Saturday, August 31, 2013

July 1954 - The brave woman above, although herself no more than barely a post-adolescent at the time, gave birth to the author of this blog. Some 20-some years before that, on this very day, another brave woman, age unknown to this author at this time, also gave birth, this time to the woman pictured above. 

Flash forward back to the here and now, and we have the son, off on a semi-hedonistic adventure to hear as much music as he possibly can in one week, nearly forgetting to even as much as call his own mother on her birthday.  Thank Jobs for the internet, so at least he can send this virtual birthday card, and wish her the very best.

Love you, Mom!  Have a great birthday and a terrific year!

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Really, Who Are You?

When the First Chinese Patriarch Bodhidharma was asked, "Who are you?" he famously replied, "I don't know," or more accurately "Mu knowing," or "not knowing," or "not known," or "unknown," or even, "the unknown."  Personally, I like "that which is unknown."

Five generations of students and teachers later, the Sixth Chinese Patriarch Hui-Neng asks a monk, "What is this that comes thus?" Both Hui-Neng's question and Bodhidharma's earlier answer were directly pointing at buddha-nature, that which cannot be grasped with the mind, but is the substrate from which the mind divides all things into separate entities.  It is both empty of any individual identity and it is our potential to become a Buddha.  The monk answered Hui-Neng by saying "To describe a thing misses the mark."

The Fourth Chinese Patriarch, meeting the Fifth Patriarch when the latter was just a young boy, asked "What is your name?"  "What is your name?," "Who are you?," and "What is this that comes thus?" are all tests to see if the one being questioned grasps the essence of buddha-nature, whether the one asking the question realizes it or not.

The boy answers "I have a name, but it is an unusual one."

Intrigued, the Fourth Patriarch asks what this unusual name is.

"It is Buddha-nature," the boy replies.

"You do not have buddha-nature," the Fourth Patriarch tells the boy.

"Buddha-nature is emptiness," the boy replies, "so we call it being without."

Years later, the Fifth Patriarch asks Hui-Neng, the Sixth Patriarch, "Where are you from?"  Do not think that just because the question this time is about geographical origination rather than individual identification that it is any different from the other three questions.

Hui-Neng answers straightforwardly,  "I am from south of the Great Mountains."

The Fifth Patriarch asks him, "Why do you come here?"

Still answering straightforwardly, Hui-Neng says "I come to become a Buddha."

The Fifth Patriarch tells him, "People from south of the Great Mountains do not have buddha-nature.  How can you expect to become a Buddha?" 

This sounds rude, certainly provincial and possibly even racist, but the Fifth Patriarch was correct - people from south of the Great Mountains do not, in fact, have buddha-nature.  But then, neither do the people from north of the Great Mountains.  No one "has" buddha-nature in the same sense that no one "has," say, atoms. To say that I "have" atoms implies that there is a "me" not composed of atoms that can possess these particles, yet there is no "me" that isn't itself completely composed of atoms.  I do not "have" atoms, I AM atoms. Similarly, we do not "have" buddha-nature, we completely and totally ARE buddha-nature through and through.

Hui-Neng understood.  He calmly told the Fifth Patriarch, "North and south exist in the minds of people, but in buddha-nature there is no north and south."

So this test, "Who are you?" was thrown at Bodhidharma, the First Chinese Patriarch, and has been passed down from generation of teacher to generation of student over the years, being posed by the Fourth Patriarch to the Fifth, and by the Fifth Patriarch to Hui-Neng, the Sixth Patriarch, and by Hui-Neng to his students, the many teachers of the seventh generation.  

This question still is being asked this day.  Quick, without referring to any other person or relying on a name (a mere label applied on you by some other), who are you? 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Trompe L'œil?

"Conservatism in human beings may be characterized as behavior by individuals who possess a reluctance to update their beliefs in the face of new information. This property is a natural result from information theory. . . the information one can receive is information sent minus equivocation, which is reduced gradually as the receiver’s background knowledge about the source increases. Hence, conservatism reflects the gradual reduction of equivocation by the receiver of any given information." (Jing Chen, The Entropy Theory of Human Mind

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Meanwhile, Back In Athens

Nature has given us a break from the longest stretch of rainy weather I can remember in a long time, at least a temporary break.  The weather this week has been cool for August (by Georgia standards) - high 70s to low 80s, but most mercifully of all, relatively dry.

I took advantage of the pleasant conditions today to make my monthly visit to the construction site in Athens.  I don't have anything particularly profound to say about it (or even slightly profound, for that matter), other than it's nice to be outside on a day like today, and it's nice to have work.  

More nice days and more work would be good, but then who's to say what's good or what's bad, or what days are "nice" and what days aren't.  All days just simply are, and whether we consider them "good" or "bad," or "nice" or "not" simply depends upon us.  We make of it what we want.

Monday, August 26, 2013


“Impermanence is, of course, Buddha Nature, and permanence is, in fact, the mind dividing up all things into good or bad.” - Hui-Neng (638-713 AD)

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Against Entropy

Entropy, when taken as a measure of the disorder or randomness in a closed thermodynamic system, has obvious similarities to impermanence.  Granted, they are not the same thing and much of what is considered entropy and much of what is considered impermanence cover separate topics, but the overlap in the Venn Diagram of the two is considerable.  Among other differences, entropy might be considered to apply to closed systems, while impermanence is usually thought of as applying to individuals or individual objects in that system.

Regardless, living beings are every bit as subject to entropy as are gas molecules in a room, the classic example of entropy.  It takes effort for a living being to not succumb to entropy and not have its body dissociate and disperse across the biosphere, but that is exactly what happens in death and decay.  Every living body eventually succumbs to entropy, and the highly organized bodies and organs that contained and sustained its life do not stay that way forever.  To say that everything is impermanent is to say that everything ultimately succumbs to entropy.  A physicist might say that life-and-death is a sequence from a low to a high state of entropy. 

Have you ever seen one of those time-lapse movies of an animal decaying, like during the title sequence of the HBO show True Blood?  That's entropy - the body itself becoming disorganized and literally falling apart, and then those parts entering the food chain and dispersing across the globe, or becoming part of the soil, or being taken up by plant life and entering the food chain in that manner.  The inability to keep a body intact and highly organized forever is also known as impermanence.

All living beings, in order to survive, work to maintain a state of low entropy and to avoid states of high entropy.  But reduction of entropy in an individual results in an increase in entropy outside of the individual. As described by Ling Chen of the University of Northern British Columbia, "Living organisms need to extract low entropy from the environment, to defend their low entropy sources, and to reduce the diffusion of the low entropy. The struggle to stay in low entropy states is called natural selection."  It's even more obvious when stated that natural selection is the struggle to avoid impermanence. 

Displays of low entropy levels evolved as a signal of attractiveness in the process of natural selection, and organisms can advertise their suitability as potential mates by appearing to avoid impermanence. According to Chen,
"As both natural selection and sexual selection favor low entropy state, the pursuit of low entropy becomes the main motive of human mind and animal mind. Indeed, the low entropy state is the main way of advertisement for most sexually reproducing species. Large body size, colorful and highly complex feather patterns with large amount of information content, and exotic structures are all different representations of low entropy states."
Among us humans, displays of apparent permanence are accomplished through the accumulation of wealth, conspicuous consumption, demonstrations of athletic prowess, and creation of works of art, all of which represent different forms of  low entropy.  People signal their low-entropy state by buying ever-more expensive houses, cars and clothes, going to more expensive restaurants, and attending more exclusive schools. The great efforts human beings put into these activities reflect the importance of hiding the appearance of impermanence.

So much of human suffering revolves around the inevitability of impermanence and the effects entropy has on us.  However, it appears that clinging to low states of entropy is something that is hard-wired into our DNA. The Indian sage Nagarjuna said that the mind that sees the impermanence of the world is the mind of wisdom.  I wonder if Max Planck ever thought that wisdom was the recognition of entropy.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Tanyard Creek

Tanyard Creek, Atlanta, Georgia, Saturday afternoon. This poor little urbanized waterway has faced more than its fair share of challenges, from flash flooding due to all the urban pavement in its upstream catchment to sewage overflows and fish kills. Despite all this, it still remains beautiful.

The neighborhood takes water samples from the creek every Thursday and delivers them to the Chattahoochee Riverkeepers for analysis of E. coli. The EPA considers levels above 250 mpn to be unsafe - only once has Tanyard Creek has been below the safe level in 2013. 

This summer has been particularly problematic, with readings of 2,370 (5/16/13), 120,980 (7/2/13), 60,165 (8/1/13), and most recently 675 (8/15/13), which sounds good compared to the previous readings, but is still over two-and-a-half times the EPA safe level. If you want to see readings since 2010, you can go to (enter "Tanyard Creek" to get the results).

"I love that dirty water," The Standells sang back in 1966. It may take a certain leap of faith to love the Charles River, but the beauty of Tanyard Creek certainly appeals for better treatment than it's receiving.

Friday, August 23, 2013

On The Neurology Of Consciouness

Some 2,500 years ago, Shakyamuni Buddha taught that consciousness (vijnana) was a product of our "mental maps" or schema (sanskara), which in turn arise out of our subconscious mind or ignorance (avidya).  This is not mystical thinking or superstition, but his own observations of the working, functioning mind, and in this TED lecture on the neurology of consciousness, although he never once mentions Buddhism, Antonio Damasio shows that science is now reaching the same or similar conclusions.

According to this lecture, there are little modules in the brain stem that produce maps of different aspects of our body. Damasio describes these maps as "exquisitely topographic and exquisitely interconnected in a recursive pattern."  To be sure, these maps are not the "mental maps" (sanskara) of Erich Fromm, but this interconnection between brain stem and body provides the grounding for the self. The proto- or core self is grounded in this very tight interconnection between the brain stem and the body and is experienced in the form of primordial feelings.  The conscious mind cannot exist without this interconnection between brain stem and body.

The cerebral cortex, in turn, provides the great spectacle of our minds, the profusion of images to which we normally pay the most attention.  Just as a conscious mind cannot exist without an interconnection between the brain stem and the body, a conscious mind likewise cannot exist without an interconnection between the cerebral cortex and the brain stem. 

The design of the brain stem throughout the vertebrates is very similar to our own, which suggests that other species also have conscious minds.  However, their experience is not as rich as ours because they don't have a cerebral cortex like that of humans. The difference is in the cortex. Consciousness should not be considered as the great product of the cerebral cortex. The richness of the conscious experience is generated by the cortex, but not the fact that we have a sense of self at all.

Damasio describes three levels of the self - the proto-self, the core self, and the autobiographical self.  The first two, the proto-self and the core self, are shared with many other species, coming out of the brain stem and whatever there is of cortex in those species.  All sentient beings probably have at least some sense of proto-self, likely as a defense mechanism - it's been said that if you attempt to kill something and it runs away, it's sentient.

Some species additionally have an autobiographical self.  To a certain degree, cetaceans and primates probably have an autobiographical self.  Dogs also appear to have an autobiographical self to a certain degree.

According to Damasio, the autobiographical self is built on the basis of past memories and memories of the plans that we have made.  It's based on the lived past and the anticipated future, or what the Buddha called sanskara.  It is the autobiographical self that results in extended memory, reasoning, imagination, creativity and language, and out of these come the instruments of culture -- religions, justice, trade, the arts, science, and technology. 

So if I'm understanding Damasio correctly, the autobiographical self, what can be called the ego-self, is built on the basis of past memories and the mental templates or models that we have developed and use to comprehend the world.  These are the mental maps of Erich Fromm, also called schema or sanskara. Proto- or core consciousness may exist at lower levels of awareness in the brain stem, but the vivid experience of our own selves (vijnana) relies on the cerebral cortex and its mental maps.

Finally, since we are not aware or do not experience the arising of our consciousness (how could we be aware of such a thing? - it would be like "seeing" our own eyes without use of a mirror), sanskara arises subconsciously outside of our knowledge, that is, out of ignorance (avidya).  This process, consciousness arising out of schema, and schema arising out of ignorance, is the first three steps of the Buddha's teaching of dependent co-origination, and is now apparently affirmed by neuroscience.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Who Are You?

When he arrived in China around about, I don't know, 500 AD, the Indian sage Bodhidharma was asked by Emperor Wu, "Who are you?"

Bodhidharma famously replied, "I don't know."

Many people, including myself, have misunderstood this answer.  Was he oblivious to who he was?  Was he somehow being humble?  Was he just trying to pull the rug out from under the Emperor?  In any event, Wu didn't understand either, and Bodhidharma was lucky to get out of there with his head still on his shoulders.

Recently, while we've been talking about buddha-nature during Monday Night Meditation, I've come to a new (at least for me) understanding.  Buddha-nature, of course, is more than just something that all sentient being have - all sentient beings completely are buddha-nature.  And since we're all of the same substance, there's no differentiation between any two sentient beings - we're all one.  And since buddha-nature encompasses more than just sentient beings but all phenomena, too, everything is buddha-nature and everything is everything - it's all nothing but buddha-nature.  That "all phenomena" also includes our thoughts, memories, mental maps and models, ideas, concepts, and so on.  And since those are a mere part of the seamless whole of buddha-nature, by definition buddha-nature itself goes beyond any concept we might have of what it is.  However we try to wrap our mind around it, we're still limiting it to "it's this" and "not that."  Whatever we think it is, it isn't.  It's beyond, it transcends, any concept of what it is.

Okay, got all that?  Good.  Everything is everything, and in the absolute sense, nothing is separate from anything else and therefore nothing exists individually.  But that's not how we experience the world.  In this relative world, I am me and you are you, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers.  I can see them, I can identify them, I can describe them to others and get separate confirmation that these things exist.  But in the absolute sense, it's all buddha-nature, all part of a seamless whole, and it's only the mind that tries to subdivide the true fabric of reality into separate "things."  We can directly experience the absolute in a deep state of meditation - when the "thinking mind" finally stops its chatter and clams down, it also stops subdividing everything into separate "things," and we can experience the absolute.  But as soon as a thought arises, even, "Ah, so that's what the absolute is," we fall right back into the world of the relative.

So meanwhile, back in China, Emperor Wu asks Bodhidharma "Who are you?"  His question is "stuck" in a relative mind-set - he's really asking "Of the millions of separate individuals out there, none of whom, incidentally, are me, which one are you and how do you fit in?"

Bodhidharma answers not from the relative, but from the absolute.  Why?  Perhaps to test Wu to see if he understands the difference (if so, Wu failed the test).  Perhaps to teach the Emperor, by showing him another way of seeing the universe.  Or perhaps, and I don't think this is the case, because Bodhidharma abode in the absolute and saw things only from that perspective.

In any event, the absolute answer to the relative question, "Who are you?" is that we are all buddha-nature, we are all that which transcends even our own understanding or conceptualization of what it is.  We are beyond our "knowing" or, for that matter, our "not-knowing."  Bodhidharma's answer, "I don't know" means that he absolutely does know (pun intended), but further knows that it's beyond the realm of words and thoughts.

He gives an absolute answer to a relative question.  Five generations of teachers and students later, a monk approaches the Sixth Chinese Patriarch Hui-Neng to begin his study under him as his teacher.  Hui-Neng asks the monk, "What is this that comes thus?"

Hui-Neng knew that the monk knew the story of Bodhidharma and Emperor Wu, and wouldn't fall into the trap of blurting out a casual answer to "Who are you?" without showing off his learning, so he surprises him by asking essentially the same question ("What is this that comes thus?" is basically "Who are you?"), but posing the questions from the absolute perspective rather than the relative.  "What?" instead of "Who?" "That which comes thus" acknowledges things just as they are, without underlying presumptions or conceptions.

The monk thought about the question for eight full years, and then came back to Hui-Neng and said, "Now I understand your question, 'What is this that comes thus?'."  Hui-Neng asks him how he understands this.

The monk replies, "To describe a thing misses the mark."

Hui-Neng suspects that the monk understands, but to test him he asks, "Does your answer rely on your practice and experience?"  He might understand that what comes thus is buddha-nature, but does he understand that even his practice and experince are buddha-nature, too?  Is his mind free of some things, but still sticking to others?

The monk says, "It is not that there is no practice and experience, but to taint it with words is impossible."

Bulls-eye!  He got it!  In confirmation, Hui-Neng comfortably slips back into the relative perspective, and tells him, "I am like that, you are like that, and the buddhas and patriarchs of India were also like that."

All things are buddha-nature, and all things are therefore "empty" of a separate, individual existence.  This is the absolute view.  But it doesn't feel that way to us, and we experience the world in a relative sense - "self" relative to "others," "this" relative to "that."  One view isn't "right" and the other "wrong,"  it's just two different ways of looking at things.  The enlightened mind can hold both views simultaneously without sticking to one of the other.  

You can hold both views simultaneously yourself without sticking to one or the other by practicing  meditation - calming the mind, stopping the discriminating thoughts that try to separate things out from each other, and engaging in shikantaza ("just sitting").   You will discover the state of practice-enlightenment and abide in that state - at least until the bell rings ending the meditation period.           

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Upward Mobility

Although Atlanta is one of America’s most affluent metropolitan areas, according to a July 22, 2013 article in the New York Times, it is also one of the most physically divided by income.  Low-income neighborhoods "often stretch for miles, with rows of houses and low-slung apartments, interrupted by the occasional strip mall, and lacking much in the way of good-paying jobs."  This geography makes Atlanta one of the metropolitan areas where it is most difficult for lower-income households to rise into the middle class and beyond.

Climbing the income ladder occurs less often in the Southeast and industrial Midwest, with the odds notably lower in Atlanta, Charlotte, Memphis, Raleigh, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Columbus.  By contrast, some of the highest rates occur in the Northeast, Great Plains, and West, including New York, Boston, Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, Seattle, and large swaths of California and Minnesota.

Economists have found that a smaller percentage of people escape childhood poverty in the United States than in several other rich countries, including Canada, Australia, France, Germany and Japan.  Yet the parts of this country with the highest mobility rates, like Seattle, have rates roughly as high as those in Denmark and Norway, two countries at the top of the international mobility rankings. In Atlanta, by comparison, upward mobility appears to be substantially lower than in any other rich country.

The variation does not stem simply from the fact that some areas have higher average incomes: upward mobility rates often differ sharply in areas where average income is similar, like Atlanta and Seattle.  On average, poor children in Seattle, those who grew up in the 25th percentile of the national income distribution, do as well financially when they grow up as middle-class children from Atlanta who grew up in the 50th percentile.

Economists are confident that the characteristics of different regions — as opposed to something inherent and unchangeable in the local residents — are helping cause the varying mobility rates.  When poor communities are segregated, everything about life is harder. All else being equal, upward mobility tended to be higher in metropolitan areas where poor families were more dispersed among mixed-income neighborhoods. Income mobility was also higher in areas with more two-parent households, better elementary and high schools, and more civic engagement, including membership in religious and community groups.

In Atlanta, the most common lament seems to be that concentrated poverty, extensive traffic, and a weak public-transit system make it difficult to get job opportunities.  In interviews, residents reflected many of the national concerns and many of the patterns in the study.
  • A 40-year-old man who runs a local painting crew said he wished he had enough time, amid work and parenthood, to go back to school.
  • A recent graduate of a chiropractic program who has struggled to find work called herself “a loner” and said she wished she knew more people to help with her job search.
  • A father of three in Gwinnett County with a temporary job as a network engineer said that the struggle to build a better life often felt similar to “a lottery.” His job comes with no health insurance for him, his wife and his three children.
  • His wife recently left a job at a diner that required an hour’s commute by bus. She would like to find a new job with health insurance, but the family has only one car.

It's not something lacking in the people that's causing this problem.  They're not undermotivated, or content to rely on food stamps and subsidy programs, the "free stuff" that Republicans like to claim the government is handing out that keeps people in poverty.  What they need is the ability to get to the jobs.

Although not mentioned in the Times' article, Atlanta has been vehemently opposed to public transportation projects, other than widening its already vast yet still clogged highways. The existing MARTA transit system is constantly under attack and subjected to budget cuts, service cutbacks, and route reductions.  A recent transportation referendum was soundly defeated at the polls.  The only major new public transit initiative, the Beltline, can't seem to get its transit component going and has been primarily a parks and trails project for several years now.

More transit will mean less poverty, according to the economic study cited in the Times.  Less poverty, in addition to being a noble and worthy goal in and of itself, will also mean less crime, less tension, and more consumers and customers for businesses and retailers.  Frankly, it makes a city more fun to live in.  It's a good investment all around - everyone wins - yet there's no hope of a turnaround anywhere on the horizon around here.

Atlanta, it seems, is content to continue to be a third-world economy in terms of upward mobility.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Four Noble Truths (Updated and Revised)





Post-Script:  LOL!  I think the Buddha got it right the first time.

Saturday, August 17, 2013


Moving Day, 2004
It went by earlier this week pretty much unnoticed, but last Tuesday marked the nine-year anniversary of moving into this house.

A nine-year anniversary may not seem that significant - better to wait for the 10th - but nine years marks the longest that I've ever lived in one place for close to 60 years now.

As a young child, I lived in Levittown on Long Island, New York, until I was 8, and can remember two separate addresses - Needle Lane and Sunrise Lane (I wonder if they still use the street name "Needle Lane" anymore or if it was a victim of the War on Drugs?).  

We spent 8 more years further out on the Island - the Town of St. James on Suffolk County's north shore. That's pretty much what I consider my "childhood home" - it's basically where I came of age - although it represents just a little over an eighth of my life.

After leaving St. James, I hardly lived anywhere for more than  four or five years, including Boston, which is my default answer to the inevitable "where are you from?" question, even though I've also lived in northern New Jersey; Long Island's south shore; Atlanta; Albany, New York; Pittsburgh; and Atlanta (again), for as long or longer, although at no single address for more than six years.   For what it's worth, I still cheer for New England sports teams (the Red Sox beat the Yankees today!), even though I've been gone for 32 years now.   

But it seems I've finally settled into this pile of bricks on top of a hill here in Atlanta, Georgia (of all places).  I almost left here in 2008 for a job offer in Portland, Oregon, but the economic crisis of that difficult year prevented me from selling this old house and kept me here - probably, in retrospect, for the best.

So a belated toast to This Old House, and to This Old Man who patiently lives within.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Friday Night Video

The analogy of the experiment described in this video to meditation is obvious and self apparent - so I will describe it for you.

Without expectation of any specific result and for no other reason than because they were curious, the astronomers pointed "the most powerful telescope ever built by human beings" at "absolutely nothing," a dark spot between the observed stars, a virtual no-man's-land of the universe.  After 11 days of staring into the void, what did they find?  Over 10,000 new galaxies, each of which contained hundreds of billions of stars.  

We can sit in mediation, without seeking any specific outcome other than to see what's there, and peer intently into the mind beneath our thoughts, the quiet, still fact of our own existence.  Just watch, just observe. When the scientists did this, they found a mind-boggling number of new stars, the Hubble ultra-deep field. What will we find?     

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

John Lewis


"Some of these chickens would bow their heads, some of these chickens would shake their heads, they never quite said amen. But I'm convinced that some of those chickens that I preached to in the '40s and the '50s tended to listen to me much better than some of my colleagues listen to me in the Congress. 

"As a matter of fact, some of those chickens were a little more productive. 

"At least they produced eggs."

- my Congressman, U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Atlanta)

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Google Portrait

Oh, look.  Google/Google Maps/Google Earth has caught me in their "street view" photo in front of my home, staring at the strange-looking car with a camera roof driving past.

The concept of "privacy" has been rendered quaint by modern technology.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Was The Buddha Schizophrenic?

Possibly, but probably not.  But Jesus more likely was, and many of the T'ang Dynasty Zen Master almost certainly were.

Now, before anyone gets upset (if it's not already too late), I don't mean anything derogatory by the term "schizophrenic," and will use the symptomatic term "schizotypal" rather than the diagnostic term "schizophrenic," which is to say I don't know whether they were schizophrenic or not (not only an I not a psychiatrist, but they all lived hundreds to thousands of years ago). But they certainly did display schizotypal symptoms.

Individuals with schizoid personalities are said to have little capacity for close relationships and are also eccentric in their behaviors, perceptions, and thinking.  According to the DSM-IV manual, the following symptoms are considered schizotypal:

A. Ideas of reference (excluding delusions of reference)
B. Odd beliefs or magical thinking that influences behavior and is inconsistent with subcultural norms (e.g., superstitiousness, belief in clairvoyance, telepathy, or “sixth sense”; in children and adolescents, bizarre fantasies or preoccupations)
C. Unusual perceptual experiences, including bodily illusions
D. Odd thinking and speech (e.g., vague, circumstantial, metaphorical, overelaborate, or stereotyped)
E. Suspiciousness or paranoid ideation
F. Inappropriate or constricted affect
G. Behavior or appearance that is odd, eccentric, or peculiar
H. Lack of close friends or confidants other than first-degree relatives
I. Excessive social anxiety that does not diminish with familiarity and tends to be associated with paranoid fears rather than negative judgments about self.

Jesus certainly displayed symptoms B though D, and although many now believe his claims of divinity to be true does not mean that they weren't "odd" or "unusual" at the time.   They certainly garnered him a lot of attention.  He prophesied that he would be betrayed and martyred, which fits symptom E (even though he eventually was in fact betrayed and martyred, even paranoids, as they say, have enemies). His outburst at the Temple, turning over tables and chasing out the merchants, qualifies for G.  The fact that his closest associates, the 13 Disciples (later 12), reportedly included thieves, tax collectors, and other social outcasts suggests that he had somehow alienated the friends and colleagues he must have developed during the largely undocumented, early part of his life (symptom H).

Now, saying that Jesus may have exhibited schizotypal symptoms does not in any way take away - or support - any faith-based claims about him.  I'm not saying that he was delusional or insane, just that his neural wiring was apparently different from the norm. . . which is exactly what one would expect of a messiah in human form.  I'm not attaching any stigma to schizotypal symptoms, I'm just calling them what they appear to be. 

The Buddha rejected any claims of divinity, and urged his followers to look within themselves for their answers.  He even resisted notions of himself as the leader of a spiritual system, and the fact that a thing called "Buddhism" now exists can be viewed as a failure on the part of the Buddha to stop people from viewing him in that way.  But to be fair, it can certainly be claimed that the Buddha exhibited symptoms B, C, and D to some extent or another.  His celebrated calmness and passivity  may qualify as the "constricted affect" of symptom F.  

On the other hand, though, the Masters of the T'ang Dynasty "Classical Period" of Zen behaved very strangely indeed.   Specifically, I'm talking about post-Hui-Neng Masters such as Nangaku, Baso, Nansen (who once sliced a cat in half to make a point), Joshu (who put his sandals on his head in response to Nansen's cat-killing), Hyakujo, Gutei, certainly Rinzai, and even Layman Pang, and so on down the line.  

The Zen koans, the so-called "inscrutable puzzles" of Zen, are by and large examples of the bizarre exchanges of the Classical Period Masters with their students and with each other.  When seen from the perspective of the awakened mind, their words and actions, although still not "logical," are understandable and even appropriate, but as seen from the norms of society, the perspective from which clinical psychologists practice today, their thinking, speech, and actions were certainly "odd" and "unusual."  Their behaviors were erratic and often semi-violent, and many koan stories culminate with blows to the head and twisted noses.  Gutei even cut off a disciple's finger once to make a point.   Reading the koan stories without an understanding of awakening is often like reading a script for The Three Stooges as authored by Kafka and Beckett.

During the subsequent Song Dynasty, the Zen Masters typically did not engage in such eccentric behaviors, and Zen entered the so-called "Literary Period" where the Masters studied and taught using the recorded words and actions of their predecessors, rather than engage in such acts themselves.  Did the Song Dynasty have different ways of dealing with schizotypal personalities that the T'ang Dynasty, or was the change of behavior from one dynasty to the net merely coincidental? 

Just like when talking about Jesus, though, I don't mean to imply that the actions of the earlier Masters were delusional or merely the unfortunate results of a mental illness.  My point is that when viewed from the clinical perspective of societal norms, the actions of saints and sages through the centuries, including the T'ang Dynasty Zen Masters and, yes, Jesus, were certainly "unusual" and would qualify as some, if not most, of the DSM symptoms.     

The American neuroendocrinologist Dr. Robert Sapolsky has theorized that a schizotypal gene exists and has been passed down over the generations from the ancients to the present.  Interestingly, Dr. Sapolsky theorizes that the vast majority, if not all, of the saints and sages throughout history probably carried the gene, which leads to the question of whether or not the trait carries the genetic advantage of providing society with shamans and seers to provide spiritual comfort to society.  He goes on to cite tribes that always seem to have one erratic or bizarre member who serves as the shaman or medicine man or prophet to help guide the tribe and provide some measure of solace when confronting the inexplicable.  Since so many tribes and societies across the world all tolerate, even celebrate, one otherwise non-productive individual in their midst, there must be a functional purpose for both that individual and for the gene that influences that individual's behavior.

Seen in this light, then, the schizotypal symptoms are not seen as an illness or a sign of delusion, but an indication that the individual has the same shaman gene as the seers and prophets throughout history, a gene that may allow the individual to see beyond the mundane world of the relative and into the absolute.  I wouldn't go so far as to say that every schizophrenic is a seer or that every seer is a schizophrenic, but I'm saying that there may be a behavioral, and possibly a genetic, link between the two.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Friday Night Video

I didn't make this one (this time). But YouTube knows me only too well at this point - when I searched for a clip by the Florida band Roadkill Ghost Choir, it offered me this video instead. 

Thursday, August 08, 2013


Ask any Zen Buddhist and they'll tell you - words are never adequate for expressing the real truth of things. Words are symbols that attempt to separate, to carve out, individual instances of reality from the fabric of all existence, but any such attempt only creates an illusion of reality, not the real thing.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

In Which I Disparage Two Esteemed Patriarchs

For the past couple of weeks, the Monday Night group has been discussing Yasutani Roshi's commentary on the koan Mu that appears in The Three Pillars of Zen, and I've quoted Yasutani several times here in this blog over the same time.  Born in 1885, Yasutani devoted his life to the teaching of laypeople and beginning in 1962, made a number of trips to North America.  He passed away in 1973.

As described by James Ishmael Ford in his book, Zen Master Who?, Yasutani was known as a garrulous person given to disputation and rhetorical excess in support of his positions.  "It was nonetheless shocking," Ford writes, "when in the 1990s excerpts from some of his World War II-era political polemics were translated into English. Most offensive was his use of anti-Semitic shorthand in his attacks on bourgeois democracy. He made full use of the arguments marshaled by Japan's ally, Nazi Germany, to favor the emperor and an authoritarian state." 

It is hard to reconcile his anti-Semitic screed with an awakened mind, although I admit that I have not myself read his remarks.  But Ford makes an interesting point about this case and about a common misunderstanding of what awakening is and isn't.  Awakening is a direct seeing into our original nature, but our actualization will always arise out of our conditioned experience.  "Zen awakening," Ford writes, "is about living in the real world, which very much includes our limitations.  Ideally, those limitations are confronted through the precepts and other Buddhist perspectives, and we engage in an endless process of polishing our character.  The good news for all of us is that whatever our shortcomings, they don't stand in the way of awakening.  And the most important lesson here is perhaps that awakening is not an end; it's a beginning. Used appropriately each of our awakenings, small and large, can become a gate to an ever deeper, more compassionate life."   

The habitual patterns of the unconscious mind, those sanskara that we've accumulated over the course of our lives, can still turn even the awakened mind toward ego-driven ends. This is the point of practice - even after awakening, we still strive to practice kindness and generosity and we must remain ever vigilant about slipping into old conditioned patterns.  The conscious mind cannot directly control the subconscious - thought cannot grasp that which is outside of thought - but vigilant practice over the years can condition the subconscious and turn it toward more beneficial ends. 

I saw the same karmic conditioning and attachments in my former teacher.  To be sure, we did not part ways out of any disagreement over the content of his teaching.  I would gladly have remained his student on the basis of his teachings.  Nor did I become disillusioned when I was reminded that even my teacher was still human, foibles and all.  I had reached that conclusion years ago.  But it was due to those human shortcomings of his, his habitual patterns of clinging and of defense, that eventually turned on me and created an untenable situation in which I could not remain.  If you hang around bears long enough, sooner or later you're going to get clawed, and if you associate with an egocentric narcissist, or someone with those tendencies, eventually they're going to feel threatened and turn against you.  

Thus is karma - causes arising from conditions.  Both our paths, although now separate, continue, and it probably has always been like this.  The specifics may be different, but the pattern remains. 

Friday, August 02, 2013

Friday Night Video

So, okay, I made another one, this time a 20-minute epic with what I think is some honest-to-gosh conceptual continuity.  Almost every picture was selected to relate somehow to the one before and after it, as well as to reflect the soundtrack at that very moment.  Images are from Turkey, Thailand, Greenland, Houston, Atlanta, Afghanistan, Seattle, Brunswick (Georgia), North Korea, and various other points around the world. The theme, I think, is humanity and its struggles, both with the environment, with the divine, and with itself, but you be the judge.  This one took a lot of time to produce, and I even gave it what I think is an uplifting, optimistic ending, so I hope you like it.

The background music is a composition titled Mladic by the Montreal post-rock band Godspeed You! Black Emperor, whom I'm looking forward to seeing at Portland's Roseland Theater on September 7.

I don't know if I've got another one of these in me or not.  As I said, a lot of work went into this video, and right now I'm happy with the first one I made a month ago and with this one, so maybe it's time to quit and leave the two to bookend my output.