Friday, January 31, 2014


Passed along in email and speaking for itself:

happy new year photos

People rush to plant the first incense stick of the Chinese New Year at the stroke of midnight at a temple in Singapore, early January 31, 2014. The Lunar New Year, which welcomes the year of the horse, falls on Friday.
Members of the German speed skating team practice at the Adler Arena on the Olympic Park as preparations continue for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, January 31, 2014. The opening ceremony for the winter games will be held February 7.
REUTERS/Phil Noble
The moon moves between NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO, and the sun, giving the observatory a view of a partial solar eclipse from space beginning at 0831 EST (1331 GMT), January 30, 2014. Such a lunar transit happens two to three times each year. This one lasted two and one half hours, which is the longest ever recorded. When the next one will occur is as of yet unknown due to planned adjustments in SDO's orbit.

A rebel fighter with a weapon walks to a river to wash as he returns from a front line in a rebel-controlled territory in Jonglei State, January 30, 2014.
REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

Italian landslide

Home may be where the heart is, but boulders dislodged during a landslide in northern Italy showed no interest as they ploughed down a mountainside Jan. 21, crushing a farmer's barn. No one was injured, but still....

more "heroism"

Some time after Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger successfully crash-landed a passenger jet in New York's Hudson River on Jan. 15, 2009 -- a crash which all 155 passengers and crew survived -- the now-retired pilot sat patiently through yet another gushing media interview and said that he had thought about the "heroism" which others seemed determined to lay at his doorstep.

At first, he said, he had thought "heroism" was far too grand and inaccurate a description: All he had done, from his point of view, was what he was trained to do; he had just done his job. But then he said he had a second thought ... maybe "people need heroes."

Sullenberger struck me as a man worth listening to -- not so much because he had done his job well on Jan. 15, but rather ... well, he just seemed to be quiet and factual and solid, a person I would listen to if the two of us wound up on adjacent bar stools. He probably had his quirks and curiosities -- some, as with other people, annoying or disagreeable -- but in general, this was a person of a credible substance. Why? It was just a gut hunch... a willingness to imagine that this man thought about what he said and to believe that he was not just some bushy-tailed believer mouthing oh-so-sincere beliefs... another feather merchant.

When Sully Sullenberger said "people need heroes," I was willing to let the thought in, to let it germinate and blossom in my mind. Was it true? And if so, why would it be true? There was no need to agree for the sake of agreeable agreement or to disparage because I had some much-loved countervailing view ... it was just worth thinking about.

Yesterday, I watched a part of of video that depicted a segment of Nishijima Roshi's life. Nishijima was a Zen Buddhist teacher who died at 94 a day or so ago. The video was pleasant enough and I could see in it what others might find encouraging or informative or even, possibly, heroic. But I didn't watch the whole thing. There was no dismissive disrespect in turning it off -- I simply wasn't in the mood for that sort of encouragement or information or, possibly, heroism. Nishijima seemed to have done his job and as much as I was willing to hope he had done his job to his satisfaction, I was not about to lay on my interest or assertiveness and claim that he actually had. The fact that others loved or love him had a warming feel to it, but mostly I just hoped he was happy. I didn't need some Red Bull, caffeine-laced encouragement.

"People need heroes" -- I wonder why?

My best guess is that heroes are the ones who seem to make concrete what others may only dream. If I have some dream, some hopeful bit of imagination, some as-yet-unachieved goal, there is always a wee voice that wonders if I am not out of my cotton-pickin' mind. From a just-dreaming perspective, dreams have a you're-nuts feel to them ... without corroboration, how could I even dare to dream such a dream? But then someone who seems to exemplify the outcome of my dream shows up, saying, by implication, "yes you can" and "it's not such a nutsy dream after all." Sailing around the world, ballooning across America, holding your breath for five minutes, doing a handstand, lifting 500 pounds, gaining enlightenment .... The dream is not really improved or made more real by corroboration, but it allows me to relax a little: I may be headed for the looney bin, but at least I won't be alone... and I like or admire the company I may find there... I will be in the company of heroes, or something very much like it.

I suspect that needing or even demanding a hero is very human stuff and to some extent is useful as well. But it also strikes me as a good warning: When everyone does his or her job, when everyone is a hero, what need would there be for heroism? Wouldn't that be extra. Extra and not terribly interesting? The warning as I see it is that to the extent I have found a hero, it is time to reevaluate and be pretty cautious....

Not because heroes have feet of clay but because I do.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

temporary art

Passed along in email came a series of photos of beach art in California ... among them:

and that's final!

As always, the local paper offered a page 1 that was laid out in an eye-pleasing way today. Idly, my eye skimmed down gubernatorial candidates, an effort to provide prosthetic limbs to those maimed in Syria, a job change for a Chamber of Commerce executive, and the decline of the Monarch butterfly. And then, tucked away in a small box at the bottom of the page, was a quick hit on today's weather ... and for some reason, it made me laugh out loud. It said:
A final cold, but sunny day. High 27, low 15.
Having written my share of headlines over 20 years' worth of newspaper work, I knew what the headline writer was getting at. The words were comprehensible enough, but still it made me laugh: Don't words have to reflect some reality, some empirical fact, something that is not ludicrous or laughable?

"Cold?" Sure -- I could feel it as I sat on the porch scanning page 1.
"Sunny?" Sure -- the not-quite-day skies were blue from end to end and the sun could reasonably be assumed to shine in 15 or 20 minutes.
But "final?" What a peculiar and laughable word to choose in the middle of a New England winter. Sure, perhaps today will be the end of a series of zippy, often-sub-zero days ... but still: Final?

And, more broadly than the daily forecast, what a peculiar word "final" is. It's delicious in its ... well ... finality, but what empirical reality does it reflect? It's a minor and somewhat boring matter, I grant, but if you can't get the little stuff right, what makes anyone presume they will ever nail down the big stuff?

The adjective "final" is defined by one Internet dictionary as meaning:
-- existing as the result of a long process
-- last in a series
-- showing that something has finished
-- if something is final, it cannot be changed 
Well, this topic is a bit monotonous, I suppose. Everyone figures out which particular rose to sniff in life. "Final" was just my chosen rose for today.

It made me laugh because it's odd: Everything is always and inescapably "final" on the one hand and yet to imagine it were "final" is ludicrous on the other. This ... is... it! on the one hand and yet on the other, what finality does not segue into or infuse the next finality? Simultaneously? Isn't that the empirical fact -- a fact that makes a "final" cold day (or any other finality) silly/serious on the face of it?

"It's a paradox," the quick-witted assert with scaredy-cat finality ... or, employing the same scaredy-cat, "it's a process."

Time for an English muffin.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014


And, in the world of the-higher-they-rise-the-further-they-fall, a bit of artwork near the Vatican depicts Pope Francis as Superpope. It seems not to be enough that Francis has buoyed up those who see the Christian faith as one of kindness, generosity and succor. It is as if a breath of fresh air needs to be made super-fresh. Does anyone besides me see this as an adventure in cruisin'-for-a-bruisin'?

losing a bet

U.S. President Barack Obama gave his "State of the Union" speech last night and today I owe the executive editor of the local paper a cup of coffee.

Yesterday, on a whim, I sent an email to Larry Parnass saying I would bet him $5 (at 2:1 odds) that Obama would mention Pete Seeger in his annual assessment of America. Seeger, a longtime folk singer and activist, died Monday at the age of 94.

Larry wrote back saying he would bet me (even odds) a cup of coffee that Obama would not mention Seeger, who always was a little too left for even a left-leaning politician.

Doing a search of Obama's text today, I find that I am on the losing end of a long-shot bet.

I like paying my debts, so I will pony up at a local coffee shop on Friday morning.

"The Wall"

If I were a freshman in college or a Ph.D. candidate, I imagine I could write something cogent and remarkable about "The Wall," a 2012 Austrian movie I watched last night at the suggestion of a friend. I might even get a good grade as I yanked in comparisons and contrasts that touched on the human condition. But I am no college kid and waxing skilful and controlled about "The Wall" feels somehow ridiculous -- like some child who is proud to present a doting mom with a tablespoon full of air that s/he has brought in from the outdoors. (Here's another review.)

A linear description of the movie (see the links above for an example) goes like this: A woman travels with a couple to an alpine house where the three are about to rest or relax or vacation or something. After their arrival, the couple decides to walk into town which lies at some unspecified distance from the house. They leave. When they do not return, the woman, whose past is not specified, decides to look for them. And it is then that she runs into an invisible wall. In whatever direction she goes, she cannot get beyond it. She tries ramming it with a car. It doesn't work. Her alpine environment is spacious and beautifully photographed but ... the wall is the wall and she is not going to escape.

At a linear level, the movie strains credulity but does not shatter it: Who knows, maybe there is some explanation of the wall that will be revealed as the movie goes on. But there is no explanation. Why the wall exists or how it came to be slips into an irrelevant backdrop: That the wall exists is enough. The unnamed woman lives out several seasons, keeping a diary as she goes, 'behind' the wall. Her perceptions while in the company of a dog, two cats, a cow, a young bull and a white crow ... change.

A (wo)man alone in nature. Many of the 'great' human themes are touched -- birth, death, fear, love, time, sadness, smiles, self ... touched, but just about the time this viewer thought he was about to get a philosophical or emotional handle on the situation, the movie would cut off any such childish escape route. For example, just at the moment when I thought perhaps the tale would turn into some treacly transcendental man-in-nature format, the tale moved on as if shaking its head and saying, "no, that's not it." Or, just about the time I thought that perhaps I was watching a filmed version of some existential arrogance like Camus' "The Stranger," the movie would take my hand like some mother assuring that her inattentive child would not walk into traffic. The warning was firm and warm and refused to allow me any safe, intellectual or emotional bolt holes.

The movie lacked any special affect and yet was somehow affecting. More than once, I caught myself
wondering if this woman were going crazy or was she displaying some deeper sanity? But where there are no comparisons available, what difference did it make? Sane and insane became differentiations that were possible, but were they really worth the energy or even especially accurate?

The movie was evocative, but what it evoked was like placing a finger on a drop of mercury on a table top ... try touching it and the mercury simply moves somewhere else.

I can't think of a single person to whom I would recommend this movie. It wasn't solemn in ways that would delight a college freshman or a Ph.D. candidate, but neither was it serious. It was before "serious" or after "serious" somehow. It seemed to remind me of something I was happy to be reminded of but what that something was lay just out of reach. It was boring and I was strangely interested. It was quietly important in ways that declined to be called important. It challenged all sissy notions of "paradox" and seemed to say, "Of course paradoxes make sense ... pass the muffins, please."

As movies go, "The Wall" was odd. It made some strange sense and yet was off-the-wall.

I liked it, I think. But I'm not entirely sure that that's true.

It's just my spoonful of air.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger dies

I suppose it is a tribute to his efforts that the death of folk-singer Pete Seeger yesterday feels viscerally personal, as if a family dog of many years and many adventures and many licks on the cheek had taken its quiet leave. A soft and insistent sorrow greets the news and yet finding a purchase point in that sorrow -- specific whys and wherefores -- is utterly elusive. The sadness is not devastating, but it is all over me like rain.

Seeger was a fighter. That he used music as a means of putting up his dukes was as crafty as it was subtly effective: No one can defend against music that makes you want to tap your toe. And mixed into my sadness is a kind of protective resentment that after so many bumps and bruises at the hands of a greedy and war-prone establishment, no doubt that establishment as well will praise him in his passing. (Anyone want to bet on whether President Barack Obama will mention Seeger in his State of the Union address tonight? I've got a couple of bucks that say he will.)

I grew up with the Almanac Singers, with "Talking Union" and "Which Side are You On?" Later it would be a collection of banned songs from the Spanish Civil War including "Viva la Quince Brigada." Seeger's detractors would label him a socialist and a communist and various other sorts of 'unpatriotic' pond scum ... and now the same establishment will embrace him as a puppy dog giant among folk singers instead of someone who knew where the blood was spilled and what things cost. He was a pretty good-natured man, but he fought and didn't give up fighting.

I guess I resent the idea that I must stand shoulder-to-shoulder with mourners whose fingernails are manicured and whose policies create the patriotic hogwash that kills and maims and deprives others ... mourners who mourn as a means of raising their own stock. But that is the nature of music, I suppose: It touches all comers and there is no single way of loving it any more than there is one single way of mourning the death of Pete Seeger....

... A Johnny Appleseed of the good fight, planting his musical seeds here, there, and everywhere. Sometimes they sprouted. Sometimes not.

I am sad in his passing and glad in his being.

Monday, January 27, 2014

making excuses

Yesterday, after zazen, I got a very nice note from Nick, a fellow who has become something of a regular for Sunday morning seated meditation. Nick had sent me an email on Friday saying he would come yesterday. Then he didn't show up.

Nick's email was somewhat hang-dog: He was sorry that he "bailed," but the fact of the matter was that he was in bed with a beautiful woman and he "chose" not to come.

The note made me happy for him and happy for his practice. He, on the other hand, felt somewhat guilty because he had heard my past admonitions about Zen practice: "Make a promise, keep a promise." If you say you're going to do something -- even to yourself -- then you really should bust your chops to do it.

But the corollary is this: If, for some reason you can't keep your promise, then don't make up excuses. Don't say, "The pipes burst, so I couldn't." Say rather, "The pipes burst and I chose to cope with them." Spiritual practice has to do with facts.

What's the matter with facts? Facts come and facts go naturally.

Excuses cling and nag like body odor.

I was happy for Nick and happy for his Zen practice....

Not least because it was pretty damned cold in the zendo yesterday.

"it's to die for!"

 Wispy connections that may have no connection at all...

-- An estimated eight million horses were killed during World War I, or about half the more than 16 million people who died during the same conflict. Is it just me or is it more widely true that the equine slaughter throws the raging obscenity that is war into sharper relief? "Go ahead," some voice in my head says, "go ahead and kill each other if you find that insanity compelling. But don't drag your faithful servants down with you."

-- In the closer-to-the-bone times of the Depression -- not the current one that talking heads insist on calling the Great Recession -- U.S. newspapers were not shy about using suicides as filler material ... the one- or two- or three-paragraph tales which might fill out a journalistic column that came up short in the 1930's. "Mrs. Sally Jones," a newspaper report might announce laconically, "was found dead with her head in the oven." Suicide by oven seemed to be a pretty ordinary event I noticed when doing some research a number of years ago ... a cheap, available tool that was, comparatively, less messy.

-- Self-destructive behavior that analysts can't quite bring themselves to positively link with economic hard times continues in India where more than 17,500 financially-pressed farmers killed themselves between 2002 and 2006.

-- Locally, Greenfield, a community 20 miles north of where I live, has reported (in the first 14 days of this year) an "eight-fold increase in heroin or other opiate overdoses over the same period last year." Only one of the eight cases was fatal. This hardly compares with the plight of the Indian farmers or the distress of the Depression, but somehow the two place themselves side-by-side in my head: Self-destruction as a recourse or salvation or way of being.

-- If "it's to die for!" is a descriptive of what is most desirable about life, is "it's to live for!" a descriptive of what is most desirable about death?

Sunday, January 26, 2014

David Brooks: "The Thought Leader"

It may not be as grounded as some of his other writing, but NYTimes columnist David Brooks' combination of whimsy, observation, correlation and sharpened barb comes through well enough to be worth considering in his piece, "The Thought Leader."

And, perhaps apposite, perhaps not, this NYTimes Magazine opinion piece entitled "What Drives Success" was passed along in email. It has what I take to be a thought-leader feel to it, but that may just be me.

the price of peace

VATICAN CITY (AP) - Two white doves that were released by children standing alongside Pope Francis as a peace gesture have been attacked by other birds. As tens of thousands of people watched in St. Peter's Square on Sunday, a seagull and a large black crow swept down on the doves right after they were set free from an open window of the Apostolic Palace.
One dove lost some feathers as it broke free from the gull. But the crow pecked repeatedly at the other dove.
It was not clear what happened to the doves as they flew off.While speaking at the window beforehand, Francis had appealed for peace in Ukraine, where anti-government protesters have died.

the utility of pipedreams

Last night, sitting on the couch, gabbing easily with my almost-20-year-old son before heading to bed, I was made privy to his latest guy-whimsy goal: "I have decided to make love to one woman from every country in the world," he said. The wishful thinking came on the heels of an amorous encounter the night before with a young woman from Chile. South America struck him as a good starting point for his geographical swordsmanship.

Since there are slightly fewer than 200 countries in the world, my son's announcement struck me as a bit ambitious but also reminded me of a time when my now-dead sister had wanted to quit college at about the age my son is now. "If you did quit," I asked as I tried to talk her out of quitting college, "what would you like to do?" She answered at light-speed, "I want to go to Italy and have a lot of lovers."

Well, my sister never did quit college and now there is no longer the chance to ask her if she regretted her decision.

I saw no reason to try to talk my son out of his guy-thing day dream. First of all, like the 18th century lover Casanova, he genuinely likes women as far as I can figure out. He is not a self-involved power drudge, but someone who enjoys what he enjoys and enjoys the people he enjoys it with. I doubt if he would enjoy what he enjoys if those with whom he enjoys it didn't likewise enjoy it. So, aside from making the obligatory parental noises about "protected sex," I left the topic alone.

How can anyone know they have bitten off more than they can chew without biting off more than they can chew? Look at practicing Buddhists seeking "enlightenment," for example: One woman from each country in the world, a lot of Italian lovers, enlightenment ... time passes and experience kicks in and, from the point of view of the initially-stated goal, who hasn't bitten off more than s/he could chew?

On the one hand, I suppose the whole adventure might be filed under "failure." But in more important ways, I think it can be termed a "success." Doesn't getting your head screwed on right entail -- indeed demand -- a lot of screwy, screws-loose, behavior and thought before the fact?

Of course sorting out what's screwy and what's sane may take some doing, but still ....

Which one of us has not been like the old joke about the determined ant climbing the elephant's hind leg ... with rape in mind?

Saturday, January 25, 2014

friendly reminder

Received in email:

the zendo roof fund

A friend called this morning and asked me how the fund-raising was going for the zendo roof. When I said several people had made contributions and that I was amazed to be the object of their generosity, he told me to get off my ass and whine more: "A couple of hundred bucks won't reshingle the roof," he said with some ruthlessness.

And we joked a little about the ability other fund-raisers might show by creating swirly invitations that included "supporting the Dharma" or the "deep meaning" of taking some less-than-profound action like making a donation.

I'm not much good at that stuff. I might wish I had a more compelling tale, but I don't. The zendo roof is shedding shingles; I would like to preserve it; I could use some help... end of story.

The roofing guy, who had promised to come this week to give me an estimate, has failed so far to appear. I do want to get a bead on what the job will cost, so I will wait until Monday before I call him again. He did the roof on the house a number of years ago and struck me as an honest broker, someone worth waiting for.

OK ... nuff said ... I'd appreciate your help.

no lineage in Buddhism

What would a story be without its lineage -- its birth in distant valleys, its growth upon the plains, its adventures at heights and depths that reach into the present and put meat on the contextual bone?

Anyone who reads up on it a bit knows that Buddhism is filled with lineage. Its actors and actresses, its philosophies and encouragements ... all harken back, whether in fictional or non-fictional accounts, and enrich the current scene. To enter a Buddhist temple is to risk hearing someone say, "a lineage that goes back to Shakyamuni Buddha himself."

A good story can be a miraculous thing -- inspiring, consoling, encouraging ... really, a miraculous thing. And Buddhism has its share of miraculous stuff.

But there is something to be said, from where I sit, for the recognition that Buddhism has no lineage. Of course there are lineage tales to be told. Of course there is some good that can spring -- even when the tales are historical eyewash -- from them.

But there is no lineage in Buddhism.

If there were, things would begin and end. If there were, things would be connected, which would mean they could somehow be unconnected. None of this computes in Buddhism. It's not that it's bad or good or more refined or less refined. It simply doesn't compute.

There is nothing wrong with a good story, a story with innumerable tendrils of lineage.

It's just that -- relax! -- there is no lineage in Buddhism.

what do old farts know?

What do old farts know?
They sigh and nap and know doctors' names.
The medals on their chests
Are dulled by now, irrelevant and unpolished.
Their skin is as fragile and soluble
As a number runner's betting slip.
What do old farts know?

What do old farts know?
What do they know of getting laid
Or making love;
Of cars that can do zero-to-sixty
In light-speed seconds;
Of children bleeding in dusty streets or
Dying of a hunger that younger men provide?
What do old farts know?

What do old farts know?
Can their whiney prose keep pace
With a present drowning in the
Brilliant scent of unwritten roses ...
Roses old farts may smell as well,
And yet they are too slow, too slow...
What do old farts know?

What do old farts know?
They wait -- sometimes confined by raging confusion --
While younger voices proclaim what they
Too once proclaimed: Death ... the period on
Some sentence that now declines to end.

How contrary to all that was learned before,
To live in an unremitting zone
Where boisterous, spunky periods refuse to work!
Yet even periods grow old and nap.
What do old farts know?

Friday, January 24, 2014

someone/no one

Mother, father, sister, brother, employer, employee, stock broker, truck driver, soccer player, cook, philosopher, scientist, priest, saint, sinner, artist, child, adult, hiker, hooker, gunman or gandy dancer ....

When others think you are someone, that's not quite right ... it's too limited; something is left out.

But when others think you are no one, that's not quite right either ... something is still missing.

Not quite right.

I wonder what right might be.

girl and the sea

Just a nice photo passed along in email:

"Calligraphy Class" reprise

It's old and vaguely embarrassing, but like a tune from the past, this bit of writing popped up in my mind this morning. It comes from a time when I was hip-deep in the wowsers and lingo of spiritual questing and as such has the effort-plagued intensity of someone not quite sure of his footing yet anxious to show he is sincere and worthy. I never did learn to become a good Zen student or calligrapher, but I did take this

                    CALLIGRAPHY CLASS

His small, sinuous hand moves, graceful as water over a rock. "Like this," he says, and smiles as he hands back the brush. I cannot make the character look like what he has indicated. Impossible. Time after time, attempt after attempt, sheet of wasted paper after sheet of wasted paper, try to find in myself that combination of conviction, intention, balance, energy, attention, whole-heartedness and ease that seem to invest both his movements and the calligraphic results. At the moment, I want those qualities; I want to make them mine. "Mine," now there's a problem.

Across the room, a white-haired woman asks him, the instructor, the thumb-sized Reverend Jomyo Tanaka, "What does this mean?"

"It means 'child,'" I hear him respond.

"It looks like what it means," she says.

What's she talking about? Looking across the expanse of table between us, I can see the Japanese character she is referring to. To my eye the figure could as easily mean "Chinese take-out noodles" as "child." Is she bullshitting in the way of all uncertain novices, trying to find deep meaning where there is only doubt? Or is she telling some truth and having some vision that escapes my untutored spirit? I don't know and don't want to waste time finding out. I am too busy with my own failure which, in general, I find very enjoyable.

I wet the brush in the shallow stone trough that holds the inky ink. The liquid is so black and the paper so white that each stroke takes on a kind of magnified significance: when the bristles hit the paper its Black and White, seems Right or Wrong with a vengeance. In oriental calligraphy, as in life, there's no going back. What's done is done. DONE.

For tonight's two hours there will be a series of characters, but at the moment I am trying to penetrate and emulate the character "Ho," which means Dharma, or dharma - Truth or phenomenon. Following the sample that Jomyo has made for me, I stroke the strokes onto my own paper, following the order he has dictated by little arrows with numbers. While in the midst, I have no idea what it all means any more than a tennis player who is playing worries that this action might be called "tennis" by others. Just hit the ball, banana face! I swing. Another flop: the character is not balanced on the sheet; space-empty and space-filled are out of whack and the strokes are of differing widths and intensities.

"You'll be OK if you just practice for two or three years," Jomyo encourages.

A response barges into my mind uninvited: "I never want to be good at this. It's too beautiful to be 'good' at!"

Which, of course, isn't exactly the truth in one sense. From the outsider's point of view, to practice is to become proficient, to become good at, to become expert. Without practice, there is no understanding. So, if you practice, you get "good" at it. That's the way what's called calligraphy in the west looks to me. It looks "good." Very neat. And somehow studied, like an artistically designed typeface on a printing press. Very nice. In oriental calligraphy, to the extent that there is an object at all, the object is to be original. Like a child: the child begins with emulation and becomes a responsible individual, wholly capable of doing something that may look imitative but is in fact entirely personal, creative, spontaneous, and original. Like a lot of other "artists" these days, I would love to skip over the imitation part and "express myself" or "be original." I come up with the same dismal results they have: skipping emulation in hopes of reaching originality sooner only creates chaos, foolishness, pain, and endless imitation.

At the moment, my imitations are pretty foolish. After eight or ten classes copying the characters of the "Heart Sutra," one of the central texts of Zen and other forms of Buddhism, I feel as if I've only begun to plumb my inabilities. In tonight's first hour, using more than fifty sheets of paper, I've found one stroke that feels/looks good. It is part of a character that otherwise looks/feels like shit.

Down the way at my table, the acupuncturist with granny glasses and a gentle disposition asks, "Will the Reverend show this?"

Again I am pulled away. I get irritated with people whose humility expresses itself by talking pidgin English to foreigners as if those foreigners might somehow be mollified and descend from imagined heights to impart their great understanding. I am the more irritated in this particular instance because I have known the Reverend Jomyo Tanaka for seven or eight years. His esoteric Shingon Buddhist practices are not the same as Zen practice, which I follow, but our paths have crossed from time to time. Not once have I seen him miss a beat in understanding English. Neither have I seen him pull holy rank on anyone. He isn't that sort of monk. Very straight and friendly. I realize that I am irritated with the acupuncturist for exactly the kind of behavior I have first-hand experience with. I, too, have engaged (and might yet again) in the kind of verbal kowtowing that raises the "savior" higher by reducing the self.

Jomyo makes no comment. He borrows the acupuncturist's brush and flows through a character. I go back to "Ho" and try to flow. Creating in the process another one for the wastebasket. Another beautiful failure. Sometimes the beauty of it all just gets to me. Suddenly, on a page where there is nothing, something appears, etched in incomparable clarity - WHAM! - and then it's gone, done, over, past. From the scant number of people in the class - five or six - I know that there are not many who are magnetized as I am. But I am. I am a sucker for what I find beautiful. "Rightness" cannot hold a candle to beauty in my book, and when the brush touches the sheet, that, for me, is somehow beautiful. Over and over again I get it wrong. Beautiful.

Jomyo makes no mention in his classes of originality or beauty or the "life practice" that some consider oriental calligraphy to be. He is very kind.

After circling the room to look at each student's progress and perhaps offer a hint or two, Jomyo is back with the acupuncturist.

"What does this mean?" the acupuncturist asks, forsaking pidgin English for the moment.

"It means 'one.'"

The acupuncturist takes up the brush and makes his move. My eyes follow. Before he has finished the stroke, the word is out of my mouth unbidden:


It just pops out. We are all so careful not to say anything negative about each other's work that my outburst catches me and everyone else off guard.

"No," I repeat more quietly, "like this."

And without a second thought, I pick up the brush in front of me, dip it in the ink, and draw it across the page. One simple line.

And it's OK. I look at it and know it. But my audacity clings to my mind like B.O. To presume to comment. A beginner like me. I shock myself. But more shocking still is the realization that both the comment and the example are on target. Jesus! I feel as if I had laid claim to a force I had previously acknowledged only with homage. It's as if I'd said to the force, "You're mine!" and the force replied, "You betcha!"

Jomyo comes around the table to my place.

"Good," he says briefly, then removes my example to his own seat where he proceeds to write on it in orange ink.

"What does it say?" I ask.

"It says 1986 and I signed it."

I feel a little silly. A single line across a page and I get approbation not only from someone who knows "better" but also, and more certainly, from my self. From a line?! Yup. One second. One line. That's all.
Like all bright openings, all perfections, this one recedes quickly. In no time I am back to the same old mistakes. "I" am back in the saddle, getting in my way, wanting to get it all "right."

But like all perfections remembered, this one stands, clear and undeniable for me, an advertisement for the future. I long to recreate that past perfection in some new way and yet know simultaneously that that longing will have me tripping over my feet for a thousand or a thousand-thousand sheets to come. The central characteristic, perhaps the only characteristic, of perfection is non-attachment. The artist speaks of the "muse" and the musician says "I was hot," but in their hearts there is only mysterious joy: I was present at a beautiful event and yet it was not "I." One flashing moment of I-not-I and then it's back to the wastebasket and the getting-it-right and trying. In Zen there is a saying: "Easy to enter Nirvana, difficult to enter difference."

But difference is what I'm now faced with. Working on "Sho," birth, new. Page after page of birth. How is it possible to fail at birth? Fail at Nirvana? Fail at difference? At birth "I" failed or was missing. Right now how could it be any different? How could it be the same? You figure it: inky ink, white white page, moment after moment, flop after flop and yet, quite entirely,


"terrorist" and "hero"

As much as anything, perhaps, language is a matter of belonging. Belonging and perhaps petition. Language may be better than rocks and spears, but its malleability makes it far less certain than those implements of force. Its warmth and comfort may be warming and comforting, but language is decidedly iffy... as for example the latter-day popularity among well-dressed policy wonks who seek to appease and control an unknowable future by employing the phrase, "going forward."

Strange to think that even as the above paragraph trickles off my typing fingers, still I can become so inflamed by a language which seeks to tie the shoes of belonging and invariably makes a hash of it. You might think that if the tool at hand simply cannot do certain things, I might stop asking it to do those things ... as for example, adequately describing experience. But nooooo ... the imperative to belong lingers and nags and reason is swept aside: It is like some smitten individual who simply cannot refrain from saying, "I love you." No matter that the words cannot fill the bill ... I do it anyway.

The inflamed boil on my butt that brought all this to mind this morning was an invocation that rose up in a didactic fury: "Never listen to anyone who uses the word "terrorist" or the word "hero" with that indolent assuredness that so often characterizes their use!" Like icebergs whose presence is announced by a mere tenth of their mass above the waves, there is an irresponsible and self-serving nine tenths lurking out of sight. "Terrorist" and "hero" betoken a thoughtless, conniving individual -- one whose company is likely to end in a bloodshed that is never their own. This obscenity is cloaked in an almost unassailable group hug of belonging.

OK ... it pisses me off. And being pissed off can seem to suggest I belong ... and perhaps someone will listen to my petition.

It's iffy, but when has that ever stopped me?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

how/why life evolved ... maybe?

Passed along in email, a new Physics view of how/why life evolved.
                                   ... or anyway, that's what I think it's about.

I plan to understand it in my next incarnation ... as soon as I start crediting incarnations.

flab-o-licious fixer-uppers

For men -- and maybe women -- who may be looking for some easy way out of the flab-o-licious expansions around the midsection, this tongue-in-cheek video was passed on earlier today. There's a small delay before the ingeniously flawed sales pitch begins.

untold stories ... photos

A Palestinian man looks out a window beside bloodstains on the wall of a house at the scene of an Israeli air strike in Beit Hanoun, in the northern Gaza Strip January 22, 2014. Israel killed two Gaza gunmen in an air strike on Wednesday, blaming one of them for firing rockets across the border during former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's funeral last week. Islamic Jihad claimed one man, Ahmed Al-Za'anin, as its own, without immediately commenting on the other's affiliation.
REUTERS/Suhaib Salem
Senior Syrian opposition member Haitham al-Maleh sits alone during the second session of the Geneva-2 peace conference in Montreux January 22, 2014. Syria's government and opposition, meeting for the first time, angrily spelled out their mutual hostility on Wednesday at a U.N. peace conference where world powers also offered sharply divergent views on forcing out Bashar al-Assad.
REUTERS/Jamal Saidi
Models present creations by Dutch designers Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren for their fashion house Viktor & Rolf, as part of their Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2014 fashion show in Paris January 22, 2014.
REUTERS/Benoit Tessier
A pedestrian braves the white-out conditions during a winter storm on January 22, 2014 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The winter weather system, which is expected to continue into the night, has battered the Atlantic provinces with gusting winds and heavy snowfall.
REUTERS/Devaan Ingraham

"Bruce Bogtrotter"

With all the other wonders and woes in the world -- the wretchedness of the Syrian civil war that deprives and elevates so many; the economic disparities that have individualized and pointed effects; the prevarications and sage wisdom; and whatever all else -- it is a strange marvel to me...

This morning, like a butterfly floating above an endless sea of flowers, my mind settled and sipped and suckled at one perfect and particular flower, a flower not much different from the rest and yet so perfect as to invite and envelope and fulfill for the moment.

The flower's name was "Bruce Bogtrotter."

Bruce Bogtrotter does not have the distinction of being as non-fictional as the wonders and cruelties of the daily news. Bruce Bogtrotter is a fictional creation in the English novelist Roald Dahl's tale/movie "Matilda."

My own feeling is that although Bruce Bogtrotter may be fictional, still, everyone knows him. Intimately and personally, both in the world and, more important, within -- knows him. Bruce Bogtrotter is the fat kid at an imaginary school for children in the 8- to 10-year-old range. The wonder of Dahl's stories lies in the fact that whereas they may have happy endings, still he addresses the very real fears and thorns that plague his constituency ... Dahl is more like life and less like Disney or white-whine 'caring.'

Bruce is fat. Bruce loves sweets. Bruce is, like the rest of us, not entirely sure how it was he got to be what he is, but he can tell by looking at those around him that he does not quite fit. Different from the rest of us, his obesity and  love of sweets cannot be smoothly concealed: What might be kept secret and under control and camouflaged by others is obvious and vaguely humiliating for Bruce. How he would like to fit in, to hide his failing and be more fluid in life's pecking order. He's a sweet and sensitive person, but when have children or life cared much about how sweet and sensitive anyone was?

Bruce's high point in the movie comes when he is forced to feast on his frailty. The head of the school  Bruce attends discovers that Bruce has snitched some of her favorite chocolate cake. As punishment, the principal gathers all the other children in an auditorium, stands on the stage with Bruce, and forces him to consume the entire, enormous cake.

It's a grueling, inconceivably-difficult task to be forced to face and digest this frailty-made-real ... not run from it or camouflage it or step around it or control it, but eat it right down to the last crumb. No more cover-ups, no more pretense -- just an inescapable embrace which shows every sign of being lethal. The principal's vindictive intent is clear -- she will strip this fat kid of his camouflage and watch him grovel and make sure the other kids see him groveling and thereby learn that groveling before authority is best.

And somewhat to his surprise, Bruce does it. He eats the whole cake. And more than that, he wins the applause of his fellow students ... and the explosive wrath of the principal whose vindictiveness has been thwarted.

Yup -- Bruce did it. Faced the frailty in front of one and all and most of all in front of himself ... and did it.

And it didn't kill him.

Bruce Bogtrotter may not have lost any weight in his effort, but I can certainly imagine that things became a lot lighter.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

the Dalai Lama on farting, etc.

Passed along in email...

Take away its 'Buddhist' trappings and eye-candy, and I still think it makes good common sense:

the scent of a $5 hooker

Precise and powerful as a Bengal tiger's teeth, a winter chill has clamped down on the Northeast here in the U.S. As I understand it, man-eating tigers attack from the rear of their prey and the cold has some of that surprise within it -- unexpected and lethal and inescapable, though of course such adjectives have nothing to do with nature and everything to do with the men and women who make up adjectives.

I wonder why dangers that approach from the rear are somehow more compelling than those that come head-on. Either way, the danger is the same, but coming from the rear seems to heighten the horror and helplessness. What improvement do I expect by facing a hungry or cranky Bengal tiger?

The cold means that the house is buttoned up tighter than a destroyer on high seas. Windows and doors and nooks and crannies are battened down against the onslaught. The furnace and wood stove, bless their hearts, are working well: No tigers need apply.

But was there ever a blessing that did not enrich some curse?

The reinforced defenses that keep the chilly tiger out also underscore the situation within ... in this case the smells of a household awash in people who use cologne and perfume and powerful deoderants. I feel as if I were living in a yuppie whore house. My daughter, her husband and my son all seem to possess bottles and tubes and aerosols -- all with upscale labels and intended to make these people seem better than what they already are. Besides leaving me literally gasping for fresh air, these olfactory applications offend some sense of dignity and delight: It may be au courant, but these upscale smell-goods have all the subtlety of a five-dollar hooker. Ralph Lauren, Yves St. Laurent, Chanel, and scented candles purchased by way of making a wider statement ... oh God! my kingdom for an honest arm pit or unwashed athletic sock!

Nor am I off the olfactory hook: Each morning I light two pieces of quite good incense and place one in the kitchen and one in the living room. They burn for perhaps 30 minutes and play some role in reminding and nudging me. And yes, I like their smell. But when they are done, nothing lingers, nothing cloys, nothing asks for more and more and more of whatever it is that is "better" in life. Gone is gone ... whereas the imperatives of Ralph Lauren, Yves St. Laurent and Chanel seem to be for-fucking-ever!

Oh well, I am reliably informed on the TV and elsewhere -- informed by the mediocre-let's-compromise world -- that there is a product called Fabreeze, an aerosol air freshener that comes in many scents ... one of which is no scent at all. So perhaps I will buy this scent that eradicates scents and bend a knee to a pay-for-it scented world.

It does make me wonder what was so god-awful about arm pits and athletic socks in the first place: Showers and washing machines are pretty good tools.

Alternatively, I guess I will wait for spring and the blessing of an open window.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

hands ... photos

A fellow protester pours water over the hand of Prakrong Choochan, who was killed when a grenade was thrown at anti-government protesters last Friday, during a Buddhist ceremony in Bangkok January 19, 2014. Twenty-eight people were injured, seven of them seriously, in an explosion on Sunday at a camp of anti-government protesters in the centre of the Thai capital, medical officials said.
REUTERS/Kerek Wongsa
Pope Francis gestures to a baby as he arrives for a pastoral visit at the Sacro Cuore Basilica in downtown Rome January 19, 2014.
REUTERS/Tony Gentile
Nail art is seen on the pink fingernails of Serena Williams of the U.S. as she prepares to serve to Ana Ivanovic of Serbia during their women's singles match at the Australian Open 2014 tennis tournament in Melbourne January 19, 2014.
REUTERS/Petar Kujundzic
A man carries a wounded child that survived after what activists said was an air strike by forces loyal to Syria's president Bashar Al-Assad in the Al-Maysar neighborhood of Aleppo January 19, 2014.
REUTERS/Saad Abobrahim

working in chaos

I don't suppose that the comely readers of the Internet would take more than a passing, intellectual interest in it, but, based on experience, I was interested to read about some research suggesting that night work throws the human body "into chaos."

The possible links to physical ailments like type 2 diabetes, cancer and heart attacks seemed a bit tenuous in the article, but the crazy factor rang a bell.

During my time in the army, there was a period during which everyone took turns working "tricks" -- a schedule that meant working six days of day-shift (8-4) with a couple of days off followed by six days of swing shift (4-12) with a couple of days off followed by six days of graveyard shift (12-8).

Everyone was young and healthy and could do it, but there was always a sense of living on the edge, somehow ... of pushing some envelope of sanity. Yes, we could do it and took a strange pride in doing it but, hovering in some unnameable background, there was a feeling that this was viscerally nuts and that the program might, in fact, lead off some cliff into nuts-dom.

Later, and for 20 years, I worked a swing shift for a newspaper. Mostly I worked as a wire and copy editor, but on the occasions when I would try to write a news story at night, there was a sense of carrying some extra weight, as if I were not entirely up to snuff and this story, while passable, was not quite my best work.

Comely readers will note with disinterested accuracy that sleep deprivation can mess with anyone's mind. It's one of the great torture venues of the CIA and other such agencies. But as someone who had to provide for his family and felt he had no other choice, working nights was more than mere sleep deprivation for me. Without any compelling, adduce-able evidence, there was something baseline WRONG about it. I did it for 20 years, but that didn't make it right at the visceral level. It was, for lack of a better term, somehow chaotic... perhaps it was just, as the article suggests, my molecules in revolt.

I'm not sure how this dovetails with the late nights and early mornings of the Zen Buddhist meditation practice I have also been involved in, but I suppose something could be said about that.

But I'm not comely enough to say it.

the good priest

Yesterday, I found something touching in reading a blog post by a fellow who seemed to be threading his way through the personal and institutional bushes of becoming a Zen priest.

Touching, and it occurred to me:
Anyone who wants to be a good priest
Will never be a good priest
By trying to be
A good priest.
But that was yesterday, of course, and this is today.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Fukushima updates

For those interested, a friend sent along this link to a blog that seems to keep up-to-date factual tabs on repairs and stumbling blocks encountered in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown on March 11, 2011.

American history ... wubba wubba

For lack of anything better, perhaps, I find myself thinking about the American Declaration of Independence (1776) and the Constitution that followed in its wake (1787). I am lousy at history because my memory doesn't work all that well, but still, little bits of flotsam and jetsam float around ....

I would be a liar if I said I had not benefited and felt the lash of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, both of them ballsy and revolutionary social documents. Their fallout is woven into my life as an American, whether for better or worse. Whether I knew it or not, espoused it or not, blessed it or not ... still, it is part of my chalkboard of existence.

The flotsam and jetsam this morning includes questions of no particular import. I just wonder:

1. The Constitution opens with the words, "We the people of the United States ...."

How many cultures are there that refer to their constituencies -- whether implicitly or explicitly -- as "the people?" Navajo (or is it Hopi?) Indians do it. Jews, if I am not mistaken, do it with reference to "the chosen," a bit of nomenclature that (I have heard it argued) Adolph Hitler could not allow to go unchallenged since his vision of Aryan superiority might thus be undermined ... you can't have two "chosen" constituencies where the word "chosen" or "Aryan" assumes ascendancy.

And, if my history genes were a bit better, I suppose I could extend "the people" net to the Japanese, Chinese, French, British ... and no doubt countless others. As a phrase, "the people" unites and gives meaning and plants common ground. Much is accomplished. Simultaneously, it must be said, "the people" asserts social chasms and fissures. It relies on people who are not "the people." And deeper in the mix, "the people" distinguishes within its own ranks ... as for example on this Martin Luther King Day when "the people" might remember that slaves shanghaied to serve "the people" were not granted the status of "people" themselves.

"The people" collect their energies for projects that individuals might not accomplish alone.

"The people" rely on those who are not "the people" -- how else could they have an ascendant position?

Social unity creates marvels and comforts and realms of safety... but depends on an unspoken disunity. "The people," broadly speaking, are never really the people. War, famine, slavery, bigotry and various other sorts of cruelty prove the point from where I sit.

On the one hand "the people" are wondrous in their accomplishments. On the other -- and woven in as tightly as two DNA strands -- "the people" carry with them a curse. Failure to acknowledge both is probably cruisin' for a bruisin'.

2. The Declaration of Independence states:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness...
 I have two questions:

A. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are described as being among the inalienable rights all men are endowed with. What other inalienable rights did the authors envision if life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were part of a longer laundry list? Did the authors really think there were others or did the use of the word "among" serve as a legalistic way of leaving the door open to whatever anyone thought of later ... an acknowledgment that listing all of the inalienable rights would simply open them to an attack on their literary or philosophical prowess? Did they really think there were other inalienable rights or did they exemplify the kind of intellectual buck-and-shuffle that lives on even to this day?

B. "Liberty" is not a word I am capable of defining. Or, more precisely, I am as capable of defining it as it suits my purposes as the next (wo)man. But I do wonder if, in some over-arching way, "liberty" might be defined as the freedom to choose a preferred realm of enslavement.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Norway digitizing ALL books

Passed along in email:

Not only does it plan to complete the chore by the 2020's, but Norway also allegedly plans to make "all published content in all media" FREE to all its citizens.

setting the spiritual table

It may not be a precise analogy, but maybe spiritual endeavor is a little like setting the dinner table ... all those knives and forks and spoons and glasses and plates and napkins carefully laid out.

Except for an ego-tripper, the layout itself has no particular meaning or importance. Only when the food arrives does the usefulness spring to life: Only as circumstances arise does spiritual endeavor find its meat-on-the-bone and meaning. If you don't want to make a childish mess, use your knife and fork.

Like the zero which relies on numerical companionship for impact, setting the table is useless of itself.

But put it together with a lamb chop or a bowl of noodles and you're talkin' turkey.

geographical ignorance

Just to note my own geographical ignorance, Africa is bigger in area than the U.S., China and India combined. If asked, I also might have guessed that China was larger than the United States.

US: 3.794 million square miles
China: 3.748 million square miles
India: 1.269 million square miles
_______  Total: 8.811 million square miles

Africa: 11.67 million square miles

T-Rex illusion

Passed along in email:

phoenix time

Two or three inches of snow have turned up the volume of dawn silence today.

The silence will be abetted, a bit later, by the absence of two pretty regular zendo visitors. Bram has a funeral to attend outside New York and Nick is somewhere in the throes of a wedding for one of his friends ... in Mexico.

Death and weddings -- what perfectly good reasons to 'set aside' so-called spiritual life, so-called spiritual practice. Death and weddings ... utterly in synch (so to speak) with zazen or seated meditation, that occasionally-fiery effort in which anyone might imagine s/he was not at a funeral or a wedding.

Yesterday, on a Buddhist Internet site, I was reading about personal appreciations of "a retreat" -- a few days or a week or longer of intensive spiritual practice ... far from the madding crowd. On the one hand, how kind and sensible anyone might be to take advantage of such an opportunity. On the other hand, retreat from what? retreat to what? There are tons of sincere and provocative answers, but at some point, seriously ... retreat from what? retreat to what?

I think spiritual retreats are a pretty good thing, assuming anyone takes their spiritual endeavor seriously. Retreats are an opportunity to be serious in a world of 'serious' spiritual endeavor. Or anyway that's my take.

But is "retreat" exactly the right word? People retreat from something or perhaps they retreat to something. There is a sense of achievement nestled within the word "retreat." It's OK as far as it goes, but I suspect it really does not go far enough... although the only way to know that is, as far as I can see, to attempt a retreat.

Perhaps the only achievement of a retreat is to clarify the matter of retreating. Want to leave behind "worldly concerns?" OK, knock yourself out. Want to settle yourself in some bright and blissful and ineffable realm? OK, knock yourself out. Want to improve your outlook and circumstances? OK, knock yourself out. See a fool, be a fool -- retreats are pretty good for that stuff. And it's not as if anyone could see a fool and not be one.

But once the sturm und drang has settled a bit ... seriously ... retreat from what? retreat to what? Retreat from a funeral? Retreat to a wedding? Retreat to the zendo on this muted, muted morning? I'm not trying to diss anything here: I just think the question deserves asking.

Yesterday, I was emailing with a friend about the resurgence of some bad-apple spiritual adviser -- a manipulator who had been caught out in his sexual and financial malfeasances, had been brought down and thrown out, and now was making a comeback. And it crossed my mind, not by way of surrender, but simply as observation, that "Good, bad or indifferent, the phoenix always seems to rise from the ashes." Is there something untrue about that? If so, I can't find it.

Phoenix funeral.
Phoenix wedding.
Phoenix zazen.
Phoenix retreat.
Phoenix fool.
Phoenix sleazeball spiritual adviser.
Phoenix snowy silence.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

food for thought?

Received in email:

"too many freedoms"

An Israeli draft law that would criminalize the use of the word Nazi in most cases has sparked a debate on freedom of speech in a state that was founded out of the ashes of the Holocaust....
"We allow too many freedoms which are taking over in a way that is harming us," [the bill's sponsor said.]
You can fairly hear a white-whine constituency inveighing against even the suggestion of "too many freedoms." If you curtail freedoms, you invite enslavement ... something along those lines. And there is plenty of historical data to back up the outrage.

But isn't it the fact that parents, for example, routinely curtail the freedoms of their children as a means of keeping them from physical or mental pain? And who hasn't told a white lie or two or remained dutifully silent when asked about a set of circumstances which, if a friend or loved one became aware of them, would cause discomfort or worse?

Perhaps the conundrum is made clear in the joke about why old men don't get hired:
Job Interview
Human Resources Manager: "What is your greatest weakness?"
Old Man : "Honesty."
Human Resources Manager: "I don't think honesty is a weakness."
Old Man : "I don't really give a shit what you think."
In times gone by, there was the admonitory tale about the young mother who, before she left the house, told her children, "And while I'm gone, don't stick beans up your nose." The kids, who had never thought of the possibility, were of course intrigued....

Freedom becomes ever more wondrous with the application of strictures. But without strictures freedom turns to chaos. So ... which will it be? The sages may stroke their beards and suggest that circumstances dictate appropriateness. But this appreciation gives equal latitude to some pretty outlandish enslavements.

I don't have any answer. I'm just intrigued by the question of "too many freedoms."

transmission of the giggles

Last night, a friend and I were talking on the phone. Both of us qualify as what others might call "old farts" ... with all that that implies ... slower, weaker, more forgetful, and capable of remembering other times with an intensity that is not often applied to the present.

"How you doin' ?" I asked.

"I dunno," he replied somewhat listlessly. "It's kind of miasma ... Malaysia ...."

"The weird part," I said, "is that I know exactly what you are talking about."

And the two of us fell into a fit of the giggles: ... an attack of miasma attended by recurrent bouts of Malaysia.

Logically and linguistically, it made no sense at all. There was no reason to suspect that anyone else might find it funny. But simultaneously, for the two of us, it made spot-on sense; it was absolutely true and clear; the perfect description of a perfectly comprehensible state of mind. Somehow, the observation abandoned the realm of ordinary language and entered a world of true communication.

We batted the matter back and forth for a few minutes, putting new and revised usages to work. And through it all, we giggled. It was fun to be silly -- healthy and lively and just-this-side of nuts. There was a subtext danger that the two of us might slip entirely off the linguistic cliff and into an abyss in which words and language lost all coherent meaning ... an abyss in which any word might mean any thing. But we hadn't entirely fallen yet and so, holding on to meanings by a thread ... we giggled.

It has been some time since I just giggled and the delight it brought with it was like a Möbius strip on which the giggles seemed to turn back upon themselves and create more giggles. Reason and reasoning lost their footing -- a footing that was over-hyped by half.

The important part to all of the above -- which is a bit like trying to explain a joke -- is the giggles. Just the giggles. It's like taking a perfect shower in which everything becomes entirely clean and revived and new. Just giggling.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, a friend of mine who was visiting an ashram in India sent me a brochure that outlined exercises recommended by the resident guru. And one of them was this: When you wake up in the morning, and before you do anything else, just lie in bed for five minutes and laugh. I lived alone at the time and decided to try it. At first, the effort was forced and somehow embarrassing... lying in bed, pretending to laugh ... heh-heh-heh. But I kept after it. And suddenly, my gawky efforts really did strike me as funny. It was ludicrous and silly and mildly nuts, but since it wasn't hurting anyone else, I let it run its course. Silly, sillier, silliest ... I just got to laughing without any effort at all.


Malaysia ...


Could anything be more sensible?

Friday, January 17, 2014

donations ... blush

In hopes of getting the zendo roof reshingled, I jumped through the appropriate hoops today and hooked up with a new site to accept donations.

I dislike asking for donations almost as much as I dislike remembering that there was a time when I might have done the work myself. But that time is passed and, although I now live on a fixed income, I still feel a familial imperative to look after this old friend, a smallish out-building I once constructed and is now, like me, getting old.

Through the years since 1998 when I finished building "Black Moon Zendo," people have come in fits and starts to practice zazen or seated meditation. Zen practice is tough, so I never expected a lot of people ... it's too simple and always has been. But the building itself kind of grew around me like a pair of shoes that gets broken in over time.

Some of those who visited were surprisingly serious. Some were curious. Some were awe-struck. Some had term papers to write. Some hated my guts. My old friend watched them come and watched them go.

It was nice to have company, meet teachers and the like, but as Dylan Thomas once wrote, "Time passes. Listen! Time passes." I see little chance that the building will remain a zendo after I am gone, but I still feel some imperative to give it a dignified and well-roofed passing.

Here is a blog post with pix of the building period.

improving vocabulary

Posted elsewhere, but I thought I would put it here as well:

In times past, there were vocabulary-building encouragements that included such lines as "use a new word ten times in a day and it is yours."

Today, I wonder if reversing the process might not also have some benefits ... "erase one word from your vocabulary in a day and see what happens."

It's just an experiment. What word would you choose, assuming you wanted to experiment?

My choice for the day is the word "because."

nothing and something

On a day when a Pennsylvania couple is suffering the fallout from trying to sell their "slightly haunted" house and South Korean conscientious objectors, like CO's elsewhere, are jailed for stating what you might think the military would thank them for announcing (who wants an unwilling soldier on the front lines?) and a Japanese man who spent 29 years in the jungle because he did not believe World War II had ended has died at 91 and U.S. President Barack Obama is scheduled to announce revisions (and if you believe that one, I have a lovely bridge in Brooklyn to sell you) in the National Security Agency's invasive-but-dreadfully-'important' snooping capabilities ... and lots of other bits of news are floating around like bubbles in a shaken bottle of Pepsi ... well, in the face of all that and relatively speaking, "I've got nothing."

Nothing that seems to be something.

In the backyard, a couple of shingles fell off the zendo roof and I have called on roofer to get an estimate for how much it might cost to reshingle. It's not a big job and at another time I would have done it myself. I resent the fact that the "30-year-shingle" I bought and applied in 1998 has begun to crumble in about half the guaranteed time. I cringe at what I suppose will be the indignity of not being able to afford the work.

And, as if to add fuel to the flames, the "donate" organization I am linked to on this blog (WePay) sent me some sort of notification that I will have to revise my connection to them... hook up with some other donation organization in order to maintain my status. I dislike the bureaucracy, but more, I dislike being reminded that asking for donations is pretty uppity in the first place: What tangible service or goods do I offer that warrants such requests? I write and the zendo is open to the public ... but otherwise? There is food on my table and there are so many others who have more compelling cases. It's one of those aaaaarrrrrgh situations. Assuming the roofer does come with an estimate, I can imagine its costing about as much to reshingle what amounts to a large shed (16x12) as it cost me to build the whole structure in the first place ... $2,000 ... and it could hardly take more than a day to do the work. Groan and grumble under grey skies.

The best I can come up with this morning is to be thankful that the early fog is not possessed of sound. Talk about a noisy environment!

Talk about Totally Useless Information!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

"morally reprehensible"

"Morally reprehensible" is one of those nifty, thunderous expressions that requires the speaker to credit morality to some extent and to hope, in all probability, that s/he has or can create a loyal following. In other words, what is morally reprehensible requires that someone gives a shit. What is morally reprehensible is more often than not just what is repugnant.

No one with two brain cells to rub together would walk into a Mafia social club and discourse on the moral reprehensibility of killing other people. Killing is just the price of doing or protecting business. In a Mafia social club, finding excuses is not necessary.

Politicians and businessmen work a little harder to elude the lash of moral reprehensibility. Selling shoddy products works better when the products or programs are construed as worthy or good. A vocabulary of plausible deniability is kept handy for those times when the shoddy goods or programs fall apart or do inescapably-obvious harm to others.

Msgr. Charles Scicluna
All of this mental gum-chewing came to mind while trying to rein myself in this morning when reading about a meeting in Geneva between representatives of the United Nations and representatives of the Vatican in the matter of clerical abuse of children. It was "the first time the Vatican has had to publicly defend its record in what amounted to a courtroom cross-examination where no limits were placed on the questioning."

Monsignor Charles Scicluna spoke for the Vatican:
He was responding to a grilling by the U.N. committee over the Holy See's failure to abide by terms of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child which, among other things, calls for signatories to take all appropriate measures to keep children from harm. Critics allege the church enabled the rape of thousands of children by encouraging a culture of cover-up to defend its reputation....
The Vatican insisted it had little jurisdiction to sanction pedophile priests around the globe, saying it was for local law enforcement to do so.
The Vatican can create and defrock priests, change assignments and duties, elevate and enshrine, lay claim to the pronouncements of God Almighty, dissect sin and salvation, cut off the pay of those who come into disfavor, send missionaries far and wide, open hospitals and schools ... and otherwise wield an enormous power, but nevertheless has "little jurisdiction to sanction pedophile priests?"

The sheer balls of the assertion is enough to leave me all but speechless.

And that's where the "morally reprehensible" gum-chewing began. Wasn't this like the teenager who loves the benefits of getting laid but is no where to be found when pregnancy evolves? The shamelessness and irresponsibility beggar belief ... it is morally reprehensible ... or rather, I guess ...

I find it repugnant.

In spades.