Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Tonight, Bill Porter, who publishes under the name Red Pine, visited the Zen Center and participated in a discussion after our evening service. Bill is a poet, scholar and translator, and has published excellent translations of, among other scriptures, The Diamond Sutra and The Heart Sutra.

Bill explained his approach to translation as being like a dance. Instead of taking the original text literally, be it a Buddhist scripture or a contemporary commentary, Bill instead discern it's meaning and the way it conveys the meaning, and then tries to use the English language to move in rhythm to the original text and convey the same meaning, without worrying too much about an exact word-for-word transcription. "If you put both feet down on a dancer, it hurts the dancer and ends the dance," Bill explained. It's better to be graceful and open, and read the movement of the original text and then accompany that dance as best as one's language skills allow.

The key to this approach is meditation, Bill said. When one translates with only a scholarly approach, the result is dry and academic - the words are correct, but the truth is not in the words. But instead Bill will read the words in Chinese, meditate with the passage, and then express its essence in English.

As Bob Myers, another Buddhist translator commented in this blog, "My translation may seem a bit 'loose,' not sticking very closely to the original. But the very concept of 'sticking closely to' anything written 750 years ago in a vastly different culture seems questionable to begin with."

The tragedy of Christianity, in my opinion, is that it adopted a position that its scripture was "sacred" and must be read literally, often resulting in discrepancies as society and science advance over the years (the conflict between creationism and evolution being just one example). The Buddha, however, encouraged his followers not to rely on his words, "nothing I've ever said is true," for all words are products of the thinking mind, and true wisdom arises from the non-thinking mind.

Bill also reported that Buddhism, especially Chan (Chinese Zen), is currently undergoing a renaissance in China. Many of the student radicals became disillusioned by politics following the tragedy in Tiannimen Square, and have taken up Buddhist study. Temples and meditation centers are springing up all over China, Bill said, and populated by very young practioners. It's not uncommon to see monks in their 20s being led by abbotts in their 30s. This rediscovery of Buddhism is partly fueled by Chinese patriotism, since Chan is a Chinese product, and is not only not being repressed by the government, but actively supported (Taoist movements, like Falun Gong for example, are being harassed and very closely watched however, as the Chinese leaders are aware that every revolutionary movement in the history of China has had Taoist leaders).

Bill's next project, to be published in March 2006, will be a translation and commentary on The Platform Sutra of Hui Neng. He has also been working for several years on a much interrupted translation of the Lankavatara Sutra. Please consider buying and reading his books, both for your practice and to support his.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Bill Porter, who publishes under the pen name Red Pine, is an accomplished translator of Chinese poetry and Buddhist scripture. He is the one who first taught me the true meaning of the word prognosis, and his translation and commentary on The Diamond Sutra was the first that made me understand this notoriously challenging text. Other books of his include a translation of The Heart Sutra, The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain, The Mountain Poems of Stonehouse, The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma, Lao-tzu’s Tao Te Ching, and his poetic ethnography Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits.

Bill will be making an informal visit to the Atlanta Soto Zen Center Wednesday evening November 30 during our usual service (7:30-8:30 p.m.). There will be an opportunity for discussion following zazen. Bill is a lot of fun to talk to and has a wealth of experience with Zen and Buddhist practice in China and Taiwan, and has the sensibility of a poet and practitioner. Please come join me at the center to sit and meet with him.

Monday, November 28, 2005

So how does one throw away one's likes and dislikes?

Actually, you can't. To "throw away" anything is an act of volition, and therefore involves the thinking mind. To throw something out, you have to first decide that you don't want it (which is picking and choosing in itself), then actually try to discard it, which only reinforces one's preferences. You may have a "preference" to have no "preferences," but as long as that's your preference, well, there you are.

You can't throw away your likes and dislikes. You can only allow them to leave.

Which is zazen. Sitting quietly, with no objective or goal, the thinking mind quiets down and "mental formations" such as likes and dislikes eventually drop away, as do other dualistic concepts like "self-and-other," and "mind-and-body." This dropping away happens at its own pace and in its own time - there's no way to force it, for as soon as you start to think about achieving the goal of losing these concepts, they immediately come right back.

The problem is the underlying delusion that there is a self that contains these things, and that they can be somehow made "not self." Once you start down that path, you're only reinforcing these habits, not getting rid of them.

As Dogen said,
To study the way is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things of the universe.
To be enlightened by all things is to transcend the distinction of self and other and to go on in ceaseless enlightenment forever.

Which sounds pretty grim if that means that one then has no likes or dislikes or no affections or passions. "Enlightenment" does not mean becoming an emotionless automaton. As soon as one gets off the meditation mat, the thinking mind kicks back in, with all of it's picking and choosing and concepts of self and others. However, all this is accompanied by the realization that these preferences are just the artifacts of the thinking mind, that these preferences are based on illusions, and that they have no enduring reality.

Which sort of levels the playing field and makes both the fortunes and misfortunes much easier to take. My football teams may win or lose next week, and I may become excited or disappointed, but I'll also know that it's all just an artifact of my thinking mind.

But don't take my word for it. See for yourself. Come join me this weekend at the Atlanta Soto Zen Center for a weekend-long meditation retreat (sesshin) and allow body and mind to drop away. The retreat begins at 6:00 pm Friday December 2 and ends Sunday December 4 at 11:30 am, followed by a celebratory lunch. Check out the web site for more details. I'll be there all weekend.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

The Great Way is not difficult
If you do not make distinctions.
Only throw away likes and dislikes
and everything will be perfectly clear.

This weekend, I learned that the CD player in my new car can play music in MP3 format as well as audio format. Since I can fit anywhere from 5 to 7 albums onto one disk in MP3 format, and the player can hold six disks, I can effectively load anywhere from 30 to 42 albums into the car stereo. It also has a port to plug in an external MP3 player like an iPod, so the possibilities are pretty limitless.

I also successfully programmed the remote on my new television to control the cable box and the DVD player as well.

In Zen, the word "practice" does not always refer to formal training. While the training itself is done in the zendo, practice is done at all times of the day. Training is formal discipline but practice is mindfulness in all moments of daily living. At some point the two merge to create a discipline of life, a discipline of the habits of body and mind and heart. Zen author Mu Soeng says, "This is the Path, the Great Way, and it is fully embodied - not an abstract metaphysical concept." The contemporary Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn agrees, stating "Sitting is only a small part of practicing Zen."

When one stops picking and choosing and throws away all opinions, all likes and dislikes, the mind that doesn't "know" emerges. "Don't-know" mind is the mind that cuts off all thinking, and when all thinking has been cut off, one becomes the empty mind. The empty mind is like a mirror - red comes and the mirror is red; yellow comes and the mirror is yellow; a mountain comes and the mirror is a mountain.

Seung Sahn: "If you keep don't-know mind when you are driving, this is driving Zen. If you keep it when you are talking, this is talking Zen. If you keep it when you are watching television, this is television Zen. This is the true practice of Zen."

Saturday, November 26, 2005

I finally bought a television stand today. I shopped around yesterday, first at the local Pier One on Peachtree Street, and then at the various furniture stores (including another Pier One) at the new Atlantic Station, and finally at the giant Ikea store next to Atlantic Station. I drove home empty handed.

Today, I realized that the best piece that I had seen all day was the very first one I looked at, so I went back to Pier One and looked again. It was better than anything else I has seen all day yesterday, and at 10% off a good deal, too. So I bought it, managed with much effort to fit it into my new Lexus (I should have gotten it while I still had the Jeep - as it was, I had to take it out of the box, push the front seat all the way back and down into the fully reclined position, and just managed to squeeze it in), brought it home and placed my new television on it.

It’s enough to make you wonder what the point of comparative shopping is – my instinct (my prognosis?) was to go to Pier One and as it turns out, after a wasted day of wandering from shop to shop and battling crowds, what I was looking for was right where my intuition had first led me.

I bought the Lexus with less deliberation – I determined the make and model I wanted on line, researched the price I was willing to pay and the minimum trade-in value I was willing to accept for the Jeep, went to the nearest dealer, fouled off a couple of pitches until they got the make and model I wanted at a price I could accept, and the purchase was made.

The new television involved even less effort. I merely went to the Buckhead HiFi Buys, looked at the range of sets and prices, picked the best I could find at a cost I was willing (able?) to pay, and that was it – home with the set in my Jeep (I was wise enough to buy the t.v. pre-Lexus).

The Great Way is not difficult
If you do not make distinctions.
Only throw away likes and dislikes
And everything will be perfectly clear.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Today's spam haiku:
Loophole delivery:
Some raindrop, not a chipmunk,
Leaves the chess bosom.

After a fruitless day of shopping for media cabinets at Atlantic Station and Huff Road, I attended the evening service at the zen center. Once again, Friday night attendance was low - only the roshi and I started the service, but soon two more dropped in. We sat for two 45-minute periods (90 minutes of enlightenment) and no chattering delusion afterwards.

Seung Sahn once wrote:
Buddha said that all things have Buddha-nature.
Joshu said the dog has no Buddha-nature.
Which one is correct?
If you open your mouth, you fall into hell.
Clouds float up to the sky.
Rain falls down to the ground.

The word "prognosis" derives from the Greek gnosis, literally "knowledge." "Prognosis," then is before (pro-, or pre-) knowledge, or the wisdom that comes before knowledge. When all thinking has been cut off, the mind becomes empty and the thinker, with no thought or conception of self, becomes empty mind. Yet even with all thinking cut off, there is still awareness and consciousness, as well as the intuitive wisdom the comes before thinking (prognosis).

The before-thinking mind - your before-thinking mind, my before-thinking mind, all people's before-thinking minds - are the same. This is our substance. Your substance, my substance, and the substance of the whole universe become one. So the clouds, the sky, the rain and the ground all become one. So the question is: are the clouds, sky, rain and ground all the same as you, or are they different? Do all things have Buddha-nature as the Buddha stated, or not (Joshu's refutation)?

If you say "the same," you are totally wrong and fall into hell. If you say "different," you are equally wrong and hell-bound.

The prognostic mind that becomes one with the universe is before thinking. Before thinking, there are no words. "Same" and "different" are opposite words; they are from the thinking mind that separates all things. The before-thinking mind does not recognize such dualities. Trying to use the thinking mind to resolve the discrepancy just takes you further and further from the truth; thus it is said that you descend into "hell."

So what would be a good answer? Seung Sahn supplies one by noting "Clouds float up to the sky. Rain falls down to the ground." This is not the non-sequitur it appears at first to be. He is merely recognizing that what is, is, and uses a very good example - on close examination, can the clouds really be separated from the sky, can the rain really be separate from the clouds, is there really a difference between the rain in the sky and the rain on the ground, and is there a clear distinction between the rain-soaked earth and the dry ground? The thinking mind can come up with differences and clever answers, but the prognostic, before-thinking mind does not bother.

So all words, all language, come from the thinking mind. Therefore they cannot express the real substance of the before-thinking mind. In this regard, the spam haikus make as much sense as any other words. That is why I say that our dharma talks, the sutras, these very words, are all delusion. They are all just fingers pointing at the moon.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

My Thanksgiving Tradition

Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 1986 -

Thanks for the wild turkey and the passenger pigeons, destined to be shit out through wholesome American guts.

Thanks for a continent to be spoiled and poisoned.

Thanks for Indians to provide a modicum of challenge and danger.

Thanks for vast herds of bison to kill and skin, leaving their carcasses to rot.

Thanks for bounties on wolves and coyotes.

Thanks for the American dream to vulgarize and falsify until the bare lies shine through.

Thanks for the KKK, for nigger-killing lawmen feelin' their notches, for decent church-going women with their mean, pinched, bitter, evil faces.

Thanks for "Kill a Queer for Christ" stickers.

Thanks for laboratory AIDS.

Thanks for Prohibition and the War Against Drugs.

Thanks for a country where nobody's allowed to mind his own business.

Thanks for a nation of finks.

Yes, thanks for all the memories . . . ("Alright, let's see your arms"). . . ("You always were a headache and you always were a bore")

Thanks for the last and greatest betrayal of the last and greatest of human dreams.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Today's spam haiku:

Brandon Lim spindle
Perfect Breitling Replica
Stop ignoring me.

After a short day at work (arrived late, closed the office at 2:30), I stopped by the Lexus dealer and picked up my new IS 250. 11 miles on the odometer. New car smell. I drove home and watched some movies ("Kontroll," "The Story of the Weeping Camel") on my new flatscreen. As the Gang of Four once sang, "To Hell With Poverty."

In 2000, before I started following the Zen path, I went through a short period of materialism, purchasing, in a very short period, the now Unsellable Condo in Vinings, the now traded-in 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee, and the now broke-down 50-inch Mitsubishi projection t.v., among other things. I felt no connection to any of the purchases however - they were unmistakably mine, but they were in no sense any projection, as I had hoped, of my ego-self. In short, although they all functioned as advertised (at least for 5 years or so), they did not satisfy.

I didn't begin my Zen studies because of this, but it is illustrative of my frame of mind before I started.

Now, having renounced the concept of ego-self, even though I still find myself clinging to the delusion, the new possessions are now mere skillful means to an end - a television to entertain and pacify my mind during quiet times, a car for transportation. These things are not me, I am not these things. These things do not own me, I do not own these things.

Everything has buddha-nature - dogs, cars, televisions, blogs, bloggers, you.

Now excuse me, I have to go drive somewhere.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Spam Haiku

Like many of you, I have been under a fairly heavy spam bombardment the last several months. Many of these emails have incorporated what I assume is a random word generator to create the subject line, stringing together provocative words into unlikely nonsense titles like "I'll antipasto and nguyen classic" and "Also codpiece get appraise cowpea."

They're fairly annoying, but my anti-spam program does a pretty good job of keeping the nuisance to a minimum. However, looking in the spam folder and reading the subject lines, they start to read like avant-garde abstract poetry, or very badly translated haiku:

He drive by fruity
Which smoke as unemployment
Look what you can have


Be fly in watchband
This is important fetter
Her complaint the yorker

Remember, I didn't say they were good poems, I just said there's a resemblance to poetry.

Looking rich they are
Just like the original
Exclusive pygmalion.

Emperor bipartite
Listen as polemical
That drainage hibernia.

The one that just arrived - even as I was writing this - sounds almost poignant:

Looking good
Regarding MSN carnation
Cant find you on msn...

For those that don't appreciate haiku, there's the denser modernism of the body text:

Coefficient some teaspoon some vying, cattle!
Cartoon and scamp some glide a sewerage
In devolution on inject in carbonate.
Alley see reclamation in alundum or upsurge the brunette
The succession or contribute or daytona
The mummy
It's transcription
Try pickerel
A caption or utensil
The nair it's yuck it drawl it.

See? It's fun and easy. Look in your spam folder and see what you come up with and post the results here as a comment to this post. This might start a new meme - spam haiku.

Monday, November 21, 2005

"One should not see tolerance or patience as a kind of weakness, or giving in, but rather as a sign of strength. Patience and tolerance comes from the ability to remain firm and steadfast and not be overwhelmed by the adverse situations or conditions that one faces."
- The 14th Dalai Lama

The weather grows colder, the holidays approach, work gets even busier, and I head out to open the Zendo. Pulling up, I see no cars in the parking lot yet - it's still early, but could I be facing a second night of no-shows? I unlock the front door, light a candle and some incense, bowing in gassho as I humbly offer myself for the night's service.

Still setting up for the night, I hear a car pull into the lot- at least there's one other this evening. In walks T., one of our Monday night regulars. We talk for a few minutes; she wants to know the meaning of the Japanese sutra that's recited on weekend mornings, the Maka Hanya Haramita (or, as I irreverently call it, the "Hanya Makarena"). We talk, and a few more people arrive, and at 7:30 we start the service.

Sitting is for one hour (one hour of enlightenment), and we have a brief discussion afterwards (one hour of delusion). Bob stays behind for a while, as he usually does, and we have a nice conversation about careers and houses and things of the world, and also sesshins at other sanghas, other teachers, and news from elsewhere.

I lock the doors and head for my car, once again alone in the parking lot. The night has grown colder - the wind has picked up - but the moon still appears nearly full.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Car Shopping

And the winner is . . . . (drum roll, please) . . .

The 2006 Lexus IS 250! (That's the letters "I" and "S," not "Lexus is 250"). The 250 is luxurious enough to make a (minor) statement, sporty enough to be fun to drive, humble enough that I won't feel like I'm putting on airs pulling up to the zendo, and, after 20 years of driving SUVs (Isuzu Trooper, Jeep Cherokee and a Grand Cherokee), it's a nice change of pace.

And in keeping with the grand tradition of Zen Buddhism, I got it in black, inside and out.

Delivery should be some day next week. Here's hoping that the Jeep holds out until then.

Friday, November 18, 2005


I told Buckhead Jeep that they can keep their spare Cherokee engine, and to just put my car back together and let me take it home. I'm not paying $8,000 (I don't have $8,000) for a new engine for a six-year-old car.

While I was on the way to the mechanics, I got a call from my doctor: my PSA, which was previously measured at a disturbingly high 14.2, almost a sure indication of prostate cancer, was now down to 3.3, a very safe, "normal" and non-carcenogenic level. The doctor wants to check the level again in a month, and for now, the prognosis is much improved.

So this weekend, I will gingerly drive the Jeep to various car dealerships and start looking at new vehicles. Which, of course, opens a Pandora's Box of questions: should I buy another SUV or be more economical and eco-friendly and get something more fuel efficient? Should I buy something along the status line, say a German import or sports car, or buy a plain sedan, something less likely to call attention to myself and reinforce the ego? What do the Amish drive? (Oh yeah, right - forget that thought.)

I opened the zendo tonight, and nobody showed up. None. Zero. It was a cold, cold night here in Atlanta, the first really cold evening of the year, and that may have kept some folks away. Checking the attendance records for previous weeks, I saw that non-sesshin Fridays were only averaging two or three people, so it wasn't like tonight was a huge shift.

So there I sat on my non-cancerous prostate gland, all alone in the zendo, the compromised Jeep the only car in the parking lot, and at the half-hour struck the gong and began the Great Heart of Wisdom chant ("Form is emptiness, emptiness is form," etc.) just as if there were 30 people in the room. I sat in silent meditation for one 45-minute period and then rang the bell for kinhin (walking meditation) and got up, snuffed out the incense and candles, and headed home to bed.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Buckhead Jeep called after having my car overnight and delivered the bad news: the clicking sound I heard in the engine was due to some sort of flakes of metal they found in the engine's oil, indicating that something inside the engine was falling apart. The good news, at least to them, was that they just happened to have a spare Jeep Cherokee engine around the shop that they could replace my engine with for about $6,000. While they were at it, there are leaks in the front axle and the pinion and other maladies that will bring the whole repair to about $8k.

I drive a 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee. The book value of the car is only about $6,000, and even that assumes that it's in good working condition. It doesn't seem prudent to put an $8,000 repair into a $6,000 automobile.

I guess I'm in the market for a new car.

Meanwhile, I haven't had a working television since the end of August. To replace what broke down in kind (50-inch Magnavox projection) will cost about $2,000.

But I guess I'm in the market for a new t.v., too.

Further, I still haven't found a buyer or a renter for the Unsellable Condo in Vinings. But I'm still paying a second mortgage, monthly condo association fees and utilities for my former little corner of paradise.

Oh, yeah, and I'm waiting on a call back from the doctor after yesterday's test to find out whether or not I have prostate cancer.

But all that's looking at the glass as half-empty. Here's the positive outlook:

I get to have a new car! And a new t.v.! And I already have a second home that's just full of possibilities. And I'm going to get a phone call to confirm my good health.

Pick your medicine. It all tastes the same, but it's up to you whether or not you enjoy it.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

El Cliento Quattro

Basically, I have four clients, and I spend most of my time working for one or the other of the four.

The first, and most important, client is the me-that-is-not-others. If the ego client didn't exist, there wouldn't be any point in working for the other clients, or anyone to do the work for that matter. So I wind up spending a lot of time entertaining, gratifying, satisfying and caring for the ego client.

Another important client is my employer. That client funds all of the activities for the other clients. Without the employer client, I would be homeless. The employer client also largely defines my role in society and gives me a lot of my own sense of self worth. However, the employer client is very demanding, requiring at least 8 hours a day, usually more, and generally right in the middle of the damn day, but as I said, it's an important client so I gladly trade my labor for wages.

The Zen Center is another important client. This dharma client gives meaning and perspective to all the activities, and thus has as much overall importance as the employer client. What would be the point of mindless leisure or mindless laboring with mindfulness?

The fourth client is the community. I speak here not of the sangha, but of the non-Buddhist community - my neighbors, the merchants and shopkeepers I do business with; in a larger sense, society. I was not even aware that the community was a client until the dharma client showed me the effects my actions have on those around me.

So this morning, I got up and ate, showered and shaved, and then perused my email and the online news for the gratification and amusement of the ego client. I headed downtown to the office of the state environmental protection agency for a meeting on behalf of the employer client. Following the meeting, I went to a doctor's appointment to have my PSA re-checked following two week's treatment with Cipro and then dropped my car off at Buckhead Jeep to have the funny noise in the engine checked out, thus serving the ego client again. Then back to work (employer client) in a little rent-a-car, and afterwards I attended a neighborhood civic association meeting (communal client) before later planning the Providence Canyon hike for the dharma client. And then posting this little note, hopefully to the benefit of all clients.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Thanks to Mumon for posting the following quote from H.H. The Dalai Lama the other day:

If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview...

The goal here is not to prove Buddhism right or wrong - or even to bring people to Buddhism - but rather to take these methods out of the traditional context, study their potential benefits, and share the findings with anyone who might find them helpful.

After all, if practices from my own tradition can be brought together with scientific methods, then we may be able to take another small step toward alleviating human suffering.

My respect for the Dalai Lama increased fivefold upon reading that. As I've ranted before, it is my observation that science does not exactly disprove reincarnation, but certainly raises disturbing questions about the belief. Clearly, science shows that there was a time when there was no life on earth, and that primitive life forms appeared about 600,000 years after the earth was formed. What did those lives reincarnate from? Since it took literally billions more years before sentient beings evolved, what bad karma had those early life forms accumulated that prevented them from returning as a creature even remotely capable of enlightenment?

I maintain that it is the very Buddhadharma, not science, that proves reincarnation to be untrue. The concept that there is some permanent thing that endures lifetime to lifetime is contrary to the very basic teachings of impermanence, emptiness and no-self. You can't have it both ways. Belief in the next life is just the ego clinging to its delusion that it is not impermanent.

Come to think of it, I'm not sure that I ever heard H.H. the 14th ever claim that he was the reincarnation of Number 13; I've only heard his followers make that claim. But then, I've not read the Dalai Lama all that extensively.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Just Another Day in Paradise

I opened the zendo tonight and led a brief discussion on my ideas about reincarnation. One hour of sitting, one hour of enlightenment. A half hour of talking, a half hour of delusion.

For those interested in such things, I will be leading the Friday night sitting this week - 90 minutes of enlightenment. Come on by the Atlanta Soto Zen Center at 7:30 and be a part of the experience.

Also, the next Zen hike is coming up. I haven't sent the announcements out yet, but it will be on December 10, 2005 to Providence Canyon - Georgia's "Little Grand Canyon" (actually, a farmer's erosional gully that got WAY out of hand, but an interesting hike). Zazen included. Email me if you want to be on the announcement list.

(This post has turned into a PSA. Sorry 'bout that!)

Saturday, November 12, 2005

The Disease of the Mind

Writing in The New Yorker recently, Oliver Sacks ("Awakenings," "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat") described aphasia. "Aphasia" means, literally, a loss of speech, but it is not speech as such which is lost but language itself - its expression, or its comprehension, in whole or in part. In very severe forms, a person may be all but mute, able to utter only isolated, emotional outbursts ("telegraphic speech") such as "Damn!" or "Fine!" John Hughlings Jackson, a pioneer explorer of aphasia in the 1860s and -70s, considered that such patients lacked "propositional" speech, and he thought that they could not speak or "propositionize" even to themselves. He felt, therefore, that the power of abstract thought was lost in aphasia, and on occasion he compared aphasics to dogs.

Werner Herzog's 1974 film "The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser" concerned a similar character who, although not aphasic, had never been taught to speak and had never heard human speech. The film is based upon the true story of a man who suddenly appeared in Nuremberg one morning in 1828, shackled like an animal and unable to speak or walk, and bearing a strange note explaining that he had been held captive in a dungeon for his entire life, and had never had any human contact. This extremely beautiful and moving motion picture explores what "language" really means, as Herzog uses Kaspar to explore the absurdity behind our daily rituals and our ideas on religion, love and life in general, and whether civilization and language frees or hinders the human spirit. Kaspar, free from the shackles of patriarchal assumptions implicit in western language, questions our most basic beliefs in an incisive and disarmingly humorous way.

Sacks notes that aphasics, lacking the brain's basic language skills, develop remarkable compensatory heightenings of other, non-linguistic powers and skills, especially the ability to "read" others' intentions and meanings from facial expressions, vocal inflections and tone of voice, as well as all the gestures, postures, and minute movements that normally accompany speech. Such compensation may give surprising powers to aphasics - in particular, an enhanced ability to see through histrionic artifice, equivocation or lying.

Ever since we started using our neocortex and its associated language-based functions, we have carried on chatter within ourselves. The nature of the internal chatter is to proliferate itself in ever more complex ways. Degrees of sanity or insanity, as well as attention and inattention, depend on the volume and intensity of the internal chatter, especially when chattering about "what I like" or "what I don't like." The internal chatter creates a feedback loop in which ego-reinforcement feeds upon itself and creates an ever-more complex proliferation, like a virus infecting all parts of the system.

Aphasics, or the mysterious Kasper Hauser, have had the feedback loop interrupted, and although unfortunate, the change in their perceptions and abilities is startling and unusual.

Zen meditation techniques have developed ways of transcending the internal chatter and clarifying those aspects of mind/wisdom that have not been infected by the disease of internal chatter. When we transcend the internal chatter we enter "silence," and the heart-mind becomes illuminated by the inherent wisdom of the mind itself. As the author Mu Soeng points out, this silent wisdom does not make distinctions, does not dwell in the dualities of this or that, for or against, and yet is aware of itself as a purified state. The awareness is not subject-object relational, or verbal, or ideological, for any verbalization or conceptualization is part of the internal chatter and, eventually, self defeating.

"To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind." - Jianzhi Sengcan (d. 606)

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Shokai the Dissident

"What causes the greatest crimes in history? The greatest bloodshed? The most murders? I would say two things: sincere love and a sincere devotion to liberty . . . If you kill out of love for a perfect utopia, you never stop killing because human nature is always imperfect. Robespierre, rightly called 'the incorruptible,' was more sincere than Danton and always found somebody deviating just a little bit from true liberty."

"I can think of nothing more gallant, even though again and again we fail, than attempting to get at the facts; attempting to tell things as they really are. For at least reality, though never fully attained, can be defined. Reality is that which, when you don't believe in it, doesn't go away."

- quotes by Peter Viereck. The historian Joseph Ellis, commenting on Viereck and other contrarians in The New Yorker, said "they are uncomfortable with democracy, if democracy means majority rule. They think majorities are mostly wrong. They're happiest when they are being denounced. They know they must be right then."

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

I'm back in Washington again.

I got up this morning and took my time - I didn't go in to the office. But at 10:30, I headed to the dentist for a 90 minute root canal. Afterward, I drove home, stopped at CVS to fill the prescription for pain-killers, and went back home and packed. I made it to the airport by 2:30, and caught a 3:30 flight to D.C.

I'm not at the George this time, I'm at the Hilton. When I got to my room, the bathroom door was locked, and I had to call the front desk to send someone up to open it. Shortly after he left, I headed to dinner at a Cuban restaurant in Arlington with some associates from my company. And as we were paying the bill, several others from the company arrived, and I wound up having drinks with them.

I got back to the Hilton by 11:00 and realized I had forgotten to pack razors, so I headed back out and found a 7-11 store. Returning to the Hilton, I ran in to the CEO and the incoming company president checking in. I said my hellos and shook hands, and finally got my chance to relax and sleep, perchance to dream, just now.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

It was election day here in Atlanta. Not really much to vote on, except for the mayor's race, which has the incumbent, Shirley Franklin, against, well, nobody.

I like Franklin. Four years ago, Atlanta's city government was a bloated mess with an $82m deficit; now it is running a surplus. Four years ago, the city was seen as hopelessly corrupt; now it has an Ethics Plan which, to the surprise of many local sceptics, has yet to embarrass the city. Four years ago, growth was confined to the suburbs; between 2000 and 2004 the city added 13,600 housing units, more than three times what it added in the entire 1990s. Hell, during that period, I moved into the City.

Franklin's approval ratings have run as high as 80%, and she was named one of America's five best mayors by Time magazine in April.

Franklin turned round the city's finances in part by cutting 1,000 jobs. She has also got her hands dirty fixing Atlanta's decrepit water-and-sewer system. Back in 1998, the city had settled a lawsuit with environmental groups and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, promising to meet water-quality standards. Franklin wasn't afraid to raise local taxes to pay for the $3 billion overhaul (though she has persuaded the state to lend the city $500m at low interest rates), a necessary task her predecessors were too timid to take on.

Yesterday, the City Council approved the $2B Beltline project, a 22-mile loop of mass transit, parks, trails and development circling the inner city. The new Atlantic Station is packed with restaurants and shops. The Georgia Aquarium is opening soon next to Centennial Olympic Park, to be followed next year by a revamped World of Coca-Cola Museum.

So, even though she is running unopposed, I took the time today to go to the polling station and cast a vote for Franklin, if for nothing else, to send her a message of "well done, Shirley."

Monday, November 07, 2005

A Futile Attempt to Increase My Web Traffic

In a celebrated essay, Greil Marcus compared 77 rock 'n' roll deaths of the 1970's and ranked them according to an only half-sarcastic calculus of the deceased's musical value and manner of death. The winner was Jimi Hendrix. Actually, in overall score Hendrix tied Ronnie Van Zant of Lynyrd Skynyrd , whose end in a plane crash was more theatrical than Hendrix's inhalation of vomit. But Hendrix got perfect scores in the two measures of musical significance: past and future contributions.

It would be difficult to overstate Hendrix's influence on rock in the 1960's and 70's. The arrival of his volcanic, bottomlessly sensual guitar playing was one of the seismic events of rock in that era. The music that followed his debut in England in 1966 includes Led Zeppelin, the heaviest sounds of Cream and the Who, and the whole of heavy metal; by comparison, everything before him sounds like Herman's Hermits.

Hendrix's parents, possibly alcoholic, had six children; four were given up for adoption or placed in foster care. The young Jimi, enduring squalid homes and a chronically empty stomach, dreamed of outer space and strummed air guitar on a broom, leaving a trail of straws.

Hendrix had a hardscrabble apprenticeship that ended suddenly with gigantic fame. After a stint in the Army (he faked being gay to get out), he worked the chitlin circuit, hopping from one tour bus to the other when his various employers -- Little Richard, Solomon Burke, Otis Redding -- tired of his unrestrained guitar antics. Then on Aug. 3, 1966, Chas Chandler, the bassist of the Animals and a fledgling impresario, saw him play ''Hey Joe'' at the Cafe Wha? in Greenwich Village. Chandler spilled a milkshake on himself.

Spirited off to England seven weeks later, Hendrix started turning heads at jam sessions within hours of his arrival. Soon he had a band, and in some of the book's most entertaining passages, mobs of the biggest British rock stars of the era line up for humbling. During one early gig attended by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and others, the singer Terry Reid ran into Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones outside the bathroom. Jones told him it was all wet up front. What? ''It's wet from all the guitar players crying,'' Jones said.

''I want to write mythology stories set to music based on a planetary thing.''
- Jimi Hendrix

As his fame exploded, Hendrix spent his days in musical, sexual and chemical escape: recording all day, jamming all night, accompanied always by an endless supply of drugs and sex. More than one woman tells of coming into his room to find him with five or more lovers already in his bed. Exhaustion became his regular state, and in his last days he desperately went from woman to woman, proposing to one, a Danish model named Kirsten Nefer, days after he met her, and hours after he downed a handful of sleeping pills. ''I'm so fed up with playing,'' he told her. ''I'm so sick of burning my guitar.''

A few months before he died, Hendrix the superstar came through Seattle on tour and had a Rosebud moment. Driving past the hospital where his mother had died, he searched in vain for her grave. Then he came to a run-down, vacant house where he had lived as a boy and spent countless hours playing the broomstick. Going up to the window, ''he put his hands around his eyes,'' Cross writes, ''pressed his face against the glass, and peered into the shadows, as if he were searching for something he had lost.''

by Ben Sisario

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Letter from Mississippi

My friend Bill is still down in Mississippi doing volunteer relief work for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Here is an email he sent this morning, describing a day in the life of a relief worker:

Date: Sat 11/5/2005 8:06 AM
Subject: News from Pass Christian Mississippi

Camp life.

Waking, I wonder what time it is, I do not have an alarm clock but it is still full dark. I crawl out of bed and turn on the light. The worst part about living in a tent is the walk to the bathroom, actually it is not the walk, it is the hassle of putting on pants and shoes for the 30 yard trek. Someone has turned out the light in the bathroom, it is on a pull chain and takes a minute to find in the dark. I leave it on when I am done and get back to the tent. Reading glasses, my watch, it is 5:10 am.

May as well tell you about our accommodations, there are eight full time residents; three in campers and five in tents, more come and go staying a few days at a time. We have three others who are temporarily away in the real world but are expected to return.

We share a common bathroom that was discovered in the remains of a small commercial building on the property. We shoveled out a garage bay, washed the mold from the walls with Clorox, tarped the roof and re-plumbed the toilet. It is a real luxury after the porta-poties. Jerry built a shower stall on top of some plastic pallets surrounded by the ubiquitous tarps. We all chipped in on a new hot water heater and a new washer and dryer appeared. So we have all the comforts of home - at least if you come from a large multi generation family sharing a single bath.

Back in bed with the light still on I doze off fitfully and am awakened by the first rain here since Hurricane Rita came close. It is nice to hear the rhythm of it on my tent, which stays perfectly dry. The tent is a donation from a Rotary organization called Shelterbox. I worked with their people and distributed some of them on my first trip here. It's octagon about 15 feet in diameter and probably 8 feet tall in the middle. I have it all to myself and have electricity so I can charge my phone and computerfluorescentcent work light hangs from the apex and gives my old eyes enough light to read. Funny though I do not read much even though there are half a dozen novels in reserve in a cardboard box. I have a closet rod made from a furring strip and a plastic three-drawer storage container for my clothes. I feel like I have everything I need or want. Stuff really does not matter down here.

The bed is a real coup. It is two cots duct taped together topped with a full size air mattress and an eclectic collection of ugly blankets from the donations tent. Both comfortable and comforting while dozing and listening to the rain. All of this is topped off by my 13" TV sitting on a plastic storage box. It gets one channel abc,.. don't watch much TV.

My cocooning is interrupted by Willis calling from outside the tent. He needs help putting tarps over cardboard boxes that are stacked in pallets in the yard outside the food tent. The decision was made not to cover them last night but now it is the right thing to do. Willis, Bobby and I run around in the rain unfurling and deploying tarps, some are billboard sized.

We all end up in the kitchen tent. Time to make coffee, a quick first pot in the drip maker while the big percolator works on another gallon and a half. I have become the primary coffee maker because I am the early riser. There are always some locals and perhaps police or firefighters that stop in for their first cup.

Gary the cook is sleeping in so Bobby a proficient backhoe operator and a chainsaw guy surprises us by making pancakes and eggs while we watch it rain.

Time to go to work, my first day in the new chainsaw tent. I just realized we have a village of tents each with a special purpose. My brother-in-law Joe, an anthropologist could probably draw some societal insight here. The chainsaw tent is actually a new 10 by 20 portable carport. A metal frame covered with - guess what? - Tarps. I bought it when I met Robin in Montgomery on Saturday and set it up yesterday to protect the tools and saws from the then forecasted rain.

Willy, the local electrician shows up with a crew of two and sets a new electric box in the bathroom-laundry. New blue boxes and yellow romex nailed to the walls replace extension cords. fluorescentescent light works with a switch on the wall! Willy leaves me new breakers and romex. With my salvaged electric supplies I plan some additional improvements to be implemented later.

Jerry has left me a donated saw that does not run. I rebuild the carb put in a plug and sharpen the chain. While I am working on it Homer comes in. He has had three strokes but thinks he needs to cut some of his own trees. He has been checking in to see if we have a saw for him every other day or so for a week. I show him the parts on my bench then write his name on the case with a magic marker. "This is your saw Homer, pick it up next time you come in." His eyes water as he thanks me.

Jerry took some of his tools home to Nashville and I do not have everything I need to do the job. I close up shop for the hour and a half it takes and go to Home Depot in Gulfport. My second trip in as many weeks. It is north of the city proper up on highway 10, very close to the LOC from my first trip. Carb cleaner degreaser (they only have three cans I buy them all). Starting fluid, two gallons of bar oil, a gallon of WD40, can you believe it comes in gallons? I will put it in spray bottles, I use it on everything mechanical and electrical that got flooded and may be savable. Metric hex wrenches, vice grips, some blue plastic electric boxes, miscellaneous stuff for others. I get out for $98.

Back at work catching up on chains, I sharpen a dozen or so, people bringing them in mostly one and two at time. One volunteer crew brings me eight.

My chainsaw work is interrupted three times, twice to unload donations at the food tent and once to unload ice.

It is dinner time and the kids (Willis, Ali, Bobby and Timmy all twenty-something) and I agree to hit the FEMA tent, this is the last night for that caterer and we figure it will be good. It is. Roast pork with veggies and fake mashed potatoes, good cake for desert. They always have Diet Coke! Willis has an idea and he and I head for the kitchen past the employees only sign. I spot a guy working on a computer and we head for him. Sure enough he is the manager. We tell him about our distribution center and beg for donations. Yes, they are closing tonight but are moving to a new location in another town. They are supposed to take everything with them. The manager suggests that if we show up at 1:00 tomorrow with our trucks he while "give us some stuff." Intentionally vague, definitely off the books but we know it will be worth our while to return. I like this guy.

Back to camp and my tent. I do some email, work on mailing lists, shop ebay unsuccessfully for a new camera and update my website with the Distribution center address. I get to bed later than planned about ten.

Just a routine day, don't feel like I accomplished much. Will do better tomorrow.

Friday, November 04, 2005

I found the following message on usenet and wanted to share it with those who might be interested:

"..........I wanted to ask for your prayers for my sister-in-law, Grace Slick. Grace was married to my brother, Skip Johnson, for over twenty years, and although they're not married anymore, they remain friends. Grace called Skip and told him that she was in the hospital with a bad case of diverticulitis. She had to have a temporary colostomy, (where they take out part of the large intestine to give it a rest) and something had to go wrong because her kidneys failed. So, if there are any Grace Slick fans out there, please pray for her so she gets better soon. I know that Grace has given me many many hours of enjoyment with her music and phine times spent together."

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Reincarnation's Bunk!

Most intellectuals would agree with my post of yesterday despairing over the unscientific and superstitious thinking that is attempting to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools by the promotion of "Intelligent Design." I wonder why the same intellectual analysis that recognizes evolution over creationism does not also decry the Buddhist concept of reincarnation.

The Buddha, speaking around 500 B.C., said that he say no evidence of atman, a soul, and this principal of anatman has been carried forward in most schools of Buddhist teaching. Further, the Buddha taught that there was no self, that ego-identity was just an effect caused by the coming together of the five aggregates of existence (form, feeling, thought, impulse and consciousness). The ego-self, he taught, was empty of any independent existence and when any one of the five aggregates of existence were removed, the ego-self ceased to exist. There was no eternal, abiding atman (soul) that carried on after the ego-self ceased to exist.

This was considered quite shocking to the Brahmin spiritual leaders of the day, who believed that we all have transmigrating souls which after our death come to abide in other beings. Since the selection of the new host for the transmigrating soul was based on the accumulated karma of the deceased, they protested that the teaching of anatman was amoral - why behave in a moral and responsible fashion if not for the blessing of a happy rebirth?

Further, the concerns went, how does this teaching of anatman reconcile the continuation of life on Earth? Life-force is an energy that cannot be created or destroyed, and surely outlives the ephemeral vessel temporarily containing it. And what about consciousness? After the five aggregates of existence come apart, ending one ego-self, do they not then come together elsewhere giving rise to another? Isn't the consciousness of one ego-self later reconstituted as another ego-self that contains the same consciousness?

The early followers of the Buddha, like the Buddha himself, lived in a Brahmin culture as steeped in the concept and belief in reincarnation as our culture now is accepting of gravity. So, from the earliest Buddhist teachings, a slightly modified version of reincarnation was still carried forward. This modified version held that although there were not transmigrating souls, rebirth still occurred due to our ignorance and clinging to existence, and this cycle of birth and rebirth only ended at nirvana.

It is ironic to note that most modern believers in reincarnation find comfort in the thought that one will be reborn, while the Brahmins and early Buddhists were terrified of the prospect of eternally reliving birth, suffering, old age and death. The cycle of birth and rebirth was something that they wanted to end, and nirvana was seen as the transcending of this situation.

Quick-minded readers will have already noted that the Buddha also taught that there was no difference between nirvana and samsara, implying that we have already transcended birth-and-rebirth, if there was ever such a thing to begin with.

Regardless, as Buddhist thought was canonized, whole systems evolved teaching that some beginning practioners were Sotapannas, or "stream-enters," while others advanced to Sakadagamis, or once-returners (meaning that they only had one more cycle of birth and rebirth before nirvana), Anagamis, or never-returners, and Arhats, enlightened ones.

While it was a skillful way of teaching in the Fifth Century B.C. , the whole concept of reincarnation, as transmigrating souls, as reconstituted aggregates, or as stream-enterers achieving Arhat status, is unscientific, counter-intuitive and archaic, and should be immediately abandoned by modern practioners.
We now know that the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old, and that the first living organisms, simple bacteria without nuclei or other cell organelles (prokaryotes) appeared around 3.9 billion years ago. In fact, it is a judgment call as to what point you begin calling these organisms "life forms" as opposed to "complex, self-replicating organic molecule structures."

Here's a question to think about: assuming that there was a "first" living prokaryote that appeared on Earth some 3.9 b.y. ago, and that there was no life on Earth prior to that, what did this first being reincarnate from? And are all subsequent beings, including you and I, reincarnations of that first prokaryote?

Logically, the concept of reincarnation requires one of two underlying tenets: that either the number of living beings on Earth remains more of less constant, so that there is a receptacle for each life, or that some beings contain more "life" and others "less" life. If the former, then how does reincarnation reconcile the great mass extinctions that the Earth periodically went through, most notably the Permian-Triassic episode when about 95% of all animals were wiped out, and the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction, which killed off the dinosaurs? The latter sounds distinctly egalitarian and egocentric ("my existence is equivalent to that of a hundred million gnats").

Mahayana Buddhism and Zen in particular offer glimpses of a Buddhist cosmology that does not require reincarnation. In their transcendental view, all of existence is one large, formless, nameless but everchanging whole, and we are all part of it but inseparable and indistinguishable from all the rest. We are not part of the whole, since there can be no separation or discrimination of the whole. In this formless, nameless and everchanging whole, conditions are ever changing in a kaleidoscopic manner, and "things" rise from conditions. When these conditions are the five aggregates of existence, an ego-self is manifested, but it is never not a part of the formless, nameless everchanging whole, nor can it ever be distinguished from the same. When the five aggregates that gave rise to the ego-self come apart, the manifestation ceases, and the formless, nameless, everchanging whole continues with no net gain or loss.

A visualization of this formless, nameless, everchanging whole that comes to mind is that of a three-dimensional mandala, a sphere instead of a circle, constantly mutating and morphing from one design to another, like when one rotates the eyepiece of a kaleidoscope.

However, despite this view, Mahayana Buddhism, including Zen, still clings to the outdated and obsolete concept of individual reincarnation. Indeed, His Holiness the 14th Dalai lama claims to be the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai lama and all the lamas before him. Although he claims to be intensely interested in science, and has admirably submitted to studies of the effects of meditation on the human mind, it is hard to take his claims seriously as long as he still proclaims himself to be the reincarnation of prior Tibetan masters.

Recently, a group of scientists, probably led by Chinese scientists with political motivations, refused to allow the Dalai lama to address a conference, fearing that it would besmirch their scientific reputation with "superstition," "mysticism," and "religion." While such reaction is regrettable (especially if politically motivated), it is hard to accept him as a fellow scientist while he claims to be of supernatural origin.

Zen stories and koans are full of tales of monks and masters being reincarnated as foxes, as beings without hands, as gods and as hungry ghosts. While these stories should be considered more as useful parables than as absolute truths (one does not need to believe that an actual tortoise and an actual hare competed in a road race to gain wisdom from Aesop's fables), they are still an unfortunate reinforcement of the acceptance of reincarnation and an embarrassing relic of Buddhism's Brahmin origins.

This can even be taken a step further: since the formless, nameless, everchanging whole is in fact the dharma, teaching that a part of the dharma can be separated from the whole and has an independent abiding existence is actually defaming to the dharma. Renunciation of the teaching of reincarnation is to abide by the dharma.

You, however, are free to disagree.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Last year (Nov. 19, 2004), the Dover, Pennsylvania School District issued a statement to be read in biology classes which says, in part:

Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view. The reference book "Of Pandas and People" is available for students to see if they would like to explore this view in an effort to gain an understanding of what Intelligent Design actually involves. As is true with any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind.

Parents, supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, filed suit in December against the school district, which is backed by the Thomas More Law Center, a religiously grounded nonprofit law firm.

The bench trial began September 26 in Harrisburg. Intelligent Design supporters testified that evolution simply cannot explain all the complexities of life, suggesting the work of an intelligent designer. "Of Pandas and People" (which was donated to the school district) states there is no evidence of a Precambrian fossil record. These arguments were countered in the trial by scientific evidence for evolution, including slides of Precambrian fossils. Other evidence of evolution includes the links between birds and dinosaurs, as well as the Cambrian explosion, during which life massively diversified some 530 million years ago and evolved into life today.

In Kansas, the State Board of Education (which hosted its own "trial" last May during which proponents of Intelligent Design openly criticized evolution and science) has revised its statewide education standards to include skepticism on evolutionary theory. The board will vote on the final standards at their November meeting. In 1999, the Kansas state school board revised the standards to weaken evolution. Following public outcry, the "creationists" were voted off the board, and the newly elected board members overturned the previous decision.

The Intelligent-Design challenge to teaching evolution in Kansas and elsewhere is a well-funded, long-term, subtle and sophisticated political effort with implications for science everywhere. People must realize that this is a political fight, not a scientific debate, and scientists must respond accordingly.

Part of that response should be to quit engaging in polite Sunday-school philosophical or religious discussions and to instead start playing political hardball, using the rough-and-tumble rules of real politics. Instead of defending evolution, scientists should focus on evidence that demonstrates a clear lack of Intelligent Design, such as the human pelvis, which is tipped forward for convenient knuckle-dragging at such an angle that only by extreme spinal curvature can humans stand erect, a design defect that would flunk any first-year engineering student.