Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy Birthday and RIP

In so many way, 2013 has been one of the best years of my long life but like all things, it too is coming to a close.  However, I can't let it pass without giving a birthday shout-out to my little sister over in California.  Here's to 2014, Jackie!

Sadly, we lost a couple of great ones in the closing days of 2013.  Let us observe a moment of silence to commemorate former San Francisco Zen Center Abbott Myogen Steve Stucky, who left us early this morning after a battle with cancer.

Proving that like impermanence itself, cancer does not discriminate between the young and the old or the clergy and the layman, we also lost musician Curtis Benjamin of the fine Brooklyn band School of Seven Bells to cancer on December 30.  Mr. Benjamin was 35 years old.  Let us observe a moment of joyful noise in commemoration of the life of Curtis Benjamin.

So the great cycle of life and death continues, mine in it's own quirky way, Jackie's with a celebration of its origins, and Myogen's and Curtis Benjamin's with the bookend events marking the end of this existence. 

Here's to 2014, my friends - may you all live long and prosper!

Monday, December 30, 2013

Monday Night Zazen

The Main Case
Every day, Zen Master Zuigan used to call out to himself, “Zuigan!” and he would answer “Yes,  Master?” “Are you awake?" he would ask, and “Yes!" he would reply. “Do not be deceived by others, at any time, at any place!,” he would say, and “I will not!,” he would answer.

The Commentary
The Master, Zuigan, sells himself and buys himself. He plays with puppets of gods and with devils masks. For what reason? Look and see! One mask calls, and one mask answers, one puppet asks, “Are you awake?,” and one will not be deceived.  But do not stick to these appearances. And imitating Zuigan is only the understanding of a fox.

The Closing Verse
Those is search of the Way do not realize the existence and true nature of the self;
This is because they recognize only the discriminating mind,
Which is the origin of life and death;
Foolish people take it for the true self.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Obamacare, Here I Come

Much to my surprise (I didn't see this one coming), it turns out that I am one of those people I've been hearing about on the news who've had their health-care insurance cancelled by their carrier.  

For the past two years, while I've been self-employed, I've had a private insurance policy from Blue Cross/Blue Shield.  It wasn't a great policy, but it was affordable ($300/month for the first year, then raised to $350/month for the second year) and protected me from catastrophic expenses.  

I never got a cancellation letter, but I did notice that I didn't get my monthly payment bill in the mail.  I went on line and didn't see anything suggesting that my account was expiring, but it wouldn't accept my attempts to pay on line.  After a long series of follow-up phone calls and frustrating touch-tone menus, I finally got hold of someone who told me that I had been sent a renewal offer, but since I hadn't responded in time, my policy was cancelled.  I told her that I never saw a renewal offer, but then realized that I was going to get nowhere arguing with someone working the information desk on a Sunday afternoon.

I went through my stack of old mail, and found something from Blue Cross that I had thought was just another one of their frequent promotional mailings, and in fact it did say that if I wanted to continue my coverage into 2014, my rates would be going up by $70 a month, and I had to respond by November 25th. The letter was dated November 15th, and probably didn't arrive here until the 20th.  No reminders, emails, or follow-up warnings.  It's almost like they didn't want me to renew, but didn't want to be the ones to say "We're dropping you."  I can understand - I've used roughly the same strategy to get out of romantic relationships in the past.

So that left me with the one obvious option - I went on line to healthcare.gov and signed up for an Obamacare policy.  Despite what you may have heard in the news, the web site worked fine and it probably took me less than 15 minutes to log in, set up an account, select a policy, and sign up, and I've already heard back from the provider, Humana, so the information successfully got to the back end as well.  With dental insurance included, it will cost me $100/month more than my old policy, or $450/month, but it is a better policy, with lower deductibles and out-of-pockets expenses.  However, it comes at a time when I can least afford another $100/month expense.  Even as much as I'm struggling right now financially, I still don't qualify for any assistance or subsidies, so that should make me feel a little better about myself (hey, I'm not as bad off as all those people who have qualified!).

Here's the real catch, though - coverage doesn't start until February 1, so I'm not covered for the month of January, right in time for cold and flu season.  I'll have to manage to go through an entire month without an injury or major disease, which hasn't been a problem for at least four years now, but you know Murphy's Law.  No car accidents or heart attacks until February 1, please.

In retrospect, this probably wasn't the best month to have signed up for that chain-saw juggling course.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Obama and the Georgia Circuit Court

Although Senate Democrats snatched the GOP's most potent weapon for blocking President Obama's judicial appointments last month when they executed the "nuclear option" and eliminated the 60-vote threshold to advance non-Supreme Court nominees, there's another, more obscure tactic that Republicans can still use to block attempts to fill the dozens of remaining judicial vacancies. 

Dating back to at least 1917, the "blue-slip policy" lets senators have a say on which judges are appointed to courts in their home state. When a judge is nominated, the Judiciary Committee sends a "blue slip" to home state senators seeking their approval. If the senators sign off, the committee moves forward with the nomination. If one or both of them disapproves or withholds the blue slip, the nomination tends to grind to a halt.

The White House contends that the blue-slip policy remains an impediment to appointing judges. Given the Senate's adherence to the tradition, President Obama prefers not to nominate individuals and put them through the tough nomination process unless they're pre-approved by their home state senators. Most of the 42 district and appellate court vacancies without nominees are in states with GOP senators. 

Georgia Republican senators Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss have used the blue-slip tactic to block previous attempts by the president to nominate Democrats to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.  Last week, Obama nominated four new judges and attorneys to serve on the bench. All four nominees have Republican ties, and Sens. Isakson and Chambliss have indicated their approval in a joint statement, saying "this is a well-qualified group of nominees." 

Three of the four nominees are white males. Although the African-American population in Georgia is 31 percent, more than double the national average of 13 percent, and the U.S. District Court bench in Atlanta is allotted 11 judges, it currently has only one African-American sitting as a full-time judge.

“I am surprised and disappointed,” said Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Georgia). “It’s not so much the nominees themselves; it is the lack of diversity that we have on our bench in the Northern District and the 11th Circuit ... For the administration this was what you call kind of a legacy opportunity, and I think that it’s a missed opportunity.”

“The lack of racial diversity in the administration’s appointments is absolutely inexcusable,” according to Stephen Bright, president of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta. “The courts have no credibility or legitimacy if they do not look like the people whose cases they are deciding.”

The one African-American nominee, DeKalb County state court judge Eleanor Louise Ross, was appointed by Republican Gov. Nathan Deal. The nominees also include Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Michael P. Boggs. As a state representative, Boggs voted to keep the confederate emblem in the state flag. His critics say he also cast votes against abortion rights and marriage equality. 

Atlanta attorneys Mark Howard Cohen and Leigh Martin May have also been nominated. Cohen is a litigation partner at the Atlanta law firm Troutman and Sanders, LLP, and served as former Georgia Gov. Zell Miller's chief-of staff.  Cohen has defended Georgia’s Voter ID law, which civil rights groups opposed because of the impact they said it would have on minorities.  May is a personal-injuries attorney and partner at the firm Butler, Wooten and Fryhofer, LLP, and the only one of the current batch of nominees who has garnered Democratic support in the past.

Criticizing the nominations at the the Ebenezer Baptist Church, the church made famous by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dr. Joseph Lowery, himself a civil-rights icon and the man who delivered the benediction during President Obama's first inauguration, said "I think they overlooked how explosive the issue is in Georgia" and, based on a conversation he had with Attorney General Eric Holder, "I think they now regret that they didn't give it closer attention." 

My congressman, Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia), stated, "They want their Republican people. And we want some people that share our views."

"It doesn't reflect Georgia.  Georgia is not a totally Republican state," Rep. David Scott (D-Georgia) said.

It appears that the Obama Administration has caved to the Republican blue-slip blockages and nominated a right-wing slate to the Northern District of Georgia to appease Isakson and Chambliss.  "The reality we face is that the blue slip rule can be more problematic than the filibuster, in part because it is a silent, unaccountable veto," an administration official recently told Talking Points Memo.  The nominations may also lend the administration the appearance of bipartisanship in the post-filibuster age of Federal judicial appointments.

However, "The President of the United States and the White House have made a terrible, tragic mistake," according to Rep. Scott. 

Monday, December 23, 2013

Joshu Tests The Hermits

The Main Case
Zen Master Joshu went to a hermit’s hut and said, “Anything here? Anything here?” The hermit lifted up his fist. Joshu said, “The water is to shallow to anchor here,” and went away. 
He went to another hermits’s hut and said “Anything here? Anything here?” The hermit lifted up his fist. Joshu said, “Freely you give, freely you take away. Freely you bestow life, freely you destroy,” and made a profound bow.

Both stuck up their fist; why is one accepted, and the other rejected?  Just say, where is the source of the confusion between the two? If, in regard to this you can speak a word of understanding, then you realize that Joshu’s tongue has no bone in it. Now he raises up, now he dashes down, in perfect freedom. But though this is so, remember that the two hermits also saw through Joshu.  Further, if you imagine that there was a comparison of superiority and inferiority to be made in regard to the two hermits, you have not an open eye. Neither have you an open eye if you suppose there is no deference of superiority and inferiority between the two hermits.

The Closing Verse
His eye is a shooting star;
The movements of his soul are like lightning.
He is a death dealer,
A life-giving sword.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Illusion of Separation

We are not separate.  Everything is a part of everything else, everything is one whole fabric where each thread is inseparable from every other thread.  Separating things out from each other is merely an illusion of the mind, the way that we look at things.

Have you ever eaten animal crackers?  No matter how the pieces are shaped, it's all cookie dough through and through, but cut into forms that resemble elephants and tigers and cars and people.  But it's all really cookie dough.  The universe is like that cookie dough - it's all of one form and one nature, and the mind is the cookie cutter that separates things out into different forms.

We can call that one form and one nature whatever we like - the cosmos, buddha-nature, the Word, or God.  I like "cookie-dough."  Zen Master Dogen called it "Total Existence," and said "Total Existence is not smashed into hundreds of bits and pieces" - things are not separate from one another - "and Total Existence is not undifferentiated like a slab of iron" - we can distinguish points within the mass, just like we can distinguish individual waves or ripples on the sea.  But just because we can distinguish one from the other doesn't mean that it all isn't still just one. 

That having been said, there is no difference between self and other, or one individual from another.  If one person attains enlightenment, all persons are enlightened ("How marvelous," the Buddha is said to have remarked upon his awakening, "I and all sentient beings have come into enlightenment together").  If one person receives the grace of God, all persons have the grace of God.  In fact, looking deeper, "God" and "man" are just two more forms the cookie-cutter mind carves from of the dough of Total Existence.

So much of human suffering occurs when the illusion of separateness collides with the reality of the unseparated, interconnected nature of the cookie dough of Total Existence.  The practical aspect of all this is that we can drop away so much unnecessary and useless suffering if we just give up the illusion of separateness.  Why worry about this sack of skin dying, when it's not and never has been anything other than part of the whole universe, and always has been and always will be?     

Tuesday, December 17, 2013



There may be beasts of the southern wild, but there are mysteries of the Georgia coast, too. Out on Sapelo and the other barrier islands, there are settlements of Gullah, descendants of slaves, who've developed their own culture and language derived from English and African dialects. Legend has it that at Ebo Landing, a group of slaves that had just arrived in the New World drowned themselves en masse while still shackled together when they realized what was in store for them in America. To this day, blue-shell crabs from the waters at Ebo Landing have strange markings on their back that look oddly like African faces. There are old, abandoned, antebellum plantations, and homes and lighthouses reported to be haunted. There's even an unexploded hydrogen bomb lost somewhere beneath Wassaw Sound following a mid-air jet collision.

Sapelo Island, reachable only by boat, has been described as "a tangle of salt marsh and sand" that holds one small town, Hog Hammock, itself not much more than a collection of small houses and a historic cemetery, with a dusty general store and a part-time restaurant. Still, Hog Hammock is home to the largest community of Gullah between North Carolina and Jacksonville, Florida.  Families on the island have roots going back two centuries and the town is on the National Register of Historic Places. The Sapelo Island Heritage Authority was created in 1983 to protect the Gullah culture, but according to the NY Times, it is still "one of the most fragile cultures in America."  

Over the last few years, stiff increase in county property taxes, reportedly up to 600 percent in some cases, have the Hog Hammock residents wondering if their community will prevail.  Most residents cant pay the new rates.  The increases may be driven by a shifting economy, bureaucratic bumbling, and a relentless market for a waterfront home, but the relationship between Sapelo residents and county officials has long been strained, especially over race and development.  

County officials claim they are not trying to push anyone off of the Island, and have offered nominal 15 percent reductions to the inflated valuations until appeals on the taxes can be heard. But most residents can't pay even the reduced rate being offered. 

I visited Hog Hammock one time, back around 1982 or '83, as part of a beach-nourishment study for the state Geological Survey. Everyone there was exceptionally kind and friendly to us, and shared their humble community with their mainland visitors.  We spent the night at an old RJ Reynolds plantation house, one of those old, abandoned antebellum houses that is now part of an oceanographic institute of the University of Georgia.  It was a strange night; there was no one at the house to greet us or check us in, and we wound up sleeping in two empty beds that we found on an abandoned floor of the building, with no idea whether or not someone was going to show up later and claim the beds and the room as theirs.  No one did, and we made the beds up as neatly as we could before we left the next morning.    

The island has no roads, no water or sewer services, no police, no health services, no schools, or any other visible benefit for the taxes charged.  It is hard to imagine anything that warrants the tax increases, other than the greed of developers who want to force the Gullah off of their ancestral land so that townhomes, hotels, condominiums, and resorts can be built. 

If anything ever does get developed there, it will most likely be out of my price range, but in any event, I would boycott the development if it were built on the premise of taxing the Gullah off of the island.

Monday, December 16, 2013

A monk named Seizei said to Zen Master Sozan, “I am a poor destitute monk. I beg you to bestow upon me the alms of salvation.” 
Sozan aaid, “Venerable Seizei!” 
“Yes, Sir?” replied Seizei. 
Sozan said, “Someone has drunk three bowls of China's finest wine, but asserts that he has not yet moistened his lips.”

The Commentary
Seizei is obsequious, but what is his real state of mind? Sozan, with his Buddha-eye, sees into the recesses of it, and understands the visitor’s meaning. But however this may be, just tell me, where and why does Seizei drink this wine?

The Closing Verse
Poverty like the poorest man in China;
Spirit like the bravest man.
Although they cannot sustain themselves,
They are quarreling over riches.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Maybe there's no such thing as crazy, and being diagnosed with a mental illness just means you're more sensitive to what most people can't see or feel. Maybe no one's really crazy. Everyone is just a little bit mad. How much depends on where you fall in the spectrum.  How much depends on how lucky you are. - Joshua Walters

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


Just in case you were wondering why I live here, although in 32 years (over half of my life), I've never heard anyone refer to Atlanta as "The City of Dreams and Dreamers."  

Score and appearances by Takenobu, one of my favorite local musicians.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

True Romance

We all accept that jealousy is not love (well, most of us do, anyway), but in true love - total complete love - there can be no attachment at all.

For there to be attachment presupposes that there is something separate from you to which you can be attached.  Any separation at all is something less than total intimacy.  In a state of total intimacy, there is no "other" apart from you to which an attachment can form - the "two" have become one.  Anything otherwise would be like saying you're attached to your own nose.

So, this might sound nice and romantic to those in love, but it has a practical aspect. People have told me that they want to let go of their attachments and are working on loosening the grip of their attachments, but I think they're going about it wrong.  As long as they still perceive a person or a thing separate from themselves, there will still be some trace of attachment.  To lose the attachment completely, they should stop thinking of a separation between self and other.

Okay, fine, but how do you do that?  You can't make others disappear - you can't stop perceiving someone as separate from yourself, at least as long as you still perceive a "self."  But if you drop away all trace of ego-self, then there would be nothing left to contrast with "others."  So to completely and intimately love without any jealousy or attachment, one has to stop perceiving the self.

Okay, fine, but how do you do that?  It's simple really - sit somewhere quiet and without forcing it let thought drop away, and when there's no more thinking, poof!, there's no more thinker.  

Try it - it's probably the most romantic thing you can do.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Daitsu Chisho

The Gateless Gate, Case No. 9

A monk asked Seijo of Koyo and said, “Daitsu Chisho Buddha did zazen for ten kaplas in a Meditation Hall, and could neither manifest the truth nor enter the Buddha-Way. Why was this?” 
Seijo said, “Your question is self-explanatory.” 
The monk persisted, “Why did he not attain Buddhahood by doing zazen in the Meditation Hall?” 
Seijo replied, “Because he didn’t.”

Mumon's Commentary
I approve the old barbarian's realization, but I don't approve the old barbarian's understanding. An ordinary man who understands it is a sage, but a sage who understands it is only an ordinary man.

The Closing Verse

Far better than realizing the body to rest is to realize the mind and to be at peace.
If the mind is realized, the body knows no anxiety.
If both mind and body are completely realized,
A holy hermit does not wish to be appointed lord.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

No Fear

The best thing about being dead is you no longer can fear dying.

The best thing about being alive is you no longer need to fear dying.

Friday, December 06, 2013

1967 to 1969 - The Bright Side of the Moon

Oh, look.  I found one picture from 1958 that I forgot to scan in with the previous ones from the '50s. Religious paraphernalia on the alter behind me suggests it may be some church ceremony or another.

Last I left this trip down memory lane, I think we were in 1966.  Before moving on to some of the more tumultuous aspects of the late '60s, though, here are a few more pictures of happy American family life from the years 1967 to '69, starting with sledding down the aptly named Hill Road.   

Atop the hill with sister and brother; the key move was making that hard right halfway down the slope.

Another day, another hill, with my little bro.  Badasses.

We were primarily beach people, though.  There was always water.  Making a sand I-don't know-what with my sisters and upside down brother.

Frisbee.  Li'l bro in background.

Chillin' on Fire Island while sporting my coolest black felt hat with band made from a chain of beer-can pull-tabs (remember those?).  My white portable AM radio (sort of a proto-boombox) was tuned, I'm sure, to 77 WABC.

The fam, relaxing in the backyard after a hard day at the beach.

Every summer, we'd break from the beach for a week in a rented cabin upstate New York.  Here I'm sampling the pond's sunfish and perch population.

The four of us by the pond with the day's catch.

Mock turtleneck and hair down to my eyebrows: the date on the back of this photo confirms it's 1969, making me 15 years old by this time.

Zen Master Dogen says it's incorrect to think that firewood becomes ashes and that ashes were once firewood. Since it's always the present moment, firewood is always firewood right here and right now and ashes are always ashes right here and right now - it's only the mind that constructs narratives that try to link the memories of the past to the concrete reality of the present.  

On the other hand, though, it may be better still to not think of either firewood or ashes as separate "things" but as parts of a continuous process - hard wood that transforms to soft ashes that becomes soil that gives rise to trees that produce firewood.  So on the one hand, the young people in these pictures did not become me and my siblings; but on the other, these young people, and me and my siblings, are not separate entities, either, but all part of an interconnected, continuous one.  And now that you've seen these pictures and we've entered your consciousness, even if ever so briefly, you're a part of that one, too.

Welcome, friend.    

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Health Care

Americans are more likely to engage in certain unhealthy behaviors, from heavy caloric intake to behaviors that increase the risk of fatal injuries, than people in other affluent countries.  In addition, the U.S. has relatively high rates of poverty and income inequality and is lagging behind other countries in the education of its young people.

Despite all this, people in the U.S. still have lower death rates from stroke and cancer, better control of blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and lower rates of smoking than people in most other affluent countries according to a January 2013 report from the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine.

That's the good news.  On average, however, Americans can expect to die sooner and experience higher rates of disease and injury.  Even Americans who have health insurance, college educations, higher incomes, and healthy behaviors appear to be sicker than their peers in other rich nations.

The report compares the United States with 16 peer nations - affluent democracies that include Australia, Canada, Japan, and many western European countries. Among these countries, the U.S. is at or near the bottom in nine key areas of health: infant mortality and low birth weight; injuries and homicides; teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections; prevalence of HIV and AIDS; drug-related deaths; obesity and diabetes; heart disease; chronic lung disease; and disability.

This health disadvantage exists even though the U.S. spends more per capita on health care than any other nation.

"We were struck by the gravity of these findings," said Steven H. Woolf, professor of family medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and chair of the panel that wrote the report. "Americans are dying and suffering at rates that we know are unnecessary because people in other high-income countries are living longer lives and enjoying better health. What concerns our panel is why, for decades, we have been slipping behind."

Many of these health conditions disproportionately affect children and adolescents, the report says. For decades, the U.S. has had the highest infant mortality rate of any high-income country, and it also ranks poorly on premature birth and the proportion of children who live to age 5. U.S. adolescents have higher rates of death from traffic accidents and homicide, the highest rates of teenage pregnancy, and are more likely to acquire sexually transmitted infections. 

"I don't think most parents know that, on average, infants, children, and adolescents in the U.S. die younger and have greater rates of illness and injury than youth in other countries," Woolf said.  "If we fail to act, the disadvantage will continue to worsen and our children will face shorter lives and greater rates of illness than their peers in other rich nations."

The research suggests that the U.S. health disadvantage is not solely due to the disadvantages concentrated among poor or uninsured people, or ethnic and racial minorities. Americans still fare worse than people in other countries even when the analysis is limited to nonsmokers, people who are not obese, or people with relatively high incomes and health insurance.

This suggests that even the overhaul of the American health insurance industry provided by the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) may not make up the difference in life expectancy and mortality unless other factors are also changed.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Keichu's Cart

The Main Case
Kettan said to a monk, “Keichu made a hundred carts. If we took off the wheels and removed the axle, what would then be obvious?”

The Commentary
To clarify this, one’s eye will be like a shooting start, his response like a flash of lightning.

The Closing Verse
Where the wheel of the mind-activity turns
Even a master doesn’t know what to do about it.
It moves in all directions in heaven and earth,
And south and north and east and west.