Sunday, September 30, 2012

full moon

Beneath the full moon
It is time to ask,
What lineage is this?

Zen 'teaching' style

A young Brazilian grad student showed up at the zendo this morning. She had sat elsewhere before, so I asked if she wanted to run through the format or would prefer just to sit. She said she would prefer the format, so we did that... how to enter the zendo, bow, cross the legs, what to do with the hands, how to straighten the spine, and how to count the exhalations from one to ten and begin again, etc.

I felt comfortable and I think she did too ... comfortable enough to laugh a bit ... comfortable enough so that tears welled up in her eyes once or twice. I never know what I'm going to say before it comes out, so there was general stuff about Zen Buddhism -- about plain old life -- spliced in here and there ... just the questions people ask themselves when nobody else is looking ... the stuff that feels secret or is kept secret but really is just par for the human course... and how Zen practice might fit in or be useful in that regard.

Cosmic mudra
It wasn't fancy. There was some consideration of how her thumbs might gently touch in a cosmic mudra when her thumbnails were so long. There was a quick hit on the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path (remind me in my next incarnation to memorize all of them). And I said what I thought, which was, among other things, that without her, something called Buddhism was complete and utter bullshit. I also told her to respect her own interest in Buddhism ... not to be an airhead if it honestly touched her ... and to look forward in her week and find a time when she could promise herself to practice (just once a week) for maybe 15 or 20 minutes ... make a promise, keep a promise. Respect your life.

I probably talked too much (I usually do) but it felt easy and open to me. She seemed not to feel threatened or awed, so perhaps it was easy for her too. Isn't it possible to have a serious conversation without getting solemn? I don't know, but I think so. Solemn seems to be such a waste of energy, quite aside from the fact that it'll hogtie you in the end.

Later, after the Brazilian woman left, I came indoors and watched several YouTube videos of someone who might qualify as a "respected Zen teacher." He is an American living in Japan. He was talking about Zen practice in the videos and he employed that kind of sing-songy, soft-but-imperious tone that Americans can when dispensing deep Buddhist counsel. It is an extremely popular approach, one that is damned near demanded by devoted audiences ... you up there telling me down here what I claim not to know.

As I say, it is very popular and I realized, when watching the videos, that it purely made my teeth itch with irritation. Again ... isn't it possible to have a serious conversation without tipping over into solemnity? And the answer may be, "no it's not" and from that perspective, I will recuse myself from the world of Zen Buddhism. If you want to talk turkey, let's talk turkey, but let's not glaze it with self-imposed goo. What the Buddhists call "suffering" (dukkha, unsatisfactoriness) is turkey in anyone's life and the only question is which tools to employ when addressing that turkey. Love, anguish, anger, confusion, tears and laughter ... pick an approach.

Very popular -- the cadenced and quasi-serene deliveries ... seriously, very popular. And for all I know, effective. But as I watched the videos, I thought, "I can't do that." And then it came to me ...

Oh yes I can!

But I won't.

Once upon a time (and I'm not using this example as some slick-willy-teacher way of claiming to be either equal or unequal to the example), the Zen teacher Huang Po/Obaku stood before his monks and said, "There is no such thing as a Zen teacher." And when one of his monks pointed out the obvious -- that Huang Po was standing before the assembly, teaching -- Huang Po observed, "I said there was no such thing as a Zen teacher. I did not say there was no such thing as Zen."

What's the matter with having a serious conversation?


The distances once so keenly felt --
The searing loneliness and despair --
No longer insist like enfolding smog ...
Such intimacies are not required.


The Russian Orthodox Church is suggesting clemency for the three jailed members of the band Pussy Riot if they repent of their anti-authoritarian "punk prayer" delivered in a cathedral.

If the band members display "penitence and reconsideration of their action," well then, perhaps clemency would be better than punishment.

Why is it that when I read this story, all I can think of is that these young women are being asked to bend a knee to the very authority they decided to confront in the first place? Church or state ... no difference. 

I will not fault them if they decide to "repent" -- being in jail is no easy matter. But I despair of those who feel that repentance rests on toeing the mark laid down by an institution or power structure or belief system. The institution may be elevated, but the repentance goes begging.

My guess is that courageous repentance is the repentance in which an individual acknowledges his or her responsibility and capacity within. To shoulder the responsibility of the past and use it to inform the present. The past cannot be undone. There is no guarantee that the fault will not reoccur. But in the meantime, there is some willingness to try to revise what is seen as a mistake....

Not on behalf of some institution or imaginative belief system, but rather on behalf of the person who made the mistake in the first place.

"The Red Violin"

Last night, at the suggestion of a friend, I watched "The Red Violin," a 1998 Canadian movie that critic Roger Ebert described as "heedlessly ambitious," a phrase I like even if I'm not sure exactly what it means. The movie (sort of) tells the tale of a 17th century violin -- its travels, its owners, and (again, sort of) its power. It's an imperfect tale with some wonderful costumes and cinematography.

I do admire those who tell a simple story -- just a story without excuses or 'symbolism' -- and offer an opening to exaltation or exultation... reaching for an 'it' that, were it reached, would turn to dust ... an 'it' in which only a fool would exult or try to exalt. I am a sucker for exultation ... ashamed and yet swept up without a blush: Take me, I'm yours! I don't care what 'it' is: Like anyone else, I just know something and 'it' is a good (or bad) a word as any.

Willa Cather, Isak Dinesen, Leo Tolstoy, Ursula LeGuin, Thornton Wilder, a now and then, Charles Williams ... "heedlessly ambitious" ... with the courage attributed to the testicles of a brass monkey ... complete assholes, just like me. And it has nothing to do with being a 'great artist.' The easy merriment of 'it' is no man's prerogative, no woman's exultation... in victory or defeat, still, this morning, a squirrel loped across the dampened street bearing a "heedlessly ambitious" pulp-encrusted nut in its mouth.

Also this morning, a woman is coming to the zendo ... or anyway that's what the email said. She gave no clue as to motivation or intent, but I have been around the block often enough to make some uninsistent guesses. Death, disease, drugs, divorce and delight ... some alliterative shorthand for possibilities that never fit the individuals precisely, but for all that are probably pretty close to the mark.

I remember my Zen teacher's crabbiness once and sympathize with its lash: It cranked him out that students did not clean the zendo and that he was left to do it. This morning, I will go out and vacuum and dust the zendo and I am getting to old for this shit. I ache in various ways and get tired out by exercises that once were of no physical importance. Nevertheless, I will do these chores and put on my robe (bleah!) as a false indicator of a false 'it' ... but nevertheless a bit of advertising that may inspire some heedless ambition.

I grump and cuss within, but who knows, maybe this woman will bring her red violin ... and will play ... and we will dance.

I love the heedless ambition of music.

And 'it' doesn't mind.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

hope ... belief ... experience

If, as I would assert, experience trumps hope and belief in anyone's life, can it therefore be said that the more vociferousness the hope or belief, the greater the evidence that experience is lacking?

I think it's a good guess ... and a good reminder.

the whole truth

In the United States, witnesses in court are asked to swear or affirm to tell "the whole truth and nothing but the truth" (so help me God). Witnesses caught out in lies are subject to perjury charges for which they can be sent to jail.

But in courtrooms elsewhere, a more lenient (and adult?) approach is taken towards lying. For example, in the case of the pope's former butler now on trial in the Vatican:

No oaths are taken at the start of the trial, as the Vatican legal system, like the Italian one on which it is based, assumes a suspect may lie for self-protection. 
It seems fair to conclude that what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander: If the Vatican provides leeway to lie to its defendants, then it probably affords a similar protection to itself and lying may be taken as a God-given right.

And if this is so, perhaps the rest of us (Catholics included) may be absolved from having to believe that the Vatican speaks an unquestionable truth.

water ... seriously

With a drought that clocked some two-thirds of America's midsection during the summer, the ramifications are not finished making themselves felt. Crops ... cattle ... and now people.

Ask the 94,000 people of San Angelo, Texas who are running out of water. Fast.

The city -- once known as "the oasis" of dry west Texas -- now says it only has enough water supplies to last one more year. On October 16, it will enforce its highest level of emergency measures to save its water supply.
People without water.

No joke.

Iran's source material

Iran, like China and Bangladesh in earlier times, has decided to take the routine satire of "The Onion" in all seriousness and quote without attribution a spoof in which rural white Americans say they would rather vote for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than for Barack Obama.

Who the hell is sharpening these Iranian pencils?


Yesterday, with the kind of mild incongruity that I really appreciate, a Roman Catholic priest chum passed along in email an article entitled, "Why Sex Before Marriage is the Moral Thing to Do."

Appearing in The Guardian and written by a woman (could a man have gotten away with a similar argument?), the piece was a pleasant tweak ... especially here in a prurient America that can find a blessing in babies but a blasphemy in the mechanics of their creation.

Is there any topic in the world -- any topic at all -- that, upon finding its audience yawning in the balcony, does not benefit from the injection of that simple, three-letter word,

Global warming ... and sex; war in the Middle East ... and sex; starvation in Africa ... and sex;  drought in the Midwest ... and sex; presidential candidates ... and sex; economic downturns... and sex; blog posts ... and sex; even a second-period class in statistics ... and sex. Like an early-morning jolt of caffeine, "sex" seems capable of enlivening what threatens to become a really boring topic ... a universal solvent, so to speak. Five'll get you ten that this blog post gets a wider-than-usual audience because I intend to title it "sex."

My Roman Catholic priest chum, who seems to be dipping his toe in the waters of what life might be like outside the box of a profession he has catered to for decades, is as good an example as any of how and why "sex" might spiff up the sometimes stiff collars of religion or spiritual life. Believe in any god you'd care to, set up moral and moralistic borders galore ... still "sex" is a reality check that brooks no bullshit: It is powerful, pleasurable, universal ... swimming shallow or deep, it can be mean as a wet cat and soft as a sunset ... it reaches into dark corners and rises to brilliant heights ... like anything else it can be boring, but it's the kind of boring that can probably benefit from a little "sex."

In book publishing, there used to be a half-tongue-in-cheek rule that a novelist needed to introduce the first sex scene no later than page 34.


No bullshit.

For once ... honesty! Ahhhh.

Sex takes people to a place where there are no hand-holds and somehow everyone knows that a place without hand-holds is somehow ineffably correct ... and more than that, quite pleasant. It is like discovering that the blue sky is blue. In a place without hand-holds, everything is set aside or left behind and ... and ... wow! Wow and yum. Morals and morality play no role ... it's purely human and has a deliciousness that is truly convincing.

For those inclined towards spiritual endeavor (or any other for that matter), I think sex is a wonderful adviser and reminder. If no-hand-holds is so clearly-clear in this realm, why is it so fuzzy and confused in other aspects of life?  Would a wow be wow if everything were wow? Is the truth true when the best it can do is to rely on falsehoods or comparisons? In its moments, sex has no comparisons ... so maybe a life full of comparisons is a little cockeyed.

Whatever the rivulets of thought or emotion, I like the fact that sex has the capacity to get anyone's head out of the spiritual clouds ... or out of their own ass, if you prefer. The initial reaction to the wonders of sex may be to think that spending a lifetime doing nothing but screwing is the best of all possible worlds. But since that doesn't work very well, subtler questions may assert themselves: If I am capable of a no-hand-holds delight here, what's stopping me from enjoying it there?

Plenty of spiritual persuasions can be positively orgasmic in their attempt to corner the market of wow. Follow our way and you'll get to heaven. Follow our strictures and life will come up roses. God, heaven, hell, enlightenment, compassion, emptiness, souped-up altruism ... all of this and more like it is like the discoverer of the sex treasure who decides to spend his life in bed.

But the honesty of sex -- even in its dishonesties -- calls the aspirant to heel. No-hand-holds is simply no-hand-holds ... and anyone knows that from first-hand experience, without any intermediaries, including themselves. It is intimate before anyone starts bloviating about "intimacy."

In northern climes, the Eskimos sometimes call sex "laughing together."


No hand-holds.

Just laughing.

Good ole sex.

Friday, September 28, 2012

death ... the explanation

"Death," the wit observed, "is nature's way of telling you to slow down."

But perhaps as well,

Death is life's way of helping you to outgrow your religion.

equality and inequality

Strange to think:

If you treat people as equals, they become uncomfortably aware of the inequalities they demand.

If you treat them as less than equal, they become uncomfortably aware of the inequalities you demand.

Maybe it's best just to be honest and leave equalities and inequalities to those who demand them.

life's greatest and most annoying skill

Of all the skills required in life, perhaps the greatest is to clean up my own mess.

It's annoying.

It's demanding.

It's endless.

Maybe that's what I like about blogging -- the sheer, childish irresponsibility of it.

the British are coming!

George Bernard Shaw may have said it or maybe didn't, but the witticism remains bright and sharp: "England and America are two countries separated by a common language."

But where once the Brits were the ones to complain about American terminology that was creeping in and fouling their mother tongue, now it's the Americans turn to whine (whinge) and whimper.

How positively faux and frivolous and snooty!

fatal shooting in Connecticut

Called by his next-door neighbor who feared someone was breaking into her house, a Connecticut man grabbed his gun early Thursday morning, went outdoors, confronted a person in a ski mask and shot him to death when the masked man advanced on him with a shiny object.

The victim was his son.

spiritual teachers

Once upon a time, when I set out on a spiritual adventure, I was young and full of pep. This was important, dontcha know, and the ones I designated as 'teachers' in my mind were inspiring and delightful and ahhhhh.

But behind the effort and delight, there was a small child within -- well-behaved in general, but sitting hopeful at the dinner table ... a child who hoped these teachers would stand still, would notice me, would open their arms and enfold me, would love me in some magical, all-encompassing way that would tell me I was loveable and I would be convinced they did and thereby love myself ... and feel safe at last.

I did not have the means to know how much they did love me and so I yearned to be loved and for them to stand still long enough to notice me. They never did. They were like quick-silver to the curious touch, scattering like laughing children on a playground or tumbling untamed like autumn leaves in a passing breeze. How I wanted them to stand still and be adored and adore me in return! I loved them so much -- why could they not see that and love me in return? Sometimes the well-behaved child fell into angry recriminations ... they were teachers and they should love me!

Instead, they danced and disappeared and today, when the pep is pretty much gone, I look for them in vain and wonder what in the world I was so worried about. The quicksilver twinkles, the children laugh with playful abandon, and the autumn leaves return.

Once I wanted to be still and safe ... and live in a world of danger and distress.

But where the music plays, what fool could keep from dancing?

fixing what works

In the wake of a flu shot and a trip to the hospital for an ultrasound that would keep track of a small aneurism, I felt lousy yesterday ... run-over and achy.

And so, before an early bedtime, I took two prescription pills -- one for sleep and one for pain -- although I dislike taking such pills.

On waking this morning, for about ten minutes, I felt rested and free from aching and it was pleasant.

As usual, the pain pill seemed to inspire dreams and I dreamed of fixing things that already worked.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

another Tiananmen Square

A villager who allegedly refused what he considered a paltry government payment for his home was crushed to death by a road-flattening truck, apparently at the behest of a Chinese government official.

According to the Huffington Post, "He Zhi Hua was attempting to resist a government drive to relocate his village when he lay in the path of the construction vehicle. ...The horrifying incident was censored by China's state-controlled media, but was leaked online among users of Weibo - the country's version of Twitter."

With a growth rate of 7.6% and holding $1.2 trillion in U.S. debt, China will no doubt slide out from under any meaningful U.S. calumny.

I wonder if China -- like the U.S. with its "What would Jesus do?" buttons -- has anything like a "What would Confucius say?" adornment. Oh well, Jesus and Confucius are the kinds of guys who get trotted out to suit the needs of those who solemnly pronounce their names.

Ah China ... what price "harmony?"

meteorite Buddhist statue

The meteorite is believed to have crashed to earth 15,000 years ago and the nine-inch statue was made from it.

spiritual ignorance

In his book, "The Theology of Fear," the Rev. Emmett Coyne, for almost 50 years a Roman Catholic priest, makes passing reference to how little the average believer knows about his or her given faith.

Somehow, this obvious observation struck home with me.

Yes, people may belong to one denomination or another because their moms and dads brought them up that way or because they wanted a reassuring story about what happened after death or because, in troubled or tragic times, a bit of succor never hurt. An ethical format might also play into the scenario.

But beyond the personal or social basics, so to speak, how many people really dig in and get informed? The answer, I think, is very few. But I also think, why should they? Belief may be important, but I wonder if there isn't some triage doctor within who knows that beliefs, while supportive, aren't all that relevant. Anybody can believe anything and a bus ride is still $2.

I guess that only someone who had put some effort into spiritual endeavor would find any of this unusual. Why bother about religion when the kids need feeding or the stamp collection needs updating? Isn't it understandable that ignorance should infuse even the most top-volume religious persuasions ... you know, the guys and gals who can quote text and wave their arms but otherwise are concerned about keeping church revenues at a certain level?

I think it is understandable in human terms. A cloud of ignorance may even cause anyone's religion to glow more brightly and be more convincing. If God can forgive me and if heaven is my destination, does it need to get much better than that? And I'd say no ... no, it really doesn't.

But if, in fact, this broad-brush ignorance is anywhere near to the truth -- if cherry-picking for social or personal reasons is the norm -- then perhaps I may be forgiven for being dubious when those attempting to convert others come calling: What credibility should I offer to someone who is largely ignorant about the very persuasion s/he is promoting? But how can I know that such a person is, in fact, relying on ignorance to prop up one faith or another? I can't, but since the majority seem to find a mainstay in ignorance, I'll play the odds and retain a healthy skepticism.

I don't mean any of this as a criticism. I really do think it is understandable that people would be under-informed about the spiritual direction they have chosen. Truly ... it makes sense and it's human.

I guess I'll have to keep an eye on my own glowingly-enthusiastic face and prop-me-up ignorance.

feeling slimy

I don't like writing about people I consider friends and yet yesterday I did it ... twice -- once in a small Buddhist article and once as a book review on bookseller Amazon's site.

I dislike writing about friends because my job as a writer -- or anyway as I see it -- is to tell the reader the best information I can -- information unclouded by such things as friendship. These are my subjects. They are not my friends.

When writing, the reader takes precedence and my friendships need to take a back seat. I may never keep my bias entirely at bay, but I prefer to try. I dislike trying to hoodwink the reader by injecting a praise that grows out of friendship. Shills are a dime a dozen, as any public relations firm or agitation and propaganda ministry proves.

I don't mind stating an opinion or bias, but I prefer that it be clearly labeled: "This is what I think." Saying something is good is OK, but trying to convince someone else that it's good just because I think it's good ... that's a world of pimps and morons and snake-oil salesmen.

But I did it and I can feel all the convenient excuses coursing through my mind ... if everyone does it, how wrong can it be?

Well, I don't mind being wrong, but I hate feeling slimy.

space pictures

Among some stunning pictures from space ....


Yom Kippur

Well, the "days of awe" are now a thing of the past in Jewish tradition. Yesterday was Yom Kippur, the day of atonement that marked the end of the high holy days. What sort of an encore might anyone offer in the wake of awe? Funny how awe comes and awe goes, but the dishes always need washing.

"Atonement" is defined in an Internet dictionary as meaning

 -- compensation for a wrong
 -- the act of atoning for sin or wrongdoing (especially appeasing a deity)
When, a couple of days ago, I asked a Jewish friend if Yom Kippur were "the depressing one" among the holidays (my memory sucks), he said yes. Yom Kippur was a day designated for reflection and prayer. It was also a day on which God assessed the doings of the penitent ... and who knows what decisions God might make?

A long time ago, as a newspaper reporter, my desk was cheek-by-jowl with  a Jewish fellow who was the labor reporter. Art was short, loud and willing to believe that his skin-deep observations about the world of labor made him a credible and worthy journalist. I thought he was a pain in the ass, shallow as a teaspoon and lacking the requisite skepticism to make anyone a decent reporter. I tried to stay out of his way.

But one year, Art took several days off for the high Jewish holy days. He returned the day after Yom Kippur and ... the change was astounding. His strident bits of ignorance had been replaced by a genuine gentleness and thoughtfulness. At first I thought he was just faking it -- doing a goodie-two-shoes religious schtick -- but as the day wore on, it became clear that Art was an honest-to-God changed man. It blew my socks off, not least because I was content -- or perhaps entrenched -- in my irritable, dismissive assessment of him. What happened after that day, I don't really recall. Perhaps he returned to his smug and yappy ways. But for that one day ... I was impressed.

Reflection strikes me as a good companion. Not groveling or being owned by the past, but reflecting honestly on it. "Atonement" gives me the heebie-jeebies to the extent it means finding absolution in the judgment or kindness of another ... God or otherwise. No one can escape or change the past and reflection allows for an increased willingness to shoulder the inescapable responsibility. A get-out-of-jail-free card -- some wash-the-slate-clean or visiting-vengeance entity -- strikes me as not just fairy-tale, but a fairy tale doomed never to hear the words, "and they all lived happily ever after." Correct the mistakes of the past? Sure, to some extent. Erase them? Only a liar would try.

It can be pretty depressing, looking back on failures and mistakes. Who wouldn't give quite a lot to have turned left where they turned right or vice versa? How I wish I had. ... How I wish I hadn't. But the past cannot be retrieved or revised. And it is interesting to notice that the same function that goes into being saddened by past events is visited on pleasant and successful adventures. Sometimes laughter and delight, sometimes tears and sorrow.

The past doesn't mind.

Knock yourself out.

Reflection allows us all to vow not to do that again ... or to do it, depending on the positive-negative quotient. Vow with the sure and certain knowledge that there is no vow that cannot be broken, that the potential for screw-ups and successes is always in play. And with that potential is the responsibility that accompanies it. Reflect and reflect and reflect ....

I see nothing wrong with laying good stuff and bad off on Almighty God, seeking forgiveness or approbation ....

Nothing wrong with that...

As long as anyone was willing to go the extra step and find out who Almighty God might actually be.


Just learn one thing well and everything else will fall into place.

Of course, it's a little tricky because learning one thing well is impossible.

But if we let impossibility slow us down, what sort of sorrowing, nitwit life would that be?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Expecting an honest conversation with a politician is like expecting an honest conversation with an irritated cobra ... the cobra is so imbued with self-interest (sometimes called national interest) that it will bite you and never look back.

Nevertheless, since the wider landscape is filled with prevarication, it is nice to hear the countervailing lies in any discussion ... and thus, by chance, winkle out some version of the truth.

Yesterday, in the wake of American President Barack Obama's address to the United Nations, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave an interview in which he asserted that the era of U.S. "bullying" was drawing to a close in the Middle East and perhaps a time of equality among nations was at hand.

Ahmadinejad, Obama ... each with an agenda, each vying for the role as soothsayer and truth-teller and avuncular visionary, each no doubt lying through his teeth and yet simultaneously telling some truth.

I appreciate living in a country that can occasionally, if increasingly rarely, tell the other side of a story. One-sided virtue and righteousness make my teeth itch.

trust your bullshit meter

I guess, but don't know, that everyone comes up with a rule book for spiritual endeavor -- lines in the sand that deserve, somehow, not to be crossed. Spoken or unspoken, still they exist and nudge or bully the scene within.

When it comes to "honesty," I can display a pretty righteous stick up my ass. I can wave the word around like a flag from the battlement and woe betide the transgressor in the bathroom mirror or elsewhere! But when I slow down long enough to ask what "honesty" means when I strip away my righteousness ... well, it's not so easy or assured or smug.

Is an honest dishonesty honest or not? Is someone who is convinced by their own dishonesties honest or dishonest? And there are a series of other questions as well ... all of which fall back exhausted when I realize that A. I think honesty, whatever it is, is really important in spiritual endeavor and B. my bullshit meter is just my bullshit meter and however much I may dislike bullshit, still, the best I can do is try to hold my own bullshit in check or shovel it out ... or whatever you're supposed to do with bullshit.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, I went to a Zen center where the honcho was a Japanese fellow who wore robes and lectured others. He was proud of his Japanese heritage and could be quite arrogant about the superiority of that heritage.

Like others around me, I too was sucked into the picture he painted of a Japanese culture and history that was superior in quantity and quality to any understanding of Zen that we poor, benighted Americans might have. How could a dumb bunny like me hope to compare to such a wondrous heritage? Like some Hindu untouchable, I saw myself as shit out of luck and there was no avoiding the fact.

Two of the aspects of his heritage this fellow liked to tout, both explicitly and implicitly, were the code of bushido and the way of the samurai. These were noble ways of life that far exceeded any American code of honor ... they were codes that included honesty and courage and decency and a willingness to die in their service. Strong and unbending and chivalrous and marvelous from the point of view of everyday schnooks like me.

And one day, this fellow who dressed so well told a story to illustrate his sense of and belonging-to a world of bushido and the samurai.

It was just a snippet of a tale ... the story of a samurai warrior who, after not having eaten for three days, was walking down the street, picking his teeth as if he had just finished a fine meal.

The tale sent my bullshit meter into the red zone.

What man of honor would have to display his 'courage' to others in this way? Doesn't it take more courage to beg for food, if necessary, than to pretend food is unnecessary? Doesn't it require more fortitude to be honest and not rely on the perceptions of others?

At the time I heard the story, I was somewhat ashamed of my doubts. How could I question a man who had worked so hard -- and often successfully -- to be unquestioned. He was Japanese and I was American ... what could I know of the subtle wonders?

And still my bullshit meter refused to back off. I could see the 'kool' elements of the story, but the bedrock was, despite my best efforts, bullshit... dishonest and corrupt.

Today I agree with the bullshit meter that jumped into the red zone when I heard the story. I am no longer wowed by cultural arrogance except to the extent I try to steer clear of it.

But steering clear of the bullshit observed in others does not mean that bullshit somehow disappears. Everyone is possessed of a desire to look good or the camouflage their weak or manipulative ways in the eyes of others. OK. But then there is the question of my own bullshit, the ways in which I may forgive or anoint my own sayings and doings... like having a stick up my ass about honesty in spiritual endeavor. I would like my ways to be seen as pristine and true and not dishonest ... but is it so?

In the end, I guess it boils down to this for me: Like what you like and dislike what you dislike. Act as best you may. Correct mistakes as they appear. But dishonesty takes too much effort and is, in the end, more exhausting than fulfilling. If you want to be thought well of, go down to the ASPCA and line up with the dogs begging for a pat on the head. Move to Japan or Great Britain and learn the wiles of speaking in indirections.

Trust your bullshit meter ... it won't let you down. Right and wrong, honest and dishonest, are not so important, but this does not mean anyone can expect to find peace by lounging around in moral relativity. That would be bullshit... more strutting of your bushido or samurai or self-serving stuff. Observe the social niceties, if necessary, and 'forgive' others their bullshit... but trust in your bullshit meter: If it looks like bullshit and smells like bullshit then, with or without the socially-acceptable restraints, it is bullshit.

Bullshit, like dishonesty, is inescapable, but that doesn't mean beautiful flowers can't grow.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Seahawks 'win,' Green Bay 'loses'

Following possibly the worst call ever made in U.S. football, the Seattle Seahawks defeated the Green Bay Packers 14-12 yesterday when a Green Bay interception was ruled a Seahawks reception. Replacement referees made necessary by the absence of professionals have come under renewed and sharpened attacks.

Who has not felt that lash at one time or another -- being clearly right but declared wrong, having clearly won but declared the loser.



the pay-to-pray tax

German Roman Catholics are to be denied Holy Communion or religious burial or even be considered a Catholic if they fail to pay an 8% church tax.

All Germans who are officially registered as Catholics, Protestants or Jews pay a religious tax of 8-9% on their annual income tax bill. The levy was introduced in the 19th Century in compensation for the nationalisation of religious property.
German bishops issued the decree which has just come into force ... pay to pray. The German Catholic Church, like the Catholic Church as a whole, has been hemorrhaging congregants in the wake of priest-sexual-abuse revelations. Germany is about 30% Catholic and departing congregants totaled 181,000 in 2010.

The taxation pressures have been brought further into focus by a retired professor of church law, Hartmut Zapp, "who announced in 2007 the he would no longer pay the tax but intended to remain within the Catholic faith." The battle between Zapp and the church is due in a Leipzig court tomorrow.

I see nothing wrong with charging admission to an event. Baseball, soccer, NASCAR, and even marathons do the same. It's a contractual relationship: I pay, you provide. But to suggest that I  simultaneously believe or call your activities charitable or compassionate or holy strikes me as egregiously self-centered: If you demand that sort of credulity, you can pay me for it ... maybe 8% would be a reasonable figure.

trade-offs in life

And, in the "Life's Trade-Offs" department, a friend sent along an article asserting that men lived longer if they were castrated. The study in Korea examined the well-documented lives of men in earlier times.

For men in the crowd, the suggestion is likely to raise a host of reactions, not the least of which is eeek! How would anyone decide between long life and the inability to reproduce -- or even have quite a lot of delicious fun? Would it be worth it? Suppose you got castrated and then got hit by a bus? Is longevity all it's cracked up to be? How would you know until you actually tried it?

Castration as presented in the article calls our bluff: Anyone might wistfully wish for a long, long life, but they cannot know what such a wish might mean in reality. It is a trade-off whose outcome may seem desirable and yet is patently unknown. We are, in short, bullshitting ourselves ... again.

Gautama was said to have said, "All fear dying./All fear death." And, reading such an observation, anyone might nod in solemn agreement. But any examination worth its salt will clearly show that what is called "death" is not the unfortunate opposite of something called "life." No need for god fairy tales here ... it simply does not compute. Death is part of life, just like birth: Death is life; birth is life. And the opposite of life, if opposite there be, is probably "form."

Not every trade-off in life is as eeek-ifying as castration. People make trade-offs all the time -- choosing one activity and thereby penalizing another. A person who seeks a lot of money may work 80 hours a week, but sacrifice the time that might be given to family. A person might choose to go to a movie instead of doing homework. A person might choose to wear red socks instead of black and thereby sacrifice whatever outcome wearing black socks might bring. It's no big deal: Everyone steps unknowing into a future that cannot be known. The only difficulty that arises is the insistence on really knowing what the outcome will be. Anyone might wish for one outcome or another and that wish may be granted (more or less) ... which provokes still more unexamined credulousness, more knowing what actions will bring what results. Everyone wants their cake and to eat it too ... to be in control and know and have it all.

Well, as Sarah Palin might say, "how's that control thingie working for you?"

The Hindus had a pretty good metaphor for adventures in spiritual life, a metaphor I only vaguely remember but ... it concerned a land animal discussing with a fish the wonder and benevolence of breathing air. C'mon up on the land and your life will be improved, the animal argues. The fish, of course, is rightfully skeptical. The life of the land animal is the death of the fish and no amount of coaxing or pontificating can change the fish's mind. Hindu spiritual literature is replete with self-deprecating and common-sensical turns and I can't remember if the fish made its argument to the land animal ... that living in the water was the only life-giving way to go. Whether the fish did or didn't is not so important: The point is made either way for the spiritually inclined ... what trade-off are you willing to make? What risk are you willing to take? What leap are you willing to make irrespective of all the jaw-boning about a better life you have no fucking way of proving ... but you sure like the sound of it?

Trade-offs. When I look back at my own efforts on behalf of what might be called spiritual adventure, I am somewhat in awe. Hours and hours and hours and days and weeks and years and years of practice. I liked the sound of the air that the land-animal was hawking. But seriously ... I could have gone to the movies, read a good book, moved to Utah and found multiple wives (preferably not as a castrato), traveled the world, taken up boxing, made a million dollars doing construction in the Bahamas, slept a lot more, etc. I'm not trying to tout what I did as a means of hawking air or water ... just noticing the implicit and explicit trade-offs I made.

And I don't imagine I am alone, whether inside or outside the 'spiritual' venue. Every choice to is also a choice not-to. It's no big deal except to the extent anyone, whether fish or land animal, chooses to make it a big deal... that, and the continuing insistence on being in control of what no one has any real control over -- the future.

The eek involved in spiritual life really is not so very different from the eek imagined by a man about to have his balls chopped off as a means to a longer life or the fish considering the implications of breathing air. For serious spiritual aspirants, the step is enormous ... into the jaws of some imagined death while searching for some less-painful or confused life. Sure, bliss is kool, heaven is kool, Nirvana is kool, enlightenment is kool ... but who the fuck would I be without all my worries? I don't like worrying, but the notion of being free from worry, while apparently yummy, also scares the living shit out of me.

Who would I be without my worries? Who would I be without my balls?

The good thing about spiritual life is, I imagine, the same thing that is good about any endeavor that is closely attended to ... it eases the imperatives that suggested spiritual life in the first place. Spiritual endeavor is a perfectly good trade-off ... except that there never was a trade-off. Fish are fish, land animals are land animals. Fidgeting and fussing about something else is just fidgeting and fussing about something else. Having your cake and eating it too is a story anyone might simply outgrow with the passage of time or with the application of attention to whatever trade-off has been made.

It takes courage to be alive. It takes balls.

But when you stop and think about it, what other choice is there?

No sense in getting your knickers in a twist.

Monday, September 24, 2012

anonymous mail

Penned in a scrupulous hand, a snailmail note arrived today accompanied by a photocopy of an article from The Economist about Catholic Church finances. The note was signed, "An admiring reader of your blog" and was postmarked in Nashua, N.H.

I had read the article -- a murky and at some points necessarily speculative piece -- but was delighted to think that someone with an actual-factual hand had taken the actual-factual trouble. Imagine that!

Public discussion of the Internet generally includes some mention of the "connecting" quality it has. But my underlying assumptions run more along the lines of the Internet's ability to separate or distance people from each other. Nobody bleeds or roars with laughter on the Internet... everything keeps a sanitized and unfulfilling distance.

When I write on the blog, for example, I feel as if I were back working for the newspaper, a place where writing an article seldom had any known effects ... you just sent the article to the typesetter, the paper got printed and then ... and then ... and then, nothing. It was like dropping a bottled message in the middle of the Atlantic.

The few flesh-and-blood connections I have made on account of the Internet are always a pleasant surprise. How nice to meet someone face to face -- even in something as distant as an anonymous, hand-written note.

Whadya know?! How nice! I'll have to watch my P's and Q's I guess.

people are important

The other day, I was reading an article in the National Catholic Reporter, an article asserting that religion should not have to suffer the restrictions and repressions it currently endured. Because the topic pressed a couple of my buzzers, I responded and the response was not published, probably because I made passing, but not emphatic, reference to the "Vatican sexual abuses."

What that article brought to mind was not so much the matter of religious repression as it was my own knee-jerk hierarchy of human values ... something I believed was perfectly obvious and yet seemed to go overlooked in the fisticuffs of a credulous world.

Roughly, my argument was this:

As human beings, people seek out food, shelter, safety, sex, companionship, health, stories and probably one or two other things I have forgotten. These might be called the civic or social desires -- the ones that deserve a wide recognition by human beings at large. This is the important stuff.

Beliefs come in second, no matter how voluble or strident or well-intentioned they may be. They are fins on the car, so to speak. To confuse what you believe with what you are may be a common undertaking, but it is foolish and, as often as not, harmful. To tell or enjoy stories is one thing. To confuse story-telling with civic or social fact is another.

And so, using the Catholic Church as just one example, it is not the belief or set of beliefs that is so much the issue. The issue is human beings. And the same is true for any other set of beliefs. Good stuff, perhaps, but not to be confused with the human beings who either espouse or criticize them. And where such beliefs impinge on human (or animal) facts ... well, then I think so-called restrictions might rightly be applied.

People are important.

What they believe is their burden ... you know, the fluff we all try to cope with.

sorrowing for the much-beloved

Last night, I got irritable and sent a note to the seller of a book I had ordered, "The Theology of Fear." I had gotten an email saying the book should arrive on the 19th and here it was the 23rd.

Not that I actually want the book so much, but I had told the author, the Rev. Emmett Coyne, that I would read it and see what I could do to get it reviewed and or at any rate review it myself either on Amazon or elsewhere. Reading is not my best thing these days, but I said I would so ... where the hell is my book?

The book itself appears to be a part of a growing chorus of dissent from within, a plaint and plea from the ranks of the Roman Catholic Church. Coyne, at 73, has been a priest for about 50 years, so he is not just some hysterical teenager pointing out a recent discovery that the world is full of hypocrisy. The church -- Coyne's church -- is suffering from arteriosclerosis, a disease in which the arteries that once pumped nourishment to the body become worn and constricted and the life of the patient is threatened as the heart tries to do more with less.

If I get it correctly -- and mind you, the book has not yet arrived -- Coyne plays the role of the doctor who knows that in order to correct a problem, the problem must first be seen with unblinking and unblinkered eyes. Personal preference is not the point ... the point is to acknowledge and assess the problem and then consider ways of either fixing it or calling the undertaker: Some things can be repaired; some things need to die.

Coyne's bad-boy status within the church (he does have a meeting coming up with his superiors who are unlikely to be amused by his observations) does not interest me in the ways it is likely to interest his quick-hit reviewers. Evidence of the church's malfeasances is seen every day in the pedophilia cases that trickle into civil courts ... that's the easy stuff, however hard it may be. A feeding frenzy is growing as the church hemorrhages money and tries to fend off a growing number of unwilling and sometimes cantankerous onlookers. The power that was once is a dwindling power ... but in the past onlookers were willing to accord the church a trust and faith ... a trust and faith in which Coyne partook.

Bad boys are always fun, of course, but what interests me more is the jolt any man or woman might feel when they begin to see that what they have so loved in the past, what has nourished and inspired and given life meaning, is now in equal measure a noose around their throats, constricting and constraining the very limitless spirit that once sought out an encouraging home.

Yes, there may be the anger of betrayal, but there is also a shaking of the foundations. No one can undo the past and no one wants to be taken for a fool and a dupe. It ... hurts. To have loved and sacrificed and promoted the cause of and used so much time on the much-beloved and now ... now this. Now a new point of view. Now a need to escape what was embraced and yet there is no escape.

It never happens overnight. Rather, recognitions seem to advance, drip by acid drop. At first there may be panic and the hope that the patient may be saved, that the walls once lovingly built can be re-mortared and preserved. And then come the desperations of hope -- the assertions of hope that may yet resuscitate and restore to health. But drip by drop, recognition by unassailable recognition, what was once so beloved slips from view. It's not as easy as saying "yes" or "no." What has been slips away and yet too, remains.

It can break a (wo)man's heart.

And yet what hope is there for those whose heart is never broken? Limitlessness may seek out limitations, but does that mean it is therefore limited? You don't have to be a Roman Catholic priest to face such circumstances. Anyone can love, and love dearly, and then one day find constrictions where freedom had been embraced. Tributaries to some beloved flow dry up or find new channels in which to deliver their lively nourishment.

Some may place the limited and limitless in a realm they call spiritual or religious or philosophical.

But I wonder if it is not just part and parcel of growing up.

all grown up

Adults look with indulgent smiles on children who wish they were grown-ups -- wish they could stay up late, put on make-up, go deer-hunting in the fall, drive a car, have a tattoo, know everything ... and order the kids around.

But who will smile indulgently at the adults who too wish they were adults -- wish they had more money, wish their breasts or biceps were bigger, wish they were married or divorced, wish uncertainties would cease to nag, wish the loneliness would dissipate, wish their hopes and beliefs would stop being mere hopes and beliefs, wish some adult light would blaze and bless the scene ... and they could then order this kid around?

Who dares to set childish and adult-sized things aside ... and smile?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

consorting with fools


... are really very nice people.

Those who believe in


... are the followers of false gods.

Since I already have enough false gods in my life, perhaps I may be forgiven if I foolishly prefer to consort from time to time with those who are not fools.

pi and the couch potatoes

Not that it hasn't probably been noted before, but perhaps it could be noted again how much like any individual life the number "pi" is. Pi (π) is the ratio between the circumference and the diameter of any circle. To divide the circumference by the diameter provides a number that is roughly 3.14

But the result of the division is always approximate. The digits following the 3 stretch out infinitely -- never ending and never repeating.

Here, for example, are the first few numbers of a million-digit result:

1415926535897932384626433832795028841971693993751058209 7494459230781640628620899862803482534211706798214808651 3282306647093844609550582231725359408128481117450284102 7019385211055596446229489549303819644288109756659334461 2847564823378678316527120190914564856692346034861045432 6648213393607260249141273724587006606315588174881520920 9628292540917153643678925903600113305305488204665213841 4695194151160943305727036575959195309218611738193261179 3105118548074462379962749567351885752724891227938183011 9491298336733624406566430860213949463952247371907021798 6094370277053921717629317675238467481846766940513200056 8127145263560827785771342757789609173637178721468440901 2249534301465495853710507922796892589235420199561121290 2196086403441815981362977477130996051870721134999999837 2978049951059731732816096318595024459455346908302642522 3082533446850352619311881710100031378387528865875332083 8142061717766914730359825349042875546873115956286388235 3787593751957781857780532171226806613001927876611195909 2164201989380952572010654858632788659361533818279682303 0195203530185296899577362259941389124972177528347913151 5574857242454150695950829533116861727855889075098381754 6374649393192550604009277016711390098488240128583616035 6370766010471018194295559619894676783744944825537977472

And that barely scratches the surface.

Never ending and never repeating ... how much is that like any thought, word or deed a human being might express? Being uncertain seems as silly as being certain. The endless ripples just ripple and ripple until any man might fall exhausted in his pursuit of "true meaning" or "unassailable fact" or "a world without uncertainty" or "authentic answers." Neither circle nor diameter is affected: Thought is thought; word is word; deed is deed ... forever ... never ending and never repeating, neither together nor alone ... forever... whatever the hell that might mean.

Given all this, is it any wonder the world created couch potatoes?

good times

After powerful rains last night, today is as crisp and clean and clear as laundry taken from the drier.

Cloudy skies await the sun.

Sunny skies await the clouds.

And a good time was had by all.

coming to terms with mediocrity

Yesterday, the mashed potatoes were good, my daughter looked nice in her wedding dress, and the brownies were poor. Such were the small adventures that reminded me once again that I have made no perfect peace with my distaste for mediocrity ... my own in particular.

Before arriving for a weekend visit, my daughter had asked that I make lemon chicken, mashed potatoes and corn for dinner. It had been a favorite growing up. "Your wish is my command," I said, and last night I made a fondly-remembered dinner. And the mashed potatoes came out very well. Others may say that making good mashed potatoes is like taking a leak in the morning -- everyone can do it -- but I disagree. Mediocre mashed potatoes are more the rule than the exception. Last night's were good, not according to some great skill of mine, but more as a matter of luck. And I felt lucky.

The wedding dress is scheduled to premier Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013, in Fiji, where my daughter and her fiance plan to get married. It's a nice dress, my daughter looked good, and I was pleased that she was pleased. Nothing mediocre about pleasure.

The brownies, which my older son likes, came out cake-y. I like them gooey and chewy and fat with chocolate. I like them 'wicked.' But although I added chunks of semi-sweet chocolate and a couple of tablespoons of unsweetened chocolate, they still tasted like something you might get out of a machine in a train station or in some upscale cafe that was selling its reputation rather than its products.

But a more forceful reminder of my distaste for mediocrity -- my own mediocrity -- came in the form of working on a YouTube production of "A Modern Monk's Tale," an essay by John Cavanagh, a former Trappist monk who had blown a whistle within his order and, as per Catholic usual, had been punished for it. I found and find the essay touching ... compelling in its depiction of one man's anger, anguish and assessment. I really thought it was terrific.

A friend was good enough to scan the pages of the essay in and make it available on the Internet. But then it occurred to me that an actual-factual reading of the essay might make good material on YouTube. So on Wednesday, I went to a sound-recording place, sat in a booth, and read the whole thing into a microphone. Forty minutes. I got a disc of the recording by the afternoon and then involved my friend in putting together a YouTube version.

The problem, as my friend pointed out, was that my reading was mediocre. I had a writing skill, not necessarily a reading one. And as I listened, I had to agree. True, it had only been one reading -- not a series of practice runs -- but still, I spent $200 I could ill afford on that one shot and didn't have the discretionary income to go back and do it again. It'll be hard enough to pay the rent this month given my over-enthusiastic outlay. As it stands, the delivery is mediocre at best ... and worse, I involved my friend in my own half-baked enthusiasm. You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, but if you're going to try, it's a pity to inveigle others into your realm of error.

So I wrote to my friend this morning and apologized and said the whole thing did not deserve the effort he was expending and I had expended. I suggested we just write it off and put our energies into things with more excellent potential.

I don't begrudge the expenditure made on behalf of a mediocre result. I'd certainly like to have the money back (and I would love to return my friend's outlay of energy), but if that's what it takes to discover foolishness, it's probably worth the price.

The whole adventure was dumb and dumber, in one sense. But it brought me face to face with my distaste for mediocrity.

But what is mediocre and what is excellent? Using the agreement of others as a means of definition strikes me as wimpy and downright mediocre.

And what leaves me floundering in the observation of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart when addressing the matter of pornography: "I may not know what it is," he said approximately, "but I know it when I see it."

And that, in turn leaves the questions, "What do I see?" and "Who sees it?"

The answer to those questions is bound to be mediocre.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

"lynching" ... where the people rule

Is this a story about justice or is it a story about vigilante justice? Is it crazy or is it palpably sane?

A man said by his mother to have drug and mental problems was beaten and burned to death in Tactic, Guatamala, after he killed two school children with a machete. A lynching of sorts. A decision reached by towns people. In Mayan towns, the people rule.

The killer did not escape. Four men accused of being accomplices were later said to be thieves ... and were badly beaten but were spared the gasoline that some called for in their cases.

The blog post by Reuters photographer Jorge Dan Lopez is not a perfect news story. It leaves questions unanswered. And yet its very imperfection lends credibility and human reality to the reporting ... or at least in my mind.


Penance is such a slippery customer that you can kind of see why various religions created an invisible god to bestow forgiveness. The past is past and yet the past lingers and insists like body odor. There is no adequate shower to wash clean with and yet the search for one is unceasing. No one can grasp the past and yet the past grasps with a subtle and powerful certainty.

In Australia, the Roman Catholic Church confirmed that more than 600 children had been abused under its auspices (in the state of Victoria) starting in the 1930's. Most of the 620 cases occurred between the 1960's and 1980's. The admission suggests a sort of penance. Campaigners say the actual number of cases could be as many as 10,000. And even if the true number were 620, what are the implications for the rest of the 1.2 billion-member Catholic Church worldwide?

Part of what is offensive about Vatican sexual abuses is the fact that the church has continued to arrogate to itself the power to adjudicate such matters. What would be a civil crime in any other venue does not deserve a civil proceeding: Let the church investigate the church ... we are trustworthy and honest brokers and don't need anyone else to tell us how to manage our affairs. Of course if that were truly the case, there never would have been a problem in the first place.

Penance. Who can say what adequate penance is, whether private or public? My own feeling with the Vatican is ... take it to civil court and sort things out according to human, civil law. Is this a perfect solution, one that will wash away the body odor of the past? No, but it's the best anyone's got short of invisible gods. Human crime is human crime and human crime is no different in the sacristy or the outhouse.

OK, there's crime punishable in a court of law.

And then there is moral outrage. No one likes getting duped by an organization the proffers a helping hand and then manipulates its petitioners for personal pleasure or gain. It feels criminal even if a court of law is not equipped to get a handle on it. Zen Studies Society, for example, was for almost 50 years the playground of Eido Tai Shimano, a fellow whose sociopathic activities in taking on and then casting off women students and in cooking the books to his own advantage have not yet reached the court system.

Sociopaths, whether Roman Catholic institution or Zen teachers, do not see penance as much more than a way to assure their continued status. They will apologize without apologizing. Penance is not penance -- it is a tool to assure power.

But then there is the penance of those affected by manipulation and malfeasance. I, for example, am truly sorry that I did not -- perhaps could not at the time -- speak out more forcefully in matters concerning Eido Shimano and the people he wounded. Looking back, I think, "What the fuck was the matter with you?!" Not that I was alone in my inabilities and fears, but that's no goddamned excuse. I would sincerely like to make amends for my shiftless lack of effort and I do what I can as a penitent today. And I think others, whether in the Catholic Church or organizational situations like that of Zen Studies Society, have a responsibility to themselves and to others to speak up and speak clearly.

Is there a perfect penance? I doubt it, except among those willing to credit an over-active imagination. The past cannot be changed and cannot be grasped and yet its grasp in the present is undeniable and inescapable. To deny or excuse it is not possible. To talk it to death is not possible.

The only course I can think of is to take a full-frontal-nudity responsibility and then, without any ulterior motive or self-serving excuse, vow never to do that again... even as the knowledge remains that doing that again is entirely possible.

Will it work?

I really don't know.

But practice is good.

deperate? deranged? drugged?

A tiger that mauled a man who jumped into its cage Friday at the Bronx Zoo in New York will not be euthanized, zoo officials said. The tiger "did nothing wrong."

No word on whether the man, who was hospitalized after the incident, will be euthanized.

The 25-year-old man was later quoted as responding approximately-- when asked why he did it: "Everyone makes his own choices in life."


Sporting their intransigent virtues, congressmen who have accomplished squat left Washington yesterday and headed home to tell voters why they should be re-elected to return to Washington and accomplish more squat.

President Barack Obama too is out of Washington and on the campaign trail.

A time for politicking.

Imagine that ... paying someone to posture and pose while unemployment hovers around eight percent, two military adventures suck at the treasury, financial reform that might stave off another dip into crisis goes untended, drought gnaws at the country's bread basket, education increasingly means trade-school training, and a disparity in wealth whittles away whatever "equality" might once have meant and creates a realm in which snickering and anguish are barely concealed.

Maybe the United States should just get it over with and acclaim Karl Rove as emperor. Dictatorships are popular in third-world countries. Rove certainly seems to think he deserves it and, what the hell, no one else seems to accomplish much ... why not just call a spade a spade and then arm ourselves for the revolution?



There are no secrets, of course.

There are only the people who keep them.

But as a matter for individuals who may insist on keeping the secret or learning it, once the death-grip insistence is released ...

Is what remains a secret or not?

Friday, September 21, 2012

starting point

Aldous Huxley once wrote, "If the intellectual travels long enough and far enough, he will return to the same point from which the non-intellectual has never started."

Given that, I wonder if he might also have written, "If the non-intellectual travels long enough and far enough, he will return to the same point from which the intellectual has never started."

Maybe starting is the important part.

Or not?

hearing without listening

When someone asks, "What have you learned from Zen Buddhism? How have things changed?" I am always caught flat-footed, somehow. Usually I can make up some kind of answer, but the answer is always made-up and it doesn't sound true in my own ear. Sure, it's kinda true, but really it's just made-up -- something I come up with to be companionable.

But this morning, it crossed my mind that maybe there had been something I learned from Zen practice. I'm not sure I wouldn't have learned it anyway -- if, for example, I had spent as much time collecting kewpie dolls as I had pursuing Zen practice -- but there was a recollected shift in things that bubbled up this morning.

When I first went to the Zen center I attended for nine years, it took a while to get the format under my belt -- sitting, chanting, walking, eating, etc. And periodically, someone would give a talk. On Thursdays, which were public meeting nights, a student with more longevity might give the talk. During sesshins or retreats, usually it was the teacher himself who would delve into one encouragement or another.

You weren't allowed to take notes.

At first, I was irritated that note-taking was prohibited. My mindset was, if you learn enough or commit enough to memory or fill up enough notebooks ... well, then you would know something. And at the time, 'knowing' something was all I knew how to do. That's the way I had previously conducted my life -- learn enough and then you know and then you're not quite so stupid or inept any more.

I'm not entirely sure what it was I wanted to do with the notes I was not allowed to take during the talks in the zendo. Maybe I hoped to reread them later, as if preparing for a history exam. Maybe I wanted to husband them as an academic might husband books on a shelf ... a signature of learning and involvement and perhaps a little pride. Maybe I just was desperate "not to forget" one bright bit of wisdom or the other. Maybe I wanted to quote someone or something.

Whatever my hopes were, I was not allowed to take notes and as a result I listened with a gimlet attention, doing all I could to commit what was being said to a notebook in my mind. "Ego," "attachment," "emptiness," "compassion," etc. -- all these were important aspects of what I had chosen to practice. I wanted to know more, to see better, to understand more fully and these talks seemed to offer a way to do all of that and more. I listened cat-like and pounced on the various important mice that passed by.

But having done what I could to store up the substance of any given talk, having written it down on my mental notebook as neatly and firmly as possible, still, it was like writing on an Etch A Sketch: I could store the words on the tablet while listening, but the moment I stepped outside the zendo, the moment I began to walk home or ran into a friend, the tablet shook and the neatly stored words began to disappear.

At first I was both dismayed and pissed off: How would I ever know anything if I couldn't store it up, if what I needed to know kept slipping into half-baked and probably wrong recollections? This sucked! What a bad student I must be! I would never get anywhere if I couldn't remember the important stuff!

But no matter how hard I tried, no matter how I redoubled my listening effort, the Etch A Sketch effect continued unabated ... write it down, shake the toy, watch the words and the import disappear.

There was no overnight change in this activity. But one day, during a talk, I realized I was no longer really listening any more. I mean, I could hear the words and I wasn't day dreaming about something else, but I just wasn't all that concerned.

And the funny part was that I didn't need to listen with that old history-book intensity. It was like lying naked in the shallow white waters of a stream ... the water eddied and flowed over the body smoothly and every once in a while some stronger current would have its say against shoulder or hip and then pass along. Sure, there was stuff that still banged my chimes, but I didn't need to listen ... something would hear what was necessary or useful and if, by chance, it didn't hear, then it would become available at some time later ... or maybe not at all. The rippling waters would write and erase, write and erase, write and erase ... I was attentive, but not needy. Something like hearing without listening.

Maybe it was around this time, whenever it was, that I also began to feel my teeth itch when people would say, "I understand." I understand this about Zen or that about Zen ... and my teeth would itch the old Etch A Sketch itch.

I really don't know if any of this constitutes a change attributable to Zen Buddhism. Maybe it's just lazy. Maybe it's just human, with no need of a format called "Buddhism." I don't know.

I do know that skinny dipping is one of life's greatest pleasures.

'innocents' assist jail break

Aided and abetted by Americans and Europeans who probably do not think of themselves as "bad people' or "criminals," 131 inmates at a Mexican prison walked out the front door Monday in what has been described as the "escape of the century." They did not, as earlier reported, escape through a tunnel.

The Zetas drug cartel is suspected. Three inmates have been recaptured.

Collusion -- d'oh -- of prison personnel is alleged and law-abiding citizens wring their hands.

In America and Europe, good people everywhere keep on buying.

Given the suffering and death in various parts of the world, I sometimes think there should be a mandatory course in schools everywhere ... Connect the Dots.

increased volume, decreased sound


shut up!

Besides the SpeechJammer, which encourages people to shut up, there were several other Ig Nobel award winners as the prizes were handed out last night in Boston:

Other winners feted Thursday at Harvard University's opulent Sanders Theatre included Dutch researchers who won the psychology prize for studying why leaning to the left makes the Eiffel Tower look smaller; four Americans who took the neuroscience prize for demonstrating that sophisticated equipment can detect brain activity in dead fish; a British-American team that won the physics prize for explaining how and why ponytails bounce; and the U.S. General Accountability Office, which won the literature prize for a report about reports.


Although it may be impossible to nail things down exactly, still I am grateful for the upbringing my children gave me. The three of them are all at home just now and I realize in their jostling and flow ...

Realize what? ...

I'm not exactly sure, but I am grateful.

Parents, assuming they like their children, are luckier than most -- lucky in secret ways that cannot be transmitted to childless adults. It's a bit like Zen practice -- something, and that something isn't always nice -- happens.

With the daily, hourly, minute-ly attention required, children slam the prison bars shut and open the door to an unimagined freedom:

"I" am interesting, but I am not that interesting.

I suppose there are other ways to find this out, but if you want to find the bar-none-best teachers, try a kid.

Thursday, September 20, 2012


Christ, how people ache!

Not theoretically or setting things up for a soothing spiritual riff, but actually-factually ache!

Physically ... mentally ... ache!

I don't mean this in some white-whine, circle-jerk "Oy vey! Ain't life awful?!" way ... a way once aptly spoofed by The Kingston Trio.

I just mean the facts as they stand.

People ache.

And you can't tell them what to do. Only they can do that ... do something about it.

And instead of doing that, they often spend years running in circle after circle, seeking out someone else's good news. The other day I read a long speech by a fellow listing improvements that might be made to the Roman Catholic Church. It was touching. It was hopeful. It was humane. It was just and kind and loving and ....

A lot of times, people who ache will do that to themselves: Give speech after well-meaning speech about aches ... which generally only makes them ache more.

I do wish I could help out in something other than useless way.

But as cruel and dismissive as it may sound, the best I can think of is the malapropism once attributed to New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel: "If people won't come out to the ballpark, you can't stop them."

full house

Soon the house will be full again ... great, grown people who are my children filling the place with the sound and presence and activity that await their arrival later today.

Olivia from Pennsylvania.
Angus from New Hampshire.
Ives still here but caught up in college schedules and so frequently not here.

Presence in presence, presence in absence; absence in absence, absence in presence. The invisible made visible and vice versa.

And I am likely to be slightly befuddled, wondering how the hell we all managed to live and grow in so small a space as this house ... the circus magic in which twenty clowns climb out of a Volkswagen beetle.

what's important ... seriously

As a claustrophobic, the idea of being shuttered in a five-by-five room over an extended period of time is not appealing. And what is not appealing from a descriptive distance is even less appealing in reality: Some visceral scream erupts and will not be denied no matter what the rational soothings of others.

I knew all this even before I sat down on a hard-wood stool in front of a microphone in a coffin-like sound booth yesterday. Below the microphone, there was one of those flimsy collapsible music stands  on which to put the papers from which I planned to read. The music stand made the room seem even smaller, if that were possible.  I was mildly worried about making the mistakes I was bound to make when reading for 40 minutes straight and I was worried, below the surface, that my surroundings would actualize the death I viscerally imagined.

Outside my coffin, Steve Unkles sat in front of an array of sound equipment, keeping an eye on the levels of my voice. But I couldn't see him. I was alone, wrapped in the burial shroud of a very small room. Later he would say, "That was about an A-minus," but sound recording is what puts spaghetti on his table, so I wouldn't be surprised if he said that to all his clients.

Roughly, the situation was eek ... and I was nevertheless determined to see it through. Really determined ... I didn't care, somewhere within, if I dropped dead in the process. I didn't care that I was spending a $200 I could ill afford on a fixed income. I didn't care if I was scared. I didn't care if it required more energy than I could easily expend. This was important ...

It was more important than what anyone else said; more important than if someone else agreed; more important, even, than if I called it 'important' ... which is to say that the crescendo of importance was not really all that important at all. It was, on nobody's terms but my own, worth dying for ... I knew it and was at peace, however antsy I might be. And later I would be well and truly exhausted.

The subject of all this mental caterwauling was an essay entitled "A Modern Monk's Tale," a work by John Cavanagh who died Sept. 9. Cavanagh was once a Trappist monk and in that capacity he had brought various sexual malfeasances to the attention to his superiors ... and then been forced out of the church. The essay was well written and as a human tale it reached me, but, having read and been touched by it, I then conceived the notion of reading it aloud and putting it on YouTube. Why? Because it was ... important. To me, really important.

And that's what interests me this morning ... importance.

For my money, if anyone wants to assure a little peace in this life, s/he has to enter -- and be consumed by -- a realm that is deeply important. But importance is an interesting critter and one that deserves honest investigation. Lip service or emotional crescendos may sound important ... but check it out.

"Family is important," "life is important," "war is important," "death is important," "injustice is important," "money is important," "love is important," "freedom is important," "chocolate is important," "I am important" ... the list is literally endless and with each new assertion of importance, the "importance" shapeshifts. This is the kind of importance that relies on the agreement of others ... there's the importance and then there is the importance of finding agreement. In this sort of importance, something is always held back, no matter how 'sincere' anyone might be. And that holding back means that peace is forever elusive. Peace is not a matter of approval; it is a matter of actualized life, right now. Anything -- including reading an essay into a microphone -- can be important ... anything at all. But the true importance ... well, that's a personal matter that is utterly impersonal.

When I was into what I think of as a Marine Corps phase of Zen Buddhism, I considered what I was doing to be important. I was determined and I could come up with a lot of self-serving reasons why it was important to me and also to some universal deeeeep-meaning. This was profound, I was serious and it was all important. My determination to practice meditation (zazen) 40 or more hours a week meant, in one sense, that it was important ... but how important was it?

The lucky thing about what I considered important (zazen) was that in the midst of being important, my right knee might begin to hurt like the fires of hell or my mind might find itself in a swirling mass of joy or anger or anguish. In the face of such facts, the 'importance' of what I was doing was brought up short. This was a reality check. My sense of what was important was limited ... socially acceptable to some or even me, perhaps, but still limited. When my right knee ignited with pain, well, fuck all that important stuff! What had been merely important became through-and-through important. But how important was that?

Once upon a time, I came into email correspondence with a former army colonel whose son, a lieutenant, had been killed in the Vietnam war. I had seen the man on TV and he struck me as a balanced and thoughtful person ... so I wrote to him and he wrote back. The idea that this man's son had died before him struck me as unutterably sad and I approached with some gingerness and awe. But when I asked about his sense of the import and meaning of war, one of the things he wrote back was, "Perhaps virtue is its own reward."

And maybe that's what he truly believed or, better yet, actually knew. But the observation made and makes me want to throw up. What does real life -- important life -- have to do with virtue, a commodity that forever puts one's life in another's hands?!

I'm not saying this man was in some sense wrong, but right and wrong simply don't apply to peace. Right and wrong apply to practical importances and peace is not practical. Anyone might, as a matter of practice, start with what is practical and seemingly sensible and socially agreeable. There may be practice of what is important and that practice may lead to what is truly important, but what is truly important has no particular importance. As Shunryu Suzuki once observed when asked the importance of zazen, "It's important, but it's not that important."

And isn't that the way for anyone -- it's important, but it's not that important. Moments come and moments go, each complete and consuming and inescapable. Vast, vast importance ... vast, living importance -- every second of every day -- and it's not that important.

Hold nothing back. Dive into the swimming pool. Climb out of the swimming pool into a new swimming pool. Cool and clear and relaxed.

It's a perfectly peaceful matter. Effortless.

Might as well get with the program.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

wish I'd said that

Spent a couple of hours this morning recording "A Modern Monk's Tale" by John Cavanagh. With any luck and a lot of help, I hope to get the voice version, together with the pictures that accompany Cavanagh's essay, on YouTube ... assuming there is a way to get YouTube to accept 40 minutes' worth of reading. The essay is Cavanagh's adventures as a former Trappist monk who attempted to bring abuses to the attention of his superiors and then was forced out of the Order ... and abandon the church.

One line of the essay, which will now more than likely fade into a forgotten past in my life, banged my chimes especially hard ... and made me wish I had said it or thought of it or been in a position to utter it:

I haven't found it necessary to reach for the solace of either a drink or a theological concept for well over 23 years.
Wish I'd said that.

harbingers of the past

This morning, on the dampened black of the macadam sidewalk outside the porch, three harbingers of things to come lay patiently ... harbingers of things to come and memories of times now past.

touchstones of spiritual life

In spiritual life, I wonder if it's not true for everyone that drip by drop and step by step, a collection of touchstones grows in the mind and heart -- little snippets of information and inspiration that guide and shape the endeavor. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," "the Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao," "truth is one, wise men call it by many names," "love and charity towards all beings/ contentment under all circumstances/ control of the senses and passions," "cause and effect" ... the list goes on and on, varying according to the needs and leanings of the aspirant. A library of faith that includes monasteries glistening on impossibly-steep hills and the serene step of some monk in the forest.

Touchstones of faith.

Bush league aspirants use such information to browbeat others, to assess and/or denigrate others' purity and vigor ... and sometimes as a foundation for beating the crap out of them. But further along the path, such a collection of touchstones is more frequently employed as a means of yardsticking and encouraging the effort and growth of the librarian who collects such touchstones in the first place.

This morning, a friend sent along a New York Times article about a small piece of papyrus that suggests Jesus had a wife. Not 'proves,' of course, but certainly suggests ... and the resulting bush league argumentation is likely to be intense. Imagine that: If Jesus had a wife ... uhh ... well, the misogyny limned within some Christian traditions, a misogyny that has silver-tongued and slippery advocates, might be thrown into disarray and a touchstone displaced.

Touchstones. Assistants. Guardian angels. Goads. Discipline along what may be a very narrow path.

Gouts of joy and avalanches of sorrow may mark the touchstone path. Sometimes it's all pretty ho-hum and even borrrring. But whether easy or hard, still the serious aspirant sticks with it and touchstones provide a staff to accompany the effort and advance.

This morning, the touchstone that tap dances around in my mind is this: The louder the volume the weaker the faith. I don't mean this as a means of judging others, though it's probably true in that arena as well, but rather as a means of looking in the bathroom mirror. Louder and louder the touchstones of faith may become, but the louder they become, the more they assert the very opposite of the reason the touchstones were collected and collated in the first place.

And what faith is it that deserves nourishing? I think it is this: You were born to be happy, so ... be happy. You were born in peace, so ... be peaceful. What do touchstones have to do with a grounded happiness or peace?  Sure, they're OK for a while ... but only in a time of faithlessness.

All of this may sound a bit over-weaning in its optimism, but optimism has nothing to do with it. Another sappy touchstone religion is not the point. The point is that the sky is blue, the grass is green and no man ever came out of the womb relying on touchstones.

It all reminds me of an old joke whose punch line I remember but whose context is forgotten. The joke concerned a little bird that was flying in ever-diminishing circles around a mountain peak. Smaller and smaller the circles became until finally ... "he flew up his own asshole and disappeared."


Spiritual life is largely a matter of imagining you are an asshole.

What an asshole!