Saturday, December 31, 2011

Yes, yes, Buddhism and Science are separate domains but still

More 書道 coming soon...

I've had about two weeks off - you can tell from the myriad posts you've seen here, right?

Well, I've been more or less busy.  Actually, I've been less busy than usual, and by design.  But I've sort of semi-started a practice at the year end of doing some 書道 which I hope to present here tomorrow or Monday.

In addition to that I've been following the North Korean thing. Strange video...a friend called me and asked if Newt Gingrich's recent crying jag was due to the fact that he'd just found out about the death of the "Dear Leader."

So it goes...

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Practice and potentially violent stuff...

Nathan writes about Yoga, Buddhism and guns.

Although I tend to support any efforts to reduce the number of guns in circulation, the larger issue is really one of approaching the violent seeds each of us carry within ourselves, and which also come together collectively in our communities and nations. Whether someone in my yoga studio or Zen sangha owns a gun is less important to me than how they handle violence in their lives. At the same time, it's difficult for me to forget the periods of history when large groups of Buddhists twisted elements of Buddha's teachings to support warfare and violent oppression. Given the collective energy here in the United States, it's possible something similar could happen in the future. 

 It's easy to say that "the wrong people have guns," "the wrong people" being people who are too crudely violent in themselves to be able to own one well.  And somewhere buried in that is the assumption that the state includes employees of the people who are themselves the "right people" to own weapons. We hope that is true somewhere within us, though history hasn't exactly been entirely supportive of this assumption.

I know one or two "gun nuts." They're  not "nuts" by any means when it comes to the care and feeding of their weapons, though I personally think they might have a few too many of them.I'm sure they differ on this point.

That said, I myself have generally been supportive of "weapon rights" but in the sense that weapon rights should be considered as overall expressions of 功夫 - the skill of one's self.   Nathan writes:

What's the overall impact of more guns on our communities? On each of us? On the environment? Can a society that upholds gun ownership as a collective response to potential violence also be aiming in the direction of overall non-violence? 

 As a guy studying a martial art, I can say that the study and skill of the art itself seems to have an inverse relationship to one's own tendencies toward aggression and violence. I do not think that is because I am so culturally superior to ...oh, insert the kind of "wrong person" who shouldn't be owning a gun or know how to comport one's self in unarmed fighting here.  Also, as an engineer, I appreciate the esthetics of the simplicity of design of a revolver, or the beauty of a katana. 

I'm not sure I buy the arguments commonly put forward by the right in this country, though let's face it, guns have been pretty instrumental in replacing some rather nasty regimes (far too often, with nastier regimes, alas).

But the gun isn't  our minds - the  associated ideas, concepts, beliefs, and emotions about guns are actually stuff inside our minds, and not the gun itself.  Wanting to remove guns from society to foster non-violence is like wanting to ban alchohol or other intoxicants from society to promote clear thinking - it is the policy equivalent of scratching your foot through your shoe.

Well, enough about that...I have some cooking to do. Gotta sharpen the santoku.

Monday, December 19, 2011

It's not exactly the main subject of this blog...

But seeing how Kim Jong Il has departed from this world, this is almost topical.   The 1985 (or 1987?)  North Korean movie Pulgasari is on Youtube.  It was made by a director who was kidnapped...fascinating stuff.  I can't believe they can watch this in North Korea today - there's just too many parallels to the current regime.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Class, Christopher Hitchens...and Genpo Merzel

In all the latest hoo-hah about Genpo Merzel - about which there isn't really nothing really new, just an acknowledgement of what's been going on for a while now - news came that Christopher Hitchens died.  And so here's a blog post considering what that all might mean - as if it has to mean anything at all.  It doesn't - but it's interesting to juxtapose unrelated things now and again.

I was one of those who applauded Hitchens lefty Trotskyite past, but was a bit startled when he attacked Clinton.  To me it was obvious  and strange and dangerous what was going on with the Clinton impeachment proceedings - it was an attempt to achieve by other means what could not have been achieved at the ballot box, even with the wildly rigged American rules favoring the wealthy.  But given Hitchens' stance as one of Clinton's critics it didn't surprise me when he went gung ho for the Iraq war. (For the record, I too, was appalled at the treatment of Salman Rushdie, so let's put that right-wing chestnut into the fire for good.)

What I became aware of most acutely in the last few months, though was that Hitchens was one of those upwardly mobile folks who kinda sorta catapulted into the social mesosphere of the top 1%.

I know that kind.  Their kids hang out in neighborhood bars on the upper East Side, before or after going to whatever downtown clubs they go to.  This kind of social set is best rendered by Christopher Buckley's rendering of his time with Hitchens in the New Yorker:

David Bradley, the owner of The Atlantic Monthly, to which Christopher contributed many sparkling essays, once took him out to lunch at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown. It was—I think—February and the smoking ban had gone into effect. Christopher suggested that they eat outside, on the terrace. David Bradley is a game soul, but even he expressed trepidation about dining al fresco in forty-degree weather. Christopher merrily countered, “Why not? It will be bracing.”
Lunch—dinner, drinks, any occasion—with Christopher always was. One of our lunches, at Café Milano, the Rick’s Café of Washington, began at 1 P.M., and ended at 11:30 P.M. At about nine o’clock (though my memory is somewhat hazy), he said, “Should we order more food?” I somehow crawled home, where I remained under medical supervision for several weeks, packed in ice with a morphine drip. Christopher probably went home that night and wrote a biography of Orwell. His stamina was as epic as his erudition and wit.
When we made a date for a meal over the phone, he’d say, “It will be a feast of reason and a flow of soul.” I never doubted that this rococo phraseology was an original coinage, until I chanced on it, one day, in the pages of P. G. Wodehouse, the writer Christopher perhaps esteemed above all others. Wodehouse was the Master. When we met for another lunch, one that lasted only five hours, he was all a-grin with pride as he handed me a newly minted paperback reissue of Wodehouse with “Introduction by Christopher Hitchens.” “Doesn’t get much better than that,” he said, and who could not agree?
It is true that in my day I quaffed one or more with an editor of Rolling Stone in the local bar on E82nd St. - I believe it was the night that OJ went on his car ride, in fact, the night I called Herz to ask if they rented white Ford Broncos, because their chief spokesman was in one on I5...oh I digress, mais ça va sans dire.

All of which is to matter how much Genpo Merzel charges for his silly seminars, he's never, ever, ever going to be admitted to this club into which Buckleys and Hitchens and their whole social constellation can  linger all day and talk about Wodehouse.  I don't care if he married and got divorced (or did he?)  from some descendent of Joseph Smith.  I'm not going to be admitted to this club, and I know people who have places where  I can always crash in if I happen to be summering in the Hamptons.

There's no point even going there, to try to engage that pretense of thinking you'll fit in.  Even if you see Tom Wolfe in the Islip Airport VIP lounge, it doesn't mean you're one of his kind. I'm not one of their kind, and I'm a lot more one of their kind than Merzel will ever be. True, I've never lived the Palm Beach lifestyle, where you have to get the police to bring you gas to your convertible on the road in the early morning hours of Sunday because you're on your way to an orgy with two beautiful...oh wait, I'm ripping off Hunter S. Thompson again. 申し訳では無。 (Bet Htichens couldn't do that!) But the day-to-day tripping the light fantastic life is just not my lot in life, and I'm really glad for that, simply because the life I do have is far more rewarding and interesting, and the people I have met and live with are far more important to me than the dolphins of the Upper East Side.  Don't get me wrong; I like to visit and go back there, and especially to dine in the French bistro right near the Zen Studies Society (such a convenient location!)  But I'm a former New Yorker now (i.e. resident of Manhattan, for those of you who don't know);  I'm not quite a tourist and will never be when it comes to New York.  My son prefers the weather of the Pacific Northwest to that of the Northeast, and uses words and phrases that are indigenous to my current habitat.

So I'm kind of slightly amused at the accusations by some "Big" "Mind" apologists towards me on this thread.  I get the feeling some folks might think I have some kind of need to want what Merzel "has."  But I'm not overly surprised. Nevertheless I'll respond to one comment on that thread here:

you have a way to tell a Zen authority from a huckster? Does lineage make a Zen authority, and preclude the huckster? Does being a huckster preclude being a Zen authority?

OK, here's the answer: Do your own homework.  Lineage doesn't make a Zen authority, but like having a Ph.D., it has "intial value." (If you've studied differential equations you get the metaphor in the pun.) Lineage does not preclude being a huckster. Being a huckster of Zen precludes being a Zen authority.  To some extent, you see, in the system we have we all have to promote ourselves somehow, sometimes.  But peddling feces as shinola, especially in regard to things that are dealing with the intimacies of how one lives ones interior and exterior life really goes against all that I think is the whole point of the orientation of practicing the Way.  It's not a question of being attached to picking and choosing and avoiding, because we can't but pick and choose and avoid in this existence.  But it is a question of what we pick and choose and how much we are concerned with what we can pick and choose and what results.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Tu Quoque? Not really...

I'm reading the comments on Warner's latest bit summarizing what's wrong with Genpo Merzel.  While they typically run the gamut of juvenile to reflexive yes-commenter, a couple do bear further commenting, at least on my part, and at least over here.

Here's one:
Doesn't really matter, who's to say Genpo's more or less deluded than you are? (by you I mean you)

Brad admits he's doing his own seminars next year. If he charges $100 a pop or $10,000 a pop, says he'll get you enlightened or doesn't say it, how is that any different? It's relative.

Poonjaji said if anybody charges money for satsang they're a fraud.

He was right. 

 And another:

Genpo is correct to charge. He's teaching a lesson. Americans feel they have to pay big bucks or else their not getting anything. There's been double blind test on this. They make two products or services available one is just about free and the other is ridiculously expensive. Consumers or the people always picked the expensive one thinking they want the better of the two or none at all . Thinking the one that was just about free couldn't be any good. Deep conditioning

 And another:

"At the core of what drives Steven Seagal with all he does - his music, his Martial Arts and his acting - is his commitment to Asian philosophies and religion. As a Buddhist, Zen teacher, and healer, Steven lives by the principles that the development of the physical self is essential to protect the spiritual man."


 And still another:

 Charging for teaching also going on here:

(The HTML link in the last one was added by me.)

There's a lot of people teaching a lot of things out there.  A good teacher can teach by the way he walks, by the way he moves his body.  Even a mediocre student can pick that up after a while.  I picked these comments above to explore the question, "Who's legit and who's a huckster?"

And to further motivate the issue, I direct you to this bit on the "Big Heart Zen Center" page.

Beginning the following week, Tuesday December 6th, the Sangha’s normal program of morning practice and Sunday talks will continue at new locations as authorized and approved by Genpo Roshi. Zazen, Service and student interviews will continue at the same times on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings. The Sunday morning schedule will begin earlier at the new location in order to accommodate the shared usage with the Xuanfa Dharma Center.
 Now let's google "Xuanfa Dharma Center", OK?  You get, inter alia,  this link.  It says "The Wish-Fulfilling Jewel Mirror" at the top of the page.  Know what that means? Neither do I.  In the Intro page, though it says:

I have been extremely fortunate to receive oral transmissions of the Esoteric Buddhist Dharma directly from my Buddha Master, H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III, and have access to many unpublished translations from the Chinese of the Buddha's discourses that are not yet available to the public in English. I have also been granted the dispensation to write about certain of my experiences, even though one does not usually talk about these matters.
H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III came to this world to correct the translation and interpretation errors that currently exist in earlier transmissions of the dharma and to bring us the highest teachings. The Buddha Master has told us that there are teachings by Shakyamuni Buddha that the world has not been ready for until now that will be given to us to help us complete the “quick path to enlightenment.” It is true that holy beings came to the mandala when the Buddha Master was giving us the discourse on "What Is Cultivation?" That discourse, which can be found in the treasure book H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III and on this web-site, outlines the steps we must follow on this path. This auspicious event only confirms the importance of H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III's work in the world today.
Based on the teachings that I have received and my limited understanding of the Dharma, and the fact that we live in such an auspicious time where it is possible to progress rapidly to enlightenment, I have prepared this web site in the hopes that it will help introduce the Correct Dharma to those who do not understand Chinese. There are many books and recorded discourses available in Chinese from the Buddha, but they have not yet been translated into English.
Any errors are strictly my responsibility and will be corrected when we have H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III’s teachings in English in a more complete form. It is so important that we all begin our cultivation of ourselves and prepare for this journey to full enlightenment and freedom from suffering.
We must not waste time!
What I say and present in this website just represent my personal sayings and understanding. I am a humble rinpoche and cannot possibly represent His Holiness Dorje Chang Buddha III.

Dorje Chang Buddha III is the true Vajradhara or supreme leader of all Buddhism of this age.This great holy Buddha came back to these degenerate times to teach the correct dharma and show living beings how to escape the suffering and unhappiness of worldly existence and to attain complete liberation from the cycle of reincarnation. The Buddha Master is a man of boundless compassion and wisdom. Based on the precise principles of the Buddha-dharma, Dorje Chang Buddha III teaches people in every day language the compassion and wisdom obtained through cultivation. The wisdom of the Buddha Master excels that of all previous masters in history. One after another event proves this to be totally true. The book H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III contains over 30 testimonials from the heads of the leading sects of Buddhism and many fully enlightened masters.
There's a lot of phonies out there, and  I suspect that "Dorje Chang Buddha III" is one of them (see here).  So it's not surprising that Genpo Merzel's group seems to be now operating out of space owned by a group of hucksters. 

Steven Seagal isn't a Zen teacher, despite what is said on his website.  And despite what are probably Vincent Horn's good intentions, there's simply no way I'd pay him or recommend anyone else paying him $70/hour to teach meditation.  Go read Kapleau's Three Pillars of Zen instead, or Thich Nhat Hanh's The Miracle of Mindfulness.

Ven. Warner's main gig isn't pretending to be a "teacher" with "students," and so I don't put him in the same category as these hucksters.  He writes books, goes on book tours, holds lectures, etc, though I think from time to time he does do  or will do seminars.  There's simply no way he's in the same league as Genpo Merzel.  And I don't have an axe to grind at all here: I've never given Ven. Warner one red cent.  I've never bought his books, nor seen his lectures (except for a few minutes on Youtube.)   Heck I don't even train in the Soto school.

Even if Warner had students - and frankly I think he has somewhat of an obligation to have students, especially given the above - and if Warner continued these activities, it wouldn't be problematic if he didn't make grandiose claims or if he didn't try trolling for students with his fundraising activities. 

And that's the difference between Warner and Merzel, in my opinion.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

I seem to have triggered Ven. Warner for another Genpo Merzel rant

And I think that is good (see here and here). It's kind of why I originally flagged it in a comment on one of Warner's posts.  Warner has a bit  or substantially more authority to speak on Merzel's antics than I do, but I basically agree with him.

Zen priests and monks have to eat, no doubt about that.  And it's reasonable to expect that with exposure to America that there be some kind of fee based structure used with teaching - but not rigidly used.  In fact there must always be the possibility of giving  it away free. As I've noted numerous times,  my teacher - and heck, even Eido Shimano - had the possibility to support themselves by means other than teaching.

Warner's also right about the term "Zen Master."  Where I go, the services are chanted in a mixture of Pali, English, and Japanese; with the chanting, in Japanese, of the Great Compassion Heart Dharani (Dai Hi Shin Gyo) the dedication is made to various ancestors in the lineage, invariable ending with 禅師大和尚 - that is, "Zenji Daiosho," or "Zen Master Great Priest."  To refer to one's self that way, as Warner notes, is beyond absurdity - it's simply unseemly for a living person to refer to one's self that way.

Also to tie one's desire for complete and perfect enlightenment to being in a "close" relationship with a's not quite that way.  If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him and all that. So even though there's the disclaimer about "heart relationships which do not imply ownership or obligation in either direction" it's clear that this relationship is tied to one's progress in helping all beings transcend suffering.

There are myriad issues with what Merzel's doing.  And as I write this, and look over the various types of bilge on his site, and Warner's reactions to it, I'm struck by the fact that my head is completely congested. Perfectly, completely congested.   I'm amused at this blog post, and by the first comment, who (approvingly) connected it to Ayn Rand in screaming caps.

I think that says it all.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

I was too hard in my pithy critique of Andrew Sulliavan...

That was over there at the Worst Horse.  While I do find Sullivan's politics this side of rephrenesible, I realize that the guy has had AIDS forever, and he's doing AIDS in the only way he knows how.  Transcendental Meditation, in my view, has never survived Philip Kapleau's response about it ("Who transcends what?"), but this poor clown - like the poor clown who wrote this - is only doing what he can, I guess.

I got perspective in Mary Elizabeth Williams' articles (here and here) on talking with others about cancer.  While I'm grateful to say that largely I dealt with my mother's cancer in the way Ms. Williams describes,  believe me, that crap ain't easy, especially when you're thousands of miles away.

Ten years ago today, it was my father, though it was sudden, and not cancer.  

It's what humans do.

Back to cold/flu practice. I can't tell which. It's in "mean sore throat stage, with low to mid-grade fever alleviated by ibuprofen."

Monday, December 12, 2011

Another day...

I don't have much at all to say today, and practically no time say it, but I do hope, that despite all our innumerable faults, we can get through the day with a minimum of difficulty, and with a bit of mindfulness.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Suzuki-roshi, somewhat different interpretations, but it's all OK

I finally re-read Barbara's post on Suzuki-roshi & dragons, and added a comment, as you can see there.  To be honest, I'm not entirely satisfied that I captured what I wanted to say in the comment, which I'll get to in a bit, but I wanted to go somewhere else first.

Suzuki-roshi is/was another one of those guys about whom Stuart Lachs has written a "corrective" on saying, basically, a) he was really really human, despite what the posthumously written intro to his most widely known book would imply, and b) he therefore made what we'd refer to as "mistakes" if we were talking about any other Tom, Dick or Harry.  I won't bother to go find Lachs' piece on Suzuki-roshi, just because as a guy who's been involved with such cultural things for a while now, none of it is surprising - while the Japanese Zen school has sent outstanding teachers and exponents to the West, they've also at times sent exponents of their "B Team," which is kind of a common practice at certain international companies - they send the exponents of the A Team when they really want to expand, and they send exponents of the B Team when they want to move a potential (or actual) problem to the "Somebody Else's Problem Field," to use a term from Douglas Adams. But in this context, let me just say a lot of us can learn a lot from the B Team.

I remember getting that book "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" long ago, and when I first picked it up, it was frankly incomprehensible to me, and later on it made a heck of a lot of sense, since I guess I was somewhere that needed the relative sanity expressed there.  Later on, when I started reading Dogen (yeah, I have read Dogen), I realized that some of Suzuki-roshi's extrapolations on bits in Dogen, quite frankly, weren't obvious in the plaintext meaning of Dogen.  But then again, it being Zen and all that, Suzuki's narrative is not all that different, ultimately, than my interpretation.

Back to Barbara's post.  Barbara's relating a story about a guy who was so enamored of dragons that he got to meet a real dragon, and was shot through with stark terror on the encounter. She notes that Dogen commented, "I beseech you, noble friends in learning through experience, do not become so accustomed to images that you are dismayed by the real dragon."  Her explanation that we shouldn't mistake outward forms and images for the "real thing"  is pretty good, and my comment is sort of OK, but I think I'm not going far enough in my comment.  To actually give up one's attachments - to realize that one has  the power to get all beings to transcend suffering is to realize that the "dragon" of our True Nature has unfathomably infinite power compared to the "worm" of our attachment driven little mind that I don't think you can cross that threshold without a bit of fear and trepidation.  It's scary to be able to give up everything, including the desire for enlightenment itself,  just as it is to consider that death means "giving it all up."  So, the idea of the serene Buddha, the images of the thousand armed Regarder of the World's Cries,  so calm and all that, isn't the being that actually has the power to give it all up.  The moon beats the finger pointing to it like a gong.  And it's easy to get dismayed that this bag of decaying flesh, home to more microbes than there are homo sapiens on the planet,  is actually an expression of that True Nature. 

And, it's why folks like Warner constantly rail against "Big Mind," but that's kind of a digression. 

At such a point, when one encounters this fear, there's actually something that can be done, which I'll get to later, but for now, Douglas Adams' advice is pretty good: Don't Panic.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

So much spiritual little time...

I'm a busy guy of late, what with work, family, and the various practices in which I'm engaged.  So, here's a few quick pointers on the absurdity I read nowadays...

Of course we Mahayana Buddhists vow to save, or help  all sentient beings ourselves, in the sense of the transcendence of suffering.  But in no way is that a function of how much we can pay nor how much abuse we're willing to take, or whether we check our brains at the door when we go for some sort of teaching.  

Also don't believe everything Maurice Shonen Knegtel wrote there at that link, as if I had to write that.  Especially this part is risible:

Teaching, practice and realization took place in everyday activity, like farming, walking through the mountains, drinking tea, cleaning, or just talking. Probably they did not sit that much in formal zazen, and the early Masters rarely talk about sitting practice. Zen was not yet formalized with rituals and ceremonial practices, as it was later in Sung China (Tenth to Fourteenth Century A.D.), Korea, Vietnam and Japan. Early Chan was a living religion, not dependent on forms like teisho (formal teaching), zazen (formal sitting) or daisan (formal interview). Enlightenment was found and expressed in daily activities. And the way of teaching of the old Masters was very similar to that of Gautama the Buddha. Students were led to a place where they are one with the Dharma and express it. Genpo Roshi’s Big Mind process offers the same living religion in a playful game of giving voice to whatever dharma is coming up and by skillfully practicing the same ‘wonder of teaching’ as Gautama the Buddha and early Chan Masters did. 
 It's risible because its Orientalism and revisionism just oozes right through every word, including the instances of "a" and "the."  That Lin Chi didn't depend on his teishos - even if they weren't called that - is absurd.  What the hell does Shonen think he was doing when he ascended the high seat? He wasn't thinking "Gee, this is just like what 'Big' 'Mind" is going to be in a thousand some-odd years." 

And for Void sakes, "Big" "Mind" isn't an "everyday" activity!   There's 8.6% unemployment! Their everyday activity, I assure you, isn't mucking around with "voices."  The "everyday" activity of the working monastics (and laity) consisted of, you know,  activities performed every day. No special process or mind games were needed, playful or not.

These guys have completely forgotten, it seems, what it is to be ordinary.  And, it seems, Shonen might have confused the Dharma with a "conflict of interest," the conflict of interest being his personal investment of time and energy and effort, and I'd bet, gelt, into the Merzel Thing, and, of course, the practice of the Dharma.

All right.  Enough of my rant for today.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

John Horgan's back...

I appreciate Barbara's response to John Horgan's latest "scientific" article on Buddhism.  She's right in her point that Horgan's not actually critiquing what those of us who are Buddhists in the West would recognize as Buddhism.  But I'd like to go a bit further into the details of what Horgan's actually writing here.

Eventually, I stopped attending my Zen sessions (for reasons that I describe in detail elsewhere). One problem was that meditation never really tamed my monkey mind. During my last class, I fixated on a classmate who kept craning his neck and grunting and asking our teacher unbearably pretentious questions. I loathed him and loathed myself for loathing him, and finally I thought: What am I doing here? By that time, I also had serious intellectual qualms about Buddhism. I concluded that Buddhism is not much more rational than Catholicism, my childhood faith.
If I am reading this correctly (and I read his other link way back when) Mr. Horgan doesn't bowl, because he doesn't consistently get 300,  he doesn't play chess because he's not a grandmaster who's mastered the entire "book" of chess, get the picture.  What Mr. Horgan doesn't seem to have one jot of appreciation for, is that it might be a good idea to try to cultivate a skill at which, prior to the endeavor, one absolutely, completely, and totally sucks.  A guy like me, who's been at it for 20 years, deeply appreciates the irony of this paragraph: Mr. Horgan's classmate is none other than himself.   That is, Mr. Horgan doesn't seem to "get" that his experience of his classmate, and his loathing of himself for loathing the classmate are all products of his own mind, at least not in a deep enough sense. His being in that Zen setting exposed this aspect of Mr. Horgan to Mr. Horgan, and rather than address the issue where it was (i.e., Mr. Horgan's mind itself), Mr. Horgan decided it was Buddhism that was to "blame" for his thoughts of loathing, and lack of equanimity. 

Barbara's already, mentioned Horgan's misappropriation of Buddhism.  Horgan's discussion of the doctrine of no-self,  anatta, is closer to an apt description than  his colossal swings and misses at himself and karma. 

And,  I will admit that if it didn't cause misgivings about the whole Buddha left his wife and child thing, there'd be something wrong with you - and frankly, yes, I've heard all the arguments pro and contra, but the reason I'm a Buddhist has to do not with the historical Buddha, but with where my suffering has originated.   It has nothing to do with the historical Buddha's issues, nor does it have anything to do with Chogyam Trungpa's issues, or Barbara O'Brien's or John Horgan's, except insofar as their issues can help me transcend the suffering of all beings.   That is to say, their issues are not where I need to apply skill.  And I don't have to leave my wife and kid to try to alleviate their suffering (but perhaps history is silent as to whether Mrs. Siddhartha breathed a sigh of relief at Gautama's skedaddling.)

Mr. Horgan's writing when not about Buddhism is often interesting, and grounded in science. But since subjects like Buddhism and psychology deal with human experience and the acquisition of effective behavior, to the extent that science deals with the objective and measurable aspects of this science will have good answers for it, but the subjective bits...well...if it's not observable and measurable...

But Mr. Horgan? Barbara's right. And you could benefit from a good look at yourself.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Zen is kind of like the martial art I'm studying - and not - and vice versa...

Over at Jake Adelstein's site,  Stephanie Nakajima reviews a Japanese-English Introduction to Zen.  And she says:

The cover boasts that this text conveys the content’s “difficult ideas” clearly  (むずがしい考えがスッキリ分かる!); though if this leads you to expect something other than the usual interpretation of Zen – non-linear, meandering, parabolic explanations- you will be disappointed. My western brain still struggles to grasp the style typical of Zen masters, their purportedly didactic riddles often leaving me with more questions than answers.
Often, it’s a confusing read. In the beginning, Priest Ozeki devotes a chapter to the importance of maintaining “a pure heart”, without bothering to explain what a pure heart looks like, or the nature of the maintenance required. This is just one of many vague instructions listed for living a Zen life; others include “being present in the moment” and keeping a “free mind, one which is not influenced by anything”. Ozeki further complicates things a few chapters later when he decides to mention that “Zen is not a thing to think about but is training. You can not attain enlightenment even if you read many books and study hard.” Resisting the urge to question why I am reading a book about a subject the author himself has just declared *actually* requires field study, I decide to remain open to his attempts to explain the concept of Enlightenment ...
It only after finishing the entire text that I gleaned what might be the unstated assumption: like a religion, there are values by which Zen abides. However, practitioners believe these values can only be discovered through the practice of Zen, rather than the study.
 The martial art I'm studying is so counter-intuitive - it can't be read about either ; it can really only be practiced to be understood.  I cannot think of a more perfect expression of non-duality in the form of human movement.  To even write these words is somehow to distort its expression, to even write these words reminds me that I'm not actually doing it,  and therefore in a significant way, a distortion and dishonoring of that practice.

But maybe I digress. Maybe not.  I don't really have great skill by any means at the martial art I'm studying- at least not yet. is something so potentially brutal so profoundly elegant at the same time? How is something essentially evolved from Shaolin-influenced Southern Chinese street fighting so compact and adamantine, and at the same time completely informed by knowledge of the mechanics (i.e., mechanical physics) of the human body?  And, the big question a guy like me continues to ask myself: how come such a practice which requires so pitifully little strength is not more widely known? And, is everyone I know, even with my relatively comfortable and  laid-back lifestyle as tense as I am? (Trust me, yoga practitioners, you're tense.)

I have and continue to have the same questions about Zen, without which I'd be completely hopeless in my martial arts study. 

I've been doing Zen for decades now, studying under the same teacher for about 15 years, and only now am I able to do 経行 (kinhin), at least the way in which it's done in the school of Rinzai Zen in which I'm practicing.

Do you know where your feet are? Right now?  Are you relaxed but aware?  Where's your mind at this moment?  Can you maintain equanimity as the feces hits the fan?

Zen and martial arts at their best is kind of like that.

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.

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.