ... trying to fit ten pounds of shit into a five-pound bag.

The column just concerned something I took and take seriously ... the Vatican with its built-in depredations, the most popular of which are priest sexual abuses. No need to hound others ... but there I sat, hounding others to the best of my ability.

And now that the column is out the door, I sit here somewhat sheepishly, as if, based on past performance, I owed something to this blog, as if an old friend had been given short shrift and it deserved an apology.

Well, here's my apology. Based on past performance, I imagine something new will crop up in my mind and I will return to the fold.

Friday, July 27, 2012


The Department of Homeland Security is doing its bit to make sure the funding stream is not curtailed ... by funding public advisories like, "Run> Hide> Fight: Surviving And Active Shooter Event"

This is your tax dollar at work.

Vatican Spring

In Nenana, Alaska, people pay $2.50 apiece for tickets that that allow them to predict the exact time the winter ice will let go in the Tanana River. A tripod with a clock tethered to it is set out on the ice. When the ice breaks, the clock is immersed in water and stops and allows judges to tabulate the winner.

I wonder if now might be a good time to put a tripod on the Vatican's front stoop. When the edifice collapses in what may become known as the Vatican Spring, the clock will be smashed enough to stop, but not so badly that someone, at long last, can receive a little donation of his or her own.

Alaskan spring ... Arab Spring ... Vatican Spring ...

When the winter ice melts in Alaska, the breaking ice can create cannon-sized explosions of sound. Small fissures and large begin to appear. At first, dangerous chunks clog the river flow, but bit by bit they melt away into a smooth and watery obscurity ... as if saying a heart-felt "amen."

Bill Wright
In Australia, Maitland-Newcastle Catholic Bishop Bill Wright said publicly yesterday that he would support a public inquiry into sexual assaults by priests. Lord hope the man owns a sturdy suit of body armor!

The Newcastle Herald promptly wrote an editorial Friday applauding the bishop and observing further:

There was a time, when the first shocking revelations of abuse began to emerge into the public eye, when many probably believed the matter could be satisfactorily dealt with by the churches and the police. But since that hasn’t been entirely the case, and since – on the contrary – more cases of abuse by more priests keep surfacing along with distressing evidence of church cover-ups and failed police investigations, public opinion has dramatically altered.
"There was a time...."

There was a time and that time is fading....

There was a time when the Vatican might have made lemonade out of the lemons of the systemic dysfunctions that allowed priests to abuse and their superiors to cover it up. There was a time when the icy fingers of power held firm and no one questioned a fixed and frozen and exalted authority.

On Tuesday, Monsignor William J. Lynn was sentenced in Philadelphia to 3 and a half to six years in prison. He was not convicted of molesting small children but rather of covering up the actions of those who did. The conviction was a first of its kind and a cannon shot of sorts: No longer was it possible for the Vatican to deny complicity in this worldwide heinousness. The links in the evidentiary chain grow longer and longer, threading their way towards an ornate destination in Rome.

Andrew Nicastro and wife Leigh-Anne
In Springfield, Mass., twenty miles to my south, an apparently exhausted Andrew Nicastro accepted a $500,000 Vatican payout as the price for ending his suit against two retired Catholic bishops who, Nicastro alleged, should done more to protect him from the molestations by now-defrocked priest Alfred Graves.

[Nicastro's lawyer, John] Stobierski said, “We thought that we were having a very successful trial” but even if there had been a verdict in Nicastro’s favor, lawyers for the two bishops were going to appeal.
If there was success in the appeal for the 42-year-old Nicastro, “then we were told we would in all likelihood have to sue the insurers for the money” and that would mean there would be a three- to five-year court battle altogether.
There was a time ....

But to imagine that time is entirely over would be a mistake. One look at the endless, endless cases on Abuse Tracker makes that apparent. Abuse Tracker and other sources show that the ice may be cracking, but it is far from melted.

Even the presentation of the Nicastro story makes clear that the Vatican elephant in the living room still has the ability to discomfort and overshadow other company.

The first story in The Springfield Republican (linked above) is fairly straight-forward: Nicastro dropped his suit against retired bishops Joseph M. Maguire and Thomas L. Dupre for $500,000. A note at the top of the story says Maguire has issued a statement acknowledging that Nicastro suffered, though of course, in Vatican fashion, there is no mention of why or at whose hands he suffered -- no acknowledgement of institutional responsibility.

The second story -- and I can't tell if it was a second separate story on the same topic or if it was used to replace the other story -- is top-heavy with Maguire's statement. Nicastro's role is minor. In either case, The Springfield Republican gives plenty of room to the former seat of power, McGuire. There is no question and answer format ... it's just a story based on a statement issued by the diocese. No reporter's excuse, "The former bishop was not available for comment." Here is the Associated Press version of the story.

The above incidents do not constitute a genuine thaw as yet, but there are cracks in the Vatican ice.

Place your bets: Isn't it about time someone got back a little something from a wintry hand that has, over the centuries, taken so much?

"it is what it is"

If, as the lazy and the fortune-cookie-prone are wont to say, "It is what it is..."

Then what is it?

taking credit

Attributed to former U.S. President Harry S. Truman ... and a keeper, whoever said it:

It's amazing how much you can accomplish when you don't care who gets the credit.

blessed are the (dead) peacekeepers

A new report suggests that at least 719 'rebuilders' of Iraq have been killed while trying to restore the country to a peaceful existence. The peacemakers who do their constructive best are caught up in the struggles of the powerful doing their destructive worst.

Even before the U.S. and its "coalition of the willing" invaded Iraq for trumped-up ("weapons of mass destruction") reasons in 2003, there were analyses asserting that without a vision for a future without an American presence, Iraq would devolve into sectarian destructiveness.

Calling war "insane" is like calling the sky blue.


In the army -- regular as clockwork and hangovers -- there would be periodic lectures on one topic or another. Venereal disease, military discipline, tactics ... the list went on and on. The audience, when it had any seasoning at all, learned one indestructible lesson from such meetings ... don't ask questions. The only way to get out of there was to keep your mouth shut. And what was true in the army is probably true in civilian life as well: Avoid whatever meeting you can and your productivity will rise accordingly.

Still, however numbingly uninformative and boring the army meetings were, every once in a while someone might say something worth heeding. And one day, during a lecture on religion in the military, a chaplain said something I never forgot: "If a man believes something -- anything at all -- there will always be 20 good men to agree with him."

In spiritual endeavor, a good deal is made out of what is called delusion. Delusion is the stuff of intellect and emotion to which the owner is strongly attached  ... love it or hate it, still convinced and attached. Love affairs, money, family, power, employment, country and, yes, spiritual endeavor. I imagine everyone has or has had something which sent them ass-over-appetite with enthusiasm and commitment.

Because everything changes, the enthusiasms of delusion cause difficulties and you can hear people saying sonorously that they are trying to rid themselves of delusion, to bank or possibly eradicate their passions, to empty their mental blackboards of all foolish attachment: Since everything is bound to be flushed down the toilet of change, why get caught up in the first place?

I think this approach is incorrect, if understandable. Pure clarity does not rest on erasing the factors that blur and obscure it -- it rests on seeing through those blurring and obscuring aspects, on paying attention and taking responsibility.

This morning, for example, my head is awash with thoughts about the Vatican priest-sex-abuse adventure. The topic presses my buzzers and I can get caught up in it as surely as an ocean vortex can swallow a fishing trawler. Am I deluded? You bet. But what is it that constitutes that delusion? Is it my heated arguments or passionate emotions? Is it my delighted comfort in being outraged ... in setting myself up as the righteous arbiter of the situation, in being a fool for love?

If I had to guess, I think I would say that it is not the sometimes poorly-supported passion of the situation that constitutes any potential difficulty. It is the extent to which I may expect a situation to turn out 'my way.' It seems to me that human beings are given to loving the circumstances of their lives, whether private or public. Of course they get consumed, whatever their delicate, dithering denials or spiritual persuasions. Circumstances arise and, shazzam!, we are all hip-deep in the Big Muddy.

It is not possible to erase circumstances or erase the moment in which anyone takes this breath. It's simply not possible. Here and now is here and now before anyone intones "here and now." And here and now does not play favorites, does not bless one scene and curse another: It is simply here and now ... just as human beings are here and now. Wishing things were different is like wishing you were an aardvark ... it ain't gonna happen.

But the here-and-nowness of anyone's life is just here and now. It is not there and then. Being swept up in the here and now is just the way life is built. OK. And zooming off into the there and then is one possibility within the here and now. Expectation is possible. But the question that may occur to some is, how actually-factually effective or realistic is any ability to project a there-and-then, a situation that will arise from my passionate commitments? Does it actually work?

My guess is that expectation is the reason that so-called delusion gets a bad rap in spiritual endeavor. It's not because delusion is naughty or bad or not as holy as the local holy man. It's because it doesn't work and keeping an eye on what doesn't work is worth the price of admission.

Let's not badmouth the circumstances that arise in the here-and-now and no sane person could escape. If you're passionate, be passionate; if you're bored, be bored; if you're confused, be confused; if you want to raise one banner or another, go ahead. You too are the circumstances that arise ... like it or lump it, it's just a fact.

But keep an eye on the bewitching notion that change is somehow on your side, that things will improve or be cleansed. Maybe they will and maybe they won't and it doesn't matter whether 20 good men agree with you or not. If you make a mistake, correct it. If you have a success, correct that too. Circumstances arise and fall away and there is not a spiritual endeavor in the world that can do a damned thing about it.

But you can.

Expectation is the target, not some boogeyman called "delusion." Drink the here and now to its dregs. Spiritual zombies are a dime a dozen in their attempts to avoid the inescapable.

Oh well, perhaps I am just excusing myself ... again.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

another Vatican rant

Army basic training involved precisely what the name implied ... basic training. Sometimes very basic. How to make a bed, keep a footlocker in order, polish shoes, stand straight, salute, shoot and clean a rifle ... the list went on and on for two months. And within those two months there were always and forever the lines to stand in ... lines for food, lines for shots, lines to get blankets, lines ... well, if there was an activity, there seemed to be a line that invariably preceded the activity itself.

And one day, we lined up to get dog tags, the small metal tags all soldiers wore around their necks for identification purposes. Like everyone else in line, I filled out the requisite form that asked for name, serial number, blood type and religion. The information would be stamped into two metal tags that would be worn around the neck ... one to be collected upon death; the other to be jammed between the teeth of the corpse so that the graves registration unit would know precisely which corpse they were dealing with.

The line shuffled forward to a table behind which there sat a young man with pimples and a southern drawl. He took the completed forms tendered to him, made sure they were correct and then called, "next." When he scanned my form, he suddenly looked up in surprise. "You wrote down 'not applicable' for religion," he said. "That's right," I replied. "You mean you are no religion?" "That's right." His face began to twist in confusion. "You've got to be some religion," he suggested. "No," I replied, "I'm not." "But...but ..." and his voice took on a heart-felt plea, "you've got to be something!" And his young, young face and the anguish on it touched me. What the hell, it was no skin off my ass: "OK," I said, "put down 'Unitarian.'" The confusion and hurt departed from his face and was supplanted with doubt: "What's that?" he asked as if I might be pulling his leg. "It's a kind of Christian," I said and then, because I thought it might help, I spelled it for him.

Arlington Cemetery, probably the most revered military cemetery in the United States, has a selection of religious symbols to be appended to gravestones. And perhaps, upon request, the omission of a symbol is permissible. Honoring a dead service member's wishes strikes me as the least a 'grateful country' could do.

But still, the number and variety of religious iconography suggests that there's a whole lot of religion going on. Going on at Arlington, going on on the dollar bill ("In God We Trust"), going on in the Pledge of Allegiance ("one nation, under God...") and even going on in the misinformed minds of those who claim the founding fathers believed in God and wrote that into the nation's earliest documents. "Freedom of religion" is supported; you gotta have religion is not.

Like it or lump it, religion is woven into the United States. Little and large, subtle and gross, it is a part of the national DNA. And what is part of the national DNA makes religion everyone's concern, no matter how much they may abominate or adore it.

I guess all this came to mind when thinking about the Vatican's priest-sexual-abuse problems. I'm no Catholic any more than I am a Catholic-hater. Catholicism is part of a part of the DNA of my country, so I am interested and, in the case of Vatican-sponsored abuse, repulsed.

But I am also, roughly speaking, a contrarian: When something strikes me strongly, I like to think I will try to see it through the very lens I instinctively reject. I find the abuse of children heinous beyond naming, and a part of me would dearly like to apply sharia law to the lawlessness inherent in an organization that has (and probably continues) to abuse children and/or cover up that abuse. But...

Most of the Vatican abuses referred to in court cases these days relate back to times 20, 30, 40 or more years ago and one of the arguments not just of the Vatican, but also ordinary citizens, is, "that was a long time ago. Isn't it time to put that in the past and move forward?" How often can anyone listen to the recitation of Holocaust horrors before ... well ... it's in the past. It's gloomy shit. Why continue to air it out?

In addition, there is the true statement that the Vatican and its minions have done good work in their time. Shall those good works be overlooked or forgotten in a shark-like race for blood?

It's all so tiring and most people have a hard enough time overcoming their own fatigue without worrying unduly about the DNA of their environments. One man's tragedy is another man's boredom.

The pivot point for most of those concerned with Vatican depredations is the victims themselves. Once trusting children, they had their trust and their parents' trust betrayed by a bit of national DNA that was 'benevolent' and 'wise.' They have carried unspeakable wounds ... marriages that don't work ... sex that doesn't work ... a sense of shame and confusion and horror and endless helplessness. It may have been 30 years ago, but it is today. And no man or woman deserves such a fate in a country called the United States... or Australia ... or Ireland ... or Canada ... or Brazil ... or South Africa ... or the Netherlands ... or wherever all else.

The victims are the pivot point and I suppose everyone makes their own choice, but I have made mine: Helplessness is no way to live and I am ashamed to live in a country whose DNA is woven with a helplessness founded on hypocrisy and camouflaged cruelty and politically-connected connivance. To the victims who have found the courage to speak up and speak out, I owe a great debt. They have made my country and my world a saner, less venal, and less contrived place. They have made my DNA healthier.

Yes, Wall Street and bankers and corporations and politicians will get away with their depredations -- metaphorically (or perhaps literally) fucking whomever they can. Greed is not going to disappear any time soon. But not even a corporation or a bank promised to be honest. They promised to try to look honest, perhaps, but not to be honest. And in addition, they rarely despoiled children.

I have no doubt that there are men and women of good will who work within Vatican constraints. But I do hope that those of good will will apply their clear eyes and healing hands to the corruption and infamy that is tearing their beloved church to ribbons. How is the "love" they love to preach to be realized in the abuse of children? How is it to be realized in the denigration of homosexuals or women or others unwilling to toe the power-hungry mark? How is to be realized in cover-ups and dishonesty?

This is not just a white whine from another earthy-crunchy liberal. This is a serious question from someone who admires the courage and grace human beings can display and likewise abhors its capacities for cruelty and manipulation.

Among cells, there is a function called apoptosis ... a function in which a cell kills itself off as a means of aiding the body it inhabits.

Religious apoptosis ... Zen Buddhism advocates it.

And the Vatican might take a lesson from mindless cellular life whose wisdom is life-and-DNA-affirming.

PS. Anyone who thinks that what is above is little more than a self-anointing, jerk-off bit of outraged bile  might want to look at a couple (among many) of evidentiary Internet sites: 1. the Abuse Tracker archive and 2. Gerald T. Slevin's open appeal to reporters in one Vatican abuse trial.

world malaise ... another take

Passed along in email:
From John Cleese  ........ British writer & actor.

The English are feeling the pinch in relation to recent events in Syria and have therefore raised their security level from "Miffed" to "Peeved." Soon, though, security levels may be raised yet again to "Irritated" or even "A Bit Cross." The English have not been "A Bit Cross" since the blitz in 1940 when tea supplies nearly ran out. Terrorists have been re-categorized from "Tiresome" to "A Bloody Nuisance." The last time the British issued a "Bloody Nuisance" warning level was in 1588 when threatened by the Spanish Armada.

The Scots have raised their threat level from "Pissed Off" to "Let's get the Bastards." They don't have any other levels. This is the reason they have been used on the front line of the British army for the last 300 years.

The French government announced yesterday that it has raised its terror alert level from "Run" to "Hide."  The only two higher levels in France are "Collaborate" and "Surrender."  The rise was precipitated by a recent fire that destroyed France's white flag factory, effectively paralyzing the country's military capability.    

Italy has increased the alert level from "Shout Loudly and Excitedly" to "Elaborate Military Posturing." Two more levels remain: "Ineffective Combat Operations" and "Change Sides".
The Germans have increased their alert state from "Disdainful Arrogance" to "Dress in Uniform and Sing Marching Songs." They also have two higher levels: "Invade a Neighbour" and "Lose."
Belgians, on the other hand, are all on holiday as usual; the only threat they are worried about is NATO pulling out of Brussels .
The Spanish are all excited to see their new submarines ready to deploy. These beautifully designed subs have glass bottoms so the new Spanish navy can get a really good look at the old Spanish navy.
Australia, meanwhile, has raised its security level from "No worries" to "She'll be alright, Mate." Two more escalation levels remain: "Crikey! I think we'll need to cancel the barbie this weekend !" and "The barbie is cancelled." So far no situation has ever warranted use of the last final escalation level.

A final thought . . . " Greece is collapsing, the Iranians are getting aggressive, and Rome is in disarray.
Welcome back to 430 BC".

Nec Dextrorsum Nec Sinistrorsum

acrobatic lunch

Meanwhile, across the street...

Squirrel hangs upside down while munching Japanese maple shoots

"Never mind!"

In Hinduism ...

"Iti, iti" or "this, this." All things are god ... so what is not god?

"Neti, neti" or "not this, not this." All things are not god ... so what is god?

Either way, assuming anyone is spiritually inclined, the effort is the same.

On the old TV comedy show "Saturday Night Live," the much-opinionated and badly-informed character Emily Litella (played by Gilda Radner) would, after her misunderstandings had been pointed out to her, conclude her monologues with resignation....

"Never mind!"

want to get thin?

Stop eating so much.

let's you and him fight

Some things are better than TV or even video games as my younger son proved this morning when he zipped downstairs -- uncharacteristically early -- to hear close-up the shouting match that had erupted in the street and floated up to his bedroom window.

The participants included two cops, home improvement company trucks/workers, my evangelical Christian neighbor Joe, who was apoplectic, and Gloria, a short plump woman from down the block.

Everyone was yelling about the improvement company's effort to insulate Herschel's house -- a domain apparently usurped by Gloria ever since Herschel had been deposited in an old age home. Joe maintained that the work was a health hazard to his eight-month-pregnant daughter ... attacking the asbestos shingles would create dust and Joe's house was in the line of fire. Joe and his wife Pat were yelling at Gloria. Gloria, while talking to one of the cops, was crying. Finally, it turned out the home improvement company had a federal permit to do the work ... which was enough to satisfy the cops.

My son returned from the porch where he had been listening with a big grin on his face.

Things are so much easier -- and more juicy -- when the old adage is adhered to: "Let's you and him fight."

it doesn't get any better than this


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

view from international space station

Passed along by a friend:


Msgr. Lynn convicted; Vatican defenses breached

Yesterday Monsignor William Lynn was sentenced in Philadelphia to a prison term of three and a half to six years for covering up child sex abuse allegations within the Roman Catholic Church. Today, the story has largely disappeared from Internet news outlets, although the BBC did manage to squeeze in a story about women who seek the perfect vagina.

William Lynn, 61
On a quick look, only Al-Jazeera (playing catch-up) and The New York Times (yesterday's story) managed to make some second-day reference to a case that strikes me as having profound implications for the thousands of victims of Vatican abuse, enslavement, and other less visible depredations. Lynn's sentence sends a clear message that plausible deniability -- the refuge of banks, stock brokers, corporations, political organizations and the Mafia -- is no longer quite so plausible and, more important, that that implausibility may be called into question in a very public civil venue.

Lynn was not convicted, as fellow clergymen have been, of fucking or fondling little boys and girls, some under the age of one.  Instead, he was convicted of covering up the crimes of priests who did... a first, as far as I know. The implications go to the heart of the structural deficiencies within the entire Vatican institution -- deficiencies that speak to the centuries-old foundational assertions of power within the church. Sending a few pedophile priests up the river or paying enormous fines on their behalf is one thing, but to throw the lovingly-constructed edifice of power into question ... well, from the Vatican point of view, I can imagine it's "Nellie bar the door!"

And the Vatican is doing its best to bar that door ... now, with less success: Lynn has been convicted of doing what the Vatican has done best --  assert plausible deniability, maintain power, and let the victims on whom Jesus might have taken pity, twist slowly, slowly in the wind.

Before sentencing, Lynn was quoted as saying, “I have been a priest for 36 years, and I have done the best I can. I have always tried to help people.”

Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina was quoted as saying, "You knew full well what was right, Monsignor Lynn, but you chose wrong,”

And after sentencing, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia issued a statement that said in part, "Fair-minded people will question the severity of the heavy, three to six year sentence imposed on Msgr. Lynn today. We hope that when this punishment is objectively reviewed, it will be adjusted."

And in those three small statements, the entire issue seems to be thrown into relief. Lynn -- who might be a perfect expositor of Vatican argumentation -- takes refuge in 1. the goodness he was able to offer over time and 2. the suggestion that he was only following orders and therefore should not be nailed to some judicial cross. Sarmina calls his bluff: No amount of posturing can excuse the full-frontal-nudity of the complicit facts. And the Vatican, in the person of the archdiocese, scrambles to patch the hole in its once impervious dike ... if chain-link logic can nail a monsignor, who knows what more-elevated prelate might be next? Well-woven power begins to fray.

As the archdiocese hopes that "fair-minded people" will see the excessiveness of Lynn's sentence, 
other "fair-minded people" may be wondering at the leniency of that sentence. And still other "fair-minded people" may wonder at the steps the archdiocese has taken in its efforts to address the uncomfortable and unavoidable upsurge in outrage: Yes, there is a reporting procedure now and that procedure includes informing civil authority of abuse claims. But there is still no reference to what happens when, as in the past, functionaries simply ignore the sounds-good, up-to-date, and oh-so-caring guidelines.

It all comes down to people -- honest to goodness, flesh-and-blood people. Thousands of people who suffered at the hands of a Vatican power structure. People who may have wanted to do good as priests, but were caught in the institutional web and hence forced to bend their principles as a means of assuring their stature and profession and beloved institution. People who could no longer choke down the ill-founded pieties of institutional goodness that begged to be trusted ... and was, in fact trusted. People who ached and bled ... and about whom the church would be quick to say they were in business to protect and serve.


Once upon a time, the news business was in business to turn over the rocks that a work-a-day citizenry had neither time nor tools to turn over for themselves. It wasn't perfect, but it was an unstated goal. Crooks and malefactors of all sorts slipped through the cracks. But still ... it was a goal.

And no doubt the perfect vagina is a serious business to those in search of vaginal perfection. But the rise of infotainment takes its toll. Someone has to make the news judgments of the day and for my money, those judgments have been as corrupted as any Vatican apologist by the desire for money and stature.

Sure, the conviction of Msgr. Lynn may be small potatoes in comparison to the economic crisis in Europe, the Syrian civil war, an agricultural drought, or even the up-coming Olympics whose ballyhoo is almost as numbing as coverage of the American presidential election.

But the Lynn case has scratched a very important and far-reaching surface. A bulwark organization and its minions have perpetrated a horror that an uninformed citizenry worldwide deserves to be informed about. The Roman Catholic Church claims something like 1.2 billion members ... a pretty big audience for the information hidden under the Vatican rock. The media may be content to let the story fade off into the distance -- it's 'old news' and if you don't examine it, then it doesn't exist -- but I think they are making a big mistake ... a mistake defined not just as news mistake, but also defined as a moral error.

Am I outraged? You bet your ass I am! Outraged by the Vatican. Outraged by the media. Outraged that the wounds of so many are so blithely salved and forgotten. Outraged by the towering evidence of implausible deniability. Oh...outrage is so comforting. But I also recognize that outrage and a couple of bucks will get me a bus ride.

Once more, in the person of the Philadelphia Archdiocese, the Vatican his displayed its steely fist within the velvet glove of caring and concern. Will they get away with it ... again? Probably ... for a while ...

But the Lynn conviction and sentencing puts the Vatican's plausible deniability riff on notice:

"The dog ate my homework" and "I was only following orders" just won't fly.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

rainbow time

Not a great photo, but a gigantic rainbow appeared in the sky this evening. Joe, my evangelical Christian neighbor, came out in the street to look and told me that in the Bible, rainbows were a promise from God that He would never flood the earth again ... you know, after the major flood that Noah survived.

Also, it put me in mind of a song I once wrote and a friend made the music for ... whose first stanza went:

Rainbow, oh rainbow
I love you, I do --
So whole and so shining,
Hung out in the sky-blue.
Say where do you go
When the storm clouds have passed
How come and how is it that you never last?

Mike Lux and the Christian right

I'm no Christian, but I do live in a Christian country. I also live in a country in which Christianity and its Bible are too frequently handed over, willy-nilly, to a lot of public figures who twist biblical teachings to suit their right-wing, homophobic, let's-have-another-war, greedy and generally small-spirited agendas.

To the extent that this is true -- and I think there is plenty of evidence that it is -- I had occasion today to look back on a column by Mike Lux that appeared in the Huffington Post in February. In it, he asks specifically, "What Bible is Santorum Reading?" But even now that Rick Santorum is out of the Republican race for the White House, Lux' arguments are trenchant in a wider way and hence worth saving. I thought I would save it here.

His column almost, but not quite, makes me wish I were a Christian.


Irresponsibility is such a painful and confounding habit.

And yet, if a (wo)man were to take responsibility for these irresponsibilities, would s/he any long be irresponsible?

I don't think so.

becoming a monk or nun

I can read the desire a thousand times (as I did this morning) and still be touched by the expressed desire to go to a monastery and live as a monk or nun. The yearning, at whatever profound or befuddled depth, is so human in my ear. Touching for anyone inclined towards spiritual life ... deluded, perhaps, but touching. I certainly wouldn't want to deny anyone either the decision or delusion.

But then there's this:

Since everyone is perfectly provided for from the get-go, what is the matter with here? What is the matter with now? What is the matter with this perfectly-serviceable pair of old slippers? Would the rarefied air of the high mountains or the still sweetness of the deep forest or the swish-swishing of a comfortable robe or the burnished peak of a shaved head create a significance and meaning and peace beyond the dirty dishes in the sink?

I'm not trying to dissuade through disdain. Monks and nuns are perfectly nice people most of the time. But still, what's the matter with here? What's the matter with now? Why throw away riches in order to gain a treasure? If you became a monk or nun, what's to say you wouldn't long to become a bus driver or a card shark or a doctor or a pimp?

Yes, I find it touching, the desire to become a monk or nun. And I see nothing wrong in actually doing it: Wherever you go, the dishes will always need washing.

Ramadan in Finland

The daylight fasting that is part of the Muslim observance of Ramadan takes on some heft when, as in Finland, the sun rises at about 3:20 a.m. and sets at around 11:20 p.m.

Such exigencies impose a reality check and some Muslims are forced to exercise "common sense..."

Which is about the outcome of any spiritual persuasion, I suspect: Don't be a spiritual nitwit ... spiritual discipline has its place, but that place is secondary.

Use your common sense.


Today, a chum sent along the gone-viral video of a three-year-old climbing a door frame. Aside from being a heart-warmer, there is definitely a wow quotient that enters:

Imagine that! Wow!

And it makes me think that somewhere, secreted in the human genome, is some little mechanism or well-oiled switch marked "wow." Whether delight or catastrophe ... still ... wow! Whoda thunk it?! How about them apples?! Wish I could...! Glad I didn't...! Wow!

It's delicious and there is a craving for more, some wonderful or horrendous surprise, something to spice things up, something to make me wider than I was before, something that takes me out of my comfort zone that can be pretty boring or same-ol' or stale.

But am I wrong in thinking that the wow factor always relates to someone or something else? Except for the hopelessly vain and inveterately shallow, no one is wowed by his or her own abilities or qualities. It's always someone or something else. My qualities and abilities are known quantities, well-worn and soft and unexceptional as a dish towel.

I don't wow me.

I rely on others to do that.

But at the same time I am relying on you to wow me, I suspect that you are relying on me to wow you ... which means that there is something wow about me that I seem to have missed or ignored. Everyone and everything has a wow potential ... except for me. And this makes me suspicious. Why am I not wowed by me?

What does that say about me?

Or, perhaps more important, what does that say about wow?

Monday, July 23, 2012

what is the most important thing?

What is the most important thing?

Well ... it depends.

And what is the least important thing?

Well ... it depends.

Maybe it's time to reassess the whole dependance schtick.

home-made jellyfish

Using cells from a rat's heart and a little silicone, scientists have fashioned a man-made jellyfish.

 And you thought "Frankenstein" was just a fairy tale.

grab your wallet!

Is there good news in spiritual endeavor?

I think there is, but I am also reminded of the old advisory, "If someone tells you it's for free, grab your wallet."

If one person could tell another the good news of spiritual endeavor, how good could it possibly be?

In this way anyone might know that those purveying "good news" in spiritual endeavor are to be avoided like plague.

Grab your wallet!

This is no joke for anyone serious about good news.

the wheels on the bus

In Hindu lore, there are three aspect-gods to represent the whole of things -- Brahma, Vishnu and Siva ... the creator, the preserver and the destroyer. Each appears as distinct and compelling in its/his/her own right and yet each is also woven so tightly into the next that distinguishing them is a pastime for theologians and others with too much time on their hands. Life is whole, not segmented.

For ages, foresters and farmers, like the nature in which they make a living, have used the "controlled burn" to clear away that which will impede new growth. Fire clears away accumulated weeds and dead wood. It also inspires some seeds. Sometimes a "controlled burn" can get out of control and create what war-room analysts politely describe as "collateral damage" -- burning not just what needs to be burned, but also destroying what would preferably be kept intact.

Isn't this the same for organizations and individuals? The painter stands before the empty canvas and slowly, lovingly, begins to create what s/he hopes to preserve. The couple stands at the altar and commits to marriage. The group gathers and creates an effort with nourishing goals, however that nourishment is defined. And it's heartfelt. But over time, the strictures of what was created and preserved become apparent ... sometimes to a point where new growth is impossible and it is time to burn it down. Long habit and loving commitment may squirm and flail as the flames lick not just the dead wood, but also the living, flourishing stock.

Today, a friend sent an email depicting a lawsuit in Australia. The suit alleges that between 1947 and 1967, thousands of children were relocated from Britain and Malta under the auspices of several Vatican orders. An Australian report says "the vast majority of child migrants were not orphans, that many were taken without parental consent and were subject to forced child labor on a massive scale in commercial contexts doing extremely arduous or backbreaking work of an adult nature." In short, the children were enslaved... by the Vatican's minions ... the same church formed to perform good and nourishing works among those in spiritual and physical need. The plaintiffs "sued the Congregation of Christian Brothers and the Order of the Sisters of Mercy, alleging child trafficking, forced child labor, slavery, unjust enrichment and other charges. They want a jury trial and unspecified damages." The 2011 suit was dismissed by the court on technical grounds. 
The fires of the hell you sought to avoid reach up to the heaven you sought to enthrone.

There is no demarcation, whatever the enormous and filigreed efforts to create one. 

Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva ... the ways of the world. Who will consent to burn them all down ... the bliss of hell and the unending screams of heaven?


old and young

Where do all the old people come from?

They come from the young.

Where do all the young people come from?

They come from the old.

It seems like an equitable arrangement.

Sunday, July 22, 2012


This blog sends all pseudo-laudatory comments that end with a link to some other web site to my spam folder where I promptly delete them. I also promptly delete any that happen to sneak through.

I mention this only in case someone might prefer not to expend the energy.

PS. I have nothing against legitimate links that support or expand a particular, relevant point of view.

de nada

I am ashamed to admit that, somewhere within, carefully placed behind and beneath the T-shirts of the mind, there is a lustrously-simple box that contains my treasures. I say "ashamed" because nothing of importance ever fit in a box and memory, like belief, exists solely in the past ... a past that can never be exactly remembered or relived. Nevertheless, I have my treasures and one of them crept out of hiding this morning as I was doing zazen.

It would have been late August of 1959 -- a time that might be called "BB" or Before Buddhism, a practice that was still 10 or 15 years in the future. I was 19 and returning from a summer's work in an Oregon lumbering camp. I had done hitchhiking before, perhaps 20,000-miles worth, but this was my first time trying to hitchhike across the country. I was in Wyoming and the sun was shining as I stood next to a two-lane road that gave off into scrub grass, stunted trees and low hills in the distance.

About 200 feet off the road was a railway track where, after a bit of trying to hale one of the few cars that passed, a freight train passed in slow motion. A long, long, long train, passing slowly, slowly, slowly. On top of one of the box cars, three hobos waved to me, inviting me to join them. And I might have if I had run, but images of railroad bulls reared up in my mind. I knew something about hitchhiking, but nothing about riding the rails.

I waited. Hitchhiking, like military service, tells wonderful post-facto tales about one adventure or another, but it never tells the actual-factual, hurry-up-and-wait truth. Wait and wait and wait some more. So, I waited.

A car approached from a distance. As it grew closer, I could see that it was a 1949 Ford coupe that had seen better days. And closer still, I could see that the car contained both a male driver and a woman. My hitchhiking etiquette had taught me never to expect a ride when there was a woman in the car, but somehow this car was slowing down. It stopped several yards ahead of me and, as I dog-trotted towards it, I saw a young, black-haired and very pregnant young woman get out. She held the front seat forward as I clambered in the back, settled down and attempted to say thank you to the driver, an equally black-haired man with a wonderful tan that seemed to be partly the result of birth and partly the result of long hours in the sun. "De nada," he said with a sparkling smile filled with sparkling white teeth.

It became apparent quickly that the couple spoke no English. And what Spanish I spoke was riddled with words I simply didn't know. As the car started forward, we all dissolved into a companionable silence.

From my perch in back, I could see the man's hands on the steering wheel. Very strong, very brown, very used to doing hard things and then doing them again. The only adornment he seemed to own was the wedding band he, like his wife, wore. And as I looked at my benefactor and his hands and the black hair both he and his wife had, I confected a tale ... they were Mexican migrant farmers traveling to their next field, next harvest, next stint in the sun. Who, in the middle of Wyoming, would have given them a ride if our roles had been reversed? And yet all that hard work had made them both know what it was to try to get by with little ... and to lend a hand where they could. Somehow, this morning as in the back seat of that car so long ago, it made me want to cry.

The old Ford traveled perhaps 500 yards before the driver slowed down and pulled a U-turn. He looked back at me with great embarrassment and transmitted somehow that he had goofed: He was headed in the wrong direction and had just now realized it. I got out and feebly tried to say the thank-you's that were singing in my heart. "De nada," he said one last time and drove off.

For headline purposes, I can remember the time I caught a single ride from outside Sacramento, Calif., to outside Boston, Mass., a distance of something less than 3,000 miles. How about them apples?! But for purposes of treasure -- when recalling prayers that were answered before they ever were uttered -- I keep this one in my box ... the box that cannot contain anything of real importance.

And when I look over the other treasures kept in that box, many of them springing from the world of Buddhism I would later throw myself at, it seems much the same ... prayers answered before they ever were uttered ... something with the Dalai Lama, something with Soen Sa Nimh, something with Trungpa Rinpoche, something with Soen Nakagawa ... always something that was outside the box of Buddhism or even kindness ... something whole and true and remembered in dwindling resolution. Perfect blessings and yet I never even asked.

De nada.

money, money, money

A study suggests that the super-rich have at least $21 trillion socked away in various tax havens. The amount is equivalent to the size of the American and Japanese economies combined.

The amount is so massive that being down-and-out jealous of it or dejected about it or outraged by it seems superfluous.

The mind of the money-inclined is sometimes just flabbergasting.

beloved icons

Today, Penn State University removed the statue of the iconic football coach Joe Paterno, a man linked to the sexual-abuse scandal that sent former assistant football coach Gerald Sandusky to prison last month. Sandusky was convicted of 45 of 48 counts related to child molestation. Paterno retired and then died after being linked to a cover-up. It is hard to overstate Paterno's elevated status at the university and elsewhere. He was an astounding, revenue-producing winner and I can imagine many who might be deeply offended by the removal of the statue.

The situation made me wonder idly what it might be like if all the crucifixes adorning Christian churches were removed. They may mean different things to different people, but I think they probably mean quite a lot ... if for no other reason than that they are always there, like hubcaps on automobiles. Icons and reminders and inspirations ... now gone.

In March of 2001, the Taliban ordered the destruction of two enormous 6th century Buddha statues hewn into the cliffs at Bimayan, Afghanistan. The Taliban, with its strong adherence to a Muslim faith, declared the statues to be "idols." The Taliban's own adherence did not seem to strike them as a similar idolatry. The world whimpered and wailed at the loss of the statues. They were dynamited anyway.

Public iconoclasms don't interest me much. I may laugh at your totems or you may snicker at mine. I may tear down your statues or you may dynamite mine. The intellectual ardor of a Christopher Hitchens or some other callow iconoclast may be a lot of fun and perhaps in some sense apt. But what interests me is the fact that individuals might raise up their own icons and not ever stop to wonder what life might be like without them. What interests me is not the foolishness or collective wisdom of any given icon, it's the fact that people DO create icons in the first place. What were things like before I started icon-building?

Around my house, there are various pieces of Zen Buddhist iconography -- paintings, calligraphy, statues, incense burners, candles ... quite a laundry list after so many years. And I will admit that I have been deeply attached to and grateful for them over the years. Icons? You bet I loved my icons! You bet they seemed to support and encourage my efforts. You bet they supported whatever half-assed determination I could muster.

And around my mind, it's the same -- opinions and judgments and biases and love and hate and ... well, habits well-stored and well-dusted and ... important. Once upon a time I was hell-bent on having them. Later, I was hell-bent on up-ending their sway. And later still ... well, who knows?

If there is no willingness to reflect on the blessings and curses of icons anyone might erect, how could those icons ever reveal their meaning and their glory and their utter useful uselessness? Where is the time and place without icons? Without answering that intimate question, how in heaven's name can we expect to be set free from some very real and very touching confusions?

A buddy of mine once quipped about New Year's Eve resolutions, "Don't make 'em, don't break 'em."

I know what I'm talking about even if I don't

Enlightenment, compassion, love, freedom, true self, Buddha nature, God, heaven, hell, emptiness, transience, change, joy, peace....

Somewhere or other -- I think it was in "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" -- the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki expressed his frustration when students would come to him with such verbiage ... love, freedom, etc. He was too polite and patient to ask them what the fuck they were talking about. Nice man ... but it must have been pretty exhausting.

Maybe it's like a farmer who has decided to lay in white pine seedlings as a means of combating erosion on a hillside. Patient, back-breaking work and perhaps the farmer has hired on a high-school kid to lend a hand ... but the kid keeps stopping, leaning on his shovel and asking what the farmer thinks about Emmanuel Kant.

I wonder if there is a tip-over point in such questions -- a point at which chagrin or shame rear their undeniable heads: How in the wide, wide world of sports could I imagine someone else could tell me anything about these ephemeral crown jewels? If I really wanted to know, then, instead of relying on some comforting, intellectual or emotional circle-jerk, I'd better stop leaning on the shovel and start digging.

For nine years, during what I think of as my Marine Corps Zen phase, I seldom if ever heard the word "enlightenment" mentioned. And any reference to the precepts so highly prized in Buddhism was equally rare.  Day after day, week after week, year after year ... doing zazen or seated meditation. And the funny thing was that the precepts arose all by themselves, lively and smooth as water over a rock. It was just how things worked better, plain as salt.

Plain as salt and ... alive.

if only

Since animals have toes and human beings have both toes AND fingers, would a nail polish salesman despair after being assigned to a territory composed solely  of ASPCA's? Fifty percent of his potential market ... shot to hell!

All those if-only's in life, rising up like honey suckle, choking off and clawing at the present.

Lawsy! Lawsy! If only I could find the glasses perched on my nose!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

sympathy for the human heart

I have a lot of sympathy for the human heart, but I don't always sympathize with the heart's sympathies.

For example, sniffing the edges of the Roman Catholic Church, I am deeply sympathetic to the love of God that individuals can express ... the yearning to be happy and safe and at peace. It is as if there were no other option for me ... I just open up like a ripe watermelon dropped from a third-story window.

And yet simultaneously, I simply cannot understand why and how anyone could credit a Vatican dogma. It's not that I feel critical -- actually I would like to be able to see it from that point of view. It's more like the inability to understand how anyone could like anchovies ... how could you let anyone feed you such a line of guff? And I'm not even thinking of the Vatican sex abuses and complicities. Even when times were less roiled with heinous scandals ... how could anyone eat an anchovie? Obviously this is my failing... which does not mean I plan to rush out and become a Vatican cheerleader or choke down anchovies.

Tom Sullivan embraces family members
after his son, Alex, 27, was shot dead
during a premier showing of "The
Dark Knight Rises" in Aurora, Colo.,
July 20, 2012.

In Aurora, Colorado, a gunman went to a midnight premier of the latest Batman movie Friday, stood in front of the audience and opened up, killing 12 and injuring 58. The horror stopped otherwise sanguine politicians in their tracks ... this was real and no time for conniving bullshit. "Pray for the dead. Pray for their families" -- there's a safe-sex, no-one-can-fault-you, how-sensitive approach. This was no time to get into a conversation about gun control, a touchy subject from wherever anyone stands.

In a week or two, no one will remember Aurora and attempts to plumb the hows and whys will fall into a bottomless pit of silence.

But as the issue of gun control danced lightly in my mind, I came upon a jolting revelation.

The usual shouting match about gun control waves the banner of the 2nd Amendment and then suggests that "when guns are outlawed, only the outlaws will have guns."

The revelation was that the outlaws didn't worry me as much as the government that currently runs the country... the government that whittles away civil liberties day by day and week by week; the government that creates the Department of Homeland Security and then allows forcible requests for cell phone information from providers; the government that takes the word "terror" and uses it as a club with which to instill fear in its citizens ... a fear that produces ever more guns.

My jolting revelation was that any bedrock trust I once may have felt for the government has been chipped and chiseled away not just by red-white-and-blue illiterates but also by those who likewise want to get re-elected and are willing to allow the nation and its spirit to pay the price.

The jolting revelation was that some part of me would like to have a gun -- not to protect myself from night-time burglars or rapacious drug cartels, but to defend my family and friends from those who cloak their intentions in 'goodness' and 'national welfare' and whatever other high-minded p.r. they can come up with ... ravaging other lands 'on behalf' of our own and the like. These are people who have the capacity to scare me ... the ones who flog goodness even as they raise banners of oppression. These are seriously perverted individuals -- as seriously perverted in their ways as the Vatican can be in its. Not unusual, perhaps, but perverted.

And all this jolted me because I don't want to feel that way. I would prefer to trust... even if just a little bit ... even if enough not to feel that owning a gun might not be a bad idea.

The massacre in Aurora, Colorado, will be forgotten in short order. Someone will be elected president of this devolving country. Drug cartels, street gangs, elected officials and the Vatican will ply their trades.

I have great sympathy for the human heart, but I don't always sympathize with the heart's sympathies ... my own included.


In general parlance, the word "meritocracy" is sometimes used to indicate a system in which those most capable are placed in positions where they can exercise their skills. It's nice to have people who know what the hell they are doing doing whatever they do.

But the original coining of the word by Michael Young was more narrowly and skeptically defined as a system in which, "merit is equated with intelligence-plus-effort, its possessors are identified at an early age and selected for appropriate intensive education, and there is an obsession with quantification, test-scoring, and qualifications." In short, a world in which flexibility and imagination are lacking and those who go to Harvard and Yale deserve the silver-spoon treatment they receive.

Perhaps this qualifies as totally useless information.

Perhaps not.


Having slept poorly, my mind sweeps itself up without apparent connections....

-- If I am amazed, as I am, that the squirrels who do an early-morning scamper through a Japanese maple across the street can hang, fully extended, upside down as they reach for otherwise unreachable tender shoots ... if that amazes me, what amazes them? At the White House, politicians burnish their credentials by handing out Medals of Honor to young men ("heroes," to use the accepted parlance) who have done amazing things and yet who, to a man, cannot quite grasp or accede to the hymns of others ... things like "Amazing Grace," perhaps. Perhaps, like heroin addicts, our minds just demand amazement because it's such a wonderful feeling and without it ... well, let's not go there. If man is amazed by God, what is it that amazes God? If the answer is "nothing," what lesson does that suggest and how boring might God be?

-- Today, based on yesterday, I may or may not double check a couple of things: 1. Whelks, whose general meaning I know, but whose specifics I lack. 2. "Fair dinkum" an Australian bit of slang ... but how slangy I'm not sure ... does it carry with it an indicator of education or class or lack of either; it's just a neat phrase on my mind's tongue. 3. Having watched a PBS movie, "Endeavour" again last night, I would like to track down an aria sung in it ... listen to the whole thing. But I know little about opera and don't speak Italian and, although I imagine it comes from Puccini or some other swimmingly delicious composer, how do I hum the tune to the computer so as to track down a full version?

-- The air today is cool enough to give me goose bumps as I sit smoking on the porch, watching the squirrels. Perhaps I will break the cycle of the last two weeks when writing and intense heat 'excused' me from the peace picket line and rejoin old acquaintances. My mind balks at the idea of doing my bit by putting on a robe and raksu ... balks at the idea of looking for a parking place ... balks at some self-serving notion of 'being an agent for change.' But the idea of getting outdoors after so many days huddled by the air conditioning ... perhaps that will put a fire under my fanny.

-- Idly, when skimming the paper, I wonder how I might introduce myself to a group I didn't know. "Hi, I'm Adam Fisher. I'm 72. Married, three kids. I was in the army for three years, though I never had to suffer the seared soul of killing anyone else. Book publishing and newspaper writing were my most notable office jobs. Packing Popsicles and running property lines in the Oregon woods provided money at other times. I practiced Zen Buddhism for some years, but that's pretty much a worn thread nowadays. Astrologically, I am either a dragon or a fish, depending on your preferences. I lean liberal, but enjoy well-made conservative philosophies."

On the one hand, that's short and sweet. On the other, it's not very informative. You'd think I could come up with something amazing, but I can't ... any more than the squirrels or God could.