Friday, February 28, 2014


Earlier this month, Billy Corgan (Smashing Pumpkins) announced that he’d be giving an eight-hour solo concert, a sort of musical interpretation of Herman Hesse’s novel Siddhartha, the story of the Buddha.  

Apparently, he wasn't bluffing.  The show happened today at Madame Zuzu’s, the Chicago tea house that Corgan owns. The show is all ambient and instrumental, mostly involving Corgan fiddling with a gigantic bank of electronics, along with narration from the novel.

"This patch is just a stone. It is worthless." - Herman Hesse

Enlightenment is guaranteed for anyone who could make it through all eight hours of this in one sitting.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

That What We Could Be Separated From Is Not the Way

In Case 18 of The Gateless Gate, a collection of koans, a monk asks Tozan, "What is Buddha?"  Case 19 of The Gateless Gate starts with Zen Master Joshu earnestly asking Zen Master Nansen, "What is the Way?"  

These are hard questions.  These are the most difficult questions a man can ask.  These questions are the equivalent of What is God?  What is Life?  What is Truth?  What is the Universe?  What is Existence? What is it that is Thus?

When I consider the Universe from a rationalistic, scientific point of view and try to imagine the Big Bang or what things were like milliseconds before the bang, the thing that amazes me the most is that there is Existence at all.  Why is there something instead of nothing?  It seems more likely that there shouldn't be this expanding mass in the limitless expanse of infinity than that there is.  And why is this something the way that it is and not some other way?

Theists consider these questions the doubts and concerns of the non-believer, but putting a god into the equation doesn't change the question as all.  Why is there a god instead of no god? And why was that god created the way that he was, and not some other way?  Same thing.

Buddhist teachings say that all things are Buddha, so the question "What is Buddha?" is really asking what is all of existence.  In Buddhist terms, earnestly asking what is the Way is asking what is dharma, and since dharma can be interpreted as that which is real, it's sort of another way of asking the same question.

Tozan answered the monk by holding up the three pounds of sesame seed (flax in some translations) he was weighing out at the time in preparation of the monastery's meal, as if to say Buddha, and by extension all of those other big things mentioned above, is the activity of this very moment, right here, right now.  Nansen answered Joshu saying ordinary mind is the Way, our very selves at this very moment, right here, right now. 

Same questions, same answers.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Ordinary Mind

Last week, it was said here that enlightenment is not something gained or acquired as a result of practice, and as long as we seek some sort of reward or outcome, we are not practicing the Buddha Way.

Last week, it was said here that the Way is merely the path we should walk in our daily activities (michi), while walking thusly in that way (dao) is nothing other than a manifestation of the Buddha's enlightenment.

These two, the everyday way of things and the Way of the absolute, are intimately intertwined.  Many centuries ago, Confucius said that what we could be separated from is not the Way.   

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Another Day In Paradise

Coffee and lunch at Whole Foods with a friend this afternoon, catch up on a report the rest of the day.  The buddha-nature is all around us.  I fall asleep nights with a smile on my face.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

This Week

Sorry for the occasionally cryptic picture posts all this week, but I've been way too busy to post much of anything else.  This week's been quite hectic at the new job, and to make matters more interesting, as readers of the music blog already know, I've been pretty busy after work as well.  

All music, without exception, is a direct expression of the buddha-dharma, but for reasons of simplicity, I decided a couple of years ago to bifurcate this blog and post about music at Music Dissolves Water and keep the other stuff at Water Dissolves Water.  But after nearly 2 1/2 years, I'm going to break my self-imposed rule and include some music here as it's relevant to the week.

For example, on Monday, after a full day of work at the office and after the two-hour Monday Night Meditation session, I snuck out to see the band Cibo Matto perform at The Earl.

Tuesday night, after another full day at work, I was off to hear the magical and ethereal Julianna Barwick perform at The Goat Farm.  That was pretty Zen.

The next day, Wednesday, one of my new colleagues and I performed an ecological assessment of a severely-challenged stream segment in southwest Atlanta.

There was no concert that night, but the next day, Thursday, I was in the town of Stone Mountain, Georgia, performing deep soil and water sampling behind a dry-cleaning shop.  For those of you concerned about OSHA safety issues, we had the power company come out and turn off the electricity in those overhead lines prior to drilling (tag out/lock out - everyone gets off my job sites alive). 

That night, I was at Terminal West for a set by The Blank Tapes and an incredible, two-and-a-quarter-hour high-energy marathon by Southern California's Jonathan Wilson.

On Friday, I drove out to Athens, Georgia, to inspect a construction site.

You gotta love Athens.

That evening (last night), the band Hospitality headlined a late-night set at East Atlanta's 529.

Which finally brings us up to today.  During this afternoon's set by England's Robyn Hitchcock at Eddie's Attic in Decatur, a friend asked me how I managed to fit my meditation practice into such a hectic week.

I did not deceive her and I will not deceive you - it's been a struggle to find the time to sit and be still amidst this whirlwind of activity.  But this whirlwind will pass (everything's impermanent), and I'm sure that by next week, if not this weekend (if not right now), I'll find the time to resume regular sitting again.

What I didn't find last week was the time to post more detail about said whirlwind here in Water Dissolves.

Sunday, February 16, 2014


In the Tenzo Kyokun (Instructions for the Cook), Zen Master Dogen asks rhetorically, "Is there anything of greater value than realization of what the Way is?  Is there any time more precious than the time of realization of the Way?"

Commenting on this passage, translator Daitsu Thomas Wright reminds us that these words must be understood in the context of mushotoku, that is, that there is nothing to be gained.  Enlightenment is not the sort of thing that becomes some sort of a plus in our life, such as a new car, or some wider knowledge, or relief from physical or mental distress. Enlightenment, Daitsu reminds us, should be understood to be completely tied to practice.

In this regard, Dogen says in the Shobogenzo Zuimonki that, "Once you have entered the Buddha-Way, you should practice the various activities just for the sake of the buddha-dharma.  Do not think of gaining anything in return.  All teachings, Buddhist or non-Buddhist, exhort us to be free from the expectation of gaining a reward (Book 1, Chapter 9)."

Interestingly, the word "Way" (Do in Japanese, Dao in Chinese) in the term "Buddha-Way" is a translation of the Sanskrit words marga or bodhi.  Marga is the path along which we should walk (practice) to become a Buddha, and bodhi is awareness or enlightenment.  So "Buddha-Way" has two meanings combined - the way leading to enlightenment and the Buddha's enlightenment itself.  Contemporary Zen teacher Shohaku Okumura points out that the Buddha Way is therefore the path we should walk in our daily activities in the direction of the Buddha, while each one of those activities is nothing other than a manifestation of the Buddha's enlightenment.  

This is the meaning of Dogen's expression "practice and enlightenment are one."  Enlightenment is not something gained or acquired as a result of practice, and as long as we seek some sort of reward or outcome, we are not practicing the Buddha Way.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Motor Meditation

One of the benefits of now having a full-time, salaried job is that during last week's Snowpocalypse, unlike the similar event of last month, I was still getting paid even as I was trapped here in the house.  A snow day is no longer a no-pay day.

It was also a nice break to help me transition back to the 40-hour work week after over two years of self-employment working at my own schedule and pace.  Since starting the job two weeks ago, I put in one full work week, including one day of outdoor field work, before the second week was mercifully interrupted by a three-day weather emergency.  The break was appreciated, and helped me be less overwhelmed by the transition.

The worst part of the transition, though, is not getting up earlier or working a full day in an office environment, it's the commuting.  The office is in a pretty traffic-congested suburb of Atlanta, and the irony is that every morning I leave the relatively free-flowing streets of the City of Atlanta only to get snarled in traffic out in the suburbs.  Same thing on the commute back home - it takes me almost as much time to travel the first two miles home than it takes me to cover the next 18 miles.  I've tried different routes to get to the office, but I still can't find a way where I don't end up stuck at a traffic light that changes three or more times before I can finally make it through.

Strangely, though, the traffic is a good opportunity for practice.  Right now as I write this, I'm not stuck in traffic, and even though it may feel like it at the time, I know I won't be stuck there forever.  Everything changes, everything is impermanent, so why get upset because I'm at a traffic light for longer that I wanted to be when I know that I'll get past it eventually?  

Of course, my mind immediately starts thinking that I'm going to be in this same traffic tomorrow, and next week, and next month, and so on for all the rest of my days employed by this firm, and the anticipation of that can be overwhelming.  It's worse than the actual traffic at that moment, but do you see what's happening there?  The mental model that I've created of an infinite number of traffic delays causes me more suffering and anxiety than the one, finite traffic jam that I'm in at the moment, so it's my own mind that causing me the most suffering, not the real, here-and-now traffic, or the stop light, or the number of times the light changes before I can finally make it through.   

Also, why worry about what I can't control?  If I can do something about the traffic problem, like take a different route, I will do that, so why worry?  And if there's nothing that I can do about it, then why add worry or anger or road rage to the inconvenience of having to sit in the comfortable, adjustable seat of my climate-controlled car listening to my favorite music for longer than I had expected?

So in practical terms, what this means is that when I find myself frustrated by the traffic, I try to remember to ask myself if it's the actual traffic or imagined traffic jams in the future that are upsetting me.  If it's truly the situation at hand, then I ask if there's anything I can do about it.   If not, I ask myself if my attitude is making the situation better or worse. If it's making it worse, I ask myself if I can change it.  And if I find that I can't change my attitude, even though I know that the situation is impermanent, even though I know that my attitude is just making the situation worse, and even though I know my attitude is no one's choice but my own, then I see if I can't learn to accept that.  And if I can't even do that, then I will have a lousy morning, and know that it's no one's fault but my own.    

This isn't a post about traffic.  These situations, where our thinking and imagination causes us more suffering than the reality of the moment, occurs far more often than only in traffic.  It occurs in our relationships with friends, bosses, co-workers, lovers, children, and family.  It occurs as we contemplate the trajectories of our lives and our finances.  It occurs, dear reader, to you as well as to me.  

Friday, February 14, 2014

"The story of your life is not your life, it is your story." - John Barth

The first time I've heard anyone other than myself use the term "schema" in a Buddhist context was in a recent dharma talk by John Dunne and Al Kaszniak posted on the Upaya Zen Center web site.

According to Dunne and Kaszniak, we conceive of ourselves as agents in a world full of objects, some of which we want, some of which we want to get away from, and some of which we ignore. This subjective agent, this “I,” or “autobiographical self,” is conceived of as a character in a story.

This story needs rules in order to be coherent. Often the rules that govern our stories about ourselves are not even apparent, yet they structure our lives at many levels.  These rules are the "mental maps" of Erich Fromm, the "schema" of the psychologists.

Transformation in contemplative practice is about deliberately transforming ourselves into a different story, ultimately seeing the contingency of any story we tell about ourselves. Through meditation practices, we temporarily suspend any intention, any expectations, hopes, or fears in order to take all stories off line, and give ourselves the freedom to experience life devoid of story. From this freedom, transformation is possible. 

The human nervous system is highly interconnected, made up of networks of cells that generate firing patterns termed “attractor basins.” These firing patterns are thought to contribute to our habitual actions, ways of thinking, and even conceiving of our selves. Although our genes certainly contribute to the structure of these patterns, so do our experiences. 

From a neuroscience and complex systems perspective, when we engage in certain meditation practices, we allow our neural patterns, these “attractor basins,” to come into widespread synchrony across the brain, perhaps signifying a “release” from patterned firing, and from habitual action. When this release occurs, the opportunity may arise for something else to occur, for the nervous system to reconfigure, to transform. So from both the contemplative practice and from the scientific perspective, transformation involves a temporary suspension or freedom, and then a reconfiguration.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Scenes From the Snowpocalypse

As forecast, the sleet and freezing rain turned to snow overnight, and Atlanta awoke this morning to a dusting of fine snow over everything.

The highways were still empty in the morning, the city apparently having made a collective decision to take a second (or in many cases, a third) snow day off. 

At least Waffle House was open for business (of course it was open, what else would you expect?).

A walk through the neighborhood:

Temperatures quickly rose above freezing as the day progressed, and house-weary residents braved the snow to finally get out and mingle. 

“This is a storm of historical proportions with potentially catastrophic … crippling impacts,” the National Weather Service’s Atlanta office had warned. “Catastrophic… crippling… paralyzing… choose your adjective.” They even grimly added that “If residents have not completed their preparations, it may be too late.”

In all, we got more than four inches of snow on top of one inch of ice,  The snow and ice accumulated on trees and power lines, adding weight and stressing the infrastructure.  “Add on gusty winds of 20-30 mph, as are also forecasted, and you have a recipe for disaster, with 100-year-old oaks and hickories snapping like matchsticks,” Meteorologist Eric Holthaus wrote. “As a result, Wednesday’s storm could have lingering impacts across the region for years, if not decades.”

But it wasn't the disaster predicted, at least not here in Atlanta.  I understand that eastern regions of Georgia got hit harder, and all the reports from the rural regions are not yet in.  But other than the freakishness of this storm following two weeks after an equally unusual snowfall here in Georgia, this wasn't a storm that will have impacts for years, much less decades.  Even my little tool shed held up to the storm.

Still, while in the grip of this cold snap, it's hard to remember that in Alaska, extremely unseasonable warm weather has destabilized the snowpack, causing a series of avalanches that have buried roads 40 feet deep and hundreds of feet long last month. Greenland has been about 5°C warmer than normal in January. The snow season has shrunk in the northern hemisphere by about three weeks, leaving the people who plan Winter Olympics grappling with how to adapt.  In the southern hemisphere, Sao Paolo, Brazil is running out of water as it suffered through its hottest month on record, and an extreme heat wave has not just caused the Australian Open to suspend outdoor play, but has also led to a spike in heat-related deaths in Victoria.

Back here in Atlanta, the roads were mostly clear by the afternoon and most of the snow had melted away, water dissolving water all over the city.  I managed to uncover my car from beneath a layer of snow and ice, and eventually even got it back up to the top of my driveway.  No excuses not to go back to work tomorrow.  It was fun while it lasted, and amazingly, no falling branches managed to cut off the power to my tree-shrouded house. 

It was fun, but I'm ready for winter to be over and spring to arrive.    

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

How's the Weather?

Okay, enough is enough.  First we had the Polar Vortex, which brought single-digit temperatures down to the Deep South along with sub-zero wind-chill factors.  Then we had the two inches of snow that paralyzed the City of Atlanta (Birmingham, too) for days on end and made national headlines. Now, we're having a catastrophic ice-storm of "historical proportions."  All last night, the local weathermen and newscasters were all trying to one-up each other in the sheer direness of their forecasts, stopping just short of "We're all going to die." 

But things are tough all over.  Australia's suffered through one of its worst heat waves in memory, unprecedented flooding is occurring in southwest England, unseasonal thawing is causing landslides in Alaska, and California's experiencing a record-setting drought.  I can go on, but I think you're starting to see the trend here. 

Is it just me, or is anyone else finding the weather lately to be just a little . . . weird?'

By 7:00 am this morning, there was already a sheet of ice on the roads, my walkway and drive, and on the trees and power lines.  I moved my car to the bottom of the hill last night in anticipation of not being able to get down the driveway until it finally thaws out.  All I can do now is hope the electricity stays on, and accept the conditions if it does or if it doesn't.

Update (10:00 am):  Took a walk through the neighborhood.  There were no cars on Northside Drive, and not many more on Interstate 75.  I'm posting this now while the power's still on.

Okay, those last two were from Creative Loafing, Atlanta's weekly newspaper.  The Loaf also ran this picture of the depleted milk supply at a local supermarket  

Update II:  In the afternoon, the freezing rain let up for a while, allowing a walk along the Beltline trail through Tanyard Creek Park as the ice turned to slush.  

The snow-covered neighborhood.

A selfie in a deserted Bobby Jones Golf Course.

The sounds outside are as unusual as the sight of snow in Georgia - not only is the city unusually quiet, but the sound of leaves as I brush against them "clink" from the ice rather than rustle as usual.  Plus the odd sound of the falling sleet - I never realized before that the word "sleet" is onomatopoetic.  

As of now (6:30 pm), the power has surprisingly stayed on at the house, and although some of the branches and leafy vegetation are weighed down with frozen rain, the trees appear to be holding up, and the precip has changed over from frozen rain to a combination of sleet and snow.  The worst of the ice accumulations and power outages appears to be east of Atlanta, and the electricity may stay on here after all, at least as long as a driver doesn't skid into a power pole.