Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Patheos and the True Person of No Rank...

Have you ever had the fortune to meet one, or have you  at least  met somebody who's at least had a modicum of success trying to attain no rank?

It is hard because a lot of folks kind of like the rank, even if the rank is pretty meaningless.  Some people like the rank of being Buddhists so they can set that in opposition to some kind of straw-man "scientist."  (And some scientists like to point out that some Buddhists...)

Some folks want to be called European-descended, or Asian-descended, or don't care to be bothered that there are European descended or Asian descended...and amongst the two categories just mentioned there's a host of other sub-categories, too...(Asian? What kind of Asian? Laotian? Japanese? Nepalese?)

I could go on.  The "No Rank" in the title of course doesn't refer to the deliberate blindness to difference; it refers to the not making a big deal out of difference where it exists.  Sogen Roshi could make a 心 that could dance off the paper; mine ain't gonna be within a light year of that for this lifetime, perhaps. Perhaps not.  But vendors still sell me the paper and ink.

Assuming Rank or being blind to difference can cost you in the business world; I know of more than one manager who soured his relations with a company by not treating the very junior guy who met him with a modicum of respect. I can't remember how many times the gaijin (外人) made a presentation to the locals assuming they were smarter, more capable, etc. than the  日本人 to whom they where presenting.  Deals have been soured because  vendors have perceived the customer as "Other" or because they became just a bit too aggressive and assumed to much of the customer.

All of which is to introduce - briefly - why I find the whole thing about Patheos more overblown than not, and  not because of the "Asian Thing." (What kind of "Asian?" Tibetan? Chinese? Is that a distinction or not?)  But because its kumbayasity is also creating a rank where none need exist.  The people who might ban the practice of Buddhism in the United States or fly planes into buildings or launch drones into places where they might kill innocent people aren't going to take the stuff at Patheos seriously.  Yeah, they won't take my blog seriously either; you got that right.   But I don't really pretend that it would; like I've said numerous times, the purpose of this blog is to more or less help in the struggle of memory against forgetting, and as a kind of practice in itself.   If somebody reads this and figures out that that they can still suck at 99.9% of what they do and perhaps improve, today, this moment some 0.01% of their life, perhaps in that moment their lives and the purpose of this blog can be made worthwhile.  And sometimes, - heck perhaps often - despite what this Ph.D. says,  it is profoundly difficult work of vital importance to change that 0.01%. (Kierkegaard was right - sometimes somebody's got to come around to make everything difficult.)  

I think the mission of Patheos is doomed to failure because it takes its "mission" too seriously to include that which would pop its bubble of inclusive self-righteousness.  Patheos's mission limits itself to the point where it excludes the very real fact that some folks are going to be jerks on the highways, including but not limited to yours truly on a bad day.  It excludes Kyle the Reformed Buddhist (sorry Kyle, but the "Men's Right's" movement reminds me too much of the He-Man Woman Haters Club to be taken seriously, even though I will grant that there are real issues with presumputions of the law and unequal treatment of gender that does give men the short end of the stick at times.)  It might include me; in fact I'm sure it would, but the reality is the work and the reward and the fun and the true changes that can be made are elsewhere for me.  I wish the folks at Patheos well, but when the Buddhist folks move en masse to the Next Big Spiritual Place (can the Huffington Post be far away?) well, re-read this.  Not to say the Patheos folks might not do some good, but as long as the on-line sutras and other stuff are elsewhere, I've no real need to poke around there very much.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Buddhism and race, from a guy of European descent nearer to it than most...

I'm not big on identity politics, which is to say I don't often write about race matters exclusively.  I often do write about cultural matters on the other hand, and to the extent race is a social construct (and race is a social construct to an extent that it's almost useless, as far as I'm concerned to deny the proposition) I guess in that sense I do write about race as culture.

As a guy with very frequent contact with Asian folk, who's conversant in Japanese (in limited topic areas; I can't really do botany, Jungian psychology and art criticism in Japanese), with an Asian wife, with Asian in-laws, with a 1/2 Asian grand niece (who's beautiful & bears a slight resemble to my son), who travels to Asia frequently, I'm quite sympathetic to Arun's point here (among other places), though I don't think he actually goes far enough, or perhaps he, too is too provincial (sorry Arun).

As I noted on my comment on that post, I don't think many Buddhists from American institutions don't quite get what they're missing (though in many cases the American-of-European-descent flavored Buddhism is light years beyond no Buddhism at all.)  The narrative is pretty pervasive: The Asian Teachers of Old came to America; They Taught a Select Group of Americans (mostly of European descent), and The Great Teachers of Old had all this Strange Asian-ness that - don't worry - the next generation of teachers has washed away so it's not as strange as it may appear, dear newcomer.

There's may be a reason there's also these stories about "how come there's no new young people coming into the temples anymore" by the way. And I think that reason's connected to the changing notions of race and minority in America; of course I have a particularly distorted global view of things; I bet I have seen more CNN International than everyone else in the Buddhist blogosphere combined.   Maybe more sumo wrestling, too (which, for the record, when your're jet-lagged, can keep you up on a Saturday afternoon with the same ethos that one brings to rubbernecking in a traffic jam, but I digress.)

People, I think, want more of the "real thing."  They don't see the "exotic" as "alienating" like they used to, except perhaps in Alabama.  At least that's they way that I see it on the coasts, in my admittedly rarefied circle of people in which I circulate.  But, suffice it to say, that circle mingles with people who mingle with other people get it...6 degrees and all that. 

I spent the "Black Friday" day entertaining folks who I'm proud to call my friends and their families.  One family consisted of a Chinese immigrant who met her Lebanese immigrant husband at some company in the Bay Area.  An other family consisted of two immigrants from China who immigrated when they were kids (if I recall correctly it was both of them); both of whom had had a grandparent who...wait for it...was an American or Canadian.

It's all mixed up. 

Like I said, many of the folks don't seem to know what they're missing.  Some folks - like Danny Fisher - do seem to have somewhat frequent contact with Asian Buddhists (but I can't really tell; I don't know him personally, only blogosphere-ly.)  But - and here I kind of part ways with Arun - the notion of Buddhism and racial constructs, whether consciously observed, ignored, or otherwise - is about as impermanent and empty as you can get.

I've sat zazen in temples in South Korea, China, Japan, Hawaii, and numerous other places in the USA.  I've spoken with clerics and practitioners from all those Asian countries about the way Buddhism is practiced in their country.  Do I have a better handle on "Asian Buddhism" than Arun? Than Danny Fisher? 

I don't really know, and I largely don't care; I am grateful though that I have, within the confines of my Platinum Elite status, been able to meet and converse with a very diverse group of teachers.   I'm sure though that my particular experiential deformation doesn't make me or Arun or Danny Fisher any more or less Buddhist than they are or are not.

But this I'll say: much of what I see in the Buddhist blogosphere, and in American-of-European-Descent Buddhism is like the Buddhist analog of  Chinese food in American restaurants.  Sure, it's made according to a recipe that's been in restaurants for years, but the Chinese folk order stuff that "Westerners" wouldn't touch.

And they don't know what they're missing.  Not that what the Americans are ordering isn't Chinese food; it's just that there's so much more.

I do think Arun has a point, or at least is in the direction of a good point; I don't really know his background, but I do know that race and cultural issues are more complicated than a simple paean to "diversity" or denial that there's an issue in the first place would imply.  I also think there's another larger point behind what Arun's saying too - which I'll tangentially bring up here.  Much of the "Buddhist media" to me is reminiscent of a phenomenon that the defunct Spy magazine used to satirize with the recurring feature "Logrolling in Our Time."  In that feature Spy would present book-jacket blurb recommendations from authors of books who also wrote books which had book-jacket blurb recommendations from the authors of the first-mentioned books...if you catch my drift...It all sometimes seems like a Hey Let's Pat Everybody on the Back Club for Being Good Buddhists!

Of course, I'm not a member of that club...and I think, after all these years,  there might have been some wisdom after all in Groucho Marx's dictum that "I wouldn't joint any club that would have me as a member,"  though I guess the popular kidz evidently feel otherwise.    But it is really true about that old saw about the flower doesn't have to shout out loud to be fragrant and beautiful. It's really true.  But it's sad about the popular kidsz.

I think that's enough for today, but I'll  leave with one point, that underscores this, that I've not seen mentioned ever in the Buddhist blogosphere. Maybe Kobutsu Malone can corroborate what I'll say and expound further on my point, which is: Did you know Eido Shimano had Japanese students?  What ever happened to them? What ever happened to Seung Sahn's Korean students?

I've no idea.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

More? Further? Where are you?

I'm still absorbing some of the good after effects of my "Black Friday" get-together.  It seems that a rather small change in my life has had significant positive side-effects in the rest of my life. That's why on a day like today it seems quite trivial to read the rest of what passes for "religion news" here and around the 'net.

So whether it's the Washington Post "religion" page, Xinhua's latest typical "religion in China" story,  or this really odd post on the Huffington Post about "Buddhist Emptiness for Scientists, Engineers and Mathematicians," it all  seems so superficial (especially the last but on the Huffington Post - I had thought of writing a post in reply to that but that seems too much like shooting fish in a barrel.)

You can change yourself and the world profoundly, and it's not necessary that "the world" or "the culture" ever notices it and gives you some kind of award or recognition.  In fact they never will, not if the change is meaningful enough.  There are people out there whom you've never met, who never went to the right schools, knew the right people, and did the right things, who with a word or a gesture can point to the core of what is the most whole and still and profoundly beautiful about you and where you are in the world and they don't have to be any kind of teacher in any way, or perhaps another way to say it is that anyone's such a teacher, if you give them a chance.

Recently, in the Guardian, there was an article about some Buddhist teachers who apparently pull in income streams normally thought of as within the realm of the 1% CEO.  I'd say, if you want to find a teacher who can really teach you something useful, look for the guy who's not advertising.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

How We "Spent" "Black Friday"

We had members of 3 families over for dinner; we conversed about life, work, educating the kids, our kids' achievements, foibles, and the wonders of art, the internet, and Wing Chun well into the night.  I am very lucky to have met the people I've met in my life.

I'd suggest similar post-Thanksgiving get-togethers as a cure for the consumerism. 

Yeah, we'll celebrate Christmas in our peculiar post-Christian Buddhist American-Asian mix kind of way; we just won't go crazy over it.  Life's way to short.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Spiritual Materialism, Teaching, and Working at a Company that Makes Televisions

I, like so many others in the American Buddhist convert community, don't particularly look forward to the Christmas season.  As I was dining with my son yesterday at a Chinese restaurant (that will be open on Thanksgiving), I noted that Christmas music was already playing in this most un-Christmasy of places.    It is like North Korean propaganda - with sleigh bells.  For a month every year the United States turns into Christmasland; it's true.  And the whole damn country's transformed into this Republic of Shopping.

And it's also where retailers make 40% (or more)  of their revenue for the year. It's partly what helps fund my livelihood, and partly what helps fund Barbara's livelihood. (That is, the NY Times Corporation, last I checked, owns, which in turn enables Barbara to blog there.  And indeed the NY Times does depend on advertising revenue at Christmastime for its revenue.)

As are often such confluences, I read Nathan's post yesterday, after working with one of the newer Wing Chun students, and without going to to much detail about that, suffice it to say that I, a guy who's managed a team of 6 or so for a number of years, walked away with tremendous respect for the way sifu is able to deal with a wide variety of personalities. 

So, like it or not, I feel compelled, within the narrow confines of this cyberspace, to put in a word for, uh, the Christmas season, as a guy in my position, and as a guy who understands that it's hard to deliver criticism sometimes that positively must be delivered to an audience not particularly willing or interested (or even aware that they need) to hear it.  But this is one of those things - I've had a few lately - where a "noble silence" is but spiritual materialism.

So here goes. Nathan writes:

The way I see it, one of the mechanisms of a consumerist culture is to instill inadequacy in people so that they will want more, and buy more. And I think over the years, this inadequacy runs so deep in many people that they feel compelled to give others something of monetary value - often large monetary value - in order to feel ok about the relationship. You want to have a happy spouse - you better give her an expensive ring. You want to have happy children, you better buy them the latest video game machine. You want to keep your friends around, you better buy them some fishing gear, or a new dress, or something worth something.

That is likely true of a number of people who do this -and I know a few - but they don't know that they're doing this, and were you to tell them, well, words related to "sanctimony" might come to mind. And - to go a little further, people I know, people very near and dear to me - like to shop, not because they're greedy materialists any more than the next person, but because they like being part of an event.  And that's where they are, and the teaching you can give them is by being the teaching. 

So far, I'm sure Nathan might agree with what I'm writing here. But let me continue:

What I see in the folks buying cheap flat screen TVs, ugly sweaters, ties, useless plastic nick-nacs is a failure to experience love. They love their friends, family, and lovers, but what they are mostly expressing is a need to keep the relationships, to be a "good person" who gives to their loved ones. Sometimes, there is guilt there. Sometimes, there is a sense of duty there. Sometimes, there's a hope that whatever they give will appease their loved one for awhile. But all of it goes back to staving off that feeling of inadequacy, of not "being good enough," for awhile.

Those who actually allow themselves to experience love know how to respond to their loved ones. They override what the dominant culture is telling them to do, and listen for the opportunity to give wise gifts, and then do so. And if they give during this time of year, they do so having reflected upon their loved one first

 Nathan, I submit, it talking from where he is.  But where he is, he's frankly not aware of the motives behind those who make the flat screen TVs, sweaters, fashion products, etc., nor of the people who sell them and buy them.   That's the plain, hard cold truth.  I say this because Nathan goes on to say:

...Releasing judgment of the individuals in your life is vital. That's a core part of a spiritual path in my opinion. However, I also believe that those of us who see the deep damage being done by excessive consumption - the economic yo-yoing, the human exploitation, and environmental destruction behind those TVs, Old Navy shirts, and whatnot - must learn how to express ourselves better with those who don't see it. We must be brave enough to share what we have learned, and share our wishes for the world, with our family, friends, and lovers, even if it causes confusion and upset in the short term...

As a guy who's worked quite a few years where I do, let me provide some information, to share what I've learned, so to speak.  First of all, pretty much any major electronics company - I'd say including Foxconn, though I don't have hard data on that company, admittedly, only my own experience - any major electronics company is deeply concerned about environmental and labor issues.  They have to be, because, even if they're greedy capitalists on the take running the outfits (and by and large they are capitalists, but they're more like "us" than not), even if they're only interested in the profit motive, they do see expensive litigation as a possible side-effect of not making environmentally friendly devices and making sure that the labor conditions are as beneficent as they can be given their corporation's fiduciary commitments to their stockholders.

As I noted earlier I recently bought an iPhone 4s.  What some might not realize is that the packaging of the 4s is even more recyclable than the 3Gs I had before it, which in turn uses probably 100X less plastic than the earlier iPhones.  My company's products are designed to be recyclable - yes, the electronics themselves are designed to be recyclable. I can't think of a company at all today in the business that uses lead solder in its devices - companies like mine are always on the lookout for leaving a smaller environmental footprint, unless there's unscrupulous or ignorant rogue employees in places (and yeah, I'll concede that point).  But companies sure as hell have huge economic incentives to be more "green" and they're not simply putting in lip service here.

Regarding clothes, I'm afraid they wear out, and most folks do their yearly shopping for their clothes this time of year (except of course for summer clothes).  Clothes that don't wear out so easily must be manufactured to do so, and cost 3X -and more - to the stratosphere on up if you care for greater reliabilty.

I say this as a guy in the top 10% of incomes - I'm the 99% too, believe me - that the economic ecosystem in which we currently function is designed this way, and it is simply imponderable to me how, without major disruption and economic dislocation how anything but a gradual reform of the way in which we make, use and acquire things can happen. And folks in that business are doing their bit in this regard, perhaps not as fast as many would like, but it's there as surely as there are Zen Buddhists in the Marines (sorry Jordan for the tangential reference).  If you think the folks at high levels in Apple still don't wince at the scandal of Foxconn,  you might consider how you are like the Koch brothers.  (But please click through the last link; I'd hate to out of my own distorted self-righteousness deprive you of the pleasure of Matt Taibbi on a tear.  But Taibbi actually gets the conundrum of Jobs and Apple and Foxconn better than a few.)  I agree with folks like Naomi Klein that the basis on which society functions must change, and the endless expansion of capitalism must end.  And I vote and contribute money for that. The capitalist enterprise finances in part, its reform.  It's why I'm proud to be a contributor to the technology in an age where the monopoly of information and its dissemination has been smashed to pieces. Christmas shopping season helped make that possible.

So have a good Thanksgiving, however you choose to do what you do today, and in this season.  But remember the folks working and shopping at Wal-Mart (yeah, I avoid going there) are humans like you and you've got meet them where they are, and if there's any teaching you have to offer, make sure it's in your marrow first, and only offer it through your being.

That's all.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Does Siri have Buddha nature?

One of the key aspects of my livelihood involves, from time to time, the acquisition of consumer technology both to see what I've (in part) wrought, and to see what the general state of the art is. And so it is I am in possession of an iPhone 4s. Siri "lives" amongst a bunch of computers somewhere - it will not disclose its "location" (if indeed it has a single such location.)  It sometimes gives seemingly witty answers to questions, and without a wireless connection is at a loss to give help. Also, sometimes Siri gets too many requests and requests to be left alone for a while. There have been reports that people feel more attached to their iPhone 4s with Siri than previous iPhones; apparently the voice interface gives some kind of "humanity" to the device. I have to say that I see this, though the genius of Siri is fundamentally to break the interface, clumsy for many, that a device in the form factor of the phone inevitably presents if limited only to tactile inputs. (Too many reviews of the device have focused on the "gee, that's a threat to Google" aspect and have completely ignored this aspect, which is actually far more important.)

Siri is admittedly pretty crude for a human simulacrum. But, as Kevin Drum notes, computers becoming as smart as people isn't that far away.

In 1950, true AI would look like a joke. A computer with a trillionth the processing power of the human brain is just a pile of vacuum tubes. In 1970, even though computers are 1000x faster, it's still a joke. In 1990 it's still a joke. In 2010 it's still a joke. In 2024, it's still a joke. A tenth of a human brain is about the processing power of a housecat. It's interesting, but no threat to actual humans.

So: joke, joke, joke, joke, joke. Then, suddenly, in the space of six years, we have computers with the processing power of a human brain. Kaboom.

Here's the point: technological progress has been exactly the same for the entire 80-year period. But in the early years, although the relative progress was high, the absolute progress was minute. Moving from a billionth to a trillionth is invisible on a human scale. So computers progressed from ballistics to accounting to word processing to speech recognition, and sure, it was all impressive, but at no point did it seem like we were actually making any serious progress toward true AI. And yet, we were.

Assuming that Moore's Law doesn't break down, this is how AI is going to happen. At some point, we're going to go from 10% of a human brain to 100% of a human brain, and it's going to seem like it came from nowhere. But it didn't. It will have taken 80 years, but only the final few years will really be visible. As inventions go, video games and iPhones may not seem as important as radios and air conditioners, but don't be fooled. As milestones, they're more important. Never make the mistake of thinking that just because the growing intelligence of computers has been largely invisible up to now that it hasn't happened. It has.
 In fact, Drum is pessimistic: the fact that computers  - millions of them, in principle - can be networked means that  "computers" becoming as smart as people is already somewhat near reality.  That is the computational power of many computers can be leveraged already to produce results that would be impossible for any idiot savant to solve in a lifetime.

Does that imply, in any way, sentience?

The answer, at least from a scientific, and/or phenomenological point of view, is still going to be "can't say." (Read Douglas Hofstadter and call me in the morning1.)  And in a sense, it doesn't really matter because our lives are still conditioned as they are; we are replete with the senses and volition and consciousness, and such, and the fact that there are really smart computing machines out there doesn't diminish that.

Let's put environmental and social issues aside momentarily. (The damn things are quite inefficient relative to us organic computers, and such technology inevitably creates further class and social divisions.) Rather than ponder whether an intelligent computing agency could approach human sentience, it's more appropriate to consider what we are and can do, and to perhaps have a bit greater humility because of our diminished place in the ecosystem of existence, encroached upon by advances in evolutionary biology, animal sociology as well as artificial intelligence.

That even with such smart machines that there will still be things beyond their capability (for now) shouldn't be cause for a "human of the gaps" view of ourselves; we should however, focus on all the stuff we can do in this space and time.

1. Note: the talk linked to above, well, I disagree with quite a bit of it, actually. Especially, if Hofstadter's representing Kurzweil corrrectly, the latter completely doesn't quite get what the genome actually is, and in particular the "information" containable in the genome isn't actually the totality of all information present in a human being. They'd have done well to have Richard Dawkins at that talk, or better, somebody who actually understands genetics than I do. And my grasp of genetics as information theory isn't all that grand.  And of course, like Hofstadter, - who is way too polite, I think,  I balk at the notion of an environment that can sustain an arbitrarily large amount of computing power, as well as a whole host of other Kurzweil bunk.  But you probably knew that.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Coming Soon: Does Siri have Buddha-nature?

I'm not sure if it matters, but my recent experiences with Siri have led me to suspect that what we humans possess as "intelligence" might indeed soon be available from non-human, non-animal devices, or so it seems. Not that we can impute much to this regarding awareness, but what we humans see as the domain of humanity might be changing yet again.

Monday, November 14, 2011

I've not gone anywhere...

There's been a few blog posts on the 'sphere I could have commented on, though some of them seem quite irrelevant to me, more or less.  Mostly, it's because I've been busy on other things that I haven't offered a lengthy exegesis on why sitting in a chair can be zazen,  or why the "modernizer versus orientalist" argument ignores the fact that these categories have already started dissolving.

I even haven't commented on the latest outrage from our second most famous hit generator, Genpo Merzel. (The greatest hit generator for this site, alas, remains a post I did some time ago speculating on why there wasn't a Cher Bono wildlife refuge.)  To wit about that last item: I may be a lousy student of Zen and kung fu, but I'm infinitely grateful to have met teachers who were light years beyond Mr. Merzel, for whom the collection of money or the marks of status and privilege weren't  high priorities.

Mostly, I've been busy with the ups and downs of life; a few more downs than ups than I'd prefer, but nothing terribly serious.  Practicing, or at least trying to, in the day-to-day thick of things.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Ditch Paypal, go to Dwolla

I have just opened a Dwolla account.  I might, someday, put a thingy on this blog to accept money - if I can ever figure out how to do that witlh Dwolla.  But right now, I'll just keep the google ads things up.

But anyway, do some research on Dwolla - it's designed to supplant Visa eventually.

It's amazing, especially given the fact that its rival, Paypal, is a rip-off.