Thursday, June 28, 2012

"Westernizing" versus "Mutating" Buddhism

James Ford and Barbara have written posts about "Westernizing" the Dharma, and more specifically Zen Buddhism in the West.

I figured I'd put my two cents in...

  • Barbara and James talk about how Zen training was at first primarily a Zen training in monasteries.  They're right as far as they go, but what I wonder about is if they get the historical context correctly.  As I've said repeatedly, the degree to which Zen training was "laicized" in Asian cultures depended on the degree to which people had free time, and in the societies in which Chan/Zen flourished, most people had very little time on their hands.  The degree to which Chan/Zen flourishes amongst non-monastics is quite highly correlated with economic status. Thus, samurai and nobility could study Zen, but peasants could not unless they became monastics.  That fact can't really be ignored, and should be taken into account.
  • James Ford writes:
Most people, however, who practice Zen, do not live in a controlled rule based environment beyond regular or occasional retreats. The average Zen practitioner today sits with a group that meets maybe once a week, perhaps a bit more regularly. And hits a retreat once in a while, maybe once or twice a year.
  I think that most Americans who practice Zen are in fact living highly structured lives by default because lives today are that structured, and there is "surplus" time in which to do meditation.  That's partially because of the class of folks practicing it.  The challenge for Chan/Zen is to bring this practice to those who have more hours of physical labor in the week and are poorer than those who do not.

  • There are similar problems of Chan/Zen going on throughout the Western world; there is a significantly larger lay practice in Japan than there was centuries ago, because the movement to bring Zen to the laity actually started first in Japan, with Japanese organizations.
  • Even amongst the less economically well off (and especially amongst the better off) Chan/Zen "offshoots" have been around for centuries with much the same spirit of Chan/Zen.  When James was writing about how there is much criticism in traditional monastics, I was thinking about martial arts training.  Teachers who are worthwhile in this endeavor aim constantly for perfection in their students.  Any practitioner of the so-called "Zen arts" will be challenged by one's continual need to improve skill.  And Barbara's right of course, communities of practitioners of any discipline will make for a better group of practitioners.
  • Finally, I'd take a small issue with Barbara's characterization of "Western" versus "Eastern" philosophy.  My take on how professional philosophers do this is not that they intend to denigrate Eastern narratives of Buddhism, but rather that they wish to contextualize Buddhism in terms that have proven useful to Western philosophy.  To me, this is kind of like how mathematics has developed over the world.  Much of Western philosophy is concerned with matters about how to consistently, logically, describe aspects of human existence, just as mathematics attempts to consistently and logically describe numeric and computational aspects of our existence. The fact that much of probability theory has come to us through Soviet era mathematicians doesn't imply that probability theory is in any way "Communist," though I can imagine some know-nothings might assert that for political reasons.  Thus,   I can't imagine a serious professional Western philosopher saying there's no need for reading Nagarjuna when one has Sartre, but my viewpoint is shaped by what I've read on the subject.  But I'm talking about folks like the late William Barrett, whose writing was very respectful of D. T. Suzuki, (not to mention D.T. Suzuki himself) rather than knock-offs like Ken Wilber.
  • So from a "Western philosophical" point of view I don't think there's a big problem.  I do think there's a big problem when "Western Buddhism" makes fetishes out of political figures, particularly when those figures have their own agendas.  I also think there's a big problem when "Western Buddhism" is really someone's projection of what they'd like  Buddhism to be, when it's a Buddhism laden with their own psychological or political or gender biases. But that's what I'd call a mutation of Buddhism.  It's all well and good to support political action and have that political action to be informed by one's Buddhist ethics.  It's another thing entirely to say that a particular movement is "Buddhist" and therefore that "Buddhism" should re-make the entire world.  You better free your mind instead, as John Lennon sang.
  • Finally, I'd note that "traditional Buddhism" can indeed learn something from the West, and that something is professional ethics.  We in the West really did do that; it's a legacy of a Roman system of law.  All religious personnel should have notions of conflict of interest areas in what they do, and to be on guard for them.  The notions of professional ethics is of course still evolving, but let's give credit where credit is due.
Seriously, though I don't think the subject is so important to think about concerned with the day-to-day practice itself.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

More on Martial Arts, 功夫, and "spirituality."

I think there is a place for what, for want of a better term, might be considered "the sacred."   I tend to denigrate the word "spirituality" though because it is hard to pin down a unique meaning for this.  It's not to say that I denigrate things that are conducive to life, harmony, compassion, wisdom,  and generosity, and in that sense I would agree that a "spiritual" practice that would encompass those attributes would be beneficial.  But I think, as the Buddha suggested, it's a good idea generally to deprecate usages and appeals regarding the supernatural.

This post is in response to a video I saw of one Matt Thornton, which I posted here.  I've been meaning to communicate with Mr. Thornton, but haven't had the opportunity yet, though he lives in the Portland area.  I think we'd get on quite well. But I think he hasn't met someone quite like me, a person who engages in what some might call "spiritual" practices, and gets what he's saying about the psychological /"spiritual" aspects of martial arts.

In the video above Mr. Thornton makes a convincing appeal for knowledge of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, though I understand his school also teaches Jeet Kun Do, which is a descendent martial art of Wing Chun (詠春券).  He also makes a very good point or two or three regarding how unprepared many "martial arts" schools leave their trainees when it comes to a real confrontation.  (See also Sam Harris's blog post on the subject here.)

But the thing I wanted to get recorded here is that what Mr. Thornton denigrates in his video, is the idea that what are commonly called "spiritual" practices (see around 18:34 and following in the video.) "Cultural superstition" is one thing that Mr. Thornton associates with Buddhism, and that "Buddhists" pretend to know things they do not know, e.g., what happens after death.  But Mr. Thornton should be aware that many Buddhists do not go to that point.  That said, I'm sure Mr. Thornton doesn't get the proper function of a Buddhist chanting service for example.  When we chant about Buddha nature pervading the universe, it is not necessarily a supernatural statement.   An awareness that transcends our own awareness may or may not exist in a vacuum, but it undeniably appears to be ubiquitous amongst sentient beings, for starters.  And that what I call "I" is a construct of my mind is pretty near empirically verified.  But also, our awakened nature does pervade the universe; as it is in the universe and the universe pervades itself and is interdependent with/in all phenomena. Where does it end?

Still, Mr. Thornton gets that a martial arts practice has a profound effect on one's sense of self. One has to get quite humble to learn about one's self, and useful martial arts are a good vehicle for that. And there are variations of Buddhism, real Buddhism, that are overly supernatural.  That's unfortunate, but such supernaturalism is not the entirety, it is not even the essence of Buddhism.   And Mr. Thornton should be aware that there are practitioners of Buddhism, such as myself, who abjure spiritual hucksterism, yet still find the practices of Buddhism do seem to benefit myriad beings.

But yeah, if hucksters advertise on my site (and some hucksters do), and you click on their links everyone involved is responsible to the extent that they choose to involve themselves.  You pays your money and you takes your chances. So it goes.

Words cannot open another's mind...

That's in a koan somewhere (Case 27 of the 無門関 (Mumonkan, or The Gateless Gate), to be exact.) Also see here for a different source.)  I have heard different commentaries on Case 27, but this one has seemed so apt for me when dealing with certain people.  Here is the case from the second source, which I'm using because it has the Chinese original, from which it's possible tease out meanings that I haven't seen yet :

Case 27 Nansen's "Not Mind, Not Buddha, Not Things"                   二十七 不是心佛
A monk asked Nansen, "Is there any Dharma that has not been preached to the people?"
Nansen answered, "There is."
"What is the truth that has not been taught?" asked the monk.
Nansen said, "It is not mind; it is not Buddha; it is not things."

Mumon's Comment無門曰、南泉被者一問、直得揣盡家私、郎當不少。
At this question, Nansen used up all his treasure and was not a little confused.

Mumon's Verse 頌曰叮嚀損君徳 Talking too much spoils your virtue;
無言眞有功 Silence is truly unequaled.
任從滄海變 Let the mountains become the sea;
終不爲君通 I'll give you no comment.

The operative phrase, "無言眞有功" can indeed be translated in various ways; perhaps in another way to put it, once can say, "Words have no merit," or, conversely, silence has accomplishment.

This is a ridiculously useful teaching.

We in the USA are somehow silently,  unconsciously inculcated by Dale Carnegie, it seems.   It seems we are taught we should "influence" people, by appealing to their desires, including, but not limited to, a "feeling of importance" and "life in the hereafter."  I know that I'd been taught that I need to try to both reach people and also submit - surrender - to "legitimate authority."  About the latter, well, that's a subject for another post - it has political implications where I do not wish to go right now. 

But, as far as "getting through to people" is concerned, it is undeniable that there are people with mindsets, very educated people in some cases, that you simply cannot rationally reach. They're true believers, or so they present themselves to the world.

It doesn't quite matter what they believe in; I have met doctrinaire communists with the same mindset as  Republican conservatives - they are so close psychologically it's astonishing, except that I think the latter more consciously tries to ape the mannerisms and public paranoia as the former from time to time.

(And no I do not put New Atheists in the same category as doctrinaire fundamentalists, but that's another digression.)

How to deal with such people?

To open your mouth (or keyboard) to try to hammer home the truth with them will do nothing.   To speak kindly and as persuasively as one can will also accomplish nothing - at least not at first.

It seems the best strategy is not avoidance of the issues here, or acquiescence to odious things presented matter-of-factly.   That is, I'm not saying let hateful words simply be accepted.  But do not expect such people to be taught.

This line of thought had its origin in some on-line thing by a relative who posted something on line that led me to a series of links that led me to a website for some right-wing talk radio demagogue that I'd never heard of before.  The website points to the usual hateful, ignorant stuff that appeals to the baser instincts, that seeks to motivate by appealing to resentment.  (See these photos for a sample of the mindset involved. Ugh.)

Why, I thought, would any sensible person spend their lives cultivating such anger and resentment? IT MAKES NO SENSE!  I mean, I can imagine folks driving home in a long commute, with this sewage bubbling on through from from the AM band, feeding resentments that provide the narrative to the worried lives that they lead. But it also MAKES NO SENSE to think that there is anything I can do or say that can "change" that relative's mind, because such a person will try to respond with the "walls" of reasoning they've put up.  Any such words might challenge their entire reason for being.  Moreover, exposure to such things teaches one to respond to such challenges with hatred and resentment - it is learned in an almost (maybe more than almost?) Pavlovian way.

There's no point in taking that head-on;  it's bad 功夫 (kung fu).  It's also in a way not compassionate; and it is ineffective at removing the poison of hatred such people may have.  And, as the 公案  (koan) notes, 無言眞有功 - in silence there is truly merit or accomplishment.

It is a far better strategy to practice being the person of accomplishment one rarely encounters.  Such a person could not be harmed also by words of hatred either, though they may defend against them. That takes effort.

All of the above is going through my mind as I will be visiting relatives and friends for a couple of days.   Many words will be spoken amongst us.  Some folks I know are pretty set in mindsets I wish no one was trapped in. If one sentence comes for from their lips the profound acute suffering of the world is shouted with thunderous echoes that reverberate through the heavens as does the soundless sound.    And if I say the wrong thing such a thunderous reverberation will result that will only amplify the misery of all beings.  While part of me is concerned about what to say, when to say it, and what not to say, I know have enough familiarity with 話頭 (watoh) practice that I'm fairly confident there won't be major problems. 

I mean, geez, I've seen this stuff work in practice.  I wish others did too.

Here is a good link re: 話頭  practice.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Violence and Buddhism? What about 功夫 ?

I'm glad other bloggers are looking at the Burma violence situation.  But there are some points that have been made in the blogosophere, especially regarding violence, that I think merit a reply. First of all, I think Barbara's got a point here:

There is a knee-jerk assumption that if an individual or group self-identified as Buddhist commits an act of violence, Buddhism must be the cause. This is unvarnished bigotry, of course. Since Buddhism unequivocally condemns hatred and violence, blaming Buddhism for violence makes no more sense than blaming any other attribute one could assign to the perpetrators, such as race or ethnicity.

But then there's this:

At Wildmind, Bodhipaksa offers some valuable comments on what it is to "be" a Buddhist who commits violence. As he says, there is no justification for violence in Buddhist scriptures or teaching. He continues,

There is no Buddhist doctrine of "just war" or evesn of "righteous anger." The Buddha condemned all forms of violence, and famously said that even if bandits were sawing you limb from limb, you should have compassion for your torturers.

What I don't want to leave hanging here is the phrase "there is no justification for violence in Buddhist  scriptures or teaching."    That may be.  I have to admit that I haven't seen in Buddhist scriptures any such justification...However...

The history of Buddhism and martial arts, particularly in Japan and China, is very well known.  In fact, this history of Zen is not without its bits of violence, even if some of the stories are more fictional than they have been handed down to be.  I would find it difficult to think that the folks who gave us that were rank pacifists.  In fact, even if you read Bodhipaksa's comment above, I think the wrong takeaway would be "Therefore Buddhism recommends pacifism."   There is no Buddhist doctrine of just war that I know of.  But there is also no Buddhist doctrine of doctrinaire pacifism, either, to my knowledge.

And I don't think there could be or would be.  This is because doctrinaire pacifism is itself contrary to the Buddhist precepts, in some cases. For those who would doubt otherwise, reading a work like Rollo May's Power and Innocence, though not Buddhist in nature, is enough of a trenchant critique  of innocence as a way of avoidance of confrontation  that it is difficult not to see how his argument exists in a Buddhist perspective; that is, the morality of Buddhism suggests we have a duty to actively help others, even if that means that we must violate the precepts to do so. (And of that you can certainly find examples in Buddhist scriptures - the parable of the Burning House does feature a father saying untrue things to children to save their lives, for example.)  And also because Buddhist scriptures, as all well know, aren't read like Christian scriptures either; they are also not black-and-white-infallible "musts."

Still, having said all of that, I did want to go to see what the Dhammapada said about the subject:

P1    P2    E2  137. He who inflicts violence on those who are unarmed, and offends those who are inoffensive, will soon come upon one of these ten states:
P1    P2    E2  138-140. Sharp pain, or disaster, bodily injury, serious illness, or derangement of mind, trouble from the government, or grave charges, loss of relatives, or loss of wealth, or houses destroyed by ravaging fire; upon dissolution of the body that ignorant man is born in hell.
P1    P2    E2  141. Neither going about naked, nor matted locks, nor filth, nor fasting, nor lying on the ground, nor smearing oneself with ashes and dust, nor sitting on the heels (in penance) can purify a mortal who has not overcome doubt.
P1    P2    E2  142. Even though he be well-attired, yet if he is posed, calm, controlled and established in the holy life, having set aside violence towards all beings - he, truly, is a holy man, a renunciate, a monk.
P1    P2    E2  143. Only rarely is there a man in this world who, restrained by modesty, avoids reproach, as a thoroughbred horse avoids the whip.
P1    P2    E2  144. Like a thoroughbred horse touched by the whip, be strenuous, be filled with spiritual yearning. By faith and moral purity, by effort and meditation, by investigation of the truth, by being rich in knowledge and virtue, and by being mindful, destroy this unlimited suffering.
P1    P2    E2  145. Irrigators regulate the waters, fletchers straighten arrow shafts, carpenters shape wood, and the good control themselves.  

Umm... I see that  the qualifier for the laity, at least, is as far as bad things happening the operative word is "unarmed." Self defense is not an issue for the laity, at least.  But it would also seem to be the case that verse 142 seems to mean that the lay person has achieved the state of the monk if he is able to set aside violence towards all beings. But what really strikes me about this is verses 143 and 144: the restraint from violence as "modesty" seems to be cultivated in the manner in which a horse is trained.

A horse is a being, of course, of course. And the way in which we should avoid violence is as though one were training one's self as though one were a horse; i.e., with a whip.

Isn't that kind of, umm...violent?

I think that simile is there deliberately.  I think verse 144 can be said to mean: as one who has been the recipient of violence, cultivate yourself to destroy this unlimited suffering.

"Destroy," too, is not a word commonly associated with supine pacifism.

In other words, I think the point of the passage is quite clear: one should avoid initiating violence, and one should renounce violence against those who cannot defend themselves unequivocally.


Finally, I'd like to return to the issue of Buddhism and the martial arts.  I must say that among the people I've met, the most skilled of martial arts practitioners are also among those that are the calmest and most peaceful; they really have their stuff together, as it were.  I don't think this is an accident.  I think it is because there is a spiritual aspect to the martial arts, despite what some might think.  When one comes into possession of the ability to wreak violence upon someone, the desire to wreak violence on someone can attenuate; much anger that leads to violence is rooted in feelings of impotence, as May writes.  Remove the feelings of impotence, and inculcate a calm, relaxed approach to deal with life, and even if you were to meet the Buddha on the road, you'd have no problem killing him.

But that doesn't mean you would kill him. Get it?  That's what it means to practice 功夫  (kung fu).

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Yes, it seems June is now officially "American Buddhists" month...

There's yet another article on this topic, this time in the Mormon-connected Deseret News.  This one is actually a reproduction of the article in the Washington Post though, except for this paragraph:

Our take: Although surveys have found that the number of Americans who practice the Buddhist religion is rapidly growing, the practice of the Eastern faith doesn't necessarily reflect the traditional path. In fact, a "North American sacred tradition" has sprung up that is somewhat different from "wholesale" Buddhism, but, according to some Buddhists, this is possible because of the simplicity of the faith, its broad applicability to all cultures and types of people, and because it does not rely on the belief in any deity.

Naturally, I hardly ever look at the Deseret News - the last time I looked at it, it was to see if there had been any recent coverage of a couple of Mormon Fundamentalist murderers of late, who were the subject of a book I'd been reading on a plane ("Under the Banner of Heaven," by Jon Krakauer).

The Deseret News (or these days, the Washington Post) are not particularly reliable news sources to me, or perhaps I should say they are reliable to behave certain ways given their ownership and editorial policy.  

How the Deseret News can talk about a "traditional path" of Buddhism, a "North American sacred tradition" that is "somewhat different" than a "'wholesale' Buddhism" (as opposed to retail?) I just don't know.  I realize that news media is dying because its business model is collapsing, but to stick a paragraph like the above on top of a "Sally Quinn's brother who is a scholar of Buddhism" link-bait simply reveals the utter irresponsibility of some "religion" reporters, and, as Arun would note, the invisibility of Asian-connected Buddhists in the US.

To the Deseret News: Just because Genpo Merzel married someone well-connected to the Mormons doesn't mean we're at all like him. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

What is this, Western Buddhism month in the major media?

This article has so many issues, it's not even wrong, as the physicist said:

  • Yes, William Wilson Quinn, there is a historic North American Buddhist tradition: it is compiled of the aggregate of Buddhist traditions that immigrants brought to North America.  It includes nasty things that were done to the Chinese, the Japanese, etc.  It includes the folks who first greeted and sheltered Soen Shaku, Nyogen Senzaki, and many others.  It predates by decades many of the fundamentalist Christian sects in America, for example, the Foursquare Church, the Vineyard, and many other such sects.
  • "Some North American authors have suggested that North Americans might consider foregoing any such wholesale adoptions of Eastern traditions in deference to gradually developing their own. " Others, including this author, have suggested that keeping the Eastern traditions is useful in the way that it's important to have a "skill set" developed around a form of cultivation, much as one learns to play a musical instrument. 
  • "Expansion of consciousness????" Really, who talks like that in Buddhist circles anywhere?  Does the author think this is some kind of highest good or something?
  • It's not all meditation. There's a whole 8-fold path that includes lots of other things too! And in the Zen tradition, most recorded accounts of enlightenment most assuredly do not recount it being achieved when in meditation.  So there's that.
  • "North American Buddhists are likely to create their own traditions and schools of thought, but they should do so with the awareness that they are forging a new Buddhist culture, not the ‘true’ Buddhist culture."  I'm not sure what this sentence means. I'm not even sure the author knows what it means.

Monday, June 18, 2012

What's going on in Myanmar?

I think it's important as a guy who calls himself Buddhist to try to make sure that nasty things that are done in the name of this religion are not swept under the rug. It's no more appropriate for Buddhists to remain silent when Buddhists are perpetrators of nasty acts than it is to remain silent when some other group's members are perpetrators of horrific acts.  And this time it seems the persecuted group is the Rohingya, a primarily Muslim minority living near Bangladesh.

And so there's been news lately about Myanmar, and it's not been pretty.  Although Aung San Suu Kyi is being treated like a pop star while she's on tour,  tensions between Buddhists and Muslims is increasing, according to this article published June 10th.

Tensions in the area had been building for several months, said Chris Lewa, an expert on the Rohingya who has championed their cause. Myanmar’s government has not proposed a solution for the 800,000 Rohingya, who live in desperate conditions that resemble refugee camps and make up one of the largest groups of stateless people in Asia. There are fears inside Myanmar that the clashes could widen into a broader religious conflict. In recent days, Buddhist and Muslim groups have held relatively small separate protests in Myanmar’s main city, Yangon. In one sign that passions are running high, the Web site of the Eleven Media Group, a publisher of one of the country’s leading weekly newspapers, displayed a string of hateful comments about Muslims from readers. “Terrorist is terrorist,” wrote one reader who signed in as Maungpho. “Just kill them.” U Ko Ko Gyi, a former political prisoner who is helping lead efforts to ease religious tensions, said he was concerned by the “emotional response” to the clashes. “We have to calm down and find an intellectual solution to the problem,” he said. Muslims leaders have urged calm in recent days, and the National League for Democracy, the party of the Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, issued a statement on Saturday calling on the government to restore order. About 90 percent of Myanmar’s population is Buddhist; Muslims account for about 4 percent.

Another disturbing article appeared two days ago:

In online forums, Rohingya are referred to as dogs, thieves, terrorists and various expletives. Commenters urge the government to “make them disappear” and seem particularly enraged that Western countries and the United Nations are highlighting their plight. 
The violence in Rakhine State, which borders Bangladesh, has left 29 people dead and more than 2,500 houses burned during the past week, according to officials quoted in the Burmese news media. About 30,000 people have been displaced by the violence, according to the United Nations. 
Harder to measure has been damage to Myanmar’s complex multiethnic fabric as the government of President Thein Sein tries to steer the country toward reconciliation between the military and the people, and between the Bamar majority and the dozens of smaller ethnic groups. 
So far, the violence has been limited to Rakhine, which is relatively isolated from the rest of the country by a mountain range. But many among those who have posted angry comments on Internet sites have equated the Rohingya with other Muslims scattered around Myanmar. In Yangon, Myanmar’s main city, worshipers at mosques reported that prayer services left out traditional Friday sermons as a precaution against widening the sectarian conflict. 
The issue of the Rohingya is so delicate that even Myanmar’s leading defender of human rights and democracy, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has been oblique and evasive about the situation. Asked at a news conference on Thursday whether the estimated 800,000 Rohingyas in Myanmar should be given citizenship, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi was equivocal. “We have to be very clear about what the laws of citizenship are and who are entitled to them,” she said in Geneva, which she was visiting as part of a European tour. “All those who are entitled to citizenship should be treated as full citizens deserving all the rights that must be given to them.”

While I haven't been a guy favoring distraction by causes in quite a while, and haven't been a big fan of the Dalai Lama, I was never in doubt about the nastiness of the dictatorship in Myanmar. I'm glad Aung San Suu Kyi is out of prison and running the country and getting a Nobel prize and all that. But this racist hatred must be spoken against; the perpetrators of such violence, regardless of their class or religion, are still perpetrators of violence, and achieve no merit from doing so as Buddhists.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Technology and our use of it as a reflection of who we are...

Because various computers in my house have aged, and because there's still things you can't readily do on a PC that you can do on a Mac after nearly 3 decades of Macs, I am the new recipient of an Apple iMac, so if this post isn't coming out the way to which you're accustomed to reading, let's just say I still don't have a few things figured out yet.  But they're not the important things to me.

There are things a PC does better today, but that's mostly because Microsoft still does things to privilege use of their machines. These are things like access of the Microsoft webmail client in Safari - though the "mail" application on the Mac handles it without incident.

But PC versus Mac isn't the whole point of this post, but it illustrates a recurring theme of this post, which is a continuation of my continuing musings on this article that appeared in February of last year about how Steve Jobs was able to capture the initiative in the consumer electronics market.

Other companies fail to do things because they've overlooked potential openings or are cutting corners to save money; under Jobs, however, every spurned opportunity is a conscious, measured statement. It's why the pundits who give Apple products poor reviews for not including industry-standard components -- for instance, the iMac's lack of a floppy drive -- just aren't getting it: Apple products are as defined by what they're missing as much as by what they contain.
To understand why, one has to remember that Jobs spent much of the 1970s at the Los Altos Zen Center (alongside then-and-current Gov. Jerry Brown) and later studied extensively under the late Zen roshi Kobun Chino Otogawa -- whom he designated as the official "spiritual advisor" for NeXT, the company he founded after being ejected as Apple's CEO in 1986, and who served as officiant when he wed his wife Laurene in 1991.
Jobs's immersion in Zen and passion for design almost certainly exposed him to the concept of ma, a central pillar of traditional Japanese aesthetics. Like many idioms relating to the intimate aspects of how a culture sees the world, it's nearly impossible to accurately explain -- it's variously translated as "void," "space" or "interval" -- but it essentially describes how emptiness interacts with form, and how absence shapes substance. If someone were to ask you what makes a ring a meaningful object -- the circle of metal it consists of, or the emptiness that that metal encompasses? -- and you were to respond "both," you've gotten as close to ma as the clumsy instrument of English allows.
While Jobs has never invoked the term in public -- one of the aspects of his genius is the ability to keep even his most esoteric assertions in the realm of the instantly accessible -- ma is at the core of the Jobsian way. And Jobs' single-minded adherence to this idiosyncratically Japanese principle is, ironically, what has allowed Apple to compete with and beat Japan's technology titans -- most notably the company that for the past four decades dominated the world of consumer electronics: Sony.

The author of the blog and Microsoft likely still don't get it. 

They don't get that a successful technology product is adapted to the way people are, and is useful to them where they are.  And it's not overly hostile to the environment.  It's deeper than that, too but I won't go further there.  What I will say is that so much problems are created by not taking these kinds of things into account in all aspects of product design.  The PC and the Mac are metaphors for how our society has approached things: the Mac, a "socialist" (or if that's too politically loaded for you "communitarian") version of the Way Things Could Be is highly integrated, (mostly) much easier to use than a PC, and works better.   A PC is made by outsourcing, and throws more power and Gigaflops at problems that result in mostly unappealing compromises for performance. 

On the Mac, if you open an ftp site, you know what happens? Folders appear on the screen.  Like they should. Try that with Internet Explorer, if you've never opened an ftp site.  To download and install Open Office on a Mac, it takes maybe 15 minutes with a decent wireless internet connection. Have you tried installing a new version of Microsoft Office lately?  Oh, and one is free and the other is what...$150 or $300 or something like that?

So it's a metaphor for how we should structure and unstructured, and interact with each other, which like many things is probably applicable in aspects of our life and families and communities beyond Stuff You Do With a Computer.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Well, I suppose I'll have to talk about the NY Times & Buddhism in the West


Dr. Paul D. Numrich, a professor of world religions and interreligious relations, conjectured that there may be as many Buddhists as Muslims in the United States by now.Professor Numrich’s claim is startling, but statistics (some, anyway) support it: Buddhism is the fourth largest religion in the United States. More Americans convert to Buddhism than to Mormonism. (Think about it, Mitt.)Many converts are what Thomas A. Tweed, in “The American Encounter With Buddhism,” refers to as “nightstand Buddhists” — mostly Catholics, Jews (yeah, I know, “Juddhists”) and refugees from other religions who keep a stack of Pema Chödrön books beside their beds.So who are these — dare I coin the term? — Newddhists? Burned-out BlackBerry addicts attracted to its emphasis on quieting the “monkey mind”? Casual acolytes rattled by the fiscal and identity crises of a nation that even Jeb Bush suggests is “in decline”? Placard-carrying doomsayers out of a New Yorker cartoon? Uncertain times make us susceptible to collective catastrophic thinking — the conditions in which religious movements flourish.Or perhaps Buddhism speaks to our current mind-body obsession...

Or it could could be that there's a heck of a lot of suffering and people have figured out that Buddhism helps.  Or it could be that Buddhism is one of the few major world religions (is there any other?) where skeptical brains aren't not only not checked at the door, but encouraged.

Mr. Atlas kind of gets to that latter point, but it's kind of buried in the studied trendiness of the article.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Like any guilty pleasure, I said I would not do it...but...

I just can't help noting that I will be missing Genpo Merzel's teleconference tomorrow.

Join Genpo Roshi for a 90 minute teleconference. He will share some of the new voices he has personally been working with most recently and will also discuss the direction and vision he  sees us moving in after a year and a half, including subjects such as transmission, acknowledgments, teachings and empowerments.

 (Emphasis mine.) I could not, I could not help thinking of this:

That's karma for you.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

How much effort and the origin of divisions: further conversations

Nathan, over at his place, has continued the conversation further on how much effort one should put into one's practice. I'm grateful for that. 

I think this converation has aspects of the cultural and generational divides of so-called American convert Buddhism (which, as I'm sure one would point out, might still have ethnic faultlines considering that there might be Asian convert American Buddhists...etc...but I'll let the danger of overgeneralization on that point hang there to proceed on one of my larger points.)  Or maybe I'll just list them as bullet-points:

  • I think one of the bigger cultural divides that I see has to do with "-isms."  While it is true that many of us adhere under Buddhism,  the Buddhism of the school from which I hail does endeavor to truly not exclude all.  And so I would aspire  to be just as jaundiced in looking at anti-capitalism and anti-sexism as I do anti-comunism and sexism.   It's more of a kind of a convergence of John Lennon and the Lotus Sutra though than any kind of a centrist politcal philosphy though. (I. e. "If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/You ain't gonna make it with anyone anyhow" meets the Burning House parable which teaches skillful means.)   I mean in fact when it comes to politics and "skillful means" in politics (i.e., to acquire political ends purely and amorally)  I'm more of a kind of a fan of the guy who wrote "Carthage must be destroyed." And if someone's playing that zero sum game - the "Carthage must be destroyed" game, that may indeed be a convergence of Buddhist skillful means with political skillful means.  But all other things being equal, that is, when it's not presumed to be a zero sum game,  avoid the "-isms" is how I've been acculturated.
  • But before I depart from that point, re: Michael Roach,  how the hell do people afford to go on a 3 year retreat?   Is it like the Catholic Church of a hundred or so years ago, which offered the equivalent of castration without the surgery (i.e., celibacy)  as a quid pro quo for lifting boys and girls out of poverty?  Or is this a fancy of the ultra-wealthy?  Clearly there's class and cultural issues that are outside mine right there.  I mean, I'm not poor by any means, but I could not afford to do a 3 year retreat until, geez, I'm like 68 or something...that's about 13 years from now.
  • How much effort? It might be a Rinzai/Soto thing, but from a Rinzai perspective, "right effort" should be unceasing through the day.  In that sense I do not put in enough effort. But as far as Rinzai/Soto divides, we Rinzai can do that because there's ways of doing koan practice during the day that don't involve sitting in zazen.   Soto folks have mindfulness practice, which someone should have said is "just sitting without sitting."  I hope someone did, because it'd be a shame if that phrase were only attributed to me.
  • And in the Rinzai tradition, at least Hakuin realized that the average people busted their buts and that effort was quite substantial. And that the Way could be realized that way. 
  • Even when Hakuin wasn't in sesshin, he did a lot of sitting each day, oftentimes.
  • So "right effort" and "arduous practice" are not something to be lightly dismissed. Despite what everyone said about "Geez, that's extreme what those folks did out there," Bodhidharma was arduously meeting the cave wall face to face, without "-isms."  Now the trick is to bring that ardor to being stuck in traffic, faulty plumbing, failed expectations and other beauties of our brief dwelling here.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The effort thing and resolution in practice...

In reading what Brad Warner wrote here about the Geshe thing (ugh, I can't believe people fell for this nonsense), it reminded me of a side comment that Nathan wrote here:

In the minds of many Buddhist men historically, and even some still today, enlightenment was a man's domain. And any man who wanted it better "man up" in his practice. The obsession with marathon meditation retreats and hardcore, "balls busting" koan studies you see in some convert Zen communities reminds me a lot of this ancient mud. 

 I had lots of other issues with Nathan's post as well; but I've made related points (w.r.t. those other issues) in the past and I'll make related points (w.r.t. those issues) again.   To bring out the point I want to make, though, I want to go to Ven. Warner's post:

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, when you’re getting into meditation practice you’re dealing with some serious mojo. This is not to be taken lightly. And if you think you need a more intense or extreme practice to get you into the deeper stuff faster… you most assuredly do not. It’s absolutely crucial to take this stuff slowly. If you try to rush it, bad things will happen. We’re all full of lots of bad stuff. If you think you can push right through into the great enlightenment of Lord Buddha without first dealing with your own accumulated negative shit, you’re dead wrong.

I've seen unbalanced people in those places...they have them in Christian churches too.  It happens.

Ven. Warner has a point. People with issues shouldn't push themselves beyond their limits. It happens, and it will continue to happen, if only because this sort of guidance is guided towards generation of actions from which there are no words - "how much effort" or "what is my resolution to practice" begins - before there is a verbally expressible idea. I'm trying to say that, for at least the reason of how ideation is verbalized,  that someone with a less than titanium composure might commit to more than effort than he is able to commit, because he can't ideate the notion of "too much."  If you don't like that,  there's one of those quotes from William Blake, about how you never know how much is enough until you know how much is too much.

But the other comment, well, I think that comment is not informed by the experience of which I know.

The fact of the matter is, the historical Buddha himself went to extremes in his practice. Eventually he realized a middle-way course of action, but not before hitting the rails.   Typically that's the way practitioners work.  Again, you can't say "how much is right" without addressing areas from which motivation comes.   Note: the point is not to go anywhere near the rails! The point I'm trying to make is without an ongoing commitment, a resolution to effort no fruits of effort are ever realized.  

Yeah, Soto folk: I'm saying even to just sit that requires effort. At the very least the effort required to make the commitment to do so. much effort?

Well, I'll get to that, but  first off, but in the spirit of Bill Maher, I'd like to posit a new rule: Soto folks shouldn't opine about koan ( 公案) practice.  Seriously folks, what is your point about writing about it if you don't know what it is, and  if you haven't practiced it. And just because a Soto teacher "told you" about 公案 practice doesn't mean that teacher knows anything about 公案 practice.   Brad Warner's a Soto VIP (how about that instead of 老師?) and even he's written things that were uninformed about 公案 practice.  And I can say this and stand by my point above about just sitting requiring effort because there are places where 公案 practice is 只管打坐. And yes, there are schools - White Plum, the Yasutani-based, but also Rinzai temples, where both 公案 and 只管打坐  practices are cultivated, not to mention those outside of the Japanese tradition, especially the Chinese and Vietnamese traditions, where something else entirely is going on.  I'm talking about Soto purists here, and especially those who'd rather come uncomfortably close in their practice to the notion of buji zen (無事禅.)

Oh, yes, wait, I know, the comment in question was only denigrating the "balls busting" 公案 studies. It may be that there are 老師 and such that promote unrealistic   コブラ会 ("Cobra Kai") types of practices...but a useful teacher will be getting you to have this practice as it arises from you, yourself.

And any useful giver and evaluator of 公案 practice will encourage very strongly effort to be made to get to a resolution of the 公案 - at the very least one must have the resolution to resolve the 公案.

So all of the above means that one's resolution to practice should be cultivated as much as one can without going superego on one's self. (Yes that's a self-referential statement - one shouldn't be bothered if one's going too much in one direction or the other, just resolve to practice. And then follow through.) 

Yes, 3 year silent retreats are hoo-hah. No, it's not sexist or damaging to learn how to make a great effort via resolution.   In fact it's vital for the practice of living one's life.  And don't forget Soto folks: those vows to help other sentient beings are vows.  And they come with a high barrier.  For a reason.

Friday, June 08, 2012

They'd like me to come home to this?

In my random internet surfing, perhaps as a result of reading this or this, I came across the site of the (relatively new) local Roman Catholic Church, which features a link to a site called "Catholics Come Home."  The Roman Catholic Church, as anyone who follows anything knows, has contemporaneously been hijacked by callous conservatives, as well as been engaged in bizarre sexual scandals inextricably correlated with their  clergy's own sexual problems manifested as a war on other people's sexuality.

I submit the morality of the Roman Catholic Church is intrinsically disordered. I'm not being cute; I'm dead serious.  Don't believe me?  Check out the "Catholics Come Home" site on "moral issues."  With the exception of Euthanasia, which I suppose would, if I explored it, reveal a steamy sewer of something immoral there, it's otherwise 100% sexytime.

Think of that: the "morality" of today's Roman Catholic Church is primarily concerned with sexytime.

Is it just me or does anyone else have a problem with that?  

It is thus probably why, on another part of the site, they have a guy saying that he came back to the Catholic Church apparently, because he didn't know what his faith was.  What kind of crazy Rube Goldberg logic does it take to think in your head that you "don't know what your faith is?"  (By that it is clear from the context he meant, he didn't know what others wanted him to say he believed.) Now you could interpret "I don't know what my faith is" as  "I don't know what I believe," - a reasonable enough way to get through life to be sure, and quite in line with the way reality presents itself moment to moment- but in that case what is wrong with that, and why would that be a problem for any kind of religion that presents itself as a some kind of moral force?  It's the opposite of any kind of moral force, actually, because such as statement is the expression of freedom of conscience itself.

The people who run that site want to tell people: this is what you should believe.  Because they say so.

I would submit also that it is this morality that created the child abuse scandal in the first place.

And their political activity invalidates any claim to  a tax exempt status.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

The Way is found in the tiny bits in your everyday life.

In retrospect, it seems sort of obvious that this Michael Roach story would take the turn it did.  A Japanese girlfriend from long ago advised me that her family were "just Buddhists," never mind the crazy Aum Shin Rikyo cult.

The thing is, many practitioners, at a relatively small level of experience, get into thinking that what they're doing is going to have some rather grand results in terms of "universal enlightenment" or the "emerging Buddhism," or some utopian notions of re-making society or what-not.  I too have had such notions from time to time in a time long ago.   It's the kind of thing that makes one fodder for a spiritual huckster.  These notions and wants encourage one to want to glue to a "teacher" one's  notions of what they want their existence (and the existence of everyone they know)  to be. 







A guy with more cred than me once said "Everyday mind is the way."  

You don't need to do anything special to find the path in which to go; it's right the heck in front of you.  You don't need to go into the desert for a year, you just have to get yourself to work in the morning.  Woody Allen said something to the effect of "Eighty percent of success is showing up."  It's generally not a good idea to make one's case with a guy that ran off with his 19 year-old adopted step-daughter to be sure, but this was said before the auteur did that fateful deed.

I'm still planning to get back to writing about the story behind this post here.  But one of the points behind that post is apropos for this post: everyday life is the Way, and doing something in everyday life can help transform the rest of your life, as long as it's not taken to extremes.

Here's a reference about which I'll post sometime in the future:

 There's points here to which  I'm very eager to respond, to say the least, especially the issue of "spirituality" and the martial arts, but, as I've said, I'll save that for another post.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Still not enough time...

There's just SO much to respond to and SO little time...I'm hoping it gets better this week.  Soon the vacation will come...

Seriously, I've seen so much over the past few days worth responding to, as previous posts show.

And there's so much more out there. now.

Just practice.

Friday, June 01, 2012

"A scheme is not a vision..."

Well, I'm finally back sort of kind of ...that is at the moment I have an ability to write a blog at home, which was absent for about a week after I got back, much to my extreme frustration.

Yes, yes, yes, the frustration was transcended, as well as my frustration at my frustration.

Some guy once realized enlightenment when he stubbed his toe.

Do you get that one?

It hurt when he stubbed his toe.

I was going to write about many things over the past few days, but now there's no time.  The title though refers to one post I may write about how the Catholic Church sees ex-Catholics - I cannot believe it. (Heh heh.)

Have a relatively pain-free day.