Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Karma v. Unintended Consequences

Perusing the Times today, I came across this in the Business Section:

Just a few years ago, politicians and environmental groups in the Netherlands were thrilled by the early and rapid adoption of “sustainable energy,” achieved in part by coaxing electrical plants to use biofuel — in particular, palm oil from Southeast Asia.

Spurred by government subsidies, energy companies became so enthusiastic that they designed generators that ran exclusively on the oil, which in theory would be cleaner than fossil fuels like coal because it is derived from plants.

But last year, when scientists studied practices at palm plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia, this green fairy tale began to look more like an environmental nightmare.

Rising demand for palm oil in Europe brought about the clearing of huge tracts of Southeast Asian rainforest and the overuse of chemical fertilizer there.

Worse still, the scientists said, space for the expanding palm plantations was often created by draining and burning peatland, which sent huge amounts of carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

Considering these emissions, Indonesia had quickly become the world’s third-leading producer of carbon emissions that scientists believe are responsible for global warming, ranked after the United States and China, according to a study released in December by researchers from Wetlands International and Delft Hydraulics, both in the Netherlands.

“It was shocking and totally smashed all the good reasons we initially went into palm oil,” said Alex Kaat, a spokesman for Wetlands, a conservation group.

Another example of unintended consequences, if not karma, and the very difficult path mankind has in front of itself if we are to ween ourselves from oil dependency. One action triggers another, and the world is so complex and closely woven that we can't help knocking over dominoes wherever we turn.

Not that we shouldn't keep trying, of course.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Fear Makes People Stupid

"At the high school in my affluent and almost crime free community, there was a fatal stabbing two days ago. Nothing like that ever happened in this town. So it was news. But because it violated people's expectations in various ways, it got several minutes of air time on each regional tv station. About two high school kids per week get shot or stabbed in Boston and it barely gets air time unless their is special pathos or protest vigil against violence.

"The weirdest thing, however, is that kid that did the stabbing is mildly autistic and had some kind of running misunderstanding with his victim. There were people saying 'they should lock these people up!' About one in 500 male HS, so I heard, are estimated to have diagnosable Aspergers syndrome. That would mean on average that one out of about 15 of these enraged parents probably have a nephew or cousin, unbeknownst to them, whom they have condemned. Fear makes people stupid." - Greensmile

In 1999, a woman was killed when a schizophrenic who had been in and out of treatment centers pushed her in front of a New York City subway train.

Last August, an Albuquerque man on a long descent into mental illness shot to death five people, including two police officers.

A former postal worker capped a growing history of psychological problems by killing seven people and herself this month in California. There is speculation that she could have been helped if treatment had been forced on her.

Scary stuff. Now New Mexico Gov. and WDW endorsee Bill Richardson is backing a bill that would allow family members, doctors or others to seek a court order forcing the mentally ill into outpatient treatment. Under similar existing laws in other states, if mentally ill people refuse the treatment, they can face confinement in a hospital.

Like other states, New Mexico provides that violent offenders who are mentally ill can be committed to inpatient treatment at a psychiatric hospital for a certain period. But the proposed law is intended for the mentally ill who have not committed crimes and have resisted treatment.

These laws infringe on the civil rights of the mentally ill. Social and psychiatric workers could accomplish the same thing with direct intervention on the streets, and most states that have passed these laws have not provided adequate money for the services needed by those forced into treatment. For example, in California, three years after adopting an outpatient treatment law, none of its counties, which are charged with carrying it out, have found the money or the will to put it into practice.

A senior lawyer with the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington, who also lobbied lawmakers in Albuquerque, said the measures were "a political quick fix in response to tragedies."

People do stupid things when frightened (like invade Iraq, or vote for the people who led the invasion into Iraq). And now Bill Richardson is in the unenviable position of having to back a stupid bill, or else offend the frightened sensibilities of those he needs for his Presidential aspirations. Which puts WDW into the unenviable position of having to apologize for its candidate's position on the wrong side of what's not a crime or mental health issue, but a civil rights issue.

(See? This is a post about karma after all.)

Monday, January 29, 2007

The Dream of Karma

As promised, I meditated on the question of whether dreams can create karma last night, and I also discussed it with the tenzo (cook) at the Zen Center before the Monday night service began.

By the way, Zen literature abounds with stories on the wisdom of the cook. If you have a real question and want a practical answer, they say, don't talk to a monk or some robed cleric, talk to the guy sweating it out in the kitchen - he's the one who probably knows a thing or two.

One day, while Dogen was in China, he saw the old tenzo of the monastery sweating out in the midday sun as he sifted the rice. "You have much seniority here," Dogen said, asking, "Why don't you get some one else to do that for you?"

"Because others are not me," the old man replied, and Dogen was moved by the wisdom of his answer. On the one hand, his answer was direct and simple - he's doing this because he's the cook and others aren't, and he's not about to pick and choose over what he likes and dislikes about those roles (after all, who's to say what's good and what's bad?).

But on a deeper level, he was gently correcting Dogen's error on discriminating between one thing and the other. "Tenzo" and "monk," and "senior" and "junior," are all just arbitrary distinctions of the discriminating mind, and from an absolute perspective, they are not different. The words "others" and "not me" are loaded with meaning in Zen, and by phrasing his answer in those relativistic terms, he was reminding Dogen that he had fallen back into ignorant, dualistic thinking.

But the old tenzo's mind was quick and agile, and although he was not stuck to the relative, he wasn't stuck to the absolute view either. Although self and others are the same from an absolute viewpoint, relatively speaking, there was himself and there were others who were not himself, and he could see the relative difference as well as the absolute sameness, and that is the two arrows meeting in mid-air of the enlightened mind.

So, listen to the cooks - they know a thing or two. Back in the 1950s, when Jack Kerouac and his friends were first discovering Zen, they went around asking each other and their acquaintances koans they had read about in books, which they perceived as sort of Zen riddles. "Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?," they read, and when they posed the question to the night chef at their local bar and grill, he immediately replied "I don't care," and they all agreed that his was the best answer.

But back in the here and now (or there and then, as I'm writing about this later), I had a good talk with the Zen Center tenzo about dreams and karma, and about whether dreams cause karma or karma causes dreams, and we talked about whether we can differentiate between waking thoughts and sleeping dreams, or between the subconscious mind and the so-called conscious mind, and the whole conversation lasted all of about three minutes and neither one of us were talking very rapidly or even very much. Being a good cook, the tenzo knew just how much salt needed to be put in the pot and did not waste a grain, and then let me bring it to a boil in zazen.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Karma of Dreams

A friend of mine posed an interesting question: do dreams create karma?

On the one hand, the workings of the subconscious mind are not acted upon, are not acts of volition, and no one else is affected, so why would there be karma?

On the other hand, dreams can affect our moods, our attitude and our whole approach toward our waking day. Isn't that the karma of dreams?

Or is there a Middle Way between these two positions?

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Water Dissolves

A year ago yesterday, I think that I said it here perfectly and I said it here right, and after saying it that way once, it could never be expressed that way again.

Take a look.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

This evening, I went to the local Starbucks after work and met the Rev. Jill.

Rev. Jill is the minister of the lcoal Presbyterian church, and has invited me to speak there on a Sunday next month as part of their ecumenical outreach progeram. No, they're not trying to convert me (I think), but they have had a group of 25 people meeting regularly for some time now as an adult education class interested in world religions. After my talk, they will go to the Zen Center the following Sunday to attend one of our services.

We talked about our spiritual backgrounds and interests, and I was very impressed by the apparent lack of the usual Christian self-rightousness present (or absent as it were) in the Rev. Jill. I had feared that she wanted to meet me before my presentation to make sure that I wasn't going to upset her congregation with a too-radical view of spirituality, but in the course of our conversation, I don't think either one of us ever said anything with which the other didn't pretty much agree. It alos turned out that we had mutual friends in the Unitarian/Universalist community.

I drank a full vente vanilla latte, and could feel myself start to speak faster and jump to quicker conclusions as the caffeine kicked in. And although I was rude enough to have interrupted the good reverend a couple of times as she spoke, I was still attentive enough to hear that her group is pretty knowledgable and well read on Eastern religions, and that a talk about my own personal experience with Zen and on the effects and experience of Zen practice would be preferrable to a dry, intellectual lecture on Buddhism 101.

For those interested, the talk will be on Sunday, February 18 at 9.30 am:

Covenant Presbyterian Church
2461 Peachtree Rd.
Atlanta

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

A Political Post (which I promised myself I wouldn't do again)

"Our next President must be able to restore our standing in the world and I believe I'm the best candidate to do that. As someone who has successfully negotiated with some of the world's toughest tyrants, I know face-to-face diplomacy can work. To become a respected international leader again, we need a national security policy that is tough and smart, a military second to none, a firm commitment to building diplomatic alliances, we need to defeat terrorism, and that's our number one national security challenge, we need to promote freedom, alleviate poverty, and stop global warming." - Bill Richardson

John Kerry announced today that he's not running for president, which was a surprise to no one. After his defeat, people seem to forget just how close the election actually was, how nearly we rid ourselves of Bush and all that he and his ilk have wrought.

John Edwards is running, however. I fear that his campaign will be marked by the failure to win in '04, and although he seems like a genuinely nice guy with some good ideas, I don't think he has the gravitas to pull off the presidency.

The front runners, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, are still too inexperienced for the job. My hesitation has nothing to do with gender or race, but with their lack of track time. What little I know of Hillary I dislike, largely because of her 180-degree turn from liberal to centrist and support for the war, which make me question what, if anything, she truly believes, or if she's just another ambitious political pro. And Barack has no track record at all, no foreign policy experience. A good speaker and an interesting man, but I like to know a little more before about a candidate before he (or she) gets my vote.

On the other hand, Joe Biden has too much experience, is too "Washington," for me. A good man to have in the Senate, where he's been for 33 years, but not in the White House. Sorry, Joe.

Kucinich and Vilsack have funny names, and although they would be fun to blog about, I'm not going to vote for either one.

Christopher Dodd is too white, and Mike Gravel (who?) is too old.

So that leaves Bill Richardson. Richardson has experience in the House and as a Governor, just the right mix of Federal and State experience and the right amount of tenure (more than Hillary and Barack, but not as much as Biden). International experience: he was a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. National experience: he was Secretary of Energy. Immigration: he's Hispanic and he's governed a Border State.

Well, that's it then: Water Dissolves Water officially announces its endorsement of Bill Richardson for the President of the United States of America!

I just hope he doesn't do anything stupid now.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Karma (The Short Version)

Pema Chodron once said the Buddhism's basic message is to just accept the present moment, to relax with hopelessness, relax with death, "not resisting the fact that things pass, that things have no substance, that everything is changing all the time."

The karmic waves we create are neither bad nor good, and as long as we remain in this world, cannot be completely stopped. We are creating the waves and the waves are creating us.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Karma

At the Zen Center tonight, we talked about karma. Actually, we talked about many things, but the conversation eventually came around to karma.

In my opinion (yours may differ), many people in the West misunderstand karma. The sort of dumbed-down, westernized version of karma goes something like this: If you do good things, good things will happen to you. If you do bad things, bad things will happen to you. You reap what you sew. So behave yourself. The trouble with that interpretation is that it ignores the fact that we all know of perfectly dreadful people who seem to always have all the luck, and of dreadful misfortunes that have happened to some of the nicest people.

Some Buddhists try to reconcile this dissonance by maintaining that our bad deeds plant seeds for future misfortune, and our good deeds plant seeds for future happiness. Although the fruit of these seeds may not immediately manifest themselves, in time all karmic debts are re-payed. This, of course, brings up metaphysical questions of where the seeds are stored, how they travel with a person through life (or future lives), and what conditions must occur for them to finally come to fruition. There are whole schools of teaching about "seed consciousness" (alaya), and the proper cultivation and manifestation of the "good" seeds, along with suppression of the "bad" seeds. The teachings go on that we carry these seeds from one life to the next, and that is why good things may happen to a bad person (happy seeds had been planted in a former life), or bad things happen to a good person (unfortunate seeds were planted).

I've even heard this explanation of karma used as "proof" of reincarnation - how else can unredeemed karma be reconciled if not in a future life? This is a fantasy based on a delusion, a sand castle standing on a soap bubble, ignorance begetting ignorance.

I will tell you what karma is: it is the effect of a cause - the fall from a push, the clap from two hands, the warmth from a sunrise. It is neither bad nor good; both "bad" and "good" are distinctions of our discriminating minds, and the true nature of the universe transcends these dualistic categories.

Besides, who's to say what's good and what's bad? When we look at things, what we often thought was bad at first sometimes turns out to be good or to have some good in it. And what's good for one might at the same time be bad for another - your good fortune at, say, winning the lottery is based on my misfortune of not winning it. And your good fortune of sudden wealth may turn against you in time (the suicide rate among lottery winners is well known to be alarmingly elevated).

There's an ancient Chinese story that goes like this: A wise farmer once saw that his horse, a stallion, had escaped from its pen. His neighbor came over to console him on his loss, but the wise farmer said, "Who's to say what's good and what's bad?"

The next week, the stallion returned and four breeding mares followed him into the pen. The neighbor came back to congratulate the wise farmer on his good fortune, but he said, "Who's to say what's good and what's bad?"

However, the wise farmer's son tried to break in one of the mares and got thrown, breaking his back. He was paralyzed in bed, his prognosis uncertain, when the neighbor came back to grieve.
But the wise farmer told him not to be sad, for after all, "Who's to say what's good and what's bad?"

As it turns out, the Army came through the next month, and conscripted all the young men of the village into service, except, of course, for the wise farmer's paralyzed son. As the boys were being marched off to fight and likely die on a distant battlefield, the wise farmer asked his son, "Who's to say what's good and what's bad?"

And so on. Good and bad are not two different things - they're the two sides of the same coin. You can't have one without the other. There is no "good karma" and "bad karma," there's just karma.

Imagine you're sitting in a small round swimming pool on a still summer evening. There's absolutely no breeze and as long as you're perfectly still, the surface of the water can become as smooth as plane of glass. But as soon as you start moving, there are waves, and then the waves bounce off the sides of the pool and refract into more waves (or more complex waves). And if you try to move around to get out of the waves' way, it only creates more waves. Similarly, if you try to only let the waves that you like for some reason to roll against you, but dip beneath the surface when a wave you don't like comes along, you're still just making more waves. But if you start sitting very still again for a while, the waves will start to calm down and after time, the water's surface will once again be like glass.

Now imagine there's eight of you in the pool. How many more waves there are now, and how much harder it is to calm them! Now imagine the whole world is the pool, and everyone in the world is in there with you . . .

The waves, obviously, are karma. The waves are not good or bad (that's silly) - they just are. We might find one side of the wave preferable to the other, but one side can't exist without the other. Karma is just the waves formed by our actions, neither good nor bad, just waves on the ocean of existence, and since the First Noble Truth points to the existence of suffering, we typically perceive the waves as suffering, as "bad," as "bad karma."

And such is my opinion. Yours may differ. Who's to say what's "right" and what's "wrong?"

Sunday, January 21, 2007

"You can go for a week without love - you will die without food."
- Cibo Matto

One of the advantages of my recent and blessedly brief period of unemployment is that it afforded me time to start cooking again.

I started out with a few simple pasta recipes, an Italian goulash I got from a cookbook and then baked ziti and pasta Alfredo from the back of Ronzoni boxes. Before long, I was chopping an onion, dicing a capsicum (I had to look that one up - it turned out to be a green pepper), and adding dashes of paprika, oregano, garlic and salt.

All the recipes served four to six, but I ate what I could and put the leftovers in the fridge to sustain me over the weeks.

Since then, I've been getting more creative, mixing my own selection of veggies, and serving it over rice, pasta or whatever else I can find (i.e., the leftovers mentioned above).

Now, none of this may sound like much of an achievement to the seasoned cooks out there, but I had fallen in my bachelor ways to eating only prepared foods, take-out, or ready-to-eat concoctions from the supermarket. It's nice to get back in touch with the preparation process again, and brings greater mindfulness to what I'm taking in to my body.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Housekeeping

A little New Year's house-keeping.

I've been meaning to do this for a while, but I finally got to cleaning up some things over there in the sidebar. I got rid of the old "Don't blame me, I voted for Kerry" button, not because I now feel differently but because the joke is now, well, old. Also, my profile information disappeared for some reason when Google switched to the "new" Blogger (whatever), so I put my old by-line back up and posted a picture of Planet Earth instead of my old mug shot.

I also updated and organized the links to other blogs (although I couldn't prevent the list from indenting over toward the right). Some of the featured links were dead or else led to inactive blogs, others no longer seemed relevant to me. Long-time friends like Greensmile and Mumon are now listed under "Vital Links," while some personal friends like Nick (who needs to update his blog soon to stay listed) and Gareth are listed, appropriately enough, under "Friends." "Blogs I Like" is exactly what the name implies, and I encourage my readers to check them out daily (I do) - they're far different than this journal, but each are endearing and enlightening in their own different way. Finally, I listed a few Buddhist blogs worth noting. If anyone wants to be included in any of these categories, then link to me and let me know.

I left the "I'm gonna die at 79" button on just as a reminder to me of my own mortality.

Otherwise, I'm pretty contented with the look of WDW - the background color, banner, fonts and all, or at least not dissatisfied enough to do all the work to change them. If anyone wants to create a new template for me and send it over, then great, but otherwise I'll consider the lack of submissions approval of the design.

Friday, January 19, 2007

As it turns out, spam isn't the most poisonous thing getting into my inbox lately.

Our neighborhood, like many urban neighborhoods in America, has a Crime Watch program, as well as a special Security program which pays off-duty cops to patrol our streets on their off-hours. And when something does happen, the news is quickly circulated via email to alert the neighbors.

So far, so good. But the other day, I got an email from a neighbor reporting that she had seen an "elderly man" cruising slowly through the neighborhood with a dog ("some sort of terrier") in his car. She has seen him on several occasions in both residential areas and near public parks. She wasn't sure what he was doing, but she never saw him out walking the dog. "What if he's a predator after my children?," she wondered.

The next day, a reply email from another neighbor replied that she had seen this man too, and concerned about what she had read in the previous day's email, she followed his car to his home (also located in our neighborhood) and then looked up his address on a Sex-Crime Registry website. He wasn't registered, but she also called the police and was told he had no prior arrests. "So, it goes to show that you can never be to careful," she wrote, adding, "It creeps me out knowing that my two boys play out in the front yard and this pervert is cruising around watching them."

So, let's see what we've got so far: a man drives around with his dog, doing absolutely nothing wrong and one neighbor imagines that he might be a pedophile. Although the next neighbor determines that he has no prior record, instead of concluding that there's nothing to worry about, she figures that he's found a way to beat the system and is an at-large child molester, and that she needs to warn the others.

A flurry of emails followed with confirmed sightings from one neighborhood to the next of this "monster." People are appalled, disgusted that someone like him is allowed to roam free. Mind you, he's done nothing wrong and he has no criminal convictions for ever doing anything wrong. As far as anyone really knows, he's just an old man in his car with his dog, and based on the tone of some of the emails, I start to fear for his safety.

Finally, his next-door neighbor chimed in. The man, she wrote, has lived here virtually all his life, and is now too ill to walk his dog (he used to have two, but one of them recently died). He still likes to get out, though, so he drives around a while and stops and lets his dog out for a few minutes to run in the park while he waits in the idling car. "He's the most harmless man you'll ever meet," she assured us.

I'm frankly ashamed to be living among such paranoid neighbors. Some over-protective mother sees someone behaving "differently" than she would like, and her first reaction is to think someone wants to sexually molest her children (a sick conclusion that says more about the cockroaches in her mind than about the poor old man). But once the accusation is out there, the neighbors each join in, ignoring all of the evidence to the contrary, following the man around, running background checks on him, gossiping over the Internet what they think he might be up to. Absolutely disgusting.

All of this resonates uncomfortably with tales of the Old South, when innocent black men were lynched because some sexually-repressed white woman thought he was looking at her in a way that "made me feel dirty all over."

What do I care? Well, I'm different, too. I'm in my 50s, single and live alone. I shave my head and don't go to church on Sunday. Someone might conclude that I fit their profile of a pervert, and start following me around and running checks and sending emails to my neighbors about their sexual fantasies of what I might be doing behind closed doors.

Irony: while I was writing this story, the doorbell rang, and two adorable young girls, aged about 8 to 10 I guess, were there selling Girl Scout cookies. I've got them bound and duct-taped in the crawl-space beneath my house now.

JUST KIDDING! I bought $15 worth of Thin Mints from them and waved to their mother, who was waiting discretely at the end of the driveway. At least I'm still trusted enough in this paranoid neighborhood to allow mothers to send their daughters to my door, even if it is with adult supervision.

I should send one box of mints to that poor old man.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

I Heart Spam


Let's see what I've got in my inbox today, shall we?

First, there's this:

from: Brianna
date: Jan 18, 2007 11:25 PM
subject: Re: Looking for friend?

Hi there lovely,
This kind of opportunity comes ones in a life. I don't want
to miss it. Do you? I am coming to your place in few days
and I though may beb we can meet each other. If you don't mind
I can send you my picture. I am a gairl.
You canc correspond with me using my email


Well, that certainly sounds like an exciting encounter. And it may be refreshing meeting a "gairl" for a change, a ones in a life opportunity. . .

Then, there's this:

from: Deena
date: Jan 18, 2007 8:29 PM
subject: signify

This is our third attempt to contact you
You have been pre-qualified for a one-time program that will save you 35% off your current payment.
You could get up to $291,000 for as low as never.
For a no obligation consultation
To secure low rate please respond asap
Regards,
LendersTeam.


What can I add to "as low as never?" Sounds like the title to a Top 40 song. But as if that wasn't poetic enough, I also got this:

from: Clarence Linney
date: Jan 18, 2007 4:01 PM
subject: my migratio


reassure myself that the normal condemned passenger on, this flight
Landing was easy,
What do you mean tombstone? And what do you mean death sentence?
lock swung majestically open. A keen clipboard-bearing naval officer
What is your plan? he asked.
Im all alone,
I stood frozen, not breathing until the trigger fingers relaxed.
cultures of the union-
An honest answer, Captain, and I thank you for it.
chew. Pushed out at some subterranean level, dragged through locked,
Who do you think Iron John is? In the story I mean, not the one


I've been getting a lot of these emails recently, with text sounding something like a cheesy novel run through a William S. Burroughs cut-up machine. Those, and yesterday alone it seems that I've won no fewer than three separate lotteries, and they've all been trying for some time now to reach me to let me claim my prizes.

It's almost enough to make me want to pull those cables back out of my house again.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

I'm Back On Line

Sorry about the unexpected absence, but I've been offline.

For a while now, I've noticed that the anchor bolt holding the incoming electrical wires coming from the power pole to my house was coming loose, and starting to pull away from the eaves. On Sunday morning, I further noticed (observant correspondent that I am) that my cable modem, cable television and cable telephone were all out. I called the cable company using my cell phone, and scheduled an appointment for today, Wednesday.

It still took me a few days to put the two observations together, but I finally noticed that the anchor bolt had pulled completely away from the house, and that the wires, power, cable and telephone, were all sagging, barely connected to the house at all. I called an electrician Tuesday morning, and he had the wiring fixed by lunch that day.

Still no Internet, however. Still no television. Still no land phone.

The cable company showed up today as scheduled (I'm working from the home office today), and restored the information superhighway back to my home.

While I was off-line, nothing much happened. I completed my first week in the office at my new job (and I hate it that I had left that last plaintive posting here on the blog - things have not been bad at all). I opened the zendo on my usual Monday night, and Tuesday night was the usual monthly neighborhood association meeting.

That's about it. I'll resume the usual pointless blogging tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Marietta

First day in the new office: the time was all spent on enrollment forms, health coverage selections, and various other paperwork. I emailed several clients and told them about my new position, and got several promising replies back. My world is once again turning in greased grooves.

Focusing on the so-called benefits all day, however, had me a little depressed - starting anew at another company puts me back at the "entry level" on perks. Only two weeks vacation a year (which I still have yet to accrue), when I used to have four. It will take me five years to work my way back up to three weeks. No company match on 401(k) deductions, just an annual, performance-based "bonus" deposit. The few windows in my corner office are more like skylights, starting about six feet off of the floor (my old office overlooked a pond with floor-to-ceiling windows).

But it's easy to focus on the negative, especially the part that one has no control over. The co-workers are friendlier, the pay's the same, the opportunities are greater and it's an all-round more fun place to be (even if it is in Cobb County).

As Master Dogen noted, flowers, while loved, fade, and weeds, while despised, flourish.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Atlanta

After being in sesshin Thursday evening through Sunday afternoon, I caught a flight to Houston Sunday evening and began my new job.

I met with some old clients of mine who had some new work for me, even though they hadn't known before this trip that I had switched companies (I told them before we booked the meeting, however). They were also flying into Houston, and our two planes arrived from different cities at almost the exact same time, so I was able to catch a ride with them from the airport to the hotel. After we all checked in, we went out and got some dinner and caught up on each others news.

We got started at 7:00 am Monday morning, and met all day discussing and analyzing their new project. As soon as we were finished, we broke for dinner (party of eight) and ate (lots) at Fago de Chao. As soon as we finally finished with that feast, we went back to the hotel and watched the NCAA football championship game at a bar in the hotel lobby. I didn't get back to my room until after 11.

Today, we met at the same time for more discussion and analysis and finally broke around 2 pm, whereupon we all piled back into the clients' rental car and drove back to the airport. I caught an earlier flight than my itinerary had anticipated, and got home at about 8:30 pm.

So, on the first two days on the job, I've met, entertained and socialized with my clients for something like a total of 24 hours.

And it's not even Wednesday yet.

It's good to be busy again.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

While I was in sesshin, the following comments/questions on my recent posts about the apparent lack of "purpose" or "goals" in Zen practice appeared in this blog:

Greensmile asked, "Then it is a practice for those of us who truly wish to cease living wishfully and live truly?"

Old Sam noted, "I have been asked enough times why I practice to realize that the closest I can come to an answer is, 'To make myself more useful to others/the universe.' Somehow any other words I use - including 'understanding this life,' and the like - end up with some unintended egocentric content," and "Practice just as practice-enlightenment has been taught for millennia: utility would, at face value, seem antithetical to this. But how does one reconcile this with the apparent utility required by the boddhisattva vow to save all beings?"

Regarding Greensmile's question, the practice for those who wish to cease living wishfully is to stop wishing, including wishing for their desire for wishing to stop. As long as we try to defeat wishfulness with a wish, we keep finding ourselves right back where we started - i.e., wishing. The way to hit the "reset" button and stop the endlessly cycling question of "how do I stop wishing I could stop wishing I could stop wishing" and so on is to quiet the mind, and allow to drop away all of the concepts inherent in the question, including that there's an "I" that can wish and a time other than right now for that wish to be fulfilled. In quiet zazen, these concepts will drop away, but through forceful action, they won't. When we come to realize our true nature and learn to accept our selves, includng the wishfulness in our nature, the wishing that we could stop wishing is gone.

Old Sam's comments concern the Bodhisattva vows. In Zen practice, we vow that no matter how innumerable all beings are, we vow to free them all (some translate "free" as "save"). Regardless of the translation, this is not the purpose of Zen practice, but rather a part of the practice. To let go of egocentric goals, we first take the focus off of our own enlightenment, and instead vow to help all other sentient beings achieve realization first. But this is a part of the Zen method, an expedient means (upaya), not the mission or purpose of Zen itself. To attain the goal of having no goal, we first vow to help all others before we help ourselves, and once rid of the burden to save/free ourselves, sit down in quiet meditation and allow body and mind to drop away.

Of course, telling others that we practice for this reason is fine, and probably better than saying "for no reason at all." When asked, I just like to shake my head dismissively and say, "It's what I do - it's just the way I am." Naturally, everyone has a purpose or goal in order to start a spiritual practice - if no one had a reason to come to the Zen Center, no one would come. But once started, the real work begins in letting go of those initial goals and just practicing just for the sake of practicing, not for the sake of an outcome of the practice. This real work is shikantaza ("just sitting"), not sitting and meditating, not sitting and reciting mantras or sutras, not sitting to realize enlightenment, not sitting to save/free all beings, but just sitting.

My initial post about the reason for not clinging to a goal was that by considering goals and realization as something to attain, something outside and separate from ourselves that we need to obtain, we are moving away from discovering our own Buddha-nature, the enlightenment already inherent within us. My second post, quoting Matsuoka Roshi, pointed out that by clinging to the concept of a goal as something that may be achieved at some future date, we take our awareness and mindfullness out of the present moment and long for a hypothetical future, when the very nature of realization is in the present moment, this instant, right now.

Or at least, that's how I see it. Your views may differ and that's fine.

Friday, January 05, 2007

On The Purpose Of A Zen Life

January 5, 1964:

"The world abounds with different religions to satisfy man's yearning spirit. Throughout time, man has yearned for something. For some, it has been the desire to be of good health, of good fame, to have a respected job, to become rich, to avoid mishap or trouble, to win the favor of the gods, or to enter into a "pure land" after death. There are a myriad of things one desires in their life and most religions try to satisfy this hunger. Some promise success, heaven or a bountiful harvest if a person faithfully follows their precepts. Many religious people are dreaming of a supernatural power far away from themselves and of a fantastic world of good fortune when they pray and follow religious rites. Instead of living their lives more fully now, they dream fantasy and put their faith in something distant from themselves. Their lives are lived for another time or another being. Should this be the purpose of religion?

"In Zen, the purpose of the religious life is to find the truth about life in this world and then to live with this knowledge. Instead of hoping to obtain some material thing or fortune from a supernatural being, in Zen we live in order to enter the true life. We do not even desire to become a Buddha, for doing so takes the emphasis off the present moment of life and puts it into the unpredictable future. Instead, we live this moment to its fullest and so act as to develop the potential to be a Buddha which lies dormant in each of us."

- Rev. Soyu Matsuoka, excerpted from "The Kyosaku - Soto Zen Teachings Archive, Volume 1"

Thursday, January 04, 2007

I keep telling myself that I'm not going to do any more political posts on this blog (better to use the Live site for that kind of ranting), but when I saw this week's edition of The Onion, America's leading satirical newspaper, I couldn't resist sharing the headlines (click on the picture if you want it enlarged). "Bush's Approval Rating Of Other Americans Also At All-Time Low," "Voice of God Revealed To Be Cheney On Intercom." Too funny. . .

Things may be quiet here for a few days. For the next several days, I will be in sesshin (intensive meditation retreat), and in keeping with the request of the Abbot, will try to refrain from unnecessary talking, reading and other communication during this period. Following that, I will be out of town, travelling for the first time in a while without my former company-issued laptop. Next Wednesday might be my first chance to post here again.

Thanks to all of those who wished me well and offered their congratulations on my new-found employment - your words were encouraging, just as your sympathies were when things looked the darkest.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Busy, Again

One last breath of "funemployment" before I start back to work: it looks like, after this 24-hours is up, that I'll be right back into the soup (and I can't wait to taste the broth!).

Yesterday, I drove the almost 20 miles to my new office, inconveniently located in the outer suburbs (but I'm not complaining), to sign some paperwork, and then turn around and drive back into the city to provide the required, um, "specimen" for the company's mandatory drug and alcohol testing.

The first sesshin of 2006 starts tomorrow evening, and lasts all day Friday and Saturday and half a day Sunday. And then Sunday evening, I catch a flight to Houston for a two-day client meeting, my first representing my new employer.

So tomorrow, before the start of sesshin, I have to stop by my old office, pick up some reference materials I left there for the Houston meeting (I never packed up my old office), and then head back out to the 'burbs to my new office for a quick "101" introduction to my new company so I can accurately represent them before my clients. Then back into the city for the start of sesshin.

I'm also supposed to take an oath of office downtown at City Hall sometime soon for my new role on the citizen's advisory board for the Atlanta Beltline - I should have done that today (I realize now in retrospective), but I can possibly fit it in some time tomorrow.

Or next week.

Damn, it's good to be busy again!

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Relief

The offer letter finally came today.

Woo-hoo!

Monday, January 01, 2007

Top 20 CDs of 2006

The problem with a personal Top 20 list is that not being a professional critic, I've only gotten to listen to those CDs that I bought or downloaded during the year and not the industry's entire output, so it's entirely possible that other, better music is still out there waiting for my discovery. But in any event, to commemorate the start of a New Year, here's my Top 20 list of the best recordings of 2006:

  1. The Reformed Faction (of Zoviet France) – Vota - More than a decade after Zoviet France members Robin Storey (Rapoon), Mark Spybey (Dead Voices on Air) and Andrew Eardley (Delayer) left the band, the three have teamed up for a new group. The Reformed Faction of Zoviet France played one concert in Vienna on November 10, 2005, and released a self-titled album under that name. In 2006, they announced that they were to continue the project under the name The Reformed Faction in order to avoid possible future legal disputes with other former members of Zoviet France. Vota features the old Zoviet France style of droning textures set against tribal rhythms and fleeting dissonant melodies, often made from neglected sound sources: obscure radio broadcasts, toy instruments, and other odds and ends, often heavily processed or looped.
  2. Claude Challe – Buddha Bar VIII – The eighth compilation in French d.j. Claude Challe’s signature series is split into two discs, titled “Paris” and “New York.” Both discs feature mixes of the series’ chill sound, with the “Paris” CD a little more mellow and the “New York” more dance oriented.
  3. Bill Frissell, Ron Carter & Paul Motian - Bill Frissell, Ron Carter & Paul Motian – Three masters at the top of their form take on classic like “Eighty One” and “Mysterioso” and a few oddities including “You Are My Sunshine” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” without ever once sounding clichéd or derivative. The laid-back classical jazz is superbly recorded allowing the listener to hear the spaces between the instruments, which strangely only increases the feeling of the intimacy between the players.
  4. Bob Dylan – Modern Times – The surprising thing about Dylan’s 31st studio album and first in five years is that while no one was expecting much, he unexpectedly delivered a masterpiece. At 8:45, “Ain’t Talking,” brings previous glories like “Desolation Row” to mind, but Dylan’s sound has been updated for these modern times, with his lyrics have the hard-boiled moralism of a Raymond Chandler novel: "In the human heart, an evil spirit can dwell/I'm trying to love my neighbor and do good unto others/But, oh, mother, things ain't going well."
  5. Brian Eno – 77 Million Paintings – The “77 Million Paintings” software disc creates a constantly evolving painting generated from hand-made slides randomly combined by the listener’s computer. The software processes the music that accompanies the paintings in a similar way so the selection of elements and their duration in the piece are arbitrarily chosen, forming a virtually infinite number of variations. What’s often overlooked is that, “Music for 77 Million Paintings,” features two hours and 5½ minutes of some of the best ambiance Eno has recorded since “On Land.”
  6. David Grisman & Andy Statman – New Shabbos Waltz – Proving that John Zorn’s not the only musician to play innovative and interesting traditional Jewish music, Grisman and Statman combine their talents on mandolin and clarinet respectively on klezmer, folk songs and other ethnic musics for a joyous and highly listenable album.
  7. Aphex Twin – Chosen Lords – A compilation of highlights from the Analord 12-inch singles of 2005, the music is throwback acid techno that moves at a fast pace and has a malevolent streak behind it. Stylistically, it's the logical follow-up to his material of the early '90s, which attempted to (and usually succeeded in) creating the freakiest techno ever produced, without either deserting a steady beat or straying into self-conscious experimentation.
  8. Beck – Guerolito – Guerolito is a compilation of remixes by various artists of 2005’s Guero. In an interview with Wired magazine in September 2006, Beck challenged other artists to follow his lead in abandoning the traditional concept of an album release, stating “There are so many dimensions to what a record can be these days. Artists can and should approach making an album as an opportunity to do a series of releases – one that's visual, one that has alternate versions, and one that's something the listener can participate in or arrange and change. It's time for the album to embrace the technology. For me it's more about giving the music legs, giving people new ways to experience it ... Even though the mash-up sensibility has become something of a cliché, I'd love to put out an album that you could edit and mix and layer directly in iTunes.”
  9. Elvis Costello – My Flame Burns Blue – A live retrospective, with orchestra, of Elvis’ career recordings.
  10. John McLaughlin – Industrial Zen - Neither industrial nor zen, but nice tasty jazz guitar from a master of his craft.

Rounding out the rest of my my list are:

11. John Medeski, Matthew Shipp – Scotty Hard’s Radical Reconstructive Surgery
12. Tom Waits – Orphans: Beggars, Bawlers and Bastards
13. Keith Jarrett – The Carnegie Hall Concert
14. Lisa Gerrard – The Silver Tree
15. John Zorn – Moonchild
16. Los Straitjackets – Twist Party
17. Michael Brook – Rock Paper Scissors
18. Pete Namlook – Air V
19. Pete Namlook & Move D – Namlook XI: Sons of Kraut
20. Rabih Abou-Khalil – Journey to the Center of an Egg

And finally, the oh-what-the-heck, here's-the-rest-of-the-albums-I-got-in-2006 list. They're not bad (after all, I felt compelled to go out and get them), but they didn't make the Top 20 list for one reason or another:

21. Steeleye Span – Bloody Men
22. The Beatles – Love
23. The Decemberists – The Crane Wife
24. The Mountain Goats – Get Lonely
25. The Residents – Rivers of Crime