Friday, April 30, 2010

Friday Afternoon

Just as a man shudders with horror when he thinks he has trodden on a serpent, but laughs when he stoops and sees that it is only a rope, so I discovered one day that what I was calling 'I' is not apparent, and all fear and anxiety vanished with my mistake. - Buddha

Thursday, April 29, 2010

An Lesson In Greed, Atlanta Style

As we look for ways to prevent future financial crises, many questions should be asked. Here’s one you may not have heard: What’s the matter with Georgia? - Paul Krugman, April 12, 2010
It seems that Georgia leads the nation in bank failures, accounting for 37 of the 206 banks seized by the FDIC since the beginning of 2008. No other state has suffered as badly from banks gone bad. Georgian Bank, founded in 2001, once entertained clients on the C.E.O.’s yacht and private jet before it finally went bust. Integrity Bank, founded in 2000, played up its “faith based” business model — it was featured in a 2005 Time magazine article titled “Praying for Profits” - but it too has gone bust. Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman addressed this crisis in a recent NY Times op-ed piece.

Not surprisingly, the bank failures resulted from the collapse of the housing bubble. The share of mortgages with delinquent payments is higher in Georgia than in California; the percentage of Georgia homeowners with negative equity is well above the national average.

To appreciate the situation, Krugman explains, you first need to realize that the housing bubble was a geographically uneven affair. Prices rose sharply in cities like Portland where zoning restrictions and other factors limited the construction of new houses. In the rest of the country, permissive zoning and/or abundant land made it easy to increase the housing supply, a situation that prevented big price increases and therefore prevented a serious bubble. Atlanta is a sprawling metropolis facing few limits on expansion, so it never saw much of a housing price surge.

So what’s the matter with Georgia? Krugman says the banks went wild in a scene reminiscent of the savings-and-loan excesses of the 1980s. High-flying bank executives aggressively expanded lending — and paid themselves lavishly — while relying heavily on “hot money” raised from outside investors rather than on their own depositors. It was fun while it lasted. But then the music stopped.

In contrast, though, the same thing didn't happen in Texas, with its similarly sprawling cities like Houston and Dallas. Surprisingly, though, Texas had strong consumer-protection regulation that made it difficult for homeowners to treat their homes as piggybanks, extracting cash by increasing the size of their mortgages. Georgia lacked any similar protections (the Bush administration blocked the state’s efforts to restrict subprime lending directly) and suffered for the difference.

What’s striking about the contrast between the Texas story and Georgia’s debacle is that it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the issues that have dominated debates about banking reform. For example, many observers have blamed complex financial derivatives for the crisis. But Georgia banks blew themselves up with good old-fashioned loans gone bad.

And for all the concern about banks that are too big to fail, Georgia suffered, if anything, from a proliferation of small banks. Actually, the worst offenders in the lending spree tended to be relatively small start-ups that attracted customers by playing to a specific community.

So what’s the moral of this story? As Krugman sees it, it’s a caution against silver-bullet views of reform, the idea that cracking down on just one thing — in particular, breaking up big banks — will solve our problems. The case of Georgia shows that bad behavior by many small banks can do as much damage as misbehavior by a few financial giants.

And the contrast between Texas and Georgia suggests that consumer protection is an essential element of reform. By all means, we should limit the power of the big banks. But if we don’t also protect consumers from predatory lending, there are plenty of smaller players — both small banks and the nonbank “mortgage originators” responsible for many of the worst subprime abuses — that will step in and fill the gap.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

A Jessica Update

After more than six months at sea, alone, 16-year-old Jessica Watson has crossed both the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans and has made it nearly all the way around the world. She is now back back in Australian waters and halfway through the Great Australian Bight. Her plan is to cruise south around Tasmania before turning north and heading back home to Sydney.

Those of us who have been following her attempt to set the world record as the youngest around-the-world solo sailor offer her the best of wishes on this final leg of her voyage.

Update: I just saw this headline over at Huffington Post:

I naturally thought that Jessica, with only a week or so to go, had ditched her attempt for some reason, but reading on, I learned that "A 16-year-old Southern California girl hoping to become the youngest person to sail around the world alone has ended her quest and will head to South Africa for boat repairs."

The 16-year-old Southern Californian is apparently an Abby Sunderland, who reportedly wrote on her blog that it would be "foolish and irresponsible" to keep going after losing use of her boat's main autopilot. She expects to land in Cape Town in about two weeks.

The record for the youngest person to circumnavigate, the one Jessica is seeking to break, is held by 17-year-old Mike Perham of Britain. Sutherland embarked on her voyage last January 23 after her older brother Zac completed a westerly solo circumnavigation at the age of 17.

There was no mention of Jessica Watson is the Huffington article.

Saturday, April 24, 2010


After a beautiful, sunny, and spring-like week (my azaleas are currently in bloom), the weather offers us a rainy weekend. Flowers, while cherished, fade and weeds, while despised, flourish.

This evening, I have tickets to The Tabernacle to see Phoenix and Two Door Cinema Club, similar sounding French and Irish bands, respectively. The show is sold out, but to share the experience with you, above is a video of Phoenix performing Lisztomania at KCRW in Santa Monica last year.

The song is popular, and appeared on several "Best Of" lists for 2009 (but not mine). Below, if you can stand the cuteness and are not yet sick of the song, are a bunch of Staten Island fifth-graders singing the song in a school auditorium.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Another Buddhist Celebrity

"Courtney Love's room at the Mercer Hotel in SoHo was a study in chaos. Racks of clothing, from 1920s vintage to this season’s Miu Miu, lined two walls. The floor was littered with boxes of photos. Empty coffee cups, half-finished bottles of juice, opened bags of candy, overflowing ashtrays and stacks of books on Buddhism and psychology were seemingly everywhere. . . Ms. Love [has] regained her footing through a renewed devotion to Buddhist chant and meditation and with the support of several life coaches and therapists. And, she said, she wants to stay in New York. 'I can be in the real world here,' she said. 'Here I can participate in life'."
from Courtney Love’s Music Therapy by Anthony Bozza, NY Times, April 15, 2010

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Shokai The Bondsman

I finally found a use for the Unsellable Condo in Vinings. I used it as collateral. To get someone out of jail. For racketeering.

As you can imagine, there's a long back story, but it doesn't matter and I won't tell it here. What does matter and what will be discussed here is that we should do what we can to help out others, without judgement, without expectation of a reward. If someone asks for your assistance and you can do that which is asked of you, then why not?

Zen Master Dogen once said that if someone asks a Buddha or a Bodhisattva for help, they are willing to offer their own flesh and limbs. So why turn someone away who comes to you and asks you for a reference or to assist in a legal matter? Because you are afraid of what people will say? This just shows how deep your attachment of the Self is. Even if people criticize your actions as unbecoming of a Buddhist, if you help others even a little bit and have no desire yourself for fame or profit, you are following the Way.

Dogen was asked what if the request might cause another person to lose his belongings or have something bad happen to them? Should such a request be honored?

Dogen replied, "It is not for us to decide whether the request is good or bad. Even if it appears to be wrong, if you have a friend who respects you and whom you do not want to go against, and he requests your support to do something possibly wrong and unacceptable, you should carefully listen to his request and tell others in your response that you are acting on the exact words that you have heard and that the matter should be dealt with reasonably. If you treat each situation in this way, no one will hold a grudge. You must consider things like this very meticulously in every encounter or situation. The primary concern is to cast aside the desire for fame and ego-attachment in whatever situation.”

Some people think that if they were to put the welfare of others first, their own benefits would be reduced. This is not true. Helpful conduct is the whole dharma. It is all-encompassing, and universally benefits both self and others. It is not that difficult to cultivate such an attitude, but to maintain it and follow through with it completely is difficult.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Once, a certain nun asked, “Even lay women practice and study the buddha-dharma. As for nuns, even though we have some faults, I feel there is no reason to say that we go against the buddha-dharma. What do you think?”

Zen Master Dogen admonished, "That is not a correct view. Lay women might attain the Way as a result of practicing the buddha-dharma as they are. However, no monk or nun attains it unless he or she has the mind of one who has left home. This is not because the buddha-dharma discriminates between one person and another, but rather because the person doesn’t enter the dharma. There must be a difference in the attitude of lay people and those who have left home. A layman who has the mind of a monk or nun who has left home will be released from samsara. A monk or a nun who has the mind of a lay person has double faults. Their attitudes should be quite different. It is not that it is difficult to do, but to do it completely is difficult. The practice of being released from samsara and attaining the Way seems to be sought by everyone, but those who accomplish it are few. Life-and-death is the Great Matter; impermanence is swift. Do not let your mind slacken. If you abandon the world, you should abandon it completely. I don’t think that the names provisionally used to distinguish monks and nuns from lay people are at all important" (Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Book 3, Chapter 2).

Sunday, April 18, 2010

And Now For Your Moment of Zen (Friday Night Videos On Sunday)

Zen is often - and incorrectly - perceived as nonsense, as absurd riddles and stories designed to confuse rather than to clarify. The epitome of this attitude appears at the end of most episodes of The Daily Show, where host Jon Stewart announces, "and now for your moment of Zen," followed by some short, hard-to-believe or non sequitur film clip.

This is probably an understandable reaction to Zen koans like the sound of one hand clapping or Joshu's Mu, but Zen is not about the nonsensical at all. But rather than explain what Zen actually is, I'll instead throw a few more logs on the fire and provide some bizarre and non-linear videos for a Sunday installment of Friday night videos.

And now, for your moment of "zen":

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

I Get Mail . . .

Dear Shokai,

Karma's a bitch and it makes me wonder sometimes, "What was it I did that was so bad?" Like for instance, I go to start my truck last Sunday to go down to the zendo and nothing--not a sound. The truck is dead. I was disappointed to say the least. Oh well, without a job, ergo no money, and no mechanical expertise, I am here until the truck miraclulously cures itself.

Plenty of time alone now to sit, breathe, let go.

I usually practice zazen for 30 minutes two or three times a day. Well, after my afternoon sitting today, I decided to go for a walking meditation down the road. Guess what? Karma decides to bite me in the ass, literally. I get attacked from behind by a dog. On its second attack, I was lucky to grab its collar, but it came off as if it wasn't fastened. So now I'm fighting the dog off with its own collar until the owner can come out and subdue the beast. Finally, she has him under control, or so I think, and I start back on my walk, rubbing the back of my upper leg and asking the woman why would she make her dog so vicious? I get about 30 feet away and she turns him loose again. He attacks and pulls me to the ground. She gets him before he does any serious damage, but he has my lower leg in his mouth this time. All I can think of to scream at this woman-thing is, "If he attacks me again, I'm calling the police!"

Lame, I know. Well, I hate violence, but knowing that I had to go back past that house again on the return trip, I made sure I had some form of self-defense in the shape of a large wooden club and the will to utilize it, if needed. I feel the woman is the sentient being who needs to be beaten to a bloody pulp. It's HER fear that attacked me.

Anyway, here I sit now, the back of my upper leg bleeding, swollen, sore, and turning purple. My blue-jeans torn. My peaceful calm shaken, but returning, slowly--although my stomach is twisted tightly in knots from the anger I felt from being surprised and attacked for no reason. I cannot let this keep me from walking, but damn-it, now I have to be armed?

So, why tell you? Don't know. I don't have anyone else to tell. And, I'm trying to figure out what Karma is trying to teach me. I guess, "Don't go out unarmed! Other people's fears can kill you!" But then, doesn't that create fear in my heart? Thus causing me to feel the need to protect myself from another imagined attack, just like this woman is doing by having a vicious dog to protect her from some imagined intruder-attacker? Where does it end?

I don't know, after a good gentle ass rubbing and a few tears, I'm left alone to wonder.


Sunday, April 11, 2010

Meanwhile, Back On the 100-Foot Pole

Last Monday night, I fear that I created more confusion than understanding in my discussion of the 100-foot pole. I'd like to clarify some of that confusion by going back to the underlying koan, as it appears in Case 79 in the Book of Serenity. It also appears in an abbreviated form in Mumon's Gateless Gate (Case 46).
Zen Master Chosa told a monk to go and ask the hermit E Osho, "What was it like before you interviewed Nansen?" The monk asked the hermit as instructed, and E was silent for some time. The monk then asked, "How was it after the interview?" E answered, "Nothing special."

The monk went back and told Chosa of this. Chosa said, "There is a man on top of a hundred-foot pole. Though he has a degree of understanding, he's not yet a man of the Way. From the top of the hundred-foot pole he should advance a step further and the ten directions of the world will be his entire body."

The monk asked, "How do you advance a step?" Chosa replied, "The mountains of Ro-shu, the waters of Rei-shu." The monk said, "I don't understand." Chosa said, "The Four Seas and the Five Lakes are the transformed King."
Little is known of Master Chosa other than he was a successor of Master Nansen. He's been described as a sort of rolling stone with no fixed abode, preaching when and where it pleased him to do so. He was feared by all other monks and possessed an extremely pointed and aggressive style of instruction. After he literally knocked down Master Kyozan and climbed onto his chest in answer to a question, Kyozan said, "Whoa! Just like a tiger" and Chosa came to be known as Tiger Cen (an abbreviation of one of his dharma names).

E Osho, the hermit, was also a student of Nansen's, and thus also a dharma brother to Chosa. Chosa apparently wanted to test E's understanding and find out whether he had attained enlightenment during his practice with Nansen, so he sent a monk to ask him what it was like before he had met Nansen. E's answer was to remain quiet, an acceptable enough response, but the monk pressed further and asked what it was like after his practice under Nansen. Chosa was critical of E's answer of "Nothing special."

E's answer was correct from the absolute point of view that there is no difference before and after enlightenment, but Chosa felt that E was stuck to the absolute. The non-dual mind dwells neither in the relative nor the absolute, and the relative was nowhere contained in E's absolute answer. His answer should have contained elements of both the relative and the absolute and been lively and life-affirming, not cold and dogmatic. Maybe E should have jumped onto the monk's chest and roared like a tiger.

Chosa's diagnosis was that the hermit had advanced to a stage advanced enough to comprehend the absolute, but that his practice and understanding were now stuck at this point and he needed to progress further. To illustrate his point, Chosa invoked the parable of the man on the hundred foot pole. In Not Always So, Suzuki Roshi talks about arriving at the top of the pole as a metaphor for awakening to the essential nature of our reality. Each one of us is stranded at the top of a 100-foot pole. No matter where we are in our Zen practice or our life, we always seem to be at the top of the pole. Whether we have glimpsed an understanding of the absolute or entered into a life of quiet reflection, we must not rest there. We must step forward into the unknown void in order to experience the boundless life.

Suzuki says that if we insist on remaining stuck to the pole, we’re making a mistake, our spiritual practice is incomplete. Having a profound enlightenment experience is one essential aspect of Zen practice, but we need to be careful not to turn it into a kind of hiding place. We have to be engaged in our lives, not withdrawn like the hermit. Engagement, putting our understanding and awakening to use, is the work of our lifetime. Suzuki writes:
So the secret is just to say "Yes!" and jump off from here. Then there is no problem. It means to be yourself in the present moment, always yourself, without sticking to an old self. You forget all about yourself and are refreshed. You are a new self, and before that self becomes an old self, you say "Yes!" and you walk to the kitchen for breakfast. So the point on each moment is to forget the point and extend your practice. As Dogen Zenji says, "To study Buddhism is to study yourself. To study yourself is to forget yourself on each moment." Then everything will come and help you. Everything will assure your enlightenment.
Imagine you are atop a 100-foot pole and your teacher tells you that it won't do to stay there. You have to advance one step further. Our delusion is not realizing that the pole is in fact endless, and what seems like the top to us is just an illusion. The "top of the pole" is only in our minds, and when we think about it, isn't it a little bit egotistical for us to have imagined that we were at the top of the pole? The teacher sees the continuation of the pole and encourages us to keep climbing, but we remain frozen in fear, clinging in our delusion to our spot on the pole. Because he knows that the pole is infinite, Zen Master Dogen encouraged us to keep climbing despite our concern for our own well being and to let go of even our desire for bodily life.

The hermit E was clinging to the pole of his absolute understanding and his hermetical existence, and Chosa felt that he needed to progress in his understanding, although the same could be said of his engagement with the world.

During a recent dokusan, I heard a young woman express her fear of graduating from college and entering into the working world. She was stuck to her own position on the pole and needed to overcome her attachment to the safety and security of student life. I was reminded of birds in a nest - when the mother bird knows that her babies are ready to fly, she teaches them to fly by pushing them out of the nest. The baby birds are probably terrified, convinced that they will fall to their deaths. "But Mom," they protest, "We only know how to sit in a nest and open our mouths for regurgitated worms. We were never taught to fly." But as they're pushed out and begin to fall, their wings spread apart and flap, and suddenly the baby birds find that they're flying, that they've always knew how to fly. They always had bird nature and did not need to be "taught" anything in order to fly.

When our teacher recognizes our nature and ability and tells us to take one more step beyond the top of the 100-foot pole, we experience the same reaction as the baby birds. We cling to our comfortable spot on the pole and miss realization of our true nature. But if we do let go, we realize our true nature and the continuity of the pole, and we can then experience our selves as the entire world in the ten directions, from the mountains of Ro-shu to the waters of Rei-shu, from the Four Seas to the Five Lakes.

But don't take my word for it. After all, I'm not a teacher (and there's nothing to teach). Here's a short excerpt from a dharma talk by Blanche Hartman, abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, on this very topic:

Friday, April 09, 2010

Because You Asked For It (Fri. Night Video)

Actually, nobody asked for it, and if I took a poll, some people would probably have requested that these not be posted. Well, tough - I like them, so here's some more of South Africa's Die Antwoord.

From the tattoos to the Keith Harring nightmare of a backdrop to the progeria syndrome to the pet rats - there's more going on in these videos than I can mention (or understand). But if you're anything like me, you've already watched at least one of these videos twice by the time you've read this, if you haven't seen them already.

I've always maintained that Water Dissolves Water isn't a "Buddhist blog," but rather a blog by a Buddhist, but it's occurred to me that this might be the first time that Die Antwoord's been posted, not once, but twice, on a so-called "Buddhist blog."

Monday, April 05, 2010

Dogen instructed,

Students of the Way, let go of body and mind and enter completely into the buddha-dharma. An ancient said, "At the top of a hundred foot pole, how do you advance one step further?” In such a situation, we think that we would die if we were to let go of the pole and so we cling firmly to it.

Saying “advance one step further” means the same as having resolved that death would not be bad and therefore one lets go of bodily life. We should give up worrying about everything from the art of living to our livelihood.

Unless we give up worrying about such things it will be impossible to attain the Way even if we seem to be practicing earnestly as though trying to extinguish a fire enveloping our heads. Just let go of body and mind in a decisive manner (Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Book 3, Chapter 1).

Friday, April 02, 2010

Bad-Girl Videos

Enough already of all that goody-two-shoes Zen stuff - it's time to go to the other side, the dark side, and explore some of the more untoward aspects of our nature. Therefore, tonight's edition of Friday Night Videos is dedicated to the bad girls, the poor role models, the ones who show us how to behave badly as well as the consequences of that bad behavior. Bad girls: they'll take you to heaven but give you hell.

Paul Schaffer once said that Karen O of the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs is "rad bad," so we'll open with this spooky video from them:

Bad, rad bad to be sure, but still not bad enough. So here's bad-girl Susan Sarandon at an concert by Atlanta's Of Montreal earlier this year dressed like a school-teacher and spanking dudes dressed as pigs because why not?

But the bad girls can take us still deeper into the allure, and the wages, of sin. This interesting video is by a band called Cinnamon Chasers and condenses an entire virtual movie into 5 minutes and 14 seconds, exploring themes of passion and recrimination, crime and karma. And, oh yes, one very, very bad girl.

Speaking of recriminations, here's a video by Marta and Dandi of Fan Death, ominously titled Cannibal. I posted a video by Fan Death here once before, but this one goes in a whole 'nother direction. While Marta and Dandi themselves do not behave so badly here, consider that they are the ones who conceived of this whole dark fantasy.

All of this is not to take anything away from the street cred of the ultimate bad girl, this evening's winner, oddly-coiffed South African sexpot Yo-landi Vi$$er of Die Antwoord. According to Pitchfork, Die Antwoord "are at the forefront of a manic, potty-mouthed form of South African rave-inspired hip-hop music called Zef. This three-piece act makes the people on Jersey Shore look downright normal. In the true post-modern spirit, it's hard to tell exactly where the joke stops and the real starts with these guys, which is probably why Die Antwoord is already drawing international attention." They are rude and antisocial, and yet you can't take your eyes off of them. So to close, here's a video of Yo-landi and co-rapper Ninja talking dirty in a taxicab. You've been warned, so now go and enjoy.

Thursday, April 01, 2010


Humans (a) are simply more complex versions of basic sponges (b).

Basic sponges are shaped like elongated donuts (c).

Things inside the donut hole (c) are not inside the donut.