Thursday, November 26, 2009

My Thanksgiving Tradition

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Thanks for the wild turkey and the passenger pigeons, destined to be shit out through wholesome American guts.

Thanks for a continent to be spoiled and poisoned.

Thanks for Indians to provide a modicum of challenge and danger.

Thanks for vast herds of bison to kill and skin, leaving their carcasses to rot.

Thanks for bounties on wolves and coyotes.

Thanks for the American dream to vulgarize and falsify until the bare lies shine through.

Thanks for the KKK, for nigger-killing lawmen feelin' their notches, for decent church-going women with their mean, pinched, bitter, evil faces.

Thanks for "Kill a Queer for Christ" stickers.

Thanks for laboratory AIDS.

Thanks for Prohibition and the War Against Drugs.

Thanks for a country where nobody's allowed to mind his own business.

Thanks for a nation of finks.

Yes, thanks for all the memories . . . ("Alright, let's see your arms"). . . ("You always were a headache and you always were a bore")

Thanks for the last and greatest betrayal of the last and greatest of human dreams.

William S. Burroughs (foreground) with Alan Ginsberg and Zenshin Philip Whalen.

Burroughs protecting the dharma.

Burroughs reminding us of impermanence.

Okay, this one is just plain cool.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Notes

1.
"Surfing and climbing are both useless sports. You get to be conquistadors of the useless. You climb to the summit and there is nothing there. And you could hike to the top from another direction. How you get there is the important part. It's the same with surfing." - Yvon Chouinard
It's the same, I would add, with zazen. A useless activity. That is not to say that it does not have merit. In fact, it's merit lies in its very uselessness.

2.

Having said that, today is jump day - the day of my vacation when I get to fly from Atlanta to the frigid latitudes of Manchester, New Hampshire for a few days. Actually, the forecast for the week (mostly rainy, highs in the mid 50s, lows in the low 40s) is exactly what we're having right now in Atlanta, although I expect the temperatures to have a bit more "bite" to them there than they do here. I will be staying at my sister's house in Methuen, Massachusetts and spending the Thanksgiving holiday there with her and her husband and our mother.

3.

Eliot the cat is in a kennel for the week while I'm away - his first experience with that. While it seems kinder than leaving him home alone and unattended for five days, I don't think he's going to like the experience.

Yesterday, I tried an experiment and let him use the trap door for the first time since I shut it down last spring. I figured that with autumn here, there was less prey for him to drag back into the house, but within 90 minutes of letting him out, he "rewarded" me by bringing a live chipmunk into the house, which immediately escaped and hid in my shoe closet. I flushed it out with a broom and chased it out an open door, and shut the trap door again.

4.

Which reminds me that my experiment with vegetarianism is continuing, although with occasional lapses. I ate a chicken sandwich for lunch one day last week as I rushed from one meeting to the next, with little time to seek out vegetarian fare. Old habits die hard. And I cleaned my refrigerator out of the remaining two meals that contained some chicken. After all, I reasoned, the chickens have already been killed - wouldn't it be even worse to then throw away the meal that they died to provide for me? And last Friday, I shared in the office Thanksgiving meal, so as not to insult their effort in putting the feast together. That might sound like a lot of back-sliding and it may be, but all my other meals over the past 12 days have been meat-free and my refrigerator is now devoid of any further temptation, although I will be eating turkey over the Thanksgiving holiday.

5.

Impermanence is everywhere: I see that I have now used up 20% of my Blogger file capacity. Since that 20% has lasted me for 5 years, at this rate, I will have to stop blogging in 20 years (should I live so long). However, it was not until relatively recently that I started posting large-megabyte videos, so my burn rate over the past year has been quite a bit higher than before. I may have only 10 years left to this blog. Although even that seems far off, and it is, the finite capacity is a reminder that everything eventually comes to an end, and that I should use the remaining file capacity wisely and say only that which needs to be said (whatever that is).


Monday, November 23, 2009

In an evening talk, Dogen said,
With regard to actions and speech in society, today in this country many people are concerned with personal fame and reputation. They think good-bad, right-wrong, and consider that if they do one thing others will think well of them or if they do something else others will think poorly of them. They even worry about the future. This is entirely wrong. People in the secular world are not necessarily good.

Let people think whatever they may think. Let them even call you crazy. If you spend your whole life practicing in accordance with the Buddha-Way and refrain from what goes against the buddha-dharma, you needn’t worry about what people think about you.

Tonsei (retreat from the world) means being free from the sentiments of worldly people. Just learn about the deeds of the buddhas and patriarchs and about the compassion of the bodhisattvas, repent of your actions which are secretly illuminated by various devas and protective deities, and go on practicing in accordance with the Buddha’s regulations. You needn’t care about anything else.

On the other hand, it is wrong to shamelessly indulge yourself and do evil things, trying to excuse yourself on the grounds that it does not matter if others think ill of you. Just practice wholeheartedly in accordance with the buddha-dharma, paying no attention to how others see you. In the buddha-dharma such indulgence and shamelessness is prohibited.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Can Meditation Curb Heart Attacks?

"Can Meditation Curb Heart Attacks?" asked a recent headline in the NY Times. According to staff writer Roni Caryn Rabin, recent research suggests that meditation may indeed be good for the heart. "Findings from a study presented last week at an American Heart Association meeting in Orlando suggest that meditation may have real therapeutic value for high-risk people with established coronary artery disease."

After following about 200 patients for an average of five years, researchers said, the high-risk patients who meditated cut their risk of heart attacks, strokes and deaths from all causes roughly in half compared with a group of similar patients who were given more conventional education about healthy diet and lifestyle.

Among the roughly 100 patients who meditated, there were 20 heart attacks, strokes and deaths; in the comparison group, there were 32. The meditators tended to remain disease-free longer and also reduced their systolic blood pressure by five millimeters of mercury, on average.

“We found reduced blood pressure that was significant – that was probably one important mediator,” said Dr. Robert Schneider, director of the Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention, a research institute based at the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, who presented the findings. The study was conducted at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, in collaboration with the institute.

Dr. Schneider's study focused on the practice of transcendental meditation, but my own experience confirms that the same or similar results manifest from zen meditation (zazen). Before I started practicing, every annual physical I had indicated that my blood pressure was too high and that I needed to reduce my cholesterol. Some routine were these warnings that I had assumed that the guidance values for blood pressure and cholesterol had been set unrealistically low, and that no one could be expected to meet the levels. However, since I started zazen practice, every exam that I've had has shown blood pressure and cholesterol levels at or below the threshold numbers, despite the advancing years. No factor other than zazen, such as changes in diet or exercise, can account for this change.

Dr. Schneider said other benefits of meditation might follow from stress reduction, which could cause changes in the brain that cut stress hormones like cortisol and dampen the inflammatory processes associated with atherosclerosis.

“What is it about stress that causes cardiovascular disease?” said Dr. Theodore Kotchen, associate dean for clinical research at the Medical College of Wisconsin. “Hormones, neural hormones, cortisol, catecholamines — all tend to be elevated in stress. Could they in some way be contributing to cardiovascular disease? Could a reduction in these hormones with meditation be contributing to reduction in disease? We can only speculate.”

Another recent study focusing on meditation, published in The American Journal of Hypertension, focused on a young healthy population. It found that stressed-out college students improved their mood through meditation, and those at risk for hypertension were able to reduce their blood pressure. Dr. Schneider was also involved in that study, which was carried out at American University in Washington and included 298 students randomly assigned to either a meditation group or a waiting list. Students who were at risk of hypertension and practiced meditation reduced systolic blood pressure by 6.3 millimeters of mercury and their diastolic pressure by 4 millimeters of mercury on average.

Use of so-called "brain drugs" such as Ritalin have reportedly skyrocketed among college students trying to get an edge in their competitive quest for graduate, medical, or law school admittance. These drugs reportedly improve their concentration and mental stamina, allowing them to study harder and longer.

I suggest that they consider meditation rather than drugs, just as some students of past generations turned to Zen as an alternative to psychedelic drugs in their quest for ultimate truths.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Notes

1.

Today was the first day of my nine-day Thanksgiving vacation. I'll be travelling in a few days. but today I celebrated by spending the afternoon at a chan temple (chan is the Chinese form of Zen, the ancestor tradition to the younger Japanese lineage). The temple was new to me, but it had apparently opened on the other side of the city about a year ago, and a friend had invited me to attend an introductory session there with him. It was a beautiful and ornate temple, at least by the austere standards of Zen. I always find it interesting to see Buddhism practiced in different ways, and today was no exception.

2.

In other news, Jessica Watson has crossed the Equator, a major milestone in her solo global circumnavigation. She reports, "No change that I can see. The water is still blue, the waves are still rolling and the wind still blowing." Crossing the Equator at least once is apparently a requirement for a voyage to be considered truly "around the world." As for the effects of isolation and silence, the other day she reported, "Not a real exciting day out here today. . . I actually slept through most of it. I'm becoming more and nocturnal lately because it's so much easier to get anything done when it cools down after the sunsets. It was good to get a few extra catnaps in while I've still got plenty of open water and nice conditions."

3.

According to my scrapbook, twenty years ago today, the Czech government was busy denying the killing of Martin Smid, a denial that turned out to actually be true, but the regime didn't have much credibility. 200,000 Czechs marched in Wenceslas Square, some carrying banners that read "Red Murderers to Court." In East Germany, 200,000 protesters marched in Leipzig, 100,000 in Dresden, 50,000 each in Halle and Karl-Marx-Stadt (think that city's name lasted much longer?), and 10,000 in Schwerin. But meanwhile in Romania, 71-year-old Nicolae Ceausescu gave a five-hour speech declaring that his country would not be following the other Eastern European nations along the paths toward democracy and freedom. He was to be overthrown, tried, and executed by Christmas Day.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Holiday in Berlin and The Velvet Revolution

According to the scrapbook of press clippings that I've kept since that time, 20 years ago today, some 10,000 people joined a pro-democracy demonstration in Leipzig. However, the protest organizers said that many skipped the rally to go shopping in West Germany, where approximately 1.6 million East Germans had spent the day shopping and sight-seeing. The shopping avenues of West Berlin had became crowded pedestrian malls for the day, and West Germans greeted their visitors with free lodging, well-stocked store shelves, and plain old curiosity. In all, East German authorities had issued over 10 million exit visas, or enough for 60 percent of the population to visit the West.

Pro-democracy supporters who were not out shopping that day also took to the streets in other cities. It was estimated that 22,000 people participated in rallies in Plauen, Eberswalde-Finow, and Suhl, East Germany.

The democracy movement was not confined to Germany. In Bulgaria, a crowd estimated at 50,000 shouted anti-communist slogans and burned portraits of the nation's ousted leader, Todor Zhivkov. In the biggest independent protest rally in the communist nation's history, the crowd called for an end to corruption, a release of political prisoners, guarantees for freedom of religion, and an end to police repression.

Meanwhile, more than half a million Latvians rallied for freedom from Soviet rule on the 71st anniversary of the former Baltic nation's 1918 declaration of independence. The peaceful demonstration stretched for two miles along the banks of the Daugave River in Riga, the capital.

But all was not peaceful everywhere. In Czechoslavakia, violence erupted on November 17 when 20,000 to 50,000 demonstrators who had been given permission to march as long as they avoided Wenceslas Square, a favorite site of previous demonstrations, disobeyed the order. As the crowd headed for the square, army troops in armored vehicles and police using tear gas and clubs broke up the protest. Red-bereted paratroopers of the Czech military forced the demonstrators down Narodni Street, where they were made to run a gauntlet while they were beaten. Seventeen people were injured, and it was later reported that a student from Charles University, Martin Smid, had been beaten to death. According to statements circulated by Smid's girlfriend, he was singled out for reasons unknown, and the police took him around to a dark side street and beat him with batons, then kicked him while he was on the ground.

Fortunately, it was later learned that the death was only a rumor. According to an article in last Tuesday's New York Times, although the crackdown had indeed been violent, no one, in fact, had died. However, the rumor nonetheless shocked many Czechs and is thought to have contributed to the fall of the Communist regime.

The next day, November 18, about 2,000 people, undaunted by the previous night's bloody confrontation, confronted the riot police in Wenceslas Square. The crown chanted, "freedom, freedom" and other slogans, observed a moment of silence, and laid candles and flowers at the foot of the statue of Saint Wenceslas in memory of the injured from the previous night before dispersing. At least three people were chased and beaten by the police and then taken away in vehicles.

By November 20, the number of peaceful protesters assembled in Prague had swollen to an estimated half-million, and the Velvet Revolution was underway.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Bow

So certain factions of the American right have got themselves all worked up again over President Obama bowing to a foreign ruler, this time, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan. This one hits a little close to home because, being a student of Zen, I know a thing or two about Japanese bowing customs.

The problem is that many Americans see a bow and then ascribe their own ideas as to what the act means and what the motivations were for the one who bowed. This is a fundamental problem. We see things not as they are but as we interpret them, providing our own narratives and interpretations to that which we perceive.

So certain people, mostly those who didn't like Obama anyway, see him bow and instead of thinking, "Oh, I see, he's visiting a foreign country and showing that he understands their customs and how things are done there. I get it - diplomacy," they instead think, "Look at him submissively admit that he's weaker and inferior to some foreign thug. The American President should bow to no one."

Indeed, in some western cultures, bowing is a symbol of submission, an acknowledgement of one's inferiority before a superior. "Bow down before the one you serve," it's been said. So their confusion is understood, but do they have to always view the rest of the world through the filters of their limited understanding?

In Japan, bowing is a mutual custom; both parties bow to one another in recognition of their shared nature. In Zen, we bow to figures of the Buddha and bodhisattvas, we bow to our teachers, we bow to each other. We put our left and right hands together in gassho - two dualities brought together into one unity, and bow. The bow has been interpreted many ways, as a pouring out of our ego from the top of our heads or a humble expression of our practice, but usually as a recognition of our shared Buddha nature. "I recognize the Buddha in you." As such, it's similar to the Sanskrit namaste, or "your true nature is the same as mine."

But mostly, a bow is just a bow. Our practice is to just bow and to leave our personal narratives and interpretations out of it - non-thinking.

Not that I'm reading any of that into Obama's bow. We was engaging, I believe, in some crafty diplomacy, showing both the Emperor and the Japanese people that he understands their ways, respects their customs, and is willing to share their practices. Quite unlike a certain rodeo clown who had visited them in the past, or his father, who once famously vomited on their Prime Minister.

But these Texas oilmen understood the Saudis and their customs, and showed the appropriate fealty and humility as needed, much as a junkie shows respect to his dealer. Where was the criticism then?

Monday, November 16, 2009

In an evening talk, Dogen said,
“Students of the Way, it is of no value to be known by people in the secular world as a person of wisdom or wide knowledge. If there is even a single person who is really seeking the Way, you should not refuse to explain the dharma of the buddhas and patriarchs to whatever extent you are able. Even if someone has made an attempt on your life, if he asks sincerely to hear the true Way, you must not hold a grudge but explain the dharma to him. Except in such cases, it is entirely useless to display your knowledge of the scriptures of the Exoteric or Esoteric teachings or of non-Buddhist texts. If someone comes and asks you about these things, you needn’t feel bad at all in replying that you don’t know. Since you feel ashamed of being despised for your ignorance and you consider yourself stupid, if you study the Buddhist and non-Buddhist classics widely to become a man of knowledge and study various things to understand secular affairs or to show your knowledge, this is a terrible mistake. This is truly meaningless for studying the Way. On the other hand, pretending not to know what you know is also wrong precisely because it is a difficult pose to take and is unnatural, creating a respectable image and giving an appearance of humility. It is best not to know from the outset.

In my childhood, I was fond of studying non-Buddhist classics and other texts. Until I went to China and received the dharma transmission, I had been reading both Buddhist and non-Buddhist books, in order to become familiar with the local Chinese language. I thought it was important, and in fact, it was an extraordinary thing in secular society. People also appreciated it as unusual and wonderful.

Although in a sense it was necessary, when I reflect on it now, it was a hindrance to studying the Way. When you read Buddhist scriptures, if you understand the meaning of the sentences phrase by phrase, you will grasp the reality expressed through the words. However, people tend to pay attention to the writing styles—such as antitheses, rhythms, and tones. They judge them as good or bad, and then think about the meaning as an afterthought. Therefore, it is better to understand the meaning from the beginning without caring about such things. In writing dharma-discourses as well, trying to write in accordance with the rules of rhetoric or being unable to write without thinking of rhyming and maintaining proper tones are the fault of having too much knowledge.

Let the language and style develop as they may; what is most important is to write down in detail the truth you want to communicate. Even though people in future generations might think that your rhetorical technique is poor, it is essential for the Way to enable them to understand reality. It is the same for other fields of study.

I have heard that Ku-Amidabutsu of Koya was an eminent scholar of both Exoteric and Esoteric Buddhism. After he abandoned his temple and entered the Nenbutsu School, a Shingon priest visited him and asked about the doctrine of the Esoteric teachings of the school. He replied, “I have forgotten everything. I don’t remember a single word.” Thus, he did not answer the priest’s question. This should be the ideal bodhi-mind. He must have remembered something, but he did not talk about things he thought were useless. I think that people who wholeheartedly practice nenbutsu must be like this. Students today should also cultivate this attitude. Even if you used to know about the philosophy of the teaching-schools, it would be better to forget it completely. Needless to say, you should not begin studying it now.

People of the Way who truly devote themselves to practice should not read even the collections of the recorded saying of the Zen masters. You should understand through this example the uselessness of other kinds of books. (Shobogenzo Zuimonki, 2-11)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Chattanooga Cash & Carry

This old picture, which I've used all year to indicate that "Today, I went up to Chattanooga and practice with the Zen Group up there" is now officially replaced with this new picture, a photo of some establishment called "Chattanooga Cash & Carry."

A little more random, a little less explicit. But this picture of an arbitrary Tennessee warehouse will from now on signify that today I went up to Chattanooga and practiced with the Zen Group up there.

On this particular morning, I listened to a podcast on the way up by Bay Area Insight Meditation teacher Jack Kornfield, and managed to work this story that he told, a Swedish folk tale, into my talk:

One night, at a remote farmhouse in the far North Country, the fearsome dragon Ar appeared and threatened to destroy the house unless they paid him some sort of tribute (Swedish dragons apparently do that sort of thing). The father said they were just poor farmers and didn't own anything of value. They scarcely made more money than a Chinese wood-cutter. What could they possibly offer to a dragon?

Ar suggested that he might spare their home if they gave him their daughter's hand in marriage. This was a most unusual and unexpected offer, but the father said to let him think that over for a while, and finally, parents being as they sometimes are, he agreed. The couple called their daughter down from her room to break the news to her.

Naturally, she was aghast, but being a wise and virtuous daughter, she abided by her parent's wishes. But before the wedding, she snuck off into the village and sought out the counsel of a wise old woman, one who had a dozen children of her own and several dozen grandchildren. The old woman told her not to worry, as she knew a trick for just this very situation, and whispered a secret plan to her.

On her wedding day, the daughter wore a lovely wedding dress, but beneath that dress, at the old woman's advise, she wore another wedding dress and another beneath that. In fact, she had worn 10 dresses in all. The ceremony itself went off without a hitch (if you can consider having a dragon in the place of the groom and the bride bundled beneath 10 dresses "hitchless") and afterwords, Ar took his new bride back to his lair.

So on their wedding night, the daughter asked the dragon if he wished her to remove her wedding dress so that they could consummate their vows. "Yes," the dragon replied, "I would like that very much."

"Well, then," the daughter said, "All I ask is for you to also remove your clothes at the same time as I, and to take off an item for each one I remove. Can you promise me that?"

"I promise," said the dragon, who probably would have agreed to anything in his excitement. But dragons, it should be noted, are famous for always keeping their promises, and his bride new that she could trust him to keep his word.

So the new bride removed her dress and the dragon took off whatever it is that dragons wear to weddings. But when he finished, he was surprised to see that his bride had another dress on beneath.

So as she removed her second dress, the dragon was forced to keep his promise and being a scaly dragon, shed a layer of skin as snakes and some reptiles are known to be able to do. But when he looked up, he saw that she was now wearing a third dress.

The second layer of skin was more difficult to remove than the first, and his exposed dragon-flesh was raw and quite sensitive. And as she took off her fourth dress, he had to use his claws to tear at his sensitive flesh, but he had made a promise and was, shall we say, highly motivated to have her continue.

So she took off another dress, and another, and another, and each time the dragon tore away more and more of himself. Soon, the daughter started to see a real change in his appearance. And by the time she finally took off the last and final dress, what emerged from the last layer of dragon flesh was not a monster, but a handsome prince, as is so often the case in these kinds of stories.

And the prince came to her and they followed the old woman's last instructions, and ultimately had a dozen children of their own.

The End.

Friday, November 13, 2009

How Paul Weller Saved My Life (Friday Night Videos)

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On an emotionally dark and dreadful day in 1987, one what was then quite possibly the worst day so far in my life, certainly in my personal Top 10 list of bad days now, as my car slowly descended the winding roads out of the mountains and the tears were still drying on my cheeks, my attention was unexpectedly caught by a song that seemed to suddenly come bursting out of the car speakers. Buoyed by the driving force of a full horn section and a soulful Hammond organ, a voice belted out, "You don't have to take this crap, you don't have to sit back and relax," to which the chorus responded, "You can actually try changing things." Intrigued, I cranked up the volume.

I have no idea why, but as corny as it sounds, those lines at that moment persuaded me not to let the car drift over the side rail and crash down into the valley below. And I'm embarrassed now to admit that I was embarrassed then that the words were sung not by Joe Strummer, Johnny Cash or Robert Nestor Marley, but by Paul Weller.

In tribute, here's The Jam and some Style Council.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Wood-Cutter

Consider a rural wood-cutter, one living in China about 1, 000 years ago. He would probably be very poor, a guy who didn't have an saw or an ax or a team of horses. I've heard Portland Zen teacher Hogen Bays ask us to imagine if you were this wood-cutter 1,000 years ago, how much wood could you cut? And with what? And how would you carry it? And how far would you have to carry it? And how much would it weigh? You can't carry that much - if you're a strong, vital, well-fed person, maybe 100, 150 pounds. Day after day. Several trips a day. How much?

So what this ancient wood-cutter would do is go out into the forest, far off into the woods, and he would find wood that he could break off, wood that he could pick up. Then he would make the wood into bundles and he would tie them together and put them on his back and walk, who knows, maybe five miles back to the village with his bundle of sticks. Day after day.

So this is a wood cutter, just trying to support himself and maybe his mother by carrying his bundles of wood. But because he was doing just this - simply going out, picking up wood, bringing the bundles back - out, pick up wood, bring these bundles back - his mind was pretty clear. He was uneducated, he didn't have a whole lot on his mind, and he pretty much knew what he had to do. His mind was pretty clear, his heart was pretty open. He was pretty much at ease, accepting his lot in life. And as he went back and forth he may even have hummed a little, sung a little tune. And he would go back and forth, simply going about his singing and carrying wood and getting paid and supporting himself.

As Hogen tells it, one day, he went to a temple and dropped off a load of wood. As he was coming out of the temple, he was feeling really good - he'd been paid, actually made his food for the day. He had done a pretty good job. He was relaxed in mind, and as he was walking out of the temple door, he heard a monk chanting a sutra out loud. He heard the line from the Heart Sutra, "Form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form, Form itself is emptiness, emptiness itself form." He heard those particular lines and somehow something went "pop" in his mind, and he said "Oh, I understand. Oh, that's just talking about life, that's not anything special. That's just 'this is form, this is empty.' Oh, of course."

But he actually got it. Somehow, it hit him really deeply in his heart - it wasn't just an intellectual thing that he had read in a book (he couldn't read) but somehow, it was just, "Got it!" He really saw it, he really felt it, he really experienced it. "Oh, how amazing," he thought, "How wonderful."

One of our problems in these modern times is that our lives don't allow us the quietness, the stillness of the wood-cutter. We're driving cars, talking on cell phones, busy at our computers, rushing to and fro, and our minds don't have the chance to settle into the wood-cutter's clarity. We have to go out of our way to seek out solitude and quiet, and then that activity itself becomes just another distraction, another thing to do. All this despite the fact that some pretty amazing things can happen when we just settle down a little.

I've been following the blog of Jessica Watson, the young girl who at 16 is attempting to be the youngest person to sail solo around the world. Imagine the hyper-kinetic mind of a teenage girl, and then put that mind all alone in a little sailboat out in the middle of the world's largest ocean, the Pacific. Last week, only about two weeks into her journey, she wrote, "I've pretty much spent most of the day in my bunk reading and dozing, popping my head out the companionway to keep a look out and to tweak the sails. All the R&R today has left me feeling a lot better, so I'm full of energy again this evening, playing music and sitting up on deck watching all the shades of grey turn to pink and orange." This at only 2,000 miles into a 23,000 mile voyage, and she's already entering into a contemplative space.

This evening, I saw Jane Goodall on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show. She's out promoting her new book, and at 75 she had more energy and life in her than four-fifths of the 20-something actresses and singers and athletes who've appeared on the show. There was a vitality to her, a presence, the kind of spark in the eyes that I've seen before in Zen Masters. Of course, here's a woman who spent many years alone in the jungle with only the companionship of chimpanzees, and it's clear that the solitude has affected her in a most extraordinary and wonderful way.

Now, I wouldn't go so far as to say that Jessica Watson and Jane Goodall have become enlightened by their experiences, but neither will I say they haven't or won't. I have no way of knowing. Also, one can't deny that in all likelihood they were probably pretty extraordinary women to start with - it's not everyone who decides to sail solo around the world at 16 or to move to the jungle with a tribe of chimpanzees.

But it's clear that some time to quiet the mind can have a profoundly positive effect on us. Like the woodcutter's mind and heart, ours, too, can become clear and open. This weekend, take the time to do nothing for a while. You can thank me later.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Fair Use

Blogging can be a mysterious process - I rarely know for sure who reads this, when it's read, or where in the world the reader is. This is not necessarily a bad thing - I purposely took down my hit counter so that knowledge of my readership wouldn't influence my writing. But the mind still wonders. I don't know who reads this (who are you?) and I don't know what my readers do with the words that I post.

So it surprises me sometimes to surf around the Buddhist sector of cyberspace and come across quotes from my own blog. For instance, one day I came across a blog called Bigfoot Zen, and found a repost of something that I wrote, like, four years ago. What's even more coincidental - dare I say synchronous? - is that Bigfoot's two most recent posts discuss the first two Zen books that I read after I started practicing. To this day, I've probably bought at least a half dozen copies of Steve Hagen's Buddhism Plain and Simple for various friends. Maybe Bigfoot is my former self, brought to the present from 10 years ago in some sort of strange time-warp . . . . or maybe I'm really Bigfoot, somehow projected into the future.

("There is the theory of the Moebius, a twist in the fabric of space where time becomes a loop.")

Then there's Cappella's Blogspot, "leeched stuff you people wouldn't know." His most recent post (at least at the time of this posting), is a snippet of a conversation I heard with Zen Master Dae Gok last summer, not the stop-me-in-my-tracks "But you already know about deception," but his "What would you call a conversation where both persons were not judging or weighing the words of the other?"

Don't get me wrong. I have absolutely no problem with anyone quoting me, whether they attribute it to me or not. In fact, I find it somewhat gratifying to know that someone, somewhere, actually read this stuff and cared enough to re-post my words elsewhere. And I'm in no position to judge - hell, this blog is nothing if not one big massive copyright infringement (I've given up altogether on tracking where my pics come from and now just download and re-post them willy-nilly). If you come across an intellectual property of yours here, please consider it a compliment as I do when I find mine.

Sincerity is the flattest form of mimicry.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Meat Is Murder

Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, has a new book out, a non-fiction, called Quitting Meat: A Process of Change. The book reportedly makes an impassioned case for re-examining our attitudes toward animals, arguing against eating meat based on the very simple and obvious realization that it's wrong to kill animals for food.

"If animal welfare matters to us, if the air and water matter, if swine flu and E. Coli matter, if global warming matters, if biodiversity matters, if rural communities matter," he recently wrote in the Huffington Post, then it's time to re-examine our attitudes toward eating meat.

Foer's position is that ultimately, we eat meat because we like to, and we devise all sorts of justifications afterward. For example, as a Buddhist, I recognize the interdependence of all life, but I can also see how we humans are not separate from the rest of the food chain. Killing is a fact of life, and as hard as I try to avoid it, I cannot. The wheat, corn and vegetables in my diet were once alive, but now are no more. Even if I resist the reflex to swat a flying insect, I cannot avoid accidentally inhaling microscopic bugs. Even my own blood is designed to kill, with its red cells and hemoglobin seeking out and destroying any foreign microbe, bacterium, or virus that's entered my body.

But that's just a rationalization and if I think about it at all it cannot justify allowing the barbaric and inhumane practices at our industrial farms and food-processing plants - the military-industrial slaughterhouse.

But still, I tell myself that even if I gave up meat entirely, I still have a pet cat to feed. His metabolism and body cannot eat anything other than meat, so I wind up buying him these little tins of diced halibut, chicken by-products, and smelly beef substances - "Fancy Feasts" of all varieties. I'm still funding the slaughterhouse. So why not just give in, I argue, and feed myself as well as long as I'm a customer anyway?

And then I can try and soothe my conscious somewhat by eating as low on the evolutionary tree as possible. I would never, ever eat a monkey or great ape, and generally eat fish or seafood more frequently than chicken, and chicken more frequently than beef or pork. And I would never eat my cat.

Cats have been called friends of the dharma, because they caught the mice that would nest in the sutras and scriptures in monasteries. The monks would not kill the mice themselves, but would keep cats to do the killing for them. "The monks of the East and the West Halls were arguing one day about a cat," a famous koan begins. I wonder if the argument was about the morality of killing by proxy.

Cats and dogs are cherished, mice are despised, and farm animals are pretty much forgotten. "How is it that Americans, so solicitous of the animals they keep as pets, are so indifferent toward the cows they cook for dinner?" Elizabeth Kolbert writes in her review of Foer's book in The New Yorker. "The answer cannot lie in the beasts themselves. Pigs, after all, are quite companionable, and dogs are said to be delicious." Indeed. "If we let dogs be dogs and breed without interference," Foer writes, "we would create a sustainable, local meat supply with low energy inputs that would put the most efficient grass-based farming to shame."

Relax. No one is advocating eating your pets, but instead just reflecting on our dualistic attitudes toward animals. In fact, I know that if I were, say, trapped at the bottom of a well with Eliot and knew we had no chance of rescue or escape, I would die of starvation first rather than eat him, even though I know full well that once I died he would probably devour my carcass. Of course, my decision would be informed by the knowledge that even if I were to have eaten him, I would just get hungry again later, but my suffering would be compounded by the knowledge of what I had done.

But that's my pet. Why is it that I do not have similar reservations about eating a cow? Or a chicken? Or a trout?

One reason, Foer notes, is that most of us have been eating meat in one form of another since we were kids. Foer writes that we got over our colds with chicken soup. We celebrated the Fourth of July with grilled burgers and hot dogs. We ate our grandmother's brisket. These things matter. As do our cravings. As does convenience. This is why resolving to stop eating meat is so difficult in the first place, and why maintaining the resolution is even harder. Mark Twain once said that quitting smoking is among the easiest things one can do - he did it all the time. Foer adds vegetarianism to that list of easy things.

When it comes to meat, Foer explains, change is almost always cast as an absolute. You're either a vegetarian or you're not. There's no two ways about it. It's a dualistic distinction, and I used to play off of it by telling people that I was a vegetarian who ate meat. "After all," I'd explain, "carnivores also eat vegetables. Why can't vegetarians eat meat?" The answer, obviously, is that vegetarianism is defined by that from which one abstains, while it's opposite is defined by what it includes. But why is that?

I've tried vegetarianism numerous times, most successfully, if success is defined as "long lasting," in the mid-1970s. But like many other resolutions, I broke down after one or two years, and found myself once again back at the slaughterhouse. Other, more recent attempts have counter-intuitively resulted in me gaining a lot of weight, as I filled myself with breads, pasta, and other starches, as well as fatty cheeses and nuts for protein. All that it took for me to go back to eating meat again was one glance at myself in the mirror coming out of the shower.

In his Huff Post piece, Foer considers not so much what inspires one to change, but what inspires one to remain changed. "It's easy and common to learn something---through an argument or fact, image or experience---and feel compelled to make different choices. But for how long? Change is inspiring, but only rarely durable. "

We can, however, realize change day by day. A few weeks before Thanksgiving isn't the best time to attempt to stop eating animals forever, but change doesn't have to be immediate and absolute. I successfully avoided eating animals all day today. I had a vegetarian burrito for lunch, and a fruit salad for dinner, but yesterday I was served a chicken sandwich at a business luncheon. I went with the flow and ate it. But that doesn't mean that I can stop my vigilance about what I eat, and what practices my purchases sustain, and my level of benevolence toward the creatures who share the world with us.

Monday, November 09, 2009

In an evening talk, Dogen said,

Do not expect to be respected by others unless you have true inner virtue. Since people in this country are ignorant of such virtue and praise others highly based only on their outward appearances, students without bodhi-mind are easily dragged down into the evil paths (the six realms of samsara), and become the kindred of demons. It is easy to be respected. To halfheartedly pretend to have abandoned your body and parted from the world is only a matter of outward appearance. Such is not a sincere attitude. One who appears to be an ordinary person of the world, and goes on harmonizing his inner mind is a person of true bodhi-mind.

Therefore, an Ancient said, “Empty inside, following along outside.” This means being without ego-centric mind inside and getting along with others outside. If you completely forget your own body and mind, enter into the buddha-dharma, and keep practicing in accordance with the laws of the buddha-dharma, you will be good both inwardly and outwardly in the present and the future.

Even though you have entered into the buddha-dharma and have abandoned yourself and the world, it is wrong to thoughtlessly abandon that which should not be abandoned. In this country, among those who are famous as men of the buddha-dharma or of bodhi-mind, there are some who do not consider how others see them and behave badly without any reason, saying they have abandoned the self. Or they do such things as becoming drenched while walking in the rain, and think they have become free of attachment to the world. They are entirely useless both inwardly and outwardly. Nevertheless, people in the world often consider them respectable and free from attachment to the ordinary world. (Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Chapter 2-10)

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Sweeping Health Care Reform Bill Passes House After Months Of Debate

Let us now praise the virtue of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Last night, the House narrowly passed a sweeping health-care reform bill, the Affordable Health Care for America Act, bringing America one step closer to finally guaranteeing health care for all its citizens, not just those who could afford it.

I recently characterized "selfless virtue" as generous, beneficent, kind, and cooperative. In passing this legislation, the House demonstrated all four of these qualities.

Not that all of the Representatives displayed those qualities. The bill passed only very narrowly, 220-215, and Georgia Representative Jack Kingston, who voted against it, was quoted in the New York Times saying, “This bill is a wrecking ball to the entire economy.” Fortunately, my elected representative in Congress, John Lewis, voted in favor of the bill, as did Sanford Bishop, who represents southwest Georgia.

By now, we've all heard the statistics - at 15.5% of GDP, America spends more per capita on health care than any other nation on Earth, yet we rank 40th in life expectancy, behind Cuba and Costa Rica. The American death rate per capita is higher than India's, and our infant mortality rate trails Canada's, Australia's, South Korea's and most of Europe's. Statistically, your chances of surviving birth and living a long life are significantly diminished if you had the misfortune of being born into the current American health-care system.

We've given the insurance companies and the private sector the chance to provide us with our health care with disastrous - one can even say fatal - results, so it's high time to try something else.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

History Lesson

Growing up as I did during the Cold War, I had assumed for the first 35 years of my life that, if other things didn't get me first, I would most likely burn to death in a seemingly inevitable thermonuclear war, along with most of the rest of humanity. The world political situation at the time seemed like the climax of a Quentin Tarantino film, with the world superpowers all pointing their guns at each other and loudly barking increasingly harsh rhetoric. It seemed obvious that sooner or later someone was going to blink and the shooting would begin, and when the smoke cleared there would be no one left standing.

So I followed the events of 1989 with great interest, and when I saw a bunch of protesters on CNN taking sledge hammers to the Berlin Wall, I realized that we might not all be doomed to a nuclear death after all (although we're all still going to eventually die, to be sure). Many have given credit to various world leaders, some citing Mikhail Gorbachev and others Ronald Reagan, but the credit might go to a now-obscure East German party official, Egon Krenz, who almost singlehandedly averted the firing of that dreaded first shot.

Gorbachev had set loose yearnings for change throughout Eastern Europe, resulting a series of rapid drives by Poland and Hungary toward Western styles of democracy, and by May of 1989, Hungary decided to dismantle the barbed wire from its border with Austria. But in East Germany, the old loyalists sat entrenched in their isolated villas on Lake Wandlitz, refusing to see any reason for change.

The East German citizens responded by increasing their flight to the West. East Germans were soon seeking asylum at West German embassies in Prague, in Budapest, and in East Berlin, and what was once a trickle - a few random citizens sneaking across the border - grew exponentially and with every week, more and more East Germans fled westward, especially through the now-open borders in Hungary. The flow grew to a flood and finally into a frenzied exodus.

By late August of 1989, thousands of East Germans were camped in Budapest seeking asylum. The Hungarians refused to send them home. On September 10, Budapest announced that it would allow the East Germans to go to the West, defying a 1967 agreement with East Berlin to prevent East Germans from doing so without East Berlin's authorization. Hungary's momentous decision marked the first time a Communist government determined that international covenants on human rights were more important than treaties with other Warsaw Pact nations. Eventually, more than 30,000 emigres swept out of East Germany through Hungary. All told, hundreds of thousands left after the exodus had begun.

Back in East Berlin, Communist Party leader Erich Honecker was struggling to maintain at least the appearance of control, especially with an upcoming visit to East Berlin by Soviet President Gorbachev to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic. Desperate for a solution, he granted permission on October 1 for the crowd of refugees to leave the West German Embassy in Prague before Gorbachev was to arrive. But that solution backfired because as soon as the first group left, more East Germans flooded the embassy forcing Honecker to authorize a second release, and finally to shut his southern border altogether.

Worse, the trains leaving for the West drew thousands of East Germans desperate to join their compatriots in their exodus to West Germany. Violent clashes erupted on October 4 between the police trying to clear the station in Dresden and East Germans trying to storm the trains.

When Gorbachev's visit finally occurred on October 6, crowds of East Germans took the streets of the capital, chanting "Gorby! Gorby!" and seeking any indication of his support for their situation. Although he tried not to inflame the situation, when he said that East Germany had to decide its own future for itself, it was perceived as a signal to many that Soviet troops would not interfere, and when he said that those who did not change with the times would see life punishing them, it was seen as a direct indictment of Honecker himself.

On Saturday night, October 7, 1989, as Gorbachev was heading back to Moscow, there were clashes in the streets between the police and protesters. Hundreds were beaten and jailed. The protests increased on Sunday night, spreading from East Berlin to Leipzig and Dresden.

By Monday, the tension was palpable. A weekly peace service at a church in Leipzig, which had become a launching point for broader protests, was expected to draw huge crowds that night. The government, with Gorbachev now out of the way, assembled a large force of soldiers, policemen and secret police agents in Leipzig, and issued them live ammunition with orders to shoot if necessary - a "Chinese solution" to the rising tide of discontent and protests. The order allowing open fire had reportedly been signed by Honecker himself.

But according to news accounts from that time, violence and killing were avoided at the last minute when Egon Krenz, the Politburo member in charge of security, personally flew to Leipzig and cancelled Honecker's order. Tens of thousands took to the streets of Leipzig that night and marched unmolested, without interference from the police. Due to Krenz's lone intervention, defying Party orders, what could have been a bloodbath as terrible as China's Tienanmen Square crackdown in June instead became a peaceful protest.

The "revolution from below" had begun. Within 10 days, Honecker was forced to resign and Krenz himself became the new Party chief, the head of state, and Chairman of the Defense Council. Within a month of the averted bloodbath, the Berlin Wall came down. In the following years, the U.S. and Russia began sincere negotiations on nuclear disarmament. Had Honecker succeeded with his plans for a bloody crackdown, there is no predicting how the world powers would have reacted and what the consequences might have been.

For his role in previous crimes of the East German regime, Krenz was sentenced to a six-and-a-half-year sentence for manslaughter after the German reunification. He served his time in the Berlin-Spandau Prison and was released in December 2003.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Thoughts On Virtue

"Virtue," is sometimes equated with chastity in western morality, but it can also be defined as a beneficial quality or power, a commendable quality or trait (merit), or the capacity to act (potency). I've been told that virtue is one of the most important concepts of Confucianism, where it can be understood as benevolence, kindheartedness, and generosity. In Buddhism, benevolence (helpful conduct), kind speech, generosity (selfless giving) and cooperation (sympathy) are known as the Four Exemplary Acts of a Bodhisattva. So merging Mahayana Buddhism with Confucianism, it can be said that the Bodhisattva manifests virtue.

I've also heard it said that an enlightened person is one who practices selflessness. Generosity and benevolence can certainly be thought of as selfless acts, as can cooperation and kind speech, so we can more of less equate virtue and selflessness.

Zen Master Dogen said that there are three steps to the manifestation of what I'm calling selfless virtue. First, a person practices the Way. If this practice is sincere and whole-hearted, without expectation or desire for fame, selfless virtue is naturally manifested.

When selfless virtue is naturally manifested, people perceive its outward appearance (the Four Exemplary Acts) and are drawn to the person practicing the Way.

Lastly, people who come to that person learn the Way and practice in the same sincere and whole-hearted manner. That, Dogen says, completes the manifestation of selfless virtue.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

George Carlin

George Carlin has been posthumously awarded something called the 11th Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. He gets my prize for telling the truth.

This is for those of you who couldn't be bothered with reading:

video