Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Teacher Is Not Special


Dear American Zennies:

Have you noticed how much Zen lore involves old ladies who run tea houses, have very clear minds, and don't think twice about beating up Zen Masters and monks? If they aren't cowed by the figure of the Great Enlightened Master, neither should we be. If your Zen Master is a rascal, stop feeding him rice cakes and make him take a long walk in the snow.

This winter we have more controversy involving a prominent Zen Master, the roshi Eido Shimano of the Zen Studies Society. And so I have occasion to write a brief afterword to the series of posts I wrote this summer about the unhealthy adulation of Zen Masters, which concluded with this post about Eido-roshi's resignation.

In September, Eido-roshi wrote a public letter of apology for his conduct. This month, bizarrely, he wrote a letter to the New York Times in response to this story which appears to deny established facts and contradict his own public apology (which itself did not go far toward accepting responsibility for the harm).

For his sangha, a very bad situation is now worse. And in the kerfluffle, predictably, there are concerns that this is being handled in a way that shows more concern for the great honored Zen Master than for the victims of his actions.

In my own school, we had a problem involving our founding teacher, Zen Master Seung Sahn, back in the 1980s. From those who were there at the time, I have heard positives and negatives about how it was handled. One painful lesson that emerged from the process was the impulse to protect the teacher at the expense of transparency and trust. While we are far from perfect ourselves, I think we have now dropped this idea of the Infallible Enlightened Master.

Now the Zen Studies Society has to pass this koan. What is correct action? There is no formal procedure for revoking dharma transmission, but neither is there any compulsion to permit a Zen Master who is causing harm to function as a teacher on the sangha's property, nor to shield him from civil or even criminal procedures arising from his actions.

The Zen Master is not special
.

No matter how impressive the person is as a teacher, no matter how much gratitude we may feel for their contributions, no matter how attracted we are to them as people, we must kill the guru.

I'll stop there since I've blathered enough about this in the past.


[Photo: Eido-roshi in formal robes.]

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Phone Call from the NRA


Everybody is following a script of one sort or another. This leads me to why I do not simply hang up on telemarketers.

For one thing, they are human beings. If they are particularly obnoxious, call me at an inconsiderate hour, or really mangle my name, I might allow myself a little mischievous fun at their employer's expense. If I am really not in the mood, I will at the very least say, "Not a good time" or "No thanks" before putting the telephone down. They might not be regarding me as a person, but I do them.

Having established that there is a fellow human being on the other end of that call, there is another reason to consider interacting with them. Interesting conversations can take place when you knock someone off their script.

So I got a call tonight from someone at the NRA. Friendly sounding guy, probably my age, a southern accent I could not place specifically. We exchanged hellos and he got right to the matter.

"We're taking a little survey if you have a minute, see what you think about the United Nations trying to take away all our guns."

"The United Nations is not trying to take away our guns," I said. "And they couldn't do that even if they wanted to. It's an old lie."

"Well, from what I'm hearing, there's a treaty that Hillary Clinton supports that is trying to regulate all our guns."

"Okay, what's the name of the draft treaty?"

"Um."

"Have you read the draft? What are the restrictions? Is it regulating arms trade between countries or restricting ownership rights or mandating certain procedures for registering or what? What does the treaty say?"

"Er, well. I'm not too sure about that."

"Do you know that even if there were a treaty, the United States Senate would have to ratify it with a 2/3 majority. Do you think 2/3 of the Senate would ratify an international treaty that conflicted with our 2nd Amendment rights?"

"Oh really?"

"And the Supreme Court put the kibosh on something like that with a ruling, oh, a few years ago."

[NOTE: it was in 2008. I was referring to District of Columbia vs. Heller, which states that any new policy trying to ban gun ownership absolutely is off the table. The notion that the court would allow an international organization to do it is just silly.]

"Really?"

"Really. Anyway, this is all just made up. It was going around the internet in 2009. It's bunk."

"Well, I don't really keep up with this stuff myself, I'm just goin' on what they tell me."

"Dude, let me level with you. I own a gun. I assume you own a gun, too. The reason I'm not involved with the NRA is that the organization tells lies. You don't have to respond to that, I know you're working for them or volunteering or whatever. But they tell outright lies in order to scare folks like you and me and get us to donate money."

"I got a recording from our president, Wayne LaPierre, I can play for you about what the United Nations is doing."

"I'll pass. Dude, go home tonight and look this up on your internet. Don't just believe what the NRA tells you and don't even believe what I tell you. Check the facts and be your own man."

"Hey thanks for the talk."

"Happy New Year to you. Check it out!"

"I'm gonna. I'm gonna. Thanks."

---------------------

He might, he might not. It is now out of my hands. If this accomplished any small thing, it was calling a man's attention to his script. That's our human job. We all tend to follow one script or another that can be reduced to the basic script of "I vs. Everything-else."

Sometimes in a spontaneous interaction you can throw a light on the script itself and tear at it just enough that a person can choose to look into the matter. This applies to the political delusion we live under; and the great personal delusion as well.





[Photo: Me with a gun, in a scene from the 2011 release Last Days]

All This Blather


We pretty much had to drag the Zen Master into the dharma room for this. When he was finished, he said, "That's enough blah blah from me."

At a certain point back in the 1990's some of us who were managing Providence Zen Center thought it would be a good idea to offer workshops about sutras. There were numerous reasons for this which I won't go into. We set up a workshop on the Diamond Sutra and got Zen Master Dae Kwang to lecture, essentially, on the sutra for a room full of participants who had read the same translation in advance.

He did not really want to do it but he did it, offered some personal insights (which most of us found very illuminating and helpful), and then walked away from the whole business having made his offering.

May we all take a similar approach when we blog about our practice and all our blather about buddhadharma or tao. If the blather is helpful to another human being, fine. We have blogs and internet connections, and sharing some inspiration and comaraderie with other people aspiring to understand this matter is a good use of these technologies.

But for goodness sake, don't let it become a problem, my brothers and sisters.

Someone had an idea that must have seemed harmless at the time: make up some "awards" for writing about Buddhist practice on a blog and use the conceit to let folks know about the writing that's out there. It probably seemed like a good way, with tongue in cheek, to encourage some fellowship among people spread out across the world seeking to wake up and apply the Buddha's teaching to their lives. I assume that was the intention since there was really no "award" per se -- no trophies, no cash, nothing material, unless you count the colorful badge people were invited to put on their blog pages. These were called the Blogisattva Awards.

In the interest of disclosure, we should mention that this very blog received an "honorable mention" in one of the categories. Hapjang to them for that.

In the days running up to Christmas there was some controversy over this project. Lots of blog posts were written about whether this was a good thing, a bad thing, whether it promoted competition, whether competition is a good thing, and so on. One "winner" announced she was passing her "award" on to another unknown blogger she thought worthy of attention. Then something else happened, and she demanded that any mention of her or her blog be removed from the website, and there was some other argument between a blogger and someone associated with the "awards" and that led to some very ugly accusations, emails being posted, and "tweeting" back and forth on that Twitter thing.

Goodness.

In my school, students are invited to speak publicly about their personal experience of practice much earlier than some other Zen schools. This takes away some of the "specialness" about speaking, even imperfectly, of our limited understanding of the dharma. We share something, in hopes that it is helpful, bow, and move on with our lives.

This is sort of my default attitude about my own blog and others'. It's blather. We are more or less narrating samsara as it appears to us, already in progress. If someone wants to call attention to your blather because they think it might be helpful, that's nice.

Yet is any of this of any lasting importance? The point of this, the point of any dharma talk, the point of a "sutra workshop," the point of tossing pillows into a room and calling it a "dharma room" is so we can practice waking up completely, and not getting stuck on little kerfluffles.

Ironically, some of the sternest critics of the Blogisattvas are making the error of taking them more seriously than the Blogisattva staff itself. At least, it appears that way to me.

LAST DAYS Teaser

The bald guy is your humble correspondent.


Last Days Teaser from andrew jara on Vimeo.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Kinder Face of Tyranny


During this Christmas break, I have had some time to spend with family and pedaling around Deming. There have been gifts to wrap. Lines to learn for this play I'm rehearsing. We are cleaning house for a Christmas eve party, and for the first overnight guest in our new home. And, here and there, some reading.

The Torturer in the Mirror (2010, Seven Stories Press) is a little book consisting of three essays about United States torture programs. For such a small book, it is an exhausting read, because it reveals our national shame. The authors are Haifa Zangana, an Iraqi dissident who was imprisoned and tortured by Saddam's regime at Qasr al-Nihaya, and who is still suffering psychological effects 40 years later; Ramsey Clark, former United States Attorney General under President Johnson; and Thomas Ehrlich Reifer, a sociologist. Each contributes one essay on the ramifications of torture and state secrecy; each reveal the painful contradiction of a nation that promotes human rights and democracy while conducting torture on human beings and covering it up.

And Zangana may yet be going too easy on us. She concludes that "Americans have to stop seeing their way of life as the only one to fit all," as if our illegal occupation and subsequent atrocities have something to do with exporting an American lifestyle to Iraq, including the good things. There is no indication that this is the case. Our illegal occupation and subsequent atrocities are part of maintaing a certain lifestyle for us, not the Iraqis. The groupthink that views other nations and their people as wilderness to be controlled for our own interests is something we must topple if humanity is ever to face the roots of war, terrorism, and our ecological emergency. As a nation that presumes to stand for human rights and democracy, we must resolve the contradiction: the institutions of American power do not, in their actions, uphold these values.

Sadly, it appears that the most pernicious features of the Bush government have been maintained and even expanded under the new administration. We must now refer to the "Bush-Obama" era of state secrecy, domestic spying, and legal cover for war criminals.

Granted, Obama is a more attractive potentate than Bush. He has signed some popular domestic legislation and endured quite a bit of flack from the opposition party for his efforts. Hooray for the middle-class tax cut. Hooray for some reforms in the delivery of health care. Hooray for abolishing discrimination against homosexuals in the military. To be sure, some of us are getting a fairer shake now thanks to some of Obama's domestic politics.

This does not change the fact that he and his administration are also working very hard to criminalize investigative journalism, are spying on United Nations officials and diplomats, have refused to hold up our commitment to the United Nations Convention Against Torture, have actively interfered in the judiciary of other sovereign nations, are authorizing widespread surveillance of the communications of citizens who are not implicated in any wrongdoing, and are shielding Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and the so-called "torture lawyers" from any accountability for their clearly evident war crimes.

Obama is the kinder face of tyranny.

And most of us, including some of you reading this blog, have learned not to talk about it.

I am most grateful to these authors for continuing to talk about it. Had I learned of this book earlier, I'd be sorely tempted to make it a stocking-stuffer for every thoughtful citizen of this republic.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Response Regarding Manning

Earlier this week we wrote about Private Bradley Manning, who is accused of delivering classified information to a foreign media organization and is being held at a marine brig in Virginia. Anonymous sources there raised a concern in the media that Manning is being held in severe conditions guaranteed (designed, in fact) to cause psychological suffering and permanent damage. This led some to speculate whether torture was being used to pressure Manning to give testimony that would help the United States build a case of conspiracy against Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks.

In fairness, we should now point out that the Quantico Marine Corps base has responded to these reports. They claim that Manning is alone in his cell but is not in solitary confinement and that he is allowed to converse with other prisoners. They claim he has access, for one hour per day, to media such as television or newspapers. As for the charge about exercise, they say this is a policy applied to all cells, because exercising in one's cell could cause injury. They say that Manning does have bedding. They even say that he can receive mail and visitors.

There is of course no independent verification of any of this, but they did respond to the concerns.

I have questions.

Do they seriously prevent prisoners from doing, say, situps or pushups in their cells because they might injure themselves?

During their one hour of recreation per day, do they have to choose between reading and physical exercise?

Do they turn out the lights at night? Is the bed something a person can actually sleep on? Is he able to sleep?

Friday, December 17, 2010

A Nice Theatre


Currently, your correspondent is in rehearsal for Crime and Punishment at the No Strings Theatre Company in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

The adaptation of Dostoevsky's novel is by Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus, and quite an achievement: a large and (some would say) unwieldy novel is here condensed quite skillfully into an evening of theatre that zips along without even an intermission.

Last night was our first rehearsal on set, which meant a tour of the theatre. The owners designed and built it as a theatre from scratch -- it isn't some commercial building adapted for use as a theatre. The building is designed as a theatre and shrewdly makes the most of a small footprint. There is an actual scene shop, a dressing room, an upstairs green room, and a big storage room for costumes and props. It's the nicest facility I've worked in since I still lived back east, working at Trinity Rep and Wheelock Family Theatre.

Crime and Punishment opens January 21.



[Photo: Black Box Theatre in downtown Las Cruces, home of No Strings Theatre Co.]

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Stop Torture of Bradley Manning

[Following sent as a case request to both of my state's U.S. Senators.]


Dear Senator,

I am writing to request your intervention or at least a public comment on the detention conditions of Private Bradley Manning of the United States Army.

Private Manning is being held at the U.S. marine brig in Quantico, Virginia. He is accused of leaking classified information to WikiLeaks, but as yet there has been no conviction nor anything resembling a trial.

News media are reporting that Private Manning is held in conditions guaranteed to cause long-term psychological damage. He is in solitary confinement, isolated for 23 hours per day. This has been his situation since his detention began in May of this year. While sitting alone in his cell he is under constant surveillance and for some peculiar reason, sources are reporting he is prevented from exercising. Although he is not on suicide watch, he is denied pillow and bedsheets. He is taken out of his cell exactly one hour per day.

Sources talking to the media report that Manning is now on a regimen of anti-depressants to delay the inevitable psychological damage these conditions are designed to induce. Again, this man has not yet been convicted of any crime. And even with a conviction, these conditions constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Our own nation once defined conditions like these as torture. Apparently, the U.S. is now a darker nation.

I am personally furious to see my country treat any prisoner in this manner, under any circumstances; but much less when the prisoner has had no trial, and will very soon if not already be incompetent to participate in his own defense. This is torture without any semblance of due process. Is this our country, Senator?

Please do respond either with a comment or an enquiry into this matter.

Monday, December 13, 2010

You and Your Comments

A quick note to new readers and you folks who have been looking at this blog for a while now.

We have some new readers, perhaps as a result of the Blogisattva Awards or maybe from Facebook or wherever.

Your questions and comments are welcome, and I am going to experiment with turning comment approval off, as Nathan did recently.

That will go into effect, um, as soon as I figure out where that button is. I'm not very internet savvy.

Check, Put Down


A reader asks,

Those last two posts about 'correct relationship' were interesting, but didn't Seung Sahn also say 'Don't check?'


Excellent question, and I regret leaving this out.

Indeed, Zen Master Seung Sahn talked a great deal about "checking," the habit of standing apart and "checking" a situation against our desires, opinions, preconceived notions, and so on. He even described various kinds of checking. Because this habit is very strong in many people, he talked about "checking mind" quite often.

After I had been around for a while, the Zen Center started giving me jobs to do at retreats, and when I moved in they asked me to be Head Dharma Teacher. The HDT's job is to make sure people are practicing and to instruct people on the correct forms and correct people as necessary. It seemed that it was now my job to check other people and I questioned it.

So I went in to see Dae Kwang Sunim, the teacher at the temple, and asked him about this. He shrugged and said, "You have a checking job. The job helps other people, so just do it. Check, then put it down. Check, put down. Check, put down."

Right. Duh.

So maybe this applies to the other sticky business of life.

The first question is, why do this? What is the direction of this activity? Is this "a checking job" that helps other people? Or is it just desire?

If the direction is clear then "check, put down."

In the voting booth: check, put down.

In the board meeting: check, put down.

If you are helping to make a political party or choose a candidate: check, put down.

Parenting: check, put down.

Conducting a job interview: check, put down.

Writing a letter to your Senator: check, put down.

And so on.



[Photo: Some Zen Centers use "the stick" to correct posture or to whack the back or shoulders of drowsy students. No, it doesn't hurt if it is used correctly.]

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Politicians and Correct Relationship


This will be a little long, but not a filibuster. It's about two politicians who do not practice Zen in a formal sense but who remind me of an important teaching from Zen Master Seung Sahn.
Bernie Sanders is not one to grab the spotlight. He's not photogenic. He has a strong Brooklyn accent. He's a policy guy, not a leading man. News hounds and political junkies know him as a novelty, an independent politician who has served in the House and Senate for twenty years, a record for an independent.

On Friday, December 10, he became an international celebrity for a day. After following him for 20 years, this felt odd.

Vermont sent Bernie Sanders, this carpenter and scholar, to Congress in 1990. He was the first independent elected to Congress in 40 years. It was not long after his election that I took an interest in him. He caucused with Democrats and worked very effectively as a lawmaker, yet maintained his independence from the national party's corporate sponsors and their agenda.

This old kibbutznik made no bones about being a socialist yet he works as a reformer, not a revolutionary. He buried himself in the work and distinguished himself as a hard-working and conscientious legislator, sincerely pushing for incremental steps to benefit people in his own state and the Republic at large.

In 2006, when his friend Jim Jeffords announced his retirement from the United States Senate, Sanders ran for his seat and won. When in Washington, he uses creative means to keep residents involved using various media. At this writing, there are three finalists for an essay contest among his constituents whose entries are posted on his Senate web site. The winner will be chosen by the public.

Last Friday, halfway through his first term in the Senate, he gave a speech that made him an international sensation via the Internet and Twitter. He gave a speech that crashed the Senate's video feed and got people watching C-Span throughout the day. It was, as he warned when he took the floor at 10:25 that morning, a very long speech.

It was not a filibuster, as was reported all day long. The Senate had no vote scheduled, and he did not actually bring the government to a halt. It was, simply, a very long speech.

Senator Sanders, a 69-year old man, held the Senate floor for eight and a half hours. For all of that time, he stood and did not eat. During that time, Senators Brown of Ohio and Landrieu of Louisiana took the microphone, but Senate procedure required Sanders to continue standing while holding the floor. Together, those two senators spoke for about an hour. Sanders himself spoke for seven and a half hours.

Moreover, this was not a speech padded the way rare filibusters have been inflated by songs and readings from the phone book and that sort of nonsense, purely for the purpose of holding things up. This was, in fact, a very long speech on a broad topic, researched and accompanied with visual aids and exhaustive factual detail. Although he became a bit hoarse and tired, he delivered his speech with passion and force right up until he yielded the floor just before 7:00 PM.

From the Congressional Record, I have downloaded the entire text of his speech. Converted to a Microsoft Word file, it runs 127 pages.

His topic, nominally, was a controversial tax package. Sanders strongly opposes it. To explain why and put his objection in context, Sanders took an entire day to talk about our country and its priorities. He had charts ready to make his data easier to understand. In his very long speech he discussed defended the public sector: the benefit of pooling our resources to provide quality education, infrastructure, a social safety net, and a dignified retirement for the elderly. He defended human development as a national priority, defending labor, defending justice in economic policy rather than competitive advantage at all costs. He talked about our labor history, the manufacturing sector we once had, the deteriorating lot of the worker in our country. He talked about the increasing financialization of the American economy, as opposed to an economy based on production. He talked about national debt, its uses and its liabilities. He circled back to the hated tax legislation again and again, attacking it from a new angle with every new chapter of historical context. Eight hours on his feet, with nothing in his stomach but some oatmeal and a cup of coffee, he peered at a near-empty Senate chamber and gave this heartfelt address.

As he continued, word of this speech began going around the Internet. He began "trending" on Twitter, news feeds began writing stories about it, links were shared to the Senate web site and C-Span, and people began tuning in throughout the day, if only to check whether the guy was still talking.

Sanders had to know this. The Republican party uses the threat of a filibuster as part of its daily routine to discourage legislation or stall. Senate leaders do not as a rule call their bluff and make them do it. The last actual filibuster was held by Senator Al D'Amato of New York in 1992. (He read from the phone book among other things.) Sanders knew this very long speech would generate attention, that perhaps curiosity would lead to engagement in the issue, and he made sure to call repeatedly for the public to get involved, to be in touch with their Congressional representatives. He not only circled back to why, in his view, the bill itself was horrible, but gave an extended vision for the country that was deeply rooted in a love for people, community, public service, and justice.

This was not a blowhard ranting for several hours. Agree or disagree with a man's opinion, but this was a rare and commendable speech, an extended, detailed, well-researched speech full of substance and sincere passion. This was a cri de coeur, a lecture on policy, and a detailed proposal for the correct relationship between a government and its citizens.

"Correct relationship" is an important concept in the teaching of Zen Master Seung Sahn. The entire purpose of Zen practice was to help stay awake for every moment of our waking life, and fulfill our relationship to every person, place, or thing that appears in each moment. Family relationship. Sangha relationship, especially for monks whose only family becomes sangha. Work relationship. Relationship to one's own needs ("when hungry, eat"). Relationship to property, taking responsibility for the stuff in our care. He also included relationship with country. "Correct relationship" becomes an aspect of practicing 24 hours a day. Typing these words, I pause to breathe, read over what is above, and consult the purpose: why am I taking the time to organize these thoughts and share them?

There is an old idea embedded in Zen and other spiritual communities that the way to be more "spiritual" (or something) is to ignore aspects of our lives. This, I think, is a distortion of the teachings and in any case is not psychologically healthy. There are a few mystics living on mountaintops who need not be concerned about anything more than meditation, physical exercise, and what they're going to eat -- but even these hermits require assistance from other people. No human being lives in a vacuum. Besides people, they depend on the state of the earth and the atmosphere.

Few teachers stressed the importance of letting go of opinions and training hard in Zen any harder than Zen Master Seung Sahn. Yet he reminded us of the larger truth of Indra's net, that our lives interpenetrate. We are involved.

He also reminded us that anything can become an attachment, something we fixate on and ignore everything else. We can do that with political activism. We can do that with consumerism and comfort. We can do that with food, sex, sleep. We can do that with asceticism, too: "Don't bother me with that, I'm spiritual." These are all mistakes. They all represent desire.

Public service, however denigrated in our cynical time, is an occupation that can be practiced humbly by a person for the benefit of all sentient being. A lawyer can do that -- and many of them do. A policymaker (whether they hold elected office or not) can do that. A politician, someone professionally connected to the legislative process and all the connections that go with that, can also do that. If they are clear in their heart about why they are in that position, it is quite possible.

It is a little-known fact, and not a secret, that Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island was once heavily involved with New Haven Zen Center. This would have been in his undergraduate days at Yale, back in the 1970's. He is Christian by religion (Episcopalian, I believe) but, for a time, trained hard in Zen meditation with Zen Master Seung Sahn. He is not involved with any Zen organizations anymore, as far as I know. He went on to a rather impressive career in public service. He became an attorney, served Rhode Island as a U.S. Attorney, then as Rhode Island's Attorney General, and won election to the United States Senate in 2006. However one may differ from his opinions or positions about this or that bill, few question his integrity or what Seung Sahn referred to as "direction." I'm not in touch with this man personally, but I would guess he does not do formal Zen meditation anymore. Yet I look at his career and see him using his knowledge and talent to help our world.

Whatever job we have, whether we are raking tar on a city street or living as a monk in a monastery or managing a classroom or even chairing a government committee, we have the opportunity to wake up in this moment and use that situation to benefit the whole.

In these two posts, I wanted to hold up these two politicians -- Bernie Sanders and, briefly, Sheldon Whitehouse -- as evidence that politicians who have their heads on straight can use their situation to help other people. There is no need to disparage politicians as a class; what we need are politicians who are awake. Politicians who are deeply awake can help this world.

We Are Involved


In our school's bodhisattva precepts ceremony (where a layperson takes 64 precepts and becomes a "Bodhisattva Teacher"), there was always a reliable laugh line when the presiding teacher read out the precept against becoming "a national politician."

If there is any occupation more demeaned than that of a performer, it is the occupation of politician. In American Zen, even among those who follow the news and connect politics to their own lives, an interest in politics is considered, to some degree, un-dharmic. Is "un-dharmic" a phrase? What I mean is, it isn't "spiritual" or "Zen" to be interested in that stuff.

Politics are associated with words, opinions, ideology, and thus with ego-identification. They also associated with an interest in power. To seek political office is held as inherently suspect and, among many Zen practitioners, unseemly for someone on the path to awakening or whatever it is we are doing. To follow politics is seen as falling into the snare of worldly things; it is not usually seen as a way of watching where things are going in the larger picture.

This is the old argument between the sacred and the profane. Yet "sacred" and "profane" are created by thinking. Modern life is both, or neither if you prefer. Here is an analogy. If you run a Zen Center, you have to get your hands dirty in the worldly business of managing an organization, funding it, planning logistics, and handling the personalities of the human beings involved in the place. In other words, you need to be fully human with your feet on the ground. Is this inconsistent with Zen teaching? I've known people who think that if you sit and chant a lot, these things take care of themselves; and what I've observed is that these people rely on other people -- worker bees -- to make it happen. As a young Zen student, I was often a worker bee myself, while the mystics concluded that faith had done it.

When the entire world is your Zen Center, it is sensible to expand the metaphor to civic matters. I am co-abbot of my household. The state of my city interpenetrates my family's home, my son's education and access to important services, the opportunities he will have at successive stages of his life, and the conditions of my wife's life and my own as we age. The state of the nation interpenetrates my city and thus my home. To this, add compassion for my neighbors and the feeling that "they" and "I" are part of a whole. Their welfare is of interest to me. Some of my fellow human beings are thieves, and I mourn for them; others of my fellow human beings are victims of those thieves, and likewise for them I feel kinship.

Turning my back on them and learning to ignore these matters so I can wear nice dharma clothes and sit in beautiful Zen Centers is missing a very important point. We are involved. Not guilty, but involved. We learn how to let go of opinions so that we can see clearly and act in our world, so that we can show up for our own lives in marriage, parenthood, sickness, death. Even full-time Buddhist monks are involved in the whole. Certainly we householders are. We are responsible for the whole clamorous mess, svaha. Zen hermits go to the mountaintop and come back to the village square, and then repeat.

It is from this perspective I will be writing an appreciation of someone who is that most hated of professionals -- more despised than actors, more loathed than lawyers, more feared than the dentist -- a career politician (hissss!!!!) who has been a mayor, a Congressman, and is now a United States Senator.

If there is an Eightfold Path for the politician, I think this man may well exemplify it. In this appreciation, I will mention a second United States Senator who is himself a former Zen student and appears, to me, to be using his position to help his country and all beings.

It is not a call for Zen practitioners to imitate these men or to get involved in competitive politics, but a call to open up our minds about service. A bodhisattva can wear a suit and a corporate haircut, and as rare as it might be, there can be expedient means in conducting public business in a true spirit of service.

This concludes the introduction. Watch this space for the main post.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Honorably Mentioned and Other News [UPDATED]


The 2010 Blogisattva Awards are underway and this morning it was brought to our attention that Notes From A Burning House has earned an honorable mention for opinion writing. We humbly bow and thank whoever nominated us.

This blog began as a creative distraction in a time of heartbreak, became a sort of public journal that was sometimes a put-on, sometimes reflections on Zen practice and travels around the country, and lately it has been a sort of ongoing open letter about dharma practice and the state of the empire in which I live. In other words, a bloody mishmosh with no clear audience, the equivalent of scribbling in a sketch pad.

Yet there are a few people reading and appreciating, so thank you. Guess we'll keep it going one more week.

Some blogs we follow have also been honored, namely Dangerous Harvests (in more than one category), Ox Herding, and Fly Like A Crow.

In Zen Group news, our Deming group now has a guiding Zen teacher in Judy Roitman, JDPSN, of Kansas Zen Center. This makes us a satellite of KZC. Judy's next visit to New Mexico will be the first weekend in May, when we plan to host a public dharma talk and a retreat. We'll include notices about these events here as well as the Zen Group's website.

There is an interesting interview with Judy and her husband here, by the way. Worth reading.

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UPDATE: Forgot to mention this above, I wrote a small essay that appears in the current issue of Buddhadharma magazine. You should be able to find it at most book stores that carry Tricycle and other Buddhist and yoga magazines.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Being Alternative in New Mexico


In 2008, just weeks after my son as born, I interviewed (via telephone) for a job teaching theatre in the Deming Public Schools.

Among my questions was this: "How much work will be required for me to complete licensure?" My case is a little different because I already hold a master's degree. The district told me I would have to demonstrate competency by fulfilling some teaching hours, teaching some credits in reading, and passing an examination (or three).

Since I was a new father and anticipated that the job would be very demanding, this was a critical question. This answer seemed doable. I accepted the job (turning down an offer to work for Bet Tzedek in Los Angeles) and we all moved to New Mexico.

I had a choice of two schools of education to complete my course work. I chose Western New Mexico University. WNMU had shall we say a different idea of what my checklist was supposed to be. A much longer checklist, shall we say. In fact, a checklist that resembled their regular degree program for new teachers. Many more courses than what I was told to expect, at a cost of $700 each with redundant fees and expensive text books included.

Western has also kept me entertained with affectionate pranks such as multiple demands for my academic transcripts, periods of non-communication, evolving answers to questions, technological issues (to save money, Western is developing more and more on-line courses), and dropping me from classes without announcement when it is too late to resolve whatever the problem is.

What was supposed to be a few credits has turned out to be an extended obligation to be in graduate school at night as I continue to protest that this wasn't what I signed up for. My district, the state, and WNMU (aka "Western") all have different ideas about what I am supposed to be doing to establish my so-called "alternative licensure."

This farce is coming to a head because I am approaching the time limit by which my licensure is supposed to be completed. There is a very real possibility that this nonsense will cost me my job in 2011, if the state's budget problems don't get me first.

The most discouraging thing about this is the lack of clarity itself. It cannot be that I am the only "alternative licensure" candidate in the history of this school district. Who screwed up? Is the district wrong? Is Western just gouging me? Does the state have me in the wrong file? I have no answers.

While we're waiting to hear of my fate, I can recommend some interesting reading on the subject of education.

Diane Ravitch, writing for the New York Review of Books, has this response to the Guggenheim documentary, Waiting For Superman. In "The Myth of Charter Schools" she takes on Guggenheim's pro-corporate slant and scapegoating.

Also, the December issue of Monthly Review has Dan DiMaggio's first-hand account of the mills of temporary workers who grade standardized tests -- an industry that is set to grow during the Obama era.


Sunday, December 05, 2010

Two Elephants


Readers of this blog who actually follow the political posts know that this blog has a long-standing opposition to the so-called "two-party system," the duopoly on governing power in our republic.

To recap briefly: We have two national political parties, the Democratic and Republican parties, that are very old and venerated institutions. Although many other political parties exist, we have electoral laws designed to make it very difficult to establish ballot status, no laws guaranteeing press coverage or access to public debates for candidates outside of these two parties. This reality inhibits greater participation and investment in these parties, as people decide to throw their lot in with one of the two "legitimate" national parties. One more nail in this coffin has to do with our voting system, which has no runoff process. There is one vote, period, ever. This discourages voters from voting outside the duopoly because of the potential spoiler effect.

This has been the status quo throughout my lifetime and it is rarely acknowledged to be a problem. We refer to the "two party system" but never with phrases like "two party monopoly" (duopoly) or "two party rule," or other phrases that own up to our limited democracy.

The mainstream news media that comment on U.S. politics has had an increasingly difficult time ignoring the fact that one of these two venerated national parties has ceased to govern responsibly. To a degree that is remarkable even for the most jaded political watchers, the Republican Party has turned into a party that denies climate science, still embraces the trickle-down economics lie (that even David Stockman now rejects), and would rather play chicken with vitally important national security interests (such as the START II Treaty) than allow a Democratic President to succeed in anything. It is a political party willing to nominate political neophytes with little experience or interest in policy and governance to be Vice-President of the United States.

When party leadership actually admits on the record that they are putting their political rival's failure over the national interest, it has become almost impossible to write about the facts without coming up against the possibility that perhaps this is no longer a legitimate governing party.

Andrew Sullivan over at The Atlantic is starting to comment openly of these truths. As is Steve M. and the Washington Monthly's Steve Benen (and actually Benen has been saying it for quite a while). It is becoming more a mainstream reality that the GOP is off the rails.

Once we acknowledge that elephant, we are confronted with another elephant in the room.

Do we accept the proposition that there is now only one legitimate political party?

Or, do we consider the possibility that it is time to open up our electoral process just enough to give one of the larger alternative parties a chance to make a case? Consider that in 2008, both the Libertarian and Green parties ran presidential candidates who had both served in the House of Representatives. Full terms and everything. There would surely be lively debate about agendas, and perhaps temperament, with candidates Bob Barr and Cynthia McKinney at the debate, but compare their knowledge and experience with that of Sarah Palin.

If we're ready to acknowledge that the GOP has lost its bearings as a functioning governing party, it is time to acknowledge the truth about our two-party system and allow some competition.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

My Proposal to John Boehner


Rep. John Boehner
1011 Longworth H.O.B.
Washington, DC 20515


Dear Mr. Speaker-designate,
It gives me tremendous confidence in you as a leader that before you have even assumed the gavel as Speaker of the House, you are already demonstrating a willingness for government to intervene in the private sector and control what art private citizens like me can view.

The Smithsonian Institution has buckled under the pressure you brought to bear on them for having the audacity to exhibit a work of art by the late artist David Wojnarowicz, a work that may well have offended you if you had taken the time to view the entire exhibit. You are a busy man, and probably don’t have time to stroll through an entire art exhibit before making up your mind what art is okay for me to see or what is not.

It is encouraging to see that you are ready and willing to move us closer to a state like China’s, freely intervening in the private sphere in order to control political and artistic information so that the public can be trained to view the world correctly. That’s a key to China’s strength, you know. In order to compete in the world, we need more dictators like you.

You could, however, go further still. In these troubled times, can art really be trusted to send people the right message? From what I have observed, creative expression tends to advocate for dangerous things like respecting points of view different than yours. What can this lead to but dissolution of our union? How are we supposed to support the war industry, reward the wealthy, and project American dominance throughout the world if we have an educated and thoughtful citizenry?

Controlling artistic expression in the United States is a daunting task for a government that thinks of itself as a democratic republic, but now that I have seen you are willing to bully a privately funded exhibit into censoring a highly regarded work of art in accordance to your views, I think you might be up for the job.

Perhaps we could institute mandatory licenses for working artists, to be approved by Congress. The Tea Partiers may scream that you are creating a new bureaucracy, but you can make the case that this bureaucracy is necessary – and maybe we can save money by simply not issuing any licenses. That keeps it simple. What little costs remain, maybe we could make the unemployed pay for out of their unemployment checks. Until we get rid of unemployment insurance altogether, that is.

Please send me your list of approved artists so that I may arrange my gallery visits, and my thoughts, accordingly.

Most Sincerely,

Friday, December 03, 2010

WikiLeaks and the Public Interest


The major news story of the past week has focused less on the content of what WikiLeaks is showing us than on the fact of WikiLeaks itself.

A minority of press organizations are actually reading and reporting on the documents. Most of the noise is about punishment. Will Julian Assange, the site's founder, be arrested and extradited to the U.S.? Will he be tried under the Espionage Act? Will anyone be exposed to danger, will anyone be killed, because of what is revealed in these confidential documents? Will Julian Assange mysteriously turn up dead?

When WikiLeaks was issuing documents pertaining to our wars in the middle east, I was apprehensive. How does such a small organization go about redacting documents so as not to endanger any person's life? This has been the cry of the American government and the right wing: undercovers are going to get blown up, people will die because of this irresponsible act.

So far, that has not been the case. Loose lips have not sunk any ships thus far. And it will not be the case, apparently, from the diplomatic files currently being released through WikiLeaks. I am inclined to think Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was correct when he said foreign policy would suffer, at worst, "modest" setbacks owing to these documents being made public.

I regard WikiLeaks as a whistleblower. They are fulfilling an important function that our own news media, our supposed "watchdog" media that exists to provide an adversarial check on state power by reporting truthfully on its actions and investigating its hidden business, has failed to do. It is doubtful that Julian Assange or anyone on the WikiLeaks staff is guilty of espionage, no more so than the New York Times was when it published the "Pentagon Papers," or the Washington Post when it exposed Watergate.

What they are revealing, moreover, is in the public interest. There is an effort underway to say that nothing new is being revealed. On the contrary, there is confirmation of some of the worst fears of our citizens, and some things are even worse than we thought. This is all very much in the public interest.

Previously, we blogged in this space about the revelation of a memo from our Honduran ambassador, stating unequivocally that the Honduras coup in 2009 was illegal and that there was no legitimate grounds for it. Despite this analysis, the administration failed to fulfill certain legal obligations it had in the event of a coup d'etat there, and tacitly supported the coup while pretending it did not understand the situation.

That's just for starters. Here are some highlights from what I've been reading this week.

Our State Department ordered diplomats to spy on U.N. officials, including the Secretary-General, to obtain email passwords and addresses and credit card information. This is Obama's state department, not Bush's.

We find the Obama government interfering with investigations of CIA actions in Germany and Spain. Additionally, we learn of the Obama Administration interfering in the independent judiciary of another country, Spain again, because it had the audacity to open an investigation into U.S. war crimes.

That is already a pretty shocking pile of crap, and there is much more. Additional evidence that we were purposefully lied to about the Iraq war. More stuff about ignoring torture. More stuff about inhibiting investigations. More stuff about the body counts in our wars. More damaging stuff about Secretary Clinton and her state department. Awful, awful, awful.

This is unpleasant news, and the fact that we have to learn it from an outfit like WikiLeaks is an indictment on our press organizations. It is all very much in the public interest and our government, instead of exerting improper pressure on corporations to inhibit Americans' access to WikiLeaks, should be answering a long list of very hard questions.

I am far less concerned with the morality of Julian Assange than I am with the moral compass of our own government. I am not aware of a single person dead or endangered because of this material; I am aware of horrific numbers of people killed in wars of aggression waged in my lifetime, and I am aware that our government acts as a superpower that views itself above international law, that interferes with the politics and judicial branches of other nations right up to today, that Obama and Clinton have only elaborated on the gross overreaches of American power, domestically and internationally.

Our national security is not at risk. It is just our beneficent face that is in question. As Glenn Greenwald noted, "for authoritarian minds, those who expose secrets are far more hated than those in power who commit heinous acts using secrecy as their principal weapon."


[Photo: somebody leaked a photograph of my patriotism]

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Empenadas Deter A Crime


At one of our local Mexican restaurants, a would-be thief is foiled by an employee toting a sack full of empenadas. Local coverage of the event here.

The Headlight was gracious enough to run a very poor attempt at a bilingual limerick I wrote in tribute.

Have a wonderful day.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

More of the Same in Latin America


A friend writes:

Came across this and it reminded me of your posts. You could title the next one, State Department agrees with Notes from a Burning House...
It gives me little pleasure to have my suspicions partly confirmed by Wikileaks. Nonetheless, it has been interesting to read this cable analyzing the Honduras coup of 2009 in light of my own previous posts about this crisis, and the apparent U.S. support of the travesty. In the cable, our embassy in Honduras submits a pointed analysis. The coup was unconstitutional. The interim presidency of Roberto Micheletti had no constitutional basis. The correct process for hearing the complaints against President Zelaya, assessing guilt and deciding whether these would be impeachable offenses, would be in the judiciary, not the legislature. The abduction and exile of the president by the military echoes previous coups d'etat. The analysis is unambiguous. We now know what our top officials knew, and approximately when they knew it.

Under our laws, this required an immediate shutoff of nearly all aid to Honduras. Instead, one month after receipt of this cable, our Secretary of State was claiming that these events were hazy and difficult to understand. She had also invented a legal distinction that we had never made before, a distinction between a "military coup" and some other more general kind of "coup." The State Department stalled on any action because they said it was not clear whether this constituted a "military coup" (even though the president was rounded up by armed and uniformed soldiers, under the supervision of a general, and flown out of the country on a military plane).

Our President and our State Department failed to condemn the coup, calling instead for "negotiations" instead of the return of the democratically elected government, whose supporters were in the streets being arrested and killed; we failed to follow our own laws and implement full sanctions against the coup regime; and then we supported illegitimate elections conducted in an atmosphere of repression and terror. Our country says nothing about the continued political crisis and terror in Honduras. Our Secretary of State has been busy, instead, lobbying other countries in the hemisphere to recognize the successor and readmit Honduras to the Organization of American States.

The U.S. has a well-understood history of "regime change" in Latin America, and this document shows that, at the very least, the Obama government passively supported an illegal coup against a democratically elected (and popular) President whose major crime, we can guess, was leaning left.

As Joe Biden said during the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign: "That's not change. That's more of the same."