Wednesday, August 31, 2011

taking on the idiots

In prosperous times, a certain amount of idiocy can be assimilated with good grace. But when times are hard and good grace is strained, the ascending volume of idiocy benefits fewer and fewer and undermines with increasing effectiveness what was once called democracy.

Scientist Richard Dawkins' take on Texas Governor and Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry probably amounts to a bit of pissing into the wind in these parlous times, but that doesn't mean that getting piss on his shoes isn't both warranted and on target.

live green, die green

In the ever-advancing tide of 'green' technology, a company has devised a machine that pollutes less than cremation.

The unit by Resomation Ltd is billed as a green alternative to cremation and works by dissolving the body in heated alkaline water.
 Live green, die green.


"Heroes," of course, are not so much the product of their own actions as they are the adulation of those acclaiming them...and thereby acclaiming themselves. Nevertheless, it is nice to think that those acclaiming their heroes are acclaiming something that may be accidentally/coincidentally worthy of acclamation.

In 1824, when the Marquis de La Fayette (sometimes called Lafayette) returned for a tour of the then-24 United States, a crowd of 80,000 was said to have turned out to greet him in New York ... then a city of 120,000. The turnout for the Revolutionary War general dwarfed (by ratio) the hysteria that was to greet The Beatles in 1965. Those in the throng were capable of remembering the sacrifices of The Revolution and the general who had helped achieve victory over the British. "Liberty" was not an idle word in the mouths of idle patriots.

Lafayette arrived in the colonies 1777 as an adventurer bred in a military family. He was 19 when he assumed a post as a major general in the revolutionary army. That's nineteen. He won some and lost some, but he proved himself a commander capable of thinking on his feet (employing, for example, the guerrilla tactics of the American Indians when outgunned) and capable of a serious loyalty to his troops. When camped outside Yorktown, he sent several spies into the city to gauge the British intentions. His best spy was a black man, James Amistead (Lafayette), who spread disinformation and sent back intelligence. Throughout the war, he formed a close relationship with George Washington and would later write to President Washington, urging him to free the slaves ... 60-plus years before Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis would go toe-to-toe on the issue. He loved the United States and willingly acted as Washington's emissary to France, seeking aid for the beleaguered army that its own government failed to supply. He loved the United States and its efforts and wished to be buried here ... a wish that was never realized. "Liberty" was not an idle word in the mouths of idle patriots.

During Lafayette's tour of the United States, he ordered one particular procession to stop because he recognized an old friend in the crowd. There was James Amistead (Lafayette), his old comrade in arms. La Fayette stepped from his carriage and publicly embraced his old companion... in a time when the economy of the United States was heavily dependent on black slave labor. Lafayette had sued for an won the freedom of Amistead. "Liberty" was not an idle word in the mouths of idle patriots.

A hero in the United States and, for a while, a hero in France, Lafayette was imprisoned during his own country's revolutionary upheavals. Later released. He died in 1834.

American President Andrew Jackson ordered that Lafayette be accorded the same funeral honours as John Adams and George Washington. Therefore, 24-gun salutes were fired from military posts and ships, each shot representing a U.S. state. Flags flew at half mast [sic] for thirty-five days, and "military officers wore crepe for six months". The Congress hung black in chambers and asked the entire country to dress in black for the next thirty days.

In July 2002, the United States voted to make Lafayette an honorary citizen, one of only six people accorded such status. The others were Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa, Raoul Wallenberg, and Pennsylvania founder William Penn and his wife Hannah.  

Perhaps it all sounds 'old' and drab now but ...

"Liberty" was not an idle word in the mouths of idle patriots.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

serious up!

When it comes to spiritual endeavor, there are those who take it seriously.

This ... is ... serious.

But it occurred to me as I sat on the porch in the sunshine:

If you're so serious, how come you're not laughing?

And it made me laugh.


Strange to think how reliable the views of others may be conceived. If "everybody says so," and if "everybody" is a really big number of people ... somehow the credibility rises and I can relax.

'Everybody' says death is undesirable, that it is something to be shunned and feared.

And the 'everybody' is a pretty big number.

And yet the number of dead people who make no complaint is astoundingly large. Why aren't we listening with the same credulity to them?

mom knows best

In this misty, nippy dawn, the birds are doing their wake-up chirping -- calling, defining, warning, wooing ... gearing up for a new day. Many of them were fledglings a few scant months ago, with mom nudging them out of the nest and into an uncertain sky. Who, when nesting, could credit a sky that has no nest, no edges, no safety? Flying?! -- you're insane!

But mom knows best.

And mom is not just the bringer of the grubs and worms of life ... mom is life and life is insistent. The warming wing beneath which fledglings were safe and could not imagine a life that was not safe is not yet their very own wing. Peeking out from the comforting confines of the nest, the great out-there, the out-there that has no edges or end, looks so dangerous. It looks like death. A place without edges would take my edges and I would evaporate.

But mom knows best and life is insistent.

In the course of things, fledglings leave the nest and create nests of their own. New nests, new safeties, new definitions, new warmth ... and yet never quite as convincing as that first nest, never quite as complete, never quite as with-all-your-soul credible and at peace. Mom knows best, but what once was a fledgling has become the mom ... and moms know best that nests are not forever, that they pose a danger to the edgelessness and restfulness of the wind.

An old Zen teacher once observed, "A day without work is a day without eating." A day without the wind is a day of careless imagining. Where is the demarcation between nest and sky? Or between fledgling and mom? Seriously, where is it? Is the nest the sky or the sky the nest? Is the fledgling the mom or the mom the fledgling? To say yes or no is to nest among thorns. But moms know where the well-shaped twigs and grasses are soft and fledglings can close their eyes in safety.

Moms know best.

Listen to mom.

Monday, August 29, 2011


A crystalline day in the wake of yesterdays washing-washing-washing rain.

And I am reduced to speaking about the weather as others fill the social air with talk of sports ... a way to purr without getting into a cat fight.

beyond faith

What good is a faith that does not take its adherents beyond the borders of that faith? Not much is my thought, though I wouldn't begrudge others their deep and abiding faith.

Last night, I watched the 1991 movie, "Black Robe," the tale of a 17th century Jesuit priest sent into the wilds of Quebec to convince and convert the Indians. The movie is gritty and contains some of the on-the-ground questions that seldom get addressed in similar religion-oriented tales. I loved the scenery and the make-up and the marvel of a man so full of conviction that he would put his life on the line. But putting his life on the line in order to convince others? What a small-town and juvenile effort that struck me as being.

The good thing about the movie was that it challenged some of faith's bright convictions. But it did not challenge or address the bedrock assumptions that men and women might set out on such quests in the first place ... I cannot be content unless everyone agrees with me; there are credible reasons why such an imperative exists; 'God' says so and I have a book to prove it. How is it not a betrayal of the very 'God' anyone might credit if the religion that espouses him/her/it cannot make peace with the variety and wonder of a world that is obviously capable of leading a life without that 'God?'

I marveled at the notion that a religious man might think he was right. I marveled at the notion that other men might agree. But most of all I marveled that the chosen path led nowhere but back to the chosen path, like some dog in pursuit of its tail.

How fortunate I feel to have gotten involved with a spiritual endeavor, if it can be called that, that asks nothing but that I open my eyes. Sure, I have tried to convince others as a means of convincing myself and finding some company. Sure, I have thought I was right. Sure I have been an asshole ... that's what spiritual endeavor is -- investigating the asshole, not naming or improving him.

When I asked my Zen teacher what efforts he made to get more people to come to the zendo or practice hall, he was adamant: "No!" he said. "They come here if they want to. I encourage them to do zazen [meditation practice]." Put another way, he did not encourage anyone to see things his way or the "Buddhist" way. He encouraged them to see things their way in their own lives ... really. This approach strikes me as the only way that makes much sense when it comes to leading a peaceful life. This is the way that encourages faith to move with assured feet into a realm beyond a faith that is based on agreement or holiness. It doesn't happen overnight, perhaps, and it's not always easy, but it's the only thing that makes much sense in terms of reality and any possible kindness.

On the peace picket line last Saturday, a woman came down the line carrying a small camera. She asked each participant to give their names and say a bit about why they were there. And when it came my turn, I found myself saying, "I'm here not in order to convince anyone of anything. I would like to think that people would think what they think ... and then think about it."

Honestly, I just cannot think of another option that stands a chance of success.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

singin' in the rain

Drip, drip, plop, plop, tick, tick ....

Hurricane Irene sent rain onto the zendo roof today. It sounded a bit like some wanton child trying to get a typewriter to work.

The backyard leading to the zendo filled with deeper and deeper puddles.

I went out barefoot.

No point in ruining a good pair of shoes.

the talisman effect

Finally, like some long-awaited in-law, Hurricane Irene arrived at 5 a.m. more or less on the dot. So far it is just rain with occasional gusts of wind. The gutters are filling, but the street lights are still on, so how bad can it be?

For days, forecasters have been warning the tenderfoot East Coast -- home to so many of the well-heeled media that purvey such warnings -- to be prepared; this is a biggie. The blimp races on Long Island were canceled and when New York and Boston and Philadelphia chose to shut down their transit systems ... well that's serious, so I went to Walmart to buy tuna fish. Naturally, the tuna fish, like the bottled water, was sold out.

The uncertainty that built up and built up and built up as Irene landed and then headed north was interesting. The storm was something about which no one could really do much: Read 'em and weep. But the desire to do something that would assure safety welled up. You could sort of see how and why the ancient farmers would create and elevate the gods of a blistering sun or a flooded field. Religion as talisman ... when all else fails, when nothing else can be done, when the inlaw-visit is inevitable and horrid... quick! grab a god, any god!

Is it any wonder that so many of the world's spiritual efforts are talismanic -- a shield and a hidey hole and a waver of wands? If you sacrifice enough virgins or put enough money in the plate, don't you deserve something, some protective benevolence, in return?

Even Buddhism, which encourages a willingness to see things as they are, is not immune. Buddhism is just people and people are sometimes uncertain and afraid. Who has not wished things might be better and then applied to their philosophies to spare them ... only to find that what is inescapable is simply inescapable? Bad news cannot be averted by intoning "good news."

And because uncertainty is so frequently in evidence, who could be unkind about the talismanic fervor? On the other hand, when talismanic applications prove uncertain in their own right, what then? Sacrifice another virgin? Add five bucks in the collection plate? Pray harder? Do whatever it takes to wring a bit of benevolence from a talisman that is not entirely reliable as a savior?

Where even the gods lose their footing, what is this poor farmer to do? Blessing and cursing talismans hardly seems worth the price of admission. It's diverting, but what is brooks no diversions.

It takes a bit of something -- courage and practice, I am tempted to say -- to set aside or see through or be at peace with our talismans. In torrential times, it is easy to think such things over. But when the rain stops and the last virgin's corpse is laid to rest, the rebuilding begins and the tattered talisman's luster is renewed.

Christian's can rain down opprobrium on "golden idols," but I think they might be better off directing their vexation towards the wily talismanic idols of the mind. Gold is at an all-time high these days, so at least you could get some money for a golden idol. But talismans are worth precisely squat at the local pawn shop.

It pays to be aware of what has no value at all.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

gone again

My older son headed off for his second year of college today after a summer of galumphing around the house, adding his own colors to the tapestry of "home."

You'd think I might know the drill by now, but the fact is I feel an emptiness all over again.

the story comes before God

When I was a kid, my mother once succumbed to my pleas and took me to see one of the adoring war movies that were popular before and just after World War II. This one was a submarine version. I wasn't old enough to know that the good guys were bound to win, so it was full of suspense and danger and derring-do. But about halfway through the movie, my mother whispered to me that she was leaving. I could stay, but she had seen enough. She knew what was going to happen. "You see that young man?" she said of one of the characters. "In a while, a torpedo is going to fall on him and he's going to die." Since she had not seen the movie, I thought her prediction was preposterous. I was therefore doubly astounded when, after my mother had left with instructions to come straight home after the movie, the torpedo fell on the sweet young man and, sure enough, he died. How had she known that? The best I could do was write it off to the child's notion that "grown-ups, and especially moms, know everything."

Last night, I got my son to take me into the no-parking-spots-available-on-Friday-nights downtown that attracts a lot of out-of-towners on weekends. I wanted to see a movie advertised by a local Buddhist center. The movie, "Travelers and Magicians," was by the same Tibetan monk who made "The Cup," a movie I had liked a lot. The center was showing the movie for free and I went partly to see the movie, but also to rub shoulders and get a feel for the center. I don't make a habit of going to Buddhist centers.

I made my donation at the door to a very airy, very clean, very prosperously-beige environment. There were several people in a lounge area who were welcoming and friendly. One woman showed me around -- the kitchen, the closet, the meditation hall -- and we talked pleasantly. The meditation hall had been set up to show the movie on a large TV screen. The altar had been  modestly hidden behind a rice-paper screen. There was water and unsalted popcorn.

After a couple of obligatory introductions that included obligatory references to Buddhist ways of thinking, the movie began. I love being taken to faraway places with faraway costumes and even subtitles. Take me, I'm yours. And there I was in a lovely faraway place with a story that contained the overwrought kernels of Buddhist teaching ... transiency, attachment, know-the-ground-under-your-feet, suffering ... blah, blah, blah. The characters were mildly interesting, but not as interesting as they had been in "The Cup." I wanted to be swept up, I was primed to be swept up, and, about halfway through the movie, I realized that none of it really interested me very much -- not the center, not the collective interest in Buddhism, not the movie ... I didn't begrudge it to anyone, but it simply didn't interest me.

Back on the sidewalk waiting for my son to pick me up, I could hear someone playing a fiddle in the warm night air. Now that did interest and delight me.

The Jewish author, Chaim Potok, wrote a number of Jewish-themed books ("The Chosen" and "My Name is Asher Lev" come to mind) that were marvels of balance. Each contained strong threads of Judaism, but each remembered the cardinal rule of spiritual-life writing: The story comes first, the spiritual stuff comes second. This is easy to say, but very difficult to do for anyone concerned with spiritual endeavor. Spiritual endeavor is so beloved and so powerful that it's easy to go off on some theological tangent, not least because the reader needs to understand at least some of the tenets, the reasoning and faith that underpins thoughts, words and deeds in the story.

But the story comes first. The story has to come before God ... whatever god it happens to be. And this is the reason that so many 'spiritual' books are so bad ... sappy, gluey, prating, excusing their pure boringness with high-minded eclesiastical diversions.

The story. The story is god.

The story.

Probably it's just my bias, but I think it is unavoidable for authors to tell stories about spiritual life. Listeners and readers swoon for stories, even as they imagine they might swoon for God. But God, by whatever name, is too boring, too out of reach, too much like drinking whiskey straight ... add a little water. Theology and holy posturing is not very interesting in the end. Stories, on the other hand, are like swimming in chocolate milk ... and the God, by whatever name, soaks in bit by bit.

Bit by bit, without ever a mention of God, God soaks in. Christians say, I believe, that it is through our activities that we come to know God; that there is no knowing God face to face, so we can only see God in our walk-around lives. This is probably true, but it is less true when the church inserts itself between the walking-around and the one walking around.

Good stories are better than good gods, I think.

Listen to the fiddle music.

Friday, August 26, 2011

preparing for the worst

New York City has ordered the shutdown of all mass transit beginning Saturday at noon. In addition, there have been mandatory evacuation orders. No evacuation plan has been put into effect for Riker's Island, a series of jails that can handle 17,000 inmates (including some mental defectives and some children) and generally houses 12,000. All this as Hurricane Irene swamps the news media ... and the storm has not really hit North Carolina yet.

Here in Northampton, Mass., where 5-7 inches of rain has been predicted, we are nestled among a series of dike built by the Army Corps of Engineers in the wake of the 1938 hurricane. Whatever storm there is is forecast for Sunday.

In the past, strong storms moving up the East Coast have sometimes either run out of steam or veered out to sea before they reached our vantage point some 100 miles west of the Atlantic. But you can't just ignore the potential danger: Better to be a live fool than a busted-up know-it-all.


Today, I will go to the supermarket in an effort to look forward a few days and stock up against the potential difficulties that an on-coming hurricane may provide. I wouldn't be surprised if the supermarket shelves were denuded compared to less threatening times. Just now, the skies are sunny and bright, but, but, but ... hard times lurk ahead.

In spiritual practice, there is a saying: "Understanding is knowing to get out of the way of an on-coming bus. Practice is for the bus you didn't see coming." Funny how experience teaches over and over again that there simply is no way to prepare for the future, and still there are complex and heart-felt efforts to prepare for the future.

"Repent! The end is nigh!"

When has the end ever presented itself? The end of a war marks the beginning of preparations for the next war ... with an ill-considered version of 'peace' in the meantime, of course. The end of a birth is marked when the baby appears ... and from there it's one birth pang after another. When, precisely, is "the end?"

As often as "the end" slips through our fingers in reality, still the notion persists. "The end" sounds so convincing. You gotta believe. But, as usual, facts are not much interested in beliefs. Dawn becomes day becomes dusk becomes night becomes dawn ... and in between there are the smug certainties of various the-end's... the end of day, the end of night, etc.

"The end" is a strange customer, not least because its patent falsehoods are staring us in the face all the time. And the same might said for "the beginning."

More tightly woven than a strand of DNA, "the end" and "the beginning" seem to deserve a factual assessment and perhaps a new word ...

Something like "poof!" perhaps.

If everything poofs all the time, who's got time to repent or beg for absolution?

27 funerals a day

According to an Associated Press story, there are an average of 27 funerals a day at Arlington National Cemetery, the site most frequently associated with the burial of those linked to military life, past or present.

Twenty-seven per day is  9,855 per year. If even half of those are war-related ... is this any way to treat those who are often referred to as heroes? Is war worth the blood of the young? The self-serving accolades make me want to puke, not as a means of disdaining the sorrows of the bereaved, but as a way of wondering why the heroics of the corn farmer or mother helping her child on the playground slide or the old man rocking on a porch go unsung.

Just being alive -- assuming you want to see it that way -- is pretty heroic.

moon and sun

Rising like some laconic, sultry vamp above the eastern skyline, a crescent moon seemed to beckon today to a sun still hidden below the horizon. "Come and get it, big boy!" the lolling and curvaceous moon seemed to taunt. And the sun was up to the challenge, rising with a bright, determined blaze in quest of this woo-hoo chick.

Last night, there was a crashing, pelting, lightning-sharpened storm that offered a prelude to the promises the TV is making about Hurricane Irene which is wending its way up the East Coast. The hurricane is promised here on Sunday, but in the meantime, the moon and sun dance in a scrubbed firmament ... the obvious preceding the hidden.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

older and slower ain't necessarily dumber

A friend passed this along in email: "Young Brains Lack the Wisdom of Their Elders, Clinical Study Shows."

Paying someone to do this clinical study strikes me as the brainchild of a 'young brain.'

marriage and divorce

A census poll casts a statistician's eye on marriage and divorce in the United States.

I wonder who made up marriage in the first place. Was it the church, with nothing better to do? Was it the politicians who saw some advantage? Was it a matter of heaping a pleasant ritual on top of the notion that human beings tended towards monogamy (even if they weren't honestly convinced by it)?

You can make the argument that marriage smooths the social path, but I wonder how much worse off society would be without it.

Just curious.


What a peculiarly personal thing humor seems to be. At the Edinburgh Fringe festival, one particular comedian's joke was judged best: "I needed a password eight characters long so I picked Snow White and the Seven Dwarves."

I preferred (vaguely) a couple of the runners-up: "People say 'I'm taking it one day at a time'. You know what? So is everybody. That's how time works." and "I was playing chess with my friend and he said, 'Let's make this interesting'. So we stopped playing chess."

Perhaps the venue in Scotland made a difference, but I found all of the jokes strangely listless and devoid of the wit I associate with that part of the world. Like flat beer, it's still beer, but the fizz is missing.

Well, humor is a matter of taste, I guess, but it is a curious thing.

"all around me is beauty"

Not everyone is always steadfast or courageous enough to heed the Navajo (or was it Hopi?) encouragement, "All around me is beauty." That's a tall order even as the truth of it may create a wistful, wishful pinnacle in the mind or heart. There is so much to do, so many 'practical' chores that need attending to ... I may wish I had such a mind and heart, but, well, often I do not.

Still, even with all the failures and half-measures, I think it is a good idea to attend to our beauty, whatever it is. Maybe it's just a flood of ease, maybe it's a jaw-dropping sunset, maybe it's the places to which music may carry its listener ... there is no 'objective,' one-size-fits-all, beauty, but that doesn't mean there isn't beauty. And to neglect this aspect simply because "you can't eat a Rembrandt" or "Beethoven doesn't pay the rent" or "the corner office is where I want to be" ... well, it's deadening and sad.

Even the cave men depicted the news events of their day in delicious -- and perhaps beautiful -- ways. And there are the prancers and dancers when it comes to "beauty" -- people who trumpet their love beauty but really only love themselves.

Around here, the news is full of an impending hurricane moving up the East Coast. One report said flooding could be as bad as it was in 1938. A lumber yard about a quarter of a mile from where I live has a commemorative marker on its sidewalk wall -- this is how high the water was when the hurricane of 1938 hit. And the marker is well above my head.

Floods don't generally occur all at once. They sneak and lap and gain depth a bit at a time. Bit by bit they gain ascendancy over what defies their advance. Bit by bit ....

Bit by bit the merchants gain a foothold. Maybe in the mind. Maybe in the street. Who has time for beauty when times are tough? Sell the furniture, sell the heritage ... we can no longer afford beauty; we are the new lords of the land, these merchants. And worse than these lapping lords of the land, are the lappings of the mind, the merchants in all of us: "You can't eat Beethoven."

Yesterday, a friend sent me a news article about an Ohio congressman who, during an open meeting, had the cops confiscate recording devices (cameras, phones) of audience members. He didn't want some Youtube embarrassment cropping up, but his minions said it was for the audience's benefit. Open meetings may not seem to be exactly beautiful, but I would argue they are a thread in the tapestry that allows people to breathe freely. I would argue that this sort of event is a good example of the lapping, lapping, lapping ... the creeping advance of the merchant-mind...the kind of thing that diminishes beauty in pursuit of self-congratulation. Beauty does not congratulate itself. It has no motive: That's what makes it beautiful.

Whatever it is, I don't think beauty is self-congratulatory. It fills and informs and -- that's right -- you can't eat it or pay the rent with it, but without it, the world fills up with zombies ... dead men walking. And the real difficulty does not lie with the fact that others can turn the world into a merchandising Mecca, but with the fact that we ourselves can sell ourselves out, sell our blood for a bit of the latest heroin.

"All around me is beauty."

Consider the possibility.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

"I am wild"

I had thought Bodhidharma, a great Buddhist teacher who may or may not be a myth, had slapped the emperor at one point and I was trying to look it up yesterday when I ran across a talk by Osho, the highly visible Sri Bagwan Rajneesh, a fellow who made quite a splash in the 1970's and 1980's and was brought down by his power-broker manipulations and depredations in Oregon.

Here was a man with dubious credentials telling a tale about someone who may or may not have existed and yet the tale I read rang utterly and intimately true. No matter if it is a lie or a subtle means of elevating the stock of the teller. Still, I was enfolded with agreement and relief and joy. "Here is the truth anyone might be wise to embrace," I thought. And the tale, told in something called "Bodhidharma, the Greatest Zen Master" is longer than what appears here in a sliced-and-diced form but I hope anyone can hear with their heart:

Emperor Wu said, "My mind is so full of thoughts. I have been trying to create some peace of mind, but I have failed and because of these thoughts and their noise, I cannot hear what you are calling the inner voice. I don't know anything about it."
Bodhidharma said, "Then, four o'clock in the morning, come alone without any bodyguards to the temple in the mountains where I am going to stay. And I will put your mind at peace, forever."

The emperor rats around in bed all night (much as anyone might rat around in bed) wondering whether he should go alone to meet this monk who had shown less-than-profound respect to an august monarch. Should he go, shouldn't he go ... ratting around in bed, ratting around in his mind. Naturally, he went -- how else could there be a story to tell? 

Emperor Wu reached the temple at four o'clock, early in the morning in darkness, alone, and Bodhidharma was standing there with his staff, just on the steps, and he said, "I knew you would be coming, although the whole night you debated whether to go or not to go. What kind of an emperor are you -- so cowardly, being afraid of a poor monk, a poor beggar who has nothing in the world except this staff. And with this staff I am going to put your mind to silence."

 Bodhidharma's instructions were simple:

"Sit down here in the courtyard of the temple." There was not a single man around. "Close your eyes, I am sitting in front of you with my staff. Your work is to catch hold of the mind. Just close your eyes and go inside looking for it -- where it is. The moment you catch hold of it, just tell me, `Here it is.' And my staff will do the remaining thing."

 And after sitting there while with his eyes closed and the sun rising,

Emperor Wu said, "Without using your staff, you have pacified my mind completely. I don't have any mind and I have heard the inner voice about which you talked. Now I know whatever you said was right. You have transformed me without doing anything.

 Bodhidharma said,

You are a rare disciple. I love you, I respect you, not as an emperor but as a man who has the courage just in a single sitting to bring so much awareness, so much light, that all darkness of the mind disappears.

And this is the point at which things start to get interesting. The emperor, as a means of expressing his delight and gratitude, tries to persuade Bodhidharma to come to the palace but Bodhidharma said,

That is not my place; you can see I am wild, I do things I myself don't know beforehand. I live moment to moment spontaneously, I am very unpredictable. I may create unnecessary trouble for you, your court, your people; I am not meant for palaces, just let me live in my wildness.

And there it is, without any baubles or bangles:

I love you.

I am wild.

Wild things do not deserve to be cloistered by palace or temple, whether within or without. In palaces and temples, whether within or without, wild things just cause problems. What is free and unpredictable deserves to roam and breathe, not as a rejection or as some iteration of a blessed state, but as a matter of simple fact. Wild things do not trouble others. They go about their business on quiet, sure feet. They neither cause nor subject others to regret.

Wild things R Us.


I love you


Let's not run around inviting Bodhidharma to our palace. :)


My daughter Olivia got engaged yesterday. She sent a phone picture of the glittering ring her behemoth boyfriend Rich gave her to mark the occasion. She is 23, and as always, I am happy in her happiness and yet too, stunned: How the hell did she ever get old enough to make a decision like this?! Waves of jubilation and confusion dot the mind ... seriously, how did that happen?!

lazy, lazy, lazy

I knew it would fail, but somehow I wanted to do it anyway. So I submitted what was admittedly a poorly researched opinion piece -- poorly researched and far too loosely written. I was interested in the topic, but not interested enough to do the work and really nail it to the wall. I wrote it in the same lazy spirit I have evinced and heard others evince in spiritual endeavor with the words, "I understand." But, since this place is largely dedicated to various bits of failure and mental bric-a-brac, I thought I would park it here ... if only as a reminder in future: Laziness is laziness and just because others find success is lazy thinking, it is a poor excuse to be lazy.

Aug. 22, 2011

As someone who spent more than 25 years of his life working for newspapers and 40 years of his life as a Zen Buddhist, it has always been a source of wonder to me that news outlets should treat religion with the same kid gloves they generally reserve for sports.

The journalistic back-story for both religion and sports reporting seems to be that they don't quite deserve the same acuity or investigative spirit that might be brought to bear on politics or business or banking. A bubble of imputed purity seems to surround both and set aside a more usual journalistic skepticism that posits, more or less, that human endeavors are just human endeavors and, as such will contain blacks and whites and an infinite number of nuanced grays in between.

But instead of assuming that there is as much chance of shenanigans as there is for benevolence, religion and sports seem to exist only on the highest and lowest points of journalistic investigation or reaction.

And when the bubble of imputed purity occasionally pops, there are swoons that would do Scarlet O'Hara proud.

What!? -- pedophilia in the Roman Catholic Church? Gasp! Who would have suspected?

What!? -- performance-enhancing drugs on the sainted field of sport? Be still, my heart!

On the upbeat side of things, how glowing the treatment of religious efforts to aid and assist the most-needy. And what a sense of between-the-lines pride can accompany the story when the home team hits some hard-fought sweet spot ... a collective and agreeable cheer which news organizations quietly and sometimes not so quietly endorse.

All in all, sports and religion seem to be treated with the same warm and blurred attention that might be granted to a local tatting circle that makes blankets for cancer victims. The bubble is inflated as the metaphors rise up: Sports is like life and teaches healthy discipline; religion, while ineffable, can infuse a sense of ethical decency. And all of that may be true, but ...

What is missing from this approach is the simple matter of humanity -- a broad-ranging humanity that is every bit as capable of bad deeds as good. No one is surprised when a politician or a banker is caught lying -- or 'misspeaking,' if you insist. Why should human corruption be any more or less surprising in any human endeavor ... or be given more or less acute attention?

The Anglican theologian and author of some spiffy metaphysical thrillers, Charles Williams, once put some relevant words into one of his character's mouth: "People believe what they want to believe." Believe in God, believe in the Red Sox, believe in the stock market, believe in money, believe in kindness, believe in war ... people believe what they WANT to believe. And if this is so, then each is responsible and can be held accountable for the actions that evolve from those beliefs. Is there some reason that this should be less true in religion or sports than it would be in politics or money-gathering? Each activity is composed of human beings with an enormous capacity for both shenanigans and decency and news organizations would serve us better by treating responsible human beings as just that -- responsible and accountable. Not just some of the time, but all the time.

Some will argue that religion and sports are "not the same" as politics or business. Business and politics affect hundreds of thousands of people where they live -- in their pocketbooks. Business and politics deserve a different brand of investigative spirit, a different mind-set and a more probing focus. Their depredations, when they occur, are vast. Religion and sports are the also-rans -- kind of important or even very important, but not all that serious. No one's going to get dispossessed or go hungry because the home team won or lost or because some little-known peasant was named a saint.

But I would argue that news organizations would be better off bringing the same well-founded skepticism they occasionally bring to so-called hard news to the other realms that excite agreement and credulity. When was any large-scale human endeavor ever free from politics, money, back-stabbing, conceit, double-dealing or smug assurance any more than it was free from constructive, uplifting, ethical or decent potential?

It's all human and it's woven with grays.

And it's those grays that bring honesty to any realm of interest ... even news.

Let's lose the bubble.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


A mild earthquake rocked the house here shortly before 2 p.m. today. The 5.9 temblor, centered in Virginia, rattled dishes and people living along the East Coast and unaccustomed to such events.

On my street people were out of their houses saying, "Did you feel the earthquake?" The emphasis and surprise were centered on the word "earthquake."

There was no damage here and any injuries in a wider way have not yet been reported.

join the parade

The verb "coddle" is defined in part by an Internet dictionary as:

-- to treat someone in a way that gives them too much protection from harm or difficult experiences
In the playground near which the Subarus are parked, a caring mother may be heard saying to her small child, "Good joooooob!" And in spiritual endeavor, the loving God (or mystical entity) who may send you to hell is often portrayed as saying much the same of his/her/its devotees.

Don't get me wrong: I like a hug and a kiss and an upbeat encouragement as well as the next person. No one likes being the constant butt of criticism, whether from without or within. But without trying to sell anyone anything, I wonder how well comfort or criticism works out ... on the ground, in anyone's actual life.

Life doesn't coddle or criticize, does it? And those who gnash their teeth about an "uncaring universe" are overstating the case by quite a lot. Life offers up the facts ... after which coddling and criticizing human beings get to work.

Martin Luther King once observed more or less, "It's not what's wrong with the world that scares people. What really scares them is that everything is all right." This is easy to type and easy to say and easy to marvel at, but it is hard as hell to actualize. And actualization is the only thing life will accept without a forgivable snicker.

Life, after all, is nothing but actualization.

I figure we might as well join the inescapable parade.

play or go home

If someone can't do the job, it's perfectly forgivable.

But if they won't do the job, that's a different kettle of fish.

Maybe that was what I found satisfying about the story out of Sodaville, Ore., where the mayor got fired for a slovenly performance record.

Of course everyone has their appreciation of what's performance and what's not, but still ... I like it: Play or go home.

your mindset and mine

I have always been strangely awed, jealous, confused and afraid of people who are convinced by their own perceptions. Athletes, Christians, Buddhists, politicians, mothers, fathers, bigots, intellectuals, NASCAR and holy men ... it's like watching a TV sitcom: Everyone knows what they're doing, shows few if any doubts, and the story ends, after a requisite number of laugh tracks, happily after a half an hour. How come I'm not like that? A part of me would dearly love to be that (my perception) assured and a part of me knows that it bears little resemblance to reality.

No one can be other than what they are -- warts and all. But clothing that fact in a (ersatz?) certainty? It gives me a case of the collywobbles even as a part of me longs for that certainty and kool. Where did everyone else buy and buy into that certainty ... and where can I get some?

Today, the Beloit College Mindset List was released as an annual reminder to teachers (and the rest of us) that time passes and mindsets change over time. Amazon is no longer a South American river so much as it is a business. LBJ is not a former president so much as he is a basketball star. Those born after 1993 never knew a time without the Internet and always celebrated Martin Luther King Day.

Yes, it can make some of us feel frayed and a bit out of the loop. But was it ever any different? The world is flat, black people are lesser beings, the Japanese and Germans are enemies, the Chinese or Japanese are a more culturally advanced people, a kool car is a chick magnet, going 'green' makes sense, love conquers all, tall is preferable to short ... pick your (temporary) contentment poison.

And then there are those who recognize that perceptions simply don't constitute a proof for the ensuing confidence. They wriggle and squirm and wax wise in an attempt to outflank the recognition that perception is a slippery and unreliable slope... all in hopes of somehow outflanking the fact that you are who you are. Their perceptions place "bliss" or "enlightenment" or "understanding" on the horizon ... and they're stickin' with that story.

But I think that the certainties (which betoken nothing so much as uncertainty) that evolve from the culture and mindset that anyone might have can only be appreciated and clarified by ... being who you are ... and then watching.

An Internet friend of mine used to say, "Wherever you go, there you are." Such easy words, so easy to offer a nod of assent ... and so hard to actualize. There really is no 'getting out' of who you are -- the perceptions, convictions, certainties, assumptions, enjoyments, fears, loves ... there really is no escape, not least because trying to escape is just another version of who you already are.

So if you can't go out, the only option I can see is to go in. Go in ... and watch. Go in, not with the usual camouflage of certainty or doubt, but with a willingness to pay attention. Just watch and see what happens. Watch and keep on watching. Set aside looking up to or down on, assessing better and worse or right and wrong, convincing or dissuading others. Just watch and keep on watching.

And what's the payoff? Well, wherever you go, there you are. How's that for a load off your mind?

"philosophical counselors"

The first, unbidden, word into my head, without much evidence to go on, was "idiotic!"

An article in The Washington Post suggests that there is a new vogue in treating the psychologically-discombobulated -- feed 'em the wisdom of the ages.

They’re like intellectual life coaches. Very intellectual. They have in-depth knowledge of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist theories on the nature of life and can recite passages from Martin Heidegger’s phenomenological explorations of the question of being. And they use them to help clients overcome their mother issues.

God Almighty! Anyone capable of grasping or wading through the wisdom of the ages has probably plumbed the unsatisfactory route of the intellect! Isn't it time to get serious?

In defense of these counselors, the article does say,

Philosophical counselors say they immediately refer any client with clinical depression or suicidal thoughts to psychiatrists, fearing lawsuits if they make a mistake by prescribing Kierkegaard to a client who really needs Klonopin.

The idea of heaping wisdom on the bright and distressed strikes me as being a little like giving a man who has been poisoned by soup another bowl of warm soup. Poison, of course, can prove to be an effective antidote to poison ... but not often.

The whole exercise strikes me on its face as being a self-serving effort on the part of out-of-work philosophers to sidestep the ignominy of driving a cab.

An aching heart eased by wise nostrums? It may be marginally less depressing than the slick-willy, gotta-pay-the-rent, prescribe-pills fad in psychological venues, but still ...  Ick!

Monday, August 22, 2011


The flowers grow from hill to hill,
The hunter stalks from kill to kill,
While I stand firm in raw confusion
Seeking solace from illusion.

"To Ramona"

I was never much of a Bob Dylan fan, but this version, rendered more musically than Dylan might have, touched a spot for me.

And another version:


if it's true, do I need to believe it?

Trying to write an opinion piece about why news outlets treat religion and sports with a kind of kid-glove adulation, it crossed my mind that just because thousands of people believe something does not elevate that something to the status of what is true.

This is hardly an original thought, but the overwhelming nature of finding yourself in a large group of people who believe something (anything at all) struck me as potent and somewhat saddening. The sense of security and safety and warmth and camaraderie is so, so delicious and consoling ... it must be true because so many believe it.

Telling anyone "it ain't so, Joe" is to risk expulsion and the cold climate of responsibility.

The Anglican theologian and author of a number of spiffy metaphysical thrillers, Charles Williams, once opined through the mouth of one of his fictional characters, "People believe what they want to believe." Listen to the words ... "what they WANT to believe." And if this is true, as I think it is, then belief is more like chocolate than it is like truth. I love chocolate but I don't run around claiming that chocolate is true ... or false either. It's just what I want to believe -- what pleases or perhaps displeases me.

And that's OK ... as long as I don't confuse belief with truth. I may say that I believe the sky is blue, but since the sky actually is blue, the belief relates to me, not to the sky. The sky doesn't give a damn about my beliefs. Beliefs relate to the past and to doubt, but my guess is that there is some yearning to know the truth, just once, about anything ... as for example, the blue sky.

But how hard it is to break the bonds of belief -- the comforts and coziness, the social warmth and tentative peace of mind. Breaking the bonds does not mean bad-mouthing belief or disbelief (same stuff, different day) either to ourselves or others. It just means seeing belief for what it is ... what I want to believe. Like it or not, I alone am responsible for what I want, for what I believe.

And the reason for investigating this matter?

Isn't it nice when blue sky is blue?

losing touch

Sometimes, I think that the loneliness the elderly feel is related to the fact that they are no longer working. I don't mean this in the sense of "feeling useful," though that may play into things as well. What I am referring to is the fact that the elderly, since in many cases they are not working, have more time to smell the roses and reflect. And such reflections put them at an unfair advantage over those who are still trying to make ends meet, raise families, mow the lawn and go on vacation now and then.

Who has time to consider spiritual endeavor, for example, when the workaday world is front and center? Spiritual life is important -- sort of -- but the front burners of many lives are sometimes overwhelmed with day-to-day concerns. Who has time for the roses of happiness when the reason anyone gets up in the morning is to work towards being happy? The elderly have time to let the scent fill their noses and reach quite different conclusions. It's not a matter of good or bad or better or worse, it's just the way the cookie crumbles. But sometimes I think the loneliness stems from having learned an entirely new language and the number of people who understand that language is dwindling fast.

Just a half-baked thought.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

cutting the school week

States like South Dakota which are facing a fiscal squeeze have moved to cut the number of school days in the week. No doubt the Tea Party and Republicans will be delighted by this sort of fiscal 'responsibility.'

Shame, if they knew the word and its meaning, would be a more appropriate reaction.

You might think that those who measure life with dollar signs would take some note that the good education that helped place them at the top of the heap won't be worth as much if the drones get any stupider. And that's not to mention the good of what used to be called the nation.

Oh well ... I guess the Indians and the Chinese can do the work.

"let no thought be wasted over it"

During sesshin, or intensive Zen meditation retreat, there used to be chanting at various intervals ... morning service, after meals, etc. Mostly, things were quiet, but sometimes there was chanting at the Zen center I attended.

And a fragment of one of those chants came back to me this morning after so many years:

As for turning the wheel of Dharma,
Let no thought be wasted over it.
May all beings
Attain true wisdom.


Let no thought be wasted over it.


a gift from Daisy

Yesterday, as the summer sun gathered its force, eight or ten, mostly-sign-wearing people stood along the peace picket line on Main Street. I was standing next to Bill, one of the regulars, when a little girl holding her father's hand -- just two of the pedestrians passing by -- stopped in front of Bill and handed him a small sheet of paper on which there was a child-like line drawing of a face with a smile. In words printed with the relative neatness of a second- or third-grader, the message said, "Have a wonderful day." She handed it to Bill who, although he knows and greets a lot of people in town, did not know her.

"Thank you," said Bill. "What's your name?"

"Daisy," said the girl with a smile.

"Well thank you, Daisy. It's wonderful!"

Father and daughter then disappeared into the flow of pedestrians.

Out of nowhere. In the face of some pretty gloomy news ... a gift is born.

It made me wonder: Who is the real peace protester?

Saturday, August 20, 2011

no one's to blame

Is it sanctioned greed or sanctioned idiocy? Whatever it is, it's clear whose pocket the money piling up on Wall Street comes out of. And of course, no one's to blame.

Moody's executives pressure analysts.

being afraid

It's no fun being afraid. Social scientists may point out the healthy underpinnings of fear -- preservation, for example -- and the unhealthy potentials -- paranoia, for example -- but still, on an average day dealing with average stuff, fear is not much fun.

And after breaking the wishbone and finding ourselves with the winning half, the wish can arise in a whisper or scream: I wish I were no longer afraid.

No longer afraid ... how does anyone do that? And the only answer I can see is to exercise a fearless examination, tracking down each and every fear, back to its lair, back to its roots, back to the way things were before life seemed to insert all that fine print after proclaiming or positing something called happiness or peace.

It may not be easy and it may not be fun, but a fearless examination seems to be the only choice when it comes to stilling fears little and large. Where the camouflage of judgment and belief prove beyond a doubt to be powerless and stale, well ...

Stop being afraid.

Stop being afraid of being afraid.

Just look ...

And relax.

a little kindness

Every once in a while, there are situations or words that seem to strip away the conveniences and convivialities and philosophies that maintain a socially-acceptable distance in human intercourse. Or maybe what I mean is that I just happen to be listening for a change and allow in the raw and tender underbelly of humanity. I really don't know, but I do know that I am deeply touched and think that, whether someone can expose that underbelly to others or not, they (and I) would do well to expose it to them/ourselves. When all the polite and well-coiffed bullshit is swept aside ... this is the truth; this is what I really do love or fear or hate or desire ... this is it without any explanation or defense.

This is a good place to begin.

Two small incidents brought this to mind. They may not mean anything to anyone else, but they meant something to me.

Yesterday, I went to the dry cleaner to pick up my robe, the one I sometimes wear during zazen or seated Zen meditation but more often put on for advertising purposes along Saturday mornings peace picket line. A slender, blonde woman in her 40's brought the robe and prepared to take my money. Then she said politely, "May I ask you what this is?" And I gave her some easy to swallow explanation of Zen and meditation, with an emphasis on finding a little ease in life. She allowed that her mind whizzed about like anyone else's and she could see the benefits. But when I mentioned that I wore the robe at the peace vigil on Main Street, she grew imperceptibly distant. "My son really dislikes that vigil," she said. "He's a Marine." And I would give anything to go back in time and say to her, "You must love him very much." But instead, I aimed the conversation back at the convenient and controlled world of social intercourse: "Actually," I said, "the people who disagree with the peace vigil are much more interesting than those who agree with it."

Imagine the price a mother must pay, praying with her heart and soul for the safety of her offspring and yet wishing to support by belief his choice to enter a profession that was far from safe. Talk about being run through one of life's shredders! Talk about clawing for some peaceful understanding and the best you can come up with is a belief system (patriotism, perhaps) that, by definition, is riddled with unsettling doubt and fear. It's heart-breaking ... and yet, where the heart breaks, there really is an opportunity for an honest peace. But talk about scary: A place with no hand-holds outside the frantic and furious clinging to belief. Well, however badly I'm conveying it, it ripped to top off my box.

The second incident came this morning in email. I think I will let it be. It was another bit of marrow in a world of well-shaped bones. Undefended heart. The kind of thing that makes me remember how much I think of the importance of gentleness. Not the contrived ueber-altruism that some call "compassion." But just a little kindness where delicate shoots grow ... which is to say, everywhere.

As Anne Morrow Lindbergh once put it when asked how she felt after her child was kidnapped (and subsequently was found dead) ... "I think everyone has suffered a tragedy."

Where the scum is skimmed from the pond's surface, there is pure, clean water.

hexing a Bible thief

I like waking up to a smile and this morning a friend provided it with an email containing a story about some pissed-off friars in Tuscany who prayed a local Bible thief would get a case of the shits.

Friday, August 19, 2011

more explosive

Oh, thank God! I really was afraid that the explosive power of missiles and other armaments would remain at their current wussy levels!

Now, however, a new material seems to generate five times the bang and doesn't (somehow) kill so many innocent bystanders. It also really blows the shit out of the target ... no more half-measures or maybes.

Of course, it's pretty expensive so the decision to put it into mass production will be a "political" one.

And to think that hunger and malnutrition might have been on our radar! Blow 'em up and, voila! -- no more hunger.

outwitted by flies

It's house-fly season in this neck of the woods. Zipping and darting and standing stock-still over bits of nourishment invisible to the naked eye. They're all over the porch where I sit.

And today as I sat there, two flies rested for a moment on my knee. They seemed to be involved in some play time or sex time, following each other around. Idly, with no real hope of success, I slid my right hand to within six inches of these two, thinking that perhaps their interest in each other would distract them from the fact that they might be under attack as I tried to catch them. I didn't want to kill them, just catch them for some brief moment.

It didn't work. My swooping hand came up empty, proving once again that I was sadly lacking in anything like a samurai speed and deftness. How fast they were! Gone in a New York minute! And all with an ease that put my efforts to shame.

What an enormous industry has grown up around the notion of "being in the moment." The phrase is ballyhooed, probably because everyone has had a moment or two when, indeed, there is a clear, unfettered space or time when things were exactly as they were and there was no thought of interference or improvement or capturing anything. This ... is ... it. No if's, and's, or but's. But as quickly as the understanding arose, it was gone, leaving in its wake a longing to return, to capture, to reassert .... No wonder it's a cottage industry gone wild.

No one can be any place besides "the moment" and yet "being in the moment" eludes and escapes and teases and taunts. How do you get where you already are? It can be a long and tumultuous journey. Planning, plotting, sweating, weeping, trying to creep up undetected ... and none of it works. Invariably it's there ahead of us and outwits the fastest hand.

If a couple of flies can outwit the intentioned hand, what makes anyone think the moment, which is infinitely more swift, would succumb to being caught?

Seeking to find what is already in hand ... seeking to escape the inescapable ... seeking to cage what never could outwit anyone. If a couple of flies can escape without breaking a sweat, why break a sweat?

But it's an industry within and without.

"Being in the moment."

Is anyone laughing?

a legacy

The unfortunate thing is not so much that the dead are lost to us -- the son or daughter, mother or father, Gandhi or Jesus or Mohammed, George Washington or Leon Trotsky or Winston Churchill or Adolph Hitler ... the small flickers and bright lights.

The unfortunate thing is not so much that they are lost to us.

The unfortunate thing is that they are no longer available to correct our applause and catcalls.

Their legacy is that we must make those corrections all by ourselves.

it's important

Everyone selects the thing or things in their lives to take seriously. But the 'important' stuff is invariably limited and deserves a bit of modesty, I think. Perhaps the best summary of what is 'important' is contained in the old chestnut, "In a hundred years, who will know?"

Today, for example, I find it mildly bizarre that at the same time world economies give further evidence of downward spiraling and incidents of violence dot the global stage (1, 2, 3), still there is time and energy for concern about the hookers and high lifestyle (read bribes) handed out to University of Miami football players or a brawl between American and Chinese players on a basketball court in China. And let's not forget the unknown identity of a young girl on ice skates.

It's important ... everything is important to someone. Sometimes tremendous effort is put into what is important. Sometimes one importance runs headlong into another and that creates a new importance. But there is no such thing as a universally agreed-upon importance. Not birth, not death, not beauty, not shame, not heaven, not hell, not joy, not love.

So what remains is a potential willingness to investigate and clarify our own sense of importance. Anything else is just posturing in immodest ways. I don't think there is any need to disdain what is considered important -- try to distance ourselves or be above the fray or play the immobile wise man or chatter on about "it's all relative."

Better to choose what is important and then throw ourselves into the flames ... and investigate, reflect and clarify.  Is this limited or is it limitless? No one can tell anyone else. But we can find out.

Just noodling.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

it "cannot be explained"

How many people turn to spiritual life because one thing or another "cannot be explained?" Two or three anyway, I imagine.

Yet without laying on some smug skepticism, isn't it curious? -- you can't explain something so the first thing you do is find an explanation for it?

Wouldn't a person who did such a thing -- and I imagine there are two or three -- have a well-warranted curiosity about what s/he was doing ... assuming, of course, that s/he wanted to be free from a credulity that is premised on doubt ... the kind of doubt that explanations seek to erase?

For example: The first thing that arises is confronting something that "cannot be explained." What is the impetus that insists on finding an explanation? What, precisely, is wrong with something that "cannot be explained?" I cannot "explain" a rock any more than a rock can "explain" me, so reckon we're about even. Yes, you can run the science and speak about geology and minerals and elements and atoms and all the rest, but does that really explain a rock? It seems to me that it explains the need for an explanation more than it explains a rock.

I guess I think that running into something that "cannot be explained" is quite an opportunity. Not so much to find an explanation, but to query the premise that an explanation is necessary or even very satisfying.

I realize I'm swimming upstream on this one. Explanations of what "cannot be explained" are so socially acceptable that wondering if they have much use or satisfaction is a sort of an apostasy. But not only do explanations of what "cannot be explained" deserve some investigation, what "can be explained" deserves the same scrutiny. And that scrutiny, I think, suggests that what passes for the satisfaction arising from an explanation, is more a compromise, a willingness to live in a world of approximations. And if this is true, it's a pretty wobbly existence, relying on compromises, never quite sure of your footing. Explaining things falls short, doesn't it?

I can't explain a rock.

A rock cannot explain me.

But there's nothing saying we can't dance.

a little help from a friend

Being largely spineless and lazy, it is hard for me to put into practice what doctors advise -- exercise. But today, while walking my body around the block, I found a small companion to urge me along -- The Heart Sutra, one of Buddhism's favorite chants.

One step for each syllable ... Kan ji zai bo sa ... and so forth. Since I am used to chanting it at a fairly brisk pace, my walking pace was forced to keep up. I got through it twice and added a three-round version of Great Vows for All (Shu jo mu hen sei gan do...), more slowly and in accordance with my lagging legs before I reached my stoop once more.

We'll see if the pepper-upper quality persists as the days progress.

loneliness in spiritual endeavor

Spiritual endeavor carries with it a series of doubts and fears for anyone who is serious. Among them is the fear of loneliness -- of losing friends, of losing touch, of finding yourself hung out to dry in some arid, if pristine, realm.

Little or large, experienced or inexperienced, I don't think it's a good idea to resort to cooing sweet talk about such a fear. Somewhere I read that Shunryu Suzuki Roshi (a Zen teacher) once complained to his friend Trungpa Rinpoche (Tibetan) about the loneliness of his endeavor. Both men were recognized as bright lights in their respective spiritual firmaments, so I think a 'beginner' might be excused for feeling a similar dread.

Not that it's a solace or a solution, but I found myself writing yesterday:

Strange to think how many people fear the loneliness of spiritual endeavor without bothering to recognize how lonely they already are.

odds and ends of news

And in the news ....

-- Why do I find it somehow depressing that the pope should speak out about the economic crisis and encourage one and all to remember that it's people, not vast accumulations of wealth, that count? I have espoused similar positions, but somehow, when the pope expresses the view, all it says to me is that the economic crisis is probably far worse than it is already depicted. The pope, as master of the smallest (and one of the most well-off) country in the world, walks a tightrope between 'spiritual' and political realms ... retreating (a bit like Israel) from one to the other as circumstances demand. He is not purely a power broker and not purely a spiritual leader. When he dons the mantle of the latter as a means of informing or nudging the former ... well, it feels somehow like the antics of an energetic, but largely inconsequential, cheer leader. I guess I shouldn't be ungrateful for any voice or effort, but I feel the defeat more keenly in the face of his suggestions of victory.

-- On the bright side -- assuming anyone is inclined -- there is a mild uptick in the number of small, bricks-and-mortar bookstores. Any uptick in a down-tick time is heartening, especially in the face of the Internet juggernaut that has decimated booksellers across the country. Whaddya know ... some people are reading and willing to pay for the hold-it-in-your-hands, smell-the-paper product. It may only be a pastime of the well-heeled, but it's something.

-- Back on the 'spiritual' front, the Mormons seem to be capitalizing on a new-found notoriety and have captured some top billing among Internet search engines.

Their doctrine requires Mormons to proselytize, and it would be foolish not to strategize at a time of heightened interest, church officials and supporters say.

After 40 years of dabbling in the spiritual interests, proselytizing strikes me as a seriously-dangerous and wrong-headed adventure, but for every bright penny there is a rusty nail.

-- In Peru, the government has discontinued (temporarily?) an eradication program in an area known for growing coca, the first step in the production of cocaine. Since previous efforts have not worked very well, the government is 're-evaluating.'  Anti-drug analysts are, as always, yowling at any reduction in such efforts, but I always wonder what honestly-supportive alternatives are offered to dirt-poor farmers or to governments like that in Afghanistan where 60-70 percent of the gross national product relies on what others call illegal drugs. It reminds me of the 'right to life' advocates who can caterwaul and inveigh against the horrors of abortion without ever providing a concrete and sustainable and humane alternative.

-- And in a time when real estate sales can be daunting and come-on's are necessary, an upscale ($640,000) house in Sweden is being offered complete with the skeleton of a former owner in the basement. Tours of the house are suggested as one way to mitigate the hefty price tag.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

a witch's brew

What a koan:

A wise man confronted by a throng of idiots would be well-advised to keep his mouth shut if he does not wish to be drawn and quartered. On the other hand, if he keeps his mouth shut, the carnage is likely to be even worse.

What a truly frightening thing to be in a realm where the majority live by an intransigent belief or comforting philosophy.

-- Buddhists sometimes complain of feeling isolated and disdained in an arena populated by dyed-in-the-wool Christians.
-- Those with alternative views were widely excoriated, jailed or had their lives ruined by the communist-hunters of the McCarthy era (1950's) in the United States.
-- In Russia and its satellites, individuals lived in the very real terror that there might be a police knock at the door in the middle of the night ... much as such things occurred in Nazi Germany. Alternative lifestyles or philosophies or sometimes skin colors were not tolerated.

It's scary to be in a place where the many agree ... and are simultaneously unwilling to reflect. And while the examples of history are easy to find, the small examples of an individual life are often overlooked. Where there is widespread agreement (within or without), it is time to duck and cover. LaRochefoucauld's maxim is not without usefulness: "The intelligence of the mass is inversely proportionate to its number." Whether within or without ... too much agreement spells danger because it simply does not reflect the rich reality of life.

In the 17th century, a nine-year-old girl's testimony led to the execution of 10 people in an era that was rife with a widespread belief in and fear of witches. Ten people executed. It may seem horrific in hind sight, but when you look around (or even within), I suppose there is some consolation in the fact that the death toll was not higher.

Belief is too often a bloody business.

And who carries the ax?

Isn't it the one who refuses to examine his or her own beliefs?

catching up with Africa

On public television, a reporter took a sheet of paper with him onto the streets. On the paper with three pie charts depicting wealth distribution. One circle was more or less divided in equal fifths of color. One circle had a much larger piece of pie depicting the wealth held by a smaller number. And the last circle depicted a piece of pie that was 90-plus percent of the wealth. The reporter asked passersby which circle most accurately depicted the United States.

Most respondents picked one of the first two circles. Only one black man guessed that it was the third circle -- the one with the greatest disparity -- that accurately reflected the financial distribution in the United States. And he, of course, was right. But the fact that the others were less well informed was very informative as well: In general, Americans believe (irrespective of political party) that they live in a country in which all receive a nourishing piece of the pie. The fact that they believe this allows those who accumulate a disproportionate piece of the pie to continue adding to their ever larger percentage of whatever sustenance the U.S. provides. The U.S., in fact, parallels and mimics many African (and often despotic) nations in its sharing of the wealth.

Welcome to the world: The U.S., often considered a first-world nation, is catching up with Africa, a place relegated by first-worlders to third-world status.

In the news today, China has appealed to the U.S. to get its financial house in order. There is a plea in the appeal -- it's the U.S., after all, that buys Chinese goods since it can not longer create its own -- but there is also an thinly-veiled warning to the request: China, among others, is positioned to take over the reins from countries like the United States and China does not like disorder within its borders: Its vassal states must toe the mark and the United States had better start toeing the mark.

"The United States has entered a long period of decline," wrote economist Xia Bin, who advises China's Cabinet and central bank, on his blog.
 The U.S. may posture and pose, flopping self-importantly on the dock like a fish out of water, but it has been hooked by its own carelessness and greed. If those with power and wealth had as much wisdom as they do treasure, they might revise their ways and give back as they have received. But this is not an earlier day when those who had most carried with them a sense of "noblesse oblige" as a matter of self-interest. Today the attitude is, as the pie charts demonstrated, an African despotism that is most attractive to the would-be despots. China and others await patiently as the fish flops on the dock.

I cannot get over -- with sadness but no particular criticism -- the appropriateness of the Somali security officer who, when assessing the issue of piracy off his country's shores, observed on TV: "If you do not share your wealth with us, we will share our poverty with you."

The U.S., hat in hand, awaits the rise of its new lords.

wasting time

When I was younger, I would have remembered in a shot, but today I had to look it up and feel sheepish -- recalling for sure who it was who said, "Youth is wasted on the young." And of course it was one of my once-favorite guys, Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. Does anyone remember him these days? It feels to me as if the world is getting stupider and stupider, but if I can't remember who said, "Youth is wasted on the young," who's the stupid one?

"Youth is wasted on the young" is one of those pointed, smug and wishful bon mots that nevertheless rings a bell with those who are of a certain age: Boy! If I knew then, when I had the energy, what I know now, when I don't ... well, that would have been truly kool. What a waste!

But setting aside the nod-nod, wink-wink acid aptness of the observation ... I wonder. The nut of it all resides in the idea of waste -- that in youth, so much time and energy are frittered away in worthless pastimes, self-important and uninformed efforts. And there is a sigh of regret -- what a pity.

But today it strikes me that the very function of youth is to be wasteful. How could anyone ascend to whatever wisdom is contained in "youth is wasted on the young" without having first indulged in the idiocies of youth? You gotta be stupid before you get smart.

And beyond that, if youth is seen today as having been riddled with wasteful opinions and beliefs and actions, what makes the observer imagine that the pinnacle from which s/he observes does not, as well, contain more than a dollop of blinkered waste?

In short, if "youth is wasted on the young" I think it might equally be noted that "old age is wasted on the elderly." In what stupidities do the elderly engage that mimic the wastefulness of a rambunctious youth? Youth may be accused of an inability and inexperience of wider vision -- a lifestyle infused with street smarts and thoughtfulness. Youth is blinkered (from the august pinnacle of age), but, seriously, what blinkers do the elderly wear with such confidence ... what is it that they are missing and yet proud of, even as youth was once proud of its narrow-gauge bliss?

Well, the eyes cannot see the eyes. No one can know where they are right now. Their certainties and beliefs all relate to the past ... the past which was riddled with wastefulness if you recall. Youth, age, it makes no difference -- no one can know where they are right now any more than the eyes can see the eyes.

This leads me to suggest that somehow any attentive person might wish to consider: Nothing is ever wasted and the very notion of waste is purely a matter of self-importance. It is this self-importance that deserves examination.

Now might be a good time to start.

Don't waste your time.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

wide-screen spiritual life

As time goes by, I seem to get more and more of whatever qualifies as 'spiritual' encouragement from movies on TV. Texts and tomes have lost a lot of their luster, but a movie that tells an interesting story gets my attention.

I was watching "A Few Good Men," the tale of a Marine court martial, the other night. The movie, starring Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson, is a little hokey, but still managed to carry me along.

The crescendo of the film comes when defense lawyer Cruise addresses Marine colonel Nicholson on the stand. In a dudgeon of fairly-credible righteousness Cruise explodes, "I want the truth!" And Nicholson replies with a withering disdain, "You can't handle the truth!"

What a good encouragement, I thought.

The adoring moth is drawn to the candle light. But come to close and it'll burn your face off.

puppy-uppers, doggie-downers

An old Saturday Night Live riff on vexing canine problems.

the spin doctor within

On the car radio, a man who seemed to be a professional spin doctor, was discussing the current economic downturn with an interviewer. He argued that the situation needed a widely-recognized moniker as a means of providing a common understanding. "Great Recession" was one of the names used in the recent past and there were several others. But he suggested further that a name with less negative connotations was required: Bad-news names tended to bring people down and lessen the spirit necessary to extricating them from their current financial dis-ease. I forget if he actually proposed any names.

On the one hand, names do matter, do inspire, do focus the attention and intention. If the name applied to the economic squeeze is constantly negative, how could it generate a willingness to move forward and escape? You could see the point.

On the other hand, it really is tiring to have spin doctors insisting we are eating filet mignon when there is dog shit on the dinner plate. How can anyone expect to ameliorate difficulties if the willingness to investigate the perhaps-painful aspects of those difficulties is constantly smothered and blurred by upbeat bullshit?

Abraham Lincoln observed approximately, "You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time." And, a propos the economic down-turn, author John Steinbeck said that Americans don't like socialism because, "the poor here see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

There is a price to pay for upbeat nostrums. There is a price to pay for looking the devil in the eye. Winston Churchill's soaring rhetoric helped keep a beleaguered world on course to win World War II. But I seriously doubt that his rhetoric had much positive effect on the soldiers in the trenches where men cowered and screamed for their mothers and learned to choke down the horror of killing others.

Upbeat encouragements. Downbeat facts.

And it is the same for individuals. But the difference between individuals and societies is that individuals stand a better chance of doing something about their attitudes towards their own facts and fate. They have the potential to cut through their own spin-doctoring.

This is not to say it is easy. Spin-doctoring and bright lights inspire intention and action. But the same might be said for looking the devil in the eye. How long can anyone put icing on their dog shit before they get tired of their own bright-eyed shenanigans? Yes, fine -- spiritual endeavor holds out some wondrous promises, beautifully woven and spun lights at the end of the tunnel. But then the facts, the day-by-day difficulties raise their heads and promises are not enough.

The hard part about individual effort is, perhaps, that it is just that -- individual. Collective pity parties are not enough -- they are not as consoling as on the social stage. Looking in the mirror is not good or bad or better or worse -- it is just work that an individual might choose to do ... or not. The choice to do the work may be inspired by some spin-doctoring, some Winston-Churchill-like rhetoric, but down in the trenches, it is hard work. A bit of spin-doctoring that may inspire such an effort suggests, "Your life is so difficult that it has never been tried before."

It is individual. Where the bullets fly, spin-doctoring loses its relevance. Individual means individual determination and effort irrespective of the pity parties that may be held up and down the block. Good and bad and heaven and hell and enlightenment and compassion can take a hike. Promises and a couple of bucks will get you a bus ride.

Is there a pot of spin-doctored gold at the end of this individual-effort rainbow?

Maybe. Maybe not. But the effort seems to outshine its spin-doctored alternative. How many lives can anyone lead and what is it that makes that life worth living? How long can anyone insist on gussying up what is right in front of their noses? Pretty long, if history is to be believed. But what history depicts is not necessarily what individuals need to repeat.

Monday, August 15, 2011

scare-you-to-death invitation

One of the most tantalizing and delicious aspects of Buddhism, a practice I like, is the invitation to "find out for yourself." Especially for those seeking peace that is not dependent on some lay-down-the-law institution or hierarchy, "find out for yourself" is just so refreshing and rebellious and, well, gimme some of that!

And yet what is the first thing that any freshly-minted Buddhist might do when entering the fold? The very first thing is to seek out a set of guideposts that can create a hierarchical institution in the mind. "Buddha said this" or "texts say that" and it's off to the higher-authority racetrack again. I imagine I would like to "find out for myself," but I would like someone else to hold my hand. It's human and to a certain extent sensible... if you want to get to Chicago, it's a good idea to consult a map.

What Buddhism offers that breaks the habit of dependency -- the holy ones, the boss, the spouse, the philosophy, the religion, the whatever -- is a program designed to put individuals on the two feet they already own. To "find out for yourself" may beckon, but the fact of the matter is that finding out for yourself is pretty spooky. If no one told me, what would I know? Ooooooeeeeeeoooo!

Meditation is one tool within the Buddhist program. Nothing happens overnight, but the determined and constant practice of meditation leads to the discovery that what was spooky is just ordinary. The two feet anyone was already standing on are the very feet that allow them to find out for themselves. They aren't Buddhist feet or holy feet or wowsers feet ... they're just feet. Could there ever be any doubt about it?

Ma and Pa Fix-it

It probably constitutes taking a liberty, but I think it would be a liberty worth taking now and then:

What would it be like to wake up in the morning and discover that nothing needed to be fixed? Nothing needed to be improved? Nothing needed to be changed?

In fact, there were no need to imagine that nothing needed to be fixed or improved or changed because, in fact, nothing needed to be fixed or improved or changed?

Just for five or ten seconds. Would that be closer to the truth or closer to fiction?

And after five or ten perhaps spooky seconds ... well, Ma and Pa Fix-it could roll out of bed and get to work.

a place without danger

Where is the safe place, the place of peace, the place without danger? On a guess, I think I'd say that as soon as anyone started to imagine such a place, yearn for such a place, set up the defenses that would assure such a place ... in that moment, the harbingers of discontent would stir and take root.

For example, in spiritual endeavor as in orthodox religion, the format and function that is built to assure and insure a life of relief and succor bring with them the potential and actuality of true horror. What so often are disdained and excoriated as "cults" are built into the welcoming and persuasive temple walls. This is not a criticism (except for those who have too much time on their hands). Bliss and horror are a package deal -- a risk -- and not to keep an eye on such things is careless and stupid. No one can talk their way out of horror. No one can talk themselves into bliss. It's just a fact within the human heart.

And still the yearning remains ... to be safe; to be at peace; the be free from danger.

On the island of Jersey (pop. ca. 93,000), six people, including three children, were fatally stabbed on Sunday. Even police officers were reportedly shaken. Jersey, in many minds, was bucolic and peaceful and cohesive and ... well, safe. It was an assumption, a given, a reason to live in a peaceable kingdom. And ... now ... this.

And when were such surprises ever absent from the human heart? Someone once observed about meditation practice, "Understanding is knowing to get out of the way of an on-coming bus. Practice is for the bus you didn't see coming." And there is always a bus you didn't see coming. Why? Because no one -- no one -- can know the future. Guess, hope, believe, yearn -- sure. But know? Never.

For some, the easiest course is a worldly skepticism: All things are mixed, so submitting to any does not accord with the yearning for pure peace or a place without danger. But skepticism, like pedal-to-the-metal credulity, does not bring peace and does not allay danger. No one can know the future ... no one.

How then is anyone to actualize the peace they may yearn for? How can the horrors of a cult be separated from the wondrous advertising of spiritual life? Where is the safety that admits no danger?

The only option I know of that makes any real-time sense is to acknowledge and embrace the danger against which others may build towering spires and imposing buttresses. This does not mean everyone has to go out and drink poisoned Kool-Aid or strap C-4 to their bodies or flagellate themselves because they are so wicked. No point in being any stupider than you already may be.

But to take the risk, whatever it may be, that seems to hold out some promise in your life and then to really follow it, fearlessly follow it, right down to its roots .... A million mistakes beckon. Make a mistake, correct a mistake. And when you can't correct it, investigate it. Look and look and keep on looking. No more walls. Just look.

And is there peace -- a place without danger -- at the end of this rainbow?

I don't know. You tell me.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

"smell the roses"

One of the disadvantages of aging is that you finally do get a chance to do what others applaud from a wishful distance -- "smell the roses." With time to spare, the impact of what was once casually noticed and dismissed picks up steam. The "small stuff" that once went untended has a chance to flower and assert itself. It is as if you had a large room in which to store thought and emotion and when the space filled by workaday life was emptied -- eight hours a day, five days a week -- the bits and pieces relegated to small corners claimed and filled that empty space. "Nature abhors a vacuum" and that certainly seems to be true of the large room where I live.

But the flavor changes. For example, this morning I was reading the tale of  a "group stroll" in China. "Group stroll" is a code word for protest and this particular 12,000-strong stroll was aimed at real and potential pollution generated by a local plant. But whereas in the past I could read such stories with an 'adult' distance -- it's just 'news,' right? -- nowadays I find it harder and harder to keep my distance. This is people, something within me says, and people are seriously important. I am still not inclined to join in some group whine about such matters -- whining is too self-serving in my book -- but nowadays I am moved and sad...and would prefer not to be sad. I have never been very good at crying. Perhaps it is time I learned.

Martin Luther King once observed, more or less, "It's not what's wrong with the world that scares people. What really scares them is that everything is all right." This is not a position one man can sell to another. But it is a position anyone might choose to investigate and actualize.

After breakfast, I will go out and do a little zazen among the roses.