Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Monads

Take the breath as a monad, a microcosm.

For each of us, the whole world reverberates within the fathom-long frame of our bodies. The "all" resonates in six keys on the sounding boards of our six senses.

But the whole of our resonate flesh also, in turn, reverberates in the breath.

Each breath gathers into one monad a microcosm of the world.

Each breath rings in subtle synchrony with what I'm tasting, what I'm seeing, what I'm feeling, what I'm hoping, what I'm thinking, where I'm sitting.

Can I see it? Can I read in my breath the whole world respiring?

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Attention

In his Principles of Psychology, William James devotes a chapter to "Attention." There, he describes attention as a "reactive spontaneity" that is both passively dependent on what is given and actively selective in terms of its focus.

Without this selective emphasis, the world would show up as a structureless chaos. Attention is a sorting machine that slots the oncoming line of objects into foreground or background, center or periphery, light or shadow. We can only foreground one thing at a time and the criterion used for sorting things is "interest." We foreground those objects that provoke our interest.

Here is James' own explicit definition of attention:
The taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought.
It is worth noting that, on this definition, attention implies the necessity of its own withdrawal. We attend to something only by not attending something else. Or, to put it more bluntly: paying attention is the business of selectively ignoring.

It would seem that, of necessity, those who are good at paying attention to stuff will also be those who are good at ignoring at stuff. The cultivation of attention must split this difference: we must learn how to focus by ignoring without also succumbing ignorance.

As a general rule, we can only pay attention to one thing at a time. This "one" thing may well be an aggregate of multiple objects (what isn't an aggregate after all?), but to attend to them all simultaneously we must address them as a "single" thing.

This leads to a secondary definition of attention in terms of "gathering": attention is what gathers out and then gathers together an aggregate.

Or, more comprehensively: attention is what gathers objects, gathers me, and then gathers me in relation to the gathered object. Attention not only gathers objects in relation to me, it gathers me in relation to the anchor point of an object.

Here, attention depends on our ability to generate (unifying) networks of associations. We're able to pay attention to things only to the degree that we have some "place" to put them, some other stuff with which we can associate them, some compatriots with which we can number them.

The opposite of attention is distraction. If attention is a gathering, distraction is a scattering. Distraction is both a dispersion of objects and a dispersion of "me." Distraction is a focusless fog.

Distraction, though, is different from a lack of sustained attention because attention will and must move on. Attention is unavoidably serial in character. We must pay attention to this . . . and then this . . . and then this . . . and then this . . . and then this . . .

Attention is geared to flit. As soon as there is nothing new to notice, it will be on to the next thing. The conveyor belt of attention never stops moving. As James puts it:
No one can possibly attend continuously to an object that does not change.
This serial character may predispose me to hazy distraction, but it is not itself distraction. James claims that the only way to keep our attention from moving to a new object is to constantly work to keep seeing new things in the object we're already attending to. But only novelty can sustain attention: if I don't find novelty in the object at hand, my attention will move on.

In this sense, anicca is the key to samadhi:
If we wish to keep [attention] on the same object, we must seek continually to find out something new about the latter.
It follows, then, that my observation of the object, in order to be sustained, must be intensively interrogative. Every object needs to taste like a koan. Every object needs to be "rolled" over and over as we continually consider different aspects of it.

James also usefully distinguishes a number of different kinds of attention along multiple axises.

We might, for instance, distinguish kinds of attention in terms of (1) whether they are immediate or derived, or (2) in terms of whether the are passive or voluntary.

Objects of immediate attention are those that are interesting to us in their own right. Objects of derived attention are of interest only because we associate them with objects that are of immediate interest.

Objects of passive attention do not require active effort. Objects of voluntary attention do.

The point of connection between these opposed pairs is especially interesting. James claims that voluntary attention is always derived because attention only requires effort when an object is not of immediate interest.

The result, James says, is that when we talk about "sustained voluntary attention" we really mean either one of two things: (1) we're naming a repeated (and ongoing) series of successive (but failed) efforts to pay attention, or (2) we're naming a kind of attention that starts off as derivative and voluntary but then becomes passive and potentially immediate. (In either words, there is no such thing as sustained "voluntary" attention :)

James additionally points out that the better someone is at forming novel associations with an object, the better they will be at paying attention to that object. And, similarly, those whose minds are already equipped with rich sets of associative networks will have an easier time of gathering novel objects into those networks.

Two final notes.

First, there is a connection between attention and memory. Objects that are paid attention to will be remembered (cf. "sati").

And second, the nature of the attentive process (1) involves a physiological disposition of sensory/muscular readiness (one must not discount the role of the body, of posture, etc. in attention), and (2) involves a mental disposition of anticipation, preparation, excitation.

Because this dimension of anticipation is so important, James proposes that we describe all attention as a kind of pre-perception.

The only things that we commonly see are those that we pre-perceive or anticipate as being of interest to us. Attention itself amounts to a kind of "looking for" or proto-desire that screens and selectively emphasizes on the basis of interest.

Though we may initially notice many objects as being of derived importance because they function as "signs" indicating something about some other objects that are of immediate importance to us, the habitual pathways worn by these signs to their referents will soon lead us to skip over the sign altogether and pass directly to the object of primary interest. As a result, pre-perception makes attention possible because it primes us to ignore the habitual.

One thing can come to the fore only if many others recede into the background.

Pre-perception both enables focused attention AND impedes my ability to attend to what is habitual or unexpected.

Here, as elsewhere, the business of cultivating attention will have to grapple (and, almost certainly, continue grappling) with the inconvenient double-bind of attention itself.

Walnut California - A Portrait of Class and Religious Assimilation

(Cross Posted at The Reformed Buddhist)

**This post is a follow up to another post concerning the Department of Justice Civil Rights lawsuit against the City of Walnut, California. Walnut California - Silent Discrimination, Buddhists Second Class Citizens

First off, I want to acknowledge how wrong I was about being vocal concerning the Cordoba House in New York. It is naive to think that a vocal and crushing public opinion, which expresses a view to suppress minority rights, will not produce political candidates that will, by hook or by crook, carry out the wishes of the public. Indeed, it is very important that those who oppose such ignorance and injustice, need to ensure their voices be heard loud and clear, so those in power don't so easily bend to the will of extremism and zealotry.

Case in point, Walnut California. I received an interesting email last night from a government official who wishes to remain off the record, but expressed his thoughts about the City of Walnut's side of the story. While there is much left to uncover about this case, from what I heard from this anonymous person, and through further research, some very interesting and some would say, unusual patterns began emerging.

Some facts and notations:
  • The City of Walnut, California is home to some 32,000 residents, and is considered one of the most affluent areas of the greater Los Angeles County area.
  • The median income for a household is $100,360. The average value of a house or condo in Walnut is $730,000 in 2008, compared to $230,000 for the rest of California.
  • Several publications and news outlets, including Money Magazine and CNN, have ranked Walnut as one of the best places to live due to the high standard of living, income and low crime rate. The citizens of Walnut take great pride in this, and it is reflected in some very strict city ordinances concerning the environmental appearances of housing, businesses and landscaping. Conformance to comply to these standards is strictly enforced by the Planning Commission and City Council.
  • The City of Walnut is home to over 50 religious establishments. Of that number, every single one of them are Christian, with the exception of one small Buddhist establishment (GUANG JIH TEMPLE) that appears to reside inside another building at 831 S LEMON AVE STE A11F. There are no Sikh, Muslim, Jewish or Hindu religious establishments that reside inside the City of Walnut. (There is one Islamic Cultural Center) 
  • In contrast, the surrounding cities of West Covina, Diamond Bar, La Puete, Industry and Pomona are home to dozens of non-Christian religious establishments including Buddhist, Sikh, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu temples and mosques.
  • The racial makeup of Walnut California is 55.75% Asian, 28.37% White, 4.20% African American and the rest being Latino. The overwhelming religion practiced is Christianity. 13,800 residents of Walnut were born outside of the United States, Asians representing the vast majority of that number.
  • In the last 30 years, the Chung Tai Zen Center is the first and only religious Conditional Use permit to be denied according the Department of Justice and California public records. The City of Walnut has issued at least 20 religious Conditional Use permits for Christian establishments in that time span.
  • The federal government filed a civil rights complaint, United States v. City of Walnut, CA (C.D. Ca. 2007), against Walnut in 2007 which alleged that 'the City failed to translate election materials and provide assistance for limited-English proficient Chinese and Korean voters.'
  • Beginning in 2003, when the Chung Tai Zen Center began it's application for building permit, several residents of Walnut spoke out rather vociferously against the center, alleging many things, including an allegation that the Zen Center would try to recruit children into their organization. Oddly enough, the majority of citizens speaking out against the Zen Center were Asian.
  • In 2008, a man named Micheal West ran for City Council under the platform of opposing the Zen Center. The issue was such a hot topic, West made the position one of his key planks. His reasoning was the impact of traffic congestion to children at a nearby school.
"I'm the only candidate who took a stand opposing the Zen Center locating in Walnut, due to the excessive traffic congestion it would have caused for the children at Suzanne Middle School- where my child attends." ~ Micheal West
  • According to the Department of Justice, the City of Walnut ordered that the Zen Center have a extremely involved level of in-depth traffic studies done, to which no other religious organization seeking a Conditional Use permit had to face. The vote on the Zen Center was tabled multiple times over the course of 4 years, until the January 16th 2008 4-1 vote that denied the permit, despite the Chung Tai Zen Center efforts to conform to every demand made by the planning commission. 
Observations:

In my opinion, the denial to issue a permit to the Buddhists was based in part on the strong community desire to maintain a certain public aesthetic. The issue of traffic, an item that has been used to suppress the building of many establishments throughout the United States which the local communities demeaned undesirable, I feel is an obvious cover. A Buddhist temple in a high traffic area of town certainly would disrupt the affluent and hegemonic scene that the citizens of Walnut had so carefully tried to ensure. It is interesting to observe that some would view a Buddhist temple as a negative to a community aesthetic, and that Buddhism somehow represents a lower standard of living. In my opinion, due to Walnut being an enclave aberration of affluent Christian hegemonic milieu, surrounded by other cities brimming with diverse religious and economic class communities, the opposition to the Zen Center was based in part to a partiality of both economic class standing and ironically, due to the majority Asian population, an unwanted cultural differentiation. (My brain hurts after that sentence.)
 
I find it interesting to note that when weighing the preference of class and religion, that race can be separated in the justifying equation. Furthermore, it is interesting to observe that an endemic cluster can emerge, which has as one of its key defining principals, a conscious effort to distance themselves from their past cultural heritage. The 2007 lawsuit filed by the DoJ shows the city attempted to enforce this assimilation of the affluent class culture and its animosity towards other cultural influences. The Zen Center permit denial seems to be just an extension of this desire for a community to enforce this new emerging economic and manufactured cultural mores. No matter how manicured the landscaping is, or how ascetically pleasing to the eye the hegemony of conforming homes are, no amount of makeup, building codes and whitewashing will hide the true human stories that reside there. That's truly mass delusion.

The Department of Justice I think fails in its complaint to examine this side of the issue. Like the Cordoba House, the strong desire to enforce manufactured cultural mores can be seen throughout all parts of society. For me, the interesting thing about the United States is the fact that most people dismiss that the culture of Americans can be defined by an exceedingly high number of outside cultural influences. Once assimilated and accepted, it becomes part of the norm, something to be protected; but that process can take decades. Ironically, by fighting these influences and change, I feel many Americans really miss out of what this country has at its very foundation. It is a complicated matter, and one that deserves some attention.

Though there is never an excuse for discrimination, I don't think the officials or citizens of Walnut are bigoted against Buddhists as a primary purpose, it is merely a side effect from the attempt to maintain the appearance of coordinated class affulance and a false sense of a hegemonic suburban utopia.

Monday, 11 October 2010

I Do Not Seek

Reading a Thoreau biography, I came across the following from Picasso:
I do not seek. I find.
The saying clears a middle ground between effort and the effortless.

Picasso doesn't enjoin us to seek anything. (What is there to seek if I already possess buddha nature?) But he also doesn't encourage us to marinade in a stupor.

Between seeking and not seeking is the middle way: finding.

This, I think, is the way marked out by Gotama.

Where seeking and not seeking are desperate activities organized by my own selective preferences, finding is a work of kenosis organized by the concretion of whatever already happens to be given.

There is work to be done. But it is not the work of seeking. It is the work of finding.

Dharma News

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