Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Have a Little Faith

In one of my most optimistic moments in recent weeks, I went ahead today and purchased advanced tickets to next summer's Bumbershoot festival in Seattle, Washington.

There is so much uncertainty in my life right now as I wait to see how my means of livelihood unfolds over the next several months.  There are a good dozen reasons why I can expect to not be able to attend the festival next year, but sometimes you have to set some goals and have a little faith in yourself.

See you in Seattle!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Damien Jurado

Damian Jurado performing at The Earl in Atlanta back in November 2010.

I later saw a late-night performance by Jurado at Portland's Bunk Bar during MFNW 2011 (rumor is that Sharon Van Etten was in the crowd, too). The next night, I saw Jurado in the crowd at a performance by Pickwick at the Doug Fir Lounge.  He was obviously impressed by the band (as was I), and he's tweeted about Pickwick several times in recent weeks.

He's got a new album coming out early next year, and he's released a preview track that sounds like a new direction in his career.

Monday, November 28, 2011

It has been said that following the Buddha's death, the teachings (dharma) have gone through three successive periods of degeneration.  In the period of the true dharma (shobo), which lasted 500 to 1,000 years after the Buddha's death, the dharma was properly practiced and enlightenment could be attained. In the period of the semblance dharma (zobo), lasting 1,000 to 500 years, the teaching was practiced but enlightenment was no longer possible. In the period of the last dharma (mappo), lasting 10,000 years, although the teaching still existed, there is no practice or enlightenment.  In Japan, it was believed that the last period began in 1052 A.D.. The idea of mappo heavily influenced the Buddhist movements during the Kamakura Period.

Regarding this concept, Zen Master Dogen instructed,
Many worldly people say, “I desire to practice the Way, but the world is in this last degenerate period and I have only inferior capabilities.  I cannot endure the formal practice which accords with the dharma. I want to find an easier way which is suitable for me, make some connection with the Buddha now, and attain enlightenment in the next lifetime.”  
This is entirely wrong. Categorizing the three periods of time—the true dharma, the semblance dharma, and the last dharma—is only a temporary expedient. Monks in the time of the Buddha were not necessarily outstanding.  There were some who were incredibly despicable and inferior in capacity. Therefore, the Buddha established various kinds of precepts for the sake of evil and inferior people.  
Without exception, everyone is a vessel of the buddha-dharma. Never think that you are not a vessel.  If you practice according to the teaching you will gain realization without fail. Since you have a mind, you are able to distinguish good from evil. You have hands and feet, and therefore lack nothing for practicing gassho or walking. Therefore, in practicing the buddha-dharma, do not be concerned with whether you are capable or not. Living beings in the human world are all vessels (of the buddha-dharma). It would not be possible if you had been born as an animal or something else.  
 Students of the Way, never expect to practice tomorrow. You should practice following the Buddha only today and this moment. 

Sunday, November 27, 2011

I had lunch with sensei today and got to discuss my recent, involuntary change in employment status with him (if you don't yet have a friendly neighborhood Zen Master with whom you can discuss your life, you really should look into finding one).  While he actually had nothing new to offer that I hadn't already considered, it was good to just chat about it  with him and to bounce some ideas around.

This situation actually provides me with a rare opportunity to make some decisions, to consider things I may not have considered before.  I'm not a young man by any stretch of the imagination, and it's a little late to wonder what I want to be when I grow up, but that doesn't mean that I can't wonder what I want to be when I eventually leave this world.  

For most of my adult life, I've worked for large consulting companies, and my career has risen and fallen along with the industry until I finally ended up being told "Thanks but no thanks" for my continued services.  I have talked with some of the existing consulting firms here in town - my former competitors - but unless I can guarantee that I'll bring a significant backlog of work with me, they're not terribly interested.  If I had the  million-dollar book of business they're requesting, I wouldn't be in the situation that I find myself now.  So even though I only have about a quarter of my active career remaining in front of me, "business as usual" doesn't seem to be an option.

This may not be a bad thing, because without being shown the door, I probably wouldn't have the motivation     to try something new.  And since this is our one and only shot at this life, it would be a shame if we didn't live through as many diverse experiences as possible.

So for the time being at least, I've started my own company and without even really trying too hard, have found that I'm making about the same income as I had before (and in half the hours at that).  Admittedly, I'm taking advantage of the low-hanging fruit, burning through my equivalent of the million-dollar backlog that the big firms want me to bring to them (move the decimal over several places to get a better idea of the actual size of this limited backlog). It's as good a start as I could possibly hope for, but without some real concerted effort on my part, this initial success will not be sustainable over the long run.

But do I really need that success?  Which is to say, do I really need all this. . . stuff. . . at all?  Perhaps this is the opportunity to practice some real renunciation, to get out of the rat race and quit trying to keep up with the Jones (to the limited extent I even tried). Maybe it's time to find a monastery and settle in for a final contemplative chapter to my life, and let go of 21st Century materialism while I still can.

Or maybe there's a middle way (we Buddhists are big on the Middle Way), somewhere between the stresses and tensions of being a small businessman for the next 10 to 20 years and the more ascetic path of a true urban (or otherwise)  monk?  If I didn't have to make mortgage payments and pay property taxes and so on, could I get by making an honest living pounding nails or running some sort of shop somewhere?  Or just moving down the food chain in my own business and instead of expecting the high-level compensation that demands a million-dollar backlog, become the humbler but reliable go-to guy for field services or document writing.  I never set out to be the top dog, it just sort of happened and I went along for the ride, at least until the ride was over and I found myself out in the dog house.

Like NBA great Rajon Rondo driving the ball toward the basket, I'm trying to stay in center court and keep all of my options open.  I can press forward and keep looking for a high-salary position in my field.  I can turn or pass right and pursue the path of my own business.  I can turn or pass left and find something simple and honest to keep me fed and sheltered for the next and final decade or two of my life.

Or, quite unlike anything I've ever seen Rondo do, I can just set the ball down on the court and walk away from the game, march out of the arena altogether, and disappear into the night.

In any event, I'll be fine.

Friday, November 25, 2011

When all of the trees have been cut down,
When all the animals have been hunted,
When all the waters are polluted,
When all the air is unsafe to breathe,
Only then will you discover you cannot eat money.
 - Native American Proverb

I only recently realized that the famous opening line "We The People" from the U.S. Constitution was lifted, like this land itself, from the Native Americans, who simply called themselves "the People."

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Dogen says it's hard to tell what is good or bad. How true.  All too often, we define good and bad in relation to our own selves - what we perceive as good for us and what we perceive as bad for us.  However, it's often the case that what's good for us is bad for someone else, and what's bad for us is good for someone else.  So is the thing itself inherently good or bad, or is good or bad just in a matter of our perspective?

And then, what we often think of as good for us turns out to be bad in the long wrong, like too much candy for a child or too much wine later in life.  And what we think is bad often turns out to have some unexpected virtue or blessing - how many cancer survivors later recall that their tragic diagnosis turned out to be the greatest blessing in their life?

My recent, involuntary change in status after nearly 30 years of corporate employment to that of a lone contractor sometimes seems bad, although it is not hard to imagine several different happy outcomes.  But a combination of fear, paranoia, and resentment holds my mind much of the time, allowing me to only imagine the potential unhappy results.  But who's to say what's good or what's bad?

I spent most of the day today sitting in on a deposition for a legal case in which I was asked to testify.  The opposing witness, the one being deposed, had a very rough time of things and clearly was not having a happy day.  Even though "bad" things were happening to my opponent, I felt a lot of empathy and compassion for his struggles.  He was older than me and near the twilight of his career - is that really where I want to be in 10 years?, I wondered.   Maybe I should seize this opportunity to quit the rat race and get out while I can.

Who's to say what's good and what's bad?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Dogen instructed,
It is hard to tell what is good or bad. Worldly people say that it is good to wear silk brocade and embroidery and bad to wear robes made of coarse cloth and abandoned rags. In the buddha-dharma, the latter is good and pure while luxurious garments embroidered with gold and silver are considered bad and defiled. In the same way, everything else is opposite.  
In my case too, since I sometimes write poetry or prose some worldly people praise me, saying it is extraordinary. And yet, there are some who criticize me for knowing such things despite being a monk who has left home and is studying the Way.  
Ultimately, which shall we take as good and abandon as bad? It is said in a scripture, “Being praised and belonging to pure things is called good; being despised and belonging to impure things is called evil.” It is also written, “Things which bring about suffering are called evil; things which invite joy are called good.”  
In this way, we should carefully figure out in detail, and take up what is really good and practice it; see what is really evil and discard it. Since a sangha is free from the defilement of delusive desires, things which do not arouse human desires are considered good and pure.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

(sigh) . . . Nowhere to go out to tonight and nothing on television to stay home and watch.  I amuse myself by watching YouTube videos of the acts that I saw at Bumbershoot last September.  

Was life really that simple back then?  Were days really that sunny, even in Seattle?  Everything's impermanent, and these dark late autumn clouds too shall come to pass, and the stars might even realign themselves for me to return to Bumbershoot and MFNW someday.  But meanwhile, back in the here and now, I've still got a warm house and high-speed internet access and cats to keep me company, and I can relive those glory days in the sun, basking in music, drinking Vitamin Water, and resting my bald head on luxuriant hotel pillows.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Friday Night Video

I was able to see Yellow Ostrich twice during this year's Rocktober, once at the contemptible Masquerade and once at the redoubtable Earl, so it seems only appropriate to put the above up for this week's installment of Monday Night Videos.  There's a lot I like about this video, including the way the multiple dancers appear at the same time as Alex Schaff starts over-layering his vocals, the expression on the dancer's face at the song's somewhat anticlimactic climax, and the multicolored finale.  I hope that you enjoy it, too. 

In a recent issue of The New Yorker, film critic Anthony Lance compared the experience of going to the cinema with the experience of video on demand, and expressed his preference for watching a performance on the  theater's schedule and committing to stay with it, rather than clicking a video on at any convenient moment and turning it off and on as one's attention wanders.  The communal participation in accordance with a fixed schedule and for the duration of the movie compels one to pay more attention and thereby enhances the experience, he argues.

I think this is part of what I enjoy about going out to see live music.  A touring artist has scheduled a performance in your town months in advance, and you participate by aligning your schedule with theirs.  On the appointed evening, you go to the venue and wait for the performance to start, sometimes longer than you anticipated.  When the lights dim and the music begins, all attention is focused on the stage and sometimes bodies start to dance.  Individuality melts away, and you become part of a larger whole, The Audience, and together with The Performer on the stage, you collectively collaborate in an experience unique to that evening.  Your satisfaction is directly proportional to your involvement.

By the way, speaking of ostriches, did you know that their eye is bigger than their brain?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Guest Post

In Quest of Zen Mind
By Janis Hashe 

 In a small, dimly lit room in the back of ClearSpring Yoga, a group of people sits cross-legged on black cushions, facing the wall. A faint smell of incense drifts in the air. At the sound of three gongs, each person makes a small bow and begins a session of zazen, the meditation period of Zen Buddhism.

Twenty-five hundred years ago, a young prince named Siddhartha Gautama, born in what is now Nepal, began asking himself, “Why does suffering exist?” His journey to find the answer to this question led to his awakening to the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism: Suffering exists; attachment and delusion are the causes of suffering; suffering can be ended; the way to end suffering is through the Buddhist Middle Way.

Gautama began to teach and his followers began to call him “The Buddha”, or “One Who Has Awakened.” 

But Buddhism is a nonthesistic religion, which means practitioners do not worship a god. The Buddha is considered a great teacher, but only one of an infinite number. In the centuries that followed his life, Buddhism spread across Asia and into many forms, of which Zen is one of the most popular in the US. There are believed to be 400 million Buddhists worldwide and around six million American Buddhists.

Zen teaches that “just sitting” in meditation is the most important way to access awakening. Meditators focus on their breath and on being present in the moment, something that carries over into everyday life.

At the end of the final zazen session, two gongs signal the group to stand up, face each other, make three bows, and then chant the Four Vows. “Beings are numberless, I vow to free them…” The silence that has been maintained is now broken by the group’s friendly interchanges. They will be back on the black cushions next week.

(reposted from the Chattanooga Pulse, November 17, 2011)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Interesting Times

Sometimes, I wonder if seeing how one's own mind works is a curse or a blessing.  I've been watching my own squirm while my life has been transforming into its next phase, whatever that might be, and while it would be easier, reassuring even, to blame the emotional roller coaster on which I find myself on external factors, it's clear to me that it's all just my own mind.

Earlier this week, for probably the first time since September, I started to feel somewhat in control of my own destiny.  Last Friday, I had an interview with a potential employer that went fairly well, although there were other things still that have to be considered before a decision can be made one way or the other.  I managed to bill a good number of hours on Monday to my up-to-then sole client (my former employer) and on Tuesday I picked up my second client, although he doesn't have any work for me right at this moment.  On top of these relative successes, I did my zen thing Sunday up in Chattanooga and on Monday night in Atlanta, things with which I'm comfortable and familiar, so I was feeling relatively comfortable.

But today I encountered the void that was Wednesday and panic set in.  The phone didn't ring, the email didn't ping, and the fat lady didn't sing (to stick with the rhyme scheme).  I went down to the state agency to review some files, and ran into a professional nemesis - the person who had let me go from a firm at which I had worked five years ago - reminding me of failures of the past.  Later, I went to a meeting of a professional association at which I was hoping to pass out some business cards and line up some new potential clients, but the turnout was much smaller than anticipated, consisting mostly of individuals from the firm with which I had interviewed on Friday, and others whom, for various reasons, I didn't want to announce my new, independent status.

Letting things unfold as they will means not clinging to goals of prosperity and renown,  nor does it mean inviting failure and defeat.  But accepting the possibility of success, seeing even the slightest glimpse of good fortune, can create desires that lead to clinging and ultimately to suffering.  

So this is what life has in store for me right now.  Everything is impermanent, even this sensation of impermanence, so my best advise for myself is to just ride it out as best as I can, and even attempt to enjoy the ride.  The only thing that could make this any less pleasant than it needs to be is my own mind, and one advantage of the time off is having more opportunities for practice, more time to watch the mind at work and maybe even to keep it in reign.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Long ago, Cho was one of seven Chinese countries during the Period of the Warring States, which lasted from 465 BC until China was unified by the Shin dynasty in 221 B.C. 

There was once a person named Rin-Shojo in the country of Cho.  Although he was of humble birth, because of his wisdom, he was taken into service by the King of Cho to administer the affairs of the country. Once, the King of Shin said that he would give the King of Cho fifteen cities in exchange for the Jade of Cho, and Shojo was dispatched to carry the jewel  to Shin as envoy of the king, . At that time, the rest of the ministers conspired against him.   “If such a precious gem is entrusted to a man of low birth like Shojo, it would look like there is no one capable in this country to whom it could be entrusted. It is shameful for us. We will be looked down upon by people of later generations. We should kill him while he is on his way and steal the jade.” 

At the time, someone secretly told this to Shojo and advised him to decline the mission in order to save his life. Shojo said, “I dare not decline. It will be my pleasure for later generations to know that Shojo, envoy of the king, was killed by evil ministers while on his way to Shin with the jade. Even though I might be killed, my name as a wise man would remain.” So saying, he left for Shin. When the other ministers heard of his remark, they said, “We cannot kill a person like this” and gave up the plot. 

Shojo eventually met the King of Shin and gave him the jade. However, he realized that the King of Shin was not an honest person and was not about to give the fifteen cities in exchange for it.  So Shojo devised a plan and said, “There is a flaw in this jade. I’ll show you.”  So saying, he took the jade back, and continued, “From your demeanor, your Majesty, you seem to begrudge the fifteen cities.  If so, I will smash this jewel by hitting it against the bronze pillar!” Glowering at the king with angry eyes, he moved toward the bronze pillar as if he were really going to break the jade. The King of Shin said, “Please don’t break the jade! I’ll give you the fifteen cities. Keep the jade while I make the arrangements.”  Afterward, Shojo had one of his men secretly take the jade back to his own country. 

Later, the Kings of Cho and Shin met at a place named Menchi for a party. The King of Cho was a skillful lute player. When the King of Shin asked him to play something for his amusement and the King of Cho complied without consulting Shojo first, Shojo became angry because his king had obeyed an order of the deceitful King of Shin. He said, “The King of Shin shall play the flute for my amusement.” 

He approached the King of Shin and asked, “Your Majesty, you are skilled at playing the flute. The King of Cho would appreciate listening to you very much. Please play.”  The King of Shin refused, and one of his generals reached for his sword and rushed toward Shojo for his impudent request.  Shojo glared furiously at the general who became frightened and retreated without drawing his sword. Finally, the King of Shin consented and played the flute. 

Shojo eventually became the prime minister and administered the affairs of the country. One time, another minister envious of Shojo’s higher status tried to kill him. Shojo fled and hid himself here and there. Appearing to be afraid of the minister, Shojo purposely avoided any encounter with the minister even when he had to go to the court. One of Shojo’s retainers said, ”It is easy matter to have that minister killed. Why do you hide yourself in fear?” 

Shojo said, “I’m not afraid of him. With my eyes I have defeated the general of Shin. I also took back the jade from the king himself.  Of course I can kill the minister.  However, raising an army and gathering troops should be for defending our country against our enemies.  As its ministers, we are now in charge of protecting the country.  If the two of us quarrel and fight with each other, one of us will die.  Then, one half will be lost.  If that happens, neighboring countries will take delight and attack us for sure.  Therefore, I hope for the two of us to remain unharmed to protect our country together.  This is why I don’t fight with him.” 

Upon hearing this, the minister became ashamed of himself and called on Shojo to express his regret.  The two of them then cooperated in the task of governing the country. 
Zen Master Dogen commented on this story, saying,  "Shojo forgot himself and carried out the Way. Now in maintaining the Buddha-Way, we should have the same attitude. It is better to die for the Way than to live without it."  

Sunday, November 13, 2011

For extra added bonus points, my friend Nick came along and joined me on the ride up and back, as well as participated in his first zazen.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

"Sparklepony" (actually, Jenny Conlee of the hyper-literate rock band, The Decemberists) having a rough day on the IFC show, Portlandia.  But real life can be crueler.  Ms. Conlee later learned that she had breast cancer.

Reasons to be cheerful:  it was recently announced that her cancer is now fully in remission.

A brave reminder of the impermanency of all things, and an inspiring vision of courage in the face of adversity.  I wish Ms. Conlee continued good health, as well as all other sentient beings.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011


"Manifesting virtue does not mean having an abundance of material wealth, nor being proud of receiving large offerings." - Eihei Dogen (1200 -1253)

Dogen also said, "I have never heard that being rich and revered by ignorant people was a manifestation of the virtue of the Way.  Since ancient times, all people with bodhi-mind have been poor, endured physical pain, wasted nothing, were compassionate, and led by the Way. These people have been called true practitioners."

As my life is transmogrifying, it is more and more apparent that my biggest obstacle to accepting poverty is pride.  When I'm really honest about it, I can see that my fear of being poor is dwarfed by my fear of what people will say about me.  

Tuesday, November 08, 2011


The term bodhi-mind comes from the Japanese bodai-shin, which in turn is shortened from the Sanskrit annutara-samyak-sambodhi-citta.  In English, the former, bodhi-mind, refers to the mind that seeks enlightenment, and the latter, annutara-samyak-sambodhi-citta, is the mind of complete perfect enlightenment.

It is tempting to think that one term refers to a beginner, a mind that seeks for enlightenment, while the latter refers to an accomplished one who has achieved that enlightenment.  From there, one can surmise that the original Sanskrit term meant one thing and that by the time it got passed from one language to another, from one tradition to the next, and arrived in Japan, it came to mean another.

That would not be correct.  The enlightened mind, annutara-samyak-sambodhi-citta, is the mind that is aware, the mind that aspires to live in accordance with reality instead of being pulled around by egocentric desires which are contrary to it.  The enlightened mind is the seeking mind, bodai-shin, and the seeking mind is the mind of complete perfect enlightenment.  These are not two things, but one.  Practice is not the path to enlightenment, practice is enlightenment itself.  Being on the Path is the Way, not the completion of the Path (as if . . . ).

But back in the here and now, I would be remiss if I didn't note that today was my last day as an employee of my now former firm.  I am as of this evening officially a lone contractor, with only a single client so far, which just so happens to be that former employer.  Adapting the formless form of water, I'm transforming with this new role into the next stage of my existence.

Monday, November 07, 2011

One day Dogen instructed,
There is an old saying, “Reflect three times before speaking.” This means that prior to saying or doing something, you should reflect on it three times. This ancient Confucianist wanted to say that after reflecting three times, if it is considered to be good each time, you should say or do it. When wise people in China say to reflect on things three times, they mean many times. Pondering before speaking, considering before acting; if it is good each time you think about the matter, you should speak or do it. 
Zen monks also must be like this.  Since there might be something wrong in what you think and what you say without knowing it, first reflect on whether it is in accordance with the Buddha-Way or not, and ponder over whether it is beneficial to yourself and others. If it is good, do it or say it. Practitioners, if you hold onto this attitude, you will never go against the will of the Buddha your entire lifetime. 
When I first entered Kennin-ji, all the monks in the sangha protected their body, mouth, and mind from evil deeds, according to their capability, and firmly resolved not to say or do anything that was bad for the Buddha-Way or harmful to others. After Abbot Eisai passed away, while the influence of his virtue remained, the monks were like this. These days, there is no one who maintains such an attitude. 
Students today, you must know this, if something is definitely beneficial to yourself and others, as well as to the Buddha-Way, you must forget your own egotistical self and say or do it. You should neither say nor do anything meaningless. When elder monks are talking or doing something, younger ones should not interrupt them. This is a regulation set down by the Buddha. Consider this well (Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Book 4, Chapter 10).
Kennin-ji Temple was founded by Myoan Eisai (1141—1215).  Originally a Tendai priest, Eisai had visited China twice. On his second visit, he stayed for five years and studied Rinzai Zen, later introducing Rinzai to Japan.  Dogen went to Kennin-ji when he was 18 years old and practiced Rinzai for seven years under Myozen, one of Eisai’s disciples, before leaving for China himself.  After he came back from China, he stayed at Kennin-ji again for a few years.  Dogen respected Eisai very much and in Zuimonki praised his deeds, although there is apparently some controversy among scholars as to whether Dogen actually met him or not.

In Book 1, Chapter 17 of Zuimonki, Dogen points out that "while Eisai, the Abbot of Kennin-ji Monastery, was alive, one never heard lewd or idle talk among the monks.  Even after his death, while a few of his disciples were still at the monastery, people did not speak of such things.  Lately, in the last seven or eight years, the young monks sometimes indulge themselves in such talk. This is really shameful."

In Book 3, Chapter 4, Dogen notes, "From the time I first entered Kennin-ji Monastery, over a period of seven or eight years I saw many changes gradually taking place. They had built storerooms in each temple building, each person having his own utensils. Many became fond of fine clothing, stored up personal possessions, and indulged in idle talk. No one cared about the forms of greeting one another nor about prostrating before the Buddha. Looking at these things, I can imagine what other places must be like."

Even in his own temple of Kosho-ji, Dogen noted, "There is an aged nun working for this temple. It seems that she is now ashamed of her humble situation, so she tends to talk to others about how she used to be a lady of the upper class. Even if people believe her, there is not any merit in it. It is entirely meaningless" (Book 4, Chapter 9).

The old Confucian saying, “Reflect three times before speaking” and speaking only if it is considered to be good each time, reminds me of Socrates' Triple Filter Test - namely, "Is it true?  Is it good? Is it necessary?"  Socrates (469 - 399 BC) was born soon after the life of Confucius (551- 479 BC).  It is not known if Confucian teachings had ever reached ancient Athens, and there are those (not including your humble blogger) who contend that Socrates was a reincarnation of Confucius, who in turn might himself have been a reincarnation of Lao Tse.

One day an acquaintance said to Socrates, “Do you know what I just heard about your friend?” 

“Hold on a minute,” Socrates replied. “Before telling me anything about my friend, it might be a good idea to take a moment and filter what you’re about to say.  I call this the Triple Filter Test. The first filter is Truth.  Have you made absolutely sure that what you are about to tell me is true?” 

“No,” the man said. “Actually I just heard about it and…” 

“All right,” said Socrates. “So you don’t really know if it’s true or not. Now let’s try the second filter, the filter of Goodness. Is what you’re about to tell me about my friend something good?” 

“No, on the contrary…” 

“So,” Socrates continued, “you want to tell me something bad about him, but you’re not certain it’s true. There’s one filter left, the filter of Usefulness. Is what you want to tell me about my friend going to be useful to me?” 

“No, not really…” 

“Well,” concluded Socrates, “if what you want to tell me is neither true nor good nor even useful, why tell it to me at all?”

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Water Dissolves Water

"Of all the elements, the Sage should choose water as his teacher.  Water is all victorious, Water evades all confrontations with a kind of deceptive modesty, but no power can prevent it from flowing its predestined course to the sea.  Water conquers through humility; it never attacks but nevertheless wins the final battle.  The Sage who makes himself like water is distinguished by his humility.  He works through passivity, acts through non-action, and thus conquers the world." Tao-cheng, Nan Yao
Another word for a Zen monk is unsui, literally "water cloud."  Taking clouds and water as a model for one's way of life, the Zen monk moves freely, coming and going aimlessly,  the mind forming and changing in accordance with external circumstances and disappearing without reluctance.  Like water in relation to its container, or a stream softly flowing without hesitation around every obstruction, the Zen monk is capable of fully adopting to any situation.

Clouds are not concerned whether they pass over mountains or forests, or over cities or monasteries.  In the final analysis, it doesn't matter whether one considers oneself an urban monk or a mountain monk, a forest monk or a monastic.  There is only the matter of action expressed as non-action.

The shape of the container of my livelihood is changing.  It would be wise to emulate water and adopt the shape of the new container. 

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Urban Monk Blues

I've categorized myself many times here as an "urban monk."  Perhaps it's time to discuss what I mean by that.

A monk can generally be characterized as one who practices religious asceticism, either alone or with other monks, while always maintaining some degree of physical separation from those not sharing the same purpose.  In Buddhism, one encounters descriptions of monks who reside in monasteries apart from society at large, as well as more reclusive mountain and forest monks.  One monk sat alone in a cave facing the wall and another in a monastery of hundreds. One monk lived in a remote valley, drawing water from the stream with a ladle, and another was an abbot with dozens of students.  

Some depended on charitable contributions and others survived by begging for alms.  Some monasteries were more or less self supporting, with their own farms and labor force.  Some mountain and forest monks survived by performing menial tasks, like chopping wood and carrying water.  But whatever their means, mendicant or mercantile, they were all engaged in some form or another of commerce - in this interdependent world, no one survives without some form of assistance from others.

Here in the 21st Century, one can be as removed from the everyday world in the city as in the mountains or what's left of the forests.  In fact, the sad truth is that in cities across the globe, a great many people are living in virtual anonymity.  Not having chosen to be removed from society, they are still unseen and forgotten by the world at large, barely scraping by for survival.  One can retreat from the world by moving far from the city, and one can disappear from the world right in the middle of the city.

My life has been in the latter category.   I live alone.  I am geographically removed from family.  I consider my house to be a monastery for one, a refuge from the chaotic world.  It provides shelter from the elements, it provides safety and security, it provides privacy from the world so that I can pursue my practice.  It has a separate room dedicated to zazen, a library full of books on koans and sutras and commentaries on koans and sutras, and a kitchen in which food can be prepared for sustenance and strength.

I survive by selling my labor for wages, and my expertise born of many years of experience means that I can sell my labor for substantially more than the minimum wage.  I live well, no where even remotely close to the 1% to be sure, but fabulously wealthy by the standards of many in the world.  In addition to the monastery for one, I have a dependable automobile and don't have day-to-day financial worries, such as how I'm going to afford my next meal.  This modest wealth has been my great blessing but it has also been a difficult obstacle in practice of the Way.

Zen Master Dogen encouraged his students to embrace poverty. "When we look at people in the secular world," he said, "men of property inevitably have two kinds of troubles; anger and dishonor. If they have some treasure, others wish to steal it, and when they try to protect it anger immediately arises. Or in talking about some matter, argument and negotiation eventually escalate to conflict and fighting. Proceeding in this way anger will arise and result in dishonor. Being poor and unselfish, releases people from these problems and they find peace." 

"Proof is right in front of our eyes," he continued.  "We don’t need to search for it in the scriptures. Not only that, ancient sages and wise predecessors criticized being wealthy, and heavenly deities, buddhas, and patriarchs have all denounced it. Nevertheless, foolish people accumulate wealth and bear so much anger; this is the shame of shames. Our wise predecessors, ancient sages, buddhas, and patriarchs have all been poor yet aspired to the Way."

One day a monk asked Dogen about what to be careful of in learning the Way. Dogen replied, “First of all, a person studying the Way should be thoroughly poor.  If you possess great wealth, you will definitely lose aspiration. If a person learning the Way still clings to wealth, covets comfortable housing, and keeps company with relatives, despite having the aspiration he will confront many obstacles in learning the Way."

The proof is indeed right in front our eyes.  My house is my monastery for one, but it comes with a mortgage and obligations and debt.  And in this economic time of upside-down real-estate values and sluggish sales, I find myself unable to free myself from those obligations, unable to break free of the many demands and requirements of a materialist society.  I am obligated to sell my labor on a full-time basis for the required wages, and able to take little time off to pursue other endeavors.  When the opportunity presented itself to move to the Northwest, the house and associated financial obligations prevented me from doing so.  

Such is life in samsara, I tell myself.  Liberation from this situation is not necessarily found in running away from it, but in mindful recognition and acceptance of the predicament.  Just breathe, and then get on with the chopping of wood and carrying of water. But just as I begin to convince myself that I'm neither attached to wealth and comfort nor grasping at a life beyond my reach, someone or something threatens to disrupt the flow of the required wages, and anger arises, as well as resentment and anxiety and irrational fears of homelessness, starvation, and medical neglect.  It is then that I can see that Dogen was correct, to have wealth is to want to protect and preserve it, and anger arises when the protection and preservation are challenged.  

To be sure, it's not a unique situation I find myself in.  In fact, as a so-called urban monk, I don't have the additional pressures and responsibilities of most of my neighbors and peers - no wife and children to additionally feed and clothe, no setting aside of funds for future college tuition, no second or third (or more) cars.  With so much less to lose and so fewer dependents, I can see that it's not really the loss of possessions that's so upsetting, it's wounded pride that's reacting so strongly, pride born of attachment to reputation.  To be blunt, I'm not so anxious about losing my home or my job as I am about others knowing about the loss.  It sounds silly when I say it, but that's probably why I choose not to be cognizant of it most of the time (which sounds even sillier when said).

The ancient Chinese Master Layman Pang was not a monastic, but lived in a house with his wife and at least one daughter.  After entering the Way, he supposedly placed all but his most essential possessions in a boat and rowed it out into the middle of a lake, where he let it all sink to the bottom.  Some criticized this move, saying he could have given it all to the poor and needy, but Pang replied that he could see how his possessions and his wealth had caused him so much suffering.  "Why would I inflict that pain on others?," he asked.

Friday, November 04, 2011

A Few TED Lectures (and accompanying soundtrack!)

Blues Control & Laraaji - Awakening Day by RVNG Intl.

And finally, for good measure, the tour of our old friends Blind Pilot has made it up to NYC, where they performed in the studio of WNYC.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

My Impermanent Pictures

Assuming that there's possibly anybody who even cares, I've finally completed the Sisyphean task of posting all of my Bumbershoot and Music Fest Northwest pictures from last September over at the live site.  If I were a Tibetan Buddhist, I suppose that I would now take them all down to demonstrate impermence and to avoid attachment.

Since I'm a Zen Buddhist, I'll let impermanence take care of itself (nothing will be on-line forever) and free myself from attachment through shikantaza practice.

The Patriarch Nagarjuna, founder of the school that gave rise to Tibetan Buddhism, said in his commentary on the Maha-prajna-paramita sutra that the mind that solely sees the impermanence of this world of constant appearance and disappearance is called the bodhi-mind.  In his commentary, Nagarjuna was referring to what he identified as the four bases of mindfulness, the third of which is contemplating one's own mind as constantly changing.

Zen Master Dogen was concerned not so much on the impermanence of the mind, but on the mind that sees the impermanence of all things, including the mind. He encouraged us to "think deeply in your heart of the impermanence of the world. It is not a matter of meditating using some provisional method of contemplation. It is not a matter of fabricating in our heads that which does not really exist. Impermanence is truly the reality right in front of our eyes. We need not wait for some teaching from others, some proof from some passage of scripture, or some principle. Born in the morning and dead in the evening, a person we saw yesterday is no longer here today —these are the facts we see with our eyes and hear with our ears. This is what we see and hear about others."

When we truly see impermanence, egocentricity falls away and desire for fame and for profit disappears.  Such a state is what Nagarjuna meant by bodhi-mind.

So go look at my impermanent pictures before they all disappear.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Based On A True Story

I felt like I was lost in a forest.

And then I realized that you're only lost as long as you hold a destination in your mind.  

Forget that there's someplace else that you want to be, and you're suddenly comfortable with wherever you happen to be.

To be comfortable with wherever you happen to be is to never be lost but to instead wander in ceaseless amazement.

Who lives here?

Whose home is this?

Eventually, a gate opens up and a path appears.

But the path has its own obstructions and discouragements.

The foolish bustle from place to place, always searching for something else, never contented with where they are.

Surrender is not always defeat.  

Surrender can also be accepting things as they are, right here, right now.

Surrender is a liberating release from holding onto a destination, and freedom for ever being lost again.  

Surrender is strength.

(All pictures taken October 28, 2011 in Lithonia, Georgia.)

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Austra, Grimes, and Black Lodge at The Earl (Pictures)

Don't fear - Rocktober is officially dead and over - stick a fork in it and see for yourself - and I'm not going to cling to it (too much, but it really was great), but before moving back to the normal postings, here as promised (threatened?) are a final set of pictures from Sunday night's show at The Earl, starting with the opener, Atlanta's Black Lodge.

This is a very young, very new band, apparently just getting started.  It's actually a privilege to get to see a young, new band still learning how to command a stage, how to get the balance right, and how to keep an audience entertained.  This is how you learn - get a chance to play at The Earl, do your absolute best, and see what went right, what mistakes were made, and how things can be improved.

Statistically, it's most likely this band will not make it very far.  Members might get a chance to join other bands, or they'll get frustrated by the long road ahead, or just lose interest in the project altogether.  But every band started this way, playing in front of a cold bar full of strangers who've never heard of them, so already they're no further behind than any of their peers.


Montreal's Grimes set up on stage and did her sound check wearing a big winter coat, but things heated up quickly as her music kicked in and everyone started dancing, led by her "designated dancer" Duffy, who was in the audience getting the enthusiastic crowd moving.  

Really cool bangs.

Claire Boucher (Grimes) has an amazing, four octave voice that she often keeps in the higher registers for a "little girl" pop sound that nicely fits the dance groove of her music.  With all her electronics on stage, it was hard to tell how much of her vocal sound was altered and how much organic, but does it matter?

I thoroughly enjoyed her set, and was sincerely sorry to hear it have to come to an end.  It would be great to hear her as a headliner some day, where she could stretch out a little more and play a little longer.  But then again, my favorite band is always the one on stage at the moment.


Scary bass dude behind one of Austa's two back-up singers.

This was a truly great show.  Visually arresting and musically propulsive, there was always something going on to hold your attention.

Singer and frontwoman Katie Stelmanis' operatic background and training was obvious, not only in the sheer power of her voice, but in the careful, nuanced way that she shaped her mouth and throat for each sound, deliberately forming and bending each note as an instrumentalist might.  

Austra's two back-up singers are sisters Sari and Romy Lightman, who also have a solo project called Tasseomancy.  In the background is drummer Maya Postepski.

The scary bass dude is Dorian Wolf.

All music, without exception, is a direct expression of the buddha-dharma.

Katie Stelmanis at the merch table after the show, flanked by Grimes' designated dancer Duffy.