Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Asking For The Politics You Want

Sometimes I hear people say that we voters are sick to death of negative political campaigns, the relentless personal attacks in place of reasoned debates about policy.

Some doubt that there are many policy wonks among us voters, and some think the majority of us are downright stupid and need to be lead by beneficent elites. Some, however, think that the public will develop an appetite for public business and policy when explained in an intelligent layman's terms. (By the way: republican democracy has no hope without a commitment to universal public education.)


If there are a number of us voters who are sick of personal attacks being the norm in an election campaign, suppose we started to revolt a bit? Suppose we started asking campaign managers and candidates themselves, consistently and repeatedly, on the phone and by email and fax and at public events, of all political parties, to knock it off and get back to solutions?

Like this email I sent to one of my district's Congressional candidates:

Dear Mr. Pearce, and perhaps also to Jason,

As you and Congressman Teague work out the number and format of your campaign debates, I wonder if you would consider keeping a civil tone at all times. I am asking this in response to quotes like this one:

"This is typical Harry Teague – afraid to speak to voters in an open forum. He proposes debates on narrow subjects so his staff can write answers.” That was Jason Heffley talking to the press and slighting the honor and character of the Congressman.

I'm a voter in Deming. I'm not an enthusiastic fan of Harry, but he has made frequent visits to Deming, holing up at the LaFonda restaurant over on Pine Street so that anyone can come and talk to him. Please consider this open season on Harry's initiatives and favored policies, but going at his character like this is just ugly. I'm asking you to please model a more professional and civil tone as you pursue this campaign. Thanks.

The campaign manager actually wrote back to me an hour later, saying (and I paraphrase) it's not us, it's the other guy who's doing it. In reply, I told him that I teach at an elementary school and I hear that kind of defense every day.

An occasional message like this won't make any difference. But with a consistent and long-term campaign to respond and reject this kind of politics, it begins to send a message. And there's an event stronger message some of us could send: "This donation would have been twice the amount, if you would simply refrain from attacking your opponent's character." Another version: "I cannot donate to a campaign that insists on negative mudslinging. If you change your tone, I will reconsider." When it gets tied to fundraising, the message is harder to ignore.

Just a thought. Good morning.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Dukkha and the First Amendment

Discomfort has been a recurring theme lately, both in the news and in my daily business around Deming.

At work, school has just completed our second week, and we are all adjusting to the schedule and the demands. For some of our Kindergarteners, the discomfort as they get used to a new life as schoolchildren is evident on their faces, in their behavior, in the occasional crying jags.

The discomfort of fighting off a headcold already, despite eating well, drinking herbs, taking echinacea, washing my hands constantly, treating them with sanitizer, and imposing the neti pot on my nose. None of it seems to matter. I'm getting sick again. There is the discomfort of frustration, getting something I don't want yet again.

Many of my students are uncomfortable with my beard and sideburns, as indeed are some of my colleagues. The reactions range from open curiosity to utter disdain. Even a groomed beard is looked on as "dirty" and unacceptable. They don't like it, yet they will be looking at it for another couple of weeks.

There are the discomforts of marriage, the little dissonances and incompatibilities that become familiar if not welcome.

And in the news, there is great discomfort in our republic. With the help of media personalities and politicians, the public has been led away from contemplation of the finance industry and the harm it has done to us; and instead, we've been put on to arguing about islamophobia and race, whether these things exist, whether it is possible to discuss them sensibly.

The building of a large Islamic community center, by a sufi community headed by an Imam who has been a leading American voice for a modern Islam that rejects terrorism and wah'habism, has troubled a great many of us because the project is located a couple of blocks from the site of the 9/11 attacks in New York. Despite themselves, even some with good intentions find that this does not sit well with them somehow.

And today, a rally is taking place at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. that makes many people uncomfortable indeed. It is a right-wing political rally organized and hosted by the political media showman Glenn Beck, and it just happens to take place today: the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech. The date and the location has made a great many people uncomfortable.

The first noble truth of Buddhism is almost universally translated as the truth of suffering (dukkha). There is old age, sickness, death. There is the pain of getting what we don't want, and not getting what we do want. The "problem," to the extent there is one, has to do with wanting something other than what is true here and now. The tighter we hold on to what we desire, against what is, the greater our suffering.

In discussions of the Islamic center in New York and Glenn Beck's rally this week, on this day of days, we return to the implacable freedom granted by our First Amendment. The right to build a house of worship on your own property. The right to make a right-wing conservative speech on the anniversary and location of "I Have A Dream." These rights are not up for a popular vote; that's why they are fundamental rights. The sophisticated idea behind our first amendment is that we can disgree about big ideas and still be unified.

In Buddhist experience, this is going on moment to moment on a personal level: reconciling with discomfort. Living with the things that make us uneasy or sad or angry. Yet putting it down, and answering to what the next moment needs.

Discussions of race are hard because there is a stigma about feeling uncomfortable. If you admit that you feel uncomfortable with people who look, smell, or live differently than you do, someone might jump on you and equate you with the KKK. So people don't "go there." And it's a shame, because "going there" in an atmosphere of compassion and wisdom would really clear the air, benefit us as individuals and a society.

But admitting to discomfort and living with discomfort are, in themselves, troubling ideas. We are trained to believe that happiness is the elimination of discomfort. Impossible, kids. This idea of "happiness" itself arises from the noble truth of discomfort.

It is okay to be uncomfortable with the Islamic community center in lower Manhattan, even though they have a right to build it. It is okay to be uncomfortable with Glenn Beck's rally, too, but if you're feeling angry -- have a read of Dr. King's speech. The sad love for humanity in that speech, and its great purpose, extend to the Glenn Beck followers of the world, too.

The Buddha's Four Noble Truths and our First Amendment are very advanced human ideas -- small wonder that for the majority of us, they are hard to comprehend and and realize.

So when we come into conflict and argue with one another, let us work together from wherever we are and be kind.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Memo on Bushehr

A brief post checking in with the larger world, and the potential for still more military conflict in the middle-east.

Something I learned in 2002, as the drums of war were unmistakably being played for what would be the 2003 invasion of Iraq, is that it is actually very, very difficult to have a hidden nuclear weapons program. In Iraq, it was simply impossible: the extent of our surveillance of the country was such that a project of that scale could not be hidden from view, even if it were taking place underground. There was a better chance of biological weapons being manufactured out of view, because that can be a much smaller project; nuclear weapons, no.

Iran's insistence on developing nuclear energy and widespread suspicions about its intentions, to say nothing of its own bellicose rhetoric, lead many to speculate that there will be a military strike against Iran in the near future. Some even call for forced "regime change."

Much less is written in the mass media about nuclear diplomacy and how it really works. For this reason, I appreciated this commentary about Bushehr, Iran's first nuclear power plant.

...Assertions about the apocalyptically dangerous character of the Bushehr project were a staple of U.S. policy throughout the Clinton Administration and for much of the George W. Bush Administration. But, before he left office, even President George W. Bush had come to recognize the non-threatening character of Bushehr. For its part, the Obama Administration has never had a problem per se with Bushehr as a serious source of proliferation risk.

The media presents us with a false dichotomy. We either trust Iran to develop nuclear energy without weaponizing it, or we have to bomb them. It is a strikingly stupid view of the situation. We don't have to trust them. If the IAEA is supervising the activity, and Russia is removing the spent fuel rods, there is really no hidden weaponizing that can take place. A similar approach might be taken with other sites in Iran that are enriching uranium: sunshine, rather than alienation.

This does, however, mean we need to reconcile ourselves to working in an international manner. That's up to us.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

A Word From Our Sponsors

Good morning.

In a few minutes, I'm getting into my car for the first time in days, and making a trip up to Silver City. Upon my return, Howard S., who runs a violin repair shop in the neighborhood, is coming over to help me put a new window into our Zen Group's dharma room. This project has been waiting for a long time and will make a huge difference to us.

Our first week of school went more smoothly than any of us expected, so there was much happiness on Friday afternoon. (Even more than the usual Friday afternoon happiness.) Then I received a memo from our principal in which she talked about our district's budget woes, and the creative work she's been doing to bring revenue into the school.

The steps include getting approval from the district to sell advertising space on the fence around our school. As kids approach the school for a day of learning, arriving puffy-eyed and sleepy as early as 7:30, they will first be saturated with advertising messages -- just as they will be for the rest of their lives.

My principal is left with little choice and for this, too, I feel sadness. The idea occurred to me to reach out, find philanthropists who understand the importance of education and who are, unlike the state, willing to help fund it. Get them to buy the advertising space and leave it blank.

More likely, however, will be messages from Coke and Deming's numerous payday loansharks adorning our temple to learning. So it goes.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

On Hero Mind and the Lotus Posture

"I have never understood the sometimes obsessive focus on full lotus. Nine years of meditation practice - still no full lotus pose for me. It's no problem at all, nor do I even worry about someday doing meditation regularly in full lotus. I hope anyone reading your post, and worrying about lotus pose, or even half lotus pose, might be able to let it go in reading my words. You can be dedicated to enlightenment, regardless of how you sit or stand."

So wrote Nathan in a comment on our previous post. It is well to give these words a better platform.

The lotus position, that is the "full lotus," is where the knees touch the ground or a mat, and both feet rest on the opposite thighs. It is often presented as the optimal posture for Zen meditation. Some Zen Centers, to this day, insist that practitioners sit in the full lotus or make a concerted effort to achieve it. This often results in people exerting themselves, sitting for long periods in blinding pain. Those stubborn enough to stick with their practice through this agony often require knee surgery.

What horrendous bullshit.

Seated Zen meditation requires a sitting posture that is stable. The full lotus position is a very stable way to sit, and if one has enough stretch to sit that way for the length of their meditation period without injuring themselves, it is a very good way to sit. There are a variety of other sitting postures as well, all of them well suited for Zen meditation.

But we like to make things special. I've read a lot of hocus-pocus about the almost supernatural yogic virtues of sitting in the full lotus posture. There is little research behind the claims, and the project to make the lotus posture special bears at times the distinct odor of elitism. Only special people can do this.

This is making and holding something in front of Zen. Seung Sahn taught us a Korean phrase, yeo hung shim, which he translated as "hero mind." It is an ambition born of spiritual greed. Sitting in the Burmese posture, or kneeling, is not good enough, not "Zen enough." "I" want something. So "I" will sit here with teeth chattering in pain, and maybe roshi will give me a merit badge for my spiritual courage. In order for our "attainment" to be really special, we have to make practice as difficult as possible! Thus people sit there choking on the iron ball of greed until they give up, die, or become bitter.

There is also a phenomenon among us converts of getting it "right." We want to practice in an "authentic" way. So we study and research, take stretch classes so we can get the lotus posture, maybe learn Chinese or Pali or Sanskrit so we can really read the sutras, obsess over the forms so we can get them exactly right, maybe even change our wardrobe and diet and adopt the persona of another culture. It's similar to "hero mind." It's desire.

Let's not misunderstand the point here. This is not meant to downplay the importance of a rigorous effort -- that is critically important to developing a consistent and self-renewing Zen practice. And education is certainly not a bad thing in itself. But a word to the wise: this is all like candy to the ego. Ego loves this spiritual stuff -- especially spiritual stuff that seems hard and elite.

And there is one additional benefit: if it's too hard, we can give up on ourselves, or let ourselves off the hook. This just isn't for me.

Waking up is for everybody. If you want to practice, you can. No excuses. Clear mind is not defined (or confined) by your yogic ability, your ethnic identity, your body type, or any of that stuff. There is nothing heroic or elite about sitting in the full lotus position. It's just a good, stable way to sit. It isn't special. Are you breathing? Are you paying attention?

You come as you are, because really you aren't.

Chisoku, cont.

There are people who give up on starting a meditation practice because they can't sit full lotus. Although most people understand that they will not be doing the side crane asana after their introductory lesson, some feel discouraged about being a beginner, and deny themselves the path altogether.

And for some, that is covertly a way to let themselves off the hook.

There is a saying that the hardest asana is change.

A wonderful man came by the house yesterday to discuss energy use, including a possible solar energy system. Before installing that 2-kilowatt solar power plant on top of our garage, there are steps to take inside the house regarding efficiency. I won't go into lots of mundane detail about solar film and occupancy sensors and the like, but one observation. He spoke in terms of saving money while preserving a status quo. In other words, how to make the present lifestyle more affordable.

Nothing wrong with that. That is what most people want: "how can I use the same amount of power but make it cost less?" It's a familiar motivation.

Sealing up the windows, updating the insulation, and installing one or two more ceiling fans, can help the air conditioning work more efficiently when it's on, and that is well worth doing -- but what about having it on less? Would it be an option to feel just a little more of the summer heat at times?

Occupancy sensors -- the devices that switch off the lights when no one has been in the room for a while -- can save us from acquiring the habit of switching the lights off ourselves when we leave a room. Yet this is still a technological solution for a problem that has a human solution: mindfulness.

This isn't a process of self-flagellation or deprivation. It's a creative process. What would it be like if we tried this?

We won't be able to do the big solar energy system right away. It's a big price tag, and our community does not yet have financing options for something like this. It's too new an industry. Something might happen with that later. So the exciting solar panels on top of the garage will have to wait: it's something we can't do yet.

Instead of focusing on big things I can't do, and giving up on the whole thing, what are the small things that I can do, here where I am?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Good morning. Sitting this morning was accompanied by the sound of heavy vehicles powering up and lumbering back and forth across Spruce Street, which the city recently demolished. They are not merely resurfacing the street, but actually tearing up the early-1950's concrete roadbed, down to the dirt underneath, and replacing the entire road.

During the day today, a man named Lee is going to evaluate our home's potential for solar energy. He works for a local company that has installed several grid-tied systems, whereby homes are converted into small power plants, powering the home and selling any surplus to our electric company. We make this evaluation at a time when there are still some state and federal incentives to help people do this; and if it is within reach, we should do it.

In Japan, some Buddhists bring the practice of mindfulness into their daily lives with the concept of chisoku, or using less. I came across this term when reading a paper about ecological initiatives launched by Buddhists in Japan.

"Using less" sounds like a nice way to put it. It is not about using nothing. We're not Amish. I consume energy. For my own survival and comfort, I use up resources. This is an inescapable truth. What is also true is that I live in a country where a lifestyle is available to me -- in fact, it is practically de rigeur -- that consumes a great deal of resources compared to the global average. (If every human being enjoyed an American middle-class standard of living, we would require several planet earths for resources and energy.)

Cultivating a daily meditation practice was a matter of small steps in the beginning. What was I willing to do? Was I willing to dedicate five minutes a day no matter what? Was I willing to do a retreat per year? Instead of constructing a huge and discouraging goal from the beginning, I set the bar low and raised it as I was ready.

Chisoku can be a similar process. Are there ways to economize, use just a little bit less? Are there small changes I'm ready to make now? What are the things I take for granted?

Am I willing to hang up my wet clothes on a line? Why, yes, I can do that while minding Gabriel as he plays in the yard.

Am I willing to buy a bicycle and commute to school a few times a week? Why, yes, and I appreciate the exercise, too.

The house we moved into in June has central air conditioning. This has provided some welcome relief when the temperatures around here hit 100 degrees. What we soon learned, however, is how much energy the system uses. Our family's average electricity use tripled. So the question is, are there other things we can do to beat the heat? Of course there are. Most families do not enjoy this luxury at all. Surely we can use it less, drink more water, air out the home, spend more time outside.

And today we will at least have a conversation about different options for generating some, if not all, of our power from the sun rather than coal. With that information, we will see what steps we are willing to take.

Information + willingness.

Monday, August 16, 2010

On the Set of FOLKLORE

Long, hot days way out on a little country road heading north from Corralitos Ranch, out in Dona Ana County west of Las Cruces.

We are filming a movie entitled Folklore, in which I play a mean-spirited biker by the name of Mickey. We don't have the budget for air-conditioned trailers, and we shelter as best we can, although there is scarcely any shelter to be found in the 105-degree heat and blazing sun.

These cows gently make their way around us, doing their thing, occasionally strolling into the horizon while we are shooting. Sometimes, when we go off to find a place to pee, we meet up with a cow -- or even a wary bull.

Mickey (the character I play) is a person who, shall we say, has not yet encountered the Dhammapada.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

An Arab Man Knitting On The Train

...God, if there is a god,
gave us sausage and tomatoes

and Fool and radishes and mint,

and asses and tits and Facebook

and bicycles and we still find

the time to kill each other.

Good morning, everybody.

A new school year is getting underway and so this blog will shift gears once more, with perhaps fewer and shorter updates. Besides school, there is some talk of a Shakespeare workshop in Deming, and it is also time to schedule another retreat day for the Zen group.

For the most part, this entry is to share a brief excerpt from a talk by writer and engineer Zein El-Amine, in which he describes the power of creativity to open up some space in oppressive circumstances. Kite-flying in Gaza. Hip-hop in the war zone. And why people in the middle east tell the best jokes. The transcript of his whole talk is here, and it is worth your time. It is also on video here although when I tried, the video would not play. I enjoyed reading.

Here is a story of how he used knitting needles to confront racial profiling.

I wanted to talk about a couple of pivotal moments in my life that taught me how to shift these parameters. Why is being whimsy, for people who are oppressed, why being whimsy in our actions – meaning, creating that wiggling room when we are in a headlock, to sing our song - is so important?

A few years ago, around the bombings of the trains in Spain; do people remember that? It was a huge global incident, right? I was working at the University of Maryland, and at the time, I was taking knitting classes. So one evening, I get on the platform at College Park, and I have two bags - one is my school bag and one is my knitting bag - and it was winter. I had all sorts of clothes [on]. I had a cap on and I had grown this beard, purely out of neglect. I am sitting there on the platform, and the metro attendant decides to improvise her usual message: “If you see any person that is suspicious please report them to metro.” She decides to improvise that. She started by saying, “If you don’t want what happened in Spain to happen here, then report, blah blah blah,” which scared the hell out of the people on the platform. And of course, what do they settle on is the bearded Arab with the two bags, right? And so I’m getting all these stares, and I do get stares usually, but this was ridiculous.

Finally, the train comes and I get on the train, and I always sit in the seat that faces all the other seats, and I realized that that wasn’t the thing to do on that day. So I am almost on stage, there’s nothing in front of me, it’s one of those seats, and I have these two bags in front of me. And one older lady is looking at me and she is totally sympathetic. She’s the only one in the car that knows there is something wrong with the scrutiny. She is smiling and she is trying to show her disgust with the other passengers. I am getting angrier and angrier.

My instinct is to stand up and say, “You’re a bunch of racists and I know why you’re looking at me!” And that’s the drive, that’s the overwhelming force. But then I thought about it. Fortunately, I take yoga. I took a couple of breaths and I decided to do the last thing this audience would expect, I pulled out my knitting needles and I started knitting. And I knit for like a minute and I wasn’t even following the pattern, just like knit and purl and knit and purl and knit and purl. And then I looked up and everybody was turning around. And the only person that was looking at me was the older lady and she was laughing her heart out. I had just shifted the framework. I didn’t confront them on their grounds. They’re in a completely different territory. They don’t know what to do with this, an Arab man knitting on a train. They’re lost. They have to reestablish the logic [that has] been pressed upon them by media and such.

He also quotes a line from Rumi referring to a field beyond good and evil. Friends, where is this field?

Monday, August 09, 2010

(Bleep) the Censors Say

On certain hot issues, my country puzzles me. Profanity is one them.

The fuss that is made over profanity amuses me. A word, a phonetic utterance, does not have the power to summon evil or bring about a natural disaster. A word does not have the magical ability to pervert any person's soul -- and no, not even a child's.

If we know the meaning of a word, why can't we say the word? If we know what it is we are talking about, why can't we use frank language for what we know we are talking about? Do we believe that saying the word will conjure a demon with laser eyes that will start killing us all? There are nicer words for sex than fuck in some cases, but that's the wonderful thing about language: sometimes "making love" is right; "making the beast with two backs" is fun; and in other cases, I wish I could just say fuck among adults without pussyfooting around it. A model sentence would be, "The high rates of DUI and teen pregnancy in Deming arise in part from the problem that, in Deming, there is little to do besides drinking and fucking." That is a constructive argument stated in frank, direct language.

It amazes me what people put up with from the state, the corporations that determine their choices as consumers, and other citizens; yet they are driven into fits of outrage when Janet Jackson accidentally flashes a breast on television, or Bono slips and says "fuck," or if a new television show premieres with the title $#!' My Dad Says.

Here's the thing: the title of this television show does not actually contain any profanity. Those symbols are, literally, part of the title. In other words, the title consists of a reference to a profane word, without actually using the word itself.

That's still not good enough for the Parents Television Council. This organization is going after the show's advertisers urging them to force the network to change the title of its show, because they feel the title is "indecent."

I wouldn't consider it "indecent" if the network actually called the show Shit My Dad Says. It is common English. Shit, a word for excrement that has many colloquial meanings, some perjorative and some not. In this case, it refers to idle or foolish chatter, which is the topic of the show (in which William Shatner plays an ornery senior citizen given to saying inexplicable, yet often funny or unexpectedly wise, things).

But there is nothing, absolutely nothing indecent about $#!' My Dad Says. A dollar sign, a number symbol, an exclamation point, and an apostrophe? Perhaps someone at the Parents Television Council is objecting to the fact that the symbols made them think of the word? Based on the PTV's own press release, their position may be even less thoughtful than that. President Tim Winters is quoted saying:

[Advertisers] can be complicit in the effort to serve up excrement in front of children and families, or they can choose not to associate their products and services with excrement...Beyond a port-a-potty, a laxative or a roll of toilet paper, most corporations don’t want their customers to associate their products or services with excrement. I certainly hope advertisers agree that their hard-earned brands are worth more than this raunchy attempt at humor."

In order to give themselves something to do, the folks at PTV are pretending to believe this word only refers, literally, to excrement. At this point, they are not only attempting to censor network television to suit their taste (and their strange ideas about the supernatural power of words to destroy civilization), but they are insulting our intelligence as adults who speak the English language fluently.

What a bunch of shit.

William Shatner seems to agree. Here's what we had to say:

Do you know what I wish? I wish they would call it shit. ... I've got grandchildren. I brought up three girls. They've all got kids. OK? And you say, `Boopy-doo-doo, you've got to make poo-poo. Come on. Make poo-poo in the toilet.' Eventually, poo-poo becomes shit. `Go take a shit, you'll feel better.' You say that to your kids. The word shit is around us. It isn't a terrible term. It's a natural function. Why are we pussyfooting?

It doesn't mean you have to say "take a shit" all the time. Other people's feelings do matter. Like the censors say, we have lots of other ways to say that. They are right. The problem is, they want to control those options, based on their own taste. And they claim their concern for children as their justification, even when it's a show that is not marketed to children, and even though there is no law requiring parents to put a television in a child's bedroom with no adult supervision.

As a parent, I want to teach my son about profanity, not shield him from it. We use different language registers for different situations: they way I talk to my chums is different than the way I talk in a professional situation, or when I'm with my in-laws, and so on. And heck, among Italians it is even more complicated: the meaning of a word or phrase can change based on what you're doing with your hands while you say it. Children need education about the world so they can participate fully.

But again: this show isn't for kids anyway.

And this needs to be said again because it's a bigger deal than the press is making it out to be: this time, PTV isn't even going after one of the famous "Seven Dirty Words" for being spoken. Now, they want to forbid networks from even making you think of one of the seven dirty words.

Thought crime?? This is going too far. It's going beyond too far. Hey, PTV, here's a message just for you:

Back the %^(& off

Here is some required viewing:

Jesus and Sangha

My long-time friend Jane Redmont has An Open Letter to Anne Rice up at the Episcopal Cafe which I found interesting, and would like to recommend to Christian readers of this blog.

(I would also recommend her blog, Acts of Hope. Adorable cat photos interspersed with her thoughtful posts about actively engaging Christian faith in the world. Hard to go wrong there.)

In Buddhism, we speak of three essential treasures or gems: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. The third, sangha, is about community and fellowship. This is not only about encouragement and support, although these are important for most of us. It is part of the process of waking up from our ignorant dreams. The other is in fact yourself: when you spend time with others, your mind appears and is reflected back to you. We practice "correct situation, correct relationship, and correct function" in our encounter with the other -- this is the body of Buddha.

As Jane writes, "You can't do the Jesus thing alone."

What I am writing to tell you is that there’s no such creature as a lone follower of Jesus. You can’t be a Jesus-person away in a corner. Even hermits pray in communion with a larger tradition, a church beyond themselves in a world which is the place where God becomes incarnate.

In isolation it is very easy to get caught up in dreams and self-satisfaction. Mu Sang Sunim, reflecting on his travels in Korea, used to tell me stories about hermit monks who would have some sort of "experience" and, in solitude, would convert it into an "attainment" with a conceptual framework. Sunim said, "That's how new religions get born."

Jane is a Christian who has sat Zen herself, and understands this point well. The sangha jewel, together-action with other people, helps us put down our ideas about what we are doing. At that point, it becomes possible for us just to do it, with undivided minds (or no mind at all, some would say).

This Christ you believe in, Anne Rice, where do you meet him? He doesn’t only live in your head and heart, or in the Eucharist you told us you will miss so deeply, or in the scriptures that are our legacy from the early churches. We meet Christ every day in others, especially in what Mother Teresa called “the distressing disguise of the poor.” Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker, knew and lived this also, but she went a step further than her co-religionist in analyzing the causes of poverty, the deadly rush to war that robs the poor even when we are only preparing for military battle and not waging it, the love of possessions and power above the respect for the dignity of humans all made in the image of God.

And there is also an interesting variation on a theme that appeared on this blog in our series about Zen institutions. Instead of quoting more, I'll let you go visit and read, if you want.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Aitken Roshi (1917 - 2010)

Robert Aitken, one of the more fascinating and under-celebrated Americans of the last century, passed away at the age of 93 on Thursday.

He was a civilian prisoner of war, held by the Japanese during World War II, when he heard about Zen Buddhism from a fellow captive, the scholar, R. H. Blyth. He survived the war and eventually made his way to California where he met a Japanese master and began to study Zen himself. He also attracted the interest of the FBI because of his political activism -- he was a pacifist and advocate for labor and ecology.

He spent years moving between Japan and his home in Hawaii, doing hard training. After receiving transmission from Yamada Koun he lived as a layperson, building a sangha in Honolulu. He was a co-founder of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. He also became something of a mentor, a wise grandfather for American Zen. A great many of us converts to Zen were exposed to his books Taking the Path of Zen and The Mind of Clover. (For my money, one of the best - and forgotten - books of the last decade was his short novel from 2002, Zen Master Raven.) He was also a trusted spokesman on ethics even when several respected Zen teachers stumbled over issues of sex, power, and financial propriety.

Rather than grief, we at the Burning House reflect on his passing with immense gratitude.

Ji Jang Bosal, Ji Jang Bosal, Ji Jang Bosal.

Friday, August 06, 2010

A Glimpse of Mickey

He is a rattlesnake.

In this photo, courtesy of Johnny Tabor, we get a glimpse of Mickey, the character I play in his film, Folklore. Back in April, I told you the story of how I landed this role. Now the movie is in production and I've been busy filming.

Mickey is an unpleasant fellow, running cocaine across New Mexico in a white van protected by three motorcycles (including his own, a handlebars-over-the-head Harley). He is wearing the colors of the Hell's Angels, and coincidentally that shirt exactly matches the shirts issued to violent offenders in El Paso.

Full makeup requires more than an hour. My skin is painted to look leathery and sunburnt. Teeth are painted to look discolored and slightly rotten. Tattoos are hand-painted on my neck and fingers, because for some reason the instant tats will not adhere to my skin. Then I am fitted with the hair and put into wardrobe.

In this scene, however, I am actually talking to some of the actors about meditation while we wait (and wait and wait and wait and wait). Here is the full view, with the gorgeous sky over Radium Springs:

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Stewart: I Give Up

For a long time, I've enjoyed watching comedian (and astute media critic) Jon Stewart editorialize and spoof the day's news. As I have pretty much given up hope on our political process, as I've observed what happens when a country based on certain ideas fails to teach those ideas to its people, and as I watch my country succumb to class warfare, nihilistic capitalism, and unflappable stupidity, Jon Stewart has at least helped me to laugh about it. The laughter has helped me to put it down, turn away from the news and the media circus, and return to family, practice, and daily life.

Nowadays, though, I've noticed a shift in Stewart's tone. I still laugh with him, but he's sounding as discouraged as I am.

Who is making Jon Stewart laugh these days?

I don't know the answer to that. But here, enjoy his latest piece, entitled I Give Up.

I Give Up - 9/11 Responders Bill
The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
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Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Go Home?

The incident underscores how contentious — and, perhaps, how irrational — the debate over the mosque has become.

Indeed. For one thing, describing Cordoba House as a mosque is inaccurate, because it is intended as a more ambitious and pluralistic project.

Anyway, in a column about the bigoted protests against the Islamic community center in lower Manhattan, we come across this ironic incident:

At one point, a portion of the crowd menacingly surrounded two Egyptian men who were speaking Arabic and were thought to be Muslims.

"Go home," several shouted from the crowd.

"Get out," others shouted.

In fact, the two men – Joseph Nassralla and Karam El Masry — were not Muslims at all. They turned out to be Egyptian Coptic Christians who work for a California-based Christian satellite TV station called "The Way." Both said they had come to protest the mosque.

"I'm a Christian," Nassralla shouted to the crowd, his eyes bulging and beads of sweat rolling down his face.

But it was no use. The protesters had become so angry at what they thought were Muslims that New York City police officers had to rush in and pull Nassralla and El Masry to safety.

"I flew nine hours in an airplane to come here," a frustrated Nassralla said afterward.

This is not only about religious persecution, it is also a vague ethnic persecution, as when Sikhs are harassed by people who think they are muslims, and others who simply appear by their clothes or the color of their skin to be of middle-eastern descent.

It is a sad irony that the Cordoba House's stated purpose is, in substance, a repudiation of the Islamist fanaticism that has deployed terrorism around the world. Here we have American muslims seeking engagement with other faiths and with republican democracy. There could not be a more profound rebuke of Osama bin Laden's vision of the world.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Bloomberg on Religious Liberty

The following is a speech by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, delivered after the Cordoba Initiative cleared a procedural hurdle towards building an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan, a couple of blocks away from Ground Zero. It's a good speech which I reprint here without comment. (Yours, however, are welcome.)

We have come here to Governors Island to stand where the earliest settlers first set foot in New Amsterdam, and where the seeds of religious tolerance were first planted. We've come here to see the inspiring symbol of liberty that, more than 250 years later, would greet millions of immigrants in the harbor, and we come here to state as strongly as ever - this is the freest City in the world. That's what makes New York special and different and strong.

Our doors are open to everyone - everyone with a dream and a willingness to work hard and play by the rules. New York City was built by immigrants, and it is sustained by immigrants - by people from more than a hundred different countries speaking more than two hundred different languages and professing every faith. And whether your parents were born here, or you came yesterday, you are a New Yorker.

We may not always agree with every one of our neighbors. That's life and it's part of living in such a diverse and dense city. But we also recognize that part of being a New Yorker is living with your neighbors in mutual respect and tolerance. It was exactly that spirit of openness and acceptance that was attacked on 9/11.

On that day, 3,000 people were killed because some murderous fanatics didn't want us to enjoy the freedom to profess our own faiths, to speak our own minds, to follow our own dreams and to live our own lives.

Of all our precious freedoms, the most important may be the freedom to worship as we wish. And it is a freedom that, even here in a City that is rooted in Dutch tolerance, was hard-won over many years. In the mid-1650s, the small Jewish community living in Lower Manhattan petitioned Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant for the right to build a synagogue - and they were turned down.

In 1657, when Stuyvesant also prohibited Quakers from holding meetings, a group of non-Quakers in Queens signed the Flushing Remonstrance, a petition in defense of the right of Quakers and others to freely practice their religion. It was perhaps the first formal, political petition for religious freedom in the American colonies - and the organizer was thrown in jail and then banished from New Amsterdam.

In the 1700s, even as religious freedom took hold in America, Catholics in New York were effectively prohibited from practicing their religion - and priests could be arrested. Largely as a result, the first Catholic parish in New York City was not established until the 1780's - St. Peter's on Barclay Street, which still stands just one block north of the World Trade Center site and one block south of the proposed mosque and community center.

This morning, the City's Landmark Preservation Commission unanimously voted not to extend landmark status to the building on Park Place where the mosque and community center are planned. The decision was based solely on the fact that there was little architectural significance to the building. But with or without landmark designation, there is nothing in the law that would prevent the owners from opening a mosque within the existing building. The simple fact is this building is private property, and the owners have a right to use the building as a house of worship.

The government has no right whatsoever to deny that right - and if it were tried, the courts would almost certainly strike it down as a violation of the U.S. Constitution. Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question - should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here. This nation was founded on the principle that the government must never choose between religions, or favor one over another.

The World Trade Center Site will forever hold a special place in our City, in our hearts. But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves - and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans - if we said 'no' to a mosque in Lower Manhattan.

Let us not forget that Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11 and that our Muslim neighbors grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans. We would betray our values - and play into our enemies' hands - if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else. In fact, to cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists - and we should not stand for that.

For that reason, I believe that this is an important test of the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetime - as important a test - and it is critically important that we get it right.

On September 11, 2001, thousands of first responders heroically rushed to the scene and saved tens of thousands of lives. More than 400 of those first responders did not make it out alive. In rushing into those burning buildings, not one of them asked 'What God do you pray to?' 'What beliefs do you hold?'

The attack was an act of war - and our first responders defended not only our City but also our country and our Constitution. We do not honor their lives by denying the very Constitutional rights they died protecting. We honor their lives by defending those rights - and the freedoms that the terrorists attacked.

Of course, it is fair to ask the organizers of the mosque to show some special sensitivity to the situation - and in fact, their plan envisions reaching beyond their walls and building an interfaith community. By doing so, it is my hope that the mosque will help to bring our City even closer together and help repudiate the false and repugnant idea that the attacks of 9/11 were in any way consistent with Islam. Muslims are as much a part of our City and our country as the people of any faith and they are as welcome to worship in Lower Manhattan as any other group. In fact, they have been worshiping at the site for the better part of a year, as is their right.

The local community board in Lower Manhattan voted overwhelmingly to support the proposal and if it moves forward, I expect the community center and mosque will add to the life and vitality of the neighborhood and the entire City.

Political controversies come and go, but our values and our traditions endure - and there is no neighborhood in this City that is off limits to God's love and mercy, as the religious leaders here with us today can attest.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Biker Ambiance and Upaya

Here is a comedic bit of upaya (expedient means) from the set of Folklore, currently filming in Las Cruces and Luna County. We claim no credit for it, however. It was our wardrobe that did the talking.

In full costume, we bikers look rather intimidating. Especially if you don't know us.

The four actors that comprise the biker gang are local radio personality Jack Lutz, a dad who brings his wise-cracking 11-year old son on set, a local auto mechanic, and whatever I am.

Then they apply makeup to sunburn us and make our skin look leathery. They dirty our fingernails and apply tattoos. We are in layers of denim and leather, a la mode 1974. Dark glasses, bandannas. Heavy boots. In addition, I wear several rings on tattooed fingers.

We recently spent two days filming at a rest stop on the I-25 north of Radium Springs, about 25 miles north of Las Cruces. Although DOT gave us permission to close the rest area, motorists often steered around our signs and barriers to use the bathroom. As a compromise, the crew roped off certain areas, making pathways to the bathrooms that steered people away from where we were shooting, and they explained to our visitors that we were filming a movie. In particular, they needed to preserve quiet on the set while cameras were rolling. For the most part, people were very cooperative and understanding.

On Sunday, we met an exception. A gentleman traveling with his wife stopped and watched from the parking lot, perhaps trying to discern any celebrities in our midst. He continued to converse in full voice while cameras were rolling, and when a crew member asked him to be quiet, the motorist became angry. He raised his voice and began arguing with the crew member. When our producer attempted to explain the situation to the motorist once more, the man became angrier still and launched into an outraged tirade, now yelling loud enough to interfere with the shoot.

Jack Lutz and I looked at one another, nodded, and proceeded to walk towards the scene. We never said a word. We just tromped over there in our boots, denim and leather, tattoos, and dark glasses. We then approached the producer, who at this point was in despair of getting this fellow to calm down. Softly, not looking at the guy, I said, "Tony, what's going on here?"

With a twinkle in his eye, Tony whispered to us, "Let's just have a hushed conversation right here for a minute."

As we had our hushed conversation, we could see the angry motorist step back slowly to the other side of his car, checking us out. In the car, his wife said something to him about "getting us killed" and after taking another minute or so to keep face, he was driving off.

At which point the filming continued with no harm done.