Tuesday, June 30, 2009

On Anger

Anger feeds upon anger. We all know this, as well as that we're capable of breaking the cycle of anger at any time, but we rarely put this knowledge into practice.

Today, I was angry at a FedEx deliveryman. When I got home from work yesterday, there was a tag hanging from my front door stating that FedEx had been by, but missed me. They'll be back tomorrow the tag informed me, and if I weren't home, all I had to do was sign below and leave the tag on the door and they'd leave the package on my doorstep.

I had been expecting the package. It's part of the settlement agreement from my former employer - one of five payouts for my former stock, each totalling over $20,000. It was not a package I wanted to miss.

As luck would have it, I hadn't been planning to go to the office today. I had to give a presentation to the Atlanta City Council on citizens' participation in the BeltLine project, and since I had to be downtown at City Hall mid-day, I decided not to drive out to my suburban office and essentially spend much of the day traveling up and down the Interstate. I had brought my laptop home with me prepared to work from the house, so it would be no problem at all to wait around for delivery of the check.

I put on a pot of coffee in the morning and worked until I had to leave for City Hall, but the delivery man hadn't shown up. I left the signed tag on my doorstep as instructed when I left, and when I got back home around 2:30, it was still there. I tracked the package on line, and learned that it was still on the truck, scheduled for delivery by 3:00 pm.

When no one showed up by 3, I checked the web again, but this time the system couldn't identify my tracking number. So I called FedEx and was told that the deliveryman had stopped by but no one was home. That didn't make sense because I had left the signed tag on the door and if he had been by he would have seen it and left my package. The person on the phone apologized, and told me that they will re-direct the delivery and have it to me by 5:00.

Five o'clock - no sign of Fed Ex. I called again and after being put on hold for an inordinate amount of time, was told that they hadn't been able to get hold of the deliveryman because he apparently doesn't carry a cell phone (they rely on their deliveryman's own personal cell phones to contact them?), and that they could either deliver the package tomorrow or I could pick it up at their station tonight.

I don't believe that the deliveryman had ever stopped by even though their records state that he had but no one was home (why hadn't he seen the signed door tag, then?), so I had no confidence in him coming by tomorrow and certainly didn't want my check to be returned to sender after a third failed attempt at delivery. So I had to drive out to their station to pick it up - a 40-mile round trip during the height of rush hour through some of the worst traffic in Atlanta.

I was angry, and took some of that anger out on the poor FedEx employee on the telephone. I was angry at what I imagined to be a lazy deliveryman, who would rather falsely claim that no one was home than bother to actually come by. I was angry that they had no way to get hold of him while he was out on his route. I was angry at the lack of consideration from the person on the phone. I was angry about the remote location of the FedEx station. I was angry about Atlanta's gridlocked traffic.

In fact, the angrier I got, the more things it seemed that there were to be angry about. I was angry about the heat. I was angry about driving to the west and into the evening sun. I was angry about the way the moron in front of me was driving. I couldn't wait to get to the Fed Ex office and air all of my complaints about their so-called "service," and while I was at it, I decided, I would file a complaint about the deliveryman, too.

But as I finally pulled up to the office, I had a moment of clarity - I was about to participate in an unpleasant confrontation, but the only reason it had to be that way was because I had decided that it shall be so. I'm sure the girl at the counter wasn't standing there thinking, "Wouldn't it be great if an irate middle-aged man walked in right about now?" I was about to get my check, and it was up to me to decide whether it was going to be a pleasant or an unpleasant experience.

I forced a smile and walked in. Handing the girl at the counter my tag, she smiled back and headed off to get my package. The interesting thing here was that although my smile was forced at first, soon I felt a genuine gratitude to myself for choosing not to go the anger bear route, and that gratitude, in turn, made my forced happiness real. When the girl returned with my package I thanked her and headed home, driving in open lanes against the traffic, with the evening sun back over my shoulder.

We all know that we have the means to control our emotions, but we so rarely exercise those controls. The world may be cruel and indifferent and lazy if we choose to look at it like that, or we can choose to rise above the perceived cruelty, indifference and laziness and be thankful for the check in our pocket (or whatever else we choose to be happy about). We can be thankful for the mindfulness and practice that allows us to see ourselves in these situations, and for the wisdom to realize that the anger is created in our minds, not in the circumstances.

And we can feel gratitude for giving ourselves the gift of cooperation rather than the punishment of discord.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Someone asked, “Although fame and profit are difficult to give up, since pursuing them is a great obstruction to practicing the Way, they should be abandoned. Hence, I gave them up. Although clothing and food are minor things, they are big matters for practitioners. Wearing clothes made of abandoned rags and begging for food are the practices of superior people. Moreover, that has been the custom in India. The monasteries in China have permanent property belonging to the community, so they do not need to worry about such things. However, the temples in this country have no such property and the practice of begging has not been transmitted at all. What should inferior people like me who cannot endure such practice do? If someone like me tries to gather alms from lay believers, he will be committing a sin by receiving a donation without having virtue. Earning one’s living as a farmer, merchant, warrior, or craftsman is an improper way of life for a monk. And, if I leave everything to fate, I will remain very poor as a result of inferior karma. When I suffer from hunger or am benumbed by the cold, I will be troubled and my practice will be hindered.

Someone advised me saying, ‘Your way of practice is extreme. You don’t understand this age and do not reflect upon your capability. Our nature is inferior and this is the degenerate-age. If you continue to practice in such a way, it will become a cause of backsliding from the Way. Seek the support of some patron, take care of your body by living in a quiet place without worrying about food or clothing, and practice the Buddha Way peacefully. This is not greed for property or belongings. You should practice after having provided for your temporal means of livelihood.’

Although I listened to his advice, I do not yet believe it. How should we consider these things?”

Dogen replied, “Just study carefully the conduct of Zen monks, along with the lifestyle of the buddhas and patriarchs. Although the customs of the three countries are different, those who truly study the Way have never practiced in the manner you have described. Just do not be attached to worldly affairs but study the Way in a straightforward manner.”

The Buddha said, “Do not keep anything except robes and a bowl. Give away any extra food you have received through begging to hungry living beings.”

Do not store up even what you have been given, nor run around searching for things. In a non-Buddhist text it is said that if we learn the Way in the morning we should not mind dying in the evening. Even if we might die of cold or starvation, we should follow the Buddha’s teaching if only for one day or one hour.

In ten thousand kalpas and thousands of lives, how many times are we born and how many times do we die? This cycle of lives is samsara, caused only by blind clinging to worldly affairs. To die of starvation following the Buddha’s teachings for this one life brings about eternal peace and joy (Nirvana). Moreover, I have never read in the collection of all the Buddhist sutras of a single buddha or patriarch who transmitted the dharma in the three countries, dying of starvation or cold. In this world, inherently each person receives a certain amount of food and clothing as a gift. It does not come by being sought after nor does it stop coming by not seeking after it. Just leave it to fate and do not worry about it. If you refrain from arousing bodhi-mind in this life, excusing yourself on the grounds that this is the degenerate-age, in what life will it be possible to attain the Way?

Even if you are not as superior as Shubhuti or Mahakashapa, you should practice to your fullest capability. In a non-Buddhist text it is said that a man who loves women will do so even though they might not be as beautiful as Mosho or Seishi, and that a person who admires horses will do likewise even if they are not as great as Hito or Rokuji. One who likes the taste (of food) will like (whatever it might be), regardless of whether or not it is as delicious as dragon’s liver or phoenix marrow. We simply have to use as much wisdom as we possess. Even laymen have this attitude. Buddhist practitioners must be like this.

Moreover, the Buddha offered twenty years of his life to us living in this degenerate-age. Consequently, the offerings and support by human and heavenly beings to the monasteries in this world have not ceased. Though the Tathagata had mighty powers and virtues and was able to use them at will, he spent a summer practice period eating wheat used for horse fodder. How can his disciples today help but look up to this example?
It always amazes me how the thoughts and concerns of 13th Century Japanese monks sound so contemporary and so like our thoughts and concerns today. The exchange above occurred sometime around the year 1243 (give or take 10 years), and the questioner is asking how in his time and culture could one follow the style of practice taught by the Buddha and followed by the early sangha? I still hear the same question today. I still ask myself the same question today.

Followers of the Buddha in 5th Century BC India left their home and family to follow the Buddha full time. They had no home, they wore the discarded scraps of the clothes of the dead found at cemeteries and crematoriums, and they daily begged for their food. The Buddha put great value in this way of life. But begging, or as we call it now, "panhandling," is illegal in our culture and I would probably spend much of my time on line at soup kitchens waiting for food, and if I tried to wear the clothes of the dead, I would be arrested for grave robbing. Even if the police tolerated my lifestyle, I would not likely be able to spread the dharma to others and fulfill my bodhisattva vows if I were a homeless person living on the streets, a perceived burden on society. Who would listen to someone like that?

In China, Buddhism was practiced in communal monasteries. In these monasteries, land and other things were owned by the monastery since the monks worked to support themselves. Later on, as Buddhism became institutionalized in China, the monasteries were supported by the Emperor, the government, or the nobility, who endowed them with the necessary things. Therefore, the monks merely had to retreat from the lay world and rely on the monastery for their Maslovian needs.

The Japanese questioner is asking Dogen how, since Japanese monasteries were not institutionalized and endowed like those of China, should one practice, since the mendicant lifestyle was, like now, not tolerated then?

Dogen's reply was basically not to worry about the practices of the past, although they should be studied and respected, but to just practice the Way in a straight-forward, whole-hearted manner according to the ways and means available, and not be attached to worldly affairs.

It seems that the main difference (for the purposes of this discussion) between the feudal Japanese and contemporary Western society is that back then, the choice seemed to be between a monastic life of practice or a layperson's life of no practice at all. Today, although there still is a monastic tradition, a Middle Way has emerged of lay life with practice. The trick is just to not be attached to the worldly, material things, even as one is surrounded by them.

That's the koan for our time, and the dharma barrier/dharma gate through which we laypersons have to pass.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sunday

So what's it like on a Sunday to be a 50-something self-proclaimed lay Zen monk living in Atlanta, Georgia?

Well, first of all, the cat wakes you up way too early because it wants to be let out. But you let it out despite the early hour, partly out of compassion for its craving and suffering, and partly because you want to go back to sleep. But then the cat realizes how early it is and sits outside the french doors in your bedroom meowing until you let it back in, and since you're both up now, you put on a pot of coffee and start your day.

You think about going to the zendo for the morning service (you really ought to go - you always enjoy it when you do and it's been a while), but you decide that you need sleep and relaxation more than you need another service, so you sit in bed catching up on back issues of The New Yorker while nodding in and out of consciousness.

Meanwhile, the cat is playing "mouse" with your feet under the sheets, so you put him back outside and in the ensuing peace and quiet find some time for doing zazen at home. Refreshed, you take a shower afterwards and start your day.

But by 11:00 am, the temperatures are already up in the 90s and the humidity is in the same range as well, and as soon as you step outside the air sticks to your skin and you feel like you need another shower all over again. So you retreat inside and finish the pot of coffee and, surfing the net, are glad to see that the House passed the climate change bill yesterday, and even though you know the difference between the weather outside this morning and climate, you can't help but feel that there's just a tad bit more CO2 in the air today than necessary (ozone, too).

Somehow, you wind up spending most of the day repairing the toilet off the bedroom. For some reason, the water won't stop running after it's flushed, so you go to the local neighborhood hardware store (driving past the Walmart because you refuse to shop there) and buy a new valve assembly. But the whole job takes longer than it should because you're not exactly a handyman and because two other problems complicate the matter. First, the water won't shut off because the valve is old and won't turn and you're afraid that if you force it with a pair of channel locks it will break off completely. But you take your chances and force it anyway and it works, but then, second, after you install the new valve assembly it leaks because the toilet tank is old and the seal provided with the valve kit doesn't fit. It eventually occurs to you to retrieve the old seal from the garbage and replace it in the tank and finally everything's working again and the water even turns back on without the valve breaking, but now you need a nap because you're old and not used to banging your head underneath a toilet for two hours or so.

You make dinner (pasta alfredo) and allow yourself a glass of wine. You watch "True Blood" on television wishing that "Six Feet Under" or "The Sopranos" were still on the air, but take that as a lesson in impermanence and the clinging nature of our desires, and then, after posting an account of your banal day on the web, call it a night.

Of course, that's just me. Your results might differ.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Friday Night Videos

Faith No More have apparently reunited and played earlier this month at the Brixton Academy in England, led by frontman and singer extraordinaire Mike Patton.

video

Here's a bootleg video of the show's opening number.

video

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Rest In Peace

This seems to be the week for memorials - Neda Aga Soltan, the martyr of Tehran, Joe Christ, Atlanta's artist provocateur, and now Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett.

There's nothing I can say about either of the latter two that won't be saturated in the media over the next few days. Cynics might find it amusing to watch the journalists try and find parallels between the lives of a 70s sex symbol and an 80s pop star.

Rest in peace, y'all.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Southern Politics, Updated

Ha, ha. Look at Fox "News" try to label South Carolina's disgraced Republican Governor Mark Sanford as a "Democrat." Nice try, Fox.

Southern politics are getting interesting, even aside from Sanford's Latin fling. Earlier this year, the Georgia legislature passed a bill requiring new registrants to provide proof of citizenship when they register to vote. However, Section 5 the Voting Rights Act requires Georgia and 15 other states to get pre-clearance for any changes to voting laws. As a result, Georgia cannot implement the new law until it's approved by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Georgia had been hoping that the U.S. Supreme Court would invalidate Section 5, but on June 22 the Court refused to rule on the section's validity. Interestingly, I understand that Georgia's Attorney General was the only AG in the country to speak out against Section 5 during the case. But since Section 5 was not invalidated, the state must now submit Senate Bill 86 to the federal DOJ for approval.

The feds had previously told Georgia that an earlier procedure the state had used last fall to scan registered voters for citizenship requirements was not acceptable, so odds are that the latest scheme won't be approved either. However, under the federal Voting Rights Act, Georgia is free to bring a lawsuit to approve any election law change that the Justice Department won’t approve, and the June 22 Supreme Court decision implies that states can appeal to "opt out" of Section 5. Georgia is already thinking about doing just that.

According to her deputy, Republican Secretary of State Karen Handel is considering whether to sue the Justice Department. “We’re juggling a few balls right now, and one thing is abundantly clear. It’s Secretary Handel’s opinion that these verification programs are necessary and vital.”

Following her last scheme getting shot down, Handel issued a press release titled "Obama Justice Department Decision Will Allow Non-Citizens to Register to Vote in Georgia" The neo-cons in my office couldn't wait to show me the press release as "proof" that Obama wants noncitizens to vote.

In her statement, Handel said the “DOJ has thrown open the door for activist organizations such as ACORN to register non-citizens to vote in Georgia’s elections, and the state has no ability to verify an applicant’s citizenship status or whether the individual even exists."

"We have evidence that non-citizens have voted in past Georgia elections," she claimed, "and that more than 2,100 individuals have attempted to register, yet still have questions regarding their citizenship. "

In truth, though, the number of noncitizens attempting to vote in Georgia is so small as to be almost nonexistent. According to Jay Bookman of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Handel’s office can document just one case in the entire state. The state is reportedly investigating more than 30 other possible instances of noncitizen voting in last fall’s election. However, Handel's office has refused to offer even the most general information about those cases. Given that no charges have been filed in the seven months since November, it’s hard to know how seriously to take them.

On the other hand, the evidence is overwhelming that the program set up by Handel - and shot down under Section 5 - has discouraged the casting and counting of hundreds and even thousands of legitimate votes. Under her system, names on state voting lists are compared against data compiled by the state Department of Driver Services, including citizenship status. But because DDS data are often outdated or incorrectly entered —- the drivers licensing system was not designed for determining citizenship —- thousands of legal voters have been tagged as potential noncitizens.

By last fall, the system had identified 4,700 possible noncitizens on state voting rolls. Those 4,700 registered voters were told that if they wanted to vote, they had to take the additional step of going to their county seat to prove their citizenship. Two thousand registered voters did make that extra effort; 2,700 did not. However, 600 of those 2,700 later showed up on Election Day and were told they could only cast a “challenge ballot.” For their vote to count, they were told to return with evidence of citizenship within 48 hours.

Of that 600, 370 took that extra step to make sure their ballot was counted, but 230 did not and their votes were discarded. Those 230 were almost certainly legitimate voters who just didn’t bother. It is a federal crime —- punishable by deportation, among other things —- to vote as a noncitizen. So it is hard to believe that 230 noncitizens would risk deportation by daring to try to vote even after they had been officially notified that their legal status was in question.

In addition, if the Secretary of State’s office truly believed that those 230 were illegal voters, it would be investigating and prosecuting them. The political bonanza of busting such a large-scale attempt at illegal voting would be enormous, and Karen Handel has been flirting with the idea of running for Governor. Tellingly, no attempt has been made to pursue these cases.

So, casting the state’s policy in the best possible light, Handel’s approach may have found as many as 30 illegal voters. But that is far outweighed by the invalidation of hundreds of legal votes cast by U.S. citizens, and by the fact that thousands of additional citizens were effectively discouraged from voting by additional obstacles put in their way.

There is much to dislike in Section 5. The 1965 rule doesn't consider the many changes that have occurred in the South since the civil rights movement, and the federal oversight of state registration procedures is uncomfortably reminiscent of the Reconstruction to Southerners. But ironically, it's actions like Handel's that keeps DOJ's eye on Georgia's registration procedures and makes retaining Section 5 inevitable.

Ain't karma something?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

RIP

Underground filmmaker, musician and artist Joe Linhart (better known as Joe Christ) passed away on Father’s Day during the evening hours of June 21 in his Atlanta home. According to toxicology reports released to his family today, Linhart died of a heart attack in his sleep.

Born in Washington D.C., Linhart relocated to Atlanta during the late 1990s following a nomadic lifestyle of producing shock art that made him a respected regular within the underground scenes of New York, Philadelphia, Dallas, and such far away locales as Manila in the Philippines.

During his Atlanta years, Linhart regularly worked with the shock website Consumption Junction. He released a steady stream of independent films, including 2005’s That’s Just Wrong! co-starring Atlanta sex author and mistress Dolores French, and other rousing titles including Amy Strangled a Small Child (1998) and Acid Is Groovy Kill the Pigs (1993). In addition to his film and visual art productions, Linhart also produced an equally balanced collection of rock recordings with such acts as Joe Christ and the Healing Faith and Los Reactors.

Famous for wearing black T-shirts and jeans accented by macho tattoos upon his forearms, Linhart may have appeared menacing at first glance but upon further inspection most people discovered a truly kind soul and passionate artist. He was a father and friend whose untimely death leaves countless people in shock. But would Joe Christ have had it any other way?

According to his eldest son Alan, he was famous for his dark sense of humor: “I was talking to my Dad’s friend Roy and he told me as bad as I am feeling, Dad is probably laughing his ass off because what a better way to go than to die in your sleep of a heart attack on Father’s Day.”

Linhart had recently been living between Atlanta and Manila and was preparing for a return trip to the Philippines on July 2, where he had an art opening scheduled for July 3. Consumption Junction’s relocation opened the door for Linhart’s earlier travels to Manila where he’d begun to make an impression on yet another city’s underground scene.

Not only was Linhart hosting regular art and film exhibits in the Philippines, he was in pre-production with a Filipino television show entitled “Hey Joe!” in which he would serve as the primary writer, producer and host.

Linhart’s son Alan is currently producing a tribute album for Scrape Records in Baltimore entitled The Second Coming of Christ.

Joe “Christ” Linhart is survived by his parents Joseph and Marilyn of St. Petersburg, Fla., sons Alan Linhart (34, Baltimore), Eric Abner (23, Dallas, Texas.), 7-year-old granddaughter Zöe Linhart, along with four sisters and one brother.

- by Jason Hatcher, Creative Loafing, June 23, 2009

Monday, June 22, 2009

Monday Night Zazen

No Dogen or Zuimonki readings following Monday night zazen this week. Instead, we talked about the recent events in Iran, our feelings about the situation, and what we could do about it. As an added bonus, Sensei Taiun Michael Elliston joined us this evening, and added his views about the situation.

What would Buddha do? The historical Buddha, Gautama Shakyamuni, was no stranger to the world of violence and warfare. India was basically a feudal state at the time of his life (Fifth Century B.C.), with one city-state frequently warring against another, and yet throughout his teaching, there is scarcely any mention of war, yet alone taking sides in any conflict.

Instead, he encouraged his followers to retreat from the world and enter the sangha, to look within to find peace and tranquility. Before one can calm the world, one must first calm one's own self.

Buddhism has been criticized by those who do not understand it as being solipsistic and self-indulgent. Some have responded to these criticisms by promoting something called "Engaged Buddhism," a term I dislike as it implies that there is an "Unengaged Buddhism," and thus validates the criticisms.

As Zen Master Dogen once said, it is rather easy to lay down one’s own life, or cut off one’s flesh, hands, or feet in an emotional outburst. Considering worldly affairs, he said, we see many people doing such things. Yet it is most difficult to harmonize the mind, meeting various things and situations moment by moment. A student of the Way must cool his mind as if he were giving up his life, and consider if what he is about to say or do is in accordance with reality or not.

The Buddha Way goes beyond "engaged" or "unengaged." It is about the right action, at the right time, for the right reasons.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Summer Solstice

Last Sunday, when I was doing newcomers' instruction, a fellow disciple asked me if I could fill in for him the following Saturday (yesterday). I didn't really want to, but agreed anyway, because why not?

So I was surprised when I pulled up to the zendo yesterday and found not only the one who asked me to fill in for him sitting there, but also another recruit filling in for the morning. But the good news was that I was there and without any duties or responsibilities, so I was able to just sit and focus on my zazen. It was a small turnout anyway (the serial recruiter had to leave after the first sitting period), and we had a very pleasant conversation afterwards about "right speech."

Today, as you've probably guessed by the picture above, I went up to Chattanooga to sit with the sangha up there. I hadn't prepared anything to say, which was fine because their schedule wisely doesn't leave much time for talking, but I did briefly go over my thoughts from the other day about right view, and expanded it a little to include some of the things we had discussed yesterday about right speech. Basically, we talked about how our opinions condition the things that we say, and how the things that we say cause us to take positions, which in turn, colors our perception. Our discriminating minds only see that which supports our stated positions and ignore that which is contradictory. Right view sees that actually is, moment by moment, regardless of our positions and opinions. Right speech expresses the actual truth, and states what is necessary to be said.

A bunch of us had lunch at the local green grocer after the service.

Outdoor temperatures today are hovering right around the 100 mark (that's about 38 degrees for you Celsius types), and the southern humidity isn't making it any more pleasant. All in all, not a bad day to spend in an air-conditioned car driving to Chattanooga and back.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Thursday, June 18, 2009

On Right View

A posting on alt.buddha.short.fat.guy today got me thinking about Right View. Right View is generally considered the first element of the Eightfold Path (although the elements are not actually sequential). In the sutras, Right View is usually described as an understanding of the Four Noble Truths, and the Eightfold Path itself is the fourth of the Noble Truths - the Way (do) leading to the cessation of suffering.

Right View is also seeing things as they really are, without delusion. This is essential for anyone seeking the Way. Zen Master Dogen once said that a student of the Way must cool his mind and consider if what he is about to say or do is in accordance with reality or not. Yet it is most difficult to harmonize the mind, he noted, and meet various things and situations moment by moment.

Zen gives us the method of cooling the mind so that we can achieve Right View: zazen, or sitting meditation. In deepest concentration, body and mind fall away, leaving us naked, without our conceptualizations, abstractions and opinions of the world around us. What is, simply is - it's no longer what we imagine or conceive of it to be. This is seeing things as they really are - Right View.

Not to be too philosophical about it, but Right View then has a relative aspect - understanding of the Four Noble Truths - and it also has an absolute aspect - seeing and meeting all things and situations moment by moment as they really are.

But the relative and the absolute are just two of the aspects of the nature of reality. There's also the practical - Right View as the practice of sitting meditation. And finally, there's the supreme - the actual experience of body and mind falling away, the release from our delusions, Right View as our own vision.

These four aspects - relative, absolute, practical and supreme - are not separate things but just four different attributes of Right View (and of all the myriad dharmas), just as size, color, weight, and location are different attributes of any one thing.

And even though it's like this, flowers, while cherished, fade and weeds, while hated, fluorish.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Missed Anniversary

It passed without my notice, but last month marked the five-year anniversary of Water Dissolves Water.

Pointlessly posting since May 21, 2004 . . .

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

We're Number Four!

According to the fourth annual “In the Driver's Seat Road Rage Survey,” commissioned by AutoVantage, Atlanta is the fourth-worst American city for road rage. New York unseated Miami as the least courteous city. In second is Dallas/Fort Worth and third is Detroit. Fifth is Minneapolis/St. Paul.

The main culprits cited by those surveyed included bad/careless driving, such as cutting others off, speeding, tailgating, talking on cell phones, making obscene gestures and not using proper signals.

On the flip side, the most courteous drivers are in:
  1. Portland, Ore.;
  2. Cleveland;
  3. Baltimore;
  4. Sacramento; and
  5. Pittsburgh.
Another study ranked metro Atlanta fourth among nine Southeastern metro areas on a range of factors affecting economic growth.

The benchmarking index was compiled by Harrison Campbell, associate professor of geography at UNC Charlotte. He ranked the metro areas on employment and labor; income and productivity; livability and connectivity; new economy; and equity and diversity.The cities ranked as follows:

  1. Raleigh-Durham area;
  2. Austin, Texas;
  3. Charlotte;
  4. Atlanta;
  5. Dallas;
  6. Richmond, Va.;
  7. Nashville;
  8. Tampa; and
  9. Jacksonville.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Dogen instructed,

Students of the Way, do not worry about food and clothing. Just maintain the Buddha’s precepts and do not engage in worldly affairs. The Buddha said to use abandoned rags for clothing and beg for food. In what age will these two things ever be exhausted? Do not forget the swiftness of impermanence nor be disturbed vainly by worldly affairs. As long as your dewlike human life lasts, think exclusively of the Buddha-Way and do not be concerned with other things.
We had a fairly good turnout tonight for Monday Night Zazen. The young lady who couldn't reach her boyfriend on the telephone yesterday returned to continue her instruction. Another young lady who came to the center for the first time on New Year's Eve was also there, as well as about four of the Monday-night regulars, and a few other members of the sangha. And everyone stayed for the practice discussion afterwards.

Interest in numbers is not vain clinging to fame and worldly affairs, but rather just satisfaction that the Buddha-dharma is reaching the ears of the many.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sunday

Sunday has been as busy as any day of the week, which has been a very busy week indeed. This is a good thing. It's one thing to survive during hard times, but it's another thing altogether to thrive during hard times. Work has been pouring in lately, for which I'm most grateful (and quite a bit surprised).

This morning, I had the opportunity to provide the instruction to newcomers at the Zen Center. I like doing this - newcomers are fun. However, it made me quite sad that one of the young women of the two who showed up saw that her cell phone had (silently) rang six times during the orientation session, and that it was her boyfriend in the service, to whom she hadn't talked in two weeks. I understand that he's stationed in some distant land that they call "Rhode Island." She went outside to call him back, but by that time he was gone and she won't have another chance to talk to him for another week.

I know how that feels - I've been in more than a few long-distance relationships in my life, and most of those before the days of email, IMs, testing, and cheap, long-distance cell-phone coverage, so I understand how it seems that one's whole life is dependant upon that one call during the week. And then to miss it and not be able to correct the situation is frustrating and sad. This is duhkka, this is suffering.

She didn't stay for the ceremonies (a memorial service and a precepts renewal) and the dharma talk. Which is also sad, because they were lovely little ceremonies, what with the repentance verse ("All my past and harmful karma, born from beginningless greed, hate and delusion, through body, speech and mind, I now fully avow"), the Kanzeon chant, and the renewal of the precepts itself. I'm not sure they would have helped her suffering, but they would probably have taken her mind off of things for a while.

But after the ceremonies, I could not stay either. I had to use the day to prepare a Power Point presentation for the BeltLine advisory committee to give to the City Council later this month. I might have to give the presentation myself (a real motivation to do a good job, I can assure you), but I'm likely to be out of town on business that week (part of that thriving-during-hard-times thing).

Finishing the presentation, I then had to reply to several emails concerning the still on-going controversies regarding the City's plans to pave over our neighborhood park and then write a settlement offer to a yard contractor with whom I have a payment dispute. And then shop for groceries. And pay some bills.

And post to my blog.

None of this is a burden and all of it is welcome (even paying my bills), but it keeps me busy. Tonight I can unwind with some supermarket sushi, Game 5 of the NBA Playoffs and the season premier of True Blood. Jehovah might have rested on the seventh day, but Shokai can't afford to.

Friday, June 12, 2009

How Much Fun Is This?

video

Is there anyone in this band who looks old enough that you'd serve them a drink without checking their ID? I have socks older than these guys. And when they sing "I've been a sinner all my life," I have to wonder, how long has this been going on? Two, maybe three, years?

But it's probably the guilelessness of youth that allow them to overcome the old MTV cliche of the frontman in a hospital gown and straightjacket singing "Rock and roll is dead. I probably should've stayed in school." And while I can't quite believe him when he claims, "If they listened to the words they'd find the message tucked beneath," he really sells the lines, "We don't do it for the glory, we don't do it for the money, we don't do it for the fame."

Rock and roll is not dead - it's alive and well and forever young and apparently thriving in, um, Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Sports


Way down deep in the lost photographic archives of Water Dissolves Water, I came across this picture from 2005, uploaded but never posted, saved as a draft. I have no idea what I had intended to convey with this pic. Maybe I should incorporate it into one of my random picture grids.

Sports. That's what I want to talk about tonight, and that's what the lead picture should convey. Typically, when I blog about sports, I post one of my watercolor-altered photo manipulations, but I'll break with precedent tonight and stick with the gothic singer and his hirsute drummer.

I grew up on Long Island and lived most of the first 21 years of my life there, leaving long enough only to graduate from high school in northern New Jersey before landing back on the Island. But for all of those years, I felt no allegiance or identification with any New York metropolitan sports team; in fact, I didn't have any particular interest in professional sports at all during that time.

Since then, I lived in Boston for four years, just long enough to get through college, and then Atlanta for five years, Albany, New York for six years, Pittsburgh for one year, and then Atlanta again for the past 17 years. Based on that biography, one would think that I'd either be an Atlanta sports fan or a holdover New York fan from my childhood, but the fact is that my allegiance has been to Boston teams ever since I moved there back in the summer of '76. Logic cannot explain my allegiance, but then the heart can have its reasons that reason can never know.

So last evening, after a full day of work, an after-hours Beltline advisory board committee meeting, and an evening meet-and-greet for my local City Council candidate (go, Yolanda!), I unwound at home and enjoyed the spectacle of the Boston Red Sox beating the New York Yankees for the eighth consecutive time - and third series sweep - of the season.

Between innings, I watched the Orlando Magic, the team that vanquished my Celtics from the play offs, give the Lakers a difficult time in Game 4 of the NBA Finals. The Magic didn't win, but I cheered for them on the logic that the team that beat my team should go on and prove that they are the best in the league. Plus I think that the Magic's Dwight Howard, an Atlanta high-school prodigy, is a whole lot more likable than Kobe Bryant, but maybe that's just an Atlanta bias showing.

It might surprise some to hear a Zen student and self-described lay monk pick and choose sides in a sporting event - after all, we're all about equanimity and non-attachment, right? But a self-aware and non-dualistic approach to watching athletics actually enhances one's enjoyment of the event, not detracts from it. Plus, if your team loses, acceptance of impermanence takes away a lot of the sting.

So my advise to Yankee fans is to start meditating - it's going to be a long season.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Pico Iyer and Greensmile On Greed

"I left my comfortable job and life to live for a year in a temple on the backstreets of Kyoto. My high-minded year lasted all of a week, by which time I’d noticed that the depthless contemplation of the moon and composition of haiku I’d imagined from afar was really more a matter of cleaning, sweeping and then cleaning some more. But today, more than 21 years later, I still live in the vicinity of Kyoto, in a two-room apartment that makes my old monastic cell look almost luxurious by comparison. I have no bicycle, no car, no television I can understand, no media — and the days seem to stretch into eternities, and I can’t think of a single thing I lack."
So wrote journalist and author Pico Iyer in a recent on-line op-ed at NewYorkTimes.com. "I’m no Buddhist monk," he continued, but "I decided that, for me at least, happiness arose out of all I didn’t want or need, not all I did." Happiness, he concludes, comes most freely when it isn’t pursued.

"I’m not sure how much outward details or accomplishments ever really make us happy deep down," Iyer writes. "The millionaires I know seem desperate to become multimillionaires, and spend more time with their lawyers and their bankers than with their friends (whose motivations they are no longer sure of). And I remember how, in the corporate world, I always knew there was some higher position I could attain, which meant that, like Zeno’s arrow, I was guaranteed never to arrive and always to remain dissatisfied."

Greed isn't good, it doesn't get us what we want. Greed just creates more desire, plunging us into an endless cycle of craving and suffering.“I call that man rich,” Henry James’s Ralph Touchett observes in “Portrait of a Lady,” “who can satisfy the requirements of his imagination.”

But not only the rich suffer from their wealth, as we're learning now. When the rich pay for more than they need, the poor wind up pay more for what they need. Commenting on the ethics of greed, Greensmile notes, "Whenever someone, enabled by their wealth to do such things, buys more of the limited and exhaustible necessities than they need, be it land, water, food, fuel or whatever, they bid the price of those resources out of the reach of someone else who was on the verge of not affording the bare minimum . . . The merit of having a plan for more sustained or broadly beneficial use of a resource is effectively nil under the reward schemes of our economy."

Less altruistic behavior is a common reaction to a scarcity of resources, but we make it worse with an economics that artificially worsens that scarcity by enabling some of us to hoard. The power to diminish the well being of others is not the advertised face of wealth.

Elsewhere, Greensmile notes, "The explosion of private debt enabled the massive current of nonexistent wealth to flow from banks to consumers back to banks with the result that only those who stood astride the stream pocketing interest and fees were left with real wealth."

Pico Iyer does not claim to be a Buddhist monk and does not appreciate renunciation just for the sake of renunciation. But in his simple life, he may have found the remedy for this greedy materialism. In New York, he notes, "a part of me was always somewhere else, thinking of what a simple life in Japan might be like. Now I’m there, I find that I almost never think of Rockefeller Center or Park Avenue at all."

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

We're Number Two!

Atlanta is the nation’s second most dangerous city according to an independent analysis of FBI crime statistics. The ranking, derived by dividing the total crimes detailed in the FBI’s report by city population, put Atlanta’s per-capita crime rate at 16 percent. Memphis claimed the Number One spot at 18 percent.

Violent crime in Atlanta decreased 8.3 percent in 2008 compared with 2007, with 672 fewer such incidents. However, property crimes rose 7.6 percent - burglaries and larcenies were both on the rise, the FBI said. Nationwide, a decrease of 1.6 percent was reported.

After Memphis and Atlanta, America's least safe cities were San Antonio, Detroit and Milwaukee. The safest cites, in order of decreasing crime rate, were:
  1. New York City, with a per-capita crime rate of only 4.2 percent;
  2. San Jose, Calif.;
  3. Los Angeles;
  4. San Diego;
  5. El Paso, Texas;
  6. Honolulu;
  7. Denver;
  8. Boston;
  9. Las Vegas; and
  10. Louisville, Ky., which had a 10 percent per-capita crime rate.

Whether perception or reality, crime has become a major concern for Atlantans, and it’s emerged as the leading issue in the upcoming mayoral election.

The head of Atlanta’s Police Foundation said he’s more worried about future results. The city had 1,784 officers in 2008 — “the most officers we ever had,” said David Wilkinson, president and CEO of the APF. “That is why the city had a good year last year with crime statistics. Since that time, with budget cuts and police furloughs, we’re in a very dangerous situation right now.”


Update: The morning after I posted this, the newspaper reported that police found the murdered body of a homeless man behind our local elementary school.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Dogen instructed,

It is rather easy to lay down one’s own life, and cut off one’s flesh, hands, or feet in an emotional outburst. Considering worldly affairs, we see many people do such things even for the sake of attachment to fame and personal profit.

Yet it is most difficult to harmonize the mind, meeting various things and situations moment by moment. A student of the Way must cool his mind as if he were giving up his life, and consider if what he is about to say or do is in accordance with reality or not. If it is, he should say or do it.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Considering Mumon's comment on last Thursday's post, I think that I did not make myself clear. I don't consider Zen or Tibetan or any other form of Buddhism to be any "better" or "worse" than any other form. I see differences in the forms of practice, and I wanted to watch the movie "Unmistaken Child" in order to observe the way and demeanor of the central monk character to become more comfortable and familiar with forms of practice I do not now fully understand.

Zen Master Dogen, the founder of the Soto School of Zen Buddhism, did not even believe that there were separate sects of Buddhism, including a "Zen sect," much less a "Soto school of the Zen sect." In Butsudo, he points out that from the Buddha onward, there was simply a transmission of the buddha-way, without school or affiliation. When the Buddha held up a flower and Mahakasyapa smiled, the Buddha did not say, "I pass Zen Buddhism on to you," or "I pass Tibetan Buddhism on to you," or for that matter, even utter the term "Buddhism." All Buddhist teachers around the world trace their lineage back to the original transmission. Dogen asserted that those who say there are separate sects do not understand Buddhism and are not themselves successors to the Buddha.

But as I said the other day, Buddhism has assimilated the various cultures it has encountered (some might say various cultures have assimilated Buddhism upon encountering it), and forms of practice in Japan are different from forms of practice in Tibet, and both of these are different from forms of practice in southeast Asia. The challenge to us modern-day, information-age practioners is to separate the buddha-dharma from the culture that preserved it, even while embracing and accepting the traditions and rituals of that culture.

The Dalai Lama is the head of the so-called Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism. I see in Wikipedia that the Gelugpa, also known as the Yellow Hat sect, is a school of Buddhism founded by Tsongkhapa (1357–1419), a philosopher and Tibetan religious leader. Tsongkhapa taught that compassion and insight into wisdom, two key aspects of the spiritual path, must be rooted in a wholehearted wish for liberation and impelled by a genuine sense of renunciation.

By the end of 16th century, following strife among the sects of Tibetan Buddhism, the Gelug school emerged dominant. From the 17th century until the Chinese takeover in 1949, the Dalai Lamas held political control over central Tibet. In the course of this reign, other schools were forcibly converted to the Gelug tradition, along with many monasteries. Internal power struggles were also not uncommon and there are stories of one lama poisoning or imprisoning another.

In addition to the Dalai Lama, among the many other lineage holders of the Gelug are the successive incarnations of the Panchen Lama, the Chagkya Dorje Chang, Ngachen Könchok Gyaltsen, Kyishö Tulku Tenzin Thrinly, Jamyang Shepa, Phurchok Jampa Rinpoche, Jamyang Dewe Dorje, Takphu Rinpoche, Khachen Yeshe Gyaltsen, and many others (spell-check had a field day with that paragraph!).

As I said last week, I am most perplexed by this emphasis on reincarnation. My Zen teacher encourages me to keep an open mind on this issue and not cling to my own viewpoint, and asks if there were no reincarnation, how else can accumulated karma be worked out? I understand that the Dalai Lama is considered as the reincarnation of the bodhisattva Chenrezig, who chose to remain on earth to help people achieve enlightenment. If a bodhisattva vows to forego entering nirvana until all other sentient beings do so first, how else but through reincarnation can the vow be kept when death inevitably occurs?

For centuries, the selection of the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama has been steeped in Tibetan mysticism. After the death of the 13th Dalai Lama in 1933, senior lamas journeyed on horseback to the sacred lake of Lhamo Lhatso, not far from Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. There, they said, they received a vision that pointed to eastern Tibet as the site where the reincarnation would be found. Earlier, a medium of the Nechung Oracle, the mountain god that serves as the state fortuneteller, was said to have turned eastward in a trance. Three search parties were dispatched; one identified a boy in a farming village as the reincarnation. The boy, Lhamo Dhondrub, had to prove his worth by, among other things, picking out objects belonging to the 13th Dalai Lama, including spectacles, rosary beads and a walking stick. He was enthroned as the Dalai Lama in 1940.

According to an article in today's New York Times (where I got much of the information above), all that is about to change as the 14th Dalai Lama and his followers in exile in India compete with the Chinese government for control of how the 15th Dalai Lama will be chosen. The issue is urgent for Tibetans because the current Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of all Tibetans and the charismatic face of the exile movement, has had recent bouts of ill health. He turns 74 in July.

Both the Chinese and the Tibetan exiles are bracing for an almost inevitable outcome: the emergence into the world of dueling Dalai Lamas — one chosen by the exiles, perhaps by the 14th Dalai Lama himself, and the other by Chinese officials.

In an interview late last month with the Times, the Dalai Lama said that all options for choosing his reincarnation were open, including ones that break from tradition. That could mean that the next Dalai Lama could be found outside of Tibet, might be a woman, or even be named while the 14th Dalai Lama was still alive. Meanwhile, the Chinese government has already enacted a law in 2007 that says all reincarnations of senior lamas must be approved by the government.

The politics, the intrigue, the mysticism, divination, and astrology are all part of Tibetan culture. Zen comes with its own baggage (oriyoki, anybody?). But the buddha-dharma exists separate from this cultural milieu, although all cultures that have served as vehicles to keep the buddha-dharma alive should be themselves cherished and respected. This umbrella is very large.