Thursday, February 28, 2013

loyalty and fealty

Today is Pope Benedict XVI's last day on the job and, in parting remarks to the cardinals who will anoint his successor, he promised "unconditional reverence and obedience" to the new pope. Benedict is 85 years old.

Fealty and loyalty.

In the past, knights and warriors far and wide swore their allegiance to the king or noble who was acknowledged as the leader. And the same is true in spiritual endeavor -- allegiance to a person or belief that is at once greater and more capable of protecting the one who swears allegiance.

Safety. Guidance. Warmth. Love ... aren't these some of the elements that inform a willingness to offer fealty and loyalty? In a literal, save-your-ass sense and in a mental, peace-of-mind sense, loyalty and fealty provide social and sociable and protective landmarks. Loyalty and fealty demand a reined-in sense of completeness but the payoff is safety in numbers.

Like a good parent, the good guide shows the way. His or her wisdom is worth plumbing and emulating in a world teeming with dangers.

But what good parent or good leader would hope that those who once offered fealty and loyalty would do so forever ... that they would remain at home, relying on the safety and wisdom of another? How, in such a scenario, would it be possible for leaders to evolve? Doesn't there come a point where loyalty and fealty must be left behind, not as a matter of snooty unkindness, but in recognition that loyalty and fealty only reach so far.

Not by way of insulting contrast, but I think Gautama (the one most often referred to as "the Buddha" in academic circles) had it right: Like a good parent, he was quoted as saying "be a lamp unto yourselves." Where once loyalty and fealty and hard work filled the 'Buddhist' scene, now "be a lamp unto yourselves."

No one who is honest disparages their times of loyalty and fealty -- even when they were misplaced. Loyalty and fealty are the testing grounds, the proving grounds, the foundations of experience. But neither does anyone who is honest escape the inescapable import of such experience: "Be a lamp unto yourselves." Safety in numbers, relief from the lash, escape from dangers ... these are matters to assess and ingest, but not to rely on.

It just occurred to me that Benedict XVI seems a bit long in the tooth to be offering his loyalty and fealty. When the prize of loyalty and fealty is just loyalty and fealty ... well, how useful is that? A lifetime of loyalty and fealty to a given discipline and the best anyone can do is loyalty and fealty?

I'm not pretending I can know Benedict's or anyone else's motives or meanings ... but the thought crossed my mind. Loyalty and fealty are boon companions ... and it behooves boon companions to reach a parting of the ways.

remembering Vicksburg

As once I might not have been, nowadays I am sympathetic to those who forget and feel some small, panicked shock in the recognition. In day-to-day affairs, it's hard to know what is NOT memory and similarly hard to know who I might be without those memories.

Waking up in the morning, I think everyone takes a few moments to remember who they are ... to don the thoughts and emotions that will recreate a plausible "me" that connects and provides an imagined cohesion to the days and weeks and years that have gone before and the ones yet to be. But then there is the question of what things are like before memory....

What brought this to mind was Vicksburg. Yesterday, I could not remember what state Vicksburg lived in. I knew that I had once known with a granite-like certainty ... and that there had been a Civil War battle there ... but what followed the comma on a letter's address -- "Vicksburg, _____" -- did not rise up with the instantaneous ease I knew it had once had.

I knew Vicksburg was in the south and so I tried various southern states on for size and flavor and reassurance ... Vicksburg, Tennessee; Vicksburg, Virginia; Vicksburg, South Carolina. None of them provided the assurance I knew I had once felt and I had to admit ... I really didn't know. It was gone like a fleck of gold dust in a river bed ... caught in some eddy and floating away downstream. It was a minute piece of who I was -- "I know that" -- and now suddenly I didn't know that. It was no big deal and yet it sent a small, electric bolt of panic through me. If I could not remember Vicksburg, who knew what might be on the horizon ... and who would I be without various well-stitched memories?

As if to compensate or bring laughter to the emptied scene, my mind came up with "spendorphins" this morning. Spendorphins were the analgesics that allowed people to feel better, more assured and more confident by spending a lot. Pretty kool. Not "Vicksburg," of course, but still ... pretty kool.

When a baby exits the womb, I have heard, there is only one thing it knows how to do ... suck. Shall I write that off with a facile use of the word "instinct" or shall I venture into la-la land and ask what memory instills the capacity? I don't know.

There was a show on television once (can't find it on Google) about a grown man who lived in England with a minder (his wife perhaps) and forgot damned near everything, almost instantaneously. When the minder returned from the store with a loaf of bread, the man would be delighted to see her and would greet her with a wonderful affection ... but he didn't know who she was. The show did not get into the fact that this man could speak and walk and see and hence had some capacity to remember ... the show focused on what he forgot almost instantaneously ... stuff like "Vicksburg" perhaps. He seemed to be a happy, gregarious and warm-hearted person ... not someone stymied or frightened by the fact that who he was had been somehow diminished ... if it was.

Vicksburg, Mississippi ... I had to look it up. But looking it up did not allay the sense that some small corner of the rafters had shaken. "Vicksburg, Mississippi" had been a minute piece of who I "was" and who I was expected to be. Friends and enemies expected ... but more important, so did I.

Waking up in the morning, there is the re-donning of remembered clothes. Male, female, sexy, plain, depressed, friendly, old, young, sick, healthy, Democrat, fascist, tall, short, smart, dumb, father, mother, American, Saudi Arabian, car owner, professional ... an endless list resurrected in a nanosecond before going about a continued and continuing life. The puzzle pieces come back together and recreate the picture... the remembered picture. Yup, here I am, alive and kicking.

But then "Vicksburg" rebelled. It refused to be included in its full format. The known dropped off some cliff into the unknown. What was life like before or without memory. Life didn't seem to be any the worse for wear, but 'my' life certainly did. My life knew how to suck ... but was that enough, was that the alpha and omega? Was this life somehow like a schoolroom blackboard that accepts without complaint the jottings of an astrophysicist or, after some careful and natural erasure, the declensions of a bit of Latin, or a witty graffito?

The affable man in England was portrayed as a tabula rasa ... but a clean slate was not entirely accurate. He forgot a lot, but he clearly remembered as well... to speak, to hug, to smile. But the other stuff he might conceivably have held dear ... well, some dear-holding function appeared to have been put on hold or perhaps had simply relaxed into a more natural and less-contrived state.

What lies "before memory?"

I can hear my Buddhist chums gearing up for some explication or lovely discussion ... who knows, maybe we can make a religion out of it or a spiritual brass ring or ... another piece of the puzzle that reasserts and recombines in the early morning light. Meaning is meaningful, after all... nod, nod, wink, wink.  Vicksburg matters.

I don't know enough about all this to call it good or bad, desirable or undesirable. To know would be to remember and with "Vicksburg" bouncing down the stream bed,  I am clearly out of my depth.

Sayonara Vicksburg. Sayornara Adam. Or, perhaps more accurately, au revoir.

It's time for a shot of spendorphins ... to get to the supermarket and pick up meatloaf fixings. I seem to remember that I like good meatloaf.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

it's just what you say

The central revolutionary aspect of spiritual life is this:

It's not what God says...
It's not what the teacher says...
It's not what the texts say...
It's not what your friends say...
It is simply what you say.

This sounds pretty simplistic and simple ...

Until you try it.

When you try it, of course, you recognize immediately that what you say varies from week to week, day to day and moment to moment. This recognition stands in infuriating contrast to the implicit or explicit desire to nail down an overarching peace, to lay claim to an understanding that doesn't fidget or wobble or morph in the same way any person fidgets or wobbles or morphs.

"Unexcelled understanding" or "edgeless peace" or "unending happiness" isn't supposed to be some wubba-wubba bowl full of Jell-O that moves at the slightest touch. It is firm and fixed and full of relief after a lifetime of what fidgets and wobbles and morphs ... a lifetime that has provided little or no peace.

Anyone who consents to pick up the gauntlet of honest spiritual endeavor is bound to be confused at first and pissed off later: It wasn't supposed to be like this! It was supposed to be clear and snuggly and devoid of piercing uncertainties.

Follow the rules and regs, pray your ass off, go to numberless retreats, give to benevolent causes, speak sweetly to enemies, sing soaring hymns ... none of it works in a way that will put a period on the sentence. And by period, I mean


How to escape this briar patch of contradiction (fidget/wobble and "stand still, dammit!") is the revolutionary business of honest spiritual endeavor.

But in the end, "it's simply what you say" is simply what you say, isn't it? It may be a long and bloody war, but still

It's simply what you say.

It never stops moving and yet is always still.
Or ... it's never still and yet doesn't move.

Oh shit!

Or anyway, that's just what I say.

guns 'n' Christians

And in the how-do-I-know-what-I-think-till-I-see-what-I-say department, a couple of 'conclusions' popped out of my mind yesterday as I was typing. Christians and guns ....

The first concerned the nagging doubts that Buddhists sometimes have about how to respond to insistent Christians during conversations. Buddhists might dearly love to be compassionate, caring and open, but, when stuck in conversation with someone who alleges openness but does not deliver, they are flummoxed.

And in that department, I wrote on a Buddhist bulletin board:
I guess when I learn to laugh at myself a little better, I will be better able to (not necessarily out loud) laugh at others as well.

I am perfectly willing to have a serious and civil conversation with anyone about spiritual life. I consider it neither serious nor civil when the best anyone can do is try to convert me or insist that I agree with them.
And in the currently-popular debate over gun ownership in America, I wrote a letter to the editor at the local paper:
Hill Boss' Feb. 25 letter to the Gazette rightly points out that the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution begins with the words, "A well-regulated militia ...." and goes on to define the federal strictures that may and may not be put on individual gun ownership.

Mr. Boss writes: "... the Founding Fathers recognized the importance of some degree of control over a militia, yet gun advocates continue to oppose even minimal limits on gun ownership.

"Am I missing something?"

I think the answer is, "yes you are."

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2008 (District of Columbia v. Heller) that "The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home." This was followed in 2010 (McDonald v. Chicago) by a ruling that "The Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms for self defense is fully applicable to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment." (Both citations quoted in Wikipedia)

Thus, as much as I agree with Mr. Boss in his implicit horror at the various gun-toting slaughters that have dotted American headlines over time, I think the "militia" argument is out the window. I don't like it much, but I think that an effective counter-attack on guns is forced to concede and deal with in-your-face facts.
None of which is to say I won't change my mind again ....

just add water

Beer drinkers in the U.S. have filed a $5 million lawsuit against distiller Anheuser-Busch, alleging the company watered down products like Budweiser and Michelob. The company denies the allegation.
The lawsuit alleged that the practice began after the American Anheuser-Busch merged with the Belgian-Brazilian InBev in 2008, to form the world's largest alcohol producer.
Having spent a couple of years on mainland Europe at a time when beer-drinking was a favorite personal activity, I long ago wondered how Americans put up with the cat piss that is labeled "beer" in my country.

Watered-down democracy, watered-down beer ... it's the bottom financial line that matters, I guess.

papal exit

It's a bit like watching a man standing on a building ledge, threatening to jump ... or listening to a drug addict drone on and on about his plans to reform ... or feeling bubble gum nag at the sole of a shoe ...

Will this pope, the first in over 600 years, just retire and be done with it?!

Day after day, there is some new news story about Benedict XVI's last moments as the front-and-center pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. There is no denying the fact that his retirement is unusual and affecting in an organization that counts 1.2 billion members.

But my Twitter-ized, Facebook-ized and impatient mind says, "Enough already! Jump if you want to, clean up your drug-befuddled act if you want to, stop and scrape the oozing adhesive off your sole if you want to ... just do it and be done!"

When he was elected, I seem to remember that Benedict was chosen at least in part because he was old and would soon be gone and this gave the electing cardinals some breathing room in which to pick a more vibrant pope. And when I first looked at his face, the instantaneous word that came to mind was "avaricious," but that was just a snap judgment, an impatient judgment ... and perhaps, but perhaps not, an accurate judgment.

Tomorrow, Benedict will say goodbye to his cardinals and then -- I can't help saying, "Praise God!" -- be gone... and there will be some new and improved news thread to be irritated about.

remembering Mimmy

Like a lot of others living in a wrinkled twilight, I often play mental reruns ... or that's the way it seems. What was once seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched or thought is seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched or thought 'again.' Of course 'again' is never exactly 'again,' but it has a sense of known-ness that makes 'again' seem reasonable. Surprises are infrequent, but always welcome.

Yesterday, I got an email from someone who had bought and read and apparently enjoyed a book I put together in 2007. It was nice to think someone found some juice in what, for me, was a squeezed orange ... something my mind seldom thought of as particularly useful or juicy. A small, thoughtful note ... I appreciated it and was surprised by it and it sent me off into other reruns: How about the sequel whose title and subject matter were already in the mental hopper but languished, partly because I didn't care that much, but mostly because I didn't have the money and perhaps energy to go through the publishing hoops?

And playing off that sequel 'spiritual' book, there came the playful question that crops up now and then ... where did it all begin, all this interest and effort in spiritual life? It's not a question I take seriously: It's more like watching a rerun of "Law and Order:" I like detective dramas, and I have seen most of them ... but, you never know when an old orange will disgorge and refreshing drop.

It was Mimmy Miggens who taught me to pray. She taught me under my father's roof and the subversiveness of her teaching was not apparent to me as the teenager I was. Mimmy was short and white-haired and Catholic. The wrinkles on her face were as cozy as a much-beloved and unironed flannel shirt. Her disposition was as soft as the fur on a peach. I never once saw her in a cross mood as she helped my father and stepmother bring up their two girls, my half-sisters. And she taught me to pray.

My father was a college professor who taught Shakespeare and purely loved James Joyce. He abominated the Christian religion that had been shoved down his throat by his Presbyterian-minister father. My father, like my mother in more inventive ways, was a devotee of the religion of the intellect. I never heard Mimmy correct or disagree with his barbed asides when it came to religion.

But somehow, Mimmy taught me the Lord's Prayer ... and somehow it stuck... under my father's intellectually-acute and reproving roof. How Mimmy managed this and why, as a teenager, it should stick, I don't know. I probably had been to one or two churches at the time, but religion was not something I imagined as betokening a serious or compelling pastime in the world of man. Maybe it was sort of like stamp-collecting ... some people did it, but it didn't amount to much. And as my father teased and excoriated religion, so I aped his disapproval. I might not have known what I was talking about, but what teenager isn't an expert when it comes to disapproval? I disapproved because my father and mother disapproved ... monkey-see-monkey-do ... but Mimmy taught me to pray.

I don't remember if I ever put the Lord's Prayer to much use, but I think I may have found something consoling in an overarching, caring entity. Maybe, in an uncaring universe, there was indeed something or someone who cared... or, more precisely, cared for me.

That Mimmy cared didn't really occur to me as I experimented with the Lord's Prayer. I doubt that she thought of her teaching as subversion under my father's roof. Mimmy wasn't sneaky in the way some religious expositors can be, inserting the religious ice pick at every lickspittle moment. Mimmy was just Mimmy ... and she was kind.

But for all that, I wondered vaguely yesterday if Mimmy's inescapable subversion weren't a kindergarten lesson in the subversion that spiritual adventure, by its nature, implies. Was Mimmy's teaching the 'beginning' of my spiritual interests? It's a stupid question with an even stupider answer, but like detective-show reruns, I watched it anyway....

And I remembered Mimmy fondly.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

the right to be stupid

In Berlin, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told students that in America, as part of its freedoms, "people have the right to be stupid."

I can imagine any number of countries guffawing ... "and the Americans sure as hell exercise that freedom!"

And sometimes it's hard to disagree with that assessment.

But it is also an assessment that appears, with little substantiated evidence, to let the guffaw-prone off a strikingly-similar hook.

dormez bien

British researchers suggest that a lack of sleep or poor sleep can have profound effects on the workings of the human body.
Heart disease, diabetes, obesity and poor brain function have all been linked to substandard sleep.
What missing hours in bed actually does to alter health, however, is unknown.
How this dovetails with the fact that there are people who sleep very little -- and some not at all -- without ill effect, I'm not sure.

evaporating sense of loss

A small rivulet of visceral sadness slid down my mind's cheek yesterday when I read that Harvey Daiho Hilbert's Clear Mind Zen Temple in New Mexico would close.
It is with regret and deep sorrow that I announce the closing of the Clear Mind Zen Temple effective the third week of April after Hannamatsuri Sesshin.
I know precisely nothing about the temple or its visitors. I don't know Harvey. And if the truth be told, I have no particular longing or reason to get to know any of them. Hanging out with dedicated Buddhists makes me recoil with the same please-don't-make-me-do-that skepticism I seem to have for Red Sox fans or Democrats ... OK, I lean that way, but being reminded of it is tedious and itchy and somehow inaccurate.

But I could not deny the sadness, the sense that, with the closing of Clear Mind zendo, I felt a loss. I would miss them ... even if I wouldn't miss them at all... and was flummoxed by a simultaneously assured and vaporous understanding of what would go missing.

What would I miss? Well, since "missing" is all about me, of course I would miss me, but I wasn't in the mood to accept that truth and I allowed my mind to ramble. Why was I sad?

My mind immediately rejected the Buddhist caterwauling about the "preciousness" of the sangha or the wiles of "karma," both of which can be made a part of the institutional Buddhist p.r. I could recognize that some sort of tale needed to be told in spiritual endeavor and that there would always be someone to tell it in terms of "preciousness" or "karma" or "authenticity," but the sincerity others may feel when issuing such tales is not a sincerity I can or am willing to embrace. Sure, "Go Red Sox!" or "Vote Democrat!" ... but not in my backyard, s'il vous plaît.

When it comes to tale-telling, Christians, Jews, Muslims and others are lucky -- they're going someplace else; they're going to heaven. Tales fall apart without someplace else to go ... so, I think Christians, Jews, Muslims and others are lucky when it comes to tale-telling.

Practicing Zen Buddhists, by contrast, are fucked. While it is true that Zen has a vast number of tales and add-on's and ethereal doo-dads and preciousness and karma and whatever all else ... still, when a student sits down on a cushion, all the tales go out the window. They evaporate. Sure, there can be vast swaths of time devoted to imagining when seated on a cushion, but the fact is that once anyone sits down in this way ... well practicing Zen Buddhists are fucked. It's like trying to be in love while sneezing ... it can't be done. Zen Buddhists aren't going anywhere else.

And this thought may be close to what made me feel sad about the zendo closing and sangha dissolution. At the risk of sounding "Buddhist," every moment evaporates ... honest injun, check it out. Every moment is gone even as every moment is born. Evaporation isn't a noun, it's a verb ... and you don't have to be "Buddhist" -- Zen or otherwise -- to sense or perhaps recognize this. It is a part of what makes life feel edgy and uncertain and never quite complete ... evaporation.

A created place or situation in which human beings are given leave or encouraged to address their own evaporation -- their own birth and death -- head-on is a good thing in my mind. A kindness that can seem, in the activity, pretty damned unkind: I don't want to evaporate ... but I evaporate anyway ... and coming to terms with this actual-factuality is a real opportunity to settle the matter of peace and happiness.

In the long ago, walking home after a sesshin, or Zen retreat, at which I had cussed and laughed and wept and pleaded and found moments of unalloyed joy, sometimes I would wonder what it was that had happened in the last few days, those days sitting silent on a cushion. What the fuck was that all about? Whatever it was, I could never pin it down. I knew it had been worth the price of admission, but what, precisely, had been gained by paying that price I could never say. Whatever it was seemed to be missing ... and yet how could it be missing since I was walking home after sesshin? It seemed that I was missing what could not go missing ... talk about weird shit.

A place in which to do what cannot NOT be done in the first place. Evaporate ... the verb, not the noun.

In a wide and utterly inauthentic sense, I feel a small rivulet of sadness drifting down my mind's cheek. Clear Mind zendo will be no more. Is it a "blessing" that is lost? Screw that ... blessings are just curses in disguise.

Bit by bit and inch by inch, I draw closer to my small sadness.

I will miss Clear Mind zendo when it's gone.
I will miss the opportunity that invites the embrace of what cannot be embraced: Evaporation.
Yes, I will miss me when I'm gone.

But that's my problem.

I wouldn't wish it on anyone else.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Vatican dandruff

Like the "unsightly dandruff" a shampoo advertisement might claim to eliminate, the flakes and bits of unsightly Vatican adventure seem to float onto otherwise immaculate shoulders. Dandruff goes with the human territory, but the efforts to avoid or cleanse the human terrain -- while fruitless -- fill the public screen with ever-better shampoos.

Cardinal O'Brien, left, greets Pope Benedict XVI
Cardinal Keith O'Brien, England's (actually Britain's -- see correction in comments) highest ranking Catholic leader, has announced that he will not take part in the upcoming conclave of cardinals who are scheduled to elect a new pope in the wake of Benedict XVI's resignation. O'Brien said he would not attend because "he didn't want to become the focus of media attention at such a delicate time for the church." He resigned in November because, allegedly, he was approaching the mandatory retirement age of 75. Cardinals under the age of 80 can vote for the new pope.

In a news story Saturday, three priests and a former priest were said to have filed complaints with the Vatican alleging that O'Brien -- an outspoken opponent of homosexuality -- acted inappropriately (a code word for sexually) with them, apparently in the 1980's. O'Brien is contesting the allegations.

O'Brien seems to hope he will not become a piece of dandruff on the Vatican's immaculate shoulders. He may be just one flake, but every flake counts in the battle against unsightliness.

More pronounced in an unsightly world, the pope has "decided that the contents of a secret investigation into the 2012 leaks of Vatican documents won't be shared with the cardinals ahead of the conclave. The leaked documents revealed petty wrangling, corruption, cronyism and even allegations of a gay plot at the highest levels of the Catholic Church." Benedict said the contents should be left to the discretion of the new pope, whoever he (not she) might be.

The upshot is that the cardinals might conceivably elect as pope someone who had, himself, been culpable in the dysfunctions probed by the investigation.

It might all be as ludicrous as the scene with the Black Knight in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," but of course dandruff is no laughing matter among those who wish to be impeccably attired.

O Lord! Where is thy shampoo?!


"you don't love me!"

Talking to a friend this morning about a problem he was confronting with ill-concealed irritation, the two of us segued into a riff on the cri de coeur, "You don't love me!" It was silly and we laughed ... and it was serious.

In how many obvious and camouflaged ways does that cry from the heart crop up? From the stereotyped Jewish mother to the subtle wheedlings anyone else might employ: "You don't love me!"

One evening, a long time ago, I was in the throes of some compelling problem as I went out to a Chinese restaurant with my friend Dave. The two of us ordered and ate and discussed some of my problem. But when the fortune cookies arrived, mine held a peculiar and somehow jolting observation: "He will help you as much as he can, but he cannot help you much."

The specificity of the fortune struck me as peculiar for a fortune cookie ... mostly, when you crack open those dry and largely flavorless containers, you get bland and flavorless generalities like "love is right around the corner" or something similar. The fortune I received seemed to cut through the current situation like a hot knife through butter.

Mostly, "you don't love me" means you don't love and understand me in ways that I might find convincing. I demand that you love me in ways that I will credit and find soothing. I am a foot-stomping child: Do it my way! ... even if I am not entirely sure what my way is. Because I am in the throes of a cri de coeur and because, in our humanity, we both feel pain, I seem to feel that I have a right to require you to be on board and in agreement and ... make me feel better.

It's all pretty human, but also it is interesting: What in the wide world of sports makes me imagine that you don't love me, that you are withholding anything whatsoever? I may throw as many tantrums as I like, but does that mean -- even if 'you' are as unyielding as a piece of gravel -- that the love is somehow missing?

It's something to consider, I think.

honor and garbage

Waking up in the morning seems to bring with it the need to refill some cup that was drained in the hours of sleep; to restart some movie that was 'paused;' to reaffirm that which required no affirmation in sleep and yet now, in wakefulness, is as demanding as a dog that hears its feeding bowl being filled.

I wake up, and, from long habit ... consent.

This morning, the continuation seemed to have two aspects, neither denying the other. The first was "honor." The second was the garbage. I wanted to munch in writing on the notion of "honor," but Mondays are the days when the garbage truck comes around early and so, between honor and garbage, I did some mental triage and chose the garbage, which now awaits its destiny.

The word "honor" cropped up probably because I got hooked last night on re-watching "Page 8" on the Public Broadcast System here. "Page 8" is an intelligent, delicate, character-ripe, and of course British tale of an aging intelligence officer in the throes of political and personal skulduggery. The biff-bam-boom that an American network might employ in telling the same tale is missing. This is a story about people and their strengths and weaknesses and just-plain humanity. "Honor," to the extent that it is part of the TV tableau, is a wispy, layered and undefinable quality that nevertheless seems to have a powerful definition. It leaves in the dust the tendency to wave the flag or make a political speech while pinning on a Medal of Honor.

"Honor" strikes me as being like "love" or "pornography:" "I may not know what it is, but I know it when I see it." The more it is touted or claimed, the further it retreats from view. Aspects and dissections of the self-anointing may rise up and sound good, but something is always missing.

Yes, honor seems to partake of a willingness to do what runs counter to the self-interest of the do-er. Yes, it is somehow determined. Yes, it is somehow blatantly noticeable on occasion, but the moment anyone notices, what is noticed loses its heart-filling savor and substance. The swash and buckle of the second-rate samurai can arouse choruses of "bushido," ... and yet ... well, that's not quite it, is it? To speak its name doesn't quite work and yet to capture it with "silence" is equally ludicrous.

An Internet dictionary defines "honor" in part as:
-- the respect that people have for someone who achieves something great, who is very powerful, or who behaves in a way that is morally right
-- the behavior of someone who has high moral standards
-- something you do that you are proud of
OK ... and yet not entirely OK.

In a despairing effort to put a finger on a drop of mercury that refuses to be pinned down, definers and other politicians may resort to "dishonor" -- another drop of mercury with a far less pleasant implication. Everyone may impute an honor to their efforts and thoughts -- even when they don't think in those terms -- but no one wants to imagine that those efforts and thoughts are somehow dishonorable. I want as much of the good stuff as I can capture and hope to elude as much of the bad stuff as possible. And yet there is always good stuff and always bad stuff, however honorable I may be. I may practice my heart out, be as disciplined as an Olympic runner, and yet ....

What cannot be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched or adequately thought remains what cannot be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched or adequately thought ... but as surely as the sun rises in the East, so honor exists and yet defies all blandishments.

In the television telling of "Page 8," people do what they feel compelled to do. There is nothing heroic in it. It is simply human. Their actions are variously attentive and inattentive, honorable and dishonorable. They act on "facts" as they see them and the impetus and results are sometimes inspiring and sometimes just plain venal.

In the early morning, I wake up and push the restart button, filling the emptied cup with tales of "honor" and garbage. Is the truth any less the truth in my tale-telling efforts? Is it any more?

Just because I can't name it doesn't mean I can't put out the garbage.

Isn't that a gob-stopper?

Sunday, February 24, 2013

"yes but"

For all the party clothes it is sometimes dressed up in, perhaps what is called "enlightenment" amounts to little more than the willingness to stop saying "yes but...." Mentally, physically, socially, economically, spiritually ... just give it a rest ... just for a minute or two ... no more "yes but."

Enlightenment ...
............ yes but......
............ yes but......
Sorrow .....
............ yes but......
Joy .....
............ yes but......
Strong .....
............ yes but......
Weak .....
............ yes but......
Poverty .....
............ yes but......
Plenty .....
............ yes but......
Hatred .....
............ yes but......
Love .....
............ yes but......
Hell .....
............ yes but......
Heaven .....
............ yes but......
Tall .....
............ yes but......
Short .....
............ yes but......
Smart .....
............ yes but......
Dumb .....
............ yes but......
Yes but .....
............ yes but......

If you've tried all the other stuff, it probably won't hurt to try one more.


I think it has to be conceded: Everyone is brilliant.

Literally, metaphorically, intellectually, emotionally ... any way you slice it -- brilliant.

Who else, after all, could be so perfectly an exemplar of your particular and singular life?



As a descriptor of that brilliance, I think it has to be conceded that everyone is a jackass and dumber than a box of rocks.

Literally, metaphorically, intellectually, emotionally... any way you slice it -- stooopid.

Who else, after all, could be so perfectly an exemplar of your particular and singular life?

Dumb and dumber!

And if all this is true, as I think it is, then the matters of brilliance and erring are nothing to write home about. To attain the one and elude the other is simply not possible, so praying piteously or hunkering down in some protective fetal position -- seeking supporters and fending off detractors -- doesn't make much sense.

There is no such thing as brilliant-ER.

There is just brilliance.

Razzies and Oscars

Kirsten Stewart won worst actress
Last night it was the Razzie Awards.

Tonight it's the Oscar Awards.

What will be selected tonight as the best the film world has to offer  was recognized last night for its soft underbelly worst.

Why do I suspect that those choosing the worst bear a weight equal to, if not exceeding, the weight born by those choosing the best?


I mean no offense to any, but I had to recognize this morning that I honestly find little or no difference between scams that offer me a Nigerian windfall or an enormous pecker and emails (as just now) that support their claims and offers with stuff like:
For this reason, the World Buddhist Association has decided to create a synthesis of all Buddhist spiritual schools, differentiating Buddhism of any sectarian or religious vision.
It's not a matter of criticism or debate ... it's just a the reaction I had ... like sipping the foam on a beer without any likelihood that there was beer to be had.

"you're gonna get screwed"

Watching Bill Moyers' interview with economist Richard Wolff last night, the thought danced across my mind...

Religion and economics are both dedicated to flavoring and massaging the down-home recognition that "you're gonna get screwed."

Everyone wants to get laid, but no one wants to get screwed: Isn't that an ancient, tried-and-true koan?

The interview focused on the various dysfunctional characteristics of the current capitalism-under-stress environment in which so many feel the lash and so few feel the balm.

And within that context, Wolff, a man educated at Stanford, Harvard and Yale, made an interesting observation. On college campuses 'the school of economics' and 'the school of business' are not housed in the same building. They are separate and distinct. They may nod to each other from time to time, but the fact is that there are two schools. Does any other discipline enjoy a similar schism ... two schools of philosophy or biology, Wolff asked? Economics is the theoretical stuff, the overview, the feel-good stuff; business is the nitty-gritty of how to manufacture and sell widgets and how to shape and manipulate a 'productive' work force.

Wolff said, and I agree, that America (and perhaps other parts of the world) is like a deer caught in the headlights -- frozen in a kind of disbelief that the 'American dream' simply is not delivering what it promised to deliver. It is no longer true that if you work hard, you are guaranteed a decent standard of living and your kids will have it better than you did. But the deer loves the dream and the facts have not yet gelled into an infuriated response. For now, there are desperate attempts to shore up the wondrous dream, to deny its crumbling reality.

The Tea Party (a tear-it-down right wing persuasion) and the Occupy Movement (a left-leaning recognition that "you're gonna get screwed") are examples of the beginning of a betrayed and enraged response to the disconnect between the economic dream and the economic reality, Wolff suggested.

Everyone wants to get laid, but no one wants to get screwed and perhaps one way to uphold and elevate the wonders of getting laid is to screw at an ever-accelerated pace.

Everyone wants to get to heaven, but no one in their right mind wants to die in order to get there. So maybe, at first, like a deer in the headlights, there is some accelerated creation of belief and hopeful tale telling. It's a bit like being in a foreign country and imagining that if you just speak your own language louder, the natives will finally understand you.

But life doesn't understand you and it does not bend a knee to tales of any kind, no matter how elaborate or heart-felt: You're gonna get screwed -- read 'em and weep. Panoramas of joy and bliss and clarity turn out, on the highway of life, to fall short of expectations ... of dreams American or any other kind. It's got nothing to do with optimism or pessimism: It has to do with fact and fiction.

It's not a big deal, but after so many economic or spiritual tales, after so many bake sales and meditation retreats and stock-market successes, it can be a jolt: Fictions may inspire, but facts rule. The massage parlor into which the facts have been fed turns out to be the plain old kalpa-long whore house it always was.

I suppose everyone has a different way of approaching all this -- of standing in the headlights of "you're gonna get screwed" and figuring out some factual, practical avenue or solution. If 'economics' don't work and beliefs don't work, what does work in a way that honestly addresses the facts of anyone's life? That's facts, not fancies.

I wouldn't try to convince anyone else, but I found Zen practice a very useful tool. It's a bit like switching from being an ecomomics major to diving into business. It's messy and confusing and rewarding and tear-stained and full of laughter and, yes, there are massage parlors galore, but, although it has some ornate story-telling of its own, still Zen seems to offer more opportunity to dissolve the chasm between getting laid and getting screwed.

Does it work?

Fucked if I know!

I'm just a widget-maker.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

long live the ludicrous!

It does my heart good to see that the ludicrous has not gone out of fashion. Consider the commentaries appended to various products....

Ball-point pens for women.
Best death camps in North Korea.
The banana slicer you can't live without.

Silly, inventive, imaginative ... a little sunshine among what can be some very grey clouds.

To borrow from the old movie, "Little Big Man:"

"My heart soars like a hawk!"

anchovies are forever

On the one hand, there was the chubby penmanship of a female teenager in Maryland asking a couple of questions about "Buddhism;" on the other, there was the self-involved gnashing of teeth from a man who had been involved in some Zen-related doings and was stuck gnashing his teeth.

There was not a moment's hesitation regarding the young woman's questions in her letter ... I would answer. I would answer, but why? It wasn't that I wanted to assert my own stock. I'm too old to ascend to some righteous or glowing high seat. It was more as if we were chums and chums offer what they have to each other. I had had the questions she had and I could tell her what the upshot was for me.

Nor was there a moment's hesitation regarding the gnashing of teeth. I had had similar emails ... saying the same things over and over again ... tell me I'm right. No hesitation there either -- hit the "delete" key.

A 'good Buddhist' might exhibit patience and concern in both instances. But I'm not a 'good Buddhist' and have no intention of becoming one. Let the 'good Buddhists' be 'good Buddhists' -- that's their concern. If it makes them happy to struggle and sweat, then I am happy if they are happy. I have no intention of eating anchovies when I dislike them.

But how easily and without a second thought I was drawn to the young woman's plump handwriting and sentiments. Was it "experience" or was it more "intuition" that acted as a guarantor of happiness? That was a human question in my mind. The fact that a 14-year-old might ask it made no difference, though there was a whisper in the back of my mind saying, "If you're 14, the rule of thumb is ... go out and sin some more." But there was no knowing the basis of her question -- the background and circumstances: How many people ask questions as a means of camouflaging the real questions they have? No matter ... answer the letter.

I too have gnashed and continue to gnash my teeth about various aspects of the world; I too have found myself incapable of escaping my own concerns. But one of the things that Buddhism helps with is some understanding that asking for or receiving someone else's agreement is mostly a fool's errand. It neither helps nor hinders me if someone else hates anchovies. Sure, I like company as well as the next person, but company comes and company goes ... and anchovies are forever. :)

Just some amorphous navel-gazing.

absurd safety

In a mostly-unsubstantiated, bullshitting-over-beer-and-chips sort of way, it occurs to me that the only real usefulness of a chosen field or philosophy or mindset is its ability to surprise the author when it simply doesn't work ... when things return to the way they were before the box was chosen ... only now the way is less painful or confusing.

I guess I'm thinking vaguely of spiritual life, which is one of the boxes I chose, but I wouldn't be surprised if the same held true for other touchstones and guides.

Something like ...
1. Based on sorrow or confusion or some uncertainty, pick a format that seems to promise to make life easier.
2. Depending on the potency of the discomfort, dig in and dive deep; immerse yourself in the particulars of the chosen realm; swath yourself in the explanations; seek answers where there are questions and, even if the answers don't quite fill the bill, still, exercise a determination to keep going
3. With some understanding under your belt, relax a little -- release the choke-hold grip on system-provided explanations -- and see that although the system really is a pretty good system and really does have some comforting aspects ... still, what is outside that system, what doesn't 'fit,' is pretty surprising ... and delightful. No one was born with a religion or spiritual persuasion, for example.
4. Return to square one -- the place where discomfort or confusion lit the fuse and find that discomfort and confusion are not really all that discomforting or confusing... in fact, what is outside the box and inside the box is not all that different... in fact, it is far less confusing or discomforting than the box itself. Saying thank you to the box is OK. Trying to box a human life with it is absurd.
5. Eat a brownie ... and enjoy it.

The quick-witted, assuming they are on board with this description, will want to skip the part where the boxes are gift-wrapped with belief or hope or religion or philosophy or bias or whatever. "I don't need boxes!" they may say with lofty assurance. But it's bullshit because not-needing boxes is just another brand-spanking new box.

Enjoy the box.
Caress the box.
Measure and weigh and scowl over the box.
Be blessed and cursed by the box.

But eat your brownie.

Surprise! It is, as it ever was, delicious.

humongous gold fish

There are probably more important bits of news out there -- slaughter in Syria, England's bond-rating dip based on the rating of an agency whose credibility is itself suspect, and the upcoming Academy Awards ceremony -- but ... well, what caught my eye was:

-- Giant gold fish have apparently invaded Lake Tahoe, the second deepest fresh-water body in the United States. No one seems to be entirely sure of the long-term implications, but still, the size when compared to your daughter's fish bowl is pretty amazing and puts me in mind of the old spoof movie, "The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes."

-- A Yale University behavioral economist posits that the language people speak -- and specifically the use or lack of use of the future tense -- is a fair indicator of whether anyone is more or less likely to be thrifty ... and perhaps healthy.
Prof Chen says his research proves that the grammar of the language we speak affects both our finances and our health.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Brahms on my mind

Because it has been swooning through my mind lately, a little Brahms:

U.S. troops sent to Niger

American troops -- 100 of them -- have been sent to Niger to aid French and other forces squaring off in Mali against rebels or insurgents or terrorists or militants or whatever the word-du-jour is.

President Barack Obama sent a letter to Congress Friday announcing the deployment. The U.S. and Niger signed a status of forces agreement last month. Niger has agreed to the deployment.

The troops will act as intelligence support, Obama said in his letter.

Oh yes, and by the way ... the U.S. has apparently been given permission to establish a drone base in Niger....

Just for surveillance purposes, of course.

the "death sandwich"

Passed along this morning...

Embedded in an article entitled, "Biblical scholars claim to discover 'Genesis death sandwich'" is a list of "The 10 Weirdest Ways We Deal With The Dead."

The relevance of the "weirdest ways" to the article in which it appears lies in the fact that the death sandwich refers to the technique of including bad news (death, from a Christian point of view) between the upbeat slices of white bread of the good ... meaning life. Death and life are opposites within this framework.

It's not clear to me how surprising I should find any of this since it is a technique used by any number of spiritual persuasions -- the technique of saying, "Yup, there's bad news, but let me crank up the good stuff that makes the bad stuff seem less onerous."

I do like the notion of a "death sandwich" though.

And I do remember the Buddhist Christmas Humphreys approximate observation that, "The opposite of life is not death. The opposite of death is birth. The opposite of life is form."

'nuns' indulge another habit

It may have been in a good cause, and it had the blessing of the local convent and priest, but a "Nunday" charity gathering spilled over into the wee hours of the Irish morning at a local pub in Listowel and the cops took exception, fining the pub owner 700 Euros for his charitable extension of drinking hours.

"the people who can forgive me are dead"

The hardest part, Kudo says, is that "nobody talks about it."
 Nobody talks about the wounds except when they do talk about it ... and it doesn't do a damned bit of good.
 "You may not have actually done something wrong by the law of war, but by your own humanity you feel that it's wrong," says Ritchie, now chief clinical officer at the District of Columbia's Department of Mental Health.
Former Marine Capt. Timothy Kudo
Not all soldiers are haunted and wracked and left mentally bleeding by the killings they have participated in, but some are. And their "humanity" -- the same humanity anyone might blithely assume -- is diminished. It hurts like hell and it is hell and there is no heaven.
"I can't forgive myself," he says. "And the people who can forgive me are dead."
And for those who claim to care and the ones who created and sustained the conflicts in which such humanity was wounded, there is a constant scramble to bring 'meaning' and justification to the conflicts. There are 'heroes' ... as if that might ease the pain or diminish the responsibility of those most culpable.
"It's far too easy for people at home, particularly those not directly affected by war ... to shed a disingenuous tear for the veterans, donate a few bucks and whisk them off to the closest shrink ... out of sight and out of mind" and leaving "no incentive in the community or in the household to engage them."
Write me off as a comsymp, pussy liberal if you like, but I find such wounds unconscionable and vile. As these men and women are stuck in a seemingly endless cycle of pain, so too I am stuck because I am responsible and I have no adequate way to say I am sorry or atone. How I wish I could take back the pain my country has inflicted ... to somehow relieve them of the sanctimonious excuses that seek to blunt or forgive or explain the blatant horror of their lives. It is heinous and I am responsible. Saying otherwise is just an oleaginous cowardice: 'Heroes' my ass! Flags, my ass! Parades and pride, my ass! Victory, my ass! I am left sputtering in toxic frustration ... take all that shit and go fuck yourself!

The fact is that I have no way to say how sorry I am.

But I am so sorry.

anything can be used for anything else

Reading Brad Warner's ruminations on yoga yesterday, my thoughts slip-slid into another time and another frame of mind.

In the late 1960's or early 1970's, I got hooked on spiritual adventure. My formatted entry point was Hindu Vedanta and I gobbled books the way bar flies gobble peanuts ... with an almost absent-minded addiction... I really didn't know how to stop.

And within this world of galloping gormandizing, I read four books by Swami Vivekananda, books that each focused on a different approach to yoga, a word that means "yoke" or "union" and refers to the potential and actual links between man and his god. The books were about Jnana Yoga, Karma Yoga, Raja Yoga and Hatha Yoga. Each took the reader by the hand and through specific applications, depicting a path to god. A path to god ... that was the point of yoga.

So it came as something of a shock to me when what passes for yoga in the West began to take hold in America and its meaning was almost exclusively focused on Hatha yoga and its various physical exercises. "Yoga" became synonymous with physical health and well being ... at least for conversational purposes.

The approach weirded me out, but of course I guess I was the weird one in reality.

I was focused on god -- whatever the hell I thought that meant -- and everyone else seemed to be focused on whether they could get their ankles behind their necks or run a handkerchief through one nostril and out their mouths. The acronym didn't exist back then, but if it had, I might have used it: "WTF?!"

Time passed. I switched into Zen practice and pretty much forgot about Swami Vivekananda's appreciations. I was still interested in god -- whatever the hell I thought that meant -- but the interest had new clothing and a new vocabulary. "Enlightenment," "compassion," "emptiness," "Nirvana" ... and sitting cross-legged on a cushion. I guess everyone picks a vocabulary and a perspective and I was no different.

Until, fast-forwarding to this morning, it crossed my mind that anything really can be used for anything else. As a rifle may be used to put meat on the supper table, it can likewise be used to gun down children in an elementary school. And it is my bias to think, roughly, that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are the (Americanized) Hatha Yoga's of the spiritual circuit ... posing as a search for god, but fixated on the poses to the detriment of that search. I'm not saying I'm right. I am just saying it's a wispy bias.

Anything can be used for anything else.

This far-from-insistent thought flow took me to skepticism and credulity -- two possibilities that are frequently seen as polar opposites and inimical to each other. Is there anyone who isn't capable of either ... or more likely, both? The insistent skeptic overlooks his credulity; the insistent believer overlooks the doubt inherent in any belief. Still, it's fun or consoling or something to imagine that "I am a skeptic" or "I am a believer." But it can be a fierce and fearful war where the battle lines are drawn between skepticism and belief.

What is it that will sign the peace treaty between these two? What is it that will allow these enemies to shake hands? Theology and philosophy can't do it. Only people can do it ... if they choose. But there is no forcing the matter: This is a land of walk the walk, not talk the talk.

Anything can be used for anything else.

Perhaps getting the ankles behind the neck will indeed bring clarity and understanding to someone's life. Perhaps it will just create another Vatican. Perhaps vaulted ceilings and tasseled clothing and a well-imagined heaven or hell will lead to a place of long-desired peace. Perhaps "enlightenment" is indeed enlightenment. Anything can be used for anything else ... isn't that recognition useful when actualized? Isn't the imperative inescapable -- you've got to shake hands with the enemy, whoever or whatever s/he may be. But there's no faking it with spiritual or intellectual nostrums ... extending your hand means just that: No one else can do it. Pretending to be wider is not the same as being wider.

Recognition does not mean conveniently ducking the unpleasant or touting the pleasant. It just means a package deal is a package deal. Anything can be used for anything else. Is there really something else? Your life, your choice... you figure it out.

And it is unlikely that the peace treaty (as between skeptic and believer for example) will be signed overnight. Just bit by bit, perhaps. Flickering in and out of recognition until recognition gains some footing. Nothing is lost, nothing found. It's just the way things are and it's easier than putting the ankles behind the neck.

Anything can be used for anything else.

Or not.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

selective applause

Would anyone pay to get into a theater where there was nothing but applause? No act, no play, no dance, no mime, no acrobats, no comedy or tragedy, no song or music ... just applause?

What a strange and utterly human habit it is, to long for or even demand applause. A pat on the back. A thumbs-up. A gold star. A you-done-it and good for you.

I am not exempting myself from this scenario, just noticing it.

Noticing and recognizing how irritable I can become by the needy and greedy and insistent.

I love applauding others but rebel when that applause is required, when every step or word or thought stands waiting like some self-important, wheedling and often well-camouflaged child ... gimme, gimme, gimme.

It's exhausting to have such acquaintances. Exhausting ...

And at my age, there's already enough exhaustion.

email hacked

Yesterday, my email account was hacked. I was informed of this both by AOL yesterday and by an "anonymous" person this morning."Change your password," both advised. So I did.

I apologize to any who may have received inappropriate or petitioning emails 'authored' by me.

I did NOT send out anything offering a more robust penis or a windfall from Nigeria or a sure-fire scheme to realize some incredibly wonderful -- and heretofore unrealizable -- dream. And, although I might long to, I did not ask directly or indirectly for money.

I'm too busy pedaling my own nonsense.

Anyway ... apologies where they may be called for.

rest stop

To stop...
To rest...
To nest...
To be assured...
To believe...

It's no good railing, sez I to me, against such ordinary things or suggest that whatever the topic or beloved home, there is always something beyond the boundaries so carefully constructed. The walls that defend against unwanted incursion mean, in their own being, that what defends against invaders is just an invitation to invasion. It's like putting your head in a noose in order to avoid getting hanged.

Siddhartha's father built his son a finely-appointed palace in hopes his son might become a great king. There were mighty walls and pleasures aplenty. And the kid left town.

In Texas, an English teacher reportedly refused to grade two of his students' compositions because, even after he invited the kids to write about anything they liked, these two chose to write about gun-themed topics. After a tornado of rebuke, the teacher backed down.

OK, I can do the social outrage as well as the next fellow: What?! -- freedom of expression and imagination have borders imposed from without?! Fuck that!

But what interests me more is my own time-tested ability to be the Texas teacher I am horrified by... to find some glorified or inglorious mind set and then hunker down in the assumed and protective warmth. What are words if not a palace or a well-protected belief system?

And what interests me is not whether I can describe it all, however ineptly. What interests me is not so much the critique. What interests me is whether such finely-feathered nests actually work. Not "are they morally or ethically sub-par," but do they provide the protection and safety and relief promised? Are they the home that anyone might actually seek?

I doubt it, but that doesn't mean the practice is not common, human and, in some cases, touted as humane.

It's about at this point that Buddhists will segue into a discussion about "attachment." Well-mortared and self-defeating walls of comfort are nothing but the attachment I can and have and do apply. It's not the boundaries themselves that don't work, it's the credit I give them for working.

"Attachment" is as good a word as any to depict the scene. I have been, and to some extent probably continue to be, attached to it. But the question remains: Does it work?

As far as I can figure it, every moment is nothing but an occasion for action ... some action ... any action ... breathing, walking, sitting, thinking, feeling, praising, blaming, extolling, denigrating. It's not something anyone could escape. Moment is action, action is moment. No big deal. And every action offers the opportunity to create a palace, a resting place, a safe place, a holy place, a hellish place. Maybe the place is a wondrous palace. Maybe the place is a comforting belief system. Maybe a Texas teacher will refuse to grade papers on an uh-oh topic.

Moment after moment, action after action....

Siddhartha's dad may have been a well-intentioned fellow. The Texas teacher may have been a well-intentioned fellow. I may be a well-intentioned fellow. But when those intentions simply don't fill the bill -- when they refuse to supply the peace requested, when they simply don't work -- well, then maybe it's time to seek out another approach ... something along the lines of "who, precisely, is the king of this castle, this safe and believable haven ... who's the proprietor of this lash-up?"

Grammatically speaking, "heaven" is not a noun. "Hell" is not a noun. "Heaven" and "hell" are verbs... just like the nouns "peace" and "relief" and "safety" and "belief."

This is the nature of action/moments.

Or anyway, that's what I say at the moment.

Attachment to attachment is just another attachment ...

Or it was a moment ago.

Nouns are just verbs waiting, so to speak, patiently.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


Postpartum ....

After the birth of a child, a new mother may experience postpartum depression -- a sense of loss that, as a male, I obviously cannot describe.

But I think that a similar sense of loss can afflict anyone who has committed to an enthusiastic, no-holds barred exercise, whether physical or mental. As a newspaper reporter, for example, I can remember feeling a sense of loss after working for weeks on a project that was then published ... and lost. Or times after sesshin, or Zen retreat, when I would walk home feeling somehow bereft or emptied out or at a loss to recapture the vivid aliveness that had somehow become a thing of the past.

Friends, enemies, anger, love ... all the fires that once burned like fury and consumed the moment ... where did they go? And how shall I get my footing when the ground upon which I stood seems to have miraculously dissolved beneath my feet.

As best I can figure, such a sense of loss and emptiness sets out almost immediately to try to find some new and compelling handhold... some new enemy, some new friend, some new anger, some new love ... somehow the empty space is not tolerable.

I leave it to others to wax wise about this postpartum world. I am just interested in what seems to be a fact ... and noticing it. When all our enemies and friends have been laid to rest, when the fires go out ... now what? Who would I be without my worries ... or affections either, for that matter? Is fearing such a world useful or appropriate?

I don't know.

the generosity of the skunk

Besides the dog-walkers, stroller-pushers and street lamps that schedule my neighborhood, lately, just after sundown, there has been a passing skunk (never seen) whose scent wafts up onto the porch where I sometimes sit.

By the pungency of the smell, I can tell that s/he has passed close by. And it's not as if some event has caused a loosing of protective spray: This is just the ordinary, walk-about, everyday being of a skunk.

My understanding is that once their smell function is removed, skunks make very good and loving pets. I have no desire to test this statement, just as I have no desire to try to shoo this animal away or somehow excise it from the neighborhood schedule. I like the fact that a skunk, in its skunkness, has no need for my approval and has no interest in my disapproval. The fact that it keeps me at a safe distance with its smelly capacities is just a function that is appropriate to a skunk.

Skunk is skunk, just as the guy sitting on the porch is just the guy sitting on the porch. Each of us gives and gets, so to speak, without ever lifting an improving or approving finger.

My Zen teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, once remarked, "Except for me, everything is the teacher." On the face of it, and for those inclined, this can be taken as one of those nifty spiritual encouragements that zips along the intellectual or emotional circuits. How kool! -- the teacher and teaching is everywhere and always! Not one nanosecond is devoid of teacher or teaching! OK ... kool is kool as long as it needs to be kool.

But then, somehow, teachings like that can lose their authentic and administrative kool and just be ... skunk. Not an 'enlightened' skunk or a 'compassionate' skunk or a 'world-renowned' skunk ... just a skunk that is never seen and yet cannot be denied.

Idly and for fun, I wonder if that passing skunk gets home, jumps on its skunk-sized version of an iMac to report the smells of some guy sitting on a nearby porch. Do humans, once properly trained, make good pets? It's just a silly musing.

But in the sundowns of late, this passing skunk has made me think that giving and so-called generosity are simply the way of the world. I like what generally passes for kindness and generosity as well as the next person. It's nice to be nice. Nastiness sucks.

But ALSO ... what passes for giving and generosity sets up boundaries and barriers. Giving is what happens between two entities: I give to you; you give to me; and there are institutions that promote themselves by promoting this sort of giving. The 'haves' and the 'have-nots' arise ... not only does giving posit a you and a me, it also suggests that something can be given. There seem to be a lot of entities involved in authentic and administrative giving and generosity. And it's not in some sense 'bad' -- it really is nice to be nice and nastiness really does suck.

But ALSO ...

The skunk passes by in the evening darkness. S/he is clear as a bell ... asks nothing, gives nothing ... just goes about the business of being a skunk ... and in so doing, extends a perfect and edge-less and effortless generosity.

And encourages me as any generous teacher might, to do the same.

Is there a guy on the porch? Sure.
Is there a passing skunk? Sure.
Is there giving and receiving? Sure.
Is there generosity and kindness? Sure.
Are there authentic and administrative appreciations? Sure.

And yet for all that there is also the inescapable generosity of life -- unseen, perhaps, but known as surely as the pungence of a passing skunk. A gift without the extras of giver or receiver or given. Be yourself ... it is the greatest of generosities.

How do I know?

I don't.

Ask the skunk.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

some of the news

In the news ...

Willie Sutton (1901-1980)
-- Eat your heart out, Willie Sutton! The prolific American bank robber occasionally credited with saying that he robbed banks "because that's where the money is" was upstaged in Brussels late Monday when eight masked gunmen divested a plane of an estimated $50 million in diamonds and precious metals all in the space of five minutes and without firing a shot.

-- A seventy-five-year-old Indiana farmer is due in the U.S. Supreme Court because he thought he had found a way around agricultural giant Monsanto's headlock on soybean production. Monsanto's grip on genetically-altered seed that is resistant to weed-killers means that farmers have to buy new seed every year -- a costly business that has left other parts of the world starving. Monsanto's grip on the seed market means that buying the old seed is all but impossible. Vernon Hugh Bowman found what he thought was a loophole in the monopoly ... and now the case will go before the Supreme Court. Monsanto wants to protect its revenue stream and the Obama administration is backing the claim.

-- Even as China is accused of hacking into all sorts of business and military secrets, fast-food outlet Burger King faces its own Internet disaster: Someone apparently hacked its Twitter account and replaced its profile picture with ... gasp! ... a McDonald's icon.

be your own fool

I guess because of a variety of comments I have received on this blog, I would like to repeat a piece of the blog descriptive that has existed all along on the right hand side of the site:
This is my blog. It consists of almost-daily postings -- sometimes about the Zen Buddhism I have admired and practiced; sometimes about other 'spiritual' matters; and mostly about whatever strikes my fancy. Except to the extent that it might help others to consider what kind of fool they would prefer not to be, this blog does not aim to help anyone. (Emphasis added)
Do I fall short of my own disclaimer? Sure. Everyone likes applause and pats on the back and other subtle ways of elevating their often-well-camouflaged stock. Everyone has fallen into the sharing-is-caring trap and I'm no exception. But this is just my blog with my bias. I write because writing is something I seem to do, can't or won't escape ... and, to quote the bard, "Why not?"

I'd love to make a million bucks off it all or be showered in some ticker-tape parade of approval, but generally I don't care about that ... writing is just what I do. I'm not writing in support of some hoary or holy institution or philosophy. It's just me and my warts and some small version of practicing the only compassion that makes much sense to me ... be yourself. Self-involved navel-gazing? Sure, if you like.

I could be and probably am wrong, wronger, wrongest.

But that's not my call.

under the bell jar

It was a friend visiting from out of town a long time ago who somehow pointed out to me the insular nature of living in New York City. Not that he was critical: It was just that something he said set off a train of thought in a mind that was then in its late 20's.

Like Alexis de Tocqueville's America, Manhattan was and is bounded on all sides by water and thereby enjoys, like the country as a whole, both wonderful protections and dreary, under-informed isolation. But of course the physical layout was not the most salient feature of New York's l'état-c'est-moi delight: Rather, it was something more wispy -- a sense that living under this particular bell jar was the only thing that a sane man might rightfully desire. The music, the museums, the money, the flair, the coursing blood of ideas and creativity and fun and fuck-ups ... what need was there to cross the river and enter the forests far from this bubblicious and complete existence?

My friend's suggestion and the thoughts that followed made me uncomfortable. I did not like to observe my own presumptuous narrowness. As a New Yorker, I was imbued with a kind of arrogance of sophistication ... like people who are well-off and, through no especial meanness, are incapable of knowing the rigors of not-having money: Their actions, though arrogant and painful to others, are often just a blindness that cannot be helped: Everyone owns a Bentley, drinks bottled water and eats snails, don't they?

I did not like seeing myself as a prisoner of my environment. How was I to be distinguished from some fulminating Bible-thumper whose ideas never stepped over the boundaries of the "good book" or a neo-Nazi zealot or some less pernicious, narrow-minded dolt?

It was in this questioning and discomforted frame of mind that I decided to check out the tourist attractions in the city I lived in. These were places I never went. They were part of my assumed environment, but they were as ho-hum as a toilet plunger next to the toilet. Out-of-towners might see the glory and wonder of New York in tourist attractions, but I did not. I decided to visit them as a way of winkling out the wondrousness of the environment I lived in but hardly paid attention to ... my own unexamined assumptions.

On weekends, then, I would pick an attraction and visit it -- the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, a variety of 'great' museums. Somehow I imagined that if I could see the aspects of my wondrous world, I would capture and become commander of that wonder... and no longer be the citified rube limited by some fenced-in paddock.

Needless to say, my experiment was a flop, not least because I got hooked on the Circle Line, a boat that followed the waterways around Manhattan as the tourist guide droned on and on through a tourist-informing loudspeaker system. I loved being on the water. I loved the fresh -- or anyway more or less fresh -- air. There was some relaxing relief about being on a boat and being entirely at the mercy of that situation ... no if's and's or but's, there was no getting off the boat, no way to escape ... and my mind not only accepted that fact, it enjoyed it. No dithering ... this was this.

So my small weekend adventures wound to a forgetful close. Museums and monuments and other cultural events might be a description of the bell-jar wonders of my environment, but there was just no way to be any wider than I actually was ... to understand what life might be like across the literal or metaphorical rivers that surrounded me. Even traveling to those distant places, literally or mentally, could not do the trick. Photographs and tourist trinkets and historical understandings could not manage to revise the narrowness I suspected and could not escape.

And since I could not travel 'beyond' the edges of my bell jar, there really seemed to be only one course -- to investigate with care and attention the bell jar that held me as surely as the Circle Line boat once had.

This was this, but what was this? Not what does some cultured sophisticate say this was, not what does some book say this was, not what does someone living under some other bell jar say this was ... but really and truly and honestly and personally ... what was this?

Wonderful protection and dreary, under-informed isolation. The intellectual and emotional water that surrounded my island had no capacity to penetrate the wonder that was somehow beckoned and yet lay just out of reach. The consolations of my bell jar -- whether it was Manhattan or the mind -- were as disturbing as they were enfolding.

"Wide" beckoned. "Narrow" insisted.

And I wanted 'out' of this trap.

As a means, I chose the bell jar of Zen Buddhism.

Whether it worked or not, I haven't got a clue.