Wednesday, October 31, 2012

evolution and devolution

OK, evolution and devolution are not two things: They are part and parcel of the same thing... same guy, different clothes.

Nevertheless, having been nourished on an evolution-diet, it is somehow difficult to get accustomed to devolution, that other shoe that is always dropping.

Child evolves into adult. Employment turns to success. Love turns to assumption. Supermarket shopping becomes supper on the table.

And a weak vocabulary, with luck, gets stronger (assuming it doesn't get stalled on "awesome" or "s/he goes").

For me, however, the words are slipping away like friends at a party ... disappearing through the door as if bound for a more exciting get-together or some more-receptive dwelling place. Suddenly, the word I am looking for is no longer there and equally suddenly the sentences, "I feel great" and "I feel astral-projection" do not seem all that different. The meaningless and the meaningful carry, in one brief second or another, an equal weight. It may be insane, but somehow it makes sense.

Evolution or devolution, who am I to complain?

new and improved Buddhism

In my neck of the woods, a Korean Zen teacher, Subul Sunim, will be giving a talk on Monday at nearby Smith College. I know this because I got an email informing me of the event. The email tried to wrap up the topic to be discussed in this way:

He will be talking about his new technique for catalyzing enlightenment, which he has had remarkable success introducing to a large spectrum of lay practitioners.

A "new technique."

I know there are people who may be drawn to such possibilities or statements, but I guess it shows how far out of the loop I am when I read such descriptions and run for the mental hills.  I mean no disrespect to this teacher or any other and I do realize that advertising has its role in spiritual life, but this sort of eyewash gibberish leaves me colder and crankier than a wet cat in a snowstorm.

Any "new technique," assuming it will have a happy outcome, is going to require the same blood, sweat and tears that the 'old' techniques required back when they were in their advertising phase.

I would love to be proved wrong about improvements, but until I am, please pardon my (politely-put) skepticism.

No-sweat Buddhism inspires no-value understanding.

Reuters photos

From a Reuters slideshow:
Nudist protest in San Francisco

Horse auction in Australia

Cell phone in Beijing

After escaping Myanmar

eat your bananas, dear

A report suggests that as global warming gains a greater footing, what are currently dietary staples may have to take a back seat.

Maize, rice and wheat will be affected as temperatures rise ... and the lowly potato, which finds cooler temperatures hospitable, may also be in for a change.

The big winner in this projected scenario?

Eat your bananas, dear.

China's one-child policy

A Chinese think tank -- and it is hard to believe that those in power didn't order up the 'research' -- has proposed that the nation drop its wildly unpopular one-child-per-family rule and allow some provinces to implement a two-child policy in the near term ... and no nationwide restrictions whatsoever by 2020.

Besides the personal outrage the policy has engendered, there have also been economic and other kinds of chaos that devolved from the law, the report argues.

With three kids of my own, why is it that I somehow breathe a sigh of relief?

free speech

On television last night, two of my favorite things coalesced into a single sitting.

The news program "Frontline" is, for my money, as close as anyone is likely to get these days to what the word "journalism" means or once meant. Yes, it requires an attention span longer than a Tweet, and yes, it is not perfect, but for the moment, the show seems willing to expend resources in an effort to parse and present intelligent depictions of complex and sometimes infuriating subjects.

Last night's program, "Big Sky, Big Money," (sorry, I can't find a link that lacks the advertising clutter)  took up a second favorite thing -- the state of Montana and its ballsy challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling that I wrote about in January. As I wrote then:

Montana seems to remember the impetus of their 1912 law ... the same impetus that is playing itself out today ... big time. In that year, "the State of Montana and its government were operating under a mere shell of legal authority." Copper barons wheeled and dealed and, as Mark Twain said of one of them, the man was "said to have bought legislatures and judges as other men buy food and raiment."
Montana's law is a straight-shooter, stating among other things that a "corporation may not make ... an expenditure in connection with a candidate or a political party that supports or opposes a candidate or a political party." Lawmakers these days might take an English lesson from those earlier times. Corruption was just too easy without some plain-spoken barrier.

"Frontline" and Montana -- two of my faves. And implicit within them is the question of free speech.

Sometimes I wonder why, on the Internet, I may be expected to believe a man or woman who has nerve enough to post an opinion or rejoinder and yet is unwilling to append his or her own name. Excuses may abound, but I think the "anonymous" or pen name assertions lose their oomph in direct relationship to the cowardice of those willing to express them.

Self-serving cowardice and manipulative corruption are not just for corporations.

I guess I'd better sign this .... adam fisher

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Death With Dignity Act

Just wrote a letter-to-the-editor about a ballot question due to be voted on Nov. 6 -- the Death With Dignity Act.

I agree with the Gazette editorial (10/30/12) that gingerly supports the passage of Question 2, the Death With Dignity Act, on Election Day.

I do not support it because I am 72 or because I have any intention at present to avail myself of its legal permissions. I support it in part because I think the circumstances of the aging and the infirm do not deserve to be overridden by the moralities of those who claim to know better.

At 93, my mother once said to me without any whimpering, "I'd die if I could, but I don't know how." She was neither ill nor in pain at the time, but her body was old, her hearing was going, her sight did not allow her to read, and she had lost much physical mobility. The statement and the sentiment it expressed were not a matter of sorrow or a plea for relief. Rather, they were statements of fact: Old age is not for sissies.

To my mind, there are too many sissies involving themselves in what, after all, is a matter of personal choice ... perhaps the last significant choice a person has left. Doctors and those with 'religious' inclinations are free to steer clear of the proposed legal format. But I think those would-be arbiters should ask themselves whether the virtue of their positions were not causing harm in the name of their own self-serving 'good.' What greater expression of love for the dying could there be than, "I wish you what you wish."

I will vote for Question 2.

rx for childhood maladies

This morning, all the usual rituals were put on hold while I accompanied my son for a walk-in visit to the doctor. My son's throat was hurting in a big way, so off we went. The doctor diagnosed strep throat and wrote a prescription for the antibiotic amoxicillin, which we then filled and returned home.

The whole adventure put me in mind of a couple of nationwide upgrades I have imagined on behalf of America's children:

1. At birth, every child would be sent home from the hospital with a five-gallon or 5,000-tablet supply of amoxicillin. Since the antibiotic is so frequently handed out to children with maladies, this would save the number of trips to the doctor.

2. Likewise at birth, every child would have a $1,000 savings bond deposited in a local bank. With luck, the bond would accrue interest over time and provide at least some payments to a shrink ... you know, the shrink every kid needs when s/he starts discovering the profound wounds inflicted by his or her 'dysfunctional' parents.

looking for the naked women

The American radio raconteur Garrison Keillor once observed that the only reason men go to art museums is "to see naked women."

Whether or not anyone agrees with this wry assessment of male aesthetics, still, it is an assessment that can arouse a smiling agreement in principle: How often does anyone, male or female, do one thing in hopes of accomplishing something else? It seems to be human nature.

The woman applies perfume or the man applies after-shave lotion because ...
The well-heeled businessman buys an expensive car because ...
The spiritual aspirant performs his or her rituals because ...

The list of examples can be spun out endlessly.

There is nothing inherently naughty or bad about it, but it does raise the question of what things might be like without some secondary or secret agenda.

What would it be like to go to an art museum, period?

What would it be like to perform a spiritual exercise without secretly or not so secretly longing to see naked women?

Monday, October 29, 2012

holiday for the techno-addicted?

A day of rest for the techno-addicted?

A day unplugged?

A time without a cell phone?

A life that is unconnected, if only for a little while, from the dash and dazzle and distances created by all the 'social' networks?

A little at a time, people seem to be taking the challenge and risking the delirium tremens that all addicts must go through.

"There's a huge sense of relief," Rollman says. "It is a liberating feeling to walk out of one's door and not have your cellphone in your pocket."
"I'm a better friend when I don't have my phone in my hand," says Jones. 

Romney's vision

Pointed out by James Ford and worth reiterating:

And then of course there's always, "Mitt Romney Style."

spiritual breakthrough

Once upon a time, a time when I was pretty intensely involved in Zen practice, I had what might be called a spiritual breakthrough ... a day/moment when there was a sharp and completely compelling revision in understanding.

The understanding landed on me like a piano dropped from of a third-story window. The environment in which it occurred was entirely ordinary, but the piano that hit me had all the qualities of something extraordinary.

The overt expressions of this breakthrough were palpable: After having been outside, I went home, sat on the couch and was wracked by alternating bouts of uncontrollable laughter and uncontrollable tears. I thought I might be going insane and at the same time thought my state was somehow, inexplicably, entirely sane. It was nutty for sure. It was undeniable for sure.

In the midst of all this, I couldn't find any handholds. It was as if the assumption of gravity had been abruptly withdrawn.

I called my mother.

"The ego is scared," she said evenly. "Take back some dirt. Watch TV or something."
Later, when I told the Japanese man whom I thought of as a Zen teacher, he said abruptly, "Forget about it!"

Both, of course, were correct, but as I look back, I honor my mother's response more fully. It was plain-Jane and on the human target. It took into account and offered no judgment of the fact that no one can unspill spilled milk or unthink a purple cow. Yes, "forget about it" was a true thing to say, but it lacked the courage of the ordinary; it asserted some macho, in-control status; it was elevating and elevated. "Watch TV" hardly rises to the heights of what most may consider spiritual heights ... but rising to spiritual heights -- and more pointedly, being in control of those heights -- is mostly overrated and more likely downright wrong.

And interesting thing about the breakthroughs that anyone might long for in spiritual endeavor is pretty obvious: In order to break through anything, you must first find something to break through. Pedlars of spiritual practice may suggest that there is nothing to break through and no one to break through it, but let's get honest here: Most of the people I know live lives filled with spilled milk and purple cows and breakthroughs and if that's the case, then that's the case.

Perhaps it's easiest just to assume that any breakthrough is, ipso facto, an indicator of error ... something to reflect on in the same way you might reflect on the impact of stepping in dog shit: Let's not do that again, s'il vous plaît. If, in an intense effort to get from here to here, you actually got here ... well, that would be screwy since you already are here.

Still, spilled milk and purple cows and breakthroughs deserve their time and space. If building a delusion in order to subdue another delusion is what it takes, well, go right ahead.

But if things get too scary or delightful, don't forget the healing powers of the television set.

an awful future

As if preparing for a collective trip to the dentist, the East Coast of the United States has given itself over to a group-hug dither: A large hurricane called "Sandy" is moving north along the Atlantic seaboard and is expected-expected-expected to ... well, if you read or listen to the news, all sorts of awful stuff is looming, painful as a dentist.

Schools and transportation have been shut down. Even Wall Street, that bastion of mediocrity, has closed its doors for today and perhaps tomorrow. Governors have declared states of emergency before the first drop of rain fell. Presidential candidates have revised their schedules. Supermarket shelves are denuded as people react to the unrelenting 'coverage' by a press that must be delighted to have another important-sounding story that is long on speculation and short on the facts that it would cost money to gather.

Looking into the future. Delighting or despairing. I am all too capable of such projections and I dislike being upstaged by some group hug of delicious uncertainty.

Luckily, I have a dental appointment next week.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

right and wrong

My experience suggests....

With patience and diligence and effort, the need to be right or wrong runs out of energy. It's not as if anyone could do anything about it -- it just happens.

And when it does, the only energy that remains is the energy to be yourself.

Sweeping Zen interview

Yesterday, I was gossiping with Adam Tebbe, the maestro of the Sweeping Zen site. As an aside, he remembered that I had once asked him to make corrections to my biographical interview on his site and he still hadn't gotten around to doing it. So ... if I would resend it, he would post it, he said. This morning I did a rewrite and decided to slap it in here as well, partly to know where I can find it easily and partly to display how insufferably humble I am.

Adam Genkaku Fisher was a student of the late Kyudo Nakagawa-Roshi and is the founder of Black Moon Zendo ( in Massachusetts. He is not a priest or anything, just some wise guy with more than forty years of practice whom I’ve corresponded with over time. Adam is author of the book Answer Your Love Letters: Footnotes to a Zen Practice and also regularly blogs (


SZ: What about Zen attracted you and when did you begin practice?

AGF: In a literal, whole-life sense, I sometimes like to say that I took up Zen practice because I had a blue tricycle when I was little. This answer attempts to convey the ridiculousness that I see in trying to answer such a question in any real terms. But in a linear, let's-tell-a-story, sense, I fell in love with Hindu Vedanta sometime in the late 1960's or early 1970's. I read and read and read. I knew more long Hindu words than Bayer has aspirins. It was truly delicious. But one day as I was reading a thought sprang up and hit me in the face: If they -- all these monks and nuns and wise people I was reading about -- could do it, then so could I. This thought truly embarrassed me. Where did I get off imagining I could claim a place at the table with all of these elevated beings? But as embarrassed as I was by my presumptuousness, still the thought refused to be silenced. And close upon that initial, gob-stopping thought, another thought rose up like a fiery sword: If spiritual life -- whatever that meant -- could not walk into a barroom on a raucous Saturday night with me, I wanted nothing whatsoever to do with it. I didn't want to sell it to anyone else. I didn't want to play the Tupperware salesman. I didn't want to be a shill for God or heaven or enlightenment or whatever the big bingo turned out to be. I just wanted to know for sure and from my own experience that it was true. These two thoughts became my bed-rock inspirations. But there was a problem: As much as I had read and pondered and delighted and been confused by what I had read up until that time (and I once calculated it was something like 500,000 pages), I really didn't know what I was supposed to DO. Literally -- what do you do and how do you do it? I really didn't know. I felt like a hungry man sitting in front of  a plate of delicious food: The food was right in front of me, but I couldn't find the knife and fork. Eventually, I scraped together the basics of meditation. I went outside and found a wooden milk crate in the garbage outside the apartment building I lived in. I put an orange cloth over it, set up a picture and incense burner on it and created an altar. Then I began to sit cross-legged in front of it each day. Doing what, I wasn't quite sure, but doing something. I got pretty pissed off that my knees hurt so much while doing whatever I was doing: If I was doing this for "God," the least s/he could do for me in return was to make my legs stop hurting. During this period, I worked as a news reporter and went to several Hindu centers to get the lay of the land of spiritual practice. Over time, I realized that such places were not to my taste. And then one day, I got taken to a Zen center in New York. It scared the crap out of me -- all that silence, all that preciseness, all that attentive care -- but I knew it was home ... a place in which to go for the throat ... no more sissy stuff ... go for broke!  And so I stayed with it for nine years, tried out a monastery and quit, lived through three sex scandals ... and finally ended up on Kyudo Roshi’s doorstep.  

SZ: You were a student of Kyudo Nakagawa and I wondered if you’d tell us about your memories of him.

AGF: It was Kyudo who gave me the Dharma name I currently have: Genkaku, meaning “original understanding” or “original realization.” It was a pretty sneaky name, given the past … but it worked OK. Kyudo had a kind of arms-wide-open approach … disdaining no teaching, yet quick as a fox to point out that no teaching could ever reach. “There is no such thing as 1,700 koans,” he said to me once, for example. I was and consider myself to be a student of Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, former abbot of Ryutaku-ji Monastery in Japan. Our relationship was somewhat unorthodox in the sense that very shortly after I joined the now-defunct Soho Zendo, I got married (Kyudo married us) and moved away from New York. Thereafter, I would periodically take a 175-mile bus trip to NYC to visit …. sitting at the kitchen table in the zendo, a pack of cigarettes between us, sipping tea and just talking about this and that … most of it Zennie sorts of things, but often just whatever came up. It was as good a dokusan session as I ever had … straightforward, easy-going and not relying on something called “Zen.” Kyudo died in 2007, but he bequeathed to me at least two teachings I will forever be grateful for. One was that he said to me not once, but twice (and for a Japanese teacher to say something twice is a bit like having a Marine Corps drill sergeant screaming in your ear): "Take care of your family." And his second bequest, as I see it, was wordless: Kyudo left no Dharma heirs. For this I will be eternally grateful. To my mind, this was and remains honest Zen ... no nonsense necessary.

SZ: Where would you place yourself in the “world of Zen”?
AGF: I am not ordained. I am not a priest. I’m a guy with three kids (mostly out the door), a mortgage and am retired from the world of newspaper writing and editing. As to the nine years I spent under Eido Shimano's aegis, I like to say, "I wouldn't wish my training on my worst enemy ... and I wouldn't trade it for all the tea in China." As to my links and connections with Kyudo, well, thank you very much. But as time passes, I am no longer very interested in "Zen Buddhism." Not long ago, I gave away the majority of my books on the topic ... they were just gathering dust. I am a "Zen Buddhist" when the occasion calls for it, but the occasions are not so many and not so insistent any more. If I had to pick a hip-pocket saying to sum things up or aspire to or whatever, I might agree with Ikkyu Sojun who once remarked, "I am not a Buddha. I am just an ordinary fellow who understands things." This is not to play the implicit or explicit Zen-teacher game of quoting others as a means of elevating my own status. It's just a line I like in the same way I like chocolate. Whether I can live up to what I like, I haven't got a clue. I also like, "Just because you are indispensable to the universe does not mean the universe needs your help" and "Smile just one smile." If you want to come over to my house and play Zen, we can do that. If you want to come over and watch the World Series, we can do that too.

 SZ: You founded Black Moon Zendo in your backyard I’ve read. What prompted you to build it and open it to the public, rather than attending one of the local Dharma groups in Massachusetts?

AGF: When I got to Massachusetts where I currently live, I was working a swing shift at the newspaper — 3-11 or 4-12 — and even if I got up early enough to join any local sitting group, there were the kids to get off to school. Evenings were out because I worked. I did find one group that sat on Monday evenings (one of my days off) and I sat with them until the evening when the instructor (a martial arts guy) pulled out a sheaf of papers and began to read … it was instructions on “how to spot a false teacher.” I had never run into such unmitigated bullshit in my life, so I didn’t go back.
That left me with no setting in which to sit. So, although I had never done such a thing before in my life, I built a little 12×16 house, set up an altar, got some cushions and gave it the Great Big Name — Black Moon Zendo. I made it available for anyone to come sit on Sunday mornings, and occasionally during the week if people asked and I had time … three kids doesn’t make for a lot of time. Luckily, not too many people came or come. It’s a pretty small-potatoes operation … you want to do zazen, come ahead; you want to talk a little about spiritual endeavor, we can do that too. But there’s not a lot of sex appeal and for that reason it’s probably too strict. We chant a little sometimes, but not a lot. If someone brings up a sutra, OK … but basically it’s sitting, chanting, chatting and perhaps a bit of coffee after.
I suppose in some Sunday-go-to-meetin’ sense, I do run the place. People have called me “teacher,” “sensei” and even “roshi.” I can’t help it but I certainly don’t encourage it. OK, I run the place for the few who occasionally show up. And lord knows I can run my mouth, given the opportunity. I tell the people who have come for a while that if they don’t interrupt and get their licks in … well, whose fault is that? I have been practicing since about 1970, so it is likely I know a couple of things that newcomers might not … just the tactical stuff and some of the mental wiliness. But in general, I really do look on visitors as I might look to Kyudo Roshi … these are serious teachers … but of course I wouldn’t tell them that. It might ruin their day.

SZ: What books would you recommend to someone interested in Zen?

AGF: I don’t  read books much any more. When I do, it’s usually Swampland Flowers: The Letters and Lectures of Zen Master Ta Hui. But I always liked the old guys … Huang Po, Hui Neng, Hui Hai, Dogen … and, although I am hesitant to mention him because so many think he was just some wildman, Ikkyu… Ikkyu who said, “I am not a Buddha. I am just an ordinary fellow who understands things.” I always liked that … it’s enough reading for me. But I also liked Trungpa Rinpoche’s stuff, Suzuki Roshi’s stuff, Kapleau’s stuff … but hell, I liked the Quran and parts of the Bible and several Christian orthodox books. Read what seems to appeal. If you don’t like it, read something else. Read the stuff that makes you happy, that opens your heart, that confuses the hell out of you. And if you want to make me rich, read my book, “Answer Your Love Letters: Footnotes to a Zen Practice.” When you’ve read yourself out, sit down and do zazen … or, if you like, skip the reading and just do zazen. Zazen will tell you everything you really want to know.

Mother Nature, East and West

As residents along the East Coast of the United States geared up for the arrival of a "Frankenstorm" scheduled to arrive in the coming days, residents of the West Coast experienced a 7.7 magnitude earthquake that struck Saturday off the shores of the Canadian coast.

Damage appears to have been minimal in the aftermath of the earthquake.

Damage along the East Coast continues to loom like a Halloween hobgoblin.

Why is it that the credulous insist on standing on street corners wearing sandwich signs that read, "Repent! The end is near!"?

Was there ever a time when the 'end' was not just "near," but in fact had already come and gone?

'beyond compare'

Perhaps it would be like being in a room where walls, ceiling and floor had somehow magically disappeared. Logically and psychologically, it makes no sense, in one sense, and yet in another sense...? A world without comparison.

In a book dedicated to the parameters of one form of 'insanity' ("The Language of Schizophrenia"), a patient was quoted (approximately) as saying, "The air is still, here -- the air between the things in the room -- but the things themselves are no longer here."

In ordinary terms, such an assertion might rightfully be included in a book depicting the particulars of an insanity. This is nutsy, right? This is off the charts. This leaves any attentive reader gasping for air: What the fuck does that mean?! And since no answer springs readily to mind, well, perhaps out of kindness, the doctor will find a pill that will 'fix' it.

A world without comparison.

My mother, who grew up in a WASP-y world of the early 20th century, once passed along to me one of the reproving observations of her upbringing: "Comparisons are odious." The saying was aimed, I imagine, at the individual willingness to compare one person's station to another's: I'm better off or less well off than someone else is. Comparisons were odious because they are snooty and self-serving and, in the end, a weak basis on which to premise life or living.

In spiritual life, temples and texts are laced with the promise of things beyond compare -- heaven or hell or God or unexcelled enlightenment or complete understanding or attainment or other "beyond compare" ways of being or seeing or knowing or something. It sounds now, as it always has, incredibly delicious and desirable when compared to my workaday worries and woes, doubts and fears, laughter and tears, bumps and bruises, delights and sorrows. Really, it beckons like moonlight on a dark path and I too have used its deliciousness to inspire one spiritual effort or another ... busting my butt for ... well, secretly and not so secretly, busting my butt for a world "beyond compare." It sounded purely wonderful and worth striving for.

Seldom if ever did I stop to think that perhaps a world "beyond compare" was just that -- nothing special or, if it was special, there would be no way in hell to assess that specialness because, after all, it was "beyond compare." How in heaven's name could anyone assert they were in a room that lacked floor and ceiling and walls, the very definition of a "room?" How in heaven's name could anyone strive for what is "beyond compare" and then somehow attain it when the floor and ceiling and walls were ... gonzo?! And on what basis could anyone assert that what was "beyond compare" was any different from what was not "beyond compare?" It might be OK for advertising purposes (temples and texts), but where the rubber hit the road, how could it possibly make any sense?

This morning I woke up where the rubber hit the road. There was no escaping waking up. There was no escaping needing to take a leak. There was no escaping the aches and pains of old age that wake up with me every day. There was no escaping the increasing weakness associated with that age -- a weakness that is not just physical, but also mental: The willingness and ability to do almost anything slips away with age, not least because the willingness to compare ... takes too much energy and is too unreliable. This is not a criticism, it's just what happens. In old age, capacities and connections seem to fall away like globally-warmed shards of the Arctic shelf. It feels a bit dispiriting, on the one hand, but on the other, there it's just what happens ... no more job, no more world of comparisons in which to measure and reassure myself of myself, no more bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed involvement, no more seeing without glasses, a receding of the wild emotion for or against the horrors or wonders ... it's a generalized dwindling.

And this morning it occurred to me that dwindling together with the other bits and pieces of dwindling was the energy required to make comparisons. After a lifetime of doing just that -- making comparisons and hence asserting a social connection and a rebuff to loneliness -- it felt and feels a bit scary at times... a plain-as-salt recognition that comparisons may be odious, but they are also a means of social camaraderie. Wouldn't I be lost and forlorn without my comparisons? On the other hand, how does anyone go about being lost and forlorn?

It is pleasant to agree that a room has walls and ceiling and floor. Very pleasant and yet is it true? If not, is the truth worth elevating or longing for when it is as plain as the nose on your face? Comparing this no-room with a room imposes a recognition that this is really a waste of perfectly useful time.

A Chevrolet parked across the street ... beyond compare.
A brilliantly-pink dawn morphing into grey skies and a wet chill in the air ... beyond compare.
A set of aches and pains against which I reach for ibuprophen ... beyond compare.
A recognition that this is Sunday and later I hope to do some zazen... beyond compare.
A growly, hungry stomach ... beyond compare.
A longing for companionship ... beyond compare.

If everything -- honest injun ... just leave the spiritual and psychological nonsense behind for a moment -- is beyond compare, how could anything be beyond compare? And if nothing is beyond compare, who would bother to say so? Why compare when, ipso facto, there simply is no comparison?

Intellectually and emotionally, all of this may sound like the mumbling rant of some old bag of bones. But where the rubber hits the road, where people lead their own incomparable lives, I think it makes some sense... and yearning for what is "beyond compare" is pretty insane. Naturally it would be a good idea to straighten out a lifetime habit of compare-and-contrast ... just straighten it out, not because it is odious or spiritually advanced or personally desirable, but because, in the end, it wastes a lot of energy and creates a lot of sorrow.

"Beyond compare" -- check it out. Is it really so necessary? Is it any more useful than the habit of comparing and 'connecting the dots'? Isn't connecting the dots as "beyond compare" as not connecting the dots?

If the sky is blue, wouldn't you be bored silly if a friend insisted on telling you over and over again that the sky was blue? Wouldn't you wish s/he'd just shut up so you could watch the World Series in peace?

Saturday, October 27, 2012

a state of emergency

Beneath grey and lowering skies, with the house emptied of its usual residents, I got a call from my daughter in Pennsylvania -- a place where a much-anticipated "Frankenstorm" is expected to hit.

The storm, named Sandy,

was expected to make landfall early Tuesday near the Delaware coast, then hit two winter weather systems as it moves inland. That is expected to create a hybrid monster storm that could bring nearly a foot of rain, high winds and up to 2 feet of snow.

My daughter said she had just been to the supermarket and things were "crrrraaaaazy." Food was flying off the shelves. Her fiance's company had been warned that after the storm hit, the company might be without power for seven to ten days. Her state had already declared a state of emergency, though no rain had fallen. Schools had been closed on Monday and Tuesday.

"So you had better get out there and buy some milk or something," my daughter concluded. And I may go to the supermarket, if only to observe the social arena.

How frightening it is to be in the eye of a belief-system frenzy. Not that a certain prudence and planning are stupid, but the overlay of "if everybody believes it and if everybody does it, so should I" lends an added dimension of group-think defies -- and flummoxes -- common sense. Where everyone is swept up in a belief-system frenzy, the world becomes more dangerous: Groups suffering from shared belief can pose a threat to life and limb, never mind sanity.

sleazeball morality

Not for the first time, I recall sitting on a Cape Cod beach chatting idly with my (half-) sister, a social worker and my favorite family member. Her kids were little then and she was talking about the touchy-feely approach schools can take towards their charges.

"It drives me nuts," she said without venom, "when a physical confrontation inspires a teacher to say, 'Johnny, why do you think you hit Peter?' instead of just, 'Johnny, DON'T hit Peter.'"

As a social worker and an intelligent person, it wasn't that my sister was ignorant of the deeper wells from which actions emerge. It was just that she despaired of those who could not face a situation head-on and make an honest decision. Right, wrong or indifferent, "No!" There might be time enough later for lounge-chair dissections and putative kindnesses.

How often does this occur in the adult world? Sometimes, in my cranikier moments, I think quite a lot.

As for example when those concerned with spiritual life or morality use what they may describe as "loving kindness" or "compassion" as sweet camouflage when assessing or addressing a track record of unkind acts. "Let's give him or her time to reflect on his or her latest misdeed. Let's not be the first to cast the first stone. Let's speak softly and with kindness and ...."

And the track record speaks for itself. Where a simple bitchslap is clearly warranted, the situation is given leave to flourish because the onlooker would prefer to be well-thought-of ... kind and considerate and thoughtful.

This is a morality of sleaziness ... and lord knows I have been a sleazeball in my time.

What is so awful about being wrong? Lord knows I have done it in the past and survived ... and more than that, learned a little from some egregious mistakes. Using morality or spiritual aspirations as a means of donning pretty clothes is not the same as enjoying the fruits of morality or spiritual life.

Somewhere I heard that the Christians have a perfectly acceptable prayer that goes, "Dear Lord, please give him or her a swift kick in the ass!"

And when God is not available, perhaps the next best thing is to exercise a healthy capacity for ass-kicking.

Will anyone -- even the most moral soul -- have to pay the piper for exercising the capacity to say "no?"

Absolutely. But paying the piper is what human beings do all the time. No good deed goes unpunished. And if a bitchslap will put a crimp in a track record of unkindness -- if it will send Johnny the message loud and clear -- then I think it is worth it.

Time enough to pay the piper. Time enough to enjoy the fruits of morality and spiritual life.

extraordinary and beautiful

Idly, I wonder if it's true:

-- The longer anyone does what once was considered extraordinary, the sooner it becomes ordinary... at which point there is some chance of understanding how extraordinary it may be. But there is no way to skip from "extraordinary" to extraordinary ... gotta do the heavy lifting first.

-- If something is moving and beautiful, the only option is to give it away. Any attempt to hold on or reap some reward will just sully what is naturally beautiful. Consider the case of "God" ....

-- Morality is a rich man's sport. While it is true that morality can occasion happiness, still the navigation of its highways and byways rests on a full stomach. This is neither good nor bad, but failing to acknowledge it is like whistling past the graveyard.

Friday, October 26, 2012

China elevates the New York Times

China has paid the New York Times the ultimate compliment by blocking Internet access to both the English and Chinese versions of the news empire.

The springboard for this compliment was an NYT story that said Premier Wen Jiabao's family members had amassed billions in profits as a (implicit) result of their relationship with the premier.

"Some reports smear China and have ulterior motives," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said.

The Times reported that Wen's family members "have controlled assets worth at least $2.7 billion" and that many of the family members' control is hidden behind layers of partnerships and investment vehicles.

In China, as elsewhere, it may be OK if something is true, but reporting what is true can receive a less-than-cordial welcome.

Boshan Zen

Read elsewhere and much appreciated, these words from the Chinese Zen teacher Boshan (1575-1630):

If you’re unable to arouse the Doubt when practicing Zen, you may feel annoyed by the restrictions of the sangha. Some may want to go deep in the mountains where there’s no one around. For a while they may be satisfied there, closing eyes and unifying mind with legs in full lotus and hands in grateful prayer. After a few months or years, however, they find themselves lost. Others, after sitting only a few days, turn to reading books and composing poetry. Self-indulgent, they shut the door and doze off. From a distance they seem dignified, but up close their decadence knows no bounds. Others are like juvenile delinquents greedily sneaking around, neither knowing shame nor fearing karmic retribution. Putting on airs and speaking as if they knew, they deceive the unwitting: “I met a great teacher! He transmitted the Dharma to me!” and so on. They herd the unwitting into their flock, then keep company with them or even make them their disciples. They act Zen-like and those under them follow suit. Unaware of their errors, they do not even know to reflect on themselves or feel regret, to seek out a worthy teacher or Dharma friend. Reckless and arrogant, they spread terrible lies. They are really pitiful. Recently, some have grown weary of the sangha and now seek out their own living quarters. It should send shivers up their spines! If you are to genuinely seek the Way, I trust you’ll drop such notions. Then you can inquire together with others in the sangha, and work together to keep an eye on things. Even if you cannot realize the Way, at least you will not fall into such corrupt paths. Practicing the Way, you must beware of these dangers.

dehydrated water

I have always had a soft spot for the ridiculous. The ridiculous makes me laugh or smile not just because of the superiority it most notably inspires but also because, in some wee corner of my heart, I can imagine myself being drawn into the credulous maw and, well ... suckered again.

For example, the American magazine Psychology Today once ran an imaginative contest for its readers. The contest invited one and all to come up with the best scam they could think of. And the winner was ... a company in (where else?) California that invited its customers to sign over all their worldly goods. In return, these customers would receive a slip of paper with a number on it. When the customer died and was subsequently reincarnated, all s/he had to do was present the number to the company and retrieve all the possessions relinquished in the former lifetime.

To this day, I have a hard time imagining that such a company does NOT exist.

What brought this recollection to mind this morning was a less ornate bit of ridiculousness from an earlier time -- a booming business that sold packets of dehydrated water ... just add water and voila!

Silly and ridiculous and ... how much like spiritual life is that?! Just add water and ... voila!

Just add aches and pains, worries and woes, bliss and elation, dull and clarified understanding, kindness and serenity, incense and hymns, texts and temples, tears and lamentations, rigors and rituals, promises and vows ....

Just add water and, as if by magic, you get water.

I am not about to sit here and claim with a distanced superiority that I have not been similarly suckered.

But neither am I about to turn away a good laugh.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Vatican racks up a W

Paolo Gabriele, the former butler to Pope Benedict XVI who admitted stealing papal documents and was given an 18-month prison sentence, will be incarcerated at the Vatican police station, the BBC reports.

The Vatican authorities were worried, our correspondent says, that if he were to be moved into an Italian prison he might be subject to pressure to reveal secrets which might cause further embarrassment to the Pope.

Score one for the Vatican, which has managed in this instance to convince the civil authorities who might otherwise have had jurisdiction over both crime and punishment that, well, the Vatican possesses a more august authority.

a life of privilege

It was an intelligent, if somewhat one-dimensional, program, so I watched Bill Moyers' interview with journalists Matt Taibbi and Chrystia Freeland yesterday. Everyone involved in the conversation was capable of thought and expression. They were neat and clean. The segment was titled, "Plutocracy Rising" and focused on the attributes and abuses of income disparity. I was as disheartened as I was supposed to be ... the rise of a feudal society in my homeland is pretty sad.

"Privilege" is defined in part by an Internet dictionary as:

-- a special benefit that is available only to a particular person or group
-- something that only a particular type of person is allowed to do
--  a way of life that involves having many advantages and opportunities, without working hard for them

In the last category, former U.S. president George W. Bush was once described as "a man who was born on third base and imagines he had hit a triple." The arrogance of the 'haves' is discerned by the 'have-nots.'

But as I watched the program, it occurred to me that "privilege" required an additional component -- the invariable blind spots that privilege bestows. Privilege for one requires a lack of privilege for another. Without such an axiomatic understanding, the whole notion of privilege falls on its face. And who, having attained a privilged position, does not lose that perspective and imagine that what is in hand is nothing special -- after all, I deserve it ... or can't escape it ... or something.

Bill Moyers and his guests talked about privilege from privileged positions. This is not a criticism. It's just an observation. Each was clean and well-kept and educated and well-intentioned and well-fed and ... the list of privileges went on and on, just as it did for the privileged plutocrats they were discussing and decrying.

But lumping Moyers and Taibbi and Freeland in the same privileged pot with, say, the high fliers of Silicon Valley or Wall Street, is not to suggest that since everyone is privileged, we can just forget about it and move along blithely. One additional quotient needs to be noted -- the degree of cruelty that privilege can inspire. Knowingly or unknowingly, someone has to suffer ... preferably not me.

From the other end of the privilege telescope, a friend sent along a news story today about a lawsuit being brought against Median, Mississippi, (et al.) for its school-to-prison pipeline: School children "who talk back to teachers, violate dress codes and commit other minor infractions" have been taken from their classrooms in handcuffs, brought to court and incarcerated with little or no attention to their constitutional rights. That'll teach 'em! The kids are, of course, minorities.

The gross and subtle tendrils of privilege seem to be everywhere. Since I cannot undo the privileges that my past bestowed, I tend to overlook them: What the fuck? I can't do anything about that; I yam what I yam and ... forgetaboutit! I don't think anyone, from high-flying tycoon to activist critic to poor schlub living off the detritus of the privileged, is much different.

But the cruelty factor -- however difficult to discern or depict -- is worth the price of admission. How much harm does my privileged lifestyle do? Do I make any effort, however incomplete, to see or correct or revise my unkindnesses? Can I see that what I imagine is kindness has some concommitant unkindness attached? Am I willing to inflict this incidental unkindness and look in the mirror without shuddering?

I am interested, for example, in spiritual endeavor, a privileged sport if ever there were one. Because I am getting old and cranky, it can really drive me nuts to be stuck in a group that is similarly involved in spiritual adventure. Such company can make me want to run away and join a leper colony. But spiritual endeavor interests me, so I circle around it -- extolling and deriding by turns -- and ... exercise a privileged existence. About the best excuse I can come up with for my privilege is that I have not yet incarcerated any school children.

And my privileged interest in spiritual endeavor does provide the opportunity to examine the highways and byways of "privilege." The privilege of breathing, for example, occurs to me. Without it, I would be dead as a door nail. But each breath I take can rightfully be imagined as depriving another. How shall I square that circle ... undo or correct or revise the unkindness that rises up out of this kindly privilege? "Reductio ad absurdum!" you say? I say, think again.

I see nothing wrong and a good deal that is right about calling out the cruelties of privilege. But if there can be no care in calling out those cruelties, if calling out those cruelties creates a righteous and privileged realm of its own ... well, I think it deserves some consideration.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

"The Long War"

"The Long War" photo slideshow from Reuters:


dead and alive

A Brazilian car washer caused some to faint and others to flee in fear when he showed up at his own wake.

His brother had identified the body at the mortuary.

Gilberto Araujo learned of his own demise when a friend stopped him in the street and informed him of the wake.

A friend told me there was a coffin and that I was inside it.


"hoist by your own petard"

"Hoist by your own petard" is an expression that made me want to know today what the heck a "petard" was. Wikipedia informed me:

A petard was a small bomb used to blow up gates and walls when breaching fortifications.

The device was extremely dangerous to employ and hence the meaning of "hoist by his own petard" --  to be harmed by one's own evil- or well-intentioned devices.

Delightfully enough, the word finds its roots in "the Middle French, peter, to break wind."

So being hoist by your own petard may be a little like farting under the covers: There can be a sense of relief, but there is a price to pay.

being a nobody

Not for the first time, it occurs to me to notice how often spiritual endeavors are used as a means of constraining or cajoling others. It's a hell of a good warning sign, I think, but that doesn't mean anyone is likely to heed the warning any time soon. Using religion or spiritual pointers as a kind of overarching ethical rule book for society really is a poor man's game.

This morning, as one egregious example, a friend sent along an article depicting an Indiana Republican candidate's assertion that "I came to realise that life is that gift from God and I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape that it is something God intended to happen."

This might be funny if there weren't so many bloody implications: People will literally kill you for what they believe. Idiocy is an equal-opportunity employer. And if you put enough idiots together in one room, woe betide the man or woman who is not an idiot.

OK ... once anyone gets past the knee-jerk outrage this Indiana Republican has excited then maybe it is a good time to notice...

Beating the crap out of others in the name of God or religion or whatever is sometimes egregiously unkind. But worse, it is inaccurate. Religion may start out as an ethical rule book by which to rein in unfortunate habits, but when it starts being applied to others (hey man, I don't want to suffer alone ... you have to do what I have to do!), it really has gone a step too far.

The altruists in the crowd may nod in agreement, but how many times have they opened their own mouths to use the word "we" or "one" in an effort to find some cozy company (and perhaps elevate their own stature and make some money)? It may sound kind, but looking more closely, it has an imperious and imperial stamp.

Miching, simpering, placating, insisting, elevating ... "We are all filled with greed, anger and folly" or "One needs to see through the veils of ego."

It is as if, were I to state my convictions as simply that -- my convictions -- then my voice would go unheard; I would be less significant in an uncaring universe; and my beliefs and hopes and fears would be far less important than I believe them to be.

It is hard to be little when so many activities are aimed at making me big... big with God, big with 'compassion,' big with wisdom, big at work, big enough to convince others who then convince me. Hell, if I were just me, who the hell would I be? Wouldn't I be a nobody? It is hard to be a "nobody" when I work so hard to be "somebody."

My own conviction as to a more accurate approach is this: Everybody already is somebody ... it's just not the somebody they hope to be. And this somebody is vastly more important than the importance that appears to be missing.

Can I prove it? Nope. Do I want to? Nope. Shall I beat you over the head with it as a means of confirming or elevating such a conviction? Nope.

It is just a conviction that seems to be born out in attention and responsibility.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

furious? you betcha!

It's irrational and impatient and foolish, perhaps, but suddenly I am enraged by my lineage ... the Zen masters and mistresses of the present who lay claim, implicitly and explicitly, to a world of sunshine wonders and yet cower in 'thoughtful' silence or orotund explanation at the first passing of an actual-factual cloud. What a bunch of pussies! What a bunch of self-serving hypocrites!

Yes, it makes me want to invite every one of them outside for a conversation that would involve broken teeth, black eyes and perhaps a well-deserved concussion.

Zen Buddhists, the ones who pat themselves on the back or accede to the pats of others for their straight-forwardness and no-dawdling, lickety-split responses ... yessirreee, they are marvels and models and ... well, horseshit! Take your psycho-babble and in-control serenities and ignoble silences and look in the fucking mirror! Where's the lickety-split, no-doubt-about-it public response?

I'm not pretending that any of this is anything other than irrational, impatient and perhaps foolish. But I am equally unwilling to pretend it is somehow wrong.

Cooler heads may point out that it has only been two days since email conversations between Jeff Shore, a professor at Hanazono University and a 30-year Zen student/teacher, and Sherry Chayat (Shinge 'Roshi'), the overseer of Zen Studies Society, were made public. In them, Shore points out in various ways and Sherry comes close to admitting that the lineage of Eido Tai Shimano (Sherry's one-time teacher and the man who acknowledged her capacities as a Zen teacher) was "null and void." The lineage was a sham that was in no way corroborated in documentation that has acknowledged other teachers in the past.

It has only been two days and yet I have been around the Zen Buddhist block often enough to know that news like this travels quicker than lightning, even without the Internet. If every interested party and his brother hasn't heard about this, well, I'll buy the beer.

The matter of lineage -- the string of Buddhists some may claim reaches all the way back to Gautama Buddha -- is a bright thread in Buddhism. Students are implicitly and explicitly encouraged to see latter-day teachers as the keepers of a bright and wondrous light. Dressed in robes and backed by handsome altars, these expositors are bathed in a Buddhist light. Their excuses that they do not deserve such accolades are no honest excuse. Their explanations do little or nothing to honestly explain. It is a part of their profession to be able to cope with such questions as lineage and yet as professionals -- as people who want to keep their jobs and put spaghetti on the table -- they are proving themselves inept and ill-suited to the positions they hold. Cowardice is not a Zen Buddhist virtue as far as I know.

Not one that I know of has stepped forward to address the matter ... a matter of alleged concern to Buddhists ... as long as the sun shines. No one has asked if Jeff Shore is a lying featherweight. Sherry has made no statement. No one has suggested that Sherry needs to make a statement if, in fact, she wishes to maintain the integrity she (and others) impute to Zen. What kind of professional cannot immediately address a part of the bedrock of his own profession? To date, even those who insist on 'compassion' as a means of cloaking honest discourse

Of course the trouble is as it has always been: By addressing the matter of another's lineage, my own lineage (and hence professional standing and spaghetti on the table) is likewise thrown into question. Remaining silent -- a favored tactic of the past in the Zen establishment -- is to remind one and all of the assertion made, I believe, by Philip Kapleau (Roshi): "Silence is golden and sometimes its color is pure yellow."

Is the matter of lineage confusing and complex? Is it something that is allowed to sparkle on bright days but dive for cover when the rain falls? Does it, in this particular instance, skirt the edges of idle chatter and wrong speech and other bright candles in Buddhism? Sure. And still I think that the professionals need to get off their asses. No more save-my-ass psychobabble or warm-fuzzy Zen nostrums.

What about lineage? What does it mean when lineage is no longer? If you can't handle questions like this, what the fuck good are you in reality? If the best you can do is add self-serving cloaking devices to the issue, what chance is there for anyone to see the truth?

I await your excuses.

And if you can live with them, I suppose I can live with them too.

The K-Y Jelly crowd ... so slick, so smooth, so feel-good, so self-serving ....

Skilful means, my ass!

Just don't expect me to eat this shit and call it filet mignon.

PS. I stand corrected, sort of. There is some discussion of the topic on Zen Forum International.

death of the gods

Sometimes I think the credulous religions have got things backwards: It's not the believers who must die in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, it's the god or gods who must die in order for religion to bear any honest fruit.

Mao Zedong
In China, two recent politburo communiques have omitted reference to Mao Zedong, the communist god-head whose revolutionary successes in 1949 put China on a path it has followed ever since. Also absent were the knee-jerk references and adulation of "Marxism-Leninism." All this is akin to going to a Christian church where references to "God" or "Jesus" or "the Holy Spirit" were strangely absent.

Analysts are parsing the omissions in China as a signal or hint that the ruling elite is loosening the reins and reform is in the offing. Not, of course, that any Chinese politician wants to be accused of excising the holiness of the past, but the small omissions suggest that "God" really doesn't advance a fruitful future.

I think it is a personal lesson worth observing: A spiritual adventure that cannot set aside its gods is destined for a withering defeat, a world in which nourishing corn rows turn to brittle weeds.

deciphering the indecipherable

Proto-Elamite tablet
What is it that is so tantalizing about researchers being "on the brink" of deciphering "the world's oldest undeciphered writing?"

Somehow it seems to be built into the DNA: Not knowing something is not enough; what is not known lights some bright fuse and nothing will do until the firecracker of knowing goes off.

Here is a 5,000-year-old language dubbed proto-Elamite over which researchers have been sweating for a decade or more. Even such basic words as "cow" or "cattle" have not been definitively winkled out, but now, at least, the writing itself can be seen more clearly than ever before. The tablets tease and taunt.

The writing has no spoken counterpart, apparently. There are no side-by-side texts in other languages or writing formats. There is a suspicion that scribes often made mistakes. And it's not as if whatever the tablets say is likely to blow anyone's socks off ... "cow," "cattle," "eat," "drink," "trade," "walk," "hunt," "sun," "man," "child," "food" ... the human capacities and longings don't change much.

But a mystery?!

What is not known?!

Like a kaleidoscope, the patterns and colors of what is not known seem endlessly tantalizing and strange and beautiful and just-out-of-reach.

How mysterious that there should be a mystery.

don't change the subject!

On the one hand, I really do like hanging out with adults who are willing to change the subject. Of course sometimes I or they have not yet finished whining about or delighting in one topic or another and so we will remain in that realm for a while, for friendship's sake, but the underlying assumption is that we may move from starvation in Africa to yo-yo championships without missing a beat.

On the other hand, I can become infuriated by those who have no capacity to stay on topic, the board-room slick willies who exhibit neither the willingness nor the capacity to assume responsibility or be serious about anything other than themselves.

And both of these approaches are, of course, just like me ... just like this mind which, in an adult fashion, can change the subject or, in a self-serving inattentiveness, refuse to stay on topic.

And perhaps this is an arena in which a seated, silent and attentive meditation practice is informative. Minutes and hours and days and weeks and years pass with at least one axiomatic premise or driving force:


Breath-counting, koans, praying, chanting, just sitting ... stay on topic! Why? Because staying on topic will teach at least one inescapable lesson: You can't stay on topic. Or, to the extent that you can, somehow you have nothing to do with it.

The whole exercise, when I find the nerve for it, backs me into a quite nourishing corner. If I can't stay on topic, what is the topic? If I can stay on topic, who am I?

Questions like these will bring the board-room professionals of spiritual life out of the woodwork. In their well-pressed robes and well-pressed philosophies, they will demonstrate to my delight or infuriation how well they can stay on topic. Ick, ick and more ick. Get a fucking job!

But for the student who consents of his or her own free will ... well, I think the topic is a good one. Not one anyone could remain on, of course, but still, a good topic. If you can't stay on topic and yet simultaneously can't not stay on topic ... well, what were we talking about ... I forget.

How could anyone be at peace if the best they could do was to run around in search of the truth?

Monday, October 22, 2012

whale tale

Tired of the same old jibber-jabber from friends and enemies? Maybe a trip to the local aquarium is worth a try.

Researchers have reported that a whale in proximity to humans has been heard in what sounds like a mimicking of human speech. It may not be Shakespeare, but, hey, it sure beats ads for McDonald's or a presidential debate.


justice in Italy

Justice may be blind, but does that mean it has to be stupid into the bargain?

Seven earthquake experts were convicted Monday of manslaughter in deaths linked to a magnitude 6.3 earthquake that hit central Italy in 2009 and killed 308 people.

The defendants were accused of giving "inexact, incomplete and contradictory information" about whether small tremors felt by L'Aquila residents in the weeks and months before the April 6, 2009, quake should have been grounds for a warning.

Each was sentenced to six years in prison, though no sentence goes into effect until after at least one appeal.

It may all seem a bit much, but it does open the door on a whole new area of jurisprudence: "Misdemeanor weather forecasting" springs to mind. Or perhaps "felony political promises." Or a term in solitary for suggesting that anything is "free."

pissing off the polar bear

Parading an unshakable belief system in the search for a spiritual understanding is like hunting an angry polar bear with a slingshot: It's just likely to piss him off worse.

Check it out.

I mean, check out the belief system, not check out the slingshot. 

Pissed-off polar bears are not something to mess with.

But then, come to think of it, neither is spiritual life.

temples and sacred places

If you want someone to be nice to you, steer clear of temples and other sacred places.

If you want nothing better than coffee and cookies, go some place else.

If they're any good, temples and sacred places are not in business to be nice to you.

Temples and sacred places are in business so you can get your head screwed on straight and be nice to yourself.


beyond tears

This morning, there were 11 emails in the inbox. I am not accustomed to so much stuff. I don't do Twitter or Facebook or other activities that might drive up the number of  'communications,' so eleven seemed like quite a lot. After sieving out the spam that had tiptoed in, there were perhaps eight left and it was to one of these that I was inclined to respond -- a note from a Zen Buddhist chum asking what I thought of something he had written.

I am not about to go into chapter and verse of the subject matter, but, I think I would like to save my response here. It may sound like gobblety-gook to others, but ... well, who knows?

My note:

My sketchy understanding of your long, devoted and determined Zen training arouses my admiration ... wish I'd done as well. :)

But now comes the question -- the plain, unsexy, straight-ahead question -- what was it all in aid of? Was it merely in order to "help others" or to claim somehow to have likewise "touched the earth?" This would be lamentable beyond tears. Seriously ... beyond tears.

Trust the training. Don't leave it lonely and forlorn along some empty highway as you make for the bright lights in the distance. Why spit on what is plainly good fortune?

Sorry if this is too airy-fairy ... it's just the best I can do before my second cup of coffee.

your own truth

Nagging like some parrot on a celluloid pirate's shoulder, the line returns today:

Better your own Dharma [Truth], however weak,
Than the Dharma [Truth] of another, however noble.
Let's just call it "the truth." "Dharma" takes us down the highways and byways of Buddhism or something similar and there are enough confusions without adding to them. The "truth" may be an inexact science, but it's easier on the mind's ear, whatever the disagreements.

Better your own truth, however weak,
Than the truth of another, however noble.
The line is attributed to Gautama (the man who gave "Buddhism" its initial jump start) in "The Dhammapada," a very popular Buddhist text. How many people have read the line? Lots, I imagine. And each has found a different meaning, I'd guess.

Perhaps their journeys were something like my own.

When I first ran into the line, I was delighted. My suspicions about the authorities of life were as bright as any teenager's when wrestling with the fact that everyone seemed to be telling him what to do. Parents, school, religion, coaches, drill sergeants ... everyone and everything seemed determined to squeeze me into one kind of lock-step or another ... their lock-step. And a part of me rebelled: Fuck that! I'm not them! Fuck 'em all!" And here was a pretty heavy-hitting authority -- "the Buddha" no less -- telling me precisely what I wanted to hear: Sail your own ship even if you pile up on some rocky shoal. There was a kind of nyaah-nyaah delight that the words aroused. Here was a bright shield with which to defend against all invaders, foreign or domestic ... all of the authorities that seemed to seek to manipulate and subdue and convince me of their causes. Better you OWN truth ... ahhhh!

And then, of course, time passed. I practiced the Zen Buddhism I seemed to have chosen and ... time passed.

Time passed and the authorities seemed to lose their savor. It might be delightful to pin my sense of constriction and manipulation and elevation on others, but, well, it was a poor man's game. Authorities were only as authoritative as I made them. Holy, unholy, good or evil, manipulative or altruistic ... whose problem was this? And without the enemies, without the dark lords ... where was the light? Relying on others, whether friend or foe, to provide the light ... well, it simply didn't work very well.

And it was in this reshaped arena that "your own truth" became a truly daunting challenge. Your own truth -- what the hell did that mean and by what means might I discover its meaning? Christ, what a burden! Better to be Sisyphus endlessly pushing a rock up a hill! How I longed for my former delighted self, fending off authoritative entities and enemies with one well-sharpened bit of wisdom. How I longed for something as easy as an enemy.

Your own truth ...

What, precisely, was the matter with a single earring resting on a bureau top? What was the matter with a single kernel of pig corn that had fallen to the dirt floor of some barn? What was the matter with a kind word or a cruel one? What was the matter with fluffy clouds passing against the blue, blue sky? What was the matter with the summer sweats or the shivers of winter? What was the matter with laughing when getting tickled? What was the matter with holding hands or wondering in the dark? And finally ...

What was the matter ... with me?

The tingling and sassy delight of "your own truth" had somehow morphed into a weight and challenge I could hardly confront, let alone lift or decipher. Heavy, heavy, heavy ... and yet there was no going back, no un-thinking the purple cow. "Your own truth" was not for sissies.

This morning, when I went onto the porch for a smoke, a small bird had flown in the open door and was fluttering from one perch to another amid the collected stuff that lives out there. The bird did not seem especially afraid. It did not flutter in panic against one of the windows, seeking an impossible exit. It just flew and landed, now on a box, now on a small book shelf.

Like some doddering fool, I talked to it, encouraging it to go back outdoors, back to its wide-open and unenclosed environment. The authorities of the porch were not its natural setting. "Go on outside," I counseled aloud as if perhaps the bird might hear me. It was authoritative counsel that the bird did not heed and after a bit I realized that my presence was contributing to the problem rather than any 'benevolent' solution.

And having realized that I was the problem, I finished my smoke, took a swig of coffee and returned indoors to my seat in front of the computer screen. The bird would have to find its own way out the open door.

And when I went back, it had done just that.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

saints alive!

-- Perhaps with an eye to his flagging constituencies, Pope Benedict XVI named seven new saints today, including a Native American.

In the Roman Catholic Church, a saint is a person who has been recognized officially as being in Heaven.
If official recognition is required, it makes me wonder what happens to all the other poor schlubs who imagine they have been reliably informed that their loved ones made the grade.

George McGovern
-- George McGovern, a decent man (and Methodist) whom no one in his right mind would bother calling a "saint," has died at the age of 90. McGovern flew 35 bombing runs over Nazi-held lands during World War II and became a U.S. senator who staunchly opposed the war in Vietnam ... and was roundly defeated in a run for the presidency by Richard Nixon in 1972.  I will remember him as a man of substance, a man with sand ... though he may have been too thoughtful for the company he kept. He certainly stands in contrast to the grasping featherweight politicians America enjoys today.

Eido Shimano's 'lineage'

The following correspondence between Shinge Sherry Chayat 'Roshi' and Jeff Shore, a professor at Hanazono University and a 30-year Zen student/teacher, appeared in the Shimano Archive this morning. Eido Shimano is Sherry's teacher and the man who granted her succession. He is also a man whose sexual and financial depredations over the years have sown egregious sorrow.

In the correspondence, Sherry asks Jeff to verify or discount the authenticity of Eido Shimano's position within the Rinzai Zen lineage of Soen Nakagawa Roshi. Shore replies in various ways, among them:

At any rate, I trust you are really serious about this, Sherry.

If so, then you realize that there are no legitimate "successors" to Eido, and that their role as teachers of Rinzai Zen is null and void.

No hemming and hawing here.

Without this, we cannot even begin.
Jeff Shore
Shinge Sherry Chayat

Lineage in Zen Buddhism (and elsewhere) is taken with a sometimes-insufferable seriousness. To be part of the written lineage is to gain stature and legitimacy. To lack such a connection is to devolve into and rely on the wiles of charlatanism and cult-dom.

Sherry makes it clear in her words that she plans to hem and haw, to ask, as in the old Zen metaphor, who it was who shot the arrow that now pierces her breast ... what family does the shooter belong to, what bird provided the feathers on the arrow, what wood is the arrow made of ...? Sherry speaks of her wish for "integrity" and in the same breath flees that integrity as a wounded man might wish to flee the arrow in his chest.

The correspondence is informative for anyone interested in and perhaps devoted to a Buddhist practice.

Zen Studies Society, the umbrella group that maintains both Dai Bosatsu Monastery and Shobo-ji temple over which Sherry presides, may want to consider contacting a good lawyer.


In the old days -- or did I make this up -- the monks might gather once a week to openly admit and discuss their difficulties and errors in the practice of Zen Buddhism. A confessional of sorts, something to bring integrity and honesty to the mix. I wonder if that tradition still exists and if not, when it was lost ... assuming I didn't just make it up.

No matter. Borrowing vaguely from the confessional in some Roman church, I can say at the moment, "It has been too long since my last confession...."

I am willing to repent, but cannot say I am sorry.

For how many years have I treated spiritual life as some sort of protective bulwark, hiding behind the spiritual furniture like a child pleading and desperate to escape the vicious invectives of quarreling parents s/he assumed might protect and shield and nourish a child's life? If those who are loved can be so downright mean to each other, how long before the viciousness finds a new outlet in this small and frightened child behind the spiritual couch? Please, please, please stop!

Stop the fear. Stop the uncertainty. Stop the fierce and fearsome sense of doubt.

Where the rug of assured and reassuring love is yanked out from under ... is there then no place of succor and peace and reassurance? And of course there is -- or seems to be -- here behind the spiritual couch. It may not be perfect, but it seems possible ... to cringe and cower and rely on the big strong couch or other bit of protective furniture.

How many good habits I learned along the way, crooning and listening to the croons of "enlightenment" and "compassion" and "love" and "freedom" and "liberation" and "emptiness," sitting still and straight and attentive and venturing into scenes of "failure" and "success." Yes, very good habits which I cannot claim to have perfected. I have done my share of harm and, although I have a hard time recalling when or where, I suppose I must have done my share of good.

But for how many years have the dandelions burst upon some springtime lawn or the Canada geese honked their way north or south depending on the imperatives of the season? A lot is all I can think ... and all the while I was buttressing my good habits and no doubt overlooking my bad ones.

I can repent, but I am not sorry.

Around some warming brazier, the monks talk deep into the night. Spiritual endeavor is hard and it is natural and fine to be among friends who will say, "I know what you're talking about" and not just paper over the scene with lofty encouragements... the lofty encouragements that provide the foundation for a brilliant love-hate relationship. The encouragements that beckoned and promised, but in the end were insufficient to any relaxed and easy peace.

I too have hidden behind the sofa and I repent.

There comes a time when the safety of the spiritual sofa must take flight ... dissolve like the honking of Canada geese. There is a time to stand and stretch and take my chances among querulous adults, to spring up like any self-respecting dandelion. When did spiritual endeavor ever have anything to do with success or failure? When did it ever have anything to do with "ego" or "attachment?" When did it ever have anything to do with "spiritual endeavor?"

I confess I really don't know and am no longer interested in the spiritual professionals who may honk and bray about "don't know mind." I can't quite remember why I was hiding or what I was protecting, but I repent to the extent that I have added furniture to hide behind. Put the "egolessness" over there next to the "attachment" La-Z-Boy.

I repent.

But I am not sorry.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

just some autumn snapshots

Photos at a nearby New England reservoir in October ... the camera did not have a setting to capture the wonderful damped-down smell of the woods: