Monday, February 28, 2011

The Mumonkan, Case 20:
Zen Master Sung-yuan asked, “Why can’t the person of great strength lift up a leg?”
Again he said, “It is not with the tongue that you speak.”
Sung-yuan is said to have tested his students with a third question, “Why has the man of great strength not cut the red thread of passion?” Sung-yuan never found a student who could answer his three questions to his satisfaction, and at his death he put his robe away without naming a Dharma successor.

The "person of great strength" is an enlightened individual, and an enlightened individual does not conceive of a thing separate from the self called a "leg" that could be lifted up or put back down. That person could stand up or sit back down, could walk, or even do the Riverdance if he of she wanted to, but to lift a leg requires there to be some individual entity called "a leg" that could be lifted, and some other thing called a "self" that wanted that "leg" lifted in the first place. Without regard for any individual components or separate things, the enlightened one gets up, gets down, and walks around, but does not consider "the leg" as something apart from the self.

Nor, for that matter, does speaking involve some separate entity known as "the tongue." And as for entanglement in the red thread, the person of great strength does not consider passions or emotion as something apart from the self, something not befitting an enlightened one, either. In fact, to the enlightened one, that person of great strength, there is no separation of self and other, no separation between anything at all. Complete intimacy, including intimacy with intimacy.

We do not "possess" emotions or passions or desires not befitting our Buddha-nature. All those things are Buddha-nature itself. Zen Master Ikkyu understood this and the 18th Century Zen poet Ryokan understood this, and that is why, even in his enlightened state, Ryokan was able to express his desire and longing for his beloved with the words:
Have you forgotten the way to my hut?
Every night, I listen for your footsteps
But you do not arrive.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Thursday, February 24, 2011

More interesting news is coming out of Georgia's climate-change-denying, anti-science Representative Paul Broun's recent town-hall meeting. According to multiple press reports, an elderly man at the Oglethorpe County meeting asked Broun, “Who’s going to shoot Obama?” Reportedly, the question got a big laugh from the audience.

The press accounts all seem to agree on that much of the story, but from there on they differ. According to some reports, Broun chose to ignore the question and quickly moved to the next question, but other reports suggest that he laughed as well, and several reports indicate he responded by saying, "The thing is, I know there's a lot of frustration with this president. We're going to have an election next year. Hopefully, we'll elect somebody that's going to be a conservative, limited-government president that will take a smaller, who will sign a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare."

As always, the best account of this incident is over at Wonkette.

For the record, Broun's office says that his response was to the next comment, not to the "Who's going to shoot him?" question. To his credit, Broun later issued a statement that "After the event, my office took action with the appropriate authorities. I deeply regret that this incident happened at all. Furthermore, I condemn all statements — made in sincerity or jest — that threaten or suggest the use of violence against the President of the United States or any other public official. Such rhetoric cannot and will not be tolerated.”

On the other hand, the "shoot him" statement was made on Tuesday, the press didn't pick up on the story until Wednesday, and the condemnation wasn't released until Thursday. Why didn't Broun swiftly and publicly condemn the statement when it was made, in front of the crowd that seemed to think it was somehow "funny"? But in any event, better late than never.

The point here is that words spoken in anger in turn produce more anger. Broun has established his public persona by repeatedly comparing President Obama to Hitler, his policies to Marxism, and labeling anything he disagrees with as "socialism" (including eating vegetables). During this year's State of the Union address, Broun reportedly tweeted that "Mr. President, you don't believe in the Constitution. You believe in socialism."

This sort of rhetoric may win some elections in rural Georgia, but it also fans the flames of intolerance and hatred. Divisive comments like Broun's may appear harmless in and of themselves, but they also open the door to more extreme statements, like that made by the elderly man at the town hall meeting. And enough comments like the old man's ultimately pave the way to actual violence, if not against the President, then against someone.

It's my sincere hope that Broun was sincere in his condemnation of the statement, and that it further causes him to tone down down his rhetoric and vitriol in favor of a more civil dialog. I don't expect or request him to change his political views, but I do hope that he learns to better tolerate those views that are different than his.

That, and he learns to eat his vegetables.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Broun Plans Hearings on Climate Change and EPA
By Blake Aued

Published Wednesday, February 23, 2011

LEXINGTON - U.S. Rep. Paul Broun plans to use his new position as a House subcommittee chairman to investigate climate change and the Environmental Protection Agency, he said Tuesday.

At the same time as Broun was speaking to constituents at a town hall meeting in Oglethorpe County, fishermen, conservationists, ecologists and environmental activists were meeting at the University of Georgia Odum School of Ecology to promote the idea of manmade climate change and talk about how to reverse the trend.

Broun, who became chairman of the Science, Space and Technology Committee's subcommittee on investigation and oversight when Republicans took control of the House last month, said he plans to use hearings to show that manmade climate change is not settled science.

"We're going to get all voices heard about the science of climate," Broun said. "Right now the (Obama) administration turns a blind ear and eye to opposing views."

The effects of manmade climate change are already apparent, said Oconee County activist Rich Rusk, who, like Broun, is a member of the fishing group Trout Unlimited.

"They're already here, and they'll be increasing," Rusk said. "I suspect many people who are skeptical about climate change will live long enough to see the impacts and know how wrong they've been."

The climate change panel discussion Tuesday was organized by the Oconee chapter of Trout Unlimited and the UGA chapters of the Soil and Water Conservation and American Fisheries societies. Organizers plan to form a committee and hold another meeting sometime this spring, Rusk said. The committee plans to educate people about climate change and support policies like energy conservation and renewable energy that would reduce carbon emissions.

Rusk said his father, former Secretary of State Dean Rusk, told him shortly before his 1994 death that climate change would the defining issue of his generation.

Trout Unlimited supported the cap-and-trade climate legislation that died in the Senate last summer because it says warming streams are threatening trout and salmon populations. Many North Georgia trout died when stream temperatures reached 85 degrees during the recent drought that may have been caused by climate change, Rusk said.

Broun said in 2009 that "the idea of human-induced global climate change is one of the greatest hoaxes perpetrated out of the scientific community." He accused Democrats and scientists who support the theory of politicizing and suppressing data, but said Tuesday he is keeping an open mind.

"What I see from this administration is utilizing global warming to try to promote a political agenda," Broun said.

"I'm a scientist. I'm a physician. I believe we need to look at it on a scientific basis. I don't know for certain, but we need to get the science out to the public so that all voices can be heard."

Broun said he will also hold hearings on an EPA proposal to regulate carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

He said he opposes the regulations, but many environmental and health groups say the gas contributes to rising temperatures and deaths from heat-related and respiratory illness.
According to Wikipedia, "Broun is a political conservative; his religious views inform his politics. In May 2009, Broun proposed legislation that would have proclaimed 2010 The Year Of The Bible. He also introduced a bill to ban the sale or rental of sexually explicit materials on U.S military installations."

In September 2010, The Rachel Maddow Show played a clip of Broun at a public meeting where he cited a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control that claimed Americans were not eating enough fruits and vegetables. He went on to say, “Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta said people in America are not eating enough fruits and vegetables. They want all the power of the federal government to force you to eat more fruits and vegetables. This is what the federal CDC– They (sic) going to be calling people and finding out how many fruits and vegetables you eat (sic) today. This is socialism of the highest order!"

Monday, February 21, 2011

This is what we intended to talk about after our evening zazen:
Now if you wish to practice the Way of the buddhas and patriarchs, you should practice the Way of the previous sages and emulate the conduct of the patriarchs with no (expectation of) profit; expect nothing, seek nothing, gain nothing.

Even if you quit seeking and give up expectations of buddhahood, if you stop practicing and continue engaging in your former evil deeds, you will still be guilty of seeking and will fall back into the old nest.

Without having the slightest expectation, maintain the prescribed manner of conduct. Think of acting to save and benefit living-beings, earnestly perform all good deeds, and give up former evil ones. Do this solely for the sake of becoming the foundation of happiness for human and heavenly beings. Without stagnating in good deeds of the present, continue practicing your whole lifetime. An ancient called this ‘breaking the bottom of the lacquer pail’. The Way of the buddhas and patriarchs is like this.
This is what we actually wound up discussing.

Friday, February 18, 2011

After an influenza-delayed beginning, the 2011 concert season finally begins for me, this year as it did last year with Jonathan Richman.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Bodhidharma's first teaching to Eka (Huike) was simple and direct: "Outside. Wait." Commenting on this teaching, Tenshin Reb Anderson wrote:
"He didn't have any special teachings for his disciple Huike. He just said, 'Outside, have no involvements.' That's it! No involvements. 'Inside have no sighing or coughing. With your mind like a wall, thus you enter the way.' With your mind like a wall: in other words, just. With your mind just, or your mind thus. Thus you enter the way.

"He didn't say much, but that's the teaching for a lifetime, right there. That's all you need: 'Outside, have no involvements. Inside, have no sighing or coughing.' No sighing, no shrinking away from exactly just this. Inside, no shrinking violet; 'I can't live up to this experience, it's too much for me! It's too fast, it's too intense, it's too yucky!' None of that! Also, no coughing or scoffing. Such as, 'This is beneath me. I've got better things to do than think this way. There are better birds than blue jays to listen to. Now, woodpeckers are different. They're really interesting.' No coughing in the mind, and also no shrinking away. Don't get rid of it, don't shrink away from it. Just, inside, let it be thus: let your experience be like a wall."

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. I'll meet you there.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Last night, we talked about what the word "love" even meant. The Buddhists texts don't seem to use it very much. They're full of references to compassion and kindness and even to loving kindness, but they don't mention love itself very much. The Christian Bible seems to talk about love all the time - "God is love," "for God so loved the world," "the greatest of all these is love," and so on, but not the sutras. The sutras talk about desire and longing and attachment, but not romance, not affection, not love.

What's up with that? And what, then, is this "love" that's not otherwise mentioned? Is love nothing more than another form of attachment? Is love just clinging to that which is impermanent, wishing that it weren't so?

The Buddha's most basic teaching is that suffering is caused by attachment, and that by letting go of our attachments, we can lose our suffering. To put it another way, the Buddha's great counter-intuitive realization was that getting what we wanted wasn't what makes us happy, it's the losing of desire that brings happiness. If we just let go of all desire in the first place, it would be as if we had everything.

Now love seems to be the greatest cause of human unhappiness that I know. Just turn on the radio - every song, be it country, rock, pop, or hip-hop, seem to be about nothing else but love, love lost, unrequited love, or love so deep and so strong and so maddening that it threatens to destroy the one in love. Don't even get me started about the blues, but the same also goes for literature, for theater, for cinema, and most certainly for poetry. Almost every artist in every medium seems to constantly be expressing the pains of love in one way or another.

So if love causes so much suffering, then according to the Buddha's teaching, love must be a form of attachment. That may well explain why for most of it's history, Buddhism was practiced by celibates in monasteries, far from the engulfing passions of love and romance and all the suffering that it entails.

But then we read the words of the Zen hermit Ryokan, who wrote, "Have you forgotten the way to my hut? Every evening I wait for the sound of your footsteps but you do not appear."

Yes, love is a form of attachment, and yes, that attachment leads to suffering. But it also leads to joy, to intimacy, to contentment, and to satisfaction. That's the way the universe is, and a fearless Zen Buddhist can stop picking and choosing between the good and the bad, between pleasure and pain, and just open one's heart and experience all that there is in life.

And in so doing, we love and love deeply, celebrating and cherishing the presence of our loved ones as well as suffering the loneliness of their absence. That's the way it seems to be, so we might as well just accept it.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Monday Night Zazen

In observance of Valentine's Day, after zazen this evening we read some of the love poems of Zen Master Ikkyu, the monk Ryokan, and the nun Teishin. Here are some of my favorite passages:
Every day, priests minutely examine the Law,
and endlessly chant complicated sutras.
Before doing that, though, they should learn
How to read the love letters sent by the wind
and rain, the snow and moon.
- Ikkyu (1394-1481)

Was it really you
I saw? Is this joy I feel
Only in a dream?
- Teishin (1798 - 1873)

Have you forgotten the way to my hut?
Every evening I wait for the sound of your footsteps
But you do not appear.
- Ryokan (1758 - 1831)
I find that last one particularly moving. From his words, you can feel Ryokan's longing, his desire, and his heartache. But even though love entails desire, and desire leads to suffering, in the end, Ryokan was willing to accept all the pain for the joy of love. For without love, what is the point of life? A hermit, he could have lived like an old withered tree during the winter's coldest months, leaning against rocks with no warmth, but where is the vitality in that? Instead, he loved the nun Teishin, and the two exchanged beautiful love poems, acknowledging the joy that it brought them, as well as the pain. It is better, they show us, to keep our eyes wide open and allow everything into our life, than to be like the withered tree or the cold rocks.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Friday Night Video

In commemoration of my unused Broken Social Scene tickets last night, here's a video selection from their recent concert at New York's Terminal 5.

In retrospect, I should have given the tickets away, but I was deluding myself throughout the afternoon that I would feel good enough to go in the evening, and by the time I realized that I couldn't, it was too late to even give the tickets away.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Pic Unrelated

I seem to have recovered from my bout with the flu in record time. My fever apparently broke overnight and I felt somewhat better this morning, although with a headache and some residual pain in the joints.

Regardless, I kept my doctor's appointment and there received a shot of penicillin and a prescription to Tamiflu and Cipro, all of which (or one of which?) did wonders in treating the ailment. I did still follow the doctor's advice, however, and took the rest of the day off from work, and was feeling good enough to even consider using the tickets that I had purchased weeks ago to see Broken Social Scene this evening at the Buckhead Theater (formerly The Roxy). As it turns out, I didn't go, and will probably appreciate the rest and recovery tomorrow, but this evening I feel a sense of loss over the show.

Of course, things could be worse - the last time I got the flu, back in 2005, I wound up losing not only over a full week from work, precipitating a decline that culminated in my losing that job, but I also somehow managed to lose a girlfriend during that illness (which, for the record, I had contracted while taking care of her when she had the same flu bug).

But no use crying over the past or even this evening's missed concert. The good news is that I'm feeling better and feel like I can make it to work tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

I've come down with the flu again. It feels milder than the form that seemed to want to kill me back in 2005, but it was still enough to send me home from work (I hand delivered a couple of reports to some Midtown attorneys on my way home so as not to feel totally worthless).

Life is the most wonderful thing you'll ever have, or to put it another way, you'll never experience anything more wonderful than your own life. But it's easier to remember how wonderful things are when every joint and muscle in your body isn't aching with pain and you're shivering with fever.

When good things happen, I want to think, "I deserve this," but when I come down with the flu, I tend to think, "That's not fair! I got the flu shot last November!"

Flowers, while cherished, fade, and weeds, while despised, flourish.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011


For those of you keeping score at home, it was 30 years ago, more or less to this day, that I first moved to Atlanta, Georgia. Early February, 1981.

Prior to the move, I had been living in Boston and teaching high school in Salem, Massachusetts, famous for its 17th Century witch trials (the football team was called the Salem Witches). I shared a small apartment in the city with my grad school girlfriend and would have to get up every morning at 5:15, take a streetcar to a train to a bus to get to Salem, and then I wouldn't get home again until well after 6:00 pm. I found out that I didn't have the patience and whatever it is that teachers have that let's them prosper at their job, and I was generally miserable. Oh, and the salary was only $14,000 per year, a ridiculously small wage even by 1981 standards and the reason why I had to take public transportation to work rather than drive a car of my own.

But still, I thought that the sun rose and set over the Boston Basin, I thought that Mary Ellen was destined to be my life mate, and I figured that if I could just ride out the school year, I would find a "real job" during the summer break.

And then the phone rang.

Unsolicited, I received a telephone call from a former BU grad student who had worked his way into a management position at the Georgia Geologic Survey, and was calling recent grads such as myself to recruit them to the Survey's expanding Hydrology Program. Radium Springs in South Georgia had gone dry during an extended drought, and the Governor, wanting to look like he was doing something about the matter, increased the funding for the Geologic Survey in order to investigate the state's groundwater resources. They were paying $17,000 a year.

I took the job and jumped contract on the teaching position, which reverted to the substitute teacher who probably should have been given the job in the first place.

The only things that I knew about Atlanta at that time was that someone was apparently mass murdering young black boys (the "missing and murdered children" case), the new mayor was Andrew Young, Carter's former U.N. Ambassador (who I later got to meet when he took an executive position at an engineering firm I worked at 10 years later), and Burt Reynolds was considered a pretty big deal (he was shooting the film Sharky's Machine in the city at that time).

I didn't want to leave Mary Ellen, but I convinced myself that she would eventually come down and join me in Atlanta (naturally, she didn't), and that after I got one or two years of experience at the Survey under my belt, I could move back to Boston for a better job.

That didn't happen either. As it turns out, I worked for a little over three years at the Geologic Survey before joining that engineering firm where I would later meet Andrew Young. In 1986, five years after moving to Atlanta, I helped the engineering firm open a new office in Albany, NY, where I spent six cold and rather unsatisfying years. I transferred to the Pittsburgh office at the beginning of 1993 just to get a little more urban of a lifestyle, but the economy was so poor then that we had to shut the office down before the year was over and I moved back to a bigger and more crowded Atlanta, where I've been ever since.

Mary Ellen went off to study at the Sorbonne for a year and then returned to Boston; I haven't heard from her since 1982. A later Governor eventually shut down the Georgia Geologic Survey as part of a budget-saving measure, and that engineering firm got bought up by an even larger company. From what I understand, it's still cold in Albany and the economy's still fragile in Pittsburgh. Me, I've been calling Atlanta my home, for better or worse, since 1993 (this time around), or since 1981 (cumulative).

I don't know if there's a point to any of this. The psychedelic British rock band Pink Floyd once sang, "The memories of a man in his old age are the deeds of a man in his prime." The British post-punk band Gang of Four countered with "Nostalgia, it's no good. It is not enough. It is just a habit."

It is just a habit.

Monday, February 07, 2011

When Zen Master Xiujing of Huayan Monastery was studying with Master Dongshan, he said, "I still cannot see the essential path; I still can't become free of discriminating consciousness."

Dongshan said, "Do you think there is such a path?"

Huayan said, "No, I do not think there is such a path."

Dongshan said, "Where did you acquire your discriminating thinking?"

Huayan said, "I am asking in all seriousness."

Dongshan said, "Go to a place where there is no blade of grass for a myriad li."

Huayan said, "How can I go to a place where there is no blade of grass for a myriad li?"

Dongshan said, "Go directly, right now."

(Case 199 from The True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen's Three Hundred Koans by John Daido Loori and Kazuaki Tanahashi)

Zen Master Shishuang hid from the world. He lived in obscurity in Liuyang as a potter's assistant. In the morning, he would go to work, and in the evening, he world return home. No one knew him to be an adept. Master Dongshan sent a monk to find him.

Shishuang asked him, "What does Dongshan say to provide instruction to his disciples?"

The monk said, "At the end of the summer ango, he said to the monks, 'The fall has begun and the summer has ended. If you brethren go traveling, you must go to a place where there is no blade of grass for a myriad li.' After a long pause, Dongshan said, 'How can one go to a place where is no blade of grass for a myriad li?' "

Shishuang said, "Did anyone respond or not?"

The monk said, "No."

Shishuang said, "Why didn't someone say, 'Going out the door, there's nothing but grass?' "

The monk went back and relayed what Shishuang said to Dongshan.

Dongshan said, "This is the talk of wonderful knowledge appropriate for an abbot of fifteen hundred people."

(adapted from Zen's Chinese Heritage, by Andy Ferguson)

Saturday, February 05, 2011

The Hermit

There was a hermit from the assembly of Zen Master Xuefeng who left the monastery and built a grass hut near the mountain and lived there. Years passed but he did not shave or cut his hair. He fashioned a wooden dipper from which he drank the water from the nearby valley stream.

One day, another monk came by and asked him, "What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the West?" The hermit replied, "When the valley stream is deep, the handle of the dipper is long." The monk had no idea of what this meant, and without even bowing in respect or asking for instruction, he hastened back to the mountain to report the incident to Xuefeng. Hearing the incident Xuefeng said, "Wonderful! But be that as it may, I think this old monk will have to go there and have a look for himself."

So one day, Xuefeng suddenly handed his attendant a razor and they made their way to the hermit's dwelling. Upon seeing the hermit he said, "If you can speak a word of Zen, I won't shave your head."

At that, the hermit washed his hair in the stream. Xuefeng then shaved his head.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.
- Voltaire

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The End of the Bodhidharma Story

So the happy ending to the Bodhidharma story is that after Eka presented himself and made his sacrifice, Bodhidharma accepted him as his first student, eventually passing the dharma on to China and hence to Japan and to the rest of the world. Bodhidharma took on more students, including the monks Daofu and Daoyu and the nun Zongchi, and eventually even came to run his own temple.

One day, Bodhidharma called his students together and asked them to each express their own understanding.

Daufu said, "My present view is that we should neither be attached to letters nor be apart from letters, and to allow the Way to flow freely."

An outstanding answer, one free from one-sided, dualistic views. Avoiding the gutters, he navigated right down the middle of the road. Bodhidharma replied, "You have attained my flesh."

Zongchi stepped forward and said, "My view is that is is like the joy of seeing the Buddha Land just once and not again."

Only an adept can speak like this; she was, after all, a lioness' cub. Pleased with her response, Bodhidharma said, "You have attained my sinew."

Daoyu took his answer to an even higher level, saying, "The four great elements are originally empty and the five aggregates of being do not exist. Therefore, I see nothing to be attained."

Everyone was blown away. Deaf, dumb, and blind, Daoyu stumbled right into the truth of the matter. Bodhidharma replied, "You have attained by very bones."

But Eka, well, he stepped forward and silently made a full bow, stood back up, and returned to where he was. Proceeding down Bodhidharma's own road, he had walked right into the old man's belly.

Bodhidharma said, "You have attained my marrow," and made him his successor.

His life work now completed, Bodhidharma made no attempt to resist an attempt by a jealous rival teacher to poison him. He is said to have passed away sitting in an upright position.

Three years later, a monk named Song Yun, who was on an official mission to the West, saw an old man without a coat walking alone across the Himalaya, carrying one sandal in his hand. Song Yun asked the old man where he was going, and the old man replied, "To India." When Song Yun returned to China, he told this story to the new emperor. On a hunch, the new emperor ordered Bodhidharma's tomb opened, and his body was discovered to be missing. The only thing that remained in the tomb was a single sandal.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011


Oh, dear - here's Georgia Congressman Jack Kingston on the Bill Maher t.v. show denying evolution (shortly after denying climate change), another embarrassment for our fine state. As far as the lack of "missing links" goes, new discoveries are constantly filling in the gaps in the fossil record, but every time a so-called "missing link" is discovered, a curious thing happens - creationists suddenly identify two more missing links, one from just before the newly discovered fossil and another from afterwards. So where there was once only one missing link, scientists are then asked to find two more. It never ends.

Saturday, the Jehovah's Witnesses stopped by again and left me some creationist literature as part of their on-going mission to try to convert me from my "scientific" point of view (and part of my karmic consequences for engaging them in this discussion to begin with). By now, I just smile and take their back issues of Watchtower and wish them a good day. There's no use arging with a closed mind, and my mind is not open to their ideas on creationism.