Monday, November 30, 2015

The pro-choice counter-protesters, riding in cars with their handmade signs, clearly looked like they were having more fun than the pro-life protesters, grimly lined up along the street with identical, factory-printed signs.  There's an analogy on life in there somewhere, I'm sure. 

Sunday, November 29, 2015

I'm sometimes asked, "What is the Buddhist position on abortion?"  I'm also occasionally asked about the Buddhist position on suicide, homosexuality, and other cultural war issues.

They're trick questions.  There is no "Buddhist" position on anything, as there is no central Buddhist authority and no single Buddhist text or doctrine from which all positions and attitudes are derived. Any Buddhist telling you the "Buddhist position" on anything is just telling you his or her personal opinion.

But a couple comments on the abortion issue.  In almost all schools of Buddhism, there is a precept against killing, and different schools address the precept differently.  All would agree that murder is a crime, but some schools practice strict pacifism while others might acknowledge the theoretical possibility of "just war" (e.g., defending the innocent, stopping tyrants from killing others, etc.).  If a Buddhist were to consider abortion to be "killing," then they might be against the practice as a violation of the precept.  After that, there's the matter of refraining as a matter of personal choice versus forbidding anyone else from the practice.

On the other hand, many anti-abortion zealots feel that at the moment of conception, a new life is created and that the new life instantly has a self independent of the parents.  In most schools of Buddhism, there is no "self" and there is no "soul" independent of others.  A zygote consisting of nothing more that a cluster of cells may be living, but is no more a "self" than any of the other living organs or tissues of the parent, and it is not a potential or future "self" as there is no separate existence apart from all the rest of the universe.  In this view, removing a zygote or a developing fetus from a uterus is no more "killing" than removing an appendix from a large intestine.

Each individual Buddhist determines where their own feelings regarding this matter lie on the spectrum between these two endpoints, and what responsibility, if any, they have to impose their feelings on others.  Many Buddhists are strict vegetarians or vegans, but very, very few insist that all consumption of meat stop immediately.  Also, some Buddhists recognize that even if they were personally opposed to it, if abortion were made illegal, the practice would still continue but under less safe circumstances and more women would die from the procedure, and that the more compassionate act, the more humane approach, might be to keep it legal as a relatively safe medical practice. 

No, there is no official Buddhist position on abortion, and the "pro-life" versus "choice" controversy seems to be unique to the Christian faith.        

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Colorado Springs

Protesters in Atlanta, 1991
Police haven't released a motive for the shooting in Colorado yet or said whether the Planned Parenthood clinic was the intended target, but the shooter was a 57-year-old white male from North Carolina, the home state of Eric Rudolph, the Olympic and abortion clinic bomber, and it's widely believed that Rudolph was aided and abetted by the people of North Carolina during his years on the lam.  The shooter was acting in Colorado Springs, one of the most politically conservative cities in Colorado and home to the US Air Force Academy and a bastion of fundamentalist Christianity. Colorado Springs has been called the Evangelical Vatican and the Christian Mecca.  Even if the gunman's target was not Planned Parenthood, an attack on that clinic in that particular town still sends a symbolic message of "war" against women's rights and reproductive freedom along well-defined political and religious lines.

But the State of Colorado also stands as a success story for government-funded contraceptive aid. Over the past six years, Colorado’s highly successful family planning program has offered teenagers and low-income women free long-lasting birth control that prevents pregnancy over several years. From 2009 to 2013, pregnancy and abortion rates plunged by about 40 percent among teenagers across the state.  As Robert Reich points out, in 2009 half of all first births to women in the poorest areas of the state occurred before they turned 21. But by 2014, half of first births did not occur until the women had turned 24, a difference that gives young women time to finish their education and obtain better jobs.

Colorado's experience shows that public investments in family planning make economic sense, because reproductive rights are also productive rights. "When women have control over their lives," Reich points out, "they can contribute even more to the economy, better break the glass ceiling, equalize the pay gap, and much more."

So it should not be surprising that far-right force and religious zealots, long opposed to women's rights and family planning, would like for us not to learn from the Colorado experience. Instead, the opponents released deliberately misleading videos, some of which were filmed in Colorado, implying that Planned Parenthood illegally sells fetal tissue from abortions, and even after the videos were discredited as fraudulent, they were still discussed as fact in Congressional hearings and Presidential debates. And in yesterday's development, a Colorado clinic was attacked and at least three people killed.

As a nation, we cannot let this escalate into a full-on war against freedom of choice with attacks and counter-attacks.  The hypocrisy of those who kill for the "pro-life" cause is a testament to their extremism and will be the ultimate undoing of their movement as it slides toward hatred, violence, and isolation. 

Friday, November 27, 2015

Protesters in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1993
Eleven people, including at least four policemen, were injured by a gunman inside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs today.

A suspect has been taken into custody, and while we do not yet know his motivations, the incident is still a stark reminder of the very real threat we face from home-grown, domestic terrorists.  With so much attention focused on the statistically remote risk from refugees of overseas violence and terror, we forget about the very real danger in our own homes.

Politicians and the media are quick to exploit our fear of "others," even when there's no known threat, and while the United States is the only developed country to suffer from gun violence of epidemic proportions, we seem at a loss on how to deal with the very real threat we present to ourselves.

UPDATE:  It's now been reported that one police officer and two civilians have been killed in the attack.  We grieve with the survivors and the families and loved ones of the victims.

Four Planned Parenthood clinics have been the targets of attacks in the past four months, including a fire at a Washington state clinic and another in California that was fire bombed.  Those of us who were here in Atlanta in the 1990s recall Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph's previous bombings of clinics.

A shooting rampage occurred in this same Colorado town less than a month ago and left three people dead.

The "motives," if any, of the shooter are not yet known, despite the similarities to attacks on other Planned Parenthood clinics.  A statement by Planned Parenthood reads, in part, "We don't yet know the full circumstances and motives behind this criminal action, and we don't yet know if Planned Parenthood was in fact the target of the attack.  We share the concerns of many Americans that extremists are creating a poisonous environment that feeds domestic terrorism in this country." 

Thursday, November 26, 2015

My Thanksgiving Tradition

We observe very few traditions here at WDW, but one of those few are the annual posting of American treasure William S. Burroughs' A Thanksgiving Prayer.  

Shanti . . . .

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Windows Are The Windows of the Walls

Listening well is an act of generosity.  George Bernard Shaw once said, “One way to be popular is to listen attentively to a lot of things you already know.” 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, footage aired on American television of a group of Palestinians in Jerusalem celebrating in the street.  Fox News reported that in Lebanon's largest Palestinian refugee camp, revelers fired weapons in the air, with similar celebratory gunfire heard at other camps as well. 

However, the jubilation of the Palestinians was apparently not due to pleasure over the attack. Footage not included in the film reportedly showed that the streets surrounding the celebration were quiet. People were reportedly gathered together specifically for the shot and children were incited to celebrate.  A woman seen cheering stated afterwards that she was offered cake if she celebrated on camera, and was frightened when she later saw the pictures on television.

It shows us how prone we are to reacting to direct threats from specific persons that an image of people celebrating our tragedy resonates so strongly in our mind.  The attacks were bad enough, but it's the thought that others were celebrating the attacks that enrages some people.

Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump has been claiming that he personally saw a crowd of Muslims celebrating in Jersey City following the attacks, raising the question of what Trump was doing in a Muslim section of Jersey City on 9/11.  But I wonder if what he saw was actually the discredited footage, and if his mind may have conflated it with memory of something he actually witnessed first hand.  

If he can't tell fourteen-year-old memories of Fox News footage from actual experience, how fit is he to be President of the United States, Commander in Chief, and leader of the Free World?    

Monday, November 23, 2015

Where Is Our Compassion?

I've been trying for some time now to avoid blogging about politics and current events, but I find it hard to remain silent over one particular recent development.

Imagine for a moment if during the November 13 massacre at the Bataclan in Paris the police decided not to storm the theater while the terrorists were inside systematically killing the concert-goers, but instead waited outside for the shooting to cease. "How will we be able to tell the terrorists from the audience?" they wonder.  "What if a terrorist were to drop his gun and act like a victim, and we were to accidentally lead him to safety and freedom along with the victims? We don't know these people - how can we choose who to rescue and who to fight?"  The surest and safest bet, they decide, is to not rescue anybody at all but instead wait until the shooting inside stops before going in and trying to sort things out, so instead of storming the doors they bundle off to a cafe for, oh, I don't know, a glass of cabernet and a croissant.

The world, of course, would have been justifiably outraged were this to have happened (it didn't). But recently, a majority of the American Congress, possibly a veto-proof majority, passed legislation that would make it so difficult for Syrian refugees to escape the horrific war being waged in their homeland by the very same persons that attacked the Bataclan that, in effect, none will be able to emigrate to the United States.  Rather than face that one-in-a-million (or less) chance that one of the refugees might be a terrorist in disguise, our cowardly Congress chose to let the Islamic State continue to slaughter and rape innocent men, women, and children, and maybe, just maybe, let refugees over here only after the Islamic State has finally been eradicated.  Do you not see how this legislation is the moral equivalent to the hypothetical case of the French police allowing the killing to continue at the Bataclan?

I can't vouch for the accuracy of the statistics, but I've seen a Facebook meme that states our odds of dying from cancer are 1:7 and our odds of dying in an automobile accident are 1:77.  According to the post, our odds of dying from a firearm assault are 1:25,000.  However, the chances that we will die from a terrorist attack are 1:20,000,000, lower even than the odds of being killed by a dog (1:11,000,000).  Yet even the remotest possibility of a terrorist attack drives this country into a frenzy of fear, and rather than face a statistical increase so incrementally small as to be negligible, we instead choose to let hundreds of thousands of innocent Syrians languish in harm's way, if not die at the hands of the very same forces that terrify us so much.

Why do we spend trillions of dollars fighting a war on terror when the chances of harm are so very, very remote, yet refuse to pass even common-sense gun legislation to reduce the 1,000 times more likely possibility of death by firearms?   Why do we accept a 1:77 chance of death behind the wheel but lose all of our compassion and throw others to almost certain death over the 1:20,000,000 chance of death from terrorism?

As blogged at length here a while ago, we humans have evolved in such a way as to react readily to perceived direct threats from others and to avoid indirect threats not from a specific person or persons.  So while it's not likely that they can do much of anything to us, we freak out over images of crowds chanting "Death to America" half a world away.  One particular presidential candidate justifies his Islamophobia over claims that he personally witnessed crowds of Arab-Americans cheering in Jersey City during the 9/11 attacks, even though the police claim that no such demonstrations took place.  

But we have no problem accepting the notion that many of our loved ones, as well as us ourselves, may suffer a fatal accident on the highway.  Since nobody's threatening to kill us by automotive homicide, we accept those astonishingly high death rates, but since there is in fact people threatening us with terrorism, we choose to turn our backs on our Syrian brothers and sister while spending economically crippling quantities of cash trying to eliminate those making the threats, despite the four-orders-of-magnitude lower odds of death.

Of course, the ultimate irony here is that by turning our backs on the innocent Syrians, we make them more susceptible to radicalization and make it more likely that at least some of them may eventually become terrorists themselves, while simultaneously ostracizing and alienating Muslims and Syrians already here, and instead of lowering the probability of a terrorist attack, we actually increase it.  

But that's using logic, not our caveman, visceral gut-reactions.  

Friday, November 20, 2015

Throw away all opinions, all likes and dislikes, and keep only the mind that doesn't know.  The mind that doesn't know is the mind that cuts off all thinking. When all thinking has been cut off, you become empty mind.  This is the mind before thinking.  Your mind before thinking, my mind before thinking, all people's minds before thinking are the same.  This is our substance.   Your substance, my substance, and the substance of the whole universe are one.  So the tree, the mountain, the cloud and you become one (restated from Seung Sahn, Dropping Ashes On The Buddha),

Thursday, November 19, 2015

It's natural for a violet to blossom like a violet and for a rose to blossom like a rose.  There is no need for violets to produce rose blossoms.  We are all like violets or like roses, but we defeat ourselves by thinking, "I'm like a violet but I'm not satisfied with producing violet blossoms.  I want to produce rose blossoms." If a violet can't produce a violet blossom, its life is defeated and it's of no use. But you don't need to decide if you're a violet or a rose. Your life is yours and it is limitless in its potential. 

 - Adapted from Uchiyama's The Zen Teachings of "Homeless" Kodo   

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

We all prefer happiness to misery, paradise to hell, survival to imminent death.  We are thus ever bifurcating reality, dividing it into something good and something bad, something we like and something we don't.  We discriminate between satori and delusion and strive to attain satori.  But the reality of the universe is far beyond aversion and attraction.  When our attitude is "whichever, whatever, wherever," then we manifest the whole universe.  In the attitude of attempting to gain something we are unstable.  When you strive to gain satori you are most definitely deluded because of your desire to escape your present condition. - Kosho Uchiyama, from The Zen Teachings of "Homeless" Kodo


Monday, November 16, 2015

Irish Whiskey and Soda

Success breeds conservatism.

After some mild success baking various quick breads (carrot bread, chocolate bread, zucchini bread, cranberry-walnut bread, etc.) and some muffins (blueberry muffins, banana-nut muffins, etc.), I found that I was reluctant to break away from the tried-and-true and started baking the same things over and over.  While initially I had no experience at all and everything was a new adventure to me, after gaining even the tiniest bit of expertise I didn't want to try anything outside of my newly acquired comfort zone.  Apparently, once my mind decided "I can do that" it also decided that "I can't do that other thing." 

Realizing this, yesterday I forced myself out of my comfort zone and made a batch of Irish soda biscuits, baked on a flat pan with a Silpan liner (never heard of that before) and no (gasp!) 5x9 pan or muffin tray. The dough actually required kneading, another new (to me) experience.  

They came out looking a little funny - all different sizes and irregular, asymmetrical shapes, but they tasted good - the raisins soaked overnight in Irish whiskey didn't hurt the flavor, either.

Also, new wire cooling rack.  Success also apparently breeds consumerism.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Webster

It is not that I don't care about the tragedy in Paris (far from it), and it's not that I don't have opinions and thoughts about it, it's just that there's really nothing that can be said that could possibly speak to the profound sorrow that we all feel.

If it's alright with everyone, I'll take a pass on talking about this one.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Lessons From An Alaskan Pond

Twenty years ago, while solo backpacking among Alaska's Peters Hills, I learned a neat little lesson from this enigmatic backcountry pond about perception and how our minds work. 

It seems unbelievable that it was twenty years ago, but that's the way time flies.  Peter's Hills, it should be noted, would be considered mountains almost anywhere else, but they sit near the base of Denali, North America's highest point, in Denali State Park (not Denali National Park, a separate but nearby preserve, although Denali State Park would be a National Park almost anywhere else but at the foothills of Denali).

I knew I was somewhere near the mountain, but I wasn't sure if it would be visible from where I was hiking and the persistent cloud cover kept blocking my view of the sky.   But every now and then, the clouds would break up a little, and although the jagged teeth of the Alaska Range were monumentally huge, I'd get brief glimpses of an even higher, even larger peak, somewhere out beyond the closer range.

The snow-covered peak of Denali, I thought, dwarfing the "hills" near me.  It felt like true wilderness and profoundly affected my sense of scale, reminding me of how small we really are.  But as the long Arctic summer day passed, the clouds would open at other places in the sky, teasing me with glimpses of parts of another mountain, a peak even higher than the first, a mountain so inconceivably large I couldn't even see the top of it, and could only guess at its full size based on the shape of its slopes.  

The best view of the mountain all day, near sunset (around 11:00 pm at that latitude):

Even before Denali revealed itself to me at sunset, it was hard for my mind to grasp how inconceivably huge the mountain was.  I could almost feel its gravitational force dragging me across the landscape - it felt as if I were to trip, I wouldn't fall down but instead hurtle sideways toward the monumental mass of the mountain.

I spotted a pond and decided to hike over toward it to filter some drinking water.  But walking toward the pond, I lost all sense of scale, and couldn't tell how far or near to me the pond actually was.  All the usual indicators of relative size my mind was accustomed to use to gauge size and distance - trees, buildings, roads, etc. - were all absent, and the immensity of Denali threw my sense of proportion all out of whack.  The ground was covered by an unfamiliar tundra of strange lichens and moss that looked almost like miniature little shrubs and trees, making me feel like some sort of giant as I stepped over them.  Contrasting with the immensity of the gargantuan mountains around me, which made me feel smaller than small, it was hard to estimate the size of anything, and my mind even struggled with the relative proportions of the glacial landscape of rounded hills and U-shaped valleys. Walking toward the pond, I literally could not tell if it was still a ten-minute walk away or if my very next step was going to splash into water. 

What was near and what was far?  What was big and what was small?  Were those mountains, hills, or mere bumps around the water?  The only relative scale I had was my own body, and obviously, I couldn't see myself from a third-person perspective.  All I could do was keep walking and snapping pictures as I hiked.  I was lost in plain sight of everything and it wasn't until my toe finally did touch water that everything snapped back into perspective and I was suddenly reoriented.

It was an odd and strangely disorienting experience, but it showed me how the human mind uses familiar features and objects to gauge size and relative perspective, and how strange the world can appear when those landmarks and scales are suddenly gone.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Impermanence Is Swift

It rained hard all night last night but I managed to sleep through it, and it rained all day today but no trees came down yet on my house.  However, a tree did fall in nearby Buckhead and killed an 81-year-old man in his car; apparently a victim of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Impermanence is swift; life and death is the great matter. 
"The tree was one of many felled across metro Atlanta by the combination of the 20 mph wind gusts and the ground that was saturated by more than an inch of weekend rain."
The forecast is for a few days of respite before the rains come back again on Thursday.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Carrot Bread

The rain from last week continued through the weekend, including downpours for some reason around 4:30 am both Saturday and Sunday morning.  The acorns bouncing off the roof during those downpours woke me up both times, and I couldn't get back to sleep for all the racket (and worries that something larger was going to come falling down).  The combination of insomnia and dreary weather outside has made me particularly lethargic this weekend.

I took an easy route in my baking practice today and fell back to making the carrot bread I prepared last month - an easy task to go with my lethargy and comfort food for the week ahead.  Between the cinnamon and raisins in the recipe and the orange of the carrots, it can actually pass for one of those pumpkin spice dishes so popular this time of year, which makes me wonder how much of the "pumpkin" being served right now is in fact actually carrot.    

The rain's supposed to continue through tomorrow, and who doesn't love to wake up to dark, brooding weather on Monday mornings?  I just hope the acorns let me sleep through the night tonight - I might bake them into a cake if they wake me one more time! 

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Dry Cleaning

The rain let up long enough today for me to visit a property in Midtown Atlanta I've been asked to assess, even though a light drizzle did fall on my head from time to time.  But it was an easy day today, more planning and working out logistics than anything else, and the main event is tomorrow.  It's no big thing - I do this kind of job all the time - but this post is the record of what I did today, and what I did today was basically to plan for tomorrow.  

For the record, the site doesn't look anything like the non sequitur picture above - I posted pictures of the Midtown site on a much sunnier autumn morning back in October.  

The issue is that the property adjacent to the site used to be a dry cleaner back in the 1950s and '60s, and the prospective purchasers of the site need to know if dry cleaning fluids from the past operations have contaminated soil or groundwater on the parcel they intend to buy.  So tomorrow I'll be taking soil, groundwater, and subsurface soil-gas samples both inside and outside of the building they're buying, and testing the samples for components of dry-cleaning solvents.  If the results come back clean, they can buy the property without worry.  If the samples come back contaminated, I can help the buyer come up with a clean-up and worker-protection plan if they still want to proceed with the transaction. 

If you're curious, dry-cleaning solvents have been detected in groundwater beneath dozens of Midtown properties, and while it's generally not an immediate danger to human health, it's not good for the environment and can result in a lot of money spent in clean-ups and investigations by the owners, even if they didn't cause the problem.  The lesson is if you're thinking about buying property in an urban or commercially developed area, you may want to research whether there were ever any dry cleaners or gas stations in the vicinity, or the transaction might wind up being a lot more expensive than you had imagined.

Call me, I can help.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

A Tom Waits Quote

We've entered the rainy season and have had nearly two inches of rain fall here in Atlanta since last Sunday. On top of that, we're experiencing peak autumn color, which means the leaves are falling en masse, of which I'm constantly reminded by the sound of acorns bouncing off the roof every few minutes.  It also means my steep driveway is coated with wet leaves, making traction slippery while walking or driving up and down, and as I lie in bed at night I worry about trees falling down on me due to the soft wet soil.   Good times.  

Tom Waits once sang, "Well, they're dancing on the roof and the ceiling's coming down, and I sleep with my shovel and my leather gloves, and a little trouble makes it worth the going, and a little rain never hurt no one."

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Monday, November 02, 2015

Halloween Conclusion

Actually, the story of the Halloween Disaster of 1964 is not about me and it's not about my mother, either.  It's not even about the dog.  Or Halloween.  It's not even a story, really.

The Halloween Disaster of 1964 is a "story" only because I chose to make it one.  My mind selected a beginning, a middle, and an ending to the events, when in reality it was a random part of a larger continuum of my whole life and the lives of others (including the dog), and now it's a memory, a mythology of my own making, part of the mental map I use to navigate through the world.  This is how we develop our own personal schema, this is how samskara is formed.

"Watch where you step," I learned, "It could be embarrassing."  Also, "Hide your misfortunes from others, because they might laugh at you," and "Even a half-century later, Mom would still clean my sneaker."

I'm reminded of the words of Simone Weil: "Imagination and fiction make up more than three quarters of our real life."  I'm not saying the story isn't true - I remember it as true - but of the infinite number of events happening in the space and time around me, to my friends, and to the whole boundless universe, my mind selected a few random tidbits, strung them together into a narrative (naturally centered around myself, of course) and then decided, "That's the story of what happened." But there's a million different ways of remembering it from myriad different points of view, all leading to different conclusions and lessons.  And that's how other personal schemas and samskara are formed.

I'm reminded of John Barth, "Everyone is necessarily the hero of his own life story," and "The story of your life is not your life. It is your story."

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Maternal Compassion

Yesterday's story about the Halloween Disaster of 1964 was told from only one side - my own personal point of view, which of course goes, "Oh, the terrible things that happen to me."  All of our personal narratives are about ourselves, and how unjust the world is to us, without considering the burdens we place on those around us.    

Consider my poor mother - naturally worried about her son out on that most dangerous of nights trick-or-treating with his friends at an age where he's too old to want to have his mother tagging along but too young to deal with adversity without running home to her.  Young enough to want some nurturing and a little TLC when things go wrong, but old enough to not want to admit it as he holds back the tears.

So his poor mother has to comfort her son, and although she really just wants him to just stay home and be safe, she knows she has to let him to go back out on the holiday night and return to his trick-or-treating adventures.  She still worries what might/could happen to him (not to mention the rest of her brood) but she knows she has to let go of her maternal concerns and fears, and on top of all that, now she's apparently the one who has to clean the dog shit off his dirty, smelly sneaker.