Saturday, February 28, 2009

Richard Dawkins has a point, about monotheism

Spritual Hucksterism Part 3+: Rehabilitating Religion?

This whole tiny enterprise might help resuscitate religion. The monotheistic varieties have given religion a very bad name, and yet the New Atheists do not prescribe a method to cultivate good things, though many of them have their hearts in the right places. Many monotheists have their hearts in the right places, too, but lack any sort of moral authority; their branding has been destroyed by the usual suspects. John Shelby Spong is probably the exception that proves the rule here, and I'm sure there's others. But monotheism in at least the United States has largely marginalized itself from any kind of authenticity and moral authority.

But it is false anti-elitism not to notice that many people want to be led. I am shocked to experience this first hand (outside of my child, who, well, it goes without saying wants to be led, kicking and screaming). But there are adults who want to be led.

I don't want to lead or, perhaps more correctly, I don't want to control them; it's a waste of my time and theirs. On the other hand there are some people I have to lead (part of my, job, and part of my parent role), and I want to lead them to lead themselves. Because they're ultimately of greater value in the labor marketplace and to their employer if they can do this. And mutatis mutandis for me.

And I think it's largely true in the society we have that there are people who want to be led spiritually, at the very least where "spiritually" is defined as some moral and ethical goodness; appeal to the supernatural I'm sure is there for quite a few, but they want to be told on or by some authority how to, you know, live their lives.

Such people would benefit from a religion, and too often in the West and the United States this seeking behavior has been exploited. This exploitation - and the coincident theological, philosophical and other moral absurdity that goes with monotheism is what the New Atheists, largely correctly in my view, rail against. But I think that these people can and should be taught to be led to lead themselves.

I think Buddhists bring something to the table in this that the New Atheists don't, and certainly the monotheists can't. We practice a religion, that doesn't need authoritarian or supernatural baggage. Of course this finding the next Dalai Lama at the age of 2 thing, taken literally, can easily fall into the loony category. And these New Agey types, these Eckhart Tolle types. And of course it's easy to read into sutras and what-not a literalism that points to supernaturalism that the Buddha himself thought was best left alone.

If we can get past the looniness and insanity, there really is a crying need out there to craft by practice a religion in which all people can unabashedly practice, explain, and help others.

Serious business.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Spiritual Hucksterism: Right Speech

Soen Nakagawa, a man with his own set of problems, once said something to the effect that even tabloid news could be understood as sutras, viewed the right way.

So it is with blogging.

It's easy, and this blogger's probably as guilty as many others, of affecting outrage and a textual talk radio feel to the medium. It's fun as somebody somewhere else put it; something else to which one can attach. On a big blog like Kos, every now and then you can push the needle a few nanometers. And if you're Kos you can do better. There's a place for the use of speech if your goal is to effect political change for the better, and as citizens I think that's within the realm of our duties. So even though there's a risk of attachment, we can't generally stay uninvolved. That ship sailed before I was born. Even a hermit-monk must avail himself of opportunities to help hermit-monk practice, as it has much in common with those of us who do householder practice.

But what do we say?

What is right speech?

Thanissaro Bhikkhu, an American Buddhist of the Thai forest tradition says:

Right speech, explained in negative terms, means avoiding four types of harmful speech: lies (words spoken with the intent of misrepresenting the truth); divisive speech (spoken with the intent of creating rifts between people); harsh speech (spoken with the intent of hurting another person's feelings); and idle chatter (spoken with no purposeful intent at all)...

Notice the focus on intent: this is where the practice of right speech intersects with the training of the mind. Before you speak, you focus on why you want to speak...

In positive terms, right speech means speaking in ways that are trustworthy, harmonious, comforting, and worth taking to heart. When you make a practice of these positive forms of right speech, your words become a gift to others. In response, other people will start listening more to what you say, and will be more likely to respond in kind. This gives you a sense of the power of your actions: the way you act in the present moment does shape the world of your experience. You don't need to be a victim of past events.

I think Thanissaro Bhikkhu is largely correct, although I think both the blogosphere and the parent-sphere (and unfortunately, the managment-sphere) admits room for harsh speech from time to time, with the intent of helping.

I was thinking about this post in response to another I saw, wherein that person's attachments, and other aspects were dripping from the prose presented in cyberspace.

Not only do I know the poster is wrong, but I could take his post, and line-by-line dissect it. And it would probably harm his current business too, because this rather curious appropriation of Buddhism seems to be well bound up in that person's livelihood.

And though it is kind of damaged, I don't want to take away anyone's livelihood. Somebody might pick up enough of the right stuff merely as a chance encounter with this guy to figure out that the guy is full of brown smelly stuff. And if I went into polemic mode, it would stand me in no good stead.

So with all of that foregoing, what can I say in right speech avoiding Buddhist and other spiritual hucksters?

Here's a few guidelines:

  • I think it's a good idea in general to be on the lookout for pathological narcissism (see here and here for more.) You really want to deal with folks who see themselves as "nothing special" because they are and so are you and I. I'm not a mental health care professional, and don't play one on TV, but you should be able to spot the difference, I'd think, between the Buddhist professional who says he's nothing special and lives it, and the guy who actually does either say or live or both that he's different from the rest of us.

  • In line with that, they should approach Buddhism as something that's not necessarily what they want. They shouldn't promise Buddhism will take you to a "state" that's in any material way any different from where you are right now. They shouldn't even promise that all your suffering will go away. They might say that you might learn tools and disciplines for going beyond suffering and attachments, but if they are advocating the use of "Buddhism" merely as a getaway, you're not getting the real deal, which is simultaneously far more horrible and wondrous and ordinary and elegant than anyone's profundity, especially mine.

  • And finally, beware of those who think they are special or exalted because they've behaved badly. Or not for that matter.

    I've behaved badly.

    It doesn't make me anything other than One Who Has Behaved Badly (and isn't doing it now).

    On the other hand, and I've said/wrote this many times: I want to learn tennis from a tennis pro, somebody that has played the game themselves. If you want to learn signal processing, frame theory, and statistical decision theory, talk to me. I can even teach you how to do the preliminary meditation work that beginners do in zazen.

    I would not go to someone who has been a total failure even if they've admitted they're a failure at whatever they're preaching on. They generally don't have good advice. And if they don't demonstrate the skill or experience to live well, well, it's a good chance that taking their advice might not be a productive use of your time, and that time's quite limited.

That should take care of things for today.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Sort of goes with the last few posts...

I don't quite know why, but it seems appropriate.

Geez, I wish I could play a musical instrument like that.

Then again, I'm happy enough to be able to play one to enjoy myself.

More on flu practice

I'm getting over the flu, slowly.

It is a different disease than the common cold. This particular version seems a bit - just a bit - milder than some colds I remember having, but the scary thing to me was the dizziness that would come all of a sudden. Short answer for the difference: Cold: sore throat goes away rather quickly followed by sinus infection. Flu: minimal sinus infection if any, but throat, chest infection with ridiculously unproductive cough. And fever. If you've got an unproductive cough and a fever for more than 2 days, don't call it a cold. It's likely flu. And don't mess with it; its pedigree includes ancestors which helped kill tens if not hundreds of millions.

The flu is designed to mutate. If you get it, and you know you get it, you should avoid being around people with compromised immune systems. It might be fatal to someone like that.

It is remarkably elegant in its ability to mutate, and perhaps mutate into a variety that can be highly lethal.

I'm not going to die of this flu. I'm going to die, like everyone else.

But this flu is "Here's a little taste of death!" And an elegant, beautiful taste of death if you start to understand how this little (living???) chemical infects you.

Everyone, take care. If you get the symptoms like the above, pretend you're a hermit, for the sake of your fellow human beings. Because spreading this crap helps it get a chance at becoming more virulent. Look it up if you don't believe me.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Correct that: Having a flu practice

Knowing the origin of the flu viruses gives me respect for the fact that I'm under the weather in a different way than rhinoviruses would provide.

How to know? Google it.

If, like me, it's been 4 days with a fever, chances are very likely it's not the common cold.

And unlike the common cold, the incubation period for the flu isn't 48 hours, which means it can spread rather fast.

More on diseases and Buddhism to follow...

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Having a Cold Practice...

Lots to get done at work. It might be difficult to mess with likelihood ratios when there's some kind of infection running from the back of my head to my upper chest.

Not as bad as other times, but you can't be in work these days feeling like this.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Why practice?

Why a spiritual practice?

Because you're alive, dammit. Do being alive!

It's living well that doesn't cost a dime. True, you'll probably not have your own section of schlock to hawk in Macy's but you will live better than you can imagine Martha Stewart might.

Why do I do zazen?

Yeah, like Warner, I feel worse when I don't do it.

The practice helps one to replicate thinking patterns that happen throughout the course of the day, when it'd be really advantageous to actually be a "zen master" instead of simply playing one on a cushion.

Evidently though, you've got to play one on a cushion in order to be one at the most critical and mundane points in your life.

Friday, February 13, 2009


I just realized that as an ex-Catholic I have something to say about the state of Catholicism and Buddhism.

And I realized there's stuff to be said.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Yeah, I know, this is like shouting theatre in a crowded fire, as Abbie Hoffman said.

I was thinking about a post on Kos by Kos about why some folks were not using pseudonyms anymore, and was thinking that there is especially today, a good case for pseudonyms, or usage of names like my Buddhist name. Sometimes, it's better for folks on line not to know what's written on your driver's license. Moreover, this Dogo Barry Graham thing (first brought to my attention by a comment by "zenwatch" on one of Brad Warner's recent posts here) is worth a blog post at least, as to the hazards of what can happen to your reputation on line, rightly or wrongly.

This is case in point as to why sometimes, though people get in trouble as a result of lawyers every day, sometimes, it's better to listen to them. Now I'm not a lawyer, and don't play one on TV, but having been subpoenaed to give testimony at a patent infringement litigation in the past year, it seems to me that this dispute is not going in a good direction, and I would strongly suggest that the principals involved tone it down, cool it, and if they don't believe me they should actually talk to a lawyer, preferably in meat-space.

It seems that the blogosphere is erupting in charges and counter charges regarding Dogo Barry Graham and Kobutsu Shindo ("Old Buddha New Way") Malone (see here, and here for example).

Given that Kobutsu Shindo Malone ("Old Buddha New Way") and Dogo Barry Graham both seem to derive some source of income it would seem they would be somewhat prudent in hurling this type of stuff across the internet because words like "libel" and "defamation" and "subpoena" might be hurled back at them.

It's not fun to be subpoenaed, even if you didn't do anything wrong, and even if you didn't commit any crimes. If subpoenaed, you will be put in a position where one of two people (at least!) is trying to get you to either conform to a narrative which may or may not conform to reality or get you to make it look like you're perjuring yourself in order to avoid admitting to their false narrative. And (the really frustrating thing!) there's an ethical background to all of this.

So my advice to these gentlemen is to cool it (and it appears that this is what Graham intends to do, to his credit). It is one thing to say, as Brad Warner does, that what Genpo Merzel does is nonsense, because that concerns largely matters of religious belief, and since it's all "he said she said" nobody's going to get sued over it. But when you're talking about faked credentials, you'd better have evidence that stands up in court. I don't know how much these guys make, but it'd be worth it for them to pay a lawyer for 1 hour's worth of time, reviewing a "cease and desist" letter that anyone could write. It's probably worth it even though undoubtedly the Zen master business pays far less than what I'm doing at the moment.

Full disclosure: I have no knowledge of any facts of this other than what I've seen referenced above. However, given that the situation appears to be a zero-sum game (either Malone's right or Graham's right in at least some of the scurrilous facts) I really don't like to see this, I know that it is troubling and stressing out the principals, but unfortunately all I can do is blog in response.

And I'd also recommend folks to read the Stuart Lachs stuff on the 'net about teachers and credentials, and check your teacher (or any professional for that matter!) if what he or she starts saying or doing is widely at variance with what you know of as the morals and ethics or basic facts of a situation.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Did you miss that 2nd Cuban missle crisis on TV?

OK, it wasn't the Cuban missile crisis replayed.

But apparently recently we came rather close to complete annihilation of the US economy.

Heckuva job, Hank!

"Things happen for a reason"

They often appear to do so, indeed. Some things though are the inevitable clash of human behaviors, and if you're observant enough, you might be able to see some of the past in the present, and some of the future in the present, and be able to make the world a slightly better place, all because of some wrong done you eons and eons ago.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

And yes, the obligatory waterfall...

And now, your moment of Pacific Northwest...

As they say, don't tell anyone it doesn't always rain here,

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Brad Warner: Zen Master Brilliant Marketer

A book about loss in the stores now?

Seriously, good work, Mr. Warner.

Good points Mr. Cohen re: Mr. Warner's book:

Yes, even a Zen teacher can lose his balance, let emotions run to excess, get trapped in greed anger or ignorance, get flooded by panic. A Zen teacher can sometimes fall off the addiction wagon, get taken over by pettiness or resentments, get trapped in all kinds of harmful behaviors. Great Point! Yes, it has happened to many teachers, maybe most teachers at some point. They are people, and people can lose their balance...

Buddhist practice done right can free us from (not depression, fear, anger, etc.) but being PRISONERS trapped by those things, who cannot escape from that...

It is like a bicycle rider who can't keep balance on his bike, panics, loses control, runs into the bushes and falls off the bike. It is not that such a person has discovered the "secret" of bike riding. It is that such a person is a BAD BIKE RIDER!

Our Zen practice is about riding with grace no matter what bumps and turns the road throws at us. No matter what logs or potholes there are in the road, we go forth.

Sure, sometimes even the best bike rider will go tumbling off his seat. We should honor that fact, and when you fall ... fall.

But beware any "bike master" who tries to sell the public that riding his bike like an ass, and running into ditch after ditch, is expert riding!

Which relates to something I said somewhere else: it's got to do with skill.

One does not need to throw up a lot of ideology into one's brain, one needs instead to cultivate the skill and grace of being able to deal wisely and compassionately with those who are not privy to what's in your brain.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Spiritual paths a.k.a. religious paths and science.

Whenever I hear, "spiritual, not religious" I detect a huckster, one way or another. Give me an out-and-out non-religious non-spiritual dyed in the wool atheist god-hater over anyone trying to sell a "spiritual not religious" "program," or one of those fundamentalist Christians who want to pretend they're not fundamentalist Christians so they can make a convert

Why the fuss? Aren't there really people who are spiritual, not religious, just like there's martinis that are shaken, not stirred? Ah, no.

The reason is because there are definitions in the dictionary that fit religious as opposed to spiritual not religious, and those definitions comport with how I use the word "religion" or "religious" and how the words are commonly used. You can read on line all about cult-speak and how cults invent their own languages and all that, and to some extent that line of thinking's false because any sufficiently complex body of concepts is going to have jargon in it just to avoid making expositions of itself unwieldy. But to some extent there's truth in that, if only because people often want to bullshit themselves into thinking they're not bullshitting themselves. From a Buddhist point of view, it's that attachment thingy, and some Buddhists have it too, I would posit.

OK, so we're talking religious paths.


I am an applied scientist by training; an engineer who specializes in the research and development of communication systems. Many religious folks often don't realize or don't like that what science does is applied phenomenology. We don't do first causes, and this is especially true for engineering. The underlying cause of noise in a communication system, though often interference of man made or natural objects or beings, or due to remnants of the Big Bang, is irrelevant to the desgin of the system; its mathematical characterization is devoid of any unique "primary" or "first" expression (one of the beauties of probability and measure theory is the ability of the theory to express an encompassing "bracketing" this way). And even to a theoretical physicist studying the Big Bang, those phenomena that are not able to be observed, even by inference, are irrelevant to his studies. So Mr. First Cause can't get out of his brackets, and whether you're an Evangelical Protestant or a Hindu or Muslim or Atheist or Buddhist, a competent scientist will not try to peddle metaphysics as physics or any other branch of science.

In a sense, Buddhism is very scientific because it's observation oriented (i.e., mindfulness), but on the other hand, it is a great disservice to both science and Buddhism to say that one predicts the other, or that one is enclosed in the other or some such hooh-hah. They don't. They're different systems of thought, ultimately, though both involve some degree of observation, or recognize limits to which observation can be used. So to a certain extent I have to be put down in the "nonoverlapping magisteria" category of people in this side of the debate, though my argument, I think, is not from any deep metaphysics but from the fact that I don't find much use in traipsing down lines of thought like that. I don't want - yet - science to influence the core of my practice and vice versa. There's a reason my Ph.D. advisor was not a roshi and my Zen "teacher" is not a Ph.D. in engineering, and if I were ever to wear both hats I'd want to keep these things relatively separate because I think it's a bit arrogant and self centered to declare there are universal ways of combining these. Or not.

All of that said, I have a standing idea kicking back in my head to ask P.Z. Myers or Richard Dawkins about how to instill disciplined ethical behavior from a naturalist viewpoint. I admire the wit of the men and their principled and passionate lack of reverence for monotheistic religions, but I do think training, the practice of skill and discipline, and those aspects of a religion are not only useful, but damn near essential to live well in the healthiest sense of the word, and despite the chuckling I get from Myers and Dawkins, this aspect remains in my mind. It's telling in Dawkins' book that religions like Buddhism are ignored - or that others relegate Buddhism to "philosophy" as a way of saying "I don't mean your religion." is a religion. It's skills and rituals and practices and ethical guidelines and even a (near) metaphysic about the nature of beings, Being and so forth.

Even if the metaphysic is wrong, pragmatically, doesn't the skill produce better people? It would seem to be so for Buddhists: we don't get divorced compared to people in other religions, we're healthier, we tend to stay out of prison, and so forth, according to statistics I've read, but won't source due to time limitations. We're less stressed out, though sometimes my wife would dispute that with me.

In short, there's reasons for religions that aren't entirely bad, and science should be science and religion should be religion. But try to avoid junk science and junk religion, and without being disrepsectful of anyone in particular, we must submit that there is junk religion out there.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Speaking of identity politics

I also didn't know that Peter Brimelow of is evidently some kind of racist kook.

It's sick that they publish him.

But between that article, and the one below about lesbian feminist separatist what-nots, I guess I finally figured out "where I fit in" after the weirdness of the 50s and 60s and coming at pretty much the beginning of the end of the Baby Boom.

I guess my sub-generation - more or less Obama's (I'm only 4 years or so older than him) - gets to deconstruct the identity politics, the hippie stuff, the right-wing reaction to the hippie stuff and all that.

Good time to do Middle Way Mahayana stuff...

Chinese New Year Vancouver WA

While performances of local talent were going on, the kids not performing pretended they were in a Benevolent Association...

Yeah, the kids are all right...

The folks on the right don't get it, but the local & state politicians do get the fact that these are the folks who make or break the tax base in these hard times.

And they bring a heck of a lot to the cultural life of the area.