Saturday, January 31, 2009

Emergency

Declaring that Kentucky is "in the middle of the biggest natural disaster that this commonwealth has ever experienced," the governor deployed every last one of his National Guard troops Saturday -- the largest Guard mobilization in the state's history -- to distribute water, food and other supplies.

As if there were still any remaining doubt that America needs to upgrade its infrastructure, the storm has left hundreds of thousands of Kentuckians without electricity and fresh water, sending many to seek refuge in shelters across the state. At least six of more than 100 shelters for storm victims remained without power Saturday, and those six shelters included some nursing homes.

Of 120 counties across the state, 91 had declared emergencies. The situation is particularly bad in the western part of the state, where the storm has left ice-laden power lines and tree branches drooping heavily Saturday, hampering efforts to restore infrastructure and deliver relief to residents without power. Electricity is being restored at a fairly rapid pace, but about 437,000 people remained without power as night fell Saturday, down from 545,000 earlier in the day and from 700,000 in the aftermath of the storm.

As electricity was being restored, however, emergency personnel struggled to deal with another problem: lack of water. 93 water systems are having problems; 64 of them are down completely. And communications have been virtually nonexistent in some areas for several days.

We're in need of a big fix-up. I could go on, but I won't - I'm in sesshin this weekend.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Report Card

The American Society of Civil Engineers have come out with their 2009 "Report Card," an assessment by professional engineers of America's infrastructure. The Report Card found a nation that is poorly maintained and unable to meet current and future demands, and in many cases is unsafe.

The nation's composite Grade Point Average was a D. The worst grades (D-) were for drinking water, waste water, roads, levees, and our inland waterways. The "best" grade was a solitary C+ for solid waste. Since the last Report Card in 2005, the grades have not improved, and in 1997, the grade was D+.

Deteriorating conditions and inflation have added hundreds of billions to the total cost of the needed repairs and upgrades. ASCE's estimates that a $2.2 trillion investment is needed over the next 5 years, up from $1.6 trillion in 2005.

Although the infrastructure is the backbone of a healthy economy, it is so omnipresent that it is practically invisible. Largely out of sight, it resides underground as sewers, water and gas pipes, and electrical conduits. It is the roads that we drive, the water we drink, the power we consume, the control system for our airways, the safety net for our food and medicine. Infrastructure is essential to maintaining our quality of life, and in reviving the nation's fortunes.

Meanwhile, it snows in the Northeast, and the electric grid goes dark. Levees collapse, and swamp a great American city. A recently inspected steam pipe explodes, wiping out a block of Lexington Avenue in front of the Chrysler Building. And fully laden aircraft sit on tarmacs for 12 hours because the airlines and the airports don't have the infrastructure to keep up with demand.

The nation's infrastructure was built in two great bursts, one in the 1920s and '30s, and the other in the '50s and '60s. Since then, it has essentially been ignored. Jon Sinton, the founding president of Air America Radio, compares Americans to spoiled grandchildren who inherit a beautiful mansion but party every night with no thought to maintenance and upkeep.

It takes a tragedy as horrible as a freeway bridge collapse in a major American city to get our attention. Before the collapse, Tim Pawlenty, the Republican governor of Minnesota, vetoed an $8 billion infrastructure bill in 2005, so the Legislature went back to work and cut it in half. Still, the governor vetoed it, saying the state couldn't afford such an "overreaching" program. But somehow he found a half-billion dollars for a baseball stadium.

"Government is not the solution," Ronald Reagan said in his 1980 inaugural, "Government is the problem." His political descendants, the Grover Norquists of the world, want to starve government until it is "small enough to drown in a bathtub." Their legacy is the squandering of our inherited infrastructure, refusing to raise taxes for anything – not even war – and privatizing the pivotal underpinnings of society. So we are now entering into a troubling and absurd conversation on whether we should privatize the public infrastructure, one of the neo–cons' goals. The dollars are calculable; but the long-term effect of having for-profit companies running everything from prisons to roadways is not.

So we had a summer with the most delays in the history of commercial air travel; a ruptured steam pipe; a multiple-fatality bridge collapse – and it took a near collapse of our economy to get Congress to finally pass a meaningful infrastructure bill, in the form of a stimulus package. And yet the House Republicans refuse en masse to sign it, saying that the failed policies of the Bush Administration - tax cuts - are what's needed (i.e., more of the same old tired policies).

Let's hope that Congress puts childish things aside and finally allocated the money we so desperately need to repair our mansion before the next major hurricane, the next power outage, the next air disaster, or the next collapsed bridge.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A recent Gallup Poll indicates that the political landscape of the United States has clearly shifted in the Democratic direction, and in most states, a greater proportion of residents identified with the Democrats than identified with the Republicans.

As recently as 2002, a majority of states were Republican in orientation. By 2005, movement in the Democratic direction was becoming apparent, and this continued in 2006. According to Gallup, that dramatic turnaround is clearly an outgrowth of Americans' dissatisfaction with the way the Republicans, in particular, former President George W. Bush (and how sweet to hear the “former” at the beginning) governed the country.

With Democratic support at the national level the highest in more than two decades and growing each of the last five years, Republican prospects for significant gains in power in the near term do not appear great. But the recent data do show that party support can change rather dramatically in a relatively short period of time.

Gallup interviewed more than 350,000 U.S. adults in 2008 for the survey. This large data set provided reliable estimates of state-level characteristics for 2008. Each sample of state residents was weighted by demographic characteristics to ensure it was representative of the state's population.

The map shows party strength by state for 2008, ranging from states that can be considered solidly Democratic (a Democratic advantage in party identification of 10 percentage points or more) to those that can be considered solidly Republican (a Republican advantage in party identification of 10 percentage points or more).

Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Hawaii are currently the most Democratic states in the nation. All told, 29 states and the District of Columbia had Democratic party affiliation advantages of 10 points or greater last year. This includes all of the states in the Northeast, and all but Indiana in the Great Lakes region. There are even several Southern states in this grouping, including Arkansas, North Carolina, and Kentucky.

In contrast, only five states had solid or leaning Republican orientations in 2008, with Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, and Alaska in the former group, and Nebraska in the latter.

States in which the partisan advantage is less than 5 points in either direction are considered "competitive." In Georgia, 45.4 percent polled Democratic and 41.8 percent polled Republican, a 4-point Democratic edge, ranking the state at number 38 between Rhode Island (with a 37-point Democratic lead) and Utah (with a 23-point Republican lead).

Given that most states had a Democratic advantage in party affiliation last year, to some degree it can be argued that Barack Obama could have won many more electoral votes than he did. Obama won 22 of the 23 most Democratic states (West Virginia being the only exception), and McCain won the 17 most Republican states.

Virginia, Florida, and Indiana (all with 9-point Democratic leads) are arguably the most impressive wins for Obama, since they were the least Democratic states he won. McCain managed to win West Virginia, which had a 19-point Democratic advantage, as well as three other solidly Democratic states -- Kentucky (+13), Arkansas (+12), and Missouri (+11). McCain also swept the states that had narrow Democratic advantages of less than five points.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A One-God Universe

"The 'God' that an atheist does not 'believe in' does not correspond to that aspect of existence to which I refer when I use the word 'God.' It took me a long time to understand that faith is not simply the act of swallowing the unprovable assertions contained in a religion's catechism, but rather an assenting, inquisitive stance toward/within the mysterious ground of all being. I have always chafed at the phrase 'believe in God.' It sets up such a dualism: me here, God there, and between us this louche transaction of belief. One might as well ask the eye whether it believes in 'blue.' If 'God' corresponds to any aspect of reality -- and if religion does not relate to reality, what good is it ? -- we are swimming in God, saturated by God, we breathe God and God breathes us." - Paula, from Theobus, Paula's House of Toast

There are few blogs that humble me quite as much as reading Paula's House of Toast. Paula has found a unique but consistent voice, and expresses profound truths in a disarming, intimate way. It says much about her prowess that a great quote like the one below almost slipped under the radar without much notice, so cool is her attitude and style.

Upon hearing that I'm a Buddhist, people often ask me "Do you believe in God?," as if I have any idea of what they mean by "God." They, in turn, probably have little idea of what I mean by "I," or what I mean by "believe," and even I'm not always sure what I mean when I use the word "God."

And that's not agnosticism, either. I have no quarrel with agnosticism, as in the opposite of "gnosticism" (just as "atheism" is the opposite of "theism"). Agnosticism questions any knowledge (gnosis) that doesn't come from within. That questioning is to me the very essence of Buddhism. But in colloquial terms, agnosticism has come to mean an indecision as to whether or not there's a God, and that's not my position. My doubt is greater - I'm not sure what this "me" is that has this doubt, or what doubt or faith exactly are.

Richard Dawkins proposes a spectrum of beliefs, from extreme theism to militant atheism, with agnosticism in the middle. Although the spectrum is continuous, it has seven milestones along the way:

  1. Strong Theist. 100% probability of God. In the words of C.G. Jung, "I do not believe, I know."
  2. Very high probability, but short of 100%. De facto theist. "I cannot know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there."
  3. Higher than 50 % but not very high. Technically agnostic but leaning toward atheism. "I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God."
  4. Exactly 50%. Completely impartial agnostic. "God's existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable."
  5. Lower than 50% but not very low. Technically agnostic but leaning toward atheism. "I don't know whether God exists but I am inclined to be skeptical."
  6. Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist. "I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there."
  7. Strong Atheist. "I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung "knows" there is one.

Since category 7 is as much a faith-based conviction as category 1, most so-called atheists can be included in category 6, hence, statements such as "there's probably no god" appear in the atheists' advertisements. But this one-dimensional spectrum is limited to the observer's concept of what is meant by "God," as well as what is meant by "I" and "belief." While I can agree that it is probably safe to say that there most likely isn't an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, vengeful, male deity of the Old Testament variety, that possibility may not be the one what Jung "knows."

"Consider the impasse of a one-god universe," Burroughs once remarked. "He is all-knowing and all-powerful. He can't go anywhere since he is already everywhere. He can't do anything since the act of doing presupposes opposition." Burroughs adds, "His universe is irrevocably thermodynamic having no friction by definition. So he has to create friction - war, fear, sickness, death."

But what if we thought of Dawkins' spectrum not as the only continuum, but one of many between dual points, like the needle of a compass? His theism/atheism axis may be thought of as the equivalent to north/south, but what are the points representing east/west? Could there not also be a spectrum between, say, absolute belief in the cosmos as the absolute, that is, a creator not separte from the creation, and refutation of the cosmos as the absolute? And what, then, would be the points in between these ordinal positions?

And letting our imaginations wander a little further, is there a third dimension, off of the compass' references?

Monday, January 26, 2009

Once, when the monks of the Western and Eastern Halls were quarrelling about a cat, Zen Master Nansen, holding up the cat, said, "You monks! If any of you can speak a single word of Zen, I will spare the cat; otherwise, I will kill it!" No one could answer, so Nansen killed it. In the evening, Joshu came back from somewhere, and Nansen told him what had happened. Joshu thereupon took off his straw sandal, put it on his head, and walked off. Nansen said, "If only you had been there, I could have saved the cat!" - traditional Zen koan

Zen Master Dogen commented on this story, saying, “If I had been Nansen, when the students could not answer, I would have released the cat, saying that the students had already spoken. On behalf of the students, I would have said, ‘We are not able to speak, Master. Go ahead and kill the cat!’ That would have been a true word of Zen, and the cat would have been saved.

Dogen also said, "Or, I would have said for them, ‘Master, you only know about cutting it (the cat) into two with one stroke, yet you do not know about cutting it into one with one stroke.’”

Ejo asked, “How do you cut it into one with one stroke?”

Dogen said, “The cat itself.”

Dogen added, "An ancient master said, ‘When the great-function manifests itself, no fixed rules exist.’” Dogen also said, “This action of Nansen’s that is, cutting the cat, is a manifestation of the great function of the buddha-dharma. This is a pivot-word. Upon hearing this pivot-word, see the cat itself as nothing but the Buddha-body. Upon hearing this word, students must immediately enter enlightenment.”

Dogen also said, “This action, that is, cutting the cat, is nothing other than Buddha’s action.”

Ejo said, “What shall we call it?”

Dogen said, “Call it cutting the cat.”

Ejo asked, “Is it a crime or not?”

Dogen said, “Yes, it is a crime.”
(adapted from Zuimonki, Book 1, Chapter 6)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

" How can I be lost, if I have no place to go?"
- Metallica, "The Unforgiven"

Saturday, January 24, 2009

29 Lines To Make You Smile

(from a viral email making the rounds. . . )
  1. My husband and I divorced over religious differences. He thought he was God and I didn't.
  2. I don't suffer from insanity; I enjoy every minute of it.
  3. Some people are alive only because it's illegal to kill them.
  4. I used to have a handle on life, but it broke.
  5. Don't take life too seriously; no one gets out alive.
  6. You're just jealous because the voices only talk to me
  7. Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder.
  8. Earth is the insane asylum for the universe.
  9. I'm not a complete idiot -- Some parts are just missing.
  10. Out of my mind. Back in five minutes.
  11. NyQuil, the stuffy, sneezy, why-the-heck-is-the-room-spinning medicine.
  12. God must love stupid people; She made so many.
  13. The gene pool could use a little chlorine.
  14. Consciousness: That annoying time between naps.
  15. Ever stop to think, and forget to start again?
  16. Being 'over the hill' is much better than being under it!
  17. Wrinkled was not one of the things I wanted to be when I grew up.
  18. Procrastinate Now !
  19. I have a degree in liberal arts; do you want fries with that?
  20. A hangover is the wrath of grapes.
  21. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a cash advance.
  22. Stupidity is not a handicap. Park elsewhere!
  23. They call it PMS because Mad Cow Disease was already taken.
  24. He who dies with the most toys is nonetheless DEAD.
  25. A picture is worth a thousand words, but it uses up three thousand times the memory.
  26. Ham and eggs...A day's work for a chicken, a lifetime commitment for a pig.
  27. The trouble with life is there's no background music .
  28. The original point and click interface was a Smith & Wesson.
  29. I smile because I don't know what the hell is going on.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Urr Oeng Oeng Aey

video

Thanks (I think) to the good folks at Zen Filter for posting this very strange video (I nabbed a copy for here). Now, if I could just get that song out of my head . . . .

Zen Master Dogen once said, "Focus your attention on one thing." In this video, the alligator (Luang Por?) dressed like a gaucho Elvis says, "Do only one thing."

Thus, the circle is unbroken.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

My Finnish Doppelgänger

If you're cruising the internet looking for cool Zen sites, you could do a lot worse than checking out Zen - The Possible Way, the very interesting and entertaining blog by Uku from Espoo, Finland.

You might notice that Uku's blog has a similar format to this one - text below, with an ironic picture above. You might notice that his texts discuss Zen, Master Dogen's teaching, and life in the 21st Century, the same topics generally discussed here.

You might also see that he's recently posted about Dogen's Bodaisatta Shishō-hō (Bodhisattva's Four Methods of Guidance), the very source of the material for my much recycled, slightly soiled, and not-so-virginal dharma talks of the last two Sundays in Atlanta and Chattanooga. In fact, I may use his discussion on kind speech as the basis for my follow-up talks on February 15 and 22.

On November 5, he provided a pointer and link to Mount Shasta Abbey's new on-line translation of the Shobogenzo; I provided a link, although much less pronounced, on December 15.

Lately, he's taken to posting some occasional music and other videos; lately, I've taken to posting some occasional music and other videos. He posted a nostalgic, Christmas-themed video last month; I posted a nostalgic, Christmas-themed video last month. You might notice that he's posted one of the Alan Watts animations by South Parks' Parker and Stone - 10 days before I posted the exact same video.

Oh look - iconoclastic Zen teacher Brad Warner's visiting his town later this year. Iconoclastic Zen teacher Brad Warner visited my town last year (2006, too). I wonder if I can convince my Swiss-relocated Zen teacher to join me at Warner's Helsinki sesshin . . .

I could go on (he speaks Finnish, which along with Hungarian, is one of the rare Uralic languages, and I've been to Hungary), but you get the point - I apparently have become co-located, and have a meditating doppelgänger living in Finland.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

One Way

Dogen said,
"It is not possible to study extensively and obtain wide knowledge. Make up your mind and just give up trying to do so. Focus your attention on one thing. Study the things you have to know and the traditional examples of them. Follow the way of practice of your predecessors. Concentrate your efforts on one practice Do not pretend to be a teacher or a leader of others."
That's Zuimonki, Book 1, Chapter 5, the reading for Monday night's group, as well as the focus of the conversation after sitting with the Kennesaw group tonight. To choose one practice and concentrate on it is a characteristic of Japanese Buddhism. For Dogen, that one practice was zazen; for Honen and Shinran it was chanting the nenbutsu (names of the Buddha); and in Nichiren, it is the daimoku (namu-myoho-renge-kyo).

But choose one path, Dogen advises, and focus your attention on one practice.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Obama

Sho 'nuff and about time!

1-20-09 is finally here. My eyes kept tearing up today, at least when I wasn't getting goose bumps.

There's really nothing I can say, other than "Let freedom ring."

And "It's a great time to be an American."

Now, let's get to work.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Satori In Chattanooga, Part II

I went up and visited the Chattanooga Zen Group today. But before I get into that, I realized a little while ago that one of the very first entries to this blog - my first, true, first-person account posted here as I learned to use this tool - was about a prior trip to Chattanooga. Four and a half years later, the May 23, 2004 entry still reads fresh to me, as if I had just written it. Go figure.

But here's the spooky, coincidental, almost synchronistic part of it - I gave my first dharma talk in Chattanooga today, filling in for my good friend and now-departed Zen teacher Arthur (departed from the U.S.A. for a career in Switzerland, not departed from this mortal coil - hope that didn't confuse you), and for this maiden talk, I pretty much recycled the dharma talk I gave last Sunday at the Atlanta center (why waste a perfectly good talk?). The topic of the recycled, slightly soiled and not-so-virginal maiden talk was the dana paramita - the same topic as my blog posting of May 24, 2004, the very next day after blogging about the prior Chattanooga trip! (cue spooky music . . . )

Okay, that may not blow your mind, but it is a coincidence. Or evidence that I have not grown intellectually in four and a half years. (Actually, I could have used some of the quotes from the May 24, 2004 entry to bolster my talk. I'll have to remember that if I give the talk a third time around.)

Anyway, Arthur has a confidence in me that I don't fully understand, and the good folks in Chattanooga have the patience to listen to me recycle a week-old talk, resulting in my going up there today to visit the center and deliver the Sunday sermon. There's at least one moment during every dharma talk where I feel like a complete jackass, up there braying about topics that almost by definition cannot be put into words, about the subtlest of experiences that I can barely comprehend myself. Those dubious moments did not fail to manifest themselves to me today. And yet, despite the Calvinistic clouds of self doubt drifting through my mind, I felt like I gave the best effort that I had in me that day to spread the dharma and encourage the practice of the good people of Chattanooga.

I have a true fondness for the City of Chattanooga, the people and their Zen group. Nestled on the Tennessee River beneath Lookout Mountain, Chattanooga has a rugged topography reminiscent of the Pacific Northwest - with a little imagination, I can almost fool myself into thinking that I'm back in Portland, my aspirational home, or at least some suburb of Portland (think, say, Camas). The Zen group meets at a yoga studio in the North Shore area of Chattanooga, a very hip, mixed-use area of funky old industrial buildings and New Urbanism-style lofts and retail space, with food co-ops, outdoor sports stores and, well, yoga and Zen centers. I had breakfast (blueberry pancakes) in a little family-run diner across from the yoga studio, sitting at the counter with a (mostly) young crowd dressed (mostly) in fleece. The only thing missing was the public transportation, but then Chattanooga is a lot smaller than Portland or Seattle. But despite the carbon footprint of a 200-plus mile round trip, I felt it was worth the effort.

At times, southeastern Tennessee can feel more West than East Coast. Or maybe it was just the rain.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

What Makes A Good Teacher?

Despite all my complaining, I'm very fortunate to be living here in Atlanta and to have a local Zen Center. I'm fortunate that my friendly, neighborhood Zen Center emphasizes a lay practice that fits in well with my lifestyle, and does not require monastic training. I am fortunate to have met a sensei, a good teacher.

Zen Master Dogen once said, "If you gradually abandon your ego-attachment and follow the sayings of your teacher, you will progress. If you argue back [pretending] to know the truth, but remain unable to give up certain things and continue to cling to your own preferences, you will sink lower and lower (Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Book 1-4)."

Dogen also said, "After the initial meeting with a good teacher, we never again need to burn incense, to do prostrations, to recite the names of the Buddha, to practice confession, or to read sutras. Just sit, and get the state which is free of body and mind (Shobogenzo Bendo-wa)."

So what makes a good teacher?

Based on the passage from Bendo-wa, a good teacher is merely one who encourages you to just sit (shikantaza), and get the state which is free of body and mind. Anything else, a compassionate nature, learned knowledge, a meditative style, is technically superfluous. These may be what are required to get you to just sit, but they themselves are not the virtues of a good teacher. I will argue that anyone who can get you to just sit is a good teacher. Your task is to find someone with the right skill set for you to do that.

In Shobogenzo Bodaisatta Shishōbō, Dogen identifies the four methods of a bodhisattva, the social actions that a bodhisattva employs. These are dana (or free giving), kind speech, helpful conduct, and cooperation. As a bodhisattva, a good teacher can utilize these methods, but they in themselves are not the teaching.

The teacher does not have your answers; they are within yourself. The answers manifest themselves through the practice of shikantaza. All that a good teacher can do is employ various skillful means to keep encouraging you to continue to look within by sitting shikantaza.

At a wonderful lecture at Oglethorpe University several years ago, Fukushima Roshi, a Rinzai Master, said that incomplete teachers make incomplete students. If a teacher is content with describing the buddha nature to you rather than requiring you to find it yourself, you will only have second hand understanding of your own self.

So yesterday, I had a meeting scheduled with my teacher for lunch. It was not convenient for me, as I suggested that for his convenience, we meet at a restaurant near his home, about 25 miles from my office. Given traffic and all, I had to leave work about 45 minutes before our appointment so as to get there on time. The meeting required a 50-mile roundtrip and two to three hours out of a busy day.

As it was, I got there about 10 minutes early. I ordered a pot of tea (it was a Thai restaurant), and read some notes on my practice path that sensei had sent me. And I waited.

And waited.

After 20 minutes past our appointment time, I gave him a call and left a message on his voice mail. I ordered lunch for myself - a delicious chicken panang curry - and began to get angry over having apparently been forgotten.

But then I thought that sensei was getting older, and maybe something had happened to him. Maybe he had been in an accident, or had a stroke or a heart attack. How foolish I would have felt, how self centered, to have been sitting there feeling angry and feeling sorry for myself should I later learn that any of these possible tragedies had occurred. So I finished my meal quietly, paid my bill, and went on my way.

Sensei called me about an hour later, responding to my voice mail. As it turns out, he had simply forgotten about our lunch, but rather than be angry, I was grateful that none of the possible calamities that I had imagined had occurred. He was very apologetic about his forgetfulness, and offered to make it up to me in any way possible. We got past that and wound up having a very pleasant telephone conversation, covering much of the ground that we had intended on covering over lunch.

This month marks the start of my ninth year of practice under sensei. After first walking in through the zendo doors as a rank new-comer in January 2001, I have been sitting zazen there for eight full years now. Sometimes I get impatient with sensei, sometimes I disagree with his viewpoint, sometimes I argue back, [pretending] to know the truth. Sometimes he is late for lunch. But for whatever reason, he has kept me sitting, using whatever skillful means he needs to employ - from the four methods of a bodhisattva to means of which I am not even aware.

And for this, he qualifies as a good teacher.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Revealed: the environmental impact of Google searches

Physicist Alex Wissner-Gross, a Harvard University physicist whose research on the environmental impact of computing is due out soon, says that performing two Google searches from a desktop computer can generate about the same amount of carbon dioxide as boiling a kettle for a cup of tea.

While millions of people tap into Google without considering the environment, a typical search generates about 7g of CO2. Boiling a kettle generates about 15g.

Google operates huge data centers around the world that consume a great deal of power. Google is secretive about its energy consumption and carbon footprint. However, with more than 200 million internet searches estimated globally daily, the electricity consumption and greenhouse gas emissions caused by computers and the internet is provoking concern.

Banks of servers storing billions of web pages require power. A recent report by industry analysts said the global IT industry generated as much greenhouse gas as the world’s airlines - about 2% of global CO2 emissions. “Data centers are among the most energy-intensive facilities imaginable,” said Evan Mills, a scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

Though Google says it is in the forefront of green computing, its search engine generates high levels of CO2 because of the way it operates. When you type in a Google search for, say, “energy saving tips,” your request doesn’t go to just one server. It goes to several competing against each other. It may even be sent to servers thousands of miles apart. Google’s infrastructure sends your data from whichever produces the answer fastest. The system minimises delays but raises energy consumption. Google has servers in the US, Europe, Japan and China.

Wissner-Gross has also calculated the CO2 emissions caused by individual use of the internet. His research indicates that viewing a simple web page generates about 0.02g of CO2 per second. This rises tenfold to about 0.2g of CO2 a second when viewing a website with complex images, animations or videos. Simply running a PC generates between 40g and 80g of CO2 per hour.

If your internet use is in place of more energy-intensive activities, such as driving your car to a shop, then that’s good. But if it is adding activities and energy consumption that would not otherwise happen, that may pose problems.

Everything has a carbon footprint, including this posting to this blog (and your reading of this posting).

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Atlantic Hurricane Season Sets Records

The 2008 Atlantic Hurricane Season produced a record number of consecutive storms to strike the United States and ranks as one of the more active seasons in the 64 years since comprehensive records began.

NOAA's National Hurricane Center estimates a total of 16 named storms formed during the season, including eight hurricanes, five of which were major hurricanes at Category 3 strength or higher. An average season has 11 named storms, six hurricanes and two major hurricanes.

This year’s hurricane season continues the current active hurricane era and is the tenth season to produce above-normal activity in the past 14 years. Overall, the season is tied as the fourth most active in terms of named storms (16) and major hurricanes (five), and is tied as the fifth most active in terms of hurricanes (eight) since 1944, which was the first year aircraft missions flew into tropical storms and hurricanes.

For the first time on record, six consecutive tropical cyclones (Dolly, Edouard, Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike) made landfall on the U.S. mainland and a record three major hurricanes (Gustav, Ike and Paloma) struck Cuba. This is also the first Atlantic season to have a major hurricane (Category 3) form in five consecutive months (July: Bertha, August: Gustav, September: Ike, October: Omar, November: Paloma). This above-normal season is attributed to:
  • An ongoing multi-decadal signal. This combination of ocean and atmospheric conditions has spawned increased hurricane activity since 1995.
  • Lingering La Niña effects. Although the La Niña that began in the Fall of 2007 ended in June, its influence of light wind shear lingered.
  • Warmer tropical Atlantic Ocean temperatures. On average, the tropical Atlantic was about 1.0 degree Fahrenheit above normal during the peak of the season.

NOAA's National Hurricane Center is conducting comprehensive post-event assessments of each named storm of the season. Some of the early noteworthy findings include:

  • Bertha was a tropical cyclone for 17 days (July 3-20), making it the longest-lived July storm on record in the Atlantic Basin.
  • Fay is the only storm on record to make landfall four times in the state of Florida, and to prompt tropical storm and hurricane watches and warnings for the state’s entire coastline (at various times during its August lifespan).
  • Paloma, reaching Category 4 status with top winds of 145 mph, is the second strongest November hurricane on record behind Lenny in 1999 with top winds of 155 mph).

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Let's see. . . if I'm sitting here in zazen in Kennesaw, Georgia, it must be Wednesday.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Civics

Remember the time we saved the park from the evil developers who wanted to run a concrete trail through the only remaining greenspace in this part of town? How we had reached a compromise with the City on allowing a multi-use bicycle/walking trail, which we want and badly need, to run along the west side of the creek where it would be sheltered from view and preserve the bucolic nature of the east side of the creek?

Well, the final planning report came out last week providing all the details of the trails. According to the report, "After many community meetings and site visits, a compromise alignment was reached . . . In summary, the community concerns were discussed and balanced as part of the conversation about the design and alignment of the trail project."

But here's the funny part - the final report goes on to describe the trial routing as follows: "[The trail] continues through Tanyard Creek Park (currently proposed running closely along the eastern edge of the creek through Tanyard Creek Park) and bridges across to the north side of Tanyard Creek (at about the location of the existing pedestrian bridge)."

Well, that's not the compromise route at all - that's the exact proposal we had protested to start with! The compromise route was to cross the creek as soon as it entered the park, and to then run along the western edge of the creek through the remainder of the park. I left a message with the City planner responsible for the report, and then I alerted the local friends-of-the-park group about the discrepancy.

I got an apologetic call back from the planner the next day, saying that I was correct - the east side was not the compromise route - and that the trail route described in the text was a "typo." In an email reply to the friends of the park, he said it was "legacy language" left over from earlier drafts of the report. It's hard to fathom how they could have overlooked such a sensitive detail, and I wonder how they would have proceeded if I hadn't brought the issue to their attention. Since our conversation, though, I've noticed that several maps in the final report still show the "legacy," not the compromise, route. I've also noticed some discrepancies in zoning recommendations in nearby areas.

Tonight was the monthly meeting of the neighborhood alliance. I updated the alliance on my activities in regard to this matter, and presented a draft letter for the President of the alliance to send to the City in support of the compromise route and in protest of the zoning discrepancies. The presentation and draft letter were well received. I also encouraged the alliance to follow up on the recommendations of the Health Impact Assessment of the local hospital on the community.

Today's civics lesson: you can fight City Hall, but even if you win, never, ever take your eye off the prize, even for a nanosecond, or the prize may disappear.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Monday Night's Reading

One day Dogen said,

You should know that if you were born into a family following a certain occupation or if you had entered a certain path, you would first have to devote yourself to learning the work of the family or the path. It is no good to study that which has nothing to do with your path or specialty.

Now, since you have left home and joined the family of the Buddha and become monks, you should learn the practice of the Buddha. To learn the practice and maintain the Way is to abandon ego-attachment and to follow the instructions of the teacher. The essence of this is being free from greed. To put an end to greed, first of all, you have to depart from egocentric self. In order to depart from egocentric self, seeing impermanence is the primary necessity.

Many people in the world want to have a good reputation and to be appreciated not only by others but also by themselves. However they are not always well spoken of or praised. If you gradually abandon your ego-attachment and follow the sayings of your teacher, you will progress. If you argue back [pretending] to know the truth, but remain unable to give up certain things and continue to cling to your own preferences, you will sink lower and lower.

For a Zen monk, the primary attitude for self-improvement is the practice of shikantaza. Without consideration as to whether you are clever or stupid, you will naturally improve if you practice zazen.

(Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Book 1-4)

The footnotes to this chapter (by Okumura Roshi?) defines "ego-attachement" as assuming there is an ego existing in the body which is a temporal compound of various elements, thinking it to be eternal or substantial and attaching oneself to that ego. This is a fundamental delusion. Our practice is to see egolessness and the impermanence of all existence, and to live on that basis without greedy desires. Concretely, our desires manifest themselves by seeking fame and profit. This is why Dogen put emphasis on practicing the buddha-dharma only for the sake of the buddha-dharma, without expecting any reward, i.e. fame and profit.

This is one of the key chapters to the entire Zuimonki in that it touches on several of the themes that otherwise run throughout the text - abandonong ego-attachment, seeing impermenance, following a teacher, and practicing shikantaza.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Buddha Is In The Machine

Magistrate Lian of Hongzhou asked, "Should one drink wine and eat meat or not?"

Master Ma said, "If you consume wine and meat, it is your prosperity. If you don't consume wine and meat, it is your good fortune."

(Master Ma was Mazu Daoyi [709-788], known as Baso in Japanese, one of the most famous of Chinese Zen masters.)

Saturday, January 10, 2009

War Is Not The Answer


Should there be someone who is in the midst of an armed conflict, a civil litigation, or a criminal prosecution, and should this person, whilst holding onto a fragment of the Buddha's robe, go among those involved and, for self-protection, make offerings to it, show reverence for it, and venerate it, this person and others like him will lose the inclination to injure others through aggression, to coerce them, or to treat them with ridicule and scorn. Constantly being able to surpass others in this regard, such a person will come through all such difficulties as these.

- Zen Master Dogen, from Shobogenzo Kesa Kudoku; October 17, 1240

Friday, January 09, 2009

Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East?

Tonight, we screened the 1989 film Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? at the Zen Center. The movie is about an elderly Zen master, an orphaned boy, and a young monk living in a remote mountain monastery in Korea. The master teaches his two students all he knows about Zen, and his students must face and overcome their delusions and guilt. Beautifully photographed and lyrical, the movie is a meditation on Zen life and death.

The Great Master Xideng (d. 898) addressed the assembly, saying, “A person is up a tree over a thousand-foot cliff. He hangs on a branch by his teeth; his feet don’t touch the ground; his hands can’t reach a branch. All of a sudden, a person beneath the tree asks him, ‘What is the intention of Bodhidharma's coming from the west?’ At that time, if he opens his mouth to answer him, he forfeits his grip and loses his life; if he doesn’t answer him, he flunks his question. Tell me, what should he do?”

At that time, the senior monk Hutou Zhao came forth from the assembly and said, “I’m not asking about when he’s up the tree; please tell us, Reverend, how about when he’s not yet up the tree?”

The master gave a great laugh, “Ha ha.”

Thursday, January 08, 2009

This Is Cool

video

Director David Lynch has been practicing Transcendental Meditation (TM) since July 1973, twice a day, 20 minutes per session. In July 2005, he launched the David Lynch Foundation For Consciousness-Based Education and Peace to fund research about TM's positive effects, and he promotes the technique and his vision in an ongoing tour of college campuses.

Lynch is also working on the establishment of seven "peace palaces," each with 8,000 salaried people practicing advanced techniques of TM, "pumping peace for the world." He estimates the cost at $7 billion. He has spent $400,000 of his own money and raised $1 million in donations from a handful of wealthy individuals and organizations for this endeavor.

Lynch has also written a book, Catching the Big Fish, which discusses the impact of TM on his creative process. The title refers to Lynch's idea that "ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you've got to go deeper." He is donating all author's royalties to the David Lynch Foundation.

The video above features Dr. John Hagelin, whom you might recognize from the 2004 film, What the Bleep Do We Know. Dr. Hagelin is a scientist, educator, and three-time Natural Law Party candidate for President of the United States. Educated at Dartmouth and Harvard, he is now a Professor of Physics and Director of the Institute of Science, Technology and Public Policy at Maharishi University of Management, and the Minister of Science and Technology for the Global Country of World Peace, a virtual community with the stated goals of worldwide peace and prosperity. Hagelin co-designed the high-end, Enlightened Audio Designs (EAD) digital-to-analog audio reproduction system.

In 1992, Hagelin was honored with a Kilby International Award for his work in particle physics leading to the development of supersymmetric grand unified field theories, for his innovative applications of advanced principles from control-systems and optimization theories, and for his research on human consciousness.

Hagelin attributes his unusual career path from physicist to spokesman for global human concerns to his practice of TM and to his studies with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. In 1987 and 1989, Hagelin published two papers on the relationship between physics and consciousness. These papers discuss the Vedic understanding of consciousness as a field and compare it with theories of the unified field derived by modern physics. Hagelin argues that these two fields have almost identical properties and that for all purposes they are one and the same. Part of the evidence he presents for this explanation is his research on the effects that meditation techniques such as TM have on society as documented in this video.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

So, basically, I'm back at work now.

The week did not start auspiciously. Monday morning, I got to the office particularly late, due in large part to a railroad crossing gate that got stuck and had traffic all shut down a mere block from the office. There was no train around anywhere within sight, but the gate stayed in the "down" position because why not? Each of us had to wait until the drivers ahead of us finally got up the nerve to pass around the gates and over the tracks - some drivers required more time than others. When I finally did get to work, I realized that I had left my laptop computer at home, and since there's virtually nothing I can do at the office without my computer, I had to turn around and go back home to retrieve the laptop. A 40-mile round trip because of my lack of mindfulness, and I had to take the long way since the crossing gate was still stuck. What with the extra driving, the stuck gate and all, the week finally got underway a full hour later than my already noticeably late start.

Monday night's Zen service went better, and work Tuesday was uneventful, but after work yesterday I had to buy a new dishwasher for the condo. Last week, I had received a phone call from the property manager of the unit below mine complaining about water staining on his ceiling, and then I got an email from my new tenants saying that the dishwasher was not draining properly. I had a plumber go by on Monday, and sure enough, these two things were related. It seems that while the unit was empty, a "rodent" (mouse? squirrel? rat?) got beneath the appliance and gnawed through the drain line, much of the wiring, and other components. The plumber declared the situation unrepairable, and advised me that I needed a new washer. It got purchased Tuesday night (just what we all want after the holidays - unexpected expenses), and will be delivered late this week or early next. Including delivery, installation, second-floor walk-up charges, and tax, the dishwasher cost me almost exactly the amount of rent my new tenants had just payed for the month of January - I should have just handed the check over to Sears.

Speaking of equipment failure, this afternoon, the lights went out at work - we suspect a blown transformer somewhere in the area. The internet still worked, at least for a little while, and my laptop batteries will last for two to three hours, but when the net finally went down and I couldn't get my email or the web, I got to go home a little early.

But while I'm grateful for the shortened workday on my first week back, I had been hoping to sit Wednesday night with the Kennesaw Zen group up near my office. I guess I could have driven back up there after coming home, but considering that unnecessary 40-mile round trip already covered on Monday, I didn't relish the thought of driving it again on Wednesday. So I had to do my meditation here at home, alone, just like I had been doing over the mid-winter break.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Geology Of Georgia

An Afterthought on Notes on Part One of an Occasional Series:
The Appalachian Plateau
The story of carbon is the story of the planet. I realized that I had been discussing the Carboniferous rocks of northwest Georgia without ever mentioning the carbon.

The Earth was very hot four billion years ago and the atmosphere was unbreathable, all methane, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide. Until 2 billion years ago, free oxygen was rare as an atmospheric gas. Pure iron exposed to the air back then would not have rusted. The oxygen we breathe in the air today accumulated in the atmosphere as a waste gas, a byproduct of carbon dioxide/water based photosynthesis. There is little doubt that organisms produced oxygen before 2 billion years ago, but this oxygen was unable to accumulate as a gas because the iron dissolved in seawater combined with the oxygen to form rust (iron oxide). The chemically inactive iron oxide sank and accumulated on the sea floor, forming the vast Precambrian iron formations; much of the iron mined today is derived from these formations. Only until all the iron was removed from the sea water did the oxygen begin to accumulate in the atmosphere, up to its present concentration of about 21 percent.
With oxygen available in the atmosphere, life began to flourish. But life was very different during the Carboniferous Period. Primitive sharks flourished in the pre-Tethys ocean that surrounded the northern and southern, pre-Pangaea land masses. The climate was probably something like that of today - a south polar ice cap was beginning to form, and there were tropical forests of club mosses around the equator. Huge dragonflies with 30-inch wingspans swarmed on land, and pelycosaurs, early, mammal-like reptiles, flourished during the Carboniferous. The best-known pelycosaur is Dimetrodon, the one with the great big sail on its back. Nobody knows what Dimetrodon did with its sail. It may have been a solar panel to help the animal warm up to a temperature where it could use its muscles, and/or perhaps it was a radiator to cool down in the shade, when things got too hot. Or it could have been a sexual advertisement, a bony equivalent of a peacock's fan.
Most significantly, though, the Carboniferous was the time of vast tropical swamps of giant club moss trees. Nature hadn't yet learned to break down cellulose. When a giant club moss tree fell, it lay on the ground and got buried by the next tree that fell. The trees wouldn't decay, because the bacteria which now break down cellulose hadn't yet evolved (there was no need to, because there hadn't been a supply of cellulose to feed the bacteria up until this point). In the course of millions of years of trees falling on trees during the Carboniferous, almost all the carbon got taken from the atmosphere, leaving carbon dioxide as only 0.03% of the modern atmosphere. The carbon was buried underground in the form of the great Carboniferous coalfields, where it stayed until yesterday, geologically speaking.

Today, a log that falls is digested by funguses and microbes, and all the carbon goes back into the atmosphere. There can never be another Carboniferous because you can't ask nature to unlearn how to biodegrade cellulose.

Mammals came along when the world cooled off, and now he have a very clever mammal that's taking all the carbon stored as underground coal and putting it back up into the atmosphere. Mammals are taking the iron buried as the Precambrian iron oxide deposits and manufacturing automobiles, which put more carbon back up into the atmosphere. Once we burn up all the coal and natural gas, we'll have an antique atmosphere - a hot, nasty atmosphere that no one's seen for three hundred million years.

According to Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections), the moral of this story is don't recycle plastic - send it to a landfill. Get that carbon back underground. Bury it. Put the genie back in the lithic bottle.

Monday, January 05, 2009

On one occasion, Dogen said,

In the assembly of Zen master Bussho (Fuzhao), there was a monk who, when he was sick, wanted to eat meat. The master allowed him to do so. One night the master himself went to the infirmary and saw the sick monk eating meat in the dim lamplight. A demon was clinging to the monk's head, eating the meat. Although the monk thought he was putting it into his own mouth, it was not him, but the demon who was eating. After that whenever a monk fell ill, the master allowed him to eat because he knew he was possessed by demons.

Thinking about this story, we must carefully consider whether to allow it or not. There is also an instance of eating meat in the assembly of Goso Hoen (Wuzu Fayan). Whether allowing it or prohibiting it, the ancient masters surely had their own deep considerations.

That's from Zuimonki, Chapter 1-3, tonight's reading at the Monday night Zen service. Everybody has their own strong feelings about this issue, and it led to a lively and very interesting discussion.

What seemed more upsetting to most people, though, wasn't the killing of sentient beings for food per se, but the wasteful and unsustainable way the food's processed and distributed in Western, consumer society. Not that they condoned the killing, but if one must kill, must it be done so mindlessly, with so little compassion, with so little gratitude for the being giving up its own life for our sustenance?
It seems that to live is to kill. Even if we don't eat meat, we're killing and eating living plants for our protein needs. Meanwhile, we can't help but unknowingly breathe in and swallow tiny insects and microorganisms, and our very blood is full of hemoglobins and other cells whose sole function is to kill viruses and other foreign entities that enter our bloodstream.
Sensei points out that even our mere existence denies life to other potential beings, as the karmic position we occupy prevents some other lifeform from coming into existence.
I've heard many good arguments for vegetarianism, and relatively few cogent arguments against it. However, I still occasionally eat meat, although in smaller quantities than in the past.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Back To Work

Planet Earth had its perihelion, its closest approach to the Sun, today and the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, has passed. The Earth is moving further from the Sun as the days are growing longer - see if you can notice.

But what all this means to me is that it's time to go back to work - my end-of-the-year, accrued-vacation-time burnoff ends today. Eight o'clock tomorrow, I will be back in the office (or at least heading in that direction) for the first time since December 22.

Today was the painful day of resetting my internal body clock. I got up early (by holiday standards) yesterday and today for the January zazenkai, and while the tiredness didn't hit me yesterday, it did catch up to me this afternoon. I need to get a good night's sleep, cause I don't want to feel tomorrow like I did today when I'm back at work.

No regrets (je ne regrette rien) about the lack of travel, leisure activities or other traditional holiday pursuits, although I did manage to finish "The Corrections," spend some quality time at the Zen Center, got the teeth cleaned, and even did some prep work for my upcoming dharma talks. I also caught up on a few household chores: my cleaning girl came by today (I think she wanted to offset some holiday expenses before the Spring semester starts) and the house hardly looks like someone's been encamped here for the past two weeks.

But for now, it's back to work.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Daoism: Shit happens.
Hinduism: This shit has happened before.
Islam: Shit will happen if our demands aren't met.
Buddhism: When shit happens, is it really shit?
7th Day Adventists: Shit happens on Saturdays.
Protestantism: Shit won't happen if I work harder.
Catholicism: If shit happens, I deserve it.
Jehovah's Witness: Knock, knock. "Shit happens."
Judaism: Why does shit always happen to me?
Hare Krishna: Shit happens, rama lama ding dong.
Athiesm: No shit.
Zen: Neither shit nor no-shit, but non-shit.
T.V. Evangelism: Send more shit.
Rastafarianism: Let's smoke this shit.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Just kidding . . . this weekend, if anything, promises to be very sober and particularly chaste.

My little hiatus from work - this unstructured, 13-day stretch of burning off accrued vacation backlog - is not quite over but the end is in sight. One more weekend, and then back to work.

Generally, I don't do particularly with unstructured time. When not required to be any particular place at any particular time, I tend to become a little disoriented and kind of lazy. Since my last day at work, Monday, December 22, all that has been demanded of me has been to:
  1. Show up for a dentist appointment (cleaning) at 11 a.m on Monday (12/29)
  2. Open the Zen Center that same Monday night with my newly pearly whites

Pretty short list for 13 days. I also went to the Center on New Year's Eve for our annual end-of-the-year, 108-Gates celebration, but that was a voluntary outing, not a requirement.

So what have I been doing in the meantime? Good question - looking back, I wonder the same myself. I've been staying up late and sleeping in late, catching up on reading (I expect to finally finish The Corrections this weekend), noodling around on my computer, surfing the web, and generally wasting my time. Honestly, I don't know how I would have made it if not for zazen.

No reason to rush to do anything. There were whole days where I never left the house, and others where if it weren't for a trip to the supermarket, I wouldn't have gotten out at all. Today, a rainy, cool, Northwest-Pacific kind of day, my only outing was to go to the bank to deposit my new tenants' January rent check, and driving home I got read-ended in slow traffic (no damage, no injury - it was slow traffic), but that was enough to coop me up for the rest of the day - why risk going out again after that?

Things will start to pick up tomorrow. There's a Saturday zazenkai (all day meditation session) at the Zen Center tomorrow that I plan to attend, as well as Sunday's morning service. I hope to use these events to reprogram my internal body clock back to an early-to-bed, early-to-rise rhythm. Then Monday, it's back to work for a day that promises to be chock full of "catch up" tasks after all my time off.

And of course, as always, Monday night I open the Zen Center. I hope to join the Kennesaw sitting group next Wednesday night - it's been several weeks since I've been there - and on Friday night, there's a screening of the film "Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left For the East?"

That following Sunday, I'm on schedule to give the dharma talk for the Sunday-morning service at the Zen Center and the next Sunday, it looks like I will be going up to the Chattanooga Center. On top of all that, work may require a day trip to Augusta and a flight up to Boston this month, so I'll certainly be jumping with both feet back into the active life and out of this three-toed-tree-sloth stupor.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

11:11

Last night, all across the world, people were acutely aware of the time. 60 more minutes until 2009. 25 more minutes. Only three minutes left to the year . . .
Until the big moment, midnight, and the calendar flipped from December 31, 2008 to January 1, 2009. And at that moment, most celebrants were aware of the time, right then, right there.
Awareness of the present moment is a good thing. We're always in the present, but our thoughts drift back to the past or fantasize about the future. It's always right now, but we don't always realize it.
Last night, at the Zen Center, we counted down to midnight by reciting the 108 Gates of Dharma Illumination, one each minute until midnight. "Right belief is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it the steadfast mind is not broken," at began at 10:12 p.m.
At 11:11, we chanted, "The faculty of effort is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we thoroughly attain many kinds of wisdom."
And so on, until "The state in which water is sprinkled on the head is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it, following birth in a family, we are at last able to realize anuttara-samyak-sambodhi," at Midnight.
Full awareness of each of the last 108 minutes of 2008.
(The mathematically minded among you might want to state that if we started at 10:12, we'd finish 108 verses at 11:59 p.m., with one minute still to go before midnight. However, for some reason, there are actually 109 verses to the 108 Gates of Dharma Illumination - one verse is stated twice in slightly different ways. So take that, Mr. or Ms. Smarty Pants!)
Another practice at the Center that I like is the striking of a bell every 15 minutes when a talk is being given. Upon hearing the bell, the speaker stops talking, takes a breath, acknowledges the present moment, and only then resumes speaking. It avoids us getting too caught up in intellectualization and forgetting of the here and now.
There are several similar devices that can be used to return our attention to the present moment. An ex-girlfriend and I used to always point out the clock to each other at either 1:11 or 11:11, a.m. or p.m. It didn't matter, as long as the time was being presented on the ever-present digital clock (on the t.v., on the microwave, on a tabletop, on the computer, or on our wrists) as nothing but a series of straight lines. "Look what time it is," one of us would say to the other if we were the first to notice. It stated as a silly thing, a running joke, but to this day I still bow in gassho whenever I notice that it's either 1:11 or 11:11, a.m. or p.m., even though the relationship with the ex- ended more than 10 years ago.
So today is the first day of the new year, the 18th hour of the first day of the new year, the 28th minute of the 18th hour of the first day of the new year. And although it's always "right now," this moment will never occur again, ever. We should cherish it.
Oh, look: Here comes another.