Monday, September 30, 2013

Buddhist Channel on battered monk

Here is a Buddhist Channel article about Weera "Tony" Chulsuwan, the 66-year-old monk beaten and left all-but-dead on Aug. 30 in Spencer, Okla.

One of the young men suspected in the beating, a juvenile, has been captured. Details -- probably because of his juvenile status -- are a bit sketchy.

"Tony" is still recuperating and a support-fund continues to solicit donations.

"Tony the Monk" column

I suspect the local newspaper is not going to use this rather whopper-jawed column submission, so I might as well put it here ... if only as an example of how not to approach things. The essence of writing is rewriting and this could use a rewrite. Nevertheless....

Whaddya know -- the Internet really is good for something more than the transmission of  dirty jokes, the purchase of designer-label toilet brushes, or the delivery of heart-felt bias passing as reasoned argumentation!

This realization came as something of a shock to me because whereas I like a good joke and am willing to imagine that hundreds of toilets are happier and have learned to filter out high-volume sincerity masquerading as reason, still there seemed little or no ground-zero usefulness to it all.

Or anyway that's the way I felt until last Monday.

On Monday, a friend of mine, the Rev. Kobutsu Malone sent me a short news story about a Buddhist monk in Oklahoma -- a guy neither of us had ever met. "Tony the Monk," 66, lived alone on $350 per month in Social Security and spent most of it on taking care of animals others wouldn't or couldn't care for.

The news story told the tale of two teenagers, 14 and 15, who came to rob Weera "Tony" Chulsuwan on Aug. 30. When he told the boys he had nothing worth stealing, they beat him with a pipe and a logging chain, ransacked his house and fled. At least 15 blows to the head left Chulsuwan lying in the dirt for 24 hours before he regained enough consciousness and energy to crawl indoors and call 911. He is currently at home, recuperating slowly. The boys have not been apprehended. Chulsuwan's ambulance bill alone is over $600 and the hospital costs have not yet been enumerated.

Kobutsu and I were viscerally touched, not so much because Tony was a Buddhist and we were too (and those Buddhists stick together dontcha know!), but because the whole episode was so ruthless and mindless and cruel and utterly human. From our point of view, Buddhism could go suck and egg -- this had to do with a single human being, someone, as Kobutsu put it, "that I can help."

And that's where my Internet surprise kicked in. Kobutsu did most of the heavy lifting, setting up an Internet donation page ( and the two of us each scoured our email address books ... sometimes for people we knew but as often as not for people we had no recollection of knowing.

Much to my Internet-jaded surprise, the donations began to roll in. And it wasn't just "Buddhists." And it wasn't just Americans. The gifts came from all over the world, from all kinds of people. England, Michigan, Spain, Illinois, Norway, California, Portugal -- the list went on and on ... and it had only been five days: There appeared to be something touching in "Tony the Monk's" misfortune and people were willing to pony up as a means of demonstrating their concern.

As touched as I was by Chulsuwan's beating, so I was further touched by the people willing to send little and large measures of their sympathy.

Touched and somewhat confused: My easy-peasy bias about the Internet had been punctured. With all the tragedies available in the world these days -- from economic repression to yet another righteous and bloody war -- wasn't it strange that the Internet could assist so concretely in one small matter?

I guess Kobutsu summed things up as well as anybody when he observed, "My own sense is that people are naturally generous. They are always looking for ways to express that generosity, even when it is not easy. Tony and his animals offer a good opportunity and I think people know it."

"objectivity" on my behalf

In the end, it's a rock-and-a-hard-place, I guess. Nevertheless, I think it's worth attending to -- the matter of "objectivity."

Objectivity used to be a touchstone in the news business, for example. Reporters were sometimes willing to credit their organizations or themselves with the ability to present the facts without taint or bias. It was important to sieve out personal bias as a means of getting to the hub of the subject or problem. And, whatever the protestations, it never worked. Someone had to choose the wording and the placement of the facts and those choices were of themselves a matter of personal decision-making.

And the same is true of individuals: People may claim to want to solve some vexing problem and they may know that in order to do that, one of the first orders of business is to extract their own leanings. And yet it never works.

But just because it doesn't work doesn't mean it shouldn't be attempted. Why? Because nine chances out of ten, personal opinion and bias does not contribute to a solution -- it merely contributes to self-aggrandizement dressed up in "objectivity."

If this is anywhere close to being accurate, it strikes me that the fruitful options are limited:

1. Admit openly from the get-go that you have a dog in this fight -- a personal opinion or position that is, admittedly, personal. As such, you acknowledge that you want things to come out your way ... that others will/should agree with your bias and thereafter you will feel somehow enhanced or supported or, more likely, "right." This approach has the advantage of honesty ... if that counts for anything.

2. Bust your hump in an attempt to allow all evidence to enter. You know it will never work perfectly, but you do your best to set aside your willingness to add or subtract what is purely personal. You ask yourself, "Which is more important -- the issue at hand or my opinion about the issue at hand?"

I guess I am thinking about this (poorly, I admit) in a spiritual context as much as anything else... of the number of kerfuffles that I have seen come and go and of the number of times that the arguments and improvements adduced have more to do with the institutional position or the self-serving and self-preserving attitudes of the provider and less to do with the "serious issue" at hand. It may sound sweet and it may sound reasonable, but the objectivity factor takes a back seat to some very personal need or insistence. It all sounds good and reasonable and true and factual ... but the agenda is pretty obvious ... and smells of cowardice to the extent it is not admitted.

As I say -- it's a rock and a hard place. There is no pure-as-the-driven-snow objectivity. If there were, all things would dissolve and where would "I" be? And yet to say that and then infer that any position I take is therefore legitimate and helpful and honest ... is bullshit. Some issues are important enough to be worth setting aside the prestige and loftiness of a much-imagined institution or position.

Will it work?


But I'm still in favor of that sort of personal effort.

Just blithering.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

speaking of little things

Let us not speak of a now
That becomes then
Before the breath on which it rested
Escapes these crafty lips.

Let us not speak of a then
That becomes now
Without so much
As a by-your-leave.

Let us speak rather
Of things little and large --
A rat hair in the Rice Krispies,
The candle wax on a glass-smoothed table cloth,
A middling key among the eighty-eight,
The expedition that did not fall to its death on Everest,
A snowshoed trail across the whitened wasteland.

Let us speak warmly of little things
As the sun sets gently
In the now and then.


Did you ever notice how LOUD thinking is?

Ostensibly, it makes no sound at all.

But in reality it exceeds the capacities of even the most horrendous heavy-metal band.

One simple thought consumes and exceeds the whole universe.

We're talkin' loud here.

And there seems to be no volume control.

I guess where the music's playing, there's nothing to do but dance.

should and shouldn't

Lately, in differing contexts, a couple of people have told me what I "should" do, how I "should" think and how I "should" act.

And I am not above doing the same to myself -- "should" be concerned with world events, "should" get out more, "shouldn't" eat so much chocolate ... "should" do any number of things.

But as regards to those who laid such imperatives at my feet, I found myself thinking, good-naturedly, "Go fuck yourself!" Whether offered directly or provided with that treacly sincerity that passes for humility or spirituality ... go away! ... I'm a little long in the tooth to lie down for someone else's imagined virtue.

And that made me wonder why, when I was mentally willing to put others in their place, I did not do the same for myself.

What might it be like in a realm without "should's?" Just a world in which what needed to be done got done ... or not.

Just for a minute or two ... no more should's.

"I am vain"

As she considered the difficulties she faced in her Buddhist practice, a friend of mine once observed, "I am vain." Of course naming the difficulty, while good, did not bring it under control or solve it, but still, it struck me as a good place to begin.

"I am vain." Gotta start somewhere.

Overtly vain people, like covertly vain ones, are proud of themselves and think they are special. In an egregious format, vanity pops up in the old, needling joke about the guy out on a first date with a girl: "Well, enough about me: Let's talk about what you think about me." (Women, the ones who accuse men of such vainglory, are never themselves susceptible, of course. :))

And likewise vanity pops up in the even older bit of doggerel:
I love myself
I think I'm grand.
I go to the movies
And hold my hand.
I put my arm
Around my waist
And when I'm fresh,
I slap my face.
Back on a more serious tack, who hasn't noticed some aspect of their lives that could use some revision? And it's a short step from noticing that something needs revision to the supposition that it is bad ... and if it's bad, how can I stamp it out or erase it or at any rate conceal it better? And from there, perhaps it's a short step to a spiritual persuasion that sits in a pew while someone else inveighs against the hell-bound tendency to be vain: It's lovely to have someone else agree with me and to apply the lash from some 'spiritual' standpoint. When someone else criticizes this bad habit, I get a bit of reprieve from lashing myself. One voice intones, "O you woeful sinner" and my own voice replies, "Amen, brother! Amen!"

This is the world in which I fully intend to stomp the bad guys into the ground. I am going to deliver the knock-out punch to vanity and spiritual life is going to give me strength ... down with the bad! Up with the good!

It's a vain hope, needless to say, but it is also as common as dishwater so ... if it turns you on, knock yourself out.

I don't know about anyone else, but I think vain people are a pain in the patoot. New shoes, new clothes, bigger houses in better neighborhoods, the requisite 2.5 children, a stunning, flaunt-worthy  education, a car, a stock portfolio, trips to Gstaad, more guns than Rambo, more power, etc. etc. ... well, I'm interested in other people but not that interested. After a while, vain people remind me of the dog-walkers in my neighborhood, the ones who allow their animals to shit on my front lawn and then don't clean it up.

And as the vanity of others can wear me out or make me cranky, so my own vanity can get pretty wearing as well. The worst part about vanity is not that it is a social or religious no-no, but that it simply doesn't assure the happiness it seems to promise. No matter how great my fascination with my life and no matter how I try to gussy it up, still ... well, happiness and peace always seem to remain just out of reach. Maybe if I get another pair of shoes, another promotion, another designer-label toilet brush, another accomplishment, vanity will fulfill its promise ... not.

"I am vain."

Now what?

Fighting vanity (assuming anyone wanted to) or disparaging it doesn't work very well. The virtues of self-flagellation don't work very well. And surrendering to it doesn't fill the bill either. So what will ease the burden?

My view is that this may be a chance to turn a problem into an opportunity. And the first step is to stop viewing vanity as a no-no. Vanity, like the five toes on a right foot, is just a fact. No one checks out the number of toes s/he has by asking or relying on anyone else. Yup -- I look down and there are five toes.

And, beginning with the facts of the case, there is an opportunity to consider who is being gussied up with the twinkling wonders of vanity. There is no applause-meter in this world. No temple or text can improve this scene. Just ... who is this one I take great pains to improve or place upon a higher pedestal?

"I am vain."

Who is vain and why is s/he so insistent?

Relax ... it's just a fact ... "I am vain."

Who benefits?


Pay attention.

Follow the Yellow Brick Road and my guess is that vanity, like anything else, is capable of some pretty sweet fruit.

Saturday, September 28, 2013


Just my view:

It is normal to set out on a spiritual path in search of relief. The confusions and uncertainties of life are enough to make anyone hope for some solution, some resolution, some poof that will wash away sorrows.

The only problem with spiritual discipline as a means of providing relief is this: Finding relief is just another way of arousing new and improved discord.

Certainly there may be times of smooth sailing, of bright lights and serene waters, but the ground is not firm. If you doubt this, just give it a try.

So -- if spiritual discipline is not in business to provide relief and if current circumstances are enough to make a blind man weep, what is the legitimate direction of spiritual discipline and effort?

My answer is ... don't ask me. All I know is that I would recommend spiritual discipline and practice.

Try it and see what happens.

How far away could firm ground possibly be?


Yup, you're right -- you're alone.

You're right except for one small matter:

There is no alone.

on strike!

It is a testament to the Republican success story that my jaw should drop this morning when reading in the local newspaper that a local union had gone on strike.

I grew up in an era and environment that remembered earlier bloody battles (Pullman strike et al.) workers fought in the face of an industrial base that had the cops and the military in its back pocket. The 40-hour work week, a minimum wage, and an acknowledgment that labor and management would bargain were some of the concessions won by that blood. When I was a kid, my mother had 78 rpm records of Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers (labeled "socialist" and worse) pressing the union causes. (An example was "Talking Union.")

Well, time passed, some unions got pretty autocratic in their own right, and a little at a time workers were convinced that unions were a bad thing -- something that would clog the wheels of a prosperity of which they were the beneficiaries. The management touchstone "you're lucky to have a job and if you organize, the prosperity will be diminished if not erased" took hold until in 2010 only 11.4% of workers belonged to a union....

But the trickle-down prosperity alluded to by Republicans and other have's, gained a stronger and stronger foothold. Simultaneously, it became increasingly apparent that the ones who prospered were and are those whose prosperity is largely assured ... but of course needs to be increased.

That has been the widening consensus ... unions jeopardize prosperity (and hence jobs) and even those doing the work use the argument: Unions create a drag on prosperity -- we don't want a union. The Republicans have won and a rising tide of prosperity raises some boats ever higher than others.

And it was with this in mind that I was somehow flabbergasted to read that the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 98 had gone on strike. These are the guys and gals who run the heavy equipment necessary for road, bridge and other construction projects. The strike has some no-joke fallout because of various bridge and roadway projects underway in the western Massachusetts area where I live -- an area that might be too-generally described as simpering and vaguely effete with its convocations about climate change, peace, nuclear power plants and the like. The engineers, with their cranes, bulldozers and other heavy equipment, are meat-and-potato folks. There are about 100 of them.

The issues involved are whatever they are. For myself, I am trying to get my head around a strike in hard economic times and with a Republican/sharing-is-not-caring agenda in the social catbird seat. I am trying to get my head around refighting the battles that were fought so long ago. I am trying not to feel joy on the one hand and sorrow on the other: Occupy Wall Street had no real handles to grasp -- it was a good expression of widespread malaise and anger -- but this is concrete, a battle that may be won or lost, but in any event is worth fighting. That's the hot-damn part. The sorrow part are the varying kinds and amounts of blood that are bound to be spilled.

the sky is blue

Today, for example, the sky is blue.

Were I to add further descriptions of my delight in the crisp-to-nippy air, the sunshine, the lightness of the light, the etched quality of houses and trees ... well, that would be conversationally forgivable, but let's stick with the sky:

Today, for example, the sky is blue.

The statement does not send my mind into coy interpretations or searching for deeper meaning or  profound, universal applications or wide-eyed, much-faceted awe or blissful simpering or religio-philosophical rumination or consoling despair. Applying "meaning" or "belief" would be a waste of energy.

It's a simple statement, isn't it?

The sky is blue.

Get a life!

Once, my Zen teacher's teacher, Soen Nakagawa Roshi, remarked: "There is birth and there is death. In between there is enlightenment."

You can bet your bottom dollar someone's gonna gussy up that blue sky.

Friday, September 27, 2013

advanced study

Waiting around for a medical 'procedure' yesterday, I picked up Forbes magazine and skimmed through an article about the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. I can't find the article to reference and I can't say that I read it all that carefully, but what I gathered was that this was a place whose
history was littered with Nobel Laureates and other very smart people ... Einstein and Oppenheimer come to mind. I do recall as well a wistful and somewhat mournful thread in the article suggesting that the thrust and importance of the place was being eclipsed by new, get-it-now, instant-gratification studies.

Wikipedia says of the institute:
There are no degree programs or experimental facilities at the Institute, and research is funded by endowments, grants and gifts — it does not support itself with tuition or fees. Research is never contracted or directed; it is left to each individual researcher to pursue his or her own goals. (Italics mine)
No degrees. No prizes, No well-defined goals. No outcomes assured. Just slow and patient and prolonged digging that may lead no where. One (wo)man, one effort and the result may turn out to be bupkus. On the other hand, one (wo)man, one effort and the result may turn out to be E=mc2.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I think everyone, at one time or another, enters -- with or without iPad -- a world of advanced study, a world in which the outcome is entirely unknown and yet the field or question positively demands examination ... slow, patient, particular and sometimes agonizing examination. It has nothing to do with money or elevated intellectual capacity and everything to do with personal commitment and courage.

And I think, as perhaps Forbes suggested, that there is something sad about an unwillingness to honor and support those who embark on a course whose result is purely unknown.

It's nice to succeed, to achieve a targeted result that was known or posited from the get-go.

But how much richer and more daring to achieve what was unknown from the get-go. Even if it's bupkus.

the lineage of ego

In Buddhism, there is an assertion of lineage -- that chain of Buddhas or teachers stretching back further and further into the past... reaching, for some, "all the way back to the Buddha" ... which seems an incomplete stretch to me, but taste is taste.

I too have literally wept tears of gratitude for those who went before me, working hard and achieving, as it seemed, much that nourished my garden. Literally, wept -- god, how generous they were! How helpful! My Zen teacher too. Wept!

But for those who credit such things as Buddhist lineage, I would suggest that the teaching of lineage is the teaching of ego... relying on something else, however true or helpful or compassionate or beloved.

And is that the best those very good teachers could do -- teach ego ... the very same flummoxed ego that set anyone on a spiritual path in the first place?

If so, they couldn't have been very good teachers, could they?

Maybe remembering the past is OK. But denigrating the teaching of very good teachers is a bit over-the-top in my book.

flaws and imperfections

Having lately discovered the French TV police procedural "Spiral," I watched a second episode last night and wondered anew why my own country's creators seemed largely incapable of coming up with something equally inventive. It's money, I suppose, but since reading subtitles is not something I do well any more, it made me a bit cranky ... but not cranky enough NOT to watch "Spiral."

The serial contains what any decent story contains -- character development, a credible plot, and quirky personalities capable of delivering more than a roguishly-unshaved jaw or tantalizing, plunging neckline. Each character has "flaws" ... which made me think:

The search or longing for unflawed perfection may be as strong as it is ballyhooed ... as it is in spiritual adventure. But it is also rather strange. In its simplest form, such purity just means someone might wish to be free of the "flaws" that currently upset life's applecart -- a kind of get-thee-behind-me-Satan longing: Boy, if I could just experience an 'unconditioned realm,' everything would be a lot better! Text heaps upon compelling text; spiritual formats hold out and extol this carrot. And it's nothing to be smug about: The yearning can be heartfelt and inspire some truly daunting efforts.

But even if only intellectually ... if anyone were to attain such unflawed and unconditioned perfection -- in the very moment they attained it -- a new flaw would, ipso facto, be born. And what is true in intellectual gyration is also true in quite personal fact. Simply put, there is no capacity to outrun the flaws ... which is lucky since what is flawed -- just as in the TV serial -- is far more interesting than what is not.

I wonder if there is another word, something less hoity-toity and derogatory than "flaw" or "imperfection."

Maybe it's like ironing a recently-washed shirt: Of course there are wrinkles and of course they need some smoothing, but there is nothing "imperfect" or "flawed" about the shirt. The shirt will not be more perfect -- perhaps even unto the 'unconditioned realm' -- after various warming efforts have been applied. Those efforts need to be applied if you don't want to look like some stumble-bum, but they are no guarantee you won't get fired.

Well, I'm just digging myself in deeper and deeper here. What the TV suggested to me was that the flaw IS the perfection and the perfection IS the flaw. The one without the other is just legerdemain. Say "it's all one" and you've screwed the pooch. Say "it's the same, but different" and you've screwed the pooch again. Say "there is perfection" or "there is imperfection" and the problems simply mount up. Say, "there is perfection and it's just one shirt" and it's oopsy-daisy anew. Perhaps there is "unexcelled perfection" but what happens when you mention it? Isn't it just more bullshit on the pile you were trying to dig yourself out from under?

I dunno. It just seems to me that "flaws" and "imperfection" get an unduly bad rap even as "perfection" and "purity" get an unwarranted good one. Why speak Urdu in a land where English prevails?

Turning down the volume might help a little.

Or, who knows, maybe even a lot.

I believe I'll try to leave perfection and imperfection to their own devices. There are shirts to iron.

Smooooth sailing.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

shopping for peace

 Passed along in email:
A study suggests that those imbued with a high degree of acquisitiveness (misnamed "materialism" in the linked article) tend to go on buying benders when confronted by stress or suffering from a background-hum fear of death.

uplifting and bogus?

Passed along in email was this ... for Christians and others in the audience. Snopes, the investigator of malevolent and benevolent scams, says: "As to whether this particular story is true, we haven't yet turned up any references to a Pastor Jeremiah Steepek (or similar variants of  that name) other than this account."

Pastor Jeremiah Steepek transformed himself into a homeless person and went to the 10,000 member church that he was to be introduced as the head pastor at that morning.
He walked around his soon to be church for 30 minutes while it was filling with people for service, only 3 people out of the 7-10,000 people said hello to him.
He asked people for change to buy food – no one in the church gave him change.
He went into the sanctuary to sit down in the front of the church and was asked by the ushers if he would please sit in the back.
He greeted people to be greeted back with stares and dirty looks, with people looking down on him and judging him.
As he sat in the back of the church, he listened to the church announcements and such.
When all that was done, the elders went up and were excited to introduce the new pastor of the church to the congregation.
“We would like to introduce to you Pastor Jeremiah Steepek.” The congregation looked around clapping with joy and anticipation.
The homeless man sitting in the back stood up and started walking down the aisle. The clapping stopped with all eyes on him.
He walked up the altar and took the microphone from the elders (who were in on this) and paused for a moment then he recited,
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
‘The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
After he recited this, he looked towards the congregation and told them all what he had experienced that morning. Many began to cry and many heads were bowed in shame.
He then said, “Today I see a gathering of people, not a church of Jesus Christ. The world has enough people, but not enough disciples. When will YOU decide to become disciples?”
He then dismissed service until next week.

gotcha Karma

Circumstances I prefer not to detail have landed in my life and led to a thought train like this:

An upside-down horseshoe assures ...
Buddhism is not a matter of superstition. Gautama did not roam the earth and speak his words so that others might run away and hide in suppositions they could not verify. Gautama, if I am not mistaken, taught people to be happy and whole ... not superstitious.

Consider the notion of karma.

Karma may very well be true: Now prove it!

Spiritual students who set foot upon the path -- who decide to implement what they have heretofore only believed or hoped -- invariably find themselves confronted by a wall of misunderstanding. Bit by bit they learn to shoulder responsibility for those parts of their lives that led, in the search for happiness, to unhappiness. This is not easy. Still, bit by bit, they learn to see their misfortunes more clearly. Attachment, to take one example, is clearly a precursor to sorrow and a little at a time, through investigation, that recognition seeps in. I am attached. I am responsible. And, perhaps, what a jackass I have been. The bad news is my responsibility.

But is this recognition and the effort to clarify it enough to assure happiness? I would say not.

Along this road of shouldering responsibility and looking matters more surely in the eye, the notion of karma may arise and may offer a convenient explanation to a complex and daunting problem. If all things are the effect of previous causes, then perhaps it was my karma -- even into previous lives -- that explains the misfortunes of the present. Put baldly, I deserve misfortune because I was a bad person at some time in the past. This notion may be soothing and satisfying. It may also relieve the student of the burden of shouldering responsibility: Life is crappy because I was mean, nasty and awful in some other time and place ... oh goody, an explanation I can get my head around!

This is a misunderstanding seeking to clarify a misunderstanding. But that doesn't mean it can't take root: All the misfortunes of today become elucidated in known or unknown bad actions in the past. It's sort of consoling ... having an explanation: Bad stuff in the past, ergo bad stuff in the present. Karma addresses all the bad stuff.

But the explanation fails even on its own terms: If the misfortunes of today are contingent and the misfortunes of an earlier time, what happens to the good stuff, the happy stuff, the fulfilling and enriching stuff ... you may have the bad news nailed down with "karma," but what simultaneous willingness is there to explain away the good stuff? What honesty is there in it?

In Zen there is a saying: The hard stuff is easy. It's the easy stuff that's hard.

Shouldering responsibility for good news is, if anything, harder, than shouldering responsibility for the bad news... assuming anyone were to premise an appreciation on the gotcha doctrine of karma.

But more important than concocting an unverifiable explanation of life is the problem of Buddhism itself and what it aims to accomplish. Isn't Buddhism as depicted by Gautama a way that says thank you? Isn't it gathering together a willingness and actualization that sees the good stuff come and go, sees the bad stuff come and go and says, without a backward glance, "thank you." Of course running around saying thank you like some do-good robot is not what I mean. I mean a thank you without words ... an equanimity that sees and is reluctant to put superstitious explanations to work.

No one can grasp -- and therefore know -- the past. Approximations? Yes. An unadulterated knowing and grasping? A pipe dream ... and one too often littered with a superstition that simply cannot inspire equanimity or the happiness that Gautama outlined.

It's not enough to moan endearingly when misfortune strikes: "It's my karma." This would be a superstitious Buddhism, a witch-doctor world. Nor yet would it be enough to observe, smooth as phony-baloney silk, that good times are likewise "my karma." Buddhism is more honest than this sort of approach.

Shoulder the responsibility for the bad times.
Shoulder the responsibility for the good ones.
Learn to say thank you.
Learn that saying thank you is not enough.
Relax ...

Have a cup of coffee.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

friends and enemies

A good Christian (wo)man will have friends and enemies.
A good (wo)man will be welcome everywhere.

A good Buddhist (wo)man will have friends and enemies.
A good (wo)man will be welcome everywhere.

Friends and enemies come and go.
Strive to be welcome in the world.

a few old jokes ...

... stolen, based on my own limited taste, from this site

-- When I heard that oxygen and magnesium hooked up I was like OMg.

-- An Englishman, a Frenchman, a Spaniard and a German are walking down the street together. A juggler is performing on the street but there are so many people that the four men can't see the juggler. So the juggler goes on top of a platform and asks: "Can you see me now?" The four men answer: "Yes." "Oui." "Si." "Ja."

-- A student travelling on a train looks up and sees Einstein sitting  next to him. Excited, he asks:  "Excuse me, professor. Does Boston stop at this train?"

-- Jean-Paul Sartre is sitting at a French café, revising his draft of Being and Nothingness. He says to the waitress: "I'd like a cup of coffee, please, with no cream." The waitress replies: "I'm sorry, Monsieur, but we're out of cream. How about with no milk?"

visceral woes, visceral understanding

To which do spiritual aspirants owe a greater debt -- the good stuff or the bad? I'm not entirely sure that this isn't a bogus question, but, for this morning, I'll put my money on the bad ... the flaws, trip-stones, fall-downs, failures, and other much-examined mistakes.

Last night I re-watched a movie called "There Be Dragons," a B-ish tale whose narrative threads wove through the Spanish Civil War and included the enacted person of Josemaría Escrivá, a priest later canonized as a saint by the Vatican. From the movie, a viewer might gather that this founder of Opus Dei was full of brimstone on behalf of the suffering masses. Historically, he seems to have been a company man. In either event, the character was portrayed as invariably good and thoughtful and occasionally plagued by doubt ... which he overcame with a movie-smooth courage. A good and virtuous man ... a man worth emulating if you listen to the Vatican or the movie. And saints or even more ordinary virtuous people do have the capacity to call out to others, to inflame their hearts with hope for a similar decency and kindness. "The better angels of our nature" are aroused and pleased and inspired.

But an unremitting reliance on the depiction of goodness wears thin. It calls out, perhaps, but does it really open anyone up to more than a mouthful of praise? Doesn't a constant diet of treacly adoration cloy and perhaps offer a hideout as life comes and goes? The Zen teacher Ta Hui once quoted someone else (too lazy to look it up) as saying, "'Too much virtue makes people crazy,'" or something similar and I agree: Adoration and praise are tiresome and, worse, can impede spiritual growth in their warming, feel-good realms. Who wants, whether within or without, to be constantly reminded of what s/he might be when s/he is forced to cope with the daily and sometimes-messy adventure of what is? I think I would argue that this question finds substance in the Christian reliance on the public relations provided by Dante Alighieri and his oh-so-precise depictions of oh-so-precise sinners in oh-so-precisely-defined rings of hell: It opens the daily-life heart to hear about the fuck-ups. The church may use this as a means of holding its dues-paying members in thrall, but I think the tactic is good in human terms: The bad boys and girls are more like me.

A number of years ago, I went to visit an acupuncturist for some arthritis in my neck. Dr. Chou was born, if I recall correctly, in Taiwan. His father, a well-to-do businessman, moved to Sweden and it was from there that Chou returned to Taiwan to study both for a medical degree and training in acupuncture. Dr. Chou was not your latter day smoothie acupuncturist. His training came at the hands of monks who had transmitted the tradition long before diploma mills and sweet talk were in vogue. And Chou, a bouncy bigamist with two wives and two children by each spouse, was not treated kindly when he first found himself among the monks. They beat him, he told me as I lay on one of his tables and felt the needles being inserted. They beat him because they recognized the arrogance that growing up in a well-heeled family can impart. Arrogance, whether in its more recognizable daily life format or in the magical-mystery-tour descriptions that can wow customers these days, was not part of acupuncture. The monks beat him and over time, Chou learned a little something: The patient and restoring that patient to a healthier state were the issue. He did what he did and that was that. He was wide open as a barn door -- peppy, honest and serious without being solemn. He charged money for his services but, because of the ancient ways, he would also treat patients for free: Such was the imperative of acupuncture... to help, to cure, to assuage irrespective of all quid-pro-quo arrogance. Between us, no topic of discussion was out of bounds, whether it concerned his two wives (how the hell did he manage that and why?), his weekly dancing sessions in the basement of his office building, or when the hell my arthritis would go away. We were part of a compact as it seemed to me ... giving and receiving without any guff. Well, the arthritis dissipated, but I felt as if I had learned a lot more: I am who I am and you are who you are and isn't that fun?

One of the greatest teachers revered in Tibetan Buddhism is Milarepa. I'm not sure if he qualifies as a saint, but he certainly was and remains a towering figure. Others will have a more refined appreciation of Milarepa, but my own interest and inspiration comes from a time before he became a heavy-hitter. When Milarepa's mother and father died, his uncle stepped in and stole the family inheritance. A penniless Milarepa was pissed. He saved his nickels and dimes and then went off to study black magic. On his return, he used his newly-acquired talents to rain down vicious hail storms on his uncle's wealth-providing crop fields. In raining down destruction, he spared one small plot of land owned by a woman who had given him shelter. It was, all in all, well-calibrated revenge that he took. Later, he went to study with his teacher, Marpa. As the monks had seen arrogance in Dr. Chou, so Marpa saw the dark places in Milarepa. Marpa busted Milarepa's balls, ordering him to build impossibly difficult towers in different, rocky locations. The story takes varying twists and turns thereafter, but concludes with what might be called a happy ending ... a much-revered teacher.

An arrogant Dr. Chou. A vengeful Milarepa. These are guys with characteristics my heart knows and opens to. Their eventual goodness, if I can call it that, is very nice, but I feel more at home with the connections -- honest, screw-the-pooch connections -- to my everyday life. These connections are something I really do know about and really can acknowledge. I may hope for goodness, but I am viscerally convinced by the peppy malfeasance life can offer up. Too much virtue makes me crazy and when not crazy, it inspires the laziness of the uninvolved. Too much virtue, too much goodness, a constant diet of how saintly anyone might be  ... all of this may be inspiring and warm, but it cloys and stands at a distance (hope and belief) from my occasionally vengeful and arrogant daily life.

Anyone practicing spiritual discipline has known a time when the vast array of difficulties can seem overwhelming. If it's not one thing, it's another! Pride, jealousy, irreverent horniness, anger, theft passing as business ... the list is endless. And just about the time one thing is clarified, another murky characteristic rises up and and demands attention. Where, in heaven's name, is the happy ending?! Moments and days and weeks and years pass by and everyone does what they can -- focusing, watching, delving, investigating. These things are intimate ... and daunting. All those characteristics anyone might long to be free of ... free so as to be free.

The bad stuff.

In one sense, the bad stuff is a wonderful spur to spiritual discipline ... sort of like sitting in a graveyard threatening yourself with death and the fear it arouses. Get thee behind me, Satan! Institutions can play this card endlessly ... all the horrific ways you will burn and scream if you don't take up a virtuous course. You can sort of see why they might do it ... under cover of goodness, you threaten someone else and receive money for doing so. But even leaving aside institutions, individuals can do the same to themselves, threatening one damnation or another if you don't get anger or whatever under control.

The bad stuff doesn't cloy. It inspires heart-felt action, perhaps. No one wants to lie down in a world of hurt when they might lie down in a world of yum.

But I have a hunch that there is a deeply-known reason why anyone might focus on the bad stuff -- bone deep and beyond all cloying belief in and hope for what is good. That knowledge lies at the inside of all of our buffeting insides. And that knowledge is that the bad stuff -- the day-to-day comings and goings and confusions and fires of any individual's quite personal and arrogant and vengeful and loving and living life -- is and must be the home of all peace. There is no icing this knowledge, this cake. To be at ease in hell is the only heaven that makes any bone-deep sense. It has nothing to do with virtue or praise, which may have acted as tentative spurs. There is no return home when you are already at home ... at home with all the bad stuff and perhaps a souvenir sign reading, "Bless this mess."

Inspiration from the good stuff and inspiration from the bad. It's all so inspiring until the need for inspiration seems to dissolve into a cup of coffee or a rousing symphony or a well-aimed left hook or a kiss behind the tree.

Bless this mess.

So to speak.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

the United (?) States

I don't agree, but I don't not agree either with a letter to the editor of the local paper this morning. It may be "impossible" or "childish" or "idealistic" or "ridiculous" or "simplistic," but I also found it delightful that someone might posit, without apparent venom, the idea that there was nothing sacrosanct about the "united" in United States and that current governmental dysfunction might be mitigated if there were a little less "united."
Isn’t it time to recognize the reality that the United States is no longer a single country? Rick Perry — out of pique or sincerity — suggested that Texas might secede.
Why not — and why only Texas?
If it is more palatable, let the blue states secede. It doesn’t matter. (We can flip a coin to determine who gets to be called the United States).
Right now, the two sides are horribly entrenched with no exit. So why not create two (or more) countries composed of communities and peoples that are united in purpose and beliefs. 
There is nothing sacred about having all 50 states in a single country — there used to be only 13!
I know this sound ridiculous and perhaps will never happen; but I think it deserves serious consideration. From my perspective, the people of Massachusetts and other progressive states are being held back by a set of values diametrically opposed to mine and the community in which I live.
Instead of continuing to argue as to who is right and who is wrong, let’s just end the game by agreeing to disagree, by saying you go your way and I’ll go mine.
In my scenario, states like Massachusetts get to implement universal health care, raise the minimum wage, offer food stamps and provide early childhood services; states such as Texas can have a system in which there is minimum government involvement. If it turns out well for them — people prosper, income rises, health improves — then good for them.
No doubt the separation will be difficult. They always are. Untangling would be quite complex. But the 50 states came together; they can figure out a way to split apart, especially if it meets the needs and concerns of both sides.
Kenneth Dym
 'Reasonable' people may yelp in fear or outrage or dismissal, but I appreciate the fact that Mr. Dym took the trouble to verbalize his non-venemous thoughts and, more, that the local paper printed them.

Concrete implementation or dismissal of Mr. Dym's proposal requires an intellectual exercise that is too vastly complex even to be considered. For this reason, we can probably kiss his proposal good-bye. But to the extent that the proposal encourages a reconsideration of the blithe conclusion that  the United States is somehow "united" -- well, I think that is good for the country, be it united or fragmented.

Monday, September 23, 2013

self-referential 'compassion'

For those interested in the fatal flaws attending on new and improved and 'caring' conflict-resolution agendas in spiritual settings, I thought this blog post -- "straw man koan -- deconstructing the PVL Conflict Resolution Guide" -- had a nicely generic feel to it. The title may be Germanic and the post long, but the thoughtfulness -- whether in Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist or any other arena -- struck me as on-target: Phony-baloney is phony-baloney.

In spiritual settings, so much of what is improved in the wake of sexual woundings or other sorts of quite personal malfeasance is aimed at preserving institutions or the people who run those institutions that those who were wounded in the first place are hung out to dry ... left, if anything, more lonely and bereft than they were in the first place.

The concrete issues may be a tough nut to crack, but the sort of self-referential 'compassion' exhibited in many spanky-new, corrective and improved policies deserves to be called out in my opinion.

the garbageman

The air is crisp, the sun is brilliant, the newspaper is thinner than a Dickensian waif, and I seem to be sick enough to consider a trip to the doctor.

Soon enough, the garbageman will come to pick up recent accumulations and leave buckets and barrels emptied and awaiting ... new accumulations.

It's not the plump and red-cheeked newspaper itself that I miss especially but rather the part it plays in some imagined environment of my life. Once it provided a shared thread as others too picked it up off the front stoop and carried it to where a cup of coffee might accompany its bits of information. A slower time, I suppose, but the slowness carried a potential for seriousness that speed cannot... and that's much the same that pioneers might suggest of my own imaginary times.

Shuffling around in tattered socks, grumbling about times past ... I can live with it and yet wonder mildly what similar reminiscence my children will have. Will they look back on a time when the big and blowsy Internet coursed through their veins? Will they remember the fateful day when the electricity went off and ...?

Will the garbageman ever run out of business? I doubt it.

It's just what the doctor ordered.

Sunday, September 22, 2013


Sometimes I wonder why my kids seem so incurious.

Perhaps, as with anyone else, they simply keep their curiosities to themselves. Curiosity unties the shoelaces of conclusion and safety and when your shoelaces are untied, there is a good chance you will fall on your ass.

Of course there is a good chance you will fall on your ass even when your shoelaces are tied, which makes me wonder still more why, on occasion, there seems to be a deliberate lack of curiosity.

Spiritual endeavor is a good case in point, but then, so is anything else: Don't you want to KNOW ... know who is God, know gravity's essence, know why ants wiggle their antlers, know ... anything... pick a subject.

Maybe incuriosity is just another way of expressing curiosity.

I'm just curious.

it's man-made, but what is it?

It’s been called a war weapon, a candlestick, a child’s toy, a weather gauge, an astronomical instrument, and a religious symbol -- just to name a few. But what IS this mystery object, really? 

slivers of news

News ...
Diplomats from a number of European countries and the UN have reacted angrily after Israeli soldiers intervened to prevent them delivering aid to Bedouins in the West Bank....
The homes in Khirbet al-Makhul were knocked down on Monday after Israel's High Court ruled that they had been built without the correct permits.
BBC Middle East correspondent Kevin Connolly, in Jerusalem, says the Bedouin villagers of Khirbet al-Makhul have refused to leave the land where they say they have grazed sheep for generations.
I don't suppose it would do any good to ask if Israel had been built with the "correct permits." Sometimes I think that if arrogance were accorded an award, both Israel and the United States (among others) would win blue ribbons.

The Venezuelan government has taken over a toilet paper factory to avoid any scarcity of the product.
The National Guard has taken control of the plant, and officers will monitor production and distribution.
Earlier this year officials ordered millions of toilet rolls to be imported to counter a chronic shortage.
And toilet paper is not the only thing in short supply in Venezuela.

-- The lack of diapers can create serious family difficulties that reach beyond the smell and the cries.

-- In other to-be-expected news, China's high-profile corruption scapegoat, Bo Xilai, has been sentenced to a life term in prison. Those imagining that the sentence presages an attack on China's systemic corruption would be well-advised not to hold their breath. Wealth is such a wily customer. And if you don't believe me, just ask the pope. And there has been more bloodshed in Kenya, Pakistan and Iraq.

Dismal, dismal-er, dismal-est: The older I get, the less easy I find all this to ingest.


Silence, like a lot of other commodities, is a strange duck. Everyone just knows what it is, but in order to express what they know, they have to make quite a lot of noise.

Silence can inspire lyricism -- the pristine mountain lake at dawn after too long stuck in some 'productive' cubicle in the bowels of a scurrying city.

Silence can be depressing -- as when no one seems to care about a wracking illness or a grinding poverty or a scraping loss.

Silence can be keeping your mouth shut, but when you examine it, that's not quite silent either.

There's the silence of the meditation hall, the silence of the graveyard, the silence of  darkness, the silence of light, the silence of salt, the silence of ... well, the silence of anything at all.

When it comes to silence, I just know what I'm talking about, but do I?

In the army, I worked in a sound lab for a while, helping to edit language tapes that would be distributed to students as a means of learning their given languages. My job was to excise the swallows and hesitations and spit sounds that people making the tapes invariably emitted. Russian, Chinese, German, Urdu ... every speaker had such glitches.

And one day, the guy who ran the lab came into my small room and asked me to come with him. He placed me in a sound studio in front of a microphone. All he wanted me to do was to sit still and make no sound as he recorded it. What he was after was "studio sound" that he could later splice into language tapes where there were pauses that were needed. When I asked him why he couldn't just splice in blank tape, he said it would sound unnatural and interrupt the flow of the tape. He wanted the sound of silence. (I managed about 50 seconds in front of the sensitive microphone before I was overcome by the need to swallow ... but my boss seemed pleased: He seemed to know that silence was no easy matter.)

Silence is more than keeping my mouth shut, I guess, but that still doesn't say what silence is. Silence may be something I just know, but I don't seem to know what I just know very well: If I say what it is, I miss the boat and if I don't say what it is, I miss the boat. Just knowing or certainty is as odd a duck as silence, I guess.

And if silence leaves me flummoxed, how much better informed am I about sound? The intellectually adroit may say the two -- sound and silence -- come as a pair, like peas in a pod or yin and yang, but that's just intellectually adroit and fails to address the question of what it is.

Oh well, I guess it may be good enough for most to just know and not worry about such things.

But for those who slow down long enough to wonder a bit, I think the Zen teacher Ummon may have offered a pretty good pointer:

"When you can't say it, it's there. When you don't say it, it's missing."

Noisy bugger!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Zen Buddhism

From where I sit, most religions attempt to separate disciples from their god or goal.

Zen Buddhism is not in the separation business, though lord knows there are plenty of wise and uninformed people who try to accomplish exactly that.

But if Zen is not in the separation business, it might be inferred that it was therefore in the business of unification or oneness.

But this too is not the case: How could anyone in their right mind unify what was never separated in the first place?

Anyone wanting to know what Zen Buddhism might be will have to practice and find out. Nothing else works ....

Unless, of course, anyone would prefer to spend a lifetime in some religious dungeon with nothing better to do than separate and unify.

Just noodling.


Children play inside a small boat during a vintage-style wedding celebration on Paqueta island in Rio de Janeiro, September 14, 2013.
REUTERS/Pilar Olivares

God save me from "God!"

"Wisdom" and "delusion" burnish the spiritual quest.

Given the sorrows and uncertainties and body blows that "delusion" delivers, it's nice to find a bit of silver in the gutter ... silvery, twinkling, burnished ... "wisdom" and "delusion."

But if what anyone sought in a spiritual quest turned out in fact to be twinkly as a bit of silver, wouldn't all the solemnity and seriousness, the laughter and tears, the intimate successes and failures have been in vain?

God save me from "God!"

How fortunate that life, like some reassuring, Yiddishe mama, whispers her loving consolation:

"Not to worry."


Things might be easier,
I suspect,
If all the names
Were gently set aside
And daily events were greeted
As a man greets a dog
That is wagging its tail.

Friday, September 20, 2013

global support for "Tony the Monk"

OK, I pretty much shot my energy wad this morning working on the press release that follows and figure I might as well post it here, if only to show I am not short-changing my writing addiction:



Global reaction to the savage beating of a Buddhist monk in Spencer, Okla., is on the rise, a fund-raiser for "Tony the Monk" said Friday.

"The internet site ( went up on Monday," the Rev. Kobutsu Malone, a Zen Buddhist priest, said. "Since then, donations have come mostly from the United States, but a growing number are coming from England, Spain, Norway and other European countries. We expect to see a similar generosity in the Pacific countries as word spreads."

Weera "Tony" Chulsuwan, 66, came out his front door in Spencer on Aug. 30 in order to find out what two teenagers wanted. When the young men told him they were there to rob him, he told them he had nothing worth stealing: Chulsuwan lives on a $350 per month Social Security payment and uses most of that money to shelter and feed a host of animals that others cannot or will not care for themselves.

Chulsuwan's observation did not satisfy the young men, who proceeded to beat him with a steel pipe and a logging chain. "Tony the monk," as many of his neighbors refer to him, was struck at least 15 times in the head. After beating him, the teenagers ransacked his house and then fled. Chulsuwan lay outdoors for 24 hours before regaining enough consciousness and strength to crawl inside and call 911. His attackers have not yet been apprehended.

Chulsuwan, who is now back at home and recuperating slowly, wrote a thank-you note to all those who have offered a financial hand.

"I thank you all from the bottom of my heart for the kind thoughts and prayers and too for donations to help my animals and medical bills," he wrote in part.

Malone said he was really touched by the generosity of donors.

"It's wonderful to think that in hard economic times, people can express their generosity in one small instance. With all of the suffering in the world, it's sometimes hard to know how to express concern in an effective way. Tony's case seems to have hit a nerve: Here is an situation in which the donations go directly to the wounded party. There are no intermediaries to dilute the gifts. As one donor said of her donation, 'it may not be much, but at least it's a little.'"

Malone, who lives in Sedgwick, Maine, and never personally met Chulsuwan, said he had sent the appeal to both Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama, but he was really counting on the generosity of those who lacked a high profile.

"My own sense is that people are naturally generous," he said. "They are always looking for ways to express that generosity, even when it is not easy. Tony and his animals offer a good opportunity and I think people know it."



Thursday, September 19, 2013

dough for the Dharma

Because I was reading a couple of ponderous posts about it elsewhere, I thought I would stick my oar in the water.

Most of the ranking Buddhists I have ever known, when speaking in a Buddhist context, have always spoken about two things with an almost-indelicate delicacy: Sex and money. It's as if the topics were too touching, too close-to-the-bone, too intrusive or something. These are not the smooth and soothing waters in which spiritual nostrums are wont to swim.

So ... what about paying your good money when entering a temple? Isn't the Dharma/God/Tao for free and if so, why should you pay for its emanations. And in one sense this question is sound: The Dharma is for free ... but please notice that if the person saying the word "free" had any notion of what that "free" might be, s/he wouldn't feel compelled to visit anything as off-track and unnecessary as a Buddhist center. The Dharma is free ... and if you know that for an actualized fact, why waste time playing "Buddhist?"

When the topic of money comes up vis a vis Buddhist centers, there are the invariable, fact-based references to heat, light, rent, mortgage, repairs, upkeep, food ... and whatever all else. The recollection that Buddhist monks used to be described as individuals "with one robe and one bowl" may be wonderfully delicious, but it generally overlooks the fact that not only did those monks eat out of the bowl, they also begged with it.

With so many charlatans on the loose -- $50,000 get-enlightened scams, teachers skimming, etc. -- it is hard not to be suspicious for very good reason.

I confronted the question of Dharma donations one day a number of years back when a woman who came here to practice zazen (seated meditation) bawled me out for not having a donations box. She wanted to give something ... what the fuck was the matter with me?! I didn't pretend to 'teach' the Dharma, but I had built the zendo (meditation hall), had supplied it with altar and statue and cushions to sit on, did buy incense and candles, etc. When I was still employed, I didn't begrudge any of this and was happy to share it with anyone who cared to sit as well. And even now, when living on a fixed income when I might easily use a little extra to make ends meet, I am reluctant to ask for money.

But then I realized the woman who bawled me out had a very good point. A donation, aside from anything else, provides a level playing field. It's a quid pro quo, so to speak, that says the monitor and those monitored are all in the same, practicing-Buddhism boat. There is a good deal to be said beyond that about the benefit of handing over a little hard-earned cash to the temple of choice, but let's keep it simple.

After the woman cussed me out, I was forced to rethink money, that delicately-indelicate stuff. And what I came up with is hardly a template for other centers that work 24/7. My decision was this: A. I built a donation box and hung it on the wall and B. I made up a rule that no one was allowed to make a donation until they had come at least three times. At that juncture, each person would be required to decide how much money should go in the kitty ... make a decision about how much ... and then add one penny. This worked pretty well because very few came back more than three times.

I'm not saying my solution is The Solution. Temples have bills to pay and stomachs to fill. If anyone thinks the Dharma is for free, there is a very simple recourse: Don't visit a Buddhist temple. If the Dharma really is free, why bother going in the first place?

On the other hand, I see nothing wrong with keeping an eye skinned for the scam artists.

thanks from a battered monk

Below is a thank-you note and a couple of pictures from Weera "Tony" Chulsuwan, the Oklahoma monk who was ruthlessly beaten a week ago Friday. Here is an earlier blog entry on the topic together with the means to contribute both to Tony, who is recovering with medical bills, and to the animals he cares for on a $350-per-month Social Security income. Tony is grateful, as am I, to all those who have sent or may yet send a donation.

exceptional matters

If you are determined to be an exceptional Japanese or American or Uyghur or Russian or Peruvian ...
If you are determined to be an exceptional stock broker or NASCAR driver or teacher or farmer...
If you are determined to be an exceptional lover or artist or psychologist or Scrabble player ...
If you are determined to be exceptional in thought, word and deed....

Then for heaven's sake, don't trouble yourself with Buddhism.

From where I sit, Buddhism contains no except's and for this reason offers no footing to exceptionalism, whether donned or imputed.

The refrigerator magnet observes, "Your life is so difficult that it has never been tried before."

No point in making it even more difficult, right?

No point in becoming an even bigger jackass.

No point in wasting time and energy.

Any exceptional person with a lick of sense needs to steer clear of Buddhism.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

out of the broom closet

Is there anything more assuring than stepping into a broom closet and shutting the door when confirming the spacious, sweet-smelling relaxation of the living room? God, it's good to get out of there!

And maybe codified spiritual adventures are like that.

Let's not forget that broom closets are for brooms and mops; living rooms is where we live.

Something like:

Buddha is who you are.
Dharma is what you couldn't escape on your best day.
And Sangha is the stuff you hang out with while you try to figure things out.

breaking a great vow

Yesterday, my neighbor Joe, school books under his arm, crossed the street for a chat. Joe, at 60 or better, is taking classes at a local college in order to be certified (or some similar bureaucratic name) to counsel elderly people.

Joe had just come from a class in which the teacher posed a hypothetical problem. I don't much like what-if discussions, but the day was sunny and the conversation was pleasant, so I listened.

Problem: A patient is consulting with his psychologist, a person charged with keeping patient information confidential. The patient says he is HIV positive and has not told his female partner. In addition, he has another female sex partner and hasn't told her either. And to top things off, the patient says he is planning a trip to Florida for "Spring Break" festivities -- a time for a lot of drinking and love-making ... and the patient is not planning on telling any of his hoped-for bed companions that he is HIV positive.

The shrink tries to redirect the patient's thinking, but the patient remains unconvinced: He will go on enjoying his sex and he will not tell anyone.

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is not invariably fatal, but it can be fatal and it stands a good chance of sickening the carrier in a variety of other ways. Hence, the patient is saying he is willing to kill, or at any rate harm, others in pursuit of his between-the-sheets gratification... and he won't reconsider.

What should the psychologist do, Joe's teacher asked? A vow of confidentiality is central to the relationship with any patient and yet if others are all but assured of getting harmed, what should the shrink do ... break the confidentiality vow and tell, perhaps, the cops who might enforce the various laws that forbid the harming of others, or maintain the confidential relationship with the patient?

Joe said the teacher promised to revisit the question later in the course. It was not resolved during yesterday's class. (And in the meantime, I cannot help remembering author and wit Dorothy Parker's approximate observation, "Why do we expect others to keep our secrets when we can't even keep them ourselves?")

Vows are interesting things. Some are great, some are small, but each contains within it something that is viewed with varying degrees of seriousness. Buddhists make vows -- don't kill, lie, cheat, steal, etc. Married couples take vows. Members of the security and military forces make vows. People make contractual vows when they buy a car. And "I'll meet you for dinner at 7 o'clock" is a vow as well.

The seriousness of a vow is entirely up to the one who makes it. Some vows are worth dying for and some are just self-serving hot air. But as far as I can figure out, a vow is something to take so that you can learn from breaking it. Not that all vows are necessarily broken, but a vow-maker who is not prepared for that eventuality needs to grow up... which may account for the sloppiness with which some people take their vows ... and the inane and inhuman inflexibility that others may exhibit.

I'd like to think (vow) that I would not kill ... and yet I had beef stew for dinner last night. Am I not party to the killing of a cow? (And I am not about to get into a pissing match with vegetarians who consume the food that might otherwise nourish the peaceable cow I ate last night.)

I'd like to think (vow) that I would not lie ... and yet what are the words written on this blog if not politely-cloaked lies that cannot hope to accurately convey reality?

And the laundry list goes on and on: I vow and life snickers, "Yes, dear -- do your best."

But my vows do have some usefulness in that they bring my attention to things and call for my taking responsibility. And that's the best I can come up with: Pay attention and take responsibility ... things work better that way. Sloppiness is too sloppy and inflexibility is too inflexible.

Pay attention and take responsibility.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

please 2

I am repeating this post I made earlier not just because I want to underscore its importance but also because it changes the snailmail address to which donations can be made and adds an Internet PayPal option for those who prefer to donate online.

I don't generally ask others to give to causes I think of as worthy, but I am willing to break with tradition on behalf of the Buddhist monk, Weera "Tony" Chulsuwan, a 66-year-old from Spencer, Oklahoma, who stepped out of his front door a week ago Friday and was beaten, literally, within an inch of his life by two boys, 14 and 15 -- kids whom Chulsuwan had known until that moment as neighbors.

The teenagers had come to rob Chulsuwan, a man who makes $350 a month and spends his time and energy taking care of animals that others can't or won't take care of themselves. The Oklahoma press rounded up an almost universal opinion that "Tony the Monk" was a good guy -- a guy who would give you the shirt off his back unasked.

The teenagers beat him with a steel pipe and a logging chain (apparently taunting him as they did so), stole various items from the house and then fled. Chulsuwan lay on the porch for 24 hours before he gained enough consciousness and energy to crawl to the telephone and call 911.

I will leave the sputtering adjectives that course through my mind for others to apply. All I hope is that each of us will take a few minutes, forgo a couple of containers of bottled water, empty a casually- filled penny jar, buy a stamp and address an envelope to:

Mr. Weera "Tony" Chulsuwan
c/o The Engaged Zen Foundation
P.O. Box 213
Sedgwick, Maine 04676

A PayPal donation site is also up and running.

My sense is that this guy was living on a shoestring even before the incident and now he has medical bills into the bargain.

... in the news

-- French opinion appears to be quite heated on both sides of an incident in which a French jeweler fatally shot a robber (in the back) and has been charged with manslaughter.

-- An arbitration panel has decided that a Florida couple deserves $3.1 million in compensation after an unsupervised broker put their money into a politician's real estate efforts that went belly-up.

-- In the UK, high-profile cosmologist Stephen Hawking, 71, has said he supports assisted suicide for people with terminal illnesses. He added provisos, but the suggestion, even if lacking in a wider courage, strikes me as humane and sensible and welcome.

-- The short-haired bumble bee, declared extinct in Britain in 2000, has been reintroduced (from Sweden) in the country and nested in Kent. Bees not only make the flowers grow; they also put food on our table.

the selfishness of God

Most of the spiritual persuasions I can think of encourage it: Don't be selfish. And, poking around in both ancient history and the daily news, you can see why such a tenet is called a good thing.

Don't-be-selfish, for those who agree with its pointers, feels good and wins applause. A world in which everyone were purely selfish would be a dangerous and repugnant and socially-untenable environment. And when some version of "God" is thrown into this mix, not only is don't-be-selfish attractive and consoling, it also takes on a glowing and other-worldly imperative: Not only do mom and dad inveigh against selfishness, but now there is the added weight of some everywhere-and-always rule and/or ruler.

Lord knows it is nice to live in a kinder, gentler world -- a world in which people take others into consideration and are not consumed by a me-first attitude. And lord knows there are spiritual persuasions that insist unremittingly on letting altruistic actions be the measure of whatever it is that constitutes a spiritual life. "Never mind asking who God is," they seem to say. "Just act in accordance with his/her/its tenets and all will be well. Just don't be selfish."

As I say, it's a hell of a lot nicer to live in a nice world than a nasty one. Don't-be-selfish feels good and wins socio-ethical approval ... assuming anyone travels in those circles.

But, I would say, there is a fly in this ointment. Feeling good and winning social or ethical approval is not the same as being at peace. Times of peace are times when nothing needs improving or revision or correction. From afar, such a state may seem magical or foolhardy to those imbued with a don't-be-selfish imperative. And yet a search for such a peace may linger and whisper at the edges of this life, begging quietly to be heard and realized.

What might it be like to live in a world that was not premised on push-back or consolation or virtue or endless concern for others? Those who take don't-be-selfish as a touchstone might call such a world selfish or against god's will or naughty. And they can be pretty insistent ... and still peace beckons: Why should I have to drop dead in order to find a little unfettered peace? Why should I accede to the much-applauded-but-unproven premise that not being selfish is the way to a selfless peace?

It's a risky business, I grant, but my view is that a world premised on others cannot provide peace. Altruism as a push-back against selfishness results in endless push-back ... which is not the same as peace.

The only option when it comes to peace is to turn the flashlight around --  to investigate not just what is without, but what more tellingly is within. The only way out of selfishness -- or what Buddhists might call ego -- is in. And this suggestion itself takes nerve -- not least because it has all the trappings of a profound selfishness. Is goodness or virtue or the rule of law really enough when it comes to peace? Only an investigation within can answer that question.

My Zen teacher once said, "Without ego, nothing gets done." The search for selfless peace involves doing things and so, assuming anyone might agree with my teacher, peace requires a use of selfishness. Like the martial artist, individuals employ the power of the enemy as a means of attaining victory. The investigation begins within ... selfishly investigating selfishness... my selfishness.

And perhaps the first thing anyone might notice about selfishness is that it relies for its meaning on others. Without other things or people or events, selfishness has no meaning. As a corollary or further descriptive, selfishness implies separation. I do nice things for you; you do nice things for me --  and this separation creates a foundation for altruism and self-centeredness. We validate each other for better or worse.

But wait! Whether imagined or true, does a time when nothing needs improving or revision or correction require validation? Validation, like altruism, requires separation and the question probably needs to be asked, "Is separation true?" If a world filled with separations -- however kindly intended -- doesn't provide an unquestioned peace, perhaps separation could use some investigation.

It may seem unendingly complicated and insoluble: Investigation requires separation and yet what is sought is not divisible. What a clusterfuck! Maybe it would be easier to just act the part of the humble altruist.

Still, once started on the investigative road, there is no turning back short of conceding defeat, believing in a god who knows best without knowing who or what that god might be.

Without ego, nothing gets done and at first the goal, however badly defined, draws the investigator forward. Years and years may pass. Criticisms and failures may mount. Deeper and deeper the rabbit hole seems to go. The effort is so enormous that there is hardly any energy left over for anything so lofty as a "goal." Bit by bit the effort is the effort because it is the effort ... that's all. Validation and separation just take too much damned energy. Screw unquestioned peace! This is what I do, that's all. The rabbit hole leads the way.

Without ego, nothing gets done. Where at first the ego seemed to pose the challenge, now, a little at a time, it is the "nothing gets done" that seems to find a footing. Now, instead of helping little old ladies to carry their groceries because it was the unselfish thing to do, you carry the groceries without recourse to a "because." It's just what you do and what you do accords with the "nothing" that gets done. Nothing ethereal or mystical -- it's just circumstances and action and the composition of the moment. To call it selfless or selfish would be like trying to piss into the wind ... don't blame me if you get piss on your shoes.

The little old lady says, "thank you."

You say, "you're welcome."

Could anything be more peaceful than that? Does anything need improving or revision or correction? Where can selfishness or selflessness enter? Where can anything as useless as separation or oneness stand?

Leave the altruism to the lightweights.

Be peaceful.