Wednesday, December 31, 2008

. . . 2008 . . .

Enough doom and gloom, already! Instead of some maudlin review of the year that's just passed, how about a little frivolity instead? Here's a soulful blast of Red Beans and Rice to get you back into the groove.

Booker T and the MGs were the spiritual grandparents of Medeski, Martin & Wood.

Happy New Year, y'all! And Happy Birthday, Jackie!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

In Memoriam: Freddie Hubbard

I'm saddened to learn that Freddie Hubbard, the brilliant jazz trumpeter who dazzled audiences and critics alike with his virtuosity, his melodicism, and his infectious energy, died on Monday at the age of 70 in Sherman Oaks, California, due to complications from a November 26 heart attack.

It's been a bad year for musicians, with 2008 marking the loss of Issac Hayes, Bo Diddley, Eartha Kitt, Odetta, Miriam Makeba, Richard Wright (Pink Floyd), Levi Stubbs (The Four Tops), blues guitarist Jeff Healey, country singer Eddy Arnold, two of Jimi Hendrix' former drummers (Mitch Mitchell and Buddy Miles), and producer Teo Macero. I never took the time to eulogize any of them, but I refuse to let the passing of Freddie Hubbard go without paying my respects.

One of the great jazz musicians of all time, Hubbard was part of that pantheon of trumpet players who changed the music permanently, a group that also includes Louis Armstrong, Dr. Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Shaw, and Hubbard's contemporary, Miles Davis. However, his career, while marked by brilliance, was often overshadowed by that of Miles, as well as by an ill-advised foray into the disco-pop-funk music of the 1970s.

Frederick Dewayne Hubbard was born on April 7, 1938, in Indianapolis. In high school, he studied French horn and tuba as well as trumpet, and after taking lessons at the Arthur Jordan Conservatory of Music, he performed locally with, among others, the guitarist Wes Montgomery and his brothers.

Hubbard moved to New York in 1958, rooming with the innovative altoist Eric Dolphy, and almost immediately began working with groups led by the saxophonist Sonny Rollins, the drummer Philly Joe Jones, and Slide Hampton, J.J. Johnson, and others. His profile rose in 1960 when he joined the roster of Blue Note Records, a leading jazz label, and toured Europe with Quincy Jones (1960-1961).

That reputation rose further the next year when he was hired by the veteran drummer Art Blakey, widely regarded as the music’s premier talent scout, to play alongside Wayne Shorter in the Jazz Messengers, a valuable training ground for young musicians. Under Blakey's leadership, Hubbard developed his own spin on a style that was informed by Dizzy Gillespie and Clifford Brown. Critics took notice of his unusual mix of melodic inventiveness and technical razzle-dazzle. Leonard Feather called him “one of the most skilled, original and forceful trumpeters of the ’60s.”

A blazing trumpeter with a beautiful tone on flügelhorn, Hubbard fared well in freer settings but was always essentially a hard-bop stylist. Although he was not an avant-gardist by temperament, he participated in three of the seminal recordings of the 1960s jazz avant-garde: Ornette Coleman’s “Free Jazz” (1960), Eric Dolphy’s “Out to Lunch” (1964) and John Coltrane’s "Ascension” (1965). He also played on Oliver Nelson's classic "Blues and the Abstract Truth," highlighted by the song Stolen Moments, and started recording as a leader for Blue Note that same year. He played on "Maiden Voyage" with Herbie Hancock, as well as albums by Wayne Shorter and many others. However, many of his sidemen, notably Shorter and Hancock, soon left Blue Note to record at Columbia with another trumpeter, forming the classic Miles Davis Quintet of 1964-1968.

After leaving Blakey’s band himself in 1964, Hubbard worked for a while with another drummer-bandleader, Max Roach (1965-1966), himself an alumnus of an earlier Davis quintet. In 1966, as Davis' new quintet were recorded their landmark albums, Hubbard formed his own group, featuring altoist James Spaulding.

Four years later, he began recording for CTI, a record company that would soon become known for its aggressive efforts to market jazz musicians beyond the confines of the jazz audience. In 1970, Hubbard recorded the first of a trio of recordings for the CTI label that would give him his due recognition as one of the great trumpet players of jazz. "Red Clay,” contained some of the best playing of his career and, except for slicker production and the presence of some electric instruments, were not significantly different from his work for Blue Note.

The following album, "Straight Life," is probably my personal favorite Hubbard recording. By this time, Miles Davis had disbanded the classic quintet of the 1960s, going for a more aggressively electronic, funk/rock sound, freeing Herbie Hancock and bassist Ron Carter to join him on this date. Tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson, guitarist George Benson, and drummer Jack DeJohnette, all of whom had also played for Miles' at one point or another, rounded out the all-star lineup.

“Straight Life” was primarily a jam session, with the contributors expelling their creative juices freely through two long jams (Straight Life and Mr. Clean) and a more contained ballad in a trio setting (Here's That Rainy Day). The video above is of Hubbard performing the title cut, Straight Life, during the 1975 Downbeat Awards, backed by what is fundametally the fusion band Return To Forever: Chick Corea on keyboards, Stanley Clarke on bass, Lenny White on drums, and the percussionist Airto.

The follow-up album, "First Light" (1971), featured Don Sebesky string arrangements and was Hubbard's most popular recording, winning a Grammy Award in 1972. But after the glory of the CTI years, during which producer Creed Taylor did an expert job of balancing the artistic with the accessible, Hubbard, like many other jazz musicians of his generation, began courting an even larger audience (and greater profits).

It's hard to fathom what Hubbard's precise motivations were for what followed. In the 70s, fusion/funk bands like Return To Forever, Weather Report and Mahavishnu Orchestra (mostly consisting of the alumni from various incarnations of Miles Davis' bands) were filling concert halls and selling gold records. Guitarist George Benson had abandoned jazz, and largely guitar playing, and had become a multi-million-dollar pop crooner and nearly a household name. I can't fault Hubbard for wanting some of that profit. Or perhaps he was under pressure from the labels, from his family, or from his own pride, to keep up with the times and make some more money. Or perhaps after years of exchanging musicians back and forth with Miles Davis and even being perceived as "the other trumpet player," he decided to give up on jazz altogether and just go for the money. In any event and for whatever reason, Freddie Hubbard sold out.

In the mid-1970s, Hubbard signed with Columbia and began recording albums that put less and less emphasis on improvisation and relied more and more on glossy arrangements and pop appeal. His music featured rock and funk rhythms and a repertory sprinkled with pop and R&B songs like Paul McCartney’s Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey and the Stylistics’ Betcha by Golly, Wow. The reference that the announcer makes to "his own brand of Liquid Love" in the above video alludes to an album of this period, marred by a singing performance by Hubbard (a la Benson?) and a cover of Midnight At The Oasis. But as his performance at the Downbeat Awards showed, even during this period, he was still capable of playing with the fire and intensity of the former years - he had just been holding back.

His audience did indeed grow during these years and the records sold well for the most part, but were attacked, or in some cases simply ignored, by jazz critics. His standing in the jazz world diminished as he released one dud after another; "Windjammer" (1976) and "Splash" (a slightly later effort for Fantasy) are low points.

Within a few years, Hubbard was expressing regrets about his career path and largely abandoned his more commercial approach to return to his jazz roots. In 1977, he toured with Herbie Hancock's acoustic V.S.O.P. Quintet, reprising his former role in Maiden Voyage and other Hancock compositions, as well as filling in for the then-ailing Miles Davis on Hancock's contributions to the 60s Quintet. By the 1980s, on recordings for Pablo, Blue Note, and Atlantic, he showed that he could reach still his former heights, even if much of the jazz world had given up on him.

Most of his recordings as a leader from the early 1980s on, for Pablo, Musicmasters and other labels, were small-group sessions emphasizing his gifts as an improviser that helped restore his critical reputation. With the deaths of Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis in the 90s, Hubbard seemed perfectly poised to assume the role of veteran master. However, his career came to an abrupt halt in 1992 when he damaged his lip. By Hubbard’s own account, he seriously injured his upper lip that year by playing too hard, without warming up, once too often. The lip became infected, and for the rest of his life it was a struggle for him to play with his trademark strength and fire. As Howard Mandel explained in a 2008 Down Beat article, “His ability to project and hold a clear tone was damaged, so his fast finger flurries often result in blurts and blurs rather than explosive phrases.”

After an extended hiatus, Hubbard nonetheless resumed recording and performing, primarily on flügelhorn rather than on the more demanding trumpet, although he was never again as powerful a player as he had been in his prime. Hubbard, once known as the brashest of jazzmen, mellowed in the wake of his lip problems. In a 1995 interview with Fred Shuster of Down Beat, he offered some sober advice to younger musicians: “Don’t make the mistake I made of not taking care of myself. Please, keep your chops cool and don’t overblow.”

Hubbard was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2006. I will miss him.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Monday Night

The Monday between Christmas and New Years, and we still had four persons show up for the Monday night Zen service - two regulars, one first timer and one from out of town.

I gave the first timer basic meditation instruction during the first sitting period, and then we joined the meditation in progress for the second period. Afterwords, we read the second chapter of Dogen's Zuimonki.

Dogen said, "[Monks] should maintain the precepts and eating regulations (one meal a day before noon, etc.). Still, it is a mistake to insist upon them as essential, establish them as a practice and expect to gain the Way by observing them."

Dogen was not implying that we should break the precepts and become self indulgent. "Clinging to such an attitude is an evil view and not that of a Buddhist practitioner." It seems that Dogen sought the middle way, that is, keeping the precepts without clinging to them, without expectation of some reward from observing them. Dogen emphasized just keeping them and practicing without the defilements of human sentiments.

"Observing the precepts single-mindedly is nothing other than practicing shikantaza," Dogen said. "When we sit in zazen, what precept is not observed, what merit is not actualized?"

This led to a long, at times intensely personal, group discussion of our clinging to expectations of rewards, ideas of how we "ought" to behave, and of other hindrances in our daily lives to realizing our true nature. I admire the courage and honesty of the group to talk so candidly and intimately about their lives and their practice.

In the first chapter of Zuimonki, Dogen warned that the practice of worshipping relics was not a path to realization, and in this second chapter he stressed that observing the precepts was not the Way. In both chapters, he emphasised the practice of zazen as the singular way to achieve realization, echoing his words in Bendo-wa:

"After the initial meeting with a good teacher we never again need to burn incense, to do prostrations, to recite Buddha's name, to practice confession, or to read sutras. Just sit, and get the state which is free of body and mind."

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Prickle and Goo

One of the things I've learned during all of my recent time off is that there's hardly ever anything on television worth watching. An occasional movie or perhaps a football game, but that's about it.

Last week, I was surfing through the chanel guide trying to find something, anything, to watch, when I saw a listing for a documentary film called "The Tao of Gumby" over on the IFC Channel. Okay, I'll bite - I clicked over and dropped in on the movie in progress. I had jumped in just in time to hear Gumby creator Art Clokey discuss how we came up with Gumby's friends Prickle and Goo.

"I was a friend of a psychologist in Hollywood. He invited me to go with him up to San Jose to a convention of psychologists. I was interested in psychology at the time. We were in the lecture hall at San Jose State, and one psychologist would get up and make a speech. It was pretty boring for me. But the MC happened to be Allen Watts, the Zen Philosopher of Sausalito. He would crack us up and tell funny stories and get our blood circulating again. And they would put on another psychologist to bore us again.

"At one of these little humorous intermissions, he said there were two kinds of people in the world, the prickly and the gooey. The prickly are rigid and uptight, analytical, and critical. The gooey are easygoing, flowing in the here and now, friendly and jolly.

"I said I have got to make two characters to symbolize those two types of people. Then people all over the world will be able to identify with them. So we created the little, yellow dinosaur with his spines, and named him Prickle. Goo is a very gooey blue mermaid."

So, it would seem that Prickle and Goo were inspired by - if not outright created by - "the Zen Philosopher of Sausalito," Alan Watts. Curious, I went on line and a Google search quickly led me to the above animation over on YouTube. Even more surprising to me than the Watts-Gumby connection, though, was that the clip was animated by none other than the notorious Trey Parker and Matt Stone of "South Park" fame. And since there were other animations of Watts talks by Parker and Stone, unrelated to Prickle and Goo, one of which I've posted previously, their interest was in Watts, not in Gumby. Go figure. For those of you interested, what I think is the whole of the Parker/Stone animations of Watts has been posted by Mumon over on his web site.

Watts' 1957 book, "The Way of Zen," was one of the first "serious" books on Zen I'd read back in the mid-1970s, after having first read "The Dharma Bums" and some other Kerouac and finding that wanting, and various hippie books on Buddhism that were equally uninformative. As I've mentioned before, this early interest in Zen was effectively squashed when I read Janwillem van de Wetering's account of his time in a Zen monastery, "The Empty Mirror." Eating nothing but rice, sitting in one position without moving for hours on end, sadistic monks who beat you with sticks? - it all sounded horrible. Oddly, some people I know have told me that the very same book is what got them into Zen. My dharma barrier turns out to be some people's dharma gate. I've purchased a new copy of the book and I'm looking forward to re-reading it to see if it now sounds different to me. I'll get to it just as soon as I get through the other dozen or so books in front of it that I intend on reading.

But back to Alan Watts. He certainly does have a compelling way of speaking, and even if I find his approach to Zen more philosophical than practical (as in the "practice" of zazen) - the term "Zen Philosopher of Sausalito" seems particularly appropriate, in every sense of each term - his contributions to spreading the dharma in America should be noted and appreciated. However, he is not treated very kindly in James Ishmael Ford's "Zen Master Who? A Guide to the People and Stories of Zen." In a first-person account of a meeting with him, Ford notes that Watts "seemed intoxicated" and was accompanied by a "fawning young woman" who "seemed not to be wearing any underwear." Even less kind is the name of a biography written about Watts, "Genuine Fake." The man certainly courted controversy.

As I noted above, I have a few bones myself that I would like to have picked with Watts, but this unkind treatment is unwarranted in my opinion. As a public intellectual, the man did more to champion the cause of Zen in the West than anyone else I can think of, even lecturing stoned hippies on Zen between acts at the Fillmore West back in the 1960s, and if he were also a libertine, well then that was his nature, even if it did offend a few priggish monks.

After all, aren't we all a little bit Prickle and a little bit Goo?

Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Prayer For Barack Obama

It looks like things aren't going so well in the Middle East. Over 200 dead and over 400 wounded as Israel bombards Hamas strongholds in Gaza. A leader of Hamas has called for Palestinian retribution in the form of a new intifada against Israel, including a return to suicide missions.

Israel claims that the bombardment is in retaliation for Hamas strikes against Israel, and while you can't blame a nation for defending itself, this isn't likely to improve the situation in the region. Islamic extremists will see in this as a call to defend their Muslim brothers, leading to more war, leading to more retaliation, leading to more counter-measures, leading to more suffering

It seems that in the months between the election and Obama's taking office, the world has been doing all it can to make his new job as difficult as possible. The global economy gets worse and worse, the significant sums of taxpayer money spent on revitalization packages seems to have been ineffective if not ill-used, Pakistan and India are as close as ever to nuclear war, and now this.

As much as ever, these times call for an enlightened leader. The Chinese Daoist text Kanshi states "The sea does not refuse water; therefore it is able to realize its greatness. Mountains do not reject the earth; therefore they are able to realize great height. Enlightened leaders do not despise people; therefore they are able to peacefully govern a large nation."

Dogen pointed out that although enlightened leaders do not despise people, there is still reward and punishment. But even in reward and punishment, there is no hatred. An enlightened ruler uses reward and punishment as a loving parent applies kindness and discipline to children.

An enlightened leader should act to benefit equally both those who are hostile and those who are friendly. Dogen noted, "Kind speech is the foundation for overcoming those who are angry and hostile, as well as for promoting harmony among others. When we hear kind speech that is spoken directly to us, it brightens our countenance and delights our heart. When we hear of kind speech having been spoken about us in our absence, this makes a deep impression on our heart and our spirit." So in this explosive situation, the ancestors tell us that enlightened leadership will act not to have one side triumph over the other, but to clearly see the situation without prejudice and to act for the benefit of all sides (the "win-win" situation), and further, that kind words are an important and useful tool in this effort.

And what can we do? Dogen points out that just as the sea receives its greatness from the rivers which empty into it, so too can the water in the rivers realize greatness by becoming one with the sea. By extension, an enlightened leader receives greatness from leading the many, friend and foe alike, and the many can come to realize greatness by being good citizens of the great nation. And how can we overcome our own strong opinions and prejudices and be good citizens of the great nation, accepting the guidance of an enlightened leader? By letting go of body and mind through the practice of zazen.

So my prayer for Barack Obama and for his ability to resolve the many crises that will be facing him in the first few months of his Administration, is my quiet shikantaza. As Soyu Matzuoka, the founder of my Order, said, it's the most that we can do.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Geology of Georgia

Notes on Part One of an Occasional Series:
The Appalachian Plateau

Don't be fooled by the quick appearance of a second installment of the occasional "Geology of Georgia" series. This isn't a new entry; rather, it's merely notes on the last entry about the geology of the Appalachian Plateau. A legitimate new entry isn't likely to appear here anytime too soon. However, my research following my little geologic reconnaissance up to northwest Georgia compels me to share some observations about the state of geologic sciences here in Georgia.
For those of you unfamiliar with geology, or confused about the appearance of somewhat academic, geologic discussion in an otherwise unrelated blog, either just skip this entry or listen to the words as one would a new and unfamiliar music (remember the first time you heard reggae? zydeco?). If you like it, seek out some more; if not, then don't bother. For you science types who may have come here via a Google or other search and are bewildered to find science and spirituality discussed side by side: Boo!

Preliminary geologic investigations in the southeast tended to be regional in scope and cover a variety of geological issues. For example, the earliest reports on the geology of the Appalachian Plateau and most of northwest Georgia were done by C.W. Hayes in the 1890s and 1900s. Despite the limitations of his time (no automobile access - he likely visited much of the territory on foot or by horseback), Hayes' work is still quite valid. For example, he correctly interpreted the relationship between the Corbin Gneiss and the overlying metaconglomerate, and was the first to identify the Cartersville Fault as the boundary between the Paleozoic sedimentary rocks of the Valley and Ridge and the older, crystalline rocks of the Blue Ridge and Piedmont. Although much of his work was later modified, the primary contributions of this exceptional pioneer in Georgia geology still remain intact.

In northwest Georgia, Hayes named a thick and persistent sandstone he encountered the "Lookout sandstone" for its conspicuous displays as the rim rock at the top of Lookout Mountain. However, although a perfectly adequate term, the concept of the "Lookout sandstone" has gone through considerable revision since Hayes' time, and the name has subsequently fallen out of common use.

Stratigraphic terminology was treated differently at that time, and there was a particular lack of uniformity in treatment of lithostratigraphic units. The concept of a "formation" during the early 20th Century was not based so much on lithologic content as is the case today, but on stratigraphic association, stratigraphic position and fossil content. Geologic time was therefore inherent in the concept of lithostratigraphic units. This often resulted in ambiguous, confusing, and contradictory assignments of rocks to "formations" based on chronostratigraphic, not lithostratigraphic, concepts.

Case in point: working in the 1930s and 40s, Charles Butts included Hayes' "Lookout sandstone" into the so-called "Pottsville formation," named for similarly-aged rocks near the town of Pottsville, Pennsylvania. Butts' "Pottsville formation" consisted of all rocks of Pennsylvanian age in Georgia; therefore, time, not rock content, was the integral part of the definition of the "Pottsville formation," inconsistent with the modern definition of "formation" in the North American Stratigraphic Code. Today, only rocks that are lithically similar to the Pottsville Formation at its type locality in Pennsylvania and laterally continuous with those beds are considered "Pottsville formation." However, citing Butts, many subsequent geologic reports identified the Pennsylvanian-aged rocks in Georgia and Alabama as the "Pottsville formation."

In the early 1960s, Charles Cressler applied the terms used in Tennessee to these rocks, and divided Hayes' "Lookout sandstone" into a lower Gizzard member and an upper Sewanee member, avoiding association with the Pottsville Formation of Pennsylvania. The Gizzard, named for Fiery Gizzard Creek in Marion County, Tennessee, has been subsequently elevated to formation status in Georgia, and the lower part of what Hayes once called the "Lookout sandstone" is now called the Gizzard Formation. In Georgia, the overlying Sewanee has been designated a member of the Crab Orchard Mountains Formation, so that the upper part of what Hayes called the "Lookout sandstone" is now called the Sewanee Member of the Crab Orchard Mountains Formation. Today, the once perfectly-adequate term "Lookout sandstone" is no longer used.

This problem of confusion over time (chronostratigraphic) and rock (lithostratigraphic) terms was not restricted to the rocks of northwest Georgia. In the Coastal Plain, many preliminary investigators, including W.H. Dall (1890s), T.W. Vaughan (1910s), J.O Veatch and L.D. Stephenson (1908 through 1915), and J.A. Gardner (1920s), set the ground work for subsequent studies. Between 1925 and 1945, C.W. Cooke published a series of comprehensive compilations of the stratigraphic units in the Coastal Plain of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, based largely on the work of his predecessors. This often resulted in the assignment of Coastal Plain sediments to "formations" based on time (chronostratigraphy), not rock (lithostratigraphy). For example, Cooke called all limestones with a certain fossil assemblage indicative of Oligocene age the "Tampa formation" for similarly aged limestones in Florida, regardless of the lithologic nature of the limestones. It was not until the late 1980s that Paul Huddlestun redefined the stratigraphic units of the Georgia Coastal Plain based on modern formation concepts, resulting in increased stratigraphic resolution and a better understanding of the geologic framework and history of the Georgia Coastal Plain.

Even where the time/rock controversy wasn't an issue, understanding of the geology of Georgia has been hampered by inadequacies of earlier investigations. For example, between northwest Georgia and the Coastal Plain lies a broad area of crystalline bedrock called the Piedmont Province. Geologists working in the adjacent Carolinas have divided these crystalline rocks into poorly defined, locally named belts or accreted "suspect terranes." Each belt or suspect terrane supposedly had a characteristic association of lithologies, metamorphic grade and structural features. However, in Georgia, neither the "belts," nor the "suspect terranes," are internally homogeneous geologic entities with features that contrast sharply with those of nearby "belts" or terranes, despite the efforts of many geologists to extent the boundaries of these units from the Carolinas into Georgia. The belt concept, although now deeply ingrained in southeastern geologic literature, has greatly hindered understanding of the geology and history of Georgia.

Despite these setbacks and despite the current lack of a Geological Survey in the state of Georgia (the Governor disbanded the former Georgia Geologic Survey, my one-time employer, earlier this decade for financial reasons), the efforts of many scientists working at universities and for the federal U.S. Geological Survey have allowed the understanding and modern interpretations of the geology of Georgia to continue.


Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas On Planet Earth

And so here it is, this, my Christmas Day posting for 2008. This year, I'm full of sunny good cheer, caused not entirely by the shot of Bailey's Irish Creme in my morning coffee, but also by this video, which I'm sharing to hopefully spread my glad tidings and joy:

According to, "ever since he heard some street musicians outside a subway station move some 200-odd passersby to tears, Mark Johnson has been thinking up a way to shine more light on the transformative power of music. After ten years, this Grammy winning filmmaker has got something. Something remarkable, actually: bringing together musicians from around the world -- blues singers in a waterlogged New Orleans, chamber groups in Moscow, a South African choir -- to collaborate on songs familiar and new, in the effort to foster a new, greater understanding of our commonality. As part of 'Playing for Change', this is moving remix of the popular 'Stand By Me' performed by more than 100 musicians from Tibet to Zimbabwe!"

I literally got misty-eyed watching this, but then maybe I'm just aging into a sentimental old fool. And if that didn't warm the cockles of your heart, perhaps this MTV blast from the past, brought to my attention by none other than the High Zen Priestess herself, might do the trick.

It was formerly my habit on holidays like Christmas to post cynical pictures like the one below, reminding us that America's first decisive military victory came when General Washington ambushed British troops sleeping off their hangovers from their Christmas Eve festivities:

Or, this - Joe the Plumber's Christmas complaint:

However, this year, I have more optimism - you could even say Obama-like hope - so instead of snickering at the traditions and beliefs of others, this year I'm choosing to share this old chestnut from years past:

Speaking of years past, Christmas traditions and the legend of Santa Claus have been celebrated differently in past times, as well as in different parts of the world. The American humorist David Sedaris notes that "In France and Germany gifts are exchanged on Christmas Eve, while in the Netherlands the children open their presents on December 5, in celebration of St. Nicholas Day."

The Dutch Saint Nicholas was apparently not the jolly fat man of current American lore. According to Sedaris, Saint Nicholas travelled with "six to eight black men." These six to eight black men were characterized as personal slaves until the mid 1950s, when the political climate changed and it was decided that instead of being slaves they were just his "good friends." Sedaris notes that "history has proven that something usually comes between slavery and friendship, a period of time marked not by cookies and quiet hours beside the fire but by bloodshed and mutual hostility."

Further, if a child was naughty, instead of bestowing presents, the Dutch Saint Nicholas and his six to eight "good friends" would beat him or her with the small branch of a tree. If the youngster was really bad, they'd put him in a sack and take him to, of all places, Spain, which actually doesn't sound all that bad right now (Spain is wonderful this time of year).

Unlike the jolly, obese American Santa, who by the way, is apparently now Canadian, Saint Nicholas was painfully thin and dressed "not unlike the pope, topping his robes with a tall hat resembling an embroidered tea cozy. The outfit, I was told, is a carryover from his former career, when he served as the bishop of Turkey."

Apparently, our perception of Santa Claus was once somewhat more similar to the Dutch version than to our modern vision. While we never went as far as assuming that Santa was the former Bishop of Turkey, kidnapping bad children to Spain with his six to eight personal slaves, as shown in this movie from 1898, Santa Claus wasn't always considered fat - in fact, he once was skinny and dressed something like a Manchurian monk (note the long sleeves):

That's it for this year, folks. My hope is that by providing some videos for you to watch, some pictures that may make you smile, some music and some words, I've made your holiday a little more enjoyable.

Joyeaux Noel, y'all.

Postscript: I decided the 1898 silent movie was perhaps a tad too silent, so I updated it with a soundtrack. The music is by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, "Ruined Castles" from the 1964 album, "I Talk With the Spirits." I thought it had the right lullaby qualities where needed and the right magical elements where needed, and despite the glum title, a holiday sound throughout. Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas On Mars

Basically, I don't drink. Much.

About five years ago, I gave up all alcohol entirely, not sipping so much as drop for almost two years. I did this in part to support a girlfriend of that time who was a recovering alcoholic and also in part to practice the precept of not clouding the mind with intoxicants. Strangely, at the Zen Center, the precept has lately been interpreted as "not selling alcohol to others," which sounds completely different than my former clear-mind interpretation of the precept; it sounds more like "I ain't selling any - all the more for me!" But I digress.

The relationship with the girlfriend went the way of all flesh, but I continued abstaining, basically because I learned to like the abstinence. Something had changed inside me after two years of sobriety, and I lost all enthusiasm for intoxication; in fact, I now abhor that state. Try it yourself, and see if two years of abstinence doesn't change your perception of intoxication.

Oddly, my abhorrence is now so strong that I allow myself the occasional cold beer on a summer day, the glass of wine with dinner, and even the occasional cocktail, because I know that I will reflexively cut myself off as soon as I start to feel the unpleasant, to me, buzz of alcohol, just as surely as you know that you will drop a lit match when it starts to burn too close to your fingers.

But then there's Christmas . . . for some reason, Christmas seems to bring out my inner alcoholic. To me, the solstice celebration has always involved liquor to some extent. A little Bailey's Irish Creme in the coffee, some red wine with dinner, lots of cold ales, and after dinner, of course, another little drinkey drink drink.

So today, reflexively, I observed my Christmas tradition with a run to the liquor store. I bought a bottle of Bailey's for the morning coffee (it tastes great on ice cream, too), some Maker's Mark Kentucky bourbon, a Cabernet, and a bottle of champagne, the latter just because a woman I know mentioned the outside chance, the remote possibility, of coming over on New Year's Eve to share a toast with me.

Oh, I also bought a six-pack of Dogfish Head 60-Minute IPA. I don't know if you're familiar with Dogfish Head ales or not, but if you're at all interested in beer, then this is the stuff. At $9.49 a six, it's not the cheapest brew on the shelf, but it's worth every penny. It's nothing short than the final realization of the dream of the micro-brewery, and we can finally honestly say that American micro-brews, if not outright better, can at least proudly stand head-to-head with any foreign imports. According to the copy on their packaging:

"The ingredients in our recipes come from the earth and the oven.
They come from interfering and letting be. . .

. . . For us, brewing is not a process of automation, but of imagination and passion.

We wrap our hands around plastic shovels to clean out mash tuns.
We wrap our hands around sticky clumps of whole leaf hops and toss them into the boil kettle.

We wrap our hands around our work because we are proud to make something with our own hands."
Much more inspiring than, say, "king of beers."

At my rate of consumption, these purchases may last me until almost next Christmas.

Post-Script: For those of you interested in such things, The Flaming Lips' movie, "Christmas on Mars" debuts tonight at midnight on the Sundance Channel.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Throat of Winter

Over the hump: winter solstice has passed; days are getting longer. Have you noticed?

I've started my annual end-of-the-year, vacation-time burn. The companies I've worked for over the last few years have a use-it-or-lose-it policy on accrued vacation time, so I'm forced to take time off at the end of the year. I'm home from December 23rd to January 5th. Lots of opportunities for shikantaza.

Not that I've finished working though. I still had to wrap up an unfinished business proposal today, working remotely. What did we do before the Internet?

But I did get the proposal out, and later in the day got two emails from two separate clients, awarding two separate contracts I had proposed on earlier this month. The clients likely sent out the "win" notices as they were leaving their offices for their holiday vacations.

But anyway, here on this little corner of planet Earth that I call "Atlanta," temperatures here been roller-coasting, from highs in the 70s over the weekends, to highs in the low 40s (and lows in the high 20s) the last few days. "Global weirding," a friend of mine called it.

2007 was one of the coolest in the past 10 years, and the cool summer temperatures in particular were cited as one of the reasons for the less-than-stimulating retail sales this year. "Global warming, my ass," some of my skeptic co-workers mutter, as they head outside in late December in their short sleeves, unaware of their unintentional irony.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Just Sitting

So Shikiku, my unofficial Zen teacher, has flown off to live in Switzerland, leaving me under the guidance of his Zen teacher, Taiun (who's actually my official Zen teacher). Shikiku, or as I call him, Arthur, will be missed, but that's the way the world turns.

Arthur, who charged me with the Monday night service at the Zen Center 5 1/2 years ago, asked me prior to his leaving to assist the Chattanooga group as I'm able, and suggested that I might incorporate passages from Zen Master Dogen's Zuimonki into occasional talks up there, as I had done several years ago when I first started the Monday nights. A good idea, and to prepare, I stated using Zuimonki again during the Monday night services.

This evening, we started with Book 1, Chapter 1. I had been under the impression that the short chapters of Zuimonki were more or less random, but in reading 1-1, I came across the following:
"Since being the Buddha's child is following the Buddha's teaching and reaching buddhahood directly, we must devote ourselves to following the teaching and put all our efforts into the practice of the Way. The true practice which is in accordance with the teaching is nothing but shikantaza, which is the essence of the life in this sorin (monastery) today. Think this over deeply."
Shikantaza literally means "just sitting." As Arthur once explained to me, the -za is "sitting," as in zazen ("sitting meditation"), and shikan- is "just." The -ta is sort of like an exclamation point, so the translation might be just! sitting, or even JUST! sitting. It is not sitting to experience enlightenment, it is just! sitting. It is not sitting to drop off body and mind, it is just! sitting. It is not even sitting to try and just sit, it is just! sitting. Anything added to "just sitting" is not shikantaza. Shikantaza is simply zazen which is practiced without expecting any reward. It is simply being yourself, right here, right now.

This emphasis on shikantaza as the very essence of true Buddhist practice is essential to Dogen and to the Soto school of Zen Buddhism. In the first chapter of his master work, Shobogenzo, titled Bendo-wa, Dogen emphasizes this same point:
"In the authentic transmission of our religion, it is said that this buddha-dharma, which has been authentically and directly transmitted one-to-one, is supreme among the supreme. After the initial meeting with a good teacher we never again need to burn incense, to do prostrations, to recite Buddha's name, to practice confession, or to read sutras. Just sit, and get the state which is free of body and mind."
It can be argued that all the rest of Dogen's teachings and writings are just an amplification of this basic concept. It's no wonder, then, that Bendo-wa is the first chapter of Shobogenzo, as it sets the theme for everything that follows.

And it also tells me that the chapters of Zuimonki may not be quite so random after all, as the same theme that introduces Shobogenzo is sounded in the first chapter of Zuimonki.

Thursday, December 18, 2008


A friend of mine emailed me these pictures. Apparently, two construction workers were advancing a post hole out in "the middle of nowhere," when they hit a high-pressure natural gas line.

Neither survived.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Pundit Zen

Today's David Brooks column in the New York Times is purportedly a review and commentary on Malcolm Gladwell's new book, Outliers. I haven't read it yet (the book that is, I did read the column), but I have read several excerpts from Outliers that have run in The New Yorker, so I have some idea what they're talking about. I'm looking forward to reading the book.

Outliers is basically about what causes some people to be successful at certain things, from athletics to the arts to business, while others never succeed. His premise isn't so much that some people are just born talented, or are better educated or otherwise empowered, but were just lucky enough to have been at the right place at the right time and clever enough and persistent enough to have capitalized on that good fortune.

But what struck me about Brooks' column, though, wasn't so much what he had to say about the book (he liked it and intends to hand it out for free in Times Square, or so he says). What I appreciated was that by emphasizing the "persistence" part of the equation, Brooks wound up writing one of the best endorsements of the power of zazen that I've seen from an (I assume) non-practioner.

"Most successful people also have a phenomenal ability to consciously focus their attention," he writes. "We know from experiments with subjects as diverse as obsessive-compulsive disorder sufferers and Buddhist monks that people who can self-consciously focus attention have the power to rewire their brains."

In zazen, that is exactly what we are doing - rewiring our brains. The conscious, associative mind rebels against sitting there doing, well, nothing, but we train ourselves to put our concentration where we want it, when we want it, for as long as we want it, instead of being lead around willy-nilly by our monkey mind, as we usually are. This quite literally changes the synapses in the brain and eventually allows us to bring that concentration and attentiveness to other aspects of our life.

"Control of attention is the ultimate individual power," Brooks asserts. "People who can do that are not prisoners of the stimuli around them. They can choose from the patterns in the world and lengthen their time horizons. This individual power leads to others. It leads to self-control, the ability to formulate strategies in order to resist impulses."

I've written here several times about how we are prisoners not so much of our stimuli (sensations) but of our perceptions of that stimuli. Still, Brooks has it close enough.

"It leads to resilience, the ability to persevere with an idea even when all the influences in the world say it can’t be done." Perseverance is continuing to do zazen, to solve an unsolvable koan - these are hallmarks of Zen. Logic tells us that sitting looking at a wall can't possibly be the same thing as enlightenment, and yet we persevere, not stupidly, not blindly, but with great faith in the effects that we can plainly see that it has had on our lives. A koan, by definition, can't be solved by logic ("What is the sound of one hand clapping?") and every attempt to provide the teacher with an answer is seemingly met by rejection ("Mu!"), and yet we persevere.

Brooks correctly notes that control of attention "leads to creativity. Individuals who can focus attention have the ability to hold a subject or problem in their mind long enough to see it anew."

We had two first-timers at last night's Zen service. They were frustrated - and a little intrigued - when I wouldn't acknowledge that the "purpose" of zazen was to be happier, or to be calmer, or more relaxed, or to live a more joyful, fulfilling life. Those are side-benefits, I explained, of giving up the idea of having a "purpose" to your practice. But we must be careful, I explained, that we're not giving up the concept of "purpose" with some other purpose in mind. That might have lost them, but I hope that they read Brooks column today - he said beautifully what I couldn't - and that they come back next week.

Monday, December 15, 2008


And suddenly, I'm seeing "shokais" everywhere, sort of like how a Discordian might see fnords.

For example, this morning, while flipping through Bob Myers' 2003 translation of Bendo-wa, the first chapter of Dogen's Shobogenzo, I see that Dogen states "a religious teacher aligned with the truth is indispensable for Buddhism to be taught and learned" (emphasis added). That term "aligned with the truth" is, naturally, shokai (or shokei - same thing). In Japanese, the term is 得道証契. In a footnote, Myers explains "I see no consensus on how to translate this. 証 is of course 'validation' or 'affirmation,' often translated as 'enlightenment' or 'realization,' but what about 契? In modern Japanese it’s commonly used in the term 契約 or contract; modern Japanese dictionaries give as other senses 'understanding (as in agreement),' promise, opportunity. Some translators have 'merge,' others 'accord.'" In a 2008 translation, Myers changed "aligned with the truth" to "centered in the truth," with the same footnote.

So this got me to looking at other translations of Bendo-wa. The line is from Dogen's answer to the fourth question in the text (the second half of Bendo-wa is a sort of Q&A session). In the Nishijima translation of the entire Shobogenzo, the line reads, "Moreover, for transmission of the Buddha-Dharma, we must always take as a teacher a person who has experienced the [Buddha's] state." No footnotes for shokai, "experienced the Buddha's state" are provided.

The esteemed Shohaku Okumura and Taigen Daniel Leighton translated Bendo-wa along with commentary from Okumura's teacher, Kosho Uchiyama as the book The Wholehearted Way. Their translation of this line reads "Also, in transmitting buddha-dharma, you must definitely have as a true teacher someone who accords with enlightenment." Uchiyama's commentary discusses the importance of such a teacher, but does not discuss any translation issues.

Finally, Rev. Hubert Nearman of Mount Shasta Abbey has put an ambitious new translation of the entire Shobogenzo, a 14-year labor of love, on line. In Bendo-wa, the shokai line is translated, "Furthermore, the Transmitting of the Buddha Dharma must be done by a Master of our tradition whose personal awakening has been certified."

Many different translations, many fingers pointing at the moon. From all this, I take a little more understanding of what my dharma name, Shokai, actually means, and, well, the importance of having a teacher who shokais.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

What's a "Shokai"?

To study the Way is to study the Self.
To study the Self is to study the names of the Self.
To study the names of the Self is to drive to Chattanooga with your Zen teacher while he shows you the manuscript from which your dharma name was selected.

Okay, so it's not quite Dogen, but it does summarize my experience today.

There was an initiation ceremony in Chattanooga for two new Zen Buddhists today, and Arthur, my Zen teacher (who's moving to Switzerland soon), and I drove up to officiate. Part of the initiation is the assignment of a dharma name. At my ceremony in 2002, I was given the name Shokai and told that it meant "state of accord." I wasn't told what it was supposed to be in accordance with, but since the -kai in Shokai sounded like the -kai in jukai (receiving of the precepts, part of the initiation ceremony), I assumed my new name meant "state of accordance with the precepts."

A word about the precepts: they sound like commandments - there's even a list of 10 "grave precepts" - but the Buddhist precepts are very different from Judeo-Christian commandments. The precepts aren't considered to be rules handed down from some divine being that must be obeyed in order to please Her, but are instead common-sense guidelines on how to live a life on the spiritual path. First, there are the three "pure precepts:"

  1. Not creating evil - do no harm.
  2. Practicing goodness - do only good.
  3. Purifying intentions - do good for others.
The three pure precepts are more positive that the "thou shalt nots" of the 10 Commandments. Additionally, they're sufficiently vague so that the practitioner has to use judgement in how to maintain them. However, the 10 grave precepts are more specific. The first five of the 10 grave precepts are given at the initiate's jukai ceremony:
  1. Affirm life - do not kill.
  2. Be giving - do not take what is not freely given.
  3. Honor the body - do not engage is sexual misconduct.
  4. Manifest truth - do not speak falsely.
  5. Proceed clearly - do not cloud the mind with intoxicants.
As you can see, they're expressed both in positive and negative terms - they tell you what to do and also what not to do. During the jukai ceremony, after the precepts are read to and repeated by the initiates, they are asked, "Will you observe these precepts until you realize Buddhahood?" In Zen, it is recognized that we observe the precepts by breaking them - not that we have a "licence to sin," but when we find ourselves, say, telling a lie, we may think, "Aha! I am not manifesting truth," and this realization allows us to right our conduct accordingly.

So, anyway, those are the precepts given by initiates. I had thought the name Shokai meant "State of Accord (with the precepts)," and although the roshi (Abbott) of our Center always insisted that I consider it to mean "State of Accord (with the teacher)," I stuck to my belief.

Until today. For today's ceremony in Chattanooga, Arthur had to select names for the two new initiates. He picked good ones: Shinkan ("Mind Gate") and Dojin ("Childlike Compassion"). But in going through his notes on the drive up, I found the notes from the older ceremonies, including those from my 2002 initiation. According to the notes, the meaning of "Shokai" can be found in the footnotes of Chapter 48 of the Nishijima translation of Zen Master Dogen's master work, Shobogenzo.

As soon as I got home, I looked up the chapter ("Expounding the Mind and Expounding the Nature") in Shobogenzo. According to note 14 on page 53, "sho-" means experience and "-kai" means pledge, promise, accord, or binding agreement. So according to Nishijima, "shokai" means "the state which is exactly the same as the state of Gautama Buddha."

I can always understand terms better when I hear them used in a sentence. In Chapter 16 ("The Certificate of Succession") of Shobogenzo, Dogen writes,

"Buddhas, without exception, receive the Dharma from buddhas, buddha-to-buddha, and patriarchs, without exception, receive the Dharma from patriarchs, patriarch-to-patriarch; this is experience of the Buddha's state [shokai], this is the one-to-one transmission, and for this reason it is the supreme state of bodhi."

So, the term Shokai refers neither to a state in accordance with the precepts nor to a state in accordance with the teachers, but instead to the direct experience of the Buddha's supreme state of wisdom (bodhi). Based on that, there is a big difference between the name and the one who carries the name. But then, dharma names are meant to be aspirational, something to live up to, big shoes to fill.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Geology of Georgia

Part One of an Occasional Series:
The Appalachian Plateau

I blog about a lot of things here, but please don't you forget (because I do occasionally) that I'm actually a geologist. Master's Degree, Boston University, 1980. My geology's gotten fairly rusty, but occasionally, very rarely, I get a chance to practice actual geology, instead of just arguing environmental policy with EPA, industries, and engineers at some grease spot behind an old, industrial complex.

Today, I got the opportunity to get out in the field for a client who needed a geologic reconnaissance of a piece of property in northwest Georgia. I used the opportunity to also provide myself with a refresher tour of the geology of the Appalachian Plateau.

In the map above, the Appalachian Plateau is that little yellowish area way up there in the upper left-hand corner of the state. In Georgia, the Appalachian Plateau includes the Lookout Mountain District. Lookout is a nearly flat-topped mountain, capped by sandstones of Pennsylvanian age. It is separated from a spur, Pigeon Mountain, visible in the map above as that piece of the plateau that looks like it's trying to break away. Between Lookout and Pigeon Mountains is McLemore's Cove, which is underlain by limestone of Ordovician age. The escarpment on the southeastern side of Lookout and Pigeon Mountains abruptly drops 800 to 1,000 feet to the Chickamauga Valley and is breached by numerous small streams which reach the valley floors through deep notches in the cliffs.

Sound interesting? If so, then come on, I'll take you on a geologic tour. First, you'll need a scorecard, a chart of the geologic formations that make up the more interesting mountains and ridges (we'll leave those boring valley-floor limestones alone for now).

Driving north out of Atlanta on I-75, we cross the Cartersville fault somewhere around Lake Allatoona, and the bedrock abruptly changes from the hard crystalline rocks of the Georgia Piedmont to those softer, Paleozoic strata of the Valley and Ridge Province. We leave I-75 at Adairsville and head toward Armuchee, and shortly after Armuchee, we come to Taylor Ridge, the first major hill of our trip.

Taylor Ridge is supported by dense cherts of Devonian and Mississippian age. Chert is an extremely fine-grained, insoluble residue of silica that generally forms from limestone deposits. Alert readers will have already correctly concluded, based on the chart above, that these Devonian and Mississippian beds are in fact the Armuchee and Fort Payne Cherts. There are good exposures of these cherts on U.S. Highway 27 past the town of Gore, just as you start to climb the ridge. Here's a picture of those exposures:

The Armuchee Chert was named by noted geologist C.W. Hayes in 1902 for the town of Armuchee, Georgia (which we just passed through). The Armuchee is a black or medium- to dark-grey, thinly-bedded, fossiliferous chert. The Fort Payne Chert was named by E.A. Smith in 1890 for Fort Payne, Alabama, and occurs in layers ranging from several inches to several feet thick and tends to weather into nodules or blocks. Getting out of the car, and mindful of the traffic whizzing past, you can get a closer look and see some of the structure of the chert nodules.
During the Devonian, when the Armuchee Chert was formed, the closing of the proto-Atlantic (Iapetus) Ocean, which had begun in the Late Ordovician, was almost complete, resulting in the continental collision that produced the folding of the Appalachian Mountains along the east coast, or leading edge, of the North American continent. As the two plates collided, deposits along the leading edge of North America were uplifted and the debris was shed onto the continent to the west. Closure of the Iapetus Ocean was completed during the Pennsylvanian Period, completing the assembly of the supercontinent Pangea.
Continuing on U.S. 27 to the top of Taylor Ridge, you can get a good view of northwest Georgia and the Chickamauga Valley terrain that lies ahead.
The first large town on 27 after Taylor Ridge is Summerville. Here's a picturesque storefront in Summerville:

As we travel toward the northwest and start to ascend Lookout Mountain, we move "up-section," higher up the chart near the top of this post. Soon, we encounter the Floyd Shale and other Mississippian formations that overlie the Fort Payne Chert west of Taylor Ridge. In contrast to the preceding Devonian and following Pennsylvanian Periods, the Mississippian appears to have been relatively stable tectonically, although the closing of Iapetus and assembly of Pangea were more-or-less constant processes.

The Floyd is the thin-bedded black shale at the bottom of the outcrop. The formation was named for Floyd County, Georgia by C.W. Hayes in 1891. East of Taylor Ridge, all Mississippian rock above the Fort Payne Chert is identified as the Floyd Shale. In the Black Warrior Basin of western Alabama, the Floyd is a good producer of natural gas.

Finally, as we get near the top of Lookout-Pigeon Mountain we also find the top of the Mississippian Series - the Pennington Formation, a hard siliceous sandstone named for Pennington Gap, Virginia. The Pennington is predominantly a gray shale with some beds of sandstone and limestone, and which forms the cliffs on the sides of the mountain.

The top of Lookout Mountain affords great views of the agricultural McLemore's Cove:

As previously noted, the top of Lookout Mountain is capped with Pennsylvanian sandstones, and driving along the plateau, we come across low, flat outcrops of the Lower Pennsylvanian Gizzard Formation. The Gizzard is about 150 feet thick and consists of fine-grained sandstone and gray shale.

We're getting near my client's site now, so I have to go to work for a little while. Due to client confidentiality, I can't show you too much of the site, but I can show you the dirty old underwear someone left nailed to the gate at the front of the site.

The Mississippian and Pennsylvanian Systems together comprise the Carboniferous Period, named for the carbon typically present in the form of coal. There's coal in the Gizzard and other Pennsylvanian deposits, although not in the underlying Mississippian. So as we drive across the Pennsylvanian plateau on the top of Lookout Mountain, we see evidence of former coal mining, in things like road names:

And old mine shafts:

(Actually, in not sure that's a mine shaft, but it is an odd tunnel that I found coming out of the bottom of Lookout Mountain on the floor of McLemore's Cove. It might be a ventilation shaft for an old mine, or just a very elaborate culvert.)
And that's the end of your tour. We drive back to Atlanta by the same route we came, whizzing past the now familiar outcrops at which we had stopped on the way up. Someday, sometime, this series on the geology of Georgia might continue.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


"If, as ordinary people believe, spiritual practice is one thing and personal realization another, then each would be seen and recognized separately from the other. Should someone become muddled within his sensory perceptions and intellectual understanding, he would not be in 'the realm of enlightenment' because the realm of enlightenment is beyond the reach of delusory, discriminatory thinking."
- Zen Master Dogen, from Bendo-Wa (1231)

It was raining from the moment I got up this morning as if the whole State of Georgia was trying to make up for two years of drought all in one big rainfall. During the rest of the day, the rainfall only increased.

By 7 pm, it let up enough for me to drive over to the Kennesaw sitting group for their evening service.
The weather forecast calls for more heavy rain tomorrow, sunny on Friday.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Driving Around the ATL

Full day: got to the office (late as usual) and worked through lunch to make up for the lost time. In the afternoon, I had to head downtown to the former state geological survey (Republican Governor Sonny Perdue shut it down). I used to work there once, back in the early 80s, many life times ago, it seems now.

Anyway, I had to stop there to buy some bulletins and topographic maps for an upcoming project. It was a little spooky going back to my old office and seeing it all deserted now except for the publications room (old Sonny closed that sucker down, but he wasn't going to shut off a functioning cash register).

After the Survey visit, I drove over to a meeting of the advisory board for the Atlanta Beltline project. However, I showed up at the wrong location - apparently, I missed an email. I made some calls, got the new location, and was able to drive over and make it just in time for the start of the meeting.

The advisory board meeting went on for over two hours, maybe longer - I don't know because I couldn't stay. I had to leave the meeting in progress because I had another meeting to go to, this time for a Neighborhood Alliance meeting. The neighborhoods have been concerned about the increase in traffic and while it appears obvious that the reason for the traffic is the local hospital, that hospital refuses to engage in any discussion with us on abatement measures (i.e., shuttle buses, off-campus offices for day procedures, staggered schedules, etc). However, we did have the good fortune of being approached by a professor from Georgia Tech with some grant money, who thought that a Health Risk Assessment of our situation would make an interesting study for her and some of her graduate students. We accepted her offer.

Tonight, she gave a presentation of her findings. Naturally, she concluded that the traffic was having a negative effect on our health on several levels - the pollution from auto emissions, the stress of gridlocked traffic, and so on. Also, the lack of sidewalks and the design of the roads discourages walking, bicycling and other forms of exercise, and exacerbates the traffic problem because everyone drives everywhere. She had statistical data on asthma, obesity, hypertension, and so on that she linked to these issues.

The recommendations were fairly predictable - better transit, more pedestrian access, and sidewalks. She also recommended a board be formed of the communities, neighborhoods and the hospital to monitor the situation and try to arrive at solutions, but noted that the hospital refused to participate in the study with her or even return her contacts. Her group at Georgia Tech is fairly well known and highly regarded in this city, and she had funding from the Johnson & Johnson foundation and support by the CDC - if the hospital was willing to brush them off, why would they start to engage the local community after all this time?

One of my neighbors wanted to talk with me about a strategy moving forward following the presentation, so we went to a local cafe for a beer and some plotting. I finally got home in time to watch "The Daily Show" and post this blog, before collapsing for the night.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Bodhi Day Blues

Today is Bodhi Day, December 8, the date of the Buddha's enlightenment. On this day, after sitting in meditation for an extended period and upon seeing the morning star, the Buddha was suddenly enlightened and spoke the words, "How marvelous! I and all sentient beings on earth, together, realize enlightenment."

At the Zen Center tonight, we talked about the meanings of these words - enlightenment was "realized," it was not something acquired or achieved, it was not conferred from some outside source, it was not something that the Buddha, that all of us, did not already possess. No separation of self and others - from the Buddha's newly enlightened point of view, he alone did not attain enlightenment - since he truly was experiencing self and others as one, if he was enlightened, so was every other sentient being. How could it be otherwise?

Today is also the start of Eid ul-Adha, the Islamic commemoration of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son. It is also Afflux, the second Discordian holiday in the season of The Aftermath.

Finally, today is also the 28th anniversary of the killing of John Lennon. I remember it well - it's one of those moments, like "Where were you when you heard about Kennedy's assassination?" (boarding a schoolbus). I was teaching physical and earth science at Salem High School at that time, and was unwinding for the evening in my Brookline apartment, watching "Monday Night Football," when Howard Cosell announced, "This, we have to say it, remember this is just a football game, no matter who wins or loses. An unspeakable tragedy, confirmed to us by ABC News in New York City: John Lennon, outside of his apartment building on the West Side of New York City, the most famous, perhaps, of all The Beatles, shot twice in the back, rushed to the Roosevelt Hospital, dead on arrival." (Admission: I didn't recall Cosell's exact words but after I found them on Wikipedia, they do sound as I remember.)

There was something cold about how Cosell shortwired his announcement to lead so directly to the "dead on arrival" without warning, without letting us first get our minds around the "shot" part and the "hospital" part, that I found offensive. I knew that I would remember this moment for the rest of my life, and thought, "Shit. Now I'm going to have to live my whole life with a Howard Cosell memory." Younger readers who've never had to endure a Cosell broadcast may not understand, but I'm sure other readers will.

Mary Ellen was off in the kitchen and not in the room with me at that moment, and I had to call her in to acknowledge the tragedy.

The next day, Salem High, I didn't know how to explain it to my students.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Loose Ends

If you're anything like me (although the chances are good that you aren't), you've been listening to The Clash for almost 30 years now, and when you first heard "Paper Planes" by M.I.A., a Tamil hip-hop artist, the sample upended your whole perception of their music. And once you got past the sample and the "bang, bang" hook, you were still impressed by the song and its satire on perceptions of immigrants. Which is a long way of getting around to saying that I like this song.

Re-reading yesterday's post about "A Christmas Tale," I realize that I didn't do a very good job of describing the film - it sounds perfectly dreadful from my brief description. While it does have it's dark side, however, it also has that quintessential French espirit that allows the characters to admit to awful things even while they enjoy a fine wine and go on celebrating a family feast together.

Essentially the movie is about grief and not only the effects it has on a family's life but on how those effects are transmitted. Early on, we're told (by shadow puppets) that the eldest son in the family died at age six from a childhood illness. The only hope they had for him was for a compatible blood donor to appear, and while no one in the family had the right blood, it was hoped that the child the mother was carrying would be a suitable donor and the boy's savior. When that didn't turn out to be the case, the oldest son died, and the mother resented her youngest child for not being the carrier of the right blood type, a grudge she held against him her whole life. That youngest child, then, felt inadequate and grew up to be an irresponsible cad, a burden on the rest of the family, and an agent of harm in his own right. Their daughter held her grief throughout her life, and never allowed herself to experience true happiness, while her own son ultimately became neurotic and a suicide theat. And so on.

When the mother's finally diagnosed with cancer, the irony is that her youngest child, the one she had long scorned for not having the right blood to save her first-born, is the appropriate donor for the bone-marrow transplant she needs, but he has been raised to be so self-centered and cavalier that it is not at all apparent whether he can be relied upon to submit to the procedure. And finally, this whole disfunctional clan reunites for one possibly final Christmas dinner together, where thay all achieve some level of redemption, although not in the corny, Hollywood, "Christmas Miracle" kind of way.

On a related note, my virtual friend Greensmile posted an interesting comment to Friday's entry. I had held that sanskara is memory that is not so-called declarative memory but closer to motor learning, but for the motor of the mind, not the body. Greensmile noted that the one time we have not yet accumulated any sanskara is at birth. We are born as essentailly blank slates, and as we learn to walk and talk, we begin to collect the templates for perception that are stored as sanskara.

Many Buddhists will argue this point and state that sanskara can be carried over from our prior lives into this existence. Our prior karma will determine whether the templates are useful, harmful or merely neutral, they say. I disagree with this traditional view - if the individual is like a clay vessel holding water (sanskara) and the vessel is destroyed, the water spills out and returns to the hydrosphere. If the clay is then fashioned into a new vessel, it cannot be filled again with the exact same water. Now I know there are those of you who want to argue that you can think of ways to store the water first, then pour that exact same water into the new vessel and thus prove me wrong. But first, to suppose that can be done with living beings presupposes some sort of divine intervention, a concept absent in Buddhism, and second, don't stick to this, or any, analogy so literally. Don't confuse the finger pointing at the moon with the moon itself.

There is a sort of divine intervention, though, in a child's accumulation of sanskara, and that is the parents' guidance. "Don't touch that, it's dirty," we're told, and "If you're good, Santa Claus will bring you presents." All of this creates the templates of associations and learned responses that we carry with us for the rest of our lives.

When that youngest child from "A Christmas Tale" was told that he was a failure for not having the right blood to save his older brother, that lesson in his own inadequacy, reinforced by his mother's distance, was carried throughout his life. Our initial sanskara is taught to us, some of it helpful, some of it harmful, and the karma of the parent is thus transferred to the child. And that transferrence, in turn, creates its own karma, and so the never-ending cycle continues.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Arnauds

This evening I watched "A Christmas Tale," the new film by Arnaud Desplechin. Don't confuse for a minute this modern, very French film with "A Christmas Story," Jean Shepard's very American story of a little boy who who wants a Red Ryder air rifle for Christmas. The Desplechin film reminds me a little of Jonathan Franzen's novel "The Corrections," in being a fascinating story without one likable character. The movie stars Catherine Deneuve as a mother who so openly dislikes and despises her children that she can tell them to their face that she never loved them, and after she receives a bone-marrow transplant from her son, she tells him in the hospital, "Look. My body loathes you. It's rejecting all of your cells." The feel-good movie of the season.

Actually, I enjoyed it, but it's not to everybody's taste. Stylistically, it's a great homage to the 1960s French New Wave of Truffaut and Goddard.

However, I had confused Arnaud Desplechin with Arnaud Desjardins. Desjardins apparently directed French documentaries in the 50s, 60s and 70s, and is now a teacher and practioner of Eastern religions. I've come across quotes of his on Starbucks coffee cups and in a book I have of spiritual sayings for each day of the year (e.g., "There is nothing clever about not being happy"). As my entry of May 22, 2005 quotes, "You cannot live sheltered forever without ever being exposed, and at the same time be a spiritual adventurer. Be audacious. Be crazy in your own way, with that madness in the eyes of man that is wisdom in the eyes of God. Take risks, search and search again, search everywhere, in every way, and do not let a single opportunity or chance that life offers pass you by, and do not be petty and mean, trying to drive a hard bargain."

I had been curious to see some of his films, but realized fairly early during "A Christmas Tale" that I was watching the wrong Arnaud. Not that the film was without it's own merit, however.

Friday, December 05, 2008

On Sanskara

Oh, look. How sad. H.M., the famous amnesiac, has died at the age of 82.

As a result of an experimental brain operation in 1953 to address a seizure disorder, H.M. lost not only most of his existing memory but his ability to form new memories. Those of you who saw the film Memento are familiar with the syndrome - anything new that happens is forgotten within about 20 seconds, so that every experience in the world seems new; the world is constantly refreshing itself.

"He was recognized as the most important patient in the history of brain science. As a participant in hundreds of studies, he helped scientists understand the biology of learning, memory and physical dexterity, as well as the fragile nature of human identity."

By studying his mind, scientists saw that there were at least two systems in the brain for creating memories. One, known as declarative memory, records names, faces and new experiences, and stores them until they are consciously retrieved. This system depends on the function of medial temporal areas, particularly an organ called the hippocampus, now the object of intense study. Another system, commonly known as motor learning, is subconscious and depends on other brain systems. This explains why people can jump on a bike after years away from one and take the thing for a ride, or why they can pick up a guitar that they have not played in years and still remember how to strum it.

Not too long ago, I wrote here about the role of "memory" (sanskara) in defining the ego-self. Following Red Pine, I said that memory provides us the templates that perception applies to sensation. It embraces all of the ways we have dealt with what we have experienced in the past and that are available to us as ways to deal with what we find in the present. It includes habitual behavior patterns such as intelligence, belief, shame, confidence, indolence, pride, anger, envy, sloth, repentance, doubt – anything that might provide us with a prefabricated set of guidelines from the past with which to perceive and deal with the world, both inside and out, as we experience it in the present.

H.M.'s condition tells us something about sanskara as well as physiology, for despite his condition, he was nonetheless a self-conscious presence, as open to a good joke and as sensitive as anyone in the room. Once, a researcher visiting him turned to his doctor while he was standing right there in front of them and remarked on how interesting a case this patient was. Since he was in clear ear-shot of this remark, he blushed and mumbled how he didn’t think he was all that interesting and moved away, a self-conscious response to an embarrassing situation.

Sanskara had provided H.M. with a way to react to the situation, even though his mind was free of declarative memories. Despite his condition, he could recount childhood memories of hiking in the mountains, road trips with his parents, target shooting in the woods near his house. Gist memories, as they're called. He had these memories, but he couldn’t place them in exact time, he couldn’t put them together into a personal narrative.

So sanskara is not to be found in declarative memory, in the hippocampus. And gist memories seem to me to be traces of declarative memory, mere echoes or ghosts in the machinery of the mind, and not the repository of the templates of sanskara.

It's likely, then, that sanskara, is more closely related to subconscious motor learning than to declarative memory, which in itself has interesting implications in the mind/body duality problem. Just as we rely on motor learning to tell us how to pitch a baseball or refrain from putting our hand on hot objects, so too it provides us with emotional guidelines on how to react to the situations we encounter.

In Buddhism, it's taught that the ego-self is merely the sum of the aggregates of form, sensation, perception, sanskara and consciousness. When any one of these is absent, a sentient being no longer considers itself to be a self. As H.M. was self aware despite his condition, sanskara must have been present. Were it to have disappeared along with his declarative memory, he would have been like a vegetable - not knowing how to perceive any sensation, he would not have known how to react to any situation and would have just stared blankly into space at all times. He would have seemed comatose, but for no identifiable reason, and tragically would have been conscious of this situation and aware of his inability to respond. And since he wouldn't even have known how to respond to his internal sensations, including his awareness of his own catatosis, the concept of an ego-self would not have arisen in his mind.

It is due to sanskara's ability to provide us with responses to perception that it is sometimes translated as "impulse" or "volition," although I think its meaning is broader than either of those two terms. It's ability to provide us with responses to internal perceptions of the mind has led it to be called "mental formations" and even "thought," although I also think there terms also miss the mark. And now, upon contemplating the late, unfortunate H.M., I now realize that sanskara is more specific than the broader term "memory."