Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween

I only had one trick-or-treater this year, and that's one more than I've had the past several years.  As it turns out, the one I had was an adult and apparently some sort of scam artist, and a neighbor called the police on him and sent out an email warning to the neighbors.  Spooky stuff on Halloween, but I wasn't scared of him.

On an unrelated note (or is it?), the Dalai Lama once said, "If we lack inner discipline and we let all the emotions that go through our heads come out, on the pretext that they must be expressed, we will reach a point of considerable excess and may even have difficulty in respecting the laws of our country.  Human emotions have no limits, and the strength of negative emotions is infinite."

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Nuns' Tales

In my admittedly rather limited exploration of the Buddhist canon, I recently came across the Therigatha, a collection of  73 poems in which the early nuns (bhikkhunis) recount their struggles and accomplishments on the road to enlightenment. The poems are organized into 16 chapters, with Chapter One consisting of one-verse poems, Chapter Two consisting of two-verse poems, and so on to Chapter 16 ("The Group of Great Verses").

Their stories are told with often heart-breaking honesty and beauty, revealing the deeply human side of these extraordinary women, and serve as inspiring reminders of our own potential to follow in their footsteps.  But even more so, in reading the 2,500-year-old verses, we are witness to the very earliest birth of The Blues. 

Forget the Mississippi Delta, forget West Africa - Robert Johnson and company are newcomers to the tradition compared to these women.

Consider this opening verse from the poem of Vasitthi, the Madwoman:

Overwhelmed with grief for my son —
   naked, demented,
   my hair dishevelled,
   my mind deranged —
I went about here and there,
    living along the side of the road,
    in cemeteries and heaps of trash,
    for three full years,
Afflicted with hunger and thirst.

Or how about the song of Punnika, the Water Carrier,  challenging an upper-caste Brahman by the river?: 

I'm a water-carrier, cold,
    always going down to the water
    for fear of my mistresses' beatings,
    harrassed by their anger and words.
But you, Brahman, what do you fear
    that you're always going down to the water
    with shivering limbs, feeling great cold?

Finally, someone really should set this wistful and beautiful poem by Ambapali, A Former Courtesan, to music:

The color of bees, black was my hair
   and curled at the tips;
With age, it looked like coarse hemp.
The truth of the Truth-speaker's words doesn't change. 

Fragrant, like a perfumed basket
   filled with flowers;
With age, it smelled musty, like animal fur.
The truth of the Truth-speaker's words doesn't change.

Thick and lush, like a well-tended grove made splendid,
   the tips elaborate with comb and pin;
With age, it grew thin and bare, here and there.
The truth of the Truth-speaker's words doesn't change.

Adorned with gold and delicate pins,
   it was splendid, ornamented with braids;
Now, with age, that head has gone bald.
The truth of the Truth-speaker's words doesn't change.

Curved, as if well-drawn by an artist,
   my brows were once splendid;
With age, they droop down in folds.
The truth of the Truth-speaker's words doesn't change.

Radiant and brilliant,
   my eyes were like jewels;
With age, they're no longer splendid.
The truth of the Truth-speaker's words doesn't change.

Like a delicate peak, my nose
    was splendid in the prime of my youth;
With age, it's like a long pepper.
The truth of the Truth-speaker's words doesn't change.

Like bracelets, well-fashioned, well-finished,
   my ears were once splendid;
With age, they droop down in folds.
The truth of the Truth-speaker's words doesn't change.

Like plaintain buds in their color,
   my teeth were once splendid;
With age, they're broken and yellowed.
The truth of the Truth-speaker's words doesn't change.

Like a cuckoo in the jungle flitting through deep forest thickets,
   sweet was the tone of my voice;
With age, it cracks here and there.
The truth of the Truth-speaker's words doesn't change.

Smooth like a conch shell, well-polished,
   my neck was once splendid,
With age, it's broken down, bent.
The truth of the Truth-speaker's words doesn't change.

Like rounded door-bars, both of them,
   my arms were once splendid;
With age, they're like dried up patali trees.
The truth of the Truth-speaker's words doesn't change.

Adorned with gold and delicate rings,
   my hands were once splendid;
With age, they're like onions & tubers.
The truth of the Truth-speaker's words doesn't change.

Swelling, round, firm, and high,
   my breasts were once splendid;
In the drought of old age, they dangle like old water bags.
The truth of the Truth-speaker's words doesn't change.

Like a sheet of gold, well-burnished,
   my body was once splendid;
Now it's covered with very fine wrinkles.
The truth of the Truth-speaker's words doesn't change.

Smooth in their lines, like an elephant's trunk,
   my thighs were once splendid;
With age, they're like knotted bamboo.
The truth of the Truth-speaker's words doesn't change.

Adorned with gold and delicate anklets,
   my calves were once splendid;
With age, they're like sesame sticks.
The truth of the Truth-speaker's words doesn't change.

As if they were stuffed with soft cotton,
   my feet were once splendid;
With age, they're shriveled and cracked.
The truth of the Truth-speaker's words doesn't change.

Such was this physical heap, now:
A house with its plaster all fallen off.
The truth of the Truth-speaker's words doesn't change.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Zen Master Dogen instructed,
Someone said, “I am sick. I am not a vessel of the dharma. I cannot endure the practice of the Way. Having heard the essentials of the dharma, I wish to live alone, departing from the world, nourishing my body and taking care of my sickness until my life is over.” 
This is a terrible mistake. The sages in the past did not necessarily have golden bones. Ancient practitioners did not all have superior capabilities. Not such a long time has passed since the Buddha’s death. Even in the age of the Buddha not everyone was sharp witted. Some were good and others were not. Among the monks, there were some who did incredibly evil things, and others who had a very low intellect. None of them, however, demeaned themselves or failed to arouse bodhi-mind; none failed to study the Way on the grounds of not being a vessel of the dharma. 
If you do not learn and practice the Way now, in which lifetime will you become a person of capability or a person without sickness? Just do not think of your body and mind, arouse bodhi-mind, and practice. This is most important in learning the Way.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Agenda 21

"Consumption patterns of the affluent middle class - involving high meat intake, the use of fossil fuels, electrical appliances, home and workplace air conditioning and suburban housing - are not sustainable." - Maurice Strong, Secretary General of the UN Conference on Environment and Development, at the 1992 launch of the Agenda 21 initiative in Rio de Janeiro.
The Board of Chosen Freeholders, legislators of Ocean County, New Jersey, reportedly has passed a resolution last February calling the United Nations a "destructive and insidious" entity that plans to "ultimately destroy the sovereignty of the United States of America" 

Meanwhile, the city council of College Station, Texas, complains that the International Council of Local Environmental Initiatives, which promotes Agenda-21, is "an insidious, extreme institution that does not represent our citizens". 

These resolutions, like others being promoted by right-wing groups like the Tea Party and the John Birch Society, forbids engagement in the UN's Agenda 21. Although many environmentalists regard the same initiative as wishy-washy, encouraging local authorities to think they can address the threat of ecosystem destruction merely by tackling the twin menaces of plastic shopping bags and kids dropping chewing-gum wrappers.  In the eyes of those who lauded the counter-resolutions, those who don't see Agenda 21 as a plan for world domination are probably themselves crypto-communists.

I think these views are based on a certain kind of xenophobia that sees the world divided into "us," or even I, and "others."  This view presupposes that each group is out for its own perceived self-interests, usually at the expense of the self-interests of others.

On the other hand, the Dalai Lama once said, "It is important to understand how much your own happiness is linked to that of others.  There is no individual happiness totally independent of others."  

And "Notions such as 'my country,' 'your country,' 'my religion,' 'your religion' have become minor.  We must, on the contrary, insist on the fact that the other person is as worthy as we are.  This is humanity!"

Buddhist author Sharon Salzberg once wrote, "Without the rigidity of concepts, the world becomes transparent and illuminated, as though lit from within.  With this understanding, the interconnectedness of all that lives becomes very clear.  We see that nothing is stagnant and nothing is fully separate, that who we are, what we are, is intimately woven into the nature of life itself.  Out of this sense of connection, love and compassion arise."

Finally, Jack Kornfield notes, "The laws that govern wise relationships in politics, marriage, or business are the same as in inner life.  Each of these areas requires a capacity for commitment and constancy."

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Mark Twain

"Troubles are only mental; it is the mind that manufactures them, and the mind can forget them, banish them, abolish them."
- Mark Twain

Friday, October 26, 2012

It's All In The Mind

Friday night, 7:30 pm  (Publix Supermarket, Atlanta, Georgia) - Moms and dads, dragging their kids up and down the aisles as they stock up for the weekend.  Young couples buying beer and wine, last-minute ingredients for dinner, cards, and flowers.  Teenagers stocking up on Halloween supplies.

Your humble narrator, buying cat food and kitty litter, feeling like the biggest loser in the city.

Funny, the narratives we tell ourselves.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Cure for Boredom

There are no boring times, just boring minds.  If you're not engaged in the present moment, you're probably just not paying enough attention to what's going on around you.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


Between work and Rocktober, I've really too busy to write very much, but I might as well keep up with the daily posting of OCTOber pictures. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A Day At the Office

It's nice to be working again. It's good to be earning.  Here are a few snapshots of my day at work today.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Zen Master Dogen instructed, 

If you have to concern yourself with criticism from others, you should consider the opinion of a person with clear eyes.  
When I was in China, Master Nyojo of Tendo Monastery chose me as his personal attendant saying, “Although Dogen is a foreigner, he is a man of capacity.” I declined it unequivocally. 
I refused knowing it was important for establishing my reputation in Japan and for the sake of practicing the Way. This is because I thought there might have been someone with clear eyes in the assembly who was critical of a foreigner becoming the abbot’s attendant in such a great monastery, implying there were no men of ability in the great Song China. I had to be very careful.  
I wrote what I thought in a letter to the abbot. When Master Nyojo read it, he understood my respect for his country and my feeling of shame before people having clear eyes, so he did not ask me again.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Off To Chattanooga

Off to Chattanooga for this weekend's zazenkai (all-day Zen meditation retreat).  Regular postings will resume soon.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Breaking Spirals

Our minds are constantly filled with narratives of our own creation.  These narratives define who we are, and who we are conditions the narratives.  When our outlook is bleak, the narrative becomes bleak, which only darkens our outlook.  This negative cycle can continue in a downward spiral with tragic consequences, such as in the case of young Amanda Todd.  

Alternately, a positive outlook creates a happier narrative, which accentuates the positive and improves our outlook.  While this is a happier occurrence, reality isn't always seen through "rose-colored glasses" and we can find ourselves blindsided when fate suddenly taps us on the shoulder.

Meditation is a way to break these cycles.  Sitting still and quieting the mind, we can stop listening to the narration (even if the narrative itself never really quite stops).  In deep states of meditation, body and mind drop away, and when there is no narration, there is no narrator.  

When the bell rings and we come back to the world, we have a chance, if even for a minute, to see things as they are outside of the influence of the outlook-narrative cycles.  Eventually, habitual tendencies of the mind will  reestablish themselves, but we can always return to our meditation practice before they become too deeply entrenched.  With time, we learn to not get as caught up in them as we had before our practice began.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

RIP Amanda Todd

Well, this is too sad - according to Wikipedia and several news reports, Amanda Michelle Todd (b. November 27, 1996) was a Canadian teenager who committed suicide on October 10 presumably due to cyber-bullying on Facebook. On September 7, Amanda posted the following video on YouTube in which she describes her experience being blackmailed, bullied, and physically assaulted:

Shortly before 6:00 pm on October 10, 2012, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were called to her British Columbia home to investigate a "sudden death". They have since launched a full investigation, conducting interviews, reviewing content on social media sites, and actively monitoring pages.  Amanda was a 10th-grade student at CABE Secondary in Coquitlam.

The internet hacking and activist group Anonymous has identified a 32-year-old man as Todd's alleged blackmailer and main tormentor. The group published the Vancouver-area man's name and address on the web, and the man has received online threats of vigilante justice (tragedy generating still more tragedy).

Facebook tribute and memorial page has been set up for Amanda.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Checkbook Blues

So, we're constantly telling ourselves stories and narratives, and those stories and narratives both define us and the world we live in but at the same time are colored and influenced by our opinions, our worldview, our moods, and our prejudices.  

It's really almost like some sort of mobius strip - our moods influence the way we perceive things, and the things we perceive influence our moods, which in turn affect the way we perceive things, which in turn affect   our moods, and so on and so forth, ad infinitum.

As evidenced by some of my latest posts, I've recently begun to worry about my finances and livelihood, a not uncommon activity here in the United States lately.  Saturday, I filled out the last check remaining in my checkbook and I was worried both about my ability to pay the remaining bills, as well as when the new checks I had ordered were going to finally arrive from the bank so that I could pay those remaining bills (provided I still had any money left in the bank).  Several years ago, a box of checks was stolen out of my mailbox and the criminals went on an interstate crime spree forging and cashing my checks at Walmarts and supermarkets across The South.  Although my bank was very understanding and I didn't lose even one cent, I didn't want that inconvenient experience to reoccur, so my anxiety increased every day that I checked my mailbox and the checks weren't there, only more bills that I couldn't pay until those checks finally arrived.

My outlook was colored by financial anxiety so everything I perceived appeared to be a threat to my fiscal well being.

That afternoon, I retrieved my mail from the box and once again the checks still hadn't arrived.  What was in the mailbox, however, was a letter from my health-insurance provider marked "Important Plan Information" and another package, sealed in plastic, from someone called "Deluxe Financial Services" in New Jersey.  Great, I thought, the insurance company was probably telling me that my monthly premiums were increasing, an additional cost I didn't want to even consider just then.  And whatever Deluxe Financial Services, whoever they were, wanted, I couldn't imagine, but just knew intuitively that it wasn't good news.

I threw the letters unopened on the kitchen counter in disgust and didn't open them all weekend, and felt anxiety and discomfort about money. Not wanting to spend anything more, I didn't even go out to listen to the bands that I was planning on seeing Friday and Saturday nights.

When I finally did open the packages on Monday, I saw that the letter from my health insurer was just the usual monthly bill - no change in premium, no bad news, just business as usual.  I had been worried over nothing.  And the other, ominous looking sealed package from Deluxe Financial?  That was the checks that I had been waiting for, cleverly sent in an inconspicuous but secure, tamper-proof package.

My anxiety had affected my perception, and my altered perceptions fueled my anxiety, and so on in an vicious cycle until a new perception of the situation finally presented itself to me and snapped me out of my tailspin.  Meanwhile, several clients with past-due invoices have told me that my payments were either coming soon or had already been mailed out this week, and my backlog of work has perked up with a couple of new assignments.  All of my worry was for nothing - the danger was all in my head.

Of course, accepting this lesson, learning from it, raises the question if my current view of a happier, more secure "reality" isn't also just another affected perception, happily more optimistic than before but possibly no more grounded in "reality," whatever that is, than before.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Zen Master Dogen instructed,
The most vital concern in learning the Way is to practice zazen. In China, many people attained the Way entirely through the power of zazen. If one concentrates on practicing zazen continuously, even an ignorant person, who does not understand a single question, can be superior to an intelligent person who has been studying for a long time. Therefore, practitioners must practice shikantaza wholeheartedly without bothering to concern themselves with other things. The Way of the buddhas and patriarchs is nothing but zazen. Do not pursue anything else.  
At the time, Ejo asked, “In learning both sitting and reading, when I read the collections of the old masters’ sayings or koans, I can understand one thing out of a hundred or a thousand words, though I have never had such an experience in zazen. Should we still prefer to practice zazen?”  
Dogen replied, “Even if you may seem to have some understanding while reading koans, such studies will lead you astray from the Way of the buddhas and patriarchs. To spend your time sitting upright with nothing to be gained and nothing to be realized is the Way of the patriarchs. Although the ancient masters encouraged both reading and shikan zazen, they promoted sitting wholeheartedly. Although there are some who have gained enlightenment hearing stories of the masters, the attainment of enlightenment is due to the merit of sitting. True merit depends on sitting.” (Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Book 5, Chapter 23)

Sunday, October 14, 2012


Despite the current financial difficulties, I still believe that I have more fun than any other person I know.

This is not to imply a life of non-stop entertainment or of meaningless leisure, but instead a profound appreciation and enjoyment of each moment as it is, or at least of as many of those moments as I can remember to savor.  From time to time, I'll admit that I forget and find myself caught up again in worries and anxieties, or sorrow and self-pity, but before too long I can usually catch myself and think, "Ah, so that's what worry or sorrow feels like. Let's enjoy it,"  and then even that can be fun in its own sort of way.

Not to sound too Forrest Gump-ish about it, but life is like one really big buffet.  Every dish may not be to your liking, but at the same time, all of your very favorite foods are also included.  So when faced with one of the dishes that you don't like, rather than increasing your own suffering as you work your way through it, you can be open-minded and just experience the sensations as they are - the taste, the texture, even your own revulsion - with the knowledge that the next dish will be different, for better or worse.

Today, I wrote a large number of checks, settling my final property tax burdens as well as other sundry debts, and as a result, divested myself of over a third of my remaining savings.  With my economics in particular and The Economy in general looking very uncertain, I felt that familiar pang of anxiety, of worry, of  despair.  But when I also considered the way things are forever changing, I realized that no matter what might happen, they'll always be a next thing until there isn't any more.

So far, I've lived an extraordinarily diverse and fulfilling life.  At times, it hurt, was frightening, sorrowful, and felt uncertain, and at other times it was quite pleasurable and satisfying.  But both sets of circumstances really shouldn't be viewed as two sets of polar opposites, one to be avoided and the other to be pursued, so much as they are sort of like bookends for each other, each one defining the beginning and the end of the other.

At 57 years old, I figure that I've got 10, maybe 15 years left, so why should I squander the little remaining time not enjoying the hands that life deals me, whatever they may be? Every one of us can call our life whatever we want it to be, and if "fun" doesn't work for you, choose the label of your preference, because ultimately it's your and nobody else's decision.

The secret to maintaining an attitude like this is to develop the self-discipline to maintain the mindset that you want, when you want it, for as long as you wait it.  The secret to developing that self-discipline is nothing other than sitting meditation, not as some sort of blissful retreat from everyday life, but as an exercise in focusing the mind for use in everyday life.  It's not unlike going to the gym - you don't necessarily go just to get away from everything else (although I suppose that some do) but to improve your physical conditioning and health so that life outside of the gym is healthier and better.  The analogy isn't perfect, but I think it points in the right direction.

Everything is going to be alright if you have a broad enough definition of what "alright" is.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Difficult Times

This too shall pass.

That which doesn't kill us makes us stronger.

Tough times don't last - tough people do.

These are among the cliches and aphorisms that I've been telling myself these past couple weeks.  My fledgling new business has been slower than it's ever been, and I'm encountering a "perfect storm" of financial setbacks - little to no current work to bring in money and clients who for various reasons are delaying paying past due invoices for previous work performed, all occurring at the time of year when property taxes and some other extraordinary payments are due (not to mention last month's quarterly income tax payment).  Long story short, I'm still paying my bills on time, but mainly by cannibalizing my savings, not a sustainable strategy for obvious reasons.  

But I am confident that this too shall pass and these tough times won't last.  Zen practice helps me calm my mind when I start to panic with paranoid fantasies of what could happen, and assists me in determining what's appropriate and necessary to do about it.  This includes both cutting back on some discretionary spending, focusing on bringing in new work, and utilizing my down time productively (I just completed an on-line training course last week).

I know I'm not alone in staring down the gun-barrel of monetary hardships in these difficult times.  I only mention my troubles here to let others know that while I share the hardships, there's still a way not to compound the misery with self-created anxiety and worries.

Friday, October 12, 2012

We Get Mail

To: Shokai
Subject: Renunciation

Something has been on my mind and I don't feel like I can wait until the next time we meet to ask. 

I'm getting to the point in my life where I'm expected to start working for a living, and that expectation of me is bringing a lot of confusion given the way I've viewed life up to this point.  Basically, I've been considering moving to a Zen monastery and renouncing the goal-oriented way of life.  I guess my question is whether or not it's actually possible to live as a Zen layperson.  To me it doesn't seem like it is, and that idea has been bringing me a lot of grief lately.  The life of a householder seems to necessarily bring with it a whole array of self-interested goals and views. 

Do you know anyone who has been successful in living as a Zen layperson?  Is such a thing truly possible or is it just the result of modern people being so stuck to their attachments that they refuse to give them up? 

From: Shokai
Subject: Renunciation 

As I’m sure you know, throughout most of its history, Buddhism in general and Zen in particular have been practiced in monasteries. The Buddha, his first followers, and on down the line to Zen Master Dogen and many contemporary teachers have all “left home” and the goal-oriented life of the householder for the sake of their practice. There were, of course, exceptions – Layman Pang immediately comes to mind – and Dogen in particular often had great praise for lay practioners. 

But we also see that practice of The Way has changed with each culture it has encountered. Certainly Chinese Buddhism (Chan) was very different from Indian Buddhism, and Japanese Buddhism (Zen) was very different from Chinese Buddhism. Whether Buddhism is now encountering a specifically American culture, or a western culture or 21st Century culture, is an interesting concept, but in either case, the times are changing and practice of The Way changes with it. The Way is said to be very fluid – like water, its shape changes according to whatever vessel it’s poured into. 

Monastic life is not the norm in America (or the West or the 21st Century or whatever) the way it was in the past. It is not non-existent, but neither is it the established way that the spiritual life is normally pursued here. Ours is a much more materialistic, competitive, goal-oriented culture than ancient India, China, or Japan. Does the here-and-now practice of The Way abandon that culture altogether, or find a way to coexist with it? 

The concept of “leaving home” and renunciation presupposes that one had once maintained a home and lived a life to renounce to begin with. Further, “renunciation” does not necessarily mean giving up career, family, home, etc, but could mean letting go of attachments to career goals, social status, and family expectations. The problem isn’t being successful or popular, it’s being attached to success or popularity, to striving for those (and other) goals. It’s our attachment to those goals that causes suffering, and that keeps us in egocentric states of ignorance. The easiest way to avoid those attachments is to never get involved in the first place, but it’s also entirely possible, with the support of a good teacher and a strong sangha, to let go of those attachments even while living the life of a householder. 

If I may, I’d like to postulate that modern, western Zen is a layperson’s practice - it’s realization of The Way even while in the midst of the busy marketplace, and it requires a lot of zazen to keep the temptations of greed and ambition from taking hold even while we act as kind fathers and husbands (or mothers and wives), good employees, caring bosses, and engaged neighbors and citizens. If we’re to practice our bodhisattva vows to help all other sentient beings, to practice generosity, kind speech, cooperation, and helpfulness, doesn’t it make sense that we do so not secluded away in some monastery but among those with the greatest suffering? 

We say that we “take refuge” in the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha, and we “retreat” to our practice, but The Way is not a means of avoiding the very real, here-and-now challenges of our life. If anything, it’s about coming face-to-face with those challenges and dealing with what is real. However, we can better face those challenges with the knowledge that we have these refuges at our disposal, with our understanding of the impermanence and ultimate emptiness of all things, and with realization of our true nature. 

So, yes, I do think it’s possible to practice The Way as a layperson – it’s been my personal practice for over a decade now and in my travels to other American Zen Centers it seem to be how the practice is usually followed (with exceptions, of course) across most of North America. I work, pay my bills, maintain a home, and participate in civic organizations, but have renounced goals of achieving success, wealth, status, or popularity – if any of these occur, great, but wisdom tells me not to get too used to it, as impermanence changes everything and attachment not only creates suffering when it does change, it keeps me from enjoying them while they’re present. 

One final work of caution: I have met some Zen students who went off to a monastic life “too soon” and became quite attached to status within the monastery, became unnecessarily erudite and showy in their knowledge of the dharma, and in short, became quite attached to success, status, and popularity within the monastic community. The very same traps that can ensnare a householder can also catch a monastic. I’ve also detected some bitterness over what feel they have “sacrificed” and “given up,” so the very attachments they left to avoid seem to still have them in their grasp. 

We can continue this discussion if you like next weekend. I’m sure these issues are pressing and constantly changing, and that any advice offered today would have to be reconsidered tomorrow. 

May you be well, 
In gasho, 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Reminiscence Bump

Our autobiographical memories aren't perfect, but whether we are looking forward or gazing back into the past, our personal narratives are central to creating our identities.

Martin Conway of City University London notes that as we venture further from the safety of our upbringing, our autobiographical memories continue to mature. The difference is quite noticeable - a 10-year-old cannot relay a coherent life story, but a 20-year-old can go on for hours. "Something happens over that adolescent period," Conway observes.  Studies to answer what that something is are lacking at present. "There's a big lacuna between about age 7 to late adolescence where we don't really know what's going on," Conway says.

It is known, however, that we are more likely to remember events from the end of this period, in young adulthood, than from any other period in our lives. This "reminiscence bump" may be the result of anatomical changes to the still developing brain. Alternatively, it may be that our brains feel emotions more keenly during adolescence and early adulthood - and memories linked to intense feelings stick in the mind for longer. Or perhaps it is simply down to the fact that many important landmarks in our lives - learning to drive, graduating, and falling in love for the first time - tend to fall within this period. Those events are also likely to be remembered because they're culturally marked.

Recent work in Denmark supports this idea. Annette Bohn and Dorthe Berntsen at Aarhus University found that when young children were asked to write their future life stories, most of the events they imagined took place in young adulthood, mirroring the reminiscence bump.  So it seems that we are aware of the "cultural life script" from a young age, which may mold not only our recollections of events as they occur, but our very perception of them as they occur..

This "cultural life script" is but one example of our schema, that preexisting narrative framework into which we try to fit our observations.  The Buddha called this samskara, and it is one of the aggregates that make up the ego-self.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


In the Lankvatara Sutra ("The Sermon of the Sri Lanka Avatar"), the Buddha teaches that the world we think of as real is nothing but the perceptions of our own mind.  By this, he does not mean that something is seen by the mind, for any such object would be a projection of the mind.  As writer Red Pine explains, he simply means that whatever we see or feel is nothing more than our own mind "which is, of course, a tautology.  A = A."

But the Buddha takes it one step further and asks us to experience the tautology for ourselves.  One way we can directly experience reality as a manifestation of the mind is to examine how even our own ego-self is merely a manifestation of the mind. Not only is any object yet another perception of the mind, but the subject perceiving the object is also a manifestation of the mind (as is the act of perception itself).

As recently explained by writer Kristen Weir in The New Scientist,our autobiographical memories define us; they are who we are.  But although autobiographical memories are, by definition, personal, that doesn't mean they are all our own.  Amanda Barnier, a cognitive scientist at Macquarie University in Australia, interviewed couples that had been married for decades. Not surprisingly, couples who remembered together, rather than independently, were able to recall significantly more than those who took a solo approach. The downside of this process includes the risk of false memories - it is not uncommon for people to absorb their siblings' or spouses' recollections into their own life stories, for example. So our self-defining autobiographical memories are not all our own, pointing to the inter-connectedness of "self" and "others."

Our autobiographical memories are also far from complete, with some periods of our lives producing significantly more recollections than others. What forces lead us to remember one event but forget another?

Neurological research shows that both memory and foresight share the same machinery in the brain. A child's ability to imagine the future seems to develop in tandem with his or her autobiographical memory.  Our brains certainly start remembering at a young age, even learning simple associations before we are born. Newborns have been observed to stop crying when they hear the theme song of a TV show their mother often watched while pregnant, perhaps because it reminds them of the comfort of the womb. But we cannot consciously remember specific events from before the age of 2 or 3, when our autobiographical memory begins to develop. Even then, we are hard-pressed to remember much from before our sixth birthday. 

Kristin Weir describes three different factors that might explain this hazy recall.
  1. One possibility is that the neural pathways are not mature enough between the hippocampus - where memories are consolidated - and the rest of the brain, so our experiences from this period may never be cemented into long-term storage.

  2. Our burgeoning language skills also play a key role, because words provide a kind of scaffold on which we hang our memories for future retrieval. Experiments have shown that children don't tend to remember an event until they have learned the words to describe it.

  3. A sense of identity is crucial for our memory of particular experiences. In a series of experiments, Mark Howe at Lancaster University in the UK showed toddlers a toy lion, which he then placed in a drawer. A week later, those who could recognize themselves in a mirror - a sign that they had developed a sense of self - were able to recall where he had placed the stuffed toy, while toddlers who failed the mirror test drew a blank. 
As we get older, our identities and recollections develop together in an intimate dance. While the events in your life shape your opinion of yourself, your personality also determines what you remember.  For example, someone who thinks they are courageous might fail to remember a time when they acted cowardly. "Your sense of who you are and how you enact your personality traits is very tied up in autobiographical memory," says Robyn Fivush at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.  

Guiding all of this are our parents, who form our identities and cement our memories with their storytelling. When families discuss personal events in an elaborate way, children develop more detailed narratives of their own by the time they reach school age than those whose parents weave less intricate stories.

"The story of our life is not our life," observed author John Barth in his novel The Tidewater Tales.  "It is our story."

Psychologist Qi Wang at Cornell University has found that cultural differences can also shape our personal narratives. For instance, Chinese parents tend to focus less on individual experiences and emotions when discussing the past, and with fewer details, than Americans. As a result, Wang has found that Chinese people's memories, even during adulthood, tend to be less personal, focusing instead on events of social or historical significance.  Wang has also found that cultural differences can also influence our planning abilities, showing that Chinese people are less likely to give specific, personal details than Americans when they talk about events to come.

What all of this research is pointing to is that our identities, our ego-self, are manufactured out of stories that are stored in our memories, and those memories are far from absolute records of past events but highly malleable products of our maturity, our language, and our culture.  Our life may not be our story, as Barth observed, but we ourselves are our story, and like the work of Mr. Barth, that story is more fictive than not.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

A foolish person regards himself as another; a wise person regards others as himself. 
- Zen Master Dogen, from Instructions for the Cook

Monday, October 08, 2012


Dogen instructed, 
Students must know that every human being has great faults. Among them, arrogance is the worst. Arrogance is equally admonished against in both Buddhist and non-Buddhist texts. In a non-Buddhist text, it is written, “There are some who are poor but do not flatter. However, there are none who are rich but not arrogant.”  The text admonishes us not to become arrogant even though we might be rich.  As this is a most important matter, give it careful consideration. 
If you are of humble birth and compete with people who belong to the upper class hoping to surpass them, this is a typical example of arrogance. However, this is easy to watch out for. 
In the secular world, relatives gather around but do not criticize those who are wealthy and blessed. Since a rich person takes it as a matter of course, he becomes arrogant, and the poor people around him become envious and resentful. How can such a person prevent himself from increasing the suffering and resentment of others? It is difficult to caution this sort of person, and it is hard, for the person himself too, to practice self-restraint.  
Even when the person does not intend to be arrogant, if he does what he wants, humble people around him feel pain and resentment. To prevent this is called restraining arrogance. A person who enjoys his wealth as a reward, and pays no attention to the poor people who envy him is called an arrogant person. 

In a non-Buddhist text it is written, “Do not pass in front of a poor man’s house riding in a chariot.” This means that even if you are able to ride in a vermillion chariot, don’t do it in front of poor people. Buddhist scriptures also admonish against this. 
Nevertheless, students or priests today want to surpass others in intelligence and knowledge of the Buddhist teachings. Don’t be arrogant because of your wide knowledge. To speak of the faults of inferior people, or to blame mistakes on your senior or fellow practitioners is terrible arrogance.  
An ancient person said, “It is not bad to be defeated in front of the wise, but do not win in front of the stupid.”  When someone misunderstands what you know well, speaking ill of him is your own error.  
When talking about the dharma, do not slander your predecessors or senior priests. Take careful consideration on this point, especially when ignorant and benighted people may become envious or jealous. 

While I was staying at Kenninji, many people asked about the dharma. Among them, there were some strange opinions or mistaken views. However, I kept this deep in my heart; I only talked about the virtue of the dharma as it is, instead of criticizing the mistaken views of others. I avoided trouble in that way.  A foolish person firmly attached to his own opinions always gets angry, saying that his virtuous predecessors have been slandered.  The wise and sincere person realizes and reforms his own mistakes and those of his virtuous predecessors without having them pointed out by others, only if he understands the true meaning of the buddha-dharma.  You should ponder this thoroughly.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Science On The March

On a chilly (by Georgia standards) Sunday morning, I drove back home to Atlanta from my weekend of work (and a few concerts) in Athens, Georgia.  Part of the route back home was on the Athens Perimeter Highway, also known as the Paul Broun Highway.

Remember our old friend Paul Broun?  The Georgia Congressman who said in 2009 that "the idea of human-induced global climate change is one of the greatest hoaxes perpetrated out of the scientific community?"   Who said back in 2008 that President Obama intends to establish a Gestapo-like security force to impose a Marxist dictatorship? 
"It may sound a bit crazy and off base, but the thing is, he’s the one who proposed this national security force," Rep. Paul Broun said. "I’m just trying to bring attention to the fact that we may — may not, I hope not — but we may have a problem with that type of philosophy of radical socialism or Marxism."  
At a town hall meeting last year, Broun was asked by an elderly constituent, "Who's going to shoot Obama?" Broun later denounced the question, but angry rhetoric like his leads people to ask things like that.

Most recently, during a September 27 speech at a sportsman's banquet, Broun, a medical doctor, said that evolution, embryology and the Big Bang theory were "lies straight from the pit of hell" meant to convince people that they do not need a savior.
"God's word is true," Broun said, according to a video posted on the church's website. "I've come to understand that.  All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. And it's lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior." Broun also said that he believes the Earth is about 9,000 years old and that it was made in six days.
The Republican lawmaker is running unopposed for re-election in November.  He currently serves on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.  You know who else is on that committee?  Todd ("women can't get pregnant from legitimate rape") Akin.

I've lately been trying to avoid political posts on this blog, but sometimes it's all just too much.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Scenes From A Sunny Day in Athens, Georgia

A sunny day in Athens (Georgia).  A nice day to lead a probe crew into the woods to obtain some environmental samples.

A nice day to engage in the arcane science of environmental testing.

With the University of Georgia football team on the road today in an SEC showdown with South Carolina, we had the town pretty much to ourselves and were able to enjoy the late summer temperatures of an early October afternoon.  Not a bad way to spend a day.  Not a bad way to make a living.

Friday, October 05, 2012


After a week of not doing very much of profit, in an inversion of the usual routine, this weekend I'm off to Athens, Georgia, for two days of (hopefully) profitable work, and a few concerts while I'm there (as will be documented over at the Live site).  All music, without exception, is a direct expression of the Buddha-dharma.

Meanwhile, the posting of octopus pictures for the month of OCTOber continues.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

With Apologies To Henepola Gunaratana

Mindfulness is present-time awareness. It takes place in the here and now. It is the observance of what is happening right now, in the present moment. It stays forever in the present, perpetually on the crest of the ongoing wave of passing time. 

If you are remembering a former sea voyage, that is memory. When you then become aware that you are remembering a sea voyage, that is mindfulness. If you then conceptualize that process and say to yourself, "Oh, I am remembering," that is thinking.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Did you ever drop a tip into the tip jar, or put a dollar bill (or more) into a street musician's case, and then get upset that the server or the musician didn't notice?

Did you ever give money to a homeless person on the street and be disappointed that neither he nor anyone else saw you do it?

Have you ever held a door open for someone, and then get angry with that person when they walk right in and don't even acknowledge your effort?

If so, then these are actions that Zen Master Dogen would say aren't really good deeds at all but just self-centered acts based on our egotistical pride.  We didn't really want the server to have another dollar (or more), we wanted to be known as the person who gives servers an extra dollar (or more) and possibly get better service in the future.  We weren't really being truly generous to the street musician, we were just trying to buy his or her admiration.  We weren't really being helpful in holding the door, we were trying to gain recognition or social status.

For our actions to be truly good, Dogen argues, we should expect nothing in return - not admiration, appreciation, recognition, or even acknowledgement.  We should let go of the idea of currying favor for our actions or incurring good karma that will bless us down the road.  As long as we have a selfish motivation, even if the other person benefits, we're still just doing it for our own profit.

We should give and practice kindness just for the sake of generosity and compassion, and expect nothing in return.  Only then will our deeds be truly good.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Two issues came up during last night's discussion of our reading of Dogen's Zuimonki:
  1. Dogen is NOT saying that you shouldn't plan for the future or make arrangements in advance for food and shelter.  He is saying that those who've left home, declared themselves Zen monks, and have chosen to live in a Zen monastery shouldn't plan for the future or make arrangements in advance for food and shelter.  At the time the words in Zuimonki were written, he was speaking to an audience of Zen monks and his words were meant as encouragement for Zen monks.  Advise for Zen monks does not necessarily apply to laypersons and householders.

  2. That, however, brought up the question, what is so bad about Zen monks planning for the future or making arrangements for food and shelter?  Dogen tells us the answer right in the text.  Monks are prohibited from hoarding food for themselves or storing their own goods.  In a monastery, everything is communal, and storing or hoarding are exercises in protecting or indulging one's own ego-self at the expense of others.  Making your own arrangements for a benefactor to provide you with food or clothing is similar in nature to storing or hoarding, Dogen argues, and should not be done.

    Further, in Japanese culture, it was not unusual for a layperson to attempt to accrue merit for oneself by supporting a monk financially or otherwise.  In these arrangements, the monk did the zazen practice and the merit of that practice extended to those who provided the means to make this practice possible.  Dogen, however, noted elsewhere that this wasn't really true merit, as the layperson was just trying to accrue merit for his or her self.  As such, the good deeds weren't really good, as they were based on egocentric ideas of improving the self or one's lot in life.  As a result, the merit of the monk's practice would also be tainted, like fruit from an impure tree.
At the time Zuimonki was written (1235 to 1237), Dogen was living at Koshoji Temple in Fukakusa with only a handful of fellow monks.  They had no patrons, and obtaining alms and food was a difficult matter.  This was part of the feudal Kamakura Period of Japanese history, marked by the rise of the samurai class and a time of violence, disunity, and hardship.  Many monasteries procured favor and protection from one shogun or another; Dogen had chosen not to do so for Koshoji.  His monks undoubtedly faced grave dangers and the prospect of starvation or freezing was not remote.  Many of his words in Zuimonki, recorded during this period, were meant as encouragement for his monks to maintain their practice, to not despair in the face of these hardships, and to trust in the Buddha-Way.  They should not be considered as absolute rules for all people at all times.

Still, we should consider the example of Dogen and his sangha, and examine our own habits of planning, storing, and hoarding for ourselves at the expense of others.  Planning may be a necessity for a householder, but excessive planning or clinging to a plan can be a form of attachment, and attachment, the Buddha taught, leads to suffering.  Thus, Dogen's advice to a small band of desperate monks nearly 800 years ago still has relevance to us today.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Dogen instructed,
Do not make arrangements in advance for obtaining food and clothing. Only when you run out of food and have nothing to cook, should you beg for food. Even planning ahead regarding who to ask for what you need is the same as storing food. This is evil food gained by improper means.  
A Zen monk should be like a cloud with no fixed abode, like flowing water with nothing to rely on. Such is called a monk.  
Though possessing nothing except robes and a bowl, if you rely on some patron or close relative, you and they are both bound to each other, so the food becomes impure. It is impossible to realize the pure and great dharma of the buddhas with a body and mind fed and maintained by impure food. Just as cloth dyed with indigo becomes indigo-blue, and cloth dyed with the Chinese cork tree becomes yellow, a body and mind dyed with food gained by improper means becomes a body of impure-life. Desiring to attain the buddha-dharma with such a body and mind is like pressing sand to get oil.  
Just handle everything in accordance with the Way in each situation. To plan in advance goes entirely against the Way. You should consider this very carefully. (Shōbōgenzō Zuimonki, Book 5, Chapter 21)