Thursday, June 30, 2011

reporting on spiritual life?

As someone who is interested in spiritual life and as someone who likes good news reporting, one of the things I have never entirely figured out is why reporting on spiritual life reflects so few reporting skills. It's as if religion, like sports, is given a pass on the hard questions and the result is a lot of words signifying not much more than a cheering section or a platform for one particular salesman or another.

In the past 30 years, I think I have seen perhaps three stories that reflected any digging, any understanding, any willingness to dissect and bring context to a particular religious story. One was the tale of a rabbi in Florida (sorry, I can't find the link) who got too big for his britches and got tossed out on his ear. The other was the tale of a guy I knew who went up the Zen Buddhist ladder only to find himself looking at a fraud in the mirror. The third story came from the LATimes and concerned the life in Tibet after the Chinese put their foot down. Most stories in this country are nearly as knee-jerk supportive of Tibet as stories about Israel are knee-jerk supportive of Israel. But the reporter did manage to ask ordinary people what they thought about the Chinese actions in displacing a long-term theocracy. And one farmer was quoted as saying, "At least we're not slaves any more."

Whaddya know ... there's another side to the story ... just as there is in any decent reporting.

If religion/spiritual endeavor is composed of people, as I believe it is, then why should it not partake of the same difficulties as any other news subject? Is it really enough to report the obvious scandals but not the ticklish matter of how or why a religion might, of itself, contribute to those scandals? And even within the orthodox presentations, wouldn't news recipients want to know what is dubious and what is not?

I don't really expect anything to change, but I do wonder sometimes.

health insurers' plans and practices

Gotcha by the short and curlies!

the dishwasher

Tony arrived punctually at 8 a.m. in his white repair truck. He was a slim man, wearing a black T-shirt and black jeans ... in the 45-50 realm and sporting a mild stutter. He had come to fix the dishwasher, an appliance purchased less than a year ago and already on the fritz. It wouldn't start, so I called and Tony showed up.

Since I have long thought that a dishwasher is as close to heaven as anyone with a family is likely to get, it pissed me off that the dishwasher had broken down so close to its purchase date. The one that preceded it had worked for 15-plus years without a hiccup. I exercised the best cuss words I could muster in my mind when the latest version collapsed.

Never mind. Tony was there to fix it.

But wait. He wasn't, it turned out, there to fix it. He was there to diagnose the dishwasher's illness, despite my explanation of what was wrong when I called up for Tony's services. Anyway, he diagnosed. He said he would have to order the part ... so he would probably be back early next week. But wait. It turned out that the part was not available from a nearby supplier. It had to be ordered from further away. So the time frame was extended to, possibly, but not necessarily, the end of next week.

He said that these days, there was no such thing as buying a reliable appliance. Really, the best anyone could do would be to buy an extended warranty that would cover more and more and more repairs. Companies were not building things to last. They were building things to make the quickest available dollar. Both Tony and I were old enough not to get on a tear about all this. But there was a certain sadness in the conversation. Is it any wonder Americans distrust American products -- buy more Japanese cars, for example -- when those products are made by people with shiny advertising budgets and second-rate products?

As he was wrapping up to leave, I asked Tony how he had lost the finger. "Fingers," he corrected me, holding up his left hand. His middle finger and half of his index finger were missing. He told me that he had lost them in the 80's to a floor-cleaning machine that had be "pretty unforgiving." He had spent three weeks in a Boston hospital, but in the end, reattachment didn't work. "These days, I'm glad it didn't work," he said. "It just would have been numb or had other problems and I would have been constantly trying to fix it. There's nothing I can't do and I don't have the hassle."

Lesson of the day, perhaps: Learn to wash your own dishes.

into the light

In "The Republic," Plato creates the allegory of the cave -- a place where many are chained and forced to face a wall. The sun streaming into the cave creates shadows on the wall -- shadows they see as reality. One fellow escapes, goes outside, sees the sun and returns to tell those who remain about the source of their half-baked realities.

It's quite a tale and it certainly fits with a lot of spiritual endeavor ... looking at shadows, missing the source, and screwing the pooch as a result. Perhaps most would like to be like the fellow who made it into the sunlight, who got a better bead on things, who uncovered the truth. Lord knows a life in the shadows leaves a lot to be desired.

But I wonder why no one seems concerned that a life in the light may be every bit as delusional as living in the shadows. Every bit as delusional means every bit as fulfilling...or having every bit the same potential for fulfillment

My mother once asked wryly, "Suppose you could levitate. What the hell would you do with it?" Likewise, suppose you did know God or get enlightened or see the sun or something similar ... what the hell would you do with it? Light relies on shadow. Shadow relies on light. Isn't one of the central problems of an unclear or uncertain life the notion that anything or anyone relies on anything or anyone else? The Buddhist "dependent origination" does not mean anything relies on anything else ... or doesn't either, for that matter. Maybe it means something more along the lines of everything-relies-on-everything-else-without-relying-on-it.

Anyway, this morning I have some sympathy and hope for those who are chained to Plato's cave-wall. It seems to me that they are in every bit as good a position to see the light as the fellow who runs out of the cave and comes back with his "eureka!" Of course it may not be as inspiring to suggest that the same old shadows, the same old uncertainties, the same old doubts and sorrows could be the brightest of suns.

So I guess I won't suggest that. :)

terms of endearment

Nowhere do I experience terms of endearment as much as in the internet spam folder. Seldom if ever does anyone on the street or at home address me as "dearest" ... but in the spam folder, I am the number one object of affection. Of course it's not true, but even if the writer is a hairy-backed fellow named Louie (he's wearing a pinkie ring in my mind), still you have to marvel at the simple wiliness of the attempt to draw in and fleece the unsuspecting. Everyone would like to be loved, to be the object of affectionate words.

Dearest, I am dying of cancer....
Dearest in Christ....
Dearest, I know I can trust you to help me deposit $27 million....
Dearest, I am lonely and horny....
Dearest, God will reward you if....

What is it that makes people want to help others? Yes, most of us have learned a few rules of the road and shy away from our own instincts when the hairy-backed Louie comes calling. But still there is that nanosecond in which someone is asking for help and, yes, I want to help. I suppose the matter can be parsed with some neat psychological analysis, but the instinct is more interesting than the analysis, more compelling ... at least to me. I'm not interested in the elevating goo that such a discussion can invite. Nor am I interested in the mirror image cynicism of "there's a sucker born every minute."

When someone asks me a question about Buddhism and the question is not just some intellectual gambit, somehow, despite all of my fading interest in the topic, I feel an imperative to lend a hand. It's not a matter of raising my own stock -- another asshole power play. It seems to be based as much as anything on the premise that I hope no one will be as stupid as I was. But even that doesn't cover the topic ... doesn't really explain the imperative that seems to rise up. There's nothing virtuous or 'good' about it. "Saving all sentient beings" plays no role. It's just there ... ask and answer, answer and it. When someone asks, for example, to come to sit at the zendo that is fading from my interest, I simply can not say no. What's up with that?

I really don't know where it comes from and I am sort of leery of writing about it ... I'm afraid someone will try to tell me where and how and why and, well ... been there, done that.

All in all, for my own purposes, I feel constrained to chalk it up as another 'imponderable.' Let it be. It can't be helped.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

the demise of newspapers, the demise of democracy

For those who can remember or care about newspapers, I received in email this nice piece by Chris Hedges.

visit from a butterfly

As I walked out onto the porch just now, there, sitting in a broad shaft of sunlight, was a butterfly. I stopped to admire it and, as if basking in my admiration, it flexed its wings once or twice. Black shot with orange -- everything sharply etched in the light.

"You're beautiful," I said. "But you would be better off outside." And I moved my foot slowly into the shaft of sunlight and towards the butterfly.

As if on cue, s/he took off out the door. I stood, feeling the sun on my feet and in under three seconds, the butterfly returned and landed like a friend or a conqueror or a patient teacher on my left foot. Foot and butterfly, together in a shaft of sunlight.

Then I moved and s/he flew off, never to return.

Kyudo transcripts

Yesterday, I picked up an mp3 version of an old cassette-tape recording of a talk given by my Zen teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, who died in 2007. The cassette needed some audio attention, so I paid to have it attended to. I had thought it was a tape of an interview I had done with him in aid of an article that appeared in a magazine called "The Sun," but instead it turned out to be a talk he had given at the now-defunct Soho Zendo in New York City. No matter ... with the help of a friend, perhaps the mp3 can be put on the internet for those who might want to listen.

OK, so I had the mp3. But then I went to the grungy old file box on the porch and discovered three transcripts of similar talks. One was the mp3 material. The other two were different talks. And now, for reasons that escape me, I figure I will type them all up, all neat and clean, to hook up on the internet. I don't look forward to all that typing, but somehow I feel the imperative.

What escapes me is why. Is it because Kyudo was some great Zen master and his words are deathless indicators of the Dharma or some shit like that? Is it because I somehow feel I owe him? Is it because I loved him? Is it because, among other things, he agreed when I asked to change my Dharma name from Kigen (original or first man) to Genkaku (original understanding or original realization) ... wily bastard! Is it because I haven't got anything better to do? Is it because the historical record deserves something more human than a Wikipedia entry? Is it because of some imagined and oh-so-important lineage in Zen Buddhism? I can hear Kyudo laughing his ass off in my mind at all these speculations ... don't be a jackass, Adam! I would like to think there was a 'good' reason for typing the transcripts up, but every reason falls flat in my mind ... and still I feel the imperative.

A past I almost never think about comes back to remind me, somehow. On the one hand, "Zen Buddhism? Don't be a fucking bore!" On the other hand, there is no denying the time and energy once devoted to Zen Buddhism. Is there some reason I shouldn't treat it with a congenial respect? No .... But then I come around to the fact that it's not Zen Buddhism that is boring; it's the fact that I am boring ... running around trying to find 'meaning' or a 'reason' or a 'profound meaning' or an 'explanation' or some similar self-serving shit. What kind of an idiotic Zen student is that?!

OK ... I'll stop whining and start typing now. I have Kyudo's guffaws to keep me company.


A news item says that Bank of America, one of the biggies in this country, is close to an $8.5 billion settlement with blue chip investors who claim the bank sold them poor quality mortgage backed securities.

Perhaps I've got this wrong but wasn't it the banks, among others, who concocted impossible mortgages and sold them to an unwary tax-payer constituency? When the mortgages went belly-up and it looked as if the banks might fail, they were propped up by the federal government because they were "too big to fail." The federal government used taxpayer money to prop up the banks, which, rather than easing the pain of mortgage-holders, sat on the tax-payer money ... which they are now going to pay to blue-chip stockholders who (as distinct from the floundering taxpayer) have the wherewithal to sue.

So the taxpayer gets to pay for the mistakes and manipulations of those who helped to drown them in the first place. Is there some reason why this should not lead to resentment? Is there some reason why this should not lead to bitterness?

I recall again the Somali intelligence officer's observation about the pirates off the coast of his impoverished country: "If you do not share your wealth with us, we will share our poverty with you."

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Yoga for Yankees

Received in email:


dog and pony

I remember the look in the old woman's eyes. She was tending a Buddhist temple in New York's Chinatown when a Shingon monk friend of mine and I stopped in to take a look. We had had lunch at the first decent vegetarian restaurant I have ever been to (the eggs really did taste like chicken) and were doing a casual micro-pilgrimage to this temple and that.

My friend, Jomyo, talked pleasantly with the woman. She asked what sect he belonged to and all he had to do was say "mikkyo" for her demeanor to change. "Mikkyo" is sometimes translated as the "secret teachings" of esoteric Buddhism and the woman's demeanor said, "Secret stuff is secret. I don't know what it entails exactly, but it is wiser not to piss off a witch." Her shoulders and eyes tensed and she turned up the humility decibels ... or anyway that's what I thought I saw. She was no longer at ease.

I guess it can't be avoided, arousing one reaction or another in others, but I felt bad for the woman. I wanted to reassure her that Jomyo was a perfectly nice guy and was not about to bite her ankles or consign her to some fiery furnace. I wanted her to know that Buddhism was not a threat-based operation ... that really, it was just for her and whatever effort she was willing to expend. She wouldn't be elevated if she did it and she wouldn't be doomed if she didn't.

But then it occurred to me that no one calls something "secret" or "esoteric" unless they are hoping to arouse attention. Everyone loves and or/fears a secret, so maybe the reason to call something secret is to arouse a greater attention ... in hopes of producing a happy result ... assuming it isn't just another power-tripper on the loose. What, for heaven's sake, could possibly be secret in spiritual endeavor? If there were something secret, then no one would know about it, in which case it would be utterly useless, a fantasy and a fairy tale. The only secret thing I can think of in spiritual endeavor is that it is obvious ... and what is obvious is far more difficult and rewarding than what is secret.

Oh well, I guess there is a need for dog-and-pony shows. Those performing need them. Those in the audience need them.

But I still felt bad for that woman.

Oh no! Not a "public" beach!

Funny how politics can become so tiresome and untrustworthy that one of the few ways in which to get a bead on things is with a laugh:


don't be a pest

A front-page article in the local newspaper includes a half-column head shot of a smiling man with grey hair. A pleasant-looking guy whom the article depicted as a hard-working, friendly man ... who was found dead in Vermont, the victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. One last smile for the camera.

I read the article, not because I have an old-fart tendency to read obituaries, but because I instinctively like things that challenge assumptions ... smiling, well-liked guy (a social positive) commits suicide (a social negative). The scenario challenges those who knew the man and those who didn't: And that, to my mind, was the important part about the news article.

But I also felt a twinge of regret that such challenges appeal to me. How much more social to be surprised or horrified or confused. How much more reassuring to take the picture anyone might have of this hard-working guy and put it in a picture frame and hang it on the mind's wall ... yup, that's George all right... big smile, workaholic, friendly ... and boom! George shot himself to death and simultaneously blew up the limiting assumptions around him.

Anyone might do anything at any time and yet I limit them in my mind ... and in so doing, create a limiting view of myself. Perhaps that's what anyone likes about surprises: Surprises call into question the convenient bias and judgments of the mind. Somewhere in the back of my head, I already knew that all those descriptions, all those certainties, all that bias was fictional at best. But I relied on those fictions nonetheless. Why? Out of laziness or fear? What is the matter with freedom, with limitlessness? Do I need this baggage? Does it honestly make me any happier, safer, more at ease?

My twinge of regret is that I take such questions seriously. How much more social it would be not to ask and, when expressing the questions to others, to make them uncomfortable. Not to equate myself with the Buddha, but it reminds me of Layman P'ang, an old Buddhist fellow, who once complained about (approximately) "all those Buddhas running around pestering others." He was right, for my money ... no one likes being a pest. And yet, it seems, no matter how much anyone might try, everyone turns out to be a pest one way or another.

Look at smiling George.

Monday, June 27, 2011


Trust is an interesting thing, a thing worth examining, I think. Where does it come from? What is its imperative? It may bind the social tapestry, but what is its source and need and teaching? The Zen teacher Rinzai once told his monks more or less, "Your whole problem is that you do not trust yourselves enough."

What brought this to mind was a small article that arrived in email yesterday. The article tells the tale of a 49-year-old woman who was laid out in a coffin prior to burial. She woke up, found herself in a coffin preparing to be buried, saw the sorrowing throng around her, had a heart attack and died.

The story is/was in print. Things that are written down engender trust to one degree or another. What is written is a compact between the words themselves and the reader who reads them. The reader is free to trust or distrust them, but either way, s/he takes the trouble to read them. Are they true?

People would like to think that what they ingest and process is true in one sense or another. Either such things are true in their truth or they are true in their lies. They are trusted: Here is the truth! Or, this is utter bullshit! Or, perhaps it is all a mixture of fact and fantasy!

Employment, relationships, sunshine, or marshmallows ... the longing to trust is so strong that it is often overlooked as a subject for investigation. Investigation usually implies doubt, and trust is skittish about doubt. Becoming a cynic (nothing is trustworthy) is every bit as trusting as trust in full flower. Somehow you've got to trust something, right? You've got to because ... because ... because why?

Is it because without trust life is too lonely or because I wouldn't know who I was if I didn't trust or there is some mortal danger in not trusting some empirically observable facts? Where are the roots of trust and what soil nourishes them? As I see it, there is no need to make a federal case out of it, stumbling around in some arcane philosophy or religion. But there is a usefulness to examining what's happening here.

As the Zen teacher Rinzai said, more or less: "Your whole problem is that you do not trust yourselves enough."

Sunday, June 26, 2011

right ....

The term "concentration camp" was first used to describe camps operated by the British in South Africa during this conflict [the Boer War].
In my lifetime, "concentration camp" was generally applied to World War II -- most horrifically to the Nazi concentration camps where millions of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, priests and other 'undesirable' people were detained and killed. But concentration camps also referred to prisoner of war camps in many nations involved in that war ... and in subsequent wars. But concentration camps were not just for enemy combatants.

The 'civilized world' was horrified by the Holocaust.

Lizzie Van Zyl
And yet it was one of the leading exponents of that civilized world that helped to create the picture below at right -- a picture that is all but indistinguishable from the Nazi death camps or the Bataan death march. Here is that picture from 'another' time -- the Boer War:
It really ought to set off warning bells when anyone declares s/he is "right" or that the circumstances of being "right" this time differ significantly from the "right-ness" of the past. It is a good idea to keep a very close eye on our own willingness to be "right."

the get-real factors

A 93-year-old woman's obituary depicted her as being full of piss and vinegar. Once, when addressing a gathering of elderly people, she was quoted as saying, approximately, "If, after the age of 65, you wake up in the morning without any aches or pains, you will know you are dead."

Age hath its aches and those aches make waking up a less and less delightful or somehow morally imperative prospect. It becomes harder and harder to threaten an old person with "death." Or maybe I'm wrong.

But for those who are interested in spiritual endeavor, I think aging is a pretty good thing. Aging and its attendant aches challenge the eyewash with which spiritual endeavor can be surrounded. The soaring yummies no long sound a clarion call when your joints betray you. Ouch trumps hope and belief and there is a growing sense of "get real!" And this, if I had to guess, is precisely what spiritual endeavor was encouraging all along ... during all those anthems and hymns and supportive, good-news announcements, an heavenly deluges of logic: "Get real!"

Flipping around the TV channels last night, I clicked into a Christian station and saw a man wearing a backward collar. I didn't hear what he said, but the look on his face -- so earnest, so consoling, so encouraging, so yummy-kind -- gave me precisely the same message I get when I click into a channel with canned laughter. It's too contrived for my taste. Too heartless. Too lacking in humanity.

Perhaps that's just my joints talking, but I await the compelling and honest answer as to why I should look to a wiser voice than those joints. What might be is a young man's sport. Spiritual endeavor is more properly about what is.

In the afternoon, I watched "Breaker Morant," a somewhat contrived but still first-class drama of three English soldiers on trial for their activities during the Boer Wars. It was as human and recognizable as it was inhumane and insane. In hind-sight, I half-hoped the man in the backwards collar had seen or might see the movie, but then recognized the foolishness of my hope ... earnest, consoling, encouraging hymns blur what is or was horror even as horror shows blur what is or was earnest, consoling and encouraging.

One thing good about joint pain -- there is nothing blurry about it. And the same is true for joy.

"toxic leaders"

The U.S. Army has conducted a survey in which it sought to identify its "toxic leaders."

The Army defined toxic leaders as commanders who put their own needs first, micro-managed subordinates, behaved in a mean-spirited manner or displayed poor decision making.
It makes you wonder if corporations and smaller businesses, whose idea of leadership is so often based on the mediocre principle of fear, wouldn't benefit from a similar self-assessment.

The trouble with fear is that at the same time it may instill obedience, it also diminishes and under-utilizes the best efforts of those who are afraid: Someone who is afraid is constantly using energy to defend against what is feared and thus taking energy and commitment away from the objective at hand.

And it's not just others who can exercise the fear option: People do this to themselves, I imagine.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

mining vs ancient Buddhist temple

BBC reports on Chinese mining plans in Afghanistan.

the goal

Splashing around my mind like a kid in a mud puddle ....

Let belief be your guide, but never allow it to be the goal. Beliefs betoken doubt and, although beliefs can inform, still no one wants to live a life in doubt...the discomfort is too great.

There is nothing profound in this. Look around. Think it through. You can believe, and perhaps have, that you could ride a bicycle. There was evidence to be found in the other kids riding up and down the block. But once you learned to ride, belief fell away. What you knew was beyond belief. It was assured. There was no longer a need for doubt.

Beliefs guide and inspire, but the question always needs to be asked -- guide and inspire for what? If the best beliefs can do is inspire more beliefs, what kind of pauper's existence is this? Wouldn't you prefer to ride your bike and laugh?

the allure of genius, the despair of mediocrity

My son taught me how to do it, and yesterday I put what strikes me as a wonderful magic to the test -- calling up and then watching a movie on the computer screen. When I was a kid and Saturday double features at the local theater were like dying and going to heaven, I used to imagine what it would be like if you could watch movies in your own home. Talk about luxury! Well, television asserted its wiles and then came the computer and there I was, yesterday, wallowing in a movie I hadn't seen in a long time: "Amadeus," a fanciful depiction of genius and mediocrity that was laced with the chocolate-pudding music of Mozart.

My friend Dave, who knows a lot about music where I know little, did not care much for the movie when we discussed it years ago. What he disliked was the scatter-brained depiction of Mozart himself ... no one, he said, really knew much about Mozart the man. This meant that depicting him as scatter-brained and childish was possible, but was in no sense accurate. As someone less educated, I was content to immerse myself in the story and the devil take the hindmost.

No one can tell a story about genius. It is like looking at the sun -- far too bright and painful and incomprehensible. In order to look at what genius is, it is necessary to look at what it is not and the movie did this by focusing on Antonio Salieri, a composer and conductor whose life -- with which the movie took considerable liberties -- was rapaciously focused on Mozart's genius and how he might attain and surpass that genius.

The movie shows Salieri as a man aware of Mozart's genius and decimated by his own inability to match it. He is shown as promising God to be celibate and work his heart out ... if only God would bestow a musical genius on him. He is shown at the end of his life, confessing all to a priest -- a man still gripped by his inabilities ... and a man who may have murdered Mozart. His appalling arrogance and malevolence is mated with a compellingly human sorrow and longing ... to be a genius, to soar with the angels, to enter a light that he has been denied. And of course blaming God doesn't really work. It merely compounds his sorrow by throwing God into question. God has fucked him over ... why?!

The story is as human and credible as any other good tale. Whether it was true to Mozart of Salieri didn't really matter to me. The tale was true, even if it was the most egregious lie.

Who does not wish to actualize the genius s/he recognizes within? To stand on top of the mountain, naked in the light, complete and completed? I don't care what form that genius takes. It is the longing and the beckoning ... and the mediocrity it exposes. No one wants to live in the shadows of the heart's desire, to subsist on crumbs. The sun is bright. And the shadows ... the shadows are not the sun.

And that is the interesting part to me -- how anyone makes a genuine peace with what may be seen mediocrity. It may be a lifelong task, trying to figure out why God fucked you over. Anyone who works so hard to find the light of their lives is left gasping by the (hopefully) realization that by seeking the light they have been running from the light. But this is not a surrender to mediocrity. To imagine you could know God -- however that God is defined -- is matched in every arrogant and misguided floundering by the slings and arrows of imagining you could not know God...not look directly into the sun ... not express the genius that is inescapable.

It was a saddening and delicious movie, "Amadeus." Shadow and light. Light a shadow. A human and humane and grueling tale. Your tale, my tale, his, her or its tale.

All of it told beneath the blue, blue sky.

gay marriage wins legal status

Yesterday, the state of New York became the sixth in the United States to make homosexual marriages legal. At the same time that I am delighted for those previously denied the inalienable right to pursue their happiness where no others are harmed, there is something dismal and depressing that anyone should have to waste time fighting for what strikes me as so childishly obvious.

Whatever my opinions -- and those opinions are clearly not universally shared -- still, I am happy for all those affected.

Friday, June 24, 2011

the great escape


The word often carries with it a pejorative connotation. An escapist is someone who runs from things and ducks responsibility: A slacker and a fraidy cat.

Lately, I have been thinking of taking myself out to a nearby swimming hole, a small pond with a small beach. The place is great for kids because the water doesn't get very deep very fast and the chances of anyone getting into serious trouble are pretty slim. There are lifeguards too, which seems a bit much, but it fits with the community I live in.

The sun has not cooperated in the last few days, so I haven't gone to the pond. But I have thought about it -- a change from potatoes, an escape of sorts.

At first blush in my escapist mind, the adventure is all about water. I love water -- the look, the feel, the soothing something-or-other that bubbles up inside as if I were taking a shower within. What a nice escape from the routine in which one chore or another calls out to be done, the tightening of the shoulders as I assess one task or another ... and the tasks, however small, seem endless.

But it's not just about the water, I have decided. It's also about being in a place where there is no escape. By limiting the surroundings -- beach, sun, water, chattering kids -- I am able to let go of the small tasks that can natter at home. I can't do a damned thing about them ... and it's a relief. A relief to be trapped in this place ... no where to run. So, relax! I have had the same feeling on boating expeditions and airplane rides and walks in the woods. Limited location and input encouraging some more sensible sense of the limitless.

To escape to a place from which you cannot escape.

It makes you wonder: "What's the matter with here and now?"

signs of the times


capturing a mobster

Is anyone taking bets on whether former mobster James Whitey Bulger will ever be convicted of anything more serious than stealing office pencils? After 16 years during which the FBI (umm) could not find him, the 81-year-old Boston gangster was arrested Wednesday in California. He faces a slew of charges, some related to 19 murders.

But like J. Edgar Hoover, the man whose FBI Bulger put to his own cunning uses, the gangster knows too much. Hoover was reappointed again and again by presidents who were aware that Hoover knew where the political bodies were buried. And Bulger's connections to law-abiding enforcement agencies and the politicians who bolster them seem likely to portend a slap on the proverbial wrist rather than any significant punishment. Or anyway, that's my bet.

It's kind of like the bankers and stock manipulators who sent the country and much of the world into what's being called by cute-talking analysts, "the Great Recession." Not one individual has been charged with malfeasance. It's too complex, some say. But it's also probably fair to guess that the connections of responsibility reach too far up the political food chain.

One thing you can say about a mobster like Whitey Bulger: He doesn't equivocate like a banker or politician. I doubt if he ever asked the public to think well of him, to praise his honesty and integrity or excuse his behavior. I cannot imagine his going on television like former U.S. President Richard Nixon to whine, "I am not a crook." Like Popeye, Bulger seems more capable than most of saying, "I yam what I yam ... and what are you going to do about it?"

After 16 years, they got Whitey Bulger.

It remains to be seen if they really got him.

Wall Street keeps humming through the graveyard it helped to create and I wouldn't be surprised if Whitey Bulger did the same.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

news in passing

And in the news today ...

-- After an embarrassing number of years allegedly searching for him, authorities arrested mobster Whitey Bulger on Wednesday. Kind of reminds me of the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

-- Republicans and Democrats alike jumped on President Barak Obama's plans for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.

-- New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is gearing up to press for passage of a gay marriage bill today.

-- For the first time in the American melting pot's history, minority babies comprise a majority of births.

-- In what is sometimes called an improving economy, unemployment claims rose.

Aside from the usual sturm und drang, that's the stuff that caught my eye.

chump change

There was something profoundly touching, deeply human and utterly idiotic about the question.

And I mean it:

Profoundly touching.

Deeply human.

Utterly idiotic.

A (wo)man on an internet Buddhist bulletin board (general banter) had been to visit a center in England. S/he reported that the instructor there claimed to be Maitreya, the fully-realized future Buddha foretold in some literature... a kind of second coming of Christ without the Christian overlays. And the question posed by the visitor was: "He was a nice bloke but how do we know if one is Fully enlightened?"

No one wants to be taken as a fool. In spiritual endeavor, people open themselves up to one possible way of revising their lives for the better. To open up means to become vulnerable. And that vulnerability hopes not to get blind-sided by manipulators or charlatans. It longs to be nurtured and cared for and not abused. Whether that vulnerability is smart or stupid is not so much the point. The point is, people are vulnerable ... they have made a move and become tender where callouses had previously grown. They have entered a new and unknown terrain. In one sense, they are babes in the wood, no matter what the age. It's a risky move, leaving tried-and-true defenses behind. But no one wants to be taken for a chump.

In the world of Buddhism, I have run into these teachers who are willing to describe themselves as fully-realized beings. When called on these vainglorious assertions -- sometimes asserted quite baldly, sometimes suggested subtly by, for example, assuming a replica pose of some Buddha statue or painting ... you see? I'm sitting just like Kuan Yin so you can imagine I am Kuan Yin -- these people take refuge in the unassailable assertion that we are all Buddhas ... but they know who they are and you don't. "I know I'm Buddha; I know I'm fibbing, but I'm doing it for your benefit. What a good fellow I am." Sometimes, they actually start to believe their own eye wash. It's pathetic. It's sad. And it can be dangerous. What Buddha could possibly claim to be Buddha? When nailed down, these teachers whine, "I'm just a human being too, you know." It's slimy.

But none of these shenanigans are known to a newish and vulnerable student. The student has read books and gathered the inspirations and hopes that sent him or her to a center to further an understanding that is just starting to bud. S/he has taken a big risk, moving from the inspirations of books or talks to the actual-factual, breath-to-breath experience of a practice center. Confidence is wobbly at best because there is no bed-rock experience on which to base any certainty. It's new, it's novel and maybe it's a bit spooky. "What the hell have I gotten myself into??!!"

And if someone claims to be Maitreya, to be the who-is-what-is, how is anyone to know? Yes, there are books that delineate this mark or that evidence when it comes to enlightened beings, but such information and two bucks will get you a bus ride. If you don't know, you don't know and not-knowing is not all that bad. But it is that bad when consulting with the element that does not wish to be taken for a ride, to be taken for a fool.

Written down, all of this takes on a sure-footed cast, as if human situations could be parsed and in that parsing made easier. Seeking to be happy, seeking to be at peace is an utterly human pastime. Everyone wants to be happy, whether they're getting drunk eight nights a week or busting their buns to get a Ph.D. Some choose spiritual endeavor as a road to some something-or-other that will make them happier, more even-keeled, less uncertain in uncertain times. Maybe this guy is Maitreya, but the hard question that needs asking is, "So what?"

The world around us is filled with joy and sorrow, with honesty and chicanery, with delight and horror. Is there any question about this? It's just a plain fact, isn't it? Why should spiritual endeavor be any different? Anyone might squeeze their eyes shut, cross their fingers, and mutter an appropriate incantation as a means of dispelling what is negative or uncertain in their lives, but isn't it a fact that each has to make up his own mind about the world and its wiles and wonders? Never mind spiritual endeavor ... just the regular stuff.

Cross your fingers ... yes, I have met the one true teacher, the Buddha, Maitreya. Now what? Or no, this guy is looking for accolades and the big bucks. Now what?

Profoundly touching. The cries of the world cannot be dismissed or written off or cured with the wave of a wand. This is true stuff.

Deeply human. The longing to dispel uncertainty and to nourish peace and happiness is no small matter in anyone's actual-factual life. Try and fail and try again ... that seems to be the way of things. But it's not a matter of philosophy or religion. Philosophy and religion point ... individuals have to do the sometimes difficult walking. Deeply human.

And utterly idiotic. Imagining there is some other Buddha, some wand-waver, some perfected something-or-other may be understandable in a deeply human realm. But that doesn't change its idiotic nature. No one wants to be a chump. Everyone is a chump. Study and transform this chump ... it's the only choice anyone's got.

If you can't kick Buddha's ass, at least stop imagining Buddha could kick or bless your own.

Don't be a chump.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

penises and vaginas

A Zen teacher whose name I have forgotten was once asked about the role of sex in Buddhism. And he replied, more or less, "What's the big deal? It's just penises and vaginas, isn't it?"

Of course it's not just penises and vaginas. There is a boatload of psychological and physical baggage that has to be considered as well. There's love and lust and power and ... and on and on and on. And it can be pretty powerful, pretty compelling, pretty important. And there's no escaping it. Even those who imagine they have escaped still have to pay attention to their penis or vagina...and perhaps the boatload of baggage.

And when it comes to the spiritual world, the boatload of baggage can be heavier by half, especially in a prurient country like the U.S.

But whatever the baggage and whatever the context within which it is viewed, still I think it's worth remembering once in a while: "It's just penises and vaginas, isn't it?"

bad boys

Some people take spiritual endeavor seriously.

Some are convinced by their own solemnity.

And some people can go nuts about baseball.

Yesterday and today, I was trying to find out (since my memory sucks) who it was in Zen Buddhism who burned a bunch of koans. Various email friends came to my rescue. Thank you.

In Zen, formal koans are sometimes used as a means of bringing intellectual and emotional life to a roadblock. One of the best-known koans is, perhaps, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" This is not a question -- assuming someone wanted to be serious about it -- that the intellect or emotion could answer. It stymies the mind.

Anyway, there was once a Zen teacher, Ta Hui, who burned a bunch of the hundreds of koans that litter the world of Zen Buddhism. Ta Hui was a serious teacher, so his act was not frivolous. The rough intellectual explanation of his act is that he didn't want Zen students clinging to the verbal, cultural or intellectual hand-holds that koans can seem to offer. He wanted people to get to the experience that Buddhism points to and requires some determined effort. In a sense, perhaps, he was a piano master encouraging his pupils to stop reading books about playing the piano. His apparently outlandish methods were one way of getting the point across. Everyone loves a bad boy.

But as I was chewing my cud about the topic, it occurred to me that anyone who was serious about anything -- baseball, money-making, bike-riding, spiritual endeavor, whatever -- might be well-advised to take a moment now and then to consider how intrinsically important or useful that 'anything' might be if all the props were suddenly pulled away, if suddenly the whole thing simply burned down. If there were no more baseball, what role would baseball play? If there were no more Buddhism, would Buddhism survive?

I'm not trying to encourage a world of mindless iconoclasts any more than I would encourage a world or mindless conformists. But what about it? -- how would any individual's seriousness or solemnity work out in a world in which that about which they were serious or solemn simply ceased to hold sway? When you take away god, how does god play out? I think that asking this question seriously can shine a light on what is serious and what is simply self-centered.

The unpetrified mind is naturally-inclined towards bad boys, towards asking the questions that oppose what is elevated. Without making too much of the bad boys, I think they have distinct -- and perhaps imperative -- uses.

and on and on and on and on and on....

U.S. President Barack Obama was scheduled to give a speech today about the 10-year-old war in Afghanistan. He was expected to announce some sort of troop reduction plan. The United States has some 100,000 troops and and equal number of mercenaries (so-called contractors) in a nation that neither the British nor the Russians could subdue in the past.

The U.S. mission in Afghanistan, never well-defined in the first place, has become more ludicrous and amorphous as time passes. The costs are staggering. The red-white-and-blue nation-building notion gets stupider and stupider as the tribal composition and allegiances of Afghanistan become more apparent. The notion that anyone could stop something referred to as "terrorism" gets stupider and stupider as well.

Last night on TV, I saw a three-person panel refer over and over again to "the fighting season," as if the Afghan frictions were some school year with vacations spliced in. Who are these people and do they ever bother to look in the mirror and wonder what the hell they are talking about?

But these are the kinds of people whose opinions the president of the United States will probably take into account when he speaks tonight. In the past, there have been endless announcements that amounted to "just a little bit further" or "just one or two more fighting seasons." Expect more of the same.

For what? Because we were dumb enough to stick our finger in the beehive in the first place? Because we are appalled at the incivilities of the Taliban, a group whose depredations are mimicked in a host of other countries ... countries the U.S. did not choose to invade? Because we are the good guys? Because it is glorious and honorable to send our sons and daughters to get wounded and die ... and coincidentally instill fear into a flag-waving electorate that will re-elect the same people who, without good reason, stuck our national finger into the beehive in the first place? Because war is exceptionally good for business?

On and on and on and on and on and on ... and there is no credible reasoning ... and there are people losing their jobs and homes ... and the deaths mount up like cord wood? Is it possible to put a good face on any of this? I guess so ... goodness has never been much of a priority.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Walmart wins one for big business

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out a class action suit alleging discrimination against women at the world's biggest retailer. It was the largest class action suit in history.

The court was split, 5-4, but the impact remains the same. Aside from anything else, I don't imagine anyone on the Walmart floor is getting rich, but women will continue to make 77 cents on the male dollar. And where Walmart has blazed the trail, others can more easily follow.

bullet-proof agenda

Under pressure from the city's health department, which declined to renew its licenses, a funeral home here coughed up its tax arrears last Thursday. The payment made page one today.

Who can fail to see the economic logic? What is $43,000+ compared to expected revenues? It's piss in a snow bank. Death is a bullet-proof business. An endless cash flow -- what businessman could ask for more?

It made me think of the human longing, whether little or large, to find the activity or state of mind that was similarly bullet-proof ... that provided without any particular effort the peace and stability and ease that can seem to be missing. Love, God, money, location, profession, philosophy ... somewhere, somehow, perhaps there is a magical key that will bring meaning and peace and protection to this life...and keep on bringing it ... endlessly.

Bullet-proof. A place in which no harm or uncertainty can enter. A situation that is immune and never ends. Heaven, Nirvana, enlightenment, immortality, an American Express Gold Card, a swimming pool in the back yard or a table heaped with food.

Bullet-proof. Safe. Secure. Happy. Or perhaps just not sad, confused and uncertain.

I don't want to run one of those honey-tongued bad-news-good-news shticks. It takes too long and falls into the same bullet-proof trap. What I do think is worth the price of admission is just to take a look at the longing itself. No scoffing, no adulation -- just look. What bullet-proof answer are you looking for? And, as the political gadfly and airhead Sarah Palin might say, "How's that workin' out for you?"

The search for the bullet-proof does not need either criticism or praise. Sometimes good things evolve from the effort. Sometimes bad. Sometimes happy. Sometimes sad. But the willingness to acknowledge -- to own up to -- the search for the bullet-proof does lighten the load, I think. And let's not imagine that those who smugly dismiss the bullet-proof are any better off than those who long for it. That's just more bullet-proofing. Maybe searching for the bullet-proof is OK. Maybe searching for the bullet-proof is foolish. But ...

Either way, whose tears are these?

And either way, who is it who can't stop laughing?

Monday, June 20, 2011

making a difference

Of course you make a difference.

Get over it.

back to the land

When I was a kid, I went to a boarding school that wove a world of farming into its education. There were carrots and beets and tomatoes and lettuce and squash. We slaughtered pigs, cattle and chickens. We shoveled horse, cow, pig and chicken shit. And what we tended ended up on the supper table. Sometimes we had venison for dinner because one or more teachers had gone hunting. There was nothing elevated or magnificent about it. Farming was just part of what we did. I hated weeding worse than I hated the smell of pig shit.

Now, in hard times, the practice of home gardening seems to be on the rise. Gas and food prices are up. The unemployment inflicted by Wall Street and others in cuff links has made a return to the land not just attractive ... it is more like a necessity. The serfs return. Back to the land. An agrarian past whispers. The Industrial Revolution was not for everybody.

I have a lot of admiration for those who tend the land. It is hard work and that hard work fills my stomach and the stomachs of my children. Working seven days a week because those are the demands is not easy. This ain't beamer country. It is hard and it is close to the flow of things. It makes sense to tend what nourishes you.

But I have to admit my teeth itch when the adoration sets in. Anyone can build a soaring philosophy out of anything ... and most especially out of the thing with which they are most intimately concerned. It's not enough to shovel pig shit ... we need a temple to pig shit. And all I can think is, if you've got the time on your hands and the energy to build a temple, get out there and shovel some pig shit.

Somehow, it reminds me of one of my favorite poems, "Homage to My Father" by Seido Ray Ronci:

My father said:
Fuck Father Farrell,
what does he know, that old bastard!

Study all the religions. Learn Italian.
See Venizia, Firenze, talk
to all kinds of people
and never, never think you know more
than someone else! Unless,
unless they're full of shit.

And if they are, tell them;
and if they still don't get it, fuck it,
there's nothing you can do about it.

Learn how to bake bread.
If you can make pasta and bake bread
you can always feed your family,
you can always get a job.

Keep your house clean
and don't worry what anyone else does.
Cut your grass,
prune your fruit trees
or they'll die on you.

Don't drink too much
but don't always be sober --
it makes you nervous.

A couple glasses of wine,
some anisette now and then,
a cigar never hurt nobody.

Nervous people always got an ache here,
an ache there, they get sick,
they die --

Look at Father Farrell:
he'll be dead in a year.

Fuck him! 


the Pledge of Allegiance

The U.S. television behemoth NBC has apologized for forgetting or editing out the words "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance leading up to the U.S. Open golf tournament. What conceivable role the Pledge of Allegiance plays at a sporting event beats the socks off me, but in tough times, there is a tendency to seek refuge in virtuous incantations: If you squeeze your eyes tight and cross your fingers, maybe the tornado will spare your land.

The current Pledge of Allegiance goes like this:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
I can remember a time when school children would begin their day standing at their desks, facing the flag, and reciting the pledge. I can also remember when the phrase "under God" was added. It was 1954.

At the time, the addition struck me as clunky and mildly abusive, but I was not mindful of the fact that 1954 was a year that was part of the McCarthy era -- a time when Senator Joseph McCarthy built a thriving business out of denigrating his country by holding hearings at which people were accused of being communists. No one dared to challenge him for fear of being called a communist as well. Friend ratted out friend in an effort to escape the lash. People were labeled as pariahs and lost their jobs. It was a despicable time, but it scared the crap out of the nation ... everyone wanted to be gooder than good and perhaps the "under God" phrase was influenced by that fear. Gestapo-inspired virtue.

Before the addition, the pledge seemed to be part of a school day. It made some patriotic sense given the world war so recently passed -- the one that had claimed so many lives and left so many sorrowing. Death requires a propaganda ministry and the pledge may have been a part of that effort to make sense of or justify an insane and brutal time.

Anyway, NBC seems to have bowed its head and done its requisite mea culpa. The U.S. is a Christian country, but a part of its potential greatness lies in its willingness to remember that not everyone is a part of some Christian or Jewish or other God-prone collective. It is one thing to acknowledge that someone is part of a country and has responsibilities within that country. It is quite another to dictate or inject religion into the mix. The founding fathers didn't do it and neither should we.

My idealism is such that I like to think I live in a country where NBC would not apologize and it would be understood that whatever error NBC made was a part of what made the country worth offering a pledge to. But it's hard times out there -- time to cross your fingers and slip slowly, slowly into a Third World abyss.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

pearls before swine

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is said to have made reference to the foolishness of offering ideas or things to those who have no capacity to appreciate them -- pearls before swine.

But the more I think about the "pearls before swine" admonition, the more I find that the only useful response I can muster is:


small potatoes ... bigtime!

Out the front porch door and across the street, a cardinal, bold as a drop of blood, perched upright on a black telephone wire and sang this morning.

Sang? Say rather, S-A-N-G!

How in heaven's name anything so small could emit something so big is something I will never understand. And if someone explained it to me, I still wouldn't understand.

So small and yet so goddamned big.

How does that work?

I guess it's a good idea to get used to not knowing things. Isn't enjoyment enough?

Father's Day

It's Father's Day and elsewhere along the written and spoken skein, people will be taking a crack at what it means to be a father.

With three kids of my own, I wouldn't touch the question with a ten-foot pole.

Happy Father's Day!


As the Tao Te Ching observes more eloquently than I, it is the emptiness of things that makes them useful. Because the ear is empty, it can hear. Because the eye is empty, it can see. Because the bowl is empty, it can hold tea. Etc.

A computer glitch wreaked havoc Friday and Saturday on United Airlines:

CHICAGO (AP) - A five-hour computer outage that virtually shut down United Airlines Friday night and early Saturday is a stark reminder of how dependent airlines have become on technology. Complete story.
 Isn't it interesting, the habit of relying on what can just as easily be lost. We come into the world empty-handed, gather up this and that, but tend to neglect our original heritage. What would it be like to be as we are without all the worries and possessions we have gathered up? What would it be like to become empty-handed ... an inescapable truth without which we couldn't have gathered up our stuff in the first place?

What would it be like to be empty-handed? Would it be the same or different?

the war on poverty

Greed is one of those issues about which, I imagine, there is a lot of ambivalence. On the one hand, it is pretty easy to get on a high horse and point out the social depredations greed can inflict. On the other hand, there are whispering accolades that acknowledge various sorts of greed within. On the one hand, greed is a loser. On the other hand, greed often goes hand-in-hand with winning and being a winner is very attractive ... personally attractive. Overall, greed is simultaneously "so unfair" and "so worthwhile!"

Once upon a time, the Dalai Lama gave a speech at Smith College, a well-heeled institution up the street from where I live. Tickets were impossible to come by, but the talk was televised live, so I watched a bit. Much as I admire the Dalai Lama, I couldn't listen to the whole thing. In my ear, his talk to a largely student and academic audience was a litany of repetition. The drumbeat repetition was warranted, but I wasn't in the mood for it. What that repetition amounted to was this: Use your very fine education to do some good in the world -- to help out those who are less well-heeled and well-endowed. Don't be parsimonious with your educated riches. Don't be greedy.

What I admire about the Dalai Lama is his apparent capacity to rest easy and allow others to ignore him.

I have no doubt that some heard his talk as an encouragement for a kind of elevated altruism -- sometimes called "compassion" by those unable or unwilling to investigate. But my guess was that the encouragement was more aimed at suggesting how to lead a happy and peaceful life ... not by playing the super-nice guy (serving others and in so doing, creating others) but rather by seeing that any other course would distance the peace any man or woman longed for, was capable of and was entitled to. What a delicate difference. It is the kind of delicacy that inclines people to nest in a rule book of altruism and leaves them wondering why uncertainty and doubt persist.

 What set off this amorphous train of thinking was the lead article on the Washington Post's internet site today. "Breakaway wealth" touched on many aspects of income disparities in the United States, a hot-button topic in a time of economic distress for so many. Some of the very wealthy executives found something immoral about making vast sums of money ... saw it as a force that would lower morale among the workers who created that income. Others seemed to rest easy in the assurance that greed has become more acceptable within the social fabric. Whether any of this is true is hard to determine, but it does seem to be one reasonable conclusion.

But the collective results of income disparity led the CIA's World Factbook to an interesting observation:

According to the CIA’s World Factbook, which uses the so-called “Gini coefficient,” a common economic indicator of inequality, the United States ranks as far more unequal than the European Union and the United Kingdom. The United States is in the company of developing countries — just behind Cameroon and Ivory Coast and just ahead of Uganda and Jamaica.
Third World status.

Aside from encouraging pity parties laced with white whining, the broad spectrum of accumulated wealth and accumulated poverty is too confounding in its breadth and depth. People are left with a vague sense that things "are unfair," but no real energy to do much ... the problems are too big and they are too little. It is easier to issue a judgment or set up a glossy bias than to look into the matter of greed.

But the blowback of greed is as evident in anyone's heart as it is in The Washington Post. No one is too little for the problem of them selves. This is something about which they can, in fact, do something. But what?

My hunch is that the first step is to turn down the volume on "good" and "bad." Greed is a word that carries a negative connotation so the first thing anyone who wants to think well of himself does is to consider greed as "bad." The result of continuing to think of greed as bad is a series of half-measures that will act to replace what is "bad" with something that is "good." Volunteer for something, work at a soup kitchen, send a donation to a worthy cause ... you know, the "good" stuff. This yardstick seems to boil down to, "It's nicer to be nice than it is to be nasty." And perhaps it is, but it doesn't really address the problem. Camouflage, yes. Solution, no.

Anyway, I think turning down the volume on "good" and "bad" stands a better chance of solving the problem of blowback. I am greedy in much the same way that I am six-feet-plus tall. It's a fact. And this fact has implications in my life. Acquisitiveness (what others sometimes wrongly refer to as "materialism") is part of my make-up. I buy. But more than just buy, I grasp ideas and beliefs that create my persona. I hold on tight. Ebeneezer Scrooge has got nothing on me. Buddhists may tell me that attachments cause sorrow and uncertainty, but until I look that one in the eye, personally, I'm still stuck with the "good" and "bad" shtick, the one that creates little more than more "good" and "bad."

What are the facts and why would I want to look them in the eye? Isn't giving a bum a handout or taking advantage of the latest sale at Target enough? I'm not a bad person. The problem is that the uncertainty remains. A sense of peace and stability eludes me, however "good" I become. I may be nice to others, but "what about me?"

What about me? This is an excellent question. The facets twinkle invitingly in the sunlight, but the gem from which those facets are cut is elusive. What about me?! When do I get mine?! When do I get to be as rich as the rich people around me who are not only rich, but have life so much easier than my own in my imagination? It can seem to be a war within ... striving and striving and somehow never coming home.

A Somali security analyst once summed up the problem of piracy in the Pacific and Indian oceans: "If you do not share your wealth with us, we will share our poverty with you." What about me? When do I get to be wealthy? And what is this sense of poverty? Where is my wealth? What about me?

For those who prefer not to go on creating the conditions for war, the conditions for poverty, there has to be some effort. First, what is the problem? What are the facts ... not the "good" or "bad" facts, just the facts? Second, find the willingness and determination to investigate thoroughly. It's not an easy job, but ending wars is never easy. And this war is particularly thorny because the "good guys" and the "bad guys" are the same guys. The greed of others is a cakewalk. My own greed can, on investigation, appear endlessly subtle. On and on and on it goes. Further and further down the rabbit hole of me. But what other option is there but to continue to watch, to see, as if for the first time, that which leaves me uncertain and afraid and floundering in goodness.

Such an effort may start with the notion of gold stars to mark success, but the determined effort, in the end, makes no room, has not energy for, gold stars. This investigation has to be done because ... because nothing else makes any sense. No other investigation holds any water. Indeed, even this investigation holds no water. It comes and goes like the breath ... moment after moment. It begins with me and ends with precisely the same me ... but different.

How different? Very different and yet not different at all.

Same old breathing, right?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

nice guys finish ... or do they?

Some years ago, my sister, whose kids were quite young, and I were lounging on a beach and chatting. My sister was and is a social worker, but she is also a feet-on-the-ground person. She was relating a school-day incident at her son's school and then assessing the school's overall approaches, which, in general, she liked.

"But the one thing that drives me nuts," she added, "is the overcompensating 'niceness' that is politically correct and purely stupid. When some Johnny hits some Peter, you don't say, 'Now Johnny, why do you think you hit Peter?' You say, "Johnny, don't hit Peter!'"

Overcompensating niceness. Imagining that someone's feelings might be spared. Imagining compassion. Imagining a world that is good-er than good.

Yes, I can be guilty of that.

In spiritual practice, I have always preferred to be among those who would slap me upside of the head when I was being a jackass. Practice was too important to me to want to evade issues with a glossy warmth or touchy-feely hum. I wasn't always happy about feeling the lash and I was subjected along the way to teachers who abused the function, but in general, I found something true and valuable in Ta Hui's (approximate) observation, "I have always taken a great vow that I would rather burn in hell for all eternity than portray Zen as a human emotion."

This is just my preference. If you find a spiritual practice useful, then go for the throat. If you don't find it useful, that's OK too. But I am uncomfortable among those who insist on making spiritual practice too nice, too caring, too compassionate, too virtuous. This is hard, flinty work. Let's do our best just to do it. If you want hugs and kisses, talk to your mom.

Of course, nothing happens overnight, whether it be seriousness or accomplishment. Everybody wobbles along the way.

But as a preference ....

on the light side

Animal kingdom meets Monty Python.

growing up

At about 11:15 p.m. last night, my older son roused me to say he had a major headache and wanted to go to the hospital. We arrived at 11:30 after a drive during which he informed me that he had consulted the internet... perhaps it was a brain aneurysm or a tumor, among other less dire possibilities. I said that if the internet were a reliable doctor, we wouldn't be headed to the hospital. And before we got to the hospital, he informed me that when he saw the doctor, he wanted to do it alone: "I'm sick of parents sticking their nose into every aspect of my life." How consoling and yet wearing 'caring' can be, especially at 18.

Angus asked if he should call his mother, who is in Pennsylvania visiting our daughter. I said no -- there was nothing she could do at five or six hours away except worry. He agreed, but there was a thread of the past in his voice -- mom was the one who set the tone and consolation and solution to illnesses. He was sick of interference, wanted interference, was used to interference, hoped interference might somehow whisk the problem into oblivion ... oh it was a stew of different approaches ... just as it might be for any adult. Pain, like any other experience, is a lonely business.

By 3:15 we were back at home after waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting. The doctor said it was probably a migraine, to consult with a primary care physician ... who might in turn refer Angus to a neurologist. Angus signed the get-out-of-here hospital papers himself. Both of us were relieved and chatty on the ride home.

Happy Father's Day.

Friday, June 17, 2011

the Sunday chicken of faith

If your upbringing was anything like mine, there was probably someone, somewhere along the line who uttered this bit of advice: "Never discuss religion or politics at the dinner table." No point in ruining a perfectly good meal with a lot of heated discussion that never resolved anything by the time the dessert arrived.

Hot button issues can really wreak havoc on the Sunday chicken.

Still, what is nearest and dearest to the heart does seem to call out for some room to roam -- a time or place or situation in which faith can have its say. I suppose churches and temples -- in the case of religion -- offer a resolution, however imperfect. Here you can toot your horn to your heart's content ... as long as you either keep it to yourself or rein it in and/or make nice about it.

My faith, to the extent that I have one, tends to lean towards what I cannot help but think of as the grown-ups in spiritual endeavor -- the ones that are older, that have been around the experiential block and are less inclined towards lock-step compliance or youthful and limiting exuberance. Without intending the sort of insult that would not play well at the dinner table, I think Christianity, Judaism and Islam qualify in the youthful, sometimes-threatening category. Hinduism, Taoism and Buddhism -- while not denying they too have been enthusiastic teenagers -- qualify as grown-ups.

But when I try to winkle out what it is that makes the grown-ups grown-ups in my mind, I find myself circling back, over and over again, to the one aspect of religion that I think of as a sine qua non, an utter and inescapable imperative of a realized and peaceful spiritual life. I simply cannot think of another option ... religion has to go. The same door that is marked "entrance" in religious life is likewise marked "exit:" One side says "entrance" and the other says "exit." Same door.

This is no artful conceit. It is just an imperative -- not a "should" or a "fry in hell if you don't." Going through the door marked "exit" is just what happens at the end of a satisfying movie. Do whatever you have to do in order to grow up, but then ... grow up. Better and worse have nothing to do with it. A grown-up is just a grown-up ... no big deal. Peace, like sex, is not a big deal unless you're not getting any.

So by my lights, it's something to keep an eye on. It's OK to be devoted to this religion or that, this discipline or that. But keep an eye on it. And when it decides to walk away, when the last wisp of campfire smoke disappears (and I don't mean anything as facile as making a trip to the undertaker), then you're home ...

And you can enjoy the Sunday chicken without choking down politics or religion.

Without disrespect -- eat, digest, shit. Is that so complicated?

perhaps a stiff drink would help

Talk about a brain-teaser ... try sorting this one out. The defendant who admitted to driving drunk at 85 mph was having sex ... in the back seat????

a reserved life

Funny how the suggestions of spiritual endeavor are limned with revision and reserve and yet the whole point of that endeavor is to actualize a life without revision or reserve.

Isn't that what people long to escape -- a life that is continually operating at 95% ... forever holding something back while this moment and the next comes and goes full tilt ... complete and delicious and ungraspable?

You can't just do anything you want if you want to be happy. You can't make a profession out of not-doing what you want if you want to be happy. The way, on its face, seems impossible.

Do it anyway.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

same-sex marriage in N.Y.

"Only second-class states have second-class citizens," a politician was quoted as saying after the New York State Assembly passed a same-sex marriage bill yesterday. The bill heads to the senate where it is reportedly one vote shy of passage. Five U.S. states and the District of Columbia currently recognize same-sex marriage for legal purposes. Several others allow civil unions.

Today, same-sex marriage is a hot-button issue. Pro and con, there really are a lot of fireworks. I have a hunch that the day will come when same-sex marriage is viewed with the same blase, who-cares attitude that might greet the assertion that the world is round. And when that day arrives, we're all going to look pretty backward and foolish.

Unless of course we all get raptured and a booming voice from above tells us how wrong-wrong-wrong we all were. Me, I'll take my chances: Any god that looks with disapproval on any sort of affectionate and loving ties isn't my kind of god anyhow.

the tricycle effect

No one bats an eyelash when someone puts tricycles behind them. Kids love tricycles, but, well, you're not a kid any more.

And no one gets exercised to think that schooling and relationships and travels are a thing of the past. Time passes -- what did you expect?

Things remain, but they are gone.

And what about spiritual endeavor ... isn't there a time to outgrow that as well? Doesn't it make sense? But the resistance to outgrowing something as 'important' as spiritual endeavor can be fierce. Wispy, wily, ornate and arcane reasoning can be brought to bear.

I'm not saying "should" or "have to," but doesn't it seem natural and fine? Of course you loved it. Of course you worked hard for it. Of course it filled your heart and mind. Of course there were bright openings and moments of despair.

Just like the days when the tricycle was king.

Things remain, but they are gone.

keeping wisdom at bay

Sometimes I think that elevating or anointing 'the wise' is just a way of marginalizing wisdom -- of keeping what is sought at a safe distance.

On the one hand, praise can inspire. It can build a fire under an otherwise lethargic ass. On the other hand, praise implies, ipso facto, a distinction and distance between what is praised and who is praising. And the praise of wisdom is no different ... the greater the praise, the greater the distance.

Why would anyone do such a thing -- distance themselves from what they yearn for? My guess is that there is a recognition of the implications of wisdom -- that wisdom is cotton candy without personal responsibility and no one wants to do the work themselves if they can find someone or something else to do the work for them. And those willing to do the work find very quickly that the symphonic and airy praise that once filled the wisdom balloon ... well, it dribbles and leaks and evaporates and ... is gone.

Don't mess with my woo-hoo's! Get thee behind me, Satan!

I wouldn't downplay the usefulness of praise and I wouldn't suggest that wisdom doesn't exist because "we're all the same in the end" or some similar bit of laziness. But I would suggest that anyone might be wise to keep a sharp eye on what they adore and praise. And the same goes for what they despise or disparage.

How can you love your gods if the best you can do is praise them?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

the fiends of virtue

I like the phrase ... "the fiends of virtue."

It is tasty and tempting and convincing in my mind.

But if I were to explain and expand upon it, I would undoubtedly fall victim to my own observation.

count to infinity

In Buddhism, there are a variety of topics that Gautama Buddha (he's the one generally credited with being "the Buddha" -- the guy who started Buddhism) suggested were not worth pondering. The topics amount to the foolishness that might be recognized in anyone attempting, in a non-Buddhist context, to count to infinity. Dumb and dumber ... a waste of time ... a waste of breath.

The Buddhist "imponderables" are pretty Buddhist in import and impact so I'm not really interested in playing in that sandbox. But I was reading a Buddhist bulletin board on which someone brought up what is imponderable with a topic entitled, "Why did Buddha call a Creator an imponderable?" I had never read that Gautama did in fact (as quoted by others) do that, but whether he did or didn't doesn't much matter. The question of imponderables remains.

Telling someone that something is imponderable is like telling them not to stick beans up their nose -- the first thing they want to do is to give it a whirl. Good advice is seldom if ever unaccompanied by the unfortunate results it seeks to point out. So, for my money, the first thing anyone might do when hearing "don't waste your time on imponderables" is to waste some time.

And, frankly, I don't think it's a waste of time. Everyone needs experience if their philosophies are to have any meat-on-the-bone meaning. And screwing the pooch is integral to that experience. How could anyone know that wasting their breath was a waste of breath without wasting their breath?

Back to the imponderables, then: The first thing anyone might do is to ponder a bit. Mom may say not to stick beans up your nose, but ... well, you know what happens in reality. And perhaps one of the first bits of thought includes the question, "what is imponderable?" There's the obvious intellectual stuff like trying to count to infinity or define god or something similar, but then I think the ripples start to move outward until, perhaps, the question arises, "what is not imponderable?"

We may call a rock "a rock," but what, precisely, is a rock? Or a daisy? Or a cowlick? Or a kiss? As an intellectual matter, we can parse the scene, come up with flowing definitions and explanations, and bolster one philosophy/religion or another. But intellect and emotion don't seem to get to the essence of anything. They may support and encourage, but they don't really hit the nail on the head. The downside of failing to answer our own questions to our own deepest satisfaction is that we remain mired in the intellectual and emotional realms ... and probably displaying an insufferable virtue as we parse and explain, extol and prate.

What is imponderable? What is not imponderable? Either way, I figure the usefulness of such questions lies in their ability to inspire a strong intention and a right action. And it is in the action that arises that our deepest questions begin to see some common-sensical answers. Intention followed by action puts meat on our formerly flimsy philosophical and religious bones.

The imponderable nature of "enlightenment" or "compassion" or "emptiness" or "daisies" begins to bloom.

And pretty soon we are able to count to infinity without any trouble at all.

slip-slidin' away

In Wisconsin,

The Wisconsin Supreme Court handed Republican Gov. Scott Walker a major victory on Tuesday, ruling that a polarizing union law could take effect that strips most public employees of their collective bargaining rights.

The disheartening and economically foolish demise of the middle class continues.

when the obvious is just too obvious

On TV, there was once a woman comedian (whose name I have forgotten) who did a funny riff on the blatant idiocies people could indulge in. Things like young women expressing a 'feminist' outrage when men stared at their breasts while they were busy wearing shirts with deeply-cut neck lines. Each example the comedian gave was followed with the tag line, "What the fuck's the matter with you?!"

How stupid could anyone get?!

The answer, of course, is pretty damned stupid.

What brought this to mind was Monday's ruling in California that a homosexual couple had the right to file jointly for bankruptcy. In essence, the bankruptcy court's decision directly challenged the federal Defense of Marriage Act and implied that it was unconstitutional.

Sometimes analysis and reasonable discussion and trying to see the other guy's point of view just seem too idiotically tiring. The obvious is just too obvious.

Marriage is marriage, dimwit!

Commitment is commitment.

A home is a home.

What the fuck's the matter with you?!

throwing away books (column)

With thanks to those who, wittingly or otherwise, helped make this column possible.

Everything has to go eventually, and it seemed to be the time to get rid of some books.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

spooky advertising



cutting shop classes

A front page article in the local paper today tells the story of a protest in nearby Easthampton, where some residents are up in arms about possible cuts in school shop classes. "Not every student is college-bound," one resident was quoted as saying. "I understand they have to cut somewhere, but they would never take away AP (advanced placement?) calculus, for example."

Or football either, I imagine.

In a day and age when I pay the plumber or electrician rates that rival my cardiologist's, I really dislike the cutting of shop or trades classes. I live in an area that is overflowing with colleges and, I have a hunch, is also snared in a free-floating if ill-defined sense that college is what students do after high school ... no one gets anywhere without a college degree, the wispy axiom runs. "The best and the brightest" are all people who have gone to college.

Well, bullshit!

I am not a fan of elevating those who till the soil or build the houses to some mythical heights. But neither am I a fan of elevating those who can think lofty and complex thoughts. Anyone can be an asshole. Anyone can be a genius. Thinking is a wonderful thing to be able to do, but people have different capacities and think differently. I hate thinking that students with an aptitude for or interest in fixing cars or building basements or chopping trees would be cookie-cuttered into learning Latin. True, even those who fix the beamers that internet nerds may drive need to know English and math. But if their capacities lie outside the college realm, their education is being short-changed if those capacities are not encouraged and enriched. And that ain't education.

In a time when the United States, at the behest of the big business that will not take responsibility for its depredations, slips slowly, slowly towards Third World status, those who know how to actually do something, actually create something, are going to be better off. I'm not saying that we should all go out and learn how to wire a house (though that might be useful), but denying the opportunity to those so inclined strikes me as short-sighted and unkind.

I am willing to honor those who can think well. I often enjoy the fruits of their observations. But I am not willing to honor them at the expense of those who, in an academic sense, do not think well. One of the smartest, kindest human beings I know is my car mechanic, Jose. He's just plain a good human being and a good mechanic. Does it get much better than that? I doubt it ... or anyway, I doubt that a college degree would make much difference. Jose knows what he knows and does what he does ... well. I know college graduates who are much the same. It is enough.

the price of "terrorism"

Bit by creeping bit, the price for not thinking through what "terrorism" might mean becomes apparent. Worldwide, democratic and authoritarian countries alike have used this word as a pretext not only for rounding up those who want to blow up the local post office or metro station, but also for stifling those elements of the social setting that do not conform.

In recent years, the United States has shifted its definition of what might require a warlike response from actual attacks to those who might pose a threat. Think Iraq. Think Afghanistan. The rhetoric making such involvements palatable has included such arguments as how dictatorial, nasty and undemocratic men like Saddam Hussein or entities such as the Taliban might be. When it is pointed out that there are probably 10 countries in Africa with similarly-constituted governments or when Burma and North Korea might similarly warrant invasion ... well, those are somehow different matters.

And on the back of such policy shifts, or woven into them, is the newly-minted, carelessly-defined-but-carefully-nurtured word, "terrorism."

Embedded in all of this is the fact that politicians everywhere have a vested interest in keeping the wars going. The likelihood of their getting reelected (any politician's first concern) is enhanced when the electorate is kept on edge, frightened and perhaps sorrowing over the loss of sons and daughters. Peace is defined as the absence of war ... which is nothing but a sure recipe for more war.

When reelection is assured and when business prospers, isn't a war or two worth it ... as long as my kids don't have to go? And what a fine tool "terrorism" has turned out to be.

But my question is: Whose terrorism is this?

balloon dance

Bless the Brits!


Monday, June 13, 2011

spiritual commitment

I thought I would put this excerpt of an email I sent here:

"Commitment" is one of those ten-dollar words in spiritual endeavor. Verrrrry important! Break out the fife and bugle band! But what it is and how it is expressed tends to become less grand upon examination. Commitment is not so much what anyone sees in another. That is just fife-and-bugle-band commitment -- good for getting the attention perhaps, good for inspiring intention perhaps, but not yet with meaning much beyond the saltiness of potato chips. Yummy ... but where's the beef? Where is the honest nourishment? In the end, the best sort of commitment is just what you do ... what you do.

When you do something, there really is no such thing as commitment. You are just doing it. Others may marvel at your commitment, but you don't: You're too busy just doing it. And that is enough -- just doing it. No extras. No philosophy, no religion, no ten-dollar words, no comparisons. Just pounding a nail, just kissing your friend, just thinking about "commitment." No past, no future, no present ... just doing whatever it is you are doing. At first, this seems like an impossible chore ... so easy and so obvious that it's impossible. But with a little practice, on and off the cushion, things tend to fall into place. Since there is no escaping what fluff-mongers call "the present moment," practice helps build the strength to stop trying to escape. Maybe this is commitment without the "commitment."

I dunno. Just a few thoughts.

lest we forget

In Dubai, United Arab Emirates, a 20-year-old woman was sentenced to a year in the slammer for reading poetry critical of the regime under which she lived.

Sometimes it is too easy to forget the easy comfort in which we live.

the Georgia Guidestones

I had never heard of -- or if I had, I had forgotten -- the "Georgia Guidestones" until I ran across one of those portentous-toned television shows in which speculation overrides facts in the face of a slim number of undeniable facts.

The facts, as far as I can figure out, include the undeniable presence of granite blocks inscribed with encouragements and arranged on a piece of land in Georgia. The inscriptions -- in eight modern languages with shorter messages in Babylonian, Ancient Greek, Sanskrit and Egyptian hieroglyphs -- offer sometimes-controversial suggestions to mankind. Aside from anything else, the monument must have cost a packet and speculation has it that TV mogul Ted Turner may have been behind the construction. The stones are located on farmland about 90 miles east of Atlanta, Ga.

Who, what, when, where, why and how -- the site sometimes referred to as the "American Stonehenge" was erected in 1979 and unveiled in 1980 and stands as an interesting curiosity and an invitation to (mostly) rational thought.

I am intrigued by its quotient of total uselessness ... the very-useful-yet-utterly-useless presence on  Georgia farmland.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

and now for something completely the same

AP Photo
In the Philippines, Junrey Balawing's hometown of  Sindangan threw a party on his 18th birthday today -- the day on which the Guinness World Records proclaimed him the world's shortest man. At 23.5 inches tall, Balawing replaced Khagendra Thapa Magar of Nepal, who is a towering 26.4 inches tall.

Fifteen minutes of fame for being who you are, for being what you cannot escape, for what cannot be otherwise. The mundane and plain is suddenly uplifted and special. How sweet life is!!!! Finally, the glass slipper of success slides perfectly onto the scullery maid's foot and what was same-ol'-same-ol' drudgery becomes a circumstance for celebration.

When I was a kid, my parents, among others, used to say, "If you don't know how to spell it, look it up in the dictionary." That used to irritate the hell out of me: If I didn't know how to spell it in the first place, how was I supposed to look it up?

On another, more amorphous front, those willing to encourage my desire to write would suggest, "You have to find your own style and voice. You can't use someone else's voice. You can't copy." What they never told me was how I was supposed to find my own voice if I didn't know what my voice sounded like in the first place. Maybe I should have looked it up in the dictionary.

These time-honored wisdoms were always handed down with a kindness that was galling. Those who seemed to possess the wisdom expounded were no longer seeking the wisdom they possessed. But to anyone seeking, that wisdom could be a matter of desperate longing and desperate importance... don't pat me on the head with nostrums, hand over the peace of mind that those nostrums arise from!

Once, at a Zen center in New York, everyone was sitting around, sipping tea after an evening of meditation. I was relatively new and not at all at home with the lingo of Zen, the "roshi's" and "satori's" and "kensho's" and names of past teachers and well-worn paradoxical sayings. And I remember sitting there and thinking irritably, "Just tell me what I want to know and I can get the fuck out of here!" I never did express that sentiment aloud but if I had, I can imagine someone might have told me, "You are already enlightened. All you have to do is get used to it."

If you don't know how to spell it, look it up in the dictionary.

Find your own voice ... which is precisely the voice you already have.

How can what is as plain as day, every day, be a cause for celebration?

What is irritating about all these bright laurels that have yet to be placed on my head is that there is all the work, all the floundering, all the two-steps-forward-and-three-steps-back effort that is required. Why must I work to find the voice I already have? It seems so unfair!

Any explanation or analysis only deepens the hole in which anyone might be stuck. The short response to such wailing, the one which is no more consoling than the long and profound ones, is, "Tough titty!" You can't get to the market by sitting in your La-Z-Boy recliner. Look it up in the dictionary. Get used to failure. Look under the bed -- maybe your voice is there. Sweat and strain. Put some effort into it.

And then one day you may find that, same as before, you are 23.5 inches tall and singing with your own voice. How kool is that?! Let's party!