Saturday, November 30, 2013

pope puts some of his money where his mouth is

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has ramped up the Vatican’s charity work, sending his chief alms-giver and a contingent of Swiss guards onto the streets of Rome at night to do what he usually can’t do: comfort the poor and the homeless.
A few times a week, Archbishop Konrad Krajewski takes a few off-duty guards with him in his modest white Fiat to make the rounds at Rome’s train stations, where charities offer makeshift soup kitchens that feed 400-500 people a night. Often they bring the leftovers from the Vatican mess halls to share.
It's heart-warming, I think, not just because kindness warms the heart but because of a perceived history that has gone before: What a sticky wicket ... a life of service that becomes so self-serving.

Reuters photos

Performers in the 87th Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade wait for a subway to take them to the start of the parade in New York, November 28, 2013.
REUTERS/Gary Hershorn
Villagers sit on a truck as they evacuate to a safe spot, as Mount Sinabung spews ash into air at Aman Teran village in Karo district, Indonesia's North Sumatra province, November 24, 2013.
A protester shouts against a government proposed state secrecy act as parliamentary security officers drag him out, after the act passed at the Lower House during the plenary session of the parliament in Tokyo, November 26, 2013.
REUTERS/Toru Hanai
Anti-government protesters give roses, through razor wire, to the security personnel guarding the Defense Ministry as protesters gather outside it in Bangkok, November 28, 2013.
REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Eleven-year-old He Zili runs past a neighbour along an alley outside his home as his father (not pictured) pulls on the chain locked around his ankle, in Zhejiang province, China, November 27, 2013. The boy injured his head when he was one-year-old and started suffering from mental disorders. According to his family, they had no choice but to restrain him on chains as he had a tendency to attack those around him. Zili is currently being looked after by his physically disabled grandfather and his intellectually handicapped father after his mother died of cancer.
REUTERS/William Hong
Manuela Mitre is helped by midwives Cristina Balzano (bottom R) and Maira (bottom L) as she gives birth to her second child Gael while lying in a pool of water, as her husband Andre (top, 2nd R) and daughter Alice watch, at their home in Sao Paulo, November 6, 2013.
REUTERS/Nacho Doce

Kurds catch a break

The Kurds have a fierce sense of ethnic identity and have been historically treated as the ugly duckling that deserved no autonomy. The lack of quantified respect has led to a lot of bloodshed and a lot of bad blood. Everyone wants a piece of Kurdistan's rich oil and gas deposits, but no one wants to acknowledge a Kurdish autonomy and identity. Kurdistan, an area predominantly peopled by Kurds, counts parts of Syria, Turkey and Iraq as home.

And Iraq is not amused that the Iraqi Kurds have signed an energy deal with Turkey, a country with which Kurds have fought territorial battles in the past.
(Reuters) - Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan signed a multi-billion-dollar energy package this week that will help transform the semi-autonomous region into an oil and gas powerhouse but infuriate the central government in Baghdad.
Stay tuned ... there's a lot of money in them thar hills.

dwindling trust

If I don't trust you and you don't trust me, what's the result? 
WASHINGTON (AP) - You can take our word for it. Americans don't trust each other anymore.
We're not talking about the loss of faith in big institutions such as the government, the church or Wall Street, which fluctuates with events. For four decades, a gut-level ingredient of democracy - trust in the other fellow - has been quietly draining away.
These days, only one-third of Americans say most people can be trusted. Half felt that way in 1972, when the General Social Survey first asked the question.

keeping things fresh

Watching a fellow named Marten Mikos talk on TV about "open source and cloud computing" (I haven't got a clue as to what that means), it crossed my mind that any goal or endeavor or dream tends to become stale as time passes: Excitement and heart-felt effort slumps into a rote performance that lacks the zest that once imbued the scene.

Employment, marriage, mountain-climbing ... whatever the dream that was once dreamt seems to shape-shift with time and experience until, perhaps, the dreamer's zest is spent and a kind of plodding, flavorless mediocrity kicks in. The reasons for remaining true to the dream devolve into doing it "for the kids" or "putting spaghetti on the table." What once soared now shuffles, with only occasional bright lights to remind the dreamer of what was once brilliantly beautiful.

Perky motivational speakers seem to make a pretty good living by encouraging others to forswear their blahs, but their nostrums -- which are oh-so-reasonable and unremittingly energetic -- don't strike me as hitting the sweet spot. Sure, a good diet, a circle of friends, an exercise regimen ... all may be very good suggestions, and yet....

At some point, propping up the old dreams runs out of zest ... and I'm not saying that simply because I'm an old fart. Age has little or nothing to do with it.

Watching Mikos talk about things I knew little or nothing about, what crossed my mind was an apparent willingness to take responsibility ... and smile. Of course the wealth of a comfortable white guy may grease the skids of responsibility, but I'm not sure that wealth has much impact in the end: Everyone gets stuck with the farm they are stuck with ... from dreaming to dismal, that's the farm... a farm that can seem to press down with staleness.

The brick wall of stale requires a shift in approach. This farm is this farm. And, when examined and embraced, it's a pretty good farm. It's not somebody else's farm. It's not a rocket-burst of success or an unmitigated quicksand of failure. That's not the point. The point is, this farm is this farm. Every day is a new day for the good farmer. From shoveling chickenshit to playing the fiddle ... it's all new and what is new is invariably successful and wears a smile.

There is no such thing as a stale smile.

James Taylor song

Bumped into this James Taylor song last night and enjoyed it:

Friday, November 29, 2013

Zen fear

A friend wrote to me and mentioned his fear. I wrote back and perhaps it's worth noting ... maybe because it's dead wrong:
Zen bullshit aside, I think there is something to be said for easing up on the fear of fear. Zen practice really is pretty courageous stuff, but that doesn't mean anyone has to be fearless and wander around like some puffed-up samurai. The vestigial notion that Zen practice will somehow send greed, anger, ignorance, fear and other similar downers packing is just that -- a vestigial notion left over from your comic-book days and mine. Treat it gently as you might a lame calf, with attention and kindness. After a while, perhaps, it will dissolve like acne. Then you can be afraid without a second thought.

the wisdom of dinosaur shit

Passed along in email:
  A gigantic "communal latrine" created at the dawn of the dinosaurs has been unearthed in Argentina.

a peculiar honesty

A plump tan envelope sitting on the table next to me contains three copies of a contract that require my signature. The envelope comes from the literary agent handling my mother's written works to which I now hold the rights. My mother, Helen Eustis, was a writer in the 1940's and 1950's -- a freelance woman writer in an era when being a freelance woman writer took real balls. She wrote one book, The Horizontal Man, (1947) that won and Edgar Allen Poe Award, the most prestigious of mystery-writing prizes. A couple of years back, Reader's Digest included this book in the reprint of what it considered the 100 best mysteries.

Imagine that -- reprinted after 50 years.

But she also wrote another tale called (in some editions) "Mr. Death and the Redheaded Woman." (1950) The folktale also bore the title, "The Rider on the Pale Horse." Sold as a kids' story, it had a reach far beyond kids.

An excerpt may give some of the flavor:
But Maude Applegate, she'd rode high and she'd rode low, she'd stood thirst and she'd stood hunger, she'd like to killed her daddy's pretty little pinto; furthermore, she was a redheaded woman and she wasn't goin' to be laughed at so. She took and cussed out Mr. Death good. She tole him that where she came from no gentleman laughed at no lady in her true trouble, and she'd thank him to mind his manners with her, and she'd like to know who brought him up anyhow?
Fun enough and imaginative to be for kids, and yet what adult does not secretly or not so secretly appreciate approaches to death?

The brown envelope on my table has to do with "Mr. Death and the Redheaded Woman." A movie-maker in New Mexico wants an option on the book and is willing to pay for it. The option gives him seven years to make his movie. If he actually makes the movie, more money is involved. If not, the option runs out.

Anyone hearing this might think the movie was a screen recreation of "Mr. Death and the Redheaded Woman." But the literary agent who has seen early outlines of the proposed movie says that the movie has precisely zip to do with "Mr. Death and the Redheaded Woman." It is a modern tale of some sort. If viewed on its own, it would be hard to see anything whatsoever of "Mr. Death and the Redheaded Woman," according to the agent. Why then would the director wish to spend money on something that had no visible connection to his movie?

According to the agent, the director wants to acknowledge the seed that grew his movie -- the springboard that took him to whatever movie-story idea he hopes to portray. "Mr. Death and the Redheaded Woman" gave him liftoff and he wants to say so.

Imagine that -- acknowledging a source that no one else might understand but was nonetheless true. It is a peculiar honesty in my mind, but it is one that I appreciate in any human being ... a humility about "my own ideas" that always rest on someone else's ideas ... whose ideas likewise rest on someone else's ideas.

I guess what I like about it is the way it stands in contrast to the more common habit of stealing or reshaping someone else's ideas without any acknowledgment or even much reflection.

How it used to piss me off when people would spew out as their own ideas or thought patterns that I had provided! How inconsiderate! How infuriating! How weak! How ... common! Taking ideas from well-researched books or speakers and then parading them as your or my own. Sometimes it's subtle and well-camouflaged. Sometimes it is blatant. And most commonly, it's just ignorant.

I appreciate this movie director not so much because he is willing to put money in my pocket and not because it concerns someone in my family, but more broadly because I like being in the same world with someone who exercises some reflection and a little peculiar honesty.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

'circumspect' journalism

Rising anger over deadly drone attacks spurred a Pakistani political party Wednesday to reveal the secret identity of what it said was the top U.S. spy in the country. It demanded he be tried for murder, another blow to already jagged relations between the two nations....
CIA spokesman Dean Boyd would not confirm the Islamabad station chief's name and declined further comment. The Associated Press is not publishing the name disclosed by Mazari because it could not verify its authenticity.
Several other news outlets, including the New York Times, The Guardian and Reuters, also declined to include the name of the CIA station chief, which had been included in the accusatory letter. Each said it did not use the name because the name could not be verified or authenticated:
Reuters removed the name referred to in the letter as it could not be independently verified. The U.S. embassy in Islamabad declined to comment.
Let me see if I've got this straight: It is OK to release the political party's letter, but not some portion of that letter. It is not OK to release the name of the person thought to be the CIA station chief and then add a line saying "Mr. Craig Osth's profession and rank (let alone his existence) could not be independently verified." It is OK to release allegations of responsibility for drone strikes (without verification perhaps), but the name that is named within those allegations is off limits?

Is this journalism? Or is it a cozy relationship based in fear?

ID found at

PTI nominates CIA Station Chief Craig Osth and CIA Director John O. Brenan in FIR

PTI nominates CIA Station Chief Craig Osth and CIA Director John O. Brenan for killing innocent civilians in Hangu drone strike ...

Maybe it's true. Maybe it's not. But the letter states what the letter states. Suggesting that allegations may be suspect is hardly beyond a journalistic capacity. But withholding those allegations out of some contrived journalistic care smacks more of fear and collusion and perhaps cowardice. The Pakistanis know what the letter said, but the outside world should not possess such information?

Would that journalism would apply the same fact-checking politesse to the statements of politicians, religions, or the various kids who claim the dog ate their homework.

Dharma transmission

Various circumstances of late seem to have been the springboard for a thought that popped into my mind: 
As is fitting and correct, my own Zen teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, left no Dharma heirs ... and I am one such grateful heir.

shop till you drop

'Tis the season for consuming. Tomorrow is "Black Friday" here in the U.S. -- a day on which stores allegedly lower their prices as a means of bringing in Christmas shoppers. An orgy of gorging. And Moscow seems not to be exempt:

A two-story replica of a Louis Vuitton trunk built on Red Square in Moscow.

money, I believe

As when a shared belief may exhibit itself in some brick-and-mortar cathedral or other business venue, so there is something wonderful about having the very foundation of money -- shared belief -- put in the spotlight.

If I believe it and you believe it, well then, voila! -- it is true and has very concrete results.

I cannot claim to understand the intricacies of "virtual currencies" like Bitcoin, but I can see that faith prints money, whether tangible or intangible. And there is something wonderfully rebellious and a bit spooky about a medium of exchange that seems to rest on no socially-agreed-upon norms. Taxes, dirty-money laundering, and a host of less nefarious activities are all cast in a new, if still credulous, light. Who is running this show and who will be responsible if people get hurt and who will eventually find a way to scam the system ... I don't know.

According to a Reuters story, Bitcoin broke the $1,000-per-coin barrier Wednesday. Enthusiasm for the currency is growing, it seems. Faith is on the rise.

I believe in diamonds.
I believe in gold.
I believe in lamb chops.

I suppose there's no reason not to believe in Bitcoin and its associates.

Happy Thanksgiving!

To one and all, inside the U.S. or not, I offer a "Happy Thanksgiving!" and a "Happy Chanukah!" May the kinship and comfort of the holiday surround you.

A friend sent the following old story in email:



And here is a somewhat darker, more historical look at Thanksgiving in the colonies. Thank God for the slaughter of 700 men, women and children.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

bias alert

Reading a Facebook discussion about the trip stones in Zen Buddhism, it occurred to me that my bias is pretty strong. Not 'right,' just strong. Based on some experience mixed with a bunch of taste, it goes like this:

All religious persuasions are lies waiting for adherents to winkle out the truth.

And what is the truth?

You can't know that without giving things a try ... without, in short, entering freely into a world of lies.

I honestly can't think of any other way to get a fershur bead on things.

Unless you want to be content with intellectual and emotional folderol ... in other words, unless you are satisfied with lies.

tattoo art ++++

Passed along in email ... 3-D tattoos. Whether real or Photoshop, I think it's pretty inventive.

the mighty rock of doubt

As with belief,
Could praise and blame
Be founded elsewhere than
Upon the mighty rock
Of doubt?

fearing the wondrous

What a conundrum as it seems to me...
That anyone might desecrate what makes
The heart soar or melt in overwhelming delight
With tome-tinned praise.

"Enlightenment," "compassion," "emptiness" and all the rest.
Consider the teachers and thought realms
That eviscerate and undermine
The very thing so much beloved.

What suicide is this
In all its earnestness
That consigns the wondrous
To a tawdry grave?

Such wondrous and horrendous light
Filling what cannot be filled:
Love what you love and hate what you hate,
But do not whine: What adequate altar could whining build?

the answer

Having the answers is too hard, in the end -- too constraining and mercilessly unsatisfactory.

Learn to untie that knot.

Being the answer is easier -- lighter, harmonious, and obvious ... like a paper airplane floating on an updraft.

The knots no longer obtain.

This morning, in the predawn darkness, the rain is pelting our neighborhood. I do hope the chickens that live up the street are warm and dry.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

the 'wisdom' of Deepak Chopra

Anyone wishing to bask in some deeply-inspiring and wonderfully-ludicrous wisdom could do worse than this site ... which updates at the click of the mouse.

If the word "guffaw" hadn't already been invented....

'modern life' deflates sex life

A survey suggests that various social stresses and the allure of the Internet are diminishing sexual encounters.

What the hell -- there's an app for that, isn't there?

pope rattles Vatican cage

Pope Francis issued an 85-page appreciation of the Roman Catholic Church on Tuesday. It was not immediately clear if those within the Vatican appreciated it.

"I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security," he wrote. "I do not want a church concerned with being at the center and then ends up by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures.
"More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us, 'Give them something to eat.'"

same place, different day

With Thanksgiving approaching here in the U.S., the house is suddenly filled like an over-stuffed sausage...a bit like when some mentally-haywire person insists on conversing from a distance that invades your personal space.

The house is of a modest size and was comfortable enough when the kids were three feet tall. Now, with everyone sporting an adult physique, it's an airplane bathroom. The sensation oscillates between "cozy" and "cramped."

Both sons are well-muscled and also two or three or four inches above six feet. My daughter has the moves and manners and physique of a middling-height woman. And her husband, an engineer who does competitive weight lifting is ... enormous.

When the 'kids' are all off and about their lives, the place feels vaguely "empty." When they are here, as now when everyone is gearing up for a trip to New Jersey and a family get-together, the house feels "full."

Same place, different day.

Ain't that the truth?

making friends with a hick

On the TV last night, a man who seemed to be in his 50's offered a set of studs and cufflinks to be examined and priced on "Antiques Roadshow." The show is a bit like eating potato chips: Individuals bring items of jewelry, statuary, art, firearms or furniture from home and get them assayed. Who knows what anyone might have in his or her attic or basement or hanging on the living room wall? I can munch one item after another as it is put on display ... another time, another perspective, another craftsmanship, another story... munch, munch, munch.

The man who brought in the studs and cufflinks said his father had owned them and worn them. His father "hated being a hick" and the jewelry, when combined on occasion with a tuxedo, lifted him out of a rural, backward tomb to which he felt he was consigned. The set was very valuable: It came from the high-end jeweler Cartier and was laden with precious and delicately implanted jewels. It was a long way from hick-dom.

A "hick" is defined by an Internet dictionary as:
-- an insulting word for a person who has always lived in the country and does not know about life in the cities
-- noun:  not very intelligent or interested in culture
-- adjective:  awkwardly simple and provincial
Is a hick a hick if he knows or thinks he's a hick? It strikes me as unlikely. A hick is narrow in mind and circumstance. But knowing or thinking you're narrow strikes me as wider than simply acting without reflection or hope. Whether a set of cufflinks and studs can actually beat back the discomfort of being a hick is open to question, but still, isn't the awareness a wider road by definition?

The 18th century writer and thinker, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, once wrote that, "[N]othing is so gentle as man in his primitive state, when placed by nature at an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes and the fatal enlightenment of civil man." A lot of human presumptuousness is enfolded in those words and yet there is an element that anyone might feel -- the chasm between the hick and the city slicker -- whether within or without. Isn't it common enough to find a personal version of studs and cufflinks -- something that proposes another way of being, something less burdensome and perhaps narrow? And aren't there plenty of people who might be described as "all saddle and no horse," people whose collections of studs and cufflinks cannot camouflage their lack of substance?

Yeah ... me too.

I guess seeing those studs and cufflinks on TV and hearing the back-story that went with them made me feel a bit mournful for the "hicks" of this world. I'm not interested in ennobling them in some way, but I do think hicks can make a persuasive case, whether within or without. Have you ever noticed that hicks, whatever their difficulties, always seem to be able to do something? They may not know where or what the Prado is and may assume that the Nobel Prize is a new scratch-ticket, but they can cut a straight furrow, build the family house from the ground up, know how to make a rhubarb pie, and display skill and daring when it comes to alligator hunting.

Hicks are do-ers. And while they might find something mundane or less-kool in their accomplishments, still they are accomplishments. Substantive accomplishments... horses on which saddles might be placed.

I think there may be something worthwhile in reconsidering the hick within any person's life. Making friends with this hick establishes a stability not found in studs and cufflinks. Walking, talking, sweeping, shaving ... all pretty mundane when set off against the arts and wisdoms of others and yet aren't these some honest horses in a world that can be littered with glittering saddles? Elevating the one or the other within is not the point. The point is to honor the hick as anyone might honor the city-slicker.

Sure, keep the studs and cufflinks. Travel the world. Speak in tongues if necessary.

But tie your shoes....

And smile.

Monday, November 25, 2013

the 'oldest Buddhist shrine' if it matters

Time to push back Buddha's birth date a century or so? Archaeologists may have uncovered evidence of the oldest Buddhist shrine yet discovered, dating to around 550 B.C.

Zen transmission ... who's kidding whom?

I received the following blog post in email and reproduce it here in toto before offering any remarks:


Deep Zazen at "Hidden Zendo"
November 8th to 14th, 2013 
By Zensho Martin Hara
Late Autumn, deep in the wooded region of New York, Sangha members gathered together from distant lands to honor the memory of Soyen Shaku Roshi with a five day Sesshin at the lovely “hidden” Zendo.   It was the second Sesshin this year organized by the Rinzai Zen Sangha with the guidance of its honored teacher and guest, Eido Shimano Roshi, to preside over this traditional Sesshin. 

The Sangha attending was a wide variety of advanced students who have honored their Zen practice with Eido Roshi as their teacher for many years. Nothing could be better for them than to do Zazen in Sesshin with their beloved teacher Eido Roshi in a peaceful country setting in the middle of no where.

We all came together with the sense of peace and harmony that only Dharma could provide. Seizan arrived from Switzerland to be the Tenzo as well as the Ino. Yugen arrived from Holland to lead the Sangha as Jikijitsu. Ekyo who was our Shika and Jisha, drove in with Daikyu from Rochester.  Yushin, who  was our Jokei, and Genryu both drove in separately from Washington DC.  Zenrin traveled several days by car with Manny to bring the ceremonial instruments from his Florida Zendo. The rest of us converged from our homes in the Tri-state area, bringing all the needed food, supplies, cushions and instruments for Sesshin.  The Rinzai Zen Sangha worked as a coordinated team so that everyone could arrive safely on time, ready to start.

As Sesshin began, all of the Sangha became quickly aligned with the True Dharma that brought them all together. The Zazen was deep and the Sangha became ever more mindful of their presence to the Dharma as each day passed.

On the first day, Zenrin Robert Lewis was given Dharma Transmission, through a special ceremony conducted by Eido Roshi.  Zenrin was bestowed the title of Roshi and was given the name Sōryū-Kutsu which translates as “Blue Dragon Cave”. The name was taken from the Blue Cliff Records “For over 20 years, I have had fierce struggles, descending into the blue dragon’s cave for you!” 

Following afterwards, a special Jukai Ceremony was performed for Katsuo Takeda, as he was honored with the Dharma name Daikan or “Macro-Vista”. 

Each day, everyone had the rare opportunity to have their Dokusan with Eido Roshi a couple of time each day.  It was a significant and powerful experience for everyone to bring out the true nature of peace and compassion inside us all. On the last day, everyone cleaned up every corner of the “hidden “Zendo without a trace and took with them their own personal experience of a lifetime to share with their friends and families at home, forever.

OK, I have taken three deep breaths. I have tried to remain calm and understanding. I have tried to shape into some coherent form whatever it is I have to say about the blog post above. Honestly, I have tried.

But the fact is that I have failed. So many buzzers are pressed simultaneously that I hardly know where to begin. But I am posting the blog post because ... because ... because it simply astounds me... astounds me in the same way, only worse, that I was astounded when a philosophy-teacher friend showed me one of the answers she received on a quiz she gave. The answer began, "In the 16th century, the Christian philosopher Socrates...."

I suppose I wouldn't be astounded if I didn't think Zen Buddhism, as a practice, was capable of bringing something good to the people who practice it. That is my bias and I concede it. That said, I also think that there is no good thing that cannot be corrupted in subtle or gross ways and turned into self-serving and often cruel pablum ... Osama bin Laden or Jim Jones come to mind.

1. "Transmission" in Zen Buddhism is not something I care for much. Others do, but I don't. As observers like Stuart Lachs have amply pointed out, the links from one Buddhist teacher to the next are, at the very least, suspect. Teachers will include on their curriculum vitae that they have studied with one accredited teacher or another and thus proclaim -- either by implication or bald statement -- their own bona fides. OK, knock yourself out. Some people credit this system.

But the lineage linkage rests on the notion that the one approving transmission has likewise been imbued with the credible capacity to create the next link in the chain. And if that capacity is missing or damaged or corrupted, then the quality ascribed to lineage falters. If anyone could anoint anyone else, well, we'd all be generals.

Eido Tai Shimano is a man whose lineage is not attested to in the annals of the Japanese Zen Buddhism that spawned him. Yes, there was a ceremony ... but his capacity is not attested to in the monastic record that attests to his teacher or others in the Zen Buddhist flock. Organizationally, then, Eido Shimano's bestowing of transmission on Zenrin Robert Lewis is a bit like your child telling you that you are "the best mom/dad in the world." It may sound nice, but, as I say, if anyone can anoint anyone else, we'd all be generals.

2. Eido Shimano's credibility as anything resembling a Zen "master" or "teacher" has been severely taxed by, among other things, the compilation known as the Shimano Archive. He was effectively fired as abbot of the centers -- Shobo Ji and Kongo Ji -- he once oversaw. His sociopathic ways have been put on display in ways that make it difficult for anyone outside the most pathologically indentured to credit, let alone elevate, his status and capacity. During his time of ascendancy, he created five "Dharma heirs," some of whom continue to teach under (gently camouflaged) color of his transmission. And now, with the spotlight dimmed and the power all but extinguished, he creates another Dharma heir, a man who has stuck with his teacher through thick and increasingly toxic thin. "You see," he seems to say, "I've still got what it takes. I'm still in the catbird seat."

3. And Shimano's brand of teaching fairly leaps off the page of the blog post. It is a brand that is hardly limited to his self-serving encouragements, but it does boggle the mind of anyone who may be serious about Zen practice. Fawning, lick-spittle wonder; oozing references to some corrupting "compassion;" reliance on some other, more clear-eyed visionary who can see into the "profound" and is generous enough to share his vision; pretending to care but in reality demanding a blind and blinded obedience ... Osama bin Laden and Jim Jones come to mind.

4. I have faith that Zen will always right its own foundering ship. I have faith that water can purify water. But that doesn't mean I will go quietly where mud is needlessly flung into the mix. I detest it. Sometimes I wonder if the Japanese Buddhist establishment didn't send its bad apples to America as a punishment for their own losing of World War II. It's a silly thought ... but I've had it.

And sounding off puts me in the unenviable position of being thought a know-it-all. Who died and left you king of the hill, Adam? It's a reasonable question and one I can't adequately parry. But I can claim the right to my opinion -- my own, fiery, throw-up-on-the-floor reaction to matters that astound me and make me sick. What a deep, deep mistake!

And, when it comes to the blog post above, what a bunch of sorrowing, sorrowful .... well, take a look.

in the wake of justice

Skitter-scattering and tick-trickling through the mind like brittle leaves in the autumn breeze:

-- Perhaps the opposite of "selfishness" is not so much "selflessness." Perhaps a better antonym of "selfishness" is "honesty."

-- Unless I'm wrong, Plato argued in "The Republic" that justice consists in each man's doing his job. Karl Marx harmonized, "From each according to his ability to each according to his need(s)." And Christianity, like communism, casts a warming, wondrous light in its seed ("love thy neighbor as thyself") and bears fruit that can be bitter and brutal indeed.

-- A fellow named Henry Giroux was on the Moyers & Company TV show last night. Giroux is described as a scholar and author and he had a very peppy and persuasive delivery, one perfect for an old lefty like me. Said the Internet promo for the interview: "Scholar Henry Giroux says America's current political system is leading to a culture where people are so focused on surviving, they become like 'the walking dead.'"

Giroux described the sodden, grinding atmosphere of a culture in decline very well, I thought. The me-first, merchandizing mentality of the right has gained a palpable foothold ... in schools, in politics, in employment and the result is a humming anxiety and sense of separation that despises or mourns what was once democracy. Giroux is much more persuasive and articulate in his presentation than I am in my reprise.

But what I took away from the interview boiled down to snippets. If you want to solve a problem, you've got to describe it first. Giroux provided a description and it wasn't pretty. And I searched his words for suggested solutions, actions that might ameliorate or lighten the darkness. He suggested debating be taught in schools ... a very good concrete suggestion I thought. He suggested a third political party. He suggested a coming together of groups and individuals now separated by location and interest (sort of like the Occupy Wall Street movement). He suggested that planting seeds (just the seeds) of change was important. He did not suggest a literal revolution, though he came pretty close. And he probably made suggestions I didn't hear.

And lord knows a 'zombie' nation is depressing ... and lord knows a vision that will encourage improvement is pleasing. And lord knows, I couldn't help but think, that no good deed goes unpunished. The broad and compelling vision that eases pain may be compelling indeed ... and it will require leadership ... and that leadership will be composed of (wo)men ... and the possibility/inevitability of bitter fruit to grow with the sweet is inescapable ... and recognizing this, the only questions that suggests itself to me is, "Which will you choose -- a coma of inaction because any action is bound to bear some bitter fruit -- or an acceptance and recognition that any action -- bitter fruit and all -- is better than none."

I like motivational speakers who get out there and suggest another way of seeing things, a way that may or may not lead to some improvements. I liked Giroux. A mindless, self-centered zombie world really is pretty depressing. But I also like La Rochefoucauld's observation (more or less) that "the intelligence of the throng is inversely proportionate to its number." The aphorism may smack of intellectual arrogance, but its aptness remains: Relying on the throng for cherished and cherishing views is a poor support system.

Better, perhaps, is honesty. And the best I can see is this: Of course I'm going to fuck up; of course I am going to plant good seeds that bear bitter fruit; of course I am going to fight the good fight and hope to proclaim a victory; and of course there will be success. Of course.

But the only thing that matters much is whether I am willing to correct the errors that my very-good way is bound to leave in its wake. Do good? Sure. But don't forget to acknowledge and clean up the mess.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

the wind

Would the wind might lift me up
And teach me all its unlearned skills --
Whistling down the city streets,
Curling in the blanket's pleats,
Unaware of wide or narrow,
Raw unto some worldly marrow,
Uncomplaining in its death,
Unsurprised by one small breath...

Would the wind might lift me up,
Embrace me in its bubbling rills,
And teach the unforgotten skills.

Zen improvements

Passed along in email:

"Zen Predator..." radio discussion Tuesday

On Tuesday, Nov. 26, public radio here in the U.S. is planning to interview three men with varying degrees of Zen Buddhist understanding. 

Mark Oppenheimer is a religion columnist for the New York Times and the author of "The Zen Predator of the Upper East Side." Jay Michaelson is a teacher, and the author of  "Evolving Dharma: Buddhism and the Next Generation of Enlightenment." Brian Victoria is a Zen monk and author of "Zen at War" Victoria is also, for my money, a thinker of credible substance.

The three men will appear on The Colin McEnroe Show between 1:25 and 1:40 p.m. EST. The show itself begins at 1:00 p.m. EST. The springboard for the conversation, I presume, will be Oppenheimer's ebook/essay/indictment of Eido Tai Shimano, a man who had serial sexual relationships -- many of them manipulative if not abusive -- with some of his female followers.

Sorry, I am no computer genius: This seems as close as I can get to a direct link to the show... which theoretically will be available when the show is actually on. If the web site is to be believed, the program is also rebroadcast at 8 p.m. the same evening.

With any luck WNPR will prove itself more professional than Buddhist Geeks, which promised an interview with Oppenheimer a week or so ago only to renege/reschedule without bothering to announce it on its web site.

revered relics

VATICAN CITY (AP) - The Vatican publicly unveiled a handful of bone fragments purportedly belonging to St. Peter on Sunday, reviving the scientific debate and tantalizing mystery over whether the relics found in a shoe box truly belong to the first pope....
[L]ast week, a top Vatican official, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, said it almost doesn't matter if archaeologists one day definitively determine that the bones aren't Peter's, saying Christians have prayed at Peter's tomb for two millennia and will continue to, regardless....
"No Pope had ever permitted an exhaustive study, partly because a 1,000-year-old curse attested by secret and apocalyptic documents, threatened anyone who disturbed the peace of Peter's tomb with the worst possible misfortune," Bartoloni wrote.
Strange to think how close religious arbiters can come to spilling the beans without actually spilling them. If, as the archbishop suggested reasonably, it doesn't really matter whether the bones are 'real' or not, and if what matters is the devotion anyone accords to them, then how can anyone escape the conclusion that what is true of bone fragments is likewise true of any venerated item ... including the church itself?

Relics -- Christian, Buddhist or otherwise -- tend to make my teeth itch, but I cannot dismiss the human energy and longing that, rightly or wrongly, can be lavished on such items. If, as I generally hold, all religious persuasions are lies waiting for adherents to winkle out the truth, then who's to say that bone shards or soaring spires or ornate rituals cannot act as a useful catalyst? 

It's not whether such things are bullshit or not. It's what anyone grows in the bullshit.

the tantrums of experience

There's no fool like an old fool and I qualify on both counts.

Age has its wisdoms, but it also has its tantrums ... why isn't anyone listening?! The question, when translated, simply means, why isn't anyone seeing things my way?

No matter how much evidence accrues, still there is the tantrum -- writhing, wrathful, and riven by helplessness: Experience is important, but the only one to whom it is important is the one who experienced it. How bloody unfair! How galling! How lonely!

This morning, for example, I was forwarded a letter from a man who was abused by priests in a Catholic high school setting. His testimony rose up off the page and ravaged this reader's heart. It was horrific and heinous and begged for redress and ... the experience was his... and the Vatican would get away with it ... again ... bury and blur its very direct responsibilities ... again ... and life would go on without ever looking back. Things would be OK because OK is easier than not-OK and others have very busy and sometimes difficult lives. OK is nicer ... and finding fault with such a proposition is to retreat from looking in the bathroom mirror.

More specifically, a couple of events in the last couple of days brought me up short in my own life -- incidents I haven't got the energy to recount, but making me realize that no one wants to listen to an old fool, experienced or otherwise. Or rather, perhaps others would like to listen and digest ... on their own terms.

The good thing about tantrums is that they rise up and fall away. However fiery and consuming, still they have no where to go. Bit by bit, they subside and burn out because ... well, OK is easier than not-OK. And if life does not look back in awe or horror or helplessness -- the attendants of tantrums -- then there is something to be learned from life's suggestions. It's not simply laziness or self-aggrandizement ... it's just seems to be the way things happen.

Which is not to say the tantrums of experience can't put on a hell of a show.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

terrorists kidnap Congress

Passed along in email ... childish, perhaps, and yet....:


A sincere effort is a good effort, but substituting sincerity for substance is a poor way to help anyone else.

I suppose I have been as guilty as the next person as indulging in this pastime, but that doesn't make it any more attractive. Just because I think something is wonderful or horrendous doesn't imply that it is wonderful or horrendous.

Honesty is OK, I think: Such-and-such may be my sincere judgment or opinion. But implying or suggesting (implicitly or explicitly) that because it is my sincere judgment should be the basis for you to embrace a similar stance is pretty self-centered ... and more than that, not very helpful.

I guess I am thinking of this because of how irritated I can become with arguments or descriptions that rely on delighted or doleful volume, but are short on substantive presentation. Such presentations offer me little or no room in which to assess and reach my own conclusion: I am asked to agree as a social nicety, an assertion of kinship ... love-me-love-my-sincerity.

Anyway, I appreciate it and find it considerate when others bring substance to bear in serious matters ... substance and a little less 'sincere' volume.

Now let me see if I can practice what I preach.

photos from Reuters

A slimy "snail massage" in Russia. Optimistic proponents believe it eliminates wrinkles. (Reuters/Ilya Naymushin)  

John Betar, 102, and his wife Ann, 98, are seen at their home in Fairfield, Connecticut, November 20, 2013. The couple who eloped in 1932 and will be celebrating their 81st wedding anniversary on November 25, recently received the longest-marriage award from the Worldwide Marriage Encounter.
REUTERS/Michelle McLoughlin

England's fans react after their team lost their international friendly soccer match against Germany at Wembley Stadium in London November 19, 2013.
REUTERS/Eddie Keogh
A West Highland Terrier walks through the sand dunes on Portstewart Strand as strong winds continue to hit the coastline in Northern Ireland November 21, 2013.
REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

The Sublime

Spoiler alert -- a rather ga-ga post ...

For the purposes of brevity, I will call it "the sublime."

Or perhaps The Sublime is better. Capital letters without quotation marks lends a certain huge and rooted and incontrovertible quality, sort of like one of those chiseled statues on Easter Island or the granddaddy of all redwoods in a California stand.

The Sublime -- that'll do.

Muy importante.

The Sublime.

Yesterday, I spent three or four hours reading a couple of historical essays in the making. I had more or less promised one of the authors I would and so I did ... and was exhausted by the effort -- literally, physically exhausted.

The essays concerned the intersections and embraces of socio-religious thought before and during World War II. The settings were roughly in Germany (in one essay) and Japan (in the other). Christianity played a role (Meister Eckhart, for example, but not much Jesus) as did Zen Buddhism and expositors like Karl Dürckheim and D.T. Suzuki. This description does little or no justice to the essays themselves, which incorporated what was clearly a lot of hard and careful work as they deconstructed the mind sets of people who credited The Sublime and did what they could to make it fit and elevate and be part of the chaos and horror and national pride that was to become World War II.

In my exhaustion, what I came away with was this:

How human it is to seek or long for the twinkly, sparkling realms of The Sublime. Utterly, utterly human. Touchingly human. The Sublime is the ineffable, the just-out-of-reach, the relief, the brightness, the after-death cordial, the beyond-whatever-is-beyond, the balm without thorns, the warming light that stills all doubt, the perfect smile, the enfolding love, the clarity that carries with it a soupçon of flavorful fear, the answer in a land without questions, the perfection that sloughs off any notion of perfection.

Christianity and Zen Buddhism both tap into what interests me -- the quite personal longing to make sense of things and find peace in whatever The Sublime might be. Institutions and philosophies and religions may tap into the human petitions for The Sublime, but in essence, The Sublime is a quite personal longing -- a longing that arises before the institutions began selling their wondrous wares or I began writing this blog post. That's what interests me.

The Sublime. Muy importante. And so utterly, utterly personal... twinkling, sparkling, beckoning.

And in my post-essay-reading collapse, what occurred to me was this:

The search and yearning for The Sublime is not foolish because, as its critics might claim, there is no demonstrable, empirical evidence. It is, so to speak, foolish in its own terms, sort of like chaining yourself to a fire hydrant as a means of making a much-desired trip.

To seek The Sublime is to assure disappointment.

This is not to suggest that The Sublime is simply a fairy tale or unworthy of serious consideration.

It is to suggest that seeking The Sublime is at best a wonderful warning. At worst, it is a fool's errand.

Do not seek The Sublime. If there is a recognition that The Sublime is being sought, that is a sure warning that things have gone awry.

Do not seek The Sublime.

But rather, let The Sublime come to you. Lead and attentive and responsible life and if, by chance, The Sublime knocks on the door, then welcome it as you might any other friend or circumstance.

Welcome it with open arms and then, for Christ's sake ...

Go about your business.

Friday, November 22, 2013

fried eggs for lunch

A shrink friend of mine was once vacationing with his family, a wife and three smallish children. They were driving along the highway and stopped at a diner for lunch. The kids wanted hamburgers and his wife wanted a tuna sandwich, but my friend ordered fried eggs.

"Dad," his small daughter said authoritatively, "you can't have eggs for lunch. Eggs are for breakfast!"

I wonder how many spiritually-inclined agendas are perfect mirrors for the daughter's assured certainty.

People may laugh at a young child, but how often do they laugh at the spiritually-inclined?

It seems a pity to miss out on an opportunity to laugh.

the back story

Specifically, "back story" refers to events in a movie or tale that preceded the current action. Metaphorically, I think, "back story" has crept into the language to refer to any thoughts, words or deeds which help provide a grounding for current events. Eg. "The abuser was himself abused as a child" or "Behind every great fortune there is a crime."

Back stories provide apparent context. They can also provide an explanation beyond which those in possession of the back story are unwilling to move: If you have an explanation, then things are explained and that's that. Further investigation is ... well ... it requires too much energy that I choose not to expend. Moreover, I am unwilling to admit that I have chosen to rest my case in the explanation provided by the back story I have approved. I know what I know ... nuff said.

But for those willing to loosen the reins a little, back stories are kind of interesting. Yes, they provide dimension and context. And yes, without context a situation or explanation or belief becomes tinny and possibly dangerous. But ...

But every back story itself has a back story and it is at this point in discussion that anyone might pull hard on the reins that control his or her life. Every back story has a back story and every story behind the back story likewise has a back story ... and ... and ... well, fuck that shit! To follow that Yellow Brick Road is to wind up in a wispy, uncertain realm where my life and sense of certainty might lose its footing. I need a resting place, a home, a place to have form and substance and belongingness.

Much-woven back stories might include "God" or "emptiness" or, if you're a Freudian, "mom" or "dad." Is there a realm without its back stories, whether profound or superficial? I doubt it.

And to ignore the back stories of this life is to consign this life to foolishness and cruelty.

And to rely on the back stories accomplishes much the same.

Back stories inevitably point back to the right-now, but the right-now is often little more than a machining and weaving of back stories.

Is there a story that has no back story? My guess is that the only way to figure that out, assuming anyone were willing to expend the energy, is to investigate the back stories ... right ... down ... to ...the... ground. Any answer is bound to be attended by back stories, so what is the answer?

Perhaps it is fairy tales that come closest -- the tales that begin, "Once upon a time...."

Thursday, November 21, 2013

the profitable vice market

(Reuters) - Gerry Sullivan has an eye out for the sins of tomorrow, but he's no puritan.

Since taking the helm of USA Mutuals' iconoclastic Vice Fund in 2011, Sullivan has scored big gains spotting trends in tobacco, guns, alcoholic beverages and gambling. Now he's seeing new ways to make money on human transgression.

"Sin is evolving," the 53-year-old former bond trader said, before rattling off a slew of investment ideas that would make the God-fearing cringe: Buy e-cigarettes because teens will love them; predict which tobacco company will become the "Budweiser of marijuana" as states loosen anti-pot laws; and get into coffee and smartphones because they are addictive.

right to die poll by religion

Passed along in email (click on image to enlarge):

"Shut Up Hippy! A Dictionary"

If you find yourself feeling egregiously wide-minded and compassionate, a quick peruse of this "dictionary" may help you to regain your balance.

Walmart solicits charity from its employees

As pointed out by "Karl Was on the Mark" on this blog, here is an eye-widening story about a Canton, Ohio, Walmart that has set out a bin so that "sales associates" can contribute to other employees who might not be able to afford Thanksgiving dinner.

I find this story vaguely reassuring. Usually, I think the world is going crazy only to be assured by others that it's not the world -- it's me. This story suggests that my initial judgment was not as crazy as others might say.

Ta Hui on monks and laymen

I've copied this before, but recent events make me want to copy it again -- a segment of a letter from Ta Hui (a Zen Buddhist teacher, 1088-1163) to Hsu Tun-chi:

As a gentleman of affairs, your study of the Path differs greatly from mine as a homeleaver. Leavers of home do not serve their parents, and abandon all their relatives for good. With one jug and one bowl, in daily activities according to circumstances, there are not so many enemies to obstruct the Path. With one mind and one intent (homeleavers) just investigate this affair thoroughly. But when a gentleman of affairs opens his eyes and is mindful of what he sees, there is nothing that is not an enemy spirit blocking the Path. If he has wisdom, he makes his meditational effort there. As Vimalakirti said, "The companions of passion are the progenitors of the Tathagatas. I fear that people will destroy the worldly aspect to seek the real aspect." ....

If you can penetrate through right here, as those three elders, Yang Wen-kung, Li Wen-ho, and Chan Wu-chin did, your power will surpass that of us leavers of home by twentyfold. What's the reason? We leavers of home are on the outside breaking in; gentlemen of affairs are on the inside breaking out. The power of one on the outside breaking in is weak; the power of one on the inside breaking out is strong. "Strong" means that what is opposed is heavy, so in overturning it there is power. "Weak" means what is opposed is light, so in overturning it there is little power. Though there is strong and weak in terms of power, what is opposed is the same.

-- Swampland Flowers: The Letters and Lectures of Zen Master Ta Hui. Tr. Christopher Cleary. Grove Press 1977

Zen "prestige"

When she was little, my daughter and I would sometimes walk in a park near our apartment. And on one autumn day, we were crunching and swooshing through the fallen leaves in a wooded area when I said to her, "Watch out for the leaf sharks." I embellished this fairy tale notion a little until finally she looked up at me and said, "Serious and serious, papa?"

"Serious and serious" was a code we had somehow worked out between us. It meant that both of us recognized there was tale-telling and self-importance in life, but that there was a time for honesty. "Serious and serious" meant that it was time to cut the crap... no more fooling around, no more tale telling, no more bullshit ... just bedrock honesty. "Serious and serious" was a command performance. You had to tell the no-frills truth.

Like anyone who has worked up a good lie, I hated relinquishing something as delightful as the idea of a leaf shark, but I did. I told my daughter the truth. "Serious and serious" was deeply important.

Yesterday, because he was reading Mark Oppenheimer's "The Zen Predator of the Upper East Side," my older son sent me an email. I suppose he was reading the ebook/essay because I had mentioned it and also because I played a small and attributed role in the events and arguments depicted in Oppenheimer's appreciation of Eido Tai Shimano's longtime misadventures and malfeasance in the world of Zen Buddhism.

"Pop," he wrote, "If you were to rate yourself as prestige in terms of well known in the American Buddhist community, how high would that be? From what I've read, the man was a pioneer in America and you were under him for just under a decade."

Based on my email response, my son later apologized for using the word "prestige." It was, he explained, the only way he knew how to frame his question. But I hadn't been offended by the question. Questions aren't offensive, especially in Zen. Zen is a "serious and serious" business and I had only tried to give him a "serious and serious" answer ... an attempt at which I had apparently failed. I really did want to answer truthfully (my kids are important to me and, increasingly, serious and serious answers strike me as best) but what was the truth? It was like trying to explain blue skies or laughter or chocolate.

I could hear my son's question: Any organization or endeavor has a honcho and lieutenants and a general population that executes the directives given. Corporations, mafia, academia, spiritual life -- it's pretty much the same. My son's question was logical in its axioms. Before the steroids caught up with him, Lance Armstrong was a bright light in the world of bicycling -- winner of seven Tour de France trophies. He was the alpha male of bicycling, the top dog, the leaf shark among leaf sharks. He had prestige.

"Prestige" is partly defined by an Internet dictionary as, "the high reputation and respect that someone or something has earned, based on their impressive achievements, quality, etc." Lance Armstrong, before his downfall, was a prestigious man.

But what about prestige in spiritual adventure? Was it a real attribute? Of course it was in one sense. But in another sense it simply didn't compute. More important in the current circumstances was my desire to be serious and serious about my prestige. I didn't want to skirt my son's question by segueing into puff-pastry generalizations and posturing ... but what did I really -- serious and serious -- think? My son's question left me squirming and uncertain. To say I had no position or prestige was fatuous ... just like saying I had.

I like applause and acceptance and social hugs as well as the next fellow. I know plenty of Zen folks who, in little ways and large, try to raise their stature ... often by sticking their toes in the sand with an 'admirable' humility. And I know people who are just dying to be accepted by the 'Zen community.'

I like noodling about spiritual matters, based on whatever experience my practice depicts. Right, wrong or indifferent ... it's not important in any wider sense but it is what I do and I see no compelling reason not to do it. It's just noodling, for heaven's sake. If I relied on others for my standing, wouldn't that eviscerate any honest prestige that might be granted? I've been called "sensei" and "roshi" by others. I have also been called "asshole" and "wingnut."

Oh well ... prestige. I can't really nail down any definitive 'answer' or clear-cut response to the son with whom I would give just about anything to be serious and serious.

It's cold today and I want to try to keep warm.... which is about as prestigious a pastime as I can imagine.

Maybe I should applaud?