Wednesday, February 29, 2012

you shoulda been a lawyer

After the court hearing concerning my son's accident, the clerk-magistrate asked me if I had ever studied to be a lawyer. "You should think about it," he said. "You did a good job defending your son." I was flattered, but told him I was a bit long in the tooth for that.

good luck, ladies!

It's 'Leap Day,' a day added every four years to correct the calendar's slight irregularities as regards 'actual' time. It's also a day when -- I don't know why -- women ask men for their hands in marriage as opposed to the other way around. Good luck, ladies!

Today is also the day I get my day in court in the matter of my son's fender-bender car accident ... so I've got to get cracking.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

newspapers around the world

Passed along in email:

Click on any city, anywhere and the front page of the local newspaper pops up. It doesn't have my local newspaper or the newspaper I used to work at ... but it has a hell of a lot of others.

the Willie Sutton effect

Willie Sutton
Bank robber extraordinaire, Willie Sutton, the man who stole an estimated $2 million in his forty-year criminal career, was once said to have said that he robbed banks "because that's where the money is." He never said it, but, even as a dead man, I'll bet he wishes he had. Coincidentally, he was perhaps the first man -- before former U.S. President Bill Clinton -- who was known as "Slick Willie."

It makes sense, if you want to steal money, to go where the money is.

But if it's riches you're after, the bathroom mirror is a better venue.

don't read this blog

If you want good news, check out the self-help section of your local book store ... if there's one left. There you will find wand-wavers aplenty.

If you want bad news, read a newspaper or watch the TV ... there's plenty there to put you in a crooning blue funk.

This blog is a place for liars, ego-trippers and other scoundrels .

I just happen to be the local scoundrel.

And of course there will be some nitwit who thinks I'm joking or playing to the crowd.

"Nitwit" is the kindest word I can think of.

putting rainbows in their place

A lot of years ago, as a young reporter, I got assigned to the police beat. That's the way it worked back then -- the journalistic puppies cut their teeth on the police blotter and various attendant illegalities. Barroom brawls, drugs, car thefts ... same ol' same ol'. After a while doing that, I would sometimes cover Superior Court -- a step up in the mayhem department. Here the crimes were more serious ... up to and including murder.

I was fascinated by courtroom drama. Aside from teaching me that accuracy in reporting was essential, it also whispered in my ear, posing questions about the law as a human construct. When I would visit lawyers or judges, sometimes we would sit in offices whose bookshelves were packed with what were clearly law books. Shelf after shelf after shelf ... it was like being on a TV set. Some of the lawyers took their profession and surroundings with a solemnity that might make a Jewish devotion to the law pale by comparison. Some were less knotted. But whatever the posture or posturing, what whispered in my ear was a fascination with the willingness to codify human behavior and mete out agreed-upon pleasures and pains. Philosophy was important ... but did philosophy actually corral the open arms of human capacity? Of course it didn't and yet without this limited approach, how could human limitlessness find its say?

The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 inspired a host of media tales of Wall Street bankers and other business men who were positively peeing in their pants to take advantage of the potential money-making adventures in this new market. Just think -- a country with what was then 13 time zones, each of them an arena in which to sell and create new consumers! There's money in them thar hills! Minerals, oil, and plenty of room for another MacDonald's. It took a while, but eventually the businessmen backed off their original enthusiasms: Russia was, and remains, a place of vast corruption. There is no rule of law to order and protect the captialists as it does in the United States and other 'civilized' countries. Law is important ... as important as it is confining and unrealistic.

My Zen teacher once said, "Without ego, nothing gets done." Without the fabrications and delusions and personalities and desires, nothing gets done. Whether on the upside or the downside ... nothing gets done. Ego, the arbiter of good and evil, creates the format -- from law to lawlessness -- within which people actually do things ... things that are sometimes called accomplishments.

Without the law, there would be no lawyer jokes... or crooks either. Without formatted religion, there would be no bloody depredations or vast kindness. Without limits, limitlessness is just an imaginative limitation.

Limits and ego ... what a good beginning. Pick your limits, from law to bank robbery to religion to altruism to being a Ku Klux Klan member in good standing ... that's how things get done. Everyone constructs the limits that some, with luck, learn to chafe under. What looked like freedom becomes a bondage. What looked like an enriching move constrains and impoverishes. Some claim contentment within their limitations and speak of necessary compromises ... and yet there is something uncompromising and unfettered in the depths of the heart and the back of the mind. What is it and why does it nag like some pesky dog that needs to go out and pee?

Without ego, nothing gets done. What would that be like -- to get nothing done? How does anyone go about doing nothing? Sure, there are slick answers, but really ... how could anyone possibly do nothing? Would it be good or bad? Would it be too frightening for words? Would it assure a steady peace? If you could do nothing, would it be limited or limitless?

I guess what I'm getting around to in my own bloviating fashion is this: Everyone picks their limits, or, if you are feeling less responsible, is chosen by them. And those limits are perfectly fine -- literally, perfectly fine. Lawyer, doctor, Indian chief ... all limited, all perfectly fine. Each and every limitation, each and every ego is the perfect starting point.

But starting points are not the point at which a nagging limitlessness is willing to stop. Some try to improve or dismiss or camouflage or escape their limitations. But this is not possible and since it is not, the better course is not to improve or escape anything ... that's just another limitation.

Starting points are points from which to start.

The trick is ... just don't stop. Follow and investigate whatever the limitations are until there is no more juice in that particular orange ... and then follow and investigate some more. Follow the Yellow Brick Road of ego right to the end of the rainbow. And don't be tricked by rainbows.

Don't stop ... that's the trick to stepping out of a world called "limited" and into a world called "limitless" ...

You know ... this world.

Monday, February 27, 2012

no more loneliness

And in the what-you-long-for-is-what-you-fear-and-vice-versa department:

Human beings seem to long for situations in which they will not be lonely. To be in a large and agreeable crowd -- one that thinks the same, believes the same, acts the same and likes me into the bargain -- is a bed-rock, if subtle, hope.

Simultaneously, they fear death and are willing to go to great lengths to avoid it.

But what could be less lonely than death? Death, as the Zen teacher Soen Roshi pointed out, means you have "joined the majority."

uncharitable habit

It is probably uncharitable, and perhaps it is just a function of age, but I am sick to death of people who base their statements on what other people say. I don't give a shit what Jesus said or Buddha said or Gandhi said or scripture said or the law said or the school teacher said or your mother said ... I will listen to what YOU say.

If someone says, "I believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster," I am willing to listen. If they then say they LIKE the arguments made by the Great Flying Spaghetti Monster Society, I will listen. But if they can do no better than to say the Flying Spaghetti Monster's reality is proven because the society says so ... well, stick it where the sun don't shine!

As I say, it's probably uncharitable to balk at all the embalming and comforting adduced evidence, since the habit sometimes seems to be ubiquitous, Gawd! it is tiring ... and unconvincing into the bargain.

What the fuck is the matter with what you say since you are saying it in the first place? Maybe it's right, maybe it's wrong ... who cares? ... but I get crabby when people insist on lying... re-lying on others.

Maybe I'll be more charitable in another incarnation.

off the cliff

In the big scheme of things, it's a minor matter that has nonetheless taken up a number of hours of my time: A small-claims court action that seeks to retrieve something more than $500 in repair payments I was forced to make after my son was in a fender-bender accident late last year.

The hearing will be on Wednesday, and yesterday, I put the final touches on the evidence and argument I wish to present. It cost me fifty bucks to file for the hearing so the total out-of-pocket costs are something like $550.

Because I have never been to small claims court, I have few means of knowing exactly what the hearing will entail. I just don't know and, as a result, I have put together three folders -- one for me, one for the defendant and one for the court -- containing arguments, photos and documents pertaining to the accident. About 25 pages. It took some energy and maybe 20 hours to compile the information ... which, I suspect, will be enormously more than will ever get any attention in a busy courtroom.

I have a goal. The ostensible goal is to get my $550 back. I want to win and have done everything I can think of to achieve that win.

But the fact is that the $550 is secondary. The win is secondary. The fact is that, for all my preparation, I am prepared to lose. Not happy or sad -- just prepared. In reality, I have paid $50 for a chance to give it my best shot. I have paid $50 to step into a world I know little or nothing about. I have spent hours gathering data that may or may not win the day. I have done what I could to do ... what, in the end?

And the only answer I can come up with is ... to step into a future I have no capacity to define or assure. I may hope and believe all I like, but once you step off a cliff, there is nothing to do but fall. Imagining there are any hand-holds left is just that ... imagining.

In spiritual life, I think it is much the same -- gathering as much intellectual and emotional information as possible and then ... stepping off a cliff with no way of knowing the result. Stepping off the spiritual cliff -- putting all the hopes and fears and beliefs and longings into a single basket and then, one evening perhaps, going to a center where there is a practice that will either prove or disprove all of the internal, elegant, caterwauling information. And the proof will not come from that single evening (or perhaps it will). Years and years may pass before what was once an aspiration or a longing receives a credible answer... an answer based on experience and not just elegant internal brush strokes.

Isn't it the same in any moment? There simply is no knowing what will happen in the next second or minute or hour or day or year or lifetime. All the squirrely, educated, intricate, control-freak belief and hope and belief may find some credibility in what actually happens, but it will never find complete credibility. Only what is right in front of our noses, right now, can do that.

The habit may persist -- inching up on the cliff, gathering and collating information in a fender-bender accident, collecting information and belief about a spiritual persuasion, moving through a work day with as much skill as anyone might muster -- but the fact is that we are always jumping off the cliff. Ever and forever jumping off the cliff. And with practice, it's no longer an eeeek. It's quite a lot of fun. What actually happens is far more interesting and exact than what I imagined might happen. Yes, you might die ... but since that's already in the cards, why not enjoy the spices offered along the way?

Off the cliff .... wheeeeeee!

The fender-bender hearing is scheduled Wednesday. I paid $50 to find out what sort of wheeee the adventure might be. I worked hard to assure what I cannot assure. I'm just an ordinary fool.

Being a fool is not so bad. But not enjoying it seems pretty foolish.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

the Ultimate Temple

If I had money to squander, I think I would create the Ultimate Temple of Unexcelled (Talkative) Bliss. People would pay vast quantities of money to enter ... and so I would quickly recoup my initial outlay.

Within, the richly-appointed walls would be sound-proofed so as not to offend anyone else's ear drums. Within, everybody would get his or her talkative rocks off. It would be comfortable and comforting and, for those who decided never to leave, there would be a vast cemetery. Anyone with any 'spiritual' leanings at all would be constrained to spend time at the UTUTB,

Inside, there would be incessant chatter.

Outside, there would be incessant chatter.

The only difference would be that outside there would be fresh air to disburse the smoke.

stolen valor, uncertain life

Intellectually,  it is as satisfying as a chocolate drop, the old Chinese saying, "Do not ride another's horse; do not draw another's bow." Using others' accomplishments as a basis for personal satisfaction is a poor, if common, way of doing things:

If the Bible says so and I can rattle off biblical assertions, I am as wide and wise as the Bible. If I know baseball statistics and history, I have earned the right to pontificate from a bar stool or shout epithets from the stands. If I know Shakespeare from muzzle to butt plate, then, ipso facto, I stand upon a platform that others may look up to and I can bask in that limelight. The list goes on and on and is so common that ... well, if it's common, and if I fear loneliness, then I too may partake in this second-hand world and be content. Everybody says so, so it must be OK. But if it's so OK, how come I don't quite feel OK?

This is the contentment of beggars. Things are never quite 100% because I have placed my bet on someone else's life, someone else's horse, someone else's bow.

I am not interested in criticizing the social phenomenon. I am interested in what works or what works better. In what mirror can anyone look and not feel endlessly incomplete, mildly or sincerely fraudulent, and never quite in balance?

When I was a kid, my upbringing was such that I became neurotically afraid of claiming accomplishment or success. I did not deserve it. And even when I did accomplish something, the presumption was that it would be taken away. The glass was half empty ... always ... and I worked and worked to fill it up.

Nowadays I feel that, as a matter of contentment, there is not a hell of a lot of difference between "half-empty" and "half-full." Neither acknowledges the other half ... the glass ... and the life that fills it. Even as I write, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering the case of a man who claimed to have won the Medal of Honor (America's highest military award). It is an extreme example of claiming what is not my own ... of riding another's horse and pulling another's bow. An extreme example of what, I think, is commonplace and sad... they're calling it a case of "stolen valor." It is easy to feel the outrage of the case ... and less easy to pull away from the Greek chorus of theft to which any of us might belong:

I lie, you lie and since we both lie, it must be the truth ... until, looking in the bathroom mirror, it is not.

The antidote to this scenario, bitter as the pill may be, lies in experience.

Your experience is enough. My experience is enough. Your thoughts are enough -- agreement is not necessary. My thoughts are enough -- no need to seek validation or claim some wider 'meaning.'

This approach requires practice since other practices are so forcefully entrenched. I chose Zen Buddhism as a practice. Should everyone else go out and practice Zen Buddhism? There was a time -- a wobbly and uncertain time -- when I thought so. But that's not how things work. Finding your horse or mine, your bow or mine is an intimate matter -- utterly personal -- and the discipline and effort it takes comes in all shapes and sizes.

But whatever the effort, it is an effort worth making, I think. No need to seek for friends when we are already friends. No need to rest our case on someone else's accomplishments. We have our own experience and it is enough. When we make mistakes we correct them. That is enough. When we laugh, we laugh ... and it is enough. When we kiss our friends, the tale is complete ... who kisses whom is not the point ... but a kiss ... well, ahhhhhh.

You draw your bow. You ride your horse.

I draw my bow. I ride my horse.

And in this way, we can both assure a peace without uncertain allegations.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Big Brother

The Department of Homeland Security -- now too large and too well-funded to fear much from the left-wing, pinko, commies who complain about its incursions and infringements -- has a list of key words ("sick," "watch" and "pork" among them) with which to monitor such social network sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

The cornerstone and buttress of the DHS is the touchstone, "terrorism," a word never adequately defined by anyone and yet so viscerally explosive that countries around the world have taken to using it as a means of suborning their attacks on almost any perceived enemy.

Make a criticism or suggest that freedom is being eroded, and the touchstone "terrorism" will be trotted out ... and the funding will continue to flow. "Terrorism" and its "terrorists" hold a potential threat, a threat that no man can adequately defend against. There is some nasty shit out there, but the price of defending against it keeps getting higher and higher... until, perhaps, we become what we have defended against.

Just think -- maybe some day the U.S. can become China or Burma.

What a horrifically good and prescient movie "Brazil" was.

knowing better

Someone -- as often as not I -- always knows better and is willing to perpetrate all sorts of horror in order to prove it.

As Australia separated Aborigine children from their parents, so it was written in Canada in 1883:

"In order to educate the children properly, we must separate them from their families. Some people may say that this is hard, but if we want to civilise them we must do that.''

In Canada, it was likewise the indigenous children who were separated from their parents and sent to church-run boarding schools where physical and sexual abuse and a loss of identity were a staple of knowing better. They were the poor and the uneducated and the powerless. They needed to be 'assimilated' into a wider society run by those who knew better. Today they are described as "lost souls" ... another echo of the 1968 quote by an unnamed American army officer in Vietnam after the decimation of Bien Tre: "It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it."

What a fearsome and potentially horrific capacity ... knowing better.

Social policy, spiritual endeavor, peace, war, justice, love ... I know better.

For individuals to exercise such a capacity in their own lives is probably instructive enough. To exercise it on behalf of others ... I think not.

only a fool lacks a broken heart

Like some flotsam in a grubby harbor, bits and pieces floated by this morning:

-- Without any particular context, George Orwell and Lord Mountbatten's wife drifted on the random swells. Had they been lovers of the cinq-a-sept variety favored by British and other aristocracy? I didn't even know if they were close contemporaries. It seemed a bit of an odd pairing, but not really all that odd ... aristocracy of all kinds so often becomes dulled and unfulfilled in its aristocracy. Looking it up, Edwina was indeed a butterfly in the bedroom, but Orwell's name does not appear on the shopping list. Random and wrong ... no matter.

-- A posting without attribution on newbuddhist ... which I have twisted from prose to poetry:

A novice in whose heart the faith shone bright,
Met with his teacher in a dream one night and said,
"I tremble in bewildered fear
How is it master that I see you here?
My heart became a candle when you went,
A flame that flickers with astonishment.
I seek truth's secret like a searching slave --
Explain to me your state beyond the grave!"

His teacher said, "I cannot understand,
Amazed I gnaw the knuckles of my hand.
You say that you're bewildered --
In this pit, bewilderment seems endless, infinite!
A hundred mountains would be less to me
Than one brief speck of such uncertainty!"

 "One brief speck of such uncertainty" ... I like that.

-- In the book "Remembering Nakagawa Soen Roshi," Soen is quoted, perhaps in sorrowing reference to his difficulties with his student, Eido Shimano, as saying. "Everything breaks. Everything breaks." Such easy words to write. Such easy words to associate with Gautama Buddha's observation that everything changes. Easy ... easy. And yet, everything really does break. The plaint of monk and layman alike ... everything breaks.

Only a fool lacks a broken heart.

Friday, February 24, 2012

a cause worth supporting

Email from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP):

Dear friends;

As you are a cherished friend to SNAP, we want to explain what Kansas City and St. Louis Catholic officials are doing to attack us and those who seek our help.  We've included a lengthy "Q & A" here that outlines the details. But the bottom line is this: Catholic officials are desperately trying to conceal their wrong-doing by attacking victims. They're trying to silence victims, and others , by trying to severely weaken  SNAP. In October, SNAP Director David Clohessy was served with a subpoena in Kansas City by church defense lawyers. They demanded emails, correspondence and other records (some going back 23 years) including deeply private conversations with victims, their names and the details of the abuse they suffered.

Last month, Clohessy and SNAP Outreach Director Barbara Dorris were hit with more subpoenas, this time from the St. Louis archdiocese.  Naturally our first concern was, and remains, the privacy of victims, most of whom never have or never will speak publicly or take any kind of legal action. We also quickly realized, however, that these wide-ranging demands also sought communications between SNAP and thousands of other individuals we help: family members,witnesses, whistleblowers, journalists, therapists, concerned Catholics and law enforcement officials.  Our first duty is to those who seek and sought our guidance. For that reason, we fought tooth and nail to keep David from having to testify. Ultimately, we lost that fight. David was deposed. But he adamantly refused to give any names or private details about victims. And we're refusing to turn over any documents with similar information.

The ramifications of these actions have already hit SNAP hard. Owing to massive legal bills which we cannot pay at this time, we have been forced to ask our attorney in Kansas City to withdraw from the case. The fact is we can no longer afford to pay him and still keep the lights on. We are seeking pro-bono help as the case moves forward and will update you as to our progress. Meanwhile in Kansas City, attorneys for the Catholic Church have moved forward with a "Motion to Compel" SNAP Director, David Clohessy to reveal private information about members and victims connected with SNAP and the case against Father Joseph Tierney. We will not reveal any of the information the church is requesting. The privacy of our survivors and members is absolutely paramount! So, David is preparing himself and his family as he faces jail time if necessary.

Over two decades ago, we in SNAP pledged ourselves to protect and help victims, witnesses, whistleblowers, police, prosecutors, journalists, in fact anyone who was working to stop and expose child sex crimes and cover ups. That promise has not and will not be broken, no matter what forces are arrayed against us. The fact that we have been so successful is the chief reason that we now find ourselves in this painful and threatening situation. However it is one we shall win.
Your support has been critical in our accomplishing our mission and is even more essential now. We, therefore, ask that you consider making a donation in order to help us meet the unprecedented challenge which faces us. In order to donate, simply go online to our donate page. Alternatively you can or mail it to SNAP: P.O. Box 6416, Chicago, Illinois 60680-6416 or call our Development department at (312) 455-1499. Meanwhile,. I want to assure you that SNAP remains as committed to end clergy sex crimes and cover ups as ever. These are difficult times, but we will prevail together. 

Warm Regards,

Barbara's signature  
Barbara Blaine 
.DC sig 

enjoy yourself

Over chips and beer, with a couple of pitchers already gone, I think I might argue this:

The purpose and meaning (people are very keen for 'purpose' and 'meaning') of anyone's life is quite simple: You are here to enjoy yourself.

I can hear the silver-tongued gurus and teachers and other spiritual merchants reproving with what passes for humility, "Yes, but who are you?" blah, blah, blah. Here, have some beer, eat some chips!

My argument might run like this: You are here to enjoy yourself. If you're not enjoying yourself, something is wrong. If something is wrong, you want to correct it ... to make things 'better.' To 'improve.' And bit by bit, in whatever ways, you set out to 'improve.' Do or die -- give me the spiritual life!

And after banging your head against that impenetrable wall for long enough, you sit down for some beer and chips and friends ... and enjoy yourself. You may pay the puking, hangover price -- you may actually die before things ever get 'improved' ... but that is then and this is now.

What's the matter with now?

If you thought a beer hangover was bad, just try improving now.

crime and punishment

-- A study of Indian suicides by people who took micro-finance loans they could not pay back links lenders to some of the suicides. I wonder how long it will take before such a study is made in the upscale West.

-- Sarah Palin, once the air-head darling of the conservative world, was feeling the heat, apparently, before she quit her job as Alaska governor. She had been invited to play with the big boys when Republican presidential candidate John McCain tapped her as a vice-presidential pick. She accepted the invitation, but, like Icarus, seems to have flown too close to the sun.

-- The U.S. has decided to freeze the assets of known Yakuza organizations and/or other organized crime members. Japanese organized crime is likely to feel the pinch, I guess. Organized crime is a vile and violent world, but it is hard not to think of the approximate quote attributed to Honore de Balzac: "Behind every great fortune, there is a great crime." Personal, social, international ... where are the lines?

responsibility again

One thing that I am not very good at is accepting the fact that others will not do what they have said they will do. It makes me cranky, though I will say that age has sanded my edges a bit ... it's just par for the course. If someone says s/he will do something, I like to believe it. And then, when s/he doesn't, I feel let down. A promise is a promise in my mind. It's OK with me if someone changes course and takes responsibility for not doing what had been promised. But letting things just fade away into a hoped-for forgetfulness ... well, the edges are not so sharp as they once were, but I can't deny the fact that the edges still exist.

Not long ago, for example, at the suggestion of a friend, I wrote to a man who is well-placed at an Internet company. My friend suggested that this fellow might be willing to lend my son a hand. My son is studying Internet gizmology in college and I thought this fellow might give him a hand. The man wrote back saying he would indeed be willing to help, but that he was very busy and would get back to me. When he didn't, I sent one last request ... as unpushy as I could make it. And again he wrote to say he would help. And now the time has passed and my son's time-window has closed. Naturally, I am sorry I could not help my son in this way, but I am also forced to acknowledge my mild resentments.

So I re-encourage myself: Don't promise what you won't deliver. And if you do promise and don't deliver, then own up to it. Life is easier that way.

in the world of Judas Iscariot

In Christian mythology, Judas Iscariot was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus Christ and a man who betrayed the identity of his mentor to the authorities with a kiss ... that, and by accepting a bribe of 30 pieces of silver. Iscariot's sell-out is credited as the basis for the arrest and later crucifixion of Jesus. Needless to say, Judas is not a man who wins accolades when Christians hand out their Oscars.

As Wikipedia notes:

More broadly, a Judas kiss may refer to "an act appearing to be an act of friendship, which is in fact harmful to the recipient."
Yesterday, I spent a lot of time working on a short book that may or may not appear on the Internet. The book, "Remembering Nakagawa Soen Roshi," focuses on my Zen teacher's teacher's doings as recounted by his students. Bit by bit and page by page I was focused on the typographical errors, the font changes, the placement of text and a host of very petty details. It took hours and hours and required attention and more attention. By the time I finished, re-spellchecked it, said a prayer to the perfection gods, and sent it along for further transmission to the Internet, I was exhausted. But I had also been forced to read the book, entry by entry. It was not just commas that had to be right ... the substance needed attending to ... did it make sense ... and as a result, by the time I was done, my mind and heart were brimming with various bits and pieces of Zen lore, Zen appreciations, Zen joys, Zen sorrows, imaginative and elevating Zen mysteries ... it was all over me like halitosis.

Not for a nanosecond would I elevate Soen Roshi to some magical-mystery-tour heights of the kind sometimes accorded to Jesus. That would be disgusting and, worse, mistaken. But there was something to be heard in the book that was utterly human and touching -- people seeking their own peace and a man who did what he could to lend a hand. Utterly human, utterly humane. Soen did what he could to bring people around not to his truth, but to their own deeply-assured peace. That he did it from within a framework of Zen Buddhism was extraneous ... Zen Buddhism just happened to be his lot in life. The important part was the clear-headed peace and laughter that is any human being's birthright... a birthright that everyone senses and some make a serious effort to actualize. Right and wrong, good and bad are not so much the point. Peace is the point.

Not central and yet not peripheral to the appreciations of Soen's students and friends, there is a tale of betrayal. It whispers from between the lines... a disciple who sells out not just his teacher, but worse, sells out himself by taking his own version of 30 pieces of silver... sells out a peace that is verifiable for accolades and position that beckon so deliciously in spiritual endeavor. It is sadder than tears and yet ... which of us does not possess a Judas Iscariot or an Eido Shimano ... the one willing to offer what seems like a loving kiss when in actuality is merely confecting a twisted and self-serving heaven?

I am not trying to blame the Iscariots and the Shimanos of this world. And I certainly am not trying to excuse them on the basis that since everyone is blameworthy, their blame is less. I am trying to suggest that selling out, stopping short, finding a cozy nesting place from which to preach and prate, holing up in a world of belief and pontification ... it's very, very human and sad beyond naming. "Peace" simply is not peace. Blaming the war-mongers is not enough. Blaming and excoriating the snitches and poseurs is not enough ... any more than elevating and extolling the saints and saviors is enough.

Peace does not accede to such blandishments and refined corruptions.

To borrow from the book I was buried in yesterday and still stink of today, pure water is never impure. We may add pollutants of all sorts -- speaking of "virtue" and "enlightenment" and "compassion" and "emptiness" and "heaven" and "hell" for example -- but it is not the water that is impure. Water is just water no matter what the additions. Peace is just peace no matter what raiments we dress it up in. The additions are our own.

But the good thing about clothing something in one bit of finery or another -- or finding encouragements or discouragements -- is that what has been dressed can also be undressed. Waiting patiently and persistently beneath the refined or revolting add-ons is just the fact ... pure water and...


Take a sip. You won't regret it.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

"Republicans for Peace"

There's still work to do around here, but briefly catching my eye/mind:

-- In Dallas, a man's comic book collection sold for $3.5 million.

-- A nice BBC article addresses the recommended "eight hours of sleep" human beings 'require.'

-- I wonder if Republicans who tout themselves as deficit-conscious might like to don the mantle of peacemakers and help pass a law requiring that the United States could not go to war without first demonstrating that there was money to pay for it. A trillion-dollar piggy bank, perhaps, whose coffers would be supplemented by 20% per year, to account for inflation and the payouts expected by the wealthy. Such a poorly-defined law might account for the boys-with-toys needs the war-hungry display and simultaneously rein in the careless dispensing of "fear," as for example the use of words like "terrorism." Taxpayers would be stuck with the bill, but what else is new? At least their children might stand a better chance of living. "Republicans for Peace" -- how's that for an oxymoronic bumper sticker?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


I suppose a lot could be said about loyalty but the question that crossed my mind today was:

How can you be loyal to a person whose sole qualification seems to be expecting loyalty?

There are people like that.

I don't want to be one of them.

a biblical nudge to the 'Christian' candidates

I liked this guy's approach.

who are you?

If, right now, it's hard to know exactly who you are, just wait till you try to be somebody else.

And there's no point in obscuring the point further by claiming to know who you are.

lone-wolf, pack-wolf and other nonsense

In the practice of Buddhism -- or anyway Zen as I have known it -- there is sometimes reference to a "lone wolf" effort. Lone wolf practice seems to refer to individuals who practice outside the formats and rituals that have grown up around the supportive and vital realm of "sangha," the group or community that supports the "Dharma." Lone wolves go their own way, sometimes imagining that no ritual or format can adequately embrace or hem in the unlimited understanding they seek ... and sometimes claim to have attained.

I have known people who delight in their lone wolf practices in the same way a teenager might delight in pointing out the very real hypocrisies of an adult world. Look Ma, no hands! Buddhism encourages people to find out for themselves and not to grow lazy in a world of support that must invariably dissolve.

I have known people who can grow rigid as a Congregationalist at the first hint of lone-wolf apostasy. Their reasons seemed to vary: Sometimes it is a matter of maintaining their status as teachers within the organizations they head; sometimes they will point to the fact that Sangha is one facet of the Triple Treasure (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha) that Buddhism alludes to; and sometimes they will point to the unspeakable something-or-other that is an honest experience for anyone who has practiced intensively with a group ... it really cannot be captured in words, but anyone who has experienced it knows it is true.

The exchanges between these two points of view can be intense ... and, in the end, intensely boring. Nevertheless, I think these two points of view can crop up in any individual heart. Sometimes it's a real screaming match. Sometimes it's just a hovering doubt.

My gum-chewing question this morning is this:

Who is not a lone wolf ... which is another way of saying, who could possibly be a lone wolf?

Leaving Buddhism out of it for a moment, who has not been to a party or been surrounded with one or more loving friends and not felt a moment of utter loneliness, a sense that no matter how loving the scene, still there is no one who can break the crushing falls that can crop up in life? Sure, talk therapy helps and points, group hugs support and soothe, but in the end each clings to his or her own tenuous branch and ... well, it's lonely ... utterly lonely and the lack of meaningful connection is like salt on a wound.
Inside the protective shell, nested in the guts of things, a pearl.

My view is that experience cannot be shared in any ordinary sense. Experience cannot be shared in a social setting that may proclaim with a smug assurance, "sharing is caring." People can share their asses off and still feel utterly bereft. Altruism never quite fills the bill of putting separation to rest, of assuring some relief and release. Altruism may be better than an alternative selfishness ... but how much better?

Lone wolf or pack mentality ... it's a toughie.

And for my money what settles the case is a sit-down-shut-up-and-investigate practice. Literally. If intellect and emotion cannot address the issue, what can? Well, you can and I can ... with practice.

How could a lone wolf ever be alone? Literally -- how? The sky, the stars, the wind and water, the scents of this life's forests ... the idea of being alone is ludicrous.

How could a pack wolf ever be together, unseparated, consoled and warmed? Literally -- how? The idea of being together is as ludicrous as the idea of being alone. "Interconnectedness" may be good salesmanship, but it can't hold a candle to interconnectedness.

Well, it's not a topic that anyone could somehow out-think. It's not a topic which opens its arms to heart-felt prayers and lamentations.

But, as the oyster may reveal its pearl, so an unadorned practice -- setting aside lone-wolf and pack-wolf -- can open its shell and go about the business of this life ... to shine ... and enjoy yourself.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

finding an exit

Outside a dream last night, I don't have much and, even if I did, I don't want to waste energy on it. Instead, I hope to get the scut work on a series of recollections of Soen Nakagawa Roshi out of the way ... a chore that requires not imagination or rumination, but clerical determination ... fixing the extant memories of others so that, with luck, they can later make it onto the Internet. I'll work on that for the next few days. It takes as much energy as I've got.

The dream -- more of a fragment, actually -- was interesting to me in the sense that it recalled other dreams of the past, dreams in which I was in dim, murky and somewhat frightening basements. Basements, by some Freudian reckonings, are the places of substructure, foundation, and secrets. Basements are places in which to store fears and those items that need to be camouflaged or hidden, camouflaged and locked down.

Last night's basement seemed to be part of a New York City apartment block. It was well-lighted. There was useful gear here and there, but the place was neat and clean to the extent that any basement might be neat and clean. It was also very large, with corridors leading from one place to the next. I believe I started walking the corridors, looking for an exit, with a group of others, but a little at a time, the group disbursed. I was slower than others and they went on ahead. There was no feeling of abandonment -- it was just that people did things at their own speeds. Each went down one corridor or another, looking for a way to the outdoors. Occasionally I would catch sight of someone up ahead or pass by someone who was working in the basement. Up one corridor and down the next. But at one point, I realized that we were all just going around and around, passing the same places, the same potential but unfulfilled exits. It wasn't stupid or frustrating ... it was just what was happening. Finally, I came to a doorway to my right. I looked down a short corridor and could clearly see a turning to the left through which the light of the outdoors was filtering in. Good. I had found the exit. I looked down the corridor I was in and at some distance, I could see a woman turning left into yet another corridor ... an extension of our round-and-round journey. She looked back at me as I stood still near the door that led to the corridor at the end of which was the exit, the outside, the open air. There was no time to call out to her or at any rate I didn't: She looked back, saw me standing still, and disappeared into her own continuation. There was no longer anyone behind or in front of me. I decided to wait where I was until others came by ... I would point out the light and air. No big deal. The basement was OK -- functional, well-lighted and clean enough. It just wasn't the light and air. I didn't feel 'important' like some fellow rushing back into Plato's cave to praise the sun and demean the shadows ... not some bright bit of mythological Buddhist bodhisattva helping others out. I was just doing what I would do. There was no rush or need to be in a rush. So I waited ... and then I woke up.

And now on to the scut work.

Monday, February 20, 2012

a little perspective

Received in email:


"if you want something done right..."

"If you want something done right, do it yourself."

It's a good ol' saying, fraught with truth. It is true, right up to the moment when anyone actually does it, because at that point, as experience will show, it's not always possible to do it right. It is human nature to screw the pooch.

But if I do something wrong, there is the opportunity, with luck, to correct it.

When someone else does something wrong, I have no recourse. I can learn from my mistakes, but I have less opportunity to learn from someone else's.

Therefore, as far as I can see, it's a good ol' saying and one worth following: "If you want something done right, do it yourself."

Alternatively, of course, I could surrender the notions of right and wrong.

shifting gears

-- It appears that the attitude towards people who are convinced they are the wrong sex is finding wider ground. A report says that adults are starting to listen to children who have such a wrong-body conviction.

-- Lloyds Banking Group has decided to take back a part of the bonuses some of its top executives were in line for. I don't imagine a similar move will be made here in the U.S.

-- And a doctor's musings on the magical-mystery-tour expectations people can have about their own or someone else's death are probably worth considering.

"and one more thing..."

And one more thing....

Yesterday, I drove my older son back to college, a round trip of about 120 miles. The adventure took place in the early afternoon, a time when I generally take a short siesta. I was tired by the time I got home but managed to cook some meatloaf and rice for my younger son (who turns 18 today) and me.

It was after dinner -- about the time when a slow devolution towards sleep kicks in -- I got an email from a fellow who had once come here with an interest in Zen Buddhism, a fellow who had taken away the Zen books I wanted to get rid of several years ago. He sent along a piece of writing -- someone else's, he said -- and wondered if I would be willing to kick it into edited shape.

I skimmed the piece over -- something about a Kabuki play whose roots went back to the 18th century. But I was tired and my inability to say "no" was overcome. The subject matter didn't interest me, I felt no necessity to do work without getting paid and ... well, fatigue threw my social niceties into a cocked hat.

One more thing ... there always seems to be one more thing. The restful feeling that something is "done," that a particular set of actions is out of the way ... basically, it's a myth. But it is a myth I can subscribe to as well as the next person. Office workers complete one project or another; mediocre Buddhists attain enlightenment; the dishes get washed ... and somehow life is like Cinderella's wicked stepmother ... one more thing to do.

It's a poor habit and I doubt I will overcome it in this lifetime or any other. There is no "one more thing." There is just this thing ... do it or don't do it: Same stuff, different moment... or same moment, different stuff ... or something like that.

A poor habit.

And one more thing ....

Sunday, February 19, 2012

from birth to the grave

An email reminded me of this:


"It's a craft, not an art. And ... be yourself"

When I first conceived the notion of working in the news business, I was employed by a book publisher in New York. I really didn't know much about how the news business worked, so I called up a guy at the newspaper Newsday and asked him. He was generous enough to fill me in.

First of all, he told me, New York was the communications capital of the United States, but if I wanted to break in, I would first have to get three or four years of experience outside the city, then come back and apply with one of the big boys. He gave me a bunch of other pointers but concluded with words I have never forgotten. They related to the news business ... or any other walk of life:

"Just remember two things," he said. "It's a craft, not an art. And ... be yourself."

A craft is a function. It may have a goal, but it has no frills. Frills just get in the way of practicing an artful craft ... of which news-gathering is one ... just like carpentry or, come to that, playing piano or painting a picture. Whatever it is, let others call it art ... and practice your craft.

Be yourself is likewise imperative -- and initially daunting as hell. Who the hell am I? Am I my opinions or skin color or sex or passions or income or tastes or education or beliefs or agreement with others or ... who the hell am I? It's a daunting question which is so daunting that papering it over is easier than answering it ... or so it seems until papering it over just doesn't work any more. It's easy-peasy to say, "I know who I am" right up until the moment that anyone might admit with some sheepishness, "I really don't know."

And how can anyone know? How can anyone fulfill whatever imperative there is in "be yourself?" Well, my best guess is, practice your craft. Practice and pay attention. Set aside the trip wires of "art" and "beauty" and "virtue" ... and practice the craft that is your life. Practice and pay attention and one day you will get out of bed and know how to tie your shoes.


Watching a crescent moon move across the dawning sky this morning, there was something wonderful in it. It was complete, it was etched, and it required no belief. Belief always leaves something out and the dawn wasn't like that. But having been the beneficiary of this small, obvious teaching, I returned to my regularly-scheduled program ... ignorance and belief.

In politics, police investigation and news reporting, there is a bedrock encouragement to "follow the money" and this morning I woke up following the money, a belief system so ingrained that calling it a belief system can seem bizarre. Money ... and I was worried.

Specifically, my son's car had been dropped with Jose, the bodhisattva car mechanic, to check out why the engine light had come on. Sometimes such lights indicate nothing more than an electrical snafu, but sometimes they indicate something serious. I didn't like the idea of my son's being in some unspecified danger. So I took the car in. The engine light was minor. The brakes, however, needed fixing. The bill came to $400 ... which created a serious imbalance in the fixed income I live on. It would 'impact' my ability to pay the rent -- the mortgage I may be able to pay off before I die, but in the meantime requires monthly attention. Not for the first time, I found myself praying to some Tooth Fairy or Lottery God that somehow the mortgage might get paid off and life would be easier.

Everyone "does windows" in this life -- things that they would rather not do, but ... tough titty. Anyone who has or has had children knows this sense of setting aside an easier world in favor of a more constricting and constraining one. Phones, mail and money are things I would prefer not to address ... but they require addressing. Tough titty. And of course, like anyone else, I have gotten used to doing my chores ... until the moment when I really don't want to do them.

Money. A Shingon monk friend of mine once told me he never talked about money when it came to supporting his spiritual-center efforts. "I let others think of it for themselves," he said. And I guess there is some sense to it. Money is such an over-arching belief system that at some point, as with other beliefs, it is time to stop believing and take a look.

The crescent moon moving up in the East was a nice change from my belief-studded firmament. It was easy where I insisted on confusion and worry and wishfulness. The moon did not wish that $40,000 would plop into its mortgage lap. The moon felt no shame at worrying about a car for a teenager when others might give anything for a bit of bread or a bowl of rice. Imputing clarity to the crescent moon was just a fanciful idea that no self-respecting crescent moon would indulge in.

I wonder if the crescent moon is wistful about the lip-gnawing of one who worries about money. I doubt it, but wistfully, I wonder. Crescent moons don't strike me as stupid ... but you never know.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

shoot your computer ... and other tales of hard times

-- Serene psychologists may put their studied analyses to work, but I'm not sure they will ever be able to outflank the laughter and delight of burdened parents everywhere after a North Carolina father, disgusted by his 15-year-old daughter's Facebook complaints about her chores, took her laptop into the backyard and emptied his .45 into it. He put his actions on Youtube. His parting words before taking action: "... Kid, you've got it easy, way easy. It's about to get harder." All the analyses and tut-tutting in the world make me want to say, "Take two sissy pills and call me in the morning." Reproving dissection is like one of those lugubrious Ph.D. theses about "humor" -- explaining and asserting self-importance when laughter is plain as the nose on your face. Lord love a duck! Made my day.

-- Italy is gearing up to slap a multi-million-euro tax bill on the Vatican. Tax exemption of non-religious property (how they decide that should be interesting) is about to go belly up. And that brings into question the exemption for religious pastimes ... or anyway I think so.

-- Also in Italy, police scooped up about $6 trillion worth of fake U.S. Treasury bonds and securities. $6 trillion ... if you're going to be a crook, you might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb.

Friday, February 17, 2012


Ran across this bit of the Persian poet Rumi again today:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I'll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,

the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other

doesn't make any sense.

Rinzai ... take his advice at your peril

The Zen Buddhist teacher Rinzai was a crusty bastard. There he was in ninth-century China -- whacking the monks in his care, yelling at them and spouting all sorts of iconoclastic encouragements. Today, he is offered with a kind of jaw-dropping reverence that would doubtless have made him puke. People 'study' him and 'follow' him and 'quote' him and place all sorts of laurels at his long-dead feet. He was a 'great' man. Less frequently do they bother to make 'friends' with him ... another activity that would probably excite his roar of disgust.

Of course few, if any, people want to be Zen Buddhists, let alone submit to such a crabby expositor. But it seems to me that -- Zen Buddhism or no Zen Buddhism -- everyone seeks out a wisdom to inform their lives. Wealth, fame, excellence in science or stock-brokering or NASCAR driving ... there are always stars in the skies and stars in our eyes.

Not all pursuits work out perfectly. Actually, I am tempted to say that no pursuits work out perfectly... 'perfectly' being defined as the activity or philosophy or ritual or religion or soaring effort that will assure the peaceful relief that is always just out of reach. Everyone wants to be happy, perhaps, but few bother to gauge the price and effectiveness of their efforts. In order to do that, you would have to slow down and who has time to slow down in a life that flies by in an instant?

I marvel this morning that anyone might willingly slow down. Really, it's pretty amazing. Rare and amazing and yet life has a way of getting in our faces and forcing us to slow down. Everything's going well and someone near and dear dies. A cross-country trip is full of laughter and the car gets a flat. One assumption or another has a forever-and-ever quality in the mind ... only to be brought up short.

And when things get brought up short, when life seems to giggle at our presumptuousness, sometimes there is an antidote found in simplification, triage and a willingness to settle on what anyone really takes seriously. It may be as simple as a spatula.

Rinzai used to rake his monks over the coals ... much as life can rake anyone over the coals. To the best of my knowledge, he never used the word "asshole," but his gnawing, rug-burn encouragements could be brimming with such an epithet. The treacly and solemn add-on's of religion and spiritual fervor were forever in his gun sights. Rinzai was not a guy to mess with.

Using Buddhist terminology, for example, there was this:

Those who have fulfilled the ten stages of bodhisattva practice are no better than hired field hands; those who have attained the enlightenment of the fifty-first and fifty-second stages are prisoners shackled and bound; arhats and pratyekabuddhas are so much filth in the latrine; bodhi and nirvana are hitching posts for donkeys.
If he had been a Christian, Rinzai might just as well have said, "All your bullshit about God and heaven and hell and goodness ... man, get a clue! Stick it up your ass!" But Rinzai was not a Christian and he wasn't a stock broker and he wasn't a NASCAR driver. He just happened to be a Zen Buddhist monk. So he used Zen-speak or monk-speak ... and he was a crusty bastard in much the same way anyone might find themselves forced by a giggling life to be pretty crusty on their own behalf ... choosing a way to assure happiness and then going the distance... no more half-measures, no more chummy analyses or philosophies or spiritual mumblings or lying down for overwhelming sorrow. No more whining or extolling. No more improvements! No more relying on others, be they wise men or idiots. Screw it! Do it! Thus spake your Dutch uncle and mine.

As I say, I think it is pretty amazing that anyone might take up such a challenge. On the other hand, how could they not? As the refrigerator-magnet philosophers suggest, "Your life is so difficult that it has never been tried before."

And hand-in-hand with that challenge, Rinzai's words float gently into my mind ... words enough to suffice for a lifetime ... "Your whole problem," he once told his monks, "is that you do not trust yourselves enough."

Even when you haven't got the foggiest notion of who you might actually be ... trust yourself. And if that doesn't work, trust yourself anyway. Heaven and hell are minor matters for minor players. Where the spotlight is brightest and where minor players are forced to take their leave ... trust yourself.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

in an enlightened time

The Palace of Versailles was the seat of French power at a time of intellectual enlightenment. There were chapels, gardens, great gilded halls, royal apartments and a capacity to shelter and entertain literally thousands of people. Today, people pay serious money for the furniture from the era of Louis XIV.

And yet, within those vast and opulent halls there was not a single toilet or any facility for going to the bathroom. People were forced to piss and shit and puke in the stairwells, which was one reason that extravagant amounts of perfume were employed.

So much for enlightenment.

Am I wrong or merely cynical in thinking that grand and sweeping accomplishments -- works of vast beauty and breath-taking vision -- frequently, if not always, leave a similar stench in their wake?

fingernails on my blackboard

Passed along in email:

the grandmother effect

Red meat, beer and brownie mix -- I return home from a supermarket run.

My older son will be home from college this evening, and I haven't got a fatted calf to kill.

Suddenly, I am someone's grandmother.

changing times

-- In Russia, a mayor has banned toys in a demonstration for clean elections. Their inclusion of toys was an activist effort to get around unsanctioned demonstrations. 200 toys had been expected to take part.

-- In the United States, funding that would allow for the screening of toxic produce has been slashed. If enough people get sick, perhaps they won't swell the ranks of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

-- Interracial marriage is on the rise. Hitler and the Ku Klux Klan must be spinning in their graves. Suddenly "race" is not so clear-cut.

-- And Moody's, one of the credit rating agencies whose credibility was thrown into dubious relief during the 2008 financial crash, has warned that it may cut the credit ratings of 17 global and 114 European financial institutions. How Moody's warnings today are more credible than they were when it was pointed out that the institution was making money by dealing in the instruments it rated beats the shit out of me.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

church sex abuse demonstration tomorrow

Anyone in the neighborhood who might like to take part ... I received this press release this morning:

Wednesday, February 15, 2012
Four Christian Brothers from a NJ/NY metro Catholic high school to be exposed as abusers of boys Christian Brothers declare bankruptcy to shield their secrets and cut their losses
Victims of Christian Brothers have a short time to come forward and report their abuse. Changing laws in NY/NJ will help victims and expose child predators

A sidewalk demonstration by victims of childhood sexual abuse with signs and photos which will:
REVEAL the names of four religious order abusers who taught at a northern New Jersey high school and other schools in the NY metropolitan area; SHOW how school and religious order officials kept the information secret for years; EXPLAIN how the religious order that owns and runs the school declared bankruptcy to protect itself from embarrassment and abuse trials; SHOW how bills before the NJ/NY legislatures can expose child abusers.

Outside Bergen Catholic High School, 1040 Oradell Avenue, Oradell, NJ

Thursday, February 16, 2012 at 10:30 AM

Three or four victims of child sex abuse, including a Maine man who is a victim of a Bergen Catholic High School Christian Brother. Also attending will be a former Christian Brother who was abused by Christian Brothers and who founded a non-profit charity that assists victims of child abuse, Road to Recovery, Inc.

The Congregation of Christian Brothers (the Irish Christian Brothers or ICBs), declared bankruptcy in April, 2011, to avoid embarrassing public trials in dozens of child sexual abuse lawsuits in the Seattle area. They are also facing more than 250 allegations of abuse in Canada. -sexual-abuse-claims-cause-US-Christian-Brothers-to-filefor-bankruptcy--121020724.html
A judge has set a deadline of August 1, 2012 for victims of Christian Brothers to come forward and report their abuse. Attendees will encourage other victims to come forward and report their abuse. The Christian Brothers have run schools and child agencies in the NY/NJ metropolitan area since the early 1900s, including Bergen Catholic High School, Oradell, NJ since 1955.
Research has uncovered that Bergen Catholic High School had or has a number of abusive Christian Brothers on its staff. Victims will expose the abusers’ names and histories to warn the community and alumni of the danger that existed or exists at the school. Also discussed will be the laws in NJ and NY that have been proposed to give victims of sexual abuse their day in court.

Robert M. Hoatson, Ph.D., Co-founder and President, Road to Recovery, Inc.;
862-368-2800 –


making excuses

Excuses are interesting ....

A passionate sincerity is sometimes employed as an excuse for muddled effectiveness.

A dispassionate point of view is sometimes employed as a means of not acknowledging complicity ... an excuse for keeping our hands clean.

Without the passion, no one gets off the dime.

Without a patient dispassion and investigation, problems seldom find a fruitful solution.

One or the other alone is self-serving and full of excuses.

Excuses are a good warning sign. Excuses seek control.

How well does 'control' actually accord with reality?

Where there are excuses, something is out of kilter. Life doesn't make excuses. Should we?


Age and experience teach a certain endurance. Expectations become less impressive. It's content enough, but it's also a bit blah. The tapestry is woven with friends who say they will do something and then don't, products that promise and don't deliver, and a panoply events that are largely "almost." The element of surprise and outrage and excitement dims. What is pleasing is pleasing in small ways. What once might have been wowsers is reconfigured and quieter.

Yesterday, for Valentine's Day, I received a bar of chocolate. I love chocolate, but have grown accustomed to various mediocre versions ... the stuff that comes off the candy-counter shelves and passes for chocolate. But this bar of chocolate (Lindt, Intense Orange, Dark) purely blew my socks off. The label touted "excellence" and for once the word had some meaning in my mouth. It really was "excellent." How often does that happen? Wowsers!

"Excellent" is a strange quality. In ordinary terms, it compares one thing with another and comes out on top. It is desirable and often praise-worthy. But what is it that makes anything "excellent?"

My best guess is that what is excellent puts a period on my sentence and wipes out any further sense of craving. It is a cold glass of water on a hot day. It is a kiss after long separation. It is a god that is so perfectly god that "god" cannot enter -- "god" does not compute and that failure to compute is purely true and a thank-god relief.

"Excellence" is simply what is ... coupled with my smile.

Talk about "chocolate!"


It beggars the mind to imagine 272 inmates killed during a fire at a jail in Honduras.


Reading a story about a boy genius, I wonder why it is that the 'extraordinary' so frequently skips over the 'ordinary.'

What stupidities and sorrows attend on the apparently-joyful wonders of genius?

What difficulties raise their heads for the winner of some enormous lottery?

Perhaps such questions are held at arm's length because what is 'extraordinary' seems extraordinary ... and that is delightful.

a little news, a little laughter

Every morning, more or less, I read the news or at least skim it. AP, Reuters, BBC, Al Jazeera on occasion and, with decreasing frequency due to its sloppy Internet presentation, The Washington Post. I haven't read The New York Times in years: Its pedestals and bias don't appeal much.

But I always forget The Onion, a satirical presentation that strains at stool, but at least gives it a shot. In times of extremity, it's nice to laugh ... or feel forced to offer a rueful smile. This morning, for example, a friend sent along a link for an article on breeding moderate Republicans in captivity and while reading that, I noticed one on Iran's expressing fears about America's nuclear-weapons potential.

A little news, a little laughter -- it beats solemnity.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

the awful agreements of spiritual endeavor

One of the most disagreeable and debilitating aspects of God -- a word I will use as a shorthand for the ineffable in any spiritual tradition -- is the notion that human beings need to agree about God in order not to be debilitated.

Traditions, of course, make their money and owe much of their existence to this cookie-cutter agreement, but instilling or supporting the notion that everyone will turn out as plaster-replica saints is something that adherents need to see clearly ... and leave behind.

In particular, I think of those adherents who -- perhaps inescapably -- measure themselves against one guru or another, one saintly person or another, one hero or heroine or another, one lofty idea or another. Such measuring may inspire and draw people forward, but there comes a time when, assuming anyone is serious about his or her questing heart, the business of becoming 'like' anything whatsoever will be a greater debility than any former debility ever was.

Adherents may work their asses off to clarify and set aside habits of greed, anger and delusion. For those inclined, it's a very good effort. But imagining that such an effort is to advance the cause of knowing or actualizing God (just like Jesus, just like Buddha, just like Mohammad) is, in the end, pig swill. And getting together with others who hold similar notions ... while it may serve as a tentative inspiration and support, still, imagining that every chocolate chip cookie will be exactly the same as every other saintly chocolate chip cookie is a basis for war, not peace.

So a bit at a time, I think, there is a need to wean ourselves from our facile agreements. God is just plain more interesting than our agreements about him/her/it. Take a clue from the world as it appears in front of your nose. Is there any place or time or circumstance that is precisely the same as the place or time or circumstance that preceded it? Is there ever a chocolate chip cookie that is precisely like any other chocolate chip cookie.

God is not a box of lock-step chocolate chip cookies. Isn't God more like the "yum" of any and all chocolate chip cookies? I think so. And I think that without the "yum," chocolate chip cookies would lose the usefulness and delight. It's a bit like the old Christian nudge: "Imagining that going to church makes you a Christian is like standing in a garage imagining you are a car."

Let's not imagine that agreement and spiritual life have anything significant in common.

Let's practice our "yum."

American slavery (1865-1945)

Manufacturers who often wear the same American-flag lapel pins that politicians do (and with the same self-serving effect) appear to be feeling the downside effect of 'out-sourcing' and are considering bringing some of their jobs back from India and China and Mexico and other places where labor is cheap but quality and delivery can be shoddy.

"We see the opportunity to bring jobs -- certain jobs, not every job -- back" said General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt. 

"Certain" jobs ... not "every job." Business is in business for money. Any reference to love of country comes in a distant second, though the desire to be seen as 'American' behooves a businessman seeking favors and accolades in Washington and in the mirror. Money is money. Where it comes from is a matter that both business and consumers ignore with ease.

Last night on TV, there was a show ("Slavery by Another Name") about slavery (1865-1945) in America -- a slavery that helped fuel the Civil War, led to the Emancipation Proclamation, enjoyed a brief respite after the Civil War, and then was reinstituted in southern states through the simple expedient of rewriting the laws so that vast numbers of black people could be jailed for minor offenses. Once blacks were jailed (for things like vagrancy), the states rented out their prisoners to a variety of businesses, including such giants as U.S. Steel. By renting out these prisoners, the states found a revenue stream that had been cut off with the abolition of slavery and businesses found a labor supply that was far less uppity than a free-man workforce. Black men 'disappeared' in ways that would do a South American dictatorship proud. Pleas to the president of the United States were (as with Teddy Roosevelt) addressed half-heartedly and then sank into a maw of collective forgetfulness. Business was simply too important, too woven into national need. Slavery was necessary because disentangling its cruelties from a world of need and greed was impossibly complex and politically suicidal. Whipping, lynching and a supposition that blacks were somehow inferior became infused in the culture. But business was booming.

Like the German companies (I.G. Farben, Krupp, Bayer, Daimler-Benz, etc.) that employed concentration camp prisoners during World War II, American business was, and probably remains, willing to turn a blind eye to the costs of doing cheap business. Poverty and its attendant slaveries produces a vast pool of menial labor ... expendable and replaceable labor. I doubt if there is a country or perhaps businessman in the world that does not employ some version of this tactic.Business is about money. But its financial costs hardly begin to tally its costs.

The vileness of institutional slavery is so vast and so rooted in human greed that yowling about it rivals screaming at the stars. Silence is not enough ... and yowling is not enough either.

The best I can figure is this: "Don't YOU do that!"

Monday, February 13, 2012

Rule Number 476


Any person who cannot laugh about his or her religion or spiritual persuasion shall be forbidden to have one.

the chemistry exam


The following is old and probably a hoax, but I enjoy reading it every time. And since it was passed along again today....
 Bonus Question: Is Hell exothermic (gives off heat) or endothermic (absorbs heat)?

The answer by one student was so 'profound' that the professor shared it with colleagues, via the Internet, which is, of course, why we now have the pleasure of enjoying it as well
Most of the students wrote proofs of their beliefs using Boyle's Law (gas cools when it expands and heats when it is compressed) or some variant. One student, however, wrote the following:
First, we need to know how the mass of Hell is changing in time. So we need to know the rate at which souls are moving into Hell and the rate at which they are leaving. I think that we can safely assume that once a soul gets to Hell, it will not leave. Therefore, no souls are leaving. As for how many souls are entering Hell, let's look at the different religions that exist in the world today.
Most of these religions state that if you are not a member of their religion, you will go to Hell. Since there is more than one of these religions and since people do not belong to more than one religion, we can project that all souls go to Hell. With birth and death rates as they are, we can expect the number of souls in Hell to increase exponentially. Now, we look at the rate of change of the volume in Hell because Boyle's Law states that in order for the temperature and pressure in Hell to stay the same, the volume of Hell has to expand proportionately as souls are added.
This gives two possibilities:
  1. If Hell is expanding at a slower rate than the rate at which souls enter Hell, then the temperature and pressure in Hell will increase until all Hell breaks loose.
  2. If Hell is expanding at a rate faster than the increase of souls in Hell, then the temperature and pressure will drop until Hell freezes over.
So which is it?
If we accept the postulate given to me by Teresa during my Freshman year that, 'It will be a cold day in Hell before I sleep with you,' and take into account the fact that I slept with her last night, then number two must be true, and thus I am sure that Hell is exothermic and has already frozen over. The corollary of this theory is that since Hell has frozen over, it follows that it is not accepting any more souls and is therefore, extinct......leaving only Heaven, thereby proving the existence of a divine being which explains why, last night, Teresa kept shouting 'Oh my God.'

creating and undoing Valentine knots

Tomorrow is Valentines Day -- a time of chocolate, cards, sentiment and overpriced flowers.

Mark it on your calendar. February 14.

February ....

Statistically, February is not just the month of Valentines. It is also the month when most divorces occur.

Is this coincidence or serendipity, good news or bad? Is it apples and oranges ... or just apples?

Someone is probably making money from this coincidence, but I am not.


There used to be -- and maybe there still is -- a popular pastime for single men and women: Speed-dating. Speed-dating involved going to a location at which singles would be paired up at tables and given three or four minutes to talk and decide if they wanted to see their companion again. At the end of the allotted time, a signal would be given and everyone would switch tables ... and repeat the process. By the end of the session, with luck, everyone would have discovered someone with whom they might like to spend more time. Or not.

Yesterday, as I went out to the car, I saw my neighbor Joe across the street and walked over to say hello. He was sporting a full, white beard and I told him it made him look good. "People say it makes me look wiser," he said with a grin. We jawed briefly about how strange it was that anyone might judge another person by his looks ... nothing heavy -- just some rueful observations. And then Pat, Joe's wife, came out of the house all dressed up. I complimented her and asked if they were headed for church. "Yes," said Joe, "and we're late." And that was the end of our speed-date.

A two-minute get-together that spurred some thoughts about judging others by how they looked. A two-minute get-together that left me puzzled at my own ignorance ... at how peculiar I thought it was that anyone might go to church. Not bad or good, just peculiar and interesting in the same way I might be puzzled by stamp-collecting since I do not collect stamps.

And the fact that I found it peculiar was itself peculiar. I too had had times in my life when I got up in the wee-early hours of the day and trekked to a Zen center in New York for a couple of hours of practice. And yesterday, talking to Joe, I was perhaps 45 minutes away from going out to the zendo to do a little meditation ... incense, bowing, sitting down cross-legged, focusing the mind, however ineffectually ... how did this vary from going to church? And yet going to church struck me as peculiar. What for? Somehow, at the same time I could parse it intellectually, my intellectual answers struck me as thin tea ... explaining nothing at the same time as they explained well enough.

Maybe life is just one speed-date after another -- answering some questions while posing others. Second after second, there is some new speed-date to consider ....

Maybe I'll see you again.

Or maybe not.

life according to the what-if's

After the Sept. 11, 2001, air attacks on the World Trade Towers, Pentagon, etc., the United States was first in line promoting and promulgating the use of the word "terrorism." The country created a Department of Homeland Security -- a multi-billion-dollar industry to fend off the future. Countries around the world jumped on the "terrorism" band wagon, each with its own definition and each having found a stamp of approval for violent actions against ... well, against damned near anything that opposed a powerful status quo. The U.S., once rightfully considered the 'greatest country in the world' invaded Iraq after its most powerful men and women painted a picture of 'terrorist' potential ... what if these insane people attacked again as the 'terrorists' of 9/11 had? No longer was it sufficient to go to war with those who attacked. Now it was OK to attack those who might attack. And to date, no one has really defined what, precisely, constitutes "terrorism." It is enough to say the word to give one action or another legitimacy.

It sounded and sounds good -- "terrorism." Flags flap in the breeze and bands play its tunes. Who dies or is maimed is not so important as a limp-wristed label like "terrorism." And the damage that is done is not only what is visible and, often, obscene ... there is the damage within: A careless word uttered with sincerity gnaws at the very country whose flag anti-terrorists wave. With a bureaucracy as large as the Department of Homeland Security -- billions of dollars, lots of important jobs -- it is hard to see how anyone might pull back from this arena of ill-considered and often hysterical thinking.

But the gnawing continues ... it's hard to tell which is more frightening, more demeaning, more dictatorial -- the groups dedicated to "terror" or the ones who point them out and round them up.

Opening statements are due today in a Detroit courtroom where a Midwest militia is accused of plotting to overthrow the government of the United States. Was the Hutaree militia a spearhead initiative with mayhem on its mind or was it a bunch of armed good ol' boys full of boastful bullshit? No bullets flew, no wounds were bound, no bodies buried ... but the government asks a question masked as an assertion: "What if they had?" What if these guys had actually carried out what they talked about? What if "terrorism" had become a reality?

In libraries, the government takes note of book-reading habits. What-if rentals portended a sinister intent? And what if that intent were carried out? Reading up on how to make a fertilizer bomb ... hey, what reason does anyone have to do that unless, perhaps, they actually planned to do it ... blow up a building somewhere. It has happened before, so ... let's nip it in the bud.

Little and large the terrorist mentality takes hold. Little and large, ordinary citizens find themselves unable to exercise the rights once envied by the world -- thought, assembly, association, speech. Little and large, thoughtful and sometimes nefarious groups find themselves defending the same ground... the Ph.D. and the tattooed biker are squeezed into the same corral: Don't think naughty thoughts. Little and large, the United States oozes towards a Middle Eastern model of sharia ... the Middle East -- a place where no one blanches at the idea of a Religious Police Force.

Who is the terrorist? Anyone can ask the question and in asking it assert an as-yet-undefined danger. And as the fear rises, the unwillingness to reflect on what is undefined grows stronger: "You know what terrorism is! Just look around you!"

Joseph Goebbels and the Republican stalwarts are intimate partners ... and the country goes begging. Not that the Democrats have a seamless record either, but they are less obviously in love with war and other boy toys.

What if ... what if ... what if ....

What about thoroughly examining the what-if's.... or even a life without what-if's?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Kurt Vonnegut on the arts

Passed along in email:

... Go into the arts. I'm not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven's sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something. -- Kurt Vonnegut


story time

Once upon a time, at a Zen Buddhist center I attended, a group of us thought it might be nice to have an open house ... food and drink and music and conversation for anyone who was curious about Zen practice but a little unsure how they felt about the austere silences of the meditation hall.

As a member of the group, I made the proposal to the man who was leading the center at the time, an important man who loved his importance. After I made my pitch, he commented disparagingly, "Everyone comes when there is food." It was a slap in the face, a suggestion that food and drink and music and conversation were not really serious matters, matters as serious as the seriousness which needed to be applied to zazen or seated meditation. This was flimsy shit when compared to the search for enlightenment or understanding or peace of mind.

Everyone comes when there is food. Of course they do. Of course people enter through inconsequential doors as a means of seriousing-up in their lives. Everyone begins with lies as a means of addressing the truth they seek. What other fucking choice is there?

Anyway, we had the party and lots of people came and whether they ever went further with Zen practice I really don't know. It was a fun party, the food was good, people danced ... all within the confines of the Zen center that was littered with altars and statues and a kind of studied cleanliness.

Sometimes I think stories are like that. Telling a tale about people in a Zen center who decide to throw a party is more inviting, more accessible, than diving head-first into some disquisition about "attachments" or "delusions" or "compassion" or "enlightenment." Sure, there may come a time when such disquisitions excite a similar delight, but in the meantime, stories about actual-factual people keep matters on the ground in the mind. People -- people like me -- had a party and danced and ... well, I can sink my teeth into that and feel a connection. Whether there will be a further connection -- a willingness to investigate and make an effort -- well, that's up in the air ... possible, but not mandatory.

Stories dance and eat and smile and invite. They may lie like bandits, but their lies hold out, as always, a potential for willingness and effort. Or not. No matter.

Stories can be as tasty as potato chips. Aside from a rising cholesterol, what's wrong with that? People decide for themselves when and how to serious-up, when to forsake nosh food and get to the main course. Rigid imperatives, important shit, are only as important as the consent that individuals offer.

For all that, I do get further and further from a willingness to tell the stories that I know are delicious.

Everyone comes when there is food.

Of course they do.


the senility of the old, the senility of the young

It is easy to overlook the obvious and in fact there is probably no high-ground virtue in remembering it, but still those who are rhapsodized as 'wise' counsel others to "stop and smell the roses" -- pay attention to the obvious.

One of the obvious pastimes in today's world is the use of the cell phone. These gadgets, as far as I can see, are a lot more than phones. Owners can send text messages to each other. They can consult what are called "social networks" like Facebook and Twitter. They can engage with the Internet. They can create and send photos. And, if you judge by the number of people walking down Main Street paying rapt attention to something held in a hand, they have found a friend without whom they would be bereft.

Old folks may despair of the latest gadgetry, but that's partly based on and advancing case of their own laziness and senility.

And it was "senility" that popped up in my mind this morning as a fine descriptor. Roughly, the word "senile" is defined as " mentally or physically infirm with age." The definition does not say what age. It just notes infirmity that may accord with age. Hence, in my mind, anyone at any age may be described as "senile." The senility of the old. And, when it comes to cell phone use, the senility of the young. Senility is not a matter of age; it is a matter of infirmity.

And of what does infirmity consist? It consists of inability. Among the old, it may be an inability to walk, inability to remember, inability to leap tall buildings at a single bound. And among the young, if cell phones are any indicator, it is the inability to see that what is promoted as a means of social connection is in fact a means of driving people apart ... away from the very connection that is asserted.

This is not intended as some wily or cranky or jealousy-strewn criticism of the young ... the kind of bullshit that allows the infirm elderly to take delight in lines like, "youth is wasted on the young." It is to suggest that senility, at any age, is an unwillingness or inability to really investigate anything ... to give a whole-hearted love to any topic or person, to be overcome with delight or despair in the far reaches of one living topic or another. Imagining, for example, that 141-word text messages actually constitute a social connection ... well, it's not evil, but it can be profoundly stupid. And such habits, if taken seriously and without reflection, can lead further and further from that within that longs for wholeness and peace.

On the one hand, there is nothing really wrong with this obvious trend -- the hour upon hour of consulting this gizmo in the palm of the hand. But on the other hand, to the extent that it leads away from an in-depth look at something -- at anything that wins your heart and soul -- it has a senile, infirm feel to it.

There is something healthy in this life about loving something ... of being, as the French might say, "fou" for a particular person or topic. In this crazed and perhaps crazy realm, all thought of holding back or seeing things another way ... forgetaboutit! Love is blind and it is a good thing to find something worth being blind for ... to fall in love, to go the distance so that ... you can fall out of love ... know at least one thing from muzzle to butt plate, to go the course that is miles longer than a simple bias or opinion or 141-word text.

Love it! Hold on tight-tighter-tightest! Bore your friends with it! But stay the course until what is held tight-tighter-tightest simply lets go. Don't let it go ... don't push the river ... and let it let you go. Let it become obvious and easy, a matter that can be frivolous or serious as you choose. Become senile in its realm because, although the senile may feign contentment in Shakespeare's "'tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all," you can know from experience that there never was anything to hold or lose ... know it and be content.

Start with senility ... and then get smart. Once you get smart, sending text messages and relying on a hand-held device is not quite so stupid.

Life is not a bunch of self-serving short-hand. On the other hand, it is not a bunch of self-serving long-hand either. Life is just obvious, don't you think?