Thursday, June 30, 2005

Sun Ra

An article in the NY Times today about Marshall Allen's struggle to keep the Sun Ra Arkestra going made me think of the profound influence music has had on my life. I have been listening to Sun Ra's music for some three decades now, basically since I first discovered jazz in the 1970s. The musical road that led me to Sun Ra, and the effect of that discovery, says a lot about me.

Growing up, I was, of course, a fan of your basic 60s rock and roll - the Beatles and the Stones and the Top 40 pop sounds on A.M. radio, specifically, 77 WABC out of New York. The Top 40 then was a much more varied patchwork of styles and genres than it is now, and within an hour, one could hear the current single of any one of the British Invasion bands of the 1960s, West Coast bands like the Jefferson Airplane and the Doors, pop bands like Three Dog Night and Creedence Clearwater, and any number of novelty songs ("They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha, Ha!"). But around 1968, something happened that changed my life in a subtle but significant way - my transistor AM radio broke, and I was forced to listen to my parents' F.M. radio.

This radio was in the kitchen and main purpose was to provide classical music while dinner was being prepared and served. But bored and restless, I started tuning up and down the dial in search of my Top 40 hits, and like poor amputated Jenny in Velvet Underground's "Rock 'n' Roll," one fine morning I found a New York station and couldn't believe what I heard. WABC F.M. was playing the Beatles, but not the singles; instead they were playing those other cuts on the albums that weren't getting airplay on the A.M. radio. And beyond the Beatles, they were also playing cuts off of other albums by bands like Buffalo Springfield, Steppenwolf, the Yardbirds, Cream and the Animals. It was as if by going from WABC A.M. to WABC F.M., I had graduated to a more interesting, more exciting level of music. Most of my friends were still content listening to their A.M. pop favorites, which I too still enjoyed, but my appreciation was now guided by a deeper understanding.

Since my initial musical foray over to the F.M. dial had been so rewarding, I continued my adventures in F.M., searching up and down the radio for other stations, and soon found WNEW New York. WNEW was to WABC-F.M. what ABC-F.M. was to ABC-A.M. WNEW was not only playing all of the album cuts by the bands listed above, but also music by bands that never had a Top 40 single, like the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Iron Butterfly. The music was more powerful, rocked harder, and most noticeably, profoundly stranger than anything I had been listening to before.

In fact, the music was so strange, that my friends, ears still glued to the Top 40, dismissed my new tastes. They made fun of me for listening to "weird music." But I didn't care - I found my new music so compelling, so interesting and so essential, that I ignored their taunts and teases, and that marked a turning point for me; specifically, that my musical tastes were now non-conformist, and music was no longer a shared and common bond between my friends and peers and I.

My adventures, now solo, continued. As innovative and eclectic as WNEW was, they still weren't playing some other bands that I had heard or read of, but not yet experienced, such as Pink Floyd or Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. So at this point, to see how much further I could go, I abandoned even my trusty F.M. radio stations as my guide and started listening to new and challenging records on my own.

The pattern soon became that whatever artist, however daunting their reputation or first listen might be, soon became commonplace to my ears, and I searched further and further for something truly mind-blowing. But it seemed that the music of Frank Zappa was on a quest similar to my own - each successive Mothers' record was exploring new territory, from bizarre permutations of rock, to intricate and sophisticated orchestral arrangements, to avant-garde, free-form noise.

This journey from the Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand" to Zappa's "Prelude to an Afternoon With a Sexually Aroused Gas Mask" took place over several years, and over those years, say 1967 to 1973, music changed, the times changed and I certainly changed. Sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll were a given, the A.M. Top 40 radio format had been all but abandoned except by the most unadventurous minority, and my friends were all claiming that they'd always been into whatever group I had discovered, and subsequently abandoned, years earlier. But the non-conformist impulse, first developed years ago listening to my parents F.M. radio in the kitchen, compelled me to discard anything that became too popular, and to keep searching.

At this point, I had nothing but my own instincts to guide me - radio was strictly commercial, the press outdated and passe, word-of-mouth unreliable. I would comb through record stores, used music shops and flea markets looking for something, anything, new and different.

One day, in a railroad salvage store, I came across a recording titled "King Kong - Jean-Luc Ponty Plays the Music of Frank Zappa." It was clearly marked as a "jazz" record. This did not daunt me, since at the time I was already listening to some jazz-rock fusion, like John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and enjoyed some of the jazzier explorations of bands like Traffic and, of course, Zappa. I bought the record, took it home and played it, and instantly loved it. This, I decided, opened up a whole new realm - jazz. Rock was starting to enter the moribund era of the 70s, power ballads, art rock and finally disco, and I wanted no part of it. Jazz on the other hand, represented a whole new world to explore - a fifty-year recorded history, a plethora of styles, and a challenging and adventurous avant garde. I abandoned rock and jumped into jazz with relish.

My first couple months as a jazz fan were mostly exploratory, listening to as many different artists as I could, but my old impulse to find how far I could go in any direction soon kicked in. If I liked, say, Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue," I worked my way to "Bitches' Brew" and on to "On the Corner." Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" would lead me to his later recordings like "Ascention" and "Interstellar Space." But since Coltrane had died in 1967, to go further I had to listen to his successors, like Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler.

But as much as my heart, soul and intellect loved and responded to the furious atonal squonk and squeal of this dissonant music, I knew of almost no one who could even be in the same room when some of this music was playing. My non-conformity had graduated to the antisocial.

No matter how extreme or avant garde each artist I listened to was, however, there was always one figure who always sounded "one step beyond" - Sun Ra. Sun Ra seemed to be to jazz what Frank Zappa had been to rock - always ahead of the pack, and constantly searching, expanding and innovating, so the only thing possibly more adventurous than a Sun Ra recording was another Sun Ra record - there was no going beyond Sun Ra, because he was constantly going beyond himself.

How can one even start to describe Sun Ra? He claimed to be from Saturn and dressed that way, played music that alternated free improvisations and outer-space chants with eccentric versions of swing tunes, and lead a big band, called the "Arkestra," that wore exotic costumes, featured dancers, magicians, fire eaters, light shows, and anything else they could dream up. Song titles, "Space Is the Place," "Rocket Number Nine Take Off for the Planet Venus," "Love in Outer Space" can only hint at the cosmic weirdness of the music. Like Frank Zappa, it was often hard to take his music seriously, and an element of humor was laced throughout the entire conceptual package. However, where Zappa eventually degenerated into parody and satire, Sun Ra maintained the single image - jazzman as enlightened alien - throughout his life.

I found the first Sun Ra record I bought, Impulse's "Astro-Black," difficult to listen to, even to my adventurous ears. But around 1974, I saw my first Sun Ra concert and "got it." It all came together in concert - the extended electronic solos, the dancing, the energetic horns, the percussion, the whole ancient-Egypt-meets-science-fiction mentality.

I would see Sun Ra every chance I could get. One interesting thing I noted, though, was that anyone I would take with me to one of these shows enjoyed it almost without fail. They still couldn't listen to my Art Ensemble of Chicago records with me, but watching the spectacle of the Arkestra in full swing, they could not help but be entertained. I had found the antidote to my antisocialness.

One day in New York City, as I was taking the subway, the doors opened and out walked Sun Ra, still dressed in cosmic costume, surrounded by four or five similarly dressed associates. I did not know what to do other than a full prostration right there on the subway platform. Sun Ra, slightly embarrassed, acknowledged my tribute but went on his way.

In the late 70s, he played a week-long gig at Boston's Orpheum Theatre while I was a student at Boston U. I caught two or three of the shows, each night completely different than the show before, and each featuring a gigantic light installation behind the band. That week, while coming out of a movie theatre after seeing the Donald Sutherland remake of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," I met Sun Ra again in the lobby. We both had attended the same matinee! This time I greeted him by merely shaking hands, and asking if there were body snatchers on Saturn (he assured me there weren't).

Sometime in the 1980s' while I was living upstate New York, I drove to Northampton, Massachusetts and saw one of his later performances. Sun Ra had suffered a stroke, and had to be carried on stage in a chair by the band. Now, Sun Ra was a large man, and jazz musicians, particularly dancing avant garde jazz musicians, aren't notoriously muscular, and it took several band members to carry him onstage. But despite his physical limitations, the show was still strong and exciting and creative.

Several years ago, after Sun Ra's second and fatal stroke, I saw the Arkestra again at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta's Little Five Points. The Arkestra, now led by Marshall Allen, probably averaged in the 60s in age, but still could blow the roof off. "Those old men can really rock," Beth, my girlfriend, noted. But even with the dancers, the chants, and the solo improvisations, Sun Ra's absence left a profound gap.

Mr. Allen is now having a hard time keeping the Arkestra together and finding a sufficient number of gigs to maintain the house in Philadelphia Sun Ra moved the band into in the 1970s. And Mr. Allen himself is now elderly, and other long time Arkestra members, like the great tenor saxophonist John Gilmore, are now dead. It will be sad to see the presence of this dynamic force pass into the historical legacy of the jazz avant garde.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The Supreme Court on Monday upheld a federal court order against a display of the Ten Commandments on the wall of a courthouse in Kentucky. In a second case, the court found no constitutional violation in the placement of a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the state capitol building in Austin, Texas. So the line separating church and state is apparently somewhere between the courthouse wall and the grounds out front.

Commandment Number One: I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

How much more flagrantly religious does a monument have to be before someone decides that it doesn't belong on the grounds of a state capital building? But why stop there? If we're going to put up monuments of ancient Hebrew law, why not continue with good old Deuteronomy 17:5?

Then thou shalt bring forth that man or that woman, which have committed that wicked thing, unto thy gates, even that man or that woman, and shalt stone them with stones, till they die.

What frightens me is that might actually go over in Texas. And even though everyone claims to be all politically correct these days, giving equal time to all, I'm not expecting to see the Heart Sutra in front of the Texas capital any time soon:

Avalokiteshvara bodhisattva, while contemplating prajna paramita, realized that the five aggregates are empty and thus transcended all suffering.

Wouldn't that be nicer in front of a courthouse? How could anyone in Texas object to that?

You know they've got that thing, "Oh, well, put the Ten Commandments up, that will fix everything! Put The Ten Commandments up, that will stop school violence!" Oh yeah, kids will come to school, "Oh, thou shall NOT kill! Oh God!" If you think putting the Ten Commandments up is gonna stop school violence, then you think "Employees Must Wash Hands" is keeping the urine out of your Happy Meal (it's not!). - Jon Stewart, Saturday Night Live monologue

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Bush gave his big speech tonight attempting to justify the war in Iraq. I can't even watch that sort of thing anymore . . . 1,750 Americans dead, another 22- to 25,000 Iraqis, and the war's still being discussed in terms of political willpower.

Earlier today, I came across some truly heartbreaking news. According to the newspaper, a woman with whom I used to work was reportedly weaving in and out of traffic at high speed last night when she apparently lost control of her pickup truck. The truck overturned several times before coming to a stop in the emergency lane. She died, along with her young daughter. Her 4-year-old son, also in the car, was taken to the hospital, where he is in stable condition.

I cannot imagine the grief her husband is going through, or the trauma her son is experiencing. There is no way to take away their pain.

I'm leaving names and other proper nouns out of this so that Google searches don't lead the grieving to this blog.

She was one of the sweetest people I've ever met. Everyone always says things like that about the recently departed, but if anyone asked me about her yesterday, that is truly how I would have answered. So sweet, you could almost eat her with a spoon. Always upbeat, always smiling, and always willing to help on a project. She was only 30 years old.

Life is like this. On a large enough time scale, everyone's survival rate is zero. The older we get, the more we see our friends and loved ones die. We begin to attend more funerals than weddings.

This blog is supposedly about the "life and strange times of a typical 50-year-old Zen Buddhist living in Atlanta." It won't be for much longer. Next month, I turn 51. But what is this life like? It's like watching tail lights fade, and that slow realization that we are truly alone. Friends go, lovers leave and coworkers die. My friend Troy - dead in a car accident at age 40, 1995. Peter in the Engineering Department - dies in the office from a stroke, age uncertain but over 55, 2000. Colleagues in other offices - heart attacks, cancers, even murders. Simon and Garfunkel once sang, "All my life's an endless stream of things I wish I hadn't seen . . ."

Family living in other states, ex-lovers now married and incommunicado, surviving coworkers my age too involved in their own lives to give much time or thought to mine, and the younger coworkers avoid the old man in the office.

That is what this life is like.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Awlnawl Says Tim writes, concerning the joys of owning a magnolia in the Pacific Northwest, "My tree is just about done dropping for another season and I still stand behind my earlier post. Please don't shame me for not embracing every plant on God's green earth. I have issues with poison ivy too. I notice Mettai Cherry said nothing about removing the beautiful English Ivy. Shokai is right, the tree should not have been planted next to the front walk, that's all. I also think the Pink Dogwood is most lovely. I used to have one but the County tore it out to put in a sewer line. Oh, Priorities! Love and Peace, Tim."

I spent a long time after the evening service ended at the Zen Center talking to a friend, who recently found out his daughter had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. I don't know too much about clinical psychology, and I certainly didn't have any advice for him. I may not have a long pedigreed background studying under a variety of spiritual teachers, but that didn't matter. He didn't need any of that. What he needed was someone with a compassionate heart to just let him talk about it and to listen, and I was able to provide at least that.

One of the saddest things about paranoia is that it's such an overamplification of the ego-self. Consciousness evolved as a sort of radar system to protect creatures from predators, and if we identify ourselves too much with our radar system, of course we're going to feel constantly under attack. But that won't help his daughter at this point, nor will it help my friend.

We leaned against our cars in the warm Georgia nighttime air and talked, tree frogs and crickets singing in the background. An occasional train passed by and mechanics, working late in the next-door car repair shop, occasionally shouted things out to each other, or swore. I don't remember a thing that we said, but the words weren't important, it was just good to be there and talk.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Random Thoughts

"What do you need another mall for? In L.A., that's all they ever have built. They cut up the Brown Derby. They cut up all those restaurants that looked like funny things, like pigs or hot dogs. They tear down every coffee shop they can find. You talk about heritage, man, it was there. They find a bowling alley, chop it down. Interesting old apartment house, tear it down. Then they give back stuff with zero content, buildings with no past, a useless present, and no future at all. Where nobody is going to get together, where no memories will be created or associations made, or good times. They will simply be directing you into the act of taking your credit card out of your wallet, with that glazed look on your face. So, you see, I'm not a fan of that."
Ry Cooder was talking about L.A., but it just as easily could have been Atlanta. When you let developers do your urban planning for you, on the fly, in competition with each other, Atlanta is what you wind up with.
According to my bathroom scale, I now weigh 144 pounds. Time to get a new scale. No way I lost 60 pounds in a year.
The other day, my friend Misha asked me, "Who does your cleaning?" "No one," I replied, and it's true - this place doesn't get cleaned very often.
I remedied that today. I started, naturally, with the bathroom, and instead of giving it my usual once-over - just a quick scrub-down of the toilet and shower - I got to wondering just exactly how clean I could get the place. I once heard that, in prison, Mafia dons keep the toilets in their cells so immaculately clean that it's not uncommon for visitors to take a drink right from the bowl. They often even keep a ladle in the bowl just for that purpose. "It's the coolest water in the prison" Grandma says (how does Grandma know that?). Anyway, out came the bleach, the Lysol disinfectant, etc. and the whole room got scrubbed real clean.
But when I finished, I wondered, "How much cleaner can I get it?" Exactly how clean can I get, say, this individual tile? Fortunately, I ran out of paper towels before the whole project became OCD obsessive, and when I got back from the store, I lost my enthusiasm for more cleaning and went on to other things.
Practice is like that. We make great effort not to make great effort, and sweep idle, associative thoughts from our minds, but soon the dust settles back again. So why bother? We're just going to fall back into delusion again. Or, as Louis Jordan once sang, what's the use of getting sober, when you're gonna get drunk again?
Ungan was sweeping the ground, and Dogo said, "Too busy."
Ungan said "You should know there is one who is not too busy."
Dogo said, "If so, then there is a second moon."
Ungan held up the broom, and said "Which moon is this?"

Saturday, June 25, 2005

I have let down and disappointed everyone who has ever loved me.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Talk To Her

Tonight I watched Almodóvar's "Talk To Her," a truly great film, his best in my opinion. "Talk To Her" is the story of two very different men drawn together by the common task of caring for two women who have fallen into a coma, two women they love but cannot truly have. One man, a shy, seemingly asexual male nurse, looks after a beautiful ballet dancer. The other, a fortyish Argentine writer, cares for a female bullfighter. Both love affairs are imbued with fantasy. In The New Yorker, David Denby said that Almodóvar's point seems to be that you can't have love without fable — that every love affair is an improbable narrative wrung from non-being and loneliness.

Throughout the film, past and present flow together, and everything seems touched with a melancholy magic. In one memorable scene, Almodóvar creates a silent movie-within-a-movie called "The Shrinking Lover," a sort of NC-17 version of "The Incredible Shrinking Man."

Almodóvar writes, "Strindberg's biography says that Kafka refers to him in this way: 'I don't read him to read him, but to cling to his breast.' For me, "Talk To Her" is (pardon the sentimentality) the embrace I'd like to give to all the spectators, sinking against the breast of each one of them.

"'Talk To Her' is a story about the friendship between two men, about loneliness and the long convalescence of the wounds provoked by passion. It is also a film about incommunication between couples, and about communication. About cinema as a subject of conversation. About how monologues before a silent person can be an effective form of dialogue. About silence as 'eloquence of the body,' about film as an ideal vehicle in relationships between people, about how a film told in words can bring time to a standstill and install itself in the lives of the person telling it and the person listening.

"'Talk To Her' is a film about the joy of narration and about words as a weapon against solitude, disease, death and madness. It is also a film about madness, about a type of madness so close to tenderness and common sense that it does not diverge from normality."

Alberto Iglesias’s soundtrack sounds like a variation of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings and is very effective. A cameo by Caetano Veloso singing "Cucurrucucú paloma" is powerfully moving and one of the film’s highlights. Almodóvar’s delectable choice of music and his eye for detail give the movie a supremely graceful feel.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

The French Comment

I got a comment on my post of the other day about "Howl's Moving Castle," or, as it is apparently known in France, "Le Château Ambulant." The commenter, who is French, noted the references in the film to Miyazaki's other work, particularly "Spirited Away," "Princess Mononoké" and, of course, "The Castle in the Sky." Miyazaki's films, it was noted, often have the same repeating characters (the grandmother, the old man with the mustache) and setting (a castle).

The comment also notes Miyazaki's love for the French animator Paul Grimaud, ("Le Roi et L'Oiseau"). According to, "Le Roi," or "The King and the Mockingbird," pairs Jacques Prevert's text, based on Hans Christian Anderson's stories, with Grimault's drawing to create a unique animation associating emotion and laughter in a rare way. It would be easy to sum up the story, but like summing up a poem, it would be a crime.

The comment concludes, "(ps : none rapport, but do you know Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt? i think you can enjoy it)." Yes, they are very well known and appreciated. . .

Merci beaucoup, my friend.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Who Needs Magnolias?

Who needs magnolias? Mine never really blossomed, just one or two flowers per tree, while at work and all across the neighborhood, each tree has erupted into dozens of flowers. My theory is that that magnolias need direct sunlight to bloom, and mine are in almost constant shade due to the higher canopy of pines, oaks and elms.

But, who needs magnolias? The mountain laurel behind the house have bloomed with many white flowers gracing their boughs. Just as good as the magnolias, AND they don't drop their leaves all spring.

Simon and Garfunkel once sang, "All my life's an endless stream of piss and shit and magazines . . ."

No. They didn't really sing that. But on the second-longest day of the year, that's how I felt.

I won't post again until I cheer up.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Happy Solstice!

Meanwhile, back at the dentist's, I got a deep cleaning this morning - under the gums, between the teeth, and all around. "You get an electric toothbrush with this treatment," the hygienist said, meaning they were selling me one as a part of the package.

The bill came to $340.

But the more interesting bill was the estimate for the full treatment they worked up for me, to fix all of my fucked-up teeth:

3 molar root canal therapies - $990/each
11 crown-porcelains fused to high noble - $975/each
3 abutment supported porcelains, fused - $1,725/each

And so on. The total work up came to $20,900.

My insurance covers $1,000.

Some people look at my crooked teeth and see an earthiness. Others see a lower middle-class upbringing. Still others see a dental hygiene failure.

I think the dentist saw a sailboat in Barbados.

When I look in the mirror, what I see now is $20,000 in savings.

Monday, June 20, 2005

OPW (Other Peoples' Writings)

Long intense day at work today, but I got to open the zendo at night and unwind a little. Afterwards, we went out for sushi. Tomorrow may be the summer solstice and the longest day of the year, but I didn't get home until after 10:30 p.m. tonight after being out and about doing one thing or another for 14 hours. So I'll let other people write my blog for me today.

First, this great email about last Saturday's hike:

Dear Shokai,

Just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed the hike on Sunday . . . Afterwards I asked myself why I don't get out on the trail more often. I must say I've had many thoughts of the rattlesnake . . . This is some of what Joan Halifax (Buddhist, anthropologist, and deep ecologist) says in her book The Fruitful Darkness:

"'Poisonous' plants and creatures can be invoked as protectors, protectors of place. Within a bioregion, they protect the deeper forest and are allies to their ecologies. As allies of human beings, they protect against drowsiness and insensitivity, preventing us from charging through fragile terrain with a heavy foot and blind eye. They teach alertness and respect as we interact with place. . . Human beings have for a long time destroyed the protectors of the wild regions...That which requires one to be more careful, more mindful, is eliminated. And with the passing of wolf and rattler, poison oak and thorn, passes the integrity of the habitats they guard."

When I got home I got out my National Audubon Society Field Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians. I'm certainly no expert but it seems to me the Timber Rattlesnake is what we saw - the problem in identifying a Timber Rattler is that coloration varies greatly and some, particularly in the deeper South, are very light in color. I've attached some images I found on the web , the first image [above] is a dark Timber and the second [below] is one of an Eastern Diamondback. What say you?

After such an enjoyable afternoon the drenching downpour, to my surprise, didn't dampen my spirits. Hope the same held for you.

In gassho,

The Buddha once said that his teachings were like a snake - you had to be careful how you picked it up. If properly handled, it can yield great medicine, but if one were not mindful, one could get bitten.

Next, I wanted to share this great piece by Greensmile from his blog:

"Before there were blogs, there were journals and in one of mine, a few years back, I wrote the following after being particularly struck by the first few chapters of Thoughts Without a Thinker:

"The insubstantiality of our lives is far deeper and more damning than the physical frailty and precariousness of our few years. Our greatest hollowness is that the huge stock we tend to put, are taught to put, into the notion of our "soul" or our identity or WHO we are, is misplaced. The great insubstaniality is that the convenient, if universally vague construct "I" around which we spin most of our thinking is in fact a mirage. This insubstantiality is, like its correlate and cousin, death, painful to ponder though liberating once accepted. That pain may be why, great truth that it is and as close to us as our eyebrows, we mostly go about blind to it, letting fleeting glimpses of it slip into the murky pool of things best forgotten. Abetted by every person we speak to and encouraged by all our fears to cling to this fiction, its reality swells from hope to perception to imperative until finally we find ourselves willing to end other lives because they threaten or disagree with the particular way in which we believe our own life to be somehow immortal.

"The first step of this fateful progression must be forgiven as it is stamped on our infancy and foregone groundwork of our being when we are too young to question. The illusion of unity is lent to us by our bodies. Parents and friends name us and so constantly greet us via a projection of the apparent wholeness of the package onto the presumed contents. We are creatures of speech who construct our worlds with language so having a name, a single label for whatever bubbles within us, has a practicality as forceful and omnipresent as gravity. After consciousness has jelled in that first mold, some escape the progression at one stage or another. The price of their freedom is that the escapees live either as a threat or a challenge to those who have graduated to being fully possessed by the eagerly accepted idea that their pool of mentation will never dry up."

Well put. That's exactly what I've been trying to say for many posts now.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Another early morning . . . I agreed to open the zendo today, so I needed to be there, showered, shaved and caffeinated, by 7:00 a.m.

It went fine. Afterwards, we went to see "Howl's Moving Castle," the new Miyazaki movie. Anime. Whatever.

It was good, reminding me at times of a Jules Vernes/H.G. Wells story as told by L. Frank Baum and visualized by Terry Gilliam, but in the inimitable style of Hayao Miyazaki. What was nice was that it was a children's story for children, but perfectly acceptable to adults, without resorting to Disney/Pixar's gimmicks of "inside" jokes aimed at the adults in the room, or the fart gags, slapstick and double entendres shown in the coming attractions for American animated movies.

I spent the rest of the afternoon leaf blowing (damn that magnolia!), food shopping and other domestic chores. Another early morning tomorrow.

I found a new link to this blog the other day. It was on something called Oh My News International, apparently some sort of Korean site written in English that contained the following review of this blog:

Go to the Web site and you will see that the owner of that site, a Zen Buddhist going by the name of Shokai, has a couple of interesting statements on his masthead: "Water dissolves water," and ""I have an extensive collection of sea shells that I keep scattered on beaches all over the world." Either of these statements could inspire you. At the next meeting of your Water Filtration Executive Board, you could commence the meeting by standing up and saying "Water dissolves water." Then sit down and watch the faces of others around you. Bewilderment? Intrigue? Fear? Who knows how they may react. But you can bet on one thing for sure: the next time any of those folks meet up for coffee, one of them will say, as he raises his mug in a toast to you: "As our friend said at the last meeting 'water dissolves water.'"

Well, that does it. I'm officially changing the name of this blog back to Water Dissolves Water - there's too much of a legacy to the old name, and Buddha Rhubarb Butter just doesn't cut it. . . . I can't wait to see what (if anything) Mumon does to update his link.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Snake! Part 2

The rattlesnake was coiled mostly under the log, except for his head and neck, which were leaning against the log pointing up at the sky and ready to strike at anyone who stepped over the log.

Which was alarming, because the log laid across the path to the new Bird Gap shelter on the Appalachian Trail, and anyone hiking from the shelter would have unsuspectingly stepped over the log, only to have had the rattler strike straight up, biting the unlucky hiker in the leg.

And I was the one hiking along the path.

Fortunately, I was not hiking from the shelter but toward it, and clearly saw the snake coiled up on the uptrail side of the log, although it just as easily could have been on the downtrail side and I would have been the unlucky hiker.

We had hiked as far as the large campground at Bird Gap, just up the Appalachian Trail from the confluence with the Freeman Trail. During May's recon trip, it looked like the best place for group meditation for the Zen hike. But today, the trail was fairly crowded, and there was already a loud group of middle-aged white men and women there, and a Boy Scout troop coming up behind us who were already starting to loiter at the campground.

It was far too noisy and far too public to be conducive to meditation. But the group from the Zen Center appeared tired and thirsty from the hike up Gaddis Mountain leading to this spot, and had already taken their knapsacks off and were relaxing.

There was a new trail leading to a new shelter, so I decided to hike down to the shelter to see if it was a good alternate spot for sitting. And as I was hiking toward the shelter, I came across the log and the rattlesnake not two steps ahead of me.

Apparently, rattlesnakes are prevalent along this stretch of the trail. According to Dan "Wingfoot" Bruce's Thru-Hiker Handbook for the Appalachian Trail, "Grandma" Gatewood, the first woman to through-hike the AT (in 1955 at age 69), was startled by a big rattlesnake coiled in the trail near here.

I studied the snake for a minute. It wasn't moving - either it was asleep or it was stalking a potential meal along the log - but either way, it was motionless. I hiked back up the trail and warned the adult leader of the Boy Scout troop not to go down the path, but he just looked at me wide-eyed and nodded his head as if I had said, "Martians have stolen my Cheerios." "Okay, whatever, just leave," his body language told me. Apparently I had broken some taboo by wandering from my tribe to speak to his.

Whatever. In any event, the boys weren't heading down the path toward the rattler.

I asked the others Zen hikers if they wanted to see a rattlesnake, and six of us hiked back down to the log. He was still there, but the sound of so many feet approaching woke it up out of its slumber, and it slipped up and over the log and disappeared over the other side.

It was a beautiful animal, terrible and lethal in appearance, dark and diamond backed. It had every appearance of an efficient killing machine. Jim pointed out that Joan Halifax once wrote that venomous snakes have a purpose in the dharma, as they increase our awareness of our surroundings.

We moved on, and eventually left the Appalachian Trail for the less-traveled Slaughter Gap Trail. Along the way, we came across a nice level area and had a 30-minute meditation.

One of the first things one becomes aware of sitting zazen in the forest are the birdsongs, and how one bird picks up the song of another and finishes it. It sounded like a headphone gimmick where a birdsong would start in the right channel and end in the left.

One next becomes aware of insects - flying ones buzzing around your head and landing to drink up the sweat on your face, and crawling ones on your legs and arms. And looking deeper, one realizes how the mind is attracted to the pleasant birdsongs and annoyed by the unpleasant insects, and how we discriminate. So I worked at allowing the bugs their access to me without begrudging them, and experienced, but did not delight in, the birdsongs.

The great Zen poet Ryokan (and this) was concerned that by sleeping outdoors under a mosquito netting, he was denying mosquitoes a meal, and thus contributing to their suffering. So he would sleep with one arm or one leg sticking out of the netting to feed the mosquitoes.

Ominous rumbles of lovely thunder soon mixed with the birdsongs as we sat, but I tried not to allow my mind to analyze the sound (was a storm moving in? do we need to get moving?), but just continued to sit, focusing on my breath whenever the mind wandered.

Afterwards, we hiked on back to the trailhead and got caught in a drenching downpour about 200 yards from the end of the trail.

Despite the rattlesnake, or maybe because of it, and despite the rain, or maybe because of it, it was a wonderful hike and a great day. I wish you were there, because to appreciate it, you had to be there.

Friday, June 17, 2005


It was not much of a challenge catching the morning flight to Mobile or then driving the rental car to Pascagoula - the concern was that the flight back didn't leave until 8 p.m. Central Time, meaning it wasn't going to arrive back in Atlanta until 10 p.m. Eastern Time. And I had to get up early the next morning for the Zen hike.

But the good news was that the meeting got out earlier than I had expected and I was able to catch the 5:20 flight back, leaving me lots of time to stop and get a salad at Eatzi's before I came home, to unwind a bit, and to get a good night's sleep.

See? No reason to fear.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Cherokees originally occupied vast areas of what are now the states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. In 1835, a minority of the Cherokee tribe ceded all their traditional lands to the United States for land in what became known as the Indian Territory. The majority of Cherokees opposed this policy.

In early 1838, General Winfield Scott moved into the Cherokee country with 7000 soldiers to enforce removal of the tribe from Georgia. The Cherokee were rapidly concentrated into stockades, and in the fall of 1838, thirteen parties of Cherokees, approximately a thousand each, took up the long journey. By April 1839, the sad pilgrimage, known as the Trail of Tears, was completed, and at terrible cost: 4,000 Cherokees died during the removal. Shortly after arrival in the new country, the leaders of the tribal minority that gave up the land were killed, presumably for the sale of the eastern lands without authority.

Winfield Scott went on to fame and fortune in the Mexican War. Despite his Southern origins, Scott later opposed secession of the Confederacy, and sided with Lincoln and the Union. By the time the first fighting began, Scott was in very poor health. He was 75 years old, had ballooned to more than 300 pounds and had to be carried about on a door.

It's a little ironic that Saturday's hike will been at Lake Winfield Scott. Considering his War record, it's a little ironic that Georgia has a Lake Winfield Scott, especially located in the heart of (former) Cherokee country.

To get to Lake Winfield Scott, you have to drive north out of Dahlonega past Princess Trahlyta's grave. In a perfect world, General Winfield Scott's grave would be the one in the middle of the road to Lake Trahlyta.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

If You Don't Do It Right the First Time, You're Doomed to Do It Over

The Zen Hike was originally scheduled to be last Saturday, but as has been well chronicled in this blog, it was cancelled due to the disappointing T.S. Arlene. But the Friday before the hike, I was in Chicago, and a little freaked out that I wasn't going to be getting back into town until 10:00 p.m. Friday, and probably not home until midnight the night before the hike.

Well, as it turns out, even if the hike had gone off as planned, everything would still have been just fine. I got in at about midnight, up at 6:30 the next morning, sent out the emails postponing the trip, and still went to the Zen Center to meet anyone who missed the emails. Piece of cake. I had plenty of energy to have hiked, if the weather had allowed that.

Well, the hike is rescheduled for this Saturday. But now it appears that I will be in Mobile the day before, and my plane doesn't get me back until . . . you guessed it - 10:00 p.m. So I won't get home until about midnight the night before the hike.

Once again.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

It's not the heat, it's the humidity.

Not that Arlene has fizzled out, Atlanta has turned into the steam bath it more typically is in July.

Everyone (except me) has flat hair.

The impatiens seem to be enjoying it, though.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DONNA! (Sorry to be so late)

Monday, June 13, 2005

Stuffed, Part 3.

"Why must possession be piled upon possession, the latest soon losing its charm and needing a replacement? Why do I need a second house or a first car? Who will clean it if I have a living room big enough for 50 to party? Why can't I recycle my college textbooks, unread in 35 years? Have I so thoroughly identified with my own junk? It is as if I feared the memory would vanish without the memento." - GreenSmile

The spiritual mistake at the core of materialism is that it is based on the concept that there is an internal self, or "me," separate from the external "everything else," that is capable of acquiring "stuff." This duality between self and not-self allows us to believe that our stuff is "mine," and not "theirs," and even more broadly that I am "me" and my stuff is "not me," but something possessed by "me." Animals in particular suffer from the last part of that delusion.

But who is the self acquiring this "stuff?" Upon close inspection, if we really search our mind, no real self can ever be found.

Is the self the body? Hah, that's a laugh. The body changes and grows old, it gains and sometimes loses mass, it takes in nutrients and shits out excrement - it's in a constant state of flux, and there's no persistent entity to the "body." If my brain were transplanted into another body, which would be my "self" - the old body or the new body?

Is the self thought? I think, therefore, am I? Well, thoughts change all of the time, I get new thoughts from reading or talking to others - whose thoughts are those? And who's the one thinking? Am I no longer my self when I'm not thinking?

Is the self memory? Is that why we cling to mementos and nostalgia? Memories change as much as thoughts - new ones are constantly added and old ones vanish into . . . well . . .um, what was the question again? Are amnesiacs no longer their selves?

Is the self emotion and impulse? My moods seem to change more than my opinions or memories - how can something so insubstantial as emotion be my self? Plus, emotions are as contagious as the flu - if you make me laugh, am I now you? If I make you cry, are you now me?

So the self must be consciousness, right? "I" must be the one who is aware of my "self." "I" must be the one who perceives all of these senses. Right? But on deepest reflection, one realizes that all consciousness is, in fact, conscious of something. Without an external "thing" to perceive, such as something to see, hear, smell, touch, taste or even think about, there is no consciousness. So where is the consciousness, in the perceiver or in the perceived? It is merely the interface between the two. If we identify with our consciousness, we must include everything of which we are conscious in our definition of "self."

So, in fact, on direct observation, there is no "self" that can be found. A radical idea, but something the Buddha taught 2,500 years ago.

Yet, still we delude ourselves that we alone are separate from everything else, and then that we can possess "stuff," and in fact must possess it before someone "other" does. And this of course leads to materialism and to competition and to war and to the whole spectrum of human suffering.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Happy 20,000!

At 5:56:50 pm today, a user on the East Coast of the United States, who had performed a Google image search for David Bowie, became the 20,000th visitor to "Buddha Rhubarb Butter," formerly known as "Water Dissolves Water." The lucky visitor runs Windows XP on his/her computer ("lucky" because unlike me, he/she could run iTunes software) and uses a Netscape 7.2 browser.

Congratulations, my friend. I hope that you enjoyed the picture. As your prize, here's three more pictures of Mr. Bowie, in the same caricaturist style.

Just two weeks ago, I had only 17,000 hits, and was plugging alone at less than 50 hits per day, so I figured that it would take me at least another two months to get to this historic milestone. However, beginning in June, this blog was "re-discovered" by all of the Google picture seekers (affectionately termed the "Googling monkeys" a la "The Note"), and at over 200 hits per day, I reached 20,000 in under two weeks. I've already gotten almost as many hits this month as during all of April and May combined.

Not that there's any merit in that.

There's very little evidence in the sky today of Tropical Depression Arlene. The weather alternates between sunshine, overcast and light rain - in other words, no different than it's been since the Memorial Day weekend. However, it is notably warmer and more humid than it was yesterday - now that the low-pressure cell has moved to the north of us, all of that moist Gulf Coast air is dragging along behind it. I went for a sweaty run through the 'hood anyway, and got caught in the rain toward the end, which only encouraged me to keep running harder and faster toward the end in order to get back home and under some shelter.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Zen Hike Postponed

Date: Jun 11, 2005 7:24 AM
Subject: Zen Hike Postponed

This morning's forecast for Dahlonega shows 80% chance of thunderstorms with up to 1/2 inch of rain - not a pleasant day for hiking. Besides, a ridgetop under tall trees is not the safest place to be if there's lightning.

Therefore, the hike is postponed until June 18.

Sorry for the inconvenience and late notice, but hope that you can make the "rain date."


Last night, after getting home at midnight, I found that I had received several emails concerning the weather and Saturday's hike along a part of the Appalachian Trail. I knew that Tropical Storm Arlene was coming, but the information in Friday's USA Today (yes, I know it's a rag, but they left it on the door of my hotel room) said that it wasn't expected to get as far north as Atlanta until Sunday afternoon. I went on line to, and the forecast then was for "occasional thunderstorms" in the Dahlonega area, the nearest town to our planned hike. Well, "occasional thunderstorms" means that most of the time, it will not be storming, so I figured that we could get the hike in before the front reached the mountains, and maybe even take advantage of the nice weather that typically occurs here just before a Tropical Storm (the presence of a major low-pressure cell to the south of us often sucks cool, dry air down from the north).

Responding to my emails, researching the weather and just generally unwinding from my flight kept me up until almost 2 a.m., so when the alarm clock went of at 6:00, I had only gotten four hours of sleep. At that early hour, it was hard to tell what the weather was going to do, so I went back on line and was dismayed to see that the forecast had been downgraded to "80% chance of thunderstorms, with 1/2 inch of rain." Well, that was a lot worse than "occasional thunderstorms," so I reluctantly sent out the email above to all who had signed up for the hike.

Not that I was able to go back to sleep though. There are always those who show up for these hikes without signing up first, and there are those who do not check their emails in the morning, so I got dressed and went to the Zen Center to let anyone who showed up know that the hike was being postponed until next Saturday.

And I'm glad that I did - two from the latter category did show up, and I let them know about my decision, the reasons, etc. They both agreed with the logic, but kept looking at the sky somewhat dubiously. Fortunately, a light shower had started, which supported my case.

However, as the day wore on, it appeared that we could have gotten the hike in without a major incident. Arlene was quickly downgraded to a "Tropical Depression" as it made landfall on the Gulf Coast, and the weather stories typically stated that its impact was "underwhelming." Instead of bearing east toward Atlanta, the latest trajectories have the T.D. heading straight north into Kentucky. After last summer's four-hit cycle of Bonnie-Charlie-Francis-Jeanne, everyone was understandably concerned about a new storm, and the media was only all too willing to play off of that concern.

I don't know about Dahlonega, but here in Atlanta, it was overcast but with only occasional light rains - the heavy stuff didn't come down until the late evening. In fact, the cool weather made for some pleasant running along the rolling streets of Collier Hills.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Flying Out of Chicago

I left Chicago this evening, leaving the Sofitel at 5:00 p.m. to return the Hertz and catch a 7:00 p.m. flight. Upon entering the terminal, I was mildly disappointed to see that my flight was delayed until 7:30, and even more disturbed to see that the prior flight to Atlanta had been cancelled altogether. Like falling dominoes, would one flight after another be delayed, then cancelled? Arlene, the first tropical storm of the season, was already heading for the Gulf Coast - I wondered if this could be the cause of the delayed and cancelled flights.

I made my way to the gate and waited. By 6:45 p.m., there still wasn't a plane at the gate, and shortly after the gate agent got on the intercom and announced that the flight hadn't even left Cincinnati yet - for some reason, it had pulled away from the gate but was still on the tarmac somewhere, waiting to take off. "Probably the weather," I thought.

It was a two-hour flight, and I'd lose an hour due to the time-zone change, so if we left at 7:30, I wouldn't arrive in Atlanta until 10:30 p.m. After deplaning, taking the parking shuttle to the off-site lot at which I had parked, and driving home, I figured I'd be lucky to get to my house by midnight. The problem was that I had to get up Saturday morning to lead a hike on the Appalachian Trial with a group from the Zen Center. I would have to get home, go straight to bed, and then get up after six hours' sleep to lead the hike.

No problem. That was do-able.

The problem, however, was that the gate agent then announced that her best estimate was now for a 7:50 departure. Uh oh, the slippery slope - a 7:00 o'clock departure becomes 7:30 p.m., then becomes 7:50, and then becomes . . . who knows? At what hour would I finally get home? What if the flight gets delayed until tomorrow and I couldn't make the hike? I'm the trip leader!

Anxieties. I was reminded of a flight back from the Bahamas in 1995 or '96. It was a Saturday, and I was flying home with my then-girlfriend, a red-headed flight attendant named Beth. We had decided to just pay for the low-cost airfare from Freeport to Atlanta rather than try to arrange to fly standby on her employee benefit, but after we got to the airport and cleared security, we found out that a.) there was no plane at the gate and b.) there was no ticket agent or any other airline employee to tell us when we might expect a plane to arrive. There were, however, ample seats, a duty-free shop, a newsstand and even a bar. But the security guards would not let us back to the terminal after we had cleared security, so we couldn't get any flight information from the ticket counter, and we had no choice but to passively wait for someone to show up or something to happen.

Other passengers slowly trickled in, and their reactions to realization of the flightless situation ranged from mild perplexity to outright indignation. Many had connecting flights they were concerned about missing. Since there was no one to complain to, many took to just talking out loud to themselves,"Well, I've never seen such a shoddy operation," and "My elderly mother is expecting to meet me at the airport. I've got to let her know I won't be there," and "No wonder Bahamas is still a third-world country!"

Mind you, this was in the years before widespread availability of cell phones, and of cell phone coverage for those who had them. However, Beth, being a flight attendant, knew that there would be a telephone in the bridge behind the gate, and found the door to be unlocked, so she used the phone to let the ticket counter know that folks were getting upset and to get some updated information on when we might expect to see a flight. However, she was rudely told that she had no business to make an unauthorized call from that phone and to hang up immediately. Someone will be along soon, she was told, and we were all to just be patient. A ticket agent did finally show up, but only to lock the door to the bridge and its phone, and walked off huffily without answering any questions.

Now, there was no reason at all for us to get anxious. Beth and I had all day to get home, no connecting flights and nothing planned for that day or the following Sunday. There was a newsstand to browse through, a full bar, and plenty of available seating. But I didn't like to have to passively wait, and felt an urgent need to do something. I was a man, damn it, and I needed to take charge. Beth knew about the telephone in the bridge, good for her, but now I felt it was my turn. Perhaps, I thought, I could negotiate with the security guards and leave the gate area and find out at ticketing what was going on. But the more I tried to convince the guards to let me out, the firmer their resolve became to keep everyone inside. I walked back to Beth, defeated and fuming.

She had escaped into a book. I stood over her, arms folded, and surveyed the crowd. Many were clearly upset, talking loudly to each other (or to themselves), pacing, and berating the bartender and newsstand cashier for not having the answers to their questions.

But then I noticed two other passengers. They were a younger couple, sitting quietly by themselves, he, like Beth, reading a book and she resting her head on his shoulder and gazing into space. Their whole demeanor and body language suggested that they did not find the situation all that unpleasant, and that they were content to make do with it as best they could. They seemed like a calm island in the midst of a swirling sea of anxiety all around them.

It's then that I realized that all of my suffering and stress were due to my own reaction to the situation. After all, I didn't have to be anywhere. I had plenty to read with me, and if I wanted something new, there was a newsstand. I was with my girlfriend, the bar was open, and hell, we were in the Bahamas, albeit not necessarily at our selected location. It was only my own ego, perhaps a little bit challenged by Beth's finding the telephone first, and desire to be in charge that were making the delay so unpleasant.

Obviously, sooner or later, a plane did pull up to the gate and we all got home. All told, Beth and I got back to our apartment in Atlanta about an hour later than our itinerary anticipated, but still in the mid-afternoon.

Years later, when I heard the Buddha's teaching that we create our own suffering, and that the cause of this suffering is our own desire and attachment, my mind came back to that gate in Freeport, GBI, and I immediately understood what he had meant.

But meanwhile, back in the here and now of Friday-night Chicago, I was once again passively waiting for a plane, now somewhere on the ground in the Cincinnati Airport, to arrive in Chicago and take me home to Atlanta. My only real concern was how much sleep I would get before the next morning's hike, but whatever happens will happen. There was no need to upset myself over things I could not control. So I sat down, opened my book, ironically titled "An End to Suffering - The Buddha in the World," and passed the time as best I could.

The plane arrived at the gate at about 7:30. After a slow boarding, due to all of the standby passengers from the earlier, cancelled flight, we were delayed on the tarmac by a passing rain shower, but finally took off at about 8:30. However, despite this late departure, I still pulled up to my house at just about exactly midnight, just as I had predicted.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

I'm Popular Again

For reasons inexplicable to me, the hordes of googling monkeys, who abandoned this blog last March, have returned. I'm once again getting over 200 hits a day, but none of them seem to be coming here for the content. The majority of the hits appear to be coming for the March 2005 Jimi Hendrix pictures, which were originally posted exactly for the purpose of attracting more hits. It just took a couple of months.

I'm also getting comments on the Hendrix posts like "Cool" and "Amazing man" and "Keepin' the soul of Jimi Hendrix alive man, yeah!"

A couple of other sites have also linked to a few of my postings, specifically "How to Recognize a Millionaire" and the "Notice of Revocation" from last year.

So now I'm popular again. Not that there's any merit in that.

I'm still in Chicago. I had a meeting with a new client downtown this morning and then a second meeting up in Deerfield in the afternoon. Then I spent an hour crawling in traffic on I-94 trying to get back to the hotel.

My room here has a floor-to-ceiling window. I can sit zazen in front of the window looking out over the city of Chicago.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

My magnolia trees have finally started to blossom. Of course, the leaves are still dropping and I spend at least an hour every weekend raking them up, but the big, white, lotus-like blossoms have finally appeared. The last trees in the neighborhood to bloom, but I'll take what I can get.

Work has picked up. After a couple of slow months, exacerbated by April's flu, some new projects have developed and have been keeping me busy in a satisfactory sort of way. I've worked some long days, and took work home with me a few nights, but it's been much better than the alternative.

Last week, I sat at the Zen Center every night for about eight straight days, including one early-morning sit. There was a sesshin over the weekend, but the aforementioned take-home work kept me from attending much of it, although I was there Friday and Saturday nights as part of my eight-day streak. Not that there's any merit to frequent attendance, but I just wanted to see what it would be like to do it.

Started running again. The hills in the neighborhood make running a challenge, but it's nice to just step out the front door and start jogging.

I attempted to buy an iPod over the weekend, but found out that they aren't compatible with my Windows ME operating system. I got as far as the checkout line, already swiped my credit card, before I realized it wouldn't work for me. I never felt more middle-aged or whiter than when the guy at the counter said, "Dude, you have to have at least Windows 2000 to run the software." It's 2005 - am I really that out of date? Another reason to get a new computer, I guess.

Oh, and by the way, I'm in Chicago today.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

More Layman Pang Stories

Layman Pang attended a reading of the Diamond Sutra. When the speaker reached the phrase, "No self. No other," Layman Pang called out, "Speaker! If there is no self and no other, then who is lecturing and who is listening?" The speaker was dumbstruck.

Layman Pang said, "I'm just a common person, but I'll offer you my crude understanding." The speaker said, "What is the Layman's idea?" Layman Pang answered with this verse:

No self, no other,
Then how could there be intimate and estranged?
I advise you to cease all your lectures.
They can't compare with directly seeking truth.
The Diamond Wisdom nature
Erases even a speck of dust.
"Thus I have heard" and "Thus I believe"
Are but so many words.

Layman Pang was leaving his acquaintance Yaoshan, so Yaoshan had ten "Zen guests" accompany Pang to the main gate. (During this era, Zen monks often stayed at temples that were not Zen, and thus they earned the name "Zen guests.") The Layman pointed to the falling snow and said, "Good snowflakes. Each one not falling any other place."

At that time, a Zen monk named Chuan asked, "Where do they fall?" The Layman struck him.

Chuan said, "Even a layman should not act so rudely!"

Pang said, "A so-called 'Zen guest' saying such a thing! Yama [the king of hell] will never release you!"

Chuan said, "What do you mean?"

Pang hit him again, saying, "You have eyes like a blind man and your mouth speaks like a mute."

Later, Xuedou said, "When he asked the first question I would have made a snowball and hit him with it."

Monday, June 06, 2005

The Education of Layman Pang

se·nes·cence Pronunciation: si-'ne-s&n(t)s noun; senescent, from Latin senescent-, senescens, present participle of senescere to grow old, from sen-, senex old
1 : the state of being old : the process of becoming old
2 : the growth phase in a plant or plant part (as a leaf) from full maturity to death

Layman Pang (740-808) was the most famous lay Buddhist in Chinese Zen history (Ferguson, 2000). He came from Hengyang in southern Hunan Province. Layman Pang studied and attained great realization under both of the great teachers of his era, Shitou and Mazu.

Layman Pang met Zen master Shitou in the year 785. He asked him, "Who is the one who is not a companion to the ten thousand dharmas?" Shitou quickly covered Pang's mouth with his hand. The Layman suddenly had a realization.

One day, Shitou asked, "What have you been doing each day since we last saw one another?" Layman Pang said, "If you ask about daily affairs, then nothing can be said." The Layman then recited the verse whose last two lines are widely quoted:

How miraculous and wondrous,
Hauling water and carrying firewood.

Later, upon meeting Mazu, Layman Pang asked again, "Who is the one who is not a companion to the ten thousand dharmas?" Mazu said, "When you swallow all of the water in the West River in one gulp, then I'll tell you." Hearing these words, Layman Pang fully realized the mystery. He then stayed and practiced under Mazu for two years. He wrote a verse that said:

A man unmarried,
A woman unbetrothed,
Happily they are brought together,
They both speak without saying words.

Source: Ferguson, Andrew, 2000, Zen's Chinese Heritage, The Masters and Their Teachings; Wisdom Publications, Boston

Sunday, June 05, 2005

One Bright Phrase

“With one phrase [that expresses the essence], a block of ice melts and a tile breaks. With one phrase, a ditch is filled and a valley is dammed. Within this one phrase, all the buddhas of the three times and the six generations of [Chinese] ancestors are born in heaven and descend from heaven, enter a womb and emerge from a womb, accomplish the way, and turn the dharma wheel. Therefore it is said, “The bright clarity of the ancestral teacher’s mind is the bright clarity of the hundred grass-tips.” Although it is like this, today in the Koshoji assembly I have one phrase that has never been presented by buddhas or ancestors. Do you want to thoroughly discern it?

After a pause Dogen said: The bright clarity of the ancestral teacher’s mind is the bright clarity of the hundred grass-tips.”
- Dogen, Dharma Hall Discourse No. 9, The Eihei Koroku, Dan Leighton & Shohaku Okumura, translators

“The bright clarity of the ancestral teacher’s mind is the bright clarity of the hundred grass-tips” is a saying of the famed eighth-century Chan Master Layman Pang to his daughter Lingzhao, herself a highly enlightened adept. During his study of the Way, Layman Pang spent much of his practice making pilgrimages throughout China, during which he and Lingzhao often traveled together. The relationship between father and daughter was quite close and affectionate. It is unfortunate that we don’t know more about her because she was obviously a very clear-eyed and high-spirited woman.

The Layman and Lingzhao were out selling baskets one day. As they were coming down off a bridge, he stumbled and fell. Lingzhao immediately threw herself down next to him. He said, “What are you doing?” She answered, “I saw Papa fall to the ground, so I’m helping.” Layman Pang laughed and said, “Luckily, no one was looking.” Although Lingzhao was close to her father, this story reveals an even greater intimacy, one where there can be no relationship at all, since there is no separation of self and other.

Layman Pang was with his daughter when he was preparing to die. He told her that his life was coming to an end and said, “Go out and see how high the sun is and report to me when it is noon.” His intention was to leave his body when the sun reached its zenith. Lingzhao went to the door, looked out, and called back to her father that the sun had already reached its high point and there was an eclipse. “Come, come quickly and see it,” she said. Layman Pang got up and walked to the window. As he stood there looking at the total eclipse, Lingzhao took his seat, sat in the lotus position, and passed away. When Layman Pang turned around and saw what had just happened, he smiled, patted her on the head and said, “My daughter has anticipated me.”

It’s hard to imagine a more non-dualistic exchange than that.

But getting back to the main case, Layman Pang once tested Lingzhao, asking “An ancient said, ‘Clear and brilliant are the meadow grasses. Clear and brilliant is the meaning of the ancestral teachers.’ How do you understand this?”

Lingzhao said, “So old and great, and yet you talk like this!”

Layman Pang said, “What would you say?”

Lingzhao said, “Clear and brilliant are the meadow grasses, clear and brilliant is the meaning of the ancestral teachers.”

Layman Pang laughed.
“The ancestral teacher” refers to Bodhidharma. Commenting on this statement, Dogen wrote:

Although wanting it all tied up, for tens of thousands of miles nothing holds.
Staying within the gate, do not wait for the brightness of others.
Without your caring, it is easy to lose the path of active practice.
Even those hard of hearing are moved by the sound of evening rain.

The first two lines of Dogen’s verse refer to a koan included in the Book of Equanimity. Zen Master Tozan, addressing his monks as they left the monastery at the end of a practice period, said “It’s the beginning of autumn and the summer’s end, my brothers. Some of you will go east, and some of you will go west. But straightaway, go to a place where there’s not an inch of grass for ten thousand miles.” After a pause he added, “But for such a place where there is no grass for ten thousand miles, how can you go there?”

Commenting on this statement, Master Sekiso said, “Go out the gate, and there’s grass.” A hundred years later, Master Taiyo added, “Don’t go out the gate, and there’s grass everywhere.”

Although to Westerners, “meadow grass” sounds pastoral and pleasant, to the Chinese and Japanese, grass is a weed. In the rock gardens of Japan, blades of grass are immediately removed, it’s just the gravel and rocks and trees that remain. “Go to a place where there’s not an inch of grass for ten thousand miles” means to go beyond the weeds, the delusions, the attachments.

So if you go outside the monastery gate, you enter the world of weeds, delusions and attachments. But if you don’t go outside the gate, you’re still confronted by weeds, delusions and attachments. The challenge, then, is what are you going to do?

In his excellent commentary on the Book of Equanimity, Garry Shishin Wick, a disciple of Maezumi Roshi, explains that the point is to see one’s true self and remain undisturbed both inside and outside. To be undisturbed outside means seeing the True Nature of phenomena without adding anything extra; to be undisturbed inside means seeing the True Nature of one’s self without sprouting delusions.

Ordinary mind is the way. Yet when we try to describe it, it eludes us. As soon as we try to describe it, grass springs up everywhere. Yet when you enter the zendo, walk to your seat, sit down on a zafu, and start to practice zazen, the true self reveals its face. However, thoughts continually arise and we miss this revelation. But if we look closely at our mind, we see there are gaps between the thoughts. Who are you when there are gaps between the thoughts?

So the place where there’s not an inch of grass for ten thousand miles is neither inside nor outside of the monastery gates, but in fact, is our own true self revealed.

To go back to Layman Pang’s statement then, the bright clarity of Bodhidharma’s mind perceived the True Nature of phenomena without adding anything extra, and the meadow grasses were no longer weeds, delusions and attachments. In fact, transcending the difference between self and other, the meadow grasses were also his clear and brilliant mind.

But this is not merely a verse in praise of Bodhidharma. It is also saying that the Buddha's truth is everywhere evident, even on the tips of meadow grasses, and although the grasses may ofter be considered to represent our delusions and attachments, the Buddha's truth is also in the recognition of our delusions. As Dogen said in Genjo-Koan, "Those who greatly realize delusion are Buddhas." The Buddha's truth is everywhere, it's all around us, both inside and outside (making the distinction between inside and outside yet another delusion). But Dogen warns us not to rely on the brightness of others to show this to us. We must see for ourselves. It is easy to lose the path of active practice by relying on words and teachings, "the brightness of others," but even those lost in delusion are still moved by the manifest reality of the Buddha's truth.

Layman Pang’s statement comes up in another story. One morning, when Layman Pang was relaxing in his hut with his wide and daughter Lingzhao, he said, “Difficult, difficult, difficult. Like trying to scatter ten measures of sesame seed all over a tree.”

Hearing this, his wife said, “Easy, easy, easy. Just like touching your feet to the ground when you get out of bed.”

Lingzhao then responded, “Neither difficult, nor easy. On the hundred grass tips, the ancestors' meaning.”

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold provides an excellent discussion of the meaning of this exchange, and I am indebted to him for his stories of Layman Pang and Lingzhao used herein.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Little Catastrophes

After coming home from the zendo tonight (fourth night in a row), I had to roll the garbage dumpster and the recyclables bin up the steep hill of my driveway. While I was pushing it up in front of me, I got to wondering how long I would be able to do this before I got too old to have the energy or muscles to push it anymore.

It's not particularly hard to do, but it does require a little leg strength and sure-footedness. But can I still do it when I'm 60? 70? 80?

On the one hand, if I keep pushing it every week as part of my householder rituals, I should at least keep those muscles in shape in order to keep doing it indefinitely. But that's not the way life goes. Sooner or later, some minor mishap will occur and knock me off the rhythm. Perhaps I'll break a leg and not be able to even walk, much less roll a dumpster uphill, and when I finally do recover, the leg muscles will have atrophied to the point where I cannot push it like I used to. Maybe I'll break a hip. Maybe I'll have a major illness or a stroke or a heart attack that will weaken me and I'll no longer be able to bring the trash can back up.

What will I do then? Pay some neighborhood kid to roll it up for me? Expect the garbagemen to come up the hill and get my trash? Or just let the garbage pile up in one big, diseased, vermin-infested heap until the neighbors complain and Health Services or some such bureaucracy intervenes?

See, I don't think we age as a slow and steady decline, but instead cruise along on a more-or-less level plateau until some little catastrophe occurs, and then drop down a level or two in a sort of punctuated rhythm. The older we get, the harder it is to recover from these events.

Back last April, when I was battling the flu, I developed a pain in my right shoulder and arm. I could barely lift my right arm to keyboard level, making it very difficult and painful to compose email, surf, or blog. I got over the flu, eventually, but some of the pain persisted in my arm. To this day, I cannot lift my right arm as high as I can my left, and the one arm is now definitely weaker than the other. I wonder if it will ever be the same again or if it's dropped down one level, never to fully recover again. Fortunately, though, I'm left handed.

Last week, I got a letter from my Dad telling me that on May 12th, he suffered a TIA. I didn't know what a "TIA" was - I always thought it stood for "thanks in advance," but apparently it's a "transient ischemic attack," sometimes called a mini-stroke. It starts just like a regular stroke but then resolves leaving no noticeable symptoms or deficits, and occurs when the blood supply to part of the brain is briefly interrupted.

When he got home from the hospital, he writes, "A heaviness came over me. I cannot do the same things as before. I cannot run into the ocean waves with a surf board over my head looking to grab the biggest wave; ride a bicycle into a tree; wear Billy Martin's baseball card on my NY baseball cap as I coached Little League plus Babe Ruth baseball for so many years; jump off a road bridge into the water below for a penny bet; slide down a slippery rock slide into a pool of water off the Kancamagus highway; dance to jazz such as 'Sing, Sing, Sing;' run for political office; have my own coffee radio station; write sport stories; be the host to my television golf show or ski down the slopes of Sugarloaf mountain. My body caught up with my age. Did anyone tell?"

I know what you mean, old man. One day, you're the stud retiree, the next, you're TIA. I'm not at either station yet, but I can see the little catastrophes out there waiting to pounce on me.

Next month, I have to get my wisdom teeth removed. The surgeon tells me she wishes that I was 25 or even 30 years younger for this procedure, that I won't bounce back as quickly as I would have then, if at all, and at my age, the procedure runs the risk of nerve damage, loss of the sense of taste, and even facial paralysis. Not to get them removed will almost assuredly lead to abscesses, disease and other ailments. So either way, there's a little catastrophe out there waiting to see how well I recover.

I don't mean to sound gloomy about all of this - in fact, writing this is making me want to ride down the driveway inside of the recyclables bin. Want to bet a penny that I can do it?

"I don't know about you, but I could go for a plate of chicken catastrophe and eggs overwhelming, all washed down with a tall, cool Janitor in a Drum." - half-remembered and probably poorly transcribed quote I once heard from musician Tom Waits

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Have you ever noticed that all the trouble in this world is caused by people who want to get rid of troublemakers?

And on the second day of the three-day weekend, the rains came, and lo, it continueth to rain for the next many days.

The 10-day forecast on shows nothing but thunderstorms, interrupted by the occasional downpour. No need to water the garden. No need to invent excuses not to go run.

So far this week, I've been to the zendo three nights, and I open tomorrow. Sesshin starts Friday. I've always wondered what it would be like to go every night, and it looks like I'm about to find out.

But anyway, I was watching Bush's press conference, and he was asked about Amnesty International's allegations of torture by the US and outsourcing of torture. And Bush responds that such allegations are lies brought forth by those who disassemble. I think he knew that it might not be the right word because he went on to explain that "disassemble" means to tell lies. I think he was trying for "dissemble" and disinformation, but disassemble was what came out.

This guy went to Yale, is in charge of the country and Commander in Chief of the military? It makes you wonder what would have happened if he actually paid attention in class instead of majoring in beer and male cheerleading. I wonder who studied their ass off in high school that year and aced their SATs, but still didn't get to attend Yale because he or she was bumped in favor of some rich kid.

Then on top of all that, I see this headline:

That's a real headline. No kidding. And to think, a pretzel almost did him in . . .

Any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced.