Saturday, May 28, 2011

Memorial Day 2011

I'm sorry if folks have any thought that's political or too engaged or not engaged, but it was a goddam slaughterhouse back in the "Great War."

On my altar at home, in memory of my lineage, I keep the Purple Heart that my grandfather was awarded in that war. I'm not sure what the circumstances were, but of course many, many didn't survive to have children; they lived and died in what has been called, a place with "every corruption known to man."

May we someday evolve enough of a scintilla of wisdom to avoid such carnage again.

Not desirable...not repulsed

I have never watched more than a minute or two  or three of the Oprah Winfrey show (you know, the ones with Barack Obama and such), but like everyone else on earth, I've heard her, and heard her.

I don't know jack about her "religion."  But I do know that this analysis of "the church of Oprah" in the NY Times is deficient.

...The scholars found conflicting sources of Ms. Winfrey’s spirituality. It began, but definitely does not end, with the black church of her youth. In her 2003 book, “Oprah Winfrey and the Glamour of Misery,” Eva Illouz, a sociologist, quotes Ms. Winfrey as saying: “Since I was three and a half, I’ve been coming up in the church speaking. I did all of the James Weldon Johnson sermons” — Mr. Johnson being the poet whose “God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse” was published in 1927. “I used to do them for churches all over the city of Nashville,” Ms. Winfrey said..

While respecting Ms. Winfrey’s use of her Christian heritage, Dr. Illouz ultimately concluded that the talk-show host might be something of a false prophet. That is because, she said, Ms. Winfrey and her cadre of self-help experts treated suffering as something beneficial. Ms. Winfrey turned the black church’s ethos of self-reliance in the face of suffering into an exaltation of suffering itself.
“By making all experiences of suffering into occasions to improve oneself,” Dr. Illouz wrote, “Oprah ends up — absurdly — making suffering into a desirable experience.” 
 It would be strangely masochistic if  "suffering as occasion to improve oneself" exactly equals "suffering is desirable."   I mean, we Buddhists sort of know that suffering is inevitable but to the extent that there is a "point" to suffering it's an occasion to learn to be not attached to nor repulsed by suffering.  Suffering is universal, and that should be an occasion for the cultivation of compassion.

 Dr. Illouz may be a sociologist  - and may even be a good one - but she really ought to learn more about religion.

And Oprah Winfrey certainly enabled all breed of spiritual hucksters and quack snake oil peddlers...I'm sure I must have said something negative about her in the past about all this...but that doesn't justify making uninformed statements about religion.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Haven't had much to bloviate about lately...

Sometimes it's best just to do what you should be doing, I suppose. 

I've been reading more and more into the whole martial arts thing - its kinship to swimming of all things, is intriguing to me.  (Kinship to swimming? Yeah, it's all about the breath you know.)

So much of how one lives one's life is how one physically lives one's r life combined with how one consciously lives one's  life.

Nonattachment and non-duality is not all that different from "being like water."

Really, these guys were doing so much of the same thing as the Chan/Zen folks because they came from those folks.   Whether or not there was an exact lineage or what-not isn't really the point: they put non-attachment and non-duality in motion;  they made it a realized part of life.

And the other bits in one's life are like this.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Myers, Chopra, and 功夫

The word "功夫" has an interesting translation in Japanese; it means either (pronounced as "ふう" or "kufū") as (1) scheme; device; scheming; devising; figuring out; coming up with; solving ingeniously; (2) dedication to spiritual improvement (esp. through Zen meditation)," or (pronounced as "カンフー" or  "kanfū") it means what you might know as kungfu.  You know -  Bruce Lee, Wingchun and all that.

The first definitions - figuring out, solving ingeniously, and dedication to spiritual improvement are  implicit in the juxtaposition of the kanji - the first is that for "achievement, merits, and honor" and the second is that of a man.

They're really one in the same. Spiritual development is one and the same with becoming skilled and accomplished in one's day to day life.

And that's where I part ways with both Deepak Chopra and P.Z.Myers. First regarding the obvious casus belli: I've really no beef - for now - with Christopher Hitchens and the way he wants to die.   That's his path.

But with regard to Prof. Myers and "Dr." Chopra,  I do remonstrate. First with respect to "Dr." Chopra, he writes:

By making belief in God their enemy, atheists deprive themselves of what spirituality is really about: a process of inner growth. There are wisdom traditions around the world that do not use the word God (e.g., Buddhism, Vedanta) or advocate religious worship in the conventional sense. Countless people have seen through the faults of organized religion and turned instead to their own spiritual journey. Hitchens and other atheists stand at the door to that journey and slam it shut, assuring all who approach that to seek God, the soul, or higher reality is a fool's errand. How do they know? It's not as if they have inquired deeply into the great saints and sages who have successfully traveled such a journey. Hitchens dismisses every spiritual person out of hand, which means that he dismisses William Blake (the source of his phrase, "mind-forged manacles," which Blake applied to modern industrial life, not religion) in the same breath that he dismisses Bible Belt preachers.
By discounting the whole notion of spiritual awakening, atheists make a claim to false knowledge. They haven't walked the walk, yet somehow they know, with dead certainty, that Buddha, Socrates, Plato, Jesus, Confucius, Zoroaster, Saint Paul, Rumi, Kabir, the Prophet Muhammad, Rabindranath Tagore, and countless others aren't just wrong; they are stupid and blinkered compared to any everyday atheist today. I have my doubts. The atheists I've met went through a period of personal disillusion with religion, and on that basis alone they became atheists. Could anything be more subjective for a crowd that decries subjectivity? Could anything be more idiosyncratic for a group that claims to represent universal reason?
I'm not on this path not because I expect to become a master at anything by this phase of my life.  I'm not on this path because I want a cool experience of seeing a deity, or because I affirm or deny what any big names in philosophy or religion might or might not have said, assuming they might have existed.  Myers writes, in various places, in response to this:

"Spiritual journey" is one of those New Age phrases that means nothing: it means not going anywhere, not learning anything new, only wallowing in one's preconceptions and justifying it with bafflegab about "spirituality", which is also undefinable and unmeasurable and utterly useless...
Scientists and atheists have set reasonable standards for evaluating truth, and like to point out that the claims of religion not only fail to meet that bar, but also are contradictory, both within and between the different mythologies. We know the multitudes of bizarre spiritualities can't all be true, and given that they won't even try to justify their beliefs with evidence, we may righteously discard them all until they make an effort to show that they actually possess some tiny fragment of truth.

I have seen and experienced suffering.

I have seen and experienced that there is a cause to suffering.

I have seen and experienced that - however briefly,  due to my incompetence - suffering may be transcended.

I have seen and experienced that when I follow the path of the Buddha, the above sentence becomes more true more often.

I take issue with Chopra because he is a huckster, a charlatan and a liar (he has met Richard Dawkins, who would not say that he became an atheist because he had a "period of personal disillusion with religion, and on that basis alone [he] became [an] atheist."

But I take issue with Myers because you just can't look at a friggin' life of many in Buddhist sanghas, you just can't  participate in the tea ceremony in indifference, you just can't marvel at the effects of cultivation of skill for others and not say that the practice of a religion that emphasizes these points is superstition.

Speaking of Hitchens, here's a Youtube video that purports to be of Yip Man, Bruce Lee's teacher of Wing Chun, 1 week before his death of throat cancer. Yip Man, who was known to have been an opium addict at some point in his life according to his Wikipedia page, wasn't perfectly cultivated all the time, and neither is yours truly. But that's not the point.

Somewhere in all that is the answer to the Genpo Roshi/Eido Shimano koan too. I'm sure you can figure that part out. But as long as you've gotten this far, and if you saw the above video of Yip Man, you might as well see what his student did, according to this guy who deconstructed some of his moves.

Yes, at one time they had to rely on skill because CGI had not been invented yet.

And so it is for our lives. Except we don't have to do 20 punches in 3 seconds or something like that.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Sunday, May 15, 2011

How did things get that way? And are they becoming that way with me?

But I think the best expression of this issue plaguing Western Buddhism comes from a guy who is hardly associated with Western Buddhism (but doesn't seem to mind anyone who makes that association), namely, Andrew Cohen.  I simply don't get it; this guy is as phony as a $3 bill. Know why I say that? Read his "declaration of integrity."

Almost from the very beginning of my teaching career, over twenty years ago, people have responded to me in extreme ways. I have been perceived by some to be a dangerous character, possessed of unusual charisma and spiritual energy that could seduce the weak-minded and innocent seeker to abandon all common sense, objectivity, autonomy, and self-respect and become one of his helpless minions—soul-ravaged and mind-controlled. I’ve been branded a pathological narcissist who never recovered from his childhood traumas and unhealthy relationship with his mother and as a result was using his power position as spiritually enlightened guru to dominate and control others in order to compensate for his lack of self-esteem.
On the other hand, there have been those (some of whom are now, ironically, my worst detractors) who hailed me as a spiritual hero, a 21st-century Buddha, a true revolutionary and spiritual activist whose unwillingness to compromise the standards of his own teaching, even in his most intimate and important relationships, was an expression of an unusual degree of courage and a rare commitment to the highest.
I guess it goes with the territory: to be a guru in a postmodern context one has to be either crazy or very courageous—neither of which are characteristics I find it easy to relate to. More than anything else, I’ve always aspired to be an authentic human being, and that’s why the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me, as far as I’m concerned, was a few years ago, after a teaching in North Carolina, when the gentleman who had driven me to the airport told me: “Andrew, you are a real mensch. Even if you weren’t enlightened, I’d still want to be your friend.”

Read the whole thing; it's a masterpiece of a narcissistic lack of self-awareness.  You've read all kinds of critiques of Cohen, no doubt (one of the better ones is here, although I'd have a few words to speak with John Horgan about regarding Zen Buddhism in general).

As I said above, I'm focusing on Andrew Cohen is that this guy, to me is obviously phony.  Here's the intro to a book of his that is supposedly coming out:

Why do some of us seek for higher truths? Why is it that certain individuals are driven blindly, madly, and passionately to transcend their own limitations? Why do we, at times, feel compelled to improve ourselves, not only for our own sake but for the sake of a higher cause that we can sense yet barely see? Why is it that in those precious moments when we are most conscious and most awake, we seem to intuit a deeper sense of purpose that is infinitely bigger than our personal worlds can contain? What is that soft vibration that tugs at our hearts and beckons us to courageously leap beyond the small confines of the separate self so that we can participate in the life-process in a much deeper and more authentic way?
That vibration is none other than the spiritual impulse, the impulse to evolve at the level of consciousness. It could be that same impulse that caused you to pick up this book and, no doubt, that compelled me to write it. And it’s not just a feeling that you or I might have. This impulse is something much bigger. In fact, I believe it is that very same impulse that caused something to come from nothing fourteen billion years ago, that compelled an entire material universe to miraculously emerge from complete emptiness.

Consider these few bullet points:

  • The effect of the first few paragraphs is to appeal, I think, to the part of us that is infatuated with our own existences.  
  • And he's got not only something for the part of us that has a very high opinion of our selves, but also he's got the best most enlightened version of all enlightened versions of enlightened teachers!
  • And none of that, to me, at all, addresses the core issues of The Great Matter.  Really, it's like the relationship of play money to real money.
Now given all the above - that Andrew Cohen is the spiritual huckster par excellence,  an obvious question arises - why did otherwise legit Zen teachers in legit Zen organizations give this guy the time of day?  Is it because Cohen's narcissism reinforces their own?  And could it be that Cohen's narcissism  - or Genpo Merzel's, or Jun Po Kelley, or Wilber's - reinforces my narcissism, my lack of self awareness, etc. even as I criticize them?

That's what I thought as I surfed around the 'net when not busy on my recent Euro trip: Geez, I don't want to sound like those guys.    And so it's a good thing to keep in mind: don't be like them.  Don't be attached to them, or one's own attachments.  Just now.

Monday, May 09, 2011

But seriously, give me a country with a 24-hour convenience store any day...

Where I was's not where I am now...but it's not all doom and gloom, even in those places where financial Armageddon threatens la dolça vida doesn't seem to be suffering.  Now back to my regularly scheduled work...

Friday, May 06, 2011

"Who are you?" and Buddhist ethics and morality

hThere is, somewhere on this site, an assumed fictional dialogue which illustrates how squishy the concept of "I" and "you" are.  Somewhere else on this site was a post called "Everyday Zen" which would make a good feature.  Still somewhere else on this site was the time I added Danny Fisher's first blog to my blogroll - I might have been doing this as long as anyone.

I was getting into a discussion with the Rightwinger at Work the other day, and, thanks to that dialogue being published in the now somewhat dubious publication Tricycle, and thanks to my being aware of it, I   noted that the fact that because the concept of "I" and "you" are so squishy pretty much means that the moment you try to objectify someone and/or a class of people by declaring These Beings Favored Persons and Those Beings Are the Others  that  you are then not talking about actual "people" or "persons" but imaginary "beings."

This idea then informs much of how Buddhists should view morality; it informs Barbara's well taken viewpoint on Buddhist responses to bin Laden (here), which finds agreement with Brad Warner (here) , which finds at least some agreement with "moi" (here).  And of course Kyle's I already mentioned.  To repeat about that subject, it was business.  Leave the gun, take the cannoli.  I'm not glad bin Laden's dead, I'm not sad that bin Laden's dead, but it was just business. I suppose the "r" that I feel in response to bin Laden's death is "red herring."

Philosophy is not worth an hour's trouble, according to the French Mathematician Who Provided Gambling Consulting Services to French Nobility. This is not some mystical mumbo-jumbo or nihilism, by the way, because of course you know who you are! That is, a) if you're aware of who you are, and b) you express that awareness in your behaviors mindfully carried out; who you are is no more mystical than executing a good serve, a proper chord change, or a well chosen turn of phrase.

And that's still too much philosophy.

It's paradoxically seeming not easy to practice living one's life well; it takes skill, but at the same time, of course you're living your life anyway. Nonattachment is a key thing here; I had something really well written in response to Barbara's post on "Buddhist" reactions to bin Laden, but I forgot what it was, and somehow the comment machine digested my comment. Or I hit a wrong button somewhere.  I used to play the piano better too and have pretty much no time to practice these days.  

Things are exactly the way they are. Buddhists remonstrating against those nasty violent people and Buddhists remonstrating against those who remonstrate etc. and so forth are all exactly the way they are.  There is also a direction this post could go where I bring notions of 侘寂 (wabisabi) up again. But I don't have the time to go further into depth in that way, though it might have led to an interesting (to me at any rate) discussion on how the brain being limited and all that makes it relatively straightforward to write a computer program  that beats humans at rock paper scissors unless they are using some external artifice (such as dice rolling with a simple algorithm). Oh well, so it goes.

Now it's time to prepare for the business trip.  Maybe I'll get a chance to update from a nicer place, not too far from Cannes, though in a more Catalonian paradigm.  After the internet ate my comment to Barbara the other day I realized I  get too attached to travel preparation, sometimes. Well, hopefully this will not be the trip to and from hell. And I wish the same to all today.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

My Buddhist reponse to the demise of Osama bin Laden..and other Buddhist reponses.

My first thoughts on the subject were summed up as "Osama bin Laden is dead.  The greatest threat to your freedom is still right between your ears."

And I'm sticking with that response.

I kind of agree with Kyle's bit here (nobody could sensibly, to me, argue that bin Laden dieing the way he did was in any way not related to the self defense of the forces involved and the self-defense interests of this country).  And while yeah, we're to practice compassion even for the likes of bin Laden, given that we are all in some nexus of responsibility for each other.   But the guy and his henchmen were trying to kill folks to establish their view of "heaven" on earth. Or whatever.

But the fact is the media uses this whole TERROR thing - continues to use it - as an excuse to distract you from whatever it is you need to do in your day to either propagandize you or sell you junk or both.  And the fact is you distract yourself with this whole TERROR thing (or this whole THE BAD PEOPLE ARE USING THE TERROR THING TO EXPLOIT YOU! or the whole THOSE PEOPLE ARE ACTING OUT OF UNBRIDLED IGNORANT BLOODLUST!) because the crap you've got to do to get through the day is bo-ring! Or not fun enough. Or too painful. It's, you know, dukkha, right?

If you were Echō speaking to Hōgen, and if you'd asked him What is Buddha, Hōgen would have replied, "You are Echō." 

I do find it odd that there are a few who, when asked which "r" do you feel (yeah, we're all thinking like Tarantino now) that it is neither relief or regret that some folks feel, but remorse.  I could understand relief, for obvious reasons.  I could understand regret, because bin Laden wasn't brought to trial, and because al Qaeda #2 and #3 are still out there.   But "remorse" at this stage is odd.   Yeah, I heard there was screaming and chanting of USA! USA! USA! Ah, so? Is that you? Does that not scream, "Don't be distracted?"

I felt remorse when Katrina hit and I was in the UK, and how people were telling me how sorry they were for a largely preventable tragedy.  I felt remorse for all the indignities that non-Europeans had to suffer in the wake of 9/11. I felt some remorse (but more frustration and outrage) at the invasion of Iraq,  Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, etc.    That was stuff we could do something about.  But when al Qaeda went to war against the US (I felt remorse that there wasn't a declaration of war),  the moral and ethical action was to fight him and his cohorts until they lacked the ability or will to fight any further, and no more and no less. It's the principle of  武道 - būdō - the way of war, you know? 

But geez - if you want to act effectively, compassionately, and wisely  in a world of ignorance and hatred and terrorism and pitifully narcissistic responses to the  misery in which we find ourselves,  how can you do that if you are not acting out of complete sincerity moment to moment; how can you do that if you have decided to ignore the soundless sound, your true face before your parents were born,  or to put it still another way, that you are you?

Sunday, May 01, 2011


Kyle at the Reformed Buddhist has a post  on the horrors going on the world which are almost completely airbrushed out of US media by broadcasting fluff and gossip.  I commented that there was once a great radio engineer (who had the occasional bizarre right-wing view, e.g., opposition to the metric system) who called such media  fluff and gossip a "interference."  In communication systems and radio engineering, we call interference as "unwanted received signals" or often, when the interference is unintentional, as "noise."

Funny thing is, our brains do that to ourselves or at least my  brain has a tendency to do that.  By "that" I mean  make "interference."  Habit and diversion - these were, in the West, noted by Blaise Pascal as forms of "interference." Regarding diversion Pascal wrote (in French of course!)

Nothing is so insufferable to man as to be completely at rest, without passions, without business, without diversion, without study. He then feels his nothingness, his forlornness, his insufficiency, his dependence, his weakness, his emptiness. There will immediately arise from the depth of his heart weariness, gloom, sadness, fretfulness, vexation, despair.


As men are not able to fight against death, misery, ignorance, they have taken it into their heads, in order to be happy, not to think of them at all.


The only thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this is the greatest of our miseries. For it is this which principally hinders us from reflecting upon ourselves and which makes us insensibly ruin ourselves. Without this we should be in a state of weariness, and this weariness would spur us to seek a more solid means of escaping from it. But diversion amuses us, and leads us unconsciously to death.

Regarding habit Pascal wrote:

What are our natural principles but principles of custom? In children they are those which they have received from the habits of their fathers, as hunting in animals. A different custom will cause different natural principles. This is seen in experience; and if there are some natural principles ineradicable by custom, there are also some customs opposed to nature, ineradicable by nature or by a second custom. This depends on disposition.

I agree with Kyle's point that the misery of the world very far surpasses our ability to even know about it, especially with the media with which we have been so fortunate to be able to have.  But we do this in 100 tiny ways to ourselves.  Sometimes, it's out of necessity. Other times, it's out of blissful ignorance. Sometimes marriage vows are read as:

I, ____, take you, ____, to be my (husband/wife). I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life. I, ____, take you, ____, for my lawful (husband/wife), to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.

Imagine if these vows were more descriptive, at least statistically.  Perhaps in addition to this, if  there was a sentence reading such as "I understand that, if you live to the age of 55, that  between the ages of 55 and 64 there is a 10% chance of you  dieing by any cause whatsoever, including a 3.2% chance of death due to a major cardiovascular disease, and a 3.7% chance of death due to a malignant neoplasm" the reality behind these flowery marriage vows might sink in - like those warning labels on cigarette boxes.   On second thought, no that probably wouldn't work - people would just ignore that too, just like people ignore those warning labels cigarette boxes. Habit and diversion again, are pretty powerful ways to get one's self to avoid seeing how one is and what needs to be done.

But my point, I hope, is obvious: Whenever you meet someone, you're meeting someone who's going to die.  Any time you meet someone, you meet someone who either has just been born and is just finding out about the world in which he lives, or has been survived enough to have hopes and dreams and aspirations, or who has had them and may have lost them, or was, by luck of the draw, rendered too insentient to ever have had them, but is still sentient enough to be alive and present on this planet at the same time you are. And  you are meeting someone who will have been able to have an obituary written about them.

To put it in a more Zen context, as Case 7 of the Hekiganroku points out: 

A monk asked Hōgen, "I, Echō, ask you, Master. What is Buddha?" Hōgen said, "You are Echō."

Now, what is the list of things I've got to do today?  Or more to the point, what do I have to remember to do today that goes against my ingrained habits, desires for diversion, and actually helps folk here?