Tuesday, November 28, 2006

SECRET TEACHINGS


First off, the December schedule for Saturday Zazen at the Hill Street Center is Dec. 2, Dec. 9, Dec. 16, and Dec. 23. December 9th is a day-long micro-retreat. On Dec. 23rd Tonen O'Connor from the Milwaukee Zen Center will be in attendance. That should be fun.

Thanks for all the comments and e-mails on Jesus. I'm still thinking about whether to do this or not. But I'm having fun reading A Marginal Jew by John P. Meier, a humongous study of the historical Jesus. Chewy stuff!!

OK. The other day I was at Goodwill rumaging thru the usual pile of musty old records when I came across the album pictured here, Velvet Darkness by Allan Holdsworth. Holdsworth is one of those guitarist's guitarists. Meaning he's really really good, but not very accessible to people who don't play guitar thesmelves since part of his appeal is how amazingly difficult his stuff is to play. Eddie Van Halen called Holdsworth his biggest influence. Before this I'd only ever heard one of his records, 1982's I.O.U. While the guitar playing was very impressive, the album was kinda boring. But when I spotted this one at Goodwill for 99 cents, I figured it was worth a dollar. Plus I liked the cover. Anything with the WTC on it is kind of sad to see these days. But it's a nifty picture.

I took it home and it was mildly enjoyable. So today I went on-line and looked up the album. Turns out it's a much sought-after rarity. Holdsworth himself hated it and it hasn't been reprinted since its initial release in 1976 except in an unauthorized edition in the early 90's that Holdsworth himself successfully sued to have withdrawn. Unfortunately, in spite of its rarity, it's only worth about $20 in mint condition. And mine's good for a thrift store find, but certainly not mint.

ANYWAY, the interesting thing was that the album suddenly seemed way much cooler to me as soon as I learned that it was a "secret album." That must be an almost instinctive reaction. Anything that's supposedly hidden or secret, just for that fact alone always seems a whole lot cooler. It's like all those Beatles bootlegs. I have a ton of them and they're mostly crap. The legit releases are much better. Yet dorks like me will drop a big bucks for the stupid things just because we're not supposed to hear them.

Same thing works in religious circles. Whenever some teaching is presented as esoteric, forbidden, or secret everybody wants it. And, of course, just like the Beatles bootlegs, those secret teachings are never really any better than what's out there available to everybody. Usually, like the Beatles bootlegs, they're just lousy cast-offs that were never released to the general public because they sucked.

ANYWAY I listened to the Holdsworth album again this afternoon and I kind of like it. Much better than I.O.U.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

JESUS

I've been thinking of writing a book about Jesus. So I'm gonna write down these thoughts and post them without really editing it much. It'll be messy. But maybe something useful will come of it. Here goes...

There must be a hundred "Buddha and Jesus" books out there. But, although it's a subject I've been intrigued by for a very long time, I have never come across a Buddha & Jesus book that interested me enough I ever even considered buying it. I flip through them in the book stores and, at best I might go, "Oh, that's nice." But that's it. It seems like most of them fall into a few categories, which I'll list along with my reactions to them (like you're just dying to know).

1) Buddhist Master from a non-Christian country trying to convince to folks from Christian countries that Buddhism is not devil worship. These guys want to demonstrate how Buddha and Jesus really said the same kinds of things and so we should all just get along. Fine. Not interested. The Masters in question usually don't know enough about Christianity to say a whole lot so they just kinda go on and on and on...

2) Christian convert to Buddhism writes about why Buddhism is a more refined version of what Jesus had to say. Or, again, that Buddha and Jesus really said pretty much the same thing. Sweet. Not interested.

3) New Age True Believer who wants to prove that Jesus really was a Buddhist because maybe he went to India and stayed in a Buddhist monastery before returning to Palestine to start his mission. This is an intriguing idea. But I've yet to come across any books about it that seem truly level-headed and present a real historical analysis. There seems to be some evidence this may have happened. But nothing very conclusive.

4) Jesus talks to Buddha imaginary conversation books. OH GOD PLEASE NO!!!!!!!!!

5) Christian (usually Catholic) who's interested in Buddhism and gives his view of it. Usually, like #1, in an effort to demonstrate how we all should just get along. Slightly more interested, but not really. Again, the Christians involved don't ever really seem to get what Buddhism is about and rarely have any experience of Buddhist practice.

I've been interested in Christianity since I was a little kid. In my teens I wanted to become a Christian. The problem was that when I investigated Christianity, I found I could not make heads or tails of it. For example, when I was a Freshman at Kent State University, I visited a booth run by the Campus Christian Ministries and started talking to them. Their view seemed to be that Jesus did miracles, this proved he was God, therefore what he said must be very important. The problem for me was that the evidence for these miracles is so flimsy I could not accept it at all. And, in any case, why do we need miracles in order to believe what someone said if he said some really kick-ass stuff?

Nevertheless, I pressed on. I visited some churches. They were all either boring as shit or they seemed to be packed full of genuine crazy people who scared me. I prayed to Jesus to come into my heart. Nothing happened. I bought a little silver cross and wore it for a while. No change. I read the New Testament. Nice. But not very moving. After a few years I just gave up. But I've maintained an interest in Christianity ever since. In fact, I'm far more inclined to read and study about Jesus' life than I am to read and study about Buddha's.

Now before you write in and try to convert me, let me say clearly and unambiguously that I am too far gone to ever be "Saved." I'm a Buddhist monk and a thoroughly convicted believer in Dogen's philosophy. I've seen the truth in what Dogen wrote about for myself and there is no way I can ever turn my back on that.

Still I remain fascinated by Jesus' life, mission and teaching. I do not think Buddhism and Christianity are incompatible. I think you could practice Zazen, study Dogen's outlook and attitude towards life and yet still remain a Christian. But I think you'd emerge from you study a very different kind of Christian. Possibly a Christian that other Christians may not even recognize as a Christian. The same is true, I think, of any religion you mighty come to Zazen practice believing in. But I don't know enough about Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Zorastranism, Wiccanism or any of those to make any intelligent or useful specific comments on them. But, just maybe, I might be able to do so with Christianity.

Still, I'm not sure this is really my point. I mean, I don't really get why so many people want to write "why don't we all just get along" type books about Christianity and Buddhism. It's not as if Christian/Buddhist clashes have ever been a big problem in the world. Nor does it seem to me likely they ever will be. But we are living in a time when Buddhism is starting to infiltrate what have been up till now Christian cultures. As this interpenetration occurs, a new kind of Buddhism will emerge. In the same way that Inidan Buddhism was influenced by Taoist ideas when it entered China, Euro-American Buddhism is even now being reinterpretted through a Judeo-Christian outlook. What will happen?

A lot of people wonder whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy. I'm starting to think more and more that Buddhism is really neither. It's more of an attitude. Buddha himself made use of certain aspects of the religions he knew, just as later Buddhists used aspects of the religions they knew. So American and European Buddhists today are doing the same. Yet it's important that in doing so we maintain the core attitude. We can't just grab stuff willy-nilly because it makes people in the culture we live in comfortable or to gain more followers and converts. Buddhism has nothing to do with gaining converts.

I'm not interested in making Buddhism feel safe to Christians or vice-versa. In fact, to an extent, I'd say Buddhism is slightly dangerous to Christians in a way. Not in the sense that it poses any kind of physical threat, of course. But it may become more and more necessary for Christians to come to terms with the ideas expressed by Buddha and Dogen and other Buddhist teachers. Coversely, though, I do not feel Christianity is any sort of threat to Buddhism. It may be a threat to certain oddball philosophies that call themselves Buddhism. But true Buddhism is just realism. And the realistic attitude can be applied to anything. If what you call "Buddhism" is not 100% realistic and therefore able to withstand anything it encounters, then it isn't Buddhism and should be discarded immediately.

If Christianity is realistic, it can emerge from its encounter with Buddhism unharmed. I, for one, hope it can. I want it to. But I wonder if that's possible.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

MICHAEL RICHARDS MELTDOWN


I saw the Michael Richards racist tirade at the Laugh Factory and the subsequent apology on Letterman on YouTube this morning. I can’t stay up that late anymore. Though I’ve been meaning to go see something at the Laugh Factory for a while now and had I noticed Michael Richards was doing a show, I might well have gone that night. If you haven’t seen it, just log on YouTube and search for Michael Richards. It’ll come up. It’s some pretty strong stuff and a pretty sad display. But in a lot of ways it’s just more typical Hollywood shenanigans. Tom Cruise on the couch, Mel Gibson’s arrest and now this.

What was interesting to me, though, was something Michael Richards said on Letterman. He said, “What’s strange is that I’m not a racist and that just came out.” Now I’m sure most of the audience, and most of you reading this right now, saw that and thought, yeah, right, not a racist my ass! Actually, though, I believe him. And the reason I do is because some of my own experiences in Zazen practice.

In a way I think Zazen may be a little like stand-up comedy, at least certain kinds of stand-up. I haven’t seen Richards’ act. But, from the video it looks like he does the kind of on-the-edge stream-of-consciousness style that’s pretty trendy these days. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like he’s very good at it and maybe he should stick to more scripted material. Be that as it may, I find some things in common between that style of stand-up and what happens in Zazen sometimes.

In order to do the kind of stand-up Richards was attempting to do, you have to let down a lot of psychological barriers. It’s a bit like free association in psychotherapy, I imagine, though I’ve never done that either. You never know what’s gonna come out when you start letting all the barriers down and just saying whatever happens to pop into your head. Or, in fact, saying things before you’ve even had time to process them mentally. Doing it one-on-one with a psychologist whose job it is not to judge you is relatively safe. But doing it in front of an audience is dangerous. As Michael Richards proved. Doing it silently on a cushion facing a wall that never heckles you or charges you by the hour may be the best way.

We all carry loads and loads and loads or repressed stuff with us everywhere we go. There is a lot of stuff in your head right now that you do not even know about. Some of it is very good and some of it is intensely bad. When you do Zazen this kind of stuff starts to bubble up to the surface.

You may not be a racist. But you’ve grown up in a society where racist attitudes are very strong. You’ve been exposed to them since the moment you were born in ways overt and subtle. Though you’ve probably consciously denied these things and may never have spoken them, they exist in your psychological make-up. Not just racism, but all kinds of dark and evil things. You think these things are not part of you, that they are out there, somewhere else, in those other people, those bad people. Not in you.

But the only reason you can recognize what’s “evil” is because it is part of you. If you’re healthy you recognize it as part of you that must be repressed. But even this knowledge is mainly on a subconscious level. Consciously you believe you do not even possess these attitudes at all.

There is a very strong, intimate connection between you and all other human beings. In fact, you and everyone and everything you meet are expressions of the very same ineffable something that creates this universe. Spiritual type people love to say this kind of thing as if it’s all boundless beauty and wonderfulness. But look again. You’re not just one with the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees. You think Michael Richards is a racist? You can only recognize what he is because it’s part of you. You’re one with every hateful sneering madman who ever burned another human being alive just because he didn’t like the color of his skin and just because it gave him a false sense of power. You hate those guys who torture poor innocent Arab-Americans falsely accused of terrorism? You’re them, too. Think George W. Bush is a fascist? Look in the mirror, buddy. There’s George W. Bush. You are much, much closer to all of these people than you are to the sunshine and lotus blossoms you dream about in your fantasies of Enlightenment.

People who are into doe eyed, dolphin hugging, incense and peppermints spirituality will never, ever get to the most profound and important truths because they turn their heads away from reality and try to escape into misty dreams of fantastic far-off worlds.

But, here’s the thing. If you can face down the worst part of your self, if you can look it right in the eye and stare it down, you can come to terms with what it really is. What it really is, is nothing at all. But if you want to discover this you have to be prepared to give up everything. To really give up everything, I mean, not just make a show of giving up everything. You have to give up you. And if you think that’s easy, if you think you can do that in an afternoon, if you think someone else can do that for you, if you think you can do that by taking a pill or eating some ‘shrooms, well, you’ve come to the wrong blog.

This is one of the reasons, in fact, that taking drugs or doing any of the supposed quick’n’easy methods of reaching Enlightenment are some dangerous mojo and not recommended by anyone who has any sense at all. You cannot dive into this stuff fast and hope to come out of it sane. You must move very, very slowly.

If you do move slowly into it and take it all the way to the very end of the process, you’ll come to see that the real core of your being is something infinite. What you’ve called your “self” for your whole life is just a thin, fragile skin on the very surface. Like a bubble floating on top of a deep, deep ocean.

When you’re ready to shake hands with Satan and call him your friend, you might be ready to meet God.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

MISQUOTING JESUS


I just finished Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman. It's all about how the Bible has been changed over the years by the various scribes whose job it was to copy the thing in the days before Xerox machines. Ehrman was once an evangelical Born Again Christian who believed that the Bible was the inerrant word of God. But when he started studying the scriptures and their history he discovered that the Bible had gone through countless revisions between the time the various books were written and today. It was a major shock that led to him seriously questioning his faith.

This book details many of those changes and looks into who made them and why. It's pretty fascinating stuff. But what's more interesting to me is that while Biblical scholars have been writing about and cataloging these revisions since the 18th or 19th century it has taken until the 21st century for a popular book to be written about the subject. I've never been a Bible scholar of any sort, so a lot of this stuff was really surprising. I didn't know, for example, that the Gospels were among the last things to be written for the New Testament and not the early first hand accounts they appear to be. I also didn't know that Mary Magdelene is only mentioned a few times in the Bible and never identified as a prostitute, or that she is not the famed "woman taken in adultery" who the crowd wants to stone, or that that entire scene was not originally even in the gospels, or even that she was not the composer of the hit single "I Don't Know How to Love Him."* I don't think most people who've grown up in Christian societies know this kind of stuff.

One of the interesting differences between Buddhism and most other religions is the fact that Buddhism lacks any kind of Holy Scripture equivalent to the Bible, the Koran or even the Bhagavad Gita. People sometimes talk about a Buddhist canon, but, really, not much Buddhist wrting was ever canonized as such. The closest you get is the Tripitika, which contains the written record of the earlier Buddhist oral tradition of teachings of Gautama Buddha. See, for the first 200 or so years after Gautama died, no one ever bothered to write down what he had said. Instead, they committed it to memory. Monks learned to recite his most famous speeches. Since no one could memorize them all, sometimes certain monks in a temple were assigned certain parts to memorize, while others memorized different sections. Of course, over two centuries a lot of variations in the tradition emerged and these had to be ironed out when it came time to write it all down.

The reason Buddhism never developed a set of holy writ goes back to old Gautama himself who said, "Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, 'The monk is our teacher.' When you yourselves know: 'These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,' enter on and abide in them." When the founder of the religion himself says "don't trust scriptures" it makes it hard to develop a set of scriptures that claim to embody his teachings.

Buddhism has always been essentially an oral tradition. This is why sometimes even Buddhist teachers get their scriptures wrong. You'll often hear some Buddhist teacher say in a lecture, "Buddha said this" or "Dogen said that" and when you try and search out that quote, you never find it. They're prone to paraphrase and not much care whether they've gotten the quotation just right or not. They might not even know exactly where it came from. While in some religions this would be seen as unforgivable sloppiness, in Buddhism it's just part of the way things are done. My own teacher takes this even further than most, often mentioning quotations from people who aren't Buddhists and often have never even heard of Buddhism and saying, "This is just Buddhism."

Ehrman's book is fascinating to me because it makes a very good case for the Buddhist approach to scripture without even trying to do so. At the end of the book (spoiler alert, for those of you who may not want to know how it ends!) he says that at first he felt a deep resentment towards those who had changed the texts of the Christian scriptures. But upon later reflection he realized that, even in the very act of reading a text we, the readers, revise the texts in our minds. Just as you are revising what I've written right now. There is no such thing as a written teaching that means exactly the same thing to whoever reads it no matter how hard you try to preserve the words. People are different, societies change, what a certain set of words meant to Israelites 20 centuries ago cannot be the same as what it means to people in Omaha in 2006. And you'll even have a hard time getting two guys from Omaha to agree on what it means.

I've found that in this blog I'm trying to follow the basically orally transmitted face-to-face tradition I studied in a new realm. I'm not sure how well I'm doing. Probably not very well. And I can see a lot of misunderstandings arise because of trying to adapt to this form of communication.

But that's the way things go, I suppose...

* Kids, go ask someone who lived thru the 70's to explain this joke.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

BORAT


I saw Borat the other night. It's very niiice.

Usually when I see a movie that's been hyped to all get-out I end up being disappointed. Conversely, when I see a film that's gotten little or no press, or bad press, and that film turns out to be good, it seems a lot better than maybe it really is. I loved the first new Gamera movie in 1995 way more than it deserved because my expectations were so low, for example. But, then again, I also liked Titanic a lot in spite of the way it had been promoted.

Borat isn't nearly as good as everyone seems to think. But, then again, nothing could ever be that good. I guess I don't really get why every God damned thing in this world has to be presented as if it's THE GREATEST THING ANYONE EVER CREATED IN ALL OF HISTORY!!!! Aren't we tired of that approach by now? I am, anyway.

But Borat is a funny movie. I like it because it's got a point, which is something sorely lacking in lots of comedy. I gotta hand it to Sasha Baron Cohen for putting himself in some really dangerous situations just to prove his point. I wouldn't go that far, I know. I mean, kissing random men on a New York subway and singing an anti-American version of the national anthem at a Southern rodeo. That takes some 'nads.

Cohen's point seems to be that, when you get Americans to let their guard down, they say some really assinine things. I'm sure you've heard about the guys who are trying to sue him for putting their asshole comments in the film under false pretenses. They say Borat got them drunk and they said all kinds of things they never would have said if they weren't plastered. Hey, guys, here's a simple solution: DON'T DRINK SO FUCKING MUCH! How about that? Or, if you do, DON'T SAY STUPID SHIT. I have no sympathy.

A lot of Khazakstani people are up in arms over Cohen's portrayal of their country. I can understand that. On the other hand, one of the many ex-drummers for my band Dimentia 13 was from Eastern Europe, and, just like Borat, one of his hobbies was taking pictures of ladies while they made toilet. So there ya go... At any rate, as much as it makes fun of Khazakstan, it makes more fun of how easily so many people fall for this completely ridiculous character. No matter how far he pushes it, no matter how over-the-top he plays it, so many of them keep right on believing.

Watching in in So Cal, you really get a feel for just how highly folks out here think of themselves. The people next to me were making all kinds of self-righteous comments to the people on screen. As if they'd never be that gullible. As if their attitudes are so much more progressive and Correct. Uh-huh.

So, in conclusion, don't get drunk and be stupid and don't fall for fake foreign commentators making documentaries.

Monday, November 13, 2006

TALK ABOUT THE PASSION

Somebody asked me what I thought about the genocide in Darfur, Sudan. He said, “do we have a duty to pitch in whatever we can to help humanitarian aid and peacekeeping forces, to help save lives that might be destroyed? Speaking generally of African countries where governments have so much ability to do terrible things, is this an inescapable type of situation that will always repeat itself? Do you think genocide will ever be a thing of the past? Do the UN and other intervening countries do enough to make this a top priority? Just curious to see what is the Buddhist stance on this sort of thing, or your stance. When one becomes aware of something like this going on.”

I hear questions like this a lot. Of course big tragedies in far away places are important. It’s very sad when things like this happen. And, of course, we have some duty to try and be of service. But, unfortunately there is very little we can do for people so far away.

Modern communications systems have brought news from incredibly distant places right into our homes. Modern transportation systems have made places that were once almost inaccessible seem very close. In a sense the world is getting smaller. But in another sense it’s just as big as it ever was.

One of these days we’ll establish communications with intelligent creatures on other planets. After the excitement has worn off a bit, we’ll start noticing that they have problems too. Eventually there’ll be people on Earth wringing their hands over the famine on Regizvon Centurus VII. It'll be important in social circles to express true concern for the plight of the suffering Glompnells on Zeta Reticuli. Which isn't meant to trivialize the situation in Darfur. Just to say that it's natural to want to help those who suffer, no matter where they are. And that it can be socially advantageous to express concern for whatever it's currently trendy to be concerned about.

The best thing you can do to be of service to people in terrible situations in far off places is to attend to your part of the world as carefully as possible.

I saw someone posted a response to my last article saying that he feared that if people were all like me no one would have the passionate commitment needed to take care of the world’s problems. But I’m not so sure passion is what’s called for. Do you need to feel passionate commitment in order to sweep your floor? Do you need passionate commitment in order to say hello to your neighbor? Do you need passionate commitment in order to separate your recyclables?

Big problems in far away places aren’t nearly as critical as tiny problems right under your nose or behind your eyes.

You can attend to the big problems of the world best when you take care of these small things. As far as Darfur and Baghdad and Pyongyang and everywhere else where people live tragic lives, you can do a little. You can vote. You can donate money. You can write your congressperson, run a marathon for a good cause, and so on and on. It’s fine to do these good things. Just be aware that you can never fix these far away tragedies, much as you’d like to. As Dogen said, “Flowers fall though we love them and weeds grow though we hate them.”

It's not that there is anything at all wrong with making efforts to help out people far away in desperate situations. But far too often such efforts are an excuse to ignore the smaller problems much closer, the ones where we really can do some real good. It's a way of saying that Big Problems -- the ones everyone can agree are Big Problems cuz they're on TV and stuff --are important, but little ones can be ignored. Subconsciously we know we can't fix what's too removed from our immediate surroundings. By making those far away things the most important matters we're in danger of giving ourselves an excuse to ignore what's right near by.

It's also a way of saying that the biggest problems are "out there," not "in here." When you come to see that the real source of every evil in the world is you and you alone, your priorities have to change radically. Maybe we need more passionate commitment to the problems within ourselves. There are burning issues of international and historical importance that you must take care of right this very second and they are not thousands of miles away. They are right here. It's only when you attend to these matters very close that you can do anything about the ones that are far away.

I’m gonna go see Borat now. I’ll give you a report later.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

HOORAY FOR OUR SIDE!


Before I begin, we’re still taking people for Saturday’s micro-retreat at the Hill Street Center. I think we have four people signed up so far. So there’s plenty of room for more. See the link to your right for details. Onto today’s rant:

The elections are over and the Good Guys won. Hoo-ray for our side!

Or not…

Just a couple days after the re-election of George Bush I got an e-mail from a friend of mine who said he’d been contacted by a certain editor at a Buddhist publishing house who told him he wanted submissions for a book about the Buddhist reaction to the re-election. My friend forwarded me the pitch. God it was sooooo dire. I wish I’d saved it. It was all soft and sweet and smooshy like a rotten banana, asking contributors to talk about how Buddhists deal with anger, depression, fear, anxiety and feelings of helplessness, and how we can learn to cultivate compassion for those souls so deep in delusion they could support the Bush administration and its policies of evil. My friend was all hot and bothered to contribute. He even sent me his proposed piece. I couldn’t get through it, though. It felt too much like wading in a pool of putrefying marshmallow sauce. There was a tremendous urgency to the editor’s pitch and writers were asked to contribute as quickly as they could so the finished book could hit the stands as soon as possible. The editor in question never sent that pitch to me, though we are accquainted. Guess he knew better. In any case, the book never came out.

Now, of course, the tables are turned. At least a little. The Democrats have won a slight victory and maybe President Bush’s supposed dreams of dictatorship are in danger. I’m sure the folks behind that book are dizzy with elation. But if Dick Chaney beats Hillary in 2008 they can always dust off those old essays, use MS Word's® “replace” function to substitute Chaney’s name where it says Bush and get the book out lickity-split.

Out here on the Left Coast, the mood is positively giddy. I saw an interview with Trey Parker, creator of South Park, a year or so ago where he said that the most punk rock thing you could do in LA was to say you think George Bush is awesome. It’s actually dangerous in terms of career mobility in the West Coast entertainment biz to question liberal politics in any way. No doubt about it.

When those guys in Saint Paul were briefly considering hiring me on as their new master, I took a look around their place. I saw some fliers pinned to their notice board related to various left wing political causes. And I thought, if they do ask me to do this thing and I accept, all those are gonna have to come down. And they’re not gonna like me a whole lot when I do that.

There’s a tendency within American Buddhism to equate Buddhism with left-wing politics. It is almost unquestioned that all Buddhists accept pretty much every trendy lefty political idea on the market. The very idea that a Buddhist might be politically conservative seems absurd. But Buddhism is not left-wing politics. It’s not right-wing politics either. But that seems to be well understood and as such doesn’t need further comment.

In our usual way of thinking there is success and there is failure. When your candidate wins, that’s success and you can rejoice. When she loses that’s failure and it’s time for depression and feelings of helplessness.

Buddhism has nothing at all to do with success or failure.

Enlightenment is not the ultimate success and lack of enlightenment is not evidence of failure.

There is no success or failure in reality. Success and failure are judgments about reality based entirely — entirely — upon what your tiny ego thinks is good for it or bad for it. This is not reality at all. What you call failure may be exactly what you really need while what you call success may be a slippery slide into delusion and darkness. The world out there is not something apart from you. When it changes in ways you don’t like, who is responsible? Someone else? Not you? Yeah, right. And when things go the way you want, watch out. See what your own reactions really are. See what they are not.

How come nobody’s proposing a book about the Buddhist reaction to the Democratic wins of 2006? How come nobody put out a book about the Buddhist reaction to Clinton’s two wins? Elation over success is a much bigger problem in Buddhism than depression over failure. Bad teachers can make you do anything they want by keeping you hungry for success and afraid of failure. Suckers will fall for that every single time. To follow the Buddhist way is to avoid both extremes.

Get that through your skull or you won’t get anything.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

THE WHO at Hollywood Bowl 11/4/06 Review


I saw The Who at the Hollywood Bowl last night. I started getting into The Who when I was in 8th or 9th grade. I think it was a little before Keith Moon died. But I'm kind of vague on the chronology. I just now looked it up and saw that he died in Sept. '78, which would've been right after I started 9th grade. But I know I was already a rabid fan by the time the movie The Kids Are Alright was released in June of 1979 (just looked that one up, too). Ah...who knows... Sometime around when all that was happening anyway.

The first Who album I bought was a thoroughly beat up copy of Tommy at the local used book & record store. I was mildly disappointed at first because I'd read all these things about how loud The Who were and how they used feedback and noise. When I bought it I expected it to sound like Jesus and Mary Chain. This was a decade before Jesus and Mary Chain, by the way. But the descriptions I'd read led me to imagine something that sounded like what J&MC eventually sounded like. I played it a few more times, though, and really got into it. Pretty soon I was spending all my lawn mowing money on Who records.

I first saw The Who in like 1984 or so. I remember I couldn't get tickets to the show they played in 1979 in Cleveland a couple nights after all those kids were killed in Cincinnati. My friend Mary had tickets but her dad wouldn't let her go after that happened. Later on Mary told me she hated her dad. I don't know if that was the reason. I managed to get tickets for their next tour, though. I recall being thoroughly disappointed. They looked like a bunch of tired old men who'd totally lost the will and drive. One thing that sticks out in mind is that Pete Townshend broke a string in the middle of a song. So he just stopped playing and exchanged his Telecaster for another guitar midsong while the band played on. I just thought that was totally lame. Anyone who was so rich and complacent he couldn't finish a song on 5 strings like I'd done countless times was beyond contempt.

I didn't bother with any of the later reunion shows. The ones in the late 80's with the gigantic Who sign that dwarfed the band were just too ridiculous. But when they came to Japan on their first ever tour of that country in 2004 I went. By then my wife was a big fan too. I introduced her to the group by playing her Pictures of Lilly to help her learn to pronounce L's properly. Plus they'd really redeemed themselves when Zak Starkey joined. The 2004 show was amazingly great. Much better than they'd been in the 80's. They actually seemed younger.

Anyhow, we were sitting there at the Bowl last night waiting for the show to begin when a loud mouthed drunk middle aged guy started talking to the row of teenagers in front of us. He asked if this was their first concert. "No, dude," they said. "we've seen lots more." He asked them who they'd seen. "Styx, Journey, Boston, REO...."

I don't know if they were putting the old guy on or not. But they didn't seem to be. Of course, the old guy was like, great shows, maaaannnn!! I was aghast. Don't these kids know what their elders fought and died for? We tried to make a world where no one had to listen to the likes of such corporate rock crap. And now here you kids are getting all into that stuff? What has the world come to? Then again, now Nirvana and early Green Day are Classic Rock. So what do I know? And besides that a former member of REO Speedwagon actually wrote me fan mail after having read Hardcore Zen (it's true!). So maybe I should just keep my lame ass opinions to myself. (Not likely)

Wish I had some kind of "Zen Lesson" at the end of all of this. But I can't think of one. It was a cool show. But lately I've come to dislike big spectacles and suchlike more and more. Not that I ever really did care for them much. I've probably attended less than a dozen big rock and roll shows in my life -- most of those being KISS shows. Noise and lights and crowds have never been my thing. And, uh, nope. No big Zen lesson in this installment.

Rock on, dudes!

Thursday, November 02, 2006

THE AIR WAS ATTACHED

So the other day I was translating the synopses of each episode of Ultraman Max for work. I came across one that was particularly difficult. So I decided to run it through one of those on-line translation thingies, Babelfish. The translation into English was a mess and didn’t help me at all. Among the things Babelfish got wrong was the phrase 気がつけた (pronounced “ki ga tsuketa”). This is a common Japanese phrase meaning to wake up after having passed out. But Babelfish translated it as “the air was attached.”

The reason for this weird translation is that the word 気 (ki) can, in some cases mean “air,” as in 空気 (kuuki, "air"), though it has a wider meaning of “energy” particularly spiritual energy. In Chinese this character is pronounced “qi.” Some of you martial arts fans have certainly heard it in words like aikido or reiki. It's also used in words relating to Chinese medicine. In fact, just today I saw a guy get out of a souped up lemon yellow VW bug in front of a trendy Beverly Hills clothing boutique with 気 tattooed on his arm. I bet the tattoist told him it meant, like, spiritual energy, y'know. And he was probably all like, oh fer sure, that's what I'm all about, dude, spiritual energy. The word つけた literally does mean “attached.” So the translation “the air was attached” isn’t really wrong in a sense, although it is completely mistaken. It seems the people who programmed Babelfish didn’t make it sophisticated enough to handle common set phrases like this. It's often possible to translate something in a way that can be called correct but is still wrong.

Last weekend when I was getting ready for my Saturday Zen class I couldn’t find the Nishijima/Cross translation of Dogen’s Shobogenzo chapter 生死 (Shoji) or “Life and Death” (sometimes “Birth and Death”). So I went for the next best thing I could find, Kazuaki Tanahashi’s “Moon in a Dewdrop.” Although Tanahashi’s translations are pretty good — probably the next best after Nishijima/Cross — I wasn’t really happy with it and I thought I’d explain why. In a way it's like Babelfish's problems with the Ultraman Max story.

The first line of 生死 is 生死のなかに仏あれば、生死なし。またいはく、生死のなかに仏なければ、生死にまどはず。(shoji no naka ni hotoke areba, shoji nashi. Mata iwaku, shoji no naka ni hotoke nakereba, shoji madowazu). Except for the use of a few words no longer common in modern Japanese, this is, grammatically at least, a fairly easy phrase. Nishijima and Cross render it as,“Because in life-and-death there is buddha, there is no life and death. Again, we can say: Because in life-and-death there is no ‘buddha,’ we are not deluded in life-and-death.” The only thing they really add that’s not in the original phrase are the quote marks around the second usage of the word “buddha." In Tanahashi’s version, this line is given as, “Because a buddha is in birth and death, there is no birth and death. It is also said, ‘Because a buddha is not in birth and death, a buddha is not deluded by birth and death'.”

The thing that bothers me about Tanahashi’s version is something very, very small — the single-letter word “a.” There are no articles or true plurals in Japanese. So when Dogen uses the word 仏 (hotoke) meaning Buddha, this could be translated into English as “Buddha,” “a Buddha,” “the Buddha,” or “the Buddhas.” All would be technically correct.

The difference reflects a different understanding of the meaning of the text. In the Nishijima/Cross version it is made clear that Dogen’s use of the word hotoke here is meant as the conceptual idea of Buddha, or Buddha as a description of reality. It’s very straight-forward. But Tanahashi seems to want to make it something mystical. By putting an article in front of the word he seems to want us to wonder just who this Buddha is who is in birth and death. He compounds that by saying that "a buddha is not deluded by birth and death" rather than "we are not deluded." So this Buddha, whoever he is, has some mystical ability to avoid being deluded by birth and death like we are. In Japanese the subject is not stated, which is common, so either translation can be called correct. Possibly Tanahashi wants us to come to the understanding that this undeluded Buddha is we, ourselves. I have no problem with that idea. What I do not like is the way that meaning seems to be set in a riddle in his version while in the Nishijima/Cross version it smacks us across the face.

In Dogen's original, we could read it either way. When he spoke this aloud to an audience, he probably made it clear which way it was to be taken. But we can never know for certain just how he said it. So the modern translator into English is left with the burden of choosing how to express the idea. All translation, even when it's just translating the stories of Ultraman Max, is interpretation. You can't possibly avoid it. Nishijima and Cross put Dogen's words into English as clearly and unambiguously as possible and I like that. I'm not equating Tanahashi to Babelfish. Just that, in the same way, though his translation is technically correct, it doesn't really work for me.

I don’t really want to get into a scholarly or linguistic debate here because they’re a waste of time and no fun. I just thought I’d give you my take on why I prefer the Nishijima/Cross translation above and beyond the fact that I know the authors.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

NOVEMBER DATES and CONFESSION


The dates for the Zazen classes in Santa Monica in November are as follows:

November 4th
November 11th (One Day Zazen Micro Retreat)
November 18th
November 25th

So all of you nice people be sure and remember those dates and set aside some time to come and enjoy beautiful Zazen practice in the picturesque town of Santa Monica. There will be delicious orange juice after the sittings and an enlightening talk about the wondrous and fine philosophy of Master Dogen. It will be lovely and peaceful and envigorating and all of you kind and smart people who stop by will feel the warmth and friendliness of magnificent fellowship in the profound practice of Zazen.

Now here's my confession: As of today I have become the last person on Earth to purchase a copy of Frampton Comes Alive. They're having a sale at Record Surplus on Pico Ave. in Los Angeles, a store that bills itself as "the last record store." And well they may be what with Tower Records having been bought out by money-grubbing fascists who wanted to kill the chain. For this they will burn in Hell for Eternity. But that's beside the point. The point is that Record Surplus had a vinyl copy of FCA for just a dollar. I couldn't pass it up after having written what I wrote last time. I put it on while doing the dishes just now and it wasn't too bad. The liner notes by some hack from Rolling Stone are nauseating and the cover is a bit embarrassing to be seen with. But the music's sort of OK.

Also, forgive me Lord, I was thinking of purchasing the Billy Joel boxed set. Billy Joel has always been one of those guys I wanted to hate, but really couldn't. At least not all that much. Captain Jack is a nice song. So's Piano Man. The song My Life I like, but I don't really "get" the story. It starts off in the first verse as a 3rd person narrative. But then it switches to first person & I'm never sure if the guy who says "Don't worry about me cuz I'm all right" and all that is the same person the narrator is describing in the 1st verse or if it's the narrator talking about himself. We Didn't Start the Fire is a total rip-off of REM's It's The End of the World as We Know It, which is a rip-off of Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues. But everyone sucked in the 80's. Maybe Husker Du was OK. And Plasticland. But nobody bought Plasticland's albums. You should buy the Plasticland compilation out now on Ryko Disc, though. I command you!!!! Click the link on this article and buy it immediately. You will obey me!!!

Anyway, I stayed my hand and did not buy the Billy Joel set. So I'm safe for now. But for how long....? For how long........?