Monday, January 31, 2011

One day Dogen instructed:
Zen master Tanka Tennen burned a wooden statue of the Buddha. Although it seemed to be nothing but an evil deed, his deed was a means of showing the dharma. When we read the record of this master’s deeds, we find that his sitting was always in accordance with the prescribed rules and while standing he always followed good manners. His manner was always courteous as if he were meeting a noble guest. Even when he sat for a short while, he sat cross legged and held his hands in the shashu position. He protected temple property as though caring for his own eyes. He never failed to offer praise when he saw someone practicing diligently. Even if they were small, he appreciated good deeds. His own actions in his daily life were especially wonderful. His record remains as a mirror in Zen monasteries (Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Book 3, Chapter 9).

Sunday, January 30, 2011

from the 1/18/11 KCRW interview with director/musician/meditator David Lynch:

KCRW (Jason Bentley): You are such a hero to us here. You have lived the artist’s life and I wonder if you always knew this would be your path or at what point did you know? What inspired you?

David Lynch: I was on the front lawn of my girlfriend’s house in the ‘60s. It was about ten o’clock at night and I had met this fellow named Toby Keilor who didn’t go to my school, he went to private school. He told me his father was a painter…and that was IT!

KCRW: Did you see his work?

David Lynch: I went to his studio that weekend. I begged Toby to take me to his father’s studio. I already knew that that’s I wanted to be, a painter, forever. I knew at the moment he said it. It sort of gave me permission to say it, and go for it. And that was it. Everything after that was based on that wanting to live the art life and work and work and work.

KCRW: Do you find that you approach creativity in its various forms, whether its music or filmmaking, in a similar way or are they always different?

David Lynch: They’re different mediums but a similar way. It’s the ideas that come. Ideas drive the boat -- so you get ideas sometimes for music, you get ideas sometimes for still photography, some ideas for cinema, some ideas for furniture; and you don’t know what’s going to pop in, but you get an idea you fall in love with and you know exactly what you’re going to do and you go to work.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

In a part of Tuesday night's State of the Union address when he wasn't talking about salmon, President Obama said, "Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail. This could allow you to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying -- without the pat-down. As we speak, routes in California and the Midwest are already underway."

I like to think that the president had been reading the late Tony Judt's January 13, 2011 article in the New York Review of Books, in which Judt wrote:

"The cost of oil -- effectively stagnant from the 1950s through the 1990s (allowing for crisis-driven fluctuations) -- is now steadily rising and unlikely ever to fall back to the level at which unrestricted car travel becomes economically viable again. The logic of the suburb, incontrovertible with oil at $1 a gallon, is thus placed in question. Air travel, unavoidable for long-haul journeys, is now inconvenient and expensive over medium distances: and in Western Europe and Japan the train is both a pleasanter and a faster alternative. The environmental advantages of the modern train are now very considerable, both technically and politically. An electrically powered rail system, like its companion light-rail or tram system within cities, can run on any convertible fuel source whether conventional or innovative, from nuclear power to solar power. For the foreseeable future this gives it a unique advantage over every other form of powered transportation."

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

"Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment . . . But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times."
— Thomas Jefferson

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Trouble Every Day

Gunman walks into a Detroit police station and opens fire. Wounds four officers, including a commander, before he's shot and killed by the cops.

Same day, a shootout in front of a Washington State Walmart leaves two people dead and two deputies wounded.

Welcome to America, where 34 people are murdered with firearms every day.

Most people, whether they think everyone should own a gun or no one should own a gun, want to reduce gun violence. That's why, after Ronald Reagan and James Brady were shot in an assassination attempt, a bipartisan coalition in Congress added a background check system to strengthen existing laws to keep guns out of the hands of felons, drug abusers, and the mentally ill.

The flaws in the background check system have been exposed again and again over the years, in the massacres at Columbine and Virginia Tech, and now again in Arizona, Michigan, and Washington state. Now is the moment to fix background checks and make America safer.

A coalition of 550 Mayors nationwide, led by New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have launched a campaign calling on Congress to close the loopholes in the background check system. Mayors Against Illegal Guns have two important changes to the system that will fix background checks and make America safer:

1 - Fix the Holes in the Background Database:

  • Existing laws already outlaw criminals, drug abusers, the mentally ill, and other dangerous people from passing a background check. The problem is state and federal agencies aren't required by law or funded by Congress to supply that information to the background check system and possibly as many as one million prohibited purchasers are missing from the background database.
  • A new law would create full funding and necessary incentives for states and federal agencies to comply with reporting requirements and make sure every legally prohibited purchaser is included in the background check database.

2 - Sell No Gun Without A Check:

  • Under the current system, even if a Prohibited Purchaser like the Virginia Tech or Tucson shooters would fail a background check, they could still have walked into any gun show and bought a car load of guns with no background check, no questions asked.
  • A new law would close all of the loopholes and require background checks for every gun sale, with reasonable exceptions for law enforcement and certain gun permit holders.

Security isn't just about having guns, it's about keeping communities safe for everyone. When we stand together for our values of strong communities, personal security, and liberty for all, we all win.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Tanka Tennen (739–824) was a disciple of Sekito Kisen. While he was staying at Erinji during a cold winter, he burnt a wooden statue of the Buddha to warm himself. Monks there renounced him for it.

He said to them, “I’m burning this to take sharira” (the Buddha’s relics). Someone said, “How can you get sharira from a piece of wood?”

Tennen replied, “If we can’t, then why do you find fault with me?”

Sunday, January 23, 2011

This weekend's zazenkai in Chattanooga went off wonderfully. We probably had 15 to 16 people present at the mid-afternoon height, at least half of whom were newcomers or attending the Chattanooga Center for the first time.

The success was entirely due to a team effort of the Chattanooga sangha, from organizing, to obtaining food, to publicity, and so on, but mostly the success was due to the sincere effort and earnest practice of all the participants.

I spent Saturday night at a Day's Inn in Chattanooga just a couple of blocks from the event and then led the Sunday morning service. For the dharma talk, I told the story of The First Zazenkai, which is basically the story of Bodhidharma and Eka from where we last left off:

Noble Eka, having traveled across the high mountains of eastern China in the cold of December, was standing in waist deep snow outside of Bodhidharma's cave, cold tears freezing to his face. Inside the cave, Bodhidharma was in deep shikantaza (just sitting), the natural state of an enlightened being. Zen Master Dogen tells us that practice is not to be considered the path to enlightenment, but that practice and enlightenment are one and the same thing, so it stands to reason that an enlightened person is naturally in a state of practice unless it's time to eat, or sleep, or answer nature when it calls. In other words, practice for an enlightened one is not something set aside in one's life, it is one's life and what one does unless there's something else that requires doing. So as there was nothing else for Bodhidharma to do in China, he sat, just sat, practicing shikantaza.

Meanwhile, as he waited outside, despite the hardship, despite the suffering, Eka began looking within himself and began to enter a state that could be called "just waiting;" that is, he began to let go off all aspirations and attachments and simply waited outside for Bodhidharma to recognize him, not for his own sake, not for any gain, but to continue the propagation of the buddhadharma for the sake of all living beings.

In this ignoring of Eka, it could be said, Bodhidharma had already started teaching him, and the two of them had already entered into a teacher-student relationship. For as Bodhidharma continued to sit in shikantaza, Eka strengthened his resolve while simultaneously letting go of any ambitions or ego attachments. It is this preliminary training, with the Master in deep shikantaza and the Student entering into practice, that I consider to be the first zazenkai - Master teaching student solely through the mutual practice of meditation.

But finally, at dawn, when the long cold night finally ended, the teacher emerged from the cave to verify his student's progress. Seeing him there, Bodhidharma took pity on Eka and asked, “What are you after, standing there in the snow for such a long time?” Thus questioned, his tears of sorrow falling in ever greater profusion, Eka said, “I simply ask that you, out of your great benevolence and compassion, open the gate to the sweet nectar so that I may ferry all beings to the Other Shore.” Having been answered in this way, Bodhidharma said, “The wondrous, unsurpassed way of all the Buddhas is to be most diligent over vast eons of time in ceaselessly practicing what is hard to practice and in ceaselessly enduring what seems beyond endurance. If you desire the true course whilst relying upon little virtue and less wisdom, or on a frivolous heart or on a prideful and conceited mind, surely you will toil in vain.” When he heard these words, Eka was by turns edified and encouraged.

But what happened next is a little hard to explain and likely even harder for us to understand. There are basically two versions of the next event, the blood-and-guts legendary version, the most common version of the story, and a more interpretive, politically correct version. I'll tell the legendary version first in all of it's blood-and-guts glory, and then the P.C. interpretation.

Eka, encouraged by Bodhidharma's words, knew he had to make one more demonstration to prove his worthiness to the Master. So, hidden from Bodhidharma's view, he secretly took out his keen-edged sword and with one quick stroke, cut off his left forearm. When he placed it before Bodhidharma, the Master saw that Eka was indeed a worthy vessel of the dharma and accepted him as his first student.

Now, that story is a little distasteful by modern standards as we tend not to consider self-mutilation as an activity that should be rewarded or as characteristic of an enlightened being. But it is not known how much of this story is factual and how much of it is legendary. The modern, interpretive version of the story focuses on the term "keen-edge sword" and considers it to be the figurative Keen-Edge Sword of Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom. The Keen-Edge Sword of Manjushri is a symbol for the wisdom that cuts through all delusion and separates us from dualistic thinking. So in this modern, P.C. interpretation, Eka is inspired by Bodhidharma's words to arouse wisdom and finally cut himself free from any last vestiges of clinging and grasping, figuratively represented by his left arm, and he then presents himself and his understanding to Bodhidharma for the Master's approval. This version of the story is more in accord with modern sensibilities and mores, but you're free to choose whichever version of the story suits your tastes.

In any event, upon his presentation to the Master, whatever it is that he actually did present, Bodhidharma remarked, "In their seeking the Way, all the Buddhas, from the first, have laid down their own bodies for the sake of the Dharma. Now you have cut yourself free right before me, which is proof that there is also good in what you are seeking.”

So, with these words, Bodhidharma accepted Eka as his first student. But very subtly, another profound thing also happened just there. Bodhidharma had sat in shikantaza for nine years in the cave as there was nothing else that needed to be done, and was willing and able to sit there for the rest of his life if it so came to pass. But now he had realized that Eka was a worthy vessel of the dharma and that there was now something else to do. So the narrative Next Thing has finally arrived in our story, although not necessarily for Bodhidharma, for our story of his life is not his life, it is our story.

But from that time on, Eka had entry to Bodhidharma's innermost private quarters. For the next eight years, he served as attendant to the Master through thousands of myriad endeavors. Truly, he was a great, reliable spiritual friend for both ordinary people as well as for those in loftier positions, and he was a great teacher of the Way.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

3 Plus You, Chattanooga's Lifestyle Show; January 21, 2011

As promised, here is the video of some of our little publicity tour to promote the Chattanooga zazenkai. If you'd like to participate and come practice with us, please feel free to stop by the Clear Spring Yoga Center in Chattanooga (17 North Market Street).

Friday, January 21, 2011

Friday Night Videos

The show by Lost In the Trees scheduled for Wednesday, January 12, at The Earl was postponed due to the snow and ice, and is re-scheduled for this Sunday (1/23/11). The question is, considering the planned zazenkai in Chattanooga this weekend, will I make it back to Atlanta in time for the show, and if I do, will I have the energy and motivation to go?

According to NPR, "Lost in the Trees is the music of Ari Picker, a songwriter from Chapel Hill" (and a former student at the Berklee School of Music ) "on a bit of a mission: Take a pinch of the brilliance found in classical music and mix it with his own. Lost in the Trees is orchestral folk where the "orchestral" part isn't an afterthought. This is mighty potent stuff."

"A few years ago, there was the soundtrack for Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums," Picker says, "and somehow there it all was — Ravel next to Paul Simon. I look at both my own songwriting and the music I admire most, and the common quality is that it's a sort of mash-up of everything and a labor of love."

A typical comment posted on the NPR site said, "Folks, Lost in the Trees are brilliant. The music is so powerful and so personal. Don't miss them live if you get the chance. Amazing."

The lyrics heard in the title track of their latest album, All Alone In An Empty House, are taken from arguments Picker's parents had in the house he grew up in. But according to NPR, "this isn't a data dump of depression; it's a record filled with hope and spirit."

And then there's this from CBS News:

Makeover For A Special Mom

After Mom's Hardships, Son's Wish For Her Comes True
March 23, 2006

Karen Shelton has struggled through some terrible times. So when her son, Ari Picker, wrote, asking to honor her in The Early Show's Week of Wishes, his letter stood out right away.

"Dear Early Show: I'm writing to nominate my mother for consideration for Week of Wishes," he wrote. "My mom has always been a fighter and she has gone after the things she believes in. When I was eight, my mom was told that she had a fifty-fifty chance of surviving breast cancer. She was alone and without insurance."

Even before the devastating diagnosis, life had been difficult for Shelton. Two years before giving birth to Ari, she lost twin girls who were born prematurely. Later, she left an abusive relationship to raise her son on her own. Cancer came as a blow out of nowhere.

"I didn't know what cancer was. It was 16 years ago. It had never been in my family. I was teaching aerobics and eating broccoli every day," she said.

"I think she was really scared for me. And I think the thing that kept her holding on was me. She didn't want to leave me," said Ari.

The other thing that kept Shelton going was the comfort she found in creative expressions, as an artist.

"Art gives you a connection to something bigger," said Shelton, who has an art gallery in North Carolina called Sizl Gallery. "And when I'm really feeling like I'm connecting and I think all artists feel this way it's almost a spiritual experience."

Ari says his mother's art was literally what helped her to survive. "It's like a representation of how she feels she wants her life to be," he explained, "which is colorful, it's beautiful, the figures in the paintings are peaceful, and she loves doing it, too."

Shelton passed down her love of the arts to Ari, whose own creative talent is music. A student at Boston's Berkley School of Music, Ari says his mother is his inspiration. "Just being surrounded by my mom and all her artwork, it made me want to express myself in the same way she did."

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Mid-Winter's Tale

Eka was of lofty virtue. He was a magnanimous and cultured person, said to have been adored by both gods and demons, by both monks and laymen. He resided for a long time between the rivers Ii and Lo, during which time he read extensively on a wide variety of subjects. He would be considered that rare person who is seldom encountered in any country. Because of the loftiness of his virtue and the dignity of his virtuous ways, one day a strange and wondrous being, a guardian deity who for a long time had been doing his own training in the Way, suddenly appeared before him and said, “If you really desire to receive the fruits of your efforts, why do you linger here? The Great Way is not far off. You must go south!”

The next day, Eka suddenly had a stabbing headache. His teacher at the time, Zen Master Kōzan Hōjō of Dragon Gate Mountain in Loyang, was about to treat his condition when a voice from out of the blue said, “This is not an ordinary headache but is due to a condition of the skull.” Eka then told his teacher about his encounter with the strange and wondrous being. When the teacher looked at the top of Eka’s head, he saw that five lumps had swelled up like mountain peaks on his skull, and he said, “This feature of yours is an auspicious sign, and you will surely have an awakening to the Truth. This strange and wondrous being’s telling you to go south is because Great Master Bodhidharma resides there at Shōrin-ji Temple, and is destined to be your Master.” Heeding these instructions, Eka then left in order to train with Bodhidharma, who at the time was practicing shikantaza in a cave atop a remote mountain peak.

It was December and the mid-winter weather was cold. A deep snow covered the ground, burying the mountains and concealing the peaks. Even if there had not been any snow, we can well imagine that a winter’s night deep in the mountains atop a high peak is not the time or place to be outside. It was so dreadfully cold that the joints of bamboo would split open. Nevertheless, Eka sought his way to Bodhidharma's peak, plowing through the drifts.

Despite the dangers, he eventually reached Bodhidharma's cave, but was not given permission to enter. Bodhidharma did not even seem to bother to turn around and look at him. So Eka waited, and through the night he never dozed off or sat down or took any rest. He stood firm, without moving, waiting for the dawn to break, as the night snow continued mercilessly on, piling up layer upon layer until it was up to his waist. His tears froze upon his cheeks as they fell, drop by drop. But seeing his tears only led him to cry more, and reflecting upon himself only led him to reflect more deeply upon himself. He thought, “When people in the past sought the truth, they broke their own bones to take out the marrow, they drew their own blood to save others from starvation, they spread their own hair over mud, and they threw themselves off cliffs to feed tigers. Those of old were like this, so what kind of person am I?”

Here Eka was thinking about some classic Buddhist stories. The Bodhisattva Jōtai is said to have once visited the Bodhisattva Hōyū and heard the great teaching of real wisdom for the first time, but as he had nothing to serve as an offering, he sold his own body and served his own marrow as an offering. Another story concerns a king of Jambudvīpa who once stabbed himself and served up his own blood in order to save a hungry demon. It is elsewhere said that in a previous life the Buddha revered people who had already realized the truth so much that he spread his hair over a muddy puddle so that they could walk over it. And finally, Makasatta, the third son of the king of Makara, is said to have once seen a mother tiger that was suckling seven cubs and was about to die of hunger, so he jumped off a cliff to feed the tiger his own body.

Reflecting on these ancient stories, Eka thought, "Those of old were like this, so what kind of person am I?” Students of today, we are reminded, should not forget this statement. When this is forgotten, even for an instant, we sink into eon upon eon of delusion.

As he thought such thoughts, Eka became more and more determined. This was possible because he had been cleansing himself of any self-serving motives or hidden agendas. Further, he did not see even this self-cleansing as a means to any end; he was becoming free from all ulterior motives.

To imagine what it was like that night, as dawn approached, is enough to break one’s heart. The hairs on one’s flesh bristle with cold and fear at the very thought. But unfortunately for poor Eka, that is where we need to leave him for now, cold and shivering in the waist-deep snow while waiting for Bodhidharma to acknowledge him, but with growing resolve and purity, until we can next pick up this story again.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Don't really have much left to say today - I've been watching a live webcast of Broken Social Scene perform at Terminal 5 in New York, and I'm a little bit speechless. I've posted videos of them on this blog before here and here, and I've got tickets to see them at the Buckhead Theater on February 10 - if the show is anything like what I've just seen, then I'm in for quite a treat.

Work has been busy, but in a fun way - I took a prospective client out to lunch today at one of my favorite seafood restaurants in Atlanta (Six Feet Under); I had catfish tacos. Tomorrow, I meet with a current client at his new development, a very cool little artist's colony in a 19th Century industrial complex on the west side of town. Scenes from the AMC zombie mini-series The Walking Dead were filmed there. And today I learned that a trip I was supposed to make next week to Huntsville, Alabama, which would have interfered with my Monday Night Zazen schedule, has been replaced by a video-conference (gotta love technology). And on top of all this, I'm preparing, both mentally and logistically, for this weekend's zazenkai up in Chattanooga.

So basically, after the holidays and snowbound break last week, I'm back up to speed on my usual full-tilt catastrophe.

Oh, and the Broken Social Scene webcast is still airing.

Monday, January 17, 2011

A bit of a different routine this evening: Buddha practice (one hour of zazen), followed by dharma practice (half-hour discussion on Bodhidharma), followed by sangha practice (instruction and coaching on opening and attending protocols).

All wrapped up with three treasure bows.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Sensei and I left still-snowy Atlanta at 6:45 this morning to drive up to Chattanooga together to give a pair of talks at the local Unitarian Universalist Church. By "still-snowy," I mean, while not ice-bound like we were last Monday through Wednesday, there is still snow on the ground at most places, with some small patches of side streets still covered with ice, particularly the one on which I live.

The UU Church is not in North Chattanooga like the Clear Springs Yoga Center where the Zen Group meets, and while we found it easily enough (it's clearly visible from the highway, and I've noticed it many times on my trips to and from the Chattanooga center), we had a harder time finding a restaurant serving breakfast. But we did finally find one and had a satisfying if brief breakfast there before heading over to the UU for the first of two talks.

On July 27, 2008, in an event eerily similar to last weekend's shootings in Tuscon, Arizona, an enraged gunman, angry about "Democrats, liberals, African Americans, and homosexuals," entered the Tennessee Valley UU Church in nearby Knoxville during a children's performance of Annie and opened fire, killing two adults. On the eve of the holiday celebrating the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who dedicated his life to non-violence, the congregation reflected on this tragedy and the culture of intolerance that led to this and subsequent violence.

But that was not our reason for coming up to Chattanooga this morning. Next Saturday, the Zen Group of Chattanooga will be holding a zazenkai (day-long meditation period), and we were there to get the word out and promote the event. Sensei gave two talks at the UU Church, one to a morning group of interested parties, including an extended Q&A session, and a more formal sermon during the regular morning service. He invited me up to the podium to provide the details of next weekend's zazenkai and to provide the congregation with a formal introduction to him.

The local media picked up on these talks and we had a very good turnout, based in no small part on the newspaper article that ran in the Chattanooga Times Free Press. I was impressed by the number of people present who apparently had significant Zen experience (but for whatever reason are not affiliated with the local Zen Group), including two couples who separately attended retreats with Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, and a gentleman who had recently returned from a trip to Nepal and Dharmasala to practice with the Tibetan monks in exile there.

We had time after the UU service to drive over to North Chattanooga and the Clear Springs Zen Center to join the Zen Group's meditation service. There, I met a new member of the local sangha, a woman with over 40 years of Zen experience going back to practicing at the San Francisco Zen Center with Shunryo Suzuki in the 1960s. She has lived in Chattanooga for many years, and only recently became aware of our center.

Meeting these many several persons at the UU and the Zen Group with long and involved experiences with practice leads me to suspect that there are still others in Chattanooga and eastern Tennessee who are interested in Buddhism. Our outreach to this area before the zazenkai will continue next week with both a television and a radio interview of Sensei. Details (and links, if possible) will be provided here.

After the Zen service, a group of us had lunch together at Green Life, a combination green grocer and restaurant, before Sensei and I drove back to Atlanta, reflecting on our good fortune on this most auspicious day.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Zen Center Abbot Offers Talks

(from the Chattanooga Times Free Press)
Friday, January 14, 2011
By: Staff Report

Chattanoogans interested in Buddhism and Zen will have several opportunities this month to hear Zenkai Taiun Michael Elliston, founder and abbot of the Atlanta Zen Center and the Silent Thunder Order. The Zen Group of Chattanooga, which is affiliated with the Atlanta Zen Center, is coordinating his talks.

On Sunday, at the invitation of the Rev. Jeff Briere, Elliston Roshi will give two talks at Unitarian Universalist Church. The 9:30 a.m. talk will be an informal session, with Q&A, on Buddhism and Zen. At 11:30, he will give a formal presentation on "Zen Buddhism: Its Relevance for 21st-Century America."

The following Saturday, Jan. 22, the Zen Group of Chattanooga will hold an all-day zazen sitting ("zazenkai") at ClearSpring Yoga, the group's usual meeting place. Elliston Roshi will lead the sitting, offer dokusan (one-on-one meetings with the teacher) and also give a dharma talk at the close of meditation. The public is welcome to sit with the group for all or part of the zazenkai or simply to come listen to the dharma talk.

Elliston's involvement with Zen began in 1966 when he met Matsuoka-Roshi, founder and head teacher of the Chicago Zen Buddhist Temple. After two years of training under Matsuoka-Roshi's supervision and at his suggestion, he underwent a combined initiation and discipleship ceremony and was given the dharma name Taiun, meaning "Great Cloud."

He was registered with the Soto Shu in Japan on July 13, 1969, and ordained as a Zen Priest on March 22, 1970. In 1977 he founded the Atlanta Soto Zen Center. He is the founder of the Silent Thunder Order, which links Zen groups affiliated with the Atlanta center throughout the United States.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

For those of you keeping score at home, I finally made it out of my neighborhood today and went to work. The roads were passable but not great, and the worst roads were indeed those right in front of my house.

So where was I before being interrupted by all that snow and cold? Oh, yes, the story of Bodhidharma. We left the venerable ancestor sitting in a cave, facing a wall, where he remained for nine years. I expressed concern that the reader would wonder "and then what?" in consideration of the usual narrative conventions, just as we so often miss the present moment in our own lives wondering what next will happen to us. For Bodhidharma, however, there was no "and then," there was just each individual moment of just sitting.

Regarding this practice, I've been asked:
I’m wondering if one can help but impose meaning onto the world when the language centres of a person’s brain are active. When you are not thinking is there any meaning? Or perhaps we might say that when you have inner silence and presence then whatever you happen to be doing is the meaning, is the point.
Good comment, and I think the point was well made in that final sentence. When we are quietly sitting in zazen, practicing silence and not minding our inner monologue, our action does not "represent" a meaning, our action (or rather, non-action) is the meaning, and that meaning is, in turn, our non-action. The "meaning" of non-action is non-action. Practice is enlightenment, and enlightenment transcends dualistic concepts of "meaning" and "non-meaning" or "meaninglessness."

The word "meaning," the concept of "meaning," is itself just a product, a construct, of the mind, which is to say, a thought. When we are in a state of non-thinking, there is neither meaning nor non-meaning, things are neither meaningful nor meaningless. Meaning, non-meaning, meaningfulness and meaninglessness are all just concepts, ideas, thoughts - ephemeral phenomena with no concrete reality to themselves, or at least no more concrete reality than we choose to give to them.

To ask what is the meaning of life is altogether a misunderstanding. Life is neither meaningful nor meaningless, life itself is beyond such arbitrary distinctions of the mind. Sitting in zazen for fifteen or twenty-five or forty-five minutes, or for nine years, has no "meaning," but that does not condemn it to "meaningless." Rather, it frees us from the distinction of "meaningful" and "meaningless" and therefore directly expresses our actual lives. How liberating!

So let's let Bodhidharma sit there for a little longer and in a day or two, rather than impose an "and then" upon him, I will tell a different story about a different individual that will come to incorporate Bodhidharma and his practice in the cave as a character. That may resolve my dilemma about how to continue "his" story without continuing his "story."

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

And on the third day, the sun did finally appear, and the people rejoiced, for it was good.

Good, but not good enough to overcome the arctic blast of frigid air that finally blew away the clouds of earlier this week. Temperatures never got above freezing all day, and all that slush on the road, the slush that kept my car from sliding on into the ravine, has turned into a solid sheet of extremely slippery ice. If I tried to roll my car down the driveway today, I'd probably still be sliding along somewhere.

So, for a third day, I couldn't get to work. I finally did lace up a pair of good hiking boots, and carefully walked across the treacherous ice to the supermarket, more for something to do rather than any urgent need to replenish supplies.

What I found was both a little encouraging and a little disheartening. Once I got out from under the trees on my shady block, the roads were in much better shape. There were people out driving, trucks making deliveries, restaurants open. I stopped in Fellini's for a slice of pizza, more because I could than because I needed to.

Where the sun was hitting the dark pavement, the ice was melting, even at these low temperatures. Where the snow is in the shade, e.g., my block, it's turned into a virtual ice skating rink. In other words, the roads are now clear, except for where I live.

In case you don't know, let me explain the physical geography of my neighborhood. I live of a west-facing slope leading down to a local creek, a third-order tributary to the Chattahoochee River (in other words, a tributary to a tributary to a tributary to the Chattahoochee). My road loops around the creek, crossing it twice at upstream and downstream culverts so broad you may not even realize you're crossing over. Three roads lead to and from my loop road, providing us access and egress to the rest of the world, and all of them are uphill (i.e., away from the creek) and all of the hills are moderately to very steep due to the particular geology of the underlying bedrock. The steepest of the hills faces west on the same hillside as my house; my steep driveway is basically just a shorter version of that road. The gentlest slope faces to the east and the one with a slope between these two has a southern exposure.

Now, there's no point in even considering the steep, west-facing route out of here; this time of year, it gets very little direct sunshine and even in the highly unlikely event that I were to make it up, I would then have to descend an even steeper hill on the other side and take on about two or three more hills before I finally got to a major road.

The gentle, east-facing slope seems promising but is still packed with ice. If one gunned the engine and got a running start, one could conceivably make it up to the top, but at the top of the road, it intersects with busy Northside Drive. Yesterday, Northside was deserted, but today it was packed with cars crawling along on the ice. So if one sped up to the top of the hill, you'd better hope that there was no ice to prevent you from braking at the top before encountering all of that traffic on Northside. That's not a chance I'm willing to take.

So finally, that leads us to the south-facing, mid-range hill. As the day progressed, the afternoon sun hit that road, finally exposing some dark pavement. If it doesn't glaze back over tonight, I should be able to make it out of here in the morning on that road and up onto one of the drivable surface streets. From there, I don't see any problem making it all of the way to my office.

It's just the first 500 yards that will be difficult.

Wish me luck.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Still Snowbound, Still Down

Atlanta's still iced over. No mail service, no garbage pick-up, most all stores and shops closed. I didn't make it to work today, and I may not be able to make it tomorrow. The road on which I live, above, was basically a sheet of ice pretty much the entire day.

Not that I would have been able to even try to drive on it. My car is still perched on top of my driveway, approximately 30 feet above street grade. This morning, I found some iced-over footprints, probably of a child, that looks like he or she made it about halfway up my drive before sliding back down.

According to the local news, the perimeter highway around the city is gridlocked with dozens of tractor-trailers stuck on the ice. Other portions are blocked by jack-knifed trucks. The remaining stretches of highway are technically open, but impassable due to the slick conditions. Don't even try to drive anywhere, we were being told over the radio and the television.

I decided to go out for a walk and take a look for myself.

Below is normally busy Northside Drive, usually packed with traffic at this hour (about 8:30 am). Notice I'm standing in the middle of the road, and there's no cars anywhere in sight. I've never seen that before, at any time of day. In the time it took me to walk down Northside to it's junction with Interstate 75, beyond the point of perspective in the photo, only three cars passed me, one a cop who seemed to be having more trouble maintaining traction than the other two.

Here's Interstate 75 during this morning's "rush hour," facing north. No cars. This highway, and this stretch just before the junction with I-85, is almost emblematic of Atlanta's choking traffic. It was spooky, even unsettling, to see it so empty.

Here's the view from the same overpass, looking south toward the city. Nothing. Incidentally, this is also the same spot where the tragic March 2007 Bluffton University bus accident occurred. Haze hanging over the road obscures the usual view of the Atlanta skyline from this point.

That was enough to convince me not to try to drive to work; that, and the fact that the ice was keeping me from driving my car down the driveway. However, by about mid-afternoon, temperatures reached the mid 30s and a little rain began, turning the ice into slush. I knew that the rain and slush would freeze overnight, reprising this morning's conditions, and if I was going to get my car down the drive before, say, Friday, it was now or never. So I devised a plan.

The plan was basically just to slide down the driveway. Not really much of a plan in hindsight. I knew that I probably wouldn't be able to brake on the ice, but the slush on the road seemed deep enough to slow my car down before it slid all the way across the road and into the ravine opposite my house. So I backed up, slowly turned the car around, and ever so slowly began to approach the slope down to the street.

Once gravity got a hold of my car, there was no stopping on the ice - I was right about that. But surprisingly, I was also right about the deep slush stopping my momentum. I was able to stop before careening into the ravine, and straightened the car out and parked in front of my house. My big accomplishment of the day.

I've already heard people on the radio saying that this second snowfall in normally temperate Atlanta "proves" that global warming isn't occurring. Their thinking seems to be that in the "post-climate-change" world, the weather will be eternal summer, and if it isn't hot right where they happen to be at that particular moment, global warming can't be occurring.

Well. According to Professor Neville Nicholls, President of the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society, the flooding in Queensland, Australia is "caused by what is one of the strongest, if not the strongest, La Niña events since our records began in the late 19th century. The La Niña is also associated with record warm sea surface temperatures around Australia and these would have contributed to the heavy rains."

La Niña events are not caused by global change - they occur naturally - but the frequency and intensity of the events are affected by climate change. A good explanation of the effect of climate change on the Australian floods can be found here.

So, globally, we have winter storms during winter in North America and record monsoons in the Southern Hemisphere during the antipodal summer. But while I might have a mild case of cabin fever and am slightly inconvenienced, right now, there's real suffering by both man and beast going on down under.

Not that you'd necessarily want to rescue all wildlife. Where's your bodhisattva vows of saving all sentient beings now? (Hint: to save all beings, you first have to save yourself.)

No the flooding in Australia, affected as it is by higher-than-normal ocean temperatures, is causing real suffering, and gives me some needed perspective on the situation here in Atlanta, not only in terms of climate lessons, but also on relative degrees of suffering.