Saturday, December 31, 2005

I Know Victoria's Secret

In these times of rampaging fundamentalism, with its emphasis on “moral values,” creationism and the blurring of the line between Church and State, it’s refreshing to see that Victoria’s Secret has managed to make an industry out of selling sensuality in the suburbs. Any time I’m in a mall, their store is always chock full of soccer moms, brides-to-be and teenage girls buying lacy bras, stockings and garters, and thongs.

Sensual craving is a fundamental human condition; indeed, the Buddha identified craving as the source of mankind’s suffering. Of course, he was referring to all forms of craving, including sensual, but also craving for comfort, craving for food, craving to avoid the unpleasant and craving to associate with that which is pleasurable.

The internet is as good a representation of the varieties of human craving as anything. Surf around a while and you will see sites catering to craving for knowledge, craving for material possessions, craving for popularity, and craving for sensuality. Of course, many of the sites in the latter category fall into the realm of the pornographic.

Pornography can be distinguished from erotica based on yogic principals. Pornography tends to redirect our energy from the fourth (heart) chakra down to the lower two chakras (anal and sexual). Erotica, like all art, raises the energy level to the heart and upper chakras.

More specifically, porn typically depicts the human body as merely a vessel for sexual gratification. However else we might otherwise react to the person depicted in porn, it causes our response, physically experienced in the genitalia, to be primal and singularly sexual.Erotica, on the other hand, depicts the sexual and sensual and presents it is a way that engages the heart and mind, raising the energy from the lower to the middle and upper chakras. The best erotica turns you on, but also makes you aware of more than just your arousal. Some artists, such as Robert Mapplethorpe, can tease us by simultaneously drawing the energy both ways and cause one to consider the conflicting emotional distinctions in novel ways.

This is not to say that one is bad and one is good. Moral distinctions such as this are products of the sixth chakra and the thinking mind. However, the effect of constantly striving to fulfill one’s cravings only leads to an increased appetite. Cessation of craving is not found in indulgence. In the case of pornography, the subliminal message of seeing people reduced to their lowermost (in the yogic/chakra sense) urges dehumanizes the subject, and after a while dehumanizes the viewer as well. In the case of some erotica, the impossible standards set by the artist’s vision or the photographer’s model creates unreal expectations. However, these are not “moral” consequences, just the conditions that arise from causes.

The soccer moms, brides-to-be and teenage girls buy their lingerie, but very few find themselves looking like the Victoria’s Secret models when they wear if at home. Their craving leads ultimately to disappointment, and their suffering has karmic consequences on their lovers, family and friends. And thus we have anorexia, bulimia and the whole cognitive body-image dissonance so rampant in our society.I’m not sure this posting has anything to do with Zen, although I did try to bring it up a few times. Maybe I’m just writing this as an alibi to post some nekkid pictures on my blog.

Oh, by the way, a happy New Year’s to everyone.

And happy birthday, Jackie! Thanks for the pictures of your Special K!

Thursday, December 29, 2005

More Synchronicity

Could synchronicity be categorized as "any experience that unsettles you by demonstrating that some of your 'rules of reality' are not complete or just plain wrong"?

In the typical Western non-superstitious view of the world, there are rational and scientific reasons for everything that happens. So when a long-lost friend calls us on the telephone just as we were thinking about them, when two people speak (or blog) the same thing at the same time, when it turns out the woman serving you coffee at Starbucks was born in the year and same hometown (many states away) as you, and there is no obvious causal reason and the probability of chance seems too remote, it unsettles the mind. Could our understanding of reality be wrong?

The Mayan Calendar predicted that the pale-faced god Quetzalcoatl would return in the year 1519 to reclaim the city of Tenochtitlin. That very year, Hernan Cortez arrived in Mexico and easily captured the city. Was his arrival coincidence, or was there merit to the prophesy? If the latter, what are we to make of the fact that the Mayan Calendar ends on December 21, 2012, and that there have been predictions of meteor impacts to the Earth that same year? The most notable of these impacts, Comet XF11, was originally predicted to catastrophically strike the Earth in September 2012.

That prediction was quickly revised, and we are now told that the comet will be a "near-miss." However, the distance between synchronicity and conspiracy theory is not that great. Are we to believe the NASA's "revised" calculation or should we assume that the government is simply trying to avert a panic? ("Shop normally, and avoid panic buying.") While it is more reassuring to believe the former ("everything's under control, the world will continue as always"), is it really that improbable that the government would lie (does the term "weapons of mass destruction" sound familiar)?

Spooky stuff. I'm not saying the world's going to end in 2012, I'm just saying most people don't accept the probability of an approaching Armageddon because it's more comforting to believe we're all safe and secure than to accept the possibility of a government conspiracy to suppress the realization of an ancient Mayan prediction.

But then, how do you explain that Cortez thing?

So synchronicities, acausal coincidences where something other than the probability of chance is involved, can poke little holes in our limited concepts of reality, and cause us to question our most fundamental, underlying assumptions. This is not a bad thing; this is good.

Question reality, ask difficult questions, raise great doubt.

Most people unquestioningly assume that they exist as a self somehow separate from everything else. "I am me, and everything that is not me is something 'other.'" Zen practice shatters this illusion. Based on the view that of the world being something "other" than the self, most people assume that the world existed before they were born, and that after they die the world will go on without them. Hoxever, the late Zen teacher Kosho Uchiyama taught that when you are born, your world is born along with you, and when you die, your world dies with you and nothing is left behind. Although this is a logical conclusion of self and other being one, it is a startlingly different view of reality than we are used to.

So in the universe created in your mind, that came into being with your first breath, you can look at synchronicities and coincidences however you like: as sort of black holes in the fabric of reality, as proof of divine intervention, as cosmic hiccups. Or you could ignore them . . . but that doesn't mean you shouldn't be watching the stars in 2012.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

A lot has already been said and written about the newly-released recording of this 1957 session, so instead of repeating what's already been stated, allow me to provide some excerpts from the best review that I've seen to date:

Critic's Notebook
December 21, 2005
Jazz Gem Made in '57 Is a Favorite of 2005
By Ben Ratliff
The New York Times

". . . [Many people] believe, or have heard, that jazz crinkled up and collapsed after Coltrane. That the musicians have defaulted on audiences, going deep into their own heads instead. That there's been no successor, because Coltrane broke the mold, threw away the key, set the bar too high, stretched the envelope as far as it would go, established a holding pattern, and other truth-obscuring clichés.

. . . There are a lot of great jazz musicians in New York, and in the world. But the number of great and economically sustainable bands has declined, along with an international audience and a circuit of clubs that encourages those bands to feel a sense of competition, and opportunities for those bands to play repeatedly for regular audiences in the same small places. A. J. Liebling once wrote that French food declined after World War I with the rise of highway driving, since small restaurants weren't committed to satisfying the same clientele night after night. Instead, they could serve the same dishes and not worry about improvement; regular waves of new diners would chew away, unaware of the stasis. In a way, the same goes for jazz. . .

Monk and Coltrane played as many as 75 nights within a five-month stretch at the Five Spot Cafe in the East Village. The Coltrane Quartet played 14 weeks at the Half Note in the span of a year, from spring 1964 to spring 1965. Fourteen. It was a different time in many ways: it seems that anytime I meet someone who saw either of those bands at those clubs, they won't say that they went once, as if to cross it off a list; they went twice or three times a week, as part of their lives. (No Internet. No TiVo. Cheap rent. No risk of being thought a loser if you liked to go to jazz clubs at night.)

Monk's quartet with Coltrane recorded three songs in the studio in summer 1957, at the beginning of that band's short existence. They can be heard on "Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane." They're very good, and they contain a newly advanced Coltrane. But they are dry-runs when set next to the 51 minutes from Carnegie Hall, which were discovered for the first time in January.

The Carnegie tape comes from late November 1957, after five rigorous months of Five Spot gigs, toward the end of the band's six-month life. (Very little taped material of this band in that year at the Five Spot, and with low fidelity, is known to exist.) On the Carnegie album the band is relaxed, limber, magnetic; the tempos are more wakeful. Compare the tune "Nutty" between the studio and stage versions, and you will hear it quickly. Coltrane has become agile, finding a flexible way of running his original patterns. Monk balances an inscrutable serenity against driving, almost violent figures. And everything coming from Shadow Wilson, the drummer, is to be savored: he guards and upholds the groove, while building small, richly detailed accents around it.

But the band ended a little more than a month later, and contractual issues between Coltrane and Monk's record labels made it impossible for them to record again. We're lucky to have this. . .

This is how jazz works. It is not a volume business. (Its essence is the opposite of business.) Its greatest experiences are given away cheaply, to rooms of 50 to 200 people. Literature and visual art are both so different: the creator stands back, judges a fixed object, then refines or discards before letting the words go to print, or putting images to walls. A posthumously found Hemingway novel is never as good as what he judged to be his best work. But in jazz there is always the promise that the art's greatest examples - even by those long dead - may still be found."

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

David Nason is an Australian journalist living in New York. Last November, he interviewed Kurt Vonnegut, the sci-fi novelist, 60s counter-culture icon and champion of gloomy adolescents.

A narcissistic and self-absorbed interviewer, Nason’s style is of the “Well enough about me. What do you think about my career?” school. The interview itself doesn’t even begin until almost halfway through the article; that is, Nason apparently felt it more important to first discuss his supermarket shopping on the Upper West Side, the issues he intended to discuss with Vonnegut, and the fact that he hadn’t read the book that Vonnegut was meeting with him to promote. When he finally gets around to describing his meeting with Vonnegut, Nason notes that the author appeared to be an “unshaven, dishevelled man with wild, curly grey hair and frayed clothing. He looks as if he has just crawled out from under a bush in Central Park.”

“Don't get me wrong,” he adds, returning the spotlight on himself again, “I don't mind how people look and I often give money to beggars on the subway.”

Whatever. The only reason that this interview is noteworthy is that toward its end, Nason breezily recounts,

"Next I ask him about terrorism. It's not for any particular reason. It just seems a relevant thing to ask a writer who has seen war, who has written of war and who lives in New York City, where terrorism's horror is understood so well.

‘What about terrorists? Do you understand where they're coming from? Do you regard them as soldiers too?’ I ask.

“Vonnegut's reply is startling. ‘I regard them as very brave people, yes,’ he says without a moment's hesitation.

"'You don't think that they're mad, that, you know, anyone who would strap a bomb to himself must be mad?’

"'Well, we had a guy [president Harry Truman] who dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, didn't we?’ he says. "What George Bush and his gang did not realize was that people fight back. Peace wasn't restored in Vietnam until we got kicked out. Everything's quiet there now.’

“There's a long pause before Vonnegut speaks again: ‘It is sweet and noble - sweet and honourable I guess it is - to die for what you believe in.’

“This borders on the outrageous,” Nason feels obligated to point out, before asking rhetorically, “Is the author of one of the great anti-war books of the 20th century seriously saying that terrorists who kill civilians are ‘sweet and honourable?”

“I ask one more question,” Nason teasingly promises, although the interview does continue with a couple more:

“But terrorists believe in twisted religious things, don't they? So surely that can't be right?”

"'Well, they're dying for their own self-respect,’ Vonnegut fires back. ‘It's a terrible thing to deprive someone of their self-respect. It's [like] your culture is nothing, your race is nothing, you're nothing.’

At this point, Nason notes “there's another long pause and Vonnegut's eyes suggest his mind has wandered off somewhere.” This is, of course, pure speculation on Nason’s part about the 84-year-old author. Vonnegut’s eyes may have just as easily been suggesting that he has realized that he allowed himself to get caught by a third-rate journalist out to trap him.

“Then, suddenly, he turns back to me and says: ‘It must be an amazing high.’

“’What?’ I ask.

“‘Strapping a bomb to yourself,’ he says. ‘You would know death is going to be painless, so the anticipation ... must be an amazing high.”

Nason ends the interview with editorial comments, again starting with himself:

“At this point, I give up. I can't be bothered asking him about any of the things I'd thought about: his mother's suicide, how he raised his sister's kids, the great writers he knew and partied with, how he looks back on Dresden. Vonnegut has been many things: a grandmaster of American literature; a man who worked hard to support his family; a soldier who fought for his country. But now he's old and he doesn't want to live any more. You only have to read his book to understand that. And because he can't find anything worthwhile to keep him alive, he finds defending terrorists somehow amusing.”

But Nason still needs to get one last shot in. Earlier in the conversation, he notes, Vonnegut had talked about French writer Albert Camus, stating, "He got a Nobel Prize for saying essentially - among other things - that life is absurd, so the only philosophical question is whether to commit suicide or continue to participate in absurdity. But I feel absurd is too weak a word. I think life is preposterous."

“That's a matter of opinion,” Nason says in closing, “but if Vonnegut in his old age persists in defending terrorists, preposterous may be precisely how people remember him, and that would be unfortunate.”

This interview, along with Nason’s editorializations, has become fodder for right-wing pundits and bloggers. “Vonnegut defends terrorists!” they exclaim. “He believes killing innocent civilians is sweet and honorable.”

Well, killing innocent civilians was not exactly what he was describing as “sweet and honorable” if you go back are read what he said and the context in which he said it. But further, the reference - you can see he’s struggling to recall the exact words - was to "Dulce et Decorum Est," a poem from the First World War that depicts the horrible death scene of a man who has been gassed in battle, with a last line that translates: “The old Lie: It is sweet and honorable to die for your country.” It was Vonnegut’s way of saying suicide bombers were dying for a foolish cause, but it went over Nason's head.

The ensuing controversy has caused Vonnegut’s son, Mark, a pediatrician living in Milton, Massachusetts, to write a somewhat apologetic, somewhat defensive editorial in today’s Boston Globe. “At no point did he say that blowing yourself up in a crowd of people was a good thing to do,” the younger Vonnegut notes. “What most outraged his interviewer was Kurt's disinclination to dismiss the terrorists as mentally ill. He said that suicide bombers believed that they were dying for a just cause and that he imagined they were probably brave people. It was all speculation. Neither he nor his interviewer had any knowledge about suicide bombers or radical Islam. Nowhere in the interview did he say anything in support of terrorism, though I'm quite sure he enjoyed horrifying his interviewer by skating around it. Kurt, every so often, will play with people a little.”

“What Kurt can do better than most people is reframe things and turn them around in a way that creates a new perspective. Even if you disagree with that perspective, the plausibility and novelty of his vision are enough to make you think. We need to think a little more, not less.”

Exactly. But my point here is not to defend Vonnegut nor to attack him. I’m neutral here. Like many people of my generation, I was a big Vonnegut fan in my teens, and his dark, pessimistic world view matched my adolescent gloominess well. However, like many people of my generation, I outgrew my fixation, and hardly consider him relevant any longer to my current outlook or the present times.

But I do share Mark’s concern that Vonnegut’s detractors are trying to twist his provocative statements to support their view that anyone who is critical of the war must therefore be pro-terrorist. It’s that sort of divisive duality that’s making the current dialog on our involvement in Iraq so impossibly shrill.

We don't need more name calling. We need more thinking.

Monday, December 26, 2005


Soma was the mass-produced narcotic-tranquilizer in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. In the 1932 novel, this "opiate of the people" is regularly taken by all members of a peaceful high-tech society of the future in order to produce feelings of euphoric happiness, and replaces religion and alcohol.

The term "soma" derives from a stimulant drink used in ancient Aryan (Indo-Iranian) rituals, in particular those of Vedic India. Soma was a ritual drink of importance among these cultures, and is frequently mentioned in the Rig Veda, which contains many hymns praising its energizing and intoxicating qualities.

In both Indian and Iranian tradition, the drink is identified with the plant, and also personified as a god, the three forming a religious or mythological unity. The plant is the god and the drink is the god and the plant is the drink — they are all three the same. Soma is similar to Greek ambrosia; it is what the gods drink, and what made them deities. Mortals also drink it, giving them access to the divine.

Soma was apparently prepared by pressing juice from the stalks of a certain mountain plant. The plant probably grew in the homeland of the Indo-Iranians, possibly the Hindu Kush, but the migration of the Aryans into the Punjab region removed them from the area of its occurrence, and it had to be imported. In the Rig Veda, soma was described as growing in far-away mountains and had to be purchased from traveling traders. Later, knowledge of the plant was lost altogether, and Indian rituals reflect this in expiatory prayers apologizing to the gods for the use of a substitute plant (rhubarb) because soma had become unavailable.

There has been much speculation as to what was the original soma plant. Although it was generally assumed to be hallucinogenic, soma was also associated with the warrior-god Indra and appears to have been drunk before battle. So it might also have been a stimulant. For these reasons, energizing plants as well as hallucinogenic plants are among the candidates that have been suggested.

Several mushrooms have been suggested, including Amanita muscaria (fly agaric or toadstool) and the psylocybin-containing Stropharia cubensis. The mushroom theory is supported by later Tibetan legends connected with urine drinking, and it is indeed possible that in Tibet, the shamanistic practice of eating psychedelic mushrooms, and subsequently drinking the urine of the one who has taken the mushroom, still containing much of the agent substance, has been connected with Vedic terminology surrounding soma.

The Tibetan word for “cannabis” is derived from the Sanskrit soma-raja ("king Soma") and cannabis has also been suggested as a soma candidate based on the Tibetan evidence. The choice of cannabis is further supported by the traditional Zulu use of this drug for energizing warriors.

The most likely non-hallucinogenic, stimulant candidate plant is a species of the genus Ephedra, shrubs with numerous green or yellowish stems growing in mountainous regions. The native name for Ephedra in most Indo-Iranian languages of Central Asia is derived from soma- (e.g., Nepali somalata). Archeological excavations have found ceramic bowls yielding traces of both Ephedra and cannabis, and Ephedra and the pollen of poppies. These finds support the theory that the soma plant was Ephedra, and the soma drink was a composite comprising Ephedra and cannabis or opium.

Ephedrine, the primary active substance, is an alkaloid with a chemical structure similar to amphetamines. Ephedrine results in high blood-pressure and has a stimulating effect more potent than that of caffeine. It is still used in Iranian folk medicine, and the traditional Chinese herb Ma Huang, used in the treatment of asthma and bronchitis for centuries, contains ephedrine as its principal active constituent. Anecdotal reports have suggested that ephedrine helps thinking or studying to a greater extent than caffeine. Some students and some white-collar workers have used ephedrine (or ephedra-containing herbal supplements) for this purpose, as well as some professional athletes and weightlifters.

Ephedrine molecules occur as two "mirror images," or isomers, much like a pair of hands. The very potent (-) isomer mimics the effects of adrenaline and is responsible for the amphetamine-like stimulation characteristic of Ephedra products. The (+) isomer, also known as pseudoephedrine, is far less potent as a stimulant. However, it retains much of ephedrine's ability to open airways and nasal passages. For this reason, pseudoephedrine is marketed as a decongestant, such as Sudafed.

Pseudoephedrine works by stimulating receptors (alpha-receptors) in certain areas of the body, particularly in the lining of the nose and sinuses. Pseudoephedrine shows greater selectivity for the nose and sinuses and a lower affinity for the central nervous system than other Ephedra alkaloids. When the alpha-receptors present in the walls of blood vessels are stimulated by pseudoephedrine, the vessels contract and narrow. In the lining of the nose and sinuses, this results in less fluid being pushed out of the blood vessels into these linings. This reduces the production of mucous, thereby relieving the symptoms of nasal congestion. Other beneficial effects include increasing the opening of obstructed Eustachian tubes. Pseudoephedrine is also used as first-line therapy of priapism, a painful and potentially harmful medical condition in which an erection does not return to its flaccid state.

Pseudoephedrine should not be used by anyone who has taken monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOI) within 14 days or who intends to take such a medication in the next 14 days. It’s a really, really bad idea to take pseudoephedine and MAOIs and eat mistletoe berries at the same time.

The similarity in chemical structure to the amphetamines has made pseudoephedrine a sought-after chemical ingredient in the illegal manufacture of methamphetamine. In an attempt to inhibit meth production, federal law prohibits buying cold preparations containing pseudoephedrine in quantities greater than 3 packages in any 24-hour period.

Due to the current methamphetamine epidemic, Georgia law now requires that pseudoephedrines such as Sudafed be removed from the shelves of pharmacies and supermarkets and stocked behind the counter to prevent people from buying (or stealing) mass quantities of the drug. In essence, the bill placed Sudafed in a class of drugs somewhere between "Rx only" and OTC. The funny thing about this legislation is that despite being put behind the pharmacy counters, sales of Sudafed have remained strong. And last I heard, the meth epidemic in Georgia has not ended.

As I blogged last March 23, I have been taking Sudafed on a daily basis since early 2004 to clear chronic sinus congestion. Once I learned that the behind-the-counter legislation was pending, I started stocking up on Sudafed, buying the maximum-allowable two packages every time I went to the supermarket or drugstore. However, my stockpile has since been depleted, and now I am forced to go to the pharmacy, wait at the prescription check-out line, and request the drug by name in order to purchase it. It is a good opportunity to observe the practice of the kshanti paramita (the perfection of patience).

On December 15, 2005, Senators Jim Talent (R Missouri) and Dianne Feinstein (D California) attached a strict "anti-meth" bill to the latest iteration of the refuses-to-die Patriot Act. On top of making Sudafed a behind-the-counter drug in the entire US, the new legislation would require the purchaser to show a photo ID and sign a purchase log to allow a pharmacy to track how much they've purchased. How store-hopping would be prevented is not identified in the proposed amendment, but one disturbing possibility would be data-basing and tracking Sudafed consumption.

If the legislation is removed from the Patriot Act, or if the Patriot Act doesn't make it through the Senate, Talent and Feinstein have vowed to attach it to another bill at some point down the road. Their legislation, another example of compromising civil liberties for the illusion of “safety,” will do nothing to stop the meth epidemic in the United States and will only serve to frustrate consumers, make law enforcement agents out of pharmacy personnel, and further erode American freedom, while letting legislators take credit for doing “something” about the meth situation.

Pfizer, the manufacturuer of Sudafed, spent $12 million trying to develop additives for Sudafed that might make it harder to remove the pseudoephedrine it contains. They abandoned the project in 2003, seven years after announcing its existence. In late 2004, Pfizer publicly disclosed its plans to make available a new OTC product, Sudafed PE, which does not include pseudoephedrine. Sudafed PE contains a different decongestant called phenylephrine in a formulation sold for years in Europe. The new product became available on January 10, 2005. Sudafed products which combine the decongestant with other ingredients will be completely converted to phenylephrine later in 2005, though original Sudafed will still be offered.

So let’s review what we’ve covered here: Aldous Huxley, the Vedic scriptures, psylocybin mushrooms, Tibetan ritual urine drinking, Zulu cannabis use, traditional Chinese medicine, non-stop erections, mistletoe, alpha receptors, the methamphetamine epidemic, my Sudafed stockpile, the Patriot Act and the kshanti paramita. Next I may have to blog about the dangers of web surfing while ingesting too much caffeine.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Naughty or Nice?

Merry Christmas, everyone.

I got up around 6 a.m. this morning because I had to open the Zen Center at 7:30. I wasn't sure if we were going to have anybody, but seven people did show up. I even gave a short dharma talk, not on the meaning of Christmas or any other topical theme like that, but instead about lineage.

But whatever else people claim is the real reason for Christmas, I maintain that it's all about magic. And the joy of children. Christmas is the one magical day of the year for children to revel all day in the affection of their parents and to have their undivided attention as they open their presents. Sure, it's about materialism too, I can't deny that's creeped in there, but for children only a little bit - the real magic is in a day of unending joy, the one day when everything is special and different.

What's not magic about a day when a tree is dragged into the house and covered with lights and shiny ornaments, when the whole neighborhood is decorated with wreaths and snowmen and santas and other displays? What's not magic about waking up and finding gift-wrapped presents for you under a tree that was barren the night before? What's not magic about the one day of the year you actually hope that it snows?

Well, it didn't snow in Georgia this year. There was a single crack of thunder last night, signalling the start of rain, which was still coming down as I left the house this morning. It stopped during the morning service, but the day has been otherwise cold and grey.

Which brings me around to the other magic of Christmas - for many children, it's the first lesson in Zen. However great the day was, it comes to an end (impermanance), and even during the magical day itself there is often sadness because one's desires become so great, they can't possibly be satisfied (the first and second noble truths of the existence and cause of suffering).

There are Zen lessons for parents, too. Despite all of their expectations, desires and cravings, they learn that the real joy is when they stop thinking of themselves and instead devote themselves to giving (the dana paramita). Selfless joy abounds in the act of gift giving and of no longer putting the self first.

Thursday, December 22, 2005


William S. Burroughs tells the story of meeting a ferry captain named Clark who claimed to have sailed the same route without an accident for 23 years. That very day, however, the ferry sank. Later that day, Burroughs was thinking about Clark's ferry accident when he heard that a Flight 23 on a New York-Miami route had crashed. The pilot's name for the flight had also been Clark.

What is the relationship between "coincidences" and synchronicity in our lives? To answer this, first we need to consider what "coincidences" are.

Coincidence: William Shakespeare was born on an April 23, died on an April 23 and had his first portfolio published in 1623. His first play, Titus Andronicus, was performed on a January 23.

But are there deeper meanings to any of this? Consider the 23rd book of the Old Testament -the Book of Psalms. Psalm 23 is the famous "Lord is my Shepherd" psalm. 23 times 2 is 46, and the 46th word of Psalm 46 is "shake." The 46th word from the end of Psalm 46 is "spear." Is this a sly reference like some have supposed that Shakespeare translated the King James version of the Book of Psalms? Or was this a tribute to the Bard, a 17th Century "shout out" by the real translator?

Next, what is synchronicity? In his classic work, Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle, Carl Jung defined synchronicity as "...a meaningful coincidence of two or more events, where something other than the probability of chance is involved."

The classic example of synchronicity concerns one of Jung’s patients, a woman whose highly rational approach to life made any form of treatment particularly difficult. On one occasion, the woman related a dream in which a golden scarab had appeared. Jung knew that such a beetle was of great significance to the ancient Egyptians, for it was taken as a symbol of rebirth. As the woman was talking, the psychiatrist in his darkened office heard a tapping at the window behind him. He drew the curtain, opened the window, and in flew a gold-green scarab, also called a rose chafer. Jung showed the woman "her" scarab and from that moment the patient’s excessive rationality was pierced and their sessions together became more profitable.

Another well-known example of synchronicity involves plum pudding. In 1805, Émile Deschamps was treated to some plum pudding by the stranger Monsieur de Fontgibu. Ten years later, he encounters plum pudding on the menu of a Paris restaurant, and wants to order some, but the waiter tells him the last dish has already been served to another customer, who turns out to be M. de Fontgibu. In 1832, Deschamps is again at a diner, and is once more offered plum pudding. He recalls the earlier incident and tells his friends that only M. de Fontgibu is missing to make the setting complete, and in the same instant the now senile M. de Fontgibu enters the room by mistake.

Jung articulated his synchronicity theory primarily in terms of the I Ching. According to the philosophy behind the I Ching, every moment has its own character, and everything that occurs in that moment shares in that unique quality. The "inner reality" of our psychological state corresponds to the "outer reality" of events taking place in our surroundings at the same time. Jung employed the I Ching as a device to discover the external world as the psychic "atmosphere in which we live," and he began to use synchronistic events as an essential element in his practice of analysis.

None of this would be news to a Zen master. In Zen, it is recognized that the "inner reality" of our psychological state is not governed by the "outer reality," but actually the other way around. According to a sutra:

"This moment arises from mind,
This moment itself is mind."

Everything is part of the present moment ("everything is connected" as Dennis Hoffman's character would say in the movie "I [Heart] Huckabees"), and it is all a manifestation of mind. Synchronicities occur if one looks for them, but they occur because one is looking for them. The mind is running the whole show, and one can directly perceive this during zazen. With the mind stilled, everything else in the whole universe slows down, and as the mind once again engages itself, the universe reappears. This may sound strange, but try it and see for yourself.

Is there meaning to the synchronicities that occur in your life? Yes, if you want them to be meaningful; no, if you don't want them to be.

After all, it's all you.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

What I've Been Listening to This Week

John Coltrane
The Classic Quartet
The Complete Impulse! Studio Recordings

After listening to a 16-disc box set of Trane's Prestige recordings of the 50s, and the 7-disc set of his Atlantic recordings of 1959-61, I have moved on to his recordings with the John Coltrane Quartet from 1961 to 1967 on the Impulse! label.

This 8-disc set captures Trane at the height of his intensity. The music varies from the moving and beautiful "A Love Supreme" to the challenging "Sun Ship." Perhaps fortunately, some of his most difficult music of this period, such as "Ascension" and "Interstellar Space," was recorded with additional personnel beyond the Quartet, and is therefore not included in this set. But while even the most intense and dissonant of his recordings demands one's full attention (it simply cannot function as "background music"), it amply rewards that attention.

All this Coltrane I've been listening to (he's the only musician so far played in my new car) may sound like I've only recently discovered his music. Nothing could be further from the truth. I first started listening to Trane around '74 or '75, and the Quartet - John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones - became my John, Paul, George and Ringo for the decade.

The journey that's chronicled on the 31 CDs of these three sets is remarkable. All the cliches about innovative musicians "expanding the vocabulary of his instrument" and "taking his music into new frontiers" could well have been first coined for Coltrane. After leaving Prestige and the hard- and post-bop music he recorded at that label, he began experimenting more and more at Atlantic, both with the compositions, the modes and the very sounds that he would coax out of his instrument. By the time he got to Impulse!, he was exploring just where the limits of self expression might be, and every time he approached those limits, he found that he was also pushing them further. It would not be correct to say that he was the Jimi Hendrix of the saxophone; Jimi Hendrix was the John Coltrane of the guitar.

By the end of his career, it seemed as if he had succeeded in blowing not only his heart and soul out through his horn, but finally even his mortal existence. Nirvana, literally translated, means to extinguish or blow out, as a candle. Coltrane's intensity got to the point where it seems as if he extinguished his own existence and found nirvana - Coltrane did not die so much as just blow himself out of this mortal realm.

Writing in The New Yorker about British type designer Matthew Carter, Alec Wilkinson recently said, "In the spring of 1960, the John Coltrane Quartet played its first engagement. Carter was in the audience. Over several weeks, he heard them three or four times. 'Sometimes they played the same songs in the second set as they played in the first,' he says. 'Not because they were lazy but because they wanted to surpass themselves, or find something in the music that they hadn't found earlier in the evening. They were that acute.' Listening to them, he decided that he owed it to himself to try and stay in New York. 'Their seriousness of purpose was a lesson,' he says. 'Four great geniuses who would knock themselves out every night when instead they could have coasted. I felt I could have been dishonest enough to return to England and say I hadn't seen great design. But I couldn't somehow pretend that I hadn't heard the John Coltrane Quartet.'"

That's the kind of thing that listening to this music does to one. That's what it does to me . . . and what it can do to you.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

What with Christmas coming and all, much of the talk around the Zen Center has revolved around the teachings of Christ, and any Zen interpretations one might infer there from.

On the one hand, one can look at the story of Jesus and draw similarities to the life of the Buddha. An interpretation of Jesus' life could be that he was a normal, average Aramaic carpenter, living a normal, average Aramaic carpenter's life, when for some reason he went out into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights. The Gospels indicate that he fasted, and had visions of the devil tempting him. It is not written whether or not he meditated, but he must have been profoundly alone and quiet. In any event, when he came back, he was markedly changed, and began his preaching career saying things like "I and the Father are one," and "The Kingdom of Heaven is all around us." Granted, the latter is only in the Gospel of Thomas, one of the so-called Gnostic Gospels suppressed by the Roman Catholic Church, but we'll get to that in a moment.

Like the Buddha, then, who sat and meditated under the bodhi tree and achieved enlightenment when the morning star arose, one could presume that after his experience alone in the desert, Jesus too achieved a sense of unity with the universe. Unfortunately, his preaching career was cut off quickly by an unfortunate martyrdom, and his teachings were kept by a small and persecuted sect for many years before they were written down, so we may never know what he really taught.

Now at this point in the conversation, someone usually interrupts and says that you can't interpret the Gospels from a Buddhist perspective. It's dangerous, it's not respectful of the beliefs of others, and it ignores certain other unpleasant teachings, such as Jesus' statement that "No man enters into the Kingdom of Heaven except through me." You can't, the argument goes, smorgasbord among the teachings you like and ignore those you don't.

I disagree. First of all, I intend absolutely no disrespect and if others take offense, it's an unfortunate effect of their narrow mindedness, not my provocation. I am not trying to make fun of or belittle Christ's teachings, but instead embrace them, find commonalities instead of differences, and incorporate them into the Buddhadharma.

Second, the entire history of Christian dogma has been selecting texts that meets the needs of those in power, from Popes to Kings to charismatic preachers, while expurgating the rest. At some point, at least in the English-speaking world, the scripture became "frozen" into the popular King James translation and selections, but other Gospels, such as Thomas, have been dropped, while epistles of his followers have been added. There's no reason not to continue this process of selection to fit the times and one's wisdom.

On that note, someone once pointed out to me that Americans in particular have become uniquely literal in the interpretation of the Bible. This may be, it was reasoned, because of our roots as a frontier society, far removed from the churches and scholars, and our only authority was the written text. So we came to rely on that text to a far greater extent than, say, our European brethrens.

And as for exclusive and dualistic statements like "No man enters into the Kingdom of Heaven except through me," one needs to look a little deeper. If Jesus also said "I and the Father are one," what did he mean when he said "through me?" Just his mortal self? Or he and the Father? And if he and the Father are one, what does the Father not also encompass? What limits can one place on God? Could not his "me" actually refer to the entire universe?

If one considers this all-encompassing view, the statement "The Kingdom of Heaven is all around us" no longer sounds heretical or suspect. The Kingdom of Heaven is all around us, and no one enters into the Kingdom because we're all already there. There is no arriving.

How Zen is that?

Monday, December 19, 2005


Tyramine is a poisonous alkaloid found in the holiday plant mistletoe. While it is useful in some medicinal applications, the berries of the mistletoe plant contain poisonous amounts of tyramine.

In humans, if tyramine metabolism is compromised by the use of monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) and foods high in tyramine are ingested, a hypertensive crisis can result. The first signs of this were discovered by a neurologist who noticed his wife, who at the time was on MAOI medication, had severe headaches when eating cheese. For this reason, the crisis is still called the "cheese syndrome", even though other foods can cause the same problem.

A large dietary intake of tyramine can cause an increase in systolic blood pressure of 30 mmHg or more. Dietary tyramine intake has also been associated with migraine in select populations, so if you're suffering from a headache this holiday season, don't blame the kids pleading for an Xbox 360, but instead make sure they haven't been sneaking mistletoe berries into your fruitcake.