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.