Thursday, March 31, 2011

What's up with the Tricycle blog?

Tricycle a few months ago removed its blogroll from its blog, and evidently in the process changed the RSS feed for its site.  I have been thinking about removing the Tricycle blog  from my own blogroll, come to think of it, though it remains a convenient "handle" to see what the well-funded Buddhist press in the US is churning out and how they're trying to exploit online social networking trends. Otherwise, I think Tricycle and its ability to propagate Buddhist ideas and values is becoming marginal at best.
As I mentioned in a recent post on Frederick Lenz, Tricycle employee James Shaheen is on the advisory committee board of the Frederick Lenz Foundation - clearly in my view a conflict of interest with the stated mission of the Tricycle Foundation - I cannot imagine the what parallel universe in which hawking Frederick Lenz's "Buddhism"  is in any way consistent with the Tricycle Foundation's desire to make "Buddhist views, values, and practices broadly available."   (Then again, Genpo Merzel seems to be on the same committee of the Lenz Foundation! ) Nor can I see how his participation in the Lenz Foundation helps make Tricycle  "the most inclusive and widely read vehicle for the dissemination of Buddhist perspectives."  The "mission" of the Tricycle Foundation is purportedly: create forums for exploring contemporary and historic Buddhist activity, examine the impact of its new context in the democratic traditions of the West, and introduce fresh views and attainable methods for enlightened living to the culture at large. At the core of the Foundation’s mission is the alleviation of suffering that Buddhist teachings are meant bring about.

 I'm trying to parse the above.  It's not easy.  By "forum" I might assume that they mean "an assembly, place, radio program, etc. for the discussion of public matters or current questions;" I hardly think they man a "law court or tribunal" but they might possibly mean a public square "where legal and political business is conducted,"  albeit not in an ancient Roman city or town. 

Can a magazine or a foundation "introduce fresh views and attainable methods for enlightened living" to the culture at large?  I mean, I wouldn't rely on a magazine to teach me how to swim,  or to judge my own 書道 or how I was raising my son, or how I was getting along with my wife or even - eventually - rely on a book or literature to gauge whether I was performing singular value decomposition on a given matrix properly or even making a meal! And Tricycle aims  to introduce to us, dear reader "attainable methods for enlightened living.

Can you see my point?   Their stated mission seems to involve the tacit assumption that they can assume the role of providing methods for enlightened living.

And I haven't even gotten to the point about Buddhism transcending versus alleviating suffering!

Moreover,  I think we can see the results of such muddled expressions of "Buddhism"  in the recent entries and selections from the Tricycle blog.

 Is knowing that a Watkins review of "spiritual power" people includes the usual New Age hacks people going to help all beings?  Is criticizing Genpo Roshi well after the animals have left the barn, well after accepting advertising and pimping "Big Mind" for years going to help all beings? Are lame defenses of airbrushed portrayals of Zen teachers helping beings?    Is being ignorant of basic science and logic helping all beings?

Don't get me wrong - at least they're mentioning some of these issues, and frankly, this was the first place I'd heard that Merzel was trying to do a "do-over" with respect to his disrobing.

But people, the issue with Tricycle stems from its muddled mission and issues inherent in associations to the Lenz Foundation. It is perhaps why I cannot remember seeing anything in Tricycle remotely critical of Lenz? Have you? I'm willing to be corrected on this point, but I think this point is worth noting.  Tricycle criticizes all manner of teachers after the fact - with, it seems to me, the possible exception of Frederick Lenz????? WHAT?  And they have a guy who's the editor and publisher as listed on an advisory committee board of the Lenz Foundation????

I will admit that when I was first investigating Buddhism in America, the information provided to me by Tricycle was invaluable in providing a context for my learning about Buddhism, and of course if they had any connections to Lenz and his ilk it was not known.  And wide propagation of associations with the Lenz Foundation - if there were any at the time, which I don't remember (until at some point the Lenz group was "supporting"  "Change Your Mind Day") would not have helped any beings familiar with the hucksterism of Lenz.

But today, I think, the only way Tricycle could even approach its mission of helping to "alleviate" the suffering of all beings would be for it to look itself in the eye and publicly distance itself from the Lenz foundation.

It might also help its blog, too.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Just remember, however your day goes, chances are very good it won't be as bad as May 21, 1946 was for Louis Slotin


On May 21, 1946, with seven other colleagues watching, Slotin performed an experiment that involved the creation of one of the first steps of a fission reaction by placing two half-spheres of beryllium (a neutron reflector) around a plutonium core. The experiment used the same 6.2-kilogram (13.7 lb) plutonium core that had irradiated Harry K. Daghlian, Jr., later called the "Demon core" for its role in the two accidents. Slotin grasped the upper beryllium hemisphere with his left hand through a thumb hole at the top while he maintained the separation of the half-spheres using the blade of a screwdriver with his right hand, having removed the shims normally used.[2] Using a screwdriver was not a normal part of the experimental protocol.
At 3:20 p.m., the screwdriver slipped and the upper beryllium hemisphere fell, causing a "prompt critical" reaction and a burst of hard radiation.[9] At the time, the scientists in the room observed the "blue glow" of air ionization  and felt a "heat wave". In addition, Slotin experienced a sour taste in his mouth and an intense burning sensation in his left hand.[2] Slotin instinctively jerked his left hand upward, lifting the upper beryllium hemisphere and dropping it to the floor, ending the reaction. However, he had already been exposed to a lethal dose (around 2100 rems, or 21 Sv) of neutron and gamma radiation.[14] Slotin's radiation dose was about four times the lethal dose, equivalent to the amount that he would have been exposed to by being 1500 m (4800 ft) away from the detonation of an atomic bomb.[15]
As soon as Slotin left the building, he vomited, a common reaction from exposure to extremely intense ionizing radiation.[2] Slotin's colleagues rushed him to the hospital, but irreversible damage had already been done. His parents were informed of their son's inevitable death and a number of volunteers donated blood for transfusions, but the efforts proved futile.[2] Louis Slotin died nine days later on May 30,[16] in the presence of his parents. He was buried in Winnipeg on June 2, 1946.[2]
At first, the incident was classified and not made known even within the laboratory; Robert Oppenheimer and other colleagues later reported severe emotional distress at having to carry on with normal work and social activities while they secretly knew that their colleague lay dying.
The core involved was subject to a number of experiments shortly after the end of the war and was used in the ABLE detonation, during the Crossroads series of nuclear weapon testing. Slotin's experiment was set to be the last conducted before the core's detonation and was intended to be the final demonstration of its ability to go critical.[15]
The accident ended all hands-on critical assembly work at Los Alamos. Future criticality testing of fissile cores was done with special remotely controlled machines, such as the "Godiva" series, with the operator located a safe distance away in case of accidents.

That should make you a teeny bit grateful. Maybe.  I remember hearing about this in my freshman physics class, but the professor never revealed the whole story.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Findings: Maybe it is the "royal we" by which we should refer to ourselves

Gut bacteria may influence thoughts and behavior

THE human gut contains a diverse community of bacteria which colonize the small intestine in the days following birth and vastly outnumber our own cells. These intestinal microflora constitute a virtual organ within an organ and influence many bodily functions. Among other things, they aid in the uptake and metabolism of nutrients, modulate the inflammatory response to infection, and protect the gut from other, harmful micro-organisms. A new study by researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario now suggests that gut bacteria may also influence behaviour and cognitive processes such as memory by exerting an effect on gene activity during brain development.

Jane Foster and her colleagues compared the performance of germ-free mice, which lack gut bacteria, with normal animals on the elevated plus maze, which is used to test anxiety-like behaviours. This consists of a plus-shaped apparatus with two open and two closed arms, with an open roof and raised up off the floor. Ordinarily, mice will avoid open spaces to minimize the risk of being seen by predators, and spend far more time in the closed than in the open arms when placed in the elevated plus maze.

This is exactly what the researchers found when they placed the normal mice into the apparatus. The animals spent far more time in the closed arms of the maze and rarely ventured into the open ones. The germ-free mice, on the other hand, behaved quite differently - they entered the open arms more often, and continued to explore them throughout the duration of the test, spending significantly more time there than in the closed arms.

The researchers then examined the animals' brains, and found that these differences in behaviour were accompanied by alterations in the expression levels of several genes in the germ-free mice. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) was significantly up-regulated, and the 5HT1A serotonin receptor sub-type down-regulated, in the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus. The gene encoding the NR2B subunit of the NMDA receptor was also down-regulated in the amygdala.

All three genes have previously been implicated in emotion and anxiety-like behaviours.

It seems that the mice were not bred to have some other condition that would cause them to lack intestinal bacteria by gene inheritance.  That thoughts and emotions might truly be the result of the variety of living organisms living within us is intriguing.

Evidently we should eat more yougurt.

I'd bet the Huffington Post has some woo on this, but I think it's important to strike them until they pay bloggers.  I won't even link to them.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

And speaking of the absurdity of categorizing East and West

This guy is slated to speak at the Buddhist Geeks conference. Obviously he's of Asian heritage. But listen to what he says when he opens his mouth...

I could write a whole series blog posts about the myriad issues associated with this,  but to be concise I would hardly say that I would expect this young man to be a "leading" teacher and/or thinker, since I have not heard or seen  or read any "leading" thoughts or teachings.

But my real point in mentioning Mr. Gunatillake is just to point out - even in the UK - how ridiculous it is to split the world into these Eastern or Western or ethnically based categories.

Nonduality, prajna paramita, nihilism and yep, "Western" Buddhism

Duff McDuffee at the Beyond Personal Growth blog wrote:

If we believe things are ultimately meaningless, then we must constantly, consciously, and willfully be constructing this meaning. This leads naturally to the highly aggressive happy seeker who must at all times be in control of what things mean, bringing more people into their worldview or else it will all fall apart. While we do in fact construct meanings in our lives, there are not infinite possible storylines but likely clusters, common themes, etc. that bind us together as human beings. These aren’t exactly “objective” but more clusters of subjective possibility that we can select from and edit appropriately to fit the specific details of actual events in our lives.
Thus the events of our lives do have a sort of pre-given possibility for meaningfulness, meaningful specifically to the human subjects that participate in them. There is no need to fear any meaningless “objective” universe for such a thing is an abstraction—not an ultimate, observable reality—and instead we find that by surrendering into an unknowing void of meaning, we discover a peace of Being that is beyond aggressively grasping for meaningfulness or imposing our chosen meanings onto others.

 For me, the mention of " a peace of Being that is beyond aggressively grasping for meaningfulness or imposing our chosen meanings" is already saying too much, but there's an interesting point to ponder under this:  To what degree are we willfully constructing a narrative of meaninglessness or other "-isms" in our heads?

It is true that nihilism is a dictatorial approach to Existence, attempting to pin down yet another narrative onto it; putting another existence onto Existence by putting another's head onto one's own. It's just like any other narrative in that regard.

The practice for which we should be aiming should be that which arrives at a viewpoint which is truly non-dual in this regard: not one, not two; not separate, not together, the absolute inter-co-existing with the relative. It should be with "no eyes no ears no nose no tongue no body no seeing no hearing no smelling no tasting no touching no world of sight no world of consciousness no ignorance and no end to ignorance no old age and death and no end to old age and death no suffering no craving no extinction no path no wisdom no attainment."  It should avoid excessive scrupulosity and laziness. It should take effort, but not with anxiety and excessive tautness, and not being sleepy either.

Coincident with the point Duff made, but on  different subjects, the Guardian article  about which I'd written earlier is stirring more responses from the Buddhist blogosphere (e.g. here and here).  It simply astounds me how many compartments people make for things and ideas.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

There's still proteges of Frederick Lenz out there! And a thing or two to refresh you.

You'd think that by this time pretty much everyone who does any kind of a "spiritual" practice might have heard of the dreaded Frederick Lenz.  Many of us in the blogosphere have written of the Frederick Lenz Foundation and its notorious ties to some of the big names in Western Buddhism, including, it would seem, Dennis Merzel and James Shaheen of Tricycle fame.   It's really sad that this is the case: Tricycle should come with a warning label or something.  They were originally started, I think - I could be wrong - with money from the Rockefeller Foundation or something like that.  That's not much of a problem for me: There's no sense in not using money that pretty much everyone knows was ill gotten for good.  The issue though, is that unlike the Lenz Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation never really peddled defenses of the infamous activities of the Standard Oil company.  Get it?

(BTW, as a guy with dozens of patents to my name I bristle at the notion of referring to Lenz's bilge as "intellectual property," but alas, it does fit the definition.)

But it appears there are still  teachers out there - who don't seem to be associated with Lenz Foundation largesse - who are actually "teaching." One of them is Tony "Shiva" Chester.

Shiva was born as Tony Chester. The experience of God awareness at age five set his life on a path of esoteric exploration and spiritual evolution. With his teacher’s grace, he crossed a threshold into enlightenment at age 36. His path remains full of unexpected epiphanies, visions and a deep awareness of the divine.
Shiva is a powerful teacher who consciously transmits sacred energy in his seminars, retreats and pilgrimages, and personal interactions. His approach is eclectic and draws from various religions and philosophies. A Westerner, he grounds the mysteries of the ancient world in a modern and often humorous way.

Doesn't this tell you all you need to know about this man?

Ok, now that I've gone all H. L. Mencken on you here's some stuff that should be more uplifting:

  • On the other hand if you aren't particular about the sword being made in Japan, there appears to be an excellent forge in Zhejiang province.  I wonder if it's significantly cheaper.
  • It appears that the rebels are gaining ground in Libya.  The short answers are as to why this is not George W. Bush's Iraqi war are: 1) They're trying to prevent what happened in the 50s in Iran. 2) We're on the right side here.  Personally I'm ambivalent about this because even with the reasonably good intentions of some on this (and make no mistake it is a fact that oil figures prominently in this), its unknown how it will play out.  Karma and all that you know.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A pretty good point, actually

Brad Warner saying he'd never be on the cover of the Shambhala Sun led me to ask myself, "well, who would be on the cover of the Shambhala Sun?" which led me to Pema Chodron's piece on unconditional friendship to one's self. Of its sentiments I largely concur.

What Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche taught about the underlying, fundamental uncertainty—which scientific tests now prove is more frightening to us than physical pain—is that the very basis of the fear itself is doubting ourselves, not trusting ourselves. You could also say it is not loving ourselves, not respecting ourselves. In a nutshell, you feel bad about who you are.
So the very first step, and perhaps the hardest, is developing an unconditional friendship with oneself.

Developing unconditional friendship means taking the very scary step of getting to know yourself. It means being willing to look at yourself clearly and to stay with yourself when you want to shut down. It means keeping your heart open when you feel that what you see in yourself is just too embarrassing, too painful, too unpleasant, too hateful.

The hallmark of this training in spiritual warriorship, in the bodhisattva path, is cultivating bravery. With such bravery you could go anywhere on the Earth and be of help to other people because you wouldn’t shut down on them. You would be right there with them for whatever they were going through. But the first step along this path is looking at yourself with a feeling of gentleness and kindness, and it takes a lot of guts to do this. If you’ve tried it, you know how difficult it can be to stay present when you begin to fear what you see.

If you do stay present with what you see when you look at yourself again and again, you begin to develop a deeper friendship with yourself. It’s a complete friendship, because you are not leaving out the parts that are painful to be with. It’s the same way you would develop a complete friendship with another person. You include all that they are. When you develop this complete friendship with yourself, the parts you’re embarrassed about—as well as the parts you’re proud of—manifest as genuineness. A genuine person is a person who is not hiding anything, who is not conning themselves. A genuine person doesn’t put up masks and shields.

I'd still say "largely" but not completely.  A genuine person is still a person with masks and shields and defenses and fear and uncertainty who is still hiding something.  Unconditional friendship with one's self starts from the moment one sets out on the path to see what one does not want to see in one's self.

If one is making progress in that area, one can proceed on to being with others unconditionally.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Buddhism fits well with consumerism? Huh? And sorry, but a Protestant Reformation in this case is not needed.

While I agree with Kyle regarding the nipples aspect of this subject, I want to expand on a couple of other points that are lying around on that "Buddhism is the opiate of the people" Guardian piece. (Yes, I'm very proud of myself for starting a post about Buddhism, philosophy, history, etc. with a sentence containing the word "nipples.")  Besides, Paul Krugman's right, Kyle, and if you'd listen more to liberals and Marxists you'd have a better retirement portfolio. See, when it comes to economic stuff, one-time Zen practitioner and some kind of monk Thomas Merton was right: their diagnoses are spot on; their prescriptions suck.  I won't get into hummus - or Bearnaise sauce for that matter. (If thee didst not click on Kyle's post, well ,thee couldn't figure out that sentence at all, could thee?)

But I digress.  I'd rather get back to the fact that some guy is quoting Slavoj Žižek, whom I've previously discussed here.  As I wrote on that post - a critique of Ethan Nichtern in fact - this Slovenian Marxist doesn't have a clue as to what Buddhism is:

To Žižek, it is the rapacious "capitalist game" that's the bête noire of human existence and Buddhism is yet another opiate, a palliative, that does nothing to remedy the fundamental issue. This is horse feces as far as this Buddhist is concerned; because regardless of whether or not the capitalist game continues, regardless of whether or not the revolution comes, regardless of whether or not Richard Gere saves Tibet (and wins valuable prizes in doing so), suffering will continue.  And dammit, it's incumbent to do something, and if you're not paying attention, you can't do squat. Political battles must be fought. Yeah, capitalism is inherently unstable.  But I think Žižek, like many people like him, is so alienated from himself (please note the irony in that statement - most likely due to projection and replacing one ideology with another) that he doesn't recognize there's a plethora of human functions besides economic and political ones.  I have that impression of  Žižek's alienation  because he posits a straw-man "Western Buddhism" as a foil for his Marxist Critique.
Mark Vernon, the guy who wrote the Guardian article says, "What is it about Buddhism, she mused, that makes it such a perfect fit with modern consumerism?"  And here's his "analysis" citing Stephen Bachelor, one John Peacock, and that Marxist Slovenian to "prove" his point:

[Žižek's, Peacock's and  Bachelor's] analysis  is [sic] different. [Nota bene: That means there are three  analyses.] Western Buddhism is undergoing its Protestant reformation, Batchelor observed. It is about two centuries behind western Christianity in terms of its critical engagement with its canonical texts. The quest for the historical Buddha – an exercise that parallels the 19th-century quest for the historical Jesus – is only just under way. An essentially medieval Buddhism has been catapulted into modernity. It's hardly surprising that it will take two, perhaps three centuries for an authentically western form to emerge – by which is meant, in part, one that resists, not supplements, consumerism. For if Buddhism is to live in the modern world, it must be treated as a living tradition, not a preformed import. As the reformation leaders of the 16th century knew, this is a profoundly unsettling project – though it is also compelling for its promise is new life.
An important task is dismantling the common assumptions about Buddhism that do the rounds, assumptions that are made within Buddhist circles as frequently as without. For example, Peacock noted, there is no word for meditation in the early Buddhist lexicon, though it is often taken to be the defining Buddhist practice. Instead, the Buddha encouraged his followers to "cultivate", to "grow", to "bring something into being". He deployed a host of agricultural, not existential, metaphors.

What is also missed in the focus on meditation is the ethical challenge implicit in his call. Any practice must concern your whole stance towards the world, and it's a stance that is intensely, relentlessly critical. The aim is to enquire into all aspects of your form of life. A meditation class on a Friday evening that makes no impact upon your work on a Monday morning is an exercise in Žižek's decoupling.

Or take the commonly cited Buddhist truism that everything should be questioned and nothing should be taken on faith. Lip-service is paid to it, Peacock continued, but Buddhists typically adhere to all manner of doctrines, from the law of karma and reincarnation, to the truth of suffering and no-self. The result is that Buddhism becomes a religion, even as it's insisted it is no such thing. Western categories of thought are being deployed at the same time as they are presumed to be being subverted. The very word "Buddhism" is a western neologism, in fact.
And yet, it's mistaken to think that the western categories that shape us can be circumvented. You can't chose the gods that you worship. To hope you can, by adopting someone else's gods or a cluster of eastern ideas, is the fundamental error.
Instead, the individual who seeks to continue in the Buddha's way must "enter the stream", must continue along the ever-changing flow that is the living tradition. It's a tough calling. Peacock and Batchelor attract as much opprobrium as praise. And as Albert Schweitzer concluded after his quest for the historical Jesus, it can often be a misguided and dispiriting process.

We don't need a Protestant Reformation, thank you very much.  What makes you think the first one was any great shakes anyway, with the way in which those churches have been transmuted into the Trinity Broadcasting Network, creationists, and "witch" murdering in Africa?  

Moreover,  it seems that while "Buddhism" may be a western neologism, there are so many Buddhisms that just because some of them don't fit into The Critics Criticism, they fall off the table.  Needless to say, in Japanese at least, "Buddhism" as the exact word may not exist, but 仏教 - ぶっきょう -  pronounced "bukkyoh" - certainly does.  And it means,  "Buddhism"  - the "kyoh" part means "faith" or  "teaching."  

So there.

Yes, Buddhists adhere to all manner of doctrines - and all should be questioned.  But Vernon's complaint is the complaint of a guy who plays soccer but belittles American football because the rules are different. Or some other metaphor like that.  Hey, I regularly play neither American or the other football, and while I'm more amused by both footballs than a fan of it, I wouldn't claim that no professional player lacks skill in what he does.  If we're talking about Buddhists who adhere to all manner of doctrines,  as long as they're enabling themselves and all beings to become more skilled at transcending suffering, it's no skin off anyone's body.

I don't care much about David Beckham, and simply because he's rich and successful and has a beautiful wife and tattoos and sponsors advertising  and practices Buddhism (or maybe he doesn't - I don't know; the article stated he has a Buddha statue) doesn't mean that he's not concerned about all beings.  His success is not particularly important to The Matter at Hand.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

How did "Buddhism get neuroscience right?"

Those sort of questions often seem to be the wrong questions to me, but one David Weisman writes:

[Buddhists] believe in an impermanent and illusory self made of shifting parts. They’ve even come up with language to address the problem between perception and belief. Their word for self is anatta, which is usually translated as ‘non self.’  One might try to refer to the self, but the word cleverly reminds one’s self that there is no such thing.

When considering a Buddhist contemplating his soul, one is immediately struck by a disconnect between religious teaching and perception. While meditating in the temple, the self is an illusion. But when the Buddhist goes shopping he feels like we all do: unified, in control, and unchanged from moment to moment. The way things feel becomes suspect. And that’s pretty close to what neurologists deal with every day, like the case of Mr. Logosh.

Mr. Logosh was 37 years old when he suffered a stroke. It was a month after knee surgery and we never found a real reason other than trivially high cholesterol and smoking. Sometimes medicine is like that: bad things happen, seemingly without sufficient reasons. In the ER I found him aphasic, able to understand perfectly but unable to get a single word out, and with no movement of the right face, arm, and leg. We gave him the only treatment available for stroke, tissue plasminogen activator, but there was no improvement. He went to the ICU unchanged. A follow up CT scan showed that the dead brain tissue had filled up with blood. As the body digested the dead brain tissue, later scans showed a large hole in the left hemisphere...
The next day Mr. Logosh woke up and started talking. Not much at first, just ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ Then ‘water,’ ‘thanks,’ ‘sure,’ and ‘me.’ We eventually sent him to rehab, barely able to speak, still able to understand...

When we consider our language, it seems unified and indivisible. We hear a word, attach meaning to it, and use other words to reply. It’s effortless. It seems part of the same unified language sphere. How easily we are tricked! Mr. Logosh shows us that unity of language is an illusion. The seeming unity of language is really the work of different parts of the brain, which shift and change over time, and which fracture into receptive and expressive parts.

Consider how easily Buddhism accepts what happened to Mr. Logosh. Anatta is not a unified, unchanging self. It is more like a concert, constantly changing emotions, perceptions, and thoughts. Our minds are fragmented and impermanent. A change occurred in the band, so it follows that one expects a change in the music.

Both Buddhism and neuroscience converge on a similar point of view: The way it feels isn’t how it is. There is no permanent, constant soul in the background. Even our language about ourselves is to be distrusted (requiring the tortured negation of anatta). In the broadest strokes then, neuroscience and Buddhism agree.
How did Buddhism get so much right? I speak here as an outsider, but it seems to me that Buddhism started with a bit of empiricism. Perhaps the founders of Buddhism were pre-scientific, but they did use empirical data. They noted the natural world: the sun sets, the wind blows into a field, one insect eats another. There is constant change, shifting parts, and impermanence. They called this impermanence anicca, and it forms a central dogma of Buddhism.
 While there are quite a few that want a magical kind of Buddhism, (Buddhists or not) this empirical viewpoint has been, I'd agree, part of Buddhism from its origins.

But I'd also point out to the author that generation after generation after generation of Buddhists spent a whole lot of time observing human behavior, and so they had time to refine what they observed.  This is why it's kind of strange to me that there are folks that want to point to the "original" this or that as evidence that "the Buddha really said" this or that.  That's just a dodge, just as when some folks say "I didn't say it, God did." It is a denial of  your responsibility to observe without attachment.

And I'd also point out to the author that not all Buddhists adhere to a position of the "reincarnation of consciousness," at least not in a personal, "it happens after death" and is punted to another being sense.

Yeah, "Buddhists believe that..." There are things some Buddhists believe and some  Buddhists generally take as true, based on observation. And some things to take as true to the point of belief are good sense and don't harm others.

Friday, March 18, 2011


Via a tweet from the usually quite interesting C4Chaos,  I became apprised of "Ken Wilber's Message to Japan."  I tweeted back, "ウーイバルさんは自覚がじゃない。 絶対に無し。" OK, I should have written ""ウーイルバル." I was in a hurry. 

What I said was basically: Wilber lacks self-awareness. Absolutely none.  Why did I say that? Well...

As one attempts to live an Integral Life, there are always ups and downs in the process. To have an Integral awareness means that you have a higher, wider, deeper awareness, with more perspectives and more care and more concern and more love. So even when difficult times arise, it's important to keep the heart and mind open and wide and embracing.

This goes for the troubles in Fukushima prefecture. The potentially devastating nature of these problems has a tendency to make one close one's eyes, narrow one's awareness, push the whole thing out of mind. But that's exactly what we shouldn't do. Instead of closing down, we need to open up, to keep heart and mind wide open even under these frightening circumstances. A steady, calm Witnessing in the midst of turmoil keeps one directly related to Spirit, as Spirit, and anchors one in what really matters and what is ultimately Real. That way, the surface phenomena can continue to simply come and go as they will, but you remain anchored in the unchanging Source and Ground and real Self of it all.

I'm happy his thoughts and prayers are with the people of Japan,  though  I think the average Japanese person's response to his post, if they knew about it, would be "Is that so?" or something perhaps somewhat less polite, despite what you might have heard about legendary Japanese politeness.  Some folks I know, if prodded, over sake, would say "馬鹿野郎、”  their rough equivalent of "asshole."

Look, there's thousands of homeless elderly folk and people of all ages without water, in many cases without homes, rightfully concerned if not scared about what their government may be not telling them, and the last thing they need right now is a reminder to have "steady calm Witnessing."    Can you imagine if you told anyone in that situation that? To their face? It's almost an insult as I see it; it completely disconfirms the immediate situation in which they find themselves.  Anybody who would say that has a complete lack of awareness of the immediate gravity of the situation. The "steady calm Witnessing" in such cases is nonsense; the best you can hope for is "steady, mindful grieving."

In Kapleau's book "The Three Pillars of Zen" he relates a story about a Zen master crying at a funeral.  He's asked why he's crying, and he replies, if he didn't cry at times like this, when should he cry?

That's why I tweeted back what I did.

Geez, I shouldn't need to write these things.  I am very grateful to C4Chaos for his tweet though, but I ask all to please understand the real human dynamics of what's happening now, and to help any real way they can.


An interesting comparision: Read what Wilber wrote and then read what Jake Adelstein's saying about the Yakuza. Fascinating.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Re: Japan: Still, you don't know what's going all...mostly

It is as if a man had been wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and kinsmen were to get a surgeon to heal him, and he were to say, I will not have this arrow pulled out until I know by what man I was wounded, whether he is of the warrior caste, or a brahmin, or of the agricultural, or the lowest caste. Or if he were to say, I will not have this arrow pulled out until I know of what name or family the man is -- or whether he is tall, or short, or of middle height ...Before knowing all this, that man would die. Similarly, it is not on the view that the world is eternal, that it is finite, that body and soul are distinct, or that the Buddha exists after death that a religious life depends. 

 So much the more for our tiny opinions!

TOKYO — With all the euphemistic language on display from officials handling Japan’s nuclear crisis, one commodity has been in short supply: information.
When an explosion shook one of many stricken reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant on Saturday, power company officials initially offered a typically opaque, and understated, explanation.
“A big sound and white smoke” were recorded near Reactor No. 1, the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power, announced in a curt memo. The matter “was under investigation,” it added.
Foreign nuclear experts, the Japanese press and an increasingly angry and rattled Japanese public are frustrated by government and power company officials’ failure to communicate clearly and promptly about the nuclear crisis. Pointing to conflicting reports, ambiguous language and a constant refusal to confirm the most basic facts, they suspect officials of withholding or fudging crucial information about the risks posed by the ravaged Daiichi plant.
 Unless you've made a concerted effort  for years  with the Japanese, they're just not going to be immediately candid; the very structure of their language carves humanity up into insiders and outsiders of varying degrees of inside and outside. And in a sense this is very honest; no American politician - or even the New York Times - is exactly candid with you either. They can't be, out of fiduciary responsibility to those that fund them.

And they're not you. Or me.  In that article they point out that the American media (among others) had misreported that workers at one point had "abandoned" the nuclear reactor.  The Japanese media, even in English, didn't actually say this; they'd just temporarily relocated to a place where they could continue their work.  Anyway, it shows skepticism is in order all around here.

Here's another example of the massive "Don't Know" that's pervading the information about Japan and this event:

Much of Japan’s industry seemed to remain in a state of suspension Wednesday, as the devastation from an earthquake and tsunami, combined with fear and uncertainty over the nuclear calamity, made it difficult for corporate Japan to think about business as usual.
And that has left many overseas customers and trading partners in something of an information vacuum, unsure how soon the effects of any supply-chain disruptions would make themselves felt — and how long they might last.
Even General Motors, a company that might seem to benefit from disruptions to Japan’s auto industry, finds itself in a period of watchful waiting. For one thing, the new Chevrolet Volt plug-in-hybrid from G.M. — whose sales could conceivably benefit from any production snags in Toyota’s popular made-in-Japan Prius — depends on a transmission from Japan.
Mark L. Reuss, G.M.’s president for North American operations, said Wednesday that he did not yet know whether his company could count on an uninterrupted flow of that Volt component from Japan.
“We just don’t know from a supply standpoint; there’s so many great things that come out of Japan for the whole industry,” he said, speaking to reporters after a speech at the University of Detroit Mercy.
Here in Tokyo, Japan’s business capital, many companies — whether Japanese or foreign — were distracted Wednesday by plans for removing their employees from the potential path of radiation from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant 140 miles north. Telephone calls and e-mails to many corporate headquarters in Tokyo simply went unanswered. 

In fact, many Japanese industries are distributed throughout Japan. If this were China - where huge industries are concentrated in a single place, with all competing companies localized, entire industries would have been devastated.  The real story is: much of Japan's industry is still functioning.  In fact, try booking a flight 2 months in advance to the Kansai area.  

Just try it.  The planes are full.  True, it's near Golden Week, and some folks might be taking extended vacations - who wouldn't? But business is really continuing in Japan.

 Anyway, if you can aid Japan, please do so. That's better than trading opinions back and forth.  BTW,  Brad Warner expresses similar sentiments here, though without the business focus.  As I did say in the comments, I will make one prognostication: somebody in a high position in Tokyo Denryoku is going to commit 自殺 (jisatsu, suicide) over this. That  happened previously over an airplane crash, for example.

Two more comments:

1. One thing we do know, those workers trying to stop the crisis at Fukushima are true heroes.  As somebody tweeted (I still do not know how to reliably link these things!) "Japanese nuclear worker on the news: 'I am prepared to die to avoid meltdown.' Say it with me--I will not complain about my job today."

2.  As an almost entirely unrelated anecdote, as  I was watching the English language feed from NHK, I heard the announcer say, as Fukushima's reactors billowed smoke, "You can now see...white smoke...coming from Fukushima Dai-ichi."   Some wag tweeted in response, "That means they've elected a pope!"

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Wow. I am humbled and honored beyond words.

I often rail - or maybe it's whine? -  against celebrity Buddhism and seemingly shallow responses of Western Buddhists to what are really huge catastrophes profoundly affecting other people's lives. But these recent events in Japan, and the responses of those around me have been profound.

People I haven't communicated with in years are reaching out to me and vice versa.

The Chinese community here where I live is eager to help any way they can.

It seems that this horrible crisis has brought many people together; it has awakened some people from their slumber; it has made some people aware of what matters.

Truly it seems

When the great Tao is lost spring forth benevolence and righteousness.
When wisdom and sagacity arise, there are great hypocrites.
When family relations are no longer harmonious, we have filial children and devoted parents.
When a nation is in confusion and disorder, patriots are recognized.
Where Tao is, equilibrium is. When Tao is lost, out come all the differences of things.

 So for now it's OK for folks to rail against nuclear power, or join the latest cause, or whatever.  There are people who care, in their own crazy flawed way about what matters.

Just like me.


I've added Jake Adelstein's site to my blog roll. It's not explicitly Buddhist,  per se, but it's a great window into a Japan that is more realistic than you might ordinarily get, even if it's a different Japan than I experience.

Monday, March 14, 2011

I think this is a new urban legend, but wouldn't surprise me if it were true.

On another blog I made a comment that while there may not be a Japanese national "character" there are  Japanese ways of doing things. You may or may not have heard of the Japanese concept of "nemawashi" (根回し), a way of gathering support for some change in a policy, project or whatever. As Wikipedia notes, "It is considered an important element in any major change, before any formal steps are taken, and successful nemawashi enables changes to be carried out with the consent of all sides."

My wife tells me - either from watching CNN or from Chinese media - that there was a small town that, right after the earthquake hit, whose town council was having a meeting to decide what to do about the tsunami, how to evacuate the town, etc.

You can guess how the story ends - it wasn't pretty for the town council.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

More responses to the earthquake in Japan

All this stuff makes me think about the whole phenomenon called "being concerned." Society places a great deal of importance upon "being concerned" about this, that or the other terrible thing going on somewhere in the world. I agree that a bit of this concern is useful in helping alleviate suffering in those places. But it strikes me that the vast majority of what we call "being concerned" involves getting into our own heads, turning over the information, imagining whatever we want to imagine, working up our emotions, wallowing in our feelings like a pig in mud. For some reason I've never been able to comprehend very clearly this makes us look good socially, like we're doing the right thing.
While I agree with the sentiments he expresses what's also going on in my mind, is how it affects the people I know there, how it affects my company, co-workers, upcoming business trips and so forth.  As I wrote below,  to me, this is not a TV show.   It cannot but have profound effects on what I and others are going to be doing in the near future; economically this is  worse than 9/11 for Japan.

This is not nothing.

It is a luxury that many in the USA, even folks with limited incomes can have:  to choose how to feel about this huge disaster. I'm a bit closer to it, I guess.

All of that said, I bought into the Japanese stock market as soon as I heard the news.  (Am I a heartless beast, too?)  I have a retirement and my son's education to assure.   And maybe because I'm an engineer, one of the things I'm aware of is that there will be huge amounts of capital and labor and expenditure and technology flowing as a result of this event.

And then there's the issue of Fukushima.  I am very sad about that, not because it's some bad nuke disaster. In fact I'm appalled by the scope of the disaster, but that's not what makes me sad. I'm sad because the structural design of the buildings was overseen by my father. I remember big debates/arguments with my parents about the benefits of nuclear power back in the '70s.  But one thing I always knew was that my father had done a diligent job in what he did- there are other things still standing around the world, not just nuclear power plants, that are his designs.  And a rare event has made his work in Fukushima unusable and worse.  I can imagine how the descendants of the guy who designed the Colossus of Rhodes must have felt. But in reading about it, it is obvious that the effects of Fukushima extend far beyond what my own feelings are about it.  This is a huge economic and environmental catastrophe.  The fact that it has slightly more than  tangential relationship to me is nothing compared to what's actually going on and the after effects that will ensue.

It is said there are six degrees of separation by which you can know anyone.  Maybe the number's not six; maybe it's 9 or 10, but the point is still the same.   This event affected people that are known by the people that are known by...eventually to me.  It's not a TV show; it's not Wolf Blitzer or any other CNN or ABC/Disney head droning on about it, but it is real, and it affects people.  We don't have to pretend we're concerned, or adopt a pose of insouciance, but it is real.  Thousands of people are dead.  All people will die.  There is huge and real devastation and destruction and the results of instant impermanence.  And there will be fortunes made and lost, just as there will be loved ones who have been lost of which some will be found and  others may be made anew.

Oddly enough, this profound event still doesn't have a "handle" like 9/11 about which to call it.


Oddly enough, with all the compassion floating around the Buddhist blogosphere, wouldn't you know that the first place I saw about how to financially help Japan came from Barry Ritholtz's financial blog.

In the USA, you can text REDCROSS to 90999 to donate $10 . . .

Further Update:

I really appreciate that lots of folks have called our house and asked about me; although most of the time I'm not in Japan, and as with getting  4 aces in poker on a single draw, the odds that a quake of this magnitude would happen and I'd be in Japan when it happens are pretty steep.

Friday, March 11, 2011

A Buddhist Response to "A Buddhist Response to the Japan Tsunami"

At - yeah, at the Huffington Post, what did you expect? - one Lodro Rinzler has a burning question:

How can meditators help with the widespread destruction caused by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan?

This to me is emblematic as to why non-Buddhists have certain stereotypes of American Buddhists - because this question, in light of what's happened, seems based on an idea of self-absorption.  It's also badly phrased - the widespread destruction is already doing a damn fine job at being widespread destruction already - it doesn't need any help!

There. I got that out of my system.  I don't have a problem with wanting loving kindness to permeate the people who've lost everything in Japan - far from it.  It's OK with me.  But this so ignorant of what Japan is that I want to make a few points, especially since Mr. Rinzler feels we're so "disempowered" that he thinks he can get "Sid" to give us all advice.   But first:

Obviously, the first thing I did was communicate with business associates and, at the first reasonable opportunity, my teacher.  Everyone I know's OK, and I have nothing but warm wishes for their loved ones and a standing offer to help any way I can.    I mean, this is not an abstract thing to me I'm watching on TV.  This is where I do business. Actually, the epicenter is relatively far from where I do business, but my teacher's temple is not so far from the Eastern coast of Honshu, so I was concerned. A lot. On the other hand, where I do do business centers around the Tokyo Bay area, and this was the first major test of the relatively recent buildings built there. On landfill.  So even with the epicenter relatively far away, it's an 8.9 - a logarithmic scale of damage.  I don't know exactly what the loss coefficient of the wave is, but 8.9 is nothing to sneeze about even 300 miles away from Tokyo Bay. Where "landfill" brings to mind thoughts of "liquefaction." 

Look, the American media will tell you how to help if you can.  The Japanese people have long expected "the next Great Kanto Earthquake."  They've got procedures and algorithms and processes in place.  They've got - far from population centers worst affected by the tsunami - strict building codes which those in LA or San Francisco or Seattle don't meet.  Forget about Portland. Japan's got universal health care, even for gaijin.

You want to help with earthquake karma? Make sure the buildings in America are as safe or safer than those in Japan.

And yes, despite my misgivings about nuclear power, I'm rooting for the folks in Fukushima to fix the problems with their reactor.  My Dad was in charge of the structural design of (at least) Fukushima 第一.


It is also undeniably true that the Japanese hadn't expected at all a quake of this magnitude; they're rare to be this strong. 

And it looks now like the problems in Fukushima have gotten worse.

Hope all are well in Japan.

I am reading reports that the earthquake - a huge 8.9 one - caused factory and transportation outages in the Kansai area.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

It's the 45th annniversy of his death, not the 55th

But otherwise, this article in the Japan Times on D. T. Suzuki is well worth reading. I am amazed at how great his influence was - I am impressed that Abraham Maslow, one of the bright lights of the more human ways of organizing workers of the twentieth century, was influenced by him, according to this article.

The postwar era marked the heyday of American Freudianism and its humanistic offshoots — and Suzuki, teaching Zen Buddhism at Columbia University in the 1950s, was at the epicenter of creative psychological thought. Only months before Horney's death in 1952, she accompanied Suzuki and colleagues on a tour of Japanese Zen monasteries and emphasized the importance of his notion of "whole-heartedness" as a vital feature of mental health. Fromm became close friends with Suzuki, and in 1957, sponsored him as a guest speaker for a conference on Zen and psychoanalysis held in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Several years later, the two coauthored an influential book on this topic; like many others, Fromm was greatly touched by Suzuki's personal warmth and kindness.
Abraham Maslow, guru of motivational psychology, was another humanistic thinker inspired by Suzuki during these years. Maslow, who pioneered in studying what he called "peak experiences" — that is, sudden moments of joy and meaning — was excited by Suzuki's concept of sono-mama or suchness, as an element of mystical awareness. Sponsoring Suzuki's lectures at Brandeis University, Maslow also regarded Suzuki's Zen teaching of muga, or total absorption, as vital for a psychology of well-being and growth.
It is an historical irony, though, that Suzuki had much less impact on Japanese psychology than on its humanistic development in the U.S. and Europe. Why so? Because during the postwar years, Japanese psychologists were eager to establish their field as a rigorous experimentalist science, akin to biology, and looked askance at philosophical or spiritual thinkers. As the Jungian scholar Dr. Shoji Muramoto of Kobe City University of Foreign Studies comments, "Unlike in the West, Suzuki's relevance to modern psychology has hardly been appreciated in Japan outside of a few journal articles. Nevertheless, he was perhaps the first Zen philosopher to deal with Zen as an object of academic study in its philosophical basis and psychological aspects, as well as its history."
After retiring from Columbia University in 1957, the elderly Suzuki returned to Japan, where he kept up an active, international schedule of writing, attending conferences, lecturing and receiving awards for his lifetime achievements.
Until his death in 1966 at age 95, he influenced a new generation interested in the relevance of Eastern thought — particularly Zen Buddhism — for contemporary civilization. For instance, his writings on Zen meditation later contributed to mindfulness training for health care professionals as a valued therapeutic tool — and now sponsored by dozens of medical schools in the U.S. and elsewhere.
As Suzuki astutely saw, the world was hungry for Eastern spiritual wisdom. His final words? "Don't worry. Thank you! Thank you!"

Ah, I won't be going to the Buddhist Geeks Conference

I woke up this morning realizing that a colleague had been overbooked for two important appointments.  I am not sure why that clicked at that moment for me, and I'm not sure exactly why that woke me up.   Though I understand how it got that way - there wasn't an awareness of how time needs to be allocated.  But probably he's making the right decision to not attend one of the appointments.

And so it is with myself and the "Buddhist Geeks Conference."  I'll be in China that week.  Perhaps my apprehension of the "emerging face of Buddhism" will have a international and intercultural than at the conference in California.  Regardless, I'll be spending some long-overdue time with my family.  And that's good.  I am hoping, in addition to long overdue visits with in-laws to be able to visit another of the temples in China that are as much or more an emerging face of Buddhism as at the conference in California.  As I'd mentioned previously much of the Chinese evolution of Chan Buddhism is unknown in the West.  My Mandarin is practically nonexistent (thankfully - hey, this post is getting Buddhist geeky! - I can write Hànzì via my knowledge of Japanese & my iPhone in real time, which served me well negotiating with a cab driver in Xi'an). Others have had more success than I in discovering this practically unknown treasure . (Unknown that is to non-Chinese Buddhists in the US - where's an Angry Asian Buddhist when you need one?)  But in the conversations I have had, I have been highly impressed with both the parallels with other Buddhist practices I've known and with the depth of practice in China.
Buddhist practice is emerging, to be sure. In the corners of the world where I live, which increasingly is a life lived in different times at different times in different places thousands of miles away from  each other, it is where I find it.   It's at home. It can be on the streets of Wenzhou.  It can be in Kobe, not far from the place reputed to be Yamaguchi-gumi headquarters. It can be in Little Italy, not far from the streets of Ground Zero, or in Flushing, where religious freedom was born in the United States, or in Elmhurst, where Chan practice continues in the US via Sheng Yen's lineage.  It can be in Europe.  Mostly though, it is with those with whom I am highly privileged to share my life, wherever we find ourselves.   It can be trying to teach my son to maintain equanimity in the face of those who want to convert him to their religion.  It can be cleaning up someone else's mess. It can be sitting with the early March rain pouring down outside.  It can be writing report after report after report. It can be endeavoring maintaining my own equanimity in the face of others' frustration which erupts as anger. (Ah, that can be an endeavor.)  It can be on-line.  It can be in a politician's town hall meeting, or at the county fair. It can be the moment when a fundamentalist Christian tries to "witness" to my wife's friends at the local Chinese New Year festival. It can be anywhere, really.  But it requires showing up. It's time for me to show up, with great faith, great doubt, with a mindfulness that is neither too taut nor too loose.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Apple, Steve Jobs, Zen Practice and 間

Zen Buddhists really don't have any tricks. Maybe that's our greatest trick.  I, for example, missed this article when it first came out:

The secret of Apple's success lies in its embrace of a Zen Buddhist principle that expresses the power of nothingness, according to consumer trend strategist Jeff Yang.
In an article for SFGate today, Yang explores how Steve Jobs "out-Japanned Japan," but the article really focuses on how Apple beat Sony.
Jobs was obsessed with Sony -- he apparently kept a collection of Sony letterhead -- and he understood that the company's success lay in its ability to create iconic products that did one thing really well.
Trinitron -- not the first color TV, but the brightest. Walkman -- listen to music anywhere. PlayStation -- games with immersive graphics.
Yang notes that the Zen Buddhist concept of ma, loosely translated as "space," expresses this concept perfectly, and Jobs has been a student of Zen since the 1970s.
But somewhere along the way, Sony lost sight of this concept. It now follows trends like 3D TV as quickly as it can and tries to be everything to everybody -- movie company, record company, computer company. 

Looking at Yang's article:

That ability to express by omission holds a central place in Jobs's management philosophy. As he told Fortune magazine in 2008, he's as proud of the things Apple hasn't done as the things it has done. "The great consumer electronics companies of the past had thousands of products," he said. "We tend to focus much more. People think focus means saying yes to the thing you've got to focus on. But that's not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas." (Jobs sometimes says this even more bluntly: Nike CEO Mark Parker likes to recount the advice Jobs gave him shortly after Parker's promotion to the top spot: "You make some of the best products in the world -- but you also make a lot of crap. Get rid of the crappy stuff.")
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.

I'm sure I've heard this before - but I can't remember where.  The fact that a) Apple designs great products and b) Steve Jobs has studied Zen doesn't figure into either my personal or professional lives, except, yes, I do have some Apple products.

But there are far more fundamental ways in which Apple has "out-Japanned" Japan which Yang doesn't mention, and I won't either - they're not at all central to the point of this post or the topic of this blog.  

I will say that if you're interested in Zen because of Steve Jobs or Apple I'd find that hard to believe it's enough to keep anything resembling a sustaining practice.    In my tradition,  ma  (間) doesn't really figure prominently into practice, except insofar as it is an expression of nonduality or the fact that understanding is never completed.  In fact, I have absolutely no recollection of the concept of 間 being presented as somehow central to the practice in and of itself, except what I've already mentioned. On the other hand, yeah, 間 is central to the notion of an esthetically pleasing 書道 enso (円), but it's more wabisabi (侘寂) to me - and far more personal than the smooth curves of Apple's designs.

In summary - Apple's iPhone is not your practice. And neither is Steve Jobs' triumphs nor foibles.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Spring! It's coming!

And just in time.  Time to deepen practice.  It's especially good for this progressive, suburban, Zen  - well, I'm not a hipster in any sense (to paraphrase one of my commenters); I'm just perfecting a practice.   All the people I ever knew were "hipsters" were, um...not what anyone else would call a hipster.  Although a friend from high school once met Patti Smith on a  NYC subway train.  Does that count?

Anyway, a bit more practice is in order.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Wow...if this isn't alienation I don't know what is...

In the past twelve or so hours,  merely from looking at the blogs & Salon, I saw a quite disturbing viewpoint of how a significant cross-section of Americans view themselves.

First up is P.Z. Myers' wonderful review of David Brooks'  "The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement."  I quote:

... I had begun reading it determined to be dispassionate and analytic and fair, but I couldn't bear it for long: I learned to loathe Harold and Erica, the two upscale avatars of upper-middle-class values that Brooks marches through life in the story. And then I began to resent the omniscient narrator who narrates this exercise in unthinking consumption and privilege that is, supposedly, the ideal of happiness; it's like watching a creepy middle-aged man fuss over his Barbie and Ken dolls, posing them in their expensive accessories and cars and houses and occasionally wiggling them in simulated carnal relations (have no worries, though: Like Barbie and Ken, no genitals appear anywhere in the book), while periodically pausing to tell his audience how cool it all is, and what is going on inside his dolls' soft plastic heads. I did manage to work my way through the whole book, however, by an expediency that I recommend to anyone else who must suffer through it. I simply chanted to myself, "Die, yuppie scum, die," when I reached the end of each page, and it made the time fly by marvelously well. In addition, there is a blissful moment of catharsis when you reach the last page and one of the characters does die, although it isn't in a tragic explosion involving a tennis racket, an overdose of organic fair-trade coffee, and an assassination squad of rogue economists at Davos, as I was hoping...

 David Brooks' idea of people, and presumably himself, amounts to cardboard cut-outs or dolls - they lack any of the things that really allow us to have character it seems.

Next up... you  gotta see this to believe it - via Firedoglake, we get a treat to a scene from the movie "Atlas Shrugged Part 1," which  is coming to the big screen, April 15 (but of course).

This is going to be the "Battlefield Earth" of politically themed movies; I can hardly wait for the reviews.  I especially liked the end part - it reminded me so much of  this bit from Monty Python:

The difference is that evidently the "Galt" figure in Atlas Shrugged Part I is playing it so seriously he makes it even funnier.  Seriously though,  the idea that  any  "progressive" charity would request money from a right winger, and stipulate that the right winger do so anonymously is simply ridiculous.  Furthermore,  I like the opportunity to give anonymously - what's wrong with giving anonymously? I'm no Christian but I remember there was some kind of parable about rich being seen as giving means "they already have their reward."  Buddhists have parables about giving too:

Finally, check out this review of Atlas Shrugged, the book:

The idea that there are no other stakeholders in the world other than one's self isn't going to get this young woman very far in life, I'm afraid.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Speed and Balance and Mindfulness and Right Livelihood

The problem with the "Simple Living" movement is that lives must be lived. Bills must be paid.  Meetings must be kept.  It wasn't an entirely bad idea for people to develop labor saving devices; though it is certainly true that the more we do the more energy we create, which is both good and harmful (at least at the present time).

There's got to be balance.  It is possible to efficiently, quickly move through the chores one must do - and discover one's self in one's chores.  In fact that need to plan efficiently is indeed a part of it.  It's the mise en place.

Anyway, that's where I am.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Emptiness and Deconstruction and Politicized Science

Brad Warner's recent post about skeptics and their take on the Buddhist concept of emptiness reminded me of something I wanted to write a blog post about, but forgot; I was, you know, pretty busy as of late.  Ven. Warner pretty articulately says:

I believe that this conclusion about the doctrine of emptiness negating the law of identity (A=A) therefore no rational statement can be made runs something like this. I'm guessing here, because this is so foreign to my understanding of the doctrine of emptiness that I have a hard time getting my head around it. But here goes nothin'.

1) The doctrine of emptiness says everything is empty of self nature (so far so good).

2) If everything is empty of self nature then every thing in the universe is its exact opposite. White is black, war is peace, The Beatles are The Bee Gees. (This is already going wrong)

3) Since every thing is its opposite no rational statement can be made.

4) Therefore, Mahayana Buddhists are all crazy because they believe that good is evil, chocolate is peanut butter, and Charlie Sheen is the Dalai Lama*. You can't even argue with people like that!

The actual doctrine of emptiness bears no relation to this. Even if your buddy the Buddhist at the coffee shop down the street claims it does and even if he ought to know because he read a book by Alan Watts six years ago...
Buddhists do not think pink is orange, fish are elephants and Paris Hilton is the entire London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Things are what they are. Zen texts like the Sandokai (Harmony of Equality and Difference) are not trying to refute the law of identity. Things are different from each other. Yet ultimately all things are of one substance.
 I'd add at the end of the last sentence, "without an inherent essence, and yes, this statement is also self-referential."  That does not mean 1=2.  That too would be trying to pin down reality like a butterfly pinned in some collection. Can't do it. Nope.

Which brings me to this:

That taking on the scientific establishment has become a favored activity of the right is quite a turnabout. After all, questioning accepted fact, revealing the myths and politics behind established certainties, is a tactic straight out of the left-wing playbook. In the 1960s and 1970s, the push back against scientific authority brought us the patients’ rights movement and was a key component of women’s rights activism. That questioning of authority veered in a more radical direction in the academy in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when left-wing scholars doing “science studies” increasingly began taking on the very idea of scientific truth.
This was the era of the culture wars, the years when the conservative University of Chicago philosopher Allan Bloom warned in his book “The Closing of the American Mind” of the dangers of liberal know-nothing relativism. But somehow, in the passage from Bush I to Bush II and beyond, the politics changed. By the mid-1990s, even some progressives said that the assault on truth, particularly scientific truth, had gone too far, a point made most famously in 1996 by the progressive New York University physicist Alan Sokal, who managed to trick the left-wing academic journal Social Text into printing a tongue-in-cheek article, written in an overblown parody of dense academic jargon, that argued that physical reality, as we know it, may not exist.
Following the Sokal hoax, many on the academic left experienced some real embarrassment. But the genie was out of the bottle. And as the political zeitgeist shifted, attacking science became a sport of the radical right. “Some standard left arguments, combined with the left-populist distrust of ‘experts’ and ‘professionals’ and assorted high-and-mighty muckety-mucks who think they’re the boss of us, were fashioned by the right into a powerful device for delegitimating scientific research,” Michael Bérubé, a literature professor at Pennsylvania State University, said of this evolution recently in the journal Democracy. He quoted the disillusioned French theorist Bruno Latour, a pioneer of science studies who was horrified by the climate-change-denying machinations of the right: “Entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth . . . while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives.” 

I often feel like a dual fish out of water: Having to explain Buddhism as philosophy to rationalists, and at the same time having to explain to Western Buddhists that most New Age garbage is just that.
Alan Sokal's article can be read on-line.  I think Alan Sokal might be a bit proud of what he did with his Social Text hoax, but I could be wrong.  Regardless, if you actually read  Alan Sokal's article  he actually never goes anywhere near refuting the fact that science is fundamentally open; that good science can't be done unless one is open to the possibility of falsification.  This, while not a parroting of the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness (not to mention the premise of deconstruction as a method) is not at all incompatible with it.  Sokal's hoax allowed for a politicization to creep into his paper  - which should have raised a red flag to the reviewers from Social Text - but did not.

Facts are not made up.  Things are as they are. The fundamental emptiness of all things not only does not negate the fundamental outlook of the scientific method, but is in fact highly compatible with it to the point of being a reflection of the emptiness of all things.

Does that clear things up?

One could say this is a typical Times "Both sides do it too!" bit of nonsense. One probably would say it.  But the fact remains, regardless of your politics, the scientific method is the best tool we have for describing the behavior of nature that can be observed, measured, and for which effects can be separated.  And the nature of existence itself appears to be fundamentally empty.