Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Zazenkai Notes: Zen As Process

Like Molten Lead
Like Molten Lead, Finnish archipelago off Ekenäs, 2006.

I got a quite a lot out of Sunday's zazenkai. The first one I attended was largely being worried about "surviving" it. Now that I knew that that isn't an issue, having already survived one, I could relax more and focus more on the practice. What's more, my six months of stretching exercises are finally beginning to pay off, and I was able to sit cross-legged a part of the time, which made it less punishing physically. I certainly hurt way less the next day than I did after the first one.

We finished off the zazenkai with recitation. That was another first for me. It made a deep impression; it wasn't at all what I had expected it to be -- it was somehow stark, simple; primal even. It helped that one of the things we chanted was the Heart Sutra, which has got to be one of the most beautiful pieces of writing ever to emerge from the human mind.

I went to daisan (a formal one-on-one talk with an instructor). I told her about my practice, and a problem I've been having with it. She told me what she thought about that. We also sat there a while without saying anything, which was kinda cool, because it was the same kind of silence you get when doing zazen, not the awkward kind of "I wonder if I should say something" kind of silence.

A number of interesting things happened related to that.

The daisan was towards the end of the day, and the zafu in the daisan room was way too small for me, and I missed kinhin (walking meditation) because my turn was between two zazens. That meant that I was sitting for over an hour straight with only the short walk to and from the daisan room for a break, and that after six half-hour zazens. Consequently, my legs hurt pretty badly. The interesting thing was that I didn't care, because what was going on in daisan was just so much more important than my stupid legs. So I was sitting on my hurting-as-hell legs in a comfortable posture, while being focused on daisan. The pain was very much there, but the suffering from the pain was if not gone, at least greatly mitigated. That was way cool, and if I can pull of that trick the next time something's hurting, my practice won't have gone completely to waste.

I realized that daisan isn't just about me getting advice in my practice from a more experienced practitioner. It's at least as much about the more experienced practitioner giving advice. Daisan is a practice, for both people in it. I made it possible for her to practice by being there, just as much as the converse. That was also cool.

I'm sure the same is true of dokusan. Zen teachers need their practice too, and it's clearly not just solitary retreats and that kind of stuff. They couldn't do that without any students to teach. So although I'm grateful to have access to a true-blue Zen teacher, even if he only visits a couple of times a year, it's clearly not a one-way deal. Teachers need students for their practice, at least as much as students need teachers.

I learned something else in daisan: that Zen practice comes unusually easily to me. I had figured that it's more or less like this for everybody, but it turns out that apparently it's not. Zazen has, in fact, felt quite natural to me, and I haven't encountered many of the problems that, according to her, most Zen newbies encounter; instead, my practice has been deepening and developing rather rapidly. I've been reflecting a bit on why this might be.

(I realize that there are all kinds of risks related to thoughts like this one. Pride, for example. Although thinking about it I don't really see why I should be proud about finding Zen congenial. I am grateful for it, though. Plus, if I do get any big ideas about being the reincarnation of Manjushri or something, though, I'm fairly confident that zazen, not to mention the instructors and teachers, will sort that out nicely.)

I've always been sorely lacking in ambition. I don't care much for goals, achievements, or attainments.

I love physical exercise, like cycling, hiking, running, stretching, dancing the salsa (badly), or gym, but I dislike, and have always disliked, competitive sport.

As a kid, I used to love building model ships and airplanes, and then threw them away when I finished them.

I dropped out of my university studies because I lost interest, and didn't care enough about the goal of squeezing out my master's to actually squeeze it out, although I'm still very interested indeed in the stuff I was studying formally -- political history, or politics and history.

At work, I love doing stuff, but I hate "doing things for my career." I can't, in fact. I have repeatedly been offered what amount to major promotions, and I've turned them down, simply because I'm not happy ordering people about or counting beans. If that means that I'll never progress beyond my current position, then that's entirely OK with me -- I'd rather do what I enjoy doing for what I'm getting paid now than make a lame-ass job of doing something I don't enjoy for more money. That wouldn't work anyway; I'd just make a hash of it and everybody would end up worse off than before. I get the biggest kicks out of the flow of coding -- translating pure ideas into descriptions that then unfold on a screen, with the magical mediation of the computer. I don't care that much about what it is I'm coding, or if anyone will ever use it. (They do, though, but that's more of a side benefit, from my point of view anyway. My boss would probably disagree about that.)

I removed the speedometer/odometer thingy from my bike, simply because I don't want to measure my cycling. I feel freer when just rolling away as my body tells me to. I prefer familiar roads so I don't need a plan or a map and can just go wherever I feel like; they're never quite the same, and every ride is different.

I prefer a steady salary to working like mad for an eventual big payoff. 

I enjoy cooking, for its own sake: the alchemy of transforming ingredients into something different. Eating is fun too, but it's not really the point.

I used to love going fishing with my grandpa, but never cared much whether we actually caught any fish; the point was to sit in the boat listening to the water slap against the sides, and my grandfather tell his endless and fascinating stories, and go through the soothing motions of whatever kind of fishing we were doing. Of course, the fish were cool too, but they never were the point. My grandpa never forgot to mention that either; he was never disappointed over not catching anything. Instead, when coming back empty-handed he just cheerfully noted that at least we caught a nice experience. Or "lucky that this isn't our job." That sort of thing.

My grandpa rocked. He lived well, and died, literally, with his boots on, at the ripe old age of... old, past his mid-eighties I think. He keeled over from a massive heart attack just before he was about to launch into another story to his friends and neighbors, following a bunch of vigorous gardening. Lucky man.

Put another way, I'm a process guy, not a goals guy. In today's market-driven society, that's generally a Bad Thing. Zen, on the other hand, is all process and no goal. Okay, I mean, sure, there's kensho and all that commotion, but I'm fairly certain that kensho is just another dharma gate, albeit a particularly pretty one, not a goal in and of itself. Zazen is pure process for its own sake -- except that it has a scaffolding of community, ritual, and philosophy to direct it. I'm sure that once you get really good at keeping your attention on your practice, you'll find it easier to keep your attention on anything you do; in a sense, everything becomes your practice. I certainly have a ways to go before I'm at that point, though. A decade? Two? More?

That's why I find Zen so congenial. It isn't new to me. It's me sitting in that boat, trailing a line in the sea while my grandpa tells about the time a billboard advertising oatmeal saved his life. It's me a half-hour into a bike ride, spinning the road underneath like silk thread onto a spool, when I feel like I could go on spinning like this forever, connected to the landscape, at the same time immobile and moving. It's all that, only now I have a name for it.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Canon PowerShot S90 Mini Field Report

The Canon PowerShot S90 isn't an easy camera to write about, because I'm constantly tempted to go off on tangents about the history of cameras, the types of photography they're designed for, and the way they should be designed. Perhaps I'll reactivate my main photography site for that, one of these days. Here, however, is a short field report of the PowerShot S90, which I've now used for a month and change, to take the kinds of pictures I like to take, which run the gamut from urban landscapes to indoor family situationals. Since this is a quick field report, I won't include any of my usual formal test shots or comparison; instead, I'm just linking to real-life pictures I've taken with it. The full-size photos are downloadable from Flickr. All of these are RAW conversions, and most of them with Canon DPP.

The PowerShot S90 is Canon's attempt at making a "serious" compact camera in shirt-pocket format. It's black, relatively expensive, not much bigger than a deck of cards, and it's really good at what it's made for, while being completely unsuited to doing what it's not made for. I like that in a camera, other than the expensive bit anyway.


The S90 packs a lot of features in its small body, and most of these are genuinely useful -- geared toward making the camera usable in a wide range of conditions, and giving the photographer lots of meaningful control over what it does. It has a bright (f/2.0 at the wide end) lens with a "human-scale" zoom range of 28 to 105 mm equivalent, it has all of the standard exposure modes, it is fully RAW capable, it has a largish sensor with a lowish (10M) pixel count, and it comes with pretty effective optical in-lens image stabilization. The LCD is large, bright, and pretty sharp, too.

It does standard-def video. I'm not much into video. We don't even have a high-def TV (although my computer monitor would certainly qualify). I only shoot short clips as "moving snapshots" in situations where I'd otherwise (and also) shoot regular still snapshots, and all I do with them is look at them occasionally and post them on Flickr where they're compressed beyond all recognition, which means I'd probably be happy with a cell phone camera for that purpose. Therefore, all I can say about that is that it gets the job done for me -- the few Christmas clips I took in pretty crappy light turned out quite nice, crisp, non-artifacty, without a whole lot of noise, except that the camera adjusts exposure in steps rather than smoothly, which made the picture brighten and darken a bit jumpily.


One of the S90's selling points is that it puts as much photographic control behind physical buttons and dials as is possible in such a small package, and it makes the package customizable. The most innovative usability feature is the click-stopped ring around the lens. Its function can be changed with a button on the top of the camera, and it shifts to various purposes depending on the shooting mode. Together with the rotating thumb dial, the four-way rocker switch, and the programmable [S] button, this gives full control over any of the exposure parameters (shutter speed, aperture, exposure value, ISO) plus focus (manual, auto on half-press, auto with AF lock) in any of the shooting modes.

The way the controls reconfigure them in the different shooting modes is initially confusing, but once I got the feel for the logic with which this happens, it started to feel quite natural. I especially like the fact that the C(ustom) mode lets me preset both the focal length and focus to "street mode" -- i.e., medium-wide, wide-open, focus set to manual and more or less hyperfocal.

Three Way Traffic
Three Way Traffic, Tokoinranta, Helsinki, 2009

The only real problem I have with the handling is that the rear dial isn't click-stopped. That means that it turns pretty much by itself, which means that I have to always check that I haven't accidentally nudged whatever it controls (usually exposure compensation) where it doesn't belong. A relatively minor problem, but a puzzling one as it's pretty damn obvious and would have been very easy to avoid -- and Canon has click-stopped rear wheels on their SLR's, and has had for decades.

Of course, a camera this small doesn't handle as well as a bigger one -- it's easy to put a finger on top or in front of the (surprisingly powerful) pop-up flash, it's not always easy to hit the right buttons especially with gloves on, the wrist strap will float in front of the lens if I'm not watching out, and so on -- but none of these things have obvious fixes that would not involve making the camera significantly bigger, which would sort of defeat the purpose of the design in the first place. I'm generally pretty fussy about ergonomics, but you have to make allowances for size.

Overall, I'd give the camera an A- for handling and accessibility of the shooting controls, when taking into consideration its size. In absolute terms, it'd be about a B- or C+: better than, say, the Sony DSC-V3, but of course nowhere near as good as any dSLR I've used -- or the Minolta Dimage 7i that I owned and loved for a while. That ugly, plasticky little monster is, in my opinion, still the best-handling non-dSLR digital camera that I've used.


The S90 is a solid performer, with no truly outstanding features but no huge flaws either. Metering is reliable and unsurprising, auto white-balance gets the job done well enough most of the time, auto-focus is precise and about average speed for a small compact like this. What's more, it's possible to assig AF lock to the [S] button, which makes pre-focusing a breeze, though, making focus speed not a concern for most situations. Shutter lag when pre-focused, either by half-pressing or with the [S] button, is virtually nonexistent making for very precise timing -- at least as good as with the film Leica CL I'd love to shoot if I could just put up with the bother of dealing with film.

Shot-to-shot time is sufficient for my relatively deliberate shooting style, although someone who likes to grab a series of shots in a situation might feel differently. I haven't felt like I'm waiting for the camera in any situation, except when using the flash in cold temperatures -- it takes a few seconds to charge up. For comparison, the Sigma DP1 feels really, really sluggish; its slow shot to shot time is really my biggest single beef with it.

Battery life is one area where the S90 is noticeably worse than its predecessor in my bag (the Fuji F100FD). Where the Fuji would keep shooting for what felt like forever, the S90 will start warning about low battery after a couple of hundred frames. I hate shepherding chargers, and I really wish that camera manufacturers would do what phone manufacturers just agreed to do, and settle on a single, standardized charger. USB, for example.

Image quality

First, let's get something out of the way: this is not an SLR. It's a shirt-pocket sized small-sensor camera with a tiny standard zoom. In other words, if you're expecting it to deliver the same quality as, say, an EOS-5D with a nice prime like the 35/2.0, then you'll be disappointed. Nor does it come close to the maximum attainable image quality of the DP1 with its almost arrogantly sharp 28/4.0 equivalent lens.

However, for what it is -- a small-sensor, zoom-lens ultracompact --, the picture quality is pretty amazing, really. I'd say that it puts up a pretty good fight with an entry-level digital SLR using its kit lens, candela for candela... assuming you shoot RAW.

Sensor quality

I've left ISO on AUTO, which works well for me. The camera will bump up the ISO once the shutter speed drops to about half the 35-mm-equivalent focal length. It goes cheerfully up to ISO320 or thereabouts, and then drags it up from that more reluctantly up to ISO1600. From where I'm at, that strikes a pretty good balance between noise and blur for hand-held shooting.

When shooting RAW and tweaking the sharpening and noise reduction parameters in conversion, the camera produces a perfectly usable ISO1600 -- I'd say it's roughly comparable to ISO3200 pushed to ISO6400 on my EOS 5D, except without the pattern noise that sometimes starts to emerge. ISO800 looks more or less like straight ISO3200 on the 5D, and ISO400 is perhaps a bit better than ISO1600 on it. In other words, it's about a stop to two stops behind the 5D sensor, which has a roughly similar pixel count but is about eight times bigger.

Helsinki Venice
Helsinki Venice, Hakaniemi, Helsinki, 2009

When sharpening and luminance NR both turned off, and chroma noise reduction turned up about halfway, the high-ISO photos come up looking grainy and slightly soft, but rather pleasant -- not unlike ISO400 color neg or slide, actually, and a great deal better than high-speed color film.

At lower sensitivities -- ISO80 to about ISO200 -- the S90 is remarkably clean, about comparable to ISO400 on the EOS 5D.

Trucks In The Mist
Trucks in the Mist, Hakaniemi, Helsinki, 2009

I haven't even attempted to measure the dynamic range of the sensor, but it seems decent enough -- I have to watch the highlights a bit more than on an SLR, but that's only to be expected for a small sensor. The Fuji F100FD with its high-DR, high-ISO modes is better in this respect, but then you can do the same thing by underexposing and pushing the RAW file a stop or even two (assuming you're metering at ISO400 or less).

Earth to Sea
Earth to Sea, Töölönlahti, Helsinki, 2009

That's pretty damn amazing for a small sensor, in my opinion. It's certainly the first small sensor I've come across that trounces the one on the Fuji F30, ISO for ISO: in practice, it's about a stop ahead for ISO400 and above. When converted with a gentle touch, the pictures come out looking very dSLR-like, with the fine detail, few artifacts, and subtle gradations I'm used to seeing from them. I have come across no sensor-related artifacts such as banding or other pattern noise when not pushing the sensor beyond the ISO80-1600 range it's built to handle.

As an aside, Canon's DPP does a pretty good job of the conversions and is, in its current incarnation, quite pleasant to use. However, Adobe Lightroom 3.0 Beta produces better pixel-level quality. In particular, DPP occasionally produces odd moiré-like "patterns of smear" in areas with high-frequency detail such as gravel, fabric, or vegetation; Lightroom renders them beautifully. None of this is visible in 20 x 30 cm prints, though; I imagine you'd have to print at least A3 size for it to show up even under close examination.

Lens quality

The lens on the S90 is about as good as an entry-level or mid-range dSLR standard zoom. It's not bitingly sharp and is a hair lacking in contrast, and it gets a bit soft toward the corners wide-open at the wide end, but then it's not really bad at any focal length or aperture either. Center sharpness is pretty good and very consistent all through the range. It has a bit of lateral chromatic aberration, and some purple fringing towards the corners; the former can be very effectively addressed in post-processing, and the latter is about what you'd expect in a standard zoom.

The lens has a quite a bit of barrel distortion at the wide end. However, the camera's JPEG engine, and Canon DPP, will automatically correct this if you let it. Adobe Lightroom 3.0 beta won't (although I understand that the final version will).

One area where the lens does rather well is flare resistance. The occasional flare spot does show through in extreme conditions, but they're relatively dim, relatively rare occurrences, and the camera does not show veiling flare -- washed-out shadows in contrasty conditions -- very easily.

Sunlight through Plexiglas
Sunlight through Plexiglas, Tokoinranta, 2009

The interesting thing is that the lens is bright: at f/2.0, that's a stop more than most other compact digital cameras and nearly two stops more than a typical standard zoom (say, the optically comparable Canon 28-105/3.5-4.5 USM I have in my bag somewhere). That goes a long way to making up for the sensitivity advantage large dSLR sensors have -- at the wide end, anyway.

What's it good for?

The PowerShot S90 is just about the best take-anywhere camera currently on the market. Compact size is of paramount importance in this mission, and while there are cameras out there that are smaller, none of them offer easily accessible full photographic control or anywhere near the kind of low-light capability the S90 has. It has a few correctable usability niggles (in particular, the spinny rear dial), but in my opinion no truly glaring flaws; its control scheme is unusual enough to require a bit of practice to learn to use and appreciate. It's not a camera for complete photography novices, though, although it does work perfectly competently in auto-modes as well; the number of buttons and dials and the number of functions they control will seem confusing to start with.

With reasonable camera technique and gentle RAW conversion, the S90 will get the picture in the box just about as well as a dSLR with a kit zoom, even if it can't match the image quality of a larger-sensor camera with a truly exceptional lens, such as the Sigma DP's or the micro-4/3 cameras from Olympus or Panasonic paired with their fantastic pancake primes. This is a camera for photographing human-scale subjects at human distances, not stuff like wildlife or sports, and it excels in that mission. The combination of a bright lens with a sensor that holds up well at high sensitivities, and Canon's tried-and-true image stabilization, means that taking indoor situationals without a flash is no problem at all. With the greater depth of field afforded by the small sensor, I'd go as far to say that it works better for this mission than my EOS-5D with a bright lens -- it's harder than you might think to get focus on the nose with an f/2.0 or brighter lens.

Tower, Christmas, 2009

The Canon S90 takes the single, big advantage of a small sensor -- compact size -- and squeezes the maximum of photographic capability out of it, particularly tailored for low-light human-scale shooting. Significantly pushing its limitations would inevitably impose a bigger body. This is what the S90's bigger sibling, the PowerShot G11, does. It is significantly more capable in many ways, but at that size and price, why not go the extra mile and go with an EP-1, EP-2, or GF-1, or perhaps one of the Sigmas if you don't mind doing the work needed to get it to produce the magical quality of which it's capable?

I still think that my ultimate take-anywhere camera would be something like the Sigma DP2 done right, with truly responsive performance, a good LCD, and consistent image quality that you don't need to jump through hoops every time to get. This doesn't appear to be on the cards right now, at any price; even the Leica X1 is significantly limited in many of the same ways as the Sigma DP's. The S90 comes closer to that ideal than any digital camera I've yet used, and I have a feeling that it'll be a quite a while before something even closer to it comes along.

Red Yarn Package
Red Yarn Package, Kaisaniemi, Helsinki, 2009

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Half A Year of Zen

Sunlight on Dead Reeds
Sunlight On Dead Reeds, Helsinki, 2009

I've now been practicing zazen regularly for about half a year. Eight months if you count from when I first started; five months if you count from when I started to sit daily (more or less) instead of two, three times a week; four months if you count from when I started to sit with a sangha. Christmas break is here, so it's a good time to do a little stock-taking. What have I put into the practice, and what have I gotten out of it?

The first part of the question is pretty easy, on the face of it anyway. I've put in between a half-hour and an hour and a half a day on average, including some stretching I need to do to get my legs in a condition where I'm able to sit on them more or less without moving for 20-40 minutes. I mostly sit at home, but go to the zendo every Thursday unless something else comes up.

Additionally, I've put in a day of zazenkai last month.

When I'm doing zazen, I resolve to do my best to keep my attention on the practice, even if it mostly feels like I'm diving for a coin in a murky, bubbly pool and placing it on the surface only to see it sink again -- except for the few times that the coin floats, for a few breaths or sometimes longer. It's not an incredibly pleasurable practice, but it's not incredibly hard or punishing either; sometimes it's rewarding in its own right, sometimes less so, and at the end of a day of sitting, it hurts like fuck, but not more than after, say, an unusually brisk session at the gym.

The second part is a bit more complex, even on the surface of it.

I'm feeling a great deal better right now than I usually do around this time of year. November and December don't usually treat me very well -- it's a stressful and hectic time at work and the darkness at these latitudes gets to me. Plus I've never been much of a Christmas person to start with. I even had a minor breakdown about this time of year a couple of years ago, and even last year I was in pretty ragged shape despite resolving to do what I can not to let it happen again.

Right now, however, I feel pretty good.

I'm physically in excellent shape; in some ways in better shape than I've ever been. I'm sleeping well. The minor stomach problems I've often had are gone. I'm able to eat certain foods again that had started to disagree with me, with no ill effects. I sit up, stand, and walk in better posture. I've lost the extra weight I had gained over the past decade or so. I'm more supple than I've ever been, and in better muscular shape than I've been at least since my aikido days twenty or so years ago, perhaps longer.

I have also changed -- if only a little -- in the way I interact with other people. I listen just a little bit more and talk just a little bit less. Sometimes I pause to consider what I'm saying and how I'm saying it, instead of twittering merrily away in my usual idiom. I still have problems dealing with anger -- I have a very quick temperament -- but I've only exploded at anyone twice this year, which is considerably less than usual.

I'm eating less, and eating better; I eat less meat, and smaller portions. Not because I'm forcing myself to eat less, or avoiding things I'd really want to eat, but simply because I'm more aware of what's going on, and sort of naturally stop when I'm full. I've also stopped drinking more than three glasses of wine (or the equivalent) at a go, not that I did that all that often to start with. I also derive more enjoyment from what I eat.

I've also been going to the gym regularly, about 2-3 times a week. I've been maintaining this routine with much less effort than before. I've had a gym membership for three or four years now, but always was a bit sporadic about it, like most people I suppose.

I've been doing without computer games for about three months so far. It was a bit hard at first; I didn't miss gaming as much as the thought of permitting myself to game. Right now, I'm not even that interested; I look in on RPGWatch every once in a while, but I feel almost no desire to play the games being discussed there. (When the next Dwarf Fortress is released, I just might cave, though.)

According to my wife, all this has made me more relaxed, cheerful, and generally nicer to be around. Not that she ever complained, mind.

So, I feel good because I've been doing things that are good for me. What's this to do with Zen?

First off, I'm pretty sure that some of the beneficial changes are direct consequences of zazen, in particular, my dramatically lower stress level and the disappearance of various (relatively minor) psychosomatic problems associated with stress. This year has had its share of stress factors, perhaps more so than most, but I'm coping with them much, much better than before. I'm also pretty sure that the changes in the way I interact with people are due to it.

However, the rest are what you might call secondary effects. Thing is, zazen has made it easier for me to do all of those things that do me good. I'm less indecisive; for example, I just go to the gym without waffling about it much. I'm more conscious of what I do, or don't do, and why. Hakuin's Zazen wasan describes zazen as the key that opens the way to other good things, and that description works pretty well for me. Zazen just makes it easy, or at least easier, to do the good stuff, and not do the bad stuff. It doesn't work overnight, and it hasn't suddenly resolved every last one of my problems -- but it has made it easier to deal with them.

Enlightened I ain't, but this shit is clearly doing me good, and I intend to keep doing it. Tomorrow's another zazenkai, and I'm quite looking forward to it.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Merry Christmas...

...or whatever the hell you're celebrating at this time of year. We're going to my parents' place, along with the rest of the extended family, to pig out on salmon, herring, roe, beetroot salad, traditional Finnish root vegetable dishes that taste pretty awful really, plus ham from a happy, biologically fattened pig. There will also be beer, wine, cake, probably some singing, and very likely some drama.

So a very merry Christmas and happy New Year to anyone and everyone reading this!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Buoyed Up

Buoyed Up
Buoyed Up, originally uploaded by Petteri Sulonen.

Looks like we're headed for a white Christmas. This boat is just nearby where I live, and it looks like somebody failed to take it out of the water on time.

What I'm really curious about, though, is the line of tracks from left to right, paying the boat a quick visit. It was a long line of tracks on the ice, quite solitary, following the shoreline, coming ashore for a brief while, and then cutting across the Kaisaniemenlahti toward Tokoinranta, proceeding in a stately straight line of one who knows exactly where they're going.

They look like dog tracks, but then what kind of dog is adventuring on the ice all by himself? There are plenty of rabbits here, so I'm thinking that it just might be a fox come to show them a bit of love. They're pretty big for fox tracks, though, but with all that tasty rabbit to eat, perhaps they get a bit big.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Fourth International (Trotskyist) Salutes Beginning Of Ski Season Three Weeks Ahead Of Plan

Yay, snow. I'm supposed to be wild with joy at having a "real winter," a few weeks early to boot. Snow is all very nice to look at from a safe distance, for sure, but personally I find it cold and wet and incompatible with temperatures suitable for tropical primates such as Homo Sapiens Sapiens.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Doctor Who Was Here

Doctor Who Was Here, originally uploaded by Petteri Sulonen.

There are weird things tucked away in the city. I came across this the other day. It looks like a phone booth, cast from concrete, with a steel door, and formerly painted green. It's full of something broken, the glass on the door is long gone, and the door is red with rust, but the brass lock is shiny and new.

The box is next to an old red brick building that looks like a military barracks, right at the edge of the bright, new Ruoholahti district, facing the huge construction site of Jätkäsaari. They're building a new residential district there, after recently decommissioning the port, which has been relocated further from the city center. I wonder what stories it has to tell...

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Weirded Out By Shaktipat

I'm on Facebook. One of my friends there is someone I knew pretty well in high school -- a classmate, who was for a quite a while also the girlfriend of one of my best buddies. As often happens, we had almost lost touch, until she popped up on FB and I started receiving her status updates.

Some of them sound a bit like this:


I had heard that she had spent some time at some ashram in the US, so I figured this must've had something to do with that. I got curious, and Googled Gurumayi, which led me to the Siddha Yoga website. After a while, I found myself fascinated by a spiritual snarl that tied in remarkably well with my musings about the problems related to finding good meditation masters (or, less ambitiously, avoiding bad ones).

Siddha Yoga is a new religious movement based on Kashmiri Shaivism (veneration of Shiva). It's pretty deeply rooted in Hindu tradition, and like many similar guru-centric movements it's based on the concept of shaktipat. (Mata Amritanandamayi, aka "Amma the Hugging Saint," and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi of Beatles fame are two better-known characters in the same line of business, as it were.)

As far as I understand, the idea behind shaktipat is that the spiritual seeker can find enlightenment (moksha in Hindu terms) through the intermediary of an already enlightened and spiritually perfected guru. The guru can trigger something called "kundalini awakening" in the seeker; the seeker will then focus her spiritual energies (through meditation, yoga, and suchlike) on the guru. The guru acts simultaneously as a guide, an object of worship, and a "mirror" for the seeker.

I have it on good authority that lots and lots of people have experienced kundalini awakening through shaktipat, and by all accounts it's a very powerful and often meaningful experience. I figure that like ki, karma, or kensho, it's a label for an experiential reality, although one that's hard to deconstruct or explain.

(Zen practitioners would certainly consider it nothing more than a particularly irritating makyo -- a pesky side-effect of meditation that distracts attention from the practice, and is therefore an impediment to enlightenment rather than a path to it.)

I have little doubt that shaktipat works more or less as advertised -- a sincere seeker completely abandoning herself to a talented guru who knows what she's doing will experience kundalini awakening, whatever that may be. Reading stuff written by Siddha Yoga practitioners, it's clearly given a great deal of... something or other... to a lot of them.

A bit too much, in fact, when it gets to "Everything I have, I owe to Gurumayi!" (Yes, that's a genuine quote from a Siddha Yoga follower, although not my acquaintance -- even if she has expressed rather similar ideas in different words.)

The obvious problem is that shaktipat will only work if the seeker puts himself completely into the guru's hands. You can't dip a toe in it, or attempt to make use of it while remaining skeptical about the guru. It'll only work if you worship the guru, as a representative of the Divine.

And that, friends, is playing with fire. Unless the guru is a true-blue saint, that kind of adoration will destroy her -- and when the guru is destroyed, the followers will go around the bend too. And even if the guru is a true-blue saint (I'm sure they exist, although they must be insanely rare), they can inadvertently do a huge amount of damage, simply because of the insane amount of power given to them.

What's more, it doesn't take much digging to discover that Gurumayi, nor her predecessor Muktananda, is probably not a true-blue saint, nor does SYDA -- the organization running Siddha Yoga -- look any nicer an organization than, say, the Roman Catholic Church. I won't recount the tawdry details; you can Google them up easily enough all by yourself -- the keywords "muktananda, nityananda, gurumayi, scandal" will get you started.

Siddha Yoga is clearly no Scientology or Jonestown: practitioners have lives outside the group; they don't break off contact with friends and family, and they seem like a generally cheerful and happy bunch of campers. For the most part. But it's definitely creepy enough to give me the major heebie-jeebies.

And whatever way you look at it, Siddha Yoga would come up with warning flags on most of my little checklist from a week or so ago -- you have a murkily-run corporate structure, a guru claiming unique spiritual status and demanding complete devotion, a variety of scandals about sex and money, and none-too-edifying descriptions of emotional dependency and trauma from ex-followers. From where I'm at, shaktipat is bad news.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Dungeons and Dragons and Kung Fu and Stuff

Probably my nerdiest hobby-pursuit-pastime-whatever is Dungeons & Dragons.

I've been at it for over a quarter-century. I got my first D&D boxed set in 1982. We were in California at the time, as my dad was working as a visiting researcher at Stanford university. I brought it home to Finland, and eventually me and a couple of more or less equally nerdy classmates gave it a try. I think I was 13 or 14 at that time. For some reason, I was fairly quickly elected Dungeon Master, and that's pretty much the role I've been playing ever since.

Hard Granite
I like to show off my pictures, so I'm putting some here that I feel have a touch of fantasy about them, even if they have nothing to do with role-playing or swords-and-sorcery as such. This one I called Granite Gods. It's actually from my home town, Helsinki.

Back in the day, the biggest problem for D&D'ers in Finland was that materials were plumb near unobtainable. No Internet shopping then. No bookstores or game stores in Finland carried them. I think the closest places that did were in London and Paris. That meant that every time somebody's parents traveled, we placed orders, which may or may not have been delivered correctly. And, of course, we circulated copies of source books and modules and what have you.

Wanderers, Suomenlinna, Helsinki.

My first campaign ran, on and off, for maybe four, five years. It was pretty much your bog-standard elves-and-dwarves-and-hobbits-oh-my swords-and-sorcery affair. The world was pretty much our own invention; we cheerfully located and plugged in various modules wherever they felt right. We didn't have that many breaks from gaming, actually; instead, we tried out a variety of different games and systems. Paranoia. Call of Cthulhu. Star Wars. Top Secret. Cyberpunk That sort of thing.

Rusted Knocker With Flowers
Rusted Knocker With Flowers, Saignon, France.

Then school ended and we went our separate ways.

When I got into University, I fairly quickly looked up the role-playing-game club. I recruited a bunch of people for a campaign. That was set in an Arabian Nights style world, using TSR's Al Qadim supplement. It was way better and more creative and unusual than the Forgotten Dragonloft Realms of my first one. It was also much more structured: I had thought much more about the background of the party, and made the players craft backgrounds for their characters to fit it, too. That campaign ran for quite a few years.

Mosque In The Night
Mosque, Deir el-Qamar, Lebanon. Interestingly, I was running my Al-Qadim campaign well before I met my wonderful Arab wife, Joanna.

It was also the first time I started using the Web as a campaign aid; I linked up with several Arabian Nights game sites, and set up a site of my own for it too. By the time it had run its course, I had produced well over 250 pages of written materials for the setting. The site is no longer live, although I think I have an archive somewhere. If anyone's interested, I think I could dig it up.

My third big campaign went weird fast. It started out as a low-magic affair, set in the historical Roman empire -- Egypt, to be precise. I quickly discovered that I didn't feel comfortable DM'ing something in "our" timeline -- I was getting hung up on the details and was afraid of screwing them up. I did a quite a bit of reading on Rome (and learned a lot about it in the process), but in the end I didn't enjoy that all that much. I found a way out, though -- the party got themselves into a scrape that required a Michael Moorcock-esque dream sequence, and that dream sequence turned into a whole new campaign that quickly went through a whole bunch of settings.

Via Romana
Via Romana, Tyre, Lebanon.

I think the best part of it was the time spent in the Star Wars universe. As campaigns go, that was fairly short, but progress was fast, and it unfolded kinda nicely -- and there was a pretty cool plot twist, too, shamelessly cribbed from KOTOR 2. Fooled 'em, though. Most of that was set on a planet I called Chaco, after Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. It had been a major manufacturing and military hub in the time of the Old Sith Empire, but following their defeat it had suffered near-complete ecological collapse. Most of it was toxic, uninhabitable and monster-ridden desert; its small habitable northern latitudes were peopled by a bunch of warring, feudal clans and another bunch of warring nomads raising livestock and scavenging the desert for ancient artifacts and technology. And then there were the mysterious Chaco Sith... Good times.

That campaign ran for many years too; eventually winding up in the Planescape setting. Eventually things got unbearably epic, so I just sort of canned it, and started a new one.

This has been going now for just a couple of months, but it's started out really well, I think. It's set in a kung-fu fantasy version of China during the Warring States period. The leader of my party has been appointed Magistrate of a small, out-of-the way village bordering the steppe. They've already solved an old murder mystery, thereby putting some unquiet spirits to rest, and have started on doing something about the bandit menace. The materials are online, such as they are. You can find them here.

Stone Steps With Branches And Tree House
Stone Steps With Branches And Tree House, spirits just out of the frame.

It's a good group, that one. We've been playing for well over ten years by now -- I think we started some time in 1995 or thereabouts. Some of the players have drifted off; a few new ones have joined us, but the core group is still the same. And the funny thing is, I only know most of them through the campaign -- after all this time, I have very little idea of their life outside Dungeons & Dragons. Is that weird, or what?

Blood rose
Blood Rose, Kaisaniemi park, Helsinki.

More Pictures

Red Boat With Reflected Siltasaari, Helsinki, November 2009

Bit of a gray Sunday for pictures, but I went and took some anyway. The full set is here.

Also, Flickr's "Blog this" function doesn't really do the trick for me...

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Dark Side Of Buddhism

I've been reading up a bit on the seamy side of the history of Buddhism lately. Ugly stuff. You've got the full pageant of human iniquity in all of its glory, both East and West. You have Tibetan monasteries running slave plantations, blood-soaked conquerors riding in from the steppe to rape, pillage, burn, and erect magnificent pagodas, great masters cosying up to feudal lords for protection and funding. You have the Burmese junta spending lavishly on pagodas to buy off the bad karma they've accumulated by torture, oppression, and murder.

Bodhnath Stupa, Kathmandu, 1987

Then you have a whole panoply of penny-ante charismatic gurus extracting money and/or sex from their adoring students, and sometimes worse; from Shoko Asahara at one end of the scale and Genpo Roshi and his $25k Big Mind(tm) retreats at the other, with characters like Andrew Cohen, Zen Master Rama, and Ken Wilber somewhere between the two. Even more or less legit Buddhist teachers have a suspicious amount of tawdry scandal associated with them; if you look up Chögyam Trungpa and Eido Tai Shimano, you'll come across all kinds of interesting stuff.

And then, of course, there's idiocy like the "excommunication" of a Theravada abbot for ordaining women as monks.

Nasty. If anyone thinks that Buddhism is a guaranteed ticket to perfection... well, that clearly ain't the case.

That's still clearly not the beginning and the end of it, though. While I obviously don't yet have much personal experience with this stuff, I have gained a little window on the international Buddhist scene. I like most of what I see there. There's very little dogmatism, a lot of lively discussion, debate, and dispute, and while teachers get a quite a bit of respect, they're also regularly challenged, especially by students. There's plenty of irreverent humor, starting from the name of the major Zen Usenet discussion group, alt.buddha.short.fat.guy, and a general feeling of intellectual and spiritual freedom.

However, I do think that -- especially among many teachers and more experienced practitioners -- there's a tendency to ignore the nasty side of things, and thereby enable it. Fortunately this tendency is being challenged as well, so it's not like it's become a conspiracy of silence. Yet. But many teachers do seem to think that, despite the evidence to the contrary, the traditional safeguard of dharma lineage is sufficient to prevent abusive teachers and groups from arising and gaining prominence.

In my opinion, the greatest intellectual contribution of Western culture to the world is the scientific method -- you know, all that shit about empiricism, argument, peer review, and continuous revision of theories and technologies. I think we could apply something very like it to critiquing Buddhist teachers -- not the dharma itself, perhaps, because I'll be damned if I can think of a way to objectively and unambiguously measure how well it's working -- but the teachers. We could use more senior practitioners calling foul on things when it's clearly needed. Ultimately, a "cult checklist" isn't that complicated, and if some teacher or group flags some items on one, it calls for scrutiny. 'Cuz all it really boils down to is money, sex, and power:

  • Where does it come from? Where does it go?
  • Is there a corporate structure in place? If so, how transparently is it run?
  • Is there evidence of coercion for "gifts?"
  • Does the teacher regularly bang his students?
  • If so, are we talking long-term monogamous relationships, wild orgies, or something in between?
  • Is manipulation or coercion involved?
  • Does the teacher claim to have some special, unique insight or spiritual status?
  • Does the teacher claim to have invented some radically new teaching that promises huge short cuts to enlightenment/spiritual growth/whatever?
  • How would the students feel about studying with some other teacher?
  • How do the students feel about the teacher -- respect and affection, or awe and reverence?
In my opinion, a legit teacher should get a mostly clean bill of health on this kind of questionnaire -- no obviously unethical financial practices, no regular sex parties with students, let alone coercion or manipulation, no irreplaceable demigod status, that sort of thing. Nobody's perfect, of course, but there's a big and relatively easy-to-see difference between regular, minor human failings and systematic abuse of power, which is what we're talking about here.

Personally, I wouldn't want to study with anyone who doesn't come up green on all of these points -- I'd rather risk missing out on some really great teaching because I'm overly careful than risk having my head messed with in abusive ways. But then I am risk-averse.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Taking pictures again

I'm back to taking pictures. Not "photography" this time, because "photography" is something you do with a big black heavy serious camera, whereas I've only been using a tiny black fun camera, which can only be used to "take pictures." It's been a pretty long hiatus, and it's nice to notice that I can still take pictures, and some of them even turn out rather nice. At least I like them.

Sunlight on Steel 2
Sunlight on Steel, November, Helsinki

I've been taking pictures and occasionally doing photography since I was about 8 or 9; by the time I was 11 or 12, I was developing my own film and making my own prints in a darkroom set up in the basement. But it's very much an on-and-off thing; I've had multi-year breaks on several occasions. Once I even sold all of my cameras, since I was a bit short on money and I felt vaguely guilty with all that glass knocking around the place doing nobody any good.

But now I'm back to it. Kinda strange, actually, that I've always preferred taking pictures in late autumn or winter, when there's precious little light to go around. Summer nights are nice, too, though, but I don't care for summer daylight, photographically speaking.

I did a small series of my new stuff. It's on Flickr, if anyone's interested. I called it November Light.

Concrete Is Beautiful
Concrete Is Beautiful, November, Helsinki

Sunday, November 22, 2009

My first zazenkai

I went to zazenkai yesterday. That means seven zazens and one teisho, with two breaks, a work period (cleaning the zendo), and walking meditation in between, for about five hours of sitting (including the teisho).

For the last ten minutes or so, my legs hurt like fuck. (I'm still not able to sit cross-legged for any serious amount of time, and sitting in seiza or "diamond" position is taxing on both the legs and the back.) When I got home, I went to bed early and slept for eleven hours. In other words, it was tiring, both physically and mentally.

Today, however, I feel very good, also both physically and mentally. I don't think this is a coincidence; there's something to be said for pushing your limits a little bit. I want to do this again, although not right away -- and I think I still have a fair bit of work to do before I can move up to the next step, which would be a weekend retreat.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Karma Puzzle

The other day, I had an insight. Most likely I'm just reinventing the (Dharma) wheel, but I haven't come across this before. It's even possible I'm entirely mistaken. For what it's worth, here it is anyway.

Western philosophy, from Socrates to Sartre, tends to deal in abstractions. It's about relatively complex conceptual structures, with relatively well-defined concepts that have relatively well-understood logical relationships. The Platonic idealists and their successors seem almost obsessive about these abstractions -- "What is Virtue? What is Justice? What are the forces driving History? What is the Mind? What are Language, Truth, and Logic, and how do they relate to each other?" -- and so on and so forth. Even Popper's magnificent work dismantling the Platonists' cathedrals in the sky is concerned with definitions and how to arrive at them, and it, itself, is as beautifully constructed a conceptual cathedral as any.

Coming from this background, it's only natural that I treat concepts from Eastern philosophy the same way. I try to understand what's meant by things like ki, samadhi, dukkha, enlightenment, nirvana, karma, and so on, through their definitions, and then try to see how these things relate to each other in the thought-construct that is the philosophy.

I just realized that this may be entirely the wrong approach.

Years ago, I practiced aikido, in the ki no kenkyukai tradition, which teaches the techniques through the concept of ki, and includes a quite a few exercises intended specifically to train you in "extending ki," as the term goes. It's dead simple to demonstrate to someone what "extending ki" means (although a lot harder to explain in words), and once you've got it, it's relatively simple to explain how to do a technique in terms of ki. In a way, this technique explains the purpose of a technique, rather than the form. It's a different way of teaching, say, ikkyo, than the way they do it in aikikai or ju-jutsu, and after enough practice, you end up learning it either way -- but in my limited experience, the "ki way" of teaching these techniques was quicker, at least as measured by effectiveness rather than purity of form.

Thing is, at no point during any of my aikido lessons did anyone bother explaining what ki is. Instead, we just practiced extending ki, learned techniques to test whether someone is extending ki or not (example: give 'em a shove; if it feels like you're shoving a tree, they're extending ki; if they fall over, they're not), and then practiced techniques in terms of it. I still have no real idea of what it is, although I'm pretty damn certain that no supernatural woo-woo was involved -- it's simply a matter of getting everything pulling in the same direction, as it were. However, I have read and heard any number of such explanations, and they all sound terribly new-agey, abstract, and flaky.

In other words, ki is a term used to describe a simple, observable phenomenon -- albeit one that is difficult to explain. 

This experience came to my mind a few days ago, as I was pondering the meaning of another common term in Eastern philosophy -- karma. The usual explanation of karma has it meaning something like collecting brownie points or demerits which get tallied up when you die, determining whether you're reincarnated as a cockroach or a lama, or something in between.

This has always struck me as somewhat ridiculous.

The Dhammapada starts with a few verses that did not strike me as ridiculous at all:
All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage.
All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.
When I'm sitting, I can actually experience something very much like this. If I've "acted with an evil thought," that pops up and nags at me. If I've "acted with a pure thought," it doesn't. Sometimes I can feel these even when I'm not sitting. I believe the term for this is "conscience," although it's understood rather differently in Judeo-Christian culture. (Interestingly, mere thoughts don't have this effect, or at most, they have it to a very minor degree -- actions are needed for it to happen.)

I have no way of knowing if this is what the Tathagata (or whoever actually wrote those verses) had in mind, but it fit.
A couple of weeks back, one of the senior students at the sangha where I practice described people as "karma vortices," which struck me as a bit too cutesy at the time. I think the idea he was attempting to articulate was the unity of cause and effect -- that the two are ineluctably entwined, and the thoughts, actions, and outcomes that we have and do "are" us at some fairly deep level. Still, the description remained, filed away under "doesn't make much sense but may eventually."

The final piece of this little karma puzzle of mine are a couple of lines from Hakuin's ode to zazen (Zazen wasan), which go something like:
Even those who have practiced zazen just for one sitting
Will see all their karma wiped clean

If you approach all this -- as I did -- with the idea that karma is an abstract concept, none of it makes much sense. It's all so much new-agey pseudo-spiritual woo-woo, or just a lot of blather. I certainly thought that bit of Hakuin's ode a bit embarrassing when I first got to chant it.

So, the insight?

Karma isn't an abstraction. It's a label for an observable phenomenon, just like ki. Namely, it's that witch's cauldron of stuff that bubbles up to the surface when sitting -- the internal monologues, the sensory inputs and the way they're experienced, the aches, pains, and discomforts, the snatches of music playing through the mind, the emotional affects, the memories, and the feeble will that attempts to sit in the middle of all that and tries to keep the mind on the practice anyway.

These other woo-woo-ey concepts in Eastern philosophy -- dukkha, samadhi, nirvana, and so on -- aren't abstractions either. Instead, they're concrete phenomena grounded in experiential observation. Understanding "what they are" in the same way that Marx attempts to explain what history is, or Keynes to explain what an economic depression is, is almost irrelevant; what counts is recognizing what the words point to. As concepts go, they have much more in common with "chair," "table," "roof," and "internal combustion engine" than with "truth," "justice," "dialectical materialism," or "comparative advantage." I'm going to have to redo a lot of my reading through this new lens, to see if it works as well as I think it might.

And that witch's cauldron that is uncovered during zazen -- "karma vortex" isn't a bad description for it at all? It is me, much more than any of the individual threads or leaves or pieces of dust churning away in it. A really good sitting does wipe it clean(er), although I do think that Hakuin-zenji is overpromising a wee bitty bit there. The cause and the effect, the "merit" and the "demerit" is all in there, churning away. Reincarnation or tallying up points doesn't enter into it at all. It's just there, and it's me.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Italy, the Crucifix, and the European Court of Human Rights

There was a self-congratulatory article in Helsingin Sanomat today, about how a Finnish lady beat the Italian state through the European Court of Human Rights. She started a process that got the ECHR telling Italy to take down the crucifixes hanging in every classroom ever since Mussolini wrote up a law that put them up there (or probably before). The Italians argued that the crucifix isn't actually a religious symbol at all; rather, it symbolizes Italian history. The ECHR thought that was a load of horseshit.

Now she's getting death threats.

We have a crucifix up on our wall, too. A pretty small one, and in a not-too-obvious corner of the bedroom (right by where I do my zazen, as a matter of fact, although I face the opposite wall). It has a tiny silver Christ on a wooden cross, with some mother-of-pearl decorations around it. It's from Jerusalem. My wife's grandparents brought it from there back in '48, when they had to leave because of that unfortunate misunderstanding between Jews and Arabs. That crucifix means a quite a lot to my wife, and bothers me not the least bit.

Perhaps I'll get a little Manjushri to keep it company, one of these days.

I feel extremely strongly that people -- especially children -- should not have religion forced on them. I had a religion teacher at school, when I was about seven, who was a psycho. She went on about demons standing behind our left shoulder, and every time we think a bad thought or say a bad word, it summons another one. Scared the willies out of me. I must've been eleven before I mustered up the courage to say "poop," and even then I glanced behind me in case anyone hairy with horns on showed up. So, on that level, I very much sympathize with the Finnish atheist who started this particular flap. (Besides, she's got guts being an outspoken atheist in a country like Italy.)

But is that -- religious coercion -- really what this is about?

I don't know, never having even visited a school in Italy. The article in Hesari certainly didn't have enough about that to go on. However, I do know that a crucifix on a classroom wall is just that -- a crucifix on a classroom wall. It doesn't mean anything beyond what people make it mean.

A Communist in the Pareto and Mosca tradition can turn it into a symbol of class oppression, ignorance, and bigotry. A Muslim could turn it into a memorial of the Crusaders boiling and eating Muslim babies in Ma'arra. A Jesuit brother can make it into a fiery symbol of Heaven for the elect and Hell for the damned. A more laid-back Christian could make of it a reminder that there's more to life than the daily mass of confusion we live in.

And for most of us by far, it would quickly turn into just another fixture on the wall, so familiar that it's not even noticed.

Arguing that a crucifix is not a religious symbol is, as the ECHR points out, horseshit. Of course it is. It is, however, many other things as well, one of which is a symbol of Italian culture and history, just as much as the Duomo of Florence, the Pietà of Michelangelo, Verdi's Requiem, the Bernini Babes in Roman churches, or the old geezers clicking through their rosaries at street corners in Sicily. Italy is a Catholic country, and I don't see any point in trying to pretend otherwise.

I'm a bit worried about the consequences. I think that the likeliest outcome of this mess is that the chasm dividing Christians and non-Christians will only become wider. Christians will feel threatened, and will see atheists as intolerant, uptight jackasses eroding the foundations of their culture. Non-Christians will react to that in predictable ways. And that will advance the cause of religious freedom -- including the freedom from religion -- not at all.

Removing the crucifix from the classroom wall won't change anything if the attitudes making it a problem won't change, and if the attitudes do change, the crucifix will cease to be a problem.

I do not believe that the solution to the religious coercion, brainwashing, divisions, and other problems we're experiencing is to expunge all religious symbology from public life. Religion is a facet of life, and it's counterproductive to pretend it isn't. Rather than pursue the vain goal of getting everyone to (dis?)believe the same thing, we need to learn to get along despite our differences.

Perhaps we need more religious symbols, not fewer of them. Perhaps it would have been a better solution to hang up Om, the name of Mohammed, and the Pythagorean solids next to the crucifix (and, hey, why not the ensō as well, since we're at it?)

This has been tried, once, but it doesn't appear to have caught on. It's at the Roman-Catholic church of St. Barbara, in Bärnbach, Austria. The church was (re)designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser, a way-cool architect that should be taken much more seriously than he is. Outside the church is a processional way, which consists of a set of gates, each of which carries a symbol of a world religion: Islam, non-Catholic Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Shintoism.

The last gate carries no symbol at all.

I found that very touching.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Return to Planet Mac

I was a Mac user exclusively between about 1986 and 2001. At that point, I got a job that required me to learn to use a PC, and I eventually ditched the Mac for home use in 2002. This was due to frustration with the state of OS X at the time (I was staring at that spinning beachball a LOT), and secondarily for reasons of cost: the Mac I wanted cost roughly twice as much as a PC that could do the same thing, more or less.

I'm back to Mac only, as of day before yesterday. I've been using one at work for the past year or so (a MacBook, with Linux and WinXP running under VMWare), but my home computer was a rather nice, if aging, PC I built myself.

I had decided to switch back when I realized I'm better off giving up on gaming. The nice thing is that it suddenly removed lots of constraints on choice of machine, meaning I could get one that fits the rest of what I do to a T.

It's a 13-inch MacBook Pro. I jazzed it up with a Kingston 128 GB SSD and 4 gigs of RAM. Obviously, this isn't enough to store my photo library (currently weighing in at about 300 GB), but then I don't really want to keep the library on the workstation anyway, as long as I can access it easily. We already have a NAS for backups, so I simply decided to keep the library and any other files I don't want to lose there, plug another disk into it via USB, and switch on its autobackup feature.

(Why a MacBook Pro rather than a MacBook? Because I wanted one... and the price difference between the two really isn't all that big.)

I've never had as painless a setup experience as this. The disk and memory were incredibly easy to install, and everything "just worked." The only thing that hiccuped a bit was getting the system installation started -- it refused to boot from DVD the first time; I had to re-insert the DVD a few times and hold down the C key to get to the installer. Once up and running, everything went really, really smoothly: a totally different experience from the two-day slog of re-installing Vista on my old box after a hard disk crash.

The machine is by far the most responsive I've used. It boots up in about 15 seconds, wakes up from sleep as good as instantly, Chromium starts up as good as instantly, and even OpenOffice takes maybe ten seconds from click to cursor. It's not a slouch by the numbers, but it's far from a speed demon -- but in use, it just feels several times faster than anything else I've used. I figure this is due to Snow Leopard on the one hand, and the SSD on the other: my work MacBook is, technically, a hair faster (2.4 GHz Core Duo, as opposed to 2.26 GHz on the new one), but it sure doesn't feel that way. I'll probably upgrade it to Snow Leopard as well, somewhere along the line, although the SSD will probably have to wait.

Foul mood

I was in a foul mood yesterday. So I did zazen for an hour.

When I got off the zafu, I was still in a foul mood.

I felt better about it, though.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

ResellerRatings for meditation masters

I've taken up Zen during the past six months or so.

In practice, that means that I sit staring at a wall a fair bit. About a half-hour every day, in principle, although of course I miss one every once in a while, whereas on other days I sit twice or even three times, and I go to the zendo to sit a bit more once a week or thereabouts. For those who care, the sangha I belong to belongs to the Sanbo Kyodan school in the Soto tradition.

I know, just what the world needs -- another Zen blog, and one by a complete beginner to boot.

Thing is, this stuff is complicated. Not Zen as such -- it's dead simple, really, all you do is "sit down and shut up" as Brad Warner puts it -- but everything around it. There's an incredible amount of potentially dangerous bullshit flying around, about various flavors of "Oriental Wisdom" in general and Zen in particular. The Net is chock-full of people promising instant enlightenment (with seven free gifts if you act quickly), solving all your personal, interpersonal, financial, and spiritual problems for evermore, and what have you... and there are lots of entirely legitimate, or at least harmless, but massively diverse meditation-oriented groups out there, from yoga schools to Tibetan Buddhist traditions, executive retreats to... well, anything, really.

It's not trivial to make sense of all that. This shit gets very close to the skin, and there's real potential for damage. Meditation techniques cut deep, and if misused, they can fuck you up pretty seriously. I like to think I'm smart enough not to get fooled by some phony guru suckering people into his thing -- but then I'm pretty sure so was everyone who did get fooled by them. John Lennon was no dummy, but he fell for Maharishi Mahesh Yogi big-time, for a while anyway.

The first Buddhist thing I went to last spring didn't smell quite right to me. It was a dharma talk and meditation session organized by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso's gang. A guy named John from Britain -- apparently the leader of their London sangha or something -- came here for that, and me, my wife, and her mother went to check it out. There was a quite a bit there that was pretty sensible, but then again there was a quite a bit that wasn't. There were two things in particular that stuck in my craw: the way John couldn't stop singing Geshe Kelsang's praises or quoting his books (his photo on the altar, with the candles and chocolates piled up next to it didn't help), and the feeling I got that he was trying to sell me something. I even remember some shit about "all your problems will just go away."

Later I looked up the group, and found out about the Dorje Shugden controversy. It's a spat between Geshe Kelsang Gyatso and the Dalai Lama, about some kind of spirit called Dorje Shugden who Kelsang says is an enlightened being and Dharma protector and the Dalai Lama says is an Earth spirit and as such not worthy of veneration (or whatever they do in the Tibetan tradition; I don't really know much about it at all). Doctrinal disputes. Yay.

So maybe it was just that John fellow. Maybe it was just me. Whatever it was, it wasn't my thing.

So I Googled "zen helsinki" and found the Helsinki Zen Center. I went to their introduction to zazen course, and liked what I saw and heard. I've been going since then, and I like it more all the time. The people are about as down-to-earth and normal as any you're ever likely to encounter (i.e., not very, when you get down to it), and I liked the Swedish sensei who visited Helsinki too. Sort of like Max von Sydow as Yoda; very "present" and down to earth, but at the same time immensely impressive in a hard-to-define way. He has some funny ideas about reincarnation and stuff, but does not smell like someone out to reprogram you or extract your money.

Meditation teachers are a necessary evil. Zazen -- any meditation, really -- is basically just sitting quietly and letting shit happen. Zen masters keep saying that that's ALL it is, and I'm willing to take them at their word. Kinda. The trouble is that a lot of shit does happen, both when sitting and afterward, there's a surprising variety of ways to sit quietly and let shit happen, and "discriminating mind" or not, at least I need to make some sense of it. That's where the teacher comes in -- it's incredibly helpful to be able to just ask someone you trust about it. But finding someone worth trusting... now, that's another matter.

I wish there was some equivalent of ResellerRatings for meditation masters -- except, of course, that it couldn't work, because the creepy cult guys always have the most vocal supporters and would get most of the attention. As it is, it's sort of like buying into a camera system. You only know what it is you needed years after the choice is already made, so the best you can do is try to figure out what NOT to do, and then hope for the best. Trouble is, that's not all that easy to do either. About all I know is that I want to avoid (1) anyone who promises obviously too much, (2) anyone who wants more than reasonable amounts of money for services rendered, and (3) anyone who demands belief in anything obviously irrational. I'm willing to be flexible with the rest.

If someone has better advice on the topic, I'd be happy to hear it.

The way to Hell is paved with good intentions

...and as intentions go, starting a blog is a classic, as far as the Net is concerned.

I had a blog once. It was supposed to be about politics. I made a bunch of posts, but then abandoned it. Partly it was because I discovered that I wanted to post about other things as well; mostly it was just that I found a better arena to express myself. Specifically, RPGWatch -- a site dedicated to computer role-playing games, but that also hosts what must be a nearly unique phenomenon on the Internet, namely, a forum dedicated to politics and religion that isn't (a) constantly engulfed in flames, (b) an echo-chamber, or (c) tyrannically moderated. Check it out. It's brilliant.

I left last week, and I miss it already.

Why set off, then?

The main reason is that I decided to give up on computer games. They've been something of a hobby for, oh, 20, 30 years or so. The problem is that I cannot control my gaming, and I finally mustered up the courage to actually admit this and face this fact. I'm not a basement-dwelling a-social olm or anything -- I have a wife and a job and stuff -- but I am a binge gamer. That is, when I'm playing a game, it takes over every minute of my free time; I can't stop thinking about it; I get nervous and surly, and it makes me neglect stuff I enjoy at least as much but that doesn't have these nasty side effects. Not to mention neglecting my loved ones, especially my incredibly patient wife.

What's more, I don't, ultimately, get all that much from them. There are a few games I've played over the years that have made a lasting impression -- Planescape: Torment and Fallout to name two; The Path by Tale of Tales is a recent one, and The Witcher by CDProjekt is another one. However, for each one of these I must've played a dozen that offered me not much more than obsession.

So, as I cannot moderate my gaming, my choice is between obsessive binge gaming and no gaming at all. Given that choice, I'm going to have to go with no gaming at all. I understand that it's generally not considered a great idea for binge drinkers to hang out with the drinking buddies at the old watering hole, so I figured I'd have to leave RPGWatch as well. Perhaps I'll return there at some point, once I've put a bit of distance between myself and my compulsions so I can watch them rhapsodizing about the character development system in Dragon Age (or whatever) without feeling compelled to go buy it RIGHT NOW and then disappear off the face of the planet for whatever-hundred hours it takes to complete.

Pity, but there it is -- and I hope I'll be able to find better things to do with my time. This blog, for example.

(Credit: XKCD.)

There are other reasons, too. One of them is that somehow I don't feel like getting into net.debates anymore. Sometimes they can be entertaining, informative, or stimulating. Sometimes they even go somewhere. I've even heard a rumor that someone, somewhere, has once changed their mind about something due to a net.debate. However, they mess with my head much like games do -- I keep thinking about them, keep manically checking the forum, and get annoyed and jumpy, not to mention stay up late. That's just not all that much fun, and it's even less fun if I actually end up getting into interpersonal stuff and say something I regret.

Sometimes it's worth it. There are issues I care about deeply enough for that. However, right now most of those have receded into the background as well. The exciting bits of the financial crisis seem to have passed, America is no longer irredeemably evil, the Green movement in Iran seems to have been corralled, the Middle East has returned to its default state of grinding slow-motion crisis, and watching Afghanistan circle the drain is just kinda depressing rather than interesting. And I can't really work up a good lather about health-care reform in the USA, not having any skin in that game.

But I still have an over-active mind that I need to empty out in words from time to time. Therefore, this blog. I don't know how often I'll be posting. I don't know what I'll be posting about. I certainly don't know if it'll be interesting to anyone. If anyone reads it, great. If not, that's great too. But here it is all the same.