Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Zen Master Dogen once said, "As long as we only think about the buddha-dharma with our minds we will never grasp the Way, even in a thousand lifetimes or a myriad of eons. When we let go of our minds and cast aside our views and understandings, the Way will be actualized. One sage clarified True Mind (Reality) when he saw peach blossoms and another realized the Way when he heard the sound of tile hitting a bamboo. They attained the Way through their bodies. Therefore, when we completely cast aside our thoughts and views and practice shikantaza, we will become intimate with the Way. For this reason, the Way is doubtlessly attained through the body. This is why I encourage you to practice zazen wholeheartedly."

Dogen is referring here to the story of 9th Century Master Lingyun Zhiqin.  Legend has it that Lingyun had realization upon seeing peach blossoms.  He then wrote a poem:
For thirty years I have looked for a sword.
Many times leaves fell, new ones sprouted.
One glimpse of peach blossoms,
Now no more doubts - just this.
A simple glimpse of peach blossoms and Lingyun enters the valley of endless spring.  Life, death, buddhas, demons, enlightenment, and delusion all vanish with the falling away of body and mind.  

But as the late John Daido Loori points out, "Flowers bloom and abound each and every spring - why doesn't everyone who sees them attain the Way?  What does Lingyun see that helps him to realize the Way?"  

I suspect Daido is being mischievous and throwing us a red herring.  I say Lingyun only saw that which anyone else could see - what was different was not the perception, but the perceiver.  Through his practice with Master Guishan, Lingyun had arrived at that still, quiet place where the sight of peach blossoms could awaken him to true reality.  The Way was revealed to him physically - through both his practice of shikantaza and through the sense organs of his eyes.  The mind had nothing to do with it.  There was nothing to learn, nothing to be taught.  There was only that which could be experienced physically.

How then, does one teach that which does not involve the mind?  How does one find a teacher who has nothing to teach?  Lingyun once told an assembly of monks, "No matter where it is that those of high ability permanently abide with their good companions of the Way, and make the Truth evident by renouncing the world, that place is where the Dharma is revealed."

Four hundred or so years later, Dogen said much the same thing: "There are three steps in the manifestation of virtue. Firstly, it becomes known that a person is practicing the Way. Next, people who aspire to the Way come to that person. And lastly, people learn the Way and practice with him in the same way. This is called the manifestation of the virtue of the Way."

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

"Ponder the fact that someone realized the Way by hearing the sound of bamboo; that another clarified the Mind at the sight of peach blossoms," Zen Master Dogen said on several occasions, or some variation thereof.  In all my time practicing Zen, in all of my reading, and in all of my conversations with fellow practioners, I never heard of anyone realizing the Way, awakening, while sitting in zazen.  No one's ever fallen off the cushion exclaiming, "I get it!  I get it!," or for that matter levitated off of the cushion, either.

Here's what I have seen:  people experience these moments of insight, they have these awakening moments, when they least expect it, but during a time in their life when they're practicing a lot of sitting meditation.  After hours or days of stillness, someone speaks a phrase ("the mind that sticks to nothing"),or a swept pebble hits bamboo, and suddenly, there is realization of the Way.  But the quiet and stillness of zazen is silent and still - it is not the realm of activity, including awakening.

Everything arises from conditions.  The pebble does not strike the bamboo on its own accord - there is sweeping involved, not to mention the 10,000 things that caused that particular pebble to be in the path of that particular broom at that particular time.  But there are also the conditions in the mind of the one who hears it, and the quiet and stillness of zazen conditions the mind to be receptive to the arising of the Way.

Nangaku chided Baso for practicing zazen with the intention of becoming a Buddha, but Baso's actions were at the same time the planting of the karmic seeds that would eventually bring him to his Buddha-nature.  Nangaku's chiding was the sun and the moisture and the warmth that helped those seeds reach fruition.

Monday, August 29, 2011


The topic of insignificance came up in a conversation after our evening meditation.

"Sometimes, like when I'm at the ocean," she said,  "I can feel so infinitesimally small.  The ocean is so overwhelmingly large, and the tides and the waves and the currents couldn't care less if one tiny person got swept out to sea or not.  It's frightening to realize how vulnerable, how small, how insignificant we are compared to something as vast as the ocean."

I think we all know that feeling.  I get it sometimes on a clear night up in the mountains when I can see  the infinite number of stars.  Some people tell me they experience it in the city, when they see uncountable numbers of people teeming like ants.  

Thinking about these comments, though, isn't that feeling of insignificance just another manifestation of the ego?  Our ego tells us that we're important, that we matter, that we ourselves are the reason for all of existence.  But then we see something so much larger and vaster, something that obviously could not even be bothered to acknowledge our trifling presence, and our perspective changes in an unpleasant way.

Ultimately, insignificance is only felt in relation to ourselves, or to look at it the other way, we only care about significance when it's our self that's significant.  Of course, this leads to a philosophical conundrum - if we are truly insignificant, and that insignificance exists only in relationship to our insignificant self, then that insignificance is of no significance and can therefore not exist.  I may need to think that one through a little more.

We experience things like "good" and "bad" in relation to ourselves - while I might consider it "good," say, that I win the lottery, that's also "bad" for the one million others who bought a ticket.  It's only "good" because I perceive it as "good" for me.  I would consider it "bad" if an asteroid hit my house, but everyone else would consider it "good" that it missed theirs.  "Good" and "bad" are relative, and relative to our own ego selves.  

So it is with some other dualities, like "meaningful" and "meaningless," or even "near" and "far."  So it is, I think, with "significant" and "insignificant."  While we worry and feel uncomfortable about our tiny selves compared to the great vast ocean, we don't feel any agita for the ocean compared to the galaxy, or for the galaxy compared to the universe, or, to scale it back down a little, for this post to the entire blogosphere.

I am not significant, you are not insignificant.  There are just random concepts of the mind, and the true nature of reality transcends such dualistic concepts.

Sunday, August 28, 2011


I suspect that this will be a long post, made even longer because it will start with a story.

Once upon a time, there was a group of children.  They came across some gourds and shakers and rattles and maracas and things, but they didn't know what to do with them.

Eventually, a microphone made itself apparent.  This puzzled the children even more, although there felt there was something vaguely familiar about it all.

Somehow, the children came to realize that shaking the maracas, playing the kazoo, and singing into the microphone seemed to make people happy.  The children felt they were on to something.

Soon, instinct kicked in and the children discovered harmony, lead vocals, and even the theatrical requirements for stage presence.

And so it began, and the children formed a band, grew up, and began calling themselves "Imagination Head."   Eventually, they found themselves playing something called "Nophest" in Atlanta on an August afternoon.

No, I'm just kidding.  It actually went kind of the other way - toward the end of their set at Atlanta's Nophest on Saturday, Imagination Head keyboardist and vocalist Erin Wicker, after admitting that she'd never been more nervous at a gig before ("This is the first time I've ever played in front of my own kids"), let those kids, who up to that point had appeared more interested in a soap-bubble machine than in Mommy's music, play around in front of a mic with some random instruments for one song.  You couldn't really hear all that much of them, but still, it was a delightful, family-friendly touch to a family-friendly, delightful set.

Imagination Head are an enjoyable indie-folk/pop-rock sextet originally from Memphis but now settled into Atlanta.  They have a very nice, strummy, summery sound, rounded out with two guitars, keyboards, occasional xylophone, and a flute.  I had never seen or heard if them before, but their set made me glad that I had made it over to Nophest when I did (3:00 pm) to catch their opening set.

I attended Nophest on Saturday largely as a last trial run before my upcoming trip to make sure everything was in working condition (myself included).  Earlier in the day I had bought some Amtrak tickets, the last logistical part of the preparations that included airline tickets, festival passes, hotel reservations, some new sneakers and jeans, a new camera, some luggage, etc.  My solo working tour of New England earlier in the month was a part of the trial run for at least some of the new gear, but other gear still needed a try-out under festival conditions.  Enter Nophest.

Friday night's performance by The Back Pockets was a part of Nophest, and Saturday's events included several local bands like Imagination Head whom I had never heard of playing outdoors at the patio behind Joe's Coffee in East Atlanta Village.  It was a perfect summer day for the festival.  Despite reports of Hurricane Irene slamming into the North Carolina coast on its way up to New York City and beyond, temperatures in Atlanta were a comfortable high 80s to low 90s, and the humidity was low, at least by Georgia standards.  A nice breeze kicked in most of the day, and the patio behind Joe's offered more shade than not (poor Imagination Head were the only band that had to play while the sun was shining directly onto the makeshift stage).  

By the way, before anyone asks, I have no idea what Nophest actually is - that is, what it's about or what that name means.  It's apparently an East Atlanta music festival of mostly East Atlanta musicians playing at East Atlanta venues.  But other than that, I have no idea.

So, the trial run.  Were my legs up to standing around for five to six hours while hearing different bands play?  Check.  Were the new jeans sufficiently broken in?  Check.  Were my sunglasses and new Converse All-Stars looking cool?  Check.  Were the batteries and accessories included in my Droid, my iPod, and my new Canon?  Check, check, and check.  Everything seemed to be working a-okay, including my ability to enjoy the music of a band of whom I had never heard and from whom I had no idea of what to expect.  

If you're curious, there's an Imagination Head song posted over at Ohm Park that you can download.  There are also some videos on YouTube of the band performing as a quintet in Athens, but since that time they've added flutist and multi-instrumentalist Kara Strauss to the band.  What with it being a trial run and all, I tested out the zoom capabilities of my new camera on Ms. Strauss.

You'd think by that last shot above that I was on the makeshift stage with her, but I was actually a  good 20 to 30 feet away, closer than I'd likely get at a bigger festival, but still encouraging if I plan to get some good concert pictures.  Here's a cool shot of Erin Wicker through the branches off the patio at Joe's.

Drummer P.I. Navarro had a busy day.  After finishing Imagination Head's set, he played for Lacuna M, the next band, as well.  As it turns out, he wasn't just filling in - Mr. Navarro is the drummer for both bands, as well as their booking agent.  

Like Imagination Head before them, I had never heard of Lacuna M before, and I'm not sure I know too much more about them now after seeing them.  All I know is that they used to be named Wighat, and other than being a side-project of Mr. Navarro's, their lead singer is a firebrand named Rubi Cuautle.

Josh Cochrane is their quite capable guitarist.

Their most interesting member, both sonically and visually, was multi-instrumentalist Mookah.  He played a little hand keyboard, various flutes, and percussion, and sang some back-up vocals behind Ms. Cuautle.  With his dreads, dashiki, and touch-of-grey beard, he lent a multi-culti air to the band.

Which couldn't have been more different than the next band, rockabilly and country rockers The Serenaders. I don't know if there's anyone who enjoys multi-cultural music more than I, but that takes absolutely nothing away from the all-American mono-culturalism of The Serenaders sound.  Their capable music was good toe-tapping fun, infused with a great sense of humor, and delivered both professionally and enjoyably.

Fun fact:  members of Atlanta electronic duo Living Rooms were in the audience during The Serenaders' set.

After The Serenaders, I had no idea what to expect from the next band, powerkompany.  That's how they spell it, all one word, lower case letters, and a "k."  Admittedly, I had never heard any of the bands before and had no idea of what to expect from any of them, but based on their name, powerkompany could have been anything from a synth-based kraut-rock outfit (a la Kraftwerk) to a black metal thrash band.  After listening to three new (to me, at least) bands over the past three hours, I was almost ready to hang it up and call it a day, but then I remembered that, this being a trial run and all, I should test my stamina and patience and tolerance a little more, and stay and see what a band called powerkompany would actually sound like.  

I was even more confused as the band set up and two women took to the little makeshift stage dressed like cocktail waitresses at an airport Holiday Inn.  Okay, confused, but more than a little intrigued.  I didn't know what to expect - Top 40 cover songs, maybe? - but I also knew that I wasn't going to leave just yet.

It turns out that powerkompany is the duo of Marie Davon (Venice Is Sinking) and former bluegrass musician Andrew Heaton of Athens, Georgia.  The other young woman, whose name I never got, sang occasional backup and played a little bit of keyboard.  

They were terrific, probably the single most interesting band that I heard all day.  Ms. Davon has a remarkably clear and beautiful voice, and she and Mr. Heaton performed occasionally intricate, compellingly emotional, original compositions.  In addition to singing, Ms. Davon also played keyboards and some ukulele (I'm always a sucker for a girl with a uke), while Mr. Heaton embellished her singing with guitar and violin.  They made good but not distracting use of electronic effects, including some looping/repeater techniques, nicely filling out their songs and allowing Ms. Davon the opportunity to harmonize with her own voice.

Of course, it goes without saying that Ms. Davon is also a captivating beauty, and I soon learned just where the magnification limits of my new camera's zoom lens were.

It probably wouldn't surprise you to know that I wasn't the only one taking a lot of pictures.  There were a lot of photographers - both men and women - shooting pictures throughout their set.  

Here's a picture (below) I took with my Droid for comparison purposes.  In daylight and at wide angle, it's camera performs pretty well.  My new Canon has it beat under low light and in close-up (unless I'm trying to capture an individual lash on Ms. Davon's eye).

Fun fact:  Atlanta internet celebrity Bunny McIntosh was in the audience for powerkompany's set.

It's apparently difficult to sit and play at a keyboard while wearing a tight black mini-dress (not that I've ever tried) without winding up like the unfortunate Angel Deradoorian.

On the final number, Ms. Davon used a phrase looper of some sort or another to build a vocal refrain into a virtual choir, adding more and more emphasis to each added line, but also leaving several measures of silence between the repeated figures.  It made for a good and dramatic finish to a terrific set.

Based on their name alone, The Terror, the next band up could also have been a black metal thrash band, or possibly eyeliner-wearing goths.  Turns out they are a straightforward, hard-rocking power-pop trio with a punkish, slightly countrified, DIY sound (they describe their music as "cowboy death funk"), who gave the audience a surprisingly aggressive and welcome KITA of no-frills rock.

Although they hadn't realized it at the time, after all the ethereal music and glamour and dreaminess of powerkompany's set, the audience needed a good KITA of no-frills neo-punk to bring it back down to earth.  

The Terror's hard-driving sound can largely be credited to their terrific drummer, who kept the proceedings going at a break-neck speed and put the K in KITA, as well as to their bass player, the unsung  hero of many a band.

Their frontman, Ryland Johnson, handled guitar and vocal duties admirably, singing heartfelt songs in an unaffected manner.

Here's one last cell-phone picture thrown in for good measure:

With no disrespect intended for the rest of the proceedings, I decided to call it a day after The Terror.  I had been at Joe's for five hours at that point, seen five new (to me, at least) bands, witnessed a complete turnover in audience and staff, and it was time to feed the cats and get some dinner for myself.  It was already 8:00 pm, and I knew it was unlikely that I'd make it through two more bands to see Lucy Dreams, the only band on the bill that I had heard before.  It was time for me to go and so I did, but with the knowledge that all my preparations for next week's big trip were now finally complete.