Wednesday, December 30, 2009

I visited my new employer today to set up my office and new computer (I actually got to unpack it from the box and everything). I start work on Monday, January 4, but didn't want to spend my first day loading software and unpacking boxes.

January looks like a particularly intense month both professionally, spiritually and civilly. I start at a new job with greater responsibilities, I'm going to start sewing an okesa at the Zen Center, and I'm organizing the first annual meeting of the alliance of neighborhood associations. Busy, busy, busy, but with time out for zazen.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

My Last Week at Work

The ennui of another week off from work is sinking in. . . staying up later, sleeping in later, generally doing less with each precious day. I told you I wasn't good with large blocks of unconstrained time.

Accomplishment for the day - opening up the Zen Center tonight for a vacationing colleague.

Monday, December 28, 2009

In an evening talk, Dogen said,

An ancient sage remarked, “If I learned the Way in the morning, I wouldn’t mind dying in the evening.” Students of the Way should have this same attitude. During aeons of life-and-death, how many times have we been born and have we died in vain? If we do not save ourselves, when, by rare chance, we have been born in a human body and are able to encounter the buddha-dharma, when will we be able to save ourselves? Even though we might cherish our body and hold it dear, we cannot keep it forever. Abandoning our life which we must leave behind sooner or later, if only for a day or a few moments for the sake of the buddha-dharma, will surely be the cause of eternal happiness.

It is regrettable to spend our days and nights vainly thinking of our livelihood tomorrow without casting aside the world which should be cast aside, without practicing the Way which should be practiced. Just make up your mind to learn the Way and die today. If you don’t have the materials to keep you alive until tomorrow it doesn’t matter if you die of cold or hunger. First of all, arouse such resolution. In doing so you will be able to practice the Way without fail.

Without this sort of aspiration, you will be unable to attain the Way regardless of how many millions of years or thousand times of life-and-death you practice. If you ostensibly continue practicing the buddha-dharma but secretly worry about such things as clothing for winter or summer and livelihood for tomorrow or the next year, then despite the appearance of learning the Way opposed to the ordinary world (it is equally useless). There could be such a person, but as far as I know such an attitude cannot be in accordance with the teaching of the buddhas and patriarchs. (Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Book 2, Chapter 16, translated by Shohaku Okumura)
If you have trouble understanding that last paragraph, don't feel alone - I've read and re-read it at least a dozen times, and I don't understand it either. Clearly something is missing from that second sentence.

A couple weeks ago, I accidentally left my copy of Zuimonki up in Chattanooga. I'll pick it up again when I'm back up there next month, but in the meantime I've been using the on-line version of the text on the Sotoshu website for the Monday night readings. Perhaps the text is missing only on line and the book is more coherent, but up to now, the two texts have seem perfectly compatible.

But precisely because I had left my book in Chattanooga and couldn't fathom the on-line text, I went looking for the book version at the Zen Center library. I didn't find a copy, but I did take a look at a book I'd seen on the bookshelf before but never paid much attention to, titled "A Primer of Soto Zen." Looking at the book in the library, I realized that it was sub-titled "A Translation of Dogen's Shobogenzo Zuimonki by Reiho Masunaga."

Wondering if this tranlation provided more clarity on the text, I saw that Masunaga does indeed provides a much better translation of Chapter 2-16 as follows:
In a talk one evening Dogen said:

According to Confucius, one should: "In the morning hear the Way, in the evening die content." Students today should emulate this attitude. Over long eons we have on innumerable occasions gone through the process of being born and dying, yet rarely have we had the chance of obtaining a human body and becoming acquainted with Buddhism. If we do not save ourselves now, in what world can we expect to do so? It is impossible to retain this body no matter how we treasure it. Since in the end we all must die, if we dedicate our bodies to Buddhism for a day or even for a moment, we lay the basis for eternal peace.

It is a sorry thing to spend your days and nights in vain, thinking about things that might be, planning for tomorrow's livelihood, and hesitating to forsake what should be forsaken and to practice what should be practiced. At the outset, arouse such determination to hear the Way and follow the Buddha mind for just this one day, even if you should die. What if you starve or freeze to death because you have no means of livelihood tomorrow? If you do this, you will not err in practicing and gaining the Way.

Those who cannot rouse this determination, even though they seem to have escaped from the world to study the Way, worry about their clothing in summer and winter and about what means of livelihood they will have tomorrow or the next year. Those who approach Buddhism in this manner will not be able to understand it, even if they study for endless kalpas. There are indeed people like this, but this certainly does not represent the teachings of the Buddha and the Patriarchs that I know.
A much clearer translation. So as it turns out, it was a good thing that I left my book behind when I visited Chattanooga - otherwise, I would not have been motivated to seek out the Masunaga translation and understood the meaning of Dogen's teaching (who's to say what's good and what's bad?).

I've ordered a copy of Masunaga's book from Amazon for future study and readings.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Happiness is not achieved by the conscious pursuit of happiness; it is generally the by-product of other activities.
- Aldous Huxley

The Buddha's great insight was that it is not getting what we want that makes us happy. His somewhat counter-intuitive insight was that it is the losing of the desire that brings about happiness. Getting what we want often makes us only crave more - when what we've gotten inevitably fades away, we're right back to wanting again. So why not just get rid of the wanting?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

More New Sounds

Another reason for the health of popular music in 2009 has been the nearly unprecedented level of cooperation and collaboration among the artists. The concept of the band as a tight-knit collection of individuals who perform together exclusively is quickly fading. The idea never existed in jazz, where it seems that everybody played with everybody else at one point or another, but it has been a fundamental rule of rock music. Today, however, it seems that many musicians see no problem at all with simultaneously being in several different bands while having a handful of solo and side projects, while also performing together in other bands as the occasion arises.

A good example of this is the Dirty Projectors collaborations this year with the hip-hop ensemble The Roots. The Dirty Projectors are a Brooklyn-based band led by Dave Longstreth, who plays guitar in a sort of Afro-pop manner, with vocals by Longstreth and Amber Coffman, Angel Deradoorian and Haley Dekle. Together, they employ a singing style known as hocketing, a technique that stretches back to the work of 13th Century French monks. As explained by Sasha Frere-Jones of The New Yorker, "To hocket, you split up a melody or chord and assign the notes to different voices. It's like an advanced version of those Sesame Street segments where Muppets individually say the syllables of a word and then combine to say the entire word together. When voices begin to hocket (the word is related to 'hiccup'), the sound start to flicker and pop as if the chords and melodies were multiplying like soap bubbles."

An excellent example of hocketing can be heard in this video, shot on an iPhone by Questlove, the drummer for The Roots. On September 28, the Dirty Projectors appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, who uses The Roots as his house band. Before their on-air appearance, though, the Projectors gave a backstage acoustic performance for The Roots. Questlove posted the video to his Twitter where he wrote, "Man. Dirty Projectors came into our room and demonstrated their awesomeness. How cool is it for them to do this?" He then Tweeted it again with the message, "dirty projectors really became a fav of mine after today."

On November 22, three members of the Roots, Questlove included, joined the Dirty Projectors on stage at their show at the Bowery Ballroom for two songs ("Stillness" and "No Intention"). The entire concert can be downloaded here. The crowd apparently went wild when the Roots came out and the energy stayed in the air even after the guests left the stage. During a short encore break, another microphone was brought to the stage and David Byrne joined the Projectors for a final single song. He had previously appeared on stage with them at the Dark Was the Night charity concert on May 3 at Radio City Music Hall (that concert can be heard here) and at the Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee.

Things really came full circle, though, on November 25, when Amber and Haley of the Projectors returned to the Jimmy Fallon Show without the rest of the band to help The Roots fill out the backing band for rappers Mos Def and Talib Kweli. Questlove is the drummer with the big afro in the background.

So here we have a few members of an experimental/indie band practiced in a 13th Century singing technique independently helping a hip-hop band that employs traditional instruments like the tuba back two rappers, and somehow the whole thing works. It's this very kind of openness and experimentation that has contributed to making music so fruitful in 2009.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Year In Music

2009 has probably been the best year for music in at least 10 years, possibly longer, arguably because it has benefited from several trends that have emerged over the past decade. I can't recall a time since the late 1960s when so many different subcategories of popular music were all achieving their peak, and so many performers were so perfectly articulating their various artistic visions.

Technology probably has a lot to do with all of this. With the advent of the internet, file sharing, and the mp3 music format, some predicted that the music industry was going to die, and that new, quality music was not going to emerge. Starting in the late 1990s, sales of CDs plummeted, established artists suddenly found themselves in dire financial straits, and record companies started laying off employees by the truckload.

While admittedly traumatic, I was hoping that was only an initial effect of a larger phenomenon - the end of music as a commodity, a means of extreme wealth for a relative few. During the 1980s and 90s, popular music was increasingly seen as a profit center, an industry to generate cash flow not only for the artists, but also for record-company executives, A&R men, advertisers, and an ever-growing armada of hangers-on. While some talented artists and musicians did get rich and even got very rich, much of that wealth also went to the latter group, who had no interest in music at all other than as a means of production.

This system had the unintended consequence of discouraging the emergence of new voices and new styles in music. Nobody wanted to put out a new CD that wouldn't sell millions of copies; everyone wanted to hit a home run with every at-bat. This is natural in business - business exists to generate profits - but it is not healthy in the arts. The results of the old system was that new, quirky and/or original voices were not heard, and armies of cloned sound-alike bands were aggressively being merchandised to the public. And if an original artist happened to somehow get through the filter and get time in a recording studio, there was a whole industry of recording engineers, studio executives, A&R men and "consultants" to hammer and package the "product" back into what they perceived as marketable shape. In other words, to make it sound like everything else.

And then they all lost their jobs. Suddenly, playing a guitar or writing a song was no longer seen as a pathway to astronomical wealth, and the boy bands, Disney divas, hair bands, and flavors of the month were no longer interested in being in the business. This put music back into the hands of the musicians, people who played music because they loved it, because they had to play music, not because they just wanted to become rich and famous.

So in the early 2000s, I was hoping that the crash of the music industry would actually turn out to be healthy for the quality of music, and I'm pleased to see that 2009 proved to be the fulfillment of that hope. The music charts and radio airplay are no longer the domain of a handful of established stars supported by their labels, but now of a staggeringly diverse group of musicians, artists, and eccentrics articulating their visions without the filter of big-business labels.

But the bounty of 2009 is also due to a second trend that combined with this new roster of talent to form a perfect storm of outstanding music. Newly available technology on computers put the techniques of the recording studios into the bedrooms, rec rooms and garages of musicians around the world. Playing around with programs such as Pro Tools, my friend Nick and I were able to produce a couple of reasonably professional-sounding tracks over the course of an evening or two. Bands are no longer required to obtain access to expensive studios and have their sound adjusted by so-called experts who want everything to sound the way that they were accustomed to it sounding.

And increasingly, these independent artists and musicians were able to release their self-produced songs over the internet using My Space, music blogs, and podcasts. A buzz would get generated about some hot new band in, say, Arizona, people could access their music all over the globe, and before you know it, they'd be selling out shows in L.A., New York, and beyond.

All of this is not to say that there haven't been side effects and losses associated with these trends. One casualty is the loss of the album as a major musical format. People tend to listen to mp3s on their iPods or over their computers as single songs, not as entire albums, and even if they purchase or download an entire CD, the technology often mixes the songs in a random order, usually with tracks from other CDs. While this has caused artists to try and make each individual track as compelling and complete as possible - every track a masterpiece - there is a loss of continuity. We will probably never hear another Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band or Dark Side of the Moon, as there is no incentive, no audience, left to listen through an entire album. Alternately, however, this could also be seen as putting the formatting of the songs into the hands of the listeners.

So all of this talk about what a great year it's been for music without naming any of the bands producing it. Perhaps I should keep it that way, but instead I will just point to those that I've most enjoyed this year - in no particular order, Grizzly Bear, The xx, Animal Collective, Phoenix, and The Ting Tings. There are many, many more, but if you're looking for a music blog, then check out All Music, or Fact Magazine, or Brooklyn Vegan, or 32 Ft/Sec.

Cheers. Here's to an even happier 2010.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A strange day . . . now that I'm officially unemployed/between jobs/on vacation, my body and sleep rhythms no longer wake me up in the early morning for work. Now, Eliot the cat usually lets me know sometime around 7 that he wants to go outside and pee or hunt early birds or whatever it is that he wants so urgently to do before dawn, and I usually crawl right back into bed after letting him out. But this morning I awoke before Eliot sensing that something was wrong.

I didn't know what woke me up - the house was quiet. In fact, it was a little too quiet and that's what was so wrong. I then noticed that it was rather cool inside and that the silence I was noticing was the furnace not running. Rolling over, I looked at the alarm clock and saw that the electricity was out.

It was still dark both outside and in, but I stumbled out of bed, threw on a shirt to protect me from the chill and walked to the front door to see if lights were on in any of my neighbor's houses. I was sure that I had paid my electric bill, but I wouldn't have put it past Georgia Power to cut off my electricity in error. My mind was already rehearsing the caustic phone call that I would make to protest the cut-off if indeed mine was the only house without power.

But looking outside, I couldn't tell if the entire neighborhood was dark or not. I didn't see lights on in any of the houses, but it was still early and my neighbors perhaps hadn't awakened yet. Through the bare trees of winter, I could see a few lights that appeared to be over on the next block. A few solitary points of light seemed closer so I couldn't tell for sure if the power outage was just me or my neighbors as well. I decided to go outside and investigate.

I pulled on some more clothes, including a couple layers of fleece to protect me against the morning chill, and headed out into the pre-dawn darkness. Eliot followed (my early awakening had arisen him in a reversal of our usual roles). I think he knows that I have a fondness for dogs as well as cats and he does his best to fulfill as many dog functions as he can, including tagging along with me as I walk around the park across the street. He won't tolerate a leash but he does keep up with me as I walk. The two of us headed down the driveway toward the street.

As soon as I got to the road, I saw that the streetlights were out, indicating that the outage was not merely confined to my residence. Walking down the street, I was that the solitary points of light were gas-fired lamps some of my neighbors have in front of their homes, but no electric lights were visible in any of the houses.

Turning a corner, I saw the reason - several power lines were down, laying in the street and on a neighbor's yard. I wondered if anyone else knew yet. I was careful not to get close to any of the lines, but naturally Eliot ran right to them in a typical display of feline curiosity. I snatched him up and held him, even though he struggled to get free.

Walking a little further, I saw the reason that the lines were down - another large tree had fallen in the neighborhood, this time completely across the road, entirely blocking off the street. We've had a number of trees coming down since I've moved here almost 5 years ago, but this is the first time that I've seen one come down not during or immediately after a storm. But despite the lack or recent high winds, another sizable oak had fallen taking the power lines down with it and as a result my neighbors and I had no electricity - and no heat - on a chilly (mid 30s) winter morning. I wondered if it was the sound of the falling tree that had woken me up earlier.

Eliot and I headed back to the house, where I called Georgia Power and reported the incident. No need for caustic complaints about power disconnections. Since I was now awake but couldn't cook or really do much of anything in the house, I headed out to breakfast at the nearby Silver Skillet restaurant. The Silver Skillet, in case you're interested, is a classic Southern diner founded in 1956 that serves a deep-south breakfast all day long. This picturesque Atlanta icon has been featured in several movies, commercials, and videos, such as the film The Real McCoy, several episodes of I'll Fly Away, the made-for-t.v. Hank Aaron Story, the music video for Travis Tritt's Here's a Quarter, Call Someone Who Cares, as well as numerous national and local commercials.

Back home, I saw that the power company had not yet responded to the incident, so I made the best of things, enjoying some chilly zazen and later, as work crews were finally attacking the fallen tree with chain-saws, a little light reading by a sunny window. In fact, I was just starting to enjoy the simplicity of life off the power grid when the furnace kicked back on shortly after noon (internet and cable access were restored about an hour later). Temperatures in the house had dropped into the low 60s, even as the day warmed up outside.

As a result of all this, I continue to be spooked by the frequency of falling trees around here. One came down in my own yard last summer, damaging my shed (which still hasn't been repaired). Another damaged a neighbor's car earlier in the year, and several have struck nearby houses. It's just a matter of time before one strikes my house. I'm also reminded both of my dependence on electricity and of how unnecessary it actually is.

Monday, December 21, 2009

In an evening talk, Dogen said,

People not escaping from the secular world seems to be the result of clinging to bodily life. Actually, however, they are not thinking of themselves at all. They are not considering things from a broader perspective. This is also due to not having met good teachers or friends. If they seek profit they should desire the profit of eternal happiness and offerings from dragon-gods or heavenly beings. If they think of fame, they should aspire to obtain the fame of a buddha, a patriarch or an ancient sage. Doing so, wise people in future generations will respect them.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A quiet day spent reading and contemplating the concept of dragons.

It all seems to start with the ancient Indian myth of the nāgā. "Nāgā" is the Sanskrit term for an intelligent snake-like creature believed to have supernatural powers to form clouds and cause rain to fall at will. Nāgārajas (nāgā kings) are water deities who govern springs, rivers, lakes and the seas. In Buddhism, the nāgā is a synonym for a realized arhat, or enlightened person. The term reportedly also means "elephant."

The wise serpent is at the root of so much of the world's mythology. It was the serpent who enticed Eve to eat of the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. In Tibetan Buddhism, nāgārajas dwell in sea palaces where they guard the Buddhist scriptures that were placed in their care because humanity was not yet ripe for their reception. The sea serpent of Nordic and other traditions is a variant of the nāgāraja.

In the Indian tradition, the mahanāgā (great nāgā) climbs into the heavens in the spring, and in winter lives deep in the Earth. In medieval European folklore, the mahanāgā were encountered in caves deep in the Earth and were known as "dragons." To this day, dragons play a central part in Chinese mythology and folklore.

It is said that the Buddha prophesied that someone would come after him who would clear up any confusion regarding the dharma. According to tradition, Nāgārjuna, the 14th patriarch in the Buddhist lineage, was that person. Nāgārjuna is said to have been born under a tree and later instructed in the occult sciences by the nāgās in their undersea palaces. There, he discovered their hidden Buddhist scriptures, most notably the 12-volume Prajnaparamita Sutra, entrusted to the nāgā by none other than Ananada, the Buddha's cousin.

Nāgārjuna subsequently became one of the most important philosophers of Buddhism and numerous writings have been attributed to him. He is often depicted in composite form comprising human and nāgā characteristics. Often the nāgā aspect forms a canopy crowning and shielding his human head.

The worm, the snake, the dragon - all variants of this theme. From Viking ships to St. George, from Eve and Adam to Nāgārjuna, from Potala Palace to Howth Castle and Environs, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, it's all been inspired by the nāgās.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Today celebrates my first actual day of unemployment. Fifteen more days to go before I'm once again gainfully employed.

I have a long list of yard and landscaping projects that I want to accomplish over this interval, including freeing several trees from english ivy, but the cold has kept me housebound. The snowstorm that has blanketed the northeast missed Atlanta, but it is frigid cold and windy out there today nonetheless. I spent most of the day cruising various music blogs.

Handling large blocks of unstructured time has never been my strong suit and the only obligations I have on my time are opening the zendo the next two Monday nights, and one fill-in opening on Tuesday, December 29. So the next two weeks will be a test of my self discipline as I try to avoid the kind of nocturnal lethargy I tend to drift into when not otherwise required to be elsewhere.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Friday Night Video

Today, finally, at long last, was my final day at the old job. I resigned two weeks ago, but fulfilled the customary two-week transition before finally walking out the door.

I start a new job next year (actually a mere two weeks away). Starting date is January 4, 2010.

Anyway, here's Florence and the Machine performing "Kiss With a Fist" on the Dave Letterman Show last October.

UPDATE: Since posting the Letterman video, I've been informed that they also played at the Bowery Ballroom that same night. Here's their set list from that appearance:

I also got hold of the "official" video for Kiss With a Fist. So if you want to hear a better performance of the song and see more of F. Welch's legs and thighs (she seems quite confident about these), here you go:

Thursday, December 17, 2009

In the Hsin-Hsin Ming (Verses on the Faith-Mind), Seng-ts'an, the Third Chinese Patriarch, wrote, "The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences. When love and hate are both absent everything becomes clear and undisguised. Make the smallest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart."

"Having no preferences" is often described as not picking and choosing. While I certainly have some pretty specific preferences, I try and observe how I pick and choose and the effects that it has on my life. Acceptance of things that are not to my liking is part of my practice, and I can assure you that it has paid me dividends by increasing my patience and my tolerance (this from a characteristically impatient and intolerant person!). This practice of observing our preferences is very different from the practice of shikantaza, although it is still part of The Great Way.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A week of Zen? After visiting the Chattanooga sangha on Sunday, opening the Atlanta zendo on Monday night, and spending most of Tuesday on Zen-related activities, tonight I led the Wednesday-night newcomers orientation at the zendo.

Over the past year, my practice and observance of the precepts has largely been guided by Bodaisatta-Shishobo ("The Four Elements of a Bodhisattva's Social Relations"), a fairly short and concise fascicle in Dogen's Kana Shobogenzo. I gave three dharma talks on these four elements earlier this year, one each on dana (generosity, or giving) and on kind speech, and the third on the remaining two elements, helpfulness and cooperation. My understanding of these elements has even colored our Monday-night discussions on the short chapters of Dogen's Shobogenzo Zuimonki.

Neither dana nor kind speech have traditionally been among my greatest strengths, but I have been working on them. Helpfulness and cooperation have played a major role in my many volunteer activities this year. If someone sincerely asked me to do something, and that activity was within my capability and could reasonably be expected to result in good, I would try my best to do it. These activities have ranged from community advocacy on the Beltline project and other issues, to assistance with day-to-day activities at the Zen Center, to monthly visits to the Chattanooga sangha, and even to taking a new job at a firm that sincerely requested and needed my assistance (I start January 4).

Coming at this from the other direction, I've tried to minimize those actions that do not promote harmony, both personally, socially and spiritually.

On top of this, I've also been endeavoring to avoid "gaining mind;" that is, not looking for any reward or benefit from any of these activities (or inactivities). Do good and promote harmony, without consideration of merit or recognition. This seems like the practical means by which to realize the bodhisattva vow to free all sentient beings.

I mention all this not to congratulate or praise myself but, as I sometimes find myself entangled in the commitments and responsibilities to which I've agreed, to remind myself how I got here. If you get the impression from that last sentence that I now find myself in the middle of a complicated and sensitive matter that I can't talk about here, your intuition is correct.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Day of Zen

A day of Zen: a long breakfast with my Zen teacher, followed by a long telephone conversation with a fellow disciple.

In the evening, since I had a rare Tuesday night without a civic meeting, I went to the zendo and sat in on the evening service.

Home for the night, I watched "How To Cook Your Life" on the Sundance Channel, a film about Tassajara tenzo Edward Espe Brown.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Mind That Solely Sees the Impermanence of All Things Is Called Bodhi-Mind

One day, a student asked,
“Although many years have passed since aspiring to learn the Way, I have not yet had any realization. Many of the ancient teachers said that the Way does not depend on intelligence or sagacity. Therefore, I don’t think we should demean ourselves because of our inferior capacity. Is there something about this that has been handed down in the tradition which I should keep in mind?”
Dogen instructed,
“You are right about not relying on intelligence, talent, quick-wittedness, or sagacity in learning the Way. Still, it is wrong to mistakenly encourage a person to become blind, deaf, or ignorant. Since studying the Way does not require having wide knowledge or highly talented abilities, you should not show disdain toward anyone because of their inferior capacity. True practice of the Way must be easy. Nevertheless, even in the monasteries in great Song China, there are only one or two people out of several hundred or thousands of practitioners who realize the dharma and attain the Way in the assembly of one teacher. Therefore, there must be things handed down which we should keep in mind.

I believe this: it depends only on whether one’s aspiration is firmly determined or not. A person who arouses true aspiration and studies as hard as his capacity allows will not fail to attain the Way. We have to be careful to concentrate on and directly carry out the following practice: first of all, just maintain the aspiration to earnestly seek the Way. For example, a person who desires to steal a precious treasure or to beat a powerful enemy or win over a beautiful woman of high nobility will constantly seek an opportunity to accomplish these tasks in any situation or occasion, though various things are changing, since his mind is always occupied with this desire. If his desire is that enthusiastic, he will not fail to fulfill it.

In the same way if the aspiration to seek the Way is earnest enough when you practice shikantaza (just sitting), study the koans or meet your teacher, though the aim is high you will hit the mark, and though it is deep you will fish it out. Without arousing such aspiration, how can you complete the great matter of the Buddha-Way in which the samsara of life-and-death is cut off in a single moment? Only if you have a mind unconcerned about inferior intelligence or dull faculties, or ignorance or dullness, will you surely attain enlightenment.

Next, to arouse such an aspiration, think deeply in your heart of the impermanence of the world. It is not a matter of meditating using some provisional method of contemplation. It is not a matter of fabricating in our heads that which does not really exist. Impermanence is truly the reality right in front of our eyes. We need not wait for some teaching from others, some proof from some passage of scripture, or some principle. Born in the morning and dead in the evening, a person we saw yesterday is no longer here today —these are the facts we see with our eyes and hear with our ears. This is what we see and hear about others. Applying this to our own bodies and thinking of the reality of all things, though we expect to live for seventy or eighty years, we die when we must die.

During our lifetime, though we may see the reality of sorrow, pleasure, love of our families, and hatred of our enemies, these are not worthy matters. We could spend our time letting go of them. We should just believe in the Buddha-Way and seek the true joy of Nirvana. Much more so for the aged whose lives are already more than half over. How many years still remain? How can we relax our study of the Way? This is still not close enough to reality. In reality, it is only today or even this moment that we can thus think of worldly affairs or of the Buddha-Way. Tonight or tomorrow we may contract some serious disease, or may have to endure such terrible pain as to be unable to distinguish east from west. Or we may be killed suddenly by some demon, encounter trouble with brigands, or be killed by some enemy. Everything is truly uncertain.

Therefore, in such an unpredictable world, it is extremely foolish to waste time worrying about various ways of earning a living in order to postpone one’s death, uncertain as it is, to say nothing of plotting evil against others.

Precisely because this is reality, the Buddha preached it to all living beings, the patriarchs taught only this truth in their sermons and writings. In my formal speeches and lectures too, I emphasize that impermanence is swift; life-and-death is the great matter. Reflect on this reality again and again in your heart without forgetting it, and without wasting a moment. Put your whole mind into the practice of the Way.

Remember that you are alive only today in this moment. Other than that, practice of the Way is truly easy. You needn’t discuss whether you are superior or inferior, brilliant or dull (Shobogenzo Zuimonki 2-14).
It is worth recalling that Nagarjuna once said the mind that solely sees the impermanence of all things is called bodhi-mind.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Spoiler Alert

This was my Sunday to go and visit Chattanooga. Rainy, a little cold, but as always, a nice day.

I got home, did laundry, made some supper (cheese and broccoli), and settled in to watch the season finale of Dexter. And then this:

Didn't see that coming.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Dana (charity, giving) has been described as the practice by which we reconcile the difference between self and others.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Today Is The Greatest Day I've Ever Known (Friday Night Video)

Last June, I posted a video of Faith No More performing "Reunited" earlier that week to open their reunion concert in London. But here's a version of a different "Reunited" by a different band - Fan Death, apparently composed of a Marta and a Dandi, apparently two connoisseurs of 70s and 80s glam rock and disco.

This is a fun video, complete with impressions of, by my count, Prince, Axl Rose, Billy Corgan, Roxy-era Eno, Bjork, Marilyn Manson, Robert Smith, Courtney Love, David Byrne, and Pee Wee Herman. There are others I couldn't identify - including the brilliant cameo at the very end - and I might be wrong on a couple of the characters. Any help would be appreciated.

In any event, enjoy.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Just Saying

In a letter to Timothy, Paul the Apostle wrote,
"Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in transgression." (1 Timothy II 11-14)
Paul also wrote a letter to the Ephesians, stating:
"For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church and is the savior of the body. Therefore, as the church is subject unto Christ, so let wives be to their own husbands in every thing." (Ephesians V 23-24)
Sometimes you get the impression that the Bible was written by men.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Something's Wrong

There's a Sanskrit word, dukkha, that is usually translated as "suffering" but in fact has a broader meaning. I understand that the "-ha" is Sanskrit for "wheel" and that dukkha describes a wheel out of kilter, a wheel off center. In India, dukkha was used to refer to an out-of-kilter potter's wheel and the Chinese adopted it to describe an off-center wagon wheel. In any event, dukkha describes a situation where things aren't quite right, which includes suffering, but also includes general anxiety, a feeling that something's wrong. I once heard a too-clever definition of dukkha as "ka-thump, ka-thump, ka-thump."

I had a very literal and direct experience of dukkha this morning. Driving to work, the job that I quit last week but keep going to anyway in order to wrap up seemingly endless loose ends, I heard a strange flapping sound as soon as I got on the highway. "Flap, flap, flap." The faster I drove, the faster the sound went. "Flap, flap, flap, flap, flap, flap."

I pulled over and saw that a big slice of rubber had peeled away from the rest of my front right tire. The wheel rim was also scraped. I apparently had hit a curb, or someone ran something into my tire. Whatever. As I was driving in the direction of the car dealer anyway, and since I was now free to not have to be at work, I pulled in to have the dealer look at it. I figured I needed a new tire, and probably a new rim as well. Plus an adjustment to the alignment and whatever else they could dream up. At a Lexus dealership, I was probably looking at $400 to $600.

Oh boy. More expenses - just what the voluntarily unemployed want. And this while I'm in the middle of The Tests - the property taxes due on December 1st and 15th.

The dealer took me in without an appointment as I tried to relax in the customer's lounge, worrying about the cost. An hour later, they told me the good news - I didn't need a tire or rim after all. The flap was part of some extra rubber they put on the side of the tire for just this sort of incident, so they simply cut it off and buffed the rim a little bit. All I needed was a routine alignment, and I got out of there for less than $100.

So the dukkha, the wheel off center, was not so much the one on my axle, but the one in my head, worrying about paying for imaginary expenses that turned out not to be real.

Dukkha, then, is not only our actual hardships and suffering, but the pain and anxiety that we put ourselves through imagining the worst. But I must admit it was nicer riding in the car without that flapping sound.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Tuesday Night Rambling

It's amazing how quickly, given the chance, one can fall out of the rhythm of daily blogging. I missed a day or two coming back from my Thanksgiving holiday in Massachusetts, and then got busy with the transitional activities that resulted in me quitting my job last Friday. Lest I give the wrong impression, part of that transitional activity was also securing a new job, which I start more-or-less at the beginning of the year. But just missing those couple of days completely threw me off of my blog rhythm.

After getting back from Massachusetts, I performed my usual Monday-night service at the zendo, but found to my surprise that I was also kicking off Rohatsu, the intensive, week-long retreat in commemoration of the Buddha's enlightenment. I spoke a few words of encouragement to the participants and had intended to join them later in the week, but the transition prevented that from happening. Rohatsu would have at least been a good alibi for not blogging more often.

Vegetarianism is continuing, with less backsliding than before as I learn the alternatives available to me. There have been a few lapses, such as Thanksgiving dinner and another on-the-go, fast-food chicken sandwich. The end of this week will mark a month of this new (for me) practice.

During the day, I've been wrapping up a few projects at the old job and packing up my office. This evening I attended the monthly meeting of the alliance of neighborhood organizations (I was elected vice-chair!).

So that's all I've got to show for the past couple of relatively blog-free weeks. I'll try to re-establish my former discipline of daily posts.

Oh, by the way, a pointer for those of you who might be interested: there's a podcast of a dharma talk by iconoclastic Zen teacher Brad Warner on line at Steve Hagen's Dharma Field Zen Center website. Select "Talks Online" from the menu on the left-hand side of the website and it will take you to a selection of recent dharma talks (they're all good). I'm not sure how long the Warner talk will be online, so download it now while it's available (while you're at it, check out the Steve Hagen talks as well). I have an mp3 of a talk Warner gave at the Atlanta Zen Center, but don't feel that it's "mine" to post here. Send me an email if you'd like a copy, though - it's an 11.9 mb file.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Dogen also said,

Even according to secular morality, when changing clothes, sitting, or lying down in places where no one can see you, or in a dark room, failing to hide what should be hidden, having no propriety is criticized as being shameless before the devas and demons. You should hide what should be hidden, and be discreet about that which requires discretion just as if someone were watching.

In the buddha-dharma, the precepts speak of the same attitude. Therefore as a practitioner of the Way, (you should) keep the Buddha’s precepts in mind, refraining from committing evil even though no one might see you or notice what you do; do not discriminate between inside or outside or between bright or dark (Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Book 2, Chapter 13).

Friday, December 04, 2009

I know it's been a while since I've posted anything, but this has been a somewhat transitional period in my life. Among other things, I quit my job today.

Life is too short to spend time at a job you don't enjoy.

While I recognize my tendency to want to run away from myself and try to temper my instinct to always reinvent who I am, I also can see a corollary tendency to stay too long at some things out of concern that my desire to leave is grounded in that very desire for constant reinvention.

But leaving the job felt like the right thing, and actually feels even better now that it's done. It does, however, put to final rest any near-term opportunity to relocate to Portland, so there's that.

But on to the next chapter!