Sunday, May 31, 2009

Bill Maher on Greed

"Friday Night Videos" is coming a little bit early this week because I wanted to post this clip from the May 29 edition of "Real Time With Bill Maher." Bill makes an excellent case, infused with his characteristic humor, that so many of our current problems stem simply from greed.

Of course, the Buddha would have pointed out that the greed arises from our ego delusion - our impression that there is a constant and abiding self that's somehow more important than the others "out there."

But Bill, an ardent atheist, doesn't need to rely on the Buddha to point out the foibles of our wretched behavior - the last 30 or so years of our culture have already done a good enough job of showing the suffering caused by our delusions.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Friday Night Video

Bollywood be thy name: I didn't care much for for the New Age-y type music in the original video but the choreography couldn't be beat, so I dubbed in something I had laying around (Bill Laswell and Sacred System's Raag Sohni from the 1998 album, Naugal Sites). It seems to work pretty well.

For what it's worth, I understand that all 21 dancers were deaf (so I guess they wouldn't mind that I messed with the music).

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Brain Scans Reveal Zen Training Speeds The Mind's Return After Distraction

Dr. Giuseppe Pagnoni, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine changes in blood flow in the brain when people meditating were interrupted by stimuli designed to mimic the appearance of spontaneous thoughts. The study compared 12 people from the Atlanta area with more than three years of daily practice in Zen meditation with 12 others who had never practiced meditation.

The former group was largely selected from the Atlanta Soto Zen Center, my friendly neighborhood zendo. I volunteered to participate in the experiment but was rejected because I am left-handed, and they needed all-right-handed volunteers to reduce the number of variables.

The researchers found that experienced Zen meditators can clear their minds of distractions more quickly than novices. While having their brains scanned, the subjects were asked to focus on their breathing. Every once in a while, they had to distinguish a real word from a nonsense word presented at random intervals on a computer screen and, having done that, promptly "let go" of the just processed stimulus by refocusing on their breath.

The authors found that differences in brain activity between experienced meditators and novices after interruption could be seen in a set of areas often referred to as the "default mode network." Previous studies have linked the default mode network with the occurrence of spontaneous thoughts and mind-wandering during wakeful rest.

After interruption, experienced meditators were able to bring activity in most regions of the default network back to baseline faster than non-meditators. This effect was especially prominent in the angular gyrus, a region important for processing language.

This suggests to Dr. Pagnoni that the regular practice of meditation may enhance the capacity to limit the influence of distracting thoughts. This skill could be important in conditions such as attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety disorder and major depression, characterized by excessive rumination or an abnormal production of task-unrelated thoughts. The results of the study were reported in Science Daily in September 2008.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

As I said yesterday, this year the Atlanta voter gets to vote for a new Mayor (Shirley Franklin is at the end of her second term and cannot run again), a City Councilperson for their District, the Council President, and three at-large Councilpersons. Each voter can choose to replace six out of 17 of the top city politicians. Time to make some big changes if one were so inclined.

I kow that I am. And tonight, to help put inclination into action, I went to a neighbor's home for a meet-and-greet for Yolanda Adrean, the candidate running for the Council seat for my District.

Yolanda served with me for two years on the Beltline Advisory Board, and impressed me with her good sense, people skills and willingness to listen to various points of view. She did a good job on the Q&A during tonight's meet-and-greet, and is so far running unopposed.

Change is coming to Atlanta ('bout time).

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Politics of the Status Quo

So meanwhile, what about the Beltline, Atlanta's visionary project of 22 miles of new transit, trails and greenspace? Tonight the Advisory Committee held its monthly meeting, and I'm sorry to report that it's still in the planning stage, with no end of planning in sight.

I got involved in this project in a citizens' participation role back in 2005, when planning already seemed to be fairly far along. By 2007, the Feasibility Plan, Redevelopment Plan and Five-Year Work Plan were completed, and in addition to the Advisory Committee, I also joined the Steering Committee for my local Sub-Area Master Plan. The plans for the first five of ten sub-areas were supposed to be completed that year (2007), with the remainder completed the following year (2008), but the first round wasn't completed until early this year and the second round hasn't even started yet. And now the Environmental Impact Study is just beginning, and showing no signs of moving along any more rapidly than the other plans.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. After all, the planning is being done mostly by the City of Atlanta Planning Department, and when they're done planning, what will they have left to do to justify their jobs? It seems that for them, this on-going planning is a sort of annuity, something they can rely upon year after year for their livelihood. The last thing they're ever going to want to do is actually finish their planning and get on with the actual implementation.

The CEO of the Beltline project recently resigned, and this year the mayor and the City Council are up for re-election. Perhaps some change and new blood are exactly what this potentially transformative project needs.

Monday, May 25, 2009

In an evening talk, Dogen said, "In the tradition of the patriarchs, the true way of understanding dharma talks on Zen practice is to gradually reform what you have known and thought by following your teacher’s instruction.

"Even if up to now, you have thought that a buddha has excellent characteristics like Shakyamuni or Amitaba, radiates a halo, has the virtue of preaching the dharma and benefiting living beings, you should believe your teacher if he says that buddha is nothing but a toad or an earthworm, and throw your former ideas away. However, if you look for some excellent characteristics, a halo, or other virtues of a buddha on the toad or the earthworm, you still have not reformed your discriminating mind. Just understand what you see right now is buddha. If you continually reform your discriminating mind and fundamental attachment in this way according to your teacher’s instruction, you will naturally become one with the Way.

"Students today, however, cling to their own discriminating minds. Their thinking is based on their own personal views that buddha must be such and such; if it goes against their ideas, they say that buddha cannot be that way. Having such an attitude and wandering here and there in delusion, searching after what conforms to their preconceptions, few of them ever make any progress in the Buddha-Way.

"Suppose that you have climbed to the top of a hundred-foot pole, and are told to let go and advance one step further without holding bodily life dear. In such a situation if you say that you can practice the Buddha-Way only when you are alive, you are not really following your teacher. Consider this carefully."
"Wandering here and there, searching after what conforms to their preconceptions" certainly sounds like the sort of spiritual smorgasbording that many people do today. When we read that passage during the discussion period following Monday Night zazen, we remarked how similar students 800 years ago were to we students of today.

"The Buddha-Way" refers simultaneously to dao, or do, the Eight Fold Path; that is, the way leading to enlightenment, and to dao, the Buddha's enlightenment itself. Therefore, practicing the various activities on the path leading to enlightenment is the same as the goal of following that path. This is why Dogen said that practice and enlightenment are one.

It is said that the immobile person stuck at the top of a hundred-foot pole should advance one step further. Then he will realize that the whole world in ten directions is his true body. Getting stuck at the top of the pole is the dilemna in which we find ourselves in this world of samsara. Even though we're at the top, our teacher tells us to keep climbing, and we must trust the teacher even at the cost of our own sense of self preservation. Advancing that extra step is dao, practice. The realization is dao, enlightenment. These two things are not separate.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Memorial Day

War is never the answer, but Memorial Day is a day to meditate upon and remember all of those who have died in wars. It is a time to mourn not only our soldiers but all who have died in combat, even our enemies and those who died while trying to inflict harm upon us, and all soldiers and combatants and warriors throughout history.

It's also the time to mourn civilian deaths - the so-called collateral damage of warfare.

Most broadly, it's a time to reflect upon our belligerent nature, man's tendency to wage war upon man, and the deaths that our ignorance and egocentricity have caused.

And, finally, it is a time to express our gratitude for those who bravely put themselves in harm's way to protect us from our own bellicose nature, and who march off to fight the wars we so stupidly initiate.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Friday Night Video

In his later years, Don Cherry explored forms of music beyond free-form and post-bop jazz.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Wheeee! What recession? I bought a new car today, turning in my 3 1/2-year-old, black Lexus IS 250 for a brand-new, black Lexus IS 250.

It could make a certain amount of financial sense to buy a new car now in a fuzzy logic kind of way - a combination of a good used car's resale value in this market and the incentives dealers are adding for new cars. But actually, it's just that the old car was on a lease and that the lease had expired six months ago - and my friendly, neighborhood Lexus dealer wanted the car back since last Thanksgiving. And I didn't want to buy a 3 1/2-year-old car back from myself and be still making payments when the car was 6 1/2 years old. So I basically just extended the lease another 3 years, and got a nearly identical but brand spanking new vehicle in the process.

Which is a little anti-climactic. It was nice driving home in my new car, watching the odometer roll over to 15 miles, but the model is so familiar (even though it does have that coveted new-car smell), that it didn't feel all that special.

So this is probably a good move for a lay Buddhist monk - to recognize the old in something new, and to temper the materialist desire with drab familiarity, even while giving in to that very impulse.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Commentary

Mettai provided a link to a commentary on Master Dogen's Japanese Robin Hood story in her comment on yesterday's post. I asked, and Mettai delivered (gassho). The commentary is by Bonnie Myotai Treace, dharma heir of John Daido Loori and formerly Vice-Abbess of Zen Mountain Monastery and later Abbess of Fire Lotus Temple in Brooklyn. She now teaches independently.

In her commentary on the story, Myotai notes, "This one thing—zazen—is huge. Everything is contained in it. That’s why it can be practiced exclusively. This is Chikaku’s Robin Hood activity—giving away money, sacrificing his career, creating a life in which no other thing is going on. And each of us faces that moment over and over again, when the leap, the astonishing shift from self-involvement into involvement in the whole thing, requires us to do what doesn’t seem possible. Sometimes our leaping is grand; sometimes it’s really mundane."

I've had the good fortune to have met Myotai on a couple occasions. Back in 2003, I spent a weekend a Zen Mountain Monastery while she was still teaching there, and we briefly exchanged some very kind words. She later came and visited our Zen Center here in Atlanta, and I was assigned responsibility to drive her to the Amtrak station for her return home. I don't know if I've ever met someone as direct and focused as Myotai. When you talk to her, you realize that you have her full and total attention - her mind is not wandering - and it has a profound and very intimate effect. When she engages in conversation, her complete and full presence is in that very conversation at that very minute, and she speaks with complete and sincere honesty. The depth of her practice is apparent in the way she so directly and wholeheartedly interacts with the world, and these two brief meetings affected me profoundly.

Later in her commentary, she states, "Many of you know that my dog and best friend Lobo is quite old now and he’s going through a lot of health challenges. He’s a great being, and one of the things I’ve learned from him and love in him is his wholeheartedness. When he was a puppy he seized any opportunity to run, to just go. It was nothing but joy to run as far as he could, as much as he could, as often as he could—to just run. Now he can barely stand up; he falls over about one out of every four times he gets up. But, once he gets his feet underneath himself, he just goes. He limps as far as he can limp. It’s the same heart and it just wakes me up over and over again. I hope I can continue his life and his teaching without his body to remind me. He has beginner’s mind in his old age. I don’t want to see it stop."

We should all, as they say, become the person our dogs think we are. Lobo points towards wholeheartedness to Myotai, and Myotai points towards the wholeheartedness of Chikaku, and Mettai points me towards Myotai's pointing, and I point out Myotai's wholeheartedness, and Mettai's wholeheartedness, and the wholeheartedness of all.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Japanese Robin Hood

After Monday night zazen this evening, we read the following story from Book 1, Chapter 12 of Zuimonki:

Zen master Chikaku aroused bodhi-mind and became a monk. He had been a government officer. He was a man of talent and righteousness. While he was a provincial governor, he appropriated official money unlawfully and gave it to the people. One of the officers around him reported this to the emperor.

Upon hearing this, the emperor was astonished; all of his ministers also thought it strange. Still, since the crime was not a minor one, the decision was made to put him to death.

The emperor said, “This officer is a man of talent and a wise man. He dared to commit this crime. He might have had some profound motivation. When his head is about to be cut off, if he looks regretful and full of grief, cut it off quickly. If not, undoubtedly he had a deeper motivation, so do not kill him.”

When the Imperial envoy brought him out to cut off his head, he did not show regret or grief; rather he looked joyful. He said to himself, “I give this life to all living beings.”

The Imperial envoy, surprised and amazed, reported it to the emperor.

The emperor exclaimed, “It’s exactly as I thought! He must have had some deeper reason.”

When the emperor asked the officer what his motivation was, he said, “I wanted to retire from government office, throw my life away by giving it to all living beings to form an association with them, be born into the family of Buddha (become a monk), and practice the Buddha-Way whole-heartedly.”

The emperor was moved by his reply and allowed him to become a monk. Therefore, he was given the name Enju, meaning ‘prolonged life’, since he had been saved from capital punishment.

Commenting on this story, Dogen said, "Monks today also have to arouse aspiration like this at least once. Arousing such an aspiration means thinking little of your own life, having deep compassion for all living beings, and entrusting your bodily life to the Buddha’s teaching. If you have already aroused such aspiration, protect it; do not lose it even for a moment. It is impossible to realize buddha-dharma without arousing such aspiration."

One thing that interests me about this story is that I find it no place other than Zuimonki. It is not included in the Eihei Koroku ("Dogen's Extensive Record") nor have I come across it in the Shobogenzo. In Andy Ferguson's meticulously detailed "Zen's Chinese Heritage," there is are several pages of Zen Master Chikaku (Yongming Yanshou). Does anyone out there know anything more about this story? Are there any other commentaries?

Sunday, May 17, 2009


Even though the Boston Celtics lost Game 7 and were eliminated from the playoffs, it's still been a good day. Most of today was spent back up at the Chattanooga Zen Center, and this time I got to travel up and back with my good friend and dharma mentor Arthur, as well as sensei Taiun Michael Elliston, roshi of the Atlanta Zen Center.

Even though it rained all day today, it's still been a good day. The evening was spent back at a neighbor's house, sharing dinner and stimulating conversation with our local neighborhood spirituality group.

Who's to say what's good and what's bad? Regardless of everything, I've thoroughly enjoyed the day today.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Random Images Pulled Off the Internet

You supply the narrative (not that there is one). Nine random images pulled off the internet on Saturday morning, May 16, 2009, and arranged in a grid.

Friday, May 15, 2009

"Grizzly Bear, a four-piece band from Brooklyn, arranges its songs so carefully that they accrue intricate, hairline detail with no loss of momentum, but the group’s most obvious gift is the vocals—all four members sing, and well . . . 'Two Weeks' is a big fat ice-cream cone of a song. The piano part sounds a little like 'Chopsticks' expanded into something more robust, with [drummer Chris] Bear merging a shuffle and a straightforward backbeat as the boys sing 'Oh-ooh-oh' up into the air—a doo-wop quartet launching into orbit. [Ed] Droste sings about a 'routine malaise' but pledges, 'I told you I would stay.' The voices rise higher, as though the song were making itself giddy, and Droste follows his promise with a plea for what Mary J. Blige called 'no more drama': 'Would you always, maybe sometimes, make it easy? Take your time.' It’s an awfully sweet way of telling someone to calm the hell down."
- Sasha Frere-Jones, The New Yorker

Thursday, May 14, 2009

According to the Gallup polls, President Obama’s job approval ratings thus far in May (66%) are among the highest of his presidency, exceeding the 63% average for his first 100 days. Further, 25% of Americans say they would “definitely” vote for him in 2012.

Also, congressional job approval is 37% this May. Although lower than the President's and not statistically different from readings of March and April, the approval rating is well above the average congressional job approval rating of 19% recorded for all of 2008.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


I was reading a recent copy of the alumni magazine that I get from Boston U. and keep stacked on the back of my toilet when I came across the sad news that Barry Cameron, one of my former geology professors, had died.

Of course, I know that they will all die sooner or later, and given the age differences most likely before me. Some quite likely may have died already. On a long enough time scale, everyone's life expectancy approaches zero. But this news was not what I was expecting to read and was not on my mind as I sat there reading. Like back in my student days, I wasn't really thinking much about the mortality of others.

Barry's obituary in the alumni magazine was written by a young undergraduate from the School of Communications who had obviously never met him - he left BU shortly after I graduated and probably before his memoirist was born. Her obituary mostly covered his resume, but she did at least try to inject a personal note, saying that "he was known for engaging students in his research projects," a safe bet for virtually any professor, especially in geology. I'd like to recall him a little more personally than that.

To be brutally honest, stately, plump Barry Cameron probably wasn't the most popular professor in the B.U. geology department of the 1970s. There was the youngest faculty member, Duncan Fitzgerald, "Funky Uncle Dunky," "The Wreck of the Duncan Fitzgerald," a coastal geologist and a student of the infamous Miles Hayes - if you took courses with Duncan, you got to hang out at the beach for your field work and cruise around in boats. There was my major professor, Dee Caldwell, the son of author Erskine Caldwell (although you quickly learned not to bring that name up in his presence) - a quirky, dry-humored hydrogeologist who led notoriously boozy glacial geology field trips up in Maine - we once climbed Mount Katahdin together with major hangovers. And then there were the enigmatic Egyptian mineralogist Mohammed "Ed" Gheith, and the scholarly professor of petrology, structural geology and other mind-bending courses, Art Brownlow, the most academic and senior of the staff.

And then there was Barry. He taught paleontology, stratigraphy and sedimentology, the so-called "soft-rock" courses that weren't as sexy as the hard-rock science of Drs. Gheith and Brownlow, but required learning for careers in petroleum geology. He cared passionately about the subject, though, as well as the Paleozoic, so-called Trenton limestones of upstate New York, and he led us on these bewildering field trips to look at one nearly-identical limestone outcrop after the other down the length of the New York State Thruway. This being the 70s, we carried CB-radios in our vans on these trips, and his well-chosen "handle" was the "Limestone Cowboy."

But most notoriously, Barry smoked these awful-smelling little Parodi cigars. They grossed us all out, and their scent lingered in the basement hallways of the graduate students' offices for hours. You always knew when Barry had been by just by the lingering sickly-sweet aroma of Parodi and after an hour in his presence, the smell would cling to your clothes for days.

But he was an easy-going and unassuming man, not at all pretentious, and thus an easy target for our cruel little jokes. But our teasing overlooked that he was also one of the kindest and most generous of the faculty, willing to spend countless hours with his students until they finally "got" what they hadn't understood before. But in the shallowness of our youth, we mistook his generosity of time for a lack of anything better to do, and vowed that we'd never become so strangely single minded.

Barry did his graduate study at Columbia University under Marshall Kay in the early 1960s. His Master's thesis was on the paleontology of the carbonate platform off the northeastern side of the Bahamas. Having studied the modern carbonates of the Bahamas, he was well prepared to address long-standing concerns regarding the nature of the lower Trenton Group of northwestern New York and southeastern Ontario. In his Ph.D. dissertation, he documented the depositional environments of the lower Trenton and the nature of the contact between the Trenton and the Black River Groups. He also documented the paleoecology of the Rocklandian, Kirkfieldian, and basal Shermanian stage limestones. "Limestone cowboy," indeed.

Even though he wasn't my thesis advisor, he was my undergraduate academic advisor, and immediately after I graduated, Barry gave me my very first job in geology - assistant teaching the Geology Summer Field Camp, an outdoor course required for all geologists that I had just taken the summer before. The picture of him above was taken during this course by one of the undergrad students who wrote the words "buffalo smiling" on the back - some now long-forgotten in-joke. But as I look at the picture now, I'm surprised to see that the Barry of 1979 was a man younger than I am today - the idea that someday I would actually be older the Barry never occurred to the self-involved graduate student.

Whenever I thought of the name "Barry Cameron," which wasn't often as I embarked on a career that eventually brought me down to Georgia as he left for Acadia University in Nova Scotia, the words "Parodis," and "limestone cowboy," and "buffalo smiling" would come to mind, and I know now that he had heard all of our little jokes behind his back and didn't mind, still selflessly endeavoring to train us for careers with Exxon and Amoco, at universities and geological surveys, for regulators and consultants. He was kind and sweet and gentle, and hardly any of us took time away from our self-involvement to really appreciate him.

Dr. Barry Winston Cameron passed away on August 16, 2008.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Cause and Effect

It was almost 9:30 by the time I got home tonight from my meeting of the alliance of neighborhood communities. Earlier, after work, I had come home to find a chipmunk tail on the stoop of my back door - no sign of the tailless chipmunk, but that's another story for another time.

Anyway, by the time I got home, the Celtics were trailing Orlando by 14 points. But I settled in to watch the remainder of the game anyway, wishing my team the best. The Celts came back to win, 92-88.

You're welcome, Boston.

Monday, May 11, 2009

First Kill

I came home from work today to find a dead chipmunk in front of the t.v. with a long cut across its stomach. Eliot's first kill, at least as far as I know. And I can't tell if it was the chipmunk that was under the refrigerator, or it that chipmunk's still under there and this was a fresh victim from outside. They all tend to look alike to me.

I gave it a nice little burial out in the garden.

At the zendo tonight, we did not read a chapter from Zuimonki, but instead we talked about the New Yorker article and the possible relationship between mirror neurons and the arising of consciousness. Quite the lively discussion ensued.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Notes From a Lazy Weekend

This was the first weekend in a month where I didn't have to give a dharma talk at the zendo, or go to Chattanooga, or address a neighborhood spirituality group, or lead a weekend sesshin. Not that I minded any of that, but this was a weekend for rest and relaxation. The construction crew completed the remediation project down in Jena, Louisiana on Friday and I felt a sense of closure and a strong desire to nap.

Unfortunately, I missed two talks by Sensei at the zendo that sounded quite interesting. I had set my alarm clock both Saturday and Sunday mornings, but it was apparent that my mind and body needed a good rest more than intellectual stimulation as I hit the snooze button both days before turning off the alarm altogether.

Eliot did his part to keep the weekend entertaining. One would think that after getting bit on the eye he would have learned his lesson about chipmunks, but no, not my cat. Saturday, while I was talking to a neighbor on the phone about community politics, I saw him coming in through the trap door with a chipmunk in his mouth. Fortunately, I was able to block his way before he got in and he dropped the chipmunk, which scrambled away with Eliot in hot pursuit. The chipmunk, finding no where else to go, then climbed straight up the brick exterior of my house, clinging safely to the wall as Eliot leaped from below in failed attempts to reach him. While still on the phone, I caught Eliot and locked him back in the house to let the chipmunk escape. He meowed and carried on, wanting to go back outside, and the dumb chipmunk just continued to cling on the wall about 8 feet above ground surface. Chipmunks are technically ground squirrels, and not natural climbers, and it was soon apparent that like a cat up a tree, he had gotten himself up there and didn't know what to do to get back down.

While still talking on the phone (it was a long conversation), I got a broom and headed outside. I didn't have a plan on how to get Alvin off the wall, but as soon as I so much as raised the broom, the chipmunk leaped off the wall and landed 8 feet down on the ground with a sickening thud. That had to have hurt, but the little guy ran right off and hid underneath a hosta plant in the garden. I hope he's alright. My neighbor on the other end of the phone still has no idea of what was going on while she was talking.

Eliot was successful is getting a chipmunk inside of the house today. This time, I locked him in the bathroom, opened a back door, and guided the chipmunk back outside, which wasn't as easy as it sounds. In his panic, the chipmunk ran right past the open door several times, and once tried to get outside from behind the door through the opening beneath the hinge. He didn't fit, so I tried opening the door a little more to let him escape, but only wound up nearly crushing him in the vice-like grip. Eventually, he backed out and got away and after I was convinced the proverbial coast was clear, I let the cat back out.

This time, he came back in with a larger chipmunk. He actually carries them quite gently by the scruff of the neck like a mother would her kittens (which reminds me - happy Mothers Day, Mom!) and even when he pounces on them, he doesn't seem to use his claws - I've not seen blood or cuts on one of the chipmunks yet. They might be getting hurt more by my attempts at rescue. Anyway, this one escaped under the refrigerator, and neither Eliot nor I could figure out how to get him out from under there. We both eventually just gave up, and I left the kitchen door open all day hoping that he'd come out to play when the cat was away and find his route back outside, but for all I know, he's under there still. If he does come out, I know that Eliot will find him before I do.

Oh, and one night last week while I was calmly watching television and Eliot was lounging around inside, he suddenly spotted a chipmunk behind a floor lamp. It was pretty passive (it might have been inside for days) and didn't put up much resistance. I scooped it up with a dustpan and took it outside before Eliot could follow and bring it back in. But I do wonder how long it was trapped inside the house, and if there's any more (including under the refrigerator).

So that was that. Otherwise, it was a quiet weekend of reading, cleaning up some files on my computer, and watching sports. The trifecta's this evening: the Celtics play Orlando in Game 4 of the Semifinals tonight on FX (Channel 42), while the Bruins face off against Carolina in Game 5 of their Semifinals on Channel 44 and the Red Sox play Tampa at Fenway on ESPN (Channel 46). All at the same time, and all being televised here in Georgia.

Go figure.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

According to a very interesting article by John Colapinto in this week's New Yorker, "In the mid-nineties, [Dr. Vilayanur S.] Ramachandran [director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at U.C. San Diego] read a paper by Italian researchers who had discovered that a set of neurons in the frontal lobes of monkeys fired not only when the monkeys reached for an object but also when they observed another monkey performing the same action. Ramachandran wondered if these so-called 'mirror neurons' also exist in humans."

Research has shown that deliberate movements in humans suppress a kind of brain activity in the motor cortex called mu waves. Tests by Dr. Ramachandran have shown that subjects merely witnessing an action in others caused mu-wave suppression as well, evidence that mirror neurons exist in humans, too. Other researchers have since confirmed that people have several systems of mirror neurons which perform various functions.

As Dr. Ramachandran explains, the mirror-neuron experiments show that the brain is a dynamic system, not only interacting with your own sets of sense receptors but also those of others. Dr. Ramachandran takes it further, stating that in a sense, our brains are all hooked up to each other's. The only thing separating me from you and from all others is a thin membrane of skin. Dr. Ramachandran has dubbed mirror neurons "Gandhi neurons' because "they're dissolving the barrier between you and me."

This discovery offers insight into the nature of empathy. When one monkey watches another reach for a banana, the mirror neurons fire, and if the observed monkey's hand were to be, say, bitten by a snake, the mirror neurons in the observer's brain would fire as if the observer himself had been bit. The monkeys watching this incident all shriek in shock. This phenomenon explains the unpleasant feeling we have when we see someone else get injured or watch violent behavior, and suggests that the cause of sociopathic behavior may be a lack of functioning mirror neurons.

But Dr. Ramachandran takes it further. "One of the theories we put forward," he said, "is that the mirror-neuron system is used for modelling someone else's behavior, putting yourself in another person's shoes, looking at the world from another person's point of view. This is called an allocentric view of the world, as opposed to the egocentric view. So I made the suggestion that at some point in evolution this system turned back and allowed you to create an allocentric view of yourself. This is," he claims, "the dawn of self-awareness," or consciousness.

So consciousness, in this view, is not merely the ability to think - all sentient beings think to some extent or another - but to create a model in our minds of a "self" operating in the "external" world. In this theory, then, consciousness arises out of the fundamental sense of separation between self and other, and in turn further reinforces this sense of separation. That this is essentially an allocentric view of the self does not negate egocentricity, it only deepens our perception that the ego-self is a "thing" not unlike those external "things" upon which we base our mental models.

Dr. Ramachandran's theory is not inconsistent with the Buddha's teaching. In Buddhism, consciousness is sometimes depicted as a monkey in a tree full of fruit, grasping first for this and then for that and then still another thing, and so on. With consciousness, the world is continuously being divided into this, that and the other, but most especially into "self" and "not-self."

The concept of separation between self and other is considered in Buddhist teachings to be an aspect of ignorance (other aspects of ignorance include failure to recognize the existence of suffering or the impermanence of all things, but these other aspects are not relevant for our purposes now). In our ignorance, believing self and other to be separate, we create mental models of that "self" operating in an "external" world in order to satisfy our intentions. The Buddha called this "disposition of the mind," and taught that consciousness arose from this disposition.

Thus, we have the first three links in the 12-Fold Chain of Dependent Origination - ignorance giving rise to intention, and intention giving rise to consciousness, a process that ultimately leads to old age, sickness and death ("you" don't die until after you conceive of a "self" to die in the first place). This is a difficult and challenging teaching to understand, but Dr. Ramachandran's research and theory provide us with a new and intellectually accessible way of looking at it.

Friday, May 08, 2009

When Words Fail, Post a Video

How cool is this? - Don Cherry performing Thelonious Monk's "Bemsha Swing" with Herbie Hancock. Date unknown.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Don't Be Mislead

Oh look. Iconoclastic Zen teacher Brad Warner reminisces in his blog, Hardcore Zen about meeting my Zen teacher at an April retreat in Nashville, saying, "Back to the retreat! At the end of it, Taiun Michael Elliston of the Atlanta Soto Zen Center came by to do a jukai (precept giving) ceremony for three members of the Nashville group. That was nice. I'm not big on such ceremonies. But this one was done in a sweet, low key way without too much pretension and bally-hoo. I even enjoyed it a little."

He also quotes an article translated for him from a Dutch magazine, "Eckhart Tolle is joining Oprah. Is that a good idea? Ken Wilber sells an Integral Life Practice Starter Kit for $199.20. Is that over the edge? Big Mind Inc asks a minimum donation for five days with [Dennis] Merzel of $25.000. . . I too ask myself on a regular basis where this will end."

This bothers me, not due to the expenses or the seeming desire for fame and fortune, but because people continue to equate philosophers and autodidacts like Tolle and Wilber with transmitted Zen teachers like Merzel Roshi, or for that manner, Brad Warner. I have even heard Zen practitioners confirm their fondness for Tolle and Wilber to outsiders while at the Zen Center, which only confuses the issue. When people talk to me about writers like Tolle and Wilbur, I usually just act like I've never heard of them, and ask "Interesting. Who did they study under?"

And before I sound too intolerant or bigoted, let me point out that I'm not saying that their writings are without merit, but that it is incorrect to confuse their teachings, whatever their merit, with that of Zen, even if it does have Zen-like qualities or similarities. Their teachings might be very beneficial to some, but their teachings are not Zen.

Simply put, Zen cannot be "taught" or "understood" at all - it can only be experienced. You can read and philosophize all you want about what an orange tastes like, but until you bite into one, you'll never really know.

As far as I can see, Eckhart Tolle never practiced under a Zen teacher. He studied literature, languages and philosophy at Cambridge University until the age of 29, when he experienced what he calls an "inner transformation." He said the first texts with which he came in contact after the awakening and in which he found deep understanding were the New Testament, the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching, and teachings of the Buddha. All fine and good, but the Buddha-dharma (in the subjective sense) was never transmitted to him by a teacher and his teaching is outside of the transmission of the Way.

Ken Wilber was a pre-med student at Duke University in 1967 when he became disillusioned with science. He became inspired by Eastern literature, particularly the Tao Te Ching, which catalyzed an interest in Buddhism. He completed a bachelor's degree with a double major in chemistry and biology, and in 1973, published his first book, The Spectrum of Consciousness, in which he sought to integrate knowledge from disparate fields. Like Tolle, he had an intellectual understanding born of academic study, but hadn't practiced under a Zen teacher, hadn't received transmission, and is outside of the Zen tradition.

In contrast, Dennis Merzel was ordained as a Zen monk in 1973 under the guidance of Taizan Maezumi. Before ordaining, he had spent a year alone in the mountains of California. He completed koan study in 1979, and in 1980 he became a Dharma Successor of Maezumi Roshi. I don't know about the alleged $25,000 minimum donations for five days of study, but if that's the dharma barrier he's set up, I recommend that you pay it if you want to study Zen with him.

The analogy here is to food - if you want to become a chef, one of the great gourmet chefs, under whom would you study? Teachers who've read a lot about the culinary traditions of other lands, but never actually tasted the food, or a true chef and gourmet, who enjoys eating what he cooks and has dined side by side with the master chefs of many lands?

And to answer the question you're probably thinking, I have the good fortune to be practicing Zen under the direction of a transmitted Zen teacher, Taiun Michael Elliston. Elliston Roshi received dharma transmission form his treacher, Rev. Soyu Matsuoka, who in 1949 became one of the first Zen teachers to move to America and was more than likely the first official representative of the Soto tradition in the U.S., and later from Rev. Shohaku Okumura. This living Zen is part of a long tradition stretching back to Shakyamuni Buddha, and not some clever, made-for-t.v. philosophy of a best-selling author.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Shitou's Slippery Path

Here's a story I was going to tell last Sunday, but never got around to:

Deng Yinfeng was leaving Mazu, his teacher. Mazu asked, “Where are you going?”

Deng Yinfeng said, “I’m going to Shitou.”

Mazu said, “Shitou’s path is slippery.”

Deng Yinfeng said, “Oh, don't worry. I’m bringing a tent pole for traveling theaters with me. I will improvise according to the situation.” He immediately departed.

As soon as he reached Shitou, Yinfeng immediately circumambulated the meditation hall one time and then rudely shook the monk’s staff to make a sound, stood before Shitou, and asked, “What is the essential meaning?”

Shitou said, “Blue sky, blue sky.”

Deng Yinfeng was speechless. Unlike Western culture, where blue skies are a symbol for optimism, in the East, blue sky is an expression of sorrow, usually accompanied by sighing and weeping.

He returned to Mazu and told the story to him.

Mazu said, “You should go again and when he says ‘Blue sky,’ you should immediately make a sound of crying.”

Deng Yinfeng went to Shitou again and asked the same question. “What is the essential meaning?”

Shitou immediately made a sound of crying.

Deng Yinfeng was again speechless and returned back to Mazu.

Mazu said, “I told you that Shitou’s path was slippery.”

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

“My experience is what I agree to attend to.” - William James

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heav'n of hell, a hell of heav'n.
- John Milton

According to a very interesting article in the science section of today's New York Times, we can lead a miserable life by obsessing on our problems and drive ourselves crazy trying to multitask and instantly answer each and every e-mail message, or we can recognize our brain’s finite capacity for processing information, accentuate the positive, and achieve the satisfactions of a focused life. Not surprisingly, the latter can be achieved through the practice of meditation.

“Multitasking is a myth,” according to Winifred Gallagher, author of the book Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. “You cannot do two things at once. The mechanism of attention is selection: it’s either this or it’s that.”

“People don’t understand that attention is a finite resource, like money,” she said. “Do you want to invest your cognitive cash on endless Twittering or Net surfing or couch potatoing? You’re constantly making choices, and your choices determine your experience, just as William James said.”

According to the Times article, Robert Desimone, the director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at M.I.T., has been tracking the brain waves of macaque monkeys and humans as they stare at video screens looking for certain flashing patterns. When something bright or novel flashes, it tends to automatically win the competition for the brain’s attention. But that involuntary impulse can be voluntarily overridden through a process that Dr. Desimone calls “biased competition.”

He and colleagues have found that neurons in the prefrontal cortex — the brain’s planning center — start oscillating in unison and send signals directing the visual cortex to heed something else. These oscillations, called gamma waves, are created by neurons’ firing on and off at the same time — but these signals can have trouble getting through in a noisy environment. “It takes a lot of your prefrontal brain power to force yourself not to process a strong input like a television commercial,” said Dr. Desimone. “If you’re trying to read a book at the same time, you may not have the resources left to focus on the words.”

Researchers have already observed higher levels of synchrony in the brains of people who regularly meditate. When giving newcomers' instruction at the Zen Center, I remind them that the practice of Zen meditation trains the mind to put its attention where we want it, when we want it, for as long as we want to.

Normally, our attention follows our "monkey mind," so called because it leaps from one thing to another, never settling on one thing for too long before it's bored or distracted and leaps to the next object of interest. We've never learned to train the monkey mind, and as a result it leads us literally to distraction.

By focusing on our breath and constantly returning our attention to the breath, we start to train the monkey mind. As soon as we see it start to wander off from our breath, we return our attention to the simple act of breathing, and keep doing this like we might train a puppy or kitten. Eventually, we can use our power of will in what Dr. Desimone calls biased competition to compel the attention to follow our direction, and not lead us from distraction to distraction. This is the start of Zen training, and once this skill is mastered we can maintain our attention in a focused state of single-pointed concentration, called samadhi.

I always like to see modern science confirm what the Buddha taught 2,500 years ago.

Monday, May 04, 2009

At the Zen Center tonight, after our usual two periods of zazen, we read the 11th Chapter of Book 1 of Shobogenzo Zuimonki:

Dogen instructed, "Impermanence is swift; life-and-death is a vital matter. For the short while you are alive, if you wish to study or practice some activity, just practice the Buddha-Way and study the buddha-dharma. Since literature and poetry are useless, you should give them up. Even when you study the buddha-dharma and practice the Buddha-Way, do not study extensively. Needless to say, refrain from learning the Exoteric and Esoteric scriptures of the teaching-schools. Do not be fond of learning on a large scale, even the sayings of the buddhas and patriarchs. It is difficult for us untalented and inferior people to concentrate on and complete even one thing. It is no good at all to do many things at the same time and lose steadiness of mind."
Shohaku Okomura's excellent footnotes explain that life-and-death, or birth-and-death, is a translation of shoji, or in Sanskrit, samsara, which means transmigration within the six realms of delusion. In Shobogenzo Shoji (Life-and-Death), however, Dogen said, “Life-and-death is the precious Life of the Buddha. For human beings, clarifying the reality of life-and-death is the great matter.”

Impermanence is also usually used in a negative sense, though Dogen quoted the Sixth Patriarch in Shobogenzo Bussho (Buddha-nature), “Therefore, grass, trees, and bushes are impermanent, and are nothing but Buddha-nature. Human beings and things, body and mind are impermanent, and are nothing but Buddha-nature. The earth, mountains, and rivers are impermanent, because they are Buddha-nature. Supreme awareness (Anuttara-samyak-sambodhi) is impermanent, since it is Buddha-nature. The great Nirvana is Buddha-nature since it is impermanent.”

Finally, I think Dogen's reference to "us untalented and inferior people" refers to the theory of the decline of the Dharma, popular during Dogen's time. According to this theory, the age of Semblance Dharma, when the practice and teaching remain, follows the age of the True Dharma, when the Buddha's enlightenment is present as well as the practice and teaching. The Semblance Dharma is followed by the Final Dharma age, in which only the teaching remains. Okumura noted that Dogen usually disputes the ultimate truth of this theory, believing in the current possibility of practice and awakening. But he does use the theory, as above, as an expedient means to encourage students, going on to say that this is especially the time to practice diligently.

The conversation eventually morphed into everyone's recollection of what they were doing on September 11, 2001 (haven't heard that conversation in a while). I got home in time to watch the Celtics rally back from a 28-point deficit to come to within 3 points against the Orlando Magic, but fall short of a win at the final buzzer. Tonight's lesson in acceptance.

But the Red Sox are leading New York 4-0 right now in a rain-delayed game at Yankee Stadium.

Sunday, May 03, 2009


Zen Master Shitou entered the hall and addressed the monks, saying, “'Buddha mind,’ ‘all beings,’ ‘wisdom,’ and ‘defilement’ - the names of these things are different, but actually they are one body. You should each recognize your miraculous mind. Its essence is apart from temporary or everlasting. Its nature is without pollution or purity. It is clear and perfect. Common people and sages are the same. The mind reaches everywhere without limit. It is not constrained by the limits of consciousness. The three realms and six realms manifest from this mind. If this mind is like the moon reflected on water, where can there be creation and destruction? If you can comprehend this, then there is nothing that you lack.

At this point, the monk Daowu asked Shitou, “Who is it who has attained the essential principal of Caoxi (the temple where Huineng taught)?”

Shitou said, “The person who has comprehended the buddha-dharma.”

Daowu then asked, “Has the master attained it?”

Shitou said, “I haven’t attained it.”

Daowu asked, “Why haven’t you attained it?”

Shitou said, “Because I can’t comprehend the buddha-dharma.” (from Zen's Chinese Heritage, by Andy Ferguson)
During the sesshin that concluded today, we discussed the many meanings of this buddha-dharma which goes beyond Shitou's comprehension. The term "buddha-dharma" can refer to:
  1. The Buddha's teachings, which show us reality
  2. The existence or things, as in “the myriad dharmas,” or “the 10,000 things”
  3. The law or morals which form the way of life in accordance with the reality or teaching
  4. The truth or reality to which the Buddha awakens.
Confusingly, it sounds at first like these are four separate things, random concepts all assigned to the same term. But upon closer examination, we can see that these are all in fact the same thing (the Buddha-way), just looked at from different perspectives.

In Buddhist philosophy, everything can be regarded from four different aspects, or phases. These phases include, first, the subjective and the objective, often referred to as the relative and the absolute. Most commonly, the subjective or relative looks at the Self as that which is not others, while the objective sees the Self and others as one. In Buddhism, both viewpoints, although seemingly opposing, are both correct, and the Middle Way is not some sort of compromise viewpoint between the two but the mind sticking to neither extreme, while simultaneously seeing and accepting both the relative and the absolute. I am not others, but others are also not separate from my Self.

Applying these two concepts to the idea of buddha-dharma, we get the subjective, the Buddha-way as embodied in the extensive, although finite, teachings of the Buddha (the teachings which show us the reality). And then there is the objective, which is the all-inclusive external world (the existence or things, the myriad dharmas), or nature. And the same apparent contradiction then arises: if the objective buddha-dharma is all inclusive, it then must includes teachings not part of the subjective buddha-dharma (such as other doctrines, philosophy, Freudism). The Middle Way is again not some compromise, but rather simultaneously holding these two apparently conflicting view points in one's mind at the same time.

But the four aspects go beyond the mere subjective and objective, and also include the practical and the ultimate. The practical is the buddha-way as ethical or moral conduct in everyday life (the law or morals which form the way of life in accordance with that reality or teaching). It is nothing less than our practice of the Eight-Fold Path, and in this regard, the buddha-dharma is explicitly the same as the Buddha-way (do, or marga). And the ultimate is the Buddha-way as the ineffable, the complicated, the balanced state of zazen, or reality itself (the truth or reality to which the Buddha awakens).

So we can look at the story above again, this time keeping these many viewpoints in mind. In this exchange, Daowu is stuck on one perspective, that of the relative buddha-dharma (the teachings). Shitou's first answer is also from the relative, but to test Daowu's understanding he shifts to the absolute perspective. Daowu is confused and asks for clarification, which Shitou provides by referring to that which goes beyond comprehension. Unfortunately, the story doesn't indicate whether or not Douwu catches on to the old master's trick.

Shitou's path is slippery.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Basketball Jones

True confession time: after leading the May sesshin at the zendo all day Saturday (6 am to 9 pm), I unwound a little at home by watching the second half of the Celtics-Bulls game.

Hey, it was Game 7 of one of the most competitive playoff series in NBA history. The Celtics won, this time without going into overtime, 109-99.

It was a tough, gruelling series, with neither team ever backing down. But the odd thing is that over the course of the seven games, although I remain a loyal Celtics fan, I came to like these Bulls. They played with heart and determination, and displayed a lot of talent. I was glad that the Celtics ultimately prevailed and, frankly, had seen enough of the Bulls for this year, but I would have been glad to cheer for them if the series had bone the other way and ended with a Chicago victory instead of one for Boston.

I wasn't sure the two teams felt the same way. This had been a very physical series, with some hard fouls and players thrown to the floor and into the scorer's table. Players walked off the court bleeding, and returned to the game with chipped teeth and stitches on their brows, on their nose, and on their lips. In Game 7, the refs tried to keep control by calling almost any physical contact a foul, but the intensity was clearly still there, with Chicago pulling to within 3 points with 5:44 left to play. So after the final whistle blew and the two teams approached each other on the court, I feared the worst.

But to my delight, instead of fighting they embraced each other in what appeared to be more than just a mere display of sportsmanship but a genuine respect for each other. Rivals who had fouled each other hard during the previous week congratulated each other for playing such an intense series, and there was no gloating, no bragging and no resentment.

That's what you like to see after a full day of zazen: two teams rejoicing in their achievement, with no acts of one-sided self-congratulation.