Saturday, October 30, 2010

Another post on "nurturing" versus "marine boot camp" Buddhism

I have sat with two teachers who are women in my days...two of which were in the same general lineage as Barbara O'Brien.  And I am very grateful for their teachings. 


My doctoral thesis adviser was a Holocaust survivor.  Another teacher at Polytechnic routinely failed 2/3 of his class - from him I truly learned how to bring elegance, beauty and clarity and discipline to real world engineering problems.  There's a guy mentioned on the Tricycle blog who says wisdom isn't found at universities, and I call BS on that. If you are in the right place at the right time you may meet a real teacher, even if he's not a Buddhist.

Teachers in my lineage had to endure much in Japan during and after the war.  They had to practice amidst those conditions.  As I noted on Barbara's blog, the great mainland Chinese Chan masters of the 20th century endured unspeakable hardships both in and outside  the temple and not only due to the Communists. 

That's why eventually on Barbara's blog I wrote that the experience of these people - and their students make Nomura-san's experience at Eihei-ji, even if true, seem like a paper cut by comparison.  It seems self-evident to me that there is a point to the hardship at these temples, and it is to teach the student that the hardship ain't nuthin' compared to the unspeakable hardships untold millions of beings have faced and do face.

It is true that, um...hardship is hard.  And not everyone can pass through it - or should.  But to those who can and do, to those who can meet their greatest fear and pass through it, in the midst of it,  there is a skill given that enables one to help.

 Barbara wrote,

But the point is that this monastery -- an all-male enclave in a patriarchal society-- sounds out of balance; way too much yang, not enough yin. It seems that the old boot camp feel was an echo of hyper-masculine qualities of Japanese Zen, and now that echo is fading away.

That sentiment can't help but seem to me to be "out of balance" itself; it seems like she is practicing a feminist reaction to perceived and actual injustices of a patriarchy rather than Zen.  And I'm sorry if she's offended but Zen will still be Zen and the Dharma will still be the Dharma no matter how much there is a Yin/Yang "imbalance." 

Although it's Taoist, and not Buddhist, it seems fitting to quote Lao Tzu here:

When the great Tao is lost spring forth benevolence and righteousness.
When wisdom and sagacity arise, there are great hypocrites.
When family relations are no longer harmonious, we have filial children and devoted parents.
When a nation is in confusion and disorder, patriots are recognized.
Where Tao is, equilibrium is. When Tao is lost, out come all the differences of things.

Do away with learning, and grief will not be known.
Do away with sageness and eject wisdom, and the people will be more benefited a hundred times.
Do away with benevolence and eject righteousness, and the people will return to filial duty and parental love.
Do away with artifice and eject gains and there will be no robbers and thieves.
These four, if we consider them as a culture, are not sufficient.
Therefore let there be what the people can resort to:
Appear in plainness and hold to simplicity;
Restrain selfishness and curtail desires.

Sometimes it isn't a bad idea not to try and fix and improve everything.  The Dharma will still be the Dharma whether we practice in a way too much "Yin" manner or way too much "Yang" manner.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Spiritual Materialism, slapping, punching, hitting, it always abuse?

This post is a bit of an expansion of comments made on Barbara's blog post on women in Soto Zen.  I think she equates some of the more harsh-sounding experiences at Eihei-ji with the kind of testosterone fueled stuff that goes on in football training, in which (full disclosure) the author has never participated, save for quite a bit of touch football games in my youth, and, I suppose the beer-swilled game watching of my later youth.

But what is it then?  And is one way "good" and the other way "bad?"

First of all, let's consider the background of what Barbara takes to be the state of things at Eihei-ji in Japan. Now I have never trained at a Japanese temple; I've sat at Japanese temples (Rinzai),  and stayed overnight at one, but I have never had the experience of Nonomura Kaoru, author of Eat, Sleep Sit.  Nonomura-san writes:

When we arrived, we each laid our cushion and bowls at our assigned place on the platform before carefully seating ourselves in the prescribed way. First you drew your cushion up to the edge of the plat¬form and set your buttocks on it; then, supporting your weight on your fingertips (using all but the fourth and fifth fingers of the left hand), you hoisted yourself into place and crossed your legs, taking care that your feet and buttocks never touched the wooden edge. Under no cir¬cumstances was stepping up permitted, even if you could do it with¬out coming into contact with the edge. The practice of eating is such an important part of Zen discipline that you assume the same formal cross-legged posture for it as for sitting in meditation.

As we clambered awkwardly up on the platforms and settled into place, a small door opened and, one after another, in came monks bear¬ing buckets and trays. Without a word they went straight to work, draw¬ing out shelves along the far wall, setting down the buckets and trays, and laying out small tables on the floor. I watched them, entranced, until suddenly the sound of the wooden gong at the entrance announced the start of the evening meal...

In a Zen monastery the evening meal is not a formal meal, and so does not involve the sacred Buddha bowl. The procedures for the
evening meal and the morning meal differ considerably. Back in the temporary quarters we’d been drilled in all the fine points, but it was so complicated that we were thrown into hopeless confusion and no longer had any idea what to do or which rules were for when. Yet here we were, about to be put through our paces.

Five or six instructors stood planted in front of us with arms folded and eyes gleaming, on the lookout for miscues. In this tense, forbidding atmosphere, drawing on indistinct memories, we proceeded cautiously to lay out our things.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Somebody was getting yelled at before his bowls were even out of the wrapping cloth. It was Daikan, at the other end of the row. Arms crossed, the monks all went over and glared daggers at him.

I managed somehow to spread out my kit and put the bowls where they were supposed to go. But I was stiff and clumsy with nervousness, and when I took my chopsticks out of their bag, I almost dropped them.

Daikan still hadn’t got it right. Now, with all the instructors lined up in front of him observing his every move, he was falling completely apart. “No! You’re the only one who can’t do it! Pay attention!” Another vicious slap across the face. Helplessly, he pressed his shaking palms together. “What do you think you’re doing? Fine, stay like that till you die. If you can’t lay out your bowls, you don’t eat. Remember that!” As this little drama unfolded, the servers went quietly about their business,, oblivious.

Daikan wasn’t the only one to earn the instructors’ wrath. “No! No, no, no! Come on!” As the meal progressed, the yells grew steadily louder and more menacing. The sound of slaps rang out ceaselessly...

For all of us, the acts of eating and drinking were carried out in a state of abject terror. The least mistake brought an instant cuff from one of the eagle-eyed senior trainees standing watch. The food had no taste; there was no sense of enjoying a meal. The pace was fast and it took intense concentration to keep up. Now the chopsticks. Next the lap cloth. You had to confirm each step mentally before you could act.

If you paused to savor the food, before you knew it, second helpings were being served and you had to rush to get your share. If you took time eating that, next thing you knew the servers were coming around with tea, then hot water. Even after we’d memorized exactly what to do and the routine grew familiar, there was never any time to linger over our food.

Eat carefully and you fell behind. Rush and you ran the risk of drop¬ping your chopsticks or bowl. Washing up was fraught with danger, too. You had to turn each bowl in hot water with one hand while scrub¬bing its sides and bottom with the other, and the slippery bowl was in constant danger of skittering from your grasp. When wiping and stacking the bowls, if you got them out of order they wouldn’t nest properly. I have to say that when I finally tied the wrapping cloth I felt intense relief, nothing more.

Our first meal using the bowls, conducted in this highly charged atmo¬phere amid the unceasing scramble to keep up, was over before we knew what had happened. It left us in the state of mental numbness that follows extreme tension. Amazing feats of physical strength may be possible under duress, but the human mind, by contrast, shuts down to the most primitive, instinctual level. Extreme stress and fear had instantaneously frozen the minds of some of us, leaving us literally at wits’ end, unable to do a thing In the end it was not with our minds but with our bodies that we memorized the compact and intricate form and motions, clenching our teeth as we were slapped and knocked about.

Now on reading this, a quite a few warning lights flashed in my head:

1. Did these novices think this was somehow a vacation? I mean, if you're going to spend a year as a monk at a Zen temple, wouldn't you, you know, read up on the policies and procedures and disciplines involved in a Buddhist temple? I  have worked for an employer whose company is based in Japan for over 13 years, and I assure you that I took quite seriously the act of reading all about my employer and the customs of the company to which I would be employed.  It would seem to be common sense to do this if you're going to stay, full time, at a temple for a year.

2.  One of the things that most anyone who's read anything about a temple knows, the evening meal is not supposed to be that important; there is no big deal about not eating an evening meal or only a very light evening meal if you've had your nutrition at the other two meals.  The actions described here are the actions at the evening meal.  In fact, as I'd recently posted here, it's not a bad way to moderate one's eating. And that leads to my next point:

3. That whole description of the rate at which the monks ate rings completely false to me, and I would submit, to anyone who has ever eaten with Japanese in a work setting, except, for business trip situations or where  the -kai meals eaten in celebration of something: see Jake Adelstein's description of the ryonenkai in Tokyo Vice for the exception that proves the following rule:

In a work setting in Japan, all meals are eaten quickly, and in such a way as that all finish their meals at roughly the same time.

That Nonomura-san is decrying  the rate at which the meals were eaten - what is plainly typical behavior for millions of Japanese -  must have brought quite a chuckle to them.

But, what about the slapping, hitting, punching, kicking, etc?

It does sound over the top to me, but then again, so does the complaining about the rate at which the  meals were eaten, so I'm not sure this is completely credible.  But even if it were, what about the tales of the ancient masters, and even the Chinese Chan masters such as Lai Guo and Hsun Yu?

Master Lai-Guo liked to compare Chan sessions to ancient China’s Civil Service Exams. For the exam, a scholar would study rigorously for years, come to the exam, do their best and… Bam! The next thing he knew, he was up in the Imperial Court working with the Emperor and his ministers. The rules in the exam room had to be strict so people could concentrate. Similarly, Gao Min Monastery is well known for its rules. Master Lai-Guo is also famous for being strict in the Chan hall and hitting people with his Chan stick to help them in their practice. Once, a wealthy lay person offered Master Lai-Guo 7 gold bullions (equivalent to US $200,000~$500,000) if he would hit her with his Chan stick to help erase her karma. He refused, saying, “My Chan stick is reserved for people with the potential to become patriarchs.” 

There are a lot more severe things described in the lives of these two Chan masters, but it is clear that the aim of the training is to persevere despite the circumstances.  Nomura-san describes being "numbed" into just reacting with the body to the forms given.  That may well be true, but, so what? It is what the marines do in basic training, to be sure. Perhaps another way of looking at it, is at a certain point it all simply doesn't matter. And that's perhaps the point, perhaps crudely delivered of this kind of rough training.  And the ancient Chan masters, breaking legs, slamming doors, etc., made Nomura-san's experience seem like a walk in the park...but then again, perhaps those stories were over the top, too.

The older I get the more I realize that there's a lot of things that just don't matter that much.  And, as a guy who majored in Electrical Engineering at one of the (at the time) 10 best schools in the country, where we were told in the orientation meeting meeting "Look to your left and your right. Two thirds of your classmates will flunk out," I can't help but think that this sort of thing as described by Nomura-san does not matter that much if the point is transcendence of suffering.

So to a certain extent, at least what is here, the descriptions of "boot camp" at an Asian monastery versus "nurturing" of the Western Zen tradition rings somewhat like spiritual materialism on the part of those who would immediately decry such practices instead of spiritual abuse on the part of the Asians...and of course if you decide otherwise, it does call into question how much else of the Asian's tradition might be fought with ignorance that only the enlightened Westerners can bring to the unenlightened Asian Zen and Chan practitioners!

So, call me skeptical on some of  these points, and somewhat indifferent on some of the others... and, as I noted on Barbara's blog, it's a matter of taste, ultimately.  My own lay parent practice is demanding enough, and frankly, there's much more to deal with than a slap or a punch or a kick, and it's not all touchy-feely "being vulnerable."

Thursday, October 28, 2010

I have some good posts to make

I have a post to write in response to Barbara's reply to my comment here

I also would like to have more of a reply with the Zennist, particularly this post.

Stay tuned; hopefully I'll get a chance in the next day or two.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

10% of the people do 90% of the work...

It is amazing to me how income, wealth, talent, and um...a spirit of enterprise (?) seem to be exponentially distributed...

MOSCOW — You may not have noticed, but since late last month, the world supply of Viagra ads and other e-mail spam has dropped by an estimated one-fifth. With 200 billion spam messages in circulation each day, there is still plenty to go around. 

But police officials in Russia, a major spam exporter, say they are trying to do their part to stem the flow. On Tuesday, police officials here announced a criminal investigation of a suspected spam kingpin, Igor A. Gusev. They said he had probably fled the country.
Moscow police authorities said Mr. Gusev, 31, was a central figure in the operations of, which paid spammers to promote online pharmacies, sometimes quite lewdly. suddenly stopped operating on Sept. 27. With less financial incentive to send their junk mail, spammers curtailed their activity by an estimated 50 billion messages a day.
 There's always someone who's "more"...we seem to have evolved to structure everything we do this way.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Lankavatara Sutra, Chapter 6, Section LXXXII

As usual, I'm using the translation here. First though, it's useful, as I did here, to reiterate Suzuki's introductory material on Buddhist psychology...

What may be termed Buddhist psychology in the Lanka consists in the analysis of mind, that is, in the classification of the Vijnanas. To understand thus the psychology of Buddhism properly the knowledge of these terms is necessary: citta, manas, vijnana, manovijnana, and alayavijnana.
To begin with Vijnana. Vijnana is composed of the prefix vi, meaning "to divide", and the root jna which means "to perceive", "to know". Thus, Vijnana is the faculty of distinguishing or discerning or judging. When an object is presented before the eye, it is perceived and judged as a red apple or a piece of white linen; the faculty of doing this is called eye-vijnana. In the same way, there are ear-vijnana for sound, nose-vijnana for odour, tongue-vijnana for taste, body-vijnana for touch, and thought-vijnana (manovijnana) for ideas—altogether six forms of Vijnana for distinguishing the various aspects of world external or internal.
Of these six Vijnanas, the Manojivnana is the most important as it is directly related to an inner faculty known as Manas. Manas roughly corresponds to mind as an organ of thought, but in fact it is more than that, for it is also a strong power of attaching itself to the result of thinking. The latter may even be considered subordinate to this power of attachment. The Manas first wills, then it discriminates to judge; to judge is to divide, and this dividing ends in viewing existence dualistically. Hence the Manas' tenacious attachment to the dualistic interpretation of existence. Willing and thinking are inextricably woven into the texture of Manas.
Citta comes from the root cit, "to think", but in the Lanka the derivation is made from the root ci, "to pile up", "to arrange in order". The Citta is thus a storehouse where the seeds of all thoughts and deeds are accumulated and stored up. The Citta, however, has a double sense, general and specific. When it is used in the general sense it means "mind", "mentation", "ideas", including the activities of Manas and Manovijnana, and also of the Vijnanas; while specifically it is a synonym of Alayavijnana in its relative aspects, and distinguishable from all the rest of the mental faculties. When, however, it is used in the form of Citta-matra, Mind-only, it acquires still another connotation. We can say that Citta appears here in its highest possible sense, for it is then neither simply mentation nor intellection, nor perception as a function of consciousness. It is identifiable with the Alaya in its absolute aspect. This will become clearer later on.
Alayavijnana is alaya+vijnana, and alaya is a store where things are hoarded for future use. The Citta as a cumulative faculty is thus identified with the Alayavijnana. Strictly speaking, the Alaya is not a Vijnana, has no discerning power in it; it indiscriminately harbours all that is poured into it through the channel of the Vijnanas. The Alaya is perfectly neutral, indifferent, and does not offer to give judgments.
The gist of this section can be extracted from the text as:

[T]he Tathāgata-garbha holds within it the cause for both good and evil, and by it all the forms of existence are produced. Like an actor it takes on a variety of forms, and [in itself] is devoid of an ego-soul and what belongs to it. As this is not understood, there is the functioning together of the triple combination from which effects take place. But the philosophers not knowing this are tenaciously attached to the idea of a cause [or a creating agency]. Because of the influence of habit-energy that has been accumulating variously by false reasoning since beginningless time, what here goes under the name of Ālayavijñāna is accompanied by the seven Vijñānas which give birth to a state known as the abode of ignorance.
 And once more, the theme of the externally perceived as "what is seen of the Mind itself" is repeated:

As to the other seven Vijñānas beginning with the Manas and Manovijñāna, they have their rise and complete ending from moment to moment; they are born with false discrimination as cause, and with forms and appearances and objectivity as conditions which are intimately linked together; adhering to names and forms, they do not realise that objective individual forms are no more than what is seen of the Mind itself; they do not give exact information regarding pleasure and pain; they are not the cause of emancipation; by setting up names and forms which originate from greed, greed is begotten in turn, thus mutually conditioned and conditioning.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Difficult start to the day...

I guess it goes with the territory...hopefully I'll have a substantial post coming soon...but it always seems to take a while after international travel to get back into the swing of things....

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Side by side reading...

A bit of gushing over the Dalai Lama over at the National Post... along with...what's this? a column by Conrad Black? Who's Conrad Black again?

Conrad Black is the founder of the National Post. From 1996 to 2000, he was chairman of the Southam Company, Canada's leading newspaper company. Mr. Black is also a writer and commentator, the author of Render Unto Caesar (the life of Maurice Duplessis), the autobiographical A Life in Progress, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Champion of Freedom, and numerous articles in the National Interest, Wall Street Journal, The American Spectator, and many other publications. He was a member of the steering committee of the Bilderberg Meetings for twenty years, a member of the international advisory board of the Council on Foreign Relations, and of the Americas Society (New York), and remains a member of the Trilateral Commission, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (London), and a trustee of the Hudson Institute (Washington). He is a life peer of the United Kingdom (Lord Black of Crossharbour, since 2001), a member of the Privy Council and Officer of the Order of Canada, and a knight of the Holy See. He has been a director of many prominent companies, including Brascan, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, CanWest, and Sotheby's.

I could swear they left something out....

Oh...they let him out?
Black was convicted in Illinois U.S. District Court on 13 July 2007 and sentenced to serve 78 months in federal prison, pay Hollinger $6.1 million, in addition to a fine of $125,000.
Black was found guilty of diverting funds for personal benefit from money due Hollinger International when the company sold certain publishing assets and other irregularities. For example, in 2000, in an illegal and surreptitious arrangement that came to be known as the "Lerner Exchange," Black acquired Chicago's Lerner Newspapers and sold it to Hollinger.[21] He also obstructed justice by taking possession of documents to which he was not entitled.[22] The case is still under appeal.
The Supreme Court of the United States heard an appeal of his case on 8 December 2009[23] and rendered a decision in June 2010. Black's application for bail was rejected by both the Supreme Court and the US District Court judge who sentenced him.[24]
On June 24, 2010, The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the definition of "honest services" fraud used in the trial judge's charge to the jury in Black's case was too broad and ordered the Illinois appeal court to review three fraud convictions against Black in light of the Supreme Court's new definition. The appeal court will review Black's case and determine whether his fraud convictions will stand or if there should be a new trial.[25] The jailed former media baron's obstruction of justice conviction, for which he is serving a concurrent 6 ½ year sentence, remains in place.[26] Black's lawyers filed an application for bail pending the appeal court's review.[25] Prosecutors contested Black's bail request arguing in court papers that Black's trial jury had proof that Black committed fraud.[27] He was granted bail on July 19, 2010 by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals and will be released on a $2 million unsecured bond put up by conservative philanthropist Roger Hertog.[28] Black has been released from custody and has ordered to remain on bail in the continental United States until at least August 16 when his bail hearing shall resume,[2][28][29][30] and the same day by which Black and the prosecution have been ordered by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals to submit written arguments for that court's review of his case.[31][32]
Until July 21, 2010,[28] Black, Federal Bureau of Prisons #18330-424, was incarcerated at Federal Correctional Institution Low, Coleman,[33] a part of the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex[34][35] Prior to being granted bail, his scheduled release date was October 30, 2013.[33]


Thursday, October 21, 2010

Hsu Yun, Lai Guo, and Chinese Chan Buddhism

It is not often known in the West, especially with all the Dalai Lama Hoopla, but in fact one of the founders of the PRC-run Chinese Buddhist Association was, in fact, a legit, real-life, legendary dyed in the wool Chan Buddhist, Hsu Yun. This was despite the fact that like many Buddhists, Hsu Yun was mistreated and tortured by the Communists at that time.

Both Hsu Yun and Lai Guo (whose Dharma heirs were also mistreated or killed) are today both revered as ancestors at temples such as Wolong-si.

Master Lai-Guo was one of the great masters of the early twentieth century. He preside over Gao Min Monastery during one of the most difficult times in China, yet he was able to maintain all the rules of a traditional Chan "Forest" Monastery. He refused to hold any non-Chan-related activities (Fo Shi), the traditional way monasteries generate income. Often the monks only had rice bran to eat. Once, on Buddha's Birthday, they had no food to offer so they boiled hot water, offered it to the Buddha, drank some themselves, and went back to meditate.

Master Lai-Guo passed away in the early 1950s, a few years after China's "liberation". The lineage was passed to his disciple Master Chan-Hui, who was later classified as a "Rightist". I never found out what happened to Master Chan-Hui. Perhaps he was beaten to death. (Master Hsu-Yun was severely beaten during this time, and his only written work, an annotated Surangama Sutra, was burned. A few of his disciples were executed after being classified as a "Rightist").

During the Cultural Revolution, Gao-Min Monastery was bitterly attacked. All was destroyed including the famous Chan hall where numerous masters became enlightened and which housed five “Flesh Body Bodhisattvas” (Ro Shen Pu Sa i.e. “whole body relics”). Like Master De-Lin told us, “Gao Min Monastery had disappeared.” The place was turned into a sweater factory. Only the old mountain gate, a gift from Emperor Kang-Xi, survived, perhaps because it was made of stone and would be too difficult to destroy. During the revolution, despite the enormous destruction, many things were spared because they were far away, made of stone, covered by pictures of Mao, or protected by monks willing to burn themselves to scare away the mobs.

In 1985, several years after the revolution ended, in accordance with Deng Xiaoping’s “Reform and Open” policy, the local government decided to restore Gao Min Monastery. Elder Master De-Lin was invited to take care of business. He was already 72 years old. “People retire in their 50s. I started working in my 70s,” he said.

It does appear that some of Hsu Yun's teachings survive, however, thanks to Charles Luk.  Reading these teachings one does indeed find strong parallels with Rinzai teaching from Japan.

That Lai Guo and Hsu Yun are revered in China today amongst Buddhists is certainly true, and yes, at Wolong-si, there are people, ordinary people who are learning Buddhism again.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Came back home yesterday... so read about Sedona...

And I am still quite jet-lagged. So I doubt I'll be writing great profundities for a day or's a "one year later in Sedona" article in the NY Times:

Nobody is sure exactly what is keeping people away from Sedona’s four vortexes, swirling energy sources emanating from the earth, but the effects are clear: far fewer crystals are being bought, spiritual tours taken and treatments ordered, from aura cleansings to chakra balancings.

That an earthly power — the economy — is a culprit is not in doubt. But some do not discount the effects of an awful incident from a year ago that put Sedona’s New Age community in a bad light and that, to some degree, still lingers, despite efforts by metaphysical people to cast it away.

Last October, a celebrated New Age practitioner held a sweat lodge ceremony that ran dangerously amok, shattering the tranquillity of a spiritual center hidden in a forested valley here.

Packed into a circular hut on the grounds of Angel Valley were red-hot rocks, seething steam and scores of followers of James A. Ray, a California self-help guru. He encouraged them to finish the final test in his “Spiritual Warrior” retreat, participants told law enforcement officials, even though they might feel as though they were going to die.

Three of them did. Numerous others were rushed to hospitals.

And the lawsuits, naturally continue.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Travel Reading: Tokyo Vice

Since I travel a lot, and follow my father's tradition of taking "junk reading" where I go, I often read to pass the time in Economy Class.  I heartily recommend "Tokyo Vice" by Jake Adelstein as an accurate snapshot of recent years in Japan, though, frankly, it's a Japan with which I am most decidedly not well acquainted.  I am no angel by a long shot.  But I never liked Roppongi (too much like Time Square before Mickey Mouse infested it), and as Adelstein notes, we foreigners aren't always welcomed in Kabukicho.

That said, it is an amazing read.  It follows the early career of Jake Adelstein, a Japanese language reporter for the Yomiuri Shimbun, culminating in his standoff with yakuza boss  Goto Tadamasa,  head of the Goto-gumi, which was affiliated with the largest Yakuza group in Japan, the Yamaguchi-gumi.

This book has it all for someone who might write a blog like mine. It has organized crime (yes, I often quote Goodfellas and Christopher Walken parts to my co-workers). It has Buddhism (Adelstein evidently studied Zen Buddhism while in college, and  Goto Tadamasa has, according to the latest info, become an osho, at least to my knowledge).

It even has the "Burning House" parable from the Lotus Sutra.
What is most important to me is the sense of loss. You cannot read Adelstein's book without sympathizing with his sense of his own wrongdoing, and his taking the responsibility for it, without hope of a "Get out of jail for free card."  Jake Adelstein moved far and wide from the temple in which he used to stay, but wound up doing great good in exposing the very real issues of human trafficking in Japan while still managing to keep himself from being whacked by the Yakuza that was not widely known. And it's written by an American with Buddhist sentiments.

Anyway this book is a great read; it's part "subculture of Japan" you probably never heard about, (OK, maybe Brad Warner did) , it's part Raymond Chandler, and it's part the honest feelings of someone with a target on his back because he knew stuff about the Yakuza

I still have a very good post about the issues of Chan and Buddhism in general in China, and the amazing story of the people involved. 

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Whoa...wait..the US is poorer than Vietnam?

While the devil is surely in the details (that is, it surely depends on economic factors such as the definition of poverty as well as the issues of location and economic status and availability of goods and services), anyone that doubts the US is in decline ought to see what our equivalent of the People's Daily has served up on Hanoi's 1000th birthday party...

Vietnam remains a poor country, with most people earning about $1,000 a year, but it has made tremendous strides since opening its doors up to capitalism in the mid-1980s. Economic growth has averaged more than 7 percent annually over the past decade, and the rate of people living in poverty has dropped from 58 percent in 1993 to 11 percent last year.  

 It may also be true that the government of Vietnam is under-reporting poverty rates for propaganda purposes...but perhaps that is also true of the United States?

In the 2009 [ US Census's American Community Survey ], 14.3 percent of the U.S. population had income below their respective poverty thresholds.  The number of people in poverty increased to 42.9 million.

From Discomfort and Loathing to Awe at Wolong-Si

It’s a rough ride traveling internationally these days, and the prospects aren’t anything but dim for the future. I had a typically more than uncomfortable experience going economy to my trip to Xi'an, where I'll be on business. Luckily I did have time to make it to Wolong Temple. I'll have more to say about this Chan temple, the amazing recent history of Buddhism in China, and the immediate ancestor of this temple (and of Gao Min Temple in Yangzhou), Lai Guo.  He was a contemporary of the other great Chinese Chan teacher of the twentieth century, Hsu-Yun.

This is an aspect of Chan Buddhism, and Chinese Buddhism you pretty much never hear about, in the Western Buddhist media.  Meanwhile, feast on some photos. The first one before is a photo of Lai Guo, the ancestral teacher of the current generation at Wolong Temple.  One of the monks there was amazed to meet an American Zen person, and gave me a copy of Lai Guo's Seven  Chan Gate Record.  Unfortunately my Chinese is horrendously bad - I do not say that I speak any bit of Chinese and would have been thought a complete fool had not some student who just happened to know much much more English than I could type words into my iPhone Chinese dictionary could muster.  So, I have no idea what's in this work of Lai Guo, but if you Google him you'll find out a bit about him.  I'll have more to say on this later.  (Click pictures for more detail.)

Friday, October 08, 2010

Travel and Memories

Shortly I will be on my way on "the business trip."  It seems to be a tradition I have inherited from my father.  It is one year ago today that my mother passed away after a much longer than expected bout with cancer. 

Memories are bittersweet today.  May all beings come to peace with their finite nature.

Good chance I'll have cool pictures though when I get back...

I did say my memories are bittersweet.  Weird. Grief one year removed mixed with anticipation.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

More on Procrastination, Planning, and Dukkha

I have a few more minutes now to expound a bit more on the post I made yesterday.

When we plan, we often think we are creating an expectation about how certain things will be done within the context of certain events we expect to happen.   But as any good project manager or field commander knows,  all plans go awry at some point, and there are still expectations of things that need to be done and events that will happen, as well as the realization that certain unexpected things had to be done or weren't done, and unforeseen events happen. 
Murphy's Law is real, and it is a hindrance, really, only when dukkha is reigning over the planning and execution of the plan.   The "plan" must be carried out moment to moment anyway, even though in the very near term we might value surfing the net over coming through on our deliverables.

So when we regret procrastination - or other "unforseen" events, we are really regretting a realization of a world that never existed, where all plans and expectations were fulfilled.  
Such a world doesn't exist as far as I know, but it is possible to be dependable despite Murphy's Law.

 The trick is neither to be come too attached to the plan or too attached to departing from the plan,  or even, oddly enough the execution of the plan.

The practice of breath-counting in meditation is one of humanity's greatest inventions: not only does it "build up concentration" or, if you like, help you develop 情理気 (I presume I got the Kanji right on that one - it's joriki!) or concentration energy, but it also helps develop nonattachment. Your "plan" of course is trivially simple: count from 1 to 10 in synch with your breath.  But if you lose count, go back to the beginning.  The trick of course is not to see "10" as some kind of success, and not to see losing count as some kind of failure.  Either attachment will of course result in an inability actually carry out the exercise!

Executing all the other plans of life are similar cases, in my experience.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Murphy's Law is a Corollary of Dukkha

That's the conclusion my Rube Goldberg mind came to after reading this article in the New Yorker by James Surowiecki on procrastination.

Academics, who work for long periods in a self-directed fashion, may be especially prone to putting things off: surveys suggest that the vast majority of college students procrastinate, and articles in the literature of procrastination often allude to the author’s own problems with finishing the piece. (This article will be no exception.) But the academic buzz around the subject isn’t just a case of eggheads rationalizing their slothfulness. As various scholars argue in “The Thief of Time,” edited by Chrisoula Andreou and Mark D. White (Oxford; $65)—a collection of essays on procrastination, ranging from the resolutely theoretical to the surprisingly practical—the tendency raises fundamental philosophical and psychological issues. You may have thought, the last time you blew off work on a presentation to watch “How I Met Your Mother,” that you were just slacking. But from another angle you were actually engaging in a practice that illuminates the fluidity of human identity and the complicated relationship human beings have to time. Indeed, one essay, by the economist George Ainslie, a central figure in the study of procrastination, argues that dragging our heels is “as fundamental as the shape of time and could well be called the basic impulse.”...

Most of the contributors to the new book agree that this peculiar irrationality stems from our relationship to time—in particular, from a tendency that economists call “hyperbolic discounting.” A two-stage experiment provides a classic illustration: In the first stage, people are offered the choice between a hundred dollars today or a hundred and ten dollars tomorrow; in the second stage, they choose between a hundred dollars a month from now or a hundred and ten dollars a month and a day from now. In substance, the two choices are identical: wait an extra day, get an extra ten bucks. Yet, in the first stage many people choose to take the smaller sum immediately, whereas in the second they prefer to wait one more day and get the extra ten bucks. In other words, hyperbolic discounters are able to make the rational choice when they’re thinking about the future, but, as the present gets closer, short-term considerations overwhelm their long-term goals. A similar phenomenon is at work in an experiment run by a group including the economist George Loewenstein, in which people were asked to pick one movie to watch that night and one to watch at a later date. Not surprisingly, for the movie they wanted to watch immediately, people tended to pick lowbrow comedies and blockbusters, but when asked what movie they wanted to watch later they were more likely to pick serious, important films. The problem, of course, is that when the time comes to watch the serious movie, another frothy one will often seem more appealing. This is why Netflix queues are filled with movies that never get watched: our responsible selves put “Hotel Rwanda” and “The Seventh Seal” in our queue, but when the time comes we end up in front of a rerun of “The Hangover.”
The lesson of these experiments is not that people are shortsighted or shallow but that their preferences aren’t consistent over time. We want to watch the Bergman masterpiece, to give ourselves enough time to write the report properly, to set aside money for retirement. But our desires shift as the long run becomes the short run..

Why does this happen? One common answer is ignorance. Socrates believed that akrasia was, strictly speaking, impossible, since we could not want what is bad for us; if we act against our own interests, it must be because we don’t know what’s right. Loewenstein, similarly, is inclined to see the procrastinator as led astray by the “visceral” rewards of the present. As the nineteenth-century Scottish economist John Rae put it, “The prospects of future good, which future years may hold on us, seem at such a moment dull and dubious, and are apt to be slighted, for objects on which the daylight is falling strongly, and showing us in all their freshness just within our grasp.” Loewenstein also suggests that our memory for the intensity of visceral rewards is deficient: when we put off preparing for that meeting by telling ourselves that we’ll do it tomorrow, we fail to take into account that tomorrow the temptation to put off work will be just as strong.
Ignorance might also affect procrastination through what the social scientist Jon Elster calls “the planning fallacy.” Elster thinks that people underestimate the time “it will take them to complete a given task, partly because they fail to take account of how long it has taken them to complete similar projects in the past and partly because they rely on smooth scenarios in which accidents or unforeseen problems never occur.” When I was writing this piece, for instance, I had to take my car into the shop, I had to take two unanticipated trips, a family member fell ill, and so on. Each of these events was, strictly speaking, unexpected, and each took time away from my work. But they were really just the kinds of problems you predictably have to deal with in everyday life. Pretending I wouldn’t have any interruptions to my work was a typical illustration of the planning fallacy.

 I'll have more to say on this in another post; I'm just too pressed for time right now.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

If a moral code is not "utilitarian" according to some performance measure, what the hell good is it????

As a systems engineer (communication systems, that is), I likely have a few things that I do not agree with in Sam Harris's new book “The Moral Landscape,”  if the critical review in the NY Times Book Review is to be believed.

In particular, I'm not quite sure a  "purely" scientific explanation can be found for "the moral code."  As I think I've written on this blog before, in systems engineering, particularly in the areas of control systems engineering, there are critical concepts of observability and controllability.  A system is observable if all its states can be observed; that is, if the states can be determined from measurements.   States are those values or conditions of a system that given its history (perhaps only a very limited history) and given an input, the state of the system in the future can be predicted.  Likewise a system is controllable if for any desired state condition there exists an input to bring the state to that point.  In short, it is not clear to me, even if human beings can be reduced precisely to meat machines, that humanity and moral choices are completely observable or controllable, in which case the moral landscape or code will not only always be complete, but complete in a defective, non-trivial way as opposed to those aspects of natural numbers of which Gödel wrote.  In short, there will be unanswerable and debatable questions.

Having said that however,  (and having seen Harris on The Daily Show last night)  I would take issue with the position of the NY Times reviewer, Kwame Anthony Appiah.  Appiah writes:

Harris means to deny a thought often ascribed to David Hume, according to which there is a clear conceptual distinction between facts and values. Facts are susceptible of rational investigation; values, supposedly, not. But according to Harris, values, too, can be uncovered by science — the right values being ones that promote well-being. “Just as it is possible for individuals and groups to be wrong about how best to maintain their physical health,” he writes, “it is possible for them to be wrong about how to maximize their personal and social well-being.”

But wait: how do we know that the morally right act is, as Harris posits, the one that does the most to increase well-being, defined in terms of our conscious states of mind? Has science really revealed that? If it hasn’t, then the premise of Harris’s all-we-need-is-science argument must have nonscientific origins.

In fact, what he ends up endorsing is something very like utilitarianism, a philosophical position that is now more than two centuries old, and that faces a battery of familiar problems. Even if you accept the basic premise, how do you compare the well-being of different people? Should we aim to increase average well-being (which would mean that a world consisting of one bliss case is better than one with a billion just slightly less blissful people)? Or should we go for a cumulative total of well-being (which might favor a world with zillions of people whose lives are just barely worth living)? If the mental states of conscious beings are what matter, what’s wrong with killing someone in his sleep? How should we weigh present well-being against future well-being?

It’s not that Harris is unaware of these questions, exactly. He refers to the work of Derek Parfit, who has done more than any philosopher alive to explore such difficulties. But having acknowledged some of these complications, he is inclined to push them aside and continue down his path.

Now at first glance it appears Appiah is making an objection similar to mine, but I don't think so.  "Science" hasn't "revealed" a moral code (I cringe when someone like,  say, Deepak Chopra uses phrases like "science reveals." It smacks of those miracle organ enlargement/reduction pill ads). True, but can we know another's well being?

Uh, that's what we Buddhists call compassion.  We can't knowthe "well" being of another in its entirety, but we can get that the beings we see and of which we have experience, either directly or indirectly, had existences and senses and experiences as total to them as ours are to us.

In the sense of the transcendence of the suffering of all beings, the moral code of the Buddhist religion is indeed a utilitarian outlook.  And regardless of the toy problems raised by philosophers, the existence of the Buddhist moral code,  by its mere existence, without bombast, shouts an indictment of all alternative moral philosophies, as I see it:  If a moral code is not "utilitarian" according to some measure of "goodness" what the hell good is it????  If it is not utilitarian according to some measure of goodness, then it must follow as night follows day that such non-utilitarian moral codes are themselves morally inferior in a utilitarian sense to any such code that does have a performance measure. 

And on that point, I can agree with Harris, even if I think Harris is overly optimistic about the prospects of science. 

No matter, we humans have evolved a certain degree of compassion and empathy.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Light blogging this week

I have quite a few deadlines at work, and will be on travel on Friday.

Meanwhile, read Barbara's post "The Mystic Eye."  I hate the title, but watch the video referenced there.  This is a good post from Barbara.  There's further to go than what she says, but implies a point I've thought about for decades: what we do when we practice is a natural, original state of functioning of the human mind-process.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Of course...

I think the troglodytes running Walnut CA are in deep doo-doo over their actions prejudicial to Buddhists.

I would also point out that their best response - as I'm sure their lawyers have told them - is not to say a word at the moment.

Recognizing that, I think though that a nice missive via e-mail to them might point out to them that the sooner they settle this issue, the sooner it will all go away for them...and they might be able to salvage their careers. 

One doesn't want to be on the wrong side of a legal action, especially if that "one" is a person who is performing outside of the duties of their office. 

And so while I truly appreciate Kyle's efforts here,  I tend to think this will all play out to a good outcome for Buddhists, because nobody likes to be on the wrong side of a protracted legal action brought about by the Federal government.