Thursday, October 31, 2013

religion and science

Others have probably seen this already, but a friend first sent it to me yesterday. In three segments (Einstein, the Dalai Lama, Richard Feynman), it considers the intersections and divisions of science and religion. Leaving aside the appended classroom questions, it's a nice little presentation.

"stoush" -- surprise for the day

Who doesn't like a nice little surprise -- some bolt from out of the blue, something entirely unexpected?

Yesterday, it came for me in the form of an English word I had never in my life heard of. No big deal, but still, kind of nifty:

STOUSH ... can be used as a noun or verb ... fight or argument. The Aussies seem to get credit for it.

Dalai Lama on teacher/student roles

Passed along in email today was this 1993 interview with the Dalai Lama which may or may not have been published before: Ethics in the Teacher-Student Relationship: The Responsibilities of Teachers and Students. [From notes taken during the meeting of H.H. the Dalai Lama and Western Buddhist Teachers in Dharamsala, 1993]

Pretty cogent and up-to-date for something that is 20 years old.

Koun Franz on Zen teacher/student links

Taste is taste and I've got mine ...

In general, I don't like latter-day appreciations of Zen Buddhism. They are too frilly, too self-important, too slickly tricky-dick, too caring and sharing and compassionate without compassion for my taste. Too often they set aside what is important while donning the robes of importance. Sometimes I go so far as to become infuriated. As I say, it's just a matter of taste: I don't like anchovies either.

Nor yet do I like pimping for latter-day appreciations, crooning self-importantly about how powerful or profound or marvelous or on-the-mark they might be. Ick, ick and more ick. It's just my generalized taste.

But for every 'rule' there is an exception and I am not immune.

Today I read Zen monk Koun Franz' blog entry ("My Teacher Doesn't Get Me")and was touched. I was touched not because I thought he was right, especially, but rather by the fact that he took a shot at something I think of as a meat-and-potatoes issue in Zen (or perhaps any Buddhist) practice -- the desire on the part of the student to receive approval and love from his or her teacher.

Imagine: If love and approval on the part of the teaching were all Zen practice amounted to, how much better off could the student possibly be? Would s/he really be able to thank the teacher or would s/he instead simply be reconfirmed in the same old mind-set that brought him/her to Zen practice in the first place ... and Zen practice could be reduced to a self-aggrandizing hug festival? Tea and cookies ... how goddamned marvelous!

Everyone wants to be loved, but is that really love?

Koun Franz is much nicer than I am in asking the question.

sayonara NASCAR

On the car radio, I heard out of the corner of my ear that television networks Fox and ESPN had failed to bid on the NASCAR races they have made so much money on in the past. The television fan base was dwindling. The second-hand adrenalin rush of speed on the race track had eroded in the face of a younger demographic that had fallen in love with the speed of their electronic devices.

NASCAR is an acronym for "National Association for Stock Car Racing." Disparaging onlookers sometimes unfurl its meaning as "Non-Athletic Sports Cars And Rednecks." Whatever the definition, NASCAR racing involves a lot of cars traveling around an oval track at speeds of 150+ miles per hour. Many of the cars are less than six inches from the bumper of the car ahead. The potential for spectacular crashes is obvious. It's tense, despite the comic's sarcastic-but-true description of, "Oh look! They're making a left turn! Oh look! They're making another left turn!"

Speed is exciting. Fast is alluring, especially when slow seems to rule the human roost. Speed takes me beyond my plodding confines. I can soar with speed, even if it's just imagined or second-hand. But now, it seems, the willingness to believe in and crave the speed offered by NASCAR has been diminished or supplanted by the magical and lightning-fast connections the Internet can achieve. Give me aps and give them to me now!


Not that NASCAR is going broke in the face of Fox' and ESPN's turned backs. NBC has signed on for $4.4 billion over ten years. But still, a dwindling fan base cannot be discounted. The fickle have moved on to something more magnetic, something faster, some new-and-improved racetrack on which there is no checkered flag. I think NASCAR on television is dumber than a box of rocks, but I also feel a wispy sense of loss I can't quite get a handle on.

NASCAR, if I am not mistaken, had its roots in a southern and western tradition of distilling home-made booze. The tradition of making money by selling intoxicants was hardly new. George Washington owned the largest distillery in the country in the 18th century.** By the time Prohibition came along (1920-1933) the enormous thirst of the nation meant that there was money to be made ... but you had to outrun the cops and other enforcement officials. High-speed chases in which a thirsty nation rooted for the bad guys who were just making a laudable living by their own hard work were a part of the mix. And NASCAR evolved not just as an entertainment, but with a whispered memory of the daring young men who thumbed their individualistic noses at the idiotic establishment.

NASCAR was not just speed, it was also the woo-hoo of individualism flipping the bird at intrusive, goodie-two-shoes conformist dimwits. Up with the little guy!

And perhaps that is a part of my wispy sense of loss as NASCAR devolves as a focal point, even if it is not my own. I like rooting for the little guy because little guys are the guys on whom the big boys, frequently without acknowledgment, rest their paraded laurels.

But I sense as well that I am probably off-base to feel sad. What is the Internet -- at least for the moment -- if not the power and speed of the little guy? With blinding speed, people in Chile can confer and connect with people in China. Public opinion may be a genie that China and other big boys would prefer to stuff back into a dimwit bottle, but -- woo-hoo! -- they can't do it (yet), not least because the money that buttresses their power and prestige rests on ... oh shit! ... the Internet.

The Internet is fast and powerful and woo-hoo ... even as it strikes me as effete and gutless and diminishing of the human capacity to seek out an actual-factual checkered flag. NASCAR may be dumber than a box of rocks, but there is a can-do sweat and courage and perhaps glory that I have a hard time attributing to a 141-character text message... a message that seems to suggest a social connection even as it insists on an even greater human divide.

Speed. It's heady stuff.

** I was going to mention here that John F. Kennedy probably never would have become president without the rum-running millions his father, Joseph, made during Prohibition only to discover that despite all the second- and third-hand stories told, there seems to be no concrete evidence that Joseph actually was a bootlegger.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

John Cleese on seriousness/solemnity

Passed along in email: Seriousness and solemnity in a nutshell:

newspaper column, Evan S. Dobelle

What follows is one of several rejected columns I submitted to my local paper on a topic that probably interests no one but me. I am using this blog as a file box.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013
(Published in print: Wednesday, October 30, 2013)
It is hard not to posit that this is true because Dobelle seems to have had practice where the university trustees have not.

It is hard not to imagine that, yes, Dobelle will be fired in the end, but he will leave town with a fistful of dollars that might otherwise have been spent on the needs of the university. And if any of this is true, it is hard not to wonder if those trustees were asleep at the wheel when they hired Dobelle in the first place.

Evan Dobelle was warmly welcomed at WSU in 2007. There was no mention at the time that Dobelle had been fired by the University of Hawaii in 2004. Trustees in Hawaii at first wanted to fire Dobelle “for cause,” a phrase that would have excused the university from paying him the $2.26 million in severance written into his contract. Dobelle hired a lawyer and, by the time the dust settled, he left town with $1.83 million and a promise not to sue the university, among other stipulations.

As is usual in kerfuffles like the one at the University of Hawaii, no one ever got around to detailing what actual “cause” for firing there might have been in Dobelle’s case. Lawyers made sure of that. But it seems fair to guess that the trustees were not picking a fight with Dobelle because of the way he parted his hair. They were, for one reason or another, “concerned” (the bureaucratic word), or “ticked off” (the street translation).

Dobelle’s current difficulties center on his domestic and overseas spending with university and Westfield State Foundation credit cards.

I have no doubt that Dobelle’s career may include some well-deserved kudos — that his career is, as his current lawyer Ross Garber alleges in a 40-page federal lawsuit filed in Springfield, “long celebrated.” But in the same way a police or journalistic entity might consider the background of a suspect or politician, Dobelle’s adventures at the University of Hawaii strike me as relevant and perhaps revealing.

According to the Honolulu Star Bulletin, “Dobelle’s contract defined ‘cause’ as either conviction for a felony offense; a determination by doctors that he is mentally unstable or otherwise unable to perform the duties of his office; or conduct that constitutes ‘moral turpitude,’ bringing public disrespect or ridicule upon the university.” Whatever the foundations of the 2004 dustup — whether spending habits or something else — Dobelle came out a winner in Hawaii and three years later landed a job as president at a smaller institution that is testing his legal expertise of the past.

My money is on Dobelle: He knows the game and is good at playing it.

But the trustees who I imagine will write the eventual check deserve questioning. Finding out the substance of the issues at the University of Hawaii is hardly rocket science ... pick up the phone, ask around. Academics gossip as well as any Hollywood star.

Did the issue there have anything to do with spending habits? In the course of vetting Dobelle, did the WSU trustees get to the substance of the matter and find out what particular flaw or flaws occasioned the flap? If they didn’t, why not?

And if they did, did they add language to Dobelle’s WSU contract that might short-circuit the activities of the past and forestall them in the future ... as for example now?

Were any red flags raised about this potential employee? And even if the trustees win the case, how much will be spent on lawyer’s fees? Of course, there may already be contractual language that will allow WSU trustees to avoid writing a check to Evan S. Dobelle.

Others may be more sanguine, but I, for one, am not holding my breath.

Adam Fisher lives in Northampton and is a regular contributor to the Gazette.

finding your voice

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins was on public television last night. The occasion for the three- or four-minute interview was his latest collection, "Aimless Love."

Although I know little-to-nothing about his poetry, still I have felt drawn to Collins ever since I heard him remark in a radio interview, "Meeting your favorite author is one of life's most reliable disappointments." The observation was made with a gentle, almost-shy tone of voice that employed its perfectly-sharpened stiletto deftly. I liked him.

And as a result, I watched/listened to the TV interview. Sitting there, his face somewhere between handsome and hound-dog, Collins played the plug-the-book game. He had the beginnings of that sunken look that overcomes all old people (the one I see in the bathroom mirror), but he was pleasant to hear, however he looked.

And one of the topics touched on in the interview was how and when he found his "voice." Collins said he had known early on that he wanted to be a poet, but it took some doing. Poets, when he was growing up, were portrayed as lonely and tortured souls and for a long time he tried to be equally depressed. The problem was that he had had a happy childhood, relatively speaking, and so, between the lines he spoke on TV, there was a disconnect ... poets were depressed; he wanted to be a poet; but he wasn't especially depressed. It took some time to wriggle and squirm and finally arrive at a place that was both honest and poetry... a kind of Norman Rockwell of poets as I see him from an uninformed distance -- plain and accessible as salt and yet in that plainness, not plain at all.

I guess everyone tries to find a "voice." The search may be more imperative for those in the arts, but still I think everyone tries, one way or another. Where is the honesty? Where is the ease? Where is the plain-old plain-old that is fresh as warm bread? Where is the world in which the imitation and awe drop away and, well, it's easy.

It's pretty easy to spot the phonies -- the one's who mask with sincerity their copy-cat cover-ups... so wise, so profound, so peaceful in another man's shoes. But it's also a pleasure to meet up with the real McCoy, someone who speaks with his own voice, someone (perhaps the one in the bathroom mirror) who is neither a coward nor a fool. It's nothing special, and yet ... it's a pleasure.

I wrote my first story in the fourth grade. It came to me as I lay in bed the night before I wrote it and it struck me as marvelous... something drawing on the comic books I read ... something about a heroic mouse, who, in the end, stuffed a rag in a car's gas tank and lit it ... BOOM! My creation! How kool was that? Years and years and years passed. Comic books turned into classics and other more tawdry tales. I wallowed in various writers and wished I could be as good. Hell, I even tried to be as good, only to see or hear or suspect the tinny sounds of someone else's voice. I wanted to be as important and meaningful as those I loved ... and it all came out ... as often as not, as phony as a three-dollar bill. It just wasn't right.

Be yourself. Find your own voice. Live your own life. How the hell do you do that? I wanted to be a writer and yet at every turn, the art got in the way.

The trip-stone, of course, was not so much that I wanted to write well using whatever my own "voice" might be, but the fact that I wanted to be loved. I wanted to create what I wanted to create ... and then be welcomed into some warming social framework which, although it might not make me poet laureate or Nobel Prize winner, at least wouldn't make me feel as lonely as the art/craft of writing could. I wanted to be meaningful and loved, perhaps with the same smiles a group of regulars might greet a late arrival at the corner pub.

I have a hunch it's pretty much the same in any life -- trying to find the easy and pleasing voice that no longer relies on the arts of others... a voice that no longer even relies on itself. Everyone wriggles and squirms, I suspect, when it comes to finding a place of ease. There's no way one (wo)man can tell another. There's no transmissible way.

Everyone wriggles and squirms and tries on meanings and beliefs as they might try on shoes. And when at last the perfect pair is found, well, they're shiny and new for a while and then, what the hell -- it's just a pair of shoes.

Writers aren't "writers" any more than Buddhists are "Buddhists."

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

spiritual arson

Around here, the local newspaper is following up on a terrific fire that decimated a strip mall valued at $1.3 million. Eleven shops and two apartments were gutted in the Sunday evening blaze. No one, to my knowledge, has yet mentioned a word that is probably on police-investigators' minds: Arson.

When times get tough, arson and its potential for subsequent insurance pay-outs is not uncommon. Proving arson is so difficult that insurance companies seldom expend time or energy investigating: Arson is a small percentage of overall income on the one hand and, on the other, even if you proved it were arson, there's the further chore of figuring out whodunit. It's cheaper to make the pay-out.

And it occurs to me that spiritual adventure, when it's any good, is precisely like a successful arson fire: The blaze is deliberately set, sometimes with the help of accelerants, and, when the crime is a success, all of the evidence of a crime has been burned out of existence.

Were there any evidence of the preceding crime, an arson, like a spiritual life, could hardly be counted as a success.

spiritual yawwwwwning

I once heard that my Zen teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa, then-abbot of Ryutaku monastery in Japan, had decided not to attend the chanting traditionally performed as part of morning services. He had done it for so many years and now he no longer would.

The tale, which I heard third-hand, aroused a bit of tch-tch'ing in my mind. Chanting was part of the job description, part of the format, part of the comme-il-faut of Zen discipline within the monastery walls. And Zen practice, like others, spends a good deal of overt and covert time bringing to heel the notion that although there is unfettered freedom, that doesn't mean you can do anything you want ... anything, like, perhaps, skipping morning chanting.

At the time I heard the story, Kyudo was getting along in years. He died in 2007 at the age of 80. He had accepted the role of abbot reluctantly several years earlier ... and I do not suspect him of playing the Japanese,  toe-in-the-sand, ask-three-times game that others play: I honestly believe he didn't much want to be abbot. Still, he took on the chore: He was stuck with the farm of having been a Zen monk most of his adult life... read 'em and weep... just like anyone else. But there was only so much he was willing to surrender to old habits ... so, perhaps, he stopped going to morning chanting.

Most of this is speculation on my part, but it came to mind after a young woman arrived here yesterday in pursuit of doing a paper for her religion class at Smith College, which is up the road from my house. The assignment seemed to have something to do with getting a feel for some spiritual center ... what were the rituals, what did it look like, were the members concerned with a wider community, what were the beliefs or leanings ... ? Somehow the young woman had gotten wind of the small zendo or meditation hall out in my backyard.

Ahead of her arrival, I tried to sharpen up my mind, to be prepared, to impute importance to this small spiritual adventure. Much of my life has included taking spiritual endeavor seriously and lending people a hand -- not convincing, just lending a hand -- is part and parcel of that seriousness. So ahead of the young woman's arrival, I brushed the mental dandruff from my shoulders, straightened my mental tie, and prepared to be 'helpful.'

She was a nice enough young woman and I suppose I was nice enough in return ... or at any rate she didn't call the cops or run screaming from my environs. But there was something needlessly heavy about it from my point of view. Crabby-making. I could do it, sure. And certainly my life had taken an interest in such things. But ...

And then I thought of Kyudo, or at any rate imagined him. Spiritual exercises are good practice and laden with potential fruit, but isn't it reasonable to think that old habits should run out of steam, that their juice and savor could be acknowledged without the bluster of energized action, that instead of chanting in the morning, an old man might reasonably sleep in and rise rested? Doesn't spiritual life, like any visitor, bid farewell after a pleasant visit? And isn't that as it should be? Holding on just because anyone might have held on in a long and sometimes energetic past ... isn't it time to get a little shut-eye?

Which is more important -- chanting the chants or getting some rest? Nothing saying you can't acknowledge the past that convened into this present and nothing saying you can't bounce up and down enthusiastically if that's the current circumstance, but doesn't spiritual life, like any friend who comes for a weekend visit, need to go home and concern itself with its own concerns?

I'm not trying to force or enforce anything here. Just humming a little morning music. Soon, I suspect, it will be time for a nap ... you know, one of those things that helps without 'helping.'

poetry on the hoof ... Shane Koyczan

I'm not entirely sure what it's all about, but it feels strangely evocative... like intelligent rap, but so emphatic that the point gets lost (at least for me)

spiritual snippets

-- Elsewhere yesterday, as a participant in an Internet discussion of the question, "does evangelism really help others?" I wrote:
Evangelism -- an enthusiasm I certainly have felt in the past -- relies on the notion that if enough people agree on what is right and if I agree with them, then I too am right.
Good luck with that notion.
--  And this morning, like a cat crossing the kitchen linoleum, the half-question-half-assertion purred in my mind as regards the difficulties facing spiritual institutions (whether within or without) ...
They love too little and presume too much.
Just a couple of munchies before breakfast.

Monday, October 28, 2013

winter statistics

Passed along in email ...

With an eye to the winter that is hard upon us, a little statistical tomfoolery seems warranted:

"Ave Maria"

I may have posted this before, but I ran across it again today and re-melted -- Josquin des Prez (1450-1521): "Ave Maria" ....

animal fights instill personal pleasure

People watch horses fight during a traditional local event held by the Miao ethnic minority in Rongshui county, Liuzhou, Guangxi ethnic Zhuang autonomous region, China October 26, 2013. Horse fighting is a 500-year-old custom for the Miao people.

Roosters participate in a traditional Malagasy cockfighting (combat des coqs) contest in Ambohimangakely near Madagascar's capital Antananarivo, October 27, 2013. Hundreds of participants with their roosters took part in the contentious practice of cockfighting that is tremendously popular on the island-nation of Madagascar, where locals make a living by breeding roosters as well as placing bets in weekly tournaments, said the local organizers.
REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

Participants take part in an attempt to set a new Guinness World Record for the largest pillow fight, in Chicago October 27, 2013. According to the Guinness World Records, they need more than 3,706 participants to set a new record. The results of the event have not been announced.

accountability in the economic collapse

For those with numbed and suspicious minds like my own -- minds that once wondered why no higher-ranking official was ever accused and perhaps jailed in the Abu Ghraib torture revelations or wondered why so many tell-tale facts were willfully overlooked in the Sept. 11, 2001, 'terrorist' bombings of the World Trade Center towers etc. -- now, perhaps, there appears to be a twinkling of hope in the matter of the banks and brokerages and well-heeled executives that precipitated the 2008 economic collapse ... the ones that paid a few fines that were entirely disproportionate to the damage they did; the ones that continue to amass profits because few if any meaningful changes were made to the conditions that allowed their skulduggery in the first place.

(Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Justice appeared to have struck gold last week with the law it wielded against one of the nation's largest banks over conduct that fueled the financial crisis.
To convince a jury that Bank of America engaged in fraud, lawyers in the Manhattan U.S. Attorney's Office turned to FIRREA, a once-dormant civil fraud statute that essentially allows the government to build a criminal case against financial institutions, but without having to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.
Those with suspicious and numbed-by-experience minds like my own may suspect that an ability to hold accountable those who were actually accountable will be swiftly snuffed out by the largest stockholders in the U.S. government.

But for the moment, there seems to be a ray of hope. Not a blinding light, mind you (think Citizens United), but a ray.

Internet have's, Internet have-not's

Home broadband in the US costs far more than elsewhere. At high speeds, it costs nearly three times as much as in the UK and France, and more than five times as much as in South Korea. Why?....
For Susan Crawford, author of Captive Audience, higher prices have created a digital divide which excludes poor Americans from quality internet access. And there are economic implications too.
"The 2008 banking crisis demonstrated what happens when we allow banks to act out of pure self interest. The communications crisis in America is less visible but also destructive of America's ability to function on the global stage."
Companies may assert that high prices insure ever-improving service and that regulation would cut into that service. More likely, I suspect, is that regulation would cut into profits. But if a 20% profit (to take a speculative number) nourishes what can be sold as a guarantor of improvements, would companies actually reduce their efforts to improve when the profit margin were only 10%? Ten percent is a pretty good margin and perhaps the nation might benefit.

photos with a point of view

Passed along in email:


Sometimes it marvels me that so many consent to be astounded by the thoughts, words and deeds of others and yet are unable or unwilling to see their own accomplishments in the same light.

Of course there are those who are astounded by their own thoughts, words and deeds.

Generally, they can be referred to as a pain in the ass.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

religious declines

Passed along in email: 
A “Religious News Service” study warns that the number of baptisms and church weddings has dropped. “People want God but they’re not happy with churches”....
Religious News Service, an independent interfaith news service raised the alarm bell. The country which has “In God we trust” stamped on its currency seems in fact to be trusting in God less and less every year since the motto first appeared on coins in 1864 and later became the national motto in 1956.

lost souls

Read this elsewhere and thought it was pretty good even if the Dalai Lama did not say it:

People take different roads seeking fulfillment and happiness. Just because they’re not on your road doesn’t mean they’ve gotten lost.

spirituality and insanity

I wonder to what extent the insanity potential of spiritual endeavor is precisely the reason so many hold tight to prim and proper rules and definitions and text-based support mechanisms.

And I wonder as well to what extent those who are crazy use spiritual endeavor as a means of excusing their insanity and never consent to do the work that might straighten things out.

I haven't got the energy to cite chapter and verse and support my assertions, but I have seen such things (and certainly indulged them) and am interested in their potential to throw the spiritual aspirant off course and into the maw of self-serving confusion, be it super-sane or insane.

I once went to a private meeting (dokusan/sanzen) with a Zen teacher who had previously given me a koan to work on. I had tried on several occasions to give some satisfactory answer to the question posed and each time had come away rebuffed. So on this particular occasion, I reached back into my knowledge that came from reading and thinking and feeling and gave an enormous shout.

The teacher looked at me mildly and then said, "You know, you don't have to be crazy in order to do this stuff."

The way I see it today, if there is something special or separate or improved about spiritual practice and its outcomes, this is a definite hint that you are off your rocker.

A rich understanding is richer than that.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

koans, real and otherwise

In Zen Buddhism -- a preference I chose to express -- there is some emphasis put on koans. Koans are intellectually-insoluble riddles that aim to help individuals to express/actualize/realize their own true nature, so-called.

"What is the sound of one hand clapping?" is a koan, for example, as is "Who am I?" or "What is this?" or "Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?" In some traditions, there are 1,700 formal koans a student might confront or choose from. Once having chosen or been assigned a koan, a student may dig deeper and deeper into it, largely with meditation as the arena in which to address the question for which there is no intellectual or emotional solution.

All of this is pretty serious for those who choose Zen Buddhism as a format within which to straighten out the uncertainties or unsatisfactoriness of their particular lives. It's rather consoling, having a formatted playground. Koans are part and parcel of a discipline the student has chosen to take seriously.

But koans are tricky ... and not just because they defy intellectual or emotional solutions. They are tricky because the student must be willing, sooner or later, to give himself or herself to the question at hand -- to sink into it with a personal surrender that is akin to sinking into a warm bathtub. In this realm, the seriousness of Zen Buddhism falls away. This is serious... very personal, very complete, very ahh and eek simultaneously. This is no-fucking-around simple and real. Zen Buddhism, God, and all the other much-praised stars can go suck an egg. This is my life.

And it was for this reason, perhaps, that I never was any good at the formal koans passed around in Zen Buddhism in the same way some somber waiter might offer up canapes. I think I didn't trust anyone else's questions. I had enough questions of my own and the bathtub I was willing to sink into lay elsewhere, however much I might caterwaul about taking Zen Buddhism seriously, however much I might practice meditation (zazen) or go to retreats (sesshin) or whatever.

I guess I was a lousy Zen Buddhist, but at this late date I make no apologies. And ... I am grateful. My bathtub is just my bathtub, much as yours is yours. Everyone chooses or is chosen by the koans of a quite specific, quite wonderful and occasionally quite horrific life. It's no big deal. On the other hand, of course, it is quite a big deal... your koan or mine, awaiting attention, awaiting the willingness to stick more than a toe in the toasty waters that may, at first, seem to be scalding.

Here is one teeny-tiny (which is to say, humongous) koan that once touched my life:

Before leaving for a three-week tour of Russia in 1968, there were a number of lectures that sought to acquaint us would-be tourists with the customs of the land we were about to visit. And it was during one of those lectures that it was impressed upon us that Russians did not give gifts lightly and we would be well-advised not to give them lightly. A gift was serious in Russia. The American tradition of giving gifts as a means of meeting some imposed responsibility was off the table. In other words, giving a set of place mats to Aunt Sally on Christmas just because she was Aunt Sally and part of the family and family required presents ... well, forgetaboutit! Giving was serious and personal and from the heart: Leave the quid-pro-quo mentality at home!

As with all good advice, I got the superficial understanding ... and then blew it in the application.

It was on a grassy knoll somewhere south of Ulyanovsk that I ran into five boys of about 10-12. They were roaming as I was and we sat down together. I could speak little or no Russian. I could say, "please" and "thank you" and "bathroom" and "I love you" and "cold beer," but otherwise was up the creek. The boys spoke no English. So, as we all sat on the grass, I took a number of coins from my pocket, some American, some Russian, and laid each side by side with a coin of approximately the same value. When I finished this small exercise in communication, I gave each of the boys one American coin. And then I got up to return to the ship I had come on -- the one parked at a small dock along the Volga River that lay below the knoll.

I hadn't got a hundred paces when I heard a voice calling from behind me. I turned and looked as the leader of the small band hurried to catch up with me. He stopped in front of me, slightly out of breath. And without further ado, he extended his hand ... and within it, a length of twine. The twine was perhaps 12 inches long and consisted of black and white strands that culminated at either end with black and white tassels. And looking into the boy's face, I knew this was clearly one of his most prized possessions.

The boy didn't look happy or sad. What he did look, and what cut me to the heart, was open and honest. He was giving me his heart without a backward glance. And that gift split me open like a kumquat. He was giving it in part because I had given him a coin ... but this was no merchandizing exchange. He trusted my heart in my gift and was willing to extend his with his.

And I was utterly stymied. I did not want to deprive him of his prized possession, but there was no way I could honor his heart by offering to undo what I had done. What could I do? I wanted to escape, but there was no escape. I wanted to be as honest and easy as this 12-year-old and yet I seemed to lack the wherewithal. I was a complete phony by comparison. I felt terrible as I received his gift ... terrible and yet thankful and yet terrible. I wanted, somehow, to cry, and yet in the end, I said "thank you" as I took the string and felt speechless at the wonder of this gift. It was richer and more important than the Mona Lisa ... and far more beautiful. I really, really did not want to deprive him of his treasure and yet his face clearly told me that this was no deprivation. How the fuck was I supposed to cope with -- not to mention match -- that?

No escape. Stuck with the farm. No undoing what has been done and yet yearning like crazy to do just that. Deeper and deeper into the bathtub's warm water for which there is no explanation and no meaning and no simpering belief and yet flashes like lightning ... honest and direct and plain ... and is gone. Beautiful before the word "beautiful" leaves the tongue or enters the mind.

Ah well ... I have told this story before, but this morning it came back to me again. It was and remains a koan I am capable of and willing to credit.

I kept that string for years and then one day it got lost in the array of stuff I had accumulated in life.

Gone ... and all that's left is a lousy Zen Buddhist.

separating man from God

Fortune cookie du jour:

The only thing separating man from God is God.

Friday, October 25, 2013

getting news from comedy outlets

Sometimes I wonder if it's any wonder that a younger generation gets its news from comedy shows ... especially when those comedy shows dig into corners that mainstream news reporting cannot or won't go near.

Case in point, the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, who, a couple of days ago, ran a segment on the effect of the Supreme Court's decision to overturn a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. The ruling has led to the imposition of varying new voting rules in southern states, as for example a voter ID card ... which will put an end to the infinitesimally small number of proven instances of voter fraud.

One of the North Carolina interviewees was so straightforward about the new rules that members of the Republican party (the ones most likely to benefit from the latest voting restrictions) asked him to resign ... which he did. Asked directly if he were a racist, GOP official Don Yelton paused long and hard and finally said, "I've been called a bigot." Nevertheless, one of his best friends is black ... a statement so out of synch that it fit right into the comedy framework ... laughter laced with tears. Yelton was forced out of the Republican fold, I suspect, not because his remarks were offensive, but rather because he was stupid enough to make the much-shared sentiments out where others could see and hear them and then rightly associate them with the Republican Party.

Jon Stewart goes for the throat on occasion and, since the mainstream news organizations seem unwilling or unable to do the same, why shouldn't anyone prefer to get their news from a comedy outlet? It may not always be funny, but at least it gets a little closer to the truth.


A member of the public takes a photograph of a sculpture by artist Lucy Humphrey titled 'horizon' on a rocky cliff which is part of the "Sculpture by the Sea" exhibition at Sydney's Tamarama Beach October 24, 2013. The free and temporary outdoor exhibition, now in its 17th year, stretches for two kilometres (1.24 miles) along the coastline between Bondi and Tamarama beaches.
REUTERS/David Gray

A man herds his yaks in the snow in Tsenkher Sum, Arhangai, October 21, 2013.
REUTERS/Mareike Guensche

A visitor feeds a swan at The Serpentine lake in Hyde Park in central London October 24, 2013.
REUTERS/Toby Melville

some animals are more equal...

A couple of days after the Vatican suspended the "bishop of bling" for his high-falutin' spending habits, comes the story of Catholic donors whose generosity earns an entree into places and situations that less-well-heeled Catholics might envy.

Such access comes with a price, but it's not as high as you might think.
For starters, all it takes is $500 a year to join the Patrons of the Vatican Museums, the fundraising organization that hosted last week's extravaganza.
George Orwell once wrote that "all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."  No reason to think the aptness of that observation should stop at the barnyard gate.

bigger and better thefts

Passed along in email:

selling my last car

Today, I will sell the last car I will ever own. It's a good car -- a 2000 Dodge Caravan SE -- but finances are tight around the house and the fact is I use the car very little (supermarket, doctor's appointments and an occasional photographic adventure).

On the one hand, it's a relief: No more insurance premiums, no more repairs. On the other, it's the sale of my sense of definition and sense of self-sufficiency. The scenario is not especially novel -- older people often feel this lash -- but, since it's new to me, it's new. And it's interesting that those offering solace are most frequently those who don't face the problem... sorta like 'celibate' Catholic priests mewling about the sanctity of matrimony or child birth.

My wife and son both have cars, so I will be able to borrow, but borrowing is not the same as having the unhindered freedom that goes with "my car." "My car" has been an assumption for so long and now that assumption has been mortally challenged.

How many other unexamined assumptions do I make? Lots is my guess. They lie in the background of things, not especially interesting or coveted ... until they are undermined or taken away. And since advancing age is largely a matter of losing things, each loss stands taller in its impact.

No one else cares much about my loss and the fact of the matter is that it doesn't currently upset me that much either
(I haven't sold the car just yet). But it whispers and weeps a little, I guess.

Bit by bit by bit, the assumptions fall off.

Which makes me wonder a little ... what was the need for this assumption or these assumptions in the first place? I can't quite remember.

"It's twue! It's twue!"

A somewhat sorrowing note from an Internet friend this morning inspired me to respond with what I consider to be one of the wry ironies of spiritual endeavor:

Isn't it funny that after all those days and weeks and years during which anyone might have extolled and insisted on a spiritual-endeavor framework, one day you wake up and realize that what had been called "true" really is true?

Old age, sickness, death and uncertainty (for example), which once might have been hailed as impellers of spiritual action ... well, guess what ... it's ain't someone else's old age, sickness, death and uncertainty. Shit! Who knew?!

There is something simultaneously touching and funny about it -- all that bullshit of the past and now, this! The more anyone dreams of or imputes to others an escape, the harder the escape becomes.

And there's no outflanking or escaping the bullshit phase ... the praise, the explanations, the wonderment-quotient meanings, the heart-wrenching beliefs, the longing for relief and release and escape, the ascents into heaven and descents into hell ... they're all part and parcel of the adventure, however ironic they may be when the reality check comes calling.

All of this cud-munching may inspire swaths of sympathy or empathy or compassion in others, but the thing it suggests to me most strongly is the following scene from the old movie, "Blazing Saddles:"

"It's twue! It's twue!"

Thursday, October 24, 2013

George Carlin's "American Dream"

Not at top speed, but still, it's George Carlin ...

"objective morality"

In contrast to some of my own observations about "objectivity," I found myself posting this on a Buddhist bulletin board this morning ... a sort-of response to a question about "objective morality:"

Sometimes I think objectivity is just the intellect's means of positing god without getting all squishy about it... a resting place, a nesting place, a place of credible and creditable certainty... an imaginative place in which to reap the benefits without doing the work. Another control mechanism.
The struggles involved in something like "objective morality" are endless and probably represent misspent energy. Why waste the time when you could waste the time more productively?

The practice -- that's practice, not theorizing -- of Buddhism walks its students through the matter of morality. It's not a matter of "shazzam!" or "just turn to page 367 for the answer." Practice puts meat on the bone of encouragements like "don't kill, steal, lie, etc." No longer are such encouragements simply ethical, make-nice baubles. With practice, they are simply what makes best sense in terms of a happy or peaceful life ... NOT because anyone else says so and NOT because Buddhism says so but ... just because.

As Shunryu Suzuki once observed more or less, there are things to-do and there are things not-to-do. That's all. Practice makes sense of what others might call "holy" or "wise" or "moral." There's nothing especially elevated about all this ... it's just a matter of getting your own ducks in a row.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

little fur balls of activity

In the neighborhood

... This morning it was chilly enough so that my wife fired up the wood stove -- a first for the season. We try to hold back as long as possible on lighting a fire: Once begun, it is hard to stop feeding the
stove. The warmth the it gives off is like living in a warm apple pie and as a result the woodpile is rapidly diminished even before a full-bore winter has set in. Still, there is frost on the windshields today and the sound of shotguns can be heard from across the dike ... it's bird season, I think -- not yet deer and moose. Winter is coming.

... Today, my son starts his first part-time job, a job he got himself at a local retail outlet. I am happy and proud: A first job, whether early or late, is a step with substance to it. Relying on others fades a bit as fade it must.

... In an era when economics pinch and decent jobs seem hard to come by, Midland, Texas, which is enjoying an oil boom with the rest of Texas, is so short of labor that it has even offered signing bonuses to fast-food workers, according to the Nightly Business Report I saw the other night and cannot re-find in order to provide a link.

Of course not everyone is willing to get dirty doing a job, and jobs that require sweat are not as plush as the middle class, cubicle-prone professions that evaporated in the midst of banking and stock-swapping frenzies, still, work is work and until wealth is redistributed more equitably, putting spaghetti on the table has its allure.

... My neighbor Joe and I chatted a bit yesterday, standing in the street that divides our houses as we sometimes do. He had been to Dana-Farber, a high-profile hospital in Boston, and they had done a DNA test to try to nail down what sort of leukemia Joe has. Turns out that he has markers for both a fast- and slow-growing leukemia so it's a matter of "watchful waiting." I told him that a friend had complained earlier in the day, "Getting old sucks. I think I'll take up another hobby." And we both laughed. Joe had to break off the conversation because he needed to get to the dump before it closed: He's keepin' on keepin' on at the moment.

... An email from a local college student asked about coming by in aid of a paper she had to do on the ethnography (or some similarly polysyllabic word) of Buddhism. It seems a bit strange, but when anyone asks a question about Buddhism or wants me to do something to help out, there is an imperative within that seeks to comply. "Imperative" in the same gotta-do-it way that I breathe. I may feel grumpy about it, but there is, somehow -- no other option than to say "yes." What's up with that?

... From two houses away, Claudia's free-range chickens have taken to ranging through the neighborhood. There are perhaps six of them, each, it seems, a different species and all as plump and strong and perfectly-proportioned as if they were posing for a centerfold picture in Playboy. Once upon a time, it was the neighbor's dog that might come to visit and sniff. Now, with leash laws, it's chickens. I kind of like it.

where the gods play baseball

Tonight, at 8:07, the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals will play the first game of the World Series here in the U.S.

Baseball fans are psyched, I imagine: Who will be crowned king of the sport?! Theoretically, there are seven games in which to answer that question, though the first team to win four games could end the discussion. In the meantime, it's all beer and enthusiasm and sometimes Jesuitical arguments about statistics and tactics. Hot damn -- the boys of October are back!

Wouldn't it be nice if the same mindset that is invested in the World Series could likewise be invested in spiritual endeavor? Whether fan or player, no one ever worried much about what a baseball player believed: Baseball was all about the game, the doing, the action.

No one ever confused the "love of baseball" with baseball. True, a fan might be fervent to the point of zealotry, but ... well, all that faded into the background when a batter clocked one into left field or a diving catch resulted in a double play. Without the actual action, nothing made any sense... everything lost its savor and meaning and deliciousness. Beyond or before the beer and enthusiasm, it was a given: Baseball is action and the rest is largely optional, if scrumptious, eyewash.

There is a similar scrumptiousness to spiritual life. From the mildly concerned to the deeply devoted, fans can gather in temple or ecumenical council. There are tactics and statistics, degrees of attainment and halos for the stars. Sometimes voices are raised. Sometimes there are even fist fights. Soothing certainties are mixed with raucous doubts. The air is filled with tenderness and i-m-p-o-r-t-a-n-c-e.

Wouldn't it be nice if the same baseline understanding in baseball were applied in spiritual life ... if it were simply assumed at a gut level that the optional eyewash had no relevance or importance or usefulness when the loudspeaker announced,

"Play ball!"

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

forward into the past

-- The sultanate of Brunei has announced it will enforce a tough new Sharia law penal code.
The code - to apply only to Muslims - is expected to introduce death by stoning for adulterers and the severing of limbs for theft.
Brunei already adheres to a stronger form of Islamic law than neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia, banning the sale and consumption of alcohol....
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, told AFP the situation shows "respect for basic civil and political rights is near zero in Brunei".
-- Prime Minister David Cameron has waded into an escalating row about Facebook's decision to allow videos showing people being decapitated back on its pages.
He tweeted that it was "irresponsible" of the social network to post such videos without warning.
Facebook reversed a temporary ban on such videos, saying users should be free to watch and condemn such content.
Never show the truth when you can paper it over with patriotism.

-- The rights to explore Brazil's biggest oilfield have been won at an auction by a consortium led by Brazil's state-run Petrobras, backed by Total, Shell and Chinese firms.
The group made the only bid in the auction, offering the minimum share of the surplus production....
The unions accuse the government of "selling off" Brazil's riches.

Afghan children sit on a bullet-riddled concrete block in Kabul October 21, 2013.
REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

it's the 21st century!

Hey man!

It's the 21st century!

Things are different now and geezers like me are behind the up-to-date curve ... or anyway, I can imagine my children or others secretly and not so secretly putting me in that category. I don't know much about hand-held electronic devices and worse, don't care. I don't know much about seeing employment as a nomadic adventure in which loyalty, whether from employers or employees, is a fool's errand. I don't believe that multi-tasking is much more than a self-serving bit of hot air. I can't recognize the musical icons of these 21st-century times and the actors and actresses are all pretty much indistinguishable and mediocre in my eye.

Yes, the list of ways in which I am behind the curve goes on and on, but the funny part is that while I can acknowledge my station as one behind the curve, those who are ahead of the curve seem incapable of wondering why I don't give much of a shit. It was ever thus, I suppose.

The interesting thing about being ahead of or behind the curve is that it relates to power and being in control and imagining that the future which no one can know can somehow be brought to heel. OK, knock yourself out. Run down to Rodeo Drive and get another pair of extravagant shoes. Party in Gstaad. Learn what it is to run with the crowd that knows and is assured. Take up august causes. Be an expert. Get ahead of the curve and stay there.

But what is 21st century is still pretty much what was 20th century, or 19th, 18th, 17th or 16th....

There is love and there is anger.
There is success and there is failure.
There is kindness and there is cruelty.
There is certainty dissolving into uncertainty.
There is laughter and there are tears.
There is horniness and there is a spent satisfaction.
There is effort and there is laziness.
There is willingness to examine and an ever-balancing unwillingness to reflect.
There is enough and there is not enough.

The fact that none of this stuff, and more like it, works on an iPhone is not to denigrate iPhones. It is not to exercise the pomposity of encouragements like, "stop and smell the roses." It is not to suggest that a much-praised simpler lifestyle is therefore simpler.

It is to suggest that the curve -- whether "behind" or "ahead of" -- is ...

Well, you figure it out.

uneventful events

Snippets and shards ...

-- It was three days ago that the first squadron of Canada geese of the fall passed by. I heard them like old friends in the next room, symphonic in the sky, heading south, heralding a winter yet to come. As yet, the number of squirrels loping across the street, big, pulp-covered nuts in their mouths, has not turned into the rush hour it will be. And soon, but not yet, the frost on windshield and still-green blades of grass, will make its debut. Not yet ... but now.

-- Before the first sips of coffee were down today, Theresa, a nearby but unknown neighbor I guess, stopped outside the house to look over the van on which I had placed a "for sale" sign. As by usual habit, I was sitting on the porch, encouraging my body to wake up and get over itself. The small dog she was walking stopped as well as we chatted in the early-morning light ... first about the car whose loss will bring insurance bills down and cut off one more expression of personal mobility and control, but then about family and general human concerns. It would be nice to sell the car -- and I told Theresa the price had been reduced -- but the conversation was as rich as it was unremarkable.

-- A snail-mail thank you came from Weera Chulsuwan, the Buddhist monk in Oklahoma who had been beaten and left for dead Aug. 30 and for whom Kobutsu Malone and I had made some financial efforts that resulted in more than $8,000 collected, a new used truck and a well on "Tony the Monk's" property. "The world is full of good people," he wrote. "It is a shame we only hear about the bad ones." He's right in my book ... and I cringe to think how many, like me, might mindlessly applaud his sentiment. But more, I am wowed and wondered by the number of people who took the trouble to contribute.

-- Last night, as I might take a soothing sleeping pill, I watched a bit of "Page Eight" again before going to bed. I've watched it three or four times in the past. The BBC tale focuses on some in-fighting in the British intelligence services but offers up characters with character as well and there are unspoken threads of frailty and honor woven into the plot. What I find soothing about it is the notion that there is something to be said for addressing the issues in life ... issues as issues and not, as is more commonly the case, issues that can confer power or self-importance or anointing meaning. The unwillingness to attempt such a feat leads, as the story suggests, to corruption and cruelty. But those who do attempt it are not all burnished and shiny and heroic: They too are flawed ... and yet unwilling to surrender to a mediocre go-along-to-get-along. The line between corruption and clarity is gossamer-wispy unto invisibility ... and yet it is a line as clear and bright as a comet cutting through the night sky. It soothes me to think that this effort exists ... even if only in fiction. And that feeling laid my head gently on the pillow.

Monday, October 21, 2013

the best question?

Maybe the best question is not

Or what?
Or when?
Or where?
Or why?
Or how?

Maybe the best question is .... and?

news nuggets

 Bits of news ...

-- "As parliamentary polls get under way in the Czech Republic this week, artist David Cerny has floated a huge purple statue of an extended middle finger down the River Vltava in Prague."

-- America's top-dog snoop, the National Security Agency, swept up 70.3 million French phone records in a 30-day period, Le Monde reported today. "The French government on Monday summoned the U.S. ambassador for an explanation." NSA was, as usual, hunkered down and silent.

-- Gay marriage became legal in New Jersey, the 14th state to recognize homosexual nuptials.

-- "Almost 6 million young people are neither in school nor working, according to a study released Monday." That's almost 15 percent of those 16 to 24. Think of the ripple effect ... not to mention the waste.

-- The UK has given the go-ahead for the country's first new nuclear power plant "in a generation." There is to-ing and fro-ing about the impact of outside investment and about the ultimate price to the consumer ... even as toxic water concerns gain traction at the Fukushima nuclear plant that melted down in 2011... and Halliburton (one of the larger shareholders in the American government) reported a 17 percent rise in profits based largely on fossil fuel production... and smog all but shut down the Chinese city of Harbin, a community of 11 million people... and Rio de Janeiro streets were invaded by troops ahead of the Brazilian auction of a major off-short oil reserve. People in Brazil seem to suspect that they'll never see a penny of the enormous payday in the offing.

making things worse by making them better

On the television last night, a rather dreary psychologist was questioned and addressed the issue of the loneliness that is nourished by the rise of social media like Facebook and Twitter. It is a topic I find interesting -- the solution that promotes the difficulty it promises to avert.

The psychologist had written a number of books on the topic and was clearly capable of displaying and dissecting the facets of the problem at hand -- the electronic connections of voice and text on portable devices that a growing number of people carry everywhere and have increasingly come to rely on as a means of getting the next social fix.

So great is the reliance on these devices and their marvels that face-to-face social connections have been relegated to a social back burner. No one wants to be alone -- ever -- and Facebook and Twitter are the answer. Only of course the hand-held devices that deliver reassurance are as much a living proof of the problem as they are a solution to it: How come I feel so alone when I have so many connections?

The rather dreary psychologist went on and on and on and on, and in one sense, that was her job ... she was being interviewed. People were unschooled in the ability to be alone, she observed, and social media, as they are called, tended to underscore rather than ameliorate that ignorance. And more than that, the lack of schooling in alone-ness had a impact on the ability to actually-factually be together.

On and on and on and on she went. It was intelligent and thoughtful and ... a bit dreary and boring and self-serving. The woman had a horse and she was flogging it. She had written several books, thus buttressing her credentials at the university where she taught, and showed no signs that she was not planning to write another.

On the one hand, the topic interested me. But on the other, she made me wonder how lonely and bereft    she might feel if the topic itself were simply wiped from her memory banks.

There is something to be said for identifying and dissecting a problem. How else could solutions be found? But there is also a problem with problems: At what point do they take on a life of their own and provide a raison d'ĂȘtre that has little or nothing to do with the problem itself and everything to do with a need for reassurance and meaning in this life? Without getting too long-winded, "Who would I be without my worries, concerns or complaints?" When does "there is a problem" become "I want attention ... I don't want to be lonely?"

I guess it's part of growing up or practice if you like: Identify the problem; get a sense of its highways and byways, its facets and subphyla; gather what assets are available ... and then act. And if, as is often the case is wider confusions (politics, war, or social conundrums, eg.) there is nothing significant that can be done, then do what you can and learn to shoulder the responsibility for your own insignificance ... which is not the same as playing the lie-down-and-take-it passive card, but rather a recognition of the facts on the ground: Do what you can, but do -- don't make a profession or claim a place at the social table simply according to how persuasively you can whine.

Why? Because, like Facebook and Twitter, it is too much like solving a problem by exacerbating it.

Do what you can ... but do.

And if you can't do, well, wash the dishes.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Martin Wolf eyes economic mayhem

Financial Times chief economics commentator, Martin Wolf ... says the US debt ceiling is “the legislative equivalent of a nuclear bomb aimed by the US at itself.” Wolf, who has been described as “the premier financial and economics writer in the world,” provides his analysis of the recent crisis and the potentially lethal impact that the politicization of the debt ceiling could have on the global economy.

begin, continue

Because I am getting old, weak and lazy, I no longer have the oomph to break apart what might otherwise be two periods of zazen or seated meditation with a little walking meditation, kinhin, between. So lately, it has been just one 50-60-70 minute period.

A couple of guys, Bram and Nick, have decided to take part lately. Bram has some experience. Nick is brand new to practice. In concession to Nick's newness, I told him that if things like pain got to be too much, he could simply create his own intermission and stand quietly at his seat and then sit back down. Nick took advantage of the offer last week. It worked out very well ... two guys sitting, one guy standing, everyone quiet... including Bram's 160-pound malamute, which waited quietly out on the lawn.

But this week Nick went the distance. He didn't say anything afterwards other than to ask how long we had sat (since I am in charge of the clock). Perhaps Nick is doing one of those corporate Zen thingies in which the longer you sit the tougher you are and the better Zen student you become ... but I don't think so. Nick is too amicable and open a guy for that sort of stuff, I think. He's not beyond yardsticking his progress, but he doesn't seem inclined to wave his yardsticks around.

Anyway, both Bram and I were pleased for Nick ... as if a younger brother had had a success and we were happy for him.

How hard it is to begin.

The only thing harder is to continue.

prescription and description

As annoying and horrifying as it may be, still I think it's worth considering: To the extent that anyone might hope that spiritual endeavors actually had some usefulness, to that extent precisely spiritual life would need to be considered as descriptive rather than prescriptive.

This proposition itself may easily be taken as prescriptive and hence lose its usefulness. Oh well ....

Since no one ever signed on to a spiritual persuasion because they were so damned happy, it is completely understandable that finding a prescription for sorrow or uncertainty should beckon and seem to suggest a safe -- or at any rate safer -- haven. A super-duper ethical framework makes some sense: Habits need to be changed or revised or reseen, so when the prescription is offered -- with heaven, enlightenment, compassion, true understanding or whatever beckoning from some distant horizon -- who wouldn't take the opportunity? The prescription shapes the effort.

And there's plenty of effort to be made, assuming anyone takes their spiritual adventure seriously. Follow the prescription-brick road.

The fly in the ointment crops up when the prescription takes on a life of its own -- when the assertion gains traction: "Without following x, y or z prescription, the opportunity to outflank sorrow or uncertainty or fear is lost." And it is here that prescription takes up residence where the search for a little peace once held sway. It looks good, prescriptions flowing like water off a mountain, people applauding like World Series fans, but the historical record is replete with sometimes benevolent and sometimes bloody results. Prescription has its role, but as an outcome it proves itself unworthy.

"Love thy neighbor as thyself" ... how lovely and how true and how much blood has soaked the sands in the wake of that prescription?

I guess I got to thinking about all this after Zen Buddhism's "four propositions" sailed through my mind last night. The four propositions are:
It exists.
It does not exist.
It both exists and does not exist.
It neither exists nor does not exist.
OK, we're into airy-fairy territory here, but I don't really think the point of entry would be much different when considering other spiritual nudges.

The question that crossed my mind was this: Did the pharmacists of the old days concoct the four propositions as a prescription without which the patient would continue to be sorrowful and uncertain (continue to be sick)? Was this a yardstick and testing ground? -- If you don't understand this, you're screwed? If you don't chew and digest and sweat and weep ... well, hell, you might as well hang up your spurs? Were these propositions a means of attaining some super-altruistic Boy Scout badge?

Maybe it's more accessible to refer back to "love thy neighbor as thyself." No matter ... either way ... is there force and usefulness found in the prescription and its restful confines or is there something that is far more useful awaiting attention?

To rest, to relax, to find relief and to proclaim a peace therefrom -- how many prescriptions offer such confused and hellish results?

But suppose for a moment that such expressions as the four propositions or "love thy neighbor" were simply descriptives -- not The Descriptive, just A Descriptive. Instead of being an imaginative safe haven or shield against the howling winds, suppose these were just passing descriptions that had no especial gotta-do-it imperative, no especial threat or promise, no medals or ribbons or profound at-last resting place. They might be nice and they might be useful in their time, but suppose they were just passing possibilities, suggested by others who might be right and might be wrong ... but, hell, it was just their way of expressing what had passed their way. No need for bloodshed or hosannahs or wailing crucifixions ... the sky is blue and chocolate is delicious.

I guess it's all pretty dicey, but it strikes me that descriptions make more sense than the prescriptions that are sometimes associated with them. The object of spiritual life is not to be safe. The object of spiritual life is to be free and at peace.

Or anyway that's one way of describing it, I imagine.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

to die for

What the one gives up life-blood to create and burnish and extol and fortify, the next mimics dutifully or  misinterprets or disdains or ignores.

This is the way of things and it's not as if anyone were wrong.

But noticing this, I think anyone might consider rethinking what is created and burnished and extolled and fortified.

It may be to-die-for, but is it to-die-for?

the allure of a Taliban mind

Interesting how grand philosophies and religions, benevolent and otherwise, can prove so cavalier about their depredations, setting aside the harm they do with some version of "you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs."

In Pakistan, the flinty-eyed Taliban have denounced a polio vaccine campaign as an effort to sterilize Muslims. Further, they have asserted that aid workers have acted as spies for western interests. The Taliban espouse Sharia, a very strict interpretation of Islamic law. Women belong in the kitchen and on the birthing couch, among other restrictions that cover every aspect of dress and comportment. Their philosophy offers a comforting assurance to their followers, I have no doubt: How nice to have everything spelled out.

The Taliban are an easy target for less strictured and structured points of view ... points of view that may seldom review their own sweeping assumptions and actions that can leave others injured or dead.

In the specific instance,
Polio is a highly infectious disease that invades the nervous system and can cause irreversible paralysis in a matter of hours. A $5.5 billion global eradication plan was launched in April with the aim of vaccinating 250 million children multiple times each year to stop the virus finding new footholds, and stepping up surveillance in more than 70 countries.
So, in the name of religion or philosophy, it's OK if a child or multiple children should be stricken if not doomed. That's the Taliban message: In the name of a good and true society or belief system, it's OK if children die. It's an easy position to criticize ... but how different, in subtle or gross ways, are other sweeping philosophies or religions?

I think it's fair to say that the Taliban allegation of widespread sterilization qualifies as pure, dumbass ignorance coupled with a desire for political power. But I also can imagine that the allegation that western interests use outreach organizations as a means of spying is certainly within the realm of possibility. The practice is hardly a secret.

But still ... is the death or disfigurement of a single child an acceptable price for a grand philosophy or religion? How grand is the philosophy or religion by such a reckoning? Is deliberate and conniving ignorance the mark of a grand philosophy or religion? Aren't philosophies and religions based in some notion that things can be better? Is a child's -- or adult's -- death or disfigurement "better?"

As a personal matter, I really, really don't like the Taliban. They scare the crap out of me as they demean the human potential with cookie-cutter convenience. But I also don't like picking on them. It's too easy and too convenient and too often picking on them, or others like them, diverts attention from other, more 'benevolent' philosophies and religions that can preen and posture under the banner of their own goodness as they consign others (just a 'few' perhaps') to disfigurement or death. It's all too easy-peasy in its thoughtless ways ... ways that are far from grand and certainly not 'good.'

Individuals as well, I imagine, could take a fruitful lesson from the grandeur of the Taliban.

the untold story

Police and bystanders look at a car which is covered with vegetation after it was left parked at a neighborhood for more than a year, in Chengdu, Sichuan province, China, October 17, 2013.

growing up

Anyone who has had children can tell you: The little jars of pureed food that dribble half down the child's throat and half down its chin is pretty revolting stuff. My favorite one to hate was the spinach ...
all green and gooey from the get-go ... resembling in its nourishing ick nothing so much as the stuff that would later exit the child at the other end. To this day I keep waiting for the sci-fi movie in which the green slime in its small bottle takes on a life of its own and the horrified mother or father wails, "It's alive! It's al-i-i-i-i-ve!"

Of course, this world of pureed ick is entirely sensible: The kid has no teeth and needs to start living on something other than mother's milk. So there are pears and peaches and spinach and carrots and who knows what all else ... all of it reduced to something that will dribble mercilessly onto bib and floor and parental attire. And it pays to be aware that in this pureed world a burp has the capacity to turn volcanic, spewing forth what had been so carefully spooned in.

Mind you, none of it tastes bad and it is nourishing for the child, but the texture and consistency of these little bottles of MiracleGro always reminded me of what might happen if you tried to gut a slug.

I guess what brought this to mind was that yesterday a friend sent along a book about Zen Buddhism and asked me to blurb it -- write some sort of review that he could then append to the Internet. Because a friend was asking, I said I would. And then I tried ... and was swept back into the world of pureed spinach.

I tried.

I could see from the first few pages that the author knew how to write (always a plus) and that the book would probably be pretty good, pretty nourishing, pretty sensible. But the only analogy I could think of as I plowed forward was to imagine that someone had asked me to read the Manhattan phone directory.

It was heavy and somehow lifeless in my mind. Its nourishment didn't convince me, although I could imagine it might nourish others. It was a chore and at my age, I pick my chores with more care than once. I didn't want to fail the friend to whom I had made a promise, but very quickly I realized that failure was preferable to the chore itself: "It'll be good for you" was just not convincing.

I tried ... and failed. And from the moment I consented to fail, I felt a lightness of being in some small corner of my mind. I made my confession to my friend, who knew precisely what I was talking about since he didn't want to review the book either. Both of us had eaten our spinach in times gone by. We had been nourished. We had cared about the realm of Zen Buddhism and still, to some degree, did. But that was then and this was now. Reading tales about blue sky when one look out the window would fill the bill ...

Let someone else eat pureed spinach.

Growing up is no longer my objective.