Friday, August 30, 2013

Kerry's speech on Syria today

Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to the nation earlier today.  In the speech he presented a summary of evidence regarding the attack in Ghouta, and made a fierce case for a U.S. military strike in response to that attack and described some boundaries on what the commander-in-chief wishes to do.

What was missing from his speech was a case for why the United States Congress cannot debate and vote on the matter.  Although Mr. Kerry cited the prestige and reputation of the United States, in the end he is unable to say that the United States is under direct attack; and in order to launch a military strike on a country that has not directly attacked us, the president must seek an authorization from Congress for this act of war.  Because that is what it is: an act of war.  And while it has not been the recent practice of presidents to acknowledge this limitation of power or seek congressional approval for war, in this case there is plenty of time to make that case and then respond.  After all, the president claims that he is not seeking to change the balance of military power in the civil war, but merely to fire a 'shot across the bow.'  If that is true, why not take the time for a proper debate in accordance with our constitution?

Also missing from Mr. Kerry's speech was a compelling case for why the United States needs to go it alone as "chemical warfare cop."  Assuming the case is true, and agreement that this attack on civilians was completely unacceptable for any purpose, what is the correct way to respond?  While I understand the difficulties in securing Security Council support, do we not have a duty to try?  And what about the Arab League?  If this is a great moral issue, why not make that case to these bodies and assemble a legitimate coalition?

Opinion polls suggest that Americans want answers to these questions before supporting an act of war that runs the risks of further involvement in a foreign civil war.  Will the president ever deal with us forthrightly?

Or shall we start calling him Barack O'Dubya?

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

On the anniversary of the march on Washington

The last post of the day on this blog will NOT be about Surviving Gilligan's Island.  No, not today.

Because it is the fiftieth anniversary of the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom."  There had never been a popular rally on this scale before in the United States -- what a miracle of organizing, and what a miracle for so many citizens to turn out and take up a common space by their nation's capitol.

And, of course, that speech.  Read it here.  And then, please, also read the "Beyond Vietnam" speech here

Or watch and listen:

Surviving Gilligan's Island (without credit)

Probably, if I wanted to add this to my IMDB page, I could. 

Recently, my friend Mu Sang Sunim (pictured all the way on the left in this photograph) brought up a strange, fleeting television appearance he and I had made along with Mu Ryang Sunim, a former monk who also lived in California at the time.

It was, literally, my first day in Los Angeles.  August 2001.  Twelve years ago exactly.  I had been invited to move here at serve as Abbot of Dharma Zen Center.  I had gotten off a plane and been met by these two senior monks in the Kwan Um School of Zen.  As a welcome, they took me to Venice Beach, where we had lunch and then went for a walk by the ocean.

And since it was, after all, Los Angeles, we soon came across a camera crew that considered us interesting.  They were doing on-the-street interviews for a documentary or docudrama entitled Surviving Gilligan's Island.  They asked us a few questions.  Could we remember the theme song?  (Mu Ryang Sunim did!  I didn't, really, but I could whistle.)  Also, as men, did we prefer Ginger or Mary Anne?  Not a monkish subject.  They made us shout "Ginger!" so we did.

We forgot all about it and several months later, I got a call from Reverend Kusala, a monk at the International Buddhist Meditation Center. "Mu Mun!" he said urgently, "You were on television last night!  I think you have a problem."  At first I couldn't even remember, and then realized the Gilligan thing must have aired.  The Reverend Kusala -- a wonderful man but very very serious -- was genuinely alarmed by this "mistake."  But he is also a problem solver, and said, "Here is what I think you should do.  I think you should call your sangha together and just explain everything that happened, maybe you were jet lagged or something, and you didn't know what this was, and you should say it was very unskillful and you apologize."

And in response I said, "But you are a great monk!  Shouldn't you apologize for watching this show?" 

And after that, we all forgot about it again.  For twelve years. And then Mu Sang Sunim asked about it, and I wondered if it got posted on YouTube.  Sure enough:

And there we are, at 51:39 and again at 54:10.

Should I be deleting this post and not telling you about it?  Oh well.  Too late. 

In Support of Kshama Sawant

Although the Burning House still reads widely and sometimes posts here about politics, economics, and social issues, we have honestly given up on electoral politics as an engine of progress for the forseeable future.

We do participate in voting: casting votes for alternatives we can support, and occasionally for Democrats.  The trouble is, we see an urgent need for leadership that is outside the Republican-Democratic duopoly.  This duopoly, the "two party system" that never rotates the eligible parties, is an institution enjoying a lock on elected power (the laws are in fact rigged to ensure the dominance of these two parties) despite a legacy of poor government, fealty to a capitalist-corporate agenda, and subsequent inability to address a grave ecological crisis, distribute education and health care to its people, roll back our economic dependence on war as an industry, develop an infrastructure for renewable energy, or to distribute meaningful work for its people.

Despite its failures, the duopoly reigns.  This is partly because the laws and customs of our elections overtly favor its continuity, raising obstacles and firewalls against independent candidates or alternative parties.  It is allowed to continue, however, because the public has been led to believe that supporting alternative parties is too dangerous to consider, and that it is better to settle for a "lesser of two evils" rather than candidates they actually would support in principle.  This is true of conservatives and liberals, and the fear leads people either to abstain from voting or for voting for candidates they don't believe in while refusing to vote for candidates and platforms they do believe in.

Results: a plutocracy administered by the Republican-Democratic duopoly, with dominion over a demoralized electorate who no longer even expect government to represent their interests.

In this grim United States, the received political wisdom among so-called progressives is that the only course worth pursuing is to work with the Democratic Party, raise all the money you can (i.e. corporate money), and secure prominent endorsements from other Democrats and major newspapers.

Results: Loss, or co-optation into corporate-dominated Democratic Party politics, which works against an actual progressive agenda. 

Enter Kshama Sawant.

She is an American immigrant from India, now a professor at Seattle Central Community College.  She was active in the Occupy movement and has moved into electoral politics while continuing to be active in protest politics.  She previously ran for the state legislature, losing the race while winning a respectable margin of the votes cast.  Now she is running for city council and she performed well enough in the first vote that she has gone on to the November runoff against a vulnerable incumbent.

The incumbent is the kind of Democrat we complained about above:  He introduced himself to voters as a progressive candidate but pursued a very different agenda over a decade and a half in office, no doubt better reflecting the interests of high-level donors and corporations.  With his name recognition and fundraising advantage, the conventional wisdom is that he's all set provided he doesn't blow it in some kind of personal scandal.  The epitome of entrenched incumbency. 

Oh, but guess what.

In the initial vote, Sawant took 35% of the vote in a three-way race against an entrenched Democratic incumbent.  More than one third, in a three way race, against candidates with a lot more money than she had.  As part of a vow to be a working class candidate representing working class interests, she refuses corporate money and accepts donations from individual donors, most of them small.  According to one of the Seattle Times articles linked here, her opponent had raised seven times as much money as she had.   And yet, a majority of the votes cast in that three-way race were against the incumbent, and now Professor Sawant faces him in a runoff.  By the accounts I've read, she has a pretty good ground-organizing game, and is making the best use of her funds. 

Another thing: she's not a Democrat, and not even a Green.  She is running as a socialist candidate.  And apparently a lot of Seattle voters aren't afraid of that word, although the Seattle Times pronounced her much too "hard left" to be taken seriously.

Well, maybe not.  For one thing,if her platform is "hard left" it just goes to show how much the political spectrum has shifted to the right during our lifetimes (we are about the same age).  She is pro-union and her economic agenda is Keynesian: higher minimum wage, progressive taxation, economic stimulus, robust public sector work within capitalism.

But even this is going farther than the Democratic Party can go.  And apparently voters aren't so afraid of the word "socialism," like the policy direction, and are donating to her campaign and planning to vote for her.

Who knows.  Maybe this can happen.

And if we dare entertain that hope, can we go a bit further and dare to dream that progressive voters are starting to open their minds to leadership outside the Democratic-Republican box?  Maybe entertaining a wider range of policy ideas?  Another indicator could be the election of Gayle McLaughlin, of the Green Party, as mayor of Richmond, California.  She is serving her second term, and has been making news lately (even earning a mention by the liberal duopolist Rachel Maddow, who poo-poos politicians of other parties) for the mayor's innovative effort to use government's "eminent domain" powers on behalf of the poor.  With her city facing a corrosive foreclosure crisis, McLaughlin wanted to appropriate "eminent domain" (whereby govenrment seizes private property for ostensibly public purposes, which could include turning them over to private enterprise) on behalf of homeowners and in order to stave off urban blight in her city.

Maybe there is a dimly glowing ember of hope for electoral politics.  Maybe alternatives to the duopoly can secure a toehold, win a seat, maybe start opening the door to representation for the poor and the working class.

We don't have our hopes up just yet.  And we're broke.  But we're sending a few bucks to Kshama Sawant.  And telling you about her in case you'd like to check her out and consider doing the same. 

For more, YouTube has lots of videos of her speaking.

[Image taken from Sawant's campaign website.  Hope they don't mind.]

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Report from my shared office

Ah, how things change.  I'm very grateful to have teaching work this semester, it's just that the circumstances are very different than last year.

A year ago, I was a visiting assistant professor in the Theatre Arts department of New Mexico State University.  I had a full-time course load.  And an office of my own in order to manage those courses and meet with students as needed.

As readers of this blog know, they hired their permanent professor in the spring, but as luck would have it some friends at the Creative Media Institute invited me to teach a course as an adjunct this semester.  So here I am, teaching for a different department.  Although I don't have a private office I have been assigned space in a shared office.  I do not have a key to this office, but someone kindly let me in.

From that shared office space, this report.  I am wearing my coat because it is freezing cold in the room. 

David McReynolds on Syria

David McReynolds, who worked tirelessly for the War Resisters League from 1960 to 1999 and was also active with the Socialist Party USA (running as its presidential candidate more than once), a theorist also experienced in organizing and activism, nowadays is semi-retired but is still applying a keen analysis and a sense of history (of which he has witnessed a great deal) to current events.  These words are mostly disseminated through private emails, which he gives us permission to share.

And so I am sharing his words about Syria, where, as we are sure you know, there is video evidence of a terrible attack on civilians using what certainly appear to be chemical weapons.  The clear suspect is the regime of Bashir al-Assad, whose government has notoriously stockpiled chemical weapons and has the capacity to deploy them using rockets. Although this is not evidence beyond a reasonable doubt -- there are now U.N. inspectors at the site, after being delayed several days by the Assad regime and then attacked by snipers, and even this investigation is only into what was used, not the perpetrator -- it is persuasive enough that the U.S. government has essentially announced it will escalate its involvement in the Syrian civil war with a retaliatory military strike.

The questions are, what is appropriate, what is the aim, and are we prepared for the consequences?

Here are David's comments, shared with his permission.


First, "we" - the broad radical democratic left and the forces of the nonviolent movement - must not become apologists for any regime, in this case neither the Assad regime nor that of the disorganized Islamist opposition. 

If we are honest (and if we don't make that effort, we are of little value) we know that there are conflicts where, while pacifists would not take up arms, we can't pretend there are no moral differences. In World War I there were none of importance - it was a mad, indefensible war.

In World War II, while, by the end, with the massive Allied bombing of German and Japanese civilians, and the use of nuclear weapons in Japan, the moral differences had been largely erased, one cannot equate the systematic, industrialized murder of Jews, Roma, Slavs, and others by the Nazis with the Allied side.

In the Spanish Civil War, while there were atrocities on both sides, only the blind would have equated Franco's side with that of the Republic.

In Vietnam it was obvious from very early in the  tragedy that if there was a "good war" it was that of the Vietnamese Communists against the US. That was then, and remains, hard for many of us to concede, since the nature of Stalinism had erased what might have been the "moral edge" of the international Communist movement.

Those of us who are pacifists - and I am firmly in that camp - look for alternatives, refuse take up arms, and pledge, with Camus, "to be neither victims nor executioners".

In Syria I can find no significant difference between the sides. (Nor could I find such a difference in the case of Libya where I felt the Western actions were indefensible). Now there is a sudden rush to some military strike on Syria. I am truly appalled at the duplicity of the British, French, and US forces pressing for an attack. I am particularly struck by the casual dishonesty of Hague of the British government.

Let us leave aside the fact we simply do not know whether poison gas was used. The Syrian government has opened the way for inspectors, but the Western governments have already determined it is too late to be sure of the facts. Too late to be sure - but nonetheless there is pressure for military action?

To what end? Any compassionate person is horrified by the shambles of what is left of Syria, by the estimated hundred thousand dead, by the hundreds of thousands fleeing Syria for their lives.
And what will a military strike achieve? 

But what primarily drives me nuts, and leaves me in almost incoherent rage at the Western states, is the fact that the military dictatorship in Egypt has murdered at least a thousand civilians, almost all of them unarmed, but the US still cannot bring itself to utter the word "coup" in reference to the military takeover - and, more criminal, cannot end US military aid to the regime there.

Rarely have we have so clear a chance to see the duplicity of those states which claim to hold the high moral ground. Rarely have we been so painfully reminded that nation states seek, first of all, to defend their own interests, and that those interests are largely indifferent to great moral issues to which they would lay claim.

The last time this was laid so painfully bare was more than fifty years ago when, as the workers and peasants of Hungary sought to establish a democratic government, replacing the Stalinist dictatorship that had been imposed by the Soviet Union, Israel, France, and Britain jointly launched an invasion of Egypt to try to stop Nasser from taking control of the Suez Canal. If ever there had been a moment when world attention should have been focused on a single event, it was that October Revolution in Hungary, which had suddenly opened the door to the possible dissolution of the Warsaw/NATO military alliances (the Warsaw Pact clearly was useless if the troops were going to be used to suppress people within the Warsaw Pact, and NATO clearly wasn't need to protect the West from a military threat from the East, if the East was unable to maintain iron control over its own territory).
That is now long in the past, but the lesson remains - there are no calls from the British Tories or the French Socialists for military intervention in Egypt, and no move by the US to at least cut its military aid.

Instead, even without waiting for solid proof, the old amalgam of imperial forces seek to punish the Syrian government - with or without any solid proof.

These governments do not speak for us. Nor do they speak for the human interests of either side in Syria, where what is most urgently needed is humanitarian aid  in terms of food, medicine, shelter.

--David McReynolds

Monday, August 26, 2013

New Word: Zenimiscing

Here at the Burning House, we enjoy coining useful words.  Today we announce a newly-minted word for a certain niche of society.

(phonetic: zenəˈmis)

To indulge in recollection of past events related to zen practice, events, or communities.  


Today, in Silver City, New Mexico, I met up with Oryo, a Soto priest, for lunch where we zenimisced  about San Francisco Zen Center, Green Gulch, and numerous people we both knew from there.  

[Image:  Where we ate in Silver City's historic downtown.  A nice place.]

Monday, August 19, 2013

Capitalizing on the dharma

A friend wrote,

Recently I was turned away from a teaching at a well known Tibetan Buddhist Center in Seattle. I did not know of the special teaching, and have not been able to afford dues to this large group. I have been a Sangha member of the larger Karma Kagyu lineage for eight years, receiving teachings in person from H.H. the Karmapa, Thrangu Rinpoche, and the Vajra Vidya Center in Crestone, CO. I was told by this Seattle financial director at this Dharma center that "you are not a member of the sangha." -Implying that somehow being a dues-paying member of this center was equivalent to being a member of the Sangha. I do not know where this kind of thinking arose with him, but this is a blatantly flawed view of what Sangha is. Many great teachers such as Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche have stated plainly that this kind of false view is purely a self-serving belief. The Sangha is not even visible to the common eye-Many non-Buddhists and non-religious, are members of the Sangha. They have the mind of the Buddha. I have practiced deeply for years now. All are welcome. The "ability to pay" view of membership is purely a product of samsara, and is antithetical to the nature of Dharma. Happily, I went to another service with Drikung Kagyu Seattle, and was welcomed with open arms, meeting a truly great teacher. No $ was requested. So, thank you, financial director, for rejecting me and sending me on a clearer path.

Sounds like a clear example of commodifying the dharma in order to capitalize on it.  

Granted, there is a balance to be struck somewhere.  The Buddha and his monks practiced begging.  Later, in China, monks turned to farming rather than mendicancy.  We now live under globalized liberal capitalism.  There are still monks who go on traditional begging rounds in Asia.  Under Chinese state capitalism, the state preserves temples as part of a tourist economy.  Japanese temples have also turned to tourism for sustenance.  In some places, temples receive government support. 

In the U.S., dharma centers pretty much sustain themselves with a combination of fees or member dues, and requests for donations.  One center here in New Mexico has a policy of no fees and they don't even request donations (though they certainly accept them).  Centers in my organization, the Kwan Um School of Zen, have member dues.  There is no fee for practicing at the center and membership is not required, but generally they ask people to become members if they are coming for teaching interviews on a regular basis or asking to take precepts.  Alternative arrangements like work exchange also exist. 

The way this is framed, however, is not as a fee for a service, as in a market relationship.  This is a different kind of relationship.  It is similar to the relationship you have when you support public radio: you may listen for free, but you are asked to take some responsibility for the station's survival, to support it at a level appropriate for your situation.  It is much more akin to being part of a family than a consumer in a marketplace.  In capitalist terms, this system makes no sense at all, and is even unfair.  For the same service, some people pay more, some people pay less, and some don't pay at all -- but they can all receive the service anyway!  

Capitalism has a certain aim, which is accumulation and growth.  To do this in a market economy, the dharma has to commodify the teaching and make it scarce, so as to ration it based on the ability to pay money.  In a market environment, this is how human beings relate to each other.  But for those who do not think of sangha as a marketplace, this is deeply problematic.  Another point of view is that the dharma is for everyone, regardless of their ability to pay; and for some, even work exchange is a bit difficult.

Deming Zen Center, the center I run in Luna County, New Mexico (where a recent unemployment figure hit 22%), is a bit like a family -- without the cohabitation.  We rent a very small space with the lowest rent we could find, we have an unobtrusive donation box, and we say little about it.  I have even been loath to post "suggested donations" lest they be viewed effectively as fees that discourage participation by the poor. After all, most of us grow up learning the lesson that we aren't entitled to things we can't pay for.

But in a family -- a circle including friends -- we just give and receive.   It would look insane for me to mention to my in-laws or our friends that they just ate approximately $X worth of food and wine.  Consistently, I feel the same way about doing it within the sangha family, although sometimes I still do it and I recognize that some people are confused and want some help deciding what is appropriate to give.   And frankly, when there isn't enough in the donation box, I dig into my own pocket, which is sometimes very hard to do.  So occasionally I must mention the box.

Our centers are built in the realm of samsara, and the mud of this world is part of establishing and maintaining a place.  We have to deal with money.   I haven't figured out the best way to do it either. 

An important point, that I think is often left missing in these conversations, is the specific nature of the economic system in which we operate.  Market capitalism defines human relationships.  If you analyzed a typical family in terms of economic relations, it is essentially communist -- and quite normal. Outside of the family structure, however, a very different kind of human relationship becomes normal and expected.  Outside of the family structure, it's a competitive marketplace.  Feeding my son is called "parenting" and makes me a "father."   Feeding a stranger who is broke is considered "enabling" and makes me a "bleeding heart."  That's how the marketplace conditions us. 

We live in a social order determined by our economic system, and it conditions our views about value and about relationships.  Even about ourselves.  As when, for example, middle-aged men feel anxiety and depression, or their marriages suffer, because they lost their job in their forties or fifties and companies are loath to hire men their age for reasons also having to do with capitalism.  Many blame themselves instead of examining the system or their own conditioned beliefs about money and self-worth.

This dharma center that turned my friend away was unusually explicit in defining their relationship with him as a customer relationship -- and took this a step further by telling him he wasn't even a part of Sangha!   (Sangha means something a whole lot wider than a local paying customer base.)

The Buddha never knew this kind of world.  But he did call it a very bad crime to divide monks or priests (sangha-bheda).  In an environment where people are not entirely lay or monastic, where people practice and train diligently and have to sustain themselves economically, if a temple divides them by their ability to contribute personal wealth even when it exceeds what the center needs to survive, does this not at least touch the concept of sangha-bheda?

Funding our dharma centers is akin to a life koan.  What are the hindrances that keep us from responding and penetrating this koan clearly?  I submit that if we are treating Sangha like a market relationship, we're stuck in a delusion that compels us to run dharma centers like businesses. And on paper, that's what they are; but that's not what they are.  And that's not what sangha is.

Sangha isn't family, either, but there's a parallel.

Anyway, it is now the time of the month when I hold my breath and figure out whether Deming Zen Center can pay its rent.  And we've got a retreat with our teacher coming up in November -- plane tickets, supplies, venue, etc.  It's not easy.  All I know is, somehow or other, this little group of people are going to practice together, everyone will get fed, everyone will have the opportunity to practice and receive attention and teaching.

As with my own family, I don't really know how we're going to accomplish that.  But we will.

POSTSCRIPT:  This is a broad topic and I've only scratched the surface, if I've even done that.  Reader responses are most welcome.  This is a creative problem that has engaged many good people already.  Please feel free to discuss here.  Or email  

Friday, August 16, 2013

A coup is a coup, and a massacre is a massacre

[Sent by email.  Adapted versions sent to Senators Heinreich and Udall of New Mexico, and Representative Steve Pearce.]

Dear Mr. President,

It has been stunning and horrifying to watch our disastrous and morally bankrupt policy regarding Egypt unfold, giving courage as well as concrete aid to a coup regime that has engaged in a lethal massacre of its citizens and imposed a month-long "state of emergency" that no one believes will be over in a month. 

Before the July 3 coup, our government quietly warned the military that a coup would forbid us from sending them aid.  They went ahead anyway, on the assumption we would not in fact cut off aid.  And they were right.  Following the coup, the department of state engaged in embarrassing and laughable doublespeak in its effort to disregard our law and avoid labeling this coup a coup. 

And now, as a reign of terror emerges including a civilian massacre and the detention, beating, and killing of journalists, you have responded by suspending a joint military exercise.  Presumably, our aid relationship continues, and we, the people of these United States, must live knowing that (1) we are helping pay for this Egyptian killing field and (2) our government, having no influence over the Egyptian military's actions, will continue to send aid.

I am familiar with technocratic foreign policy that has led us to support one dictator after another, in Egypt and numerous other countries.  But it is the wrong course for us to take. 

It is, at best, questionable whether our aid is a strong inducement to Egypt at this point anyway.  But there are other reasons to suspend it.  For God's sake, Mr. President, *I* am helping to pay these butchers mow down their own people.  I am disgusted by my government’s complicity in this action.

Do you foresee this policy leading to more democracy in Egypt?  Are we going to pretend, anew, that a military dictatorship improves peace and stability in that region?  Do we believe the Muslim Brotherhood will be content to engage in electoral politics now?  Does this really contribute to real peace for Israel? 

I call on you and Secretary Kerry to announce an immediate suspension of aid and cooperation in light of massive human rights violations and the suspension of democracy, coupled with a promise to reset relations and consider aid when the campaign of violent repression is ended and clear, verifiable steps to institute some measure of democracy are taken.


This raw video of our Egyptian ally restoring democracy to its people is disturbing and is suggested for mature audiences only.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Videocast: Come on out and see us in GREATER TUNA, y'hear?

GREATER TUNA opens at No Strings Theatre Company in Las Cruces on August 23. 

For show times and reservations, visit their website at or call (575) 523-1223.

With David Reyes and Algernon D'Ammassa.  Directed by Ceil Herman.  Costumes by Gabrielle Teich.  Set and lighting by Peter Herman.  Stage managed by Karen Ross. 

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Seeing fire in the river

This is my monthly "Desert Sage" piece for the Deming Headlight.  It appeared in today's edition of the paper.

Lo, we have a river!

Our monsoon period is here, with spectacular lightning and thunder putting shame to our recent 4th of July displays.  Now we get our major delivery of rain, and the dry beds of the Mimbres have actually been running. 

In some places, neighbors of our valley reported that the river was running a scary black color due to runoff from the Gila and the Black Range, where the Silver Fire raged early this summer.  In that instant, even non-poets could easily see the fire in the river. 

A river can show us a lot.  There is an old Korean fable about a monastery by a river.  The zen master is returning from a trip to town, riding his horse up the hill.  In the river along the path, he notices a single piece of lettuce floating downstream, and urgently spurs his horse.  “Something is wrong up there,” he thinks.  “Otherwise no one would allow that piece of lettuce to drop and float away.”  At that moment, he sees the kitchen master running down the path after the piece of lettuce, and he relaxes.  “Never mind.  Everything is fine.”  It’s a lovely story about paying attention and taking responsibility.  More than this, it is about seeing God’s hand in every creature, the breath of all humankind, and even in a bit of lettuce.

A couple of weeks ago, there was enough babble in our brook that one could imagine kayaking off the 180.   Even now, after most of that has receded,  there is still enough to see the flash of sunlight dancing on a moving surface of water – and even that might be enough to tempt the observer to a false hope that New Mexico’s drought might turn a corner.  Maybe the Chihuahuan Desert’s lush grassland will recover and prove those killjoy scientists wrong.

Unfortunately, the longer view, as shared with us by climate scientists, biologists, land managers, and range experts, suggests that our state is getting drier at an accelerating rate.

A sensible conversation about our climate, how it is changing, and what we can do, continues to elude us in part because we willingly confuse weather with climate in order to ignore the problem.  Deniers of climate change seize on a cold snap or a snowstorm as evidence that global warming and other evidence of climate change are not real.

This can be explained in a single uncomplicated sentence:  weather is how the atmosphere behaves locally at one moment, and climate is the longer view of how weather behaves.  The complex effects of atmospheric changes affect our weather, agriculture, the spread of disease, and much more. 

In this rare glimpse of our river, we see the Mimbres running black and understand that the valley is flushing itself clean after a wildfire, in an ancient cyclical process.  Wildfires are part of a natural process, too.  Yet in the longer view, wildfire seasons are longer and deadlier, and not only because of local land management.  Drought conditions in combination with drier and less stable atmospheric conditions are real influences on the patterns and behavior of wildfires.  And while we argue politics and deny climate change in order to protect our economic system and social order, New Mexico’s ecosystems are collapsing, the desert is becoming more arid, and our terra firma is turning to sand. 

Our lapse of attention, or willing ignorance, amounts to much more than a piece of lunch flowing downstream.  Collectively we are failing to be shepherds of our inheritance.

When this glimpse is gone and the river is dry again, will it move us?  

[Image:  The Mimbres as viewed from a spot just north of Deming.]

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Why be anybody else?

In yesterday's post, I went on a bit about how students (both in zen and in acting) sometimes learn how to pretend -- maybe to please a teacher, to show a result they feel pressured to show, or out of some distorted idea about the process. In particular, in both acting and in zen there are prevalent fantasies about "break-throughs" and what they might feel like, so that students begin beating themselves up when truth does not match the fantasy.  Adverse results include giving up, or pretending to be something we are not.  Which is worse?  Either one, bad enough. 

I quoted David Mamet from his introduction to A Practical Handbook for the Actor:

As you went from one class to the next and from one teacher to the next, two things happened: being human, your need to believe asserted itself.  You were loath to believe your teachers were frauds, so you began to believe that you yourself were a fraud.  This contempt for yourself became contempt for all those who did not share the particular bent of your school of training.  

For all the talk about "truth" that goes on in acting classes, that self-loathing was hardly ever addressed.  How can you be a 'truthful' actor if you do not believe in your true self?  How can you be a 'truthful' actor if your consciousness is consumed in checking, comparing, and fantasizing? 

This morning, I came across this statement by Zen Master Wu Kwang, aka Richard Shrobe, a psychotherapist and zen master who has written a few books about zen.  This is from the third chapter of Elegant Failure: A Guide to Zen Koans.

Right now, each and every one of us does not lack anything. Then why practice? That is the paradox of practice. On the one hand, we have an aspiration toward something; at the same time, right in this moment, every one of us is already complete. We do not lack anything. Our aspiration is to get a clear view of that fact: that here and now we do not lack anything. And whether that perception comes as a big lightning bolt or somehow imperceptibly sneaks up on us is not important. What is important is that we gradually stabilize and steady that view more and more. That is true practice. If we try anything else, we wind up striving to become something other than ourselves, which usually ends in disaster.