Sunday, January 31, 2010

Postcard from Honduras

Still following this story, here is a video made by Cesar Silva and Edwin Renan Fajardo Argueta documenting the coup and subsequent repressive actions by the interim coup regime.

Mr. Argueta was murdered a month ago. Silva was arrested and tortured, and is now in exile.

There is graphic footage here -- but that's the point. It needs to be seen, and our news media are simply not covering this story.

Correct Banking

"Correct banking" is not part of the original noble eightfold path of Buddha. Maybe it is an adjunct to right livelihood.

Our choice of a bank affects our community and, considering the reach of our superbanks, our whole world. Our choice of banks is an expression of a value, whether we are conscious of it or not. ("Where would Jesus bank?")

The chairman of Economic Recovery Advisory Board is helping spread the message that "too big to fail" really means too big. One of my legislators here in New Mexico agrees, and sees the value of moving funds to smaller, solid, and local banks that lend locally and have a vested interest in their community. A Congresswoman from Illinois testified publically as to why she moved her money out of Bank of America (which had eaten the bank that ate the bank that ate her bank -- I think I've got that straight).

It's a genuine grassroots opportunity. You find a locally chartered, federally insured bank that is actively involved in the community, helping small businesses and borrowers with affordable loans, and not taking on excessive risk; one, presumably, that is not gouging consumers with exorbitant fees. You can look up banks on and Bauer Financial for ratings on their practices and financial health. Then you can say bye bye to Bank of America.

We can think of this as encouraging the Citibanks and BoAs and Wells Fargos to scale down and divest a bit from the "tapeworm economy."

Turns out First New Mexico Bank, just a few blocks away from our house, has very solid ratings by both services. It's been serving the county for nearly half a century. They worked with my sister-in-law, who just bought a house in town, and she spoke highly of the attention she got from them. They see themselves as investing in an improved community (and sure, making money while doing it -- it is still a business, after all).

And when I presented myself to them last week, they waived their checking account fees.

[Photo: my new bank.]

Friday, January 29, 2010

Presidential Q & A

For quite some time, I would go online to watch the weekly question and answer period in the British parliament. At this weekly event, the Prime Minister is on the spot for thirty minutes, responding spontaneously to questions asked of him by members of three political parties. (Apparently, they can handle three political parties.)

It was inspiring, especially when Tony Blair was the P.M. It was a lesson in politics as well as governing, as the questions and answers ranged from local matters to international affairs, from tax and health policies to political ideology. At their best, the players presented eloquence, passion, and skill. At their best prepared, the players made the nuances of policy public and transparent.

And there are fantastic exchanges like this. Wow.

How often I would sigh and fantasize about an American version of this tradition, a president being held accountable to lawmakers while being given a floor to respond to political assertions. When our President addresses joint sessions of Congress, it is a rare event, such as the annual, highly prepared and rehearsed, "State of the Union" speech. Frankly, I usually skip these. Anything newsworthy in them is generally leaked to the press the day before.

This year, though, two days after the rehearsed speech, a real event took place: the President went to a House Republican retreat in Baltimore. Before an audience of Congressional Republicans, and on live television, the President stood up and responded to one question after another from the rival political party. He did not even have a Prime Minister's comfort of fielding some questions from his own party -- it was all from the opposition, and twice as long as the PMQ's (Prime Minister's Questions).

And it was Obama at the top of his game. He was very well prepared and very quick on his feet, and he pulled off an excellent performance in addressing the falsehoods and devious political tactics, accepting (and therefore emphasizing) criticism of Democratic partisanship, and giving the television audience a lesson in policy that was not boring.

To be even more frank: he mopped up that stage with several challengers who hoped to embarrass him or slip false assertions past him.

I am rather unhappy with this president, but I'll give him credit for doing this and doing it well. This should be a monthly event. I don't care a stray grain of rice for pretty speeches; this was interesting politics.

And I'm embedding it here, encouraging you to watch. The time goes by rather fast.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

On the Passing of Salinger and Zinn

Howard Zinn and J.D. Salinger were contemporaries, people who changed lives with language; they were also men of interesting contrasts.

They were very close in age -- on the day both men died, Zinn was 87, Salinger was 91 -- and both made an impression in the last century that endures in ours. One was a voluntary shut-in, withdrawn into a small house in New Hampshire. The other remained in the world, speaking with people, teaching and rousing them to greater social responsibility.

Howard Zinn could simultaneously be described as controversial and kind. He was a World War II bombardier, a shipyard worker who went to college on the G.I Bill and became an accomplished historian, an early activist in the civil rights movement, an engaging teacher and writer. He is best known as the author of A People's History of the United States, a history told from the perspective of working people, the oppressed, and the ignored. Personally, he espoused a belief in a democratic socialism, and an undying faith in grassroots social movements.

Salinger wrote a great novel and some other excellent published works before shutting himself into the house and refusing to publish after 1965. At that time, Zinn had just begun teaching at Boston University, having been fired from his position at Spelman College for his political activity.

Rumor has it that Salinger went on writing for his own pleasure, and that there may be at least two novels in manuscript locked away in safes. They may or may not ever see print. Somehow I am not curious to see them. Did he spend his time examining life, or hiding from it? I don't know.

Perhaps Salinger was a spiritual recluse -- a long-ago mistress claims he was interested in meditation and eastern spirituality. He seems, however, to have been engaged more in pushing away the world than retreating for contemplation. For Mr. Zinn's part, he reportedly died of cardiac arrest while swimming in Santa Monica. He was in town to give a lecture: engaging people, encouraging hope and discouraging cynicism, until both men's final day on earth.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Fire Chief Bernanke?

[From an email to Senator Bingaman]

Dear Senator,

Only slightly less disappointing than the reappointment of Mr. Bernanke as the Federal Reserve Chairman, is your support for him.

You sent me your statement from the Senate floor in support of Mr. Bernanke. Your reasoning does not make sense to me.

Among numerous other concerns, Mr. Bernanke was a key operator in the deregulation that allowed major financial institutions, the so-called 'too big to fail,' to engage knowingly in risky and illegal behavior that have caused economic pain to working Americans.

Yet you praised him for his response to a crisis he helped to create. This is rather like appointing an arsonist as fire chief, Senator.

[Photo: Ben Bernanke flipping you off.]

Tempest In A Bigtop

Many bows and thanks to Adam Gertsacov for sending me this photograph.

That's your humble correspondent, playing Prospero in a circus adaptation of William Shakespeare's The Tempest. The production toured Rhode Island and Massachusetts in the summer of 1997. Caliban, seen here, was portrayed by Adam in a huge puppet. The cast was a mix of actors and circus performers. Our director was Bob Colonna. Prospero functioned as the ringmaster, naturally, and for the role I had to learn several classic magic tricks.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Reflection and A Birthday Wish

A reader's response to my post on Haiti prompts a brief thought about patriotism and criticism.

To whatever extent the United States has "sins," we did not invent them. If some of our generals and presidents have wielded power aggressively, seeking to colonize land and exploit human beings, they have merely followed in a long human history of doing such things.

We did not invent slavery. We did not invent colonialism. We did not invent militarism or war (although we have done a remarkable job of perfecting them). We did not invent capitalism, poverty, or social stratification. We did not invent pollution -- at least, not alone.

Nor did Americans invent greed, anger, or delusion.

My country is very large, has a painful history that includes violent colonialism, slavery, and aggressive warfare, consumes a great deal of energy per capita, and occupies a dominant role in world affairs. Reflecting on what our country does, how it treats its own people, how it treats people in other countries, and its ecological behavior, is our responsibility as citizens. It remains our responsibility even while the extent to which we participate in our government shrinks, and more openly than ever the legislative process is sold to social elites and large corporations. (Americans didn't invent that, either.)

These "sins" are human sins. They are as old as human society itself. So, however, is the capacity to reflect on them and mature. We need not meekly accept the worst in our nature; there is meaning and value in pointing in a more positive and moral direction. That's part of the American character, too. Martin Luther King, Jr., an American citizen whose birthday we observed earlier this month, is a reminder of this.

Let us reflect on our families, our neighborhoods, our communities, and our country. Let us rise from our contemplations and prayers, and interact with our world with mindfulness and compassion.

That's my birthday wish.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Imperial Compassion in Haiti

Nathan over at Dangerous Harvests, addressing relief efforts in Haiti and how are they are portrayed in the U.S. media, is reminded of Chogyam Trungpa's warning about "idiot compassion," to wit:

Trungpa Rinpoche, among others, have spoken of a kind of faux compassion that we get tricked by, and which actually is mostly about the small self and what we think someone else needs. I've noticed all sorts of narratives in U.S. media outlets, and coming out of the mouths of world leaders, that imply that "they" know what is best for the people and nation of Haiti. In addition, you have hundreds of thousands of people pouring money into organizations that are known for wastefulness and corruption, like the Red Cross, because these organizations have the money and brand-names to get out the word about themselves to millions and millions of potential donors. In addition, you have people supporting the efforts of companies like Coca Cola, who make donations for disaster relief in places like Haiti, knowing full well that they'll probably profit greatly in the near future from both the positive publicity and the sweetheart deals that occur in the chaos of devastated nations.

Given this sad report by Peter Hallward, which includes the perspectives of relief workers on the ground and some recent history, I thought of another, similar kind of delusion: imperial compassion.

Dr. Evan Lyon, of Partners In Health, is one of many people on the ground protesting that the recurring news theme, that all them po' black folks are goin' crazy and creating anarchy, is overblown -- and causing fatal delays:

It also creates a cover story for the emphasis on security over aid, since we got there. The delays have led to some horrifying and unnecessary stories in a land that is suffering the effects of natural and human-made disaster on top of each other.

Is This Planned Obsolescence?

A list of things that have broken in this household over the last two weeks:

Television set: dead.

DVD player: dead.

CD player: occasionally does not eject disks, then starts working again after several days.

Digital camera: dead.

Stove: rear burner stopped working.

Pocket watch: minute hand now advances too fast.

...and my car is behaving strangely.

A bit much, all at once.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Wrong Ideals Lead To Growling Stomachs

The Atlantic features a good article about the challenge of feeding 9 billion people by 2050.

Josh Viertel points out the fallacy in the logic of agribusiness. Monsanto and other corporations insist that this problem can, and must, be solved through capitalist enterprise: make farms bigger and produce more food.

Which sounds good, except that in 2008 the world grew enough food to feed 11 billion people, and yet human beings starve.

Like Viertel says, this is not a problem of production, but of justice.

This is a case where large and powerful corporations reframe a large problem in order to present "solutions" that serve the interest of profit rather than human need. The human beings at the helms of the organizations have lost sight of a human purpose or what the Buddha spoke of as correct livelihood.

Unfortunately, our Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, takes a corporate view, in support of a "green revolution" that alters agriculture so as to favor foreign inputs and expensive products, and concentrate farms into larger holdings. He rejects the IAASTD Report mentioned by Viertel as "unobjective" without addressing any of the report's research data; it is "unobjective" because it reflects a worldview that is different than Monsanto's.

Natural disasters have a way of revealing bad policy, and major ecological challenges such as this are revealing the perversion of our political and economic ideals. Yet we fear change. I don't care much for adopting the pose of a revolutionary, but what does not work, does not work. When science reveals that the moon does not, in fact, omit light, we are called to change our view in line with the truth.

There is food for everyone, yet people are starving. Let's wake up.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Conan's Revenge (UPDATED)

This got me.

If you haven't been following this story, here is a recap: Years ago, NBC brokered a deal in which Jay Leno, then host of the Tonight Show, would leave the show in 2009, and turn over hosting duties to Conan O'Brien. After only seven months, during which time Leno hosted an unsuccessful prime-time talk show, NBC abruptly pushed O'Brien aside so that Leno could return.

Reports are that O'Brien is getting a $40 million buyout from NBC. All the same, he is pretty upset about how he has been treated. Leno is getting bad press, but NBC is getting the worst of it. There is a great deal of sympathy for O'Brien in the meantime.

This is probably O'Brien's last week as host of the Tonight Show, and he is going out in vengeful style. I presume he and his lawyers have that $40 million agreement signed in indelible ink, because O'Brien is now highlighting very, very expensive stunts on the show just to waste the network's money.

Enter, the Bugatti Veyron mouse. I'm not proud to admit this, but I have been laughing about this all afternoon. Oh well. Enjoy.

The following evening, he topped this with an even more expensive stunt:

Welcome to Western

Dear Algernon,

Thank you for your email requesting a syllabus for the course from which you have been dropped. You were given instructions on how to locate your syllabus when you paid your syllabus fee, the same day you paid your laboratory fee and separate technology fee.

If you would simply use your electron microscope to examine the lower right corner of your receipt, you will find instructions as to the location of the syllabus. Simply proceed to the basement of the School of Education, make your way past the starving Rottweiler, and you will find the syllabus taped to the bottom of the discarded septic tank.

Although you have been dropped from the course, you will be expected to hand in your assignments on time. And then again, when we ask for them a month later. And then a third time, when we threaten to withhold licensure until you hand in all of your homework assignments from the past three years. We may ask for them more times, as well, if we feel like making you "dance."

For this email, there is a 75-cent media charge. Please type your credit card number in the box below, expiration date, and your card's security code.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Would You Like Fries With That?

Last night, I received word via email that I am being arbitrarily dropped from my current course at WNMU's School of Education. There is some confusion over whether I have been dropped from the program. The place is really a mess. Last week, I received a letter asking me for a pile of documents, all but two of them documents I have handed in multiple times.

Most hilariously, they asked for my academic transcripts for the seventh time. My old colleges must be sick of me.

There is a time limit for completing my credits with respect to my job, and so the disdainful negligence of this institution is now threatening my employment, in a community where there are very few jobs.

My last thread of hope is the possibility of a transfer to another institution, with a reputation for being competent, although it is further away. Otherwise, I may soon be asking interstate travelers if they would like to supersize their lunch order.

Was this all a big mistake? It's a tempting question, but useless. My first class of the day will arrive in a little over an hour -- Shakespeare for fifth graders. The great work continues until it has to stop.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Muppetsmith Black Mambazo

Some things just hit you funny, you know?

Kermit the Frog singing with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, first reciting the alphabet, then singing a tiny story in which most of the words start with a succeeding letter of the alphabet. The set is very elaborate, allowing for three rows of puppets among the thickets, lots of little frogs and things.

I don't know why I love this so much. It is not a childhood memory -- it dates circa 1989, when I was eighteen and no longer watching, or thinking about, Sesame Street.

Yet for some reason I love this very much. As in, I almost get teary with joy while I watch it. Don't know. Hey, let's watch it again...


My wife announced to me that she decided to change her last name to mine.

My first impulse was to say, "Don't do it! You'll spend the rest of your life telling people how to spell your name, and then they'll spell it wrong anyway!!"

Staying With It

Last week was a very difficult one for both my wife and me. Each of us were feeling hammered down by events and other people's behavior. Some people involved at Sarah's church have been trying to get rid of her; they have settled for making her life awful. Meanwhile, my own state senator seems to view teachers as "government waste" and I am watching my meager earnings for the next calendar year get taken away starting as early as this summer. Meanwhile, the institution where I am completing my licensure is tormenting me in numerous silly and officious ways. Unsurprisingly, we considered the possibility of leaving town altogether.

By the end of the week, I was not feeling well at all, and went home on Thursday downright sick. Yet there was a big event this weekend: the local Zen group was having its first overnight intensive retreat, and Judy, a visiting teacher, was arriving to lead it.

It was a small retreat, after several registrants dropped out. Of the remaining participants, two were senior citizens, one of whom has gout. It was soon clear they were exerting themselves enormously.

Zen retreats are physically demanding, and take a little getting used to. The schedules typically include many hours of sitting and walking meditation; in the Korean style, we also do 108 prostrations each morning. For newcomers, this can be pretty rough, with fatigue and back pain or leg pain testing their commitment at every moment.

These folks were an inspiration: just staying with it, trusting the retreat, giving it all their effort. We modified the schedule a little bit to give them extra rest, but I think they would have been there at the end no matter what.

And that's what the wife and I are doing: staying with it, doing our jobs, trusting our work and its purpose -- because it isn't about us.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Help Doctors Without Borders in Haiti

My meager cash offering for relief efforts in Haiti was to Doctors Without Borders, who are helping people in an impossible and almost unimaginable situation.

Cash is needed. Even if it is one dollar. Or five. Maybe skip Starbucks for a week and do ten. To help Doctors Without Borders, click here.

Sword of Damocles, Update

The proposed 2% cut in my salary is now a proposed 3% cut. There is a rumor, which I hope is greatly exaggerated, that my state senator is pushing for a 5% cut.

Other measures New Mexico is considering include taxing groceries.

Put in a suggestion yesterday that the teachers in my situation, alternative licensure candidates teaching on provisional licenses, be grandfathered. Also let my state senator know that the cuts they are talking about would force me to leave the community, seeking work elsewhere and taking my economic activity with me.

The CV has been polished, the resume updated, and a request for transcripts is in the works. I am now officially 'looking.' Not hunting yet, but definitely looking.

[Photo: the New Mexico state legislature, known as 'the roundhouse.']

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

To Respond or Not Respond

A curious young man from Sarah's church asked me a question about Buddhism. It was a standard, curious sort of question -- do we worship Buddha like a god? I gave him a brief answer and his curiosity seemed satisfied.

A few days later, I was confronted publicly by the boy's grandmother. "Zack doesn't need to worry about anything," she hissed at me, "Except what they teach him here at the methodist church." Witnesses began to study the floor tiles.

It's a shame that this happens, but it does, all the time. A very smart, curious young man is in the care of people who regard intellectual curiosity as a dangerous and bad thing. The underlying issue isn't about Christianity or Buddhism.

The local paper ran an editorial denying climate change, and I felt compelled to respond. The falsehoods were brazen and shameless, to the point that they actually did not make sense even from a skeptic's perspective. It is one thing to be a skeptic about this or that datum; it is one thing to have a political preference with respect to the issue; denying material facts is quite another thing. With respect to the accelerating rate of warming trends and melting ice, the issue is a matter of life and death for human beings around the world over the rest of my lifetime, and my son's. Silence in the face of dangerous lies seemed inappropriate, so I wrote in.

Yet I feel no compulsion to respond to Ann Coulter's misrepresentation of Buddhism. Not sure why, I just don't. Somehow it is not a life and death matter. Anyone truly curious about Buddhism will investigate it for themselves and will see for themselves that Brit Hume and Ann Coulter have no idea what they are talking about and are not even interested. Buddhism is under no threat from hacks like them.

It is a shame, however, that print space, bandwidth, and air time is used by these showmen to misinform, and to discourage intellectual curiosity, just like the inquisitive young man who asked me a question because he was curious about the world.

The trend in our modern media landscape is to discourage people from actively engaging in the world around them. So it is small wonder that Buddhism, a tradition that stresses an intimate study of our interaction with life, would get short shrift there. If there were more of us, the attacks would be worse. After all, look at the campaigns to discredit, redefine, or condemn science.

If you can train the public to respond to an opinion world rather than reality, it is much easier to sell them products and to govern them. An opinion world can be shaped and edited far more easily than the earth.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Sesame Street Cemetery Grows

The show has been on the air for forty years. Unsurprisingly, many of those performing on the show in the 1970's are no longer with us.

Of course, it was the passing of Will Lee, the actor who played Mr. Hooper, in 1982 that inspired the writers and performers to broach death as a topic on the show.

Some of the deaths were especially sad. Jim Henson, of course, passed away suddenly and cruelly in 1990. Richard Hunt, the mad puppeteer who created numerous characters (including that cow who loved to sing), fell ill and died in 1992. Matt Robinson, the first actor to play Gordon (there have been three), left us in 2002.

It is hard for me to watch old clips from the show, seeing the character David, and not be reminded of Northern Calloway's sad, talented, but apparently lonely and tortured life. Illness forced him away from the show, and a short time later he died. The year was 1990, and he was just 41 years old.

Now, they are joined by Olivia. The actress was Alaina Reed Hall, and she was a regular on the show from 1976-88. She played Gordon's sister and sang beautifully. She had been fighting breast cancer since 2007, and breathed her last on December 17.

Given how much we've been watching old Sesame Street episodes lately, we might well have been watching this 1977 duet the day she died. It's a memorable scene, along with the late Mr. Calloway. Enjoy them:

Thursday, January 07, 2010


New Mexico is a "balanced budget" state, and by law cannot borrow funds to cover its budget shortfall.

Like most of us, they also haven't figured out that capitalism is a "boom and bust" system, and that you have to prepare for the busts by maintaining taxes while times are good. When the bottom dropped out, the state could not cover the shortfall.

Thus, Governor Richardson is compelled to propose a tax increase during bad times -- a hard sell, politically.

Anyway, huge spending cuts are in the offing. Education endured one round of cuts, and the surgeons are coming back for more. One proposal would cut my salary; there are worse possibilities, too. For sure, it appears that the tuition reimbursement I depend on to fund my licensure work is probably going away -- which will cost me thousands of dollars if I stay.

There are no words of wisdom here. Just going to do my job this morning with the whooshing sound of a razor-sharp pendulum swinging overhead.

Whoosh, clink. Whoosh, clink. Whoosh, clink.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

A Bad Tide

"We never know the worth of water till the well is dry."

-Thomas Fuller, Gnomologia

Thomas Merton opened his 1966 book, Raids on the Unspeakable, with a passing fantasy that rain would one day become a commodity for which we would need to pay. It is simply a matter of controlling supply.

We aren't there -- yet.

We have posted previously in this space about pre-paid water meters in Africa. It is also a problem here, as some municipalities strained for cash are experimenting with leasing public water services to private companies.

Atlanta's experiment did not turn out well: 12% annual rate increases, a workforce reduction of more than 50%, and Atlantans got brown water out of their taps. Citizens complained. The advice they got from their for-profit water company was to boil the water. (The contract was canceled in 2003.)

There was a battle in 2009 over Milwaukee, Wisconsin's drift toward leasing its water for 99 years. The proposal may well return very soon. Over the summer, as the city council considered this move, citizens created KPOW (Keep Public Our Water) which seeks a permanent ban on water privatization.

On the other hand, meet MacArthur fellow and Wisconsinite Will Allen. In short, he is an urban farmer who founded Growing Power in Milwaukee. His work promoting food sovereignty, building local food systems, and teaching young people how to farm (and teaching adults, for that matter) is well worth following.

Returning to water, however: there are battles going on all over the world, including our own country, to turn the most basic elements of human survival and sustenance into a profitable commodity. We cannot depend on governments to shut the door on these efforts. We are fortunate, in our country, as we still have political rights, if seldom exercised. It takes people, and persistence. A certain willingness to be pesky.

And a few people like Will Allen, who remind us that people can build things and care for them.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Buddhism On Fox News

Happy Epiphany, everyone.

A reader emailed me asking if I was going to respond to a comment made by Brit Hume on Fox News this morning, calling on Tiger Woods to rehabilitate his career by converting to Christianity.

Asked whether Brit Hume could foresee the golfer returning to his exalted status as a professional golfer, without being upstaged by his recent sex scandal, Hume chose to focus on Woods's religion:

The extent to which he can recover seems to me depends on his faith. He is said to be a Buddhist. I don't think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith. So, my message to Tiger is, 'Tiger, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.'
Here's the video:

The comment about Buddhism, I don't have much to say about. Hume does not appear to know anything about Buddhism. He also does not appear interested in being educated about it. So who cares?

Hume didn't actually opine on whether Buddhism upholds family views -- that could actually be an interesting topic. Was Siddhartha a "deadbeat dad" for abandoning his family and going on a spirit quest at midlife? And how about all those followers of his, who chopped off their hair and left their jobs and their families behind? Bunch of hippies! Well, except for the hair.

More remarkable, to me, is the open proselytization for one faith over another, on a program that is presented as a news program, on a network that is presented as an impartial (or "fair and balanced") news network. Remarkable, but not surprising.


Saturday, January 02, 2010

I Don't Have Wings

On different occasions the past week or so, this or that person has referred to me, to my face, as "left wing."

Okay, I get it. Look at the books on my shelf, read a few of the topical posts here, have a conversation with me about public affairs and yeah, maybe this man sounds a bit "left wing."

Go ahead and paint a wing on me. How is it useful? What does that idea tell us about anything? It isn't a fashion statement. It isn't a football jersey. I did not wake up one morning, throw up my arms and say, "Doggone it to goshwow, I wanna be a leftist," like deciding which way to part my hair.

If you are concerned about human suffering and start asking why things are arranged the way they are in your country, people call you "left wing."

Look them in the eye and say you don't have wings, just a heart.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Culture and Tao, Dwellers in the Earth

As I read Erazim Kohak's wonderful and wondrous work, The Embers and the Stars, it keeps striking me that a Czech philosopher gives me deep insights into my own language.

In the chapter on the human being's place in ecology, Kohak pierces the conception that human culture must stand in some kind of opposition to the rest of "nature."

The opposition of nature and culture which we take for granted is itself a cultural product, the result of a skewed perspective which identifies "culture" with that branch of the entertainment industry [sic] which caters to the tastes of the educated and the affluent urbanite, specifically in the area of the arts. The term and the concept of culture, however, have very different roots. Culture is a matter of cultivation, echoing the Latin cultus, the yielding of respect, honoring the sacredness of all that is. The man of culture is one who cultivates, who honors the nobility of being. The husbandman is a man of culture, as words like agriculture and silviculture remind us, cultivating the field and the forest. The homo humanus of ancient Rome, the man of culture, is one who cultivates his life, not leaving it at the mercy of his momentary whims and their gratification but ordering it according to its moral sense. His task, like that of the husbandman and of all men of culture, is not an arbitrary one, displacing nature. Nature is his guide in the task of cultivcation. That is cultus -- and, in that sense, culture is not the contradiction of nature but rather the task of humans within it.

Throughout this work, Kohak is not referring to "morality" as a set of arbitrary ethical criteria, or rules made by humans who are speaking on God's behalf, but of the intrinsic rightness and harmony of creation -- a concept that is echoed throughout Lao Tzu and the conception he named "the way of things," or Tao.

This reminded me of Stephen Mitchell's rather free translation of the 39th verse of the Tao te Ching:

In harmony with the Tao,
the sky is clear and spacious,
the earth is solid and full,
all creatures flourish together,
content with the way they are,
endlessly repeating themselves,
endlessly renewed.

When man interferes with the Tao,
the sky becomes filthy,
the earth becomes depleted,
the equilibrium crumbles,
creatures become extinct.

The Master views the parts with compassion,
because he understands the whole.
His constant practice is humility.
He doesn't glitter like a jewel
but lets himself be shaped by the Tao,
as rugged and common as a stone.

Returning to Kohak, who regrets that "the basic metaphor of human presence is the bulldozer," we receive this observation:

If, in the course of the last three centuries, we have become increasingly marauders on the face of the earth rather than dwellers therein, it is not because we have bcome more distinctively human, more distinctively cultured, but rather because we have become less so. What is distinctively human about us is our ability to perceive the moral law in the vital order of nature, subordinating greed to love...

If we are to receover the confidence of our intrinsic place in nature, we need to do so by reclaiming, not by rejecting, our distinctive moral humanity, our task of cultivating the earth as faithful stewards. For humans, it is precisely culture, in its most basic sense of cultivation, of care and respect, not bestiality, that can be the way to reclaiming our place in nature. It is as beings capable of seeing our place in nature from a moral point of view that we can cease being marauders and can become dwellers in the earth.

[Photo: my friend, Chris, standing on volcanic tuff at City of Rocks in New Mexico.]

Confronting Sickness in 2010

What shall the first post of 2010 be?

A Zen poem? Something about the dharma? Another cool video, or something on the state of affairs of our world? A looooong list of resolutions or goals? I'll spare you these ambitions: my wife and I are feeling very lazy, owing to bacterial infections we inherited from our son's recent bout with strep. (He's back to himself, by the way.)

Personally, 2010 is going to be packed with work: digging away at a financial hole I've been living in for quite some time, more night classes to complete my state teaching license, finding a new place for us to live, nurturing the Deming Zen Group, some theatre projects, some political activity and writing, and other writing projects I'm desperate to return to. It is very difficult for me to concentrate on any one of these, as I have no quiet space in which to work, yet I am responsible for all of them.

The theme of 2010, looking at the work ahead of me in the new year, has something to do with confronting sickness. Not the kind of sickness my wife and I are contending with this week. The broader sickness of the world in which our son is learning to speak and act. A world in which our son is among the most privileged, in certain ways, while the worst of human degradation lives just next door. Inhumanity thrives in our country, and in our neighboring states.

Sickness causes us to lose ourselves, to miss our essential connection with other beings. It leads to solipsism, nihilism, violence. It leads to internal violence that reduces so many individual lives to mere episodes of stress, fear, and misery. Sickness limits our imaginations and saws away at our creative faculties. Sickness drives our politics and the policies that govern our lives and define our freedoms. What is this sickness?

Looking back over this blog, it seems to be showing its author's process of moving the camera in and then back out, closeup to far shot, and back again. "Monday Morning Gabriel" and the "big picture" posts about state and society are not separate topics. The sickness that causes individual suffering operates at the societal level and even at the global level.

Globally: there is no longer any legitimate fact-based doubt that there is dramatic climatic change going on that is creating "feedbacks" or chain reactions that will have drastic effects on human life. Gabriel, my son, may see a world, by the time he is eighteen, in which 70% of the earth's land surface is affected by drought, rather than 40% as it currently stands. He may be around for the beginning of a massive migrations and dying-off of large populations whose civilizations are flooded, followed by periods of drought. By the time he is just 27 years old, there may be no more Himalayan glaciers: those glaciers feed rivers that supply water to more than half the world's population. These processes are hastened by the amplifying effects of warming temperatures on earth. According to credible and legitimate climatologists, who are not being paid to buttress anybody's political agenda, we are past the point of averting catastrophe; we are now at the point of containing the disaster, if we so choose.

Indications are, we're still not ready to face that. Our world leaders are not up to the responsibility, and policymakers that take this seriously are overruled by those who can buy influence. Sad, but not complicated.

Nationally: the fabric of our democratic republic has fallen with all the weight of a stage curtain. We are governed by corporate interests. Massive bailouts of financial institutions without meaningful reforms. Over my own lifetime, regulations on capitalism have been dismantled, restoring a "boom and bust" cycle that is typical of this system. Yet more and more of the economy is being transferred to the private sector, meaning more and more services are governed by the profit motive. The result of this is human suffering.

Following the health insurance reform process of 2009 closely, you see the nature of American politics: the lies and propaganda that overrule fact, the corruption of our politicians, the excellent coordination between corporations, the use of sham non-profits that need not reveal who their funders are, the manipulation of public events and news media. One detailed book about this process, by which "reform" turned into legislation that benefitted the insurance companies instead of winning a better deal for the American people (especially its poor), would serve as a summation of American democracy.

The result: human suffering. Oppression, dehumanization, and fatalism. Which serves the winners well.

Individually: I forget which Zen monk it was who said, and I paraphrase, all your troubles are because you think about yourself first and foremost -- and there isn't one.

The job presented to me is to awaken something in my kids, using theatre; it is to run this little Zen group and make the Buddha's insight and technique available for anyone who is interested; it is to continue my own practice, since I really don't know anything either; it is to raise Gabriel with Sarah, and for us to raise him well in a very turbulent world (politically and ecologically).

A big job, a wonderful job, the only job I have. In 2010, the common thread will be addressing our sickness, this sickness we share. Whatever needs to follow will follow.

Happy New Year, and thank you for your life.

(Photo: Yellow House in Snow, taken in Deming earlier this week during an early morning walk.)