Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Another day of doing multiple jobs at once:
  • Drive to the office, prepare for the meeting
  • Take call from contractor who says that he's fixed the AC at the Unsellable Condo
  • Drive downtown for the meeting, make presentation to clients
  • While driving back to the office, take call from doctor (PSA = 0.9)
  • Pick up paycheck
  • Drive back downtown for meeting at Development Authority
  • While driving back downtown, take call from electrician (tomorrow's appointment rescheduled for sometime next week)
  • Discuss 5-year work plan with Development Authority
  • Drive home and sit
The scary thing is, the two jobs are beginning to merge. The client wants to develop the parcel next to the Development Authority's project. Coincidence? Synchronicity? Or just the mind? (If you think about that strange feeling of deja vu long enough, you get the strangest feeling that you've been thinking about deja vu before.)

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

So far this season, the north side of Mount Everest has officially claimed 7 climbers, and the south side 3, plus one on the Lhotse face (shared route with Everest). However, climbers on the mountain mention 4 more fatalities on the north side this season, still unaccounted for as of now. In terms of fatalities, the 2006 Everest season is now second only to the 1996 spring season which claimed 12 lives.

Here are two stories from today's press, one about a miraculous recovery, and the other a dramatic tragedy on nearby Mount Manaslu, the eighth highest mountain in the world.

Mount Everest Survivor in 'Amazing Shape'
Associated Press
Tue May 30, 8:30 AM

KATMANDU, Nepal - An Australian climber who was left for dead on the slopes of Mount Everest but later survived has been rescued from the mountain and is in "amazing shape," his spokesman said Tuesday.

Lincoln Hall, 50, was driven to the Nepalese capital of Katmandu on Tuesday from the base camp in Tibet, China, and is being treated at a clinic, his spokesman Simon Balderstone said.

Hall had been left by members of his team near the summit who thought he had died but was later found alive by another team of climbers and helped down the mountain.

"Doctors say for what he has been through he is in amazing shape," said Balderstone, who flew to Katmandu with Hall's wife, Barbara.

Hall was being treated at a travel medicine clinic in Katmandu for frostbite to his fingers, thumb and toes, slight pulmonary edema and chest infection.

Balderstone said it could be a few days before Hall can fly back home to Australia.

Balderstone said Hall expressed no resentment about being left on the mountain and said the climber was in good spirits.

"We shared a joke or two, which is always a good sign," he said.

Hall fell ill at around the 28,543-foot mark on the mountain, just below the summit where oxygen levels are so low they cannot sustain life for long.

His two Sherpa guides tried to help him down, but were eventually forced to leave him in order to save themselves, and Hall was then declared dead.

Hall, who had been on a Russian-led expedition, made it to the summit of Everest but grew gravely ill from oxygen deprivation during his descent.

The morning after his guides were forced to abandon him, other climbers found him alive, prompting a rescue team to help bring Hall to safety.

Australian Sue Fear Lost in Crevasse on Mount Manaslu
09:49 am EST May 30, 2006

Outfitting company World Expeditions has issued an official press release on Australian Sue Fear who dissapeared May 28 on Manaslu. Here is the statement:

Sue Fear and Bishnu Gurung went for the summit on May 28 from their high camp on the edge of Manaslu's great plateau in reasonable conditions. They reached the summit at 10.30 am then proceeded down, Sue taking the lead when they reached the large plateau at around 7600 metres. Shortly after, while travelling over a relatively level snow neve, Sue's feet broke through the snow crust and she plunged into a crevasse.

They were roped together and Bishnu was able to arrest her fall, but the crevasse opened up further, letting Sue fall even further and leaving Bishnu with the fear that the crevasse may extend under the snow towards him.

For an hour and a half he tried all he could to pull Sue out but there was no success in pulling the rope upwards and there was no response from Sue at all, no sound, no movement, leaving Bishnu to conclude that she must have been rendered unconscious by the fall.

As he was trying to arrange a better pulley system, in which he had detached himself from the rope, the crevasse edge collapsed further. Bishnu jumped clear but the anchor was taken and with it the rope and Sue on the end of it. Looking down all he could see was darkness and there was no response from Sue.

Exhausted, traumatised and terrified by the spectre of more unseen crevasses, Bishnu made it back to the high camp from where he was able to radio Base Camp with a very short message.

On May 29 a team of six Sherpas from the Japanese clean up expedition was dispatched up the mountain by the expedition organizers. They were able to locate Bishnu on his descent and helped him down to Advance Base Camp. On May 30, shortly before a helicopter was to be mobilized with rescue supplies to Base Camp, a call came through to Sue Fear's agent in Kathmandu, to Ringi Norbu Sherpa, from Bishnu who had arrived at Base Camp.

On consultation with experienced mountaineers, it was concluded that there was no hope of Sue surviving such an incident and that re-finding the site of the accident was impossible given the wind and snowfall prevailing in the area. Furthermore, among the only people capable of getting to the site within reasonable time, there was a lack of specialised technical capacity necessary to safely orchestrate the recovery of a body from the depths of such a crevasse.

Sue's wish was that if she died in the mountains that her body be buried on the mountain.

Sue Fear was a passionate advocate for the outdoor experience and inspired people from all walks of life to explore the wonders and challenges offered by the natural world. She was a shining example of how one can successfully and joyfully take on even the extremes of high altitude with aptitude and humility. The loss of her vibrant character must be an immeasurable one for her family and she will be deeply missed by the large trekking community and her friends and colleagues at World Expeditions whom all adored her.

Monday, May 29, 2006

I got a call first thing this morning that the AC was out at the Unsellable Condo in Vinings.

Surprisingly, I was able to get a repairman to come out and look at it on Memorial Day, but I had to spend a big chunk of my day out there. I won't know the scope, and hence the cost, of the repairs until tomorrow.

I also had to open the Zen Center Monday night, as per the usual, but that was a pleasure, not a chore. Two regulars showed up, one newcomer. Good, interesting discussion followed.

So I spent my Holiday getting estimates on air conditioning repairs and examining the nature of reality and existence. How was your day?

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Memorial Weekend Sunday felt more like a Saturday - until the lights went out in the neighborhood, and then it felt like. . . no time at all. The electricity suddenly kicked out, and I head a loud explosion outside, so I knew the lights weren't going to be flicking back on any time soon.

There was no point in hanging around here, since I couldn't use the computer, watch television, listen to music, or even cook food. So I showered in the dark, shaving by touch, and headed out for a Saturday night on a Sunday evening. I wound up at Fellini's Pizza.

Anyway, coming back, I saw Georgia Power crews working on a pole, indicating the juice was going to be back on soon, but what disturbed me was a car idling in front of my house in a pitch-black neighborhood.

Turns out it was our private Security Patrol. Police coverage is stretched so thin in Buckhead that we have to hire off-duty cops to patrol our neighborhood, and this officer was just hanging out while the lights were off to make sure no bad people tried to take advantage of the darkness - and all the non-operating security alarms.

I introduced myself and told him that I appreciated the effort. But then he said, "Do you know that you've got foxes in this neighborhood?"

Yeah, I've seen them a couple of times, I told him. He'd seen them too, and was warning all of the neighbors.

Warning? They're animals. They should be warned about us, I thought, but I knew better than to say that to him. I know better than to say most of what I think to most people, but most especially to cops.

"We've called Animal Control," he said, trying to reassure me.

It's funny. When I saw the fox, I was excited because it was a sign of at least some degree of ecosystem health in our urban neighborhood. If there are foxes, then there are also prey, and clean water, and enough untrampeled, unmolested woods for them to den. But when my neighbors or the patrolmen see them, they see a menace, a threat to be dealt with, a reason to warn the others and call the authorities.

If that's not enough, it seems that last Saturday night (which felt like a Friday), when I was recording music at Nick's, some one or ones came through the neighborhood and broke into a whole bunch of cars. No actual cars were stolen, but windows were smashed, stereos removed, personal belongings gone through and selectively taken. I wasn't affected, since I was out, but where were the cops?

Apparently a block away, giving out parking tickets to all of the residents on an adjacent street for parking on the "wrong side" (never mind that they've parked on that side for years, and there's no signs or anything forbidding them to do so). The Neighborhood Association complained, but were told that we should take it as a sign that the APD were in the area, and be grateful. We explained that we would have been more grateful had they been over one block apprehending the vandals breaking into our cars, that we'd be more grateful if they were here more frequently so that we wouldn't have to pay for our own private security, but our complaints fell on deaf ears.

Maybe they'll shoot a fox for us next.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Saturday evening, I stopped over at my friend Nick's house with the unlikely goal in mind of trying to create some music. Unlikely because, unlike Nick, I have very little (that is, no) musical training or experience, just an adventurous ear and a willingness to experiment.

Nick, on the other hand, works in IT, but has played around with music on the side for years. A few years ago, he joined a Top 40 cover band that needed his guitar and voice (in other words, everything an audience actually listens to) for their sound, and played around town with them for a couple of months. Nowadays, he's settled into his own little home recording "studio," using computerized tools and synthesizers to fill in for his guitar and vocals.

He's been telling me about his set-up for a while now, but it was not until this evening that I finally stopped by to check it out. I was curious to see just how much music one could really create on a PC, and he wanted to see what I would do with access to the tools and software that he had.

I expected that we would record some sort of bizarre electronica, various distorted synth lines noodling over a techno beat, with random analog sound samples thrown in. What we actually wound up creating was in many ways far more mainstream sounding than either one of us expected, but at the same time far more professional sounding than I would ever have guessed.

On the one track that we recorded, I'm on drums and percussion (guiro and cowbell). Nick did all of the heavy lifting (guitar and bass - the track is essentially a guitar instrumental), and I added some Mellotron-like washes of sound just beneath the guitar.

As I've said, it's all synthesized, so when I say I'm on the drums, I'm not there pounding out the rhythm on a drum kit, but rather programming the snares and cymbal on the computer, with Nick's kind tutelage on how to work the program.

Anyway, for those who are curious, you can hear what we recorded here.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Went to the doctor today to get my PSA check up. . . results on Tuesday.

Nice reminder of my own mortality.

A surprising number of good-looking women at the hospital today, but it occurred to me that hospitals probably aren't the best place in the world to meet women.

On the one hand, they can see that you take care of yourself, but on the other hand, they're wondering what's wrong with you.

And of course, you're wondering what horrible malady has got then in there seeking treatment.

Best just to let the nurse take some blood, pee in the cup, and go back to work.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

British mountaineer David Sharp, 34, died of apparent oxygen deficiency while descending from the summit of Mount Everest during a solo climb last week. As he lay dying, he was passed by more than 40 climbers, almost all of whom continued on to the peak without offering assistance, leaving him to die during their own attempts to summit.

Several parties reported seeing Sharp in varying states of health and working on his oxygen equipment on the day of his death.

Mark Inglis, who became the first double amputee to reach the mountain's summit on prosthetic legs, told Television New Zealand that his party stopped during its May 15 summit push and found Sharp close to death. A member of the party tried to give him oxygen, and sent out a radio distress call before continuing to the summit, he said.

Inglis said Sharp had no oxygen when he was found. He said there was virtually no hope that Sharp could have been carried to safety from his position about 1,000 feet short of the 29,035-foot summit, inside the low-oxygen "death zone" of the mountain straddling the Nepal-China border. His own party was able to render only limited assistance and had to put the safety of its own members first, Inglis said.

"I walked past David but only because there were far more experienced and effective people than myself to help him," he said. "It was a phenomenally extreme environment; it was an incredibly cold day." The temperature was reportedly -100 at 7 a.m. on the summit.

In 1953, Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first to reach Everest's summit. Hillary said that some climbers today did not care about the welfare of others. "There have been a number of occasions when people have been neglected and left to die and I don't regard this as a correct philosophy," Hillary was quoted as saying in an interview with New Zealand Press Association. "Human life is far more important than just getting to the top of a mountain."

"I think the whole attitude toward climbing Mount Everest has become rather horrifying. The people just want to get to the top."

Hillary said he would have abandoned his own pioneering climb to save another's life. "It was wrong if there was a man suffering altitude problems and was huddled under a rock, just to lift your hat, say 'good morning' and pass on by," he said. He said that his expedition, "would never for a moment have left one of the members or a group of members just lie there and die while they plugged on towards the summit."

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Three climbers from Brazil, Russia and France died while descending Mount Everest on separate expeditions in the past week, a Chinese official said Tuesday.

The climbers, whose names weren't released, reached the summit of Everest and died of exhaustion on the way down, said Zhang Mingxing, secretary-general of Tibet Mountaineering Association.

"It is easy for climbers to feel exhausted after they have spent too much energy to reach the peak. They have to face the severest test from nature and their own physical strength," he said by phone from Lhasa, the Tibetan capital.

Last week, officials said 42 climbers took advantage of improved weather to reach the summit from its Nepalese side.

American, Australian, Austrian, British, Canadian, German, Korean, Philippine, Polish, Spanish and Swiss climbers, along with their Sherpa guides, reached the 29,035-foot summit, said Rajendra Pandey at Nepal's Ministry of Tourism in Katmandu. May is considered the best month to climb Everest. Climbers in Nepal have to complete their mission by May 31 before the weather deteriorates during monsoon season.

Since Everest was first conquered by New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay on May 29, 1953, more than 1,400 climbers have scaled the peak, and some 180 people have died trying.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Happy Anniversary

Everything is unique, nothing happens more than once in a lifetime. The physical pleasure which a certain woman gave you at a certain moment, the exquisite dish which you ate on a certain day - you will never meet either again. Nothing is repeated, and everything is unparalleled.
- The Goncourt BrothersI hadn't noticed, but yesterday was the two-year anniversary of Water Dissolves Water, and I had forgotten to post the picture and quote above, which appeared here on May 21, 2004 and May 21, 2005. We can probably stand to forego the Philip Kapleau obit this time around, however; I think the point's been made that he's moved on.

Two years of babbling on line about what I did today, what I thought, what I wished I had thought - millions of words, probably, and not a grain of truth (as in "The Truth") in any one of them.

Thanks for reading and coming along for the ride, tedious and slow as its been at times. Who knows?, maybe something interesting will happen this year.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

I got up early this morning and opened the Zen Center, the first time I've opened on a Sunday in a long time. In fact, it's the first time I've been there other than my Monday evening classes in quite a while. Between my recent travels (Phoenix and Maine), speaking at a Christian church last weekend and so on, my Sundays have been booked. But in all honesty, my absences stretch back well before the Phoenix trip.

For a while earlier this year, I was coming mornings and sitting on a fairly regular basis. But even that has stopped lately.

Part of the reason has certainly been the hectic work schedule I've been under. The morning sittings are from 6 to 7:30, and if I need to be somewhere on business during the day, it only complicates things to try to schedule 90 minutes of zazen first. If I have an evening meeting, I crave the extra 90 minutes of sleep the next morning (I don't sleep until 7:30, but to be there by 6, I have to get up by 5. Some mornings, many mornings, I'd rather just sleep until 6:30).

It's the same on weekends - after an exhausting week of work, community advocacy, and, yes, opening the zendo on Mondays, I'd much rather sleep late on the weekends, brew a pot of coffee when I do get up, and catch up on my reading, etc.

But despite all of this absence, I still consider myself a Zen Buddhist. Zen, unlike some other religions, doesn't require regular attendance at its services - the zendo isn't a church. So it was mildly concerning to me when I got an email the other day from an old friend who used to attend the center fairly regularly but who, like me, has been slacking off on attendance.

"I left zen because I could no longer reconcile myself to the supernatural that was assumed in Buddhism," he wrote. I have no intention of trying to change his mind and bring him back to the Center, but I don't agree that the supernatural is assumed in Buddhism. I can certainly agree that the supernatural was assumed by many early Buddhist practioners. The 5th Century B.C. Indians to whom the Buddha initially taught lived in a world and a time when many things were simply assumed to be true, including reincarnation as transmigrating souls, karma as an accumulated burden that follows one from current lives to future lives, and supernatural realms of gods and demons that have a direct effect on the natural realm of man.

The Buddha distanced himself from these views, principally by stating that upon direct examination, he could find no evidence of a thing called a "soul." His essential lesson was always the Eight-Fold Path, and he spoke to it in both his first discourse and his last dying words, and none of the beliefs of the time are included in the Eight-Fold Path. But after he died, the earliest followers practiced in terms of the world as they then understood it, and many of the concepts that now seem arcane became inherent in the earliest forms of practice. Remnants of these forms of practice still survive in Zen as it is taught and practiced today.

Aesop's fables are still used to illustrate moral lessons to the young. But one does not have to believe that an actual, literal turtle had a footrace with an actual, literal hare in order to accept the virtue of not rushing but instead proceeding methodically.

Similarly, when we talk of the god Mara trying to distract the Buddha as he sat under the Bodhi Tree before gaining enlightenment, we don't have to accept the existence of a literal Mara. As the story goes, while the Buddha was meditating, Mara appeared before him first as beautiful girls and, when that didn't distract him from his meditation, then as an angry storm. While the society that believed in the god Mara in the first place might take the story literally, we can now look at the "god" as mere psychological states. When I meditate, my mind certainly conjures up all sorts of distractions, from erotic imaginings to firestorms of rage and frustration. When I get off the cushion and state that Mara was really doing a job on me today, that's not to say that I accept the existence of the god, but instead I'm merely using a somewhat poetic shorthand that other practioners will readily understand. Sort of like when I say "Santa was really good to me this year," after the holidays.

But these are just anecdotal examples. If the traditions and the references turn off my old friend, well that's just the way it is, and I'm sure he'll eventually find a form of practice that suits his personality.

"In closing," he wrote, "I would like to say that I still sit from time to time. The effects of meditation are well documented and good for mental health. However, the effects are independent of any belief system." I agree, and am glad that he is able to take away what works for him as he discards what doesn't.

There was much more in the letter, and I haven't really done justice to his arguments and concerns, but there's more there than I have the time to go into right now. I would like to pick up this thread again later for future postings, and look forward to hearing the thoughts of others about this topic.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Horror

I've recently discovered that my blog has very different effects on some than I had anticipated.

Two weeks ago, while I was visiting Boston on my way to Dad's memorial service in Maine, I updated my blog from my mother's house using her Mac. I was disappointed to see that the blog looked very different on her Mac than it did on my PC. I'm not sure if it's a Mac thing or just the way she had set her screen preferences (in any event I wasn't going to change them and mess things up for her), but on her computer, there was no left-hand margin before the text, and most of the sidebar information wasn't visible, and what was visible looked very poor.

Now, one can argue that it's the content, not the appearance, that's important, but let's face it: I put a lot of work into the pictures that I post so obviously the visual aspect is important to me, and a poorly designed web site can prevent a casual surfer from reading the content.

I wanted to show her what it should look like, so while we were at my sister's house later that weekend, I brought the site up on her PC. My sister and her husband were there, along with me and my Mom. What disappointed me was that while I was scrolling down the page, my sister instinctively put her hand over the screen and averted her eyes in repulsion.

"What's wrong?," I asked, and she replied that she found my blog to be disturbing and at times even horrifying. Squeamishly, she peeked over her hands a little, ready to look away if necessary, the way one might if one came across a site of graphic pictures of automobile accidents or childbirth.

My mother jumped right in and said she often had the same reaction, and was still disturbed by a picture I posted several months ago under the heading "Zen Porn." (By the way, I still get a lot of hits from Googling monkeys looking for Zen porn, whatever that is.)

This is distressing. It's not my intention to horrify anyone, or turn anyone away. The pictures I select for posting are generally chosen for their relation to what I'm discussing, and while there are occasional non sequiters, for the most part, I'm trying to discuss the Buddhadharma, my life and, well, these strange times. But it seems my own family looks at it as if were a particularly gruesome freak show.

Okay, I'll admit the picture above was selected for its shock value, but once again it relates to the content of this post.

The words of a bodhisattva are gentle, calming, and reassuring. If my message here alarms or shocks, I'm not speaking in the voice of a bodhisattva, and the whole point of this blog is lost. On the other hand, were I to post nothing but pictures of flowers and kittens and say that everything's all right, denying the existence of suffering, then the blog wouldn't be genuine, or truthful.

What a dilemma!

I can only be myself, and express myself in the way that's natural for me. If my words or images upset, offend or disturb, I deeply regret it, but I will not change. Can not change.

So, in closing, all I can say is. . . BOO!

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Another hectic day:

  • First thing this morning, dropped the car off for it's 5000-mile service and to correct a recall on the seat belt. I'm driven from the dealership to my office, and an hour later they tell me they're done. I'm driven from my office back to the dealership only to find that they've done the service, but didn't have the part for the seat belt (and they were the ones who called and set up the appointment in the first place). Obviously, I'll be back there some time soon.

  • Drive back to the office. The baby jays are getting bigger in the nest outside my window - where I used to only be able to see little beaks when daddy jay arrived, I can now see whole heads and even little featherless wings.

  • Client asked if we could meet at his office downtown. I said "sure" and stopped home for lunch on the way (I live between my office and his). Tough traffic - made the meeting just in time.

  • Headed back home after the meeting, and saw on line that the owner of The Flying Biscuit has sold her restaurant to a corporation. This is sad. The Flying Biscuit was one of those unique Atlanta institutions (there's actually two of them) undiluted by corporate banality. It's a place where pierced and tattooed waitresses would bring you biscuits with apple jelly and eggs over easy on a Sunday morning, and even though you waited outside under the Georgia sun for 90 minutes for a table to open up, when you got your food you decided it was worth it. But now, the new owners say they are going to open 50 new Flying Biscuits next year and another 50 in 2008. With 100 new restaurants out in the 'burbs and the Bible Belt, they'll have to replace the funky in-town waitresses with former supermarket cashiers and, I dunno, Hooters girls. You can probably expect to see a FB restaurant near you soon. If you've got a Moe's, a Doc Green's or a Shane's near you, you're in the market area of the FB's new corporate owners, and you can get your biscuits in the same strip mall as your Bed, Bath & Beyond, Old Navy and 64-Screen Mega-Theater.

  • After digesting that news, I drove back downtown in even heavier traffic to the City meeting where I was to express the neighborhood concerns over the planned big thing that I won't talk about here. The meeting lasted from 6 to 9 pm, but interestingly, the meeting became, well, interesting. I got to express some of the concerns, but the other neighborhood reps and I found the city planners much more receptive than we all had thought, and rather than turn into a bitching session, the meeting got into some very interesting areas of environmental justice, development and capitalism, the science of public opinion surveys, and long-term urban planning. Sure, it was a big wank-fest, and they're still going to build the big-thing-which-shall-not-here-be-named anyway, but at least we were intellectually entertained for a while. Thanks, Atlanta!, and too bad about the biscuits.

  • Best part of the day: driving home, pulling up to my urban bungalow around 9:30, a fox ran across my street and into my back yard. Readers of this blog will know that I'm queer for wildlife, and although I've seen fox in the area before, specifically, the nearby golf course, I didn't think they lived in my wooded backyard. Now I can hope that the fox will eat the cat that ate my chipmunks.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

  • Feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we're holding back. - Pema Chodron
  • Miami Tops Auto Club List for Rude Drivers, Associated Press - Stressed Miami drivers speed, tailgate and cut off other drivers so frequently that the city earned the title of worst road rage in a survey released Tuesday.

    AutoVantage, an automobile membership club offering travel services and roadside assistance, also listed Phoenix, New York, Los Angeles and Boston among the top five cities for rude driving.

    Minneapolis, Nashville, St. Louis, Seattle and Atlanta were rated as the cities with the most courteous drivers, who were less likely to change lanes without signaling or swear at other motorists.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

At this point, I have to admit that I have not been disclosing everything that I've been doing lately in this blog. In addition to my work and my support of Zen Buddhism, I've also been involved in certain community affairs. Activism. Volunteerism.

I want to be very cicumspect about these activities and very cautious here about my choice of words, because I don't want anyone to come to this site after Googling the key words related to the cause, and get a confused idea of what the cause is all about. Not that I'm ashamed of anything stated here (hell, I post picture of my own face right up by my words), but what's discussed here has nothing to do with the political and community issues I've been involved with, and I don't want anyone to mistakenly think that one has something to do with the other.

So anyway, tonight included very high-profile participation in a community meeting about that-which-cannot-be-said. I spoke, coordinated the facility, set up the A/V, and sat through to the bitter end. I had to leave work an hour early to get the auditorium all set up, and basically pitched in to the effort from 4:30 until 9:30. And this whole meeting was just grass-roots community involvement for another meeting on Thursday, where I'm to carry the concerns expressed by the community tonight to a government agency as part of it's "community participation" outreach.

I've been to at least one meeting a week over the past several weeks about this issue.

It's exhausting. Between my job, the Zen Center and the activism, it's like having three jobs, and sometimes I don't feel like I'm giving any one of them the full attention it deserves. It's like I sit in on one, fill my head up with all sorts of specific info, and then go to another completely unrelated meeting and get a brainful of new data there, which just pushes that previous info load out of mind. And then on to another. And another.

So why do I do it?

The job is important because it's the only one that earns revenue and therefore funds all of the other activities. Besides, I work in the environmental business, and it's right livelihood, etc. The Zen Center activities give "meaning" to it all (largely by reminding me that it all has no "meaning"). And the community activism gives back to society in reward for all that it has given me - if not a fulfillment of the bodhisattva vows, then at least practice in the dana paramita.

And it sure as hell beats sitting around here and blogging.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Random Thoughts

  • I see that my post of last Saturday on whether or not Buddhists are celibate has gotten picked up by the Islam News. I wasn't sure why at first, until I recalled making a statement that the differences between the beliefs of Shiite Muslims and Southern Baptists are probably not as great as those between Tantric and Nichiren Buddhists. It was probably a word bot that linked my post to the news site, but I'm sure a lot of confused Muslims are trying to figure out why the article is posted there.

  • According to the Colorado State University Tropical Meteorology Center, 17 named storms (up to the letter "Q"), including 9 hurricanes (5 intense) are forecast for this coming hurricane season. There is an 81% chance of a major hurricane landfall on the U.S. coast this season - 64% for the East Coast and 47% for the Gulf Coast. Anyone want to place some bets on whether we see a Hurricane Quincy this year?

  • The blue jays' eggs have hatched outside of my office window, and I can see them feeding their young. Tiny little open mouths pop up from the nest whenever the parent lands there.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Happy Mothers Day

I spoke today at my friend's church up in East Cobb. They have an "adult Sunday school" after the regular service, and have been bringing in several guest speakers from other religions for, I guess, comparative purposes.

I didn't really know what they wanted to hear, or how long I was to talk for, so I went in unscripted (except, of course, yesterday's blog preparation). Turns out that was the right call.

I spoke about the fundamentals - the Buddha's life and enlightenment, the four Noble Truths, the Eight-Fold Path and the precepts. I briefly discussed the spread of Buddhism across the world and the various forms the practice has taken. I even gave them the briefest meditation guidance for all of 10 breaths.

I spent the afternoon clipping back the ivy that was growing over the retaining wall behind my house, and when I finished I decided that I liked the way it looked before more.

It'll grow back.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

I Get Questions

Are Buddhists celibate?
Do they meditate every day?

These questions are difficult to answer because they are so broad. First of all, there is such a vast range of practices that fit under the umbrella of "Buddhism," that one answer cannot for all. I've often told folks that the range of "Buddhist" practices across the world, from Tibetan to Zen to Pure Land to Theravadan (just to name a few) are far more diverse than all the various forms of Christianity (Catholic, Protestant, Greek Orthodox, etc.). In fact, the variety of forms of Buddhism is probably more diverse than all of the so-called "desert religions" (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) combined. That is, the differences between the faith of a Shiite Muslim and a Southern Baptist are probably not as great as those of Tantric and Nichiren Buddhists (although it is hard not to gloat that the latter get along far better than the former).

The one thing that all the forms of Buddhism have in common, however, is the Noble Eight-Fold Path. This Path was taught by the Buddha to his first disciples, and has been handed down from generation to generation. The Noble Eight-Fold Path is the Buddha Way, the way that leads to the cessation of suffering, consisting of:

Right Understanding,
Right Thought,
Right Speech,
Right Action,
Right Livelihood,
Right Effort,
Right Mindfulness, and
Right Concentration.

An important point if I may: the term "right" isn't as opposed to "wrong." There isn't, say, "wrong understanding," "wrong thought," and so on to "wrong concentration." Think of "right" as in "righting a boat" - a course correction, if you will.

Another important point is that these are not eight seperate paths. One person does not practice, say, right thought, while another might be practicing right effort. Nor does a person progress from one of the eight-fold aspects on to another. One practices all eight simultaneously, correcting ("righting") one's activity when it is apparent that a change of course is necessary to stay on the Eight-Fold Path.

But this is also where the different forms of Buddhism begin to separate. In some parts of the world, greater emphasis is put on one or two of the eight-fold aspects than the others, although none will ignore the other aspects completely. So what you have is some schools that emphasize right speech and right action, but not so much right mindfulness and right concentration, and other schools, such as Zen, that put great emphasis of mindfulness and concentration, but arguably not as much on understanding and thought.

Over the years, it became evident that certain rules were necessary in order to help people maintain the Noble Eight-Fold Path. These rules, called "precepts," are not in themselves the Buddha Way or the path leading to the cessation of suffering, but are instead just guidance on how to live the Eight-Fold Path. There are many versions of the precepts, and many different sets of precepts, but in Zen, the 10 "grave" precepts are:

Do not kill.
Do not steal.
Do not engage in sexual misconduct.
Do not lie.
Do not cloud the mind with intoxicants.
Do not speak of the faults of others.
Do not praise the self at the expense of others.
Do not withhold the dharma assets.
Do not indulge in anger.
Do not defile the Three Treasures.

There are many other versions and sets of precepts depending on the particular school of Buddhism and the practioners path - monks, for example, might have over 100 precepts to observe, while laypersons have less.

Now, to those in the Western world and the Judeo-Christian tradition, the precepts have the appearance of and a resemblance to "commandments." But the precepts are not laws handed down from a divine being that one must follow at the risk of damnation, but instead general guidelines to allow one to recognize when one is off of the Eight-Fold Path. If you find yourself in violation of a precept, a course correction, a "righting" of the way, is probably in order.

In fact, the precepts are often stated in positive terms, not as a list of activities to refrain from but as a list of ways to behave. This positive list sounds less like the "thou shalt nots" of the commandments, and emphasizes life on the Eight-Fold Path:

Affirm life (do not kill).
Be giving (do not steal).
Honor the body (do not engage in sexual misconduct).
Manifest truth (do not lie).
Proceed clearly (do not cloud the mind with intoxicants).
See the perfection (do not speak of the faults of others).
Realize self and other as one (do not praise the self at the expense of others).
Give generously (do not withhold the dharma assets).
Actualize harmony (do not indulge in anger).
Experience the intimacy of things (do not defile the Three Treasures).

I recognize that I'm taking the long way around the block to answer the questions, but I want to make sure the underlying concepts are understood. As far as celibacy is concerned, the easiest way to avoid sexual misconduct is to not engage in sexual activity at all. And in much of the Buddhist world, monastic practioners, both male and female, observe complete celibacy, and avoid making distinctions between right sexual conduct and sexual misconduct.

However, other schools of Buddhism argue that honoring the body is not to deny our fundamental sexual nature, and that celibacy is an unnatural practice that goes against the natural order of things. Is exercising and even celebrating our sexuality really a violation of the precepts, as long as one is not engaging those who have made vows to others, or children, or with those who are unwilling?

In Zen, priest are allowed to marry, and some monasteries even allow married couples and do not disapprove of consentual sexual relations among unmarried, committed monastics. The great Zen poet Ryokan ("The wind is fresh, the moon bright. Let us spend the evening dancing as a farewell to old age.") used to associate with the prostitutes of his village (his poems are unclear as to whether his association included partaking of their services, but he clearly did not disapprove of them). The Zen Master Ikkyu (1394-1481) taught "if you are thirsty, you dream of water; if you are cold, you dream of a warm coat; as for me, I dream of the pleasures of the boudoir - that's my nature." It was said he couldn't walk past a brothel without stopping in and sampling their offerings.

In modern Zen, sexuality is a matter of individual choice. The celibate life of a monastic, the domestic tranquility of married laypersons, or the exuberant sexuality of an Ikkyu are all accepted. As for me, my sexual practices aren't anyone else's business unless they happen to be sitting in my lap.

It is similar with meditation. As part of the Eight-Fold Path ("Right Concentration"), some level or another of meditation is practiced by virtually all Buddhists, but in Zen it is the primary practice. After all, when sitting in meditation, one is not killing, stealing, lying or engaging in sexual misconduct - what precept is not being observed? Similarly, it is easy to see that all the other aspects of the Eight-Fold Path (e.g., mindfulness, effort, action) are also being followed. And it was in meditation that the Buddha realized his great enlightenment, and even after his enlightenment, he continued the practice. So in Zen, meditation is greatly encouraged, typically on at least a daily basis, if not more. But in other schools, it's not emphasized as much. In some other schools, meditation is only performed by monks, and even then, for only short and infrequent periods. The "right concentration" is taken off of the meditation cushion and instead focused on one's daily activities.

One school is not right and the other wrong ("do not praise the self at the expense of others"). There are different ways of following the Eight-Fold Path. In America, we are lucky because many different schools of Buddhism are currently active here, and one can discover the one that best suits him or her. In other parts of the world and at other times, one might have had to travel, say, from Japan to Tibet, or from Sri Lanka to China, to experience different teachings. Here, it's all present right before us.

Sorry that this post is so long, but tomorrow I'm speaking about Zen at a liberal Christian Church as part of their ecumenical outreach, and I have been thinking about the fundamental teachings of the Buddha. I like to speak improvisationally and unscripted, but this writing exercise is probably a form of preparation for tomorrow's talk.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Last Thursday, April 27th, while I was in Phoenix, Brad Warner was in Atlanta and visited Emory University and our little Zen center. Here's the account from the Emory Report:

Punk-rocking Zen teacher relates winding path from Ohio to dharma
by Michael Terrazas

To the uninformed, Godzilla, Zen masters and the thrashing chords of punk rock may not have much in common, but Brad Warner brought all three together April 26 in White Hall with an informal lecture about his book, Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies and the Truth About Reality.

In an appearance sponsored by the [Emory] Department of Religion and the Atlanta Soto Zen Center, Warner outlined his circuitous personal history from growing up a young misfit playing bass guitar for punk bands in Akron, Ohio, to first learning about Zen as a student at Kent State University, to teaching English in Japan and going to work for the company that brought the world Godzilla and Ultraman, to receiving “dharma transmission” and becoming a Zen master under the instruction of Gudo Nishijima in Tokyo.

“When you become a Zen teacher, they give you three things: a set of bowls, which are supposed to symbolize the bowls Buddha ate from, a robe and a stick, which is supposed to be like the fly whisk Buddha carried,” said Warner, dressed casually and talking to his audience as if they were friends gathered around a living room. “I couldn’t figure out what the stick was for, and now I know—it’s so when I talk to you I’d have something to wave around.”

A friendly and unassuming presence, Warner admitted up front he had no secrets of “enlightenment” to share and even that he viewed the term itself as highly suspect. “The goal of this talk is to convey an attitude,” he said, and then began telling his own story.

After spending three years of grade school in Nairobi, Kenya, where his father had been transferred as a chemist for Firestone Tires, Warner returned to his home state of Ohio “doomed to be an outsider,” he said. He became attracted to rock music, and his parents bought him a guitar, but he was left quite unimpressed by what was on the radio in the late 1970s.

Then he turned on Saturday Night Live one night, and on stage was a band from nearby Akron called “Devo.”

“Rock music lives,” said Warner of his reaction, and soon he began playing bass in a garage punk band called Zero Defex. Later on in college at Kent State, he formed his own band, Dimentia 13, which released five albums on the Midnight Records label.

At the same time, he was studying Zen under a teacher named Tim McCarthy from northern Ohio (whose studio, Kent Zendo, had as its tagline, “We’re the smallest,” Warner said).

After life in Dimentia 13 started to go south, Warner traveled to Japan to teach English in the remote western town of Toyama. Later moving to Tokyo, Warner pursued one of his other lifelong passions (monster movies) when he went to work for Tsuburaya Productions, which invented the characters Godzilla and Ultraman. Warner still works for the company in Los Angeles.

While in Tokyo, Warner began studying under Gudo Wafu Nishijima, whom Warner admitted he did not like at first. “I hated him,” Warner said. “But something in his way was interesting and compelling.”

Eventually Warner become one of Nishijima’s favored pupils, and one day the old master informed the young student that he would like to give him Dharma transmission, which would make Warner a Zen master himself. Later on, both Nishijima and McCarthy would urge Warner to write down his interesting path to Zen in book form.

The following is a quote from Hardcore Zen: “People have taken exception to my equating a noble tradition like Zen Buddhism with a scrappy upstart thing like punk rock. Zen Buddhism is ancient and venerable. Punk is trash. But punk is a cultural movement that was made possible only because of an increased understanding of reality that emerged in the 20th century, the so-called postmodern worldview. The punks understood that all social institutions and socially approved codes of dress and behavior were a sham.

“This is one of the first steps to true understanding. Questioning society’s values is a great and important thing to do. But that’s easy compared to questioning your own values. Questioning your own values means really questioning yourself, really looking at who and what you believe and who you are. Who are you? That’s where Buddhism comes into the picture. Stay tuned.”

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

I'm So Happy

"There is nothing clever about not being happy." - Arnaud Desjardins

The picture above is Small's Falls on the Sandy River near Rangely, Maine. I snapped this last Saturday on the way back to Kingfield with my mother, brother and nephew.

This evening, I was about to leave the office - it was well past five and I had already logged off and shut down the computer - when I answered the phone and took a call from an important client, and guess what?

I don't have to fly to Jackson, Mississippi tomorrow!

Nothing against Jackson - I love MSU - but I've been on the road a lot lately and would really appreciate a full week home. Plus it's raining like mad out, and forecast to continue into tomorrow, and who likes flying in the rain?

I got right on the phone with Delta, and cancelled tomorrow morning's flight.

Earlier today, the president of my company called me from Chicago and offered me a raise. Nothing significant, a token really, but a gesture that was very much appreciated.

When I got home, the rent check was (finally) in my mail box.

Funny how things work out in ways that you don't expect them to.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Our life changes moment by moment, it flows by swiftly day by day. Everything is impermanent and changing rapidly. This is the reality before our eyes. You do not need to wait for the teaching of masters or scriptures to see it. In every moment, do not expect tomorrow will come. Think only of this day and this moment. Since the future is very much uncertain, and you cannot foresee what will happen, you should resolve to act so as to bring benefit to all living beings.

- Zen Master Dogen (1200-1253)

Monday, May 08, 2006

Home, home again. I flew back to ATL this morning, arriving home around 1:30 pm. I didn't bother going into the office, instead spending the day replying to the accumulated business email and voice mail at home, grocery shopping (the place was foodless), and preparing to open the zendo for Monday Night Zazen.

I didn't prepare a dharma talk for tonight, preferring instead to talk spontaneously about the events of the weekend, my reactions and any dharma lessons that I could find in there. In preparing to open for the night, I was preparing my mind, not some notes.

I never did get a chance to talk about all those things, as it turned out. After the evening's sit, a sangha member confided that she's been struggling with many issues, including grief, as she had gotten the news over the weekend that her ex-husband had passed away.

An excellent conversation ensued. We talked about our sense of loss, we talked about being reminded of our own mortality, we talked about life and death as the great matter. I recounted Suzuki's comments about water going over a fall, and the comfort that I got from that. She talked about her direct realization of the emptiness of existence. We each found comfort in our common experience. We talked about Karl Jung and the collective unconscious.

Puzzling evidence, synchronicity, or spooky action?: it turns out that her ex-husband passed away in Honolulu, Queen's Hospital to be precise, the same remote (for Atlanta) city and hospital where my father passed away last February. Both men died several days following complications of the heart.

It's a strange world.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Still in Massachusetts. . . visited my sister and brother-in-law up in Haverhill, then went to see "United 93" with my mother. . . According to Frank Rich in today's Times, the film "reduces the doomed and brave Americans on board to nameless stick figures with less personality than the passengers in 'Airport.' Rather than deepening our knowledge of them or their heroism, the movie caps an hour of air-traffic controller nail-biting with a tasteful re-enactment of the grisly end."

I beg to differ. The movie refuses to pander to the Hollywood convention of selecting and focusing on a single "hero" (someone, possibly played by, say, Bruce Willis, who rises up and calls out "There's more of us than them. Let's get 'em, guys!") and following his (or her) story at the expense of all of the others, the movie takes the wide view and lets the scenes play before the camera, while not picking and choosing what the director thinks might entertain us while ignoring what he thinks isn't essential for moving the story along.

As David Denby notes in The New Yorker, "there's no visual or verbal rhetoric, no swelling awareness of the Menace We All Face. . . In a story of collective and anonymous heroism, we don't want Denzel Washington leading the charge or Gene Hackman wrathfully telling the military to get on the stick . . .This is true existential filmmaking: there is only the next instant, and the one after that, and what are you going to do? Many films whip up tension with cunning and manipulation. As far as possible, this movie plays it straight."

I found the fast editing, the documentary-style hand-held camera shots, and the accumulated sense of dread to be as suspenseful and thrilling (and downright scary) as anything I've seen in film in a while. And most importantly, the movie doesn't demonize the hijackers, nor go out of its way to try and sympathize with them. Instead, it shows them, like the doomed passengers, the air-traffic controllers and the military, to be ordinary men in unusual circumstances - we see their fear, their worry, their concern, we hear one say "I love you" to someone over a telephone, we see the comfort they take in their faith, and we see the beastliness of their reprehensible actions. The camera doesn't flinch (nor does it show graphic bloodshed). Instead, it presents the events as best the filmmaker can reconstruct it, and lets the viewers draw their own conclusion.

I got an email today informing me that an old friend and long-former co-worker died over the weekend from a heart attack. This whole weekend has been a long meditation on our impermanence - my father, the doomed passengers, my friend. . . myself.

Life and death is the great matter. Impermanence is swift. There is only the next moment, and the one after that - what, then, are you going to do?

Saturday, May 06, 2006

The wind is fresh, the moon bright.
Let us spend the evening dancing
as a farewell to old age.
- Ryokan (1758-1831)

I am typing this from West Newton, Massachusetts, having spent the day today in Rangeley Lakes, Maine at my father's memorial service. My father was a man who, if not raged, at least rebelled against the fading of the light, and who, last February, finally bid farewell to old age.

Growing up, I certainly had my differences with my father, but sitting in the church with his ashes before us in a box, my mother, brother and nephew at my side, surrounded by those who also knew and loved him, I felt all of those petty differences drop away, and all that remained was a pure and honest respect and affection for the man.

This post is dedicated to Bill Hart, and to all the kind people of Rangeley Lakes who shared in today's service, and to all those out there who were not able to attend.