Monday, January 31, 2011

Compassion and Fool's Gold

One of the stumbling blocks in communicating my personal feelings about this world is that, from the perspective of the dharma, the very language I would use -- the concepts, the dichotomies, the emotions that arise -- are to some degree the cause of my suffering. They arise from my conditioning, my sense of an isolated self, making likes and dislikes which I then treat as real. Therefore, my best ideas are all fool's gold: an attempt to snatch something for myself out of the churning, formless void. By acting on these ideas, I'm just being greedy and causing more confusion. That's the hard line and the wisdom in this teaching is hard to face, yet impossible to ignore once it is noticed.

The downside is, it can inhibit conversation, even though many of the senior teachers in my Zen school are psychotherapists or counselors. I was present once when Zen Master Bon Soeng, a teacher in Berkeley, asked my friend Rebecca a question. To answer, she had to express a personal opinion and she suddenly felt shy about that. She prefaced her answer by saying, "Well, of course, this is all just my 'making', but --"

And he cut in: "Well, tell me what you're making. That's what I want to know." He was genuinely interested, as a person; but first they had to sidestep this inhibition about sharing a feeling or an opinion. It's not very "Zen" to do that, one supposes.

Along with personal disclosure, attaching to dharma can also inhibit a social view of our world. However fleeting and transient our world is, human suffering is a reliable phenomenon. And no, not all human suffering arises from one's egotistical thinking. Human suffering is transmitted socially by how we treat one another. We treat each other badly in our families and in our larger societies as well. This is well worth addressing while we're in this world. It has to do with taking responsibility for what appears in front of us.

Compassion is a concept. Is it fool's gold like all the rest? It may well be. Does it matter?

Deming is a windy place, and the wind frequently blows trash into the yard -- most of it is plastic shopping bags. I go out and pick up the bags. More come the next day. Should I not bother? What happens if I "let it go" and allow the trash to accumulate? Am I worried about what people will think of us? Or do I do it so my family has a nice place to live, my son a place to play? Is that greed? Do I do it in an angry frame of mind?

If I sat around asking all these questions, however valuable they may seem, not much would be done. There is a certain spiritual greed in the line of questioning itself: do my actions reflect enlightenment? Am I being Zen enough? Beware of the imaginary inner Zen Master checking your life. Sometimes people have said, "I don't care about enlightenment." This is slightly off the mark. Enlightenment is not the problem. Checking our own enlightenment is the problem. That's the problem of greed.

Drop that, and your job with respect to the "plastic bags" in your life is perfectly simple.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Tumble the Pharoah

Mohamed Gaber is a graphic designer and photographer in Cairo, Egypt. Check out his blog at Gaber has created and published 13 other revolutionary posters for the ongoing mobilization in Egypt, under a Creative Commons license and downloadable at

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Payday Loans For Countries

One way to execute a perfect crime is to make it impossible to understand. The crime is virtually invisible in the midst of exhausting and confusing details. Few of us understand how the Bretton Woods institutions, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (both founded in 1944), use debt to subjugate entire nations of human beings, to extract their resources, make them dependent on imports from the northern countries, and stabilize them against popular revolution and democracy.

French economists Eric Toussaint and Damien Millet do us a tremendous service in offering this book, organized around 60 questions an informed adult might ask, demystifying the economics and politics of debt and interest. What is the Paris Club, and how does it exert so much unaccountable power in the world? What are vulture funds? What is "structural adjustment" and how does it affect the lives of the poor around the world? What is legitimate debt, and what is "odious debt?" How do countries become enslaved by debt, and what are reasonable alternatives? We are given an excellent course in the economic science and the law -- to the extent that international law even applies to institutions like the World Bank.

Finally, there is the case for debt cancellation in the interests of meaningful human development, and a comparison of the moral hazard in forgiving some countries' debt to the moral hazard of continuing to strangle the majority of the world's population.

It is an eye-opening explanation of how the world really works, and who holds power. This is likely one of the most important books to have appeared in 2010, and possibly will be one of the most important books of the decade.

Debt, the IMF, and the World Bank: Sixty Questions, Sixty Answers. By E. Toussaint and D. Millet. New York: Monthly Review Press. 2010.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Opposing Harrison Schmitt

Sen. John Arthur Smith
Box 998
Deming, NM 88031

RE: Opposing the nomination of Harrison Schmitt to Dept. of Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources

Dear Senator,

Governor Susana Martinez has nominated Harrison Schmitt to head New Mexico’s Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resource department. Today I am writing to request that you vote against this nomination.

It is not simply because Harrison Schmitt has expressed skepticism about climate change and the involvement of human economic activity. The Governor herself has expressed such skepticism and she won the election. Harrison Schmitt goes much farther than this. As recently as 2009, Mr. Schmitt has made remarks for broadcast and publication alleging that (1) the notion that human activity contributes to climate change is an intentional hoax, (2) that the federal government is a conspirator in this hoax, pressuring scientists to affirm that human activity affects climate, and (3) that the hoax is an operation of a broad-based “Communist movement” (to use his own phrase) whose purpose is to oppose American “liberty.”

Mr. Harrison Schmitt is not merely a conservative skeptic who prefers to err on the side of industry with respect to economic policy. He exhibits signs of believing irrational conspiracy rumors that have no basis in reality, while ignoring valid scientific information that is highly relevant to the responsibilities of this post. This, in my opinion, makes him inappropriate for such an important post. I shudder to think of such a person being in charge of the Mining and Minerals Division, our state parks, the Oil Conservation Division, and the Energy Conservation Management Division. One simply cannot trust his judgment.

It is the Governor’s prerogative to nominate a cabinet that shares her vision of good policy and planning, and in her case that presumably includes an ideology that favors the interest of business and industry. This does not, however, mean a Governor should receive carte blanche to nominate absolutely anyone, regardless how extreme or irrational their ideological bias might be. And so I believe it would be a good decision to oppose this nomination. I hope you agree, or will take this under consideration.


Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Don't Put Hard-Boiled Eggs in the Microwave

There is a certain time of morning I always find our school's custodians in the lounge. It is their coffee break time, and they'll be sitting around the table, jiving each other in English and Spanish. This is their chance to get a morning snack. At this point, they've been at work longer than almost any of us.

One morning recently, Blanca had brought in a hard boiled egg for her snack. Observing her intention of heating up her egg in the microwave, Robert called out to her over his coffee, "Don't do it! Blanca, that egg will explode if you put it in the microwave."

She hesitated but decided to give it a try anyway. In it went, beeping buttons pressed, whooosh. They waited. No explosion. Blanca opened the microwave and shrugged. No problem. She took out the plate and had a seat, getting ready to enjoy her warm hard boiled egg.

Then she bit into the egg and --splifff!-- it blew up in her face.

We are happy to report there were no injuries. However, no snack for Blanca that morning.

I am but a prophet delivering unto you this message: don't put hard boiled eggs in the microwave.

Monday, January 24, 2011

So We're All Civil Now, Eh? [UPDATED]

We are going to try making our politics more "civil" now, have you heard?

Members of the two dominant parties in our limited-democracy are going to sit next to each other at the President's "State of the Union" address this week.

Brings tears to the eyes, doesn't it?

Of course, it is rumored that in that very speech, the President is going to come out in support of damaging Social Security. And even if the Congressmen assembled to listen sit next to each and hold hands, here are some other things going on:

  • The deadline for closing Guantanamo Bay passed a few days ago with 174 prisoners still there.
  • The U.S. is still helping Honduras launder its coup by supporting a President elected at a time that its people could not lawfully assemble, demonstrate, or meaningfully compete in an election without fear of arrest and torture.
  • The Bretton Woods institutions, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, continue to use predatory interest on loans to subjugate the so-called developing countries, to interfere with their politics and extract their resources while making them dependent on imports from the global North.
  • My government is now investing less of my pay in Social Security -- part of the new "tax deal" that I am supposed to be happy about -- which obligates me to invest more retirement savings in stocks and bonds instead, and is the beginning of choking Social Security out of existence. If Social Security is to be sustained in the future by transfers from the general fund, then opponents have comfort for an argument that it drains the economy. As it stands now, Social Security cannot pay out a dime more than it collects itself. This is purely ideological. Social Security is not really in trouble and does not contribute to the deficit as of now. I could say some angry things about this and where we are headed but hey, I'm a civil guy. [UPDATE: Scuttlebutt says Obama won't endorse this in his state of the union speech.]
  • We are still treating WikiLeaks as if it were a terrorist organization and not a media organization doing investigative journalism, and we are building legal arguments that could be used against the media generally if they report on our government.
  • We are confiscating laptop computers and cell phones from people without warrants at airports arbitrarily, and adding names to the "no fly" list apparently as political punishment, as in the case of one American who works for WikiLeaks but has not been charged with any crime. He's lucky. One young American got his name put on there for no apparent reason, and he languished in a Kuwaiti prison for a month, where he was tortured but never charged with any crime. This way, you see, he could be questioned without legal counsel present.
  • And Bradley Manning, a whistleblower who has not yet stood trial or been convicted, is being detained in solitary confinement in conditions that are known to cause psychological damage. Punishment first, then the trial and the sentence. Or maybe punishment first, then the sentence, and then the trial. Or skip the trial altogether? I could accuse our military of cruel and unusual punishment of a man who is still, legally, innocent: but hey, I'm a civil guy.
  • There's more stuff going on in our country and the world that is not so civil. Poverty, starvation, odious and illegitimate debt, improper foreclosures, denial of health care to veterans, and much more. I have actually run out of time.

But hey, the Republicans and the Democrats are going to sit next to each during a joint session. What a Hallmark moment that is.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Mirror Room: Character and Self

Our dressing room at the Black Box in Las Cruces has one long mirror where the actors may put on makeup, and two smaller mirrors on different walls. It's not exactly the mirror room that exists in the wings of a Noh theatre, where actors wave goodbye to themselves as they assume the mask and posture of their character. It can serve a similar purpose, however. Ta ta, particular self. Hello, stage character self.

I'm not considered an "old" actor yet. Next week, I hit 40, which is not so old. Still young enough to play Hamlet. There is a shift, however. An actor has seasons that do not correspond to any particular number. At some point, we stop being a leading man, the young romantic lead, the wide-eyed boy. In this new season, our range is wider. We can play younger or older, credibly. Nowadays I get to be a character actor. Over the last several months, I've had four very distinct character assignments. A hit man with a philosophical bent and a bourgeois affect. A working class shmoe who grabs a gun when the world is ending and falls into psychosis. A motorcycle gangster from the 1970's. A 19th-century police detective with a gift for "reading people." Ten years ago, even 5 years ago, I would not have been considered for these parts.

These roles have drawn on everything I learned back in conservatory and everything I have learned about life and art since then. And even then, I might have no idea until I am in costume and makeup. One of the film projects I did in 2010 was like this. The page did not tell me much. I never got to rehearse and experiment before going on set. So I came early, got into full makeup and costume, and excused myself to the rest room so I could look in the mirror. Then I walked around the set for a good two hours, feeling the confines of the costume and the heat of the environment. Soon, it was the costume walking, and someone called to me and a voice came out of me and there was the character.

It isn't magic, as tempting as it is to present it that way. It's the imagination working at a level where the artist forgets himself temporarily. For writers, this is where the story or the characters take over and begin to write themselves. So it seems, at least.

Younger actors are often discouraged from concerning themselves with character work, the so-called "externals." American actors are steeped in the "internals," getting at a truthful personal experience using sense memory and emotional recall. Sometimes actors come away with the impression that adding characteristics is "artificial" and therefore untruthful, i.e. bad. The idea that maybe some of the internal truth is actually "artificial" as well -- or, we might say, conditioned behavior -- is not brought up. To thine own self be true! But never ask where this "self" comes from. That is taboo.

Waving goodbye to yourself in the mirror room is not really saying goodbye. How could an actor ever play a character truthfully without knowing something of herself? Without some insight into how ego works as a process? Learning how to connect to your own experience and to be vulnerable as yourself, with all your baggage, is key to playing honestly. Perhaps this is why character work comes easier a bit later in an actor's life and practice. You can look at your physical form. You can also look at the non-physical form, the shape of your mind, the personality you tend to enact. And even so, the eye with which we view ourselves is not really the eye of the audience. We can't really see ourselves as others see us.

I put on the powder, rouge my cheeks just a bit, apply some color to my lips, a thin line beneath my eyes, and then spend several minutes greying my hair. May inside and outside disappear into each other and, for two hours, may this character walk and speak through me, so we can get the story told. Svaha.

[Photo: Noh actor donning mask in front of the mirror]

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Curtain Call

Last night we rehearsed our curtain call, the point in the show where the actors receive the applause of the audience.

It's an important gesture because this is where the audience gets to show appreciation, and the actors openly acknowledge it. It is "thank you" and "you're welcome" writ large. A bad curtain call can leave a bad taste after a good performance. There is something most ungracious about a sloppy curtain call.

The cast of Crime and Punishment was given a choice of exiting as a company out to the front lobby to receive people after the show or to move in the direction of the dressing rooms, at which point actors could go into the lobby individually or go back to the dressing room to wash up.

After the curtain call, I am used to disappearing. After giving my best performance, and then sincerely bowing to those who came to watch, my job is done. It's time to mop off the makeup, get into my own clothes, and leave the temple -- er, the theatre -- with dignity. If I know there are friends coming, I'll go out and see them, of course. I'm grateful to them for coming and waiting to see me. However, even here, I prefer to keep a low-profile so as not to put myself on parade.

This is what I saw growing up watching plays at Trinity Rep through the 1980's, when I was pretty young and impressionable. The actors would give these wonderful performances, some of them unforgettable, and they would bow and disappear into the wings. Many years later, when I started performing there myself, I emulated that, exiting quietly through the stage door on Empire Street.

It's not really humility, as fellow actor Billy Zimmerman suggested last night. Goodness! If only he knew. Privately, I enjoy the occasional compliment, sure. It's nice to feel appreciated. But I don't want to upstage the work. Sometimes we make theatre all about the performers whereas for me it's something more like church. I'm a singer in the choir, and the glory is not for me.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Ri-Ken-No-Ken (An Actor's Mind)

We are in tech rehearsals for Crime and Punishment at the Blackbox in Las Cruces. We are merging the technical elements of the production with our performances and, at the same time, honing our performances as much as can be done with no audience present.

So I may be offering lots of posts on acting this week, if I may beg your indulgence.

Ri-ken-no-ken is a concept articulated by the theatre master Zeami (approx. 1363 - 1443), a founder of Noh theatre. This concept of how an actor's proper concentration during performance has been revived in recent years by Yoshi Oida, an actor and teacher frequently quoted on this blog.

Ri-ken-no-ken evokes two distinct facets of looking: looking "outside" and looking "inside." What kind of looking is it that burns away "outside" and "inside?"

Somewhere between the subjective and the objective, another element is born. The artistic sense is not from inside or outside. As an actor you look at every aspect of yourself (thought, emotion, movement) from the inside, but at the same time you look at your image from the outside. Then you can act. When you do this something emerges, a strange psychological state. This phenomenon is beyond logical explanation. It has no logic, no words, no intelligence, but with experience you will start to understand.

Yet I wonder, is awareness a "psychological state?"

If you try too hard to look at yourself, you cannot become the character. Your emotions will not be true, and your movements will be controlled by your intelligence and will create a cold performance. This isn't useful, because you do have to live the role completely. On the other hand if you go too far inside the character it can lead you into a trance-like state, which is equally unhelpful. In addition, when you do this it is easy to lose awareness of the audience and perform only for your own satisfaction. This in turn creates a barrier between you and the audience, which is not something you want. Instead, you want to maintain a natural, dynamic flow between you and the public.

A Samurai warrior once asked a Zen Master about where he should place his perception and concentration. The Master replied, 'Not on the tip of your attacker's sword and not on the tip of your own. You should also not focus on your hands or the movement of your attacker's feet. Instead, you should focus everywhere and nowhere at the same time, and keep your perception moving. Like a mirror, which reflects everything, but fixes on nothing.'

Quotations from Oida, Y. (2007). An actor's tricks. London: Methuen.

Sunday, January 16, 2011


Here is the entire text of Dr. King's important "Beyond Vietnam" speech, delivered on 4 April 1967 -- one year to the day before he was assassinated -- at Riverside Church in New York City. We all have the freedom to say such things as these; but if a lot of people start to listen, you will be killed.

I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join with you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization which has brought us together: Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. The recent statement of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: "A time comes when silence is betrayal." That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.

The truth of these words is beyond doubt but the mission to which they call us is a most difficult one. Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one's own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover when the issues at hand seem as perplexed as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on.

Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. And we must rejoice as well, for surely this is the first time in our nation's history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history. Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movement well and pray that our own inner being may be sensitive to its guidance, for we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us.

Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: Why are you speaking about war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent? Peace and civil rights don't mix, they say. Aren't you hurting the cause of your people, they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.

In the light of such tragic misunderstandings, I deem it of signal importance to try to state clearly, and I trust concisely, why I believe that the path from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church -- the church in Montgomery, Alabama, where I began my pastorate -- leads clearly to this sanctuary tonight.

I come to this platform tonight to make a passionate plea to my beloved nation. This speech is not addressed to Hanoi or to the National Liberation Front. It is not addressed to China or to Russia.

Nor is it an attempt to overlook the ambiguity of the total situation and the need for a collective solution to the tragedy of Vietnam. Neither is it an attempt to make North Vietnam or the National Liberation Front paragons of virtue, nor to overlook the role they can play in a successful resolution of the problem. While they both may have justifiable reason to be suspicious of the good faith of the United States, life and history give eloquent testimony to the fact that conflicts are never resolved without trustful give and take on both sides.

Tonight, however, I wish not to speak with Hanoi and the NLF, but rather to my fellow Americans, who, with me, bear the greatest responsibility in ending a conflict that has exacted a heavy price on both continents.

The Importance of Vietnam

Since I am a preacher by trade, I suppose it is not surprising that I have seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field of my moral vision. There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor -- both black and white -- through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.

Perhaps the more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.

My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettoes of the North over the last three years -- especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked -- and rightly so -- what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.

For those who ask the question, "Aren't you a civil rights leader?" and thereby mean to exclude me from the movement for peace, I have this further answer. In 1957 when a group of us formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we chose as our motto: "To save the soul of America." We were convinced that we could not limit our vision to certain rights for black people, but instead affirmed the conviction that America would never be free or saved from itself unless the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they still wear. In a way we were agreeing with Langston Hughes, that black bard of Harlem, who had written earlier:

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!

Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America's soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that America will be are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land.

As if the weight of such a commitment to the life and health of America were not enough, another burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1964; and I cannot forget that the Nobel Prize for Peace was also a commission -- a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for "the brotherhood of man." This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances, but even if it were not present I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the good news was meant for all men -- for Communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them? What then can I say to the "Vietcong" or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this one? Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?

Finally, as I try to delineate for you and for myself the road that leads from Montgomery to this place I would have offered all that was most valid if I simply said that I must be true to my conviction that I share with all men the calling to be a son of the living God. Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of sonship and brotherhood, and because I believe that the Father is deeply concerned especially for his suffering and helpless and outcast children, I come tonight to speak for them.

This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation's self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.

Strange Liberators

And as I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to understand and respond to compassion my mind goes constantly to the people of that peninsula. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the junta in Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now. I think of them too because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries.

They must see Americans as strange liberators. The Vietnamese people proclaimed their own independence in 1945 after a combined French and Japanese occupation, and before the Communist revolution in China. They were led by Ho Chi Minh. Even though they quoted the American Declaration of Independence in their own document of freedom, we refused to recognize them. Instead, we decided to support France in its reconquest of her former colony.

Our government felt then that the Vietnamese people were not "ready" for independence, and we again fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long. With that tragic decision we rejected a revolutionary government seeking self-determination, and a government that had been established not by China (for whom the Vietnamese have no great love) but by clearly indigenous forces that included some Communists. For the peasants this new government meant real land reform, one of the most important needs in their lives.

For nine years following 1945 we denied the people of Vietnam the right of independence. For nine years we vigorously supported the French in their abortive effort to recolonize Vietnam.

Before the end of the war we were meeting eighty percent of the French war costs. Even before the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu, they began to despair of the reckless action, but we did not. We encouraged them with our huge financial and military supplies to continue the war even after they had lost the will. Soon we would be paying almost the full costs of this tragic attempt at recolonization.

After the French were defeated it looked as if independence and land reform would come again through the Geneva agreements. But instead there came the United States, determined that Ho should not unify the temporarily divided nation, and the peasants watched again as we supported one of the most vicious modern dictators -- our chosen man, Premier Diem. The peasants watched and cringed as Diem ruthlessly routed out all opposition, supported their extortionist landlords and refused even to discuss reunification with the north. The peasants watched as all this was presided over by U.S. influence and then by increasing numbers of U.S. troops who came to help quell the insurgency that Diem's methods had aroused. When Diem was overthrown they may have been happy, but the long line of military dictatorships seemed to offer no real change -- especially in terms of their need for land and peace.

The only change came from America as we increased our troop commitments in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept and without popular support. All the while the people read our leaflets and received regular promises of peace and democracy -- and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs and consider us -- not their fellow Vietnamese --the real enemy. They move sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps where minimal social needs are rarely met. They know they must move or be destroyed by our bombs. So they go -- primarily women and children and the aged.

They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals, with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one "Vietcong"-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them -- mostly children. They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children, degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers.

What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do they think as we test our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building? Is it among these voiceless ones?

We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. We have cooperated in the crushing of the nation's only non-Communist revolutionary political force -- the unified Buddhist church. We have supported the enemies of the peasants of Saigon. We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men. What liberators?

Now there is little left to build on -- save bitterness. Soon the only solid physical foundations remaining will be found at our military bases and in the concrete of the concentration camps we call fortified hamlets. The peasants may well wonder if we plan to build our new Vietnam on such grounds as these? Could we blame them for such thoughts? We must speak for them and raise the questions they cannot raise. These too are our brothers.

Perhaps the more difficult but no less necessary task is to speak for those who have been designated as our enemies. What of the National Liberation Front -- that strangely anonymous group we call VC or Communists? What must they think of us in America when they realize that we permitted the repression and cruelty of Diem which helped to bring them into being as a resistance group in the south? What do they think of our condoning the violence which led to their own taking up of arms? How can they believe in our integrity when now we speak of "aggression from the north" as if there were nothing more essential to the war? How can they trust us when now we charge them with violence after the murderous reign of Diem and charge them with violence while we pour every new weapon of death into their land? Surely we must understand their feelings even if we do not condone their actions. Surely we must see that the men we supported pressed them to their violence. Surely we must see that our own computerized plans of destruction simply dwarf their greatest acts.

How do they judge us when our officials know that their membership is less than twenty-five percent Communist and yet insist on giving them the blanket name? What must they be thinking when they know that we are aware of their control of major sections of Vietnam and yet we appear ready to allow national elections in which this highly organized political parallel government will have no part? They ask how we can speak of free elections when the Saigon press is censored and controlled by the military junta. And they are surely right to wonder what kind of new government we plan to help form without them -- the only party in real touch with the peasants. They question our political goals and they deny the reality of a peace settlement from which they will be excluded. Their questions are frighteningly relevant. Is our nation planning to build on political myth again and then shore it up with the power of new violence?

Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence when it helps us to see the enemy's point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.

So, too, with Hanoi. In the north, where our bombs now pummel the land, and our mines endanger the waterways, we are met by a deep but understandable mistrust. To speak for them is to explain this lack of confidence in Western words, and especially their distrust of American intentions now. In Hanoi are the men who led the nation to independence against the Japanese and the French, the men who sought membership in the French commonwealth and were betrayed by the weakness of Paris and the willfulness of the colonial armies. It was they who led a second struggle against French domination at tremendous costs, and then were persuaded to give up the land they controlled between the thirteenth and seventeenth parallel as a temporary measure at Geneva. After 1954 they watched us conspire with Diem to prevent elections which would have surely brought Ho Chi Minh to power over a united Vietnam, and they realized they had been betrayed again.

When we ask why they do not leap to negotiate, these things must be remembered. Also it must be clear that the leaders of Hanoi considered the presence of American troops in support of the Diem regime to have been the initial military breach of the Geneva agreements concerning foreign troops, and they remind us that they did not begin to send in any large number of supplies or men until American forces had moved into the tens of thousands.

Hanoi remembers how our leaders refused to tell us the truth about the earlier North Vietnamese overtures for peace, how the president claimed that none existed when they had clearly been made. Ho Chi Minh has watched as America has spoken of peace and built up its forces, and now he has surely heard of the increasing international rumors of American plans for an invasion of the north. He knows the bombing and shelling and mining we are doing are part of traditional pre-invasion strategy. Perhaps only his sense of humor and of irony can save him when he hears the most powerful nation of the world speaking of aggression as it drops thousands of bombs on a poor weak nation more than eight thousand miles away from its shores.

At this point I should make it clear that while I have tried in these last few minutes to give a voice to the voiceless on Vietnam and to understand the arguments of those who are called enemy, I am as deeply concerned about our troops there as anything else. For it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Vietnam is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved. Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy and the secure while we create hell for the poor.

This Madness Must Cease

Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours.

This is the message of the great Buddhist leaders of Vietnam. Recently one of them wrote these words:

"Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the heart of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism."

If we continue, there will be no doubt in my mind and in the mind of the world that we have no honorable intentions in Vietnam. It will become clear that our minimal expectation is to occupy it as an American colony and men will not refrain from thinking that our maximum hope is to goad China into a war so that we may bomb her nuclear installations. If we do not stop our war against the people of Vietnam immediately the world will be left with no other alternative than to see this as some horribly clumsy and deadly game we have decided to play.

The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese people. The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways.

In order to atone for our sins and errors in Vietnam, we should take the initiative in bringing a halt to this tragic war. I would like to suggest five concrete things that our government should do immediately to begin the long and difficult process of extricating ourselves from this nightmarish conflict:

  1. End all bombing in North and South Vietnam.
  2. Declare a unilateral cease-fire in the hope that such action will create the atmosphere for negotiation.
  3. Take immediate steps to prevent other battlegrounds in Southeast Asia by curtailing our military buildup in Thailand and our interference in Laos.
  4. Realistically accept the fact that the National Liberation Front has substantial support in South Vietnam and must thereby play a role in any meaningful negotiations and in any future Vietnam government.
  5. Set a date that we will remove all foreign troops from Vietnam in accordance with the 1954 Geneva agreement.

Part of our ongoing commitment might well express itself in an offer to grant asylum to any Vietnamese who fears for his life under a new regime which included the Liberation Front. Then we must make what reparations we can for the damage we have done. We most provide the medical aid that is badly needed, making it available in this country if necessary.

Protesting The War

Meanwhile we in the churches and synagogues have a continuing task while we urge our government to disengage itself from a disgraceful commitment. We must continue to raise our voices if our nation persists in its perverse ways in Vietnam. We must be prepared to match actions with words by seeking out every creative means of protest possible.

As we counsel young men concerning military service we must clarify for them our nation's role in Vietnam and challenge them with the alternative of conscientious objection. I am pleased to say that this is the path now being chosen by more than seventy students at my own alma mater, Morehouse College, and I recommend it to all who find the American course in Vietnam a dishonorable and unjust one. Moreover I would encourage all ministers of draft age to give up their ministerial exemptions and seek status as conscientious objectors. These are the times for real choices and not false ones. We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.

There is something seductively tempting about stopping there and sending us all off on what in some circles has become a popular crusade against the war in Vietnam. I say we must enter the struggle, but I wish to go on now to say something even more disturbing. The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality we will find ourselves organizing clergy- and laymen-concerned committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy. Such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God.

In 1957 a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution. During the past ten years we have seen emerge a pattern of suppression which now has justified the presence of U.S. military "advisors" in Venezuela. This need to maintain social stability for our investments accounts for the counter-revolutionary action of American forces in Guatemala. It tells why American helicopters are being used against guerrillas in Colombia and why American napalm and green beret forces have already been active against rebels in Peru. It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable."

Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken -- the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment.

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. n the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: "This is not just." It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: "This is not just." The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: "This way of settling differences is not just." This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.

This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against communism. War is not the answer. Communism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons. Let us not join those who shout war and through their misguided passions urge the United States to relinquish its participation in the United Nations. These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness. We must not call everyone a Communist or an appeaser who advocates the seating of Red China in the United Nations and who recognizes that hate and hysteria are not the final answers to the problem of these turbulent days. We must not engage in a negative anti-communism, but rather in a positive thrust for democracy, realizing that our greatest defense against communism is to take offensive action in behalf of justice. We must with positive action seek to remove thosse conditions of poverty, insecurity and injustice which are the fertile soil in which the seed of communism grows and develops.

The People Are Important

These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression and out of the wombs of a frail world new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. "The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light." We in the West must support these revolutions. It is a sad fact that, because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries. This has driven many to feel that only Marxism has the revolutionary spirit. Therefore, communism is a judgement against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions we initiated. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores and thereby speed the day when "every valley shall be exalted, and every moutain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain."

A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.

This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one's tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men. This oft misunderstood and misinterpreted concept -- so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force -- has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John:

Let us love one another; for love is God and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. If we love one another God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.

Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day. We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says : "Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word."

We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The "tide in the affairs of men" does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out deperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: "Too late." There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. "The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on..." We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.

We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world -- a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter -- but beautiful -- struggle for a new world. This is the callling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message, of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.

As that noble bard of yesterday, James Russell Lowell, eloquently stated:

Once to every man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth and falsehood,
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God's new Messiah,
Off'ring each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever
Twixt that darkness and that light.

Though the cause of evil prosper,
Yet 'tis truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold,
And upon the throne be wrong:
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow
Keeping watch above his own.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Pancakes with Brown Rice

Made breakfast today. Something quick and easy.

Never have understood the popularity of pancake mixes. Once you get used to whipping up pancake batter, it is not a much bigger deal than pouring in some pre-made mix. And you have to clean up either way.

My pancake secret, which isn't much of a secret really, is to put in a little cooked brown rice. It makes for a delicous pancake that will keep you fueled for a while.

Dry ingredients: For the pancakes above, I mixed up a cup of all-purpose and whole wheat flour. (The market didn't have pastry flour, or I would have used that in place of one of these flours.) Not much baking powder -- half a teaspoon? Same amount of salt. A tiny bit of nutmeg, tiny bit of sugar, no precise measurement.

Wet ingredients: a cup of milk whipped with one egg. (Soy milk is good, too.)

Combine everything, beat it up into a batter, and add half a cup of cooked brown rice.

Cook those pancakes up in butter and serve with honey or maple syrup. Mangiate.

Since we are talking about food, I will also share the sandwich that we have dubbed The Pregnant Sarah: bacon and baby spinach on toast with mustard.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Responsibility Is Not Blame

...or, "I've got a funny feeling about this."

The cardinal Buddhist precept is an abstention from taking life. To keep this precept in an absolute sense is impossible. We eat, we till the earth, we kill with every step we take. So the precept invites us to pay attention to how our life costs other life, noticing that we are involved in life and death and bear some responsibility for the life consumed in order to sustain our own. It is about assuming responsibility for something larger than our individual identity.

The attempted assassination of a Congresswoman last week, in which twenty people were shot at a shopping mall in Tucson, has generated a lot of noise and argument about whether a violent culture influenced the perpetrator. It has also, weirdly, become an occasion to talk about -- Sarah Palin. Victims were eulogized and buried, flags were hoisted, and the media find time for a circus around Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck.

As more information is made public about the alleged killer, Mr. Jared Loughner, it is increasingly clear to a general audience that the man was crackers. There is no coherent political ideology, and I have my doubts he could understand or process any party's violent rhetoric. He was terribly unwell, and was not pulled off the road in time. Indeed, he was permitted to purchase a semi-automatic handgun and ammunition, although one store did turn him away.

So there has been a lot of talk about blame and I've been wondering if the distinction between responsibility and blame has gotten lost.

There is no blame to spread around here. There is no evidence to suggest Loughner was egged on or assisted by anybody directly in plotting and carrying out this act. To a degree, the lone gunman theory stands, and you don't have to be a clinician to hypothesize that Mr. Loughner was not rational.

Even so, I changed my Facebook profile picture. Let me explain that. I had a profile picture on Facebook that showed me with a gun. It was a still from a movie in which I played a gunman. This had nothing to do with the shooting in Arizona, and yet once this horrific event took place in real life, it just felt funny to have that picture up there. So I changed it.

No, I'm not blaming myself for Tucson. And yet, I am an actor in this culture, and I have appeared in violent movies that are produced for entertainment. What's up with that?

Sarah Palin is no more to blame than I am. Yet we are both part of the backdrop, both of us have contributed to a culture that glorifies violence.

There are perhaps a few things we are feeling funny about, after this event. It's not about blaming ourselves, or blaming Fox, or blaming this that and the other. Taking responsibility is not about casting blame. In fact, casting the blame can be the opposite of taking responsibility.

There is a background, a culture that upholds easy access to guns and violent metaphors about politics. There is a history of political violence right up to the present day. There is also general knowledge that mental illness is stigmatized, and that people who show signs of needing help often do not get it. These are not factors for blame, but it is reasonable that they come up when we think about Tucson. We have some responsibility here.

Maybe we can finally have a conversation about gun rights. We want a right to hunt and to defend ourselves, but do we need easy access to semi-automatic handguns designed to kill a lot of people quickly?

Maybe we can talk about the influence of advertising and speech on our culture, and choose our metaphors with more wisdom and responsibility.

Maybe we can stop blaming the Palin, the Beck, and the Limbaugh, and take responsibility for them, too.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Shakespeare with Kids

The highlight of my days lately has been reading Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice with my fifth graders.

Shakespeare is often introduced to students in high school in a literature class, and by then they have heard things about Shakespeare's plays, that they are difficult to read and boring. I'm trying to head that off and give them an early introduction with video, acting out, and reading of different texts.

For instance, I prepare summaries with pictures of the characters. Then we read the Streamlined Shakespeare edition of the play, scene by scene. These are adaptations of Shakespeare for the fourth grade reading level that preserve some of Shakespeare's language. We compare these to selections I give them from Shakespeare, so they are acquainted with the iambic pentameter and the poetry. Then they get up and act the scenes out. Finally, as we work through the play, we also watch video of performances of Shakespeare's text. Read, discuss, watch, do.

With Merchant, we will watch scenes from the Michael Radford film with Al Pacino as Shylock.

But we haven't gotten there yet. These fifth graders are too busy reading, and asking me shocked questions about the Venetian geto, the treatment of Jews, and bigotry. We've also talked about male friendship a bit, whether Bassanio's intentions are pure, and what it must be like for Portia, not getting to choose her husband. And we have only just begun.

Oh, and they are reading. Nearly all of them are English-learners, and they are actually eager to read and read and read and practice their English.

Monday, January 10, 2011

It Will Happen Again

Saturday was a strange day. Sarah and I both learned of deaths in our respective families. Sarah lost a great aunt, and I lost my grandmother, who had been declining steadily in recent years.

That was also the day political violence exploded in Tucson, Arizona. My friend Christopher slept in that morning, got up, and was on his way to his neighborhood Safeway to buy some groceries when he learned that the store was a crime scene. Congresswoman Gabbi Giffords was there to speak with local constituents, and a young gunman opened fire with a semi-automatic handgun. Giffords was shot through the head. A federal judge and several others were killed, including (in a development fraught with potential allegorical significance) a 9-year old girl who was born on 11 September 2001.

It takes time for information to develop in a case like this. Doctors won't know what kind of recovery Giffords will have, and the gunman is being investigated. Early impressions are that he may be mentally ill. There was time for the media to fill, and a lot of people feeling terrible about what happened, and so people have been flapping their gums.

In the heat of the moment, there have been some valid remarks made about the prevalence of gun-battle rhetoric in political debates and campaigns. Candidates make much of firing guns and using metaphors of war and violence instead of debating policies. Sarah Palin has taken heat for an old ad (that was controversial at the time) "targeting" congressional districts using a map and crosshairs to show certain districts.

It is an over-reach to assign direct culpability for this shooting to media figures. There is something to be said, all the same, about right speech. Culture is human-made and we do have choices about the kind of culture we live in. We can decide that in a country where it is rather easy to get hold of a gun, and where there is a long history of political violence, the casual "lock and load" rhetoric and branding of political rivals as enemies of America using fear tactics, is a dangerous game.

I'm not optimistic we are going to learn that lesson. Our culture is a bit too much in love with violence. The assassination of Dr. George Tiller did not calm the rhetoric; I doubt this incident will. My sad prediction is this will continue after a little time has passed, and eventually we will again be faced with an act of violence by a deranged person seduced by the rhetoric of media figures and leaders to whom he listened.

It will happen again, unless the nation reflects on itself and begins to reject this sort of talk. This is not a matter where law should ever intrude; but we can look to our social standards and turn away from those who choose to fan the flames.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Dealing with the Mail

A dear friend from Los Angeles wrote me a beautiful letter about how, during 2010, she went on a virtual news fast because she felt overwhelmed by all the information -- most of which was negative, the media being what it is.

A news fast like this can be very useful. We don't all have to have our heads in the news all the time. What's the point, if we get burnt out and lose sight of our own lives? If we stand any chance of avoiding getting trapped in the narrative created by the media, its deceptions and propaganda, our critical faculties and imaginations must remain sharp. When our energy is low, this is not easy.

It can be good to take breaks from the news. The mess will likely be in progress whenever we return. Maybe we will never feel the need to go back to it. But if we do, it's not as though we will be Rip Van Winkle.

How much would we really miss? As a thought experiment, imagine someone entering a monastery and doing a year-long Kyol Che with no access to the news for the entirety of 2010. They come down from the hill on New Year's Day 2011 and say, "What did I miss?" In a minute or two, how would you summarize the year for this person?

The fundamental poisons of greed, anger, and delusion were in command of human affairs when they went up that hill, and remain so today.

Why turn on the news? Why turn it off? That's the important thing. Of what use is the information? Of what use is switching it off? Are you on your center, breathing fully, and is your immediate situation and purpose clear?

Turning off the information can be a healthy retreat, and perhaps this is dropping something you don't need. You don't have to follow the 24-hour news cycle in order to feel like a responsible citizen. On the other hand, it also can be ignorance, in the sense of "ignore-ance."

To illustrate this, let's go to the mail pile.

Lots of junk here. SELF magazine? Really? We can throw that away, along with all these advertisements and offers, and we can shred these credit card offers, and that takes care of most of the pile.

Here is a quarterly statement on my retirement account. I don't know about you, but my money is in a fairly conservative, reliable old mutual fund, and maybe there is no pressing need right now to look at that statement and expose myself to panicking and entertaining rash decisions that won't really help my retirement. On the other hand, maybe I can open it later today, in a calm frame of mind and consciously breathing, look at it, and file it, knowing that the numbers there reflect a dynamic economy, and that the figures go up and down through time, and remembering that given my choices, my best option is to have diversified holdings and savings, and so on in that vein.

There are good reasons to look at it, and good reasons to use the "file and don't open it" approach. It's a decision you and I make for ourselves.

And here are the bills. Oy, the bills.

In an earlier chapter of my life, I had overwhelming money problems. Not bankruptcy, but close. I had poor habits, worked in occupations that did not pay well, carried a lot of debt, and did not insulate myself against unexpected events. This led to big trouble, the kind of trouble that takes years to resolve.

It was interesting to note the psychological toll of this daily emergency. For a while, I got into the understandable yet horrible habit of letting my mail pile up unopened. The thought was, "Another bill I can't pay," and it went on the pile. This is like ignoring a toothache: the longer you ignore it, the worse (and more expensive) the problem gets. Luckily for me, I woke up from this before I ended up in court or had my salary garnished.

Ignoring the world can be like ignoring the mail. We are involved. Ignoring the world does not make us safe and does not make us "spiritual." On the other hand, there is a lot of mail that is not useful to you, and would best meet its destiny in the recycling bin.

Every mind needs a daily shower, and an occasional deep-cleaning. The purpose of that deep-cleaning is to be ready.

Ready for what?

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Solidarity With Whom?

A meeting between U.S. and South African labor leaders in 2001 sets the tone for this book.

A young progressive SEIU local union leader from the West Coast, commenting on the role of the union in political action, noted what must have seemed obvious to him: that the role of a union is to represent the interests of its members. The representatives of [the South African National Education, Health & Allied Workers Union] offered a careful and diplomatic reply: "Comrades," they began, "the role of the union is to represent the interests of the working class. There are times when the interests of the working class conflict with the interests of the members of our respective unions." Silence descended on the room.

Solidarity Divided provides some good detail on organized labor in the U.S. from the twentieth century into the previous decade. Its history is a bit AFL-CIO centered, which is not entirely surprising since one of the authors (Fletcher) worked for the AFL-CIO.

There are surprising exceptions to the above, however. NAFTA does not get as much attention as I would have expected -- this surely merited a chapter of its own, both in how it was marketed to labor and the actual results. There is also little or no mention of efforts to organize workers outside of the NLRA process, such as Starbucks Workers Union shepherded by the IWW.

They make a good argument for what is here called "social justice unionism," openly acknowledging class struggle and organizing not for the benefit of an organization and its members, but for the working class as a whole.

Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice. B. Fletcher and F. Gapasin. University of California Press, 2008.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Kill Your Zen Persona

A commenter writes:

killing the guru is fine, but if you want to do that, first you have to kill yourself. Thanks for listening.

There is truth in this, yet it's a communication-squasher. You can use dharma words to squelch any communication, and when people feel they can't communicate, you have a space where oppression is very easy. At the very least, it becomes a game where you use "gotcha Zen" to embarrass other people into not communicating.

Before you can kill yourself, you have to kill your clever Zen persona.

In fact, that just might be enough.

[Edited for clarity]

Monday, January 03, 2011

Mind Interacts with Matter

Famous Zen story. Two monks look at a flag flapping in the wind and one of them poses the question, "Is the flag moving or is it the wind moving?" They joust over this for a while.

Then a great teacher says to them, "It isn't the flag or the wind that is moving. It is your mind that is moving."

And then someone bangs the gong and the camera fades on two monks who are suddenly getting enlightenment from what the master said.

Except this is not yet complete. The master's contribution helps to complete the issue, but not quite. What is the master's mistake?

Years ago at Providence Zen Center, I was sitting and "just chillin'" with a monk. Told him I was coming down with a little cold.

He touched my arm and said, "You can decide not to have a cold."

Oh, that again. Separating mind from matter and then making mind the master. This idea sells a lot of books. The power of positive thinking to make the universe the way you want it to be. But this is desire, and desire tends to be a confusing influence.

And yet that same monk suffered from terrible sciatica after that conversation. Why didn't he decide not to have sciatica?

Our experience of the world is shaped by our thinking. The Buddha gave extensive teachings on that point, and you don't have to take his word for it. Pay close attention to the process and you'll see how much thinking makes our world. We can lift ourselves up or pull ourselves down, and we can adjust that attitude just as we would adjust our bodies so that we can breathe more fully and act in the world with greater ease. Silent retreats are fantastic opportunities to watch this process.

Yet this is not the same thing as deciding we can tailor our world, as in lucid dreaming. That's a fantasy.

Because mind interacts with matter. They are not two. Just as light is either a particle or a wave depending on how you look at it.

Not mind over matter, not matter over mind. So what is it?

Not the flag. Not the wind. Not your junky old mind, either.

Then what?

Saturday, January 01, 2011

How Sir Gabriel Tamed a Dinosaur

One of Gabriel's Christmas gifts was a toy dinosaur. He loves his dinosaurs, but this initial meeting of boy and dinosaur did not go well.

This dinosaur makes a loud, startling noise when you squeeze it. It's a haunting noise, a sort of baritone squawk, and while making this sound the dinosaur opens its mouth wide, showing a bunch of teeth. Besides this, it looks a little strange: gigantic feet, and a large head with two tiny eyes.

Heck, it gives me the creeps.

So they pulled out this dinosaur and squeezed it, making the awful noise and opening its huge mouth, and Gabriel showed a rare display of fear. He walked backwards towards one of his aunties and said, "No! No! No!" until the dinosaur was rendered invisible.

A week has passed. It is the first day of 2011. Sarah has removed the Christmas decorations and stripped the tree, sadly putting her favorite holiday into storage. We have also been moving around Gabriel's loot, which is considerable. A little farm. A wooden train set. Trucks. Books. And that dinosaur is still knocking around, too.

As much as Gabriel loves his dinosaurs, this one still gave him the willies this morning. He fairly buzzed with contradictory impulses, wanting the dinosaur, and then saying "No!" when he glimpsed its face. "Dinosaur!" "No!" "Dinosaur!" "No! No! No!"

In Gabriel's bedroom there is a beat-up green chair where we sometimes sit with him. Most often, however, the chair is occupied by several of his good friends. Kermit and Miss Piggy are both there. (Come to think of it, Kermit and the chair are a close match, so he is safe from predators there.) Elmo is here as well, and a very charming baby giraffe that is not a celebrity.

Early this afternoon, as we brought him into his room for a diaper change, Gabriel was adamant that the scary new dinosaur be brought out of his toy closet. When we did so, Gabriel pointed to his chair and said, "Sit! Sit! No! Dinosaur sit!"

Shrugging, my wife put creepy dinosaur on the chair among the other creatures and left me to change the boy. Seeding a diaper with powder and getting the wipes set up, I watched him from the corner of my eye. Gabriel would take a step or two toward the dinosaur, and then step back again, keeping a safe distance. Meanwhile he was speaking in his own language, a mysterious argot he understands better than anyone else.

As I stood unobtrusively by the door, Gabriel began introducing the dinosaur to Kermit, Miss Piggy, et al. As he brought each friend over to the dinosaur, he spoke to them about the dinosaur's eyes, face, and big feet, and it was very clear he was explaining to them that they should not be afraid of the dinosaur.

He even assured Kermit that this was a "beautiful dinosaur."

This is usually an invisible process, when one can even manage it: integrating something one fears into a wider perspective and converting the fear.

In this new year, may we all find a way to introduce our demons to what we love, welcoming them into our greater wisdom and compassion.

[Photo: Gabriel on Thanksgiving Day]