Thursday, August 31, 2006


So where to start this mapping of the territory, this description of the taste of an orange? The obvious first post would be on the Buddha himself.

Of course, that enterprise is fraught with danger. As Karen Armstrong wrote in her excellent biography of the Buddha:

Some Buddhists might say that to write a biography of Siddhatta Gotama is a very un-Buddhist thing to do. In their view, no authority should be revered, however august; Buddhists must motivate themselves and rely on their own efforts, not on a charismatic leader. One ninth-century master, who founded the Lin-Chi line of Zen Buddhism, even went so far as to command his disciples, "If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha!" to emphasize the importance of maintaining this independence from authority figures. Gotama might not approved of the violence of this sentiment, but throughout his life he fought against the cult of personality, and endlessly deflected the attention of his disciples from himself. It was not his life and personality but his teaching that was important. He believed that he had woken up to a truth that was inscribed in the deepest structure of existence. It was a dhamma; the word has a wide range of connotations, but originally it denoted a fundamental law of life for gods, humans and animals alike. By discovering this truth, he had become enlightened and had experienced a profound inner transformation: he had won peace and immunity in the midst of life's suffering. Gotama had thus become a Buddha, an Enlightened or Awakened One. Any one of his disciples could achieve the same enlightenment if he or she followed this method. But if people started to revere Gotama the man, they would distract themselves from their task, and the cult could become a prop, causing an unworthy dependence that could only impede spiritual progress.

And that says quite a lot right there. I would strongly encourage anyone who is curious about this man, Siddhatta Gotama, to first be careful not to confuse the teacher with the teaching, and then to go and read Armstrong's Buddha.

But as Armstrong points out, Buddhism is not based on Buddhism the way, say, Christianity is based on the Christ; in fact, I bet that Gotama would be quite disappointed to learn that we were calling the dhamma "Buddhism."

Buddhism is about the here and now, your here and now, your life, you. It might as well be called "Insert-Your-Name-Here-ism." As my teacher recalls his teacher saying, "Your enlightenment will be a thousand times greater," because it's not something that others are experiencing, it's happening to you.

By the way, the "Kill the Buddha" teaching is widely misunderstood. My interpretation is that if you see something or someone, any one thing or person, and identify it as "Buddha," you are not recognizing the interconnectedness of all things. Everything is Buddha, so if you meet an individual "Buddha" it is just a manifestation of your own ignorance, and it's that ignorance that you're being exhorted to kill.

So you can put down that fat guy now.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

First of all, happy birthday, Mom! Wanted to get that said if nothing else.

I realize after Monday night's debacle that part of the problem I had then, and occasionally have here as well, is in trying to articulate that which cannot be said. No, I don't mean I won't say it out of shyness, and I don't mean that I'm not allowed to say it. Some things simply cannot be said, cannot be put into words - for example, a baby's first real smile, or the look in a lover's eyes. The Zen experience is the same way - it is, almost by "definition," that which goes beyond words, beyond definitions. As a result, trying to put it into words is ultimately a frustrating mess.

However, you have to say something, as Katagiri says, and there seem to be two approaches that most people have used. One is to make the most direct possible statement, spoken from the heart. A monk told Joshu "I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me." Joshu asked, "Have you eaten your rice?" The monk said that he had. Joshu replied, "Then wash your bowl." At that moment, the monk was enlightened.

The problem with that approach is that the words are often misunderstood, and only make sense in a takes-one-to-know-one kind of way. In other words, what ever you think that story means is not correct (hint: it's not what you think that's important).

The other way is the long route, the road more traveled. On the long route, the history, the teachings, philosophy and religion are all expressed in the hope that by sketching out a map of the territory, the path will become apparent. The problem there is that the map of the territory so often gets confused for the territory itself.

How do you explain the taste of an orange to someone who's only eaten rice their whole life? You can use words like "sweet" and "tangy" and "citrusey" until you're blue in the face, you can use all kinds of analogies ("unlike anything you've ever tasted before"), but you still won't get the taste across. Or you can just give him an orange.

So, now that I've got the Live site under way and have an outlet for my more off-the-wall thoughts and brain farts, I'm going to attempt something new here: a long detailed map of the territory (no Zen Master I, I'm afraid most of my direct statements have been lost, missed or misunderstood).

This will take a while, because I can't possibly sketch out the map in one, two or even twenty entries (well, maybe twenty), but at least I'll never be at a loss for a topic to blog about. Occasionally, I'll give myself (and you) a break and speak directly again when there's a direct statement that needs to be made ("Have an orange, George Bush"), but meanwhile, let me try my hand at cartography.

And if that bores you, then go Live.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

I'm not complaining, but last night was a strange one at the Zen Center.

Those of you unfamiliar with Zen Buddhism might be under some impression that every night there is strange and mysterious, and while in a manner of speaking they are, or at least all unique and unparalleled, the services can actually be quite ordinary and normal. Just a bunch of people sitting on cushions, facing the wall.

A vicious thunderstorm had ripped through Atlanta earlier that afternoon, snarling traffic and flooding streets, so I suspected that attendance might be down as I drove over. My suspicions did not let me down. And to top it off, I already had some sort of sore throat, and the wet weather just made me feel worse.

A single, solitary person was waiting when I arrived. I did not recognize him, but he told me that he had been there before and did not need any beginner's instruction. Shortly afterwards, a young couple arrived and said that it was their first time visiting, and that they would appreciate an orientation.

No problem, I've done this before. My plan was to let them observe the start of the service, the chanting and the bows, give them a quick orientation during the first meditation period, and then have them join the rest in meditation for the second sitting period. It would keep me pretty busy and wouldn't allow me much time for my own meditation, but then again I'm there to be of service to others anyway, not for the sake of my own sitting.

By the way, the wife was a full nine months pregnant, and ready to deliver any day. Not that there's any trouble with that, but I had never really considered before how to give instruction on cross-legged sitting posture to someone so ripe she looked ready to burst. I told them to come on in to the meditation hall and join us in the chant, and when the first meditation period started not to sit down, but to wait for me to lead them out of the room for newcomer's instruction.

I usually don't give instructions on the chanting as it's pretty intuitive - the words are printed on a card and once the others join in on the chanting, newcomers usually pick it up and chant along. The problem was that once we got started, it was obvious that the other guy who had arrived was also a complete novice and had no idea of what to do. He didn't rise when the starting bell rang, so I had to announce, "Please rise and join us in the chanting of The Great Heart of Perfect Wisdom Sutra." (We generally try to maintain silence during our services and use bells, gongs and such as cues on what to do, but when the congregants are not responding properly, we have to resort to verbal instruction.)

So I had to tell the three of them every little detail of what to do - where to find the sutra cards, where to stand and so on, and after ringing the gong three times and invoking the title of the sutra, I instructed them, "All together now" as the sutra started, but no one joined in. I had to do the entire five minutes or so of the sutra solo, and with a sore throat at that.

After the chant, I said, "Please be seated for the first period of zazen" (I didn't even dare try to talk them through the prostration bows to the Three Treasures), hoping that the guy would then sit down and the couple remain standing like I had told them, but of course just the opposite happened - the couple tentatively took a seat while the guy just stood there, so I repeated, "Please take your seat on the zafu for the first period of meditation," and the guy finally got it and sat down and faced the wall, but the couple also thought I was talking to them, so they turned around and faced the wall as well.

No problem. After I saw that the guy had settled in, I arose and tapped the shoulders of the couple and waved for them to follow me. I escorted them to the newcomers room, and gave them the standard quickie orientation - when to bow, how to sit, remember to count your breath, and so on. The pregnant wife was a good sport and did her best at the posture. We didn't have time to get into any of the intellectual matter, and when she asked, "What's the point of doing all this, anyway?," I just told her to hold that question until after the service, and let's go back to the meditation hall now, since it's time for the end of the first period, and I need to let the guy sitting in there alone know that it's time to get up for walking meditation.

Except that as we headed back, we ran into the guy as he was leaving. He shot me a "You forgot about me and left me all alone in there" look, and I said "We were just coming back for you," but he had already crossed the point of no return and headed out the door.

It took me a few minutes in the meditation hall with the couple to realize that there was no longer a service in progress to join, and therefore we could continue their orientation and instruction. Which is what we did, and I even had them sit for a short 10 minute period just to get a feel for the experience.

After the sitting, they were full of questions, things like "What if there were two enlightened teachers and they both said opposite things, how would you know which one to believe?" I tried to explain that Zen emphasizes the here and now and that the question was hypothetical and imaginary (without saying that exactly that kind of thing happens all of the time), and not to worry about "what if?" scenarios, but instead look at how they were feeling, right there, right then. "Yes, but. . . " would come the replies, and sooner or later I started to get sucked into the hypothetical and theoretical too, and probably wound up confusing them more than I helped.

We stayed and talked for over an hour, until the wife was looking visibly uncomfortable and I suggested that it was perhaps time to go. She took me up on the offer, and the two left shortly afterwards.

After they were gone and I was closing up the zendo, I heard some noise in the backroom and went to investigate. It turns out that Terry, a senior teacher and head cook (a very important role) had been there the whole time, even though I had thought that we were alone. Terry and I talked for another hour or so, and I did not get home until almost 11:30.

Strange night. . . but again, I'm not complaining. Things don't always go the way that you had planned or even expected them to go, so the best that one can do is just observe and enjoy the show. There are no "typical" days, and every minute is exceptional and unprecedented - you just need the willingness to see it.

There are no ordinary moments.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

The other day, I received an email from Dr. Miguel Munoz-Laboy concerning my criticism of his work on the importance of understanding culture and the social context of the lives of young men. He included a transcript of the actual talk that he gave and on which my criticisms were based.

I responded with the following email to Dr. Munoz-Laboy:

Thank you for your patient and clarifying comments on my uninformed "analysis" of your research. Unfortunately, I only encountered your work in the popular press, and misunderstood it to be a causational analysis of the relationship between pop music and sexual behavior. I now understand, as your transcript clearly states, that your research was more ethnographic than moralistic.

A few weeks ago, a story was carried by the AP that claimed that teens who listened to music with raunchy, sexual lyrics start having sex sooner than those who preferred other songs. The August issue of Pediatrics reportedly contained research that contended that music's influence on teen behavior appeared to depend on how sex was portrayed - songs depicting men as "sex-driven studs," women as sex objects, and with explicit references to sex acts were more likely to trigger early sexual behavior than those where sexual references were more veiled and relationships appeared more committed.

The verb 'trigger' in that last sentence caused me concern, as it clearly implied a causal relationship between song lyrics and subsequent behavior. I discussed this issue in my blog, basically concluding that the tendency to accuse hip-hop music of causing negative behavior was ultimately rooted in racism. I continued this theme in my August 11 entry.

When I came across an article in the press on August 19 discussing your paper, I immediately jumped to the conclusion that your work was more of the same content against which I had been arguing. I see now that, in fact, your work actually reinforces my intuitive belief - that young people use various genres of popular music, along with clothing, slang and behavior, as a form of almost "tribal" identification. As I understand your point (and I may still be off base, since I am, after all, a Zen Buddhist environmentalist with only a layman's understanding of sociology), interpreting these identifications can give public health workers a clearer understanding of the cultural background of young persons, including their likely sexual behaviors.

Again, thank you for correcting my misinformed remarks and thank you for sharing your transcript with me.



Thursday, August 24, 2006

This is cool - I pass this snowcone truck ("Orleagian Snowballs") at the corner of Piedmont and Monroe every week on my way to Monday night zazen, among my other travels. I've even stopped to get one once or twice (although they're just as often closed - they're a little inconsistent in their hours). Anyway, the picture above was in today's New York Times, part of an article on how much better New Orleans exiles are doing in Atlanta than in, say, Houston. It's a bit surprising to see your local eccentric vendor in the Journal of Record.

Today, I did my part for Atlanta to be doing a little better. Tanyard Creek, a tributary to Peachtree Creek that flows about two blocks from my house, drains a large urban catchment and is subject to frequent flooding. All that pavement, no infiltration - you know the story. And when it floods, it washes down copious amounts of trash with the floodwaters, leaving it in the branches of the trees on its banks and on the grass in the park it flows through.

This morning, I took another vendor (not the snowcone guy, but someone different) who installs trash filters into stormwater manholes to the creek, and showed him a place where the streamflow narrows into one little spout, and asked if he could design a filter to catch the trash washing down the stream that would fit that spot.

He said he could, and liked the idea of trying something different. In fact, he's willing to design it, build it and install it at no cost (he's a good guy), provided the neighborhood assist with the maintenance and clean-out. I told him I'll find volunteers to do that (we're good people, too). Of course, we need to sell our scheme to the city watershed department, but I can't imagine that they would object to a plan that would solve a problem with no expense or effort from them.

Citizens all too often want to blame others for environmental problems, and demand that industry or government solve their problems for them. With this effort, I want to get grass-roots involvement in cleaning up at least one stream and, hey, if it works, we can try this technology out in other streams as well (which is what the vendor is hoping for with his promotional give-away).

There are some real challenges ahead in making this work - finding the volunteers, the actual design, getting the city's permission, site access issues, and so on. But they are the kind of problems that seem solvable if we put our head down and don't cop a defeatist attitude.

On paper, at least, this should work.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

I attended a Neighborhood Coalition meeting tonight concerning the Atlanta Beltline (There! I've said the Project That Shall Not Be Named!). The Beltline is a transit proposal for connecting some 22-odd miles of unused railroad tracks around the city to create a multi-use ring of mass transit, trails and greenspace around the inner core of the city, and will pass within about a block of my house.

Except that it has now been announced that MARTA, the Atlanta rapid transit authority, has decided that it's more cost effective to run buses along the Beltline that streetcars or light rail, and since the tracks within a block of my house aren't exactly "unused" (they're a principal trunk line for a major railroad), the buses will run along the city streets in my neighborhood.

So instead of getting a traffic-relieving alternative to the automobile in our neighborhood, we'll be instead getting more congestion on our already overburdened roads as the Beltline buses come rumbling down the street.

The reality of things rarely turns out like what we anticipated. But rather than getting gloomy and cynical over this, I can find some solace in that the reality of the bus-clogged streets will probably not be anything like I'm currently anticipating. And since the Beltline project has an estimated 25-year construction phase, will I even be around to see it? (I've been told that I'm going to die in 2033 at the age of 79).

No use worrying about the future. Take care of right now.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Some Thoughts

"Daring to live means daring to die at any moment, but also means daring to be born, crossing great stages of life in which the person we have been dies, and is replaced by another with a renewed vision of the world, and at the same time realizing that there will be many obstacles to overcome before we reach the final stage."
- Arnaud Desjardins

According to Wikipedia, humans, or human beings, are "bipedal primates belonging to the mammalian species Homo sapiens (Latin for 'wise' or 'knowing' man) under the family Hominidae (the great apes)." Humans can be distinguished by their highly developed brain capable of abstract reasoning, language and introspection. This, combined with an erect body carriage that frees their upper limbs for manipulating objects, has allowed humans to make greater use of tools than any other species.

I'm a human, and chances are that if you're reading this, you're a human, too.

Humans (and often other animals as well) are variously said to possess consciousness, self-awareness and a mind, which correspond roughly to the mental processes of thought. The mirror test asks whether animals have self awareness by determining whether they are able to recognize themselves in a mirror. Such self-recognition is said to be an indicator of consciousness. Humans (older than 18 months), great apes (except for gorillas), and bottlenose dolphins have all been observed to pass this test.

In addition to consciousness, however, humans are also said to possess the ability to discriminate a difference between themselves and their environment. The extent to which the mind constructs or experiences this discrimination, the passage of time and free will is a matter of some debate.

It is maintained by some religions and other factions that the universe itself is nothing but consciousness. The "consciousness-only" school of Buddhism maintains that all existence is simply consciousness, and therefore there is nothing that lies outside of the mind. This means that conscious experience is nothing but false discriminations or imagination; thus, the notion of consciousness-only is an indictment of the problems engendered by the activities of consciousness.

Embedded at the heart of Buddhism, there lies a seeming paradox. In contrast to the Brahmanic teachings of the Upanishads, the Buddha stated quite clearly that the self (atman) is an illusion, and thus there is no soul (anatman). However, there is transmigration (samsara) from one body to another. This poses a difficult question: "If there is no soul, what is it that reincarnates?"

The consciousness-only school resolves this paradox by explains that the conception of "self", the illusory atman, is produced from underlying "seeds." The seeds have a natural affinity to join together and when this happens, consciousness arises. Actions in this world, good, bad and neutral, affect (or "perfume") these seeds. The seeds then produce new seeds, with some seeds tainted by our actions, and others unaffected. Even after death, the impressions resulting from our acts linger on in the seeds. Since the seeds have a natural affinity to join together, reincarnation occurs when seeds fuse and new states of consciousness (delusions of "self") form, carrying with them the karmic history, just like DNA is carried on in living seeds.

A Buddha is someone who has managed to obliterate all impressions of himself, all perfumings of the seeds, and escape the wheel of samsara. Such consciousness, fully cleansed of karmic sediment, is known as "pure consciousness."

Still with me? Good. The question, then, is in the consciousness-only school, can a Buddha be said to have self-awareness, and is pure consciousness different enough from ordinary consciousness that it can be considered a whole other thing? If so, then is a Buddha "conscious" of being human, and is he even a human being ("wise" or "knowing" man) or the next evolutionary step, say, "enlightened" man (Homo tathagatha)?

Monday, August 21, 2006

I don't know what it's supposed to look like when a flat-screen monitor dies, but I think I saw it earlier today.

Coming home from work, I kicked on the computer while talking to a friend on the phone. The computer itself rattled and hummed as it usually does on start-up, but the monitor just took on an eerie green glow, flashed some weird lights, and then went black. No signal. Nothing.

I tried rebooting the computer, I turned the monitor on and off, but no improvement. It's dead, and not even a year old.

Welcome to Shokai's house of dysfunctional electronics.

If only I had a monitor I could rely on, I thought, but we all have these "If only. . . " thoughts often. "If only I had more money," or "If only I were more popular," or even as mundane as "If only I had a different flavor yogurt." There thoughts inevitably end, "then everything would be better."

Our minds always seem to want to have things different than the way they are. In fact, those moments when we are perfectly satisfied with everything - our selves, the world, our feelings - are usually so rare most of us could count those "perfect" moments on one hand.

But it's all in the way that we look at things. If we didn't crave what we don't have, leaning toward that which gives us pleasure and away from the unfamiliar and unpleasant, we might always be satisfied with the here and now.

So, you ask, am I satisfied with a dead monitor? Well, no. . . but you're reading this now, aren't you, so I must have figured out something. It turns out that I have an old monitor that I keep in the zazen room, a remnant from the day my old computer crashed, and it took me less than 5 minutes to replace the dead flat-screen with the old CRT. Is the old CRT as good as the flat-screen? Well, no, but only because my mind wants the image to look precisely the way I was used to seeing it, and my ego-pride wants to have the newest and coolest accessories on my desk top. But functionally, an old CRT is better than a dead flat-screen.

It's like this with a lot of things. As we look, we see that our discriminating mind is constantly picking and choosing, and while that's not necessarily wrong (it's the human condition), it's also the cause of our discontent and our suffering (also the human condition, see The First Noble Truth).

We had eight people for Monday night zazen tonight - a good turnout. But the pretty girl who came early also left early, and I had wanted her to stay. And others arrived late when they were supposed to be on time (according to me), and still others weren't sitting properly - all fidgets and poor posture. So instead of enjoying the presence of others to sit with, part of my mind wanted to "correct" everything - until I saw that I was just caught once again in "If only . . ." ("If only everyone arrived and left on time, if only they sat in the right posture without moving, then everything would be perfect"). And once I saw that, and was able to let go of it, then, in fact, everything was perfect, and now I can blog about it using my perfect old CRT.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

A while back, I ran across the blog of someone I had met on line. We shared a couple of telephone conversations, including one rather longish talk, but never met in person and that was about the extent of our involvement with one another. No hard feelings, but I think we both arrived at the conclusion that we weren't quite right for one another.

Regardless, there was one thing that she said in her blog that I found particularly interesting, and I have taken the liberty of quoting as follows:

"I've come to realize that for me dating is a lot like traveling to a foreign land! It is about meeting new people, making new friends, exploring other cultures, being open to new beliefs, and connecting with other intellectuals. It is far less about romance, though that is a goal, it is a byproduct of the rest.

"If we all looked at dating like this rather than as a job interview (which it can sometimes feel like!), we might come away with an expanded circle of friends and increased wisdom rather than just another two hours with a stranger. Finding others to connect with is often clouded by inappropriate expectation and even a bit of dread about what the "date" may hold. Better to advance with an open heart, an open mind, and open eyes and come away with the unique gifts each individual brings."

She had posted this several months before our conversations. However, this idea and attitude have stuck with me ever since, and if nothing else, our brief and "virtual" date opened my mind to a healthier way of looking at the dating experience - not as a "pass/fail" test but as an opportunity to increase one's own horizons.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Here we go again. . .

Researchers who tried to decipher the complex behaviors and attitudes of young men in the United States said that musical tastes may offer clues to rates of HIV infection. According to their study, boys hooked on gospel, techno and pop are more at risk of HIV infection than devotees of other musical styles, including hip hop.

Hundreds of young men interviewed in New York this year reportedly told lead researcher Miguel Munoz-Laboy of Columbia University that images of scantily-clad women in submissive roles in hip hop music videos had a "real impact on their lives."

"There is a connection. You see it in the way people dance, dress and it has an impact on their sexuality," said Munoz-Laboy. "We often blame youth for their behavior without understanding it," he said. "(But) there is a complex story about sexuality, masculinity and culture here."

Fortunately, the study did not imply listening to certain types of music caused HIV infection, but simply found links between genres and risk factors. The researchers looked at three New York neighborhoods and interviewed boys aged 16 to 21 about their listening tastes and attitudes toward condom use and sexual activities.

There is always a straight line between two dots. If all that the researchers looked at was, say, preferences in toothpaste and attitudes toward condom use and sexual activities, they would have found some correlation. "Crest has been shown to be an effective decay-preventing dentifrice when used in a conscientiously applied program of oral hygiene and regular professional care, and its users tend to be more likely to use condoms and practice safe sex," they might have concluded.

It's sad that the study did not choose to look at a broader range of issues than musical tastes to understand the "complex story" they alluded to. Did they consider education, parental presence or absence, history of drug and alcohol abuse, or other factors, or did they just ask, "Do you like hip hop or techno? Do you use condoms?"

The behavioral analysis divided participants into two musical groups: hip hop, reggae, reggaeton, rap and rhythm and blues; and rock, heavy metal, pop, techno, electronic and gospel. "Kids would be appalled that we grouped them this way, but this is how they mapped out in the mathematical analysis," Munoz-Laboy said. It probably also made the statistical analysis match their predetermined results much better, too.

Researchers distinguished between two styles of hip hop: the "bling, bling" hip hop that values fancy cars, money, and many girlfriends; and supposedly "real" hip hop that tells of urban youth stricken by violence, poverty and drug abuse. They found that boys who listened to hip hop music were more likely to have vaginal intercourse and had more partners, but boys from church or New York club scenes (techno, pop, electronic) took the most sexual risks. "Boys who listened to hip hop had more sex and more partners, but it did not impact condom use," said Munoz-Laboy. "Those who are part of religious culture or the club scene used condoms inconsistently."

It's sad what passes for "science" these days. . .

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Last night, in a dream, I was playing shortstop but the hits kept passing between my legs. I could see the balls coming toward me, but I couldn't move my hands to get to them.

Finally, as yet another grounder was coming my way, with great effort I was able to reach behind me and grab the ball that just passed. Then falling forward, and again with great effort, I turned toward the first baseman and pushed my arm forward for a shovel pass to him.

And punching my arm out in real life, I knocked the phone and alarm clock off of the nightstand in my hotel room. Which, of course, woke me up.

4.00 am. I couldn't get back to sleep after that.

True story. And the batter was clearly out.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

An adult is one who has lost the grace, the freshness, the innocence of the child, who is no longer capable of feeling pure joy, who makes everything complicated, who spreads suffering everywhere, who is afraid of being happy, and who, because it is easier to bear, has gone back to sleep.

The wise man is a happy child.

- Arnaud Desjardins

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Have you ever tried to explain something and after a while just throw up your hands and say, "You had to be there?"

Did you ever spend time composing a post, and then later completely delete it from your blog because you realized that the more words you used, the further from the point you were getting?

Greensmile asked, "I began to distrust the word "accomplishment" a while back. . . Is this similar to your realization that practicing Zen in a way that is also a striving to be recognized for that practice subtly defeats the practice?"

"Nothing subtle about it."
That's as much of the original response as I saved. I blathered on and on about form and practice, egolessness and the original self, and so on, but after reading all of my words back, I realized the fingers were pointing in so many different directions, even I forgot where the moon was.

Dropping away mind and body. Just sitting. No attainment.

You connect the dots.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Riding the Ox Backward

Yesterday, I had lunch with my friend and Zen mentor Arthur. In addition to a great many other topics, I explained to him how I was no longer interested in continuing my practice with the goal of achieving recognition and reward, specifically referring to any kind of accreditation or title.

Arthur at first misunderstood and thought I was saying that I was not interested in pursuing my practice any further. I explained that quite the opposite was true - in order to truly pursue practice, I felt a need to give up attachment to goals and to recognition. All of this was stemming from a comment the Roshi had made earlier that day about giving "credit" to the senior disciples for attending out-of-town retreats and sesshins. I was saying that I was not interested in seeing how much "credit" I could rack up in any given amount of time, I was more interested in merely pursuing practice for the sake of practice. If "credit" accumulated during the process, that was fine, but it will not be the reason for my practice.

"I see," Arthur acknowledged. "You're ready to start riding the ox backwards."

The ten ox-herding pictures are an ancient Chinese pictorial allegory of stages of spiritual development. The ox is a lost, untamed beast, and represents our true mind. The seeker searches for the ox, at first only finding footprints and later catching quick glimpses. With time, the seeker gets a hold of the ox and begins a long arduous struggle to tame the beast. In the sixth picture, the seeker is finally riding the now-tamed ox home, and is often pictured as sitting facing backwards, and casually playing a flute.

In the sixth picture, the seeker is confident as to where the ox is taking him, and does not need to look forward or try to guide the ox. The ox is heading home, and the seeker can just go along for the ride.

Now, the 10 pictures do not represent sequential stages of spiritual development. That is to say, it would be a mistake to assume that one advances from the first picture on to the second, and so on. Various aspects of our selves are usually in several different "stages" simultaneously, and it is not correct to perceive recognition of any one such "stage" as some sort of achievment or advancement. Once such a notion arises, that part of the self is back searching for the ox again.

No, Arthur was recognizing that I am continuing in my practice, but not with any goal in mind, although it is recognized that exactly that kind of goal abandonment results in achievment of the very goals being abandoned. Riding the ox backward, with no care as to where it is going, is the most sure and direct route back home.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Reuters is reporting that a report issued on Thursday by Atlanta's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that fewer U.S. high school students are having sex, and the ones who do are less likely to have multiple partners.

Despite the prevalence of hip-hop music with its sexually-oriented and degrading lyrics, only 46.8 percent of students said they engaged in sexual intercourse in a 2005 survey, down from 54.1 percent in 1991.

Despite activist judges defending women's rights and the teaching of evolution in the school system, only 14.3 percent of students in 2005 said they have had multiple partners, defined as sex with four different people during one's lifetime. That figure is down from 18.7 percent in 1991.

Despite the attempts of tree-hugging, liberal environmentals to scare people into accepting global warming as a fact, the number of students who say they used a condom the last time they had intercourse rose to 62.8 percent in 2005 from 46.2 percent in 1991.

Despite the vast right-wing conspiracy, 2.1 percent of students said they had injected illegal drugs at least once, the same as in 1995.

The report was based on student responses to anonymous, self-administered questionnaires in public and private schools in all 50 states and the District of Columbia by the CDC's Youth Risk Behavior Surveys.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006


  • It's not often that Georgia gives me reason to be proud, but I'm happy that this year Georgia voters defeated both Ralph Reed in the primaries and Cynthia McKinney in a run-off. Hmmmm. . . . I'm proud that a manipulative power broker and a political embarrassment actually ran for public office before being defeated? My God, Clinton was right after all - we do live in a time of diminishing expectations.

  • Only one person showed up for Monday night zazen this week, the same young lady who was the solo practioner last week until a second finally arrived five minutes before closing. But no second showed up this week. However, the practice and the discipline are still their own virtue, not the numbers that attend. If we were only interested in numbers, it would be easy enough to water the dharma down and provide ego gratification and easy lessons that everyone wants to hear, but then, that wouldn't be Zen.

  • The "Teen Lust" post and Greensmile's comments remind me of how music, for the young, is as much about tribal identification as anything else. Goths, emos and punks all identify themselves as much by the bands they listen to as their clothes and hairstyles. In fact, over at Live Journal, the question "Current Music?" is a default entry for every posting using their standard templates (I turned that feature off for WDW. . . Live). Blaming teen's lifestyle decisions on their music is as silly as blaming their clothes or their haircuts (although, come to think of it, I have heard promiscuity blamed on skimpy clothing and not vice versa, and my generation's hair was blamed for nearly everything).

  • The after-hour public meetings continue. Last night was the neighborhood civic association and tomorrow night there's a meeting of an alliance of local civic associations. Last week it was the Neighborhood Planning Unit and a City Council meeting to organize a citizen's advisory board. These meetings are all a part of my grand experiment: to see what life would be like it one stopped saying "no" to people, and only answered "yes."

  • Tonight's my night off, so please excuse me if I'm brief with my posting.
  • Monday, August 07, 2006

    Teen Lust

    "Are we living in a land where sex and horror are the new gods?" - Frankie Goes to Hollywood

    According to a recent AP report, the August issue of Pediatrics claims that teens who listen to music with raunchy, sexual lyrics start having sex sooner than those who prefer other songs. The music's influence on teen behavior appeared to the researchers to depend on how the sex was portrayed - songs depicting men as "sex-driven studs," women as sex objects, and with explicit references to sex acts were more likely to trigger early sexual behavior than those where sexual references were more veiled and relationships appeared more committed.

    Teens who said they listened to lots of music with degrading sexual messages were almost twice as likely to start having intercourse or other sexual activities within the following two years as were teens who listened to little or no sexually degrading music. Among heavy listeners, 51 percent started having sex within two years, versus 29 percent of those who said they listened to little or no sexually degrading music.

    For the life of me, I don't understand why the researchers did not conclude that teens anxious to rush into early sexual experiences were more likely to listen to music with overtly sexual messages, and that teens who were more demure were more likely to listen to songs where sexual references are more veiled and relationships appear more committed.

    It was like this 30 years ago with drugs and rock 'n' roll. I remember many parents, my parents, getting all riled up about drug references in song lyrics, and coming to the conclusion that druggy lyrics caused drug abuse among its listeners. Wrong. Druggy listeners simply liked druggy lyrics, just like horny teens like horny lyrics. Or more precisely, teens inclined to experiment later in life with drugs were more inclined to listen to music that addressed that topic. Let's face it - at 14, it was a lot easier to get your hands on a Jefferson Airplane album than a joint (at least back then - times have changed, I'm told). It's not so different today, I imagine. At 14, it's probably easier to get a Snoop Dogg album than to find a willing sex partner (although even that's changed some, I'm told).

    How could the researchers have so confused cause and effect?

    The study was based on telephone interviews with 1,461 participants aged 12 to 17. Most participants were virgins when they were first questioned in 2001. Follow-up interviews were done in 2002 and 2004 to see if music choice had influenced subsequent behavior. "Teens will try to deny it, they'll say 'No, it's not the music,' but it IS the music. That has one of the biggest impacts on our lives," one of the subjects said. Were those candid words from a teenager realizing the true impact of the lyrics, or just a teen trying to please the interviewer by saying what he/she thought wanted to be heard?

    Efforts to censor pop lyrics seem to go back as far as pop music itself. You've got to wonder whether Tipper Gore's actions with her Parents' Music Resource Center, claiming that popular music encouraged violence, drug use, suicide, criminal activity, etc. and should be censored or at the very least rated, turned off enough liberals that when husband Al ran for President in 2000, they weren't motivated to turn out and support him. And with that year's tight election results, a few thousand voters might well have tipped the scales and prevented eight years of you-know-who, the quagmire in Iraq, budget deficits, bad foreign policy, and so on and so forth.

    Benjamin Chavis, chief executive officer of the Hip-Hip Summit Action Network, a coalition of hip-hop musicians and recording industry executives, said explicit music lyrics are a cultural expression that reflect social and economic realities. "We caution rushing to judgment that music more than any other factor is a causative factor" for teens initiating sex, Chavis said. Researcher and author Yvonne K. Fulbright said factors including peer pressure, self-esteem and home environment are probably more influential than the research suggests. "It's a little dangerous to just pinpoint one thing. You have to look at everything that's going on in a young person's life," she said. "When somebody has a healthy sense of themselves, they don't take these lyrics too seriously."

    So what's up? Why were the researcher's so quick to finger hip-hop lyrics? Could it be racism? Roger Ebert, of all people, once wrote, "Rap has a bad reputation in white circles, where many people believe it consists of obscene and violent anti-white and anti-female guttural. Some of it does. Most does not. Most white listeners don't care; they hear black voices in a litany of discontent, and tune out. Yet rap plays the same role today as Bob Dylan did in 1960, giving voice to the hopes and angers of a generation, and a lot of rap is powerful writing."

    It seems there's always been a white backlash against black music. Elvis was acceptable, but Little Richard was over the line. In the 60s and 70s, pop music was divided into the white, "rock" camp and the black, "soul" camp. Even the "Disco Sucks" movement of the late 70s was rooted in racism, misogyny and homophobia. Even though the music did, in fact, suck, so did a lot of other music of that era, and those who were motivated enough to go out and smash disco records in public protests probably had some real issues over music sung largely by black women to audiences of largely gay men (although white David Bowie never experienced that same sort of backlash).

    Anyhow, this is starting to become a rant. My point here was about the subtle differences between cause and effect, karma and the Tipper Gore case, and the sometimes unpleasant truths revealed when one looks into oneself openly and honestly.

    Saturday, August 05, 2006

    Last evening, my friends Nick, Andrea and I went over to the B-Complex in Atlanta's West End to see a performance art/installation put on by another friend, Jessica.

    According to the artist's statement: "Being awake is living with enlightenment. After years of meditative practice including a three-month residency at a Zen center and over a year of working with tantric yoga teachers, an experimental idea was formed. So what happens when you mix the stillness of Zen with the intentional movement of energy in Tantra? And what does that look like?

    "The artist will alternate between seated meditation (Zazen) and tantric yoga practices for 8 hours a day, three days a week for four weeks. She doesn't expect to be the same."

    Jessica is also maintaining a blog of the experience.

    The B-Complex is a former warehouse converted in to a cluster of studios occupied by different artists. Jessica's performance is right up in front, inside of the main building, with open bay doors giving the space an open-air ambiance. A koi pond in front with floating candles lent a very Zen vibe to the setting.

    When we arrived, Jessica was sitting zazen in front of a white wall. This side of the performance space was very minimal and austere, fitting for Zen - a zafu and zabuton, the white wall, a timer, and Jessica. Behind her, on the other side of the space, was a yoga mat and a more decorative environment fitting for Tantric practice. An interesting duality, which, I imagine, Jessica will resolve by alternating practice between the two.

    Sofas are set up between the two parts of the performing space for visitors to observe either practice, write notes in the logbooks provided, or just "be" in the space between the two practices.

    The closing reception will be on August 26.

    Friday, August 04, 2006


    "Everything is based on our own uptightness. We could blame the organization; we could blame the government; we could blame the food; we could blame the highways; we could blame our own motorcars, our own clothes; we could blame an infinite variety of things. But it is we who are not letting go, not developing enough warmth and sympathy - which makes us problematic. So we cannot blame anybody." - Chogyam Trungpa

    Attendance has been erratic at the Zen Center. Last week, I opened on Wednesday and Thursday mornings before leaving town for the weekend. Only two people showed up on Wednesday, and that was after I was there alone for a half hour. Only one person showed up on Thursday, and she left with a half hour still to go. I didn't let it bother me.

    Monday, only one person showed up for the evening service. That's cool, I figured, and we sat together in silence for an hour. About five minutes before the end of the evening's service, a second arrived. I offered the opportunity to stay for a discussion after the service, and the young lady who was there for the whole service left, and the late arrival stayed. We wound up going out for a late-night latte and had a great conversation until nearly 11.

    Wednesday, I got a call asking if I could fill in for the Wednesday night beginner's instruction. I agreed, and we had six newcomers arrive. I always enjoy giving instruction to newcomers. Several stayed afterwards for a half hour or so, but as the last to leave were heading for the door, a seventh arrived late. He had come quite a distance, and said that he had trouble finding the street we were on. Although I was tired, I gave him a quick newcomer's orientation starting at 9 pm, and reminded him of our regular Wednesday hours (7.00 - 8.30 pm).

    I've heard others complain about people arriving late or leaving early. I don't see what the problem is. Human interactions are always chaotic and messy, and rarely do they conform to a schedule. We should sit and we should share the dharma with others who want it, and we shouldn't be concerned if the audience is large or small, early or late, attentive or bored, passive or aggressive.

    If no one shows up, that's merely an opportunity to deepen our own practice - both by undistracted, silent sitting, and by examining why we cling to wanting an "audience."

    Tuesday, August 01, 2006

    Recent studies have suggested a large, sudden increase in observed hurricane intensities. This increase has been linked to warming sea surface temperatures, which may in turn be associated with global warming. Theory and modelling predict that hurricane intensity should increase with increasing global temperatures, but work on the detection of trends in hurricane activity has focused mostly on their frequency.

    Dr. Kerry Emanual of MIT argued that the potential destructiveness of hurricanes has increased markedly since the mid-1970s. This trend is due to both longer storm lifetimes and greater storm intensities. The hurricane power is correlated with tropical sea surface temperature. Future warming, Dr. Emanuel warned, may lead to an upward trend in hurricane destructive potential, and—taking into account an increasing coastal population—a substantial increase in hurricane-related losses in the twenty-first century.

    In another study, Dr. PJ Webster and his colleagues at Georgia Tech examined the number of hurricanes and hurricane days over the past 35 years. A large increase was seen in the number and proportion of hurricanes reaching categories 4 and 5. The largest increase occurred in the North Pacific, Indian, and Southwest Pacific Oceans, and the smallest percentage increase occurred in the North Atlantic Ocean. The increases have taken place while the number of hurricanes and hurricane days has decreased in all basins except the North Atlantic during the past decade.

    Over at the Live site, somebody stated, “On pg 452 of the July 28 Science, four authors, two from NOAA, conclude that some reports of a quick [span of two decades] increase in storm intensities is mostly a product of increasing precision of instrumentation and the bias in the old readings was toward an underestimation of storm intensity. Meteorology and climate studies are not my bailiwick so I could not refute their main claim: the uneven quality of the data gathered for tropical cyclones over the history of all such records in databases now used to seek trends probably makes the calculated trends an overstatement and reanalysis is in order.”

    Actually, that’s a pretty good summary of the article. I downloaded a copy of the article, (“Can We Detect Trends in Extreme Tropical Cyclones?” by Christopher Landsea, Bruce Harper, Karl Hoarau and John Knaff), and think that the commenter at the Live site shouldn’t underestimate his or her abilities with meteorology and climate studies.

    First of all, however, there is no particular reason to automatically refute the claims. Science is a legitimate, peer-reviewed forum for publication of scientific research, and any paper published therein has already been through a vigorous examination, and will be open to future comment and questioning by the scientific community.

    In fact, the mere existence of this paper in a peer-reviewed, scientific journal refutes the claim that those who don’t unquestioningly adhere to every premise of global climate change are censored and excluded from the scientific literature. Science is as mainstream a scientific journal as they get and it has published numerous articles on the science of global warming, and yet here’s a paper skeptical of the reported trend of increasing hurricane intensity. Go figure.

    Of course, the paper does not actually refute, or even question, sea temperature increases in particular or global climate change in general, like virtually the entirety of the peer-reviewed literature on the subject. It merely poses an interesting argument that holds that the record of hurricane intensity during the period of 1970 to 1990 is not as reliable as the post-1990 record, and that it's possibly biased away from extreme events. Therefore, any analyses of trends in global hurricane intensities should be undertaken with this in mind.

    Nonetheless, the press has jumped on the paper and are sensationalizing it as a refutation of the entire science of climate change. “If Dr. Landsea and his co-authors are correct,” the Associated Press reported, “the previous studies are fundamentally flawed.” Dr. Landsea told the AP, “The methodology is fine. There’s no problem with the way they analyzed the data. The problem is with the data itself.”

    However, all that Dr. Landsea and company have questioned was whether the global databases are of sufficient reliability to ascertain long-term trends in hurricane intensity, particularly for extreme events (categories 4 and 5 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale).

    The argument seems reasonable. The main method used for estimating hurricane intensity derives from a satellite-based pattern recognition scheme known as the Dvorak Technique. However, the Dvorak Technique does not directly measure maximum sustained surface wind. Even today, application of this technique is subjective, and it is common for different forecasters and agencies to estimate significantly different intensities on the basis of identical information.

    The Dvorak Technique was invented in 1972 and was soon used by U.S. forecast offices, but the rest of the world did not use it routinely until the early 1980s. Until then, there was no systematic way to estimate the maximum sustained surface wind for most hurricanes. And since the Dvorak Technique was first developed for visible imagery, it precluded obtaining intensity estimates at night and limited the sampling of maximum sustained surface wind.

    In 1975, only two geostationary satellites were available for global monitoring. Today, eight satellites are available, with far greater resolution. The higher resolution images and more direct overhead views of hurricanes result in greater and more accurate intensity estimates in recent years when using the Dvorak Technique.

    For example, Atlantic Hurricane Hugo was estimated to have a maximum sustained surface wind of 59 meters/second on September 15, 1989 based on use of the Dvorak Technique. But aircraft reconnaissance data obtained at the same time revealed that the hurricane was much stronger (72 meters/second) than estimated by satellite. This type of underestimate was probably quite common in the 1970s and 1980s in all basins because of application of the Dvorak Technique in an era of few satellites with low spatial resolution.

    The 1970 Bangladesh cyclone - the world’s worst tropical-storm disaster, with 300,000 to 500,000 people killed - does not have an official intensity estimate, despite indications that it was extremely intense. Inclusion of this and similar storms as extreme events would boost the frequency of such events in the 1970s and 1980s to numbers indistinguishable from the past 15 years, suggesting no systematic increase in extreme tropical cyclones for the North Indian basin.

    These examples are not likely isolated exceptions. Reanalysis of satellite images in the Eastern Hemisphere basins suggest that there are at least 70 additional, previously unrecognized category 4 and 5 hurricanes during the period 1978-1990. The pre-1990 tropical hurricane data for all basins are replete with large uncertainties, gaps, and biases. Trend analyses for extreme events are unreliable because of operational changes that have artificially resulted in more intense hurricanes being recorded, casting severe doubts on any such trend linkages to global warming.

    Scientific acceptance of the basis for global warming does not mean unquestioning acceptance of every claim, every theory and every idea made. A truly scientific approach would be one of intense questioning and inquiry, sort of like the practice of Zen.