Sunday, April 28, 2013

This Crisis

"When American companies began moving manufacturing jobs overseas in the 1970s, the idea was to make products more competitively for the American market.  Today, American CEOs impress potential investors with their foreign sales figures and their plans to open new markets abroad.  The companies that wrote us off as workers now write us off as consumers. 
"If you're not a worker, not a consumer, and you don't earn significant income from investments, then you don't have much of a place in capitalist society.  In the course of this recession, millions of us have slipped into that no place.  Most of us will still manage to eat and keep our televisions connected.. But it can't be pleasant to live in a country whose elite have no regular use for us." 
Barbara Garson -  Down the Up Escalator: How the 99% Live In the Great Recession
Atlanta, which before the collapse of 2008 was heavily invested in real estate as its principal commodity, was hit particularly hard by the recession, and lags the rest of the country in the current recovery, even as anemic as that recovery is.  The customers of my consulting business were formerly manufacturers, and when that dried up, real estate developers.  With both of those markets now severely diminished, finding any clients at all has been a real challenge, as has making a living.

Yet somehow, I survive, scrappilly making it from one month and its bills to the next.  It's been like this for almost 18 months now.  I long ago stopped looking to my livelihood for my sense of self-identity, and rather than consider my spiritual life as something to support and augment my career, I now consider my livelihood as something to help sustain my spiritual life.

It's been said that during the chaotic Kamakura period of feudal Japan, the practice of Buddhism flourished as people sought solace and meaning in their lives.  During this interminable recession, materialism might loosen its grip on Americans as we search for greater meaning in our lives than the model of the car we drive or the size of our homes.  This might be the great blessing of this crisis.

Friday, April 26, 2013

"To exercise right mindfulness, the mind must be neither too taut nor too relaxed, like the string of a guitar." - Kalu Rinpoche

Thursday, April 25, 2013

A Well-Directed Mind

The mind is restless, unsteady,
hard to guard, hard to control.
Wise is the one who makes it straight
like a fletcher straightens an arrow.

It is good to rein in the mind,
which is unruly, capricious, rushing wherever it pleases.
A mind so harnessed will bring one happiness.

Your worst enemy cannot harm you
as much as your own unguarded thoughts.
A well-directed mind creates more happiness
Than even the loving actions of a parent.

Shakyamuni Buddha

Tuesday, April 23, 2013


So is eating chicken less cruel than eating cows and pigs?

On the one hand, it seems that birds' brains are much less developed than mammals' brains, and that our feathered friends may not be as conscious of their suffering as our furry friends.  But the more I learn about modern industrial farming practices, the more it seems that the cruelty to poultry is intensified - intensified  almost to the point of what's unbearable to even consider.  Birds may not be as aware of their suffering, but it's sufficiently increased to make up for any short-comings.

I thought that eating fish might be less cruel than eating birds, but then I learned about by-catch and the colossal wastefulness of industrial fishing that's taken the oceans to the very brink of depletion.

Certainly invertebrates aren't as aware of their suffering as vertebrates and one doesn't need to be as heavy-handed for harvesting shellfish as for swimming fish.  But somewhere along the path of mammals to avians to fish to mollusks, I lost my appetite for further research (I lost my appetite).  

To eat is to kill and to perpetuate suffering for self and others.  Not to eat is suicide and perpetuates suffering for self and others.

Welcome to samsara.

Monday, April 22, 2013

On one occasion Dogen said,
In the assembly of Zen master Bussho, there was a monk who, when he was sick, wanted to eat meat. The master allowed him to do so. One night the master himself went to the infirmary and saw the sick monk eating meat in the dim lamplight. A demon was clinging to the monk’s head, eating the meat. Although the monk thought he was putting it into his own mouth, it was not him, but the demon who was eating. After that whenever a monk fell ill, the master allowed him to eat meat because he knew he was possessed by demons. 
Thinking about this story, we must carefully consider whether to allow it or not. There was also an instance of eating meat in the assembly of Goso Hoen. Whether allowing or prohibiting it, all the ancient masters surely had their own deep considerations.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

St. Francis

Modern industrial fishing lines can be as long as 75 miles - the same distance as from sea level to space.  The average shrimp-trawling operation throws 80 to 90 percent of the sea animals it captures overboard, dead or dying, as "by-catch."  Shrimp account for only 2% of global seafood by weight, but shrimp trawling accounts for 33 percent of global by-catch.

For every one pound of shrimp, 26 pounds of other sea animals were killed indiscriminately and tossed back into the sea.  After finishing a quarter-pound shrimp cocktail, diners should be forced to carry 6 pounds of "by-catch" home with them.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


Writing in Runner's World, marathoner Amby Burfoot noted,
This wasn’t just an attack against the Boston Marathon . . It was an attack against the American public and our democratic use of the streets. We have used our public roadways for annual parades, protest marches, presidential inaugurations, marathons, and all manner of other events. The roads belong to us, and their use represents an important part of our free and democratic tradition. 
I trust and believe that will not change in the future--not in Boston, not at the Boston Marathon, and not at other important public events. Yes, we must be ever-vigilant. We can not cover our eyes and ears, and pretend violent acts don’t threaten our great institutions. 
But our institutions did not become great by following a path of timidity and cowardice. And we can only hope that, when pummeled, as the Boston Marathon was today, they will rise again, stronger than ever.
Burfoot won the Boston Marathon in 1968 and was less than a half-mile from the finish line when yesterday's  tragic event occurred.

Monday, April 15, 2013


“Beginning today, treat everyone you meet as if they were going to be dead by midnight. Extend to them all the care, kindness, and understanding you can muster, and do it with no thought of any reward. Your life will never be the same again.”  - Og Mandino

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Free The North Pond Hermit!

Christopher Knight reportedly went into the wilderness of central Maine in 1986. There, he built a hut on a slope in the woods and spent his days reading books and meditating. He stayed in the wilderness for 27 years, and during those nearly three decades, he spoke just once to another person – a passer-by on a hiking trail in the mid-1990s, with whom he merely exchanged the briefest of greetings. 

He was arrested last week during a burglary. He told police that he stole all the food he ate, including meat and other perishables. Over the years, he committed more than 1,000 burglaries, taking only what he needed to survive, mostly from campgrounds, stores, and recreational facilities. He became so familiar for his thievery and elusiveness that he spawned the local legend of the North Pond Hermit, who for years confounded both locals and police investigating the break-ins.

During his arrest, the 47-year-old Knight was relatively clean-shaven and his hair was cut to normal length. He was wearing a clean pair of jeans and a clean shirt. "You could walk into a store and walk by him and never know," the arresting officer said. He shaved without a mirror, catching glimpses of his reflection in pools of water. "He hasn't seen himself in the mirror for well over 20 years," police said. "It's a very unusual situation."

He now awaits his future at the Kennebec County Jail, where he is being held in lieu of $5,000 cash bail on charges of burglary and theft. Knight expressed shame and remorse over the burglaries, police said. He referred to a pair of boots he was wearing not just as boots, but "stolen boots."  "He owned up to it and understood it was wrong," police said. "He immediately identifies things as being stolen. He connected the dots of his actions being wrong. I was very surprised by that."

Police are still investigating how Knight managed his decades-long withdrawal from society, but they have not learned and may never know why. According to police reports, Knight is highly intelligent and has always been interested in hermits and particularly loved the book "Robinson Crusoe," the story of a man stranded on an island for decades. Beyond that, though, he has offered no deeper explanation for heading into the woods. 

He said he left society after the April 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Russia, but remembers that event to mark the date of departure rather than to provide its motive.

There must have been times during the winter, when it was well below zero and the wind was howling that Knight dreamed about giving it all up and checking into a motel or a shelter. Knight claims he usually put on weight in the fall so he could eat less in the winter and make fewer treks for food, thus leaving fewer prints in the snow.

No reports have emerged yet about his meditation practice - what it consisted of, how it related to the rest of his life, or how he ethically reconciled his burglaries. But before we pass judgement on him, consider how many people within society steal in order to survive, and I'm not just talking about criminals - Wall Street raiders, unethical attorneys, and other white-collar professionals not only survive, but thrive, from taking what is not being offered freely. Knight had made a life-style decision that resulted in him having to steal rather than starve. In that same situation, are you so sure that you would have acted differently?

Saturday, April 13, 2013


On this day, a week or so past the 2,500-something birthday of Shakyamuni Buddha, the Third Annual Buddhapalooza festival was held in Chattanooga.  Inexplicably, it was a total freaking success, and included meditation, Zen and Tibetan dharma talks, readings of Norman Fisher's A Model of the World and Walt Whitman's Carol of Words, and musical performances by Michael Goldman and Blue Lotus. 

We are indebted for the beautiful banner for the event made by the inmates of Georgia's Walker State Prison.

Here are my crappy cell-phone pictures of the event. 



Friday, April 12, 2013


Animal agriculture makes a 40% greater contribution to global warming than all transportation in the world combined.

It is the number one cause of climate change.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Zen Master Dogen also said,
You should maintain the precepts and eating regulations (one meal a day before noon, etc.). Still, it is wrong to insist upon them as essential, establish them as a practice, and expect to be able to gain the Way by observing them. We follow them just because they are the activities of Zen monks and the lifestyle of the Buddha’s children. Although keeping them is good, we should not take them as the primary practice. I don’t mean to say, however, that you should break the precepts and become self-indulgent. Clinging to such an attitude is an evil view and not that of a Buddhist practitioner. We follow the precepts or regulations simply because they form the standard for a Buddhist and are the tradition of Zen monasteries. While I was staying at Chinese monasteries, I met no one who took them as the primary concern. 
For true attainment of the Way, devoting all effort to zazen alone has been transmitted among the buddhas and patriarchs. For this reason, I taught a fellow student of mine, Gogenbo, a disciple of Zen Master Eisai, to abandon his strict adherence of keeping the precepts and reciting the Precept Sutra day and night.
Ejo asked, 
“When we practice and learn the Way in a Zen monastery we should keep the pure regulations made by Zen Master Hyakujo, shouldn’t we? In the beginning of the Regulations (Hyakujo-Shingi), it says that receiving and maintaining the precepts is prerequisite. In this tradition, the Fundamental Precept has also been handed down. In the oral and face-to-face transmission of this lineage, the students are given the precepts transmitted from India. These are the Bodhisattva Precepts. Also, it says in the Precept Sutra, that people must recite the Sutra day and night. Why do you have us discontinue this practice?”
Dogen replied, 
“You are right. Practitioners of the Way certainly ought to maintain Hyakujo’s regulations. The form of maintaining the regulations is receiving and observing the precepts and practicing zazen, etc. The meaning of reciting the Precept Sutra day and night and observing the precepts single-mindedly is nothing other than practicing shikantaza, following the activities of the ancient masters. When we sit zazen, what precept is not observed, what merit is not actualized? The ways of practice carried on by the ancient masters have a profound meaning. Without holding on to personal preferences, we should go along with the assembly and practice in accordance with those ways.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Spring, Rites of

Spring has finally made its belated appearance in the American South, bringing the world's shortest blossoming azaleas into bloom in my back yard and contributing to the recent lack of post in this blog.

It's been a funny winter - mild most of the season, and then suddenly finding its legs in the month of March, bringing some of the chilliest and most blustery weather of the winter just as I was committed to outdoor field work in Birmingham, southwest Atlanta, and Conley, Georgia.  But it's now April and things are finally warming up to the point where the blossoms that came out last year in March are finally making their belated  appearance.

Meanwhile, as you've probably heard, Atlanta is hosting the NCAA's Final Four championship this year, bringing its hordes of visitors and gridlocked traffic with it.  Given the weather, it seems fitting to observe March Madness in April.

Anyhow, with the tournament comes all of the sideshows and distractions that go with it, including a mini-festival in Centennial Park (built for the Olympics but made famous by right-wing domestic terrorist Eric Rudolph's bombing).

I missed My Morning Jacket (band) Friday night and didn't go on Saturday, but on this sunny Sunday afternoon I did brave the crowds and took MARTA downtown to see Portland's Blind Pilot perform.  

The music postings, banished to this blog's sister site Water Dissolves Music, aren't returning and this is merely a post about the pleasant weather and vernal rituals, so don't anticipate a return of the music postings here any time soon - I bring up the festivities only to point out that it is now spring and finally time to do such things.

It was actually quite a full day today.  First, I got to sleep in late (always an appreciated privilege here at the Shokai residence), and later that morning, after daily zazen, work on the aforementioned music blog for a while.  I finished with just enough time to drive to my nearest MARTA station and take the train downtown to Centennial Park for the concert, and then ride back home with just enough time to shower and have dinner with some neighbors.  That wrapped up in time to walk back home and watch Game of Thrones, and then, later, the season finale of Shameless.

And spring's just beginning . . . 

Thursday, April 04, 2013


"To set what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind." - Seng-T'san, Hsin Hsin Ming

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Don't Know If Any Title's Really Sufficient

One of the interesting things about studying Zen is that if you practice long enough, sooner or later you come across Japanese fart pictures.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013


Although Shakyamuni Buddha (563-483 B.C.) clearly holds a very special place within the Buddhist tradition, in Zen, he is not an object of worship, as is the case with the central figure in most other religions. During his lifetime, the Buddha was adamant that the purpose of his teaching was the cessation of suffering and that he was but a teacher of the dharma, not the source of the wisdom itself.  Shakyamuni Buddha can be looked upon as a great teacher, as an embodiment of the enlightened mind, or as an example of great wisdom and compassion, but not as a divine being descended into the realm of humans. It was perhaps due to his understanding of our human tendency to deify people and things that he was so clear about his own humanity. However, after he died, the Buddha’s relics were divided into eight portions and enshrined in stupas erected by his lay students in various districts of India, and despite his admonitions, the Buddha’s relics have been an object of worship for some ever since. 

Such was the practice of the monk in Dogen’s story. The master, who is not identified, saw the futility of his practice, and said it was due to a tenma-hajin. Tenma refers to demons that cause hindrances to those who follow the Buddhist Way; this particular demon’s name was Hajun (Papiyas in Sanskrit). Upon examination at the insistence of his master (“Open the box and look inside!”), the monk was able to see the potential danger of his practice. 

Today, we scarcely need to discourage practioners from the worship of images and relics. If anything, based on the resistance to chanting, prostrations, and other forms of devotional practice often seen among Western newcomers and adepts alike, we probably need to encourage a little more reverence toward the Three Treasures. Our modern-day resistance is likely rooted in egocentric attachments that are probably best abandoned.  While it may not be the path to enlightenment, Dogen acknowledges the merit of the practice.  Dogen, it seems, sought a middle way between abandonment of the practice and dependence upon the practice.

Monday, April 01, 2013

One day Dogen said,
In the Continued Biographies of Eminent Monks, there’s a story about a monk in the assembly of a certain Zen master. The monk worshiped a golden image of the Buddha as well as the relics of the Buddha. Even in the dormitory, he constantly burned incense and prostrated himself before them, honoring and making offerings. 
One day, the master said to the monk, “The image and relics of the Buddha which you worship will eventually be harmful to you.” 
The monk was not convinced. 
The master continued, “This is the doing of the demon Papiyas. Throw them away right now.” 
As the monk was leaving in anger, the master shouted after him, “Open the box and look inside!” 
Although angry, the monk opened up the box; he found a poisonous snake lying coiled up inside.
As I think about this story, the images and relics of the Buddha should be revered since they are the form and bones left by the Tathagata; nevertheless, it is a false view to think that you will be able to gain enlightenment only through worshipping them. Such a view will cause you to become possessed by the demon and the poisonous snake. 
Since the merit of the Buddha’s teaching does not change, reverence of images and relics will certainly bring blessings to human and heavenly beings equal to paying reverence to the living Buddha. In general, it is true that if you revere and make offerings to the world of the Three Treasures, your faults will disappear and you will gain merit; the karma that leads you to the evil realms will be removed, and you will be reborn in the realms of human and heavenly beings. However, it is a mistaken view to expect to gain enlightenment of the dharma in this way.
Since being the Buddha’s child is following the Buddha’s teachings and reaching buddhahood directly, we must devote ourselves to following the teaching and put all our efforts into the practice of the Way. The true practice which is in accordance with the teaching is nothing but shikantaza, which is the essence of the life in this monastery today. Think this over deeply.