Thursday, April 30, 2009

Celtics vs. Bulls. Game 6. 3 OTs. OMG.

The series is now tied 3-3, and these two teams couldn't possibly become more competitive. The rivalry is getting intense. But I won't be able to see the deciding Game 7 Saturday night, since I will be in sesshin all weekend. It will be a particularly intense sesshin (lots and lots of sitting), and particularly demanding on me. I probably won't even have a chance to post anything here. Did I mention that I wasn't going to get to see Game 7? Please don't tell me what happens.

Oh, well. There's a lesson about attachment in there somewhere.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Image Found on the Internets

Impermanence is swift; life-and-death is the vital matter. The World Health Organization has raised its alert level concerning the Swine Flu to a 5 on a scale of 1 to 6. We're all going to die.

Eventually. As Stephen Batchelor asks, "Since death alone is certain, but the time of death is uncertain, what should I do?" This is a very important question to bear in mind.

The Swine Flu Pandemic can be considered a great teacher if it causes us to ask this of ourselves more sincerely.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Civic Duties

Yesterday, jury duty. Today, the Beltline advisory group.

I was summoned for jury duty for the second time in my life - but also for the second time in the past three years. They say that potential jurors are selected from voter registration lists, so I figure this was my penalty for voting for Obama. After showing up at the appointed time and date and sitting around for half a day, they excused half the crowd (including me). The anticipation was far worse than the actual duty.

Today, there was another meeting of the advisory board for the Beltline. More time off from work, but with little to show for the effort. We discussed the draft Environmental Impact Statement, but never reached any real conclusion. The most memorable vote of the meeting was the one wherein we voted to officially take a position not to take a position on another issue.

But at least I can take satisfaction out of knowing that I'm being a good citizen.

Monday, April 27, 2009

In a dharma talk, Dogen said,

Even if you are speaking rationally and another person says something unreasonable, it is wrong to defeat him by arguing logically. 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.

Neither defeat him, nor withdraw saying you are wrong. 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.
This is one of the most practical passages (Chapter 1-10) in Shobogenzo Zuimonki. For once, Dogen is not talking about zazen, impermanence, or non-gaining (not that there's anything wrong with that). He's talking about direct action, how we live our life, employing right speech and right action, exercising the kshanti paramita. How we live our life is more important in Zen than what we say, and we express our true understanding of Zen not in our words but in our actions. That's why Dogen emphasizes his point by saying this is a very important thing to bear in mind.

Besides. do we ever really win arguments? Most arguments I've been in (and there have been many), each participant retreats to their own position, defends their original statements, and doesn't really listen to the other, except for waiting for a logical slip or an opportunity to speak again. Usually, both participants walk away from an argument more convinced of their rightness than before the argument started. Better to just move on as Dogen advises.

Dogen was probably talking about arguments over the dharma. All the more reason not to try and employ clever logic to make your point, but also, if you're explaining the real dharma, all the more reason not to give in and say you're wrong. Best to make your point by demonstrating your superior understanding with action and walking away, not clinging to your position or engaging in divisive language.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

My neighbors invited me over for dinner tonight to discuss Zen Buddhism with their spirituality group. They are all well on their way on various spiritual paths and all well versed on general Buddhism, but were curious about Zen in particular. I answered their questions as best I could and gave them basic instructions on zazen. It was a lovely evening, and dinner was delicious.

Master Dogen once said, “Even in secular society, those who are wise carry out their tasks solely for the sake of fulfilling their roles. They do not expect any reward. Students of the Way must have the same mental attitude. Once you have entered the Buddha-Way, you should practice the various activities just for the sake of the buddha-dharma. Do not think of gaining something in return. All teachings, Buddhist or non-Buddhist, exhort us to be free from the expectation of gaining a reward.”

Buddha-dharma means:

  1. The truth or reality to which the Buddha awakens,
  2. The teachings which show us the reality, and
  3. The law or morals which form the way of life in accordance with that reality or teaching.

Another meaning of this word is existence or things (the myriad dharma).

Way (DO in Japanese, Dao in Chinese), as in Buddha-Way, is a translation of the Sanskrit words marga or bodhi.

Marga or Way (DO) is the Fourth Noble Truth. The Four Noble Truths are KU, SHU, METSU, DO

KU – duhkha-satya – Truth of Suffering
SHU – samdhaya-satya – Truth of Accumulation
METSU – nirodha-satya – Truth of Dissolution
DO – marga-satya – Truth of the Right Way

Marga is the Eightfold Path. It is the path along which we should walk (practice) to become a Buddha.

Bodhi is awareness or enlightenment, also represented by DO. Anuttara-Samyak-Sambodhi is “Complete Perfect Enlightenment” or more literally, “The Supreme Right and Balanced State of Complete Truth”

Bodhi – Perfect knowledge or wisdom

Sam – A prefix expressing conjunction, union, thoroughness, intensity, completeness

Bodhi is the wisdom by which a person becomes a Buddha; not to be confused with intellectual knowledge, it is more a state of body and mind.

Buddha-Way, then, has two meanings combined:

  1. The way leading to enlightenment (“Marga”), and
  2. The Buddha’s enlightenment itself (“Bodhi”).

So, the Buddha Way is the way we should walk in our daily activities in the direction of the Buddha, while each one of the activities is nothing other than a manifestation of the Buddha’s enlightenment. This is the meaning of Dogen’s expression shusho-ichinyo (practice and enlightenment are one).

Saturday, April 25, 2009

I know it's only April, but a 16-11 Red Sox victory over the Yankees is still a beautiful thing.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Eliot suffered his first lesson in karma tonight when one of his chipmunk catches bit him on the eye. I learned another lesson in karma hanging out at the all-night emergency veterinary clinic.

Following his neutering, the doc told me to keep Eliot in the house for a week while he healed. A week! Eliot loves going outside - he's an outside cat - and I knew he would be miserable cooped up in the house for a full week. But I kept him inside as instructed and allowed him to heal on Wednesday and Thursday. He also remained indoors all day Friday, a beautiful summer-like day, at least until I got home from work and decided to allow him out for the few remaining hours of the day as a reward for staying inside for so long.

He freely came in and went back out several times, but after last weekend, I now know the sound of his bringing a live animal into the house with him. So when he came in shortly after dark without announcing himself with his customary meows and I heard the squeaks of a small mammal in distress, I knew exactly what he was up to. First time outside since last weekend's adventures, and right off the bat he's bringing critters back in with him.

They were once again hunkered down back in the meditation room, the chipmunk taking refuge behind the kitty-litter box (it's my home zendo , but Eliot's bathroom). I used a broom to sweep the chipmunk out the back door and just like last weekend, Eliot immediately followed. He came back inside a half hour or so later without any creatures in his mouth, but panting and out of breath. The chipmunk must have given him a real run for his money. I let Eliot trot off to one of his many little retreats around the house to recover.

But when he approached me later, he was clearly out of sorts. I could tell something was wrong and then I saw that his left eye was swollen shut and the surrounding skin was bright red. As I examined him, it was clear he was in real pain. Some fluid was running out the corner of his puffed up eye and he was clearly frightened, not understanding what was happening to him. I could only assume that the chipmunk had bitten him on the eye in an understandable attempt to escape.

By this time, it was 10 at night, and his vet's office had closed four hours ago and wasn't open again until Monday morning. I wasn't going to wait until then - the swelling was getting worse and his whole left face was getting puffy. I called one neighborhood vet after another, getting a voice mail announcement each time about their office hours - some were open on some Saturdays for at least a few hours, but none could take us there and then. I wasn't sure how much harm and suffering would occur if I didn't get him looked at that night.

On about my third call, I got an announcement stating that if this were an emergency I should contact Georgia Veterinary Specialists. I looked them up on line and saw that they had a 24-hour emergency clinic, even if it were a 15-mile drive away.

Eliot doesn't like riding in a car even when he's healthy and the longest drive he's suffered to date has been all of two miles; he was absolutely miserable riding in his little cat carrier for 20 minutes with his eye swollen shut. He was crying and carrying on the whole time, even while I was trying to explain to him how chipmunks weren't toys to be played with but actual sentient beings just like him. But I can't blame him for chasing chipmunks as after all, that's a cat's predatory nature - he's just functioning as designed, even if it's not always to my liking. We can't blame the chipmunk either for acting out of it's nature and trying to defend itself with the limited means at its disposal. And I can't blame myself for being irritable driving around town at 10.30 at night with a whiney cat, looking for some all-night clinic at a location not convenient to me, thinking how this wasn't how I had planned to spend my Friday night.

When I found the clinic, they were pretty good - they didn't keep us waiting for too long and soon I had a veterinarian looking at Eliot's eye. Eliot kept squirming and was given a sedative for the pain and for his nerves. The vet found the bite mark on his eyelid (fortunately it missed the eyeball itself), cleaned the wound, and gave him some meds. The swelling had started to go down already, but Eliot still looked like Rocky Balboa after a losing fight.

As the clinic was filling our prescriptions and totaling our bill ($177.50), I sat in the waiting room next to a man who had just had his dog put down, and was suffering the ironic indignity of waiting to be presented with the tab while still in his grief. This certainly wasn't how he had planned to spend his Friday night. It reminded me that for all of my imagined inconveniences, things could have been much worse.

We got home by 12:30. Eliot was still woozy from the sedatives but more affectionate than I've ever seen him before - he couldn't get enough petting and snuggling. I think he was happy to be home and glad that the ordeal was over, but I also think he understood and was appreciative that I had taken care of him in his suffering. Any lingering resentment about the way the evening turned out melted away.

His eye is still swollen up, although not as bad as before, and he was prescribed a week's regime of antibiotics. He's looking a little worse for all of his recent wear and tear - the swollen eye, the fresh castration scar, the still-missing fur on his back from scratching off the flea medicine. He's making me look like the world's worst pet owner, but I'm doing the best that I can. For what it's worth, for at least the next week while he's going through his antibiotics regime, he's definitely going to be an indoors cat, no matter how nice it is outside.

Hopefully, he's learned a lesson about chipmunks and other prey - that they can and will bite back. And after all, the whole idea of having a domesticated cat in your home is to keep rodents out, not to have it bring them into your house. The karmic consequences of his behavior are evident on his swollen face.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

I know that it's only Game 3 of the first round of playoffs, but a Celtics win is still a beautiful thing.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


To wrap up a long-running thread through this blog, the fourth and final of the Four Exemplary Acts of a Bodhisattava is cooperation ("manifesting sympathy"). Zen Master Dogen discusses the Four Exemplary Acts in Shobogenzo Bodaisatta Shishōbō. For those of you keeping score at home, the first three acts are offering alms ("free giving"), using kind speech, and showing benevolence ("helpful conduct").

Real cooperation is not an abstract concept but is always related to a concrete task. The "manifesting" of cooperation refers to our actual ways of behaving, our everyday actions, and our attitudes of mind. “Cooperation means not being contrary" Dogen explains. "It is not being contrary to oneself and not being contrary to others. When we really understand what cooperation means, we will see that self and other are one and the same.”

The Taoists say that music, poetry and wine (harps, poems, and sake) are a hermit’s three friends. Dogen picked up this saying and used it to express both the mutual agreement between subject and object and the identity of subject and object in a classic Dogen passage:

“Music, poetry, and wine make friends with ordinary people, make friends with those in lofty positions, and make friends with the hosts of celestial beings. At the same time, ordinary people make friends with music, poetry, and wine; and music, poetry, and wine make friends with music, poetry, and wine; and ordinary people make friends with ordinary people; and those in lofty positions make friends with those in lofty positions; and celestial beings make friends with celestial beings."
The Taoists also say, "A sea does not reject water, and therefore is able to realize its greatness. Mountains do not reject the earth, and therefore can realize their great height. An enlightened leader does not despise ordinary people, and therefore can realize a large following.”

Dogen explains that a sea’s not rejecting water is the sea cooperating with water. Further, since cooperation works both ways, water has virtue by not refusing the sea. For this reason, it is possible for waters to come together and form a sea. And because one sea does not reject another sea, it forms an ocean, which is something much bigger, just as one mountain does not reject another mountain, and therefore forms a larger range.

Because an enlightened leader does not despise the ordinary people, he realizes a large following. "A large following," according to Dogen, "means a nation. An enlightened leader may mean an emperor or empress.”

Just as the sea receives its greatness from the rivers which empty into it, so too can the water in the rivers realize greatness by becoming one with the sea. By extension, an enlightened leader receives greatness by leading the many, friend and foe alike, and the many can come to realize greatness by being good citizens of the great nation. Those who act contrary and practice discord and division are caught up in the delusion of self and other, and are ignorant of the true power of cooperation.

"This is why bodhisattvas vow to practice cooperation" Dogen writes. "And to do so, they need but to face all things with a gentle demeanor.”

How can we, as the good people of a nation, overcome our own strong opinions and prejudices and be citizens of a great nation, accepting the guidance of an enlightened leader with a gentle demeanor on our faces? By letting go of mind and body through the practice of zazen. As Soyu Matzuoka, the founder of our Order, said, "It's the most that we can do."

The true meaning of cooperation, then, is to transcend the distinction of self and other. To transcend the distinction between self and other is to be enlightened by all things. To be enlightened by all things is to forget the self. To forget the self is to study the self. And to study the self is to study the Way.

This is learning what "cooperation" means.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

I had promised (threatened?) to blog about the day last week, back before my Internet service had been restored, that I flushed a bird down the toilet, so here I go.

Eliot the cat (yes, this is another cat posting) is discovering his hunting skills, although he still hasn't yet learned to kill (which is quite alright with me). A couple weeks ago, I found him in the kitchen playing cat-and-mouse with a live shrew, although I had no idea what a shrew was doing inside of my house. Since then, Eliot's given me a few clues how it came to be in there.

One day last week, after power had been restored but before the cable and Internet service were back on, I heard Eliot come into the house through the trap door, but instead of running to me like he usually does when he comes in (just to see what I'm up to and in case any cat treats happen to be falling off of me), he was meowing loudly in the kitchen, almost like he was calling me. I went in to see what he was up to, and found him playing with a baby bird on the kitchen floor. I went to take it away from him, but he picked it up and ran into the meditation room with it. I grabbed a dust pan and broom and chased after them.

The bird was hurt, but was not obviously bleeding or missing any feathers. Eliot would let it go and it would hop and flail around a little (it seemed to have a broken wing), but then Eliot would pounce upon it again. He didn't appear to be using his claws, which were easily sharp enough to shred the poor bird, but instead was playing a sort of one-sided game - fun for him, I suppose, but a nightmare for the bird.

I shooed the cat away with the broom and picked the bird up with the dustpan (I didn't want to touch it in case the bird had been caught due to weakness from West Nile disease). It was still alive but very small, a baby perhaps. I don't know my birds, but my guess is it was some sort of finch, grey in color but with yellow feathers in its tail. Other than its broken wing, I didn't see any obvious damage, but it just laid helplessly in the pan.

I knew that if I released it, it would not last long. Either another predator would come along and eat it (a raccoon, say, or another neighborhood cat) or else it would just starve to death due to its inability to fly. It seemed that the kindest thing to do was to take it out of its misery - to finish the job that Eliot had started. As a Buddhist, I follow the bodhisattva vow to free all sentient beings. In this case, the being needed freeing from its suffering and humanely killing it seemed the kindest thing to do.

But how to do it? I couldn't find in it myself to take a knife or any blunt instrument to it. After going through a few deliberations, drowning seemed the quickest and most painless way to go, and since I just so happened to be standing by the bathroom door at the moment, the toilet seemed the best way for drowning. It was a small bird, as I said, a baby, no larger than a medium-sized turd, so I figured it would go down easily. I dropped it into the toilet, made a small gassho bow, and pulled the handle to flush it away. It went down easily, but Eliot couldn't understand why I just disposed of a perfectly good plaything.

He made up for my wastefulness on Saturday. I thought the day was going to be a perfectly boring day of preparing for Sunday's Zen new comers session and watching the Celtics-Bulls game on t.v., but Eliot had other ideas. Sometime around the Second Period of the game, I heard a squeaking sound in the kitchen, and since it reminded me of the sounds that came from the shrew, I went to investigate. Eliot was in the kitchen, this time playing with a chipmunk.

Chipmunks are cute and I like chipmunks, but not in my kitchen and not being toyed with by Eliot. I shouted "No!" at Eliot, a word he knows, but he picked the chipmunk up in his mouth, and ran again back to the meditation room. I knew the drill by now, so armed with the broom and dust pan, I set out to save the chipmunk.

However, the chipmunk was more resourceful than the shrew or the bird, and was capable of getting away from Eliot and sequestering himself behind the alter where Eliot couldn't get him. There is a back door in the room, so I opened it and flushed the chipmunk out of his hiding space with the broom and directed him toward the open door. He got outside, and I almost caught Eliot before he got outside too in hot pursuit. But out in the out-of-doors, the chipmunk had more refuges and retreats and was soon able to lose Eliot, who kept staring at the drainpipe at which he had last seen the chipmunk, even while it scurried off into the woods.

So that took care of that (or so I had thought) and I settled back in to watch the rest of the game. But during the Fourth Quarter, I was quite surprised to see a chipmunk bounding from the kitchen and across the den floor to dart beneath the sofa upon which I was sitting. Eliot picked up the trail a minute later (he's obviously not a great tracker) while I was already pulling the sofa away from the wall to flush the chipmunk out. I managed to get him out of the den to behind the living room sofa, and since that sofa is right next to the front door, I opened the door and then pulled the living room sofa away from the wall. Eliot tore in behind the sofa as soon as I moved it and both the hunter and his prey ran out the front door.

Eventually Eliot came back into the house, a little tired but without any new friends. But later that day, I saw him come back in through the trap door again, this time with a chipmunk in his mouth.

This has got to be the stupidest chipmunk ever, or else it was some sort of accomplice in Eliot's little game. More brooms, more running around, more sofas pulled away from walls. I never actually saw the chipmunk go out the open door this time, but after I couldn't find it anywhere else in the house, I could only assume that it had escaped.

Until Eliot showed me otherwise. Hours later, he was crouched down and sniffing at the crack beneath my bedroom closet door. I opened the door and pulled out the dirty clothes bin and, sure enough, there was the chipmunk. Brooms, open doors, sofas, etc.

Evening. Things seemed to have settled down. But then Eliot became agitated again, this time outside of the coat closet door. This time, the chipmunk was behind the duffel bag holding my scuba gear, and this time I was very specific to see that it got out the front door, although once again, Eliot followed the chipmunk. I followed Eliot.

The chipmunk ran beneath my car, Eliot ran after the chipmunk and I ran after Eliot with broom in hand. I don't know what the neighbors must have thought. "There goes that strange bald guy chasing his cat around his car with a broom." The chipmunk, which by the way looked unharmed and still quite healthy, kept dodging the cat behind various tires of my car, first the front, then the back, first inside, then outside, and I kept trying to get the broom if Eliot's face so that the chipmunk could get away. Eventually, this ruse worked and the chipmunk escaped into the yard and I grabbed the cat and brought him inside, and locked the trap door before he could go out and catch the stupid chipmunk a (third?) (fourth?) (fifth?) time and bring it back in yet again.

While I had planned on a quiet day of watching basketball playoffs and dharma study, Eliot apparently had other ideas. I'm convinced that Eliot brought his prey into the house in order to share the "fun" with me. I've seen no evidence that he does this when I'm not home. It was his little gift to me. And if he thought that bringing a chipmunk into the house would be "fun," he was apparently right since every time general hilarity ensued, consisting of me running around with brooms, sofas pulled from walls, and so on and so forth.

In truth, he really did liven up the day, although not quite in the way I would have chosen. And since in the end, the chipmunk got away unharmed and no new comers showed up on Sunday for an unrehearsed extended instruction, no harm was done.

Will this behavior continue? It remains to be seen, because as of today, Eliot's a changed man, er, creature. He spent all day today at the vet, because today was the day scheduled for his neutering. I really had mixed feelings about doing this (it's not the kind of things guys let happen to other guys), but had been convinced by the vet that it was the right thing to do even before Saturday's fun and games. He's under house quarantine for a week while he heals, so it remains to be seen whether he still has the hunter instinct and still considers it "fun" to bring live game into the house in his new, testosterone-free existence. He might just turn now into a fat old eunuch, a lazy house cat who only wants to sleep in the sun.

I'm relieved to note, however, that so far he still seems like his old self - as if nothing happened. Time will tell.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Buddha Way, Buddha Dharma

"In an evening talk Dogen said,

Once there was a general whose name was Rochuren. While residing in the country ruled by Heigenkun , he subdued the enemies of the court. Although Heigenkun praised him and wanted to reward him with much gold, silver, and other things, Rochuren refused, saying, “I put down enemies only because that is the role of a general. I did not do it to gain some reward or possessions.” So saying, he never received the reward. Rochuren was famous for his righteousness and integrity.
"Even in secular society, those who are wise carry out their tasks solely for the sake of fulfilling their roles. They do not expect any reward. Students of the Way must have the same mental attitude. Once you have entered the Buddha-Way, you should practice the various activities just for the sake of the Buddha-dharma. Do not think of gaining something in return. All teachings, Buddhist or non-Buddhist, exhort us to be free from the expectation of gaining a reward." (Zuimonki, Book 1, Chapter 9).

Like Rochuren, Dogen encourages us to practice the Buddha-Way without any expectation of reward, even of enlightenment. "The Buddha-Way" actually has two meanings combined. One is the way leading to enlightenment, and the other is the Buddha’s enlightenment itself. So, the Buddha-Way is the way we should practice our daily activities without any expectation of reward, since each one of the activities is nothing other than a manifestation of the Buddha’s enlightenment. When we are practicing the Buddha-Way without expectation, why look elsewhere for enlightenment? This is the meaning of Dogen’s expression shusho-ichinyo ("practice and enlightenment are one").

It is with this thought that the May zazenkai (all-day sitting) will be dedicated to the Buddha-Way. During the zazenkai, we will focus on the practice of zazen as the most direct expression of the Buddha-Way.

According to Okumura Sensei's footnotes to Zuimonki, Buddha-dharma means (1) the truth or reality to which the Buddha awakens, (2) the teachings which show us the reality, and (3) the law or morals which form the way of life in accordance with that reality or teaching. Another meaning of this word is existence or things (as in, the myriad dharma). Therefore, the full title for the May zazenkai will be Buddha-Way, Buddha-dharma.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


The problem with newcomers is that they're so new they don't know when to come.

Today was supposed to be the extended newcomers session in Chattanooga. Announcements were distributed to yoga centers and green grocers and posted in the local alternative press, and we expected a good turnout. But as it turned out, no one showed up (other than the dozen or so Chattanooga regulars).

In Zen, we train ourselves to be adaptable to changing circumstances (that's part of the reason why it's so hard to get a Zen Master nonplussed). I was prepared to speak for 60 to 90 minutes about the origins of Buddhism and of Zen, about the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path. I was ready to give basic meditation instruction to a group of beginners, but seeing no newby faces, we instead held our regular services. But as it turned out, several of the things I was planning to say to the newcomers came up in practice discussion.

During sitting, the legs can turn numb, or "go to sleep." One person complained that his sleeping feet were "distracting." He could not answer when asked from what it was that he was distracted.

I had been planning to address the pins-and-needles sensation of sleeping legs and feet with the newcomers anyway, so I had a response ready. "Sleeping feet" does not mean that one's circulation is bad, although it may be a sign that one is putting too much weight on the legs and that one's posture needs adjusting. There is an old expression describing zazen as "a fire that begins in your toes and consumes your whole body." The smallest thing - even the feet falling asleep - can be subject to closer examination in Zen. You may notice, say, that when your legs and feet are asleep, your ankles are unusually flexible. This in itself is no great revelation, but can lead to still closer and more profound examination.

Another had a question about bowing. In Zen, as in all Buddhism, there is much bowing. It has been said, "When bowing ends, Buddhism will end." The meaning of a bow may be empty or distorted in the beginning of practice, but becomes profound with time. We put our two hands together - two opposites creating one unity - and bow to one another to show the non-duality between self and other, the two bowing.

This placing of right and left hand together to form one non-dual entity is similar to Joshu's putting his sandal on his head. In Buddhism, the top of the head - the highest point on the body - is a symbol of the sacred. In some traditions, monks will put their folded rakusu (a clerical vestment) on the top of their heads and recite a chant prior to meditation. It's an odd sight, but moving in its devotedness - Zen Master Dogen was said to have wept in China the first time he saw this practice. On the other hand, the soles of the feet, dirty with mud and filth from the road, is a symbol of the profane. To this day, showing the soles of the feet to another is profoundly insulting in some cultures, and historically, Jesus shocked his followers by once washing the feet of his disciples. But to express "a word of Zen," Joshu impulsively put his straw sandal on top his head, unifying many sets of opposites - top and bottom, up and down, sacred and profane - into one unity. Nansen praised Joshu's spontaneous action.

We then batted around a few random ideas and I went over my mnemonic trick for remembering the eight parts of the Eightfold Path, and we then called it a day. After a meal at the local Green Life grocer, I drove back to Atlanta, grateful once again for the opportunity to share in the practice of the Chattanooga sangha.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

More Falling Trees

It seems that just as soon as I posted an announcement that I had been without Internet and cable for four consecutive nights (without any electric power for one night), then I drive home from work and see a Comcast truck parked in my neighborhood, with a man up in the cherry-picker working on the lines. Within an hour, my Internet connection had been restored and my cable back on. Perhaps it was the announcement, or maybe it was the previous night's call to Comcast. Either way, it's nice to be back on line.

Last Monday morning, a big storm passed through Atlanta. I had already left for work before the front hit my neighborhood, and all day I had been more or less oblivious to the damage it had caused here. But driving home, I encountered several traffic lights that were not working, and was frustrated by the resultant snarled traffic. But when I got to Collier Road, our major through-street, I saw the real reason for the sluggish traffic: a tree had fallen completely across Collier, forcing cars off onto the residential side streets. But since Collier is not only our major through-street, it's our only through-street, all the cars wound up circling back to the same blocked crossing - with Collier off line, there was no where for them to go.

Turning onto one of those residential side streets to my home, I saw first one, then two, then three more trees downed, one having completely fallen over a power pole, once again bringing down the lines. Before pulling into my driveway, I knew I had no electricity.

I was correct - the lights were out. Eliot was alright, but looked a little confused about what was going on. I walked outside with my broken camera to take the pictures posted here, and ran into a neighbor. She told me that she was convinced that a tornado had touched down, and had spent much of the morning hiding in the interior bathroom of her house, the safest place to be in a storm. Later, she walked the neighborhood, and reported that trees were down not only here and on Collier, but all around the area. Northside Drive was also blocked by fallen trees, and tragically a man was killed in a pickup truck off of Peachtree Battle Road, less than a mile from here, when a tree fell on the cab of his truck.

Last month, a fallen tree knocked out power for a Sunday afternoon and damaged a neighbor's car. A big tree went down last August only two houses down from mine, blocking off the road and narrowly missing a parked car and a house. Just around the corner from that, a tree came down following Hurricane Dennis back in '05, also blocking the road and causing structural damage to an unfortunately located house. If life were a parable, I'd conclude that the forest was taking it's revenge on us for all of mankind's clear cutting.

But it being a Monday night and not once upon a time in a fairy tale, I changed by clothes and headed over to the zendo for the Monday night service. There were downed trees and powerless traffic lights all over town, and the normally 15-20 minute trip took me almost 45 minutes. When I got there, the zendo was without power. Only two people showed up, so I decided that we would only sit for one 25-minute period, because after that it would get too dark for wakeful sitting (sitting in the dark tends to makes one drowsy). Afterwards, Bill, a Monday-night regular, and I headed out to eat, but had to try three different restaurants before we found one with power.

Since trees were down and power was out all over the city, it was apparent that it would be a while before it got restored at my house. I drove home and went straight to bed in the dark.

When I got home from work the next day (Tuesday), I was pleased to see several truckloads of power company crews cutting the downed trees and re-setting the lines. Power was back on at the house when I got in, and a quick survey showed that no damage had been done. Of course, I still didn't have cable or Internet, and they still weren't on by Wednesday or by Thursday, so I finally called the cable company. "Oh, there's a power outage in your area," they tried to explain to me, but I explained to them that the outage had ended on Tuesday and politely asked them when they'd get around to restoring their service to this area.

Their reply was non-committal, but when I got home Friday, they were hard at work, and as you can plainly see, I'm now back on line.

It's nice to be back on line.

Friday, April 17, 2009

To those of you who may have noticed that I haven't updated this blog for several days, please be advised that I haven't abandoned it. My house has been without cable or internet access since Monday morning (I'm blogging this from work); electric power was only restored late Tuesday afternoon. Big storms blew through the neighborhood Monday morning, many trees and power lines were downed, etc. I will post more about this (and the day that I had to flush a live bird down the toilet) later this week when the conditions allow.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Helpful Conduct

I'm not sure why, but as some of you may have noticed, I've not been posting much on the dharma here lately. I'm not sure why that is, but I have felt reluctant recently to talk directly about Buddhism here, making only casual references in passing. I don't know why, but it has started to feel somehow presumptuous to post a straight dharma lesson here, as if I were some expert who actually knew what I was talking about.

There's at least one point during every one of my dharma talks where I feel like a perfect jackass, up there braying on about that which goes beyond words. Eventually, that feeling passes but when I write here, the embarrassment lingers at least until the post scrolls off of the current blog screen (and returns when I look in the archives). On the other hand, however, sharing the dharma is a part of our Bodhisattva vows.

This morning, it was my turn to provide the Sunday morning dharma talk at the Zen Center. The talk continued an on-going discussion of the Shobogenzo Bodaisatta Shishōbō, or the Four Exemplary Acts of a Bodhisattva. These four acts are offering alms (‘free giving’), using kind speech, showing benevolence (‘helpful conduct’) and manifesting sympathy (‘cooperation’). Gudo Nishijima points out that Buddhism puts great value on our actual conduct. For this reason, our conduct in relating to each other is a very important part of Buddhist life. Zen Master Dogen explains that these four ways of behaving are the essence of Buddhist life. He explains the real meaning of Buddhism in terms of social relations.

Today's talk focused on the closely related activities of helpful conduct and cooperation. I'll discuss helpful conduct here, and if I can overcome my new-found reticence over blogging about the dharma, I may talk about cooperation at some later date.

In Shobogenzo Bodaisatta Shishōbō, Dogen wrote, "Helpful conduct means working out skillful methods by which to benefit sentient beings, be they of high or low station. One may do this, for instance, by looking at someone’s future prospects, both immediate and far-ranging, and then practicing skillful means to help that person.”

That sounds awfully complicated, almost like divining the future, but Dogen provides two very simple stories by way of explanation. A classic Chinese story called Shinjo (History of the State of Shin) tells of a man called Koyu who once rescued a trapped turtle. As the turtle swam off, it looked back over its shoulder to its benefactor, as if to acknowledge its indebtedness (do turtles have shoulders?). Later, the man rose to a high official position, and, when the seal of his office was cast, it miraculously appeared in the form of a turtle looking over its back. No matter how many times the seal was recast to remove the form, it would nevertheless reappear on the seal. Finally, the man realized that somehow the turtle had played a part in his having received his appointment, so he kept the strange seal out of gratitude.

In another classic story, there was a boy called Yoho who helped a sick sparrow recover and to whom the sparrow gave four silver rings as recompense. He and his descendants ultimately ascended to top positions in the Chinese government.

Neither of these people was seeking a reward; they simply acted from a feeling of benevolence. And the "future prospects" of those they helped were not difficult to determine - the turtle merely wanted to get to the sea; the sparrow, to fly.

Some people foolishly believe that if they were to put the welfare of others first, their own benefits will somehow be reduced. Others think that helping others is a sort of sign of weakness, and that others will eventually exploit this weakness and take advantage of the benevolence. These thoughts are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what helpful conduct actually is. According to Dogen, "Helpful conduct is the whole dharma. It is all-encompassing, and universally benefits both self and others." You help someone, and they benefit from your actions; you help someone, and you benefit from manifesting benevolence in your own heart.

A Chinese ruler named Shuko appointed his son as a district governor. Shuko told his son, “If three guests came while I was taking a bath, I would bind my hair up each time and go to greet them. If three guests come calling on you in succession while you are dining, you should stop eating each time in order to greet them, even if they are strangers from a foreign land." Shuko's concern was solely for helping others, to equally benefit both friends and foes.

"So should we act to equally benefit both friends and foes," Dogen wrote, "and we should benefit ourselves and others alike. When we attain this state of mind, our showing of benevolence will neither retreat nor turn away from anything, and this benevolence will be shown even towards grass and trees, wind and water. And, in all humility, we should engage ourselves in helping those who are given to foolishness.”

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Current Events / Weekend Roundup

It looks like Moldavia's got a revolution on their hands. We're all Moldavians now.

Actually, Moldavia's probably a safer place to be than here in America. Since last October, several shooting sprees here in the USA have made headline news, including a Christmas Eve incident in California where a man dressed as Santa Claus killed nine guests at a house party. In March, a gunman killed 10 at an Alabama home, including several members of his family and a guest and her 18-month-old daughter. And on April 3, an immigrant from Vietnam living near Binghamton, N.Y., went on a shooting spree at a citizenship center there, taking the lives of 13 workers and fellow immigrants.

The killings continued last week. On Saturday, April 4, a man in Graham, Washington shot four of his own children, aged 7 to 16, in their beds and a fifth in the bathroom before taking his own life with a rifle in a parked car 18 miles away. The children were aged 7 to 16.

Around noon the same day, over on the other side of the country, police were called to a cul-de-sac in Cobb County, Georgia after two bodies were found with gunshot wounds. Both victims were adult males. Investigators recovered unspecified evidence at the scene and are searching for two persons of interest.

On Monday, April 05, three youths were shot on the street near Atlanta's Turner Field. A 16-year-old boy died, another is in critical condition with a gunshot wound to the head, and a third was in serious condition with a wound to the leg. The incident is considered to be gang-related. The three boys were standing in front of an apartment complex when they were approached by five or six other young men believed to range in age from 16 to their early 20s. Gunfire broke out; two handguns were used. It was not known if the victims were also armed.

On Wednesday, April 7, an Alabama man turned on his family, killing his estranged wife, his 16-year-old daughter, his sister, and his nephew, before killing himself with a shotgun about 200 yards behind his house. The man and his wife had a hearing scheduled on Monday as part of divorce proceedings; it had been postponed until Wednesday.

Early on Friday, April 9, a 13-year-old boy was fatally shot in an apartment complex in Atlanta. He and two young men were playing with a gun when it discharged and hit the 13-year-old. A 20-year-old man was arrested on a murder charge.

In Michigan, two students were also killed on Friday in an apparent murder-suicide at a community college west of Detroit. The bodies of a 28-year-old man and 20-year-old woman were discovered after police responded to an emergency call of a gun shot on campus. As officers entered the Fine Arts Center, they heard another shot. The man had apparently used a shotgun to kill the woman and then turned the gun on himself.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Veterinary Adventures

Actually, I wasn't "burned out" so much as "stressed out," or at the very least coming down from stress, last Thursday. The reason: taking little Eliot for his first visit to the vet.

The stress really started a little earlier in the week when, acting with all good intentions, I bought some Sargent's flea-and-tick control medicine for the cat. He's an outdoor / indoor cat, so with spring coming on (my azaleas are in bloom!), I thought it would be a good idea to protect him from those common pests.

I knew he wouldn't like it, but I had no idea how strong willed he is. Following the directions on the label, I applied one tube of the ointment to the back of his neck and began messaging it in. As I expected, Eliot reacted to the wetness and tried to run away, but I held him down and kept massaging the medicine into his coat. After a minute or two, I was convinced the stuff was reasonably worked in, so I let Eliot go. He retreated, looking back at me as if to say, "What the hell was that all about?," but soon forgot about my rudeness and went on about his cat business. I went to bed.

The next morning, as I made my breakfast with the cat slinking around me, I noticed a bare spot on his neck where I had applied the Sargent's. Not only that, but the skin exposed by the missing fur was bright red in color. I investigated further, and found two smaller bald spot on his back and neck. Apparently, not happy with the medicine on his fur, he elected to instead scratch it off, leaving sore, bare spots on his neck.

It was also about that time that I started noticing little tufts of orange fur at various locations all around the house.

That day, I called a vet to set up his appointment for vaccinations and to have the doctor take a look at the irritated skin on his neck. I couldn't get an appointment until the next day, although I was concerned about the medicine getting into his system by way of dermal absorption.

While I was at work that day, Eliot continued to de-fur himself. When I returned home, there were more orange furballs around the house, and Eliot had larger bare spots. The exposed skin was also now far redder and with some scabs from scratching himself.

Now I worried that the medicine could get directly into his blood stream by way of the scratches. I tried washing his back off to get rid of the irritating ointment and he wasn't too happy about me getting him wet again. But despite the washing, he kept viciously scratching at his neck with his back foot, pulling out still more fur. My once pretty little kitten was starting to look like a mangy mutt.

So our appointment at the vet finally came. I rounded Eliot up and put him in the new cat carrier I bought along with the flea medicine. He wasn't happy about that either, but once I carried him out to the car and started the car, he positively freaked. He started thrashing around inside the carrier, trying to break out just by sheer strength of pushing himself through the mesh walls.

I tried to calm him by talking in a soothing, affectionate voice and petting him through the walls of the carrier with my free hand while I drove, but he was inconsolable. He was pressing his nose so hard against the mesh that it was turning bright red, and I was starting to wonder just how strongly constructed his little carrier actually was. I was to soon learn the answer.

It is only 2 miles to the vet, but it seemed like I hit every red light on Peachtree on my way, some even turning red twice before I got through. As Eliot flailed away, I could feel my blood pressure rising from the stress. And then, as if we weren't already having enough fun, Eliot succeeded in finding a weak seam in the carrier and suddenly burst out, leaping onto my dashboard.

So there I was, driving along a busy six-lane urban street with a panicked cat loose in the car. Of course, he ran right in front of me on the dash, partially blocking my view. I had to drive like that for another 100 yards before I found a parking lot I could turn in on to stop the car and grab him. I stuffed him back into the carrier and drove the rest of the way to the vet's office with one hand, using my other hand to hold shut the broken seam on the carrier, because Eliot, now that he had learned that he could in fact escape the carrier, doubled his effort to get out again (I said he was strong willed).

By the time we finally got to the vet, we were both wrecks. My hands were literally shaking with stress and my mouth was all dry. And my poor cat looked like a beating victim - in addition to the missing fur and the underlying irritated skin, with scabs, his nose was now blood blistered from rubbing against the mesh. My pretty little pet looked abused, and I felt like the most irresponsible pet owner in the world. That's when he found another weak seam (or sufficiently weakened another seam), and again came bursting out of the carrier. I caught him literally in mid-air as he tried to escape.

The vets were great, though - they've probably seen everything before - and brought us both into the exam room where they calmed Eliot down by stroking his head as they performed their examination. Eliot was relaxed, but they denied me my request for some horse tranquilizers.

The doctor re-washed the irritated area with a medicinal soap, and gave Eliot a steroid injection to promote healing of his skin. They also took some blood for lab tests and gave him a de-worming pill just in case he picked anything up in his feral days before moving in with me.

He was calm on the way home, although happy to finally get out of his carrier. Within a half hour, he was acting as if nothing had happened. The soap worked - he stopped the scratching and his skin is healing nicely. He still has some bald patches, though - I guess we'll just have to wait for the fur to grow back.

The results came back from the lab and confirmed that he is a healthy cat - no heartworm, no FIV, no feline leukemia. So now I get to repeat our big adventure next week and bring him back for his vaccinations, since the doctor didn't want to overdo it by vaccinating him on top of the steroids. Instead, we'll wait for him to heal from the fur loss and let the dewormer run its course before shooting him up with more meds.

Our next appointment is this Tuesday.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

One More Time

I'm too burned out tonight to post anything original, so instead I'll just cut and paste two more articles for those of you who haven't got enough yet about the David Lynch Change Begins Within benefit concert for Transcendental Meditation. Here's Jon Pareles' review from the New York Times, and a frankly goofy piece by Nancy Franklin from The New Yorker. Finally, I'm adding a piece from The Huffington Post about how Michelle Obama exemplifies certain Buddhist ideals.

Just Say ‘Om’: The Fab Two Give a Little Help to a Cause
By Jon Pareles
April 5, 2009

Paul McCartney announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, Billy Shears!” Then Ringo Starr strode onstage at Radio City Music Hall on Saturday night to sing “With a Little Help From My Friends.” The two surviving Beatles shared a microphone, and then embraces, in their first public performance together since a 2002 memorial concert for George Harrison.

For encores Mr. Starr moved to the drums and Mr. McCartney, surrounded by other musicians on the bill — including Sheryl Crow, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, Donovan, Bettye LaVette, Moby and Ben Harper — sang two more 1960s songs, “I Saw Her Standing There” and a rarity, “Cosmically Conscious,” that Mr. McCartney wrote during a 1968 trip that the Beatles (and Donovan) took to learn Transcendental Meditation at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in Rishikesh, India.

What cause could marshal that much of a Beatles reunion? War and peace, poverty, human rights, the environment? No. The concert was a benefit for the David Lynch Foundation, which seeks to teach Transcendental Meditation to a million students worldwide. “Every child should have one class period a day to dive within himself,” reads the manifesto at “This is the way to save the coming generation.”

It was clearly a Lynch production. The concert began with the composer Angelo Badalamenti playing his ominous and Romantic theme from Mr. Lynch’s television series “Twin Peaks.” A musician stepped onstage to provide a drumroll on a tom-tom as each performer was introduced. On an overhead screen “Change Begins Within” was projected over an abstract, slowly rippling, very Lynchian image of a wave.

As at most benefit concerts, music was interspersed with proselytizing: testimonials and video clips about the benefits of meditation. There was an undeclared contest over who had been meditating longest: 37 years for the comedian Jerry Seinfeld (who did bits about movie theaters, public toilets, taxis and marriage), 38 years for the radio personality Howard Stern, 41 for the two Beatles and — the winner — 43 years for the flutist Paul Horn, who also made the 1968 visit to Rishikesh. That trip ended in acrimony, but the surviving Beatles held on to the mantras the Maharishi gave them and said they continued to use them.

Mr. McCartney introduced “Cosmically Conscious” (which was a hidden track on his 1993 album “Off the Ground”) as a song written around two of the Maharishi’s favorite phrases, “cosmically conscious” and “It’s such a joy.” It turned into a full-harmony chorale with the assembled singers.

Although Donovan sang his 1960s hits and Mr. Starr’s own brief set included the Beatles’ “Boys” and “Yellow Submarine” (with Mr. Vedder and Ms. Crow vigorously singing along), many musicians used the occasion for lesser-known songs about quests for spirituality and meaning.

Ms. Crow performed “Riverwide,” a Celtic-Eastern hybrid. Mr. Vedder sang a wordless vocal meditation, layering harmonies in repeated loops, and the pensive “Guaranteed,” with lines like “a mind full of questions, and a teacher in my soul.” He was joined by Mr. Harper on Pearl Jam’s “Indifference” and the Queen-David Bowie collaboration “Under Pressure,” a song about seeking love amid “the terror of knowing what this world is about.” Ms. LaVette fronted Moby’s band, bringing soulful fervor to “Natural Blues,” a song about “trouble with God.”

But it was also a night for reminiscences of the 1960s and of the Beatles. Ms. Crow sang George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” and Mr. Starr spoke about writing “It Don’t Come Easy” with Harrison. Mr. McCartney sang his memorial to John Lennon, “Here Today.” Video footage of the Beatles accompanied Mr. McCartney during his set, and he played the violin-shaped style of bass he used at Beatles concerts. Mr. McCartney gave robust performances of songs from his band Wings, his solo albums and especially the Beatles catalog, revealing that “Blackbird” was inspired by the civil rights movement and exulting in the high notes of “Let It Be,” “Lady Madonna” and “Got to Get You Into My Life.”

He and Mr. Starr shared the stage lightheartedly, evading all the dramatic implications of a Beatles reunion. After the encores Mr. Starr jumped in front of Mr. McCartney waving peace signs. A grinning Mr. McCartney stepped in front of him, and back and forth it went. They were old band mates, sharing songs and clowning around, remembering a trip they took many years ago.

All Together Now
by Nancy Franklin
April 13, 2009

It’s one thing to expect, at the age of seven, that you would grow up to marry Paul McCartney, and it’s another thing entirely to meet him in person, forty-five years later. Kidding! They’re exactly the same thing. That early expectation and the latter-day encounter both involve the maximum amount of happiness that the human frame can take, and both feel perfectly natural and, at the same time, unreal and impossible. The marriage never took place; the meeting occurred last week, when McCartney was in New York rehearsing for a benefit concert that he was headlining on Saturday for the David Lynch Foundation. The film director founded the organization several years ago in order to spread the practice of Transcendental Meditation, particularly to schoolchildren who are under stress because of poverty or any number of other debilitating, brain-scrambling aspects of modern life; the goal of the benefit was to raise enough money to teach meditation to a million kids, as the skill appears to help them focus and be happier and more resilient. The Beatles became associated with TM in 1968, when they went to India to study with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and two other sojourners from that time were on the bill on Saturday night as well: Mike Love, of the Beach Boys, and Donovan. And a third who also had some success in the music business, Ringo Starr. He and McCartney hadn’t performed together since 2002, at a memorial concert for George Harrison.

McCartney was rehearsing with his band in a studio in the West Twenties. In the reception area, you could hear, coming from behind closed doors, “Drive My Car,” and then “Got to Get You Into My Life.” McCartney’s publicist then opened the doors as the group began “Let It Be.” If you’d been there, you’d have seen a woman’s head actually snap back in the whiplash shock of catching sight of Paul, seated at the piano. (Lynch was in the room, too, sitting on a couch, wearing his usual white-shirt-and-black-jacket ensemble and his snazzy backswept hairdo. He was quiet and still as the group rehearsed, and just once reacted visibly to the performance, when he turned to a man next to him during “With a Little Help from My Friends,” and made some chopping motions to try to manually express the way the drummer, Abe Laboriel, Jr., hit a series of beats that were so totally right and in there.) McCartney wore jeans and a flowered shirt, tucked in, and soft dark-brown shoes. He looked almost dewy (he will be sixty-seven in June), without any of the beef-jerky stringiness of some of his rock peers. The recognizable Paulisms were there: the mouth becoming an O when he sang certain sounds, the head moving side to side three or four times in a row during the faster numbers. He was doing a run-through of the concert, including practice versions of his between-song patter. After “Let It Be,” he got up from the piano and said, self-consciously, “So we say welcome—‘Welcome’—because that’s what we do,” and waved his hand in a circle, and then sat back down and played “Lady Madonna.” He then went to the microphone stand between his two guitarists, Brian Ray and Rusty Anderson, strapped on an acoustic guitar, rolled up his sleeves past his elbows, and said, “O.K., then a story about back in the sixties,” and began singing “Blackbird.”

After that, he said, “The next song is a song I wrote for my friend John.” Knowing that there would be applause at the mention of Lennon Saturday night, he added, “Let’s hear it for John.” In the song, a tender ballad called “Here Today,” released only a little more than a year after Lennon was killed, Paul wonders how John might respond to Paul’s musings about their relationship. It drifts to an end with the pensée “And if I say I really loved you and was glad you came along” and some “Ooh”s, and sends listeners back not just to 1980 but even further, to 1957, when the Liverpool teen-agers first met. Seconds later, the early sixties flashed on everyone’s mental screen, when McCartney took off the acoustic guitar and put on a bass guitar just like the one he played the first time Americans saw him, in 1964: a Hofner violin bass. While one was experiencing discreet, silent hysteria—the collision of the past and the present having started an internal wildfire—McCartney kept cool, tossing a smile and a wink at Lynch when he sang the lyrics “thought of giving it all away to a registered charity” in “Band on the Run,” an acknowledgment of the fund-raising effort that had brought them together.

Now, it would be hard to describe the effect the next song had. The most efficient way is just to name the title and tell you to call your best friend and scream into the phone for five minutes. Ready? “Can’t Buy Me Love.”

McCartney introduced the absent Ringo, who was at that hour flying in from Los Angeles (“I’d like to introduce to you a legend”), with an exaggerated flourish of the arm that ended with his hand about a foot off the floor. Reacting to the oddness of being in that position, he patted the air there. After “With a Little Help from My Friends,” he and the band pretended that that was the end of the show, doing, for their own fun, a little bit of James Brown’s audience-teasing faux-closing number “Please Please Please.” But there was one more song. It’s not a secret what the song was, but it is kind of personal and not the sort of thing that you can really share. Basically, it’s about the relationship that Paul has with an unnamed writer from The New Yorker. When he first saw her, standing across the room at a dance, she looked really good, so he went over to her. (In order to further disguise her identity, and to protect their privacy as a couple, he’s changed her age in the song.) The attraction on both sides was so strong that they danced together all night. After that, he decided that he would never dance with anyone else again, and pretty soon he fell in love with her. True story.

Michelle's Way: Lessons In Buddhism From The First Lady
by Ed and Deb Shapiro
April 9, 2009

Tonight, for the first time in history, our First Lady will attend a Passover Seder in the white House with her two daughters, as the President honors the Jewish people. For the last week she has been electrifying Europe with her warmth and her fearlessness in showing that she cares. She is adored wherever she goes for one simple reason: She brings hope. The hope that the world can be a caring and compassionate place, and the hope anyone of any color or background can fulfill their dreams.

It brought tears to our eyes when the children at the school Michelle Obama visited in London jumped up and down and hugged and hugged her and she hugged them back. We could see in their faces that, because of her, they too felt they had a chance. Her charisma and confidence make others feel comfortable in her presence. Deb, being English, was delighted to finally see someone arm in arm with the Queen!

A generous heart, kind speech, and a life of service and compassion are the things that renew humanity. - Buddha

When we read this quote we thought Buddha could have been saying this about Michelle Obama! She is setting an extraordinary example by doing things her own way and being true to herself. From having bare arms, to serving lunch to the homeless in a soup kitchen, to planting a vegetable garden at the White House, she is making us take a fresh look at the role of the First Lady, and at our own prejudices and opinions about what we think is right and wrong.

A person who gives freely is loved by all. It's hard to understand, but it is in giving that we gain strength. But there is a proper time and a proper way to give, and the person who understands this is strong and wise. By giving with a feeling of reverence for life, envy and anger are banished. A path to happiness is found. Like one who plants a sapling and in due course receives back shade, flowers, and fruit, so the results of giving bring joy. Through continuous acts of kindness the heart is strengthened by compassion and giving. - Buddha

Michelle Obama's combination of honesty and kindness is the essence of maitri--a Sanskrit word that means unconditional friendship with oneself, and from there the feeling of unconditional friendship with all others. This is the basis for compassion, the feeling of being at home in your own mind and body so that you are at home with everyone. She expressed this in her interview with Oprah, when she said, "My happiness is tied to how I feel about myself."

A great shift has happened in the U.S., as if we have emerged from a dream (that for some was a nightmare). We all know we are living in trying times, but we also have great karma as we lucked out by electing a First Couple who are showing the world that America is again cool. Between them, the Obama's have brought down the barriers so that we are no longer an isolated nation. "We are now" as our friend Barry says, "a more humane country."

With all that Michelle Obama doing she is not without her critics, however, and dealing with criticism is one of the burdens she will have to bear if she is to stay true to herself, for there will always be those who disagree with her.

When people speak badly of you, you should respond in this way: Keep a steady heart and don't reply with harsh words. Practice letting go of resentment and accept that the other's hostility is the spur to your understanding. Be kind, adopt a generous standpoint, treat your enemy as a friend, and suffuse all your world with affectionate thoughts, far-reaching and widespread, limitless and free from hate. - Buddha

Trusting and believing in ourselves is perhaps the greatest gift the First Lady could offer to each of us. When we don't then we belittle our own intelligence. By offering maitri -- compassionate friendship -- to ourselves, then we all get to live in a more caring and friendlier world.

So how do you feel about Michelle Obama? Does she make a difference in your life? Do you appreciate her example of living with compassionate friendship and generosity?

Ed and Deb Shapiro's new book, BE THE CHANGE, How Meditation Can Transform You And The World, foreword by the Dalai Lama and an introduction by Robert Thurman, with contributors such as Marianne Williamson, Michael Beckwith, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jane Fonda, Greg Braden, Byron Katie, Ed Begley, Ram Dass, Ellen Burstyn, Dean Ornish, Seane Corn, Russell Bishop, KD and others, will be published in October 2009 by Sterling Ethos. Ed and Deb are the authors of over 15 books, and lead meditation retreats and workshops. Deb is the author of the award-winning book YOUR BODY SPEAKS YOUR MIND. They are corporate consultants, and the creators of Chillout daily inspirational text messages on Sprint cell phones. See their website:

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

We're No. 6! We're No. 6!

The Brookings Institute’s “Job Sprawl Revisited: The Changing Geography of Metropolitan Employment” talks about something called “job sprawl.” It analyzed data from 1998 to 2006 to examine how employment has gradually moved away from the urban cores and into the suburbs in the top 98 metro areas.

Nationally, 21 percent of employees work within three miles of downtown, while 45 percent work more than 10 miles away from the city center.

The report shows that Atlanta is the 6th most decentralized city in terms of employment. In 2006, only 9.3% of Atlanta's jobs were within 3 miles of downtown and a whopping 63.2 percent were more than 10 miles from the city. The Brookings’ report noted, “Atlanta has never historically been a dense urban center, and it lacks any geographic barriers to check its outward growth.”

Although New York was the second most centralized city, in general, the larger the metro area, the more likely people are to work more than 10 miles away from downtown. In cities like Atlanta, Miami, Detroit, and L.A., less than 10% of the jobs were centralized within 3 miles of the urban core. The city with the lowest percentage of jobs greater than 10 miles from downtown was desert-bound Las Vegas (although Salt Lake and Phoenix had 28 and 24%, respectively).

Surprisingly, for all of its mass transit and urban growth controls, only 24% of the jobs in Portland were within 3 miles of downtown, while 46% were within 3-10 miles. However, only 29% of Portland's jobs were beyond 10 miles of downtown.

As cities grow, there are two ways for them to expand: vertically, using elevators as the means to move people around, or laterally, using automobiles to move people.

Automobiles cause pollution, contribute to global warming, consume petroleum that supports hostile regimes around the world, isolate us from our neighbors, and kill us in shocking numbers. Yet people love their cars.

Elevators bring people together, are energy efficient, and hardly ever malfunction, even more rarely fatally. Yet people despise elevators.

Job sprawl is known for its effect on the environment, infrastructure, tax base, quality of life, and more. Now, we must recognize what people sprawl means for the social health of the nation.

Update:Georgia placed 38th in a new “Happiness Index,” based on economic well-being in the U.S. The survey, from a personal finance site, found that the Midwest was one of the most financially content parts of the country. Nebraska ranked No. 1, followed by Iowa, Kansas, Hawaii, and Louisiana. Oregon was 51st in the survey, which also included Washington, D.C. Florida was 50, followed by California, 49, and Nevada, 48.

The ratings were based on a cross-section of key financial factors: average non-mortgage debt relative to average annual income, foreclosure numbers and unemployment rate. Georgia ranked 12th for average non-mortgage debt relative to average annual income, 44th in foreclosure numbers and 40th for unemployment rate.

Monday, April 06, 2009

The Crash

Some more bad news - but also some good news - about the current recession and its effects on traffic.

More than two years after seven people were killed after a bus driver mistook a poorly marked HOV exit ramp for a through lane in Atlanta, the road signs still have not been upgraded and another bus nearly made the same mistake last week. A bus carrying a high school band from Michigan to a competition in Orlando took the ramp Thursday morning, thinking it was a continuation of I-75’s southbound HOV lane. The driver realized it was an exit in time to brake to a stop at the top of the ramp. A second bus followed onto the exit also believing it was a continuation of the HOV lane, and also stopped in time.

In the March 2007 accident, a driver for the bus carrying the Bluffton University baseball team didn’t realize the HOV ramp was actually an exit until it was too late to stop. The vehicle crashed through a barrier wall and fell to the highway below, killing five baseball team members, the driver and his wife.

More than two years after that crash, a spokesman for the Georgia DOT acknowledged that the agency was still working to fix the signage. “The footings for the new signs just went in,” he said. “The signs will be completed by summer.”

But an economic downturn can also have a bright side: U.S. highway deaths in 2008 fell to their lowest level since John F. Kennedy was president. The recession and $4 per gallon gas meant people drove less to save more. Experts also cited record high seat belt use, tighter enforcement of drunken driving laws and the work of advocacy groups that encourage safer driving habits.

Preliminary figures show that 37,313 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes last year. That's 9.1 percent lower than the year before, when 41,059 died, and the fewest since 1961, when there were 36,285 deaths. A different measure, also offering good news, was the fatality rate, the number of deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. It was 1.28 in 2008, the lowest on record. A year earlier it was 1.36.

In the past, tough economic times have brought similar declines in roadway deaths. Fatalities fell more than 16 percent from 1973 to 1974 as the nation dealt with the oil crisis and inflation. Highway deaths dropped nearly 11 percent from 1981 to 1982 as President Ronald Reagan battled a recession.

Fatalities fell by more than 14 percent in New England, even though Massachusetts had the lowest seat belt use rate (66.8 percent), and in New Hampshire, which has no seat belt law for adults, use was under 70 percent. Fatalities fell by 10 percent or more in many states along the Atlantic seaboard, parts of the Upper Midwest and the West Coast.

Sunday, April 05, 2009


Cats were initially domesticated for their ability to control rodents and other vermin; it was apparently advantageous to early man to give up a little of their shelter and food in order to keep mice and rats at bay. Reportedly, the pleasures of companionship came later. Legend has it that cats first came to China with the dharma - cats were needed to keep mice from shredding the paper sutras for their nests. To this day, cats are prized in monasteries all over the world; they keep the mice out of the sutras and the monks' living space and make pleasant living companions. At Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper, New York, I met a fat and very contented orange tabby much beloved by the sangha there.

Eliot the cat (above) moved into my little lay monastery about a month ago, and we've become good friends since. When he's not pursuing other interests outside, he follows me around the house, practically orbiting me. Whatever room I'm in, he follows and finds a place to nap and to pretend to ignore me (he's sleeping on the shelf over the computer monitor as I write this, basking in the warmth emitted by the CRT). He likes to be petted and he likes to be touched, but he doesn't like to be held and he doesn't like to sit on me. It took a few sessions before he got used to me sitting in zazen, but now he leaves me alone while I'm sitting and he knows that sooner or later, I'll return to activity. Best of all, he rarely uses his kitty-litter box, preferring to go outdoors. It's a pretty good arrangement, and this weekend I learned two new things about him.

I was at my computer yesterday when I heard a squeaking sound. Uncharacteristically, Eliot wasn't around just then, but I didn't think the sound was him - it sounded mechanical. After having to replace my leaking garbage disposal last Thursday, I walked into the kitchen anticipating another repair. In the kitchen, though, I was surprised to see Eliot batting a squeaking little mouse around the floor.

First of all, I have no idea what a mouse was doing in my kitchen. I've never seen signs of mice before - no droppings, no gnawed food packages, no furry little things skittering around in the corner of my eye. I believe my house to be rodent free; in fact, I never really thought much about them. I don't have mice, okay?

But Eliot was playing cat-and-mouse with something (actually, it looked more like a shrew than a mouse, but I didn't study it in too much detail). Typical of the game, he would pounce on it then release it, and just as it thought it was going to get away, he would pounce again, batting it across the floor with his paws. He hadn't drawn blood as far as I could see - it looked like he was keeping his claws retracted.

While Eliot was keeping the mouse or shrew or whatever busy, I opened the back door and then swept it outside with a broom. Eliot followed and continued his game across the back patio and down the side steps until finally he lost his prey to a gap in the retaining wall. He watched the gap and meowed to me as if he expected me to somehow retrieve his new toy for him. It was then that I learned my first lesson of this weekend - Eliot does not yet know how to kill. This is not a bad thing.

I learned my second lesson today. I plan on taking him on his first trip to the vet this week, so I stopped at PetSmart this afternoon and bought a little carrying case. I wanted him to get used to it first to somewhat relieve the trauma of his first medical experience. I bought a snazzy little number and while there, I shopped around a little bit for new cat toys before finally settling on an ounce of catnip.

I've had cats before. Growing up, I learned many of the facts of life from watching our family cat give birth to and nurse several litters of kittens. A former live-in girlfriend was accompanied by a mean-tempered cat who attacked us frequently and without provocation, and a few years ago, I spoiled an adopted kitten rotten until neither one of us could stand the other and I had to palm it off on another former girlfriend. But the reaction to catnip of these and other cats I've known has ranged from a mild preference to outright disinterest.

But when I offered Eliot a pinch of ground catnip, he went absolutely bonkers - eating it, rolling in it, and rubbing it on his head. He then started chasing his own tail, spinning around in circles, before collapsing on the floor and kicking his legs madly in the air while purring loudly. Crazy cat. When I offered him the little plushie mouse in which he previously hadn't shown much interest, he took it between his paws and started tearing into it like it was the last toy on earth.

He calmed down after a while, and once things had returned to normal, I repeated the experiment, offering him another pinch of catnip while he was sleeping on the ottoman. The results were generally the same, and he nearly destroyed the ottoman in his herbally induced frenzy. And that was when I learned my second lesson of this weekend - Eliot's a stoner.

Every cat has its own personality, and Eliot is as exceptional as every other cat ("Why can't I be different and original like everybody else?"). Heeding Suzuki, I will continue to give him a large pasture, and just observe.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

"Change Begins Within"

There will be a benefit concert tonight at Radio City Music Hall in support of the David Lynch Foundation. Titled "Paul McCartney's Change Begins Within," the benefit's goal is to raise money to teach disadvantaged children how to meditate and accordingly "change their world from within." Headlined by Paul McCartney, the concert will also include performances by Ringo Starr, Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam), Donovan, Sheryl Crow, Ben Harper, Moby, Bettye LaVette, Paul Horn, and Jim James (My Morning Jacket). Ticket prices range from $79.50 to $504.50.

Blogging in The Huffington Post, Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons said, "Young people are our most precious natural resource, and we must do all we can to give them tools that will help them stay focused and positive. Stress is everywhere, in the streets and the classroom. There's a mountain of scientific data that supports the fact that consciousness-based education and having quiet time at the beginning and end of the school day improves academic performance and spills over to happier and healthier young people at home."

Expounding on the powers of meditation, Simmons went on to say, "The daily practice of meditation is precious to me. It's in the stillness and the silence that I am able to make sense of the world and the creative possibilities that help me do better in all aspects of my life."

"Today, I had the absolute pleasure to join David Lynch, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Donovan, Mike Love and many others in joining in the visionary work of the David Lynch Foundation who are hard at work chasing the dream of bringing meditation to a million students worldwide. I wish I could be at the concert tomorrow night at Radio City Music Hall, but I will be at the Rock N' Roll Hall of Fame, where Run DMC will inducted. However, my thoughts and meditations will be with the David Lynch Foundation as they continue their incredible work."

Of course, the Beatles were early adherents to transcendental meditation, as were the Beach Boys, particularly Mike Love, and Leonard Cohen has formally studied Zen, but I did not know that Russell Simmons also meditated (although it does not surprise me). The names that I had not expected to see on the list included Sheryl Crow and Eddie Vedder.

Based on my limited experience, though, it is very hard to get children to sit still long enough to meditate. Good luck with that.

Friday, April 03, 2009


A man armed with two handguns killed 13 people at an immigration services center in Birmingham, New York, before apparently turning the gun on himself. The gunman blocked the back entrance of the building with a car, walked in the front door and shot two receptionists, one of whom died, before entering a classroom and killing 12 more people and then apparently committing suicide. Four other people were critically wounded.

Another man opened fire on officers in Pittsburgh during a domestic disturbance call, killing three officers. Friends said he had been upset recently about losing his job and that he feared the Obama administration was poised to ban guns.

In Jonesboro, Georgia, a man was shot over spilled beer. An argument started after one man accidentally spilled his beer on another at a bar. The bar’s staff threw the two men out when their verbal dispute turned physical, but once outside, one man pulled out a concealed handgun and shot the other man several times. The gunman then climbed into a white car and fled the scene. The victim was taken to Grady Memorial Hospital, where he remains in fair condition.

A murder had previously occurred at the same bar on December 23. Following an argument, a man went to his car to get a 9 mm handgun and upon returning shot another man twice in the back. The car the suspect fled in has been recovered but he has not been seen since the shooting.

What do these stories have in common? Cheap. readily available guns.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

"Global Warming Stopped in 1998"

Greensmile shared with me the significant update posted to the excellent climate-change blog RealClimate yesterday:

"We would like to apologize to our loyal readers who have provided us so much support since we first went online in December 2004. However, after listening to the compelling arguments of the distinguished speakers who participated in the Heartland Institute's recent global warming contrarian conference, we have decided that the science is settled — in favor of the contrarians. Indeed, even IPCC chair Rajendra Pachauri has now admitted that anthropogenic climate change was a massive hoax after all. Accordingly, RealClimate no longer has a reason for existence. The contrarians have made a convincing case that (a) global warming isn't happening, (b) even if it is, its entirely natural and within the bounds of natural variability, (c) well, even if its not natural, it is modest in nature and not a threat, (d) even if anthropogenic warming should turn out to be pronounced as projected, it will sure be good for us, leading to abundant crops and a healthy environment, and (e) well, it might actually be really bad, but hey, its unstoppable anyway. (Can we get our check now?)"
Need I point out that yesterday was April Fool's Day?

According to an April 26, 1998 article in the NY times, "Industry opponents of a treaty to fight global warming have drafted an ambitious proposal to spend millions of dollars to convince the public that the environmental accord is based on shaky science. Among their ideas is a campaign to recruit a cadre of scientists who share the industry's views of climate science and to train them in public relations so they can help convince journalists, politicians and the public that the risk of global warming is too uncertain to justify controls on greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide that trap the sun's heat near Earth." The document listed representatives of Exxon Corporation, Chevron, and the Southern Company as being involved. Since finding legitimate scientists who share their views would be admittedly difficult, the plan called for recruiting ''individuals who do not have a long history of visibility and/or participation in the climate change debate.''

Eleven years later, Big Oil is still getting much mileage out of their ruse, as evidenced by the notoriously unethical Heartland Institute's so-called Second Annual International Conference on Climate Change. A recent Gallup poll showed a record-high 41% of Americans now say the seriousness of global warming is exaggerated, although a majority of Americans still believe it is either correctly portrayed in the news or underestimated. However, the 41% figure represents the highest level of public skepticism about mainstream reporting on global warming seen in more than a decade of Gallup polling on the subject.

As a result, we now get scholarly opinions like this:

(For the last 30 seconds of that clip, I was seriously concerned about he was going to have an on-screen coronary.)

There are at least three reasons that I care about this issue and have returned to it so often in this blog. First, of course, is the grave concern I have for our planet and the world that we will leave for future generations. Second, since I have at least some training in the earth sciences, I feel a moral obligation to speak the truth and call out the lies and hypocrisies of the special interest groups as I see them.

And finally, just like the prior posts on the subject of evolution, I am profoundly interested in the underlying issue of perception, as it applies here to our human tendency to ignore scientific evidence when it conflicts with issues of faith, politics, or convenience. The same Gallup poll mentioned above reported that since 1997, Republicans were more likely than Democrats to believe that media coverage of global warming is exaggerated. Since political affiliation theoretically should not affect interpretation of scientific data, the only conclusion is that political affiliation can allow one to ignore "inconvenient truths," as the vilified Al Gore called them. This, of course, makes me want to examine myself more closely to see what incontrovertible evidence I may be ignoring, be it for reasons of faith, politics, or convenience.

By the way, for those who care, I back in Atlanta from my visit to Cenla. After getting re-routed through Memphis, Delta finally got me back home, where I discovered a leaking kitchen sink. Nothing $650 and a new garbage disposal couldn't fix, though.