Sunday, 20 December 2015

Not-Perfect, Not-Imperfect

At this time of year, the Buddha could have just walked down 34th Street, pointed to Macy's, and said, “Dukkha,” and everybody would have gotten the First Noble Truth without a second word needing to be spoken. But 'tis the season of giving. Bright, fresh-faced, rosy-cheeked children sitting lovingly on Santa's lap in the department store, the jolly Salvation Army bell-ringers with kettles overflowing with donations, peace on earth, good will toward men, fake snow on palm trees in Australia and Africa, and all the rest of the Norman Rockwell world that is the holiday season associated with Christmas. Religious or secular, here it is, the time when people give. I could go into the realm of conspicuous consumption, commercialism, what's ostensibly a Christian holiday (with possible pagan origins) being thrust upon the rest of the world as a capitalist orgy, and I guess I just did. But that's not news.
Reality may be slightly different than the greeting cards might imply. It's not all “peace, love, and crunchy granola.” Families get together for the first time since the last wedding, last funeral, or last Christmas. And quite often, telling the difference between Christmas and one of the other two may not be easy. There's a good chance of excessive consumption of alcohol, much wailing and gnashing of teeth, arguments, and resentments. And then there are the funerals. Along with all that, there is a sense of being placed sometimes forcibly, into the role of gift-giver. Maybe random names are drawn from a hat at the office, where you get to play “Secret Santa,” which invariably results in wondering what face that name goes with, or maybe worse, drawing your boss's name: “Don't want to look unappreciative, so it's gotta be nice, but it can't be too nice, or he'll think maybe I don't need that pay raise.” What do you get for the person don't even know, much less know what s/he has and wants/needs more of, or something that shows you care, or that they'd even like?
'Tis the season of giving, of giving grudgingly, mandatory giving, guilt-laden giving and the occasional giving associated with warm feelings for someone, out of compassion, maybe just to see the smile on someone's face when they receive something donated anonymously, and of being OK with someone appreciating a gift or maybe not. There's probably some of all the above to varying degrees with all of us. There are some assumptions in all these situations: A) There's a giver; B) there is a gift; C) there is the recipient of said gift from the aforementioned giver.
The first of the Six Perfections (Paramitas) is dana, or generosity. By the very act of giving, we release attachment and clinging, at least in a best-case scenario. Generosity is a perfection, so it must be a good thing, right? The temptation might be to renounce all our worldly possessions, to assume a post-ghost Scrooge stance, showering the world with all the worldly goods we can. And that's fine, so long as it's done in the actual spirit of generosity.. If we are generous just to be generous, without any expectation of reciprocation, maybe anonymously, Wonderful! Even if we are generous with maybe a tinge of puffing ourselves up, maybe to get a little pat on the back, Wonderful! Do it anyway, with more practice, maybe that will wear off. Maybe not. I'd guess the homeless guy who just received a gift of food really doesn't much care about the motives of the giver. There's just, “Mmmmm.” Perhaps spending some time on the cushion, looking deeply at our motivations might be in order though.
Then there's the version of the recipient actually asking for a handout. The original Sangha, including the Buddha, relied on donations of food and shelter. It's common practice in many countries that there is a day set aside for the laity to make donations directly to the monks. I'm not fond of megachurches and ashrams demanding donations, especially when the clergy end up living lives of wealth and fame. That's fine, it's just not where I'd choose to send my generosity, any more than to the organizations who run the $1,000 per week meditation retreats. Go to any Zen center website, and more often than not, there's probably a “donate” button. That's fine too. The Dharma is free, but mats, cushions, incense, rent, etc. tend not to be. So go ahead, donate. The Zen Center probably needs donations to stay afloat, and trust me, being a Zen priest isn't exactly the way to wealth and fame. (If you'd like to further investigate the commodification of Zen in the West, Dōshim Dharma wrote a book entitled “Brand-Name Zen,” which details all this quite well).
In China, where the peasantry probably had virtually nothing to give, Master Baizhang Huaihai is attributed with having set up the dictum of, “No work, no food.” Apparently when his student monks hid his tools because a Great Sage shouldn't have to do such menial chores as planting and spreading manure, Baizhang essentially went on hunger strike. This wasn't out of some Zen Master pouting, it was his way of living the ethic of “No work, no food.” It could be said that the monks' generosity to the peasantry was that they didn't demand that they support the temple. Baizhang generosity was to set the example of no one being special. There's also the story of the monk living alone as a hermit being visited by robbers one night. He remarked to them that they must really be in need, so he gave them what possessions he had--the clothes on his back. The monk's generosity, much less the sight of a naked monk, did nothing to deter them from stealing however.
My writing this, instead of finding someone in need of something and giving is probably “self” indulgent. I can justify it in terms of the Dharma being a gift, that any insight I might have that saves all beings demands it must be shared. If I really looked on this cold wintry night at 1:00 AM, I could probably find someone who needs something. But maybe someone will read this and be moved to find that homeless guy and give him a sandwich. Whatever merit is accrued can be dedicated to some other sentient being. It does call for some time on the cushion to investigate this further.
As I mentioned previously, there are three grounds to generosity: the giver, the gift, and the recipient. If any of the three is missing, then generosity is merely a concept, not an action. And our practice is all about action. “It is better to give than to receive” is at best a miscalculation if not downright wrong. “Lie” might be too strong a term for it, due the three grounds of generosity, but it falls way short of the entire process of generosity. Someone gave me the idea to write this. That's right, gave me the idea. I accepted it. It was an entirely natural process, give idea, receive idea, no thought required. That's much different from “No, I couldn't possibly accept this from you.” That attitude does nothing but perpetuate superiority, the duality of self/other, and give rise to false humility. It's as “I, I, I, I” “want,” want,” “want” as one would see in Macy's any of these days.
One of the acts of generosity that can be performed is to receive. There's no, “Oh, I couldn't possibly” to it. There's no false “I”-based motivation to it, if done in the true spirit of generosity. The Second Precept is “Do not steal; do not take that which is not freely given.” A corollary of that is to graciously and without attachment accept that which is freely given. Not to do so is in effect stealing the opportunity from someone to practice the First Perfection. Who am I to deny you the opportunity to perform the Perfection of Generosity? Would I deny you the opportunity to meditate or act morally, or any of the other Perfections? So far as I'm concerned, the “I-ness” involved in that is potentially as dangerous to the well-being of all beings as being greedy. Self-lessly giving is best accompanied by self-lessly receiving. To paraphrase the Diamond Sutra, if you think of yourself as a Bodhisattva, and that are beings to save, and saving to be done, you're not a Bodhisattva. But regardless, we act as Bodhisattvas and save all beings. Giver, gift, and recipient are all subject to causes and conditions and characterized by emptiness as giver and gift, but in the spirit of the Bodhisattva, give a gift, and just as willingly, receive a gift. Now go out and find a homeless guy and give him a sandwich. Thank you. You're welcome.

Friday, 11 December 2015

The Dilemma of "The Tree" at the Holidays

To tree or not to tree. That is the question.  

“The tree” has always been one of my favorite parts of the holiday season. It provides a comforting light in the darkness of winter. It adds sparkle to the world and reminds me that green and growth will return again soon. What’s not to love about the tree? Attachment, that’s what!

Randomly last week, I received two communications from two different friends who don’t know one another. Both expounded on their feelings about the tree.

Friend Number 1: A client. (I really hope he forgot I’m a part of his email address book, because honestly who exposes a business associate to a religious tirade. Oh wait a minute…never mind.) But I digress. I received an email from him excoriating people who call the tree a Holiday Tree instead of a Christmas Tree. He is apparently among those who feel there is some kind of war on Christmas and who takes offense to people who say Happy Holidays or excise the word Christmas in reference to the tree. 

Friend Number 2: A self-described born-again Christian. She wrote a post in social media stating that she will no longer put up a tree because it does not have a Christian foundation. She delivered no vitriol in her post. She simply shared her process of examining her past beliefs and behavior and talked about the ways in which she is trying to align her current beliefs with her behavior.

I'm a person who loves the tree, regardless of what you call it and I find this dance of opposites to be fascinating. It makes me think more about attachment.

The Holiday Season is replete with religious symbolism. Humanity’s need to celebrate the solstice in one way or another has resulted in an apparent universal desire to stake a claim to this time of year. There’s that word though - desire. Hence attachment.

I respect my second friend's decision to not have a tree, but it saddens me a little that her attachment to a symbolism that has long since expired is causing her to give up a tradition she previously enjoyed and around which she had built her own traditions.

The anger pouring out of my client and the distain he holds for people who choose to acknowledge that December is the home to more than one holiday reminds me of why attachment is considered the root of all suffering. He is making himself suffer with the anger he’s generating. He made me suffer when the shenpa hit me upon reading his words. He is making the participants of other faiths suffer by refusing to acknowledge space for them in his limited view of the holiday season. 

This December, I wanted to take a moment to remind us that the cultural call to desire and attachment is amplified at this time of year. The religious debates above, the pressure to buy gifts and concurrently think of something to want from others, attachment to having a particular family experience. It’s all pushed on us more intensely this time of year. Let’s make sure not to miss the forest for the trees. 

Who is Average Buddhist:
The Average Buddhist is a voice-specialized speech-language pathologist, health care advocate and singing teacher in Massachusetts. She writes the Average Buddhist blog at and moderates the Average Buddhist community on Facebook. Her book The Average Buddhist Explores the Dharma, a humorous tour of Buddhism for every day life, can be found at

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

The allure of Akira Kurosawa's film Ikiru

Watching Akira Kurosawa’s unusual movie Ikiru is a fascinating experience. I love the film and offer it to my fellow Buddhists, thinking many of you are likely to find it amazing, as well. The film was made in 1952 in Tokyo and is in Japanese. All parts, including those by many hundreds of extras are played by Japanese actors.

The movie opens with a picture of an X-ray. We are told by an opinionated narrator that the X-ray is that of our protagonist’s stomach which shows that he has an aggressive cancer that will kill him. [The screenplay leaves viewers with the certain knowledge that death is in the offing. There will be no switched X-ray ruse. The main character will be dead in five months. Absolutely!]

This protagonist is a middle-ranking city official, Mr. Wanatabe [played by Takashi Shimura] who’s about 55 years old, I’d say, with the title Public Affairs Section Chief.

Wanatave and the piles and piles of papers.
We first see him at his desk stamping documents. Behind him and all around the walls and blocking windows and around the desks and walls of his subordinates are stacks and stacks and piles upon piles of loosely bound papers.

The narrator tells us:
Ah, here is our protagonist now. But it would only be tiresome to meet him right now. After all, he’s simply passing time without actually living his life. In other words, he’s not really even alive. … In fact, this man has been dead for more than 20 years now.
The narrator is speaking metaphorically, of course. He’s setting up the situation which is one perhaps many of us can relate to: our life is a drag; we’re only just sleepwalking through it, following our routine which prepares us to follow our routine without let up.

Wanatabe playing pinball with a young co-worker
Wanatabe is just a player in a mindless bureaucracy where departments pass work to other departments and fop off encounters they should be having with citizens off on other departments, endlessly, such that citizens give up on getting a problem fixed. Paper piles up endlessly and it is extremely rare for something meaningful to ever get done.

The tone of the movie is an important element. It is a serious film with conversations most of which are serious. But there is always, just out of reach, this world of absurdity. The piles of papers. The do-nothing bureaucracy. The acclimation of the workers to their world of madness.

These are things all of us can relate to, at least a little bit. After all, the backdrop to our lives is that Donald Trump may be our next president and if he doesn’t kill us, ISIS might, and if we survive that, climate change will finish off the last of us.

We can all come to be comfortable in a world of meaningless madness and never know how to get off our duffs to do something about it. [And we can fail to think of something to do once we’re off our duffs.]

Terry Gilliam used Ikiru as an inspiration for his comedic film Brazil in 1985. Brazil is brilliant, about being trapped in bureaucratic madness. Ikiru, superior in my opinion, includes an element about finding a path out.

Another thing I have to emphasize, that dazzles me, is how well done everything is in Ikiru. The acting is consistently superb. And there are scenes where an awful lot is going on, including in the background.

In the early part of the movie, Mr. Wanatabe befriends a mediocre novelist who pulls Wanatabe out of his deep depression and shows him how to have fun. There’s then a succession of wonderfully filmed scenes of drinking and women and playing with Wanatabe getting some relief from his depression. In one scene, they go to see a striptease where, as the stripper’s clothes come off, Wanatabe lets out a satisfied yowl.

Wanatabe: So happy. On a swing in the snow.
One interesting thing I noticed: During the sequences of gaiety, the music is American, sung in English. On walls, some English-language words can be seen: “Beer” “Cabaret” The movie was made seven years after WWII. I suppose the reality is that Americans were in Japan affecting the culture. Still, no non-Japanese persons are seen.

Despite these diversions, Wanatabe is vexed with dread, at times. His life was a waste; he is just waiting to die. But a ditzy young woman he works with says some things that sparks an idea.

I didn’t find the back-half of the film to be as intriguing as its first half, but is it where Wanatabe figures out what to do. Not wanting to spoil things any further, I will leave things at that except to say that it seems clear that the message that comes from Buddhism plays a vital role in the movie, even as there is no mention of Buddhism in the film.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Progressive Buddhism has gone Social

Magically leaping into the 21st century, this blog is adding two essential social media outlets to help foster conversation, community, and Progressive Buddhist action in the world.

First, join us on Google+ (or G+) at:

Second, join us on Facebook at:

While we hope that conversations here grow and foster new ideas and connections, these two social networks should serve to both expand our reach and develop side-communities and discussions that both extend our reach and allow and invite new voices to the community. 

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Slaying Leviathan: how violence and not one religion is the problem.

This post is dedicated to all who have suffered pains due to violence.

Friends, readers, visitors, whom ever stumbles upon this blog, we have all something to talk about. We now, the entire world, can have a conversation together. And we are, but we are not soaking up the plethora of all that has been said, done, and has happened in recent months.

Why are we violent? It seems to be a part of human nature to desire competition and conflict-most species endeavor through violence with their instincts but we always claim we are above the beasts who kill for no good reason. What foolishness. The animal world is doing its part just fine; we have fallen into a global catastrophe that we haven't ever dealt with before. So do we have any way out? Is this violence just the pressure building and building inevitably with no end?


I hate conflict. I run from it sometimes in unhealthy ways but I'd rather not have to experience winning or losing, just running. I'm not going to make an argument for whatever personal cowardice I suffer from, but the point is that if we expand the view by taking a step back we will discover things that we may not have expected.

For example: the leader of ISIS' name is Abu Bakr something. Abu Bakr was a historical figure therefore the narrative and war they are fighting may not be one we understand (terrorist or non-terrorist, we do not understands Islam's narrative.) I won't give much of a lesson in Islamic theology or history here since I'm no authority besides state that the West is perceived as having strikingly different priorities. This is less true-to some extent in religious context as to materialistic tendencies. 

Islam isn't against having, it's against having in wrong way. When something attempts to be something it's not (as simple as a buildings art for example) then it must be altered. It's not wrong, it's different. Is the Hagia Sophia any less beautiful as a mosque? ISIS is taking thought through theology and response to the aesthetic world and bastardizing it. 

So am I saying we should compromise? Not necessarily, but if we fight we must know how. Think rejecting refugees helps the narrative change in the eyes of ISIS and any new recruits? No. Think bombing them will help? It'll settle some peoples' nerves knowing some people are dead but it'll just repeat.

 The Internet is amassed with propaganda and writing from variant terrorists groups attempting to manipulate the weak minds-those that have been hurt through war, put aside, or by a stroke of luck the logic and pathos work on the victim. ISIS seems a lot like a cult.

Killing these men solves nothing. We as a culture live online so we must create an amalgam of stories that prove ISIS wrong. 

Why should we have to prove anything to a terrorist group? And how do we prove a cult wrong? Isn't that a contradiction in terms?

Because people are dying, and they're going to keep dying. We don't have to prove that we are anything like them, but that we are better than they ever expected, we are not materialists, we are a generous world that shares knowledge, gives, cares, and works together. This obviously happens. Reason will not work against them so no stating the obvious will work, no pile of premises of the actual Islamic doctrine will work. The memories and the stories of a world so many hate without ever having seen will change minds. The influence of one good deed will be shared, perpetuated, with some intense effort, slowly, behind computer screens those on the edge will reconsider, and those on the inside will doubt. We cannot solve the problem entirely. Our pride says it can. It will take those living there to also do their part (peace, strength, and guidance be with them.)

Creative minorities tend to have a strong voice in history. Protesting the streets doesn't seem to work as much anymore (global protest day back in Feb early 2000s against the Iraq war that happened anyway. Also Occupy..) so we take to the mediums where people shed tears. 

Tell your sob stories online, share your goodness. In this day and age you never know who it may reach. 

My rant is done.

Be kind to each other. Sadly it's soon to be the only thing we may have left. 

To Muslim brothers and sisters: I honor and wish you only the best on your journies  (religious). I respect your faith and tradition and will support you as a Jew and Buddhist in whatever way I can (mostly by writing). Your beautiful voices and lives will never, ever be out shadowed by hate and violence. It is my prayer that we don't let that happen. Peace and friendship to you all. 

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Not-Special, Not-Unique

We live in an era where everyone thinks of themselves as unique, everyone thinks of themselves as special. And perhaps it's always been that way, and that's what the Buddha pointed to as the source of dukkha, the struggle we go through because we have such difficulty dealing with the nature of human life containing this struggle. We have to deal with sickness, old age and death, the impermanence of this physical body, what's sometimes referred to as this “meat-bag” by the sages. The sages have also said, “The cup is already broken.”

So it's a given that this body will at one time or another cease to function as it has, sometimes well, sometimes not so well. But while that's the nature of the physical body, it is not the True Nature Bodhidharma refers to, it's not the “One Mind” of Huangbo Xiyun. It's not Mazu's “that which asks the question is Buddha.” Our True Nature is our Buddha Nature, and that's something we all share; even the ones we don't particularly like. The bodhisattva saves all beings, not just the ones who look like us, or even act like we do.

The Four Immeasurables are Lovingkindness (for all beings), Compassion (for all beings), Sympathetic Joy (in the joy of all beings--even when we play no part in it), and Equanimity (imperturbability in the face of all circumstances, good and bad). We save all beings because we are all beings. We save ourselves in doing so.

All beings believing in their “uniqueness,” the separation between themselves and all other beings (the Universe + 1 syndrome), that each being thinks of him/herself as special imposes boundaries where there are, in reality, none. If everyone is special and unique, doesn't that negate the specialness and uniqueness? Doesn't that provide a level playing field, where no one is actually special if everyone is special? Is the supposed uniqueness any different from the water molecules that comprise the ocean or the river? Are beings somehow so egotistical that we can see the unity of all things...except among ourselves?

In the Metta Sutta, the Lovingkindness Sutra, the Buddha says “May all beings be happy, safe and secure.” That doesn't mean that just the people who believe like us or look like us should be happy, safe, and secure. It means all beings. Lovingkindness is not manifested by lopping of an arm because we don't like it. Compassion doesn't include harming others. When an unacceptable act is performed, that is harming all beings, not just the ones who are physically harmed.

It's difficult enough being human, having to deal with the dissatisfaction of this space between life and death. There is no Lovingkindness shown in hastening that journey to death along; it will happen just fine on its own. There is only Love, there is only Mind, there is only Buddha. The violence perpetrated upon the people of Paris today is the height of greed, anger, and delusion. There is no understanding such violence; if we feel pain, it is because a part of us has also been injured and killed. It is difficult, maybe damn near impossible to have any compassion for the killers in Paris.

But there is only Love, there is only Mind, there is only Buddha. It might do well for us to think of that before we sink to the level of the greedy, the angry, the delusional. It may take some time to realize how to act, think, and speak. It will mostly take quite some time to figure out the skillful means needed to show Lovingkindness and Compassion. But our shared humanity requires us to do so, even to those whom we don't like, don't look like us, and don't act like us. It is not our Buddha Nature to take revenge against ourselves.

Admittedly, it is not easy to write this, and I'm not sure that even though I wrote it, that I feel like it's possible to believe it and act accordingly. But I must try, we all must try, at least to do no harm. May all beings be happy. May All beings be happy. May ALL beings be happy.

Peace and compassion for those who are suffering in Paris tonight, and to all beings who suffer everywhere, all the time. That is us, in our shared humanity.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Harvest time: how we eat

Greetings friends!

We Buddhists, in ritual and depending on our  home practice, have a strange eating etiquette and manner: and how we eat reflects a lot of what we believe; we are what we and how we eat.

So. Let's do a compassion between Orthodox Christian feast calendar, Jewish feast days, and Zen eating practice.

Orthodox Christian feast days occur commonly but always in reverence to an occasion or a person. These feasts, depending on what their patrons also patronized, would become more or less elaborate. For example, Basil's feast in Egypt and Russia is going to be a great gathering. Feasts consist of traditional food of the culture (generally) and also abide by church dogma (which includes fasting on Wed and Fri for Orthodox Christian) and reflect a feasting in thanks and victory. Orthodox saints and usually depicted in gold on the Icons, the space around them is holy, the spirit they have and portray is divine; therefore we must feast in victory.

The Jewish feasts are in celebration. Being thankful is a very important part of Jewish identity: privilege is shared among the community as much as possible; when we remember the days in which we struggle and see where we have come and that we are, we stop, light candles, cry and thank God, then feast on the riches of the world.

Feasting in the Jewish calendar is complicated. Every Shabbat, depending on the certain tradition of Judaism, is going to be quite elaborate. Shabbat dinner is to stop from all things worldly and to honor God and rest with (not against, not for) creation.

Buddhism stops the chatter: the thanks is in the silence to every bite. The crunch on leaves and not meat is the only sound that penetrates a home, a person at work, a Zen hall. Eating is eating and is done when one is hungry, or obliged to. The ritual is taken away almost entirely and is done in the mind as it focuses on eating, experiencing, and embracing the food. This is to think of both "ourselves" and that of what we eat; we know we shall become grass one day, we know we need the bees that brought about the plants, and the animals and so on and so forth. We are a part of a complicated, creative wave of existence that is involved in our quietly eating our meals.

None of these ways are wrong. They reflect different responses to the world and seem to honor the fact that each bite comes with a cost. Let's think about the way we eat individually and see what we may discover about ourselves.

Best Wishes,

Monday, 2 November 2015

What the Tao Tells Us About Enlightened People

What the Tao Tells Us About Enlightened People:
An examination of the 15th Chapter of the Tao te Ching

I am interested in what an Enlightened person is like; how we can identify one.  How if we bump into one at Walmart we could tell there is One Mind behind those twinkling eyes.  By legend, there are thirty-two marks of a Buddha, which include a lower body like an antelope, an upper body like a lion, golden-hued skin, saliva that improves the taste of all foods (but contains no MSG), eyelashes like a thickly mascera'ed supermodel's [well, the text says like a that of an ox], and a penis shaped like a tall maraschino-cherry jar.

Except for Michael Fassbender, there are none of us who could meet all these physical requirements.  And I don't care if Michael's mouth water is better than tupelo honey, I still don't want his spittle in my tea. I guess I dismiss the thirty-two marks as tommyrot, perhaps because it strikes me as slathered with the ugly brush of racism, sexism and thirty other varieties of prejudice.  But, also, happily, the legend of the marks predates the life of Siddhartha Gautama and is at odds with what else Buddhism tells us, as interpreted in this our post-postmodern age.

prefer to think that anybody out there is a potential  Buddha -- that genetic circumstances of birth are not determinant for who might grow up to be Enlightened.  We are told that each of us has a Buddha-seed; I would hope that that means that within each of us it can sprout and grow into a mighty redwood -- whether we are male or female, golden-hued or the color of cocoa beans.

And, it is nice to know that Siddhartha Gautama agrees with me. In the Diamond Sutra there is a dialogue between Buddha and Subhudi, discussing the thirty-two marks and the Tathagata:

"Subhuti, what do you think, can the Tathagata be seen by his physical marks?" 
"No, World Honored One, the Tathagata cannot be seen by his physical marks. And why? It is because the physical marks are spoken of by the Tathagata as no physical marks." 
The Buddha said to Subhuti, "All with marks is empty and false. If you can see all marks as no marks then you see the Tathagata."
It would be nice if there were a test you could give to find a Buddha.  [I.e., one less inscrutible than seeing "all marks as no marks."]  In the movie "To Have and Have Not" -- a title a lot like "All Marks and No Marks" I notice -- Humphrey Bogart's rummy sidekick, played by Walter Brennen, asks everyone if they have ever been bit by a dead bee. The reaction of people asked this silly question tells the audience what the person is like. It's certainly not a Buddha test, but it is sort of a bodhicitta test, telling us if the person Brennen questions is compassionate.

We know that the Lauren Bacall character is a wonderful person (even though she is caught stealing a wallet) because she engages in "the dead bee" conversation with Brennen, giving responses very similar to those given earlier by the protagonist, Bogie.  In the movie, passing the test merely requires patience and interest that comes from recognizing that the old deadbeat drunk is a precious person, as much so as any of us.

[Note the interesting conundrum of being "bit by a dead bee": Typically we get stung by a bee, and then it dies. But if you could be bit by a dead one, it would leave no mark since you couldn't have really been bit (or stung).]

In The Method ofZen, Eugen Herrigel writes in the introduction that, while having tea in a Tokyo restaurant with Japanese colleagues, there was a mild earthquake.  One colleague, unlike everyone else, was neither astonished nor frightened.  The person was Zen Buddhist, unperturbed by the swaying chandeliers and crashing dishes.  Here we might have a Buddha test, or something just short of it!  Shake the ground underneath that candidate Buddha!  See if she flinches!!

The Tao te Ching tells us about Enlightened folks.  [Remember the Tao te Ching?  This is an essay about the Tao.  'Bout time I mentioned it.]

The fifteenth chapter, specifically, tells us how to spot those shy Enlightened people!  The GNL Tao, a loose modern composite translation, calls this chapter "Enlightenment" and unlike other translations uses "The Enlightened" to refer to the people spoken about, rather than "Master" that is used in other volumes.

The first four of the 18 or so lines of the chapter are little different between translations.  The GNL Tao reads as follows:
The enlightened possess understanding So profound they can not be understood. Because they cannot be understood I can only describe their appearance.
There is then a list of seven qualities common to the enlightened.  The translations vary, but the next lines, each conveying a quality, flow like this:

1.     Cautious, watchful or careful - like crossing an iced-over river on foot in the winter
2.     Hesitating, Undecided or Alert {depending on the translation!!} --like someone with enemies all around.
3.     Modest, reverent or courteous {depending on the translation!!} --like someone who is a guest
4.     Dissolving, unbounded, yielding or fluid {depending on the translation!!} --like melting ice
5.     Like uncarved wood, but translations vary.  Is it "genuine" like wood; "thick" like wood; or "shapable" or "simple."
6.     Open, broad or receptive  {depending on the translation!!} -- like a valley.  Another translation says "Hollow, like caves."
7.     This line is truly confusing:  One translation says "Opaque, like muddy pools," another says its seeming opposite, "Clear as a glass of water."  Others say "Seamless as muddy water" and  "Chaotic like murky water."

A hell of a thing!  It is difficult enough to recognize a person by the degree that he/she resembles ice -- but what quality of ice am I looking for?  In what manner, exactly, can I recognize the dissolving, or unboundedness or fluidity that makes a person like melting ice?

And supposing I come upon a person who has a quality like a raw chunk of wood.  HOW would I recognize such a quality, this woody aspect of a person: genuine but not yet carved up.

Happily, centuries of scholarship have tackled trying to understand the Tao te Ching, and from this effort things are now a little less "opaque like muddy pools."

Ellen Chen's Tao te Ching:  A New Translation with Commentary  [It is no longer very "new," by the way.  But I am happy to see that it is back in print.]  seems to do the most to unravel the knots.

The first three of the seven qualities all refer to respect The Enlightened has for the world, "(s)ince the world is a spirit vessel with a sacred life not to be tampered with by humans, the Taoist's attitude is one of reverence and circumspection."

In the fourth line, there is a transition:  the ice is melting, as compared to the thin, but frozen, ice of the first line.  I suppose that the quality ["Dissolving, like ice beginning to melt" in Chen's translation.] suggests that The Enlightened "blend in," much like the man at the end of The 10 Oxherding Pictures vanishes or, in other versions, reenters the marketplace.

The fifth through seventh qualities are feminine symbols, Chen tells us: unformed, yielding and receptive.  In the last quality the symbol of water is used, in contrast to the ice of the first quality and the melting ice of the fourth.  The season is one of spring -- with new life.  Chen writes "The Taoist maintains himself in this psychic state, still anchored in the source which is chaos or non-being, yet emerging into new being by virtue of the power of self-transformation."

I have not been much aided in my quest to identify the Enlightened people "out there."  I want them all to wear some unmistakable sign -- like a red carnation in their lapel.  But the works of Buddhism, and the 15th chapter of the Tao te Ching, aren't talking about Enlightened people "out there," of course.  They are talking about active qualities we are to find within ourself.

Some of these things seem at odds.  We are to be actively rooted in reverence and circumspection.  When we are Enlightened, we will be open and yielding when our habit has been to lie under the seemingly warm blanket of our ego-protecting inner world.  And all of this must be accomplished and maintained without pushing and forcing ourself.  It's quite a trick! Like trying not to try.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Poetry. Something different.

This shall be a bit different than usual. Enjoy original poetry.

This world, it shines on evening nights
With a spectrum stricken to awe;
The Sun, she sets on waves of clouds 
That cut and pierce, and bruise the sky.

Here we are in the midst of it all,
The trees, the birds, all these strange oddities:
The roads, the bells, odorous smells-constant calls to calamity.

Stop here. Stop here and take a quick breath; the moon is they way, follow her sway
Down the corridors into the shed.

Darkness stirs. Darkness breaths deep and low- feel the gravity pull, hear all there is to know
In silence of mellow, dull moments,
When no candles are lit,
No comfortable place to sit,
When it feels like there is nothing good that exists.

Behold the strange line of eccentrics,
Men and women and children who have caught
Something so close to our hands,
Sometimes we got it, sometimes we keep sinking into the sands.

The lungs are only burning--
The sand is not real. Stand up and breathe
The air that is clean.

Behold the strange line of people who laugh when given the scent
Of the blossoming lotus as it reveals
What we didn't expect, 

Aha! Behold the long way round into ourselves,
The road is treacherous, evil abounds,
Yet in the quest for stillness there is no way around
The soft call of Shanti-- shall be found.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Democrats Debate: What do Buddhists think?

Google trends during and after the Democratic Debate. Click here for a larger version.
Upon a quick perusal of my facebook news feed today, three names come up the most: Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Martin O'Malley.

My feed, curated no doubt by my likes and clicks and facebook's algorithms, features mostly young(ish) and early middle-aged folks. The broad sense from these folks is that they still love Bernie but feel an ever-stronger "inevitability" around Hillary. Both, they say, did a very good job in the debate. O'Malley (I still don't know him well enough to call him Martin, or Marty) came out as a surprisingly strong performer.

The above graph from US News and World Report shows google trends during and after the report, with Sanders standing out as a strong "winner".

What were your thoughts? Are there issues in particular that appeal to you as a Buddhist? What about the candidates? Or do you see yourself as more apolitical? 

Friday, 11 September 2015

Close to home.

Closer than you think:

I arrived to the United States when I was three years old. I was young and new no real world that I can truly remember. My parents lived in Moldova for 16 years and 3 of those were with me. I was their first child (and only) and they were in their 40s when they had me. Their childhood and early adulthood was spent in Uzbekistan. Now we reside in the Midwest. Migration is nothing new to my family, but, also the trouble it brings.

I was raised with a very old school Russian mindset. The conservativeness was not of American taste and was never backed with religious argument, just tradition and utility. They gave me the tools to live in a world foreign to me, while they had to learn to live in a foreign world. It's been tricky along the road and "otherness" is is a potent feeling. 

I suspect we all had those moments when we realized we're a bit larger in ways we could imagine and completely non-existent in others. Culture is powerful but it is also a good comfort. I was raised with two. My parents didn't have a philosophical leaning. They both still linger in the news as my mother watches Russian pop concerts while assembling dozens of jigsaw puzzles. The world inside their minds would shock me.

The people migrating have each other and also the hands that reach out to them. It will not be enough to simply offer refugees asylum without fully acknowledging their humanity and deep needs such as a strong sense of community and a togetherness with those who gave them good shelter. The bond that can form between very different people is at hand if we all somehow play a part in showing nothing but good human, simple compassion then a lot of what is going on in this world: the worship of guns, the violence, greed, many of those suffering would push toward a history where "east and west" "us versus them" "Islam versus the west" can be laid to rest. 

It takes with the movement of history and grasping the moment. If we are aware, if we can see over what has happened and take a spiral staircase out of darkness (to use Karen Armstrong's autobiography title) then we can achieve great things.

It will take a deep long breath and a constant effort to stay clear minded. I dream big.

Note: I do not really trust politicians. I never really did, it's a Russian thing apparently, but the few who stand by an awareness of change and the possibility to mature out of huge mistakes would have my vote. All people matter.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Common Threats can lead to Compromises

In his blog post four days ago, "Avoidance of Fellow Humans," Justin Whitaker challenged bloggers associated with ProgBud to write about "reaching out and coming to deeper, clearer understandings, across the political spectrum and toward those we might see only in their 'otherness.'"

Philosopher Jonathan Haidt has been a hero of mine in writing about the different moral values that liberals and conservatives have, and how in understanding each other across the seeming miles-wide abyss of our near-polar differences is possible.

At the time of the presidential election in 2012, he offered a means to get the Federal Government functioning, again, such that the needs of people could be met and the dangers that were "out there" could be addressed.

Sadly, nothing much has changed since Haidt's TED Talk in 2012. Most of the dangers America faces are still "out there" -- from climate change to a dwindling Social Security fund.

As a perhaps good starting place to look at where we are and how we, as a country, are polarized in separate camps, I recommend listening to the Talk, titled "The asteroids club - common threats can lead to compromise." It's fast-paced and under seventeen minutes in length.

The cure that Haidt puts forward -- recognizing common threats -- seems still out-of-reach. But perhaps there is an opportunity, after such a long period of having a do-nothing congress, that Washington politicians can find a way to work together to get some important things done to prevent catastrophes that are on the near horizon.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Avoidance of Fellow Humans

"Within a state of ignorance, we become avoidant of our fellow human beings if they fall into any available category of "otherness," categories that are easily constructed and manipulated in order to accentuate fear. Who, after all, in this interdependent world of commuters, is *not* an immigrant? And what leader hasn't made a mistake?" (The Road Home p.242)

Book cover - the road home

I chanced upon this recently as I was skimming contemporary writings on Buddhism. It struck me as apt, now as much as ever, considering the growing plight of refugees from Syria and Iraq and the continued callous silence from much of the rest of the world. Of course the problem is not limited to Syria and Iraq. Economic refugees flee toward and into the United States daily, the Rohingya of Burma have become stateless refugees in their own nation, many thousands dying at sea or finding only slavery or continued exploitation as they flee that country.

While we have seen many beautiful responses to these mass movements of humanity, open arms and homes, we also see plenty of fear, anger, and exclusion. Much of that is certainly rooted in deeper greed and the worry that "those people" will somehow threaten "my" livelihood or possessions. And all of that, of course, is based on the delusion of "otherness".

In this election season we hear talk of building a giant wall along the Mexican border, which speaks so much about many Americans' fear, cruelty, and disregard for greater humanity. Stranger yet, some have even talked about a wall along the Canadian border, showing just how deeply ignorant some politicians (and presumably their constituents) are.

And yet I don't want to simply make another "other" of those responsible for and supporting these attempts at institutionalized separation. Rather than saying "these people are wrong" or "these people are bad" can we point instead to the ideas and delusions they carry, saying "these ideas are wrong" and "this continued harm is bad"? Can we -really- reach out to those so steeped in fear and anger that they'd buy into messages of hate? Can we hold them in our hearts long enough to understand that they too are immigrants in a way, that they too are simply making mistakes?

In the coming 14 months, I'd love to hear stories of reaching out and coming to deeper, clearer understandings, across the political spectrum and toward those we might see only in their "otherness". In this way I think Buddhists of all political allegiances - or none at all - can actively engage in what is so often layers upon layers of contention, finger-pointing, accusations, and put-downs. Let's engage with the world in all its messiness and all its impermanence and see what, if any, change for the better we can bring.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Yep, It's Still OK

To recap a blog I wrote here a couple months ago ("No, Really, it's OK"), my partner had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. There was some question as to whether chemotherapy would be needed, but at the very least radiation was required after the surgery. To make a 6-week long story short, radiation finished today. Five days a week for six weeks, radiation. Tomorrow, no more radiation.

In the previous blog I remarked how neither of us panicked about it, or projected too far ahead, and for me, that was a credit to my practice. I'm sticking with that. The main difference between the way she handled it and I did, was that when she heard chemo was a possibility, she went out and bought hats, and talked to her hairdresser about what to do about the possibility of hair loss. The furthest I went down that road was to volunteer to sympathy-shave my head, and that was basically an excuse to do that. (How many Zen priests do you know with full heads of hair, I ask you?)

Zen Master Seung Sahn told a story about when he was in the hospital for heart problems. His doctors suggested to him that he might try meditating to help his heart heal. If it had been me in the bed, I might have given them one of my "one-eyebrow-raised-in-chagrin" looks, but Dae Soen Sa Nim smiled and said he'd give it a try. This was back in 1977, so meditation was the cool new thing at the time, I suppose. He did meditate, and his heart problems lessened fairly quickly. But what he told the doctors was that this "fix your body" meditation was not correct meditation. 

"Clear mind," [he] told them, "means moment to moment, what are you doing now? When you are with your patients, only 100% keep doctor's mind. When you leave the hospital and you are driving home, 100% keep driver's mind. When you meet your wife, 100% keep husband's mind. This means, each moment, only go straight--don't make 'I', 'My', 'Me'. If you make 'I', 'My', 'Me', then your opinion, your condition, your situation appear. Then, you have a problem".
For the doctors, when they were operating, they just operate. When driving, just drive. Those are some pretty clear examples of those "life and death" times when intense concentration and reflexive action are called for.
But in mundane daily life, where are not those "life and death" situations confronting us, how often can we go about our business and keep clear mind? This is bigger than just "mindfulness," as it seems to me that is much like meditation was in 1977. Real mindfulness isn't just a trick to reduce stress--although it can. It's not even necessarily about "being in the present moment"--although that's certainly part of it.

True mindfulness is being in the present moment, even those moments we don't like. Correct meditation, true mindfulness, is laying on a table with some laser beam from the 22nd Century pointed at you, arms up in some contorted position, and not feeling sorry for yourself, not taking cancer personally. For me, it was listening, being as supportive as I could, and at least to some extent, not freaking out if only to help her not feel like she needed to freak out.

It's easy to be "one with everything" when it's all rainbow/unicorn kittens with wings. When it's sitting in the umpteenth  meeting that day, trying to fill out a government form, listening to political talk shows and the like, not so easy. But Sengcan, Third Zen Patriarch Patriarch said in the Xinxin Ming, "The Great Way is easy for those who do not pick and choose." 

There's a lesson in that, if only about the amount of picking and choosing we do. And I guess until we all realize the Buddhas we're capable of being, we can see when we pick and choose, and even get to a point where even the uncomfortable is only uncomfortable, not the wrath of the gods raining down on us. It isn't easy to do 100% of the time, but by applying the practice, especially when you don't think, "Oh, I'm applying what I heard in the Dharma Hall," it gets closer to Sengcan's "easy". 

When driving, just drive. When wielding a scalpel, just wield a scalpel. When radiating, just radiate.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

A Buddhism and Pali scholar's journey into and out of the academic tradition

For those of you interested in a career in academia, be forewarned. It's not a very welcoming place at the moment. The people are pretty decent imho, but there are currently far too many PhDs for what "the market" needs. Or, put another way, massive governmental cuts (in most if not all English-speaking countries) on education spending over the last 20 or so years have led many departments to freeze hiring, let great professors go, and/or replace retiring teachers with adjunct labor.

These days whenever an undergraduate asks me for a recommendation letter for graduate school I send him/her here: (I do write letters of course, but I've taken it on as a duty to warn any/all prospective graduate students of the perils ahead of them). It's not glamorous. And it's not easy. And many who start PhDs don't even finish (up to 50% in the humanities, according to some estimates).

It's a broken system. But it's still the best one for some of us. I'm reminded of the Churchill quote:
“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”
Academia is the route to follow only when you've realized there is nothing else you can do with yourself and be happy.
In any case, I continue to lumber through the "thicket of views" which is modern-day academia while Eisel Mazard, as you'll see below, does not. In my lumbering I came across some writing by Eisel, who I would describe as an autodidactic solitary scholar. In 2011 I drew from one of his writings when I wrote "Imagining the Buddha as bald... and black?" Since then I've read several of his works and we've conversed now and again and I respect his scholarship in a number of areas that I'm interested in. 

Below, Eisel describes his journey into and out of early Buddhism / Pali scholarship and some of the joys and perils that came with it. Every experience will be different, the interests and expertise brought into the study, the influences and advisors, and goals of each student will be different. So, while Eisel's journey may be completely unlike that of any other scholar, it does provide a perspective not often seen or discussed in academia today. As he says:
…there were a lot of wonderful things about it. With nothing but a backpack, a bicycle, and a lot of hard work, I went everywhere, I did everything, I lived my dream.
When that dream was over, I had to look at the reality of the tradition as it exists today and say, "I can't be a part of it".

Sunday, 21 June 2015

This is Water

Back in the 80s, I was interested in fiction in large part because I was interested in writing fiction. An author that snagged my attention at that time was T. Coraghessan Boyle. I liked that he was crazy with an intimidating vocabulary and I was jazzed by the madcap way he slung words around and the odd notions in his short stories.

A competing writer for my attention was David Foster Wallace with his first novel The Broom of the System. I liked the book and I sensed many similarities in Wallace’s writing that I found in Boyle, but, at the time, I thought Wallace to be a distant second to Boyle’s lovable variegated strangeness . Wallace’s next book, a collection of short stories, Girl with Curious Hair, just didn’t seem to me to measure up to Boyle’s short stories.

So, when Wallace’s next book was a 1,000-page novel [Infinite Jest], I said, “No, no, no, no, no,” and left the orbit of Wallace, moving on to other writers and interests. [Infinite Jest is now considered by some to be one of the ten greatest novels of the 20th Century.]

There was something obvious that I missed seeing in the 80’s in Wallace’s fiction: his luminous compassion in the midst of all the helter skelter of his oft-crazy stories.

Wallace, who had a decades-long problem with depression, hanged himself in 2008, but will be getting renewed attention as result of a movie coming out about him on the last day of July, titled “The End of the Tour.”

But the reason for this blog post is primarily a tiny book of Wallace’s that contains the text of a commencement speech he gave in 2005 to the graduating class at Kenyon College. A person can read the whole of the book in ten or fifteen minutes. It’s pithy and brilliant as hell. The book’s full title is “This is Water: Some Thoughts Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life.”

The “water” in the title has to do with fish in water and the idea, therefrom, that fish are unaware of the water they’re in because it is so altogether obvious. From a beginning with wet fish, Wallace makes some obvious but oft-missed points in his speech about what humans might overlook if they don't pay attention.

Anyway, here is a GREAT video based on "This is Water" that delivers its central message:

This is Water from Patrick Buckley on Vimeo.

And Here, as an added bonus, is the trailer for "The End of the Tour," coming out on July 31.

UPDATE: The viewpoint of another, more knowledgeable than I am on DFW, his commencement address, his masterwork Infinite Jest, and what his life meant and means to us, today, can be found at the Vulture website, in a long article titled "The Rewriting of David Foster Wallace" by Christian Lorentzen.

Lorentzen describes the Kenyon College commencement address -- "This is Water" -- as being "treacly." HA, I say. BUT, it is possible there is some wisdom in others of Lorentzen's words.  --T.A.