Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Street Art

The neighborhood has decided to fight graffiti with some graffiti-inspired art.  For years, neighbors have complained about graffiti under a bridge that goes over the Atlanta Beltline, some of which contained profanity and personal insults. But for several weeks, artist Peter Ferrari painted a city-commissioned mural that has covered much of those tags.

He said he uses things he sees in the park as inspiration. "I wanted to bring animals into it because this is kind of like a wild life area, wild life habitat," Ferrari said. "I actually saw every one of the animals that is in this mural."

Ferrari spent over five weeks and more than 30 gallons of paint on the project, and hopes graffiti artists won't paint over his work.  "Artists respect other artists and if they are people who appreciate art, they won't want to disrespect it," Ferrari said.

The $8,000 project was made possible by grants from The City of Atlanta and donations from the Collier Hills Civic Association.  Camille Love, the director of the City of Atlanta Office of Cultural Affairs, said that the project was funded in hopes that it would deter future graffiti. "We feel that the positive attention and social media buzz the project is getting will persuade graffiti artists not to tag on the work," Love said.

But Ferrari, who has done graffiti in the past, knows it's a possibility, and supports graffiti in itself. "If it gets people involved in art, I think it's good," Ferrari said. "Hopefully people won't disrespect the art but if it happens it happens."

The series of pictures above were taken over the course of painting the mural by my cell phone.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013


The past couple of Monday nights, we've been talking about buddha-nature, using the koan of Jōshu's Mu as a starting point.   Buddha-nature is usually understood as the potential we all have to attain the truth, or as something which we have inherently and which grows naturally day by day.

But no, that explanation wasn't good enough for Zen Master Dōgen.  In his view, buddha-nature is neither a potential nor a natural attribute, but a state or condition of body-and-mind at a present moment. Therefore, he saw buddha-nature neither as something that we might realize in the future, nor as something that we have inherently in our body and mind. From this standpoint, Master Dōgen affirmed and at the same time denied the proposition “We all have buddha-nature.” But he also affirmed and at the same time denied the proposition “We all don’t have buddha-nature.”

At first sight, these views appear contradictory, but what Dōgen asserts is essentially that no sentient being is devoid of buddha-nature while at the same time no sentient being possesses a thing called "a buddha-nature." All sentient beings have buddha-nature through and through; that is, they are inseparable from buddha-nature, are completely possessed of buddha-nature, and indeed are buddha-nature.

Further, not only all sentient beings, but the whole earth with all of its mountains and rivers and the rest of the entire universe is nothing but buddha-nature. To look at mountains and rivers is to look at buddha-nature, and to see buddha-nature is to see the world without any taint of discriminatory judgement. 

Buddha-nature, then, is the "cookie dough" from which our discriminating minds, like cookie cutters, form the various shapes and sizes that we come to think of as separate things, including our own selves.  And since the nature of this "cookie dough," that is, the very fabric of existence, has no real substantiality and is nothing but potential, the ancient teachings of Shakyamuni  Buddha begin to approximate the theories of modern physics that assert that sub-atomic particles, the building blocks of all matter, are just fields of probability - pure potential - and have no real form of themselves.      

Cool, but so what? Or as a skeptic once asked the Indian Patriarch Nāgārjuna, “The most important thing in the world is the happiness of people. Why talk so meaninglessly about some ‘buddha-nature’? Who has seen such a thing?”  

Nāgārjuna replied that buddha-nature is beyond happiness and unhappiness, and is beyond retribution, for it is unborn and undying.  Since being alive is being born and dying, and since we are of the same nature and substance as that which is unborn and undying, were we to truly grasp this principal, we would lose all anxiety about life and death.  As Yasutani taught, "You will then attain a steadfast mind and be happy in your daily life. Even though heaven and earth were turned upside down, you would have no fear. . . If you fall into poverty, live that way without grumbling - then your poverty will not be a burden to you. Likewise, if you are rich, live with your riches. All this is the functioning of buddha-nature." 

"In short," Yasutani wrote, "buddha-nature has the quality of infinite adaptability."

Monday, July 29, 2013

Great Blue

Every day, it's been said, is a great day, but it's easier to realize this on some days than others.  Today was one of those easier days.

The weather today was about as nice as it gets in the Georgia summer.  The pattern we were in for so long of rain interrupted only by incessant, oppressive humidity finally took a break - today was warm (mid 80s) but dry, with the sun out most of the day.  I took a walk along poor, polluted Tanyard Creek today to enjoy the weather, and managed to catch sight of the great blue heron pictured above, a sign that life's returning to the challenged waterway.

This evening, I walked over to my neighbor's house for the Monday night meditation service -  a two-minute walk much more enjoyable than the former drive across town during rush hour.  We had a good turnout and a great sit, followed by an enjoyable and interesting conversation.  My only regret regarding the walk home is that it was only a two-minute walk and over all too soon.

Every day has the potential to be a good day.  Today, I was able to realize that potential.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Sunday Night Conversations

During the after-dinner conversation at some friends' house this evening, we talked of life and acceptance of our lot therein, and I was reminded of a comment by Yasutani Roshi's on the koan Mu recorded in the book The Three Pillars of Zen.  According to Yasutani, we are each the manifestation of our karmic conditions at any given moment.  I take this to mean that in accordance with the forces of karma, our particular situation at any point in time is caused by that moment's conditions, and as those conditions change, we change as well. According to Yasutani:
"What we call life is no more than a procession of transformations.  If we do not change, we are lifeless. We grow and age because we are alive.  The evidence of our having lived is the fact that we die.  We die because we are alive.  Living means birth and death. Creation and destruction signify life. 
"When you truly understand this fundamental principal you will not be anxious about your life or your death.  You will then attain a steadfast mind and be happy in your daily life.  Even though heaven and earth were turned upside down, you would have no fear. . . If you fall into poverty, live that way without grumbling - then your poverty will not be a burden to you.  Likewise, if you are rich, live with your riches.  All this is the functioning of buddha-nature.  In short, buddha-nature has the quality of infinite adaptability."   
I think Shakespeare got it right when he wrote in Hamlet:
Hamlet:  Denmark’s a prison.
Rosencrantz: Then I guess the whole world is one.
Hamlet: Yes, quite a large one, with many cells and dungeons, Denmark being one of the worst.
Rosencrantz: We don’t think so, my lord.
Hamlet: Why, then, ’tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.
Rosencrantz: That must be because you’re so ambitious. It’s too small for your large mind.
Hamlet:  Small? No, I could live in a walnut shell and feel like the king of the universe. The real problem is that I have bad dreams.
Guildenstern:  Dreams are a sign of ambition, since ambition is nothing more than the shadow of a dream.
Hamlet:  But a dream itself is just a shadow.
Rosencrantz: Exactly. In fact, I consider ambition to be so light and airy that it’s only the shadow of a shadow.
Hamlet:  Then I guess beggars are the ones with bodies, while ambitious kings and heroes are just the shadows of beggars. Should we go inside? I seem to be losing my mind a bit.
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern:  We’re at your service, whatever you say.
Your moment of Zen, delivered by the Bard of Avon.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Friday Night Video

Tonight's Friday Night Video is a tribute to the great American songstress, actress, auteur, provocateur, and original diva, Barbara Streisand.  Music by Duck Sauce.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

My Life In Mad Magazine Covers

This is the perhaps too-clever cover of Mad Magazine from July 1954, the month that I was born.  If my Dad had stepped out from the delivery room for a breath of fresh air and happened across a newsstand, this is the cover he would have seen.  If they had brought my Mom some magazines to read while she was recovering, they might have brought her this (probably not, though).  

Anyway, as a young boy, I found Mad's combination of satire and know-it-all attitude irresistible, and read it voraciously between the ages of, oh, 9 and 14.

By the time I turned 18, Mad Magazine was already passe to me, children's stuff, not worthy of my time.  I would more likely have been reading Rolling Stone, or Cream, or the Village Voice, or any one of a number of "radical" "underground" newspapers.  In any event, if I had gone out to a newsstand on my 18th birthday to buy any of the above, this would have been the cover of the Mad Magazine I'd have passed over.

By the time I turned 21, I would more likely have been reading the now-defunct Boston Phoenix or it's rival weekly, the long-defunct Real Paper, than the issue of Mad Magazine above.

By my 30th birthday, I was living in Atlanta and would have been consulting Creative Loafing instead of any Bostonian newspaper for local music and film listings, but in any event this was the cover of Mad Magazine on the day I turned 30.

Anyone over 30 still reading Mad is either a creep or mentally deficient, but the magazine covers on my 40th birthday and my 50th birthday can serve as barometers of the popular zeitgeist of their times.

Actually, the amazing thing is the unlikely fact that the magazine has remained in publication over the duration of my lifetime, and the sad thing is the sobering realization that it will most likely out-live me.  

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Yesterday and Today

Today is July 24. On Sunday, July 24, 1966, the poet Frank O'Hara was struck by a dune buggy while hanging out on Fire Island, and died the next day.  For me, the summer of 1966 occurred between the 6th and 7th grades, and it is quite likely that I was on Fire Island that Sunday spending the day at the beach with my family. 

In his essay Personism: A Manifesto (published in Leroi Jones' Yugen magazine in 1961), O'Hara wrote, "I don't ... like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff. You just go on your nerve. If someone's chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don't turn around and shout, 'Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep'." 

Also, I didn't get a chance to post yesterday, but it was the second anniversary of Amy Winehouse's death.

Finally, and it may not seem related at first, but the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas died on November 9, 1953. I was born on July 25, 1954 (tomorrow's my birthday), so I was conceived sometime in November 1953.  I don't believe in reincarnation as the transmigration of wandering souls, but it is intriguing to wonder if I had somehow entered into the newly available karmic space left by Thomas' departure.

Monday, July 22, 2013

In any event, back in the T'ang dynasty during the so-called Classical Period of Chinese Zen, a monk once asked Master Joshu, "Does a dog have buddha nature?"

Joshu said, "Yes."

The monk asked, "In that's so, then how did it get into that flea-bitten skin bag?"

Joshu said, "It intentionally offends."

On another occasion, a different monk asked Joshu, "Does a dog have buddha nature?"

Joshu said "Mu" ("No").

The monk said, "All sentient beings have buddha nature.  How come a dog doesn't have buddha nature?"

Joshu said, "Because it has karmic consciousness."

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Back To The Future

There was a most remarkable change in the character of Chinese Zen practice around the turn of the First Millennium that is not generally discussed very much.  Not to be pedantic or unnecessarily academic, but it's worth considering as we seem to be going through a modern counterpart.

According to DT Suzuki's introduction to RH Blyth's 1966 translation of the Mumonkon (the Gateless Gate collection of koans), during the T'ang dynasty there were no koans because each student brought his own questions, philosophical or spiritual, to the master.  The master then dealt with the troubled student in the way he thought best.  Zen was, in those days, "full of vigor and creativity," according to Suzuki.  

During this Classical Period of Chinese Zen, traveling monks verbally spread and exchanged news of enlightened teachers throughout the country, and famous Zen teachers of this era created public sensations when they traveled from one place to another.  Zen of the Classical Period possessed a verdant oral tradition, which was served and sustained by a developing literary tradition.

History tells us that in the year 907, the T'ang dynasty ended and China entered an era of political upheaval. The subsequent period of the Five Dynasties in Northern China and Ten Kingdoms in Southern China was somewhat analogous to Japan's later and tumultuous Kamakura Period.  With the decline and fall of the T'ang dynasty, the Classical Period also ended and Chinese Zen lost its original vitality. Suzuki notes that the age of creativity gave way to an  age of recollection and interpretation.  

In 960, Emperor Taizu reunified China, ushering in the Song dynasty (960 - 1279).  Zen masters of the Song dynasty relied less on spontaneous exchanges with their students and each other and more on study of the recorded exchanges (koans) of the T'ang dynasty masters.  This evolved into the formal koan system of study whereby the students were trained to apply themselves to the solutions of "cases" left by the old T'ang masters.  Clearly abandoning all pretense of the former avoidance of written words, the Song masters instead embraced them.  In the past, Zen teachers had influenced the writers and poets but beginning in the Song, the Zen teachers became the writers and the poets.  While some teachers opposed this trend, the new literature of enlightenment was too beautiful for most to eschew.  

Despite all the dazzling technological advances of the Song Dynasty, a tendency to idealize the T'ang past infected Zen culture no less than it did other areas of Song culture and politics, as Andy Ferguson notes in Zen's Chinese Heritage. The near mythification of earlier Classical Period Zen masters occurred during the Song and the later Literary Period of Chinese Zen.  The Classical masters would most likely have never tolerated their creative and vigorous responses to their students' questions systematized into a recorded curriculum to be scrutinized and studied by later generations, who would have their own and different questions, problems, and troubles, although Zen has now become a more or less systematized teaching based on those very recorded questions and answers.

The question is how this came to happen.  Was it the result, some 1,500 years after the life of Shakyamuni Buddha, of the decline of the dharma, the start of the so-called mappō era when practice and enlightenment are no longer attainable?  Although some during the life of Zen Master Dogen (who visited China during the late Song) believed that this period had begun in the year 1052, Dogen himself refuted that view and stated that it was only an expedient teaching intended to encourage monks to practice harder while they were still alive.

Was it the result of new technology? Among the many advances during the Song Dynasty was the invention of movable type printing, which allowed books to be printed faster and more cheaply than handwritten texts. Could the ready availability of the koan collections in print have reached a wider audience than the one-on-one interviews among teacher and student, and did the teachers have to then adopt their styles to fit the new medium?

Was it the result of social changes?   During the Song Dynasty, the populace engaged in a vibrant social and domestic life. There were entertainment quarters in the cities that provided a constant array of amusements, including theater, puppeteers, acrobats, storytellers, singers, musicians, and prostitutes.  There were tea houses, restaurants, and organized banquets in which to relax.  People attended social clubs in large numbers, including tea clubs, exotic food clubs, antiquarian and art collectors' clubs, poetry clubs, and music clubs. With all of these options for entertainment and diversion, who had time to attend a lecture by some visiting Zen master, as opposed to reading the quotes of past masters?            

Still, among the monks and masters, even though the subject of study had become the recorded koans of the past, the teachers helped the students understand the nuances and meanings of the koans and stories, and encouraged them to realize the dharma for themselves. The true understanding of the koans can not be grasped through intellect or logic, and the teachers both encouraged ardent pursuit of the meaning while simultaneously discouraging assumptions of having quickly and easily grasped the subtle nuances contained in the record.

Today, a millennium or so after this shift in the style and content of Zen practice, we're experiencing even more accelerated technological advances than could even have been dreamed of by the Song Chinese. The automobile and jet airplanes allow us too travel with great ease and leisure to visit teachers and masters from all over the globe, and it is no longer at all unusual for masters to travel around the world to disseminate their teachings.  Television and radio carry the word even faster, so that the physical presence is so longer required for the teaching to be spread, and the internet can carry teachings, commentary, and a countless, almost bewildering array of viewpoints to all corners of the planet.  Technology has allowed videos and podcasts to convey the teachers tone of voice and subtle nuances that might be lost in the printed word, even if the "print" is only on a flat-screen monitor, and Skype and internet chat rooms allow long-distance, interactive "conversations" between teachers and students.

It remains to be seen what effect all this technology has on the style and content of Zen practice.  If whatever combination of the political, social, and technological changes that marked the transition from the T'ang to the Song dynasty resulted in the major differences between the Classical and the Literary Periods of Chinese Zen, what will come of the transformative global changes experienced now?  Will it render quaint traditional practices of monastic retreat to study with a master and one-to-one transmission of the teaching? Will the access to teachings and wisdom from so many cultures and traditions result in an increased syncretization of Buddhism and an obsolescence of older schools? And most importantly, will enlightenment and awakening still be possible under these conditions?

The effects of this grand, global experiment on Zen practice have yet to be seen.     

Friday, July 19, 2013

Friday Night Video

Another self-produced video montage, this time consisting solely of pictures from this week, or that I came across this week, or that somehow meant something to me this week, set to the Master Musicians of Bukkake.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

All Music, Without Exception, Is A Direct Expression of the Buddha-Dharma

Music is not tangible. You can’t eat it or drink it. It doesn’t protect against the rain, wind or cold.  It doesn’t vanquish predators or mend broken bones. And yet humans have always prized music, even loved it.
"Far from being merely entertainment, music, I would argue, is a part of what makes us human. Its practical value is maybe a little harder to pin down, at least in our present way of thinking, than mathematics or medicine, but many people would agree that a life without music, for a hearing person, is a life significantly diminished." - David Byrne, How Music Works
In the modern age we spend great sums of money to attend concerts, download music files, play instruments, and listen to our favorite artists whether we’re in a subway or salon. Even in Paleolithic times, people invested significant time and effort to create music, as the discovery of flutes carved from animal bones would suggest.  So why does this thingless “thing,” at its core, a mere sequence of sounds, hold such potentially enormous intrinsic value?

Neurological studies suggest that our appreciation and enjoyment of music is deeply dependent on mirror neurons.  When we watch or even just hear someone play an instrument, the neurons associated with the muscles required to play that instrument fire.  Mirror neurons are also highly predictive.  The emotionally resonant rise and fall of a melody, a repetition, a musical build, create expectations based on experience (schema, or sanskara), about where those actions are leading - expectations that will be confirmed or slightly redirected depending upon the composer or performer.  Too much confirmation, when something happens exactly as it did before, causes us to get bored and to tune out.  Little variations keep us alert, as well as serving to draw attention to musical moments that are critical to the narrative.

A research team at Montreal's McGill University found that listening to what might be called “peak emotional moments” in music, that moment when you feel a “chill” of pleasure to a musical passage, causes the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, an essential signaling molecule in the brain. When pleasurable music is heard, dopamine is released in the striatum, an ancient part of the brain which is known to respond to naturally rewarding stimuli like food and sex (and which is artificially targeted by drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine).

Interestingly, this neurotransmitter is released not only when the music rises to a peak emotional moment, but also several seconds before, during what might be called the anticipation phase. The idea that reward is partly related to anticipation (or the prediction of a desired outcome) has a long history in neuroscience. After all, making good predictions about the outcome of one’s actions would seem to be essential in the context of survival.  And dopamine neurons, both in humans and other animals, play a role in recording which of our predictions turn out to be correct.

Another portion of the brain, the auditory cortex, is active when we merely imagine a tune, allowing us to experience music even when it’s physically absent, and to invent new compositions or to reimagine how a piece might sound with a different tempo or instrumentation.

These cortical circuits also allow us to make predictions about coming events on the basis of past events. They are thought to accumulate musical information over our lifetime, creating templates (again, schema, or sanskara) of the statistical regularities that are present in the music of our culture and enabling us to understand the music we hear in relation to our stored mental representations of the music we’ve heard before.

So each act of listening to music may be thought of as both recapitulating the past and predicting the future. When we listen to music, brain networks actively engage our stored schemata to create expectations of what happens next. Composers and performers intuitively understand this, and manipulate our schemata to give us what we want — or to surprise us, perhaps even with something better.

The "hooks" that often make listening to pop music so pleasing are created by the musicians inserting something interesting or unexpected (or both) into a song, momentarily confounding our schematic templates, but also leaving us wanting to hear it again, anticipating that rim shot or guitar riff or whatever, and listening with pleasure as dopamine is released in anticipation of the hook.  New templates are created, and we ourselves are altered, even if to a very subtle degree, by the experience.

Little wonder that we enjoy music. 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Nice Day for a Zen Ceremony

Back at the old Zen Center again . . . this time to witness several friends, old and new, from Atlanta, Chattanooga, and points beyond, go through their jukai (initiation) ceremony.  


Thanks and a tip of the hat to Mitch White for taking these pictures and posting them to Facebook.

Me and Gregg (Lehigh Valley by way of Chattanooga) and Sensei after the ceremony, posing for the obligatory post-ceremonial picture. 

Saturday, July 13, 2013


The world and the whole universe is in a constant state of change, a state of flux.  Everything that comes into existence, everything that appears, eventually disappears, becomes non-existent.  And even while things are in that state of existence, that are constantly changing.

This state of flux can be called impermanence.  The term, impermanence, is usually used in the negative sense to indicate the decay and disappearance of phenomena, but it can also mean the impermanence of the featureless - the coming into existence of things that weren't there before.

This can be likened to a pot of boiling water - bubbles form and rise to the surface on convection currents, move around on the surface and sometimes merge with other bubbles, and eventually burst and disappear, only to be replaced with other bubbles. I sometimes visualize the universe as one huge pearl-like planetoid, appearing smooth and flawless from a distance, but seen to actually have a boiling surface of erupting plumes of mass that sink back into its interior when examined closely. Constantly transforming, but with no net change. 

Zen Master Dogen said that impermanence can be clearly seen by everybody.  "It is not a matter of meditating using some provisional method of contemplation," he says in Shobogenzo Zuimonki.  "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. Applying this to our own bodies and thinking of the reality of all things, though we expect to live for seventy or eighty years, we die when we must die."
The Buddha taught that all things rise from conditions.  The condition that causes the impermanence of all things is karma. Karma is probably one of the most misunderstood of Buddhist concepts, misunderstood by many non-Buddhists and Buddhists alike.   For the purposes of this discussion, it is nothing more than cause-and-effect, the simple observation that everything arises from some condition or set of conditions.  Karma is the metaphorical fire than keeps all phenomena boiling in a state of constant impermanence, the hot core of that pearl-like planetoid.

Some people take it further, maintaining that it is also our accumulated good and bad merit (or non-merit), that all somehow eventually balances out in the end.   Some maintain it is even carried into the next incarnation, and determines the happy or sad conditions of the next re-birth.

The later concept has a lot of explaining to do.  Even if it transcends the dualistic distinction between "good" and "bad," it still gets stuck on the concept of an individual self bearing this lifelong karma, when the Buddha also taught that all things are an interdependent and seamless whole, with no individual self except in our own minds.  And it fails to explain the reality right before our eyes - we all know of perfectly awful people who enjoy seemingly endless good fortune, and have all seen chains of tragic events fall on the kindest, seemingly least-deserving people.   

I've read Buddhist teaching that try to reconcile these problems with theoretical karmic "seeds" and "fields," but these theories get more and more complicated as they try to resolve one contradiction after the other, and ultimately they are just long speculative theories without one shred of concrete evidence, other than claims that the truth is revealed to those who've managed to enter into very, very deep states of mediation - always deeper than any state you've ever attained, of course, so you just have to take it on faith.

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins mentions an Asian woman who tells him not to feel pity for a severely birth-deformed relative, as her misfortune to be born that way is surely a sign that she must have dome something terribly wicked in a formal life.  Dawkins rightfully find this lack of compassion despicable, but it is based on what I argue is a misunderstandng of karma and not on the Buddha's teaching, which emphasized no-self and interdependence.  

One of the things that's attracted me to Zen is that while it doesn't necessarily renounce this latter concept of karma and of transmigrating souls, it states that worrying about other states of existence and future lives is impractical, when there's so much else to deal with in this life, right here, right now.  Since we, like all the rest of the universe, are in a constant state of change, moment to moment, nanosecond by nanosecond, we are constantly being reborn into the present moment, and this continuous reincarnation is affected by our karma of this moment.  Unlike some accumulated karma or some karmic seed in a karmic field, when we bear anger, we carry that anger into the next present moments, and when we're practicing kindness or generosity, we carry that into the next present moment.

So karma as nothing more than cause-and-effect is indisputable - no plant exists without moisture or a seed, no thought arises without a mind to conceive it, no deed is performed without someone or something that does it.  Everything has its cause.  And since it can plainly be seen that the whole universe is in a constant state of flux, everything moving, transforming, entering and leaving existence, this impermanence is fueled by the law of cause-and-effect - karma.

Practically, this means that we have the means, if not of controlling, of at least affecting our continuous rebirth into the next moment.  If you want, for whatever reason, to experience the effects of anger or fear from someone, behave aggressively or cruelly toward them.  If, on the other hand, you want to experience acceptance and approval, behave with compassion and tolerance.  Your cause will determine the effect you encounter.

For the best karmic effects, though, try just sitting still with a quiet mind and seeing what happens with open-minded acceptance.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Friday Night Video

Text unrelated:  After I turned about, what?, 19?, I never thought that I'd live in an America where the 1965 Voting Rights Act would be, if not repealed, certainly eviscerated.  Where states would conspire to take away women's rights established by Roe v Wade in 1973.  Where Congress would deny legislation for food stamps for the hungry while at the same time increasing subsidies to agribusiness, and the Supreme Court rules that corporations have the same rights as human beings and can funnel unlimited cash into political campaigns.  And Big Brother, apparently, really is watching us.

This is not the American dream.  It is a travesty. 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Why Is It So Rainy, and How Can I Blame It On Climate Change?

This has been one of the most humid, rainiest summers I can recall in Georgia since I moved here in 1981. We've already had more rainfall in 2013 than we had in all of 2012 (which, incidentally, was not a drought year).  Mushrooms are growing all over the yard, a layer of moss has developed on the back patio, and white mold is growing on the wooden retaining wall behind the house and in between the bricks. Since the beginning of this month, it seems that it's rained every day, with some days, like last July 4, a nearly nonstop downpour.  When it's not raining, it's been so humid that nothing can dry out - the air is already saturated. What's going on?

The National Weather Service confirms that total rainfall values are above normal in a distinct corridor from the Gulf/Caribbean Sea into the Southeastern U.S.  The copious quantities of rainfall are apparently due to a deep moisture plume extending all the way south to Central America.  The moisture plume is a result of the Jet Stream and a Bermuda High-Pressure System which has been inching westward for a while now. Meanwhile, a low-pressure zone is situated over western Missouri.  The low-pressure zone pulls the Jet Stream south into the lower Mississippi River valley, but since the Jet Stream can’t go through the Bermuda High, it has to go north to get around it.  As it does so, it funnels warm, tropical-like moisture from the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Eastern Pacific Ocean, accompanied by extensive cloud cover and precipitation. 

Dry air wrapping around the southern/eastern edge of the low-pressure system is shown by the red/orange shading over Arkansas and Missouri.  Dry air wrapping around the west side of the Bermuda High is shown by the orange plume to the east of Florida.  In between these two systems, the large plume of very moist air is shown by the green shading. 

The moisture plume can be traced all the way back to Central America. Very high (2+ inches) rainfall levels extend from the Yucatan peninsula and western Caribbean Sea, across the eastern Gulf of Mexico, and all the way north along the U.S. East Coast. This persistent moisture plume was responsible for the recent flooding in parts of the Northeast states, as well as the muggy, rainy weather currently in Georgia.

A front forecast to move into Georgia on Friday should bring some of that red/orange dry air from Missouri over to North Georgia and finally push the main moisture plume to the east of the state for a while.  The drier air will be short-lived however, as the moisture begins to retrograde back to the west on Saturday.

So, can we blame any of this on climate change, as the title of this post implies?  As tempting as it is to answer in the affirmative, the short answer however is "no" - no single weather event can be held as an example of climate change.  However, having said that, both the Bermuda High and the amount of moisture in the Central America/Gulf of Mexico air mass are related to the temperature, and as temperatures increase, moisture plumes like the one we're experiencing now will become more and more common and more and more persistent.  The increased frequency and duration of moisture plumes, just like the increased frequency and intensity of tornadoes, is a direct result of climate change.

But in any event, it looks like tomorrow is going to be a nice, relatively dry, day.  We ought to enjoy it while we can.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Yet Another Post About Sanskara

According to noted translator and practicing Buddhist Bill Porter, who publishes as “Red Pine”:
“The word sanskara is derived from a combination of san (together) and kri (to make). Thus, it means “put together” and refers to those things we have “put together” that have a direct bearing on the way we think and perceive. In the past this term has often been translated as ‘impulse,’ ‘volition,’ ‘predisposition,’ or ‘mental conformation.’ But each of these renderings involves certain limitations and distortions. For example, ‘volition’ suggests a separate will tantamount to a self, and ‘impulse’ implies the lack of any will or self. ‘Predisposition’ comes closer but does not necessarily establish a connection with past actions. And such invented terms as ‘mental conformation’ are simply too bizarre to have much use outside academic circles, very small academic circles. What this term basically refers to is our karmic genome, the repository of all that we have previously intended, whether expressed in the form of words, deeds, or thoughts. Thus, sanskara embraces all the ways we have dealt with what we have experienced in the past and that are available to us as ways to deal with what we find in the present.”
Red Pine therefore translates sanskara as “memory,” and notes that among the meanings for sanskara are “the faculty of memory, mental impression or recollection, impression of the mind of acts done in a former state of existence . . . the reproductive imagination . . .a mental conformation or creation of the mind (such as that of the external world, regarded by it as real, though actually non-existent).”

Sankara can involve anything that might provide us with a prefabricated set of guidelines from the past with which to perceive and deal with the world, both inside and outside, as we experience it in the present. Thus, sanskara supplies the templates that perception applies to sensations and form.

I don’t know of anyone else other than me who has made the connection between sanskara and schemata. I first read about schema about a year ago and realized what they were talking about sounded very similar to sanskara.  Study of this has lead me to other sources on schemata and to Erich Fromm’s “mental maps,” but I’ve not read anyone else use both terms (sanskara and schemata) in the same piece. I’m not bragging; in fact, just the opposite - since it’s only me who seems to have made the obvious connection, maybe I'm missing something and this all will come down on me like a house of cards.  

But as I see it here and now, sanskara is our habitual ways of perceiving and understanding the world and ourselves. To apply just a little schematic theory, we can substitute “pre-conscious” or “subconscious” for “habitual” and realize that these templates are applied without our conscious realization, so there is no volitional element to it.  

Here's a little test for you to experience for yourself how sanskara/schema works - what's going on in these pictures? (I took them today.)

In these days of sensational coverage of the Trayvon Martin murder trial, and the reinforcement of the stereotype that all encounters between men and women, between blacks and whites, are inherently confrontational and potentially violent, it's only natural to assume these are pictures of an altercation, one that may even have left the man wounded, or worse.  Or maybe you thought it was a dramatic re-enactment of such an altercation.

In fact, neither could be further from the truth.  If you scroll down to the bottom of this post, you will see that the couple pictured above are two of the performers from the GloATL dance troupe, which engaged in an outdoor performance today in midtown Atlanta.  The woman at the top of this post, who incidentally is not  standing in traffic although it might appear that way, was also part of the performance.  

Not only was the above encounter not a violent confrontation, although the pictures were carefully selected to suggest otherwise, it wasn't even an artistic recreation of a violent confrontation. In the last picture, the female dancer is laying down next to the male, just outside of the frame, and the sequence of pictures above is in the reverse of the chronological order - this part of the performance started with the two laying down next to each other on the ground, slowly helping each other up, and then gazing into each others eyes. It was actually quite lovely and touching.

But we have a script in our mind, and as soon as we see something that fits the pattern, we use the script to fill in the blanks.  You probably also made the assumption, based on past experiences, that the pictures were shown in the same order as the sequence of events.  This is schemata, what the Buddha called sanskara, what Fromm refers to as our "mental maps."  And while these can be very useful, if not downright essential in understanding the world around us, there's always the danger of mistaking the map for the territory.    

My theory is that schema are applied subconsciously and therefore we aren't aware of how our perceptions are filtered by our own minds.  As the Buddha put it, sanskara arises out of ignorance. But realizing this, we can use our volition and intention in choosing how we act in response to our filtered perceptions. This requires wisdom, and wisdom, in turn, requires knowledge as well as practice in putting this knowledge to use. 

In essence, we might just be consciously creating a new template for ourselves, one of careful and critical self-examination, another but useful schema to be applied to our perception.

GloATL dancers, 10th and Peachtree, July 10, 2013

Sunday, July 07, 2013

The Temple and The Tree

Scene outside Bodhgaya temple complex in Bihar after explosions (7 July)

Four explosions were detonated today at the Mahabodhi temple complex in northern India, the site that houses the Bodhi Tree where the Buddha attained his enlightenment.  Neither the temple nor the tree itself were reportedly damaged by the blasts, although two people were injured.

While no one has yet taken responsibility for the attack, suspicion has fallen on a home-grown Islamist group, Indian Mujahideen.  The group, designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, has been blamed for dozens of deadly bomb explosions throughout India since 2005 according to CNN.

What the bombers may not realize, however, is that their attacks do not demean Buddhism, if that were even their motive, but actually reinforce the Buddha's teachings.  Everything in this world is impermanent, the Buddha taught, and that would include both the Mahabodhi temple complex and the bodhi tree, not to mention the historical Buddha  himself.  Just as Tibetan monks wipe away an intricate sand mandala shortly after its completion, wiping away the temple and the tree is a recognition of impermanence.  

Further, even if terrorists did not destroy the complex, it still would pass away with time, just as all phenomena does.  The most ancient structures, from the pyramids of Egypt to Stonehenge, are already degraded remnants of their past glory, and eventually even they will crumble to dust. 

It would be going too far to thank the bombers for their actions, which are reprehensible in their intention to destroy life and create fear and suffering, but they have provided a lesson that all Buddhists recognize.

Friday, July 05, 2013

Friday Night Video

Lately, I've started creating these video montages set to music and posting them on Facebook and the music blog.  Here's one appropriate for this site, a dark meditation on impermanence set to Lumpen Nobleman's Scaling the Yablonois.  Hope you like it.

Thanks to all the photographers, artists, posters, and musicians for the works incorporated in this effort. 

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Upstream Color

“What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant.” – David Foster Wallace, Oblivion (2004)

Monday, July 01, 2013


We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related, the eternal ONE. And this deep power in which we exist and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are shining parts, is the soul.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
What Buddhist refer to as "Buddha-nature," Emerson called the "soul" and to be more specific, "the soul of the whole."  Not your soul or any individual soul, but the interconnected, universal, and eternal soul.