Sunday, June 27, 2010

Chattanooga Zazen

This morning, I got to go up to Chattanooga and participate in their Sunday service and, as an added bonus, Sensei rode up with me!

Longtime readers of WDW know that I go to Chattanooga more or less monthly and that I enjoy those visits. Today, we did two hours of zazen (with five minutes of kinhin - walking meditation - every 25 minutes) while Sensei did dokusan (private conversations). Then we had an almost two-hour dharma talk and question-and-answer period before driving home to Atlanta. It's always nice to have someone to ride with on those trips up to Chattanooga and back, and it's doubly nice when that person is your Zen teacher.

This whole month of June has been brutally hot and humid, feeling more like the dog days of August than June, and today was no exception. I broke into a sweat just taking the trash out at 7 pm. But did you know that it's flooding in Belarus? (Local news doesn't carry that story here.)

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

"Since the war, Japanese people have started to wear Western suits, giving up their Buddhist robes, unless they are performing a funeral or memorial service. I don't feel so good about that, so I always wear my robes. When I was coming to America, almost all the priests who were going abroad wore good suits and shiny shoes. They thought that in order to propogate Buddhism they had to be like the American people. But their heads were not shiny. Their hair was pretty long and well combed, rather than shaved off. But even though they buy the best suits and the best shoes, Japanese are Japanese. They cannot be American people, and American people will find some fault in the way they wear their suits or shoes. That is one reason why I didn't come to America in a suit."
- Shunryu Suzuki, Not Always So (pg 67)
Wise words from the late Suzuki Roshi. It is for those same reasons that I resist trying to imitate the Japanese. Even if I were to wear robes and practice calligraphy, Americans are still Americans and the Japanese will find some fault with the way I dress or my penmanship.

Ordinary mind is the Way, and our aim is to actualize our true self, not some exotic vision of what we could become. Yet, at the Zen Center, I see many people wearing all manners of variations on black robes, martial art gi's, or other Asian outfits. It's often insisted that we eat in the oryoki style, and lessons in calligraphy and sewing of robes are offered. Wearing robes, sewing robes, and licking my bowl clean after a meal are not in my nature, so why should I pretend to be something that I'm not?

I'm told that I'm missing the whole point. In oryoki, I'm told, we can bring our mindfulness to our eating, and it's a beautiful tradition practiced by our Buddhist ancestors. Yes, I think, and Zen Master Dogen wrote an entire fascicle in the Shobogenzo on how to clean the anus after defecating using two sticks and balls of mud, but I can't help but notice how Americans choose some practices to follow and others to ignore.

But I'm ignoring the mindfulness, I'm reminded. In sewing practice, we recite the names of the Buddha with every stitch, bringing our full consciousness to the effort. It's a tremendous way to concentrate one's attention and experience mindfulness.

They say all this as if they've never even heard of zazen.

I propose that they are looking for their mind somewhere outside of their self, in esoteric practices or exotic clothing. For westerners, the true self is not contained in some sort of eastern fascimile, but in being true to the self. The few people in our zendo who have been presented robes in recognition of their roles within the sangha generally don't wear them unless there's some sort of official function requiring their "uniform," and that should say something to the others.

As long as we look for the answers outside of our selves, we are moving away from our Buddha nature, not toward it.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Not Dead Yet

I seem to have encountered a writer's block here. The banal day-to-day experiences of my life don't seem worth the time it takes out of that day-to-day existence to write about here. As for commentary and insights into news and current events, it's all covered elsewhere better than I can do. And finally, it's pointless to try to express the Buddha-dharma, the inexpressible, in words, and I often feel like I'm being inappropriate when I post my commentaries on the teachings.

So that leaves me with reviewing concerts and talking about my cats. However, I haven't seen any shows since the Broken Bells/Morning Benders concert, and I'm not going to maintain a blog about cats.

In the past, I rode out writer's block by just posting pictures or cutting and pasting non sequitur blurbs from elsewhere on the interwebs. Unfortunately, those posts were often misunderstood by people trying to read symbolism into my choice of pictures or words, and has just created more confusion and trouble. So no point in that.

I'm not giving up on Water Dissolves Water just yet, though. There have been times in the past when it seemed like there was a lot that I needed to say here, and an understanding of impermanence leads to the knowledge that that this silence won't last forever and that voice might one day return. So I request that the patient reader continue to be patient and ride out this block with me and not read too much between the (lack of) lines.

Meanwhile, be confident that if something so dramatic as my death were to come along, I'll be sure to write about the afterlife here.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Emily Experiment

For a while there earlier this year, I made several references to The Emily Experiment and had promised to describe the outcome of the experiment. For reasons that will become apparent over the next few days, this seems like an appropriate time to finally fulfill that promise.

This is actually a story about Eliot the cat. I had decided that it would be good for Eliot to have a feline friend, someone to be home with him when I went off to work or was away from home for a few days. Perhaps he wouldn't mind being inside all day so much if he had someone with whom to play, and would spend less time outdoors, where his chances for injury or harm are so much greater. Meanwhile, my boss' pet charity is an animal rescue and she keeps several of the rescued cats at our office. As a result, every day I spend at least some time at work petting some cat or another, which I actually find quite therapeutic in the high-pressure, competitive world of consulting. So there was no shortage of cats to pick from as Eliot's new friend.

I wasn't sure how Eliot would react to having another cat in our home, as he's been the sole pet of the house for over a year now. In consultation with my boss, I decided to go with a (fixed) female cat to avoid any alpha-cat conflicts. We finally decided on Checkers, a tiny black-and-white tuxedo cat. She had been rescued from the mean streets of Atlanta, where she had suffered from worms and other parasites. As a result, her growth had been stunted and she will never grow much bigger than a large kitten. I reasoned that her gender and diminutive size would not threaten Eliot, and that the two would get along well.

Now, cats are territorial animals, and don't take well to a new interloper moving in on their area. I've read that the best way to introduce a new cat to the house is to keep it isolated in one room for a week or two to both let it get used to the scent of the resident cat and to let the resident cat get used to the scent of the new cat. They will sniff each other under the door and maybe even touch paws, and after a week or so has passed, they'll be curious enough about each other and used to each other's presence sufficiently to overcome their territoriality and get along.

Sounded simple enough and I had a spare room that I could easily set up for Checkers. So on a late-winter Friday evening, I left the office during a freak snowstorm with the little black-and-white cat in a carrier cage. Traffic creeped along (as a rule, Atlantans don't drive well in the snow) and I got to Pet Smart just as it was closing to buy a second kitty-litter box and other supplies for my second cat.

I somehow sneaked her into the house without Eliot noticing and set her up in the extra bedroom (actually my home zendo/meditation room). But soon, Eliot heard a meowing behind the door and became extremely excited about the prospect of a cat behind the door.

At first, everything went according to plan. They sniffed, they pawed, they communicated with each other in some feline way under the door. I didn't wait a week, though, until I opened that door and let them meet each other; it was actually the next afternoon that I let them meet.

I couldn't have been prouder of Eliot. He was friendly and inquisitive, and went up to Checkers in a non-threatening manner to sniff her a little.

Checkers, on the other hand, was extremely defensive, arching her back and hissing anytime Eliot came within about five feet of her. Eliot just shrugged it off and walked away, and Checkers would retreat to the carrier cage, her little "safe zone," until he was gone.

I think she was terrified of Eliot. Maybe I hadn't counted on the corollary of their size and gender difference, but she wanted nothing to do with him. I closed the door again and gave them more time to get used to each other, but the situation never changed - he was always friendly and accepting, she was always hostile or defensive. Even after I removed the carrier cage to force her from constantly retreating to her safe spot, she still hid in the room and finally made herself a more-or-less permanent home on the top of my home alter, the highest place in the room. I finally moved my Buddhas over and put her little bed up there so she'd be comfortable.

Over the next several weeks, we all tried to forge a peaceful coexistence with our new guest. I renamed Checkers "Emily" after the bride at last March's wedding and after Emily Dickinson, another poet like TS, Eliot's namesake. When Eliot was out of the house, Emily would run around the house, meowing noisily. But as soon as he came back in, she went up to her little perch and stayed there until the next day when he went outside again.

Even while she was alone in the house, though, she was a nervous wreck. She was always looking over her shoulder for Eliot and would jump in panic at any unexpected sound. Worse, she was usually too nervous to eat, taking one or two bites and then running for safety. I think she felt very vulnerable when her head was down in her food bowl. Whatever she didn't finish and left in the bowl Eliot would scarf down as soon as he came in the house, and he started getting noticeably fat. The only way I could get her to eat was to put Eliot out in the morning, give her a bowl of food, and then stand reassuringly over her as she chowed down. But even then, she would take one or two bites and then look nervously around for Eliot before taking another bite.

The weather, meanwhile, took a turn for the worse, and Eliot started spending more and more days indoors while I was at work. When I would get home, Emily would be up on her perch, and there would be no evidence at her food bowl or in her kitty litter box that she had come down at all during the day.

My little experiment in providing Eliot a friend wasn't working. Emily not only wasn't a good companion for him, but her own life must have been miserable. She was a nervous wreck and spent her whole day afraid to leave the security of her little perch. And with the passing time, she just got meaner and more aggressive any time Eliot so much as walked into her room.

Not that Eliot was always an angel. Sometimes he would get fed up with her hissing and would charge her on the rare occasions when she was down on the floor. He was also more than capable of reaching her secure little perch, and learned that whenever he wanted my attention, all he had to do was jump up there and she would start screeching and I would come running into the room to find out what was going on. Once I was up and away from the computer or the television or whatever, Eliot would be all, "Um, dude, I'd like to go outside now."

I gave them two months to see if they'd just get over it all, but the bad behavior became ingrained and habitual. The Emily Experiment was a failure. After about 6 to 8 weeks (6 to 8 weeks that felt like 6 to 8 months), I returned Emily to the office where she once again became "Checkers."

Two post-scripts to this story. First, sadly, things have not gone well for the human Emily, Checker's namesake and March's lovely bride. So poorly, in fact, that she is now in prison serving a five-year sentence for a drunk-driving accident she was in a year ago. I don't have visitation rights (there's only enough for her husband and her family), but I hear that she's taking it as well as possible, spending her time reading and developing her spirituality.

The happier post-script is that once back in the office, Checkers has developed a full-blown infatuation with me. She sits outside my office in the morning waiting for me to come in, and loves to jump up on my desk to be petted while I'm working. If she's not on my desk, she's usually curled up by my feet under the desk. Frankly, it's downright annoying much of the time, as she's already scattered papers all over the floor as she jumped up on my desk, and she's interrupted important conferences by meowing loudly in my face while I'm on the telephone. Due to her sound, I keep getting asked if I'm working at home. But she apparently considers me her protector, and it is a little gratifying to be met so affectionately at the office each morning.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Abby Sunderland Found Safe; Morning Benders & Broken Bells at Center Stage; Celtics 96, Lakers 89

First of all, California teenager Abby Sunderland has been found alive and well, so there's that. Apparently, the Airbus spotted her first and saw that her boat was stable but had lost its mast. Rescue ships will reach her in a day or two and she will return to the U.S.

Jessica Watson made it look so easy - just hop in a boat and take off. Big seas, loneliness, cold - no worries, nothing a little spunk can't overcome. But stranded 2,000 miles from the nearest shore is no place to die and reminds us of how big this planet can be.

I made my own big trip yesterday, a four-hour drive back from Huntsville after a long day of meetings at the Army's Redstone Arsenal. I didn't get home until about 7:30 pm, and then just had enough time to wash up, turn around, and go back out to see The Morning Benders and Broken Bells at Center Stage here in Atlanta.

The Morning Benders are a four-piece indie-rock band out of Berkeley. They're all quite young, yet their music is surprisingly sophisticated and well-crafted. They were the opening act, but I think in a few years they will be headliners in their own right.

I really like their recent album, Big Echo - it's been getting a lot of play on my iPod. Here's the opening track, Excuses, to give you an idea of what their sound is like:

Here's their lead singer, Christopher, apparently sending laser beams into the audience with his eyes:

Their set started just a few minutes past the promised 9 o'clock starting time, a touch I appreciated on a weeknight after a long road trip. The band played most of the songs off Big Echo and closed with Excuses, with Christopher at first crooning the words, then leading the audience in a sing-along, and finally looping his own voice to sing all the multiple overlapping vocal lines that start at the 2:30 mark in the sample above. The band joined in and closed the song and the set with a big crescendo. An enjoyable set by an enjoyable band.

The main event of the night, though, was the Broken Bells, the collaboration of Brian Burton (Danger Mouse) and James Mercer of the Shins. They took the stage as soon as the set was changed over from The Morning Benders and began playing a little after 10, which, again, I appreciated after my long day.

I've posted a couple of Broken Bells videos on this blog before (see here), but here's one more anyway, for The Ghost Inside, featuring Mercer singing in a fine falsetto:

It was a great show. Mercer is definitely the front man of the band, with Mouse spending much of the time playing behind the band on drums. Occasionally, he played a little guitar to back Mercer up, but even then he stayed toward the back of the band. During one number, he actually had his back turned to the audience as he played.

Mouse also played keyboards during the set, but remained an enigmatic presence throughout the set, not speaking a word or singing a lick. He let Mercer and the band have the spotlight, and just, in workman-like fashion, filled in on whatever instrument was necessary for each song, which seemed a little surprising as they had brought a 7-piece band on the road with them.

They opened the set with October and to my surprise, they didn't save their biggest hit, The High Road, for the end of their set, but instead launched into it toward the set's middle. In addition to songs off of their debut album, they also covered Tommy James' 1960s psychedelic classic Crimson and Clover. The audience seemed to really enjoy the show, singing along with many songs and doing the double hand-claps at the appropriate times during The Ghost Inside.

For their encore, they performed another 60's classic, You Really Got A Hold On Me, the Smoky Robinson and the Miracles song that's been covered by The Beatles, among others (Mercer dedicated the song to Mouse's mother). They played it slow and soulfully, before closing out their set with Mongrel and The Mall and the Misery from their album.

The Broken Bells tour ends this evening in Athens, Georgia, and given that the two principals, Mercer and Mouse, have numerous other commitments, there might not be another Broken Bells album or tour. I'm glad, then, that I got to see them last night.

Of course, I almost didn't go at all due to road fatigue and the fact that Game 4 of the NBA Finals was on that night. Throughout the set, I kept peeking at my Droid to get updates on the score. After trailing L.A. for much of the game, the Celtics bench made a run and took a lead just as the Broken Bells came back on stage for their encore, so as soon as the concert let out, I raced for my car and then a truly amazing thing happened: I drove on Peachtree Road all the way from 17th Street in Midtown to Collier Road without having to stop once for a red light. That has never happened to me before; it seems that I usually spend more time on Peachtree waiting for lights to change than I do actually driving. But last night, I got nothing but green all the way from Midtown, through Pershing Point, across I-85, and I even got the green arrow to make my left-hand turn onto Collier without having to wait for on-coming traffic to pass. Truly miraculous - such a thing is likely never to occur again.

So as it turns out, I was able to make it home in time to watch the closing 60 or so seconds of the Celtics Game 4 victory, tying the series up 2-2.

Life is good. Who needs the World Cup when the Celtics are in the playoffs? Who needs Bonnaroo when The Morning Benders and Broken Bells are playing just down the street? (Actually, even as I'm writing this, I'm listening to a live feed on of The Flaming Lips performing The Dark Side of the Moon - in its entirety! - at the Bonnaroo Festival.)

And young Abby Sunderland is safe and sound.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

16-year-old Abby Sunderland, who is attempting to sail solo around the world, has triggered a distress signal during rough seas in the Indian Ocean today.

Ms. Sunderland's small sailboat was adrift in the middle of the Indian Ocean about 2,000 miles east of Madagascar, 2,000 miles west of Australia, and 500 miles north of the French Antarctic Islands.

The government of Reunion, a French island, diverted a fishing boat toward her last known position, but it is not expected to reach the area until Saturday. An Australian military ship, more than two days sail away, has also been dispatched. An Airbus jet has been chartered to fly over the area at sunrise Friday to see if her vessel could be spotted from the air.

Electronic signals from the boat indicate it is drifting at just a mile per hour, which means it is still afloat but not under sail. The mast might have fallen or Ms. Sunderland could have been injured, preventing her from sailing. Ms. Sunderland should be well equipped to survive a crisis situation, as she has a dry suit, survival suit, life raft, and ditch bag with emergency supplies on board.

As previously reported here, Ms. Sunderland began her journey from Marina del Rey, California, on January 23 with the goal of sailing her 40-foot boat around the world without stopping. Mechanical troubles forced her to make two stops for repairs, including at Cape Town, South Africa, in April.

When Abby's older brother Zac sailed around the world alone last year he became the youngest person to ever do so. Australian Jessica Watson took over the distinction last month when she completed a non-stop solo circumnavigation just three days before her 17th birthday. Ms. Sunderland has been on a schedule to complete her global journey about two months before her 17th birthday, which is on October 19.

I am earnestly hoping for Abby's safety, and wish the best for her and her family at this trying time.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010


No blog post today (other than this little message) as I am on the road, specifically in Huntsville, Alabama. The cool thing is, other than actually being in Alabama (it's hard to be humble, I've heard, when you're from Alabama), is that I'm posting this with my iPod. Haven't figured how to post pictures with this yet, but when I do, you'll be the first to know.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Celtics 103 - Lakers 94

The Boston Celtics have tied up the NBA Finals with a decisive victory over Los Angeles in as exciting a basketball game as I've seen in a long time (as long, at least, as since some of the 2009 playoff games against the Bulls and the Magic).

The Celtics trailed early by 5 points, but took a 14-point lead in the Second Quarter. LA fought back and took another 5 point lead in the Third Quarter, but Boston stayed in the game and made a final push in the closing minutes to win the game by 9 points. In the course of the game, Ray Allen set an NBA record for most three-point shots in a Finals game (eight), and Rajon Rondo was just electric, especially down the stretch.

A good day overall. Initiation (jukai) for a dozen new initiates at the Zen Center this morning. A nice walk on the nice new trail through the Park. Took care of a few chores and then a Celtics victory. Who could ask for anything more?

Friday, June 04, 2010

The Beast

"Offensive: nasty, coarse, foul, impure, abominable, beastly, reeky, fetid, moldy, musty, rancid, bad, touched, rotten, corrupt, tainted, putrid"
- Roget's Thesaurus (def. 653)

"We will have to wait and see if the Monster decides to move. As long as it stays in the valley we'll be out of danger." - It Came From Outer Space

Scientists and engineers watch and study it but they don't know how to stop it or even slow it down. They are not even sure why it is coming. But coming it is, and soon it will rear its ugly face and spew black slime all over the coast. It will kill the wildlife, disgust the villagers, and spread disease as it baffles the top minds of the country. The putrid presence of the Beast will eventually affect the lives of everyone. . .
I wrote that way back in 1974 and it appeared in a little, local, Long Island eco-zine of the time called Wetlands. I suspect my parents may have had a hand in getting the publisher to accept it, and it remains my first, and close to only, actual published manuscript. I was writing at the time about "the collective crap of New York City," a mass of processed sewage that had been dumped offshore but was migrating back toward the coast. A year later, I was actually on the beach the day some of that sludge started washing ashore.

Today, I thought about my words from over a quarter century ago as I watched the news about the BP oil spill. The oil is now washing up on the beaches of the Florida panhandle, the "Redneck Riviera" as it's called down here, and the news is full of heart-breaking pictures of oil-coated pelicans and turtles and dolphins, and reports that the oil slick seems to be indeed heading toward the Gulf Stream and the Atlantic Ocean. Sadly, it seems that we haven't gotten much wiser about protecting our fragile eco-systems since the time of that article, despite all of the environmental standards and regulations passed over those years (Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, RCRA, Superfund, and so on).

And speaking of lack of wisdom - some people are actually starting to champion the hair-brained (hare-brained?) concept of using a nuclear bomb to stop the oil leak. The conservative website of the conservative magazine National Review actually posted a sadly-not-ironic article urging President Obama to literally go nuclear on the leaking well, and so many people were enthused enough about this idea that this week a spokeswoman for the Energy Department had to issue a statement saying that no federal officials were thinking about a nuclear blast under the gulf. The nuclear option was not — and never had been — on the table. “It’s crazy,” one senior official said.

Not that "crazy" has ever stopped us from doing anything before.

Re-reading the old magazine piece, it also strikes me how little my style has changed. Despite all the years, it still reads like it could have been any one of the entries in this blog. So I'll close this post with the eerily still-applicable close of my 1974 article:
So the Beast keeps crawling along the ocean floor like a monster from a grade B horror film. But then, maybe it would be easier to cope with a prehistoric creature from the primordial slime, then a nebulous ooze from the toilets of Brooklyn.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The End Seems Near

Lately, I've been having some very apocalyptic premonitions.

I wonder if we are killing, or haven't already killed, the entire Gulf of Mexico. I wonder if we haven't already passed the tipping point of irreversible climate change. I wonder if we haven't already reached peak oil and if the world economy hasn't already been destroyed by rampant greed and poor financial management.

Meanwhile, volcanoes erupt, earthquakes shake, sinkholes open up, and floodwaters rise. It seems as if the very earth itself is colluding in our self-destruction or else ridding itself of us before we rid ourselves of her.

And on top of all that, Gary Coleman passes away. RIP, Gary.

Today, I got another email from Democracy for America, the latest in a long series that I've received in apparent retribution for having donated to the Obama presidential campaign a couple years ago. In this latest message, it was pointed out that the big banks on Wall Street, the JP Morgan/Chases, the Citibanks, the Banks of America, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and so on, have had another incredible year, getting huge taxpayer bail-outs, making record profits, and paying out multi-million dollar bonuses to their CEOs while many of them are still participating in all the highly leveraged activities that caused our housing and credit crisis in the first place.

The good news is that Congress is poised to pass major financial reforms later this month, so the President can sign the bill before the 4th of July. The problem is the bill they're planning to pass isn't enough. According to the New York Times, "The financial reform legislation making its way through Congress has Wall Street executives privately relieved that the bill does not do more to fundamentally change how the industry does business. Despite the outcry from lobbyists and warnings from conservative Republicans that the legislation will choke economic growth, bankers and many analysts think that the bill approved by the Senate last week will reduce Wall Street's profits but leave its size and power largely intact."

In other words, too big to fail banks will still be too big to fail. The email said that it's time to take matters into our own hands, and that I should join the Move Your Money campaign and pledge to move all my money and savings to a local community bank or credit union today.

According to the email, community banks and credit unions don't act like the big banks. Typically, they're more responsible in how they manage their money, they're more closely connected to the people and businesses who live near them, and they're more inclined to make loans they know will get paid back. And my local credit union isn't going to ask Congress for a multi-billion dollar bail-out either. If enough people move their money from a big bank to a smaller, more local, more traditional community bank, we can break up the big banks ourselves. By working together, we won't have to wait for Congress to make change happen.

Okay, good idea, but unfortunately not one grounded in reality. As Paul Krugman recently pointed out in those very same Times, Georgia has one of the highest rates of bank failures in the country, and it isn't big banks that are failing here, it's those very community banks and credit unions to which Democracy For America wants me to move my money.

Down here in Georgia, it's been shown that short-sighted greed and myopic mismanagement isn't the sole purview of the big banks, but that if a vacuum appears at the lower end of the karmic ladder, small banks and local lenders are more than willing to move in and fill the void. But they're not likely to get multi-millions of taxpayer bail-out dollars, though, I'll grant you that. They just get foreclosed upon as others move in to replace them.

It would be re-assuring to say that the end is near, but the true horror of it all is that everything will still go on without respite or relief. But on a positive note, last night I heard Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zero's Janglin' as the background music for a Ford commercial, so there's always that.