Sunday, February 28, 2010

Every once and awhile, I like to attempt the impossible, or at least the extremely challenging, and this weekend I pushed myself pretty hard.

As previously mentioned, last night I went to the Silversun Pickups/Muse concert out in suburban Gwinnett County. I got home, posted last night's blog about the previous night's television controversy, and went straight to bed, my ears still ringing from the concert.

This morning, I got up and headed to Chattanooga for my monthly visit with the sangha up there. It was a special day - actually, every day's a special day - but today we were also hosting the abbot from the Atlanta Soto Zen Center, Taiun Michael Elliston, Roshi, and his shuso (head student) from this winter's ango (practice period). So, I got up, brewed some coffee, and headed north for the Sunday service.

But the challenge was that there was also a meeting and presentation back in Atlanta regarding the comprehensive plan we're pulling together with Georgia Tech for the alliance of local neighborhoods. It was not mandatory that I be there, but I did want to show my support. The meeting was scheduled to start at 5, and the service at Chattanooga ends at 2, and since Chattanooga is a two-hour drive from Atlanta, it shouldn't have been a problem - I had three hours to make a two-hour drive. But the service went long, and I didn't get out of there until a little after 3:00. That left me approximately 110 minutes to make a 120-minute drive.

Need I point out that I drove fast?

I was able, but just barely, to just make it back for the meeting by 5:00 right on the nose. So after a three-hour rock concert, a two-hour drive to Chattanooga, three hours of zazen and dharma discussion, and another two-hour drive (made in an hour and 50 minutes), I then participated in a two-hour discussion on civil planning.

There's not much to say about the Chattanooga visit or the planning meeting, but I still plan on posting a review of the concert sometime soon (but not tonight), as this evening, I still have to prepare my dharma talk for tomorrow's Monday Night Zazen and watch Big Love, and get to bed in time to be alert for a client meeting at work tomorrow. And all of this on top of the on-going Emily Experiment.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Bill vs. Buddha

Last night, on HBO's Real Time, host Bill Maher closed the show with the following comments:
But before Tiger moves on there's one more apology he really should make, and that's to Buddha, for dragging him into this mess and proving once again, that whenever something unspeakably tawdry, loathsome and cheap happens, just wait a few days. Religion will make it worse.

Now usually, when famous cheaters are looking for public redemption, they go to Jesus, but Tiger went old school, and claimed that sleeping with 2/3 of the waitresses in America had made him a failure as a Buddhist. He said Buddhism teaches you the way to inner peace is letting go of desire (and if that doesn't sound like marriage, I don't know what does. . .)

. . . And it really is outdated in some ways. The "Life sucks, and then you die" philosophy was useful when Buddha came up with it around 500 B.C., because back then life pretty much sucked, and then you died - but now we have medicine, and plenty of food, and iPhones, and James Cameron movies - our life isn't all about suffering anymore. And when we do suffer, instead of accepting it we try to alleviate it.

Tiger said, "Buddhism teaches that a craving for things outside ourselves" makes us unhappy, which confirms something I've long suspected about Eastern religions: they're a crock, too.

Craving for things outside ourselves is what makes life life - I don't want to learn to not want, that's what people in prison have to do. Buddhism teaches suffering is inevitable. The only thing that's inevitable is that if you have fake boobs and hair extensions, Tiger Woods will try to fuck you.

And reincarnation? Really? If that were real, wouldn't there be some proof by now? A raccoon spelling out in acorns, "My name is Herb Zoller and I'm an accountant," something?

People are always debating, is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy - it's a religion. You're a religion if you do something as weird as when the Buddhist monks scrutinize two-year-olds to find the reincarnation of the dude who just died, and then choose one of the toddlers as the sacred Lama: "His poop is royal!" Sorry, but thinking you can look at a babbling, barely-housebroken, uneducated being and say, "That's our leader" doesn't make you enlightened. It makes you a Sarah Palin supporter.
I've read Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion and much of Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great, and was somewhat relieved to find that both of them pretty much gave Buddhism a pass. My own beliefs and ego thus protected, I was then able to be more open-minded in reading their books, and found them quite interesting. I generally agreed with most of what they had to say. But now, because of Tiger Woods, Bill Maher is going after Buddhism directly.

The thing is, Maher fundamentally misunderstands Buddhism. For starters, recruiting two-year-olds as reincarnations of a Lama is not a Buddhist practice - it is a vestige of Tibetan culture that got imprinted onto Tibetan forms of spiritual activity. In Japan, Zen monks don't go searching for the reincarnations of their beloved sensei. In Thailand, adherents don't expect to meet the reincarnation of the patriarchs. That practice only occurs in Tibet and it has little to do with anything the Buddha taught. It's as if one were criticizing Christianity on the basis of Santa Claus.

I don't find Maher's remarks offensive, because he wasn't actually criticizing Buddhism - he was criticizing his own delusion of what Buddhism is. The same is true of Dawkins, who's sole dig at Buddhism in The God Delusion was based on an unkind remark he once heard attributed to an Asian woman, and then projected that single remark to the belief system of all Buddhists everywhere. But neither Maher's nor Dawkins' perceptions are what the Buddha taught, but one would think that someone who was once fired from his own show, canned from network TV, and been through what Maher's been through would appreciate teachings on impermanence more.

The Buddha once said that if someone slanders you with false accusations and you get upset, it's as if they shot an arrow at you and missed, but you picked the arrow up and started stabbing yourself with it. I have no intention of impaling myself with Maher's statements, but I do intend to continue to watch and enjoy his show - he's quite funny, and his political commentary is generally spot on (I loved the Sarah Palin dig at the end of his monologue).

I just got back from the Silversun Pickups /Muse concert and my ears are still ringing. More on that soon. . .

Friday, February 26, 2010

FNV: The Room, The Sun, and The Sky

Due to what's sometimes been referred to as "compassion fatigue" I haven't yet posted anything about this year's tragedy in Haiti and I probably won't - it's all been said and there's nothing for me to do but to pledge support. That, and post this one cool video.

Meanwhile, L.A.'s Silversun Pickups open tomorrow night for Muse in Atlanta, or at least near Atlanta - they're playing out in the 'burbs at the Gwinnett [County] Civic Auditorium. They're a band I've wanted to see for a while, and I got talked into buying tickets for Muse a while back by a young woman that I met without even knowing who the opening act was going to be (cherchez la femme). The woman's long since vanished (femme fatale) - I don't have so much as a phone number or an email address for her now, so it looks like I'll be seeing the show without her.

"Lazy Eye" came out on Silversuns' first album, and it's one of my favorite songs of the past decade. Here's a surprisingly effective acoustic version of it from MTV's Unplugged (yes, it's apparently still on the air . . . ).

And here's the official video for the song, in all it's electric splendor. The instrumental passages are great, especially starting around the 3:30 mark - I love the way it keeps building up on itself and then releases the tension - but the video itself is rather lame. Still, though, I'm looking forward to tomorrow's show.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Catching A Jewel

Baso said nothing to that last remark by Nangaku, something that we should not idly overlook. There was his casting aside the tile to catch a jewel: he was turning his head and changing his expression (symbolizing normal behavior). Further, nothing and no one can rob him of his making no response.

Zen Master Joshu once said, "Tonight, I have given the answer. Anyone who understands the question should come forward." A monk stepped forward and prostrated. The Master says, "Just before I threw away a tile to pull in a jewel, but instead I have drawn out a lump of clay."

(adapted from Shobogenzo Zazenshin by Zen Master Dogen, 1242)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


Jessica Watson, the intrepid 16-year-old (I think she's still 16) who's sailing solo around the world, has just passed the Cape of Good Hope! Since leaving her home in Australia last November, she's crossed the Pacific Ocean and now the Atlantic, leaving only the Indian Ocean and a jaunt around the island continent of Australia before she returns home, a little trip of only, oh, 4,200 miles.

When she sails into Sydney Harbor, she will have set a new world record for the youngest, unassisted voyage around the world.

To some of us up here in the Northern Hemisphere, it might seem like a "short cut" to just clip the southern tips of the continents and sail along those short southern latitudes. Even though the charms of the Southern Ocean are few and the sailing is far more challenging down there, the perceived "short cut" is just an illusion of the Mercator map projector. Looking at her trip on the globe and turning things around a little looks like this:

Not only has she sailed the full length of the hemisphere, she's maintained an incredibly straight and intelligent route. Even though I'm over three times her age, I doubt that I have the wisdom, the courage, and the stamina to do a fraction of what she's accomplished so far.

If you haven't noticed yet, a link to her blog is over to the right.

Monday, February 22, 2010

One day Dogen instructed,

In the order of governing the world, from the emperor down to the common people, each person who has an occupation carries out his own function. Being unsuitable for a position is called “disorganization of the world.” When the manner of governing is in accordance with the will of heaven, the world is at peace and the people are at ease. That is why the emperor rises at one o’clock in the morning and starts the work of governing the world. It is not an easy thing. This is the case with the buddha-dharma too, only the functions and the activities to carry out are different. In the case of the emperor, he personally performs the duties of governing with all his intelligence, considering the precedents from previous ages, while seeking ministers endowed with virtue and ability. When his way of governing is in accordance with the will of heaven it is called a “well-governed world.” If the emperor is negligent in his duties, he goes against the will of heaven, the world becomes disorderly and the people suffer.

The emperor, nobility, high officials, senior officials, common officials, and common people are all in charge of some respective function. A person who executes his duties can be called humane. If someone goes against his duties, he will receive punishment from heaven because he has caused disorder in heaven.

Therefore, students of the buddha-dharma, even though you have left home and parted from the secular world you should not want to spend an easy life. You should not waste time even for a moment. Although in the beginning it may seem profitable, later on it will be the cause of evil influences. Following the way of monks (who have left home), you should fulfill your duties and throw yourself into your practice. In governing the secular world, even if one pursues the precedents, rules, or examples of former rulers, sometimes one has to follow the examples of one’s contemporaries since there is no certain way which has been handed down by the ancient sages or other great people. For the children of the Buddha, however, there are definite precedents and scriptural teachings. There are also teachers who have received the transmission of such traditions. We are capable of reflection. In each action of moving, standing, sitting, and lying down, if we think of the precedents and follow our predecessors in our practice, there is no reason to fail in attaining the Way. In the secular world people wish to be in harmony with the will of heaven. Buddhist practitioners wish to be in harmony with the will of Buddha. The tasks are the same but the result (for the Buddhist) is superior. For great peace and joy (Nirvana) which is never lost once attained depends only upon having the aspiration to make this phantom-like body follow the will of Buddha in this lifetime. Nevertheless, the Buddha’s teachings never encourage making our body suffer meaninglessly. If you follow the demeanor and behavior prescribed in the precepts, your body will be at ease, your behavior will be appropriate, and you will not disturb other people. Therefore abandon bodily pleasures caused by egocentric views and thoroughly follow the Buddha’s precepts.

(Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Book 2 Chapter 23)

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Ox and the Cart

Nangaku said, "It is like someone riding in a cart. If the cart is not moving, is beating the cart the right thing to do or is beating the ox the right thing to do?"

This question directly relates to our practice. In Zen Master Dōgen’s interpretation, the ox is the mind, that which can aspire to practice, while the cart is the physical state, the vehicle for practice. But what does "the cart is not moving" mean? What does "the cart is moving" mean?

Commenting on this, Dōgen asked, "If a river is running alongside a cart, or if a cart is moving alongside a lake, the water and the cart are in mutual relation. It is not possible to say that one element is moving and one element is not moving. Is it the water flowing or is the cart moving? Does the moving of the cart mean that the water is not flowing?" Water can be taken to represents what is going on spiritually within the practice. Our practice and what is going on within our practice are in mutual relation. Can the cart of our practice be distinguished from the flowing of enlightenment?

Further, time is a series of instantaneous moments. In each instant, there is no movement, but the progression from instant to instant is continuous movement. Thus Dōgen says, "When we investigate the saying 'the cart is not moving,' we find that there is both 'not moving,' and no 'not moving,' because the cart must be in time. We could say, then, that flowing is the water’s not moving. It could even be said that the water’s moving is beyond ‘flowing'. Nangaku’s words, 'the cart is not moving,' go beyond a one-sided assertion that some thing is not moving."

So is beating the cart the right thing to do or should we be beating the ox? Can there be both a beating of the cart and a beating of the ox? Are beating the cart and beating the ox equivalent, or are they not?

Dōgen noted, "There is no method for beating a cart in the secular world." A method for beating the cart means a method such as zazen for regulating the physical state. "Although the common man does not have a method for beating the cart, there is a Buddhist method: it is the very eyes of learning in practice."

Even though we learn methods for beating the cart, they will not be appropriate for beating the ox. A method of beating the ox means a method for motivating the mind; for example, the seeking of rewards. Dōgen continues, "Though methods for beating an ox are common enough in the everyday world, we should investigate further and learn through practice the Buddhist way of beating the ox."

Zen Master Enchi Dai-an once said, "I have lived on Isan mountain for thirty years, eating Isan meals, shitting Isan shit, but not studying Isan Zen. I just watched over a castrated water buffalo." Is the ox we are beating a castrated water buffalo?

Or is it an iron ox? Zen Master Fuketsu Ensho once said, "The mind-seal of the ancestral masters is like the stuff of a molded iron ox."

Or is it an ox coated with mud? Zen Master Ryuzan once said, "I once saw two oxen coated with mud. They fought and entered the sea. There has been no news of them since."

Dōgen: "Should a whip do the beating or should the whole universe do the beating? Should the whole mind do the beating? Should the marrow be beaten flat? Should a fist do the beating?"

"There should be fist beating fist, and there should be ox beating ox." The ox exists as it is.

(adapted from Shobogenzo Zazenshin by Zen Master Dogen, 1242)

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Close Friends

As it turns out, I didn't go see Laura Veirs at the Star Bar tonight after all. I had invited two close friends to join me, Nick, who I hadn't seen in a while, and his wife Andrea, who did go see Michael Goldman at Kavarna with me last month. They in turn invited me to join them and some of their extended family (siblings and in-laws) for dinner at Pho Dai Loi, a Vietnamese restaurant near my new office. Mealtime was early enough that we could eat dinner and still catch the show afterwards.

I agreed, and we had a very enjoyable meal and some great conversation (their being my close friends is also my being their close friend). But everything took longer than expected, and although we could have still caught the show by the time we were through, but just barely, everyone was too full and too tired to stand for three hours in a crowded bar to hear Laura. Plus, Eliot was still outside (he hadn't come in for dinner yet by the time I left to meet Nick and Andrea), so I felt compelled to come home and let him in. Once home, I stayed home.

Baso asked, "Well, what then is the right way?"

Even though what was said looks like an earnest question directly involving Baso at that very moment, Zen Master Dogen points out that it is also a question that refers to the way things are everywhere at this very moment in time. For example, think of a time when a close friend encounters a close friend: his being my friend is also my being his friend. The "what?" of one and "the right way" of the other are mutual manifestations of both perspectives at the same time.

The "close friends" in Dogen's example are disciple and master: when the disciple asks his or her spiritual question (the "what?"), the Master supplies the direction for the disciple to look (the "right way"). Although this may appear as a sequence in a dialogue, according to Dōgen, the answer to the question of "what?" is the "What."

Friday, February 19, 2010

Laura Veirs on FNV

Back on February 10, Portland's Laura Veirs performed a set in Copenhagen, wrapping up the European leg of her current tour, and then headed back to American shores. The tour brings her to Atlanta tomorrow night where she'll play at set at the Star Bar (the same venue where I saw Jonathan Richman earlier this month).

Originally from Colorado Springs, Veirs studied geology and Mandarin Chinese in college. Her first foray into songwriting reportedly started with a geological expedition in China, where she was so miserable serving as a translator that she immersed herself into writing lyrics as a way of coping. In 1999, she put out her first album, the self-titled Laura Veirs, recorded live and featuring just her voice and guitar. She has since made five highly acclaimed records with longtime producer Tucker Martine (Mudhoney, Bill Frisell, Sufjan Stevens, Decemberists).

Veirs' seventh album, July Flame, was released in January on her own record label. A collection of delicate folk songs, July Flame focuses on her talents as a singer-songwriter. Composing primarily on acoustic guitar and banjo, Veirs and Martine sought to regain the sparseness and strength of her first album while at the same time pushing forward and still keeping the material fresh and interesting.

Veirs says she abandoned countless compositions and experienced something of a creative block in her quest for songs that could stand alone as minimalist folk pieces. After several months of uphill clawing, she finally reached a self-described plateau, a breakthrough of sorts that would eventually lead to July Flame’s track list. The songs often display morose tones which compliment Veirs' introspective lyrics and subdued string arrangements.

Here's a video of the making of July Flame at Flora Studios in Portland. With its cats, bearded musicians, and references to impermanence, this video so reminds me of my time in Portland and its short days, bookstores, windshield wipers, and coffee.

Not a bad effort for a geologist. Here's Laura performing a song from the July Flame album about another Pacific Northwest musician, Everett, Washington's prolific session bassist, Carol Kaye:

Sincere songs by women about women somehow put me in mind of the Women and Women First Bookstore, where the lovely St. Vincent (Annie Clark) recently performed Laughing With A Mouth of Blood.

Another St. Vincent video, this time away (far away) from the Woman and Woman First Bookstore. More specifically, here she's in Santa Monica, performing The Strangers on KCRW:

And finally, here's a last little bit about the Women and Women First Bookstore. No, there's not really such a place, and, yes, it's a comedy act - Fred Armisen (SNL) and Portland's Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney. . . everyone in Portland's now officially in a band) performing together as "ThunderAnt." This is another one of the several video skits they've produced.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Evening News

I ran into a major unexpected traffic jam on the way home from work tonight. The reason the the traffic, as it turns out, was a loose zebra on the interstate highway that runs through downtown Atlanta.

Oh, that again.

The zebra apparently escaped from a Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus rehearsal. The zebra was subsequently spotted in the parking lot near the Richard B. Russell Federal Building, near Centennial Olympic Park, at CNN, and on the Downtown Connector. He was finally captured on the interstate near the Grady curve. According to witnesses, he was galloping between lanes of traffic on the Downtown Connector before his capture.

Interestingly, this isn't the first time a zebra got loose on the interstate. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, young zebra was found stranded and injured on I-75 in Butts County in April 2008. Then a zebra who usually lives on a farm across from Oxford College's Newton County campus was zebra-napped and deposited inside the college's Seney Hall as part of a prank.

But meanwhile, back at the White House, it seems that the Dalai Lama dropped by for a visit with President Obama (I'm resisting the urge to joke about "zebras in Atlanta and llamas in Washington"). The visit was very low key so as not to antagonize the Chinese any more than necessary, but they're apparently still somewhat miffed. But importantly, both Obama and the Dalai Lama agreed that Richard Gere peaked creatively in "Pretty Woman" (okay, I admit I stole that joke).

"The president commended the Dalai Lama's Middle Way approach, his commitment to nonviolence and his pursuit of dialogue with the Chinese government," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said after the more than hour-long private meeting. Buddhists around the world will recognize from the code words in that statement that Obama did indeed understand the Dalai Lama.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Nangaku replied, “How can you possibly make yourself into a Buddha by sitting in meditation?”

It is evident that there is a reason for zazen other than "waiting to become a Buddha": obviously, becoming a Buddha does not depend on zazen.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

There's An App for AGW

Climate Skeptics

Australian solar physicist John Cook, who runs the Skeptical Science website, has developed an app which "lets you use an iPhone or iPod to view the entire list of skeptic arguments as well as (more importantly) what the science says on each argument." This is how it works, according to Cook:
"You browse arguments via the Top 10 most used arguments as well as 3 main categories ('It's not happening', 'It's not us', 'It's not bad'). When you select one of the 3 main categories, a list of sub-categories pop up. You can then select any category to see the skeptic argument, a summary of what the science says and the full answer including graphs plus links to papers or other sources. A novel inclusion is a feature that lets you report when you encounter a skeptic argument. By clicking on the red ear icon (above left, shown to the left of the skeptic arguments or above right, next to the headline), the iPhone adds another hit to that particular skeptic argument."
The app currently has rebuttals to 90 sceptic "arguments", which include many of the classics, such as "There is no consensus", "Models are unreliable", "It hasn't warmed since 1998", "Ice age predicted in the 70s", "CO2 lags temperature", "It's freaking cold!", "CO2 is not a pollutant" and so on. According to the site, the most frequently cited sceptic argument is "It's the sun". You can read Skeptical Science's rebuttal to this particular argument online.

Climate Realists, a site manned by sceptics, is already jumping up and down in horror at the news of the app's release: "WARNING! There is an iphone app trying to put down what we have to say under the heading of 'Skeptical Science'. We need as many of you as possible to promote that this iphone app is yet another attempt to discredit 'Climate Realists'. We can only hope the general public can see through this as a cheap trick to prop up the FAILED SCIENCE OF MAN MADE CLIMATE CHANGE. Climate Realists need another iphone app that shows our side of the argument as it is, rather then what a supporter AGW thinks it is! Please send this message to all known friendly sites that support our side."

This call to arms appears to have worked as the first reviews on the iTunes app store are deeply negative. One reviewer said: "This is app from an AGW [anthropogenic global warming] supporter and just supports his views and NOT the views of SKEPTICS! I find that iPhone apps have mislead people, in that, the name of the product is NOT what it is claimed to be. This is a cheap trick to support the FAILED SCIENCE OF AGW, AND HAS NO SCIENTIFIC VALUE. This app should be withdrawn!"

Just what is it with sceptics and their love of block capitals?

Monday, February 15, 2010

One day Dogen said in his instructions,

Many monks these days say that they should follow worldly customs. I don’t think this right. Even in the secular world, wise people say that it is impure to follow the way of the world. For example, Kutsugen said, “Everyone in the world is drunk; only I am sober.” He refused to go along with the ordinary ways of people and finally threw himself into Soro River and drowned.

Much more even does the buddha-dharma go entirely against worldly ways. Lay people eat in abundance; monks eat once a day. Everything is contrary. And finally, monks become people of great peace and joy (Nirvana). For this reason the way of monks is totally opposed to the way of the secular world. (Shobogenzo Zuimonki 2-23)

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Iron Man

The temperatures warmed up into the high 40s today, maybe even the 50s, and melted away most of Friday night's snow. Everything outside is slightly soaked with meltwater.

Baso asked, “How can you possibly make a mirror by polishing a tile?”

Without relying on the strength of anyone else, it was truly an iron man that was polishing the tile. The term iron man is used here to demonstrate the level of strength and determination one needs in order to be successful in training.

Even so, polishing a tile does not make a mirror. Making a physical mirror takes time. Although it has always been a mirror, "making a mirror" may be described as instantaneous. The making of a spiritual mirror, that is, awakening through practice, is instantaneous.

(adapted from Shobogenzo Zazenshin by Zen Master Dogen, 1242)

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Like Norway

By morning, the snow had stopped but the wind had carried loose flakes across the roads and driveways, turning them into slick sheets of ice. Driving would be difficult, but everything is white and beautiful and a wonder to behold. It appears almost as if Odin himself had breathed over the land, leaving his exhalation of frost and ice on everything.

Nangaku said, “I am polishing the tile to make it into a Mirror.”

We should clarify the meaning of these words. In “polishing the tile to make a mirror,” the dharma of all the Buddhist teachings are present and the dharma of the entire realized Universe is present. "Polishing the tile to make a mirror" is never an empty pretense.

Even though a tile is a tile and a mirror is a mirror, keep in mind that when we are striving to clarify the truth of polishing, the practice possesses a limitless abundance of distinguishing features.

Both the Ancient Mirror and the Bright Mirror are made by polishing a tile. If we do not know that all such mirrors come from polishing a tile, we have failed to grasp the patriarchs' expression of truth, we have not heard and grasped the patriarchs' words, and we have not experienced the patriarchs' exhalations.

(adapted from Shobogenzo Zazenshin by Zen Master Dogen, 1242)

Friday, February 12, 2010

FNV: Sondre Lerche

Norwegian-born Sondre Lerche first picked up the guitar at the age of 8 and as a teenager performed at the open-mic clubs where his sister worked. Before his 16th birthday, he signed a major-label deal with Virgin/EMI records. Lerche moved to the U.S., where he had to deal with practical matters like green card issues, but he also managed to record the soundtrack to the movie Dan in Real Life. And, most importantly, Lerche left his major label and struck out on his own.

There’s a sense of musical adventure to Heartbeat Radio, his most recent album. “I had done the major label thing, and I had experienced the pros and cons of that world,” he says. “I thought this time I’d just make the album, and see who was interested when I was finished.” The songs mix acoustic guitars with orchestral pop and elements of anything from 50s jazz, 60s and 70s Brazilian psych-folk, to state-of-the-art 80s pop masters.

After Radio was completed, Lerche headed out on the road. But instead of simply recreating the expansive nature of his new songs, most of the sets are performed solo (another tour with a regular back-up band will happen later in the year). “I like that contrast,” he says. “You get to hear where the songs came from – just one guitar, one voice, like how I do my demos. It’s a fun challenge to try and make it as dynamic and exciting as possible.”

Last night, the tour brought him to The Earl in Atlanta. But unlike last weekend's Jonathan Richman show, I didn't go. The show was on a weeknight, and I'm getting too old to be out listening to bands past midnight and still be functional the next day at work. Plus I was totally exhausted from another very busy week at work, plus Monday-night zazen, a Tuesday-night meeting of the alliance of neighborhoods, and a Wednesday-night community meeting to go over a requested zoning change request for a major new development (we decided to deny the request for various reasons).

It's now apparent to me that I am now overcommitted and that I have to give up something. The most likely candidate for the chopping block is the Beltline advisory board - I had to blow off a meeting of their Executive Committee on Tuesday night to attend the alliance meeting. But I'm not announcing my resignation quite yet; I want to give things a little more time to see how everything plays out.

But the big news here in Atlanta is . . . it's snowing! Again! For the second time already this year! It started while I was out at lunch following some morning field work at a new project site, and by the time I got to the office, the company was sending everybody home. I spent most of my "free time" this afternoon stuck in gridlocked traffic, as every other company in the City apparently decided to allow its employees to go home at the same time.

So far about an inch of snow has fallen, although it isn't sticking to the roads as far as I can see. But it has stuck to the grasses and the limbs of trees, and everything looks like a lovely winter wonderland outside.

Kind of like Norway, I guess.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Expedient Means

There is indeed a purpose in the myriad activities which we need to explore through training and practice. When Nangaku picked up a roof tile and began to polish it with a rock, Baso asked him, “What are you doing?”

Who could fail to see that he was polishing a tile? So the question must have meant, “What are you going to make from polishing a tile in that way?” What he was going to make was undoubtedly a polished tile. But who can see it as "a polished tile?"

It is not simply a matter of taking one’s own personal view not to be a personal view: in such activities, there is significance that can be learned through practice. Here and in other realms, different though they may be, Nangaku’s polishing a tile will have a significance that will never cease. The actions of bodhisattvas and mahasattvas far transcend the states of common folk. But without the dharma of polishing a tile, how could the bodhisattvas and mahasattvas have any expedient means of teaching people?

Keep in mind that, just as when we encounter the ocean we may not recognize it, or when we see a mountain we may not recognize it either, so we might not recognize or understand a Buddha when we encounter a Buddha. Nevertheless, the way to explore the buddha-dharma is not to hastily conclude that there can be no pathway into the dharma that is right before our eyes.

(adapted from Shobogenzo Zazenshin [1242] and Shobogenzo Kokyo [1241] by Zen Master Dogen)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


We should not try to avoid having goals. When we try to avoid having a goal, we lose our selves and we lose our very life, and when we lose our selves and our very life, it is due to entanglements from having goals.

For example, what exactly did Baso mean when he said, "The aim of just sitting is to become a buddha?" We should clarify what these words meant. Was his aiming to become a buddha the result of his having dropped off body and mind, or was his aiming at becoming a buddha itself the dropping off of body and mind? Is "becoming a buddha" something done by a buddha, or is it something done to a buddha? Or was he saying that becoming a buddha was the emergence of various aspects of a buddha?

Baso may have been saying that becoming a buddha is entangled with one’s aims, despite the fact that becoming a buddha applies to all things. The sutras teach that we become a buddha when we are free of intention. But was Baso saying that the real relation between intention (aiming) and liberated action (becoming a buddha) is more complicated than that?

In every case, sitting in zazen is aiming to become a Buddha. In every case, sitting in zazen is becoming a buddha as aiming. Such an aim can precede becoming a buddha, and it can occur after becoming a buddha, and it can occur at the very moment of becoming a buddha. To question things a bit further, how many instances of becoming a buddha does one such case of aiming entangle?

This entanglement can also become entwined with other entanglements. At such a time, the entanglements involved in cases of completely becoming a buddha are, beyond doubt, directly related to ‘completely becoming a buddha’, and, in every single case, they are due to having a goal.

(adapted from Shobogenzo Zazenshin by Zen Master Dogen, 1242)

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Carved Dragons

Do not hold the remote in high regard or low regard; just be accustomed to it as the remote. Do not hold the close in high or in low regard; just be accustomed to it as the close. The "remote" here refers to the ancient sutras recorded in India many centuries ago, while the "close" refers to our own experience in zazen.

While Baso Dōitsu (704-788) was training under Zen Master Nangaku Ejō (677-744), he received the immediate transmission of the mind-seal. As other accounts of this kōan make clear, the incident of the polishing of the tile took place some considerable time after this transmission. During that time, Baso sat in his hut doing his meditation day after day regardless of the weather, even to the point of sitting in the deep snow that covered the floor of his hut. One day while Baso was sitting in meditation, Nangaku came to where he was and asked him, “Virtuous monk, what is the aim of your sitting in meditation?”

This question needs to be carefully investigated; we need to consider what Nangaku might have been asking. Did he have in mind that there is something above and beyond sitting in meditation? Or has there never been a practice beyond that of sitting in zazen? Or should we not aim at anything at all? Or was he asking Baso whether some goal had manifested itself from his constant sitting in meditation?

There is a story of a Chinese artist who was so skilled at fashioning carved dragons that his carved creations could summon up clouds and rain. One day, when a real dragon showed up in his studio, the experience was so powerful that it totally overwhelmed him. In this story, the carved dragon is a representation, or an explanation, of zazen, while the real dragon symbolizes zazen itself, which goes beyond any notions one may have of what zazen might be. Although both the carved and the real dragon possess the ability to summon up clouds and rain, we should prize the real dragon more than the carved one.

We should not treat our eyes lightly, as the eyes can clearly see the way things are. We should not attach great importance to our eyes, as the eyes are associated with the mere appearances of concrete things, or the function of perception. We should not treat our ears lightly, as the ears can accurately understand what things truly are. We should not attach great importance to our ears, as the ears respond to words and are associated with the function of intellect. We should just make our ears and our eyes sharp and clear.

(adapted from Shobogenzo Zazenshin by Zen Master Dogen, 1242)

Monday, February 08, 2010

On one occasion someone asked, "How do you feel about the following view? Upon hearing that one’s own self is the buddha-dharma and that it is futile to seek anything outside of oneself, what if a student were to believe this deeply, give up practice and studying, and spend his whole life doing good and bad according to his nature?"

Dogen taught, "In this view, the person’s words and reality are contradictory. Giving up practice and abandoning study because of the futility of seeking anything outwardly, sounds as though something is being sought after by the act of giving up. This is not non-seeking.

"Just realize that practice and study themselves are the buddha-dharma. Without seeking anything, refrain from engaging in worldly affairs or evil things even if you have the mind to do so. Do not think of or hate the boredom of the practice of the Way. Just practice wholeheartedly. Practice without even seeking after the completion of the Way or the attainment of the result. This attitude is in accordance with the principle of non-seeking.

"Through Nangaku’s polishing a tile to make a mirror, he was admonishing Baso’s seeking to become a Buddha. Still he did not restrain Baso from sitting zazen. Sitting itself is the practice of the buddha. Sitting itself is non-doing. It is nothing but the true form of the Self. Apart from sitting, there is nothing to seek as the buddha-dharma" (Shobogenzo Zuimonki, 2-22)

Sunday, February 07, 2010

More of the Story

Alert readers will have realized that up to now, I have only been discussing half of the dialog between Nangaku and Baso. After Nangaku asked, "How can you become a buddha by polishing a roof tile?," Baso asked, "What do you mean by that?"

Nangaku said, "Think about driving a cart. When it stops moving, do you whip the cart or the horse?"

Baso said nothing.

Nangaku said, "Do you want to practice zazen or sitting Buddha? If you understand zazen, you will know that Zen is not about sitting or lying down. If you want to learn sitting Buddha, know that sitting Buddha is without any fixed form. Do not use discrimination in the non-abiding dharma. If you practice sitting as Buddha, you must kill Buddha. If you are attached to the sitting form, you are not yet mastering the essential principal."

Baso heard this admonition and felt as if he had tasted sweet nectar.

I should also point out here that Nangaku was a student of Hui-Neng, the Sixth Patriarch. The lineage that descended from him through Baso has produced two of the five major schools of Zen, including the Rinzai tradition. But he was not admonishing against the practice of zazen. The question "Do you whip the cart or the horse?" has been used often by many Zen Masters, including Dogen. "Killing the Buddha" is not as blasphemous as it sounds at first, but instead killing our concept of a "thing" with fixed form and abode that we call "Buddha."

Zazen is the practice of the Buddha. Zazen is the ultimate practice. It is indeed the true self. That is why Dogen said, "When the polished tile became a mirror, Baso became Buddha. And when Baso became Buddha, Baso immediately became the real Baso. And when Baso became the real Baso, his sitting in meditation immediately became real zazen."

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Beyond Thinking

The incident concerning the polishing of a roof tile has conventionally been understood as a warning against sitting meditation. But I think this conventional understanding is not correct. After all, Nangaku did not tell Baso to stop his zazen. Instead, he was showing Baso the futility of trying to become that which he already possessed. When Zen Master Eihei Dogen said, "Polishing a tile to make a mirror is a meaningless use of effort" (Dharma Hall Discourse 281 in Eihei Koroku, Volume 4), he was not criticizing the practice (the polishing of the tile), he was talking about the meaninglessness of intending an outcome (making a mirror).

As previously pointed out, sitting with any goal or intention is not "just sitting" (shikan-taza), it is sitting with a goal or an intention. One doesn't "become" a Buddha, as everyone (and everything) already has buddha-nature, which is expressed by the very practice of shikan-taza. A mirror doesn't "become" a mirror, but a mirror's reflective property is made manifest by the practice of polishing.

So what is this practice of shikan-taza like, wherein one's buddha-nature can be made manifest? A monk once asked this of Zen Master Yaoshan, asking, "What are you thinking while in steadfast, immovable sitting?"

Yaoshan said, "I think of not thinking."

The monk said, "How do you think of not thinking?"

Yaoshan said, "Beyond thinking."

Commenting on this exchange, Shohaku Okumura noted that Yaoshan's first statement, "I think of not thinking," might be interpreted as "I think of the activity, or realm, of not thinking," while his second statement, "Beyond thinking," implies an aware mind that may include either thinking or not thinking, but is not attached to either. "In Dogen's view of zazen," Okumura writes, "one does not follow thoughts, nor stop them, but thoughts come and go freely. It cannot be called thinking, because thoughts are not grasped. It cannot be called not thinking because thoughts continue to come and go." The brain, an organ whose function is to squirt out thoughts, continues to function while one is in zazen. The one sitting just doesn't engage those thoughts that do arise.

During a dharma hall discourse, Dogen once said,
"Polishing a tile to make a mirror is diligent effort. How could the way of thinking within steadfast, immovable sitting be careless? If you want to visit that realm of glimpsing the ground of buddhahood, you should further come here and close your mouth in silence.

"Tell me great assembly, are Eihei (meaning Dogen himself) and the ancient ones the same or different? Try to say something and I'll see how you do. If you do not speak, I will speak for all of you."

After a pause, Dogen struck his abbot's chair with the handle of his whisk, and got down from his seat (Dharma Hall Discourse 270 in Eihei Koroku, Volume 4).

Friday, February 05, 2010

FNV: Jonathan Richman

Jonathan Richman and drummer Tommy Larkins will "put the finishing touches" on a still-untitled new record after their 27-date US tour, which started on January 24. Two of those shows will be in Georgia, one tonight at Atlanta's Star Bar, and the other at Athen's 40-Watt Club tomorrow evening.

With his idiosyncratic humor and guileless honesty, Jonathan has been writing songs, making records, and performing his playfully catchy compositions most of his life. Over the years, Jonathan's music has absorbed a multitude of influences, from doo-wop to country to a variety of international styles, all without sacrificing the artist's effervescent personality. Untainted by cynicism or transient notions of hipness, his deceptively straightforward songs usually embody timeless qualities of humanity, optimism, emotional insight, and a boundless sense of humor.

He began playing guitar at the age of 15, and in the early 1970s formed the Modern Lovers, whose raw, minimalist sound and emotionally forthright songs helped to lay the groundwork for punk rock. The band's debut album in 1976 included "Road Runner," a regional hit in Massachusetts back when I was a college student in Boston. But by the time that record had been released, Jonathan had already moved on to a quieter sound and more gentle lyrical focus. Since then, he's continued to record and tour prolifically, first with a series of Modern Lovers lineups, later on his own, and eventually as a duo with drummer Tommy Larkins.

Jonathan's records have long held a special place in the hearts of his fans, who have remained fiercely devoted over the years. His audience expanded substantially in the 1990s, thanks to his frequent guest spots on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, his prominent appearance in the 1998 film There's Something About Mary, and the inclusions of his Modern Lovers classics "Ice Cream Man" and "I'm A Little Airplane" on Sesame Street.

For much of his career, Jonathan has toured almost nonstop around the world. I first saw him perform live back in 1986, where he gave a concert at a small club in the back of a White Castle hamburger joint in Albany, New York, and since that show I've been a part of his almost cult-like following, seeing him perform on numerous occasions.

Through his tireless touring, Jonathan has also built a loyal international audience. "Traveling and playing for new people in new places is one of my favorite things," he notes. "It's great playing places that are off the beaten track. You can learn a lot when you play in a little town in Holland or Western Australia, and you learn different things than you would learn playing a big city. This year we're going to try to play in Extremadura, which is the southwest of Spain--we might become the first American entertainers ever to play there. I'm hoping that we can able to play the Canary Islands soon. "

Beginner's mind: "Playing shows and making records keeps getting easier and more fun," Jonathan states, adding, "Me and Tommy play totally different than we played two years ago. We already play a different style than we played on that live DVD, and the way we played then was totally different from the way we played three years before that. I still feel like we're just starting out, and I still learn new stuff every night."

Thursday, February 04, 2010

The Eternal Mirror

Yesterday, I wrote that the incident concerning a roof tile has been generally understood as Zen Master Nangaku teaching his monk Baso that practicing zazen with the aim or goal of becoming a Buddha is as futile as trying to polish a roof tile to make it into a mirror. Real zazen is not sitting with any aim or goal, but just sitting with no intention or aim at all, and simply allowing to arise whatever arises.

But if a roof tile cannot become a mirror, how then can an ordinary person become a Buddha? There must be a way, we think. Another story, this one about Zen Master Kinkazan Kōtō, points towards an answer to this second question and a deeper understanding of the roof-tile koan.
Master Kinkazan was once asked by one of his monks, “What is the Eternal Mirror before it has been polished?”

The Master answered, “The Eternal Mirror.”

The monk then asked, “What is it after it has been polished?”

The Master answered, “The Eternal Mirror.”
Commenting on this story, Zen Master Dogen said, "You need to recognize that even though there is a time when the Eternal Mirror, as now spoken of, is being polished, a time when it has not yet been polished, and a time after it has been polished, it is one and the same Eternal Mirror. Before being polished, the Eternal Mirror is not dull. Even though some may describe it as being black, it will never be dull, for it is always the Eternal Mirror in its vivid state."

The Eternal Mirror, being eternal, has always been a mirror, even before it was polished to appear like a mirror. And long after it has stopped being polished and its copper surface is tarnished black, it will still be the Eternal Mirror. If it were otherwise, it would not be the Eternal Mirror. Of course, there is no actual, physical Mirror that has been around for all eternity. It is a figure of speech, a metaphor as we shall see, a thought experiment proposed for the sake of instruction.

Whatever its state, whether unpolished or tarnished, the Eternal Mirror needs only the practice of polishing to manifest its true mirror nature. "Thus it was," Dogen wrote, "that the Eternal Mirror was made from a roof tile. On that occasion, the virtue of making a mirror was made manifest. The tile was not something that was dirty; it was polished simply because it was a tile. Even though the mirror was being polished, it was already without blemish in its unpolished state. Who can surmise that in this act of polishing, there is the making of a Buddha and there is the making of a mirror?"

This act of polishing is the practice of the Buddhas and patriarchs. It is nothing other than real zazen, shikan-taza. In plain language, ordinary people do not "become" buddhas, simply because they have never been anything but the Eternal Buddha. It may not appear this way, but it is in the real practice of zazen - shikan-taza - that our Buddha nature is manifested. However, our state of being, our breathing in and breathing out, when we are engaged in this practice is beyond our comprehension. It is not something that we can gauge at other times.

The Eternal Mirror, which is in fact our buddha-nature, is not only eternal but also all-pervasive. Dogen teaches that the Eternal Mirror is not polished by adding quicksilver or anything else that is not already the Eternal Mirror. What he means is that we do not manifest our buddha-nature by adding anything that is not already imbued with buddha-nature. Thus, when we are polishing it, the Eternal Mirror is polishing the whole of the Eternal Mirror. When we are in shikan-taza, our buddha-nature is manifesting all of buddha-nature, that is, the entire universe. There is no separation, complete intimacy, between the one and the many.

"This is neither ourselves polishing ourselves nor the self doing the polishing," Dogen says, "but our polishing the Eternal Mirror. Generally speaking, we polish a mirror to make it into a mirror; we polish a roof tile to make it into a mirror; we polish a roof tile to make it into a roof tile; and we polish a mirror to make it into a roof tile." That is, mirrors and roof tiles are all part of everything, part of buddha-nature, and it is in our practice of real zazen that we can transcend our ignorant delusion and directly experience this (although that experience is beyond our comprehension).

If we belittle tiles as being mere lumps of clay, we also belittle people as being lumps of clay. If people have a heart, then tiles too must have a heart. If people have mind, tiles too must also have mind.

"We should truly comprehend." Dogen says, "That when the polished tile became a mirror, Baso became Buddha. And when Baso became Buddha, Baso immediately became the real Baso. And when Baso became the real Baso, his sitting in meditation immediately became real zazen."

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The Incident Concerning The Polishing of a Roof Tile

A long time ago, Zen Master Baso of Kiangsi Province trained under Master Nangaku. Just before the incident concerning the polishing of a roof tile, Nangaku intimately transmitted the mind-seal to Baso.

The incident concerning the polishing of a roof tile occurred as follows: While staying at Chuan-fa Temple, Baso constantly sat in zazen. This went on, day in and day out, in Baso's thatched hut for some ten years or more. We can only imagine what the humble thatched hut must have been like on a rainy night, and it is said that he never abandoned its freezing floor even when it was enveloped in snow.

One day when Nangaku came to Baso’s hut, Baso stood up to receive him. Nangaku asked him, "What have you been doing recently?"

Baso replied, "I have been just sitting."

Nangaku asked, "And what is the aim of your just sitting?"

Baso replied, "The aim of just sitting is to become a Buddha."

Nangaku promptly took a roof tile and began rubbing it on a rock near Baso’s hut.

Baso, upon seeing this, asked him, "Master, what are you doing?"

Nangaku replied, "I am polishing a roof tile."

Baso then asked, "What are you going to make by polishing a roof tile?"

Nangaku replied, "I am polishing it to make a mirror."

Baso said, "How can you possibly make a mirror by rubbing a tile?"

Nangaku replied, "How can just sitting possibly make you into a Buddha?"

First, we must realize that the mirrors of that time were made from metal, usually copper, that was cast in a flat, circular mold and then highly polished on one side. It was not uncommon for such mirrors, in time, to be broken up and recast into Buddhist statuary, which was left unpolished.

Second, Baso's statement, "The aim of just sitting is to become a Buddha," was deeply contradictory. The particular practice of meditation he specifically referred to was chih-kuan ta-tsuo (shikan-taza in Japanese), a Chinese colloquial phrase that literally translates as "just control yourself and sit there." Shikan-taza is usually translated as "just sitting!" or better, "just! sitting." This implies sitting in meditation without deliberately thinking of anything, or holding on to anything that naturally arises, or pushing away anything that naturally arises, and without trying to suppress any thoughts from arising. However, in reply to Nangaku’s question, Baso indicates that, in fact, he was deliberately holding something in his mind, namely, the goal of realizing Buddhahood, literally "to become a Buddha."

Finally, though, we come to the real paradox of this koan. It is clearly impossible for a roof tile to become a mirror, despite any effort to polish it. Was Nangaku implying that it was impossible for ordinary beings to become Buddhas? If the practicing of polishing is analogous to the practice of zazen, what is the point then of practice, if ordinary people cannot become Buddhas?

The first solution that arises in the mind to this question involves the contradiction in Baso's reply. If, in fact, shikan-taza involves no striving or aim, his sitting in zazen with the aim of becoming a Buddha was not shikan-taza. It was a useless practice, as useless as polishing a tile. By polishing a tile, Nangaku was earnestly endeavoring to encourage Baso in his practice by directly demonstrating the uselessness of maintaining an aim, any aim, in practice.

For hundreds of years now, this is how the story has been understood and transmitted. But soon, another question arises in the mind, namely, even in a practice without an aim, even with true shikan-taza, how can an ordinary person become a Buddha? How can a roof tile become a mirror? The rug is pulled out from under our feet again, and we find ourselves falling back into confusion.

Monday, February 01, 2010

One evening, Dogen instructed,

At a Zen monastery in China sometimes they sift the wheat and rice, etc, throwing away the bad grains and keeping the good ones to cook. A certain Zen master admonished in a verse, “Though you split my head into seven pieces, do not winnow the rice.” What he meant was that monks shouldn’t fuss about arranging fine meals, rather they should eat whatever is available. When it is fine they should eat it as it is, and when it is poor, they should eat it without dislike. Get rid of your hunger and support your life with the faithful donations from patrons or pure food from temple belongings alone and devote yourself to the practice of the Way. Do not choose good from bad on the basis of taste. Now each of you in my assembly should also have this attitude. (Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Book 2, Chapter 21)