Sunday, March 31, 2013

of fleas and men

In the news:

-- In Germany, "an entire troupe of performing fleas has fallen victim to the freezing temperatures...."

An "entire troupe?"

Who knew?

--  In Nicosia, Cyprus,
Archbishop Chrysostomos II said the church's property belongs to the people, but "dignity" prevents them from asking for help. He said he has instructed parish priests to discreetly seek out those in need.
Not that I'd know, but that sounds like an actual church in action. No more excuses.


Perhaps the insistent longevity of human spiritual endeavor rests solely on the fact that adherents are unwilling -- or, if you need an excuse, unable -- to forgive their teachers.

Adhere to their teachings? Sure.
Take their counsel and love? Sure.
Follow instruction? Sure.
Find solace? Sure.
Enter bright doorways? Sure.
Face the fires of error? Sure.
Elevate and critique? Sure.
Excoriate? Sure
Bless them? Sure.
Damn them? Sure.

But forgive them?


saints fear heaven ...

Saints fear heaven.
Sinners fear hell.
Or is it the other way around?
Or neither?

Whatever the case, fear strikes me as a dubious companion.

happy Easter

Saturday, March 30, 2013


My son competed in discus throwing at nearby Mt. Holyoke College today:

it's all good ... yeah, right!

It's all good.

Why would anyone say such a thing unless, in fact, the opposite weren't true?

a hero, poor bastard

Recovering drug addict Christopher Knafelc jumped onto the Philadelphia subway tracks Thursday to assist a man who had fallen there for reasons unknown. It was nothing fancy ... he just did it.

And now he is being held up as a hero and a Samaritan and ... well, you know the drill.

Knafelc has been clean since the time, ten days after his daughter's birth in 2010, when he held her in his arms and she smiled at him:
"That was the most powerful thing I've ever felt in my life to this day," Knafelc said. "It was better than any high from drugs."
But now, along with all the other crushing weights imposed by an attempt to remain clean, he is forced to contend with the fact that he did something right and is being called a hero.

"It did help reinforce that I'm a good person," Knafelc told The Associated Press in a Friday interview at his mother's south Philadelphia apartment. "I questioned that a lot because of my colorful past."
Still, Knafelc deflected the praise Friday by saying he was just doing the "right thing."
Sometimes I am not sure which is more burdensome and confusing -- being someone who gets things "wrong" or being someone who gets things "right."

succeed and fail

Am I alone in thinking that whereas anyone might work like a bandit to "succeed" and "be right," still it is the "failures" and "mistakes" that linger and fortify and enrich their lives? And that in this, there is something akin to success in failure?

True, it is healthy and sensible and warming to do what is correct and then repeat the exercise, but is there anything better than stepping in dog shit to transmit a no-bullshit lesson?

When my kids were little, my younger son came to me one day and said, "Papa, I want to learn how to build a gun." He did not mean that he wanted to make a gun so that he could swagger and impose his will and stick up the local convenience store. He meant that he wanted to know literally how these machines arose out of bits and pieces and became whole and powerful in the shoot-'em-up adventures he saw on TV.

Faced with such a request, I found myself clueless. I had learned how to take apart and reassemble a rifle when I was in the army, but that information was useless in the present since I no longer owned a rifle. And even if I had owned one, still I would not know how to mill the parts or forge the steel.

Two adventures arose out of my son's request. The first was that I took all three kids to a nearby armory museum, a place chock-a-block with weaponry past and present. Swords, bayonets, flintlocks, pistols, rifles, machine guns -- an endless host of what the museum attendant described to me as "the history of diplomacy."

The second adventure involved all of us piling in the car and driving to a shooting range provided by gunmaker Smith & Wesson. I wanted my kids to know -- hands-on -- what a gun might be. There were a great many negative things I could say about guns, but I did not want my kids growing up listening to my conclusions as if those conclusions were true. I didn't want whining philosophical smoke-blowers any more than I wanted mindless members of the NRA. I wanted them to know.

As we drove the twenty or so miles to the range, the car was full of excitement. Shooting a real gun ... wowsers! How many of their young friends had done such a thing? Not many. This was ... special and grown up and ... hot damn!

At the range itself, I completed the necessary paperwork and then told the attendant that I would like to try two pistols -- one, a .22 with little or no kick; and two, a pistol using the most commonly shot ammunition, whatever that was.

When we entered the range-area-proper, what happened was precisely what I wanted: A range officer approached us and I asked him if he would take the kids in hand -- instruct them. He seemed to have faced similar circumstances in the past and assumed his role exactly as I had hoped: I wanted my kids to forget about dad's authority and listen to someone other than family ... an expert of sorts ... and someone not to be fucked with. Someone who would let them know that this was serious ... that it had nothing to do with philosophy or TV. It was a time to serious up. Excitement or fear was not the point ... understanding was the point.

Each of my kids took a turn under the eye of the range officer. Holding the pistol, feeling its weight, learning the slow process of loading the bullets, pointing the gun down-range, feeling the gun waver during aiming, firing at a target and not hitting the bulls-eye, policing up spent brass ... all of it with the slowness and mistakes that go with any new endeavor. After the .22 came the .38 ... much louder, with more kick, and an added degree of difficulty in hitting the target.

There was a new kind of excitement in the car driving home -- a kind of steadied sense of accomplishment. It was still fresh and bright and lacking a thorough understanding, but it was no longer TV or philosophy. It bragged a bit, but the bragging was informed and thereby muted. There were reasons for fear or delight, but the kids had some experience, some factual context with which to inform their ideas.

At the time, I was delighted with the outcome of it all. Forget the theories -- get the facts! And even today, I do not think I made a mistake. But neither am I sure that that trip to the pistol range was a success. What occurs to me today is that there is no knowing the line between success and failure.

I guess what brought all this to mind was a blurry photo my older son sent me. It was a picture of my younger son, all sinewy and fit, carrying a rifle in basic training. And my knee-jerk, visceral reaction was, "What the fuck is my son doing carrying a rifle?! It's all wrong! It's dangerous!" The implications were frightening to me. Like the excitement my kids had felt when driving to the pistol range, my reactions rose up without any thorough understanding or acceptance. Or, even if my understanding were good ... so what? Dog shit is dog shit, like it or lump it.

Here was a photo of the same son who had once said to me, "Papa, I want to learn how to build a gun." We never did do that, and yet here he was, carrying a weapon. There were range officers aplenty -- or anyway I hoped so -- but still ....

Guns, of course, can arouse strong feelings. But how different are they really than the more-smiled-upon choices anyone makes ... the 'fruitful activities' that promise success and kindness and fulfillment? Those who pursue such fruitful activities may talk the hind leg off a dog, but still, the pistol of the present has requirements that cannot be known from wise encomiums. Anyone who has pursued a serious spiritual practice, for example, knows that it can kick worse than a .38.

I would not suggest that a sissified moral relativism is warranted when it comes to failure and success... the kind of "it's all good" nonsense. But neither do I much like the good-news, NRA flag-waving that can be imposed on "the one true path."

But where it comes to the heft and particularities of anyone's life-pistol, I do think there is something to be said for noticing and knowing. Sometimes it's an ungainly mess ... a failure. Sometimes it's right in the center of the bulls-eye ... a success. Either way, there is no backing off.

Noticing and knowing strikes me as sensible.

the artful dodger

Life is more artful than the poet's pen,
More slippery than the gossip's tongue,
More loving than a leg-hold trap,
More holy than the summer rose ...

And if this is so,
What refuge can cradle the orphaned child?
What remains
But to bare a naked throat
To the morning sun...

And sing?!

Friday, March 29, 2013

Buddhists are self-taught

It seems to me that, despite all the mewling and caterwauling about a sticky-fingered "self," all serious Buddhists (like the unserious ones) are self-taught.

And that it is for this reason that Buddhism sparkles.


Of all the critiques I have heard or read in my life, the one that continues to sing sweetly in my mind came from a college chum, who, like me, was studying English and was interested in writing.

One evening, as Tom Libby and I were bs-ing with the gusto and solemnity that only college students can indulge in without laughter, Tom mounted a full-frontal assault on his homework assignment -- the work of Percy Bysshe Shelley:

"'I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!'" Tom intoned sonorously... followed immediately with a resounding

"OHHH SHIT!!!!!"
His voice fairly dripped with get-a-life, sparkling disgust.

And to this day, I simply cannot forget the trumpet I heard that evening.

Buddhism and booze

In Tokyo, a Buddhist monk runs a bar where Buddhists can, so to speak, let down their hair.

Chants replace karaoke.

Bartenders serve up sermons and homilies.

Drinks include "Perfect Bliss," "Infinite Hell," and the ever-popular "Enslavery to Love and Lust."

The Vowz Bar has been going strong for 13 years.

thorns of memory

Oh Christ! Easter is coming.

And in the news are the perennial tales of those Christians who have themselves literally nailed to a cross in memory of their beloved Jesus... a memory long since memorized and commemorated and retold in specific and sometimes grisly delight. In a world that can dish up man-sized portions of distress, what might Jesus have thought of those who went out of their way to elevate distress? I can't pretend to know. People believe what they want to believe.

For some, other crucifixions of the past are remembered today -- today, the 40th anniversary of the moment when the last of U.S. combat troops pulled out of Vietnam, a place that claimed over 50,000 American lives and buried untold numbers of Vietnamese ... a conflict that was never declared a "war." For some, the past is gone. For others, the flesh within is torn and a Roman crucifixion might be a preferable fate.

Stephen Batchelor ... sort of

Yesterday, I drove to the 'other' side of town to hear a lecture by Stephen Batchelor, an author and mildly obstreperous exponent of Buddhism.

It was like a trip to France.

The lecture itself was held at Smith College, an Ivy League institution whose many 19th and early-20th century brick buildings sit on geographically higher-ground in Northampton. Smith is the economic strong point of the community ... sort of like having a delicately-appointed General Motors plant in town. In what might be thought of as the college's bomb zone, private houses are often large and occasionally magnificent and in harmony with the stately institution they abut ... a distant cry from the farming-feel utility of the housing in neighborhoods at a greater distance ... housing like mine.

I wanted to hear Batchelor because ... well, because he had struck me from afar as an interesting and cogent expositor of something that had roped in my interest for 40 or more years: Buddhism. I had never read any of his books and had no intention of doing so, but I was curious.

The lecture was held in Seelye Hall -- one of Smith's brick buildings that had been named for the college's first president, Laurenus Clark Seelye. The steps leading to the entry doors were what I consider precious and dangerous -- made of stone that was set in such a way that delicate maidens would not be forced to lift their feet too high ... risers a mere three to four inches ... dangerous because the stair-climbing habit is generally set at seven to eight inches and the potential for miscalculating and then falling were in play.

Inside, the building immediately spoke of the past -- high ceilings that thumbed their noses at the bitter winters that New England can serve up; rich paneling tended to perfection all these years later; and, on the first floor, a ginormous -- we're talking Vladimir Lenin or Saddam Hussein or Abraham Lincoln enormous -- painting of Seelye. The oil portrait must have been twenty feet high and eight or ten across ... and its sole, standing figure was depicted in the blacks and whites of a fellow who had once been a minister. It showed a serious/solemn, if not terribly interesting, man. The painting was not a great or moving work; it just made me wonder, as a tourist in this foreign land, what sort of a man would allow or encourage such a painting to be executed.

Before the lecture, I got to say hello to Stephen Batchelor and to chat briefly. At 59, he was white-haired, balding and had a comforting paunch. His talk was entitled "Secular Buddhism," a mildly-provocative title to the extent anyone might credit Buddhism as a religion and see secularism as some sort of polar opposite.

The lecture was delivered in I took to be a reconfigured, two-classroom-sized amphitheater that was packed with perhaps 50 people, two or three of whom were brown. The seats were spacious enough so that I could and did cross my legs from time to time. Many in the audience were older and had earnest faces. Their clothes seemed to consist of assertively-unassertive linen and shoes softened by another's hands.

What did Batchelor say? He said a lot of things, eg.: something called "the Truth" appeared no where in early texts; the "Four Noble Truths" were likewise not to be found, but were, like other latter-day Buddhist touchstones, appended after Gautama's time and presentations; that what were often thought of as nouns ("Truth," "enlightenment," "Nirvana," etc.) were more sensibly to be addressed as verbs; that Gautama was sometimes portrayed, in keeping with the culture of his time, as the life-giving, nourishing, warming sun. Batchelor made his presentation with a humane and human flow that I could not begin to report, even if I wanted to.

What I realized not long into Batchelor's talk was, somewhat to my chagrin, that I was no longer interested in learning. I loved his obvious capacity to think and weave and expound but ... I was interested in enjoyment and I got a full measure of that. Some part of me wished and remembered ... times when I was dying to inform and shape whatever my notions of Buddhism might have been. Buddhism was something I dearly wanted to get 'better' at. And that was what I imagined I saw in the faces of those around me -- a devotion to and crediting of learning or Buddhism or something similar. I was slightly jealous of this point of view. A part of me wished I felt the same. But, a bit to my surprise, I didn't.

Batchelor was a delight to me in the same way that watching Usain Bolt run 100 meters was a delight. Or drowning in the flamenco guitar of Carlos Montoya. Or feeling the utter softness of alpaca. Batchelor was very good at what he did and being in the presence of someone who is very good at what they do makes the world a more delicious place. I don't want to do what those who are delicious to me have or continue to do. It is enough to know they exist in the world. A brightness descends not as something to mimic ... brightness is to enjoy ... sort of like going to a foreign country ... sort of like going to France: It's all woo-hoo new and it's not new at all... and yet, well ... hot damn!

Up in the hills from here, there is a place along the Deerfield River where, in summer, people can rent large inner tubes and settle into them along the smooth and cooling flow. I have never done it and may never get the chance, but the image delights my mind ... doing nothing, floating, sunshine and water, watching the world go by, no need to improve, nothing to hold on to ... just floating and basking and, although there is nothing exceptional, filled with a settled delight.

I'm not much good at anything any longer.

Luckily, I don't have to be.

The gossamer tendrils of expertise are not missing and they are enough.

Perhaps, somehow, it is like Marianne Williamson's "Our Greatest Fear:"

It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous,
talented and fabulous?

Actually, who are you not to be?

You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other
people won't feel insecure around you.
We were born to make manifest the glory of
God that is within us.

It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone.

And as we let our own light shine,
we unconsciously give other people
permission to do the same.

As we are liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

it's who you know...

I'm not certain whether it's true or if it's just another fortune cookie du jour, but either way I sort of like it:


There is a certain truculence to the fact that the more anyone knows, the more what is unknown asserts a livelihood.

Sweden had considered adding "ungoogleable" ("ogooglebar") to its annual list of new Swedish words until Internet search-engine Google balked at the notion that the word would be defined as something that cannot be found on any search engine. Google wanted the word to refer only to its own abilities or inabilities. Sweden backed off, fearing a long legal wrangle.

The very word "ungoogleable" throws into question the stated and unstated assumptions about the Internet. Is there really something you can't find? And if you found out you couldn't find it, would that mean that something was therefore un-findable or that you had found something unfind-able and thereby, in one sense, found it ... and created a dazzling oxymoron?


On his death bed, one of the nicest people I have ever known, Ab Hachadourian, was reported to have been sorrowful about the many things he had not done in his life. But when a friend pointed out to him that he had flown fighter jets, worked as a newspaper editor and helped to raise two fine daughters (all things that Ab loved), his face and demeanor relaxed. Yes, indeed!

The Zen teacher Rinzai, on several occasions, upbraided the monks he was instructing, saying, in one way or another, "Your whole problem is that you do not trust yourselves enough."

Perhaps the most instructive aspect of aging is nothing more than the recognition that much of the past has been prosecuted with a misplaced confidence. And it's not as if such a recognition could be espoused intellectually and thus provide some protection against the sense of loss. Rather, the great or long-lasting efforts of anyone's life seem to tell the tale all on their own ... like Ab, anyone might have done more, attained more, and the richness and meaning of what has been done seems to lose its lustered footing.

At first, this can be pretty depressing. Days and weeks and months and years devoted openly or covertly to employment or marriage or spiritual practice or automobile repair or activism or teaching or making war or hiking or getting smarter or ... whatever-ing ... and whatever it was carried with it a confidence of love or distaste or assured meaning and belief. And then, increment by increment, the air seemed to go out of the balloon, not necessarily because of the death threats that spiritual persuasions are wont to flaunt, but because ... because ... because, well, that's the way things seem to work.

And a sorrow or cynicism can kick in: All that time, all that energy, all that effort and focus and correction and confidence .... It's not as if the time spent were exactly wrong, it's just that somehow the right-ness seems to lose its oomph and there is a sense that the pooch has been royally screwed.

Misplaced confidence. Something is out of whack, but what it is or was can be hard to pin down. What had been reliable and comforting -- whether flying fighter jets or raising two fine daughters -- was OK ... but it was no longer convincing; it had become mediocre and stale and blurry in import. It feels wrong but the ability to conjure up what is right lies just out of reach.

A time of sorrow and perhaps panic. All efforts to reassert what no longer has the oomph of yore seem to compound the sorrow ... or engender a desperate fanaticism. When sorrow of this sort comes knocking, I think it is best to open the door. Cuss and weep and wish if necessary, but open the door. Open the door with a new-found confidence.

"You don't trust yourselves enough."

The trust of the past, the confidence attained in flying fighter jets or raising two fine daughters or doggedly pursuing some spiritual endeavor -- yes, it would be lovely to feel that assurance again, but now a new confidence is required. The misplaced confidence of the past was placed in others, in the social order, in comely agreements, in success and failure ... I am who I am because you say so and I love agreeing with you. There is no escape, but now it is time to escape.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, "It is not what's wrong with the world that scares people. What really scares them is that everything is all right." Socially or in the deepest reaches of the individual heart, I think this is true. Never mind wrapping it in some misplaced, flag-waving confidence in "God" -- it's just true.

Flying fighter jets and raising daughters was right and correct, not according to some misplaced confidence, but because flying fighter jets and raising daughters is what actually happened. Where there were mistakes and corrections, that too was "all right." Smarmy spiritual encouragements and loving chocolate and passionate convictions and horrific regret and misplaced confidence and ... well, whatever the fighter jets anyone flew ... it's "all right."

Misplaced confidence has the distinct advantage (with luck) of inspiring a less-embroidered assurance, something that does not shake and quake and scramble and assert. There may be a sorrowful swamp to cross, but still ... it's easier when anyone trusts a little more and insists a little less.

What is is confident ... just like you ... impossible to misplace.

There ... isn't that better?

Wednesday, March 27, 2013


These days, on high, they pass in twos and threes. Gone are the fluid phalanxes of Canada geese, chattering like high school girls in some lit and littered mall.

Below, these days, two pigeons meet along one roof peak and do the love dance while on another, a solitary crow stands black against the sky and casts crafty glances at the three or four sparrows that share his perch at a careful distance.

The crow is patient: Who knows when these small birds might lead him to the nest where eggs await warmer days ... or perhaps his insistent beak? Not that the sparrows don't know the game. They, like their forefathers are prepared to swarm and swoop if this interloper shows up on their doorstep. Small they may be, but fierce as well ... and they are ready for the dance that must be danced.

Mourning doves and other assorted birds put in an appearance along the tree branches that show no leaves as yet. The wind will have to wait before it begins ruffling and adoring those undressed fingers. But everything seems to whisper, "soon." There are no buds along the branches, no shifted hue and yet, like some newly-pregnant woman, there is something different. Not exactly plump or flushed or gathering juices, yet different in her invisible focus ... the same, but different.


story time

There is nothing that is not a story.
What is not a story?

night and day

Night evolves into day.

Night devolves into day.

Conversation is endless an yet,

Night evolves into day.

Night devolves into day.

fish hook

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

wake-up call

Trying to be awake when you're asleep is like trying to be asleep when you're awake -- haven't you got something more productive you could be doing?

the clothes make the man?

Penitents wait before taking part in the procession of "Santa Genoveva" brotherhood during Holy Week in the Andalusian capital of Seville, southern Spain, March 25, 2013.
REUTERS/Marcelo del Pozo

another chapter in arrested development

Strange ... what one man takes seriously, another man finds ludicrous ... seriously.

Take the case of the triangular flapjack that has been banned at a Canvey Island school in Essex. The Health and Safety Executive was quoted as saying:
"We often come across half-baked decisions taken in the name of health and safety, but this one takes the biscuit.
"The real issue isn't what shape the flapjacks are, but the fact that pupils are throwing them at each other - and that's a matter of discipline, and has got nothing to do with health and safety as we know it.
"We're happy to make clear that flapjacks of all shapes and sizes continue to have our full backing."
School children throwing things at each other is hardly headline news. Anyone who has been a child knows that idiocy goes with the territory. But the 'adult' ways of addressing the issue and the idea that anyone could take those ideas seriously ... well, sometimes it's enough to blow your mind.

Talk about "arrested development!"

It's like making war in order to assure peace and other egregiously well-intentioned bits of childishness.

dancing with the weird

I can feel a case of verbal diarrhea coming on, so let me try to say it short and sweet ... no point in reading if you don't have to.

What is inviting, whether by wonder or horror, about the weird is that it breaks down boundaries and, however useful boundaries may be, still there is something within that knows that boundaries are false. They may oil the social wheels and comfort an uncertain mind, but boundaries, even at the best of times, are tentative ... and what is weird brings their tentative nature into focus.

Christians are wowed by people walking on water or changing water into wine or arising from the dead. At Halloween, witches ride on broomsticks. On TV, there seems to be an endless appetite for zombies on a series called "The Walking Dead" -- a comic-book-based serial in which the living battle against the voracious and well-made-up sort-of-dead.

And juvenile portrayals in other venues do not excuse the well-educated from a flirtation with the weird ... a magnetized/horrified/dip-your-toe-in-the-water sniffing around the edges of what breaks boundaries. The boundaries may be more ornate, but boundaries are boundaries.

Weird shit is here to stay ... for exactly as long as the empirically-useful boundaries persist. It's not that boundaries are somehow bad or less-worthy, but a gentler approach, a less insistent approach, is probably a good idea.

In what was probably the ballsy-est movie I ever saw, director Peter Weir took the weird bull by the horns in "The Last Wave," a 1977 celluloid tale about an Australian lawyer whose well-bounded life is discombobulated when he takes on the case of several aborigines accused in a murder. In the opening scene, Weir goes straight for the weird throat: Above a dusty landscape, the sky is utterly and cloudlessly blue. The camera pans to a somewhat dilapidated school house where children are playing. Quietly, at first, there is the sound of thunder. The thunder builds in the cloudless sky. And then it begins to hail. The hail is no joke ... children are being wounded; they are bleeding. Everyone rushes into the school house to be safe.

And it is from that point that the movie inches bit by bit into the aboriginal (or whatever the p.c. designation is these days) world of "dream time" and the apocalyptic vision it includes. Written on paper, "The Last Wave" sounds hardly better than "The Walking Dead," but in my eye, Weir's attempt was nothing short of miraculous ... not perfect, but probably as close as any person could come to depicting the life of the spirit and the world of the weird. In his later, more popular movies, Weir drifted away from his go-for-the-throat mode. A man's gotta eat. But I honor his early courage and (in a sense) failure ... the trouble with the weird is that it's not really all that weird.

Movies and TV serials and much-appreciated religions may bring a certain elevated quality to the weird. This is stuff that is bigger than the individual whose life and boundaries seem more mundane and less worthy of note. No one ever made a movie or wrote a Bible about Aunt Ginger or Uncle Sal. And yet my vote says that all the Aunt Ginger's and Uncle Sal's, all the you's and me's, confront or are wowed by similar bits of weird, similar strainings at the bonds of boundary.

Last night, I found myself rewriting a true story that lingers in my memory as what I then thought of as deliciously weird ... an advisory, like all weird stuff ... something that beckoned. I'm too lazy to write it again today, so here's a cut-and-paste from the Buddhist bulletin board I wrote it on:

In the late 1970's, I supported my somewhat over-enthusiastic interest in Zen practice by painting apartments in New York City. One of my rules in painting was always to be on time and so, one sunny, pleasant morning, I found myself lounging against the building in which I would shortly be working. It was perhaps 7:45 and work began at 8.

I was enjoying watching New Yorkers as they hurried to catch the subway or bus when, to my left-rear, I became aware of a man coming out of an alleyway. He seemed to be in his late 40's or early 50's and he was dressed in a grubby tweed coat more suitable for winter use. In the instant-conclusion exercise that the mind is capable of, I guessed that he had slept in the coat the night before.

Suddenly I became aware that this man was advancing on me. As he came closer, I could see he needed both a bath and a shave. He stopped about two feet in front of me... or perhaps closer ... he was inside "my space," a telltale bit of evidence that suggested mental instability. I could not back up. He looked at me for a moment and then in a very strong and very clear and very earnest tone of voice, he began to speak. He was quite serious.

The problem was that I could not understand a single word he said. He was speaking a language I had never heard. He went on and on. As someone interested in language and conversant, if not fluent, in many, my mind raced around trying to get a handle on his language. It wasn't Latin-based; wasn't Arabic; seemed not to partake of African roots; didn't feel Greek ... I was really, really stymied. I really tried ... and failed.

When, at last, the man stopped talking, I said to him in English, "I'm sorry. I didn't understand what you said." At which point, he began all over again, speaking in the language I didn't know. It did not occur to me that since he seemed to have understood my English, he was either pulling my leg or a simple nut case. When he stopped again, I repeated that I didn't understand. And he began again ... only this time, when he was only a little into his earnest harangue, he stopped abruptly.

"Close your eyes," he said in perfectly clear, calm English. And before my lids had shut, I could see his grubby index finger ascending towards my face. I stood very still as, with an infinite gentleness, he removed a bit of sleepy mucous from the nose-side of my left eyelid.

When I felt his hand retreat, I opened my eyes again.

He smiled.

And walked away.

Is the weird really weird? Of course it is ... let's not play the placid and precious game. The boundaries are still boundaries, no matter how serene anyone might pretend they were. The tighter you hold, the weirder it gets. But does the dance need to be other than light and easy?

Boundaries take what is weird in its arms. What is weird takes boundaries in its arms. The lovers smile and, because the music is so enfolding,

They dance.

Monday, March 25, 2013

stolen from karen maezen miller


Do not be me.
Do not act like me, look like me, talk like me, live like me or remember me.
If you should, in some late season, see me in yourself, realize that I am long gone and happy to live forever in the deep well of your forgetting.
Forget my voice.
Absolutely, I mean it this time.
Even this voice!
Allow yourself the quiet I disturbed.
Remember instead what you said and what you did.
The things I overlooked.
The things I tried to change.
Your silliness.
Your friends.
Your fascinations.
Your refusal to listen to my worry and fear.
I was trying to turn you into me!
Find your heart.
Free your mind.
Use your feet.
Love your life and hate it, sometimes, too.
Everything is permitted.
Give yourself totally to your world.
Overrule me.
Remove my hands.
Escape my grip.
Kick me out of the house.
I will fly in on the starlight
between the cracks
through the gaps
in the empty veil of time
and watch you.
Silently watch you.
It’s all I ever wanted to do.
Love, Mom.
For my daughter, in tribute to my mother, with apologies all around.

And if I may be so bold as to add ... "love, Dad."

beyond all that

"Beyond" is an interesting word. Look at all the Internet-dictionary definitions:
-- past a place or outside an area
-- farther away than something else
-- outside a particular area
-- outside the range or limits of a subject, quality, or activity
-- used in negative sentences to mean “except”
-- used for saying that something cannot be done
-- after a time or age, or above an amount
-- continuing after a particular time or date
-- more than a particular amount or higher than a particular level
Parsed in this way, "beyond" has a kind of mathematical feel to it, as if it had no real blood or import, as if no one ever wept or wished within its confines.

But put it in a context and suddenly it's Nellie-bar-the-door. "Beyond the anger," "beyond the stars," "beyond the tears," "beyond the mountain," "beyond wealth and poverty," "beyond heaven and earth," "beyond delusion."

"Beyond" is interesting. Its uses and meanings all suggest that something else has been surmounted and left in the past. It has an imperious feel to it as if getting-beyond might somehow conclusively eradicate or defeat that which "beyond" held in its sights.

The fly in the "beyond" ointment is this: In order to get beyond anything, it is necessary to posit the object anyone might wish to be beyond. And if you posit the object -- or thought or emotion or situation -- then, by necessity, you breathe new life into it ... and what you claim to be beyond is something you are not beyond at all.

Is anyone ever beyond anything? I doubt it. But they sure can talk up a storm in the meantime.

you can bank on it

You can bank on it.

The idiom suggests that a person can have faith ... that there is a guarantee ... that the same assumptive trust that might be given to a bank can likewise be granted to some other matter. I'll be there on time. You can bank on it.

Sociologically -- i.e. from a comfortingly intellectual distance -- the reasons not to bank on things are rife. Banking on peace, banking on construction, banking on marriage, banking on the stock market, banking on a harvest, banking on a drone, banking on a beamer ... the list goes on an on and allows the observer some bankable comfort: I noticed the dog-shit down-side, therefore I won't get snookered.

But more interesting than the sometimes smug distances of intellectual observations is the degree to which individuals -- read, "me" -- constructs and then trusts and then completely overlooks the fact that that trust has been offered. It seems to be woven into the DNA: There are certain things I can count on and bank on. This is my context and comfort. Without ever saying so, I can bank on the air I breathe, the water I drink, the chair I sit on, the keyboard I use, the oatmeal in the kitchen cupboard.

I can bank on it.

I can hear the Buddhists firing up their Everything-Changes machine in the face of these observations. OK ... it's something else to bank on.

In Cyprus today, the government announced it had hammered out a plan that would, in part, skim selective bank deposits as a means of assuring a loan from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Imagine the sense of betrayal those depositors might feel. What they -- and even those depositors not directly affected -- faced was a statement that their trust had been misplaced. "You can bank on it" had become "You can't bank on it."

In China, the 16,000 dead pigs taken recently out of one river were joined by some 1,000 dead ducks recovered from another water way. WTF!? Waterways, in my banker's lexicon, are not places where dead pigs and ducks belong. Somehow, what had been an off-the-wall possibility became a reality and in so doing left my unspoken and unacknowledged assumptions with a sense of betrayal. Like a child weeping after a dust-up on some playground, a part of me wails, "It's not fair!" or "It's not the way things were supposed to be!"

But China and Cyprus lie at a comforting distance from my home. Their problems and betrayals are not my own. I can stroke my safely-coiffed beard and observe. Dig my wisdom!

You can bank on it.

My sense this morning is not that banking on things is so much a fool's errand as it is par for the human course. Trying to outflank or outsmart banking on things is just another form of banking. No one wants to be an asshole, but everyone is. And rather than running around like some caterwauling atheist or come-to-Jesus believer, it is better to acknowledge the comfort and 'certainty' that comes from banking on things.

Acknowledge and watch. Not 'watch' with a sense that somehow all the banking might somehow be avoided or pinned down or folded into some universal solvent ... just watch the habit and tendency. Will there be pigs and ducks in the river? Maybe, maybe not. Will earnest promises that anyone might bank on turn unexpectedly sour? Maybe, maybe not. Pessimism and optimism may be comforting, but keeping an eye on things seems to provide the only way I can think of to put betrayal and trust in more realistic context.

Go ahead ... bank on it.

Go ahead ... don't bank on it.

Wriggle and squirm, enfold the scene in rich brocade or slip into a slough of despond ... find as much comfort as you can.

But keep an eye on it.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

doing my damnedest to be good

Is there anything better than a good belly-laugh? Maybe so, but laughter has a way of cleaning out the pipes and leaving things spic and span.

It seems to me that, more often than not, spiritual endeavor lacks enough belly-laughter... not the heh-heh wise-and-wizened smiles, but the pedal-to-the-metal, everything-washed-clean, take-no-prisoners, tears-roll-down-your-cheeks stuff.

Sure, there's always the good news in spiritual life, but the path between 'here' and 'there' is peppered with enough explosive devices to make Iraqi IED's look like child's play by comparison. Gettin' to the good stuff takes some serious effort and serious effort seldom makes anyone fall down laughing.

Well, I tried an experiment this morning during zazen and I pass it along for what it's worth.

In the formal practice of Zen Buddhism, zazen, or seated meditation, is often given some emphasis. Zazen is the literal, physical, sit-down-sit-still-erect-the-spine-shut-up-and-focus-the-mind stuff. Zazen is not easy, but what's hard about it is almost never what anyone imagines.

Anyway, this was my experiment: After lighting some incense and seating myself on the cushion, I took the usual few moments to make sure the body was steady and the breath flowed easily. And once steadied, there was some effort to focus the mind, to stop chasing after what I was wont to chase. Easy does it, steady and firm -- focus the mind.

And once having steadied the body and mind a bit, I took every ounce of energy I could muster, used every bit of focus I could find, put everything else aside and did my god-damned-est to be...
G O O D!
I cannot suggest that my reaction is the only possible reaction to such an experiment. I can say that it left me no-holds-barred laughing my ass off.

And laughter, in my book, is a good thing.

the interesting bits of boredom

 Boredom is under-appreciated according to some who are no longer, apparently, bored.
... Children need to have stand-and-stare time, time imagining and pursuing their own thinking processes or assimilating their experiences through play or just observing the world around them. (Academic Teresa Belton)
And it's not just kids. Artist Grayson Perry mused,
As I get older, I appreciate reflection and boredom. Boredom is a very creative state.
 I guess that, sometimes, trying desperately to fill in the gnawing empty spaces is a fool's errand.

now and then my son

Both pictures are of poor quality and yet they speak to me -- pictures of my son at his high school graduation and then again, more recently, in basic training at Fort Benning, Ga. Easy, gregarious assurance giving way to the je-ne-sais-quoi of a young man whose experience is making its mark.  

As Dylan Thomas wrote, "Time passes. Listen! Time passes."

Où sont les neiges d'antan?


Without discipline, things fall apart.

With discipline, things fall apart.

Light or shadow, defiance or embrace, same or different, confused or assured ... it's not a made-up question.

But for all that, it's nice to be among good friends.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

the secrets act

The Zen teacher Ummon was once quoted as saying, "When you can't say it, it's there. When you don't say it, it's missing."

Not much out of the ordinary there, but it does make me wonder about all the bright spiritual teachers who husband a hundred secrets as a means of "spreading the Dharma" or nourishing an institution or putting food on their tables ... husband so many secrets that the secrets enfold and throttle them with a virtuous lifestyle that makes no room for and gives no quarter to the very real secret they cannot tell.

Sure, they can bow and scrape, but any asshole can do that.

What a pitiful vortex.

popes, rodents and black cowboys

In the news, what caught my inattentive eye was ...

-- In Castel Gandolfo, Italy, the current Roman Catholic pope, Francis, had lunch with his predecessor, Benedict. The meeting prompted all sorts of interpretations, suppositions, and machinations in the mind. What dangers lurked? What confusions growled? What implications could be gleaned? When anyone's old pope gets together with anyone's new one, sparks are bound to fly... but in the end, it's just a couple of old guys getting together.

-- From Ohio's point of view, Pennsylvania's Punxsutawney Phil is in deep shit. Prosecutors allege, with good reason and a healthy dose of humor, that the beloved, prognosticating rodent deliberately misled believers with his prediction that 2013 would see an "early spring."
"Punxsutawney Phil did purposely, and with prior calculation and design, cause the people to believe that spring would come early," wrote Mike Gmoser, Butler County prosecutor, in an official-looking paper.
Ohio suggests the death penalty is warranted. Pennsylvania will fight extradition.

Bass Reeves, one of the first
African-American lawmen
-- Not to say there wasn't racism, but black cowboys in America -- a group seldom if ever acknowledged in the lore of the Wild West -- benefited from what historian Mike Searles refers to as "range equality."
"As a cowboy you had to have a degree of independence," he says. "You could not have an overseer, they had to go on horseback and they may be gone for days."
But ...
Not only did Hollywood ignore black cowboys, it plundered their real stories as material for some of its films.
The Lone Ranger, for example, is believed to have been inspired by Bass Reeves, a black lawman who used disguises, had a Native American sidekick and went through his whole career without being shot.
Interesting to think how many ways bigotry and bias and beard-stroking wisdom can be thrown into a cocked hat when in-your-face-circumstances are brought to bear.

with a nod to Gertrude Stein

the urgency of snails
Was there ever a way of being that did not seek out the particulars -- the sometimes bottom-of-the-barrel-scraping minutiae -- of that way? Intellect may lend a hand, but vast intellect is not so much the point. It has everything to do with love and delight and horror.

On the bayou, the alligator hunter tests and retests the vile-smelling bait that will attract his prey, fill his boat, increase his income, and put food on the family table. In Cern, scientists announce and re-announce their discovery of the Higgs boson or "God particle" ... the element that gives meaning to damned near everything else. In the kitchen, a curious soul peels back layer after layer of an onion that lends flavor to so much ... what is an onion? After so many years of creating beauty or disaster, the painter digs deep into the molecular structure of alizerin crimson. Married now for so many years, a husband or wife reflects on the meaning of "marriage." The arms-maker studies to a fare-the-well the tolerances of his materials.

It is not that such investigation can capture or nail down the topic under investigation. But without the skills arising from that investigation, the delight goes begging, becomes stale and static ... and religion gains a foothold. No one discovers an onion by peeling an onion and if you knew who or what God were, would it any longer be God?

The Hindus, bless their hides, were the ones to come up with the metaphor of the broken incense stick ... "each piece is it." Zen Buddhists stumbled along behind with mentions of "mind" or "no mind." But I don't think it is necessary to take up a 'wise' calling or a venerated philosophy in order to long for delight or seek out love or be confronted by horror. Everyone is 'deeeeeep' in their own way and in their own terms. Nuff said.

The particulars of a particular life demand some measure of skill and understanding. Hunting alligators with a B-B gun is a poor idea. Creating a religion as a means of capturing God may be a step on the road to improving a skill set, but beware the alligator that is bound to come around and bite you on the ass. An onion does not give up its secrets to the man or woman who consents to peel it.

OK ... an investigation makes some common sense, enhances pleasure and provides additional smiles. It's nothing special ... a 'nothing special' without which a skill or circumstance goes begging ... devolves into stale uncertainty, often masquerading as a proud and pompous certainty.

It is scary to investigate an onion, whatever the onion may be. Peeling the layers back, bit by bit and teary eye by teary eye, seeking out the God of onionness ... only to find that to know an onion, to know a marriage, to know alligator bait ... well, in ordinary terms, there is nothing there. This is the horror that religion bestows, that life bestows, that investigation bestows. Of course, if it were actually "nothing," then it would be something, but investigation reveals that this is ludicrous and self-serving. Answers and explanations and beliefs and meanings may do what they can to keep horror at bay, but ... well ... check it out: How well does that work? Delight and deliciousness are enhanced by investigation and yet investigation cannot tell an onion's tale ... what a gyp! What a horror! I think I'll just rest and nest in the sometimes thorny down of ignorance or religion or judgment or meaning or ... pick a poison. Fuck all this investigation shit! I think I'll just call it all "love" or "God" or "peace" or "enlightenment" ... it may not be perfect, but it beats the horror that beckons and purrs.

What then is to be said for the investigation that I would argue anyone, in any walk of life, engages in? What does it teach beyond delight and love and horror? At its furthest reaches, what the hell good is it? Where is the peace?

My guess is that it teaches a certain lightness of being. No one can know an onion and yet there are onions. It's not necessary. It's just possible. I am not necessary. I am just possible. It's not as if anyone could actually "get over yourself" and yet, when things are possible, you have gotten over yourself ... for the moment. And things are easier, lighter, less weighted and freighted and subject to staleness. Alligator bait and the "God particle" and marriage and another world war and the molecular structure of alizarin crimson and vast, blithering philosophies. Possible, possible, possible ... relax, enjoy and be at peace. Investigate? You bet. But get out of the way ... even as investigating, in point of fact, gets you out of the way.

Investigate ... it'll get you out of the way just as removing a layer of the onion will get you out of the way ... closer and closer and closer to ... it and it and it ... so delightful and possible.

As, for example,
the urgency of snails
Though there's nothing saying anyone has to be as weird or abstruse as Gertrude Stein or a scientist seeking a God particle.

Friday, March 22, 2013

food and philosophy

It may not be logical, but if, as George Orwell suggested somewhere, no man is a philosopher on an empty stomach then in what way is a sated lion or cockroach a philosopher?

news photos from Reuters

A man stands in front of a mosque as it burns in Meikhtila March 21, 2013. The central Myanmar town declared a curfew for a second night on Thursday after clashes killed 10 people, including a Buddhist monk, and injured at least 20, authorities said. Riots erupted in Meikhtila, 540 km (336 miles) north of Yangon, on Wednesday after an argument between a Buddhist couple and the Muslim owners of a gold shop escalated into a riot involving hundreds of people, police said.
REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
A man looks at lightbulbs filled with water as part of the exhibition "Lagrimas de Sao Pedro" (Tears of Saint Peter) by Brazilian artist Vinicius Silva, at a cultural center in Rio de Janeiro, March 21, 2013. The artist used six thousand lightbulbs to create the idea of rain, showing the relationship between peasants and rain after singing and praying for Saint Peter to cry. International Water Day is held on March 22.
REUTERS/Pilar Olivares
Immigrants stand for the invocation during a naturalization ceremony to become new U.S. citizens at Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts March 21, 2013.
REUTERS/Brian Snyder
A Hindu devotee looks on in a cloud of coloured powder inside a temple during "Lathmar Holi" at the village of Barsana in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh March 21, 2013. In a Holi tradition unique to Barsana and Nandgaon villages, men sing provocative songs to gain the attention of women, who then "beat" them with bamboo sticks called "lathis". Holi, also known as the Festival of Colours, heralds the beginning of spring and is celebrated all over India.
REUTERS/Vivek Prakash

falsely accused

Is there a nightmare worse than being falsely accused -- of having to live with the mistaken judgment of the society in which you find yourself? In human terms, it is a horrific ostracism... horrific and no where to escape, no reprieve in view ... Jeeeesus!

In New York, David Ranta was sentenced in 1990 to 37 years in prison for the murder of Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger. A review of his case found the evidence flimsy and the investigation flawed. The lead detective in the case, Louis Scarcella, said he never framed anyone in his life.
"You have to be a low devil to frame someone. I sleep well at night."
Falsely accused and 23 years in prison to ingest and digest and regurgitate the bile of it all. What a nightmare ... a nightmare some are never blessed to wake up from.

In spiritual life, I wonder if it might not be the same: Falsely accused within or without of being somehow "deluded" or "ignorant" ... unjustly accused or acclaimed ... and no judge in the world or beyond to reverse the ruling.

What a nightmare.

shark nets of belief

This morning, my mind seems to be full of bits and shards unearthed at some Aegean dig ... there are discoveries to be made, perhaps, but discoveries of what, precisely, is not yet clear. Still, rooting around in the dirt like some kid in a sandbox is ... well, it's kind of fun.

Bits and shards through the 'spiritual' prism ...

-- If ego is little more than the desire to correct the world (including something called ego), then clarity is little more than the willingness, at last, to see. Once seen, there is nothing to hinder correction, but without seeing, correction goes endlessly unrewarded.

-- In the past, I have been pretty snarky when it came to belief. With the smooth self-congratulation of a rabid Muslim, Christian or humanist, I can say that the historical record of belief certainly deserves every lump it gets ... every bit of cranky snarkiness. But it was never the history lessons (grisly as they may be) that interested me so much. It was on a personal level that the empirical drawbacks of belief etched compelling lines for me.

Briefly, my snarkiness found a home in the observation that belief was invariably trumped by experience and that the unwillingness to put belief to the experiential test was a sure recipe for an uncertain life. Dumber than a box of rocks ... and yet testing belief is very frightening ... sometimes it is just easier to be a believer ....

OK ... enough of my snarkiness. I would like to say something good about belief.

Karl Marx is often (partially) quoted as saying, "Religion is the opium of the people." If ever I heard a more religious observation, I'm not sure what it might be. On the face of it, it sounds like a snippy comeback to the  door-knocking evangelizers who simply cannot credit a world without a belief in God. Their down-your-throat message, in brief: If you don't believe in God, you are royally fucked. The down-your-throat message from their detractors, in brief: If you do believe in God, you are royally fucked. (Perhaps this ping-pong dichotomy gave rise (or maybe not) to the uncouth but sometimes-apt observation, "Fucked if you do and fucked if you don't.")

None of this interests me so much in a sociological sense. What interests me is the applications within -- the to'ings and fro'ings in the human heart that seeks a bit of peace, a bit of resolution, a bit of relief, a bit of understanding. It is within that heart, I would say, that belief springs up. And, although that belief, whether in God or intellect, may be laced with Claymore mines of sorrow, still, I think it is potentially a good thing.

Why? Because belief is simply doubt dressed in well-pressed robes. And where some might say that belief is a sine qua non of a fruited spiritual life, I would say that the life-blood of spiritual life lies in the realm of doubt... the very doubt that belief encourages and nourishes in a serious spiritual aspirant.

As an intellectual or philosophical or psychological matter, none of this interests me much. What does interest me is the individual beliefs anyone holds ... about damned near anything. That and the desire to settle down and be at peace.

And it is within that very personal spectrum -- that get-real intimacy -- that beliefs might be likened to the shark nets that I understand are implanted along Australia's sea shores. Within those nets, children and adults can frolic and swim in relative safety. The nets hold at bay the predators of the deep. It is fun to have fun. It is consoling to be safe. And yet, for anyone who looks out along the buoys that might mark off the oceanic arena ... there is a tumultuous and wondrous and dangerous and undemarcated 'rest' of the ocean. And it is the demarcations themselves that point unerringly to a way of being -- an ocean -- that cannot be corralled.

Don't beliefs do much the same, offering an initial safety and sense of peace and yet, eventually, calling into question the safety and peace they were erected to provide? The answer is clearly not 'yes' in all instances. Sometimes the relative safety is just too enthralling and convincing and agreeable. Graveyards are littered with those who lived a believable lifestyle. It's human.

But likewise human is the curiosity and courage and doubt that springs up around the shark nets of belief. Since life demonstrably offers no guarantees, what might it be like to swim at peace in waters that likewise offer no guarantees? Those waters are no different from these waters ... except that these waters are surrounded by nets that seem to lack any fershur quality that might be found in a peaceful swim.

Isn't it the demarcations themselves -- be they beliefs or shark nets -- that point out a wider world? Isn't it they who help to encourage a willingness to go for a real and unfettered swim? I think maybe they are -- or can be -- and it is in this sense that beliefs may be seen as a pretty good thing.

-- At the Aegean dig site, bits and pieces are lovingly gathered. What urn or ewer -- what whole might emerge from all these parts? Bit by loving bit, rummaging around in an ancient soil. And yet, for all the effort and fun, how sensible is it to try to make whole what is already whole? It's just a question, not some smug, opium-laced criticism.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

rules in a tricyclist's world

As a newspaper reporter a long time ago, I learned a number of good lessons. One of them, for example, was "follow the money." Another of them was that journalism was "a craft, not an art." These and others like them were lessons I learned -- mostly the hard way -- over a five-year span.

Follow the money meant simply that people in public life -- i.e., in the news -- were in part or in whole greedy. There was nothing special about it. It was just a factor to keep an eye on and sometimes expose. A "craft" was something you did without expecting to be hung up in the Metropolitan Museum of Ego-Tripping Art: What I thought or felt was best kept on a very distant rear burner. It was better to tell what facts could be found -- pro and con -- and let the reader make up his mind. "Objectivity" could never be attained, but trying to attain it was a no-kidding-around goal worth having.

Another rule that proved out for me came in the form of a distaste for politics. There were people in the news office who positively swooned to mix and mingle with the powerful and well-connected. It seemed to make these reporters feel more important in their own right. Being in on The Big Decisions and the people who made them was delicious. I hated it.

I hated it right up to the moment when I could make a very direct connection between those Big Decisions made by Big Decision Makers and the people who would be or were affected by those decisions. Real, flesh-and-blood, tricycle-in-the-backyard people. Rubbing shoulders with the powerful too often seemed to mean entering a world that was sui generis -- a bubble on Mars or something. Battles were fought and lost, schemes were hatched or fried, but who might be affected was drowned out in the bubbilicious sound and fury of the world of power ... a world of have's whose dependence on the have-not's was viewed, when at all, from a kind of dismissive height: Fuck them ... they're just sheep. That dismissive sense was so ingrown, often, that people with otherwise good hearts and minds could not recognize their own responsibilities or complicity.

It used to send my idealistic sense of 'justice' through the roof, that let-them-eat-cake, well-educated, delicately-churched realm whose shit always seemed to flow, like all shit, downhill. Now I am no less irritated, but try to set the ego-tripping anger and outrage aside in favor of another pretty good rule ... follow the people ... follow the policy or philosophy or religion or law to the man and woman who have a tricycle in the backyard. If the policy plays well there -- or anyway pretty well -- then it can be considered OK. But if it doesn't, don't let the excuses and explanations divert attention. Things are never black and white, but wallowing in the greys is no excuse. The gilded robes, the silk suits, the designer dresses, the buffed cars and fingernails and the diplomas on the wall are all very nice.

But beware of the tricycle in the backyard ... the one that deserved attention in the first place.


En passant ....

I hate "karma."

"Karma" explains nothing.

Which is not the same as saying it's not true.

"I honor it for its failure"

This morning I seem to be off on a Zen Buddhist kick -- a higglety-pigglety mental meandering that led me back to the Buddha statue on the altar in the small zendo here. The statue is made of African Wonderstone, a black substance whose name immediately caught my fancy when the statue's creator, Phyllis Bogart, asked me what sort of stone I might like her to use when creating it.

The statue was a gift and I loved and love the giving of it. Imagine that, someone giving the time and effort of such a gift! Phyllis made the statue based on a picture I gave her, a photo of another statue I liked. She did the work. She brought the heart. She gave it to me ... and I was and remain touched and somehow astounded.

The statue is far from perfect, far from the Buddhist statuary I have marveled at elsewhere. The fingers are too short, for one thing. But the face has that indeterminate sex that most Buddha statues have ... is it a man or is it a woman ... you really can't tell ... and that's wonderful.

I love and, I suppose, honor that statue. It's not so much that Buddha, Dharma and Sangha might be called the "Triple Treasure" in Buddhism, though that's a piece of my world. And it's not just that Phyllis, someone I knew before she died, made it with her own two hands and very good heart ... though I do love art in which the artist does not stand aloof, but is mishmoshed into the work.

What I love and what I honor most ...

What I love and what I honor most ...

What I honor most is what I honor in all such statuary ... deeply and appreciatively ...

I honor it for its failure.

A failure that has nothing to do with its fingers.

school kids

A caring headline on the front page of this morning's local newspaper reads:
Gov't survey:
1 in 50 school
kids autistic
It's a matter of sadness, I guess, but I also wondered whether it would be a matter of sadness or rejoicing if the headline had read:
Gov't survey:
1 in 50 school
kids stupid

calligraphy sentiment

Soen Nakagawa Roshi

One moment, no hurry;
breath ceaselessly flowing.
This is the nature of the universe.
 Or, alternatively translated:

       Not one moment of hurry;
       Not one wasted breath.
       This is the natural way of being.

Taste is taste, but I enjoyed getting an email from photographer and collector (among other things) Bruce Kennedy yesterday, an email in which he made reference to one of the calligraphies he owned. The sentiment (if not the calligraphy itself) from Soen Nakagawa Roshi, former abbot of Ryutakuji monastery in Japan, just banged my chimes ... as, perhaps, for others, it might fall -- lawsy! lawsy! -- into a realm of solemnified, abracadabra Zen Buddhism. Taste is taste.

For those inclined, here's Bruce's collection.                    

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Orthodox church offer

Even if it turns out to be nothing but self-serving eyewash, still I think there is something nice about Archbishop Chrysostomos II's offer to mortgage church property if it will help to ease Cyprus' financial crisis -- a crisis that has seen the government considering skimming the bank savings of the people it rules.

Of course the head of Cyprus' Orthodox church did not say precisely how many or what assets might be mortgaged, but still ... what other religious institution might do the same?

Stephen Batchelor talk

For those living in this neck of the woods, a mail-borne flier announces that Stephen Batchelor will be speaking at Smith College (Northampton, Mass.) at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 28. Seelye Hall 201. Free and open to the public.

Strange to think ... who else except believers would gather to listen to the author of "Buddhism Without Beliefs?" And without disrespect I do wonder if Batchelor thanks his lucky stars for the believers and beliefs of which he might claim to despair. Every man has got to put spaghetti on the table one way or another, so, OK ... "believers" or "Buddhism" ... why not?

Wouldn't the most popular notion of God be up shit's creek without the devil? And likewise the devil without God? Or, if Christian terminology is too much like fingernails on a blackboard, just "good" and "evil" or "enlightenment" and "delusion" or "truth" and "lies?" Doesn't everyone need something to throw a spanner in the works so that then great gouts of time could be spent in getting it out ... making improvements and all? If the shit never hit the fan, well, how boring would that be ... I mean, really ... what would anyone do with themselves if nothing needed fixing, believing, reconfiguring?

Strange again about beliefs....

Beliefs do nothing so much as underscore the doubt they were built to escape.
Beliefs invariably rely on a past that no one can grasp ... and yet people live in the present: Now there's a basis for uncertainty.
Belief will trip up the believer with the same certainty that disbelief will ... believe 'em and you're cruisin' for a bruisin'; disbelieve 'em and you're cruisin' for a bruisin'.
Truth and falsehood ... same stuff, different day.
Shunning and embracing amount to the same thing.

So what then?

I see nothing wrong with beliefs.

But there's nothing saying you have to believe them.

Just noodling ... just chasing my tail ... just realizing it's time for breakfast.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

empty, prize-winning church

In this Feb. 20, 2013 file photo, a see-through church is pictured on a hilltop in Borgloon, 80 km (50 miles) east of Brussels. The artistic vision of the church is made of rusty steel beams separated by gaps, and its austere beauty won it an international architecture prize. Yet the eerie desolation of the see-through installation has also turned into a reflection on the state of Roman Catholicism on a religion-weary continent where real churches, like the dozen dotting the hills of this verdant area, increasingly lose their flock and function. (AP Photo/Yves Logghe, file)

go ahead! rob me blind!

In the worlds of banking and thievery, it's a little hard to tell the players even with a scorecard:

-- Investment bank Citigroup has agreed to pay a $730 million settlement to bond holders who claimed they were misled by the bank's misrepresentation of its financial exposure in subprime and other high-risk investments. The $730 million comes in the wake of a similar $590 million settlement made earlier. The bank said it was making the settlement not as a way of admitting any guilt, but as a means of getting out from under the burdens of litigation. A judge has yet to sign off on the latest agreement. Significantly, I can find no reporting on this story that even guesstimates how much Citigroup made while exercising this deception.

-- Cyprus is in chaos as the government decides how much of Cypriot bank-savers' accounts will be skimmed as a means of helping the country return to something like fiscal stability. Account-skimming is a part of the price Cyprus has to pay if it wants a 10-billion-euro bailout loan from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Instead of being utterly trustworthy, I guess banks are only as trustworthy as their owners and overlords decide they are ... it's my money except when you say so.

-- Russian detectives are dropping an investigation of the prison death of Sergei Magnitsky, 37, a lawyer and financial whistle-blower who had alleged the Interior Ministry officials were embezzling money. Magnitsky died with grievous wounds on his body, but an investigation has concluded there was nothing untoward in his death.
The Investigative Committee, the Russian equivalent of the FBI in the US, said Magnitsky had been legally arrested and legally detained and that he had not been tortured.
Despite the fact that Magnitsky is dead, he is scheduled to go on trial shortly for fraud.

the 'last' of winter

In a page-1 offering, the local paper trumpets, "Winter set/ to sound/ its last blast" and sure enough there is snow on the ground and more falling, though not with much gusto. The news story itself makes it clear how in the hell anyone could assert that this was the 'last:' "Spring" officially arrives tomorrow.

Strange how a collective fantasy -- in this case something called "winter" -- can create a collective reality. True, a lot of people, me included, may be sick to death of the troglodyte existence imposed by dark skies and cold winds and accumulating snow, but putting parameters on the weather seems egregiously self-centered and wildly inaccurate to me.

It ain't over till the fat lady sings, but chilly times are hardly marked by some closing aria.

I wonder how many other things are like that ... true because lots of people applaud but highly suspicious when examined with any care.

scientific 'research'

It's not that I don't appreciate the scientific research reported occasionally in the news, it's just that sometimes it sounds a bit unhinged in my mind ... something along the lines of...

-- In a three-year, double-blind experiment, researchers at the University of Nottingham have discovered that menopausal women were more easily satisfied by men from Iowa. The conclusions were expected to have wide-ranging implications in the lives of laboratory rats....

-- Using infrared technology, scientists at the University of Missouri have discovered that cockroaches foraging in darkened kitchens were unlikely to flee when subjected to the strains of Bela Bartok. The John F. Kennedy Middle School in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, is already testing the scientific outcomes by turning out the lights during lessons in classical music.

-- A new study shows that alligators in Florida's Everglades National Park were far more gregarious after having eaten small children. Elated but somewhat confused by the findings, researchers are hoping to apply their conclusions to the sometimes-testy and occasionally anti-social grey whales in the Gulf of California.

Of course real scientific studies are not so silly ... I hope.

Monday, March 18, 2013

a bit of gratitude

In 1975, I flunked out of a Zen Buddhist monastery.

I say "flunked out" partly as a means of bringing a little zip to the preceding sentence and partly as a means of describing how I felt at the time. I felt like a failure -- signed on for six months and left after two. How could I ever hope to attain whatever it was that Zen Buddhism had to offer without getting my ticket punched, without, well, you know, doing all the things that marked a 'serious' Zen student ... going to a monastery, getting my head shaved maybe, passing koans, learning a foreign language, and being designated by increasingly-important names like "sensei" or "priest" or "osho" or -- the big banger -- "roshi?" How would anyone know that I was a Zen Buddhist in good standing ... or, preferably, advanced standing?

None of this thinking was out-front and honest. It kind of lurked behind the scenes. But it was there and no doubt about it. I knew it was there by the utterly-deflated sense of failure I felt when I returned to my home in New York City: "flunked out," "mediocre student," "not someone to take seriously," "a dilettante," "a poseur," "a believer" "an unenlightened yokel" ... yup, I felt like shit. Those who stayed on and went the course were ... well, they were better than I was and I was in no mood to be anything but "the best." Which I clearly wasn't.

I remember all this not so much as a means of suggesting anyone should relinquish a dream of going to a monastery or of staying or of becoming a monk/nun, or of taking whatever other course seems appropriate to their lives. I just remember it today after reading a heartfelt expression on a Buddhist Internet bulletin board ... to go to a monastery. I read it and sympathized and felt a great wash of gratitude for my own experience ... the failure, the flunk-out and the person whose life was lucky enough to find some spiritual meat on the Zen Buddhist bone. Others may stroke their Buddhist beards in 'compassionate' understanding of a wider and more glorious world ... poor soul, he just doesn't get it. And perhaps they're right ... but the point is, I no longer care if they're right.

I flunked out ... and that was one of the best spiritual-life building blocks I ever came across. Spiritual life really does have some meaning ... but it's not the meaning the wise and wizened and the well-dressed cloak it in... or mine either.

It just seems to me that every person is his or her own monastery. Literally. And the sooner anyone finds that out, the sooner they can stop living on spiritual popcorn. Don't get me wrong -- I like popcorn as well as the next fellow; I like Zen Buddhism as well as the next fellow. But after a while ... well after a while, how about sinking your teeth into a Big Mac?

As Emily Litella was wont to say, "Oh ... well ... never mind!"

Just lolling around feeling a sense of gratitude.