Wednesday, November 28, 2012

On teaching and desire

In 1979, a terribly sad scandal rocked the New York theatre scene.  A well-known and respected master acting teacher, Paul Mann, was exposed in a Village Voice article alleging that he was fucking some of his female students on the pretext of helping them release pent-up emotions and creativity.  Mr. Mann was later mentioned prominently in an article for Spy Magazine that examined sexual and psychological abuse of student actors, and was sued in a class action by several of his former students.

This was not, however, an isolated case.  Here is how Richard Hornby summarized the case in his book The End of Acting:

An acting teacher named Paul Mann, whose classes included such techniques as group nudity, allegedly had sexual relations with his students as a method of "releasing" them.  Had he been bisexual he might have gotten away with it, but students noticed that the "special sessions" in his private office were limited to the female members of the class, and the more attractive ones at that.  Interestingly, after the Voice exposed this outrageous "teacher," other acting instructors were quoted as saying that Mann's approach was perfectly reasonable; they too had sex with students.  In this they were being logically consistent; if the goal of actor training is the release of real, honest emotions, then rape by deception is certainly one way of achieving it.

From my observations of similar scandals in American zen, I think it is actually plausible that some if not all of these acting teachers actually believed there was some beneficial "teaching" in this activity.  Paul Mann (who died in 1985) has a memorial website that defends his methods:

A major element of Mann’s unique and challenging acting technique and training deeply explored the actor’s physical life by nurturing and encouraging the release of an uninhibited imagination through exercises. This aspect of his training - the un-self-conscious comfort of the actor’s physical being-- was noticeable in his own performances and in the actors he trained professionally. Uninhibited imagination, comfort in one’s body in order to release oneself in the circumstances of the play and trust in embracing one’s sexual being, resulted in an authentic physical truth from his actors and directors.  

For a very long time, and probably still today in some corners, acting classes were predicated on a weird corruption of psychoanalysis.  Acting classes looked like bad group therapy sessions, with students subject to exercises exhorting them to confront unpleasant memories, push boundaries of personal safety in their relationships with each other and the teacher, and to "release" powerful emotions or impulses in the studio.  This is not art.  It is a very bad parody of what Freud rejected as "wild psychoanalysis" and does not address what an actor actually needs to do.  The actor does not need her personal inhibitions to be "released," she needs the artistic skill and analysis required to play a role in a work of theatre.  Acting is not neurosis, and students in an acting class are not patients.  The actor's personal life and emotionality are certainly useful in making art, but it is not the primary source of inspiration.

The mock-therapy milieu is not only bad for the art, but it puts the teacher in a very powerful social position: the position of a therapist or even a guru.  In an atmosphere where trusting followers are cultivated, it has too often been the case that the teacher has taken advantage of trust and attraction, acted out of lust, and then rationalized the behavior as serving the student's art.  There you have it: the famously corrupting combination of desire and power. 

This should sound terribly familiar to readers who are familiar with the numerous sex-related scandals in American Buddhism.  Replace the acting studio with a zendo or temple.  Put the teacher figure in Buddhist robes.  Surround him with trusting and adventurous young students.  Here, the rationalizations are not about the student's art, but about the student's spiritual progress.  The rapist is simply wearing a different costume.

If you tear apart all the glossy wrapping and get to what's going on with that teacher, I suspect you come right back to one of the elementary teachings of Buddhism.

Tanha in Pali. What we call desire, or craving.  Also known as the second noble truth.  Suffering originates in desire.  Desire has a certain nature and a certain affect.  It creates a sense of lack.  It causes suffering.

Desire arises and is simply part of life.  This is why the Buddha presented the Eightfold Path and the precepts.  These are structures we can use to direct ourselves toward an upright life, knowing that suffering and craving are basic truths of existence.  Indeed, we call them "noble" truths, because they are the impetus for waking up

So what's going on with zen priests who can't keep it in their pants?  Especially the ones considered great zen masters?  Why are recent scandals replaying the scandals of the past so closely, as if the culture had learned nothing from previous painful experience?

Apparently desire is a persistent phenomenon.  Wow, who knew?  And apparently, also, ordaining as a priest or even achieving dharma transmission does not make a person insusceptible.  Are we surprised?

Let's return to some basics.  There are said to be three kinds of desire (tanha):

The first kind is the most familiar.  Kama tanha, the desire for sensual pleasure, as derived from food, sex, sleep, or other things.  There is no lasting satisfaction from sensual pleasure.  We have sex, then we feel hungry so we snack for a bit or maybe smoke a cigarette, and then we want something else, and by the time we've quenched that particular thirst it's about time to have sex again or eat some more. 

The second kind is also relevant to the problem we are discussing.  Bhava tanha is broader than the desire for sensual gratification.  This one is about ambition, attainment, becoming something.  This is the desire for power, position, adulation, money, and fame.  This is also a dangerous and deceptive kind of desire, because it is very adept at disguising itself as selfless aspiration: "I fondled her in order to release her emotions!"  In zen, there is a great deal of theorizing about freedom and non-attachment, and one can easily use this kind of speech to delude oneself and others about what is going on in a relationship.

The third kind is vibhava tanha, the opposite of bhava tanha in that it seeks to get rid of something.  It dovetails back into bhava tanha because the motivation to get rid of something leads to a desire to become something different.  Among other things, this leads people to beat themselves up or put up with abuse out of a desire to become something new.  This is why students are encouraged to recognize thoughts and desires and let them go without attaching to them or trying to drive them away.

In response to repetitive incidents involving money, sex, and power among Zen Buddhist teachers, we read a lot of discussion and argument about reactive measures.  There is comparatively less about prevention or how to address the issue at its root -- the issue at the root of Buddhism itself.
The nature of desire is not a mystery outside of Buddhism.  I work in the theatre, where one encounters attractive people, where people undress around each other and often are called on to kiss and touch each other.  Passions fly and people deal with it -- usually with success, although the failures get more attention.  Also, I teach acting classes, many of them on a college campus where there are large numbers of nubile young women everywhere I look, and once in a while I notice a student taking a passing fancy to me. Managing these distractions and returning to correct situation, correct relationship, and correct function is usually not difficult, but it is an ongoing practice.  Sometimes passions are difficult to manage, and a demonstrated understanding of this has got to be a basic competency of a dharma teacher.  We have all got to stop kidding ourselves that a fly whisk and a transmission certificate make a person infallible.

It might be very useful for all our zen schools to reflect honestly on how people are currently prepared for the role of a dharma teacher, and whether the process adequately equips candidates to handle issues of desire, power, and temptation.  Does the teacher maintain a healthy attention to their own emotional life and behavior?  Will the teacher have access to help if they need it?  And what are early signs that a teacher may have a problem but doesn't recognize it?  Who is empowered to investigate and confront such problems when necessary? What role can students themselves play in that process? 

During the twenty years I've been a student of zen, I have encountered several people who were legitimately empowered as teachers but exhibited fishy ideas or behavior.  Under the mantle of authority and a legitimate-looking temple, fishy ideas can pass for dharma, and fishy behavior is all too easily excused.  ("It's just roshi.")  They are not the majority, but again, the failures get more attention -- and do real harm.  How do dharma teachers get to this position without clearly showing their own teachers that compassion and ahimsa (non-harming) are spontaneously manifest in their lives? 

Lastly, what about the structures where teaching and practice take place?  Maybe a narrower gap between the status of the teacher and the status of the students would foster a safer environment for everyone concerned. Fundamentally, a dharma teacher is still a practicing person, and whether in the role of a teacher or student, "guest or host," we are practicing together; and in the culmination of the bodhisattva vow, we are responsible for one another. 

[Image: your correspondent, doing some hands-on teaching at an acting workshop in New Mexico]

[This piece also appears on the Sweeping Zen website.]

Friday, November 23, 2012

The stink of zen

Today's letter is raw and scratchy and might get us in some hot water.  My apologies.

The main reason I don't go in for the "self-help" style of zen teaching and practice is that it isn't effective "self help." My mind is still kinda messy. At most, maybe I make fewer messes for other people because of practice. But that isn't really what it's about. And boy, you read zen and Buddhist forums online and you see they've got the same foibles as everybody else: how they love to argue and twist other people's words and promote themselves and minimize and destroy other people just like those hardcore political nuts on your friends list or the endless flamers on whatever list serve you like to read.

Zen isn't self help. It isn't there to help you make a nicer persona for yourself. It's a technique for examining truth at a dimension deeper than personalities and social status and all the games that go with that. The concept of enlightenment in Buddhism points in that direction.

I've always felt you can tell a lot about a martial arts studio by watching the students more than the teacher. Some of zen's best-known teachers have been failing in big ways for a long time. But what are the rest of us doing? I'm not against some tar and feathering where it is warranted, taking to the streets and organizing people and mounting a campaign for change -- yet I also remember the Rev. Jim Lawson (the guy who taught MLK about nonviolent social activism, still teaching it in the 21st century to the few who wanted it) telling me that the process matters.  Externally, the world will always have crap in it that needs cleaning up -- but what's happening to you? What are you doing right now? Watch your step.

Lately, as readers of this blog know, I've gotten some full-time work teaching acting to adults.  It has been wonderful and challenging and humbling all at once.  It has forced me to go back and look again at what I've been trying to put into practice most of my life as an artist, and to articulate to others why I think the work is useful to the world.  In the beginning, acting involves the study of self (this is also true of zen practice).  Those who stick with it have to move past that and learn the tools and methods for the art of acting (it's not just self-expression).  Those who stick with it past that point keep investigating deeper dimensions of truth, deeper than the superficial level of persona and social status and gratification that occupy so much of daily life.  What is this?

Going through notes from my conservatory studies with Brian McEleney and Anne Scurria and the Alexander work, the work with Julia Carey (who made me so angry and taught me so much), and also re-reading Stanislavski, Lewis, Boleslavsky, and Yoshi Oida, has shown me that I had left behind so much of what is vital and illuminating about deeply training as an actor.  

There is a depth available to people who want to train deeply in acting that I think may be missing from a lot of zen sanghas.  (To be fair, it's also missing from much of American theatre!)  We have lots of places doing zen retreats and making pretty zendos and lots of people giving dokusan and teisho and hitting people with sticks and lots of koan practice (something actors really should experience).  We're also founding institutions and thinking of institutions to police those institutions and creating more societies and I'm noticing the same social games and self-interest and violent communication that I would see anywhere else.  Sure, I'm upset about teachers groping students and/or running off with people's money; I'm even more upset that teachers who grope students still have students.  Are there not enough healthy and whole people in the zendo who perceive correct situation, correct relationship, and correct function without flinching, the kind of students who can throw out their teacher when he gropes people, and do it with the same mind as when they bowed to that teacher?   Thank you for your teaching, and now correct function is for us to fire your ass.

What happens when you have an elaborate ecclesiastical structure meant to support and inspire dharma practice, but the dharma practice is shallow or, worse, pretend?  What happens when you have temple full of people who have robes and know a lot about ceremonies and ritual, but they can't function spontaneously and ethically?  Well, what you are left with is a dead religion.  And when you have dead religion, there is nothing left to do except fight over the property and the money and the social position.  This is not unfamiliar in human history, is it?  Indeed, many of the teachers who brought their zen to the United States in the 20th century said they did so because this is what happened to zen in their homelands.  They wanted to work with hippies who could jump into practice with a fresh perspective.  My generation, on the other hand, is a generation of experts.  Generation X and Generation Y zenboos organize big, fancy conferences for people in their thirties and forties who have become "Buddhist leaders."  So much expertise.  And yet.  Hmmm. 

I have a sickening feeling that a lot of zen in my country is a bad play.  A play of the sacred.  The stink of zen.

To be clear: I do bows and sit.  My office at NMSU is actually just about the size of a monk's cell, and I've been doing my personal practice there when I'm not at the zen center.  I chant and do sangha practice at Deming Zen Center.  I work with a teacher who takes the piss out of me.    These are indispensable.  Deming has a wonderful sangha consisting of a handful of people who are rather new to practicing.  They are great.  But for this aging student, lately it's been the practice of theatre that's been the vehicle for going -- and I hate this misleading cliché -- "deeper." If time permits, you may be seeing more pieces about that, and even less about "zen" although acting and zen still intersect deeply in my body and in this thing called "practice." 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Congressman lies about Social Security, Chris Jansing lets it slide

On November 21, Chris Jansing, host of the MSNBC program Jansing & Co., interviewed Congressman Tom Cole of Oklahoma regarding the "fiscal cliff" and budget negotiations between President Obama and the House majority. 

As quoted from the transcript, Tom Cole said this:

Anyone who knows anything about the numbers knows [revenue] is not enough. If we don't reform the programs...we're going to lose those programs. We won't have Social Security or Medicare or Medicaid. They're going broke. If the president got every tax increase he's asked for, those programs would still be going broke.

This statement is false, and we suspect the Congressman is aware of that fact.  Indeed, the Congressional Budget Office, which certainly knows something "about the numbers," has directly refuted this oft-repeated lie that Social Security is "going broke."  It will, if we do nothing, but that would not happen for a long time and the matter can be corrected.  Social Security can continue paying 100% of its promised benefits up until the author of this blog is eligible to collect, as a matter of fact, although the trust fund would be depleted.

Here is a link to a summary of what the CBO had to say about this in 2011.    

CBO projects that the [Disability Insurance] trust fund will be exhausted in 2017 and that the [Old-Age and Survivors Insurance] trust fund will be exhausted in 2040. Once a trust fund's balance has fallen to zero and current revenues are insufficient to cover the benefits that are specified in law, the corresponding program will be unable to pay full benefits without changes in law. The DI trust fund came close to exhaustion in 1994, but that outcome was prevented by legislation that redirected revenues from the OASI trust fund to the DI trust fund. In part because of that experience, it is a common analytical convention to consider the DI and OASI trust funds as combined. CBO projects that, if legislation to shift resources from the OASI trust fund to the DI trust fund was enacted, the combined OASDI trust funds would be exhausted in 2038.
To the extent that Social Security has an actual problem - outlays exceeding revenues -- the matter can be resolved without a strong imposition on taxpayers.  And whether we do that or not, it needs to be re-stated that Social Security does not contribute to the deficit.

Really.  It doesn't.  And by putting Social Security on the table in negotiations about the budget deficit and the national debt, members of Congress are intentionally misleading the American public in order to undermine the program and move towards privatizing it.  This is a major beachhead in the long, long project to undo FDR's New Deal. 

It needs to be resisted.  And that means journalists should be calling these players out, and President Obama should explicitly take Social Security off the table.

[Image: Congressman Tom Cole of Oklahoma's fourth congressional district]

Boy versus park

Gabriel meets Roger Williams Park in Providence, Rhode Island. 

As a New Mexico boy, he is unused to such cold, moist air.  The trees and leaves are different.  He's never seen so many squirrels at once.  He's never seen duck poop.  He was fascinated by moss.  ("Grass?"  he asked, and brushed it with his palm.)  He took my camera and filled it with pictures of leaves, sticks, moss, and the strange-looking conifers. 

When his cheeks were as red as his hat, it was time for Dunkin' Donuts. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

An Ego-less Version of ME!

An interesting observation about western Buddhism by way of actor Willem Dafoe, quoted here from the book On Acting: Interviews with Actors (2001):

I recently worked with the Chinese director Yim Ho on the film Pavilion of Women (2000).  He was talking about Buddhist philosophy one day and very simply said to me, 'You American people that get into eastern religion are always beating yourselves up about your ego, but there is nothing you can do about the ego.  You need an ego to stay healthy and to be able to function, so your view of the world needs to get bigger and then proportionally your ego will get smaller.'

Is there a perverse fascination with ego in western Buddhism?  At the Burning House our frame of reference is limited to a few zen communities in the United States.  There may indeed be something to Yim Ho's comment although we can't say it is all-pervasive among western Buddhists.  At times, yes, we have observed a kind of lingering, perhaps a fascination, with ego.  It manifests in dharma talks, writings about Buddhism, the questions people ask, and the conversations to which we've been party.   It would be so to speak a perverse fascination: pretending to a kind of permanence even while denying the permanence or substance of ego.  "I want to be free of ego!  I vow to egoless!  Then I will be a new and improved, egoless, version of me!" 

Yet we can't be too hard on students for falling into this fascination at a certain stage.  There is a similar phase for actors -- and some never progress past the point.  In the introductory acting classes I teach, there is consistently an uphill slog to get people to analyze their process from a wider perspective than the naive practice of projecting feigned emotions and external qualities.  At this stage, the actor's practice is introverted and self-limiting.  What they do not yet realize was expressed most concisely by the Providence-based actor Ed Shea to some of his students:  "It's not about you!  If you make it about you, you're fucked."

We would only rewrite that statement slightly.  It's not you that gets fucked -- what is that, anyway?  It's the work, the practice, that gets fucked when we fall into our navels.  True of acting, true of zen practice.

[Image:  Willem Dafoe in a still from the 2001 film]

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Lucca tries to blow up the house

There is stress and then there is stress.

The level of stress and activity in the Burning House this month has permitted little time for blogging -- at least, for writing the kind of blog pieces we would prefer to offer you, gentle readers and friends.  We'll tell the stories in dribbles and drabs as time permits.  These are surely interesting times.

And there is stress.  As when one discovers one's 19-month old child happily exploring a pile of wooden "easy strike" matches.  This is an example of time-release stress, because once you clear up all the matches, a certain doubt lingers: how confident can you feel that you really got them all? 

The 19-month old we refer to is indeed Lucca J. D'Ammassa.  Take a look at the curiosity in his face and you may get a sense of the kind of person we are dealing with:


On a recent Saturday, the woman of the house greets us with a screwdriver and says, "We need to unscrew the heating grate in the living room."

We had given it our best, most virile and husbandly effort at it for a few minutes, only to discover that the ancient screw would turn round in place for a thousand years, but the grate wasn't going to budge.  It occurred then to ask why we were attempting to do this anyway.

Which is when we learned that Lucca had found some more of those wooden matches, the easy-striking kind -- where was he finding them?? -- and dropped three of them down the really nifty heating grate in the living room.

How risky would it be to just leave them there?  How likely could it be that they would simply ignite one day when the heat was going strong?  Could we just forget the whole thing?

There is stress, and there is stress.  The stress of wondering, as the furnace hums to life in the basement, if we really wanted to take the chance.

In our own virile and husbandly way, our solutions involved destruction.  If the grate would not unscrew, we would need to cut it.  This was not, however, the best solution at all, but the kind of solution borne of frustration and stress.  The kind of solution that leads to what you see on the "There, I fixed it" blog

Credit where it is due: that very woman of the house came up with the idea.  She took a curtain rod, wrapped one end of it in packaging tape with the sticky side out, and dipped it into the grate to catch the matches and carefully pull them up where she could nab them with her long, thin fingers.  The third match took a few tries, but she got them.

Here is the inventive Mrs. at her work:

And in the time we spent paying attention to this, Lucca arranged his mother's shoes in an intricate labyrinth from which we would have to rescue him.  A fairly typical day in the life of this child.

There is stress and then there is stress.  It is, however, Thanksgiving week, and on this first day of Thanksgiving week we give thanks that our son has not blown up the house.  As yet. 

Friday, November 09, 2012

Consciousness of Class and Power

Ironically, considering the subject matter, Eric A. Schutz's Inequality and Power: The Economics of Class is crazy expensive!  The price puts the book way out of reach for most general readers who would benefit from its analysis.  The price seems hard to justify, as there are no colorful illustrations or illuminated text or gold leaf or other features that would drive up the cost of the book. Not even cover art: the book has an austere blue cover. 

My interest in the book was aroused upon reading a lengthy review by Michael Yates, an economist and an associate editor at the Monthly Review.  Yates wrote a book on unions and labor organizing that I found very helpful, and his blog is excellent, so his reflection on the book persuaded me to look for it.  I found a copy on E-bay at a price I could handle.

Here we enter the magical realm of staggering coincidence.  When the book arrived, I opened it to the frontispiece and discovered that I had acquired Michael Yates's own copy: there was his name and date, and throughout the book were his notes and comments, all scrawled in the margins in black pen.  So I had the peculiar opportunity of reading the book along with Yates.

My interest in this stuff has to do with becoming conscious of a hidden process that is at work in all societies -- not just the one where I live, although that is naturally my first concern.  It is related to my long-standing practice of zen, another ongoing topic of this blog.  Here is the briefest statement I can make about the connection:

Just as there are hidden ideas held by individuals that justify and re-create themselves perpetually, and shape our consciousness of self... there are also hidden ideas held by societies that justify and re-create themselves perpetually, and shape our consciousness of the world.

The latter is not necessarily a matter of interest to most Buddhists, but for the one Buddhist I speak for, it is quite interesting.  There are hidden ideas which, behind the curtain of consciousness, lead us to participate in social arrangements that determine the circumstances of our lives, the choices that are available to us, and even the ability to think about and speak about what is happening.

In other words, this is about consciousness.  Not just on the nature of "I" -- "Big I" and "Small I" and how these ideas shape our view of the world -- but also the nature of community, society, country. 

Inequality is no doubt the cause of widespread suffering.  Inequality is sustained by the way our society is organized.  What are the ideas that lead us to organize and cooperate with a society that is so wasteful of human lives and the eco-system that sustains human life?

Economics is a profession (often presenting itself as a science, although this is arguable) that provides theoretical justification for the ways we make stuff, or own stuff that makes money for us, distribute stuff we make, and what we do with profits or rents.  It has a lot to do with the inequalities that cause suffering, and with large-scale activities that are changing the ecology on which our civilization depends.  The profession also provides an ideological framework, a justification, for how and why we do these things.

In terms that a general reader can follow, Schutz presents the mainstream economic framework, and then pulls it apart to reveal the fractures in its analysis, and in particular its studied ignorance of social class as an outcome (and determinant) of power.   The bias in economic orthodoxy, toward a naive theory of individual choices, ignores the constraints and inequality of opportunity and, how income and wealth are concentrated to those who wield more power, and use that power to maintain and escalate inequality. 

We are dealing, in other words, with class -- and class is an expression of power in an active relationship, constantly recreating itself. The group that is dominant uses its power to reinforce the social and property arrangements that maintain and expand its power. It is an excellent analysis undertaken within the terms of neoclassical economics itself, exposing the presuppositions that prejudice its theories -- and the ignorance of power.

It is undertaken with intellectual honesty, under terms acceptable in mainstream economics; and the technical material is not overwhelming for a general reader who takes some time.  

How I dearly wish this book could be made available as a free download.  It is not that Schutz does not deserve to be compensated for his own labor, for surely he does; but for the very people whose plight the book explains, the book -- and its constructive policy suggestions -- is out of reach.

An entrenched condition, indeed.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

On the Joys of Gibberish

In the days leading up to the election yesterday, when so much news programming was devoted to the stale-mated and shallow arguments of two dominant political parties and their fervent-yet-frustrated supporters, the NPR program All Things Considered  livened things up one day by interviewing an Italian entertainer named Adriano Celentano.

Celentano was the writer and performer of a 1972 dance song that might just be history's first rap song.  The interview took place on the eve of the song's 40th anniversary: the artist is now 74 years old.  In 2009, an old music video produced for Italian television went viral on the internet, introducing many people to a song whose language no one could quite place.  It sounded like English, but the only recognizable English expression anywhere in the song was "all right."  Everything else sounded like gibberish, or -- as many people pointed out -- what English might sound like to a non-speaker.

I became weirdly obsessed with the video.  The incantatory refrain and the angry energy of the soloist, ranting in improvised syllables, accompanied by an orchestra and some fierce harmonica playing, made the song irresistible itself.  As a music video, it is bonkers.  The dancing is intense, the dancers in scary-looking black uniforms echoing the movements of the lead dancer, Rafaella Carra, whose movements are bursting with a kind of erotic abandon.  Yet Celentano is dressed like a hobo, weirdly anticipating Tom Baker's Dr. Who, an interloper in this tightly choreographed community.

The video reflects the spirit of the song's creation, as Celentano described it on NPR:

Ever since I started singing, I was very influenced by American music and everything Americans did. So at a certain point, since I like American slang - which, for a singer, is much easier to sing than to sing in Italian - I thought that I would write a song which would only have as its theme the inability to communicate. And to do this, I had to write a song where the lyrics didn't mean anything.
So to make a comparison, it's like what happened with the Tower of Babel. Everyone wanted to go toward the sky, and they were punished because God confused all the languages and no one understood each other anymore. This is the reason why I wrote this song.

Gibberish, or nonsense language, is often used in acting exercises in order to practice a variety of skills.  Replacing words with verbal sounds, so that speech sounds like mysterious foreign language, removes one prop on which actors depend.  They need to communicate in such a way that the listener is strongly affected by something other than the content of the words; and on the other side, active listening is necessary in order to perceive what the other actor is communicating.  Two or more actors are forced to develop their scene non-verbally, and this often leads to more courageous and highly physical acting.  Sometimes the actors' use of their voice, of resonance and articulation, suddenly improves.

If I had an opportunity to teach a course on rhetoric, gibberish would be used to practice the execution of effective rhetoric.  Depending on the performance, Hugo Ball's legendary sound poem Gadji Beri Bimba may sound like a magical incantation, an address to the troops, a dictator's speech, or perhaps a Catholic mass.

Listen to a performance of it:

If it sounds familiar, you may recall a Talking Heads single from 1979 that turned Ball's poem into a rock song:

There is also just the sheer joy of playing with language, tugging at its outer edges, inventing new words.  The sheer joy of reading Jabberwocky out loud and asking children to draw pictures of a "slithy tove" or a bandersnatch; or pulling down volumes of Spike Milligan's nonsense verse, filled with words and phrases of complete gibberish, trying to read it out loud without laughing in delight.

A pattern that interests me is when artists use gibberish to explore certain feelings of disconnection or fractured identity, either personally or in terms of what is happening historically.  Elsewhere in that interview, Celentano talked about feeling dejected and alienated after a period of writing songs that engaged issues directly.  Artists picking up on fractured community, fragmented identities, or blocks in communication will find abstract ways to express the breakage.  The dada movement arose from the madness of World War I and the use of nonsense was not random or careless.  It was not merely an expression of satire.  It constituted revolt.  And judging from the number of dada performances that led to strong audience reactions (even riots), it was effective.

One of Pink Floyd's eeriest (some say unlistenable) recordings was this creation by Roger Waters in 1969, a collage of sounds and a weirdly evocative rant in a mock language:

The more different sounds the actors make, the more "fluent" they become in their gibberish language, actors sometimes make expressive leaps and emotional connections to things they could not, or would prefer not to, express in coherent language.

Gibberish is a way of bypassing the censor and allowing things to bubble up from the subconscious.  This was part of James Joyce's aim when writing Finnegan's Wake, although this use of language was not gibberish, strictly speaking, but rather a complex work of composite words, words from different languages mixed together, puns, and more.  The form of such expression and its implications are not for everyone.  In 1928, H.G. Wells wrote a fascinating letter to Joyce in which he protested Joyce's elaborate idioglossia:  "The frame of my mind is a world wherein a big unifying and concentrating process is possible (increase of power and range by economy and concentration of effort), a progress not inevitable but interesting and possible. That game attracted and holds me. For it, I want a language and statement as simple and clear as possible."

Elsewhere, Joyce said, "What is clear and concise can't deal with reality, for to be real is to be surrounded by mystery."

And mystery awakens the senses and arouses the imagination, it induces a bit of "don't-know mind," a disposition towards curiosity and attention.  As an empty bowl is prepared to receive an offering, when the surface intellect is open, a person can make spontaneous connections and see new patterns.

Is this a way of scaling the forbidden tower?  Does punishment await us if we approach the top?  A lightning bolt that will short-circuit and break our consciousness at last?  I do wonder.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Got plans for my birthday?

This is a video announcement for a one-day meditation retreat at Deming Zen Center, to be held on my own birthday, January 26.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Anti-Intelligence in Zen

On a website dedicated to bonsai, we find this description of zen:

The most salient characteristic of Zen when compared to other Buddhist schools is its anti-intellectualism. Zen is opposed to intellectual knowledge and instead promotes direct, intuitive experience of transcendental truths. It doesn't have holy scriptures, dogmas or myths. Lao-Tse is reported to have said: Those who know do not talk. Those who talk do not know.
These ideas about zen permeate the community of practitioners and yet it is missing something.  Zen has holy scriptures, dogmas, and myths.  It also has a history of literature, art, and philosophical debate.    These features have their limits, yet they also have their uses. 

It would be more consistent with the tradition to say that zen puts intellectual knowledge into a certain perspective.  Understanding does not dispel dukkha, the primary craving of existence.  There is no book, no formula, no explanation, no words or images that eliminate the craving at the root of the human condition.  It is also true that "direct, intuitive experience of transcendental truths" doesn't cure it either.  That experience can integrate it into a new perspective (though even this is not guaranteed), but the strongest satori in the world doesn't make you anything other than human. 

Seung Sahn is known for saying "put down your thinking" a lot, but he also acknowledged that thinking has a correct function.  The point was to use thinking correctly and then let it go.  He also said, "Everybody wants something." 

There are many uses of intelligence.  Our basic perceptive senses -- smell, sight, taste, touch, hearing -- and the way we put that information together is a function of intelligence.  We use intelligence for the basic competencies of staying alive: eating, dressing, cleaning ourselves, crossing a street without getting run over.  We use intelligence to figure out how to make a living and understand the system in which we do that.  We use intelligence in deciding to practice zen, for that matter.  The Sixth Patriarch may have been illiterate, but the legend goes that he was awakened by listening to someone read the Diamond Sutra. While it can be argued that Hui Neng experienced something "direct, intuitive, transcendental" upon hearing the words -- it remains that the spontaneous experience was sparked by listening to literature.

There are many uses of intelligence, and sometimes a word, an image, a note played on a flute, or some other sensation can actually penetrate our consciousness and "awaken" our attention to a much wider frame.  Consider all the zen legends about people "awakening" at the sound of a rock hitting a piece of bamboo, or falling down a hill, or hearing a bell.  Someday I'll tell you the story of a piece of ceiling falling on me -- it's very "zenny." 

Going further, though: the uses of intelligence don't need to be justified with some cliche description of a zen experience.  Wanting a certain experience is a very bad zen sickness, for starters, and in trying to induce it, people sometimes take a terrible pride in their austerity.  We could live on a diet of rice and beans, denying ourselves the fleeting pleasures of other foods or condiments -- and that may or may not be a useful practice for an intensive retreat -- but is that virtuous?  Is that "zen?"   Everybody wants something.

There are people I've known personally for many years in the Kwan Um school,  and with a few of these individuals I struggle to find any conversation.  Art?  History?  Current events?  Literature?  Those things aren't "zen."  Any interest in these topics is held as a distraction from a narrow focus on "clear mind."  It is simply not "zen" to bring up these things, and people exhibiting such interests are snared by the worldly.
A young friend of mine at Providence Zen Center was a talented musician living as a postulant monk.  One day, he announced he was giving up music.  I persuaded him to let me keep his banjo, and he proudly handed it over.  He then marched up the hill for the traditional three-month silent retreat at the monastery.  The banjo sat in my closet all winter.  I'm happy to say that after the retreat was over, he came back down the hill and asked for his banjo.  He played for us that night, and it was wonderful.  Appreciating good music is an act of intelligence, and does not seem "anti-zen" in the least -- unless one is holding onto some notion of austerity and calling that "zen." 

A fondness for playing the banjo or an occasional novel or making love with your partner, or whatever, does not necessarily diminish one's practice or the importance of enlightenment.  Here it might be useful to revisit the concept (yes, it is a concept) of the bodhisattva path:  we live and practice not so that we can achieve "enlightenment" for ourselves and whatever rewards we think go with it; we live in this world, with all these other beings, practicing for all beings while we are here.  When enlightenment comes, we give that to everybody else.  And while we're here, we might also play a little banjo.

And as a practicing person in the world, we might decide not to follow the same "rules" as everybody else -- but as in art, we know the rules we are breaking, nu?  

People differ in their interests and aptitudes.  One person might not have an ear for poetry at all; another can feel bored stiff about political economics; and so on.  But that is a different thing than what is being expressed when someone at your zen center dismisses art, or science, or politics, or whatever with something zenny ("Just put it all down and don't know!").  We have dogma after all.   

A monk once told me he did not vote because "I'm a monk and I'm not involved in the world."  I responded by showing him his mail: insurance statements, a statement from his mutual fund, a reminder that his car was due for an oil change.  I wasn't about to make him vote if he didn't want to, but the idea that he wasn't involved in the world was a fantasy.  Everybody wants something.

When the Japanese poet Takahashi Shinkichi became a monk, he made a big fire and burned all of his poetry.  Clearly, it survived, since I have read translations of it; and some of it is quite good. That bonfire was symbolic of "putting it all down" without actually destroying it.
Suppose for just a moment that someone a thousand years ago decided that using a hammer wasn't "zen."  Not only would there be no zen centers, but most of the sangha would be sleeping on the ground.  But hammers don't help us achieve enlightenment.  Or do they?  Bang bang bang.

What about medicine?  Medicine does not seem to have helped anybody achieve "enlightenment," but when I was suffering from pneumonia, medicine kept me alive so I could continue practicing.  A hammer is a tool, and so is medicine.

And so on for other uses of intelligence.  Formal meditation is a method of perception.  So is drawing.  So is writing -- arranging words either to transmit information or even to convey a sense of something ineffable.  Touching someone is a method of perception.  And so on to things like mathematics, engineering, economic analysis -- these are all methods of perception.  They are forms of consciousness.  Any one of them have their natural limits, of course, but they all help human beings process information and perceive the world in which we live.

Cutting off parts of our consciousness, mutilating our awareness by choice, does not seem conducive to enlightenment. It sounds like the opposite. 

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Let us raise the right barriers and destroy the wrong ones

As Hurricane Sandy pushed stormy weather up to Rhode Island, the hurricane barrier by Fox Point came up to prevent the Providence River from surging into downtown Providence.  It was built in the 1960s, this barrier, and has come in handy for many storms like this.

There are no such barriers in the Hudson River to protect New York City from the kind of devastation it saw this week.  (At this writing, the death toll from Hurricane Sandy in New York alone is 37; nationwide, the count has passed 80.)  New York did not often need them.  For all the weather that has hit New York, flooding in Manhattan was once rare.  Rare enough that no major infrastructure was deemed necessary, and only piecemeal and reactive measures were taken after unusual weather.

Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed on Tuesday that this may need to be re-thought.  His remarks at the press conference were strangely coy: acknowledging that climate change is transforming weather patterns, yet declaring that he did not want to engage such a "political" issue.

Of course it's political.  Human activity is changing climatic conditions on our planet. We are now seeing "environmental refugees" as people are forced to pick up their community and find settlement elsewhere as sea levels and temperatures change; we are seeing changes of air quality; we can literally watch the arctic ice on which we depend melt before our eyes; and we are seeing new patterns of weather, including extreme storms like Hurricanes Irene and now Sandy.

Governor Cuomo on Tuesday:

When you start to fill the subway tunnels with salt water—much of the Con Ed equipment is in the tunnels, is underground—when hot electrical equipment hits cold salt water, that is a bad combination. And that is a design flaw, I believe, for our system now, if you anticipate these extreme weather conditions.
Obviously we didn’t when we designed this system. We did not anticipate water coming over the Hudson River, coming over the banks, being five feet deep on the West Side Highway, and filling subway grates and every opening and filling that massive infrastructure we have below ground.
Going forward, I think we do have to anticipate these extreme types of weather patterns. And we have to start to think about how do we redesign the system so this doesn’t happen again. After what happened, what has been happening in the last few years, I don’t think anyone can sit back anymore and say “Well, I’m shocked at that weather pattern.” There is no weather pattern that can shock me at this point. And I think that has to be our attitude. And how do we redesign our system and our infrastructure assuming that?”

It is to Governor Cuomo's credit that he made a case for acknowledging facts.  But it is so little, so late.  And yes, it is political.  It is political when we cannot have a serious and factually based public discourse about climate change and the human activity that contributes to the process and accelerates its effects.  It is political when scientific research, and reporting on that research to the general public, are corrupted by the influence of business interests.  It is political when scientific research, and even science itself, is impeached for political reasons.  The political conflict is quite serious.  The implications of this reality suggests a human interest in putting limits on some capitalist activities and making radical changes in our habits of consumption and energy production.  There might even need to be changes in the economic system itself.  There are some very powerful interests who do not want the public thinking about it that way. 

In the short term, however, for god's sake, get the feasibility study underway as a step toward building storm barriers in the Hudson.  The cost of that project would be in the billions, but far fewer than the billions of dollars in damage and lost economic activity from just one major storm.  Just do it.  

Governor Cuomo is attracting attention of late as a potential candidate for president.  I hope he loses his inhibitions about discussing climate change -- and do I dare hope he will find the courage to embrace systematic change?  We are past the point of averting catastrophic effects of climate change.  We are now in an era where we can still work to contain the catastrophe -- and that opportunity is slipping by as well, while politicians and their patrons resist and deny science in order to preserve the current system.

Besides building barriers in the right places, it is time to blow up the barriers that are keeping us from sanity.

What will it take, my friends?  What will it take?

[Image: Fox Point hurricane barrier, Providence]