Monday, October 31, 2011

Bruce Lee: A re-assessment of sorts ...or, an appreciation

In my recent study of Wing Chun - in anyone's study of Wing Chun - the name of Bruce Lee is bound to be mentioned sooner or later.

In most folks of my era, the name connotes movies with bad dialog, extreme violence, overly punchy soundtracks, and all the cliches of grindhouse cinema to which  Quentin Tarantino paid homage in his recent movies. One particularly egregious example of this is Fist of Fury, which as it happens, is the Hong Kong version of Zorro or Zatoichi, and is in fact related tangentially to a real life person, Huo Yuanjia, which Jet Li portrayed in FearlessFist of Fury was recently remade as Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen.

Yet the utter crappiness the production values of Fist of Fury, or a movie like Way of the Dragon obscures the fact that the guy making - and in some cases, writing, and directing these movies - was highly talented beyond physical prowess, and much of the reason for the production values has to do with how Asians were cast in movies at the time and their overall opportunities in world media then, and the fact that movies in the west were (and are) heavily censored, as witnessed by how, say, Michael Moore's recent movies received much more revenue per screen than those really crappy Hollywood "blockbusters."  If you watch Fist of Fury after watching Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen, then first you will think, after watching the later made movie, that the Chinese are being hard on the Japanese; but then after watching the Lee movie you will be astonished at how the Japanese aggression in China is almost completely airbrushed out of the Lee movie!

People just aren't aware of how propagandized they are, even via those Hollywood "blockbusters."

I can't believe how much money Johnny Depp gets for portraying a pirate with makeup.  But I digress. Slightly. It's an interesting comparison - Depp versus Lee.  Maybe there's aspects of Depp's career where he influenced later films, but I'm not aware of them...but even in a movie such as Fists of Fury/The Big Boss Lee was able to do things as a director which changed the way such films are made.

But enough of that...if you go searching around Youtube, you'll find links to a 1970s interview Lee did with one Pierre Burton.  In it, Lee talks about his own teaching style as that which is done not to get his students to become good fighters, but to express themselves.  In so doing, he goes around, as best he can, to explain the concept of non-duality; it is simply amazing that he is speaking this language in the 1970s, and doing so completely without the Buddhist narratives that undoubtedly influenced his own studies (either implicitly or explicitly).  But it is undeniably non-duality  of which he's speaking, and it's telling that this non-duality permeated who he was.  It should give us something on which to ponder.

He knew what he was after.  It's a pity he died so early; the successors in the movie world from the West are more second rate it somebody else somewhere wrote, Lee practically invented the role of the "action hero."   It is sad that we got the future governor of California instead of more non-duality from Lee...

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

And something about New Atheists...

Danny Fisher gets to interview Stephen Batchelor, who comments on the so-called "New Atheists"...

I think in some respects the militancy of their atheist rhetoric has obscured a rather more nuanced attitude to questions of religious experience that comes through elsewhere in their writings. The problem with emphasizing the word “atheist” is that it paradoxically keeps one in thrall to the language of theism. The Buddha was certainly an atheist in the literal sense, i.e. there is no need to speak of God (or any of His surrogates, e.g. Truth) to understand or practice the Dharma, but he has no need to rant against the Deity.  On the few occasions in the suttas where he does address the question of God, he simply makes fun of the idea and moves on.  I consider him to be an ironic atheist.  Buddhists can nonetheless learn from the new (and old) atheists to be more alert to the subtle (and less subtle) ways in which theistic ideas have often infiltrated Buddhist teachings under different guises. I have noticed how terms such as the “Unconditioned,” the “Deathless,” and even “Buddhanature” are often interpreted in a quasi-theistic way.  I find the uncritical enthusiasm for Advaita Vedanta among some Western Buddhists equally alarming in this regard too.

On the other hand, I feel that Buddhism could offer the new atheists a way of life that provides both a coherent philosophy and meditative discipline which might help them realize fully their spiritual and religious longings without any need at all to use theistic language.

 Well, "alarming" is not a word I would use,  regarding enthusiasm for Advaita Vedanta, but yeah, of course"atheism" puts a question in an opposite position to theism.

But this position of Batchelor's: beyond magical thinking, is close to my view, though I think the other thing we Buddhists offer the world is a more practical down to earth take on non-duality.  It's a very useful thing in day-to-day living for me.

It's a nice encapsulation of why I find the uproar regarding New Atheists a bit unjustified from the Buddhist community.   If your way can't stand up to these guys, check your way; it might be these guys have a point, or that you are still somewhere in thrall to theistic concepts. 

It says something about Americans...

I am finally 1 week + back from my travels & am able to write a blog post; there were "intervening things" that sucked up some of my time in the interim. 

The place where I usually go in Japan was strangely normal, except in places along the sidewalk, where it was crystal clear where the earth moved - and it moved enough to upend the sidewalk for several inches. But the buildings were completely intact. Score one for Japanese civil engineering.

Now it's close to Halloween.  I've not been scared, truly scared, in a movie in decades.  I don't expect to be.  My nephew in law, about 25, explained to me that he didn't watch violent movies because he found them disturbing.  Me, I find real, pointless violence disturbing.  And I'm not that much interested in pretend horror.  But this  says something about Americans - and evidently a good slice of American culture:

The challenge is not size or money. Universal spends millions to stage and market its Halloween Horror Nights, which this year include eight haunted houses and multiple “scare zone” street parties on 25 nights. No, the scarce resource is ideas: coming up with new ways to entertain a “been-there, screamed-at-that” customer base raised on torture movies like “Saw” and bloody video games.
“These people are paying to get the bejesus scared out of them, and every year it gets harder,” said Patrick Braillard, a show director for the park. “We look at each other and say, ‘What’s left to do?’ ”
It’s no small worry. This movie-centered theme park, owned by Comcast’s NBC Universal, would not provide Halloween-related financial details, but the revenue appears to be considerable. Entry to Horror Nights starts at $42 (although discounts are available), and analysts estimate that as many as 500,000 a year have attended. Add in sales of beer, food and merchandise, and substantial profits are at stake.
Desperate to increase their off-season business, theme parks started circling Oct. 31 on their calendars in the late 1990s, led by Universal on the East Coast and Knott’s Berry Farm in California. It was a smart call: America’s obsession with Halloween as a cultural event was just starting to spike, and even in a stagnant economy, the growth shows few signs of slowing. The National Retail Federation estimates that total Halloween spending in the United States this year will total $6.8 billion, up from $3.3 billion in 2005.
Along the way, theme parks have played a major role in globalizing the holiday. Universal Studios Singapore is holding its first Horror Nights this year, for instance, while Disney now mounts Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween events at its parks in Paris, Hong Kong and Tokyo, as well as the United States.

By the way, it would seem to me that the scariest thing should be the most ordinary: it would seem that putting ordinary people - confederates of the show -  mixed in with the paying customers - who either get violently ill, go crazy, etc. and then engage in staged violent acts against each other pretending their part of the crowd- now that might be really scary. 

But it says something, I guess, that these extravaganzas don't go there.  Probably people just want escape.   Maybe their own world is scary enough for real. Maybe their own death is scary enough.  I don't know. I'll almost certainly be engaged in practice that night.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Travel Reading: "Just Friends"

I'm reading "Just Kids,"  by Patti Smith.   It's kind of unusual travel reading for me, because normally I tend towards history, or if it's about someone's life, it's usually a biography, not really a memoir.  In fact, it's one of the few memoirs I've ever read - if you don't count Hakuin.  But I figured the woman who could write "We worship the flaw. The belly.  The mole on the belly of an exquisite whore. You spare the child and spoil the rod I have not thrown myself to god"  could put together compelling prose too. That's true.

It's an interesting comparison, Hakuin and Patti Smith.  Smith's book must have been quite a cathartic experience for her, since it is so honest and raw.  Much as I admire Hakuin, I can't say he ever moved me emotionally the way Smith does.

I never crossed paths with Patti Smith - a friend from high school once met her on the subway at 2 in the morning somewhere in downtown NY.  But her story is in some ways very much a story that rings true of a subset of New York at a time and place in the same way that Goodfellas does (with different subsets of course).  Both subsets ring true for me because I've observed both of them; the latter as a Long Island kid who lived in a South Shore neighborhood that was really "Brooklyn  continued by other means."  The Gambinos lived a few miles away.  Regarding Smith's milieu,  I used to share an apartment with a guy who was in a band who schlepped to CBGB from the Island every week for one or two nights a week to play in his reggae band. I know people that went to Pratt. 

But I was but a tourist comparatively speaking.  In the time frame when Smith and Mappelthorpe were starving in Manhattan I was in grammar school - and the lower middle class lifestyle my parents chose to lead reflected something in-between Smith's and Mapplethorpe's families, but culturally closer to the latter. But byy the time my friends were playing CBGB's it was the late 70s, I was out of college, and making a fairly decent living that never really allowed me discomfort.  I just dropped in whenever I had the opportunity.  Whatever discomfort I later had, due to my own ignorance, happened only much later, when I was doing my doctoral thesis.  And her telling the tales of Manhattan ring true because in my lifetime there it was possible to bump into all kinds of people; the famous, the movers and shakers, the artists, the bums, the grifters, were all crowded onto that tiny island and still are.  

Much of Smith's and Mapplethorpe's ideas of art as they speak of it seem sort of repugnant to me; though oddly enough the religious iconography phase of theirs I could well understand.  I came to a similar appreciation, as did one of my best friends, who experimented with iconography in comic strips.  He sort of drew R. Crumb meets the Orthodox iconographic artists. Regarding Mapplethorpe, I don't believe there was much esthetically in what he did until he started with that photography thing, which eventually became the meme that made Mark Wahlberg's career.

But there's a lot I don't get about a lot of art.  I do agree with Patti Smith's assessment of Warhol. I don't care much for Campbell's soup and I don't care much for the cans.   I also realize that there's tremendous skill involved in the creation of art;  as my experiments with Eastern calligraphy reveal in the absence of any kind of skill on my part (that should not be read as any kind of boast.)

I've had mixed feelings about Smith over the years; she clearly has undeniable power as a poet, able to invoke shamanistic incantations visible on the printed page; her poetry must be read aloud, and represents to me as well a genre of music that both pointed out the poverty of rap music and its potential.  But I'm no expert there either.

Smith's endorsement of Ralph Nader revealed to a a deep naivete present in her thinking, and you can see that naviete was there all along, and she pretty honestly lays out what she is aware of in that department from her former life.  But her talents at their best provide absolution for that, and in the naivete department I've been known to be quite clueless too, from time to time.

One thing also must be stated about this memoir: it is quite apparent that Smith and Mapplethorpe hungrily  clawed their way to the top of their field and put their entire existences into what they did.   That strength of will is quite moving.  I don't know if my modest career success would have been better if I had starved more in my life, but clearly deprivation and will were very good to Smith and Mapplethorpe.  There's a political lesson there somewhere, too.

There is so much I don't know; so many worlds and existences and universes outside my awareness, and even though there are deep resonances with the New York of the 60s-80s, I was not  largely  not of that world, nor was I completely alienated from it.  But I'm grateful to be reminded of the times in which I lived, even if echoed in people that socially speaking, were as connected to me as the Tasaday.

There is so much I don't know.  But I am so grateful to have been near what I don't know.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Off to China...

This time, Zhuhai.  Maybe it'll be better than I think.

Sometimes it is.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

On the Death of Steve Jobs and 改善処理

I have long admired Steve Jobs from afar; I might have been near the Cupertino campus of Apple once upon a time, but I really don't remember.   At any rate I never met the man, though I have met engineers from Apple in a professional setting a few times. 

Jobs epitomized why a lot of us went into electrical engineering at the time - though to be honest, not really me.  Instead, I was fascinated by math.  But what he did do is show the potential of an American company to create things people wanted to buy the world over.  He showed that products could be produced by an American company - one even led (at the time at least) by a famously egotistical and dictatorial man.  But his products were just right.

I still have my Mac SE-30.  I did my entire doctoral thesis on it.  It had 5MB of RAM; yes you read that right.

Apple's iPhones use some of my inventions; so  the admiration is not entirely one-sided here.  Then again, they pretty much have to, because all 3G phones use one or two or several of my inventions.

But there's one other thing Jobs was a part of which he should be honored for: Jobs promulgated an ethic of continuous perfection in the products he produces, much in the same way as the Japanese introduced 改善処理 (kaizenshori) - process improvement - as a continuing feature of their product development and manufacture. It's - to use the cliche - all very Zen; just like your Zen practice can always be improvement what and how you do your job can always be improved.  Despite the (apparently slightly tamed in his later years) legendary arrogance of the early Jobs - he once fired somebody in his NeXT computer project because the industrial design was hundredths of an inch off or some such thing - he was humble enough to seek continuous improvement.  He was a demanding guy to work for though; and I had to slightly reword the bits in parentheses above, since I remember the situation of "Mobile Me" and its morphing into "iCloud."

I could say he'll be missed by me, but I never knew him, and most  of those things for which I admire him which I try to cultivate in myself aren't really the result of him..  My own personal  改善処理 isn't the result of Jobs influence, though I was happy to see a successful man who embodied its practice.  But I will say this: Jobs presence made me better appreciate good industrial design. Apple's products have good industrial design, in that they marry form and function quite elegantly which is why they have spawned so much imitation.

Well, I have a lot of  改善処理 to practice today; I'm running late already.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

When do you stop being a tourist?

In a couple of days I'll be off to Zhuhai for business, which, as I understand it, has little to see historically relative to quite a few other areas of China.  Its chief "advantage" to a tourist is that it sits due north of Macau, on the other side of the Pearl River from Shenzhen/Hong Kong.

Who knows, maybe I'll find another Minsk World there.  

After that it's onward to Japan.  I do not feel like a tourist at all in Japan anymore, just as I've never felt like a tourist in New York  I've been to Japan about 2 dozen times or more now, and getting to the hotel I'll be staying at is as rote as arriving in LaGuardia and getting where I'd stay in New York.   At one time in my life it felt exotic - I remember the first time I landed in Narita, looked at the Japanese style trucks on the roads, and thought, "They've really done a good job of rebuilding this place since Godzilla."

That's the thought going through my mind as I read Nella Lou's and Nathan's posts on "bearing witness tourism."  NellaLou writes:

There’s a lot of these witnessing retreats going on where the bourgeoisie pay substantial amounts to be with suffering, whether that be located on the homeless streets, at Auschwitz, in Rwanda or elsewhere.
This to me turns the extraordinary suffering of people into a circus. The spectacle of suffering.

 As a card-carrying member of the bourgeoisie,  I have to say she's right, and it's maybe not for nothing that the main progenitor of this, um, circus, has been known to be arrayed in clown regalia from time to time. 

Though it might not be to assuage privileged guilt that people do it; it may be that people are so insensate that they need to do this, and at least some people suspect they are insensate enough to warrant such spectacles.
Void knows that there's a heck of a lot of other folks, dyed in the wool narcissists, who would probably cheer on the sadists at Auschwitz.

But NellaLou's prescription is dead on:  Suffering's pretty close if you look.  It can be the guy in your office torpedoing his own career with self-destructive behavior (and you, sorry to say, are helpless to aid him in any way).  See? It might not even involve class issues.  Though it's  ubiquitous as economic status deteriorates; there's no doubt about that.

Nathan writes:

Furthermore, there's a particular attraction to Jewish Buddhist practitioners to the Auschwitz retreat specifically, which often has both a personal healing element, as well as a collective recollection of, and reclamation of, past injustices to it.
 It's understandable, in the way that Japanese in Nagasaki have a particular abhorrence of nuclear weapons. That is, it's a suffering central to their cultural narrative.  But I'd question whether it's "healing" anything. And just what is a "reclamation of past injustices?"  Your family had them; my ancestors had them.  To those who lived through the horrors of such things it actually is a bit patronizing to think in these terms.  You can visit Tokyo, and the post-War construction speaks more about the fire-bombing of Tokyo then you can ever put into words or actions to "reclaim" it.  It's why I haven't been to Hiroshima: Hiroshima's all over Japan (save for a few bits in the Kansai area)  if you know what you're looking at.  I'm acclimated to Japan now...I think.

I understand that I'll be able to still see the damage from the earthquake.  But I'll be on business, not suffering tourism - it might be more poignant from my vantage.

More relevant for now, though, (and it too is "suffering tourism") might be to do such "bearing witness"  in Gaza.

But better to dispense with the tourism thing entirely.  There's a place for "Beginner's Mind" in experiences, but there's a great, yawning need to get beyond "Beginner's Mind" to be skillful at doing what matters.  That involves doing the work day-to-day.

Monday, October 03, 2011

China, History and the United States

I haven't said anything prior to today on Barbara's recent posts on Tibet (latest here.)  Mostly I think it's because we mutually consider that the other has drank Kool-Aid.

I'm not going to convert her, and the information about Tibet that challenges the Tibet independence movement  narrative I've posted all over the place in the past.

I'd like to bring your attention to something tangentially related instead, which should put your mind in a new way about this whole China thing.

Over the weekend I saw Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen which is only the umpteenth film I've seen from China in which there is an over-riding narrative of exploitation of China by foreigners whose propaganda value is redeemed by its amazing cinematography, and, in this case, a nice homage to  Casablanca wherein The Internationale replaces La Marseillaise as the patriotic song played in the nightclub, which immediately appears completely incongruous to a Westerner (for reasons I won't mention here). 

Behind that cinematic stunt though, is something important and undeniable: China was being heavily exploited by the Western and Japanese powers during the 20s & 30s.  This particular movie takes places in the mid-1920s, the so-called "Warlord Era" of China.  To get an idea of how screwed up China had become, take a look at the Wikipedia article on it, and try summarizing the whole period in 2 paragraphs.  Then remember that the current ruling entities in China today, the Chinese Communist Party and the Republic of China, owe their very existence to support from the Soviet Union (the Western powers, including the United States, were pretty much content to let China become colonized). Needless to say both the ROC and the PRC consider Tibet part of China, which is not surprising since the relevant warlords took the same position.

I've said over and over that the issue of Tibet is for the Chinese and Tibetans to work out amongst themselves.  There's about the same order of magnitude of Tibetans in the world as there are speakers of Catalan - I won't post a link; you can find that out for yourself.  I'm sure the parties involved can work something out if they want to do so.
But now I wish to consider the United States instead of Tibet.

At this moment, after reading that article about the warlords, I'm struck by the parallels between what happened in China in the 20s and what is happening now here.  The Occupy Wall Street movement is only just now starting to pick up steam in response to the corporate warlordism that has infected the structure of the United States government.  In effect, corporate oligarchs control the government, rendering the social contract with the people null and void.  Corporate warlordism has rendered American narratives of "freedom" and "justice" and "liberty" are being shown to be as hollow as the Qing emperor's "mandate of heaven."  Partly this is a feature, not a bug of the American governmental structure (remember the whole edifice was put in place in the first place to ensure that the haves continued to have and get more of  what they had, even if  what the haves "had"  included slaves.   It's not for nothing that the recent movements in the Middle East are replacing their dictatorships with parliamentary styles of government as opposed to the American model, which has been pretty sad in most of the rest of the world where it's been tried (the Philippines and Argentina, in case you were wondering.)

The inevitable result of "smaller government is best" pushed to its reductio ad absurdum is warlordism.  You read it here first.

But it appears for the US that the chickens are coming home to roost now; the fat's in the fire.  We're in for some wild times here and in much of the rest of the world.  I'm concerned that what's immediate is going to get a lot bigger, and a lot more serious than we've seen previously.

Let's hope we all have the wisdom to do the right thing, and in particular, that at least in the US the Democratic Party wakes up and figures out which way the wind is blowing.