Thursday, August 23, 2007

A Mirror Falls Into A Vat of Bright Paint

If you've been reading this blog lately, you know I've been preparing for a trip.

Spent tonight breaking down the museum so it can be packed into a truck tomorrow.

There are wooden stakes in the car. Sleeping bag, tent. Items for a makeshift altar. Coolers ready. Containers of filtered water, and empty containers to be filled in Reno. Clothes suitable for temperatures ranging from 40 degrees to 120 degrees and all points in between. Food. Beer. Kitchen items - our camp, which will range from 8 to as many as a dozen people over the week, will have a decent kitchen. Tools and essentials for camping in windy conditions. Zafus and moktaks for sharing Zen practice. Ukulele.

The truck is going to head up the 5 but my car is looking towards the 395 and a possible visit to an important, albeit painful historical site in the Owens Valley.

Check back here around the 4th of September, and there may be some kind of account of the adventure, maybe even some pictures. There may be nothing to say, as is often the case with zen retreats. My plan for Burning Man is actually similar to the attitude going into retreat: no plan, no opinion, no condition, no situation. Great round mirror falls in a huge vat of bright paint.


Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Sandstorms Ahead (The Countdown Continues)

The place where I am going has been serving up white-out sandstorms on a daily basis lately. The early warnings are to prepare for windy, dusty weather.

Meanwhile, nutty camp mates are cooking up all kinds of spaghetti-western themed mayhem. Including tying up damsels in distress on portable railroad tracks set up in front of the art cars. We may also attempt a highway robbery of an art car.

A cat is sniffing a sleeping bag, which has been laid open to air out. The cat is alarmed.

Q. What is a cat?

A cat is a mood disorder with four legs.

Make a list of things to do during a white-out. Hmmm. Play blind "Marco Polo?" Fly your tent like a kite? Go nude sand-bathing?

Or do a sand dance, like the lady in the photograph.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Countdown To Burning Man

Just a few days left before the caravan leaves for Black Rock City, the temporary city of twenty to thirty thousand people from around the world, converging in the middle of nowhere, 90 miles north of Reno. For a week, there is music, art, poetry, puppetry, nudity, frivolity, and mostly congenial mayhem in the midst of forbidding desert conditions, far away from the nearest conveniences. One must survive the desert oneself, yet you find yourself in a large community where people offer services for free - be it bicycle repair, a pint of beer, a fresh crepe, a shiatsu massage, a communal body-wash similar to a car wash, a trampoline for you to play on, an ode to your shapely ass, perhaps a joint.

Or so I have always understood. This will be my first Burning Man. Finally, a chance to grok this phenomenon for oneself. I am only able to go because, by pure luck, I got involved in building a delightful art installation with some friends, a project that won grant support from Burning Man's art foundation.

In Zen Master Seung Sahn's teaching, he would often draw a circle and talk about four points on the circle as an analogy to Zen. At the beginning, 0 degrees, there is attachment to name and form, and thus with every change that occurs throughout our lives, one moment after another, there is a sense of upheaval and suffering. At 90 degrees, there is consciousness of emptiness as well as form. At 180 degrees, emptiness takes over - this is the point of samadhi, where the mind stops, and there is no word, no action, no time, no space. Some people misunderstand this to be the point of "Zen," and it has a seductive charm for experienced meditators as well, but there is more to go.

270 degrees is also an enticing realm, for this is the realm of magic and miracles. This is the consciousness that allows some people to lay on beds of hot coals or walk on nails; it allows people to defy constraints you or I might accept as non-negotiable. It is the mind of free improvisation, where the creative nature of your original mind is unleashed. This is the place where you meet the Mysterious Collaborator who guides your hand on a ouija board or shows you words buried deep in the fibers of a blank sheet of paper, when music or text comes through your instrument unbidden until you get scared and stop the flow. It holds enormous power and freedom - which makes it so attractive and exciting, in contrast to the pressures society places on people.

Finally, you arrive at 360 degrees, where everything is just as it is. Gravity is gravity, trees are trees, water is water. Society is society, work is work. 360 degrees is also 0 degrees, so you arrive at the same ordinary life, only with a wider perspective. Thus goes Seung Sahn's circle teaching.

Burning Man is a celebration of 270 degrees. I think the Man of Dok Seung Mountain might have enjoyed it, in his early years in America.

There is potential for this "vacation" to be a delightfully weird Zen retreat, as far as maintaining a practice schedule in the midst of a 270-degree world. A formal Zen retreat plunges you into a simplified and regimented situation that challenges certain expectations and comforts, so that you experience a much deeper sense of direction and compassion. That kind of retreat, while still challenging for me, has become very familiar. This is a different kind of deprivation, in that most of the social conventions I accept without consciously considering will be, shall we say, waived. Yet the challenge will be the same: while your ego is disoriented, return to your original direction - a direction which has nothing to do with society and convention. It has nothing to do with being nice or peaceful or any other nice idea one makes out of Zen practice. What emerges if you plunge completely? Are you willing? That's the question.

So one collects drinking water (many, many gallons of it) and food and essentials for the trip; gets the tent and sleeping bag ready; decides what few items will grace the makeshift camping altar; selects clothing appropriate for the weather, and all the contingency items.

And the ukulele. Sure.

This blog will be quiet for a week starting this Friday. As tempting as it might be to stay in the desert after everyone else leaves, and stay there ever after, your correspondent will return September 3 or thereabouts.

Acting As Mindfulness Meditation

My friend Ji Hyang is town and on Saturday we taught a day-long workshop at UCLA's Extension called "Applied Zen: Creating The World Around Us."

This popular workshop is offered a couple of times per year and integrates the work Theatre Dojo is trying to do with performers and non-performers alike: using meditation and improvisation to examine our interactions with other people.

We began the day with an introduction to Zen meditation and the principles of mindfulness practice. We examined stress, and techniques for relaxing the body's responses to stress so that we may function clearly in stressful situations. By lunchtime, we had spent a lot of time learning how to be aware of ourselves. After lunch, it was time to add that notorious messy element: other people!

This is where theatre work came in. Returning to the central point of zazen, we took our meditation into physical movement and finally into interaction with other people, noting the changes that take place in our breathing, body language, emotional response, and use of the voice. A performer may have recognized some of these as classic undergraduate acting exercises, yet with a different aim. Rather than refining performance technique (something we do examine in our classes for professional actors), we were using acting as a meditation - as a way of bringing one's use of self, and one's interaction with the other, into compassionate awareness.

For the 35 people taking part in the workshop, the discoveries were surprising, amusing, or disconcerting and even alarming, from one person to another. A woman in tears confessed she was having difficulty continuing with the day's activities. There were elderly people in the class, young people, a veteran from the Iraq war, married couples, and young unmarried couples - all examining what it is to be a human being.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Correct Politics

One year, there was an election in Rhode Island. At the time I was living at a Zen Center and I extended an offer of a ride to any of the monks who wanted to go to the polls and vote.

I soon learned that the Zen Master, a monk himself, actually discouraged his monks from voting. I asked him why and he said something about the monks not taking part in worldly affairs. At this, instinctively, I leapt.

"Sir, I will not try to change your mind, but I do not understand your reasoning. You drive a car. You buy fuel for that car. You buy insurance for that car. I also know, from sorting your mail, that you have an I.R.A. and other investment accounts - which means you are directly involved in the economy. You are involved in worldly affairs. You live within the economic arrangements of society, and within the resources of our planet. You are involved."

At best, we can only pretend we are not involved. Our involvement is not in question (unless you truly follow the vinaya by never touching money and subsisting by begging. Even then, you are surviving on the scraps of a society).

Since involvement is not in question, what is left is responsibility. What is correct politics? How do you use the involvement skillfully? What is a citizen's correct function? What do we owe our neighborhood?

It might be more helpful, and more beneficial to others, to look at it that way.

Ask For What You Want

It started early and it's already pretty discouraging: the general election campaign is winding its way like a wrongly-inserted cassette tape, warbling and out of tune. The candidates stagger about like mummies conjured from the dead, trying to find traction, arms outstretched like Boris Karloff, hoping to get a clear grasp on a rival's lapels and head-butt them into silence.

What can we do, while they rehearse their bluster and prepare for yet another vastly expensive campaign of negativity and dissembling? We can we do when we feel discouraged, drowned out by corporate money and the false "conventional wisdom" of election politics where truth and civility are considered valueless, or even liabilities?

There isn't a whole lot you can do, but there is one thing you can do that means a great deal. And if we cannot change the playing field, we can at least offer something meaningful for ourselves, our neighbors, and our republic. And that one thing is to ask for what you want.

I've lost friendship and dinner invitations for saying what I am about to say, but those of you who read this thing (all what, four of you?) have heard me say it before: I think you and I, and the American people in general, are equally culpable for the state of our politics. We are not entitled to throw up our hands in disgust, because we have permitted things to be this way. We have settled for what the media hands us, settled for the lies and evasions of our representatives, and voted for the same jackals over and over again. We have rewarded the Republicans and the Democrats for disappointing us, and nodded docilely as other political parties with viable agendas have been denied a seat at the debates. A lot of people make themselves feel better for the last decade by telling themselves George W. Bush's people stole votes in 2000 and 2004. Even if it's true, dear reader, you can't deny this: a shitload of people really did vote for him, and voted to give him a second term. We speak of stolen votes, but do not howl in outrage about the people who didn't bother to vote for ANY choice. Our country is more active in deciding who wins American Idol than in selecting representatives for our government. This was no coup d'etat. We have allowed this criminal gang to roll right over us because we have surrendered the people's power to a mass of lazy imbeciles. That's right, kids, I blame the people.

Did that make you angry? Good. Let's do something, let's do at least one small thing, each day, to demand the kind of politics we do want, and to invite the kind of leaders we want to run for office. Let's do this even on the days we think it won't work. Let's do this in defiance of conventional wisdom and short-term results; let's do it because it works well, makes us feel like we're being active citizens, let's do it because there is nothing stupid about asking for what we truly want.

First, be clear about what you want. In a President, I want a highly capable manager who understands and appreciates the three branches of government established by our Constitution. I want someone who respects people above everything else, who values democracy, who will set good priorities and appoint good, capable people. Similar general values apply for local elections: my state legislators, my city council, my county board. They must value people and democracy, and they have to value the resources and systems that sustain human life. That, in the broadest terms, will guide them toward good judgment and sound decisions.

Maybe you want different things, and maybe you have a better way of saying it than I do. (Let's hope so!) At any rate, now that we have met up at this paragraph: we've got to ask for what we want. Again: one small thing every day.

Writing. Letters to local newspapers, editorial submissions. (Yes, you can write and submit an editorial to the paper. And if you haven't had a letter in the newspaper yet, get on it - it's free copy for them, they LOVE publishing your letters.) Don't stop there. Write to the Democratic leadership; write to your Congressfolk (speak to them respectfully, but don't forget they are YOUR representatives); write to anybody pertinent. Don't be shy to send a letter to anyone whose actions concern you. Write to CEO's, heads of political movements, foreign leaders, celebrities, anyone. (It may take a little research to find a mailing address, but go for it.) Address them as you would your neighbors, because they are: they are people. Even corporations are made up of people. One of the major challenges we face in getting the kind of politics we need is establishing human contact.

Calling. You are paying for people to staff the offices of your political leaders, who will make a note of your concerns and comments. Use that service. Call up your Senate and your Congress.

Here's a good assignment for today: call up the Democratic Party in Washington and ask them why, on their website this morning, they have a big headline decrying the Bush Administration's warrantless wiretapping authority - when a number of Democrats voted to give them that authority? Ask them why, if they are so outraged, did they not fight it effectively - and why so many of them actually voted for it.

Listen to them hem and haw. Enjoy it. For a moment, you have the power. And you got it by establishing human contact.

Get involved in a campaign. Again, human contact. Ask questions. If you get involved in a campaign, sooner or later you will be invited to take part in some kind of disappointing "politics-as-usual" - cold-calling people with a slanted "opinion poll," or doing "opposition research" on an opponent (i.e. looking for feces to throw around), or something unsavory that has nothing to do with telling the truth and making the case for why Candidate A would make a very good Senator/President/Assemblyman/etc. That's when you will have an opportunity to say something like this:

"You know what? I like Candidate A and want to help her win this election because I think she's really that good and can demonstrate that. I'm not interested in debasing my country by [doing what you are asking me to do]. That kind of politics is bad for us."

One small thing every day -through the current campaign and beyond. We have a lot of laziness and entrenched politics to catch up with. There will be days when this feels foolish and naive; and plenty of people will tell us it is naive to ask for what we want. Which only demonstrates how far we have come from the aspiration of our brave, flawed, human, but admirable founding colonists.

Today, I started with the Democratic party. I not only questioned the hypocritical crowing about the Protect America Act, but also why - right next to that story, at the top of their website this morning, they are assigning such high priority to combing through Mitt Romney's finances to find some impropriety and recruiting volunteers to help them sling mud. I ask, is this the kind of campaign you're going to offer us?

Time to get involved, even if only for a few minutes a day. Time to take our individual space and insist on the politics we want.

Otherwise, we have no excuse, and we should expatriate, or shut up, and accept the consequences of that decision.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Booker T. - San

There is a coffee shop in Little Tokyo where I sometimes go to hide for an hour during the day. Even when the place is crowded, there is a corner where I may wedge myself and be out of the way.

A large group of middle-aged Japanese people came in and took up two tables, segregating themselves by sex. The men engaged in loud, masculine, Japanese conversation and the women's table seemed relieved to be rid of them.

The eldest woman in their party had silvery hair and large eyeglasses. Over the tabletop, her back was straight, her gaze clear, and her body very still. Beneath the table, where only I could see, her stockinged foot was tapping to the beat of Booker T. and the M.G.'s.

Just Letting You Know I Have Nothing To Say

The phone rang. I fumbled to get the phone from the bag and put the little earpiece in my ear, but I missed the call. It was a 213 phone number, someone calling here in L.A., but a number I did not recognize. So I called the number back.

Curiosity! I reached a recording that said: "The number you are calling is out of service or has been disconnected."

Dialed the number again, same result.

Someone calling from their disconnected phone. Perhaps to tell me not to call them, as their phone has been disconnected.

I waited eagerly to see if there would a voice mail. "Hello, this message is to inform you that the number that called you has been disconnected."

Well, that's fine, Mr. and Mrs. 213, because I have nothing to say and am determined to say it!

A Letter From The Bar Association

Dear A,

Periodically, we see fit to send certain individuals a letter such as this one, in case their minds could use the rest. In most cases, it is unnecessary, but sometimes the letter is passed on to friends, family members, or tucked into memorial urns of forebears. Whatever applies.

We just wanted to let you know that, no matter what you were told in your youth, there is no likelihood that, "with a mind like yours," you could have made a great lawyer, judge, or legislator.

The compromises you would have forced to make, the social circles in which you would have to pass as normal, the deeds you would have been obliged to ignore, would have blown a .22 caliber exit hole in your nerves, which weren't doing so well to start with.

So please don't give it another thought.

With all sincerity and respect,

Your Friends at the American Bar Association

Do Not Lend Your Faith To Princes

George F. Will and I have something in common: we both have bylines on Starbucks coffee cups.

Stopping at a Starbucks coffee shop in Bellflower last night - Cindy Sheehan's home town, I hear - I ordered a venti and caught Will's cup. In his cup, Will likens to true conservatives to pessimists and explains why conservatives, being pessimists, are generally happier. The piece is mostly cute, but his third point is a howler:

Third, pessimists do not put their faith in princes - in government. They understand that happiness is a function of fending for oneself. Happiness is an activity; it is inseparable from the pursuit of happiness.

That sounds wonderful until you consider the author and the kind of government he has, in fact, supported in his column, in speeches, and in other writings, across his entire career. George Will has backed a political party that favors aristocracy over true populism, and leaders who rule like princes rather than democratic representatives. George F. Will supports a society where elite privilege is faithfully preserved, even if it comes at the expense of justice, and then sings lusty odes to "individualism." And in this coffee cup piece of his, George F. Will posits a kind of happiness that is arbitrarily denied to a great many of his citizens, who are truly left to fend for themselves.

Can we put the Declaration of Independence on a coffee cup? Or at least the opening words? Let us in any case send a copy to George F. Will. Can he argue that the authors of those words were pessimists? These were people who believed optimistically in what they could accomplish individually, but also understood that they would need to do some things collectively. They tried - I don't know how successfully, but they have succeeded farther than most in history - to design a government by, of, and for people. Wisely, they designed it as a republic, so that people could send representatives to legislate on their behalf. Sagely, they worried in their letters and journals about the President ruling as a monarch and abusing the freedoms of citizens, of Congress being less than vigilant on behalf of the people - all of which has come to pass time and again, certainly during my lifetime, and most blatantly in the last decade.

In an atmosphere where justice is not actually a commonwealth shared by all citizens, where people prefer to fend for themselves and not worry about such things, princes and aristocracies will continue to preserve their power. Where is this man's reading of history? If he does not love the founding documents of the United States (note the adjective - united), can he not appreciate the history of our world?

Saturday, August 11, 2007

These Are Americans

It was a bold move for MTV's Logo Network to host a debate forum for the Democratic presidential candidates. The event itself and the participation by serious contenders for President is a milestone for recognition and acceptance of American citizens who are homosexual.

An invitation was also reportedly extended to the Republican candidates, who declined. Their refusal communicates an important message about their entire field. They will not acknowledge publically, and perhaps not even in private, that these are Americans who deserve to be addressed by their republic.

The Democrats weren't terrific themselves, but at least they submitted themselves to questioning about matters of concern to American citizens who are homosexual. (I'm inclined to repeat that phrase a lot, as it appears there are people who need to be reminded that gay Americans are Americans.)

Bill Richardson fumbled a golden opportunity with a tricky question. Melissa Etheridge asked him whether he viewed homosexuality as a choice or something to which one is born. Richardson's error was in taking a side on a contentious issue when he did not have to. (He said, "It's a choice," and then frantically tried to backpedal.)

What he might have said is that he didn't know, and didn't need to know. What was important to him is that - shall we say it together? - homosexuals are Americans. The President is not there to opine on the nature or morality of homosexuality. He could have played this question into a beautiful ode to leadership and democracy, echoing the introductory words of our Declaration of Independence regarding the equality and worthiness of every person.

But! At least he was there. Not a single Republican came.

Actor and model citizen Alec Mapa commented very intelligently on the debate, noting how painful it is to hear Barack Obama talk down gay marriage (the right to be legally married and to call it marriage) knowing that the marriage of his own parents would have been illegal in our republic not so long ago. Hillary Clinton, emerging as the frontrunner among these clowns, offered nothing better.

But again, they were there.

Not a single Republican came.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Set A Man To Watch All Night, Watch All Night...

If you don't keep up your bridges and tunnels, they will disintegrate.

Decades of neglect can't be blamed on the President. Even if it is darkly amusing to see images of him with his country literally falling down around him. Our country, that is.

If we want safe bridges, we can't wait for our representatives to get around to it. We are going to have to demand it.

Dear Madam Speaker,

At his press conference this morning, the President announced his opposition to raising the federal gas tax by a nickel to pay for improvements to infrastructure such as bridges and tunnels.

He said that Congress needs to prioritize how it spends tax revenue. I agree, and have a suggestion.

When the President submits his next emergency supplemental appropriation for the occupation of Iraq, I propose dinging the appropriation. Of course, I would not ask you to put our soldiers in any more danger for lack of funding. Congress can, however, publically declare that it will shave the appropriation by a few billion to devote to badly-needed, overdue improvements to our infrastructure.

This is, after all, a matter of homeland security.


Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Return to the Soenbang (Zen room)

Well, I stuck my neck out for a little while and tried this Zen/theatre teaching thing.

One more clever idea in a world filled with ideas, made by ideas, coming apart because of ideas.

The acting class aroused lots of interest and curiosity. You would laugh if I told you how many people actually came out to check out a class. Even with financial burdens removed, even when invited for free, it was just too much to ask people to come out.

Years of Zen practice and being involved in Zen organizations prepare one for this. Zen practice sounds like a wonderful idea and it intrigues a great many people. In actuality, very few people actually try Zen practice long enough to experience its actual benefit. You can't read a book or watch a DVD and get it. You actually have to go somewhere, get live instruction, practice with other people, allow your ideas about it to get popped, and keep with it long enough to be disillusioned and then give up on being disillusioned.

For most people, that is asking a bit much. Yet you show up anyway, fulfilling your own vow, doing it for yourself and sharing it liberally with anyone who does come.

So I am used to going and opening up a studio and sitting there waiting to see if anyone comes. And I am used to folding up my legs and sitting by myself, since that is what I was planning to do anyway.

However, the time and energy I have devoted to starting a business and promoting this "great idea" has come at some expense. Not just the financial kind. Although I get up early in the morning to bow and sit, I rarely sit in the evenings anymore; and don't remember the last time I enjoyed an evening chanting service. I've given up on many weekend retreats and trips to visit friendly Zen sanghas.

So I am thinking about taking down my shingle and returning to regular Zen practice. This may even be my offering at Burning Man: a regularly scheduled service, each evening, for anyone who wants to come, make sound, and then sit.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Follow-up About Those Posters

The voice of reason made an appearance in this blog's previous entry, reminding us that one can go to the government website and print PDF files of the required posters - for free. If you have to spend a couple of bucks, you can have the printouts laminated. As long as the damned things get up on the wall, and are legible.

I called Office Depot to ask about the posters we had ordered from them. (Big, colorful posters for which they charged fifty bucks - only to send us a postcard, hilariously packed in a big cardboard box, for us to fill out and send to some manufacturer.) They gave me the phone number of the posters' manufacturer, which I called, only to be told by said manufacturer that they do not even MAKE the product we had purchased.

Needless to say, Office Depot got a call from me demanding a refund (which we got) and telling them that they need to pull this advertisement off their website.

Bob, thanks for the reminder of what is obvious: buying something is not the answer to every problem.

Where Are My Posters?

The labor law posters are supposed to be up on the wall already.

We ordered our new federal and state labor law notifications through Office Depot.

A day later, a box arrived. Broke the seal, opened the box, and what I found inside the box was a postcard. Just that, a postcard. (At least they didn't wrap the postcard in bubble-wrap.)

The postcard required me to fill out all of our contact information, and to make a checkmark next to the state for which I desired state posters. You might think that, being a California employer, we would want the CALIFORNIA poster. But you never know. It might amuse us to post the Arkansas laws instead.

So I filled out address, checked off CALIFORNIA, and dropped it in the mail. Weeks ago.

I'm getting ready to send a snarky letter about this.

And I will send my letter in that box.