Saturday, November 29, 2008

video

Will YouTube never fail to surprise me? After having posted William S. Burroughs' "A Thanksgiving Prayer" every November since 2005, I now find that there's a video of the poem, apparently directed by no less an artist than Gus Van Sant. I had already heard the recording of the poem from Burroughs' "Dead City Radio," complete with ironic patriotic music in the background, but had never seen the video. I've updated this year's posting of "Thanksgiving Prayer" with the video version.

Burroughs has been called "the only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius," by no less an author than Norman Mailer, who should know genius when he sees it. I first encountered his work in the early 70s; his fevered, hallucinogenic prose fueled my post-hippie paranoia. The blatant homosexuality in his work shocked me, particularly in "The Wild Boys," the first book of Burroughs' that I read, but the overall weirdness and otherworldliness on the prose carried me through those challenging passages. In the ensuing years, I've continued to read Burroughs, most recently "The Western Lands," the last book in his late-period trilogy.

And who better to direct a video of Burroughs than Gus Van Sant? David Cronenberg was arguably the right director to bring "Naked Lunch" to the screen, but Van Sant shares Burroughs' cool, detached, non-plussed state of mind. I've followed Van Sant's career as well, from "Drugstore Cowboy" (featuring Burroughs in a cameo role) to "Paranoid Park." "Milk" is playing in town right now, and I may go see it if I get the chance (or alternately wait for it to come out on DVD). Naturally, Van Sant lives in Portland, my aspirational home - I wonder if he'll ever get around to filming a novel of that other Portland author/auteur, Chuck Palahniuk?

Enough name dropping. You can work your own way through Google and Wikipedia. In the meantime, please enjoy the video above.

Friday, November 28, 2008

How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Having my childhood in the late 1950s and early 60s, I grew up simply assuming that I, along with all others, would eventually burn to death in a nuclear war.

When you're a child, you take for granted everything you see in the world around you - having lived through no other alternative, the world you encounter appears "normal." So it did not seem strange to me when some of our neighbors began digging fallout shelters in their suburban backyards, or when we received civil defense instructions in class, such as the notorious "duck and cover" drills, and pamphlets on how to survive in a shelter ("if your grandmother or any other member of your family should die whilst in the shelter, put them outside, but remember to tag the body first for identification purposes later"). Fallout shelters were merely perceived as fun places to play, and our teachers at school assured us that everything was under control, everything was "normal."

As the Cold War intensified, anti-Communist propaganda repeatedly reminded us that Russia had nuclear weapons aimed at the United States, ready to be launched at a moment's notice (they failed to remind us that we also had the same weapons aimed at them, and that both sides felt justified in their actions to protect themselves and their interests). I remember watching "instructional" films that illustrated the effects of a nuclear strike by skillfully mixing dramatizations with archival footage of the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and of the Allied firebombing of Dresden. I have to use the word "instructional" in quotations, since in retrospective the films were clearly propaganda.

The culture of the times, the zeitgeist, seeped into my consciousness: Seven Days in May, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Fail Safe, the Bay of Pigs, Dr. Strangelove. The effects of all this did not make me an ardent anti-Communism so much as make me something of an existential nihilist. It was obvious that ducking under my schooldesk would not protect me from a nuclear bomb, and even if it did, the prospects of living through a post-nuclear Armageddon seemed worse than dying in the actual blast. What was the point of graduating high school, getting a job, starting a family, and so on, when we're all going to die, suddenly, horribly, and without warning? Those were end times, or so I believed.

Not that I ever articulated these thoughts, or was even consciously aware of them. But looking back at certain self-destructive behaviors and attitudes of my youth, I see now the effects the Cold War and nuclear civil defense/propaganda had on my consciousness. When I first heard Captain Beefheart's apocalyptic "The Blimp," I immediately understood the titular airship to be a symbol of the military industrial complex:

"Oh, daughter, don't dare.
Oh momma who cares?
Look up in the sky,
There's a dirigible there.
It's the blimp! It's the blimp!"

Earlier in the song, Beefheart shouts (I really can't call his vocal stylings in this piece "singing"), "If I see you floating down the gutter, I'll throw you a bottle of wine." The end is here, we're powerless to stop it, so we might as well, well, party likes it's 1999 (to paraphrase another song that came along much later).

As my childhood continued into the later 1960s, I began to see the peace-and-love hippie movement as a possible antidote to the nuclear madness. But although I didn't actually go to Woodstock, being only 14 years old at the time, I followed the news as the promised dawning of an Age of Aquarius quickly soured into Hell's Angels beating the crowd at Altamont. The peace marches, sit-ins and love-ins devolved into police riots in Chicago, the Weathermen, and the Manson family. The brief appearance of a respite to the seemingly inevitable nuclear holocaust vanished, and I found myself in the 1970s and the era of Nixon, Brezhnev, Kissinger, and continued nuclear brinkmanship.

So, having lived most of my life anticipating nuclear Armageddon at any moment, I was shocked to turn on CNN in the late 80s and see Germans joyously taking sledgehammers to the Berlin Wall. As one communist regime after another fell, culminating in the end of Communism in Mother Russia herself, I once again allowed a hope that perhaps I had been wrong; perhaps nuclear annihilation wasn't, in fact, at hand.

But the world, it seems, is not such a benign place. As the perceived threat of Soviet aggression faded, new "enemies" soon materialized: Saddam Hussein, Al Qaeda, various breakaway republics. Slaughter in Rwanda, the Balkans, Dafur. And although it seems unlikely now that the world will end in Mutual Assured Destruction, there is no shortage of unsavory characters in the world with nasty, unpleasant intentions. In fact, the age of Bush the Second often seemed more paranoid than those of the coldest of Cold War years, as America succumbed to terrible practices such as warrantless wiretapping, extraordinary rendition, and sanctioned torture. The claims made against Barack Obama during the Presidential campaign ("He's a Muslim!." "He's an Arab!," "He's a Socialist!"), along with divisive rhetoric about the "real America," resonate with the worst of 1950's McCarthyism. And with all of that, all hope inspired by watching the Berlin Wall collapse vanished when the World Trade Towers fell, if it hadn't already disappeared.

So now I find myself in my middle age, in a new millennium, hoping that a new President can restore sanity to a new world. But I've been fooled before, not just once (in the 60s and the promise of an Age of Aquarius) but twice (the 80s and the post-Communist New World Order), and now realize that no outside agency can lead us to peace, to serenity, and to compassion. Even the Buddha said, "There is no liberation by others" (Guhatthaka Sutta) and "There is no way I can emancipate people from suffering in this world. The only way for you to be able to cross over the stream of your passions is to know the highest truth of life" (Parayana Vagga).

And that was probably something else that I had known intuitively since childhood.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

My Thanksgiving Tradition

video

Thanks for the wild turkey and the passenger pigeons, destined to be shit out through wholesome American guts.

Thanks for a continent to be spoiled and poisoned.

Thanks for Indians to provide a modicum of challenge and danger.

Thanks for vast herds of bison to kill and skin, leaving their carcasses to rot.

Thanks for bounties on wolves and coyotes.

Thanks for the American dream to vulgarize and falsify until the bare lies shine through.

Thanks for the KKK, for nigger-killing lawmen feelin' their notches, for decent church-going women with their mean, pinched, bitter, evil faces.

Thanks for "Kill a Queer for Christ" stickers.

Thanks for laboratory AIDS.

Thanks for Prohibition and the War Against Drugs.

Thanks for a country where nobody's allowed to mind his own business.

Thanks for a nation of finks.

Yes, thanks for all the memories . . . ("Alright, let's see your arms"). . . ("You always were a headache and you always were a bore")

Thanks for the last and greatest betrayal of the last and greatest of human dreams.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

How Would Dogen Vote?

Nate Silver recently posted a very interesting essay on his excellent web site, FiveThirtyEight.com, regarding the effect of talk radio on right-wing voters.

His basic premise goes something like this: hosting a talk radio show is not easy. Not only does it require the host to talk on various topics for hours on end, every day, every week, but it also requires him (or her) to be compelling while doing it - to be entertaining, or as Nate so adroitly puts it, to be stimulating. What it does not require is for the host to be persuasive - the vast majority of the target audience already subscribes to right-wing values and enjoys hearing their beliefs affirmed and reinforced. Those not so convinced don't find the radio hosts persuasive and may even find their banter offensive, but the role of the show is not to convert the uninitiated but to keep the true believers listening, so that the station's advertising rates can go up along with the associated Arbitron ratings.

The net effect is that many of the listeners no longer participate in an exchange of ideas or considerations of various viewpoints, but instead just come to enjoy the stimulation provided by radio. "Drill, baby, drill" doesn't convince anyone concerned about environmental protection of off-shore resources, but it very successfully stimulates those who believe it's the best solution to the current energy crisis. Deriding "community organizers" and demonizing ACORN does not persuade liberals to abandon their beliefs, but it apparently has a stimulating effect on conservatives.

All of which is fine and good, up until conversations between liberals and radio-listening conservatives occur. At those times, the perception gap becomes obvious. My ultra-conservative co-workers march into my office all worked up, claiming, say, that Obama's goal of spreading the wealth is nothing but Marxism, probably learned at the feet of Bill Ayers. Why don't I see that?, they ask. When my response involves definitions of what is meant by "spreading the wealth" and "Marxism," I'm responding intellectually, not emotionally - in other words, I'm not being stimulating. And since they're conditioned to the emotional response of stimulating rhetoric, my replies sound flat and unconvincing to them, just as their arguments do not sound persuasive to me.

There's no winning. "If another person says something unreasonable even though you are speaking rationally, it is wrong to defeat him by arguing logic. On the other hand, it is not good to give up hastily saying that you are wrong, even though you think that your opinion is reasonable."

Zen Master Dogen said that, back in early 13th Century Japan. "Neither defeat him, nor withdraw saying you are wrong," he advised. "It is best to just leave the matter alone and stop arguing. If you act as if you have not heard and forget about the matter, he will forget too and will not get angry. This is a very important thing to bear in mind."

My encounters and arguments with my co-workers have convinced me of the first half of Dogen's advise, that there is no use in using logic in these situations, but that it is not good to just concede. I will have to put the second half of his advise into practice to see if turning a deaf ear to their rhetoric assuages the situation.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Democrats, Republicans and Other Scammers

More fun and games today in Georgia. The 2008 campaign is still running here - today, Bill Clinton came to town (I wonder if he'll eat at Houston's Restaurant again?) and spoke at Clark Atlanta University in support of Jim Martin. John McCain and Mike Huckabee have already visited town on behalf of (race-baiting, handicapped-bashing) Saxby Chambliss, and Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani also have trips planned. Al Gore will be here Sunday to stump for Martin.

But none of that matters to me because I've finally got tenants in the Unsellable Condo in Vinings. The place has been empty since I evicted the former tenants last July. I've spent untold thousands of dollars fixing the place up - new hardwood floors, newly tiled bathrooms, etc - and in September started running ads on line and in the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

The response has been underwhelming. I got a few inquiries from qualified prospectives early on, but they passed and then I started to get a lot of people who's main questions were "Is the security deposit negotiable?" or "Do you accept Section Eight?" (whatever that is). I also got a lot of folks who were all talk but no action - I learned quickly that those who talked a lot about lease/purchase options and selling off their other real estate investments typically never called back - and, even more frustratingly, I had a fair number of "no shows:" people who asked to look at the condo but then didn't show up at the time that we had set.

But the worst were the outright scammers. I got an email last October asking about the unit, and I sent a very nice description back, including some photos of the place, and asked if they wanted to take a look. Here's the reply I got:

Good Morning,

My name is pastor Lynn Deutsch, (ZION MINISTRY) I am coming for a conference from the United Kingdom and I will like you to tell me the condition of the house and how much it will cost me to rent the apartment for the period of 6 months and all the bills included, I have to pay before my arrival. Get back to me asap so my co-ordinate can send payment to you asap to secure the flat upon my arrival. Hence, the interior and exterior pictures of the house will also be appreciated. Thanks And God Bless You
Lynn

Phone#
+44-702-304-2723

Sounds great, right? A British pastor willing to pay a full six months up front, including "all the bills." What could go wrong with that? Except that I've already heard about this scam and know how it goes - next they tell the victim that their congregation or whatever doesn't want them handling the payment but wants instead to deposit the full 6-months rent directly into the landlord's bank account, and request the account numbers to facilitate the transfer. And then, once they get access to the bank account, they proceed to clean it out. Thanks, Pastor Deutsch, but I wasn't born yesterday.

I got another suspicious email from a "B." asking "what are the requirements?" for leasing the premises. Interesting . . . she had a Nigerian-sounding surname and asked no questions about the condition or appearance of the unit - instead, the question goes right to the financial (I presume) "requirements." I did not reply (Pastor Deutsch got one reply from me before I caught on), but then I got to wondering "did I just profile a person based on their name?" If I did, I apologize, B., but you really need to learn to do a better job of differentiating yourself from scammers.

And then after that, the replies to my ads, both legitimate and not, just sort of faded away and I began to despair about ever renting the unit out again. Until last week, when I got an email that sounded much more interested and legitimate than the others. We met, I showed them the unit and they liked it.

They're moving in this Monday. She's a teacher at an elementary school just up the road from the unit, and he's a Cobb County police officer (he pulled up in a squad car the day they visited, and he got called off twice by the radio dispatcher while they were looking). Their references checked out and their finances appear fine (ever though they're both civil servants - I gave them a $50/month discount in consideration of their employment). The best part is they seem like genuinely nice people, and expressed an interest in staying in the condo for a couple of years.

So, a long wait, but hopefully worth it. Now it's up to me to be the best landlord that I can possibly be.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Self, Not Others, Part III

In the previous quotes that I used of the Buddha discussing the emptiness of the self, he was mostly referring to the body, the physical manifestation of the self. But obviously, there's more to the self than mere bodies (isn't there?), so what about the ego, the personality, the psychological persona?

The Buddha did address the emptiness of the ego-self. In analyzing the self, the Buddha determined that it is nothing more than the sum of five conditions, which he called "Aggregates" (skandhas). Bodily form is only one of the Five Aggregates; the others are often referred to as feeling, thought, impulse and consciousness. Whenever these five conditions come together, there is something that conceives of itself as a "self."

To illustrate, imagine a body, any body. Since the body includes organs of sensual perception, it experiences feelings, the second Aggregate. The brain, the organ of cognition, sorts through and analyzes these feelings by the Aggregate of thought, and accordingly reacts to them (impulse). Consciousness, the fifth aggregate, is aware of all of this (body, feelings, thought, and impulse). When all Five Aggregates are present, then there exists a sentient being that considers itself, well, a self, and when any one Aggregate disappears, the self also disappears.

Each of these Aggregates are impermanent and interdependent, and because these Aggregates are impermanent and interdependent, we have an impermanent, interdependent self. Our suffering is caused when we cling to the the delusion that the self is something permanent and eternal, and we therefore come into conflict with our actual impermanent, interdependent nature.

"Imagine," the Buddha once said, "a mountain torrent, rising from afar, swift-flowing, and on both its banks grasses overhang the stream. Suppose that a man is swept away by that stream and clutches at the grasses, but they break away and owing to that he might come to his destruction. Even so, brethren, the untaught folk regard the body as the self, or the self as having a body, or the body as being in the self, or the self as being in the body. Then the body breaks away, and owing to that they come to their destruction. So, too, with feeling, thought, impulse, and consciousness."

The concept of the Five Aggregates has been refined over the centuries, and in Zen it has come to take on more of a psychological aspect. In his translation of The Heart Sutra, the Five Aggregates are ably described in their Zen context by Red Pine as follows:

Form (Rupa) - The first Aggregate is more than just the body, but all form. In fact, according to Red Pine, “Form is not the material world. It is simply the outside world, in contrast to what we presume is an inside world.” Like the famous black-and-white picture that at first appears to be a vase, but upon closer inspection looks like two faces in silhouette, the form of the outside world defines the inside world ("I am that which is not others"), just as the outside world is itself defined by the inside ("Others are that which is not me"). Hence, in Zen, form is defined by emptiness and emptiness is defined by form.

Sensation (Vedana) - “This is not the same as sensory input," Red Pine writes, "but rather the evaluation of input, which the Buddha rarely described in any more detail than positive, negative, or neutral. For the most part, our experiences are neutral and ignored.” But we do take notice of that which gives us pleasure or that which might pose a risk.

Perception (Sanjna) - Perception is what enables us to classify our sensations as positive, negative or neutral. It supplies the means that allow us to manipulate our sensations, so that we see what we want to see and don’t see what we don’t want to see.

Memory (Sanskara) - Memory supplies us with the templates that perception applies to sensations and form. 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.

Consciousness (Vijnana) - Consciousness refers to the faculty of mind in general, the ability to be aware, aware of anything, but always of something - form, sensation, perceptions, memories, and of course, a “self.” To discuss or analyze consciousness would be like the hand trying to grab the fist. Buddha always discussed consciousness in terms of a sense, hence, sight consciousness, hearing consciousness, thought consciousness, and so on.

Consciousness has evolved as a sort of radar to allow organisms to protect themselves - without awareness of a self, there would be no conception of something to protect, and an unprotected organism wouldn't last long in Darwinian evolution. There are strategies for survival other than the "fight or flee" option available from consciousness, but if we identify with our consciousness, with our radar system, then of course we are going to fell paranoid and under attack all the time.

So, putting all of this together, we define our physical selves based on an awareness of the outside world - we are that which is not something "out there." We are aware of that "outside world" due to sensory perception, most of which is ignored other than that which might threaten us or satisfy some need. We manipulate those sensations and sort the sensations into positive, negative or neutral using our perceptions, which are learned and stored in memory. And because we are conscious of all this, that consciousness, in turn, considers the forms of the outside world "other," leaving the emptiness defined by the form as the "self."

And yet we feel that the "self" - the one seeming constant in our lives - is somehow permanent and immune from change (I've never been someone else), and it's the outside world that is ever changing and dynamic and impermanent. It was this misconception that the Buddha set out to dispel in order to end our suffering. Therefore, in Buddhism, it is taught that what we call the "self" is in fact, impermanent, interdependent, and empty of any independent existence. It is even said that there is, in fact, no such thing as "self."

And yet the elderly tenzo said to Dogen, "Others are not me."

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Time Wounds Old Heels

Blink and you fall several days behind in the blog. To catch up to the present:

Wednesday, I once again sat with the new Kennesaw, Georgia Zen meditation group. It's good that this group exists, and the numbers have even been increasing - we had several newcomers, and I was tapped to provide some first-timer instructions before I got to sit myself for the second period.

It was important to create some stillness and calm in Cobb County, because the next day, Thursday, John McCain came there and led a rally for race-baiting, handicapped-bashing Saxby Chambliss. To add some fireworks to the proceedings, crazy old Zell Miller also showed up. Let's not forget that in 2002, Zell, like McCain, said that Chambliss "should be ashamed" of his campaign against Max Cleland. But apparently time heals old wounds, because now old Zell, who calls himself a "Truman Democrat" (but is in fact further adrift than Joe Lieberman), declared that Chambliss may be the “last man standing” to block the Democratic "far-left liberal agenda."

What Zell apparently forgot to mention was that when he was a senator, he declared that reliance on a 60-member cloture vote in the Senate, needed to shut off debate, was "undemocratic." But now he wants Georgia voters to elect Saxby for just that purpose. Zell also accused Jim Martin of being against a $100 million tax cut that he had proposed as governor, without mentioning the fact that Zell had joined Martin in support of a statewide sales tax increase in 1989. And so on.

Friday, I spent the day in Baton Rouge. I flew out in the morning for a meeting with a client and the state environmental protection agency. The meeting went very well and I was able to make it back to the airport in time for an early flight back, but due to weather delays I didn't leave the airport for another three hours. Just for the record - although it's a perfectly pleasant place, there's not a whole lot to do at the Baton Rouge Airport. I read the current issue of "The Economist" cover to cover.

When my flight finally did leave, it was packed and I found myself squeezed between the window and another passenger. He was a coffee salesman on his way home to Chicago, and somehow I was reminded of the John Candy character in "Planes, Trains and Automobiles." But there was more to him than my first impression revealed. He was reading a book on the philosophy of 17th-Century mathematician Gottfried Leibniz, and after a bit of conversation, he told me that he was a follower of The Four Agreements of Don Miguel Ruiz.

I had not heard of this, and he explained the teaching to me. Ruiz' ideas apparently come from the Toltec people of Southern Mexico. The Toltec were 'people of knowledge' - scientists and artists who created a society to explore and conserve the traditional spiritual knowledge and practices of their ancestors. The Toltec view science and spirit as part of the same entity, believing that all energy - material or ethereal - is derived from and governed by the universe. Ruiz was born and raised in rural Mexico and was brought up to follow Toltec ways by his mother, a faith healer, and grandfather, a 'nagual,' or shaman. Ruiz' teaching is summarized, the coffee salesman told me, by The Four Agreements:

Be impeccable with your word - Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.

Don’t take anything personally - Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.

Don’t make assumptions - Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.

Always do your best - Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse and regret.

Like many things, I compared what he was saying to my understanding of Zen. I told him how the First Agreement is much like the "right speech" of the Buddha's Eight-Fold Path. The precepts urge Buddhist to "speak truthfully - do not lie" and to "see the perfection - do not speak of the faults of others." A teacher once told me that before speaking, we should always first ask ourselves, "Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?" and not to speak unless we can answer "yes" to all three questions. (Writing this has made me wonder what would happen if I applied this test to what I wrote above about Zell Miller and Saxby Chambliss.)

The selflessness implicit in the Second Agreement and it's promise of an end to suffering is very Zen, and the Buddha would certainly have approved of the Third Agreement, which he practiced his whole life. The Buddha way is, in essence, a system of inquiry. And the dedication to perfection of the Fourth Agreement is synonymous with the mindfulness of Buddhist practice - "Right Mindfulness" is another aspect of the Eight-Fold Path and intense concentration and attention to detail are hallmarks of Zen.

All of these comparisons made for a lively and interesting conversation between Baron Rouge and Atlanta. Neither one of us expected our seat-mate for the flight to be as open-minded or interested in Zen, Toltec wisdom, and Leibnizian metaphysics. We exchanged contact information with the intention of subsequent conversations; however, friendships struck on airplanes are of the most transitory kind - "single-serving friendships" in the words of Tyler Durden - and it remains to be seen whether we talk again. But the conversation did pass the time nicely, and made up for the long delay at the airport.

Which brings me to today, Saturday. This afternoon, I may have finally found a tenant for the Unsellable Condo in Vinings - a nice 30ish couple, a schoolteacher and a cop. Two civic workers with steady employment - just what I was looking for. They saw the ad in the newspaper (it's last day running) and they liked the condo (with the new hardwood floors, tiled baths, and fresh paint, what's not to like?) but are sleeping on the decision. I'm hoping to hear from them tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

We're Still All Georgians

I keep vowing not to do any more political posts, but here I go again (maybe I should just stop vowing and see what happens). According to today's New York Times, the South is becoming marginalized in American politics. By voting so emphatically for John McCain over Barack Obama — supporting him in some areas in even greater numbers than they did George Bush in 2004 — Southern voters are headed in a decidedly different direction than the rest of the nation.

The areas that voted more heavily Republican this year than in 2004 tended to be poorer, less educated, and whiter. Overall, less than a third of Southern whites voted for Obama, compared with 43 percent of whites nationally. According to exit poll data from Alabama, McCain had the support of 9 out of 10 whites. In rural Appalachia, Obama carried only 44 out of 410 counties. However, Virginia and North Carolina, "suburban" states that have experienced an influx of better educated and more prosperous voters in recent years, bucked the trend and went for Obama.

And, like the Civil War, it's not over down here. While the rest of the country is suffering withdrawal symptoms associated with post-electoral depression, we're still participating in the Saxby Chambliss-Jim Martin run-off campaign. The post-election race has attracted national attention as Democrats attempt to get a 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and Republicans try to prevent it. John McCain announced today that he will campaign for Chambliss this Thursday in (where else?) Cobb County, one of Georgia's whitest and most conservative counties (and, unfortunately, my current office location). Mike Huckabee will campaign here on Sunday.

Senator Orrin Hatch has sent out a fund-raising letter to Georgia voters stating, “We need every resource we can muster to ensure liberals don’t steal the election in Minnesota, and to stop the MoveOn.org’s candidate in Georgia.” The National Republican Senatorial Committee has issued a web ad which declares that Saxby Chambliss’ re-election is required, if we are to escape the "radical social agenda" of Obama and other Democrats.

And today, a Georgia congressman said that Obama intends to establish a Gestapo-like security force to impose a Marxist dictatorship. "It may sound a bit crazy and off base, but the thing is, he’s the one who proposed this national security force," Rep. Paul Broun said. "I’m just trying to bring attention to the fact that we may — may not, I hope not — but we may have a problem with that type of philosophy of radical socialism or Marxism."

Broun cited a July speech by Obama that has circulated on the Internet in which the then-Democratic presidential candidate called for a civilian force to take some of the national security burden off the military.

"That’s exactly what Hitler did in Nazi Germany and it’s exactly what the Soviet Union did," Broun said. “When he’s proposing to have a national security force that’s answering to him, that is as strong as the U.S. military, he’s showing me signs of being Marxist.” Broun said he believes Obama would move to ban gun ownership if he does build a national security force.

I've seen the video of the speech - neo-con co-workers marched into my office one day and demanded that I watch it. “We cannot continue to rely only on our military in order to achieve the national security objectives that we’ve set,” Obama said. “We’ve got to have a civilian national security force that’s just as powerful, just as strong, just as well-funded.” In the context of the speech, Obama was clearly referring to a proposal for a civilian reserve corps that could handle postwar reconstruction efforts such as rebuilding infrastructure — an idea endorsed by the Bush administration - not an armed rival to the military. Besides, I thought Republicans were in favor of gun ownership.

According to Rep. Broun, “We can’t be lulled into complacency. You have to remember that Adolf Hitler was elected in a democratic Germany. I’m not comparing him to Adolf Hitler" Broun said, comparing Obama to Hitler. "What I’m saying is there is the potential of going down that road.”

Obama’s victory last week showed that politicians no longer need the South to win a national election. The region no longer votes as a solid bloc, and it is possible to win elections by splintering off urban areas like Atlanta and suburban states like Virginia and North Carolina. By leaving the mainstream so decisively, the Deep South and Appalachia will no longer be able to dictate that winning Democrats come from the South or adhere to conservative policies on issues like welfare and abortion.

Senate challenger Jim Martin has asked Obama to come to Georgia for his campaign, but so far Obama has not confirmed a visit and I'm not sure if it's appropriate for him to fuel partisan differences by involving himself in the campaign. However, field operatives who worked for Obama’s presidential campaign will be heading to Georgia. The Obama aides will help with the grass-roots turnout in the three weeks left before the runoff election.

This morning, Blog for Democracy posted a want ad, seeking local housing for the new volunteers:
"We’re getting a large influx of staff from other states to help out with the Jim Martin campaign. If you can house a staffer for a couple of days, or a couple of weeks, please email Dwayne. I’m told the need is urgent. Please spread the word."
The Unsellable Condo in Vinings (Cobb County) is still vacant - topic for another posting on another day - but I'm still not turning it over to a bunch of Obama field operatives, however good their intentions (or mine).

Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Empty Platter

"I'll tell you what I like about Chinese people. They're hanging in there with the chopsticks, aren't they? You know they've seen the fork, but they're staying with the sticks. . . I don't know how they missed it. Chinese farmer gets up, works in the field with a shovel all day. Shovel, spoon. Come on. You're not plowing 40 acres with a couple of pool cues!"
- Jerry Seinfeld

Back in December 2005, I was a bad boy at sesshin and walked out on the noonday meal rather than go through the oryoki ritual. Oryoki (literally, "just enough"), is a meditative form of eating that emphasizes mindfulness by abiding to a strict order of precise movements, each of which encourages the mind to be present and not wander in discursive thought.

It's also, in my humble opinion, tedious and precious and not entirely sanitary. Nansen said, "Ordinary mind is the way," and there is nothing to oryoki that feel ordinary or natural to me, and I continue to avoid it.

It has, I recognize, become a dharma barrier for me. My discriminating mind has its preferences, and avoiding oryoki - even taking my meals off site during retreats and sesshins if I have to - is an exercise in picking and choosing. I can see this but, like, whatever. I'm still not going to do it. I don't practice calligraphy and I'm not interested in origami or tea ceremony, and oryoki seems to have large elements of both. And don't even get me started on sewing.

I'm a western man living in a western culture. When Zen came to Japan, the Japanese didn't play pretend that they were living in India. Why should I pretend that I'm a 13th Century Japanese monastic? Ordinary mind in the here and now. After all, we've seen the fork. . .

I bring all this up because I received a delightful email last night from a Zen practitioner who had endured oryoki for several years but is starting to have reservations about the form. She came across my prior bad-boy rant, and wrote to sympathize. Interestingly, her experience at an actual Zen monastery was similar to mine at John Daido Loori's Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper, New York - they eat with forks and knives, not in oryoki. It makes me think sometimes the practitioners at the various dharma centers are just being dilettantes.

But as I said, oryoki is my dharma barrier. I whole heartedly encourage you to try the practice with an open mind, to follow the directions of your teachers, and come to your own conclusions. We can discuss it over a hot bowl of miso soup someday, as we ladle the broth down with our soup spoons.

Friday, November 07, 2008

We're All Georgians Now

So I understand that everyone's feeling withdrawal symptoms now that the election is over. We're experiencing a loss of sense of purpose, and with the spectacle and suspense behind us, we're jonesing for more electoral politics. Obama is President-Elect, we're happy, but the politics is all turning to boring, wonkish policy stuff, so what do we do now?

Well, if you feel that way, c'mon down to Georgia! We're still in campaign mode! With Saxby Chambliss and Jim Martin in a run-off for the Senate, we have another election coming up on December 2. 30-or-so more days of campaigning! And with the Democrats now within two or three seats of a filibuster-proof, 60-seat majority, this race is actually somewhat meaningful.

But here's the beautiful part - not only are the voters bereft of purpose and meaning in their lives, so are the politicians and pundits. So John McCain has already agreed to come here and campaign for Chambliss, and Martin has asked Obama for assistance. No word yet on whether the President Elect will make it and Sarah Palin said something about "schedule conflicts" preventing her from coming down here for Chambliss (but I'm betting that she doesn't know the State of Georgia from the Republic of Georgia and is afraid of encountering hostile Russian troops here). But once she learns that there's a Nieman Marcus and something like 8 million conservative voters here, I'm sure she'll be down. And can Joe The Plumber be far behind (what else does he have to do)?

My disappointment in not being able to sell my house and move to Oregon is at least somewhat tempered by having this OT period for politics.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Self, Not Others, Part II

Zen and Buddhist teachings often emphasize the ephemeral nature of the self. The self is impermanent, empty of independent existence - a mere aggregate of conditions and, when any one condition is removed, the self ceases to exist.

Considering his body in light of the four elements which were thought to make up all matter, the Buddha said,

“This body of mine is a combination of the four elements. Its hair, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, muscles, bones, and marrow belong to the earth. Its saliva, tears, pus, blood, snot, froth, phlegm, semen, urine, and feces belong to water. Its warmth belongs to fire. And its movement and stillness belong to wind. Take away each of the four elements, and this body turns out to be an illusion. Where is it now?” (Complete Enlightenment Sutra)

(In conversation with my teacher, he said he found it odd that the Buddha assigned feces to the element of water, not earth. I think the assignment says a great deal about the diet of the medicants in that day, and its effects on the digestive system.)

We now know, of course, that the building blocks of all matter are much more complex than the four elements, but this new knowledge only reinforces the Buddha's point. If I'm made up of organs, which are composed of tissues, which are composed of cells, which are composed of organic chemicals, which are made up of atoms, which consist of neutrons, protons and electrons, which are made up of quarks and neutrinos and other sub-atomic particles, which are composed of, I don't know, strings they tell me - then on what level does life exist? On what level does the self reside? If I'm alive, are my bodily chemicals alive? Are their atoms alive? It they're not, then how can I, made up of non-living elements, be myself a living being?

If it's so hard to find life, so much the harder it is to find the ego, the personality, the self.

In the Majjhima Nikaya, or Middle-Length Discourses, the Buddha said:
"If there really existed an Ego, there would be also something which belonged to the Ego. As, however, in truth and reality, neither an Ego nor anything belonging to an Ego can be found, is it not really an utter fool's doctrine to say: This is the world, this am I; after death I shall be permanent, persisting and eternal?"
The Buddha here discounts an Ego-self existing in this world, as well as a soul or self existing in the afterlife. These teachings resonate throughout Buddhism and Zen, to the point where teachers often claim that the Ego-self is just an illusion, that belief in the existence of the Ego-self is a delusion. You, it is claimed, don't exist!

So when Mahakasyapa, out in the sun mixing mud, said, "If I don't do this, who else will do it for me?" it was a complete refutation of this philosophical idea of no-self, an acceptance of the obvious in the very concrete world of, well, mixing concrete.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Meanwhile, Back In Kennesaw

I missed it last week, but I got the chance to sit in with the new Kennesaw Zen group tonight. Slightly smaller than two weeks ago, but still it's nice to know there's a Zen meditation group out in Cobb County, Georgia.

Zazenkai Friday through Sunday, evening service last Monday night, the Kennesaw group tonight. I'm just saying if I don't do this, who else would do it for me?

Other people are not me.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Early Awakening

I got dog-tired beyond Macon and woke up Dean to resume. We got out of the car for air and suddenly both of us were stoned with joy to realize that in the darkness all around us was fragrant green grass and the smell of fresh manure and warm waters. "We're in the South!"
– Jack Kerouac, “On the Road”

My strategy worked . . . at least for me. Rising at 5:30, I got to my local polling place (the Bitsy Grant Tennis Center) by 6:00 am, and was the fourth person in line. It wasn't unpleasant waiting in the warm November morning air as the sun arose. I got to watch the tractors head out from the barns to tend the lawns while I chatted with neighbors - about the Beltline project, the new park in our neighborhood, the planned bike trails, and so on. I saw a number of familiar faces.

The voting started in Georgia at 7:00 am, and I had cast my ballot by 7:15 - Obama, John Lewis (who was running unopposed, but deserved the vote anyway), and Senatorial challenger Jim Martin. I was surprised to see only three voting machines at my in-town precinct, and even more surprised when I later heard from my suburban co-workers that their (predominantly white) precincts has 16 to 20 machines.

I've received a lot of encouragement to keep posting the Zen series on "Self, Not Others" and I will, but it's going to have to wait at least one more night. This is going to be a historic evening, regardless of the outcome, and I can't keep myself from channel surfing from CNN to MSNBC to CBS to ABC to NBC and so on. At the Zen Center last night, I tried to express equanimity about the outcome of the election, but I don't think I was very convincing - at least, I didn't convince myself.

They just announced (8:45 pm) that Georgia went for McCain. As I said, my strategy worked for me, but in the end, this is still a Red State.

Not that Obama didn't give the Republicans a good run for their money, though. There's an interesting article about Obama's Georgia campaign over at FiveThirtyEight.com. Sean Quinn writes, "If there is one shocker on election night in the presidential race, cast your eyes to Georgia. 1,994,990 people voted early in Georgia. 3,301,875 total voted in Georgia's presidential race in 2004.

Let that sink in."

Obama's "skeleton staff" here of 53 was at least four times bigger than any other Democratic presidential effort in Georgia's history (Bill Clinton, who won the state in 1992, only had a dozen staffers). The local campaign had 33 offices and 175 separate staging locations, at least one in every one of Georgia's 159 counties, turning out roughly 550,000 new voters.

The Obama staff even had "Comfort Teams," all volunteer forces who don't campaign, but brought water, hot chocolate, and snacks to those waiting in the long voting lines. 50-60 people in metro Atlanta alone helped with the Comfort Teams.

Those voters may not have turned the state, but they did force the Republicans to spend more effort in a state they had thought was "in the bag." And despite McCain's victory here, the Democrats still might pick up a Senate seat, replacing incumbent Saxby Chambliss with Democrat Jim Martin.

And in a few hours, we should know who will be the next President of the United States of America.

UPDATE:


UPDATE II: (11/5/08, 6:$5 pm) It looks like the Martin-Chambliss contest for Georgia's Senate seat is heading for a runoff. Last night, race-baiting, handicapped-bashing Republican incumbent Saxby Chambliss held a pretty convincing 55% or so lead, but then the late results started rolling in from Democratic precincts in the metro Atlanta area. Now, with 99 percent of precincts reporting, Chambliss has 1,841,449 votes, or 49.9 percent of the total, while Martin has 1,727,625 votes, or 47 percent. Georgia law requires a majority for election, so it looks like they're heading toward a December 2 run-off. Oh, fun.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Election Eve

Monday night . . . fourth day in a row at the zendo. Okay, nothing compared to the monastic experience, that is, living there for years on end, but more days in a row than I've put together recently.

My intention was to start a discussion group around the "Self, Not Others" theme that I had discussed during the weekend zazenkai - and that I'll be blogging about here - but despite my best efforts to the contrary, we wound up talking about tomorrow's election.

It's hard to maintain a spirit of equanimity when the two candidates could not be more different in terms of temperament and in vision. While I can maintain that both candidates are patriotic Americans doing what they truly believe is in the best interests of the country, that statement just doesn't express all of the other concerns that I feel about the outcome of this election. It's not the best of years for equanimity.

My strategy for voting tomorrow, when they're predicting four- to six-hour lines: I plan on getting up at 5:30 am and going straight to the polls without even showering or shaving, and getting in line at least an hour before they open. That way, I'm hoping for no more than a two- or three-hour experience, but I'll do whatever it takes to cast a ballot for Obama.

That being said, that's all I can afford to say tonight - I've got to get my sleep.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Self, Not Others

This weekend, I led the November zazenkai (day-long meditation period) at the center. It started Friday (Halloween) night, went through Saturday from 9 to 9, and wrapped up Sunday morning.

I had to give at least three talks, and for a topic I had chosen "Self, Not Others." However, in preparing, I wasn't sure how much material I would need to fill three hours, and I now think I over-shot.

Not that too much material would be a problem, but I felt compelled to try to go through it all. It was a bit rushed Saturday morning and a little more restrained Saturday afternoon, but I'm afraid I left the Sunday-morning audience, including a large number of newcomers, far behind. I'll try to go over the material here at a more leisurely rate and in several posts for those curious about what I was trying to relate.

So here's Part 1: For a general theme, I used two stories that should be familiar to regular readers of Water Dissolves Water (as if). First I shared a story of that old ascetic Mahakasyapa, as told by Dogen in the Eihei Koruku. The Eihei Koroku, for those curious, is a collection of Zen Master Dogen's short formal discourses to monks training at Eihei-ji temple, longer informal talks, koans with his commentaries, as well as short appreciatory verses on various topics. Anyway, Dharma Hall Discourse 27 reads as follows:

Here is a story. In ancient days, when Venerable Mahakasyapa was stamping on mud [to mix for making walls], a novice asked, "Why do you do hard work like this yourself?"

The Venerable One replied, "If I don't do this, who else would do it for me?"

The teacher Dogen said: The mind is like a fan in December, the body is like a cloud above the cold valley. If we can see that we act by ourselves, then we can see that someone is doing the work. If we can see that someone is doing the work, then we can see that we ourselves are doing it.

(Dogen’s Extensive Record, A Translation of the Eihei Koruku, translated by Taigen Dan Leighton & Shohaku Okumura, page 96)


A footnote informs us, "This story is from one of the Chinese lamp transmission anthologies of stories, Shumon Rento Eyo (Collection of the Essence of the Continuous Dharma Lamp). This may be an apocryphal story, not in the sutras. This story is very similar to a story about a tenzo, chief cook in the monastery, who Dogen met during his experiences in China, told by Dogen in his Tenzokyokun (Instructions for the Chief Cook)."

So I followed the story of Mahakasyapa with Dogen's account of his encounter with the tenzo:

When I was at Mount Tiantong, a monk called Lu from Quigyuan Fu was serving as the tenzo. One day after the noon meal, I was walking to another building within the complex when I noticed Lu drying mushrooms in the sun in front of the butsuden. 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. Lu worked hard and was covered with sweat. I could not help but feel the work was too much of a strain for him. His back was a bow drawn taut, his long eyebrows were crane white.

I approached and asked his age. He replied that he was sixty-eight years old. Then I went on to ask him why he never used any assistants.

He answered, "Other people are not me."

“You are right,” I said; “I can see that your work is the activity of the buddhadharma, but why are you working so hard in this scorching sun?”

He replied, “If I do not do it now, when else can I do it?”

There was nothing else for me to say. As I walked on along that passageway, I began to sense inwardly the true significance of the role of the tenzo.

(Tenzo Kyokun, Instructions for the Cook, translated by Thomas Wright in From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment, Refining Your Life, Zen Master Dogen and Kosho Uchiyama, pages 9-10)


Two simple stories, both of which, in essence, raise the question: What is the self that is not others? All the forms and methods of Zen practice, in one way or another, provide us with tested approaches to seeing deeply into the nature of reality through study of the self, so this question truly cuts to the heart of Zen. I'll present the discussions I presented on this matter in sevreal upcoming posts.