Friday, July 25, 2008

Another Day

Today is Constitution Day in Puerto Rico, Galicia Day in Spain.

On this date:

  • Constantine I was proclaimed Emperor by his troops after the death of Constantius Chlorus, and became the first Christian leader of Rome (306).
  • Spanish conquistador Sebastián de Belalcázar founded Santiago de Cali in present-day western Colombia while on his search for the mythical El Dorado (1536).
  • Charles William Ferdinand, the Duke of Brunswick, issued the Brunswick Manifesto to the population of Paris, promising vengeance if King Louis XVI and other members of the French Royal Family were harmed (1792).
  • An atomic bomb is detonated underwater in the lagoon of Bikini atoll; meanwhile, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis stage their first show together in Atlantic City (1946).
  • The Italian ocean liner SS Andrea Doria collides with the MS Stockholm in heavy fog 45 miles south of Nantucket, and sinks the next day, killing 51 (1956).
  • Porn star Tera Patrick is born (1976).
  • Two pro-independence activists were killed by police at Cerro Maravilla in Villalba, Puerto Rico, sparking a series of political controversies where the police officers were eventually convicted of murder and several high-ranking local government officials were accused of covering up the incident (1978).
  • Air France Concorde Flight 4590 from Charles de Gaulle in Paris to JFK in New York crashed in Gonesse, France, killing 113 - 109 on the aircraft, and 4 on the ground (2000).

It's also my birthday, and the "official" start of my birth year, when my age and the last two digits of my year of birth are the same number, a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Day of Indulgence

Last May, I announced that the Zen Center was starting its summer ango (three-month practice period). At that time, I jumped into a frequent practice pattern - attending the center nearly every day, sitting at home for extra long on the days that I missed.

Then I had to go to Portland for a week. On returning, I found work very busy and demanding, and before I knew it, I was back to my same old pattern - opening the Center every Monday, attending when it was convenient, sitting at home on a hit-and-miss pattern. So much for ango.

Traditionally, ango was held during the summer monsoons, when you had to seek shelter indoors anyway. On the last day of ango, known as the day of indulgence, monks would reflect and confess on their misdeeds.

Back in the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, that old ascetic, Mahakasyapa, was leading a summer ango. On the day of indulgence, Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom, suddenly arrives at the retreat for the first time of the entire summer. Mahakasyapa asks Manjushri, "Where have you been practicing the retreat this summer?" Manjushri answers, "This summer I have practiced at three places - a month playing with children at an elementary school, a month at King Prasenajit's harem, and a month at a bordello."

I'm tempted to add, "and the rest of the time I squandered." The ancient texts do not state just what Manjushri was doing at the harem and the bordello, but that old ascetic Mahakasyapa figured that, well, if you hang around a barber shop long enough, sooner or later you're going to get a haircut.

Mahakasyapa decides to expel Manjushri from the order right there and then. As he is about to strike a wooden block to formally announce Manjushri's expulsion, he suddenly has a vison of a hundred thousand million multiverses - alternate universes, Buddha lands. In each of these multiverses, at the place of the Buddha, stands Manjushri, and by each Manjushri there stands a Mahakasyapa ready to expel him. Mahakasyapa finds that even using all of his might, he cannot lift the clapper to strike the block. At that moment, the Buddha approached him and asked, "Which Manjushri are you now going to expel?" Mahakasyapa was dumbfounded and did not respond.

Zen Master Engo (1063-1135), editor of The Blue Cliff Record, said, "A bell not struck does not ring. A drum not hit does not sound. Mahakasyapa is moored in the main harbor. Manjushri sits away in the ten directions. At the present moment, there is a lovely scene of a Buddhist event. How regrettable to miss a move! . . .If Mahakasyapa had immediately given the bell a crack - imagine! How would the Buddha have restored the perfect tranquility?"

Dogen said, "So the World Honored One practices the retreat at one place and Manjushri practices the retreat at three places, but neither ever fails to practice the retreat."

Monday, July 21, 2008

Greenhouse Earth

Temperature hit 100° in Atlanta today, the first time, I believe, this summer. During this time last year, while this blog was on hiatus, we had something like 20 consecutive days where the temps reached the 100s.

A substantial warming of the Earth occurred 55 million years ago. This warming event, known to geologists as the Paleocene/Eocene Thermal Maximum, was marked by a release of massive quantities of carbon dioxide to the ocean and atmosphere, resulting in elevated CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere and in ocean acidification.

When CO2 is released into the air, about a third ends up in the oceans. Like water, CO2 also dissolves in water and forms a weak acid, resulting in ocean acidification. A quarter is absorbed by terrestrial ecosystems, and the rest ends up in the atmosphere.

The CO2 of the Paleocene/Eocene Thermal Maximum may have resulted from volcanic activity in the western United States. Organic carbon released from marine sediments during the Himalayan Indian-Asian collision may also have contributed to the CO2 levels. The volumes of CO2 generated by these geologic processes could have markedly affected atmospheric concentrations.

Not surprisingly, the early Eocene also had the highest prolonged global temperatures of the past 65 million years. There was little or no polar ice and the globally averaged surface temperature was 2 - 4° warmer than present. Estimates of late Eocene atmospheric CO2 contents range from about twice to six times pre-industrial concentrations, with recent geologic evidence indicating an atmospheric CO2 concentration of 1,125 ppm or more.

The pre-industrial concentraion of CO2 in the atmosphere was about 275 ppm. Today, the concentration is about 385 ppm. However, the world will consume about 31 billion barrels of oil this year alone, six billion tons of coal, and a hundred trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The combustion of these fossil fuels will produce about 30 billion tons of CO2. Next year, global consumption of fossil fuels is expected to grow by 2 percent, meaning that emissions will rise by more than a half billion tons, and the following year consumption is expected to grow by yet another 2 percent. China alone is building roughly four new coal-fired power plants a month.

All available evidence confirms that the high concentrations of CO2 during the Eocene coincided with markedly increased warmth. If the current trends in emissions today were to continue, then sometime within the next 40 or 50 years the chemistry of the oceans will have been altered to such a degree that many marine organisms, including phytoplankton and reef-building coral, will become extinct. Meanwhile, atmospheric CO2 levels are projected to reach 550 ppm, or twice the pre-industrial levels and about 50% of the Early Eocene levels. This will virtually guarantee a significant increase in global temperature.

The extreme warmth of this Paleocene/Eocene Thermal Maximum, however, cannot be simulated with current climate models. A solution to this problem may be found in the recent recognition that biological activity controls the abundance of cloud condensation nuclei (CCN) in the unpolluted atmosphere. Water requires a particulate surface (or “seed”) to make the transition from vapor to liquid. CCNs are the small particles about which cloud droplets coalesce. When no CCNs are present, clouds will not form unless the air is supersaturated with moisture.

There are many different types of particulates that can act as CCN. Phytoplankton, for example, can produce CCN. Large algal blooms of phytoplankton occur in ocean surface waters over a wide range of latitudes. The phytoplankton produce large quantities of sulfate aerosols, which can act as significant CCNs.

As increasing CO2 is released to the atmosphere and ocean, the warming seas become more stratified, with most nutrients trapped in the cold bottom layers while most of the light needed for photosynthesis remains in the warm top layer. Under this scenario, deprived of nutrients, marine phytoplankton would decline, and the declining populations would be further challenged by the associated ocean acidification. This in turn, reduces the sulfate CCNs, which reduces the amount of cloud cover over the Earth, which reduces the amount of solar energy reflected back into space, which increases the amount of heat absorbed by the Earth. If the stress of elevated temperatures and the associated ocean acidification did indeed suppress marine and terrestrial ecosystems during the Eocene, the high temperatures can be reconciled with the CO2 levels.

A counter-hypothesis holds that an increase in global temperature would increase phytoplankton activity and therefore CCN numbers. Known as the CLAW hypothesis, named after Charlson, Lovelock, Andreae and Warren, the authors of a 1987 paper in the journal Nature, this was seen as a possible natural phenomenon that would counteract climate change. However, CLAW does not take into account ocean stratification and acidification, and no conclusive evidence to support this hypothesis has been reported.

Meanwhile, the forecast tomorrow is for a high of 98°.

Sunday, July 20, 2008


Following last week's power outage, the cleaning and repair of the Unsellable Condo started in earnest this weekend. The cleaning girl, who was supposed to have started Wednesday, called and cancelled at the last minute, asking if Thursday would be acceptable. I agreed, but on Thursday I called her and said that due to some unexpected business at work, I couldn't meet her there that day to let her in and get her started. We settled on Saturday.

So on Saturday, she vacuumed and shampooed the carpet, lifting up a lot of the greasy marks left behind by the previous tenant. But she wasn't able to lift off three stains - one which looks like mustard, one which looks like ketchup, and one fluorescent pink one that looks like who-knows-what. That latter color does not abide in Nature. If anyone has suggestions on how to get mustard (and other) stains out of carpet, I'd love to hear them, or else I'm going to have to re-carpet the condo.

On another note, while I was at the condo with the cleaning girl, I couldn't help but noticing that the contractors, who were supposed to have started on the repair work mid-week, hadn't even been by the place yet. Angry, I called the foreman and expressed my disappointment that the work hadn't even started yet, despite the fact that he's already been paid. "Yeah, I know," he replied, "We got behind on another job we took on" (another job he started after he was supposed to have started mine). "But don't worry - we'll get a jump on it tomorrow."

I told him it was too late to get a jump on it - he's already behind. All he could do was try and maybe catch up. But I bit my words before they came out sounding too harsh - I was angry - and just told him I needed the job done as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, back at the house, I haven't had someone so much as even come look at the place in four weeks now. My realtor held an open house today and two people did show up just as the open house started, although briefly. But that's a 100% improvement over the last open house ("200% improvement," the agent said).

I'm almost half-way through my six-month offer period to transfer to Portland, but if I can't sell my house, I won't be able to move. And if I can't move because of the economic disasters caused by eight years of the Bush Administration, I'm gonna be one ticked-off Buddhist.

Friday, July 18, 2008

'Fraidy Cats

Last Monday, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue said that it's okay for guns to be carried into public areas of Atlanta's Hartfield Airport, the nation’s busiest. And he said that his own wife might want to pack a firearm for long walks between the parking lot and the terminal. “If my wife wanted to carry a gun, if she was going from the parking lot, walking from one of those far parking lots to pick up a grandchild or something like that, I think that’s a good idea, yes,” he said. A spokesman for Perdue said the governor has a gun permit but his wife does not.

Earlier this year, Perdue, a Republican, signed controversial new legislation that allows Georgians who have passed background checks to carry concealed weapons onto mass transit, as well as into state parks and restaurants that serve alcohol. On July 1, the day the new law took effect, Atlanta officials declared the airport a “gun-free zone” and said anyone carrying a gun there could be arrested and charged with a misdemeanor. Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin argued that allowing guns could endanger people because airports remain attractive targets for terrorism.

Perdue said he hasn’t asked his legal counsel for guidance and was simply offering his own “lay opinion” (someone ought to advise the Governor that it's not a good idea to offer your uninformed opinions on controversial matters - it really is okay to wait for the facts to come in). The law’s sponsor, a Republican former police officer, called Perdue’s comments “right on the money,” further noting, “People have a right to defend themselves. That is what this law is about.”

Why does the Governor's wife, who probably travels with a police escort anyway, need to pack a firearm to walk from the airport parking lot to the terminal to pick up her grandchild? I'll be the first to admit there's crime in Atlanta - horrific things seem to happen daily - but not at the airport of all places. Southside apartment buildings, shopping center parking lots, and late-night bars all have more than their share of robberies, murders and rapes. But at the airport, it's difficult to make a quick getaway and the place is swarming with cops, security and surveillance - it's not a good place to commit crimes. What's the Governor so afraid of?

On my last post on this matter, Greensmile commented, "Brave means going unarmed when the risk of harm is slight in order that you yourself do not add to the risk of others. We have ceased to be the 'home of the brave' and that is why, despite the shrill howling that dresses gun-clinging in the language of 'freedom', we will cease to be the 'land of the free'." I couldn't have said it better myself.

Also, as I've previously noted, only between 10 to 20 percent of our so-called "observations" are based on our visual sensation, and the rest is provided by our mind's perception. I worry about the perceptions of a frightened, gun-packing, Republican paranoid, scuttling between the airport parking lot and the terminal, frightened by his/her own shadow, cautiously watching every person of a different race. How might that person react to a sudden motion, however innocent, by some person with different cultural behaviors? Would he/she pull a gun on a black porter coming over to offer assistance? A smiling, bald-headed Buddhist bowing in gassho as they passed one another?

Someone's gonna get killed, and the blood will be on the Governor's legislation-signing hands.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

More Snowball Earth

In case you didn't notice (most people didn't), last Friday the U.S. EPA came out with their Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking concerning the regulation of greenhouse gases to combat global warming. Not that the Bush Administration was anxious to roll this out, but their hand was forced by the recent Supreme Court ruling in Massachusetts v. EPA.

In April 2007, the Supreme Court concluded that greenhouse gases meet the definition of an "air pollutant" found in the Clean Air Act. Therefore, they ruled, EPA has the authority under the Act to regulate greenhouse gases, subject to a determination that the emissions from new motor vehicles cause or contribute to air pollution that may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare. A decision to regulate emissions for motor vehicles will also help determine whether other sources of greenhouse gas emissions need to be regulated as well, including stationary sources of air pollutants (e.g., power plants).

This is a complex issue. The science of climate change is complex. The reason that I posted about the Snowball Earth theory last week was that, somewhat counter-intuitively, it was Snowball Earth theory that led me to an understanding, if partial, of the complexities of greenhouse global warming.

Looking back over geologic time, it is apparent that the Earth has gone through several climate extremes, from pole-to-pole glaciation with the entire planet covered by ice (Snowball Earth) to extreme greenhouse conditions with no arctic ice at all and sea levels thousands of feet higher than present (Greenhouse Earth). The reason for these dramatically different conditions has lessons for us concerning the current climate change crisis.

Snowball Earth conditions begin when small, naturally occurring variations in the Earth's orbit create a few successive years of abnormally cold winter. More ice develops at the poles and more snow remains on the mountains. The reflectivity (albedo) of all this ice and snow bounces more of the thermal energy from the sun back into space, rather than using the energy to heat the Earth. As a result, conditions get colder still, which generates more ice and snow, which reflects still more thermal energy away. This feedback effect creates a colder and colder climate, until continental glaciers take over the land mass, the oceans freeze and the entire globe is encased in ice. This apparently happened about 635 million to 700 million years ago during the Late Precambrian, and maybe other times as well.

But once Snowball Earth conditions begin, how do they end? Why aren't we in a permanent Snowball condition, continually reflecting the sun's warmth away? Geologists speculate that eventually, a volcano breaks through the glacial ice somewhere on the planet and starts spewing carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. This will cause local warming conditions, which melts some of the ice away and allows the Earth to receive the thermal energy from the sun. This warm spot, in turn, starts to melt away more of the ice, uncovering more and more darker ground to receive solar warmth. During the warming period, other factors also contribute to the rise in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, including weathering of rock following deglaciation and algal blooms in the ocean. Soon, as more and more of the Earth is "defrosted," a reverse feedback begins, and the whole planet warms up and sheds its icepack.

The kicker is this - if one volcano emitting CO2 and methane can trigger a complex mechanism that eventually melts an entire ice-coated planet, what mechanisms are we triggering now with our global man-made releases of CO2? Once the equilibrium of the atmospheric chemistry is altered, it's not just the warming effect of the greenhouse gases themselves that will be our undoing, but the associated disruptions of oceanic currents, loss of the current arctic and alpine albedo, and so on.

Ever the optimist, I am still hopeful that we can find the political will to start directly addressing this issue, to regulate and control our emissions. It is, I'm afraid, too late to prevent the warming feedback mechanisms from starting and we will experience (are experiencing) some level of climate change, but it may not be too late to prevent triggering a full-blown Greenhouse Earth episode.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Self, Not Others

I'm not the only one struggling with home repairs. One day, when Mahakasyapa was hard at work mixing mud for making walls, a novice monk asked him, "Why do you do hard work like this yourself?" Mahakasyapa replied, "If I don't do this, who else would do it for me?"

This story is reminiscent of Zen Master Dogen's encounter with the head cook (tenzo) at Mount Tiantong. One day after the noon meal, Dogen was walking between buildings at the temple complex when he noticed the tenzo drying mushrooms out in the sun. He carried a bamboo stick but had no hat on his head. The sun's rays beat down so harshly that the tiles along the walk burned one's feet, yet the tenzo worked hard and was covered with sweat. Dogen could not help but feel the work was too much strain for him. His back was a bow drawn taut, his long eyebrows were crane white. Dogen approached and asked his age. The tenzo replied that he was sixty-eight years old. When Dogen went on and asked him why he had not assigned this chore to some assistant, the tenzo answered, "Other people are not me." Dogen was very impressed by his answer.

One of the essential teachings of the Buddha is the concept of "no-self." It is taught that there is no such thing called "I" or "me," that "self" and "others" are just two sides of one coin. It is said that when Shakyamuni Buddha realized his enlightenment, he realized it simultaneously and together that all the Earth and all its sentient beings. If the "self" of Shakyamuni Buddha encompasses all sentient beings, then all sentient beings are one with Shakyamuni Buddha. In that case, what is the "me" in the tenzo's "Others are not me?" Who is the "me" in Mahakasyapa's "Who else would do it for me?"

Shohaku Okumura has pointed out that Buddhist and Zen teachings too often forget the self that is not others and put all of the emphasis instead on "no-self." However, the self that is in a community is the one that is not others. Others can not do my zazen for me, no one else can practice for me. Okumura notes that through studying Buddhist teachings we study no-self, and when we engage in precepts and ethics we are practicing the self that is not others. Within our day-to-day lives, we must study how this self that is not others can manifest the reality of no-self. "This is the most important and difficult koan in our day-to-day practice," Okumura notes, and observes that when we practice zazen, we are studying the self that is beyond the separation of self and others.

So here finally is my point: the Buddha's Middle Way is not merely the middle way between sensual indulgence and ascetic practice, but it is also the reconciliation of all apparent dualities. Yes, on one hand, the Buddha realized his enlightenment together with all sentient beings, so self and others are one, not two separate things. But on the other hand, "other people are not me." The Middle Way is accepting both viewpoints without clinging to one or the other, without letting one negate the other. The Middle Way is transcending the distinctions between "no-self" and the "self that is not others" without embracing or rejecting either. And finally, the practice of zazen is the means handed down to us by the ancestors and patriarchs by which we can directly realize this transcendent truth (prajna) beyond "no-self" and the "self that is not others."

Friday, July 11, 2008

Repairing the Unsellable Condo

Having finally gotten the tenants out of the Unsellable Condo, I have attempted to start the cleanup and repair. On Wednesday, my local contractor/handyman came back from his extended July 4th vacation and we toured the condo together. This morning, I received his estimate for the repairs. He broke the cost down for me as follows:

Living & Laundry Rooms:
1. Replace 60-inch laundry room louvered doors
2. Repair large patch on wall by front door
3. Repair living room closet shelf
4. Install rods at missing areas for mini-blinds.
Cost: $425

Guest Bedroom:
1. Repair holes in drywall where needed
2. Paint walls and closet
3. Replace cover plate on electric outlet
4. Replace damaged shelves in closet
Cost: $550

Hall Bathroom:
1. Remove peeling wallpaper
2. Sand and paint walls
3. Remove and discard damaged tile around shower
4. Provide and install new white ceramic tile
5. Replace damaged towel rack
Cost: $1,175

Master Bedroom & Bath:
1. Repair damaged blinds
2. Repair ceiling fan
3. Remove and discard damaged tile around shower
4. Provide and install white ceramic tile
5. Replace damaged towel rack
Cost: $800

In other words, $2,950 to repair the damage the tenants did to the unit in only six months (of which they only paid rent for four). Add to that the over $800 I had to pay a plumber to stop the massively leaking shower, and the repair bill exceeds the rents collected.

And even that's just the repair portion, not the cleaning. They left massive stains on the carpet, including what looks like mustard and ketchup and some unidentifiable pink spots in different rooms. I had the cleaning girl who keeps the house up for me start shampooing the carpet today ($200) to see if the stains will even come out or if I need to replace the carpet as well, but less than an hour into the job, the electricity went out. I had forgotten to change the utilities over to my name (my bad), so she had to quit for the day while I try to get new service established. It also means that the contractor will have to wait until the power's back on.

So today probably wasn't the best day to meet over lunch with the head of the Zen Center to discuss increasing my donations to the zendo. The need for the increase is legitimate, and his proposal was fair, but I was in less than a charitable mood after getting the contractor's costs and paying for the carpet cleaning. I told him I'll think about it, and left, probably leaving him wondering how I got to be so grumpy.

The perfection of charity, in Sanskrit, is dana paramita. It is one of the six marks or characteristic features that distinguish a bodhisattva. My frustration with these mounting costs reminds me of how far I am from being a bodhisattva.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Mask of Perception

We are told that "seeing is believing," but how good a witness is our perception, really?

Neurologists call the understanding of perception that most people have “the naïve view.” We’re inclined to think we normally perceive things in the world directly. We believe that the hardness of a rock, the coldness of an ice cube, the appearance of a face, and so on are picked up by our nerve endings, transmitted through the spinal cord like a message through a wire, and decoded by the brain. The naïve view assumes that the sensory data we receive from our eyes, ears, nose, fingers, and so on contain all the information that we need for perception. Yet, as scientists set about analyzing the signals, they found the sensory data to be radically impoverished.

The perceptions of our mind are extraordinarily rich. We can tell if something is liquid or solid, heavy or light, dead or alive. But the information we work from is poor - a distorted, two-dimensional transmission with entire spots missing. So the mind fills in most of the picture. Watching a dog as it runs behind a fence, our eyes receive only separated vertical images of the dog, with large slices missing. Yet somehow we perceive the dog to be whole, an intact entity travelling through space. The eyes receive slices of the picture, the mind fills in the gaps. Visual sensation augmented by mental perception.

The more we examine the actual nerve transmissions we receive from the world outside, the more inadequate they seem. You can get a sense of this from brain-anatomy studies. Writing in The New Yorker, Atul Guwande, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, notes that if visual perceptions were primarily received from the eyes rather than constructed by the brain, you'd expect that most of the fibres going to the brain's primary visual cortex would come from the retina. Instead, scientists have found that only 20 percent do; 80 percent come downward from regions of the brain governing functions like memory. Richard Gregory, a prominent British neuropsychologist, estimates that visual perception is more than 90 percent memory and less than 10 percent sensory nerve signals.

Author Richard Dawkins reminds us that the human brain runs some first-class simulation software. Our eyes do not present a faithful photograph to our brains of what is out there, like some accurate movie of what is going on through time. Instead, our brains construct a continuously updated model: updated by coded pulses chattering along the optic nerves, but constructed nevertheless. Constructing models is something at which the human mind is very good.

This simulation software in the brain is particularly adept at constructing faces and voices. For evidence, consider this amazing video clip, or this one, or this. And so on. Seriously, check these out - they're really worth the minimal effort of clicking over.

These clips aren't trick photography and there is no trick in the construction of the masks. The trickery is all in your mind. The brain's simulation software receives data indicating the presence of a face, perhaps nothing more than a pair of eyes, a nose and a mouth in approximately the right places. Having received these sketchy clues, the brain does the rest. The face simulation software kicks into action and it constructs a fully solid model of a face, even though the reality presented to the eyes is a hollow mask.

All this is illustrative of the formidable power of the brain's simulation software. With just a little bit of data (10 percent visual sensation), the mind constructs what it is conditioned to perceive (90 percent perception). We live in a matrix of our own device.

In a 1710 “Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge,” the Irish philosopher George Berkeley maintained that we do not know the world of objects, we know only our mental ideas of objects. “Light and colours, heat and cold, extension and figures - in a word, the things we see and feel - what are they but so many sensations, notions, ideas?” Indeed, he concluded, the objects of the world are likely just inventions of the mind. Berkeley recognized serious flaws in the direct-perception theory - in the notion that when we see, hear, or feel we are just taking in the sights, sounds, and textures of the world. For one thing, it cannot explain how we experience things that seem physically real but aren’t: dreams that can seem indistinguishable from reality; feelings of itchiness that arise from merely thinking about ants on our skin; rotating faces on the hollow sides of masks.

The mind stores the templates for our perception in its memory, and is conditioned to first apply those templates which suggests a threat. Thus, we are more inclined to mistake a shadow for a burglar than a burglar for a shadow. A false positive might be a waste of time - a false negative might be fatal. Secondly, we apply those templates that we find pleasurable. All of those templates in between for neutral perceptions - that which are neither threatening nor pleasurable - are generally ignored. Thus, if we really want to know the world around us, we must first know our own minds.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Snowball Earth

Readers of this blog may forget that I am actually a geologist by academic training, if not precisely by current vocation. Yet, a geologist I am, and I still try and keep current on advances in the science.

Recently, geologists announced they found strong evidence that a half-dozen major basins in India were formed a billion or more years ago, making them at least 500 million years older than commonly thought. According to a University of Indiana professor, "The required revision is enormous -- 500 million years or about 11 percent of total Earth history." An associate professor at the University of Florida noted "In modern geology, to revise the age of basins like this by 500 million years is pretty unique."

(Oh, really? Last year, geologists from the University of Alberta found that the Queen Maud block of Arctic Canada collided a minimum of 500 million years earlier than previously thought. The Queen Maud block is a large bedrock terrain that is said to occupy a key tectonic position in Northern Canada. The U of A team reached the remote Northern Canadian location by helicopter and discovered that the age of the rocks in basins within the terrain challenged the previous models.)

The Indian findings appear to remove one of the major obstacles to the Snowball Earth theory that a frozen Earth was once entirely covered in snow and ice from pole to pole, and might even lend some weight to a controversial claim that complex life originated hundreds of million years earlier than most scientists currently believe.

The Snowball Earth theory posits that the Earth was completely covered in snow and ice from about 635 million to 700 million years ago. While much geological evidence has been found to support that theory worldwide, the Vindhyan and other Purana basins of India lacked numerous telltale signs, such as striated or scratched boulders formed when ice drags small pebbles over bedrock and boulder beds derived from glaciers. As a result, the basins represented a prominent obstacle to the theory. The new study removes that obstacle because it pushes back the origins of the basins to well before Snowball Earth would have occurred.

The Indian basins are located south of New Delhi in the northern and central regions of India. They are slight, mostly flat depressions in the Earth's crust that span thousands of square miles. For decades, most geologists believed the basins formed 500 million to 700 million years ago when the Earth's crust stretched, thinned and then subsided. Apparent fossils retrieved from the basin seemed to have originated between 500 million and 700 million years ago.

But a Florida graduate student dated rock retrieved from one of the basin to about 1.07 billion years ago. As a result, geologists cored dozens of rocks collected from 56 sites in the basins. Zircon age dating from all of the samples tested indicated the rocks formed about 1.02 billion years ago. A separate 2007 study dated rocks from another Purana basin to 1.02 billion years ago, another 500-million-year revision.

The new age dates not only push back the origins of the basins to well before Snowball Earth would have occurred, but also call into question the hypothesis that the basins formed as the supercontinent Rodinia broke up. Rodinia is thought to have separated into the modern continents about 700 million years ago, but the revisions make the basins too old for that split.

The Florida research could also support a Swedish paleontologist's controversial dating of multicellular creatures ("Ediacara" fauna) from an older part of the basin to 1.6 billion years. But of all the implications of this research, the notion that Ediacaran-like organisms may be much older than 580 million years is probably the most speculative.

Monday, July 07, 2008


One day, before a huge assembly at Vulture Peak, Shakyamuni Buddha simply held up a single flower and blinked his eyes. None grasped his frame of mind and all remained silent except for his disciple Mahakasyapa, who's face broke into a smile.

Shakyamuni Buddha announced to the assembly, "I have the true Dharma eye treasury, wondrous mind of nirvana, which I bequeath to Mahakasyapa. Spread it through the future, never letting it be cut off." He also entrusted to Mahakasyapa his golden embroidered winter robe. Having thus received transmission of the true Dharma eye treasury, Mahakasyapa became the first Indian patriarch of Zen.

His name is derived from the Sanskrit words "Maha" (Great) and his clan name "Kasyapa" ("Tortoise or Black-Toothed Clan"). Mahakasyapa was famously foremost among the Buddha's disciples in ascetic practice. Throughout his life, he devotedly maintained the twelve ascetic practices so as to control worldly desires and let the Mind of Truth show itself. For those of you keeping score at home, the twelve ascetic practices are:

  1. To not accept people's invitations, but to go begging for food every day; also to not accept money or even a single meal for a monk.

  2. To lodge on a mountain, not in some one's house, a populated district, or a village.

  3. To never beg for clothes from people, and to not accept clothes that people offer, but to instead take the clothes of dead people which have been discarded at gravesides, and to mend these clothes and wear them.

  4. To lodge under a tree in the countryside.

  5. To eat only one meal a day.

  6. To not lie down in the daytime or the nighttime, but only to sit, and when sleepy to walk about. (The Japanese word for walking meditation, kinhin, is derived from the Sanskrit cankrama. The traditional rule for kinhin in Japan is "one breath per half-step.")

  7. To have three robes and not to have other robes, and not to sleep in bedclothes. (It was the samghati robe, the largest and heaviest of the three robes, used for ceremonial occasions or giving lectures and worn during the cold, that Shakyamuni entrusted to Mahakasyapa. Legend has it that Mahakasyapa is still alive and waiting in a Himalayan cave to transmit Shakyamuni's robe to the future Buddha Maitreya.)

  8. To stay among graves, not in Buddhist temples, and not in human society. Looking at the skulls and bones of dead people, to sit in zazen and pursue the truth.

  9. To want to live alone, not to want to meet people, and not to want to sleep with people.

  10. To first eat fruit and then to eat a meal, but never to eat fruit after finishing a meal.

  11. To want only to sleep in the open, not sheltering under a tree.

  12. Not to eat meat or dairy produce, and not to apply herbal oil to the body.

The Buddha himself had engaged in these practices during the six years between his leaving home and sitting under the Bodhi Tree but had rejected them, opting for The "Middle Way" between sensual indulgence and ascetic hardships. Nevertheless, Mahakasyapa stuck with the practices and did not stray from them throughout his life, even after receiving the authentic transmission of the true Dharma eye treasury.

It's noteworthy that even though the Buddha taught The Middle Way and had rejected ascetic practices, he not only allowed the senior member of his order to practice in his own way, but even praised him for his effort. However, one day, the Buddha said to him, "You are already an old man, you should eat a monk's meal." Mahakasyapa replied, ""If I had not met with The World Honored One's appearance in this world, I would have been a solitary pratyekabuddha, living in mountains and forests all my life. Fortunately, I have met with the The World Honored One's appearance in this world, and I have experienced the Dharma's goodness. Nevertheless, I will not eat a monk's meal in the end." The Buddha praised him for his steadfastness.

On another occasion, Mahakasyapa's body had become so emaciated because of his ascetic practice and his robes so coarse and shabby, that many of the other monks looked at him with disdain. But the Buddha warmly summoned him and offered him half of his seat, and on each occasion when the Buddha preached the Dharma, Mahakasyapa shared his teaching seat with him.

When Shakyamuni Buddha achieved his enlightenment upon seeing the morning star, he said, "How marvelous! I, together with the whole of the great earth and all its sentient beings, have simultaneously realized enlightenment." If all sentient beings realized enlightenment simultaneously with the Buddha, what had Mahakasyapa been lacking prior to Vulture Peak? What exactly was transmitted from Shakyamuni to Mahakasyapa?

Speak immediately!

Friday, July 04, 2008

Happy Independence Day, Y'all!

Last week, during a business trip up to Knoxville, Tennessee, I stopped at a fireworks store and loaded up on firecrackers, sparklers, bottle rockets, roman candles, screamers, volcanoes and smoke bombs - in short, pyrotechnics of every description, including two large, very dangerous-looking pieces. I wasn't sure what to do with it all, but thought they'd come in handy on the Fourth of July.

Tonight, they did come into use - I put of a fireworks display at the Zen Center. It was the first night of our July sesshin, and although I didn't attend, I went over toward the end of the evening meditation and discretely asked the roshi if he would object to some after-sitting fireworks. He liked the idea (gunpowder in general and fireworks in specific, after all, are a Chinese invention, and what better way to simultaneously celebrate our nation and our patriarchs?) and immediately announced it to the remaining meditators.

So I put on a little show for the sangha. The rockets, roman candles and volcanoes were all duly impressive and functioned as designed, and the sitters got into it after a while setting off spare firecrackers and sparklers themselves. Some of the pieces even had Zen-sounding names: "Wild Geese" and "Cherry Blossom Whistlers," for example (I know it's a stretch, but give me a break). But I was most pleased with those two large pieces - they shot off 10 and 15, respectively, very professional-looking aerial displays - starbursts in the sky that looked like the real fireworks shows going on across the city, although maybe not as high. At $7.50 and $10 each, they were well worth the money.

Having effectively jolted everyone out of their peaceful, meditative Zen frame of mind with my pyrotechnics, I took off. Driving home, I saw the aerial displays of the Lenox Square fireworks, and pulled my car over for a few minutes to watch them explode from across the Ansley Country Club golf course.

Firecrackers, it's been said, are like squirt guns - they're only fun to the persons who have them. But I think I was able to share the fun a little bit. I still have a half shopping bag full of spare sparklers, firecrackers and various rockets - any ideas on what to do with the remainder would be appreciated.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Conduct and Observance

From his 19th year to his 30th year, Shakyamuni Buddha, the benevolent father, the great teacher, practiced pure conduct and observance of the precepts. It was this conduct and observance that realized the way simultaneously with the Earth and all sentient beings.

Into the 80th year of his life, the Buddha still maintained the practice in the mountains and the forests, and maintained the practice in monasteries, never returning to the royal palace, never assuming control over the wealth of his land. He did not stay alone for a single hour or a single day. Throughout his life, he retained one single begging bowl and never replaced it. He did not refuse offerings idly served to him and patiently endured the insults of non-Buddhists.

In sum, his whole life of teaching was conduct and observance. The forms practiced by the Buddha, washing his robe and begging for food, are all nothing other than conduct and observance.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

"GUNS" Spelled Backwards Is "SNUG"

As previously reported in this blog, controversial new legislation signed into law last month by Georgia's Republican Governor will allow folks with licenses to carry concealed firearms to bring their guns into restaurants and onto MARTA trains. Although the bill was opposed by representatives of the Georgia Restaurant Association, by MARTA officials, and by Atlanta's Democratic Mayor on the grounds that allowing guns in restaurants and on buses and trains would pose a threat to public safety, the Governor caved in to pressure from the National Rifle Association and other groups, who had made passage of this law in Georgia and other states a priority. The law goes into effect today.

To make matter worse, the Republican state rep who authored the bill has realized that MARTA goes to Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport, and from that he has extrapolated that he now has the right to carry a concealed weapon at the world's busiest airport. "I have a permit, and I have family I have to pick up at the airport tomorrow [Tuesday]," he said. "I'll have one [a concealed weapon] with me at all times."

The Airport General Manager said that if the representative shows up at airport with a gun, he'll be busted. "I can identify him, and I'll have him arrested," the GM said. "We're not fooling around. This is a post-terrorism environment."

Great. Our elected officials are basically challenging law enforcement officials to a showdown at the busiest airport in the world, and sending a message to their constituencies that it's appropriate to do the same. For what it's worth, I've been to Hartsfield Airport many, many times, and have never felt that I needed a gun there for my safety. I have to wonder what, exactly, is the state rep so afraid of?

In my opinion, MARTA and the airport, not to mention all those bars, restaurants and saloons, have just gotten that much less safe.

I've got to get out of this place.